Empowered: Rebel, the final novel is The Empowered series will be released shortly!
Here’s the first chapter, as an extended teaser.
Spoiler alert! If you haven’t read the previous novels, you might want to hold off on reading this.
Otherwise, enjoy! It’s taken longer than I’d planned, but the end is finally at hand for Mat’s story.
By Dale Ivan Smith
The lichen covering the ruins of the ancient Greek temple outside the barrow shivered in my mind but made no sound. I crouched beside Alex beneath an ancient arched doorway. The moonlight-washed Greek columns off to our right stood like fingers reaching to the night sky. Off to the left, the Black Sea glimmered darkly beneath a waning moon.
“Damn quiet,” I whispered. Even the sticky, stifling hot air was silent. No breeze, nothing. Sweat ran down my body. My black cotton A-shirt was stuck to my sides. I rubbed my palms against my camo pants, but my hands were still slick. My hair was tied back in a ponytail and felt limp from the freaking humidity. I never thought I’d travel here, to the Kerch Peninsula, in the freaking Crimea.
Alex nodded, scanning the grass field beyond the barrow. Behind us, the Dark-Net node had closed. Past the temple ruins the field sloped up to a crest.
The Crimean Reclamation Zone was just beyond that crest. That was why we’d just traveled the crazy Fairy Road through the Dark-Net. We’d had hot arguments back at our camp in the Amazon about this mission. Breaking into a secret Support monitoring station terrified the Committee. But we desperately needed intel. If you wanted to live, you had to take risks.
“Wait here, Mat,” Alex whispered to me. “I’ll check to make sure the area is clear.”
I frowned but didn’t argue. He rose and slipped out from the doorway at a half-crouch, moving silently across the field.
He scanned side-to-side as he walked, a data pad in his left hand, his right free to draw his stunner. My own stunner was heavy against my hip.
His data pad was in dark mode. I could barely see it.
Alex stopped at the base of the rise. He looked back in my direction, motioned at me. I slipped out of the barrow, trying not to stumble. The grass smelled weird, like cinnamon. It fluttered in my mind. It waited for dawn.
Alex made a flattening motion with his hand when I was halfway across the field. I went prone. I could just see him over the tips of the grass blades.
My heart’s pounding sounded loud in my ears. The night continued being dead quiet.
I wished Keisha was here with us.
She’d have made a face at Alex’s hand signals and would have fidgeted something fierce at having to be quiet.
I missed her bitching. I missed her confidence. Most of all, I just missed having her with us. It had been three months since we’d left Sanctuary.
Keisha still walked with a limp. Thank God Harris had joined our group of fugitives. Sure, like all Empowered, Keisha healed faster, but she’d been shot in the chest and legs by Loris’s goons when we and the Imbued were escaping Sanctuary. Empowered like Keisha and me possessed “extraordinary abilities.” The Imbued weren’t as strong: three Imbued shared a power between them, and all three had to be together to use that power.
Keisha should have been crippled. The doctor at the first camp, the one in the Outback, said she would be probably never walk again. But she got the bullets out of Keisha. It wasn’t until Harris used his power that she could really walk again, but even so, she still walked with a big-time limp, and had to stop after about twenty yards. He said she’d be better in a few weeks. She’d been pissed when I proposed the mission to the Kerch Peninsula without her.
“You’ve been doing too many of these missions without me, Mat,” she had said. “Now you want to go to another Reclamation Zone? You know how dangerous those damn places are. Your luck’s going to give out.” She’d folded her arms, daring me to argue, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. The Reclamation Zones were the result of the Three Days War over a half century ago. Cordoned off by the United Nations and Support, they dripped with power and danger.
But not arguing had just made her more pissed. She wouldn’t talk to me after that.
I pushed the memory out of my head.
Alex gestured at me to join him. I pushed myself off the ground, grass blades trembling with faint anger in my mind. I reached down to help the ones that had been pinned beneath me grow back up again. It was like touching a hot pan. I pulled my sense back. The grass hated me. Hated Alex. I didn’t have time to change that, even if I could. I exhaled, walled off my mind.
I joined Alex at the edge of the slope. Alex peered at his data pad.
There was a cylinder-like thing poking out of the top.
A security probe, Alex had called it when we had been prepping for this mission.
Alex’s gaze was still riveted on the data pad’s night mode screen. “Confirmed. There’s an electronic fence just over that rise,” he muttered.
I nodded. “Can you turn it off?” I asked.
