Siege of Shadows
“I NEED TO THROW UP,” I said.
Not the kind of words that inspired confidence before a secret mission. Still true, though.
Our helicopter’s electromagnetic armor protected us from the phantoms outside, but I could still hear them thrashing in the sky, screeching through the violent Saharan winds that battered the metal. Between the howls and my motion sickness, my stomach was lurching. “No, really, I feel nauseous.”
“Oh, so it wasn’t just me, then?” On the opposite bench, Lake laughed nervously as she finished strapping on her parachute with the help of the agent assigned to monitor us. “It’s actually kind of funny, but my lungs seem to be having a hard time, um, inhaling.” Lake pulled at the maroon fatigues she wore under the vest, the same as mine, then turned to the agent. “Are you sure this parachute vest thingy is supposed to be on this tight?”
Mine was definitely a bit too cozy, but then one did have to be serious about safety measures before taking suicide jumps out of a flying vehicle.
“God, you two are so pathetic.”
Chae Rin. For the purpose of the mission, she and Belle were in other helicopters, but I could still feel her biting presence. Her laughter battered my skull through my inner earpiece. “Like, is this your first mission? Suck it up.”
“Excuse me for showing a bit of humanity,” Lake bit back. Somehow it sounded even more dramatic in her British accent.
“Okay,” I said. “I’m seriously throwing up now.”
“Swallow it,” a voice snapped at us through my earpiece.
It was the glorious lack of compassion I’d come to expect from Sibyl Langley, director of the Sect’s European Division. The woman had spent the last two months unapologetically delivering me directly into harm’s way, so I knew it was stupid to expect anything else.
“You’re a mean lady,” I complained.
“So I’ve been told. But I’ll get over it, and so will you.”
She was at the London facility, monitoring us from Communications, which meant every stupid thing I said would be heard by an entire room full of people who were probably endlessly thankful that they were several thousand miles away from danger. Lucky bastards.
“Now,” Sibyl continued, “we only have five minutes before we get to the drop site. This is a sensitive mission. We’re going over the mission details one more time.”
“Seriously?” Chae Rin sounded annoyed. “You know I typically like to relax before flinging myself headfirst into danger.”
“We’ve got one shot here to capture Saul, so I want to make sure you are one hundred percent clear on what you need to do today. Now stop talking.”
Only one shot. But that’s how it was with Saul, the man who’d somehow managed to harness the power of the phantoms to reign terror upon the world. Under his command, phantoms had attacked
cities, including mine, and murdered thousands. I’d seen it with my own eyes, seen the bodies left in the wake of his cruelty. We Effigies—Lake, Belle, Chae Rin, and me—came together in the first place to stop his murderous spree, to find out who he was and why he was wreaking havoc. We captured him, yes, but we weren’t able to uncover all of Saul’s secrets. Maybe we would have if he hadn’t escaped.
We almost had him. Two months ago in April, we stopped Saul from blowing up a train full of innocents, but he still managed to get away. The Sect had been trying to track his frequency all this time. Didn’t have a lead for weeks—until today. In that respect, Sibyl’s urgency was understandable. Needless to say, since Saul had escaped from Sibyl’s custody in London, she was under immense pressure from the world’s governments and Sect higher-ups to deliver his head on a platter.
Which is where we came in.
I peered at Lake, who busied herself by fiddling nervously with the pair of goggles the Sect had given us to guard against the sandstorm. Neither of us was particularly keen to face Saul again, but this was our job. We were the Effigies. He was the terrorist. No-brainer.
I gave her my best reassuring nod anyway. “Okay, so this is a simple grab mission. We capture Saul and get out, hopefully with our limbs still attached.”
“With Saul, nothing’s that simple,” said Sibyl, and I could almost see her straightening her back, brow furrowed. “On the one hand, according to our intelligence, Saul’s hideout should be at these coordinates.”
They flashed on the monitor bolted in the corner, just above Lake’s head. She twisted around to see it too—the blinking red square above a satellite image of desert dunes.
“Nice to see Saul found a hole to hide in,” I said. “With all the other dirt-dwelling creatures.”
“Fitting for him, annoying for us, since we’re the ones who have to ferret him out.” Chae Rin’s voice came through loud and clear in my inner ear. “Scratch that—I’m the one who has to ferret him out.” She paused. “None of you pay me enough.”
