The Chosen Ones, p.1Lori Brighton
The Chosen Ones
By Lori Brighton
Copyright 2014 Lori Brighton
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademark status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
The Chosen Ones is book one in the series. It can be read alone, but would best be enjoyed and understood by reading the free prequel, The Beautiful Ones, in advance.
Editing by Megan Records
Cover design by Ronnell Porter
The Chosen Ones Series:
The Beautiful Ones: Prequel (Ebook is free!)
The Chosen Ones: Book 1
The Forsaken Ones: Book 2 (Winter 2014)
Other Young Adult Books by Lori Brighton
The Mind Readers Series:
The Mind Readers: Book 1 (Free!)
The Mind Thieves: Book 2
The Mind Games: Book 3
The Mind Keepers: Series Ending Novella
The Matchmaker Series:
Make Me a Match: Book 1
The Chosen Ones
“She doesn’t talk, merely stares at the wall as if she’s trying to find meaning in the damn stains covering the cement. She barely even eats. I think she’s lost at least five pounds since she arrived. She’s of no use to us at all. In fact, she’s a damn hindrance.”
Although the woman standing next to him flinched, the harsh words barely resonated with me. I was too numb to care. The old Jane would have been amused that this man still tried to reach me, still bothered. He paced up and down the hall, in and out of the shadows, the angry thump of his footsteps mirroring the beat of my heart. On the positive side, or perhaps it was a negative, I was vaguely aware that my heart still beat, proving I was indeed alive.
“Should have left her in the woods.” He knelt down, staring into my eyes, an intense gaze that drilled into me. “Do you hear me?”
I heard him, but it was as if his voice came from far, far away. Murmured words I hardly understood, words that didn’t influence me in the least. An invisible glass wall separated us, a wall we couldn’t break, couldn’t pierce. Did he not see that?
No, I didn’t care what he said. In fact, I barely cared about anything anymore. Food, clothing, even safety was lost on me. I was drowning in a sea of gray, unable to reach the surface, unable to find a world of color. In all honesty, I wasn’t sure I wanted to escape.
With a growl of frustration, he stood.
The woman sighed. “Have a heart, Will. We don’t know what she endured at the castle.”
He snorted, and the few men standing behind him shook their heads in disgust. I knew what they were thinking: since they’d saved me, at the least I owed them my gratitude. But I hadn’t even been capable of giving them that.
I didn’t care.
Nothing mattered anymore.
“She endured the same damn thing we’ve all endured, and we got over it. It’s been two weeks.” He leaned down again, eye level.
This close, the lantern managed to highlight his features, giving him a soft glow. He had kind hazel eyes. Or at least they’d been kind when he’d first found me confused and lost out in that field after having just escaped the castle with my life. But now…now his eyes were hard, cold under the lamplight. I knew I was wearing out my welcome. I knew that in a few days they had plans to leave the base and would probably abandon me here to rot. I didn’t want to be alone. But I couldn’t seem to pull myself out of the darkness.
“Listen. You hear? You can’t go on like this. It’s time to wake up.” He snapped his fingers in front of my face. “Get it together and actually do something useful.”
But as I continued to sit there, staring at the stained wall behind him, he surged to his feet, his anger and frustration obvious in the tightness of his fists. “Fine, Kelly. You want her here, you babysit her.”
Just like that, he stomped down the hall toward the great room, leaving dust and irritation in his wake. One of Will’s friends turned to leave, kicking the book at my side and sending it skidding across the hard floor, out of reach. A book Will had given me the day I’d arrived, shivering and cold in my fancy white gown.
I hardly remembered that day, the day they’d found me in the field terrified and alone. They’d led me into the huge abandoned building they’d somehow made a home. I’d been fed some sort of stew I hadn’t really tasted. They’d given me a ruffled, sleeveless shirt and trousers; clothing left over from a society that had lived long, long ago. And when I’d questioned Will, unable to understand this new world, he’d handed me the book.
A novel about monsters that fed off of human blood. A book that wasn’t fiction after all, but a book that had become my reality two weeks ago.
I’d always loved books. In fact, I’d devoured any novel I’d come across. It hadn’t mattered what the subject, fiction or nonfiction—I wanted to know everything I could. But reading Dracula and realizing that it was truth had pushed me over the edge. My mind, my memories, and my body could not handle that reality. When I’d finished that last page, the novel had slipped from my hands, hitting the floor with a thud as I sank into a world of silence, stillness, a world that comforted me, held me close, made me blessedly numb.
When I tried to think too hard about the events leading up to that day, as I did now, ice-cold terror raced through my body leaving me frozen, suspended like the icicles that hung from our eaves in winter. And so instead, I didn’t think about it at all. Or at least I tried. But at night…at night the memories seeped into my weary and vulnerable brain, haunting my dreams.
