wild invitation nalini singh

3 June 2014
us/Canada

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"The epic 13th installment of Singh's bestselling contemporary paranormal romance series will be eagerly devoured by series fans and new readers...The broad scope and urgency of the plot combine with sweetly subtle and intimate character interactions in a powerfully written story that stands well on its own."
~ Publishers Weekly

"...an emotionally intense and gratifying romance...Shadowy Arrows make great redeemed alpha heroes, and pairing profoundly damaged Vasic with the blatantly empathic Ivy works brilliantly. Singh shines with elaborate, compelling worldbuilding and scorching sexual and emotional tension."
- Kirkus (Starred Review)

"No one beats Singh when it comes to showcasing mesmerizing individual stories while making important leaps in a magnificent world-building mythos."
- RT Book Reviews (Top Pick)

"Fascinating. Passionate. Intensely emotional. Shield of Winter is the best yet...As always, I eagerly anticipate the next story in this most amazing series."
- Kathy's Review Corner

"[Ivy and Vasic's] story is emotional and unexpected. The background is intense.  I got so wrapped up in this story that sleep was not an option.  I had to learn what happened.  Absolutely fantastic story that I will probably read again."
~ Night Owl Reviews Top Pick

"In Shield of Winter, [Nalini] takes Vasic who is a stone cold killer from all appearances in previous books and pairs him up with Ivy an empath and carves a story of romance and sacrifice that defies description...This is a true 5 Star novel..."
~ Doug from Wicked Scribes

"...Shield of Winter is a pivotal chapter in the ongoing Psy-Changeling saga, and Ms. Singh delivers, big-time. This book will have you on the edge of your seat, biting your nails and cheering on Ivy, Vasic, and Sascha and the til-now mysterious squad of assassins known as the Arrows. We get to see a lot of old friends and get to know some new ones, and you will absolutely not be disappointed!"
~ GraveTells

"I cannot put into words how much I loved Nalini Singh's Shield of Winter...Overall, this was one of my favourite books of the year so far!"
~ Rika from RR@H Novel Thoughts and Book Talk

"This entire book is an emotional smorgasbord that fired my imagination and grabbed my heart... I do believe this is one of the best books in a long line of bests from this author."
~ The Good, the Bad and the Unread

 "I’ll say it over and over: I loved this book. It brought out so many emotions in me but it also showed a great balance between the romance and the progression of the conflict/suspense/action interspersed in the story. It was PHENOMENAL."
~ Nikyta @ The Blogger Girls


"This is the thirteenth full length novel in the Psy-Changeling series and Ms. Singh has wowed me with her consistent quality...A passionate yet sweet love story and exciting forward motion in the Psy-Changeling world make this a must read for fans of the Psy-Changeling series."
~ Maggie @ All About Romance

"Once again, Singh leaves me both satisfied and wanting. Shield of Winter builds a seemingly impossible relationship and gives readers a romance for the ages while continuing to entice readers to join her in her paranormal world. Fans of Singh’s will definitely be adding a new book boyfriend to their already overflowing lists."
~ Tori @ Heroes and Heartbreakers

"In a series filled with standout books, Shield of Winter shines. Nalini Singh never misses a beat and I loved every single page of this tightly-written, romantic adventure. The next Psy-Changeling book can’t come soon enough!"
~ Wit and Sin

"Two emotionally damaged but ultimately redeemable protagonists find love—and themselves—in this heart-rending, passionately charged page-turner."
~ Library Journal Starred Review


shield of winter

 

“The alpha author of paranormal romance” (Booklist) draws us back into her extraordinary Psy-Changeling world, a world torn between violence and peace, passion and ice..."

Assassin. Soldier. Arrow. That is who Vasic is, who he will always be. His soul drenched in blood, his conscience heavy with the weight of all he’s done, he exists in the shadows, far from the hope his people can almost touch—if only they do not first drown in the murderous insanity of a lethal contagion. To stop the wave of death, Vasic must complete the simplest and most difficult mission of his life.

For if the Psy race is to survive, the empaths must wake…

Having rebuilt her life after medical “treatment” that violated her mind and sought to suffocate her abilities, Ivy should have run from the black-clad Arrow with eyes of winter frost. But Ivy Jane has never done what she should. Now, she’ll fight for her people, and for this Arrow who stands as her living shield, yet believes he is beyond redemption. But as the world turns to screaming crimson, even Ivy’s fierce will may not be enough to save Vasic from the cold darkness…

Excerpts: Chapter 1 | Ivy and Vasic’s First Meeting

 

Chapter 1

To be an Arrow is to be an island, devoid of attachments that create vulnerability.
First Code of Arrows

There was nothing left of the man he’d been.