“Yes, Chae Rin will dig out the hatch,” Sibyl said. “His bunker should be approximately one hundred feet below the surface. Lake will aid in the descent from the helicopter.”
“You guys don’t pay me enough,” Lake muttered under her breath.
Sibyl’s sigh was enough to quiet them both down. “We have a lock on his spectrographic signature, so we can confirm that he’s still at the location.”
Spectrographic signatures were how the Sect was able to trace phantoms—and, when they needed to, Effigies. The Sect could trace the frequency of a special mineral, cylithium, existing naturally in both. For us, it pops up on the Sect’s radar whenever we use our powers, even if they can’t tell from the signature itself exactly which Effigy they’re tracking. But Saul wasn’t like the rest of us Effigies. Somehow, he’d found a way to mask his frequency. If we’d kept him in Sect custody for a little longer, we might have been able to find out how. But for now all we could do was chase him down along with the questions he’d left in his wake.
A shiver suddenly tightened the muscles in my arms. I guess I was still getting used to thinking of Saul as an Effigy like us.
“On the other hand, like I said, with Saul, nothing’s that simple. For several days after the train incident, Saul’s spectrographic signature had been unstable, as if he couldn’t control his ability to mask it from us. Your encounter with him may have destabilized his psyche.”
“Well, you did kind of cut off his hand,” Lake said.
I sure did. Not that he didn’t deserve it.
“Then the trace went dead—until now. But we can’t let our guards
down,” Sibyl continued. “Even though we’ve traced him to these whereabouts, there’s a risk he could—”
“Disappear,” I finished for her. One of the many perks of being able to vanish at will.
“Hang on.” Lake fidgeted against her parachute straps. “If he ends up poofing before we get there, then wouldn’t this whole thing be a waste of time?”
She sent a worrying look past me, and I knew why. Following her gaze, I turned and peered through the window behind me, into the sunset peeking through the torrent of dust.
Where the phantoms were waiting.
“We knew it was a risk,” Sibyl answered. “But we may not get another chance. Capture Saul. And if the situation doesn’t permit, then gather as much information as you can from his hideout. I want to know what he’s been doing and, more important, who’s been helping him.”
Right. Saul didn’t have his ring anymore, which meant he couldn’t control phantoms. So why would he pick a hideout in the middle of a Dead Zone? Surely an area protected by society and technology would have been the safer choice for someone who didn’t want to get ripped apart in a phantom free-for-all. The only way he could last for so long in an unprotected area was if he’d had help from the kind of black-market tech commonly used in illegal Dead Zone trafficking networks.
Speaking of tech. I dug my hand into the lower left pocket of my thick vest and pulled out the sleek metal ball that had been nestled inside—one of three antiphantom devices we’d been given. Lake and I had this one. Belle and Chae Rin each had their own.
“We can only do so much to keep the phantoms at bay as you’re reaching your drop sites,” Sibyl said. “Once you land, it’ll be up to you
to activate your handheld APD at your specific coordinates by entering in the code.”
“Hopefully before we get eaten,” Chae Rin added.
On the monitor, three little blue lights flashed around the blinking red square indicating Saul’s hideout, each four hundred meters away from the site. Together, they made a perfect triangle. The three APDs—or antiphantom devices—worked as a trio. It was why we were in separate planes. Each antiphantom device had to be set up at its respective corner of the triangle. Lake and I took the southern coordinate, Chae Rin the northeast, and Belle the northwest. Chae Rin and Belle had to activate their devices at their respective coordinates within the same time frame that Lake and I activated ours. As long as we didn’t screw anything up, we’d be able to triangulate a protective field around Saul’s hideout. It would be large enough for us to maneuver and bring in extra troops if need be. With Saul, we had to be ready for anything.
“We’ll be monitoring you from here in Communications via satellite.”
The agent came back in from the cockpit. “Thirty seconds to the drop site,” he said. “Get to your positions.”
Her dark brown skin graying by the second, Lake pulled the goggles over her eyes and motioned at me to do the same. “This is just bloody fantastic. You know, I just got my first Teen Viewers’ Choice Awards nomination since leaving that evil girl group. The damn awards show is in a couple of weeks, and those hags are going to be there because they got several nominations they clearly don’t deserve.” She said this all in a single breath. “I’d better not get killed before then, I swear to god.” She fitted the goggles around her eyes. The strap pinned down her long black ponytail. “No way am I giving them the satisfaction of my death.”