Will’s footsteps faded, the others followed and only the woman remained.
“Don’t worry,” Kelly said, kneeling beside me and giving me a genuine smile that showed off slightly crooked teeth.
I liked her, although I hadn’t ever told her. Actually, I hadn’t said much of anything to the woman. But she was kindness itself, her touch gentle, her large dark eyes full of compassion. She never grew frustrated, never annoyed. Always the mother hen, she set a plate in front of me, but the smell of greasy meat made my stomach churn. I should have been hungry, starving. But my stomach didn’t even grumble in need anymore. My body, like my mind, had given up.
“We all went through the despair when we first arrived.” She drew in a deep trembling breath that told me the memories still tormented her. “That sort of destruction, death…that’s not normal. Right?”
She was asking me? I would have laughed if I’d been able to, if I hadn’t been trapped within the shell of my body. I didn’t know what normal was anymore. Nothing was normal. There was no such thing.
“I lost friends as well,” she whispered softly, gently. “I understand.”
Just like that the memories overwhelmed me. I squeezed my eyes closed as Sally’s terrified face flashed to mind. But the guard hadn’t cared. He’d shoved her, sending her stumbling back onto the table where the others had trapped her, holding her captive while they’d sunk their teeth into her neck, feeding off her blood.
“Let go!” Sally’s cry still echoed through my mind, over and over, never silent. The image of her struggling to break free haunted my dreams. And all the while I had stood there watching from the window…doing nothing.
A whimper escaped unheeded from my lips. As if to offer comfort, Kelly sat beside me, cross-legged, the sweet scent of clover and sweat clinging to her clothing. I couldn’t see much of her in the dim corridor. Everything was dark here as we huddled in the deep bowels of the basement of the tall decaying building. While the beautiful ones—the blood drinkers, the murderers—roamed the outside world, we were stuck here. Unwashed bodies cramped together in fear, no better than cockroaches.
It was the confinement that should have bothered me the most. After all, I’d never been content at our compound because I’d hungered for the freedom of the outside world. I’d escaped that prison for another. Instead of being trapped behind a fence, I was trapped by my fear. Hiding within the ruins of some former glorious city. What sort of life was this?
“I know it’s hard to understand,” Kelly whispered.
She talked to me a lot, but then being trapped inside your own body made for being a good listener. I hadn’t paid attention to everything she’d said, but there were times, like now, when I was more lucid and actually heard her words. I knew she had escaped years ago from her own compound. I knew she worried about the friends she’d left behind, and figured most were already dead. And I knew, even though she hadn’t told me, that she blamed herself. I knew because I, too, felt guilty. For Sally’s death, and for the deaths I knew were to come.
“Brought some water.” Another male emerged from the shadows and set a container in front of me.
Vaguely I remembered that he and Kelly were together, a couple of some sort. Two weeks ago I would have been utterly fascinated by their relationship, since we were encouraged not to form bonds at the compound. But now I had more important things to worry about.
“Thanks, Tony.” She smiled and leaned over, pressing a kiss to his cheek as he knelt beside her.
I’d always craved affection, wondering why we weren’t allowed to hug or hold hands, even though other compounds didn’t have these restrictions. Now I couldn’t stand the thought of someone touching me. Even when Kelly accidentally brushed my arm while offering a meal, the image of Sally being pinned to that table flashed to mind. And now, seeing Tony resting his hand on Kelly’s shoulder made me uneasy and slightly ill.
Kelly lifted a chunk of rabbit meat to my face. “Won’t you eat?”
I managed to shift my gaze to the offering. But the meat only reminded me of the horrors I’d seen, of being hunted like prey. My stomach churned and I thought for a moment I might be sick. Repulsed, I looked away.
Kelly’s boyfriend shook his blond head. “I know you mean well, but Will’s right. She’s too far gone. She won’t last much longer. It would be best not to form an attachment.”
How ironic that I’d said those very words to my sister when she’d found an injured robin four weeks ago. Tony stood and moved away, disappearing into the dark shadows of the hall. But Kelly remained, her kind eyes worried, desperate, yet full of understanding. Vaguely I felt the stirrings of guilt, but the reaction wasn’t deep enough to actually force me into eating.
“They think we’re nothing, you know. The beautiful ones think we can just be tossed aside like trash once they’re done with us.” She leaned forward, her eyes glimmering with sincerity under the lamplight. “You going to prove them right?”
I wanted to respond. Somehow I managed to shift my gaze and look into her kind eyes. So kind. I wanted to reach out to her. To tell her what had happened, ask her to teach me how to forget so I could move on. But my body wouldn’t obey. My lips wouldn’t move.
Her dark brows drew together. “You can hear me, can’t you?”
I merely stared unblinkingly at her.
After a few minutes of silence she sighed and set the food down, giving up on me. “Eat, if you can. You need it. You won’t last much longer if you don’t, and I really, really want you to stay with us.”
