CRY OF THE PHOENIX
Amber Hills, Mountain Wolf State
30 years ago
THE CHURCH BELLS CHIME MIDNIGHT, signaling the start of the Watchmen’s shift. No one else is allowed out after dark; no one else dares. Night is for the creatures that live beyond the wall. The ones lurking in the shadows of the forest. The ones that are watching me now.
A whisper of wind, as cold as winter’s breath, chills the back of my neck. I lift up the collar of my woolen jacket as I patrol the Boundary Wall that encases our compound. What the hell was I thinking of when I volunteered to do this? Well, it’s obvious who I was thinking of: Catherine. Maybe now that I’m a Watchman, she’ll stop seeing me as Best Friend Edmund and more as Potential Boyfriend Edmund.
I’m surprised the Guild allowed me to take the job—it usually goes to the hunters, not the eighteen-year-old grandson of the town minister—but I’m good with a gun . . . well, pellet gun. I can shoot a rat in the eye from thirty yards away. I weigh the rifle in my hands. It’s heavier but not too dissimilar.
Somewhere in the blackness beyond the wall a Lupine howls, the sound echoing across the night. I shiver. Their howls don’t bother me so much during the day, when the sun is high and there are hundreds of people milling about, but it’s altogether a different matter when you’re up on the wall, with nothing but darkness all around you. This was a really bad idea.
“All clear,” Mr. Kent’s gruff voice calls from farther down the wall. He’s one of the four Watchmen on duty tonight, including me. He’s far enough away that I can only make out his shadowy figure moving about in the night.
I scan the tree line, searching for the Lupine. From my vantage point on the thirty-foot-high wall, I can see right across the Forest of Shadows toward the volcano, Mount Alba, known locally as the Claw because of its talon-shaped peak. I squint at the trees. Their gnarled branches are like witches’ fingers, ready to snatch anyone who dares enter the forest.
“All clear,” I call back. “No Howlers here.”
We nickname them Howlers because of the noise they make when they call to each other. I shiver again. This is going to be a long night.
I whip around, gun raised, ready to shoot the frightened brown-haired girl peering at me from the top of the ladder. Catherine! A thrill of nervous excitement rushes through me.
“Fragging hell, Caterpillar. Don’t sneak up on a guy when he’s carrying a gun,” I say, lowering the weapon.
“‘Hello’ to you too,” she says, pouting. “And don’t call me that. You know I hate it.”
She climbs up the rest of the ladder and joins me on the wall. Tucked underneath her arm is a blanket. She’s wearing a long red cape over a simple cotton nightdress, which clings to the swells and dips of her newly developed curves. She’s no longer plain, skinny Caterpillar, who would happily wrestle with me in the dirt. When she turned seventeen this summer, she started wearing makeup and doing her hair, and now looks like an actual girl girl—something all the boys in town have noticed, including me.
She’s not the only one who’s changed; in the past few months I’ve shot up another four inches and fill out my clothes much better. I even have a smattering of dark stubble across my jawline, which helps cover some of the scars on my face, so I don’t look half bad now. Not great but not completely vomit-worthy either.
“What are you doing here?” I say. “Not that I’m complaining, but you know it’s after curfew, right?” I glance along the wall, making sure Mr. Kent can’t see us. He’s walking toward the east corner of the wall. We’re safe.
She rolls her eyes. “Since when do you care about curfews? Besides, what sort of friend would I be if I didn’t come and celebrate your first night as Watchman?”
“A terrible one,” I tease.
“The worst,” she agrees, laying the blanket on the stone walkway that runs along the top of the wall. Folded inside the gingham blanket are two red apples and a blue-veined cheese. “I thought you might be hungry.”
I catch a whiff of the stinking cheese, and my stomach knots.
Catherine frowns, noticing my reaction. “It’s all I could take from the store without my parents noticing.”
“It’s great, Cater—Catherine, thanks.” I join her on the scratchy blanket, sitting close enough to smell her perfume: orange blossom and honey. I lean against the stone turrets and rake a hand through my stubborn black hair. “Pass me an apple, then.”
