Excerpt from "WAYS TO FALL"

A story involving the first dystopia, an empath whose emotions reflect on her skin with bold colors, and an FBI agent with a secret even he doesn't know. Oh, yeah. And true love.

Chapter One

My small lantern—one of many things Mother had salvaged from the Outside world—made a halo of light around my feet. The clear, still water in the cavern’s pool hummed with potential. I edged closer until mud dampened my soles, but I wouldn’t step in. Not until I was certain Mother was gone.

I held the lantern aloft, and its rays pierced the water. The stony pool was empty; no one remained to sway my decision.

The depth of the earth gave me comfort, for whatever fears I uncovered, the geroth trees should be shielded. I tugged my gloves back up to my elbows, though neither they nor my robe and veil would protect me from my own feelings. My hand rested on the bag of geroth fruit at my side, seeking comfort.

I considered my sisters, their hundreds of sad experiences that added up to one story, a life where fear and anger ruled even those called mothers. I recalled Billie, pleading with me to enter her soul and set things right so Mother wouldn’t have to erase her past. I’d turned Billie away, and now my friend and sister was lost to me, an empty-hearted body acting Billie’s part. I’d been too scared to try. I was still scared.

As a Delver, my heart readily absorbed all of their emotions, making them my own. I did not have the strength to survive any more of their despair. Yet I couldn’t stay here while my sisters were lost to me one by one, and each loss brought me closer to my own dreamless, eternal Sleep. I would go.

My breathing steadied with my decision. I left the lantern burning on the sandy floor of the cave and waded into the pool. My robe bunched around my knees, then floated to my waist. With a quavering exhalation, I sank into the water. My fear didn’t matter. The past wasn’t staying buried, anyway.

A light flickered through my lids. The tension in my heart eased with relief that the light had actually come for me. I hadn’t been sure it would. Another flash lit the cavern, then another. I trembled. Outside, that world of the Fallen, would soon surround me with its mysteries.

The water grew warm around me. The flashes blended into one brilliant light, and I balled my hands into fists and jammed them against my eyes. The light was inside of me, inside every cell of my body. My terror escaped in an explosion of bubbles as I cried out. The light flashed again, brighter than the sun, then the flashes grew dimmer, and the water cooled.

I pushed my feet off the bottom and stood, shaking with the sudden drop in temperature. My eyes adjusted, and I found myself waist deep in a scummy pond, breathing in the stench of decay. I sloshed to the side in a panic, the bag of geroth held high out of the water, and flung myself onto the bank, gagging. My wet robes, once white, were spotted with green ooze and mud from my scramble out of the water. I hugged myself and prayed all of Outside wasn’t this disgusting.

Creatures that I guessed were the insects I’d read of buzzed above the pond, and the green surface film closed back on the path I’d cut. Broken sticks reached out of the water like grasping hands, and I turned away, hoping Mother knew another way back into Doma. There was no possibility I was going back into that filthy water.

Ferns and other plants covered much of the natural walls, and a wooden staircase stretched up the tree-topped slope. The air was thick with moisture, as if every breath might drown me.

“Mother! Mother!” I called, but my voice echoed back weakly, muffled by the foliage. She’d left just before I’d entered the cavern, so she couldn’t have gone far. I lurched to the stairs and climbed over the rail onto a wooden platform. The world around me, though green and teeming, seemed empty; the trees didn’t whisper peace to my heart as the geroth trees did. This world was worse than cruel, it was disinterested.

A sign on the first landing caught my eye, titled “Formation of a Sinkhole,” but it didn’t contain the information I needed. At the top of the stairs, a boardwalk led to the left, but a yellow ribbon stretched across the path. Crime Scene, it repeated down its length. I ducked under the barrier and hurried on, feeling I was being watched. Mother had to be nearby, but she didn’t answer my calls.

I pulled my veil closer against my neck. The anger native to this world swarmed around me, penetrating my defenses. A desire to hurt others rose in me, and I trembled. A geroth fruit would wash the acidic fear out of my mouth, wash away the anger and make me strong again, but it didn’t feel right to eat it in the midst of so much contamination.

Something more was affecting me, though. Someone nearby was looking for something, and the rapid flashes in mood indicated they were dangerous. I mouthed the words to a hymn, but my legs still shook. It had been a mistake to come here.

I turned back to the stairs, my eyes brimming with frustration. The knowledge of how to succor my sisters must be here, but it would do them no good if I died to obtain it. I ducked back under the tape, praying the light would return me to Doma before the Outsiders found me, hoping the water would somehow be less foul than I’d left it. Before I could say “amen,” a shout rang out, their triumph stabbed through my belly. A cry escaped me.

Heavy footsteps rushed up behind me, and a sense of recognition trilled through my body. Mother was the only one here who could recognize me. I turned a half-step, the “M” for Mother pressed between my lips. But it wasn’t Mother.

Glutton for Punishment?