He looked at me sidewise. “You didn’t bring me for my charm and rugged good looks.” A corner of his mouth turned up, and suddenly my heart rose. I wanted to smack his arm for the smart remark. I wanted to hold him close and kiss him hard at the same time.
“Funny,” I whispered, giving him a mock glare, which made his smile widen. Look at me, Mathilda Brandt, all mushy over the guy she loved. Well, I had to do something to keep myself from worrying about what we were about to do.
Which was break into a covert Support monitoring station. Nothing like painting a big X on the ground to give Support another pin on the map of where we might be. They’d nearly gotten us in Alberta. We had lost Chloe and Zack there, and another Imbued whose name I’d forgotten. Damn it.
Fuck it. Focus, Mat, I ordered myself. It was easier when I was mad all the time.
Alex drew a wand-like thing from his utility belt. Back in camp he’d called it a kind of key.
“Is that going to disable the electronic fence?” I asked. It would have been really handy to have an electricity-controlling Empowered right then. One of those could have taken down an electronic security barrier in no time flat.
Alex pressed a button on the wand and an antenna extended, trembling, almost like it was alive. “It should.” His voice was matter-of-fact.
The air stirred for an instant. My skin began tingling fiercely, the tell-tale sign another Empowered was nearby. I whirled around. My sister Ella stood behind me. Her black hair was tied back in a pony-tail just like mine, and she wore a black A-shirt and camo pants and combat boots, also just like me. She looked like a slightly shorter version of me.
It wasn’t Ella. It was a projection. That was her power. Ella could send copies of herself to wherever people she cared about were.
The real Ella was back at our camp in the Amazon, but this projection was an extension of her.
“You do plant powers, too?” I asked her.
“No one can copy powers,” she said.
That was true. No one could.
The air rustled again. My skin tingling grew stronger, more chaotic. Another projection, looking exactly like the first, appeared on the other side of Alex.
“Hi, handsome,” projection number two said to Alex.
He kept cool. He was used to her projections. “Hey, kid.”
She winked at him, then looked past him and grinned at me. “But I can copy myself,” both projections said at the same time.
“What’s with the look?” I asked.
The two projections laughed softly. “You don’t like us looking like you?” Ella-on-my right whispered.
“Will confuse any surveillance cameras,” Ella-beside-Alex whispered.
Ella was six feet tall.
“You’re two inches shorter than me,” I muttered.
Ella on my right grinned. “Only an inch shorter now.”
“Okay, the gang’s all here,” I told Alex.
He nodded, pressed a second button on his magic wand. The thing began humming, and the antenna whipped back and forth. Weird. But that was Support tech for you. Thank God he’d squirreled one away in one of his secret stashes.
He raised his arm, the antenna whipsawing. I could have sworn I heard a faint crackle. This went on for a minute. Then, Alex nodded to himself. He retracted the antenna, checked his data pad.
I swallowed. “Good.”
The Ella on my right tapped my arm. “Message from Keisha.”
Now? “Okay, what is it?”
“Don’t fuck up.”
My mouth dropped open. “I didn’t need you to relay that, Ella.” Waste of time.
She snickered. “Keisha insisted. Besides, she’s right. After what you went through to get the others to agree to this, Keisha says, you’d better come back with something worthwhile.”
I started to retort that I always did, but lately, I’d been coming up empty on finding Mom. Hadn’t done so well when it came to finding out more about the Dark-Net, or the Necklace for that matter, either.
“Tell her I know,” I said. Old me would have gotten pissed at Keisha, but that would be stupid. She cared, and it had to be eating her up that she’d had to stay behind.
Ella’s projection nodded.
“Okay, let’s go get some intel,” I said.
We jumped up and spread out, heading over the rise. Another ancient ruin confronted us, much bigger and more elaborate, covered in lichen that shone gray-green in the moonlight. Doric columns on either side of us held up shards of roof. A second barrow hill, like the one Alex and I had emerged from, rose a hundred yards past the temple ruins. Alex had called this place the remains of an ancient Greek colony when we were prepping back in the Amazon. I’d shrugged at the time, but right then, walking past the ancient ruins, my eyes widened. Thousands of years ago, people had left Greece and come here, to the Kerch peninsula, to start a new life. All that remained was ruin.
The grass beneath my feet was silent. No feelings came from it, unlike the grass just outside the node. That was too weird for words.
The world suddenly seemed to tilt beneath my feet. I staggered. It felt like when I’d been in the sacred spring at Sanctuary.
Power flowed in the very air here. I shook my head. I felt drunk. Alex stood frozen, staring off into the distance. I shook my head again.