Vasic stared through the glass wall in front of him as the computronic gauntlet biologically fused to his left forearm hummed near silently in the diagnostic mode he’d initiated. Sleek black, the new invention remained relatively unstable, despite the constant and ongoing refinement by the medics and techs, but Vasic wasn’t concerned about his life.

He hadn’t been concerned about anything for a long time. At first it had been his conditioning under Silence that kept him cold, his emotions on ice. Now, as the world navigated the first days of a new year, he was beyond Silence and into a numbness so vast, it was an endless grayness.

The only reason he kept waking up in the morning was for the others, the ones in the squad who still had some hope of a normal life. It was far too late for him, his hands permanently stained with blood from the countless lives he’d taken in pursuit of a mandate that had proven false in a very ugly way.

“What is it?” he said to the man clad in a black combat uniform who’d just entered the common area of Arrow Central Command. None of them were sociable, yet they maintained this space, having learned through bitter experience that even an Arrow couldn’t always walk alone.
Today the room was empty except for the two of them.

“Krychek has a theory.” Aden came to stand beside Vasic, his dark eyes on the vista beyond the glass. It wasn’t of the outside world—the Arrows were creatures of shadow, and so they lived in the shadows, their headquarters buried deep underground in a location inaccessible to anyone who didn’t know the correct routes and codes.

Even a teleporter needed a visual lock, and there were no images of Arrow Central Command anywhere in the world, not in any database, not on the PsyNet, nowhere. Which made it all the more notable that Kaleb Krychek had demonstrated the ability to ’port into the HQ when the squad first contacted him.

However, despite the subterranean nature of the squad’s base of operations, on the other side of the glass lay a sprawling green space full of trees, ferns, even a natural-seeming pool, the area bathed in simulated sunlight that would change to moonlight as the day turned.

It had been difficult to acquire that technology without tipping their hand—the SnowDancer wolves were very proprietary of their tech, usually installed it themselves. But the squad had managed, because that light was as necessary to their sanity and their physical health as the captured piece of the outside world on which it shone.

“Krychek’s theory—it’s about the disease in the Net,” Vasic guessed, aware that the broken remnants of fanatical Pure Psy and the sporadic new outbreaks of violence notwithstanding, that was the most dangerous threat facing their race.

“You’ve seen the reports.”

“Yes.” The disease, the infection, was spreading at a phenomenal pace no one could’ve predicted. Rooted in the psychic fabric that connected every Psy on the planet but for the renegades, it had the potential to devastate their race . . . because to be Psy was to need the biofeedback provided by a psychic network. Now that same link could well be pumping poison directly into their brains.

There were some who whispered that the fall of Silence a month prior was behind the acceleration, but Vasic didn’t believe that to be the truth—the decay was too deeply integrated in the PsyNet. It had had over a century to grow, feeding on the suppressed psychic energy of all the dark, twisted emotions their race sought to stifle. “Krychek’s theory?”

Aden, his hands clasped loosely behind his back, said, “He believes the empaths are the key.”

The empaths.

An unexpected idea from Kaleb Krychek, whom many considered the epitome of Silence . . . but that was a false truth, as the entire Net had learned when he had lowered the shield around the adamantine bond that linked him to Sahara Kyriakus. Of course, it was a false truth only when it came to Sahara Kyriakus. That was a fact Vasic didn’t think everyone understood, and it was a critical one.

Kaleb Krychek remained a lethal threat.

“Krychek,” Aden continued, “theorizes that the fact the empaths are so prevalent in the population speaks to their necessity in subtle ways we’ve never grasped. Stifling their abilities has thus had a dangerous flow-on effect.”

Vasic saw the logic—empaths might’ve been publicly erased from the Net, but every Arrow knew the E designation had never been rare. Except once. Their emotion-linked abilities contrary to the very foundations of the Protocol, the Es had been systematically eliminated from the gene pool in the years after Silence was first implemented, only for the ruling Council to realize almost too late that it was attempting to excise a vital organ.

