Loki peered into the dark trees beyond the camp. Something rustled in the underbrush. Not for the first time in this long night, he wished he could turn up the volume like he did on his headphones at home, adjust the contrast on a monitor—cheating a little—so he could see more details in the oppressive blackness outside their tiny, fragile circle of light. But as he had to keep reminding himself, this wasn’t a game.
God, he missed his computer.
Setting up base in the clearing had seemed like the most natural thing to do, but now it seemed foolish, knowing they were surrounded by an unfriendly, unknown wilderness, crawling with creatures that could kill them. Unimaginable creatures. Impossible creatures.
Their whole situation was impossible. As far as they could tell, they had each been transported here at the precise moment they had died. Or been resurrected? Saved, some of them even called it. Hyrum insisted they were all still dead, existing in some kind of messed-up purgatory.
Loki glanced at Cole, resting by the fire ten feet away, possibly dying. Try telling him they were already dead.
Maybe Loki should have tried harder to convince the others to relocate, move to higher ground if they could find it, maybe shelter in a defensible cave or the nearby ruins. Perhaps they could have found a stable roof, real walls. Preferably a sturdy door with a dead bolt. But other voices were louder than his, and he didn’t want to push too hard. Not until he had to. People—even the ones you trusted—could turn on you quickly, and the other kids were practically strangers. He had been useful here so far, so some of them actually liked and trusted him. He had to keep it that way if things were going to go differently this time around.
That’s what second chances were for, right?
There was the rustling again. Loki’s muscles were tensed, ready, but he willed himself not to scramble to his feet, or shout an alarm, or shut down from terror. Slowly, very slowly, he turned his head to follow the sound—the movements of something . . . some thing that was moving equally slowly. Stalking.
Loki reached his left hand down for a rock from the pile at his knee. He felt around, eyes locked straight ahead, until he found one the size of a baseball. He picked it up, rolled it in his hand, and wrapped his fingers around it the way he thought pitchers did.
The creature could be anything—the sow they’d seen a few days ago or killer bunnies. It didn’t have to be the toothy cat that had scratched Cole and knocked him out of that tree. He hoped it wasn’t.
Loki stilled and caught his breath when he saw a glimmer in the darkness, directly ahead of him. Two small, glowing orbs. Eyes. Staring back at him. They had caught the reflection of the dying fire for a moment, reminding Loki of his obnoxious cat, Meowth, looking up at him innocently from beneath his desk after biting his ankle. Only this cat was ten times the size of Meowth, still had all its claws, and also had very long, very sharp teeth.
Cole moaned by the fire. The cat eyes disappeared.
Not knowing where the predator was made Loki even more nervous. But the soft sound of its movement faded—to the west, in the direction of the ruined city. Loki relaxed. Just as well. The last rock he had tossed to scare it off had gone wild, and his left shoulder still twinged from the effort.
“What’s with the rock?”
Loki jumped. He turned to see Cole propped up on his elbows, blinking in the light from the fire.
Loki jerked his head toward the trees. “Saw something.”
“Oh. I was worried you were about to brain me.” Cole chuckled and then started coughing.
Loki dropped the rock like it was his sister’s underwear, accidentally pulled from the laundry basket.
“Why would I do that?” Loki jammed his hands into his jumpsuit’s pockets and balled them into tight fists. Have they been talking about me? he worried.
He hadn’t intended for Cole to get hurt. Loki might blame himself for letting it happen on his watch, but did everyone else think it was his fault too?
“I don’t know. You looked . . . intense.” Cole coughed again. His voice was weak and dry.
Loki brought Cole a canteen and helped him sip water.
He shook the canteen and heard a hollow slosh. Almost empty. This was the last of the water supply. They’d have to send another group to refill their bottles at the stream today and boil the water for safety.
“Thanks.” Cole licked his cracked, raw lips. “Sorry about what I said. I’m not thinking straight . . . I’ve been having nightmares. Imagining scary things out there.”
“No problem.” Loki relaxed his fists.
“Hey, but keep that rock handy. It might be more humane to put me out of my misery sooner. Promise to make it quick.”
“You aren’t going to die.” Loki tilted his head. “Again.”
“You should go back to sleep.” Loki settled in next to Cole by the fire.
“I’ve been doing nothing but. What about you? It’s still Gabe and Sebastian’s watch, isn...