A hand touched my right arm, and another my left shoulder.
The Ella projections flanked me, faces concerned.
“This place has great power,” they said in unison. “I feel it, too,” they both said. “Even where I actually am.”
“But I can’t sense the grass, or the lichen,” I said.
Alex shook himself, took a deep breath. “I should have realized this place would be a power source,” he said. “I figured being outside the Crimean Reclamation Zone would make the difference.”
The world swayed around me. Power poured into my body from the air, but I felt no connection to the earth, to the life there.
“There’s so much power in the air here, but why not in the ground?” I asked.
I tried to wall myself off from the power and took a deep breath, fighting to not lose it.
I nodded at the barrow hill on the far side of the temple ruins. “That the place?” I asked Alex,
“I think so,” he said.
Why two barrows? Why would Support and whoever made the Dark-Net both choose old mounds, so close together? The whole thing seemed way too huge a coincidence.
We knew jack about this place, other than it was one of Support’s super-secret monitoring stations and that it was plugged into something Alex called the Black-Light system. Above his paygrade, Alex had said when we discussed this mission back at our camp. He’d said he only knew the name and that it was rumored to be something called an “enclosed network.” Great, we were hip-deep in all kinds of networks these days. The Dark-Net, the so-called “Necklace” of ancient sites somehow connected to the source of all our powers, and now this Black-Light system. That was three different networks.
Then there was RAMPART. Whatever that was. The word suddenly swam up from my memory. Loris had asked me about RAMPART back in Sanctuary. Did that connect to all of this? Everything suddenly seemed all smoke and mirrors.
My legs and arms trembled. Damn it. I took a deep breath. It suddenly felt like I was diving into the Sacred Spring back in Sanctuary. Power crashed against me.
God. I took another deep breath. All this power was making me scatter-brained. I reached into the grass. It was like trying to reach through rock, but the power running through me now made me sure I could. I would figure out what was keeping the grass and the lichen silent.
“No, Mat, wait!” Alex whispered sharply.
I only half-heard him. I clenched my jaw. My power couldn’t reach the grass. I pressed harder.
“Mathilda!” both Ella’s whispered. “Stop.”
Sweat ran down my face. “Shit,” I muttered.
I closed my eyes. “Sorry. Don’t know why I can’t get in, and it bugged me.”
“There’s something keeping the power from the earth,” Alex said. “I sensed it. I could feel it coiling inside you. You would have hurt yourself, badly, if you’d kept on.”
I looked at Alex, narrowed my eyes. A headache throbbed behind my eyes. “I feel what you mean,” I groaned.
Too bad Harris wasn’t with us. His Empowered healing ability would have fixed that. We worked the guy pretty hard, but he never complained. He’d joined us just a few weeks ago, when we’d first arrived in the Outback, after leaving that ancient mound city in Illinois. One ancient place to the next, lately.
But Harris wasn’t here, so I needed to wise up and not cripple myself.
“But how is the power being kept away from the ground, and if it is, where is it coming from?” I asked Alex.
He shrugged. “Great questions. But I have no answers.”
He turned back to stare at the second barrow hill. “Maybe they’re there.”
That seemed like a very obvious place to hide a monitoring station.
From the far side of the hill the crackling got louder and louder until it sounded like heaven’s bones were breaking. I covered my ears. Alex did the same. Even the Ellas clutched their ears. Shit.
I gasped out a question. “What is that?”
Alex looked deathly-pale. He raised a hand, opened his mouth like he was going to say something, then doubled over and threw up. My stomach joined him a moment later and I heaved the remains of my breakfast all over the grass. Ella on my right looked sick but didn’t vomit. Then again, she hadn’t eaten any breakfast.
I wiped the sweat from my eyes, staggered upright. The other projection of Ella had vanished.
“I can’t maintain both,” the remaining projection told me.
“You’re backsliding in the ability department,” I managed to grit through my teeth.
The projection’s face hardened. “I’m trying, damn it.” Hot anger filled her words. “Something is interfering with my power.”
That’s what I must have looked like when I raged, which was all the time until the Sacred Spring.
“Keep trying,” I said. “Please.”
Alex staggered to me, wrapped his arms around me. “Breathe.” His voice was warm in my ear.
We both inhaled at the same time.
The crackling in the distance grew quiet. Needles stopped stabbing my skin. But my stomach still churned.
I pulled away. The last thing I wanted was to upchuck on Alex. At least my skin felt cooler, as well as less prickly.
I rubbed my hands against my camo pants. “What the hell is going on?”