No one truly understood why the Net needed the Es, but it was incontrovertible that it did. The Council that had first come face-to-face with that truth had named it the Correlation Concept—the lower the number of E-Psy in the population, the higher the incidents of psychopathy and insanity.

However, while the current generation of Es might’ve been allowed to be born, they’d never been allowed to be, conditioned to suppress their abilities since birth. “Has Krychek considered the fact that it might not be a case of merely awakening the Es?”

“Yes. You see the critical problem.”

It was inescapable—if the empaths had to do something active to negate the infection, then the Psy race might well disintegrate to ash, because there was no one left to teach the Es what to do. By the time the ruling Council of the time had accepted their mistake in attempting to cull the Es from the gene pool, all the old ones were dead and information about their abilities had been erased from every known archive.

“How many?” Vasic asked, knowing they couldn’t simply begin to nudge the empaths awake on a wholesale level. Their deaths had almost collapsed the PsyNet. No one knew what would happen if they woke all at once, disoriented and unable to control their abilities.

“A test group of ten.” Aden telepathed him the list.

Scanning it, Vasic saw the short-listed Es were all high Gradient, from cardinal to 8.7. “No,” he said, before Aden could make the request. “I won’t retrieve them.”

“You don’t have to retrieve them all. Just one.”

“No,” Vasic said again. “If Krychek wishes to abduct empaths, he’s capable of doing so himself.” Vasic was no longer on anyone’s leash but his own.

Aden’s response was quiet. “Do you think I’d bring you such a request?”

Turning at last, Vasic met the eyes of the telepath who was the one individual in the world he considered a friend, their lives intertwined since childhood—when they’d been paired up to do exercises designed to turn Vasic into a stone-cold killer. To their trainers, Aden had simply been a useful telepathic sparring partner, a well-behaved complement to Vasic’s erratic temperament at the time, an Arrow trainee only because his parents were both Arrows who’d worked to hone his skills since the cradle.

As such, Aden had been put into classes that eventually qualified him as a field medic. He’d been given the same harsh training all inductees were given, but was never deemed worthy of any extra interest—except when it came to punishments designed to “harden” a boy who’d been small for his age. Always, the ones who would use the Arrows had underestimated Aden, and in so doing, they’d given the squad a leader who’d saved countless lives and who they would follow into any hell.

“No,” Vasic conceded. “You wouldn’t.” Aden knew exactly how close Vasic was to the edge, that the destruction of, or damage to one more innocent life could snap the razor-fine thread that bound him to the world.

“Krychek,” Aden continued into the quiet between them, “doesn’t think his proposed experiment as to the impact of the empaths on the infection will work if the Es are forced to participate.” A pause. “I’m not certain if that’s his personal view, or if it’s Sahara’s, but whatever the case, each of the Es must volunteer.”

Vasic agreed with Aden that the compassion was likely to emanate from the woman who had appeared out of nowhere to forge an unbreakable bond with the otherwise cold-blooded dual cardinal, and who, their investigations told them, was in no way Silent. “Where does Krychek intend to run his experiment?”

“SnowDancer-DarkRiver territory.”

Very few things had the capacity to surprise Vasic, on any level. This, however, was unexpected.

“The SnowDancer wolves have a tendency to shoot intruders on sight”—“shoot first and ask questions of the corpses” was their rumored motto—“and the leopards aren’t much friendlier.”

“I’ve told Krychek the same, yet I can see his point as to the area’s suitability.”

“An isolated location, no other PsyNet connected minds for miles in any direction.” As a result, that part of the Net, too, would be quiet, giving Krychek a clean canvas on which to run his experiment.

However, that was a factor that could be replicated elsewhere.

Which left a single critical element that could only be found in the changeling-held territory. “Sascha Duncan.” Access to the only active E in the world no doubt played a crucial part in Krychek’s plans.

“There’s no infection in that section of the Net,” Aden said, instead of nodding to confirm what they both knew must be true. “However Krychek has the ability to shift the infection in that direction, or seed the area with it. He says he can’t control it beyond that, but I haven’t yet decided if he’s lying.” The other Arrow turned to acknowledge another member of the squad who’d just entered, walking over to her when she indicated she needed to speak to him.

