Black moon, p.1
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       Black Moon, p.1

           Romina Russell
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Black Moon


  An Imprint of Penguin Random House

  Penguin.com

  Copyright © 2016 Penguin Random House LLC

  Penguin Random House supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin Random House to continue to publish books for every reader.

  Ebook ISBN: 9780698146167

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  Version_1

  For my sister, Meli, whose inner flame could power solar systems.

  Contents

  Title Page

  Copyright

  Dedication

  Map

  The Houses of the Zodiac Galaxy

  Prologue

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  Chapter 34

  Chapter 35

  Chapter 36

  Chapter 37

  Acknowledgments

  THE HOUSES OF THE ZODIAC GALAXY

  THE FIRST HOUSE:

  ARIES, THE RAM CONSTELLATION

  Strength: Military

  Guardian: General Eurek

  Flag: Red

  THE SECOND HOUSE:

  TAURUS, THE BULL CONSTELLATION

  Strength: Industry

  Guardian: Chief Executive Purecell

  Flag: Olive green

  THE THIRD HOUSE:

  GEMINI, THE DOUBLE CONSTELLATION

  Strength: Imagination

  Guardians: Twins Caaseum (deceased) and Rubidum

  Flag: Orange

  THE FOURTH HOUSE:

  CANCER, THE CRAB CONSTELLATION

  Strength: Nurture

  Guardian: Holy Mother Agatha (Interim)

  Flag: Blue

  THE FIFTH HOUSE:

  LEO, THE LION CONSTELLATION

  Strength: Passion

  Guardian: Holy Leader Aurelius

  Flag: Royal purple

  THE SIXTH HOUSE:

  VIRGO, THE TRIPLE VIRGIN CONSTELLATION

  Strength: Sustenance

  Guardian: Empress Moira (in critical condition)

  Flag: Emerald green

  THE SEVENTH HOUSE:

  LIBRA, THE SCALES OF JUSTICE CONSTELLATION

  Strength: Justice

  Guardian: Lord Neith

  Flag: Yellow

  THE EIGHTH HOUSE:

  SCORPIO, THE SCORPION CONSTELLATION

  Strength: Innovation

  Guardian: Chieftain Skiff

  Flag: Black

  THE NINTH HOUSE:

  SAGITTARIUS, THE ARCHER CONSTELLATION

  Strength: Curiosity

  Guardian: Guardian Brynda

  Flag: Lavender

  THE TENTH HOUSE:

  CAPRICORN, THE SEAGOAT CONSTELLATION

  Strength: Wisdom

  Guardian: Sage Ferez

  Flag: Brown

  THE ELEVENTH HOUSE:

  AQUARIUS, THE WATER BEARER CONSTELLATION

  Strength: Philosophy

  Guardian: Supreme Guardian Gortheaux the Thirty-Third

  Flag: Aqua

  THE TWELFTH HOUSE:

  PISCES, THE FISH CONSTELLATION

  Strength: Spirituality

  Guardian: Prophet Marinda

  Flag: Silver

  THE THIRTEENTH HOUSE:

  OPHIUCHUS, THE SERPENT BEARER CONSTELLATION

  Strength: Unity

  Guardian: Master Ophiuchus

  Flag: White

  PROLOGUE

  WHEN I THINK OF MY adolescence as an Acolyte on Elara, I feel lighter. Like I’m back inside that semi-weightless world.

  My memories from those years always wash over me in waves.

  The first wave is the largest, and when it breaks, hundreds of Snow Globes bubble to my surface, showering me with memories of my best friends, Nishiko Sai and Deke Moreten. My life’s happiest moments live in this wave’s wake.

  As the current carries Deke and Nishi away, a second, gentler swell always rolls in, and my skin ripples as I surf through a montage of mornings spent in the silent solarium, soaking in Mathias’s presence and Helios’s rays. When the warmth begins to recede from my skin, I always try to pull away, before the third wave can overtake me.

  But by the time I remember to swim, I’m already caught in its riptide.

  When the memory crashes over me, I’m submerged in a cement block at the Academy: the music studio where Nishi, Deke, and I used to meet for band practice. Where the first two waves flood my mind with my favorite moments from the moon, the third always brings me back to this exact moment, in this exact place, a year and a half ago.

  Nishi, Deke, and I had spent the whole day in the studio, while Nishi taught us how to play a popular Sagittarian song called “Who Drank My Abyssthe?”

  “Not good enough,” she complained right after my closing hit, before the cymbals had even stopped echoing. “You guys have to stay present through the whole song. You’ve been fumbling through the bridge every time.”

  “I’m done,” Deke announced, shutting off his holographic guitar in protest.

  “No, you’re staying, and you’re going to focus,” hissed Nishi, blocking his path to the door. “We’re going again.”

  “You drank the Abyssthe if you think that’s happening!” he shot back. Then, rather than trying to get around her, he flopped to the floor and sprawled out like a starfish.

  “Wait, you’re right.”

  Nishi’s abrupt attitude reversal was as unpredictable as the pitch progressions of her vocals, and from the stunned expression on Deke’s face, she may as well have started speaking in a new alien language. “Rho, please tell me you heard that,” he said from the ground, “because I’m starting to think maybe I drank the Abyssthe—”

  “There’s a bigger problem than your focus,” Nishi went on, staring at the cement wall as if she could see scenes within it that were invisible to our Cancrian senses. “I think we need a bass player.”

  Deke groaned.

  “We’ll post holograms in the music department,” she went on, turning to me, her gaze hopeful and searching for my support. “We can hold auditions here after class—”

  “Why does it matter how we sound?” I interr
upted.

  The tightness in my tone sent a new, tense charge through the air, so to soften the effect, I added, “It’s not like we’re getting graded.”