My fingers curled as I tried to reach out and beg her to stay, but she didn’t notice. All too soon she walked away, headed down the corridor toward the others. Back to the living, the sane. Her footsteps faded into the silence.
I was alone again.
The thought of remaining trapped within these walls all by myself terrified me. But even if I managed to rouse, where would I go? I belonged nowhere, not with these people and not back at the compound.
Exhausted by the thoughts buzzing through my mind, I closed my eyes, allowing my head to loll back against the cement wall. Two weeks. I’d been here two weeks. The days had blurred together so that it seemed like a lifetime. It didn’t help that in the skyscraper, as I’d heard one person call it, you couldn’t see the sun.
I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to force myself to remember. Running from Will and his friends, thinking they were the enemy. Changing from the white gown the beautiful ones had dressed me in, into the discarded garments of some long-lost owner. I remembered getting the book, finally understanding the horrors of this new world. And then…and then I remembered fainting. When I’d woken, my body had not been my own, but a vessel that entombed me. They whispered that I’d lost my mind, gone insane. Maybe I had.
At times I gained enough energy and consciousness to move. Or maybe my body was merely working on its own. I had gone outside the building to use the bathroom. I had eaten a few meals. I had bathed when they had brought me a bowl of cold water. Part of me wished I could return to normal, be human again. But most of me wanted to sink into oblivion forever.
“Are you going to eat that?” someone whispered.
Curious, slowly, somehow, I managed to turn my head toward the voice. From the dark corridor, a child stepped into the pool of lantern light. He was eight, maybe older. As he knelt beside my bowl of rabbit meat, a lock of scruffy brown hair fell across his brilliant blue eyes. He reminded me only too well of my brothers at the compound, waiting to be chosen, having no idea what they would go through in the years to come. Thank God they were not old enough to be picked. His attention darted from corner to corner, shadow to shadow, as if he wasn’t supposed to be here and worried about being caught.
“Are you?” he asked urgently. “Seems stupid to let it go to waste.”
Had they told him not to speak to the crazy lady down the hall? That thought angered me for some reason. Will and his men thought I was a lost cause. Suddenly, I wanted to prove them wrong. I swallowed hard, my throat pained with the movement. “No,” I whispered, surprised the word had gotten up my thick throat, and over my dry lips.
He grinned, flashing white teeth only a child could own. Too young to have the rotten, brown stumps I’d seen at the castle on our kind. He seemed small for his age. At the compound back home we’d always had food. When we’d run low, the beautiful ones would bring baskets. They’d kept us nourished. They’d kept us like pets. Or like the cattle we were. To them we were food. No thoughts, no emotions, no more.
I watched the boy as he scooped up meat with this dirty fingers and shoved it into his mouth like one unsure if it would be his last meal. Maybe it would. Maybe here we had little to eat, and would have to fend for ourselves. The thought didn’t upset me like it should have.
I’d seen the boy before, peeking at me like I was some oddity, like the two-headed chicken that had been born in our compound three years ago. I didn’t want to be an oddity. I didn’t want Kelly gazing at me with sympathy, or Will with disgust. Determined, I focused on my body, and uncurled my legs. My limbs protested, pain breaking through the numbness. I’d been too still for far too long.
“What’s your name?” I grimaced, attempting to think of something other than the thrumming ache pulsing through me. But I had moved, and the moment felt like one of the miracles I’d read about from a God I couldn’t began to understand.
He swallowed his bite. “Jimmy, but I think I want to be called Jim. Sounds older, don’t you think?”
I felt the first smile in days begin to curl my lips. “How…” Cringing, I swallowed over the painful dryness in my throat. My entire body felt as brittle as the grass in midsummer. “How long have you been here?”
“Four years, maybe.” He frowned, setting the empty dish down. “Not sure.”
Four years. He’d been here four years? I scanned the dark corridors, the depressing environment. How had they survived this long, hiding in dank, abandoned buildings? He would have been almost a babe then. What sort of life was this for a child? Desolate, I closed my eyes. Maybe my siblings were better off not knowing what lay ahead.
“I came with my sister.” He hesitated, unsure, lost. “They were transporting us to the castle to become servants and we escaped with help from Will. But somehow we were separated.”
Will? He would have been young four years ago, too young to be rescuing children and fighting beautiful ones. Had he been fifteen? Fourteen? He was probably only nineteen or twenty now. How long had Will been a part of this world?
I stretched my fingers, cringing over the tightness of my tendons and muscles, fully expecting something to snap off. Even in the low light I could see the bones, the narrowness of my wrists. Will was right, I had lost weight. It upset me. When all I’d wanted to do minutes before was curl up and die, for some reason at that moment I grew angry. Angry that the beautiful ones had captured my freedom as they’d destroyed my mind. Angry that Jim was here with no mother, no father, hiding for his life. But mostly angry that I had given up.