Alone, Vasic considered the misleading simplicity of Krychek’s proposed experiment. An isolated group of empaths surrounded on the Net by the infection. If the experiment failed and the infection threatened to overwhelm them in a wave of murderous madness or more subtle mental degradation, it would be relatively easy to relocate all ten men and women at short notice. As well, the deterioration of an empty part of the Net would cause few ripples.

In that sense, it was a clean plan, with no threat of major losses.

Of course, no one could predict how the infection would move, what it would do to the empaths. “I can’t, Aden,” he said when the other man returned to his side, their fellow Arrow having left the room.

Aden waited.

“You know what happened when I had cause to pass near Sascha Duncan prior to her defection. It was a deeply . . . uncomfortable experience.” Councilor Nikita Duncan’s daughter had been pretending to be Silent at the time, but even then, there’d been something about her that had made his instincts bristle.

It was one of the few times he’d felt true pain as an adult—at first, he’d thought he was under attack, only to realize it was Sascha’s simple presence in a room separated from the one where he stood by a solid wall, that was sandpaper along the insides of his skin. As if some part of him knew she was the antithesis to everything he had ever been taught to be, the rejection primal.

It wasn’t until her defection and the resulting revelation of her empathy that he’d realized the reason behind the strange effect; the knowledge had made him recall the numerous other times he’d felt a faint irritation against his skin as he moved through the shadows in populated areas.

Sleeping empaths, their conditioning not as badly degraded as Sascha’s must have been.

He also knew he was an anomaly in sensing them in such a way—according to Aden, no one else in the squad had ever reported the same. Vasic had a theory that the awareness was an undocumented adjunct of being a Tk-V, a born teleporter. Patton, the only other Tk-V Vasic had ever met, had often complained about an “itch” under his skin when he was in the outside world.

Regardless of whether that was true or not, the effect continued unchecked for Vasic, causing deeper and more frequent serrated scrapes over his skin as the conditioning of the Es in the Net fractured further with each passing day.

Aden took several minutes to reply. “Uncomfortable, not debilitating.” The words of a leader evaluating one of his men. “The empaths will need a protection squad—their designation has never been aggressive according to the historical records I’ve been able to unearth so far, and none of this group are, either.”

The telepath’s tone remained even as he added, “I want you to run it. You’re the only man I trust to get them all out of danger if there’s a sudden spike in the infection, or if the pro-Silence elements in the Net seek to do them harm.”

Vasic knew that wasn’t quite the truth—the squad had other teleport-capable operatives in its ranks. No one as fast as Vasic, but fast enough. None of them, however, stood so close to an irrevocable and final descent into the abyss. “Are you trying to put me on soft duty?”

“Yes.” Eyes on the greenery outside, but his attention on Vasic, Aden continued to speak. “You don’t see it, but you’re one of the core members of the squad, the one we all rely on when things go to hell. Outside emergency situations, the younger Arrows turn to you for guidance; the older ones use you as a sounding board. Your loss would be a staggering blow to the group . . . to me.”

“I won’t snap.” Even though he knew the oblivion of death was the only peace he’d ever find. “I have things to do yet.” And it didn’t only have to do with helping to save those Arrows who might still have the chance to live some kind of a real life.

You don’t have the right to be tired. When you can write her name on a memorial, when you can honor her blood, then you’ll have earned the right.

A leopard changeling had said that to him over the broken body of a woman whose death Vasic had been sent to erase. The leopard couldn’t know how many names Vasic needed to write, how many deaths he’d covered up when he’d believed that what he was doing was for the good of his people . . . and later, when he’d known it was too early for any revolution to succeed. Each and every name had a claim on his soul.

“Nevertheless, I want you away from the violence, at least for a short period.” Again, Aden’s voice was that of the leader he was, and yet it was no order, their relationship far too old to need any such trappings. “There’s another reason I want you on this detail—and why I’m going to ask you to consider certain others for your team. Being near empaths may be uncomfortable for you, but it will likely be soothing for the Es.”

Because, Vasic realized, he and the others like him, were ice-cold, permanently cut off from their emotions. Unlike the fractured, they would leak neither fear nor pain, eliminating one source of stress on the newly awakened Es. “How does that tie in with being so close to the changelings?” The shapeshifting race was as rawly emotional as the Psy were not, their world painted in vivid shades of passion.

