A bright light blinds me and I squint so hard my eyes water. Even though I can’t see his expression, I hear him make a rude sound.
“You’re a girl?”
“What do you want, Slate.” I hope Lake is in the house and has locked the door like I taught him.
“I beg your pardon?”
“You asked me what I want. I want you.” His voice is deep which makes him sound menacing, but it’s his height that’s more intimidating. I’m barely 5’3” and he towers over me.
“Too bad, I don’t want you.” I don’t want to turn my back on him, so I take a step away, still holding my dagger out.
“Cut it out, Stone. I’ve seen what you can do with that blade. And with your fists.” He switches the light off and I hear him shifting his feet. I don’t like that I suddenly can’t see him and I blink until the spots in my eyes disappear.
He runs a hand down the side of his face. I know he has a scar there because I gave it to him two years ago. Three days after my parents were culled, Lake and I ran out of food and I was forced to leave my brother with Summer for the first time so I could scavenge at the Hole. Slate was there with a group of Nights, and we both went after the same jar of beets. He grabbed my arm and I was so scared I went for my blade. I didn’t really know how to use it, I just instinctively slashed the air with it. When it made contact with some fleshy part of him, he knocked me to the ground. Two of his guys jumped on me and I went home bruised and bleeding. I’d managed to keep my knit cap on though, which is why Slate is surprised to see me now without it.
I sense, more than see, that he’s not going to fight me so I drop my hand to my side, still clutching the dagger. Just in case.
“Join the Nights. We could use someone like you.”
“No, thanks.” I start to walk away but he steps in front of me. There’s a large, dark stain on his left sleeve. It’s spreading. It must be where I cut him.
“Avalon’s competition is coming up again. You could win it, Stone.”
“I don’t care.” I try to side-step him, but he blocks me. Heat rises to my face and my free hand curls into a fist. “Move.”
I see something move in the shadows over Slate’s shoulder. Someone’s near my house. And judging by their height, it isn’t Lake.
I shove Slate. He’s immovable. His hand flashes out and grabs my wrist. All I can think of is what happened last time he grabbed me like this. I glance at my house again. There’s more than one shadow moving toward the door now.
I try to shake my arm free of Slate to go after whoever is at my house, but Slate somehow spins me around. My back slams against his chest. My dagger is knocked from my hand and clatters in the gravel. Slate’s hand covers my mouth, crushing my lips against my teeth. He smells of dirt, oil and sweat.
“Shut up,” he hisses in my ear. Moist heat from his breath makes me shiver. Tension hums in me like a live wire. “Listen, Stone. Chasing after you tonight hurt my pride. Especially since you cut me. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t need you, so just shut up and listen. ’Kay?”
I nod and the pressure on my mouth lessens but he keeps his hand there.
“The Nights voted on who should be the one to win Avalon’s shit contest. And it was unanimous. They picked you, Stone. We need you to win. Then, once you’re in Avalon, you’re going to kill the Commander.”
He lets go of me then, and I spin around, spit near his boot, then wipe my mouth on my sleeve. “Is there something wrong with your head? No way I’m doing that!” Behind him, the clouds shift and moonlight throws an eerie light on my house. Whoever was there has gone. At least, I don’t see anyone moving around anymore.
“If you don’t, then you can kiss your brother goodbye.”
In a flash, I slip my wrist knife out of its sheath and press it against Slate’s throat. “Do. Not. Threaten. Me.”
“Hey,” he says quietly, and the apple in his throat bobs beneath my blade. “It’s not me who’s threatening you. It’s Avalon. I hear they’re looking for you. Maybe you’re the next to be culled.”
I go still. I don’t even breathe when I hear that word.