“Technically, we got nominated,” I corrected her, putting on my
goggles. “Didn’t think you’d be this excited over a Canadian awards show. Honestly, I forgot it was even happening.”
Vancouver resident Chae Rin snorted through my earpiece. “I’m not even mad at the shade you just low-key threw at my country.”
“You’re going to be okay, though, right, Lake?” I asked her.
Lake hesitated. “Yeah. I think. Maybe. You?”
I hesitated too. The past few weeks had been a learning experience for the both of us. We were both stronger now, but we’d always been paired with one of the other girls if we weren’t fighting in a group. This would be a test for both of us.
“We can do it,” I said, and despite the painful pounding in my chest, I think I actually believed it. “Yeah. We can. You, me. All four of us. We can do this.”
Lake’s gaze drifted to the window. “Sure about that? It’s looking pretty bad out there.”
“Yeah.” I squeezed my hands tight. “We’re a team.”
We were a team now.
Lake seemed a little taken aback, but she gave me a resolute nod nonetheless.
“At least let’s try not to die,” I added with a half smile.
One minute to the drop site. It was go time.
“Remember,” Sibyl said. “You have to activate the three APDs at the same time. We haven’t found any evidence of other human hostiles in the area, but stay on your guard. Gather up whatever information you can, and then give the signal for retrieval.”
Belle. She’d been so silent this entire time I’d almost forgotten about her, but she was in her own chopper, listening, quietly preparing. Her voice had the serenity expected of an Effigy who’d been handling suicide missions since childhood.
How I wished, as I wiped my sweaty palms on my fatigues, that I could have siphoned even a tenth of that confidence. But I’d spent the last two months away from home training for situations like this. I couldn’t wuss out now.
Lake and I nodded at each other. Twenty seconds. Ten seconds. The hatch opened.
“Begin the mission.”
At Sibyl’s word, I leapt out of the helicopter. The long snouts of serpent-like beasts snapped in my direction, baring their ivory teeth. Dark smoke sizzled off their black, rotting hides, their ghost eyes shining against the dimming light of the darkening sunset. They knew us intuitively. Effigies, creatures of magic like them.
But we were their enemy.
They launched at us, but the helicopter’s EMA did its job. The Sect’s protective electromagnetic armor was top-grade, stronger than what even rich people could afford for their cars and yachts. The field stretching out from the helicopter’s armor had a wide enough circumference to keep us momentarily safe from the phantoms even as we descended, but I knew that if they didn’t tear us apart, the desert winds would. The wind whipped past my skin, battering against my goggles, tossing my clothes and my thick, curly hair relentlessly. The force was so great, it was all I could do to keep my lips pressed against the onslaught.
A few seconds of falling and I could already start to see the Sahara desert below.
“Deploy your parachutes,” Sibyl ordered.
We did. The upward force hoisted me up with a jerk so violent I thought I would snap in two. The wind was too gusty for an easy descent. I could feel it veering me sideways.
“Lake,” Sibyl yelled.
Through my goggles, I could see Lake’s arms raised in front of her, her long, thin legs kicking in the air. I could almost imagine her closing her eyes, her breath straining under the pressure of maintaining the delicate balance needed to control her element.
Trap and release.
The words Lake always used whenever she trained me in elemental control. For Lake, it came naturally, but controlling a torrent like this over such a wide area would be difficult even for her.
She did the job; the air around me calmed and I could breathe normally again. But I knew it was only a moment of respite. Even with the darkening sunset reflecting off my goggles, I could see them through the glare: the phantoms twitching and twisting in the desert wind, their long, serpent-like tails floating behind them. Waiting. The helicopter’s EMA had good reach, but soon we wouldn’t be able to rely on it anymore. The second we were out of this protective bubble, we’d be on our own. Survive or get eaten.
Eventually, a male voice from Communications confirmed what I knew and dreaded. “Thirty seconds until the subjects leave the EMA circumference.”
“You’re close enough to the ground for a safe fall,” said Sibyl, “but you’ll need to detach your parachutes immediately once you’re out of the safety zone.”
The horrible minutes between now and the time we set up our APDs would be a free-for-all. We’d have to be fast.
We’d have to fight.
Twenty seconds. Ten seconds.
“Good luck, girls.”
The phantoms’ cries pierced the skies. They were ready. So were we.