“If Krychek manages to negotiate access to part of their land, he intends to agree to full satellite and remote surveillance, while asking them to keep a physical distance the majority of the time.” Aden paused as a butterfly flew from the lush green of the trees to flutter its scarlet wings against the glass before returning to more hospitable climes. “It’ll take time for negotiations to be concluded, a location to be settled on, whether it’s in changeling territory or elsewhere. Take the invitation to your nominated E, gauge whether you could remain in her proximity for the duration.”

“You’ve already decided who I’m to approach.”

“According to Krychek, all the empaths on the list but one have already begun to wake to their abilities, even if they aren’t cognizant of it.”

Vasic didn’t ask how Krychek could’ve known that, aware the cardinal telekinetic had an intimate link with the NetMind, the vast neosentience that was the librarian and guardian of the Net. The NetMind had no doubt informed Krychek of the Es who were coming to an awareness of their true designation.

“Your retrieval, however, first broke conditioning at sixteen and was given aggressive reconditioning to wrench her abilities back under. Two months later, she and her parents quietly disappeared.”

It was the second surprise of the conversation. “The NetMind can’t locate the family unit?”

“Not that type of disappearance,” Aden clarified. “We know where they are geographically, but they’ve done an impeccable job of making themselves of no interest to anyone. Her mother was a systems analyst for a cutting edge computronic firm in Washington; her father held a senior position in a bank. Now they run a large but only moderately successful farm in North Dakota, in cooperation with a number of other Psy.”

Psy preferred to live in cities, near others of their kind, but that wasn’t to say none of their race ever chose outdoor occupations. Like humans and changelings, Psy needed to eat, to put a roof over their heads, and work was work. Such a massive career change, however, was an indication of a conscious decision. “Protecting their child?” It wasn’t impossible, the parental instinct a driving force even in many of the Silent, though Vasic had no personal experience of such.

“Possible but unconfirmed.”

Vasic knew there was more to come.

“What’s also unconfirmed is if she still has access to her abilities—or if they were terminally damaged by the reconditioning process.” Aden stared unblinking through the glass. “I watched the recording, and it was one of the most brutal sessions I’ve ever seen, a hairsbreadth from a rehabilitation.”

“Then why is she on the list?” The ugliness of rehabilitation erased the personality, left the individual a drooling vegetable, and if this E had come so close to it, she had to bear major mental scars.

“To be valid, the experiment needs not only Psy who have never been reconditioned, but those who’ve been through the process. She’s one of six in the group who have, but the others underwent only a minor reset.”

It made absolute sense . . . because the majority of empaths in the Net would’ve undergone reconditioning at some stage, the process designed to force their minds back into the accepted norm, in denial of the fact those minds had never been meant to be emotionless constructs. Which meant the PsyNet had to deal not only with Es who didn’t have any idea of how to utilize their abilities, but also ones damaged on a fundamental level.

“The flip side to their problematic conditioning,” Aden added, faultlessly following Vasic’s line of thought, “is that they’ll suffer no pain breaking it.”

“Of course.” The process known as dissonance was designed to reinforce Silence by punishing any unacceptable emotional deviation with pain, but clearly that approach wouldn’t work on an individual whose mental pathways were structured with emotion as the core. It would simply kill. “The details of the retrieval.”

Aden handed Vasic an envelope. “A letter to her directly from Krychek, setting out the parameters of her engagement, as well as the payment schedule.”

“He’s offering them jobs?” The Council had always just taken.

“We both know how intelligent he is. Why coerce when you can contract?” With that cool statement that perfectly described the way Krychek’s mind worked, Aden sent Vasic a telepathic image.

It was of a small female with black hair to her shoulders, the strands shaping themselves into soft natural curls, and eyes so unusual, he took a second look. The pupils were jet-black against irises of translucent copper ringed by a fine rim of gold. They stood out against the golden cream of her skin, somehow too old, too perceptive.

As if she saw beneath the skin.

Storing the photograph in a mental vault after imprinting a geographic location on his mind using her appearance as a lock, he looked down at the envelope. Her name was hand-written across it in black ink: Ivy Jane.

He wondered what Ivy Jane would think of the Arrow about to enter her life, a man who could never again feel anything. Even were it physiologically possible, Vasic had no intention of allowing his Silence to fragment . . . because behind it lay only a howling madness created of blood and death and endless horror.