Our fingertips touch as she hands me the apple. Desire aches through me.
“Do you remember that time we snuck up here as kids?” she asks.
When I was twelve and Catherine eleven, we crept up here after curfew to look at the lights coming from Gray Wolf, the city closest to our secluded compound. I remember seeing them glittering in the distance, brighter than any star. Catherine had cried, saying they made her sad. Until that moment, she hadn’t realized how trapped we were here.
Neither of us has left the safe confines of our town, Amber Hills—a walled commune built a hundred years ago by the Guild, to allow us to live away from the sins of modern life. “The world may have fallen to sin, but we don’t have to,” Catherine’s father, Mr. Langdon, is keen to remind us whenever we step out of line. I don’t usually agree with him, but on this one point we see eye to eye. We all know what’s out there. Demons. I briefly grip the circle pendant around my neck—a symbol of our religion. Our faith keeps us protected from them. Well, that and this great big wall. Catherine’s wearing a similar pendant, although hers is gold, whereas mine is wood.
“I recall your dad sending out a search party for you,” I say. And the beating he gave me afterward, before Grandfather stepped in.
She frowns, clearly remembering that too. “He’s so overprotective; it drives me crazy sometimes. He thinks just because he’s the head of the Guild, it somehow gives him the right to control every aspect of my life too.”
“I think that’s just what dads do,” I say, half smiling, although I wouldn’t know. I never knew my father.
“I guess,” she says, nibbling on her apple. “So how are you finding your first night as Watchman?”
I shrug. “I don’t know why everyone keeps making such a fuss about it. It’s not that scary out here,” I lie.
Another Lupine barks, closer this time. Catherine lets out a squeak of fright and throws her arms around my neck. The scent of orange blossom fills my nostrils. I try not to smile.
“Nothing’s going to hurt you when I’m on watch,” I say. “I can take on a few Howlers. I’m a good shot.”
“It’s not just them I’m frightened of,” she says, pulling away from me. “Patrick says there’s”—she lowers her voice—“Darklings in the woods.”
“Oh, well, if your brother says it, then it must be true.”
Catherine scowls at me. “He hunts in those woods all the time with Harriet and Drew.”
“Did he see one?”
“Well, no,” Catherine admits. “He found a deer with two puncture wounds in its neck.”
“Any number of wild animals could’ve made that wound,” I reply. “Besides, have you ever seen a Dark? Has anyone, in all the years we’ve been alive?”
She shakes her head, giving a little shudder. “No, praise be. They scare me more than all those other demons put together.”
“Why? A Lupine can tear you to shreds just as easily,” I say. “And a Bastet’s venom can rot the flesh from your bones.”
“I know,” she says. “But the Darklings are different. They don’t just kill you, they play with you first. They drug you, make you think you’re in love with them, so you willingly let them feed on you, until there’s nothing left of you but an empty shell. It’s sick.”
I roll the apple over in my hand. “Well, you don’t need to worry. The nippers are long gone,” I say, taking a bite. “There’s nothing in that forest but man-eating Lupines.”
“That makes me feel so much better.”
I smirk. “I aim to please.”
Shadowy rainclouds slowly blanket the sky, blinking out the stars one by one. It begins to drizzle, but thankfully Catherine makes no attempt to leave—in fact she edges closer to me, causing her nightdress to ride up her legs a little. There’s a tiny freckle above her left ankle, and another one higher up her calf muscle. I wonder if there are any more hidden underneath the cotton—
“You’re staring at me, Edmund,” she says.
I clear my throat, embarrassed. “Sorry.”
We’re silent for a long moment, letting the sounds of the night fill in the blanks: the rustle of the trees, the hoot of Phantom owls, the steady plip-plip-plip of rain splashing against the wall. I absentmindedly run my tongue over my top teeth, a habit I formed as a kid.
“I got a new dress for the dance tomorrow night,” Catherine says.
