Never Fade Page 74

So I recognized the tone when I heard it, the growls of a hungry crowd. The pulsing beat of clapping hands as they finally found the same rhythm. It set my teeth on edge, long before the fire smoke curled in my nostrils.

I stumbled again and again as the kids pushed me forward, dragging me over the crumbling edges of pavement onto the soft, sinking earth, back again onto ground that was harder. Solid. A wave of scorching air brushed my arms as they led me past what felt like a wall of fire.

I couldn’t hear my own thoughts over everyone else’s voices. I thought, just for a second, I heard Chubs bellow out my name and a softer girl’s voice echo it back. Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, Ruby—and something else, too.

They herded us right into a small crush of bodies, and it felt like every single one was trying to push back, to keep us from getting in.

The minute my face was clear of the mask, I sucked in a lungful of warm air, trying to shake off the feeling I had a thousand pins pumping through my veins. There were too many faces around me—too many big eyes, cracked lips, scarred faces. The sight of them, the smell of their unwashed clothes and bodies combined with the earthiness of the smoke, until it became something else entirely. I craned my neck around, searching for Chubs’s face through the hands that were stretched out toward us. Firelight flickered in the dark.

I found him eventually, Olivia by his side. Jude, thank God, was nowhere in sight or earshot, but the wave of relief that washed over me at the thought only lasted until the terror came spilling over their faces, their lips, their entire bodies as they tried to push their way forward. The panic buzzing at the back of my mind drowned my ears with something that sounded almost like white noise.

Olivia had her hands around her mouth, shouting something to us. Dead, I thought.

We were in another building, likely the one I’d seen set off to the side of the warehouse. Part of the roof and eastern-facing wall had collapsed in on itself, forcing us to drag our numb, exhausted bodies over the piles of downed cement and twisted metal. It was another, smaller version of the warehouse, nearly burned out by the look of it. The walls and cement floors were bare, with the exception of the black shadows the kids were projecting onto them. At the very center of the room was a large ring of metal trash cans, golden flames leaping up past their lips, stretching toward the kids in white watching from overhead.

In Thurmond, the Factory had been set up in a very particular way to ensure that all of the PSFs would be able to watch a building full of freaks do their work. The floor plan there had been open, much like this, and stacked in the very same way. Hanging overhead were the two remaining metal pathways—low-hanging rafters, really.

It was a sea of white up there, Knox positioned comfortably in the middle of them, sitting at the edge of the rafter. Michael sat at his right, leering down at us with a can of something at his side. At the sight of their grinning faces, my hand pulsed in pain. I pressed it flat against my pants, my mind racing as they pushed Vida and me through to the center of the circle of fire.

Dammit. We really were going to have to fight each other.

I glanced over, watching as Vida ripped the old sack off her head and threw it into the nearest flaming trash can. The veins in her neck were bulging with anger, and she looked as close to tears as I had ever seen her. That was the first moment I actually felt fear. I needed Vida now—I needed her sharp intuition and her refusal to back down, even for a second, from a losing fight.

“Stay with me,” I murmured again. Her hands flexed and clenched at her sides, as if she were trying to work her anxiety out that way.

Then, one voice rose above the others.

“Hellooo, ladies,” Knox called. “Have you been behaving yourselves?”

The ring took up most of the room on the ground level, but there was enough space that the kids from outside, the ones not in white, could have squeezed in if they had wanted to. Instead they kept their distance—even Chubs, whose shape I could just barely make out through the screen of hot, shimmering air streaming up from the fires.

“I could bring him down here,” Vida whispered. “Catch him by surprise and put him right in your hands.”

I shook my head. “Too many guns.” And all aimed at our backs. Too many Blues, too. We’d have to wait until he chose to come down, then I’d have him. I felt the steady rise of rage and let it fill me, pump through my blood, drive out every single thought of mercy. I felt like a predator, ready to step out of the shadows and make my true face known.

“The rules here are simple,” Knox said. “You get pushed out of the ring, you’re out of the fight. You get knocked out, you’re out of the fight and I get to do what I want to with you. There are no mercy calls. The only way out is to stay standing or throw yourself out to get burned. Got it? Oh—how could I forget? Because it’s the two of you, I’m bending my own rules. No powers. This is a fist fight for you, girls, so don’t hold back.”

Vida and I shared a quick glance. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking, but the only thought rocketing through my skull was figuring out the fastest way for her to beat me without cheating. Flat-out refusing to fight would mean the deal was off, but I wasn’t exactly thrilled with the idea of Vida literally kicking me through a ring of fire.

“What about the deal?” I called up. “Supplies in exchange for letting me join one of the hunting parties?”

Knox stiffened at the word supplies—more importantly, the kids around him leaned forward. A little reminder for them of what their leader was withholding.

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