Copyright © 2014 by Nalini Singh

 

Advance Excerpt from SHIELD OF WINTER
Ivy and Vasic’s First Meeting

Ivy went carefully over the bark of the slumbering apple tree. She was on alert for any signs of the fungus that had appeared two weeks earlier, but found nothing. “The treatment worked,” she said to Rabbit. “The other trees are safe.”

Involved in sniffing the snow at the roots of the tree, tail wagging like a metronome, Rabbit gave a small “woof.”

“Glad to see you agree this is a good thing.” Noting down the result on her datapad, she continued on through the trees, Rabbit scampering after her a second later, his paws soft and soundless on the carpet of white.

For such a small dog, she thought as his furry white form streaked past, he could certainly go fast when he put his mind to it. Shaking her head, she left him to his adventures and went to check another apple tree she’d been worried about . . . when Rabbit began to bark. Hairs rising on the back of her neck, she fought her instinctive revulsion and reached into a pants pocket to retrieve the tiny laser weapon that fit neatly into the palm of her hand. Rabbit never barked, not like that.

As if he’d scented a predator.

Ten seconds later, she broke out of the trees and knew her dog was right.

There was a man standing on the path between the snow-kissed trees. No, not a man. A soldier. Over six feet tall with broad shoulders, his posture was unyielding, his stillness absolute, his eyes a chill gray, and his hair black.

His uniform, too, was black, stark against the backdrop: rugged pants, a long-sleeved T-shirt of some high-tech and likely bulletproof material that hugged the muscle of his arms, a lightweight armored vest that covered his chest and back as well as the lower part of his neck, heavy combat boots, what appeared to be an electronic gauntlet strapped to his left arm.

They’d come for her again.

A trickle of icy sweat ran down her spine. She’d always known this day was inevitable. Her emotions were too volatile, had no doubt leaked past the tightly woven network of interlinked shields that protected those who called this remote location home. All she could hope for was that she’d betrayed herself alone.

Mother, Father, she telepathed, we have a situation. Tell the others to keep their heads down and ensure their shields are airtight. I’ll handle this.

Fear squeezed frozen fingers around her lungs as she sent an image of the soldier to her parents, but she was no longer a scared sixteen-year-old girl who thought she was going insane; she was a twenty-three-year-old adult who understood that while she was defective and unstable, she didn’t deserve to be violated and tortured. No one would ever again strap her down and attempt to break her. Not even this deadly stranger.

Datapad held to the side of her body with one ice-cold hand, her heavy jacket and thin thermal gloves suddenly useless, she slid away the weapon in the guise of putting her datapen into her pocket. It seemed a counterintuitive act, but her every instinct screamed she’d be dead before she ever got off a shot. She couldn’t win this battle by force, and it was probable she couldn’t win it at all, but she’d fight to give the others as much time as possible to prepare.

Breath tight, she closed the distance between her and the soldier whose uniform bore a silver star on one shoulder. Councilor Kaleb Krychek’s emblem, though he no longer laid claim to the title, the Council in pieces. Simple semantics, however, couldn’t change the fact that as of just over a month ago, Kaleb Krychek effectively ruled the Net.

“Rabbit.” She tapped her thigh, curling her fingers inward to hide the slight trembling she couldn’t seem to control.

Still quivering with outrage, but no longer barking now that she was here, Rabbit ran back to her side and once again pinned his eyes on the intruder.

The man glanced at her dog. “He clearly isn’t of the Leporidae family.”

It was the last thing she’d expected to hear. “It’s because he’s so energetic,” she found herself saying. “It seemed appropriate at the time.” When she’d been half-destroyed, a zombie sleepwalking through life.

“He’s protective but not dangerous. You should get a bigger dog.” Eyes of winter frost met her own, the gray so cold, her skin pebbled with a bone-deep chill.

“He’s perfect,” she said, reaching down to stroke her pet’s stiff form once before rising back to her full height. “You didn’t come here to talk to me about my dog.”

“No.”

“You’re an Arrow.” Part of the squad of assassins long thought of as myth but who were now aligned with Kaleb Krychek—though they remained shadows, nameless and faceless for the majority of the population. No one wanted to meet one in the flesh.

A slight nod that confirmed the unnerving truth. “I am Vasic.”

“Silence has fallen,” she said, holding her ground because this was her place, her home. “You have no right to take me in.” No right to strap her down in a reconditioning chair and stab psychic fingers into her mind, ripping and tearing.

“No,” he said again, so emotionless that she couldn’t see a single element of the person behind the soldier. “I’ve been charged to deliver an employment proposal.”