Alex shrugged. “Somehow, the power is being blocked. I can feel it in the air, but the ground is cut off from me.”
Worry filled Ella’s face. “This place is weird.” She fiddled with her pony tail. “It isn’t worth risking your lives. You should head back to the node.” Her eyes begged me. “Please.”
“We can’t leave now! We have to get to the Support station. Get into the Black-light system.” I kept my hands from balling into fists. We desperately needed this Intel.
She shook her head. “But you don’t know for sure that there’s a connection to the Black-light system.”
“There is,” Alex said quietly. “Support prioritized security above all else, and nothing is more secure, computer wise, than a network that only connects to itself.”
She didn’t argue with him.
“We need to find out more about the Dark-Net,” I pointed out. I put my hands on my hips. “And yeah, about where Mom might be.”
Ella’s projection waved her arms. “You can’t be sure Mom lives, Mat.” She rubbed at her eyes. “But you and Alex are alive.” She dug her booted toe into the ground. “I want to keep you that way.”
I bit my lip. “This isn’t just about whether mom is alive or not.”
“That’s all you’ve been really talking about since we left Sanctuary,” she pointed out. “We can get information other ways.”
I started to argue, dropped it. Instead, I looked at Alex.
He nodded. “Your call. I’ll follow your lead.”
My heart lifted. Okay, so I’d fallen hard for Alex Sanchez. If only I’d had the time to show him how much I’d fallen, but there was never time.
Ella frowned. “Of course, your boyfriend will do what you want.” She started to say something else.
Thunder boomed overhead. Clouds had rushed in, hiding the moon. The ruins faded into shadow. Lightning flashed. For an instant, I thought I saw a huge man off by the hill Alex had wanted to investigate. I blinked. Lightning flashed again and I blinked a second time. When my vision cleared, the figure was gone.
My eyes were playing tricks on me. Great, first my power, now my vision was acting up.
Rain began pelting us. “Come on,” I said, and ran under the arches of one of the ruined, ancient Greek-looking buildings.
“We’ve got to investigate,” I told the others. Water sheeted through a crack in the roof overhead. Lightning flashed again.
Metal glinted near our feet.
“What the hell?” I knelt down. My fingers brushed dura-steel. I leaned in to examine it. It was a dura-steel hatch set in the ground.
Now I really wished I had Keisha here. She could have opened that hatch in a heart-beat.
“You’re lucky, Mat,” Ella’s projection said. She closed her eyes.
“But that’s what counts,” her voice said on the other side of me.
I jumped, whirled around. “Damn, but you’re good at giving me a heart attack.”
Another Ella projection stood there, looking worried. “Sorry. But at least I was able to get another me here.”
I smiled. “Thanks for sending reinforcements, especially when you think we should leave.”
She glanced at her hands, shrugged. “You’re welcome.”
I turned to Alex. “Well, how do we get the hatch open?” I still couldn’t connect with the plants. It was weird. I should be able to. Normally I had to fight to keep all the noise out of my head. “If I could connect with the plants, with your help, I could corrode the metal.”
He rapped it. “Sounds like dura-steel to me.” Dura-steel was a super-hardened, lighter weight version of the original kind, cooked up by the Hero Council decades ago.
“Maybe we could figure out a way to lever it open.” I winced as I said it. Yeah, a stupid idea if there ever was one.
He brandished a tube-shaped device the size of a penlight and flashed me one his heart-stoppingly handsome grins. “This little wonder will let us in.”
“You always have something, don’t you?” I said and smiled.
“What about alarms?” Ella’s projections asked. “Never mind, Harris agrees with you.”
Great, backseat driving.
My eyes narrowed. “Harris is a healer. And he’s not here.”
“He’s also not familiar with Support tech,” Alex replied. “Not that I’d need his confirmation even if he was.” He sounded a little annoyed that Harris, back at our camp, was trying to help.
I shrugged. Harris was still pretty new, and there was lots I didn’t know about him.
“Okay, go ahead and work more of your magic, Sanchez,” I told Alex.
He waved the device around the edge of the hatch. I heard a faint beeping.
I crossed my arms as I watched him work. “I hope that this super-secret Support tech is the same as the ordinary Support tech.”
“It should be,” Alex said.
I bit back a retort. What other choice did we have?
Minutes crawled by.
The hatch dilated open with a soft “snick.” Alex clicked a button on the side of his magic lock pick thing and a light shown into the hole, reflecting off a metal ladder that descended down the side of a concrete tube.
“We have an in,” he said.