“How many of us are here?”
He shrugged again, looking thoughtful. “Probably around twenty-five. They come and go.”
I rolled my feet, the boots I’d been given heavy and cumbersome on my weak ankles. “Come and go?”
“Oh yes,” he said, nodding. “There are many groups out there, always on the move.”
Many groups. Startled, I paused. Many chosen ones who had escaped? The realization that there were more of us shocked, but buoyed me. My mind began to spin slowly, like a rusty wheel desperate to work. “Jim, how much land is out there?”
“Lots!” He pulled a small book from his back pocket, his face glowing. His interest was suddenly mine. “Look.”
He settled next to me on my pile of ratty blankets and opened the book. But the picture made no sense to me. With an unsteady hand, I pulled the lantern closer, highlighting his dirty face.
“I found this awhile back. It’s amazing.” He pointed to a circle on the page. “This is earth. The world where we live.”
Leery, I frowned. “What do you mean?”
“This!” He pointed to the ground, his excitement almost tangible. For the first time in weeks I felt something stir within, something that felt oddly like life. “What we’re standing on is a huge ball!”
I shook my head; it was utterly ridiculous and insane. “We live on a ball?”
He nodded. “I swear, it’s true! And these…” He pointed to a variety of shapes. “Are different countries.”
He nodded, but didn’t explain. “And this is the ocean.”
He pointed toward the blue area surrounding the countries. I’d read about the ocean, although never seen it. Could it possibly be truth and not myth? A body of water so large that you couldn’t see land? Where fish bigger than humans swam? If vampires were real, maybe the ocean was as well.
“We live here. Somewhere.” He pointed toward a large shape of land. “And somewhere out there is more land like ours. Other countries with other types of animals and people.”
He shrugged, looking hesitant. “I think so. Will thinks so. We all think so.”
The thought sent my heart hammering. “Can I read your book?”
“Sure. Just don’t lose it. It’s my favorite.”
I nodded, taking the small novel. How I understood. At one time I had also kept my prized books safe, when things like that mattered. “And there are other groups out there, in this world? Groups like us?”
He nodded, scooting closer so his warm body pressed into mine. He smelled like dirt and rabbit stew, but I didn’t mind. The pressure of his form seemed to wake something deep within me, cracking the ice that had frozen around my heart.
Slowly, I flipped through the book of maps. All these years I’d been right. Although it was almost unbelievable, I knew in my gut it was true. There was more to this world, so much more than our fenced-in compounds. So much more than I’d ever dreamt. The realization made me forget the darkness constantly tugging at the hem of my shirt, begging for attention like some crying child. I wasn’t sure whether to be thrilled or terrified. I settled on bemused.
I took in a deep trembling breath and glanced around me, truly seeing the hall, the building, Jim for the first time. The corridor ran into a large, open room that was just visible in the distance, aglow with lantern light and crowded with people. We were in the bottom of the building, hidden deep within. No windows. To escape we’d have to go upstairs and back into that abandoned city. An entire world was out there…waiting to be discovered, yet we hid in the dark like worms.
“So,” Jim said, drawing his fingers down the greasy pan and licking off the drops. “You okay now?”
“Maybe.” As I responded, my mind betrayed and mocked me. The images from the castle came whispering back, taunting. Sally…blood. So much blood. I could feel it coming…the horror washing over me, sucking me down into the darkness. No. No, I wouldn’t let it.
“Jane?” the boy called out, leaning close.
If I didn’t stop the darkness, soon I’d be there again…drowning…drowning. I pressed my palms to my temples, trying to stop the enveloping numbness from sweeping over me.
“Jane?” Jim called out again, a lifeline pulling me toward the light. “Are you okay?”
His sticky fingers touched my arm, jerking me back into reality. For a moment I merely sat there taking in shallow breaths, trying to control the fear, trying to focus on Jim and his worried gaze. I was alive. I would be healthy again. At the moment, there was nothing to fear.
Slowly, I gave him a trembling smile. The numbness faded, the world coming sharply back into focus. I’d won this time, but I could feel it there, lurking in the shadows, just waiting for that moment of weakness. “I’m okay.”
He grinned. “Good, because I have more books and—”
A bell clanged from somewhere in the main room, the sound echoing obtrusively down the hall. Jarred, I stiffened, my heart slamming wildly against my ribs. “What is that?”
Jim scrambled to his feet, accidentally kicking the pan across the floor, his movements frantic and hurried.
“Jim,” I reached out, grasping onto his arm before he had a chance to bolt. “What is it?”
He turned toward me, those innocent eyes wide with fear. “The beautiful ones, they’re here! Run!”
The Chosen Ones by Lori Brighton / Romance & Love have rating 3.2 out of 5 / Based on19 votes