Ivy just stared at him for several long seconds. “An employment proposal?” she said at last, wondering if she had gone insane after all and was now having a very realistic delusion.

“Yes.”

She shivered. He was too hard, too lethal to be a delusion. Testing him by taking a step back toward the trees, Rabbit growling beside her, she said, “Can we walk and talk? I need to finish checking the trees.”

The Arrow—Vasic—watched in silence as she completed her examination of the apple tree she’d been heading toward before Rabbit’s warning bark. When he did speak, his voice was as deep as the ocean. He didn’t raise his volume or change his pitch in spite of Rabbit’s continued growling, and yet she heard every word with crystal clarity.

“You’ve been identified as having an ability that could be useful in stabilizing the Net.”

“Me? I’m a Gradient 3.2 telepath.” No matter if she sometimes felt a huge stretching inside her mind, as if there was power there, if she could only find a way to touch it, hold it. The mirage had led to her near destruction as a teen.

“Are you aware of rumors of a hidden designation? Designation E?”

Her fingers halted in the act of tapping information into the datapad, her blood cells coated in ice, fine and crystalline. “E?”

“Empath.”

The word resonated in a keening note inside her, as if it spoke to a deep-rooted knowledge of which she was unaware. “What does an empath do?” she said through a throat lined with grit and gravel.
“I’m not certain,” he answered, “but it has to do with emotion.”

Staggering inside, she thought of the chaos of wrenching emotions—pain, loathing, anger, sadness, loss, such tearing loss—that had threatened to crush her mind in the minutes before the cruel agony of the reconditioning. Her nose had bled, the fine blood vessels in her eyes bursting to leave the whites swimming in red, her head pounding and pounding and pounding as her stomach revolted.
It had been the worst episode she’d ever suffered.

“Emotions almost killed me once.” Terrified, she’d been happy to submit to the medical tech at the local center, never realizing the hell that awaited.

In the aftermath of her “treatment,” it had felt like she was just . . . gone, the Ivy who’d lived for sixteen years erased. There had been a quiet horror at the back of her mind at the loss of herself, but that horror couldn’t penetrate the nothingness, not for a long, long time.

“That incident”—Vasic’s voice slicing through the nightmare of memory—“resulted from a catastrophic and sudden breach of your conditioning. The built-up pressure smashed it to pieces.”

That’s exactly what it had felt like, a violent explosion in her head.

“Most Es tend to awaken more slowly,” he continued. “Small fractures that leach off tension rather than a catastrophic collapse.”

Most . . .

“How many?” she asked, her voice hoarse.

“Unknown, but E is a significant grouping.” His gaze scanned her face with clinical precision. “You’re in shock. Sit.” When she did nothing, he went as if to touch her . . . and Rabbit lunged at him.

“No!” she screamed.

Rabbit never reached his target, was left swimming frantically in the air. Reaching down, she gathered her pet into her arms and sat down at the foot of the nearest tree, uncaring of the cold, the datapad forgotten on the ground. “I thought you were going to hurt him,” she said to the Arrow, the telekinetic Arrow.

Vasic didn’t defend himself. As an eight-year-old, he’d resisted using his abilities on living creatures, but an eight-year-old boy can’t withstand torture of the kind used to burn all humanity out of Arrow trainees. He knew he held within himself the capacity to snap the neck or crush the spine of the small creature who was so attached to his mistress. That he’d never done such an act of his own free will meant nothing. Death was death. “Do you wish me to continue?”

Ivy looked at him, her jet-black pupils hugely dilated against the clear copper of her eyes. “Yes.”

“In all probability, your already damaged pathways were further damaged during the reconditioning process.” Needing to be aware of what he faced, Vasic had watched the recording Aden had referenced, witnessed the brutality with which her mind had been yanked back into line.

It was a miracle she’d survived without severe brain damage. The psychic trauma had been vicious regardless. That she was functional and whole and strong enough to stand firm against an Arrow was a testament to what must be an iron will.

“However,” he added, “it’s clear that your Silence has fractured again.” No one who was Silent would have the capacity to care for a pet, or to look at Vasic with fear a staccato pulse in her throat. “The buildup is happening again inside you.”

Ivy set her pet down on the snow, murmuring at the dog to hush when it began to growl at Vasic once more. “You’re saying I could be in the same situation I was at sixteen?”