My stomach flips. The dance has been on everyone’s lips all week. It’s been eighteen years since we united with the Lupines and forced the Darklings out of the forest, bringing an end to a period of conflict known as the Misery, and each year the Guild throws a dance for the townsfolk to celebrate. We’ve had a shaky truce with the Lupines ever since, neither side wanting a return to the violence, but over the past six weeks they’ve been breaking into the compound, snatching people, and we don’t know why. They’ve already taken three victims, including my predecessor, Mr. Smyth, which is why I’m up here tonight, guarding the wall.
“Are you going with anyone?” I say as casually as possible.
“No.” She sighs heavily. “I’d sort of hoped Eric Cranfield would ask me, but I think Patrick scared him off.”
My mouth twitches at the thought of Catherine’s brother. He’s made it his mission in life to make mine hell. Still, I’m glad he’s frightened off the competition. I might stand a chance with Catherine now.
“It’s so frustrating. Patrick’s worse than Father. He thinks he owns me,” she continues. “Are you taking anyone?”
“Sure, because all girls are desperate to date the village freak,” I mumble.
“Don’t call yourself that,” she says.
“Why not? Everyone else does.”
“You’re an attractive guy, Edmund.” Catherine lightly rests her hand on my leg. A whirlpool swirls in my stomach. “Any girl who can’t see that needs her head examined.”
I look down. “We . . . er . . . we could go to the dance together, you know, since we’re both free?”
“Sure,” she says, removing her hand from my thigh.
I grin. “Really?”
“Why not? It’ll be fun,” she says. “We can go with Harriet and Drew.”
I’d rather poke out my own eyeballs—I hate those two almost as much as I do Patrick—but I won’t let them ruin the night.
“It’s a date th— Gah!” I grasp my chest as a burning sensation rips through it.
“Are you okay?” Catherine asks, alarmed.
“Yeah.” I rub my aching chest, waiting for the pain to subside. What in His Mighty’s name was that? “It was just a cramp.”
“In your chest?” she says.
I shrug, unable to come up with another explanation. Whatever it was, it’s gone now. It’s nothing to get worked up about.
There’s a sudden roll of thunder in the distance. The vibrations sweep across the sky, shaking the swollen clouds so that they release all the rain at once. It’s like someone tipped a bucket of ice water over us, soaking our clothes in an instant. We hurriedly roll the remaining food up in the gingham blanket.
“I’ll walk you home,” I say. I’m forbidden to leave my post, but I’ll be gone only a minute. I toss the bundled blanket over the side of the wall, and it falls to the ground thirty feet below us, hitting the dirt with a soft thud. We head down the ladder, taking it slow, not wanting to lose our footing on the slippery rungs.
My feet eventually touch the wet ground, and I help Catherine down the rest of the way. My hands slide over her trim waist, and I hold on to her for a fraction longer than I should before releasing my grip. Her cheeks turn pink.
A lightning bolt flashes overhead. I glance up. For a split second a shadow cuts across the bleached sky—a Phantom owl? It’s impossible to tell in the sleeting rain—before we’re plunged into darkness again. Another burst of pain blooms in my chest and I gasp, falling back against the wall, and clutch a hand to my rib cage. What the hell?
“Edmund! Are you okay?” Catherine asks as fire rips around my heart.
“I . . . I don’t know,” I say through clenched teeth. “I’m not feeling so great.”
A moment later there’s a second flash of lightning, and whatever I saw before has gone. It must’ve been a Phantom owl. There are hundreds of them living in the forest. I lower my hand, the fire in my chest extinguishing as quickly as it came. I straighten up, feeling better.
“Maybe you should ask Mr. Kent if you can go home if you’re unwell,” she suggests.
“No, I’m fine,” I say, which is true. I’m not sick; it just feels like a bad cramp or perhaps a serious case of heartburn. “Come on, let’s get you home.”
We rush through the village, our boots slapping through the rapidly forming puddles. The cobbled streets are empty, apart from the occasional cat slinking between the thatched cottages. We run past Mrs. Hope’s house, a ramshackle building with a green door and circular windows, which are always shut no matter what time of year it is. The old lady is on her porch, watering the already sodden flowers, seemingly unaware there’s a thunderstorm. She’s tiny—barely five feet tall, with a stooped back, coarse gray hair, and a flowing white nightdress that hangs off her bony frame.