“Yes.” He crouched down beside her, having realized she couldn’t comfortably look at him if he remained standing. “The technician in charge of your reconditioning was incompetent.” A point Vasic had already made to him in person—and a point the male would never, ever forget. “He simply smashed everything back down inside your mind and slammed a lock over it. That lock is apt to rupture soon, given the amateurish nature of it.”

He saw he’d come too close to the truth when she avoided his eyes, her jawline delicate in his vision . . . easily breakable. “You risk nothing by telling me,” he pointed out, “I’m already aware of both your problematic Silence and the nature of your ability.”

Expression pensive, she rubbed a gloved hand over her face before nodding. “The nosebleeds have begun again, and yesterday, while I was getting supplies from the township, it was as if I was drowning under a wave of happiness and anger and excitement and curiosity and other emotions I couldn’t separate out.” Her fingers shook as she stroked her pet. “It only lasted a second or two, but it was enough.”

Vasic held her gaze, noting that the rim of gold around her irises was more vivid than in the image he had of her. “You may learn how to manage your E abilities during the course of this contract. However, should you decide to turn down the proposal and continue to remain shielded against your abilities, I know a medic who can remove the broken shards of the malfunctioning lock and replace it with a far more subtle, complex construction.”

She stared at him, this woman whose presence caused him physical pain the same way Sascha Duncan’s had. But he wasn’t going to ask for another assignment if Ivy agreed to Krychek’s proposal. Seeing her, speaking to her, had made him understand that aside from children, the empaths were the closest thing the Net had to innocents.

He’d spotted Ivy’s weapon, noted her distaste in holding it, seen her get rid of it. Her features were so expressive it was as if she’d spoken aloud—he’d known she’d made the decision to use herself as a distraction in an effort to protect the others who lived here. Perhaps he was wrong, perhaps her face wasn’t as devoid of deceit as it appeared, but he couldn’t take the risk that he was right, that she was that vulnerable. Because he didn’t trust Krychek to keep his word when it came to the safety of the empaths; the other man’s priority was the Net as a whole, not the individuals within it.

Ivy and the others needed the protection he could provide. Unlike her, he’d have no compunction in using lethal force if someone meant her—or any other E—harm. Keeping them safe wouldn’t earn him absolution, but perhaps it would give him peace for a splinter of time. “Whatever your choice,” he told her, “it will be respected. I give you my word.” His honor was close to worthless, but he’d never broken any of the rare promises he’d made.

Ivy stroked Rabbit’s coat when he nudged at her hand with a worried nose. She felt as if her life had skewed sideways in the minutes since she’d first heard him bark. So many years she’d lived believing there was something fundamentally wrong with her. Now, this Arrow with his cold eyes and icy calm was telling her she had never been flawed.

Except she was terrified it was far too late. “I lost something in that reconditioning room”—perhaps the very thing for which he’d come to her—“and I don’t think I can get it back. I broke.”

“Do you wish to give up, then? Admit defeat?”

Anger uncurled inside her at that flat statement, though she knew his words hadn’t been a judgment but a simple question. That anger was a raw, wild thing that had been growing and growing inside her since the day she’d become herself again. Vasic had inadvertently made himself a target.

Pushing up onto her knees, the snow a chilling dampness through her jeans, she fought to keep her shields from fracturing under the weight of her emotions. Kaleb Krychek might have declared the fall of Silence, but neither Ivy nor the others in the settlement were planning to expose themselves until they were dead certain the new regime would hold, that it wasn’t just a trick to bring the fractured out of hiding.

“What do you know of emptiness?” she asked him, her body vibrating with the fury inside her.

“What do you know of having your mind violated as if a steel brush is being scraped over your every nerve ending, every sense?”

He took so long to answer that the world was beyond silent when he said, “I am an Arrow. I was placed in training at four years of age. I know everything about having my mind torn open.”

Four years old.

Anger shattering as if it had been hit with an anvil, the wreckage tearing holes through her, she rubbed a fisted hand over her heart. “I’m sorry.”

“Why? You caused me no harm.”

She saw from his expression that he meant that, as if the hurt of that small, vulnerable child was nothing. “Do you truly feel nothing?” she whispered. “Are you without fractures?”

“It’s better this way.” His eyes kissed her with frost. “The day I feel is the day I die.”

 

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