  We only started the band to improve our Centering. Our instructors at the Academy taught us that art is the purest pathway to the soul, which is why the Cancrian curriculum required Acolytes to rotate through diverse disciplines until we found our clearest connection to our inner selves. Only then, once we’d found that core connection, could we specialize.

  Nishi had always known that singing was her calling, but it took Deke and me longer to figure ourselves out. It was only at Nishi’s insistence the year before that we finally gave music a shot. I chose the drums because I liked surrounding myself with the armor of a booming beat and a shell of steel, sticks, and hard surfaces. Deke was a skilled painter, but he wasn’t passionate about it, so he decided to learn guitar.

  “Well . . .” Nishi looked from me to Deke, her features forming a familiar, mischievous expression. Deke sat upright in anticipation, watching her with reverence. “I kind of . . . signed us up for the musical showcase next week!”

  “No way!” he blurted, his eyes wide with fear or excitement, maybe both.

  Nishi beamed. “We’ve been working so hard the past six months, and I thought we could see what others think. You know, for fun.”

  “You’re the one who just said our sound wasn’t working,” I said, only half-heartedly trying to keep the sharpness out of my voice. I stood up behind my set and crossed my arms, my drumsticks sticking out at the angle of my elbows.

  “But we’re nearly there!” Nishi grinned at me eagerly. “If we find a bass player in the next couple of days, we can totally teach them the song in time—”

  I set my sticks down on the snare, and the rumbling note it made felt like punctuation to end the conversation. “No, thanks.”

  Nishi pleaded, “Please, Rho! It’ll be a blast!”

  “You know I have stage fright—”

  “How can any of us—you included—know that, when you’ve never even been on a stage?”

  “I know because I can barely address the classroom when an instructor calls on me, so I can’t begin to picture myself performing for the whole Academy!”

  Nishi dropped to her knees in mock supplication. “Come on! Just this once! I’m begging you to try it. For me?”

  I took a step back. “I really don’t like it when you make me feel guilty for being who I am, Nish. Some stuff just doesn’t come in the Cancrian package. It’s not fair that you always want me to be more like you.”

  Nishi snapped to her feet from her begging position. “Actually, Rho, what’s not fair is you using your House as an excuse not to try something new. I came to study on Cancer, didn’t I? And adapting to your customs hasn’t threatened my Sagittarian identity, has it? Seriously, if you opened your mind once in a while, you might surprise yourself—”

  “Nish.” I spoke softly and uncrossed my arms, opening myself up to her so that she would see how much I didn’t want to fight. “Please. Let’s just drop this, okay? I really don’t feel comfortable—”

  “Fine!” She whirled away from me and grabbed her bag off the floor. “You’re right, Rho. Let’s just do the things you like.”

  I opened my mouth, but I was too stunned to speak.

  How could she say that to me? Every time she or Deke wanted to do something foolish—sneak into the school kitchen after curfew to steal leftover Cancrian rolls, or crash a university party we were too young to attend, or fake stomachaches to get out of our mandatory morning swims at the saltwater pool complex—I always wound up going along with them, even when I didn’t want to. Every single time I was the one who caved.

  “Deke, what do you think?” shot Nishi.

  His hands flew up. “I’m Pisces.” Nishi rolled her eyes at the expression, which is what people say when they don’t want to take sides in an argument. It comes from the fact that the Twelfth House almost always remains neutral in times of war, as their chief concern is caring for the wounded of every world.

  “Forget it.” Nishi stormed out of the studio. And for the first time following an argument, I didn’t go after her.

  Deke got to his feet. “I think one of us should talk to her.”

  I shrugged. “You go then.”

  “Rho . . .” His turquoise eyes were as soft as his voice. “Would it really be so bad?”

  “You’re telling me you actually want to play in front of the whole school?”

  “Just the thought of it terrifies me—”

  “Then you agree with me!”

  “I wasn’t finished,” he said, his tone firmer now. “It terrifies me, yeah, but . . . that’s what’s exciting about it. It moves you toward the fear instead of away from it.” In a gentler voice, he asked, “Aren’t you bored with the redundancy and routine of being an Acolyte? Don’t you ever want to escape yourself?”

  I shook my head. “I’m fine with being predictable. I don’t like surprises.”

  “All right,” he said with a small but exasperated smirk. “You’re obviously not listening to me, so I’m going to try Nish. See you at breakfast tomorrow, Rho Rho.”

  Alone in the studio, all I could feel was my anger. Did my friends seriously just abandon me for finally standing up for myself?

  I blasted out of the room and charged through the all-gray halls of the quiet compound to my dorm-pod. Once there, I changed out of my Academy blues into my bulky, bandaged space suit with the colorful plastic patches covering snags in the outer fabric.

  Curfew was closing in, which meant most people were already in their rooms for the night. But I felt claustrophobic, like the compound was too cramped to contain all my emotions. So I shoved on my helmet and, rather than stuffing my Wave up my glove where it could sync with my suit and provide a communication system, I spiked it on the bed on my way out the door, leaving it. I didn’t want to hear from Nishi or Deke.

  Then I shot out to the moon’s pockmarked face without any of my usual safety checks, my anger so scalding it consumed every thought in my head. In my firestorm of feelings, I forgot Mom’s final lesson.

  For a moment, I forgot my fears were real.

  1

  TWELVE TOY ZODAI—DYED DIFFERENT House hues—are arranged in a row. All are missing limbs, a few have been decapitated, and the blue one is just a clay torso with an X slicing its chest.

  It’s the clearest message the master has sent us yet.

  One world down, eleven soon to fall.

  Squary is a cold cement bunker on House Scorpio that runs the length of the island it’s built beneath. It used to be a weapons testing zone, until Stridents detonated a nuclear device decades ago, and the facility had to be quarantined. It’s also where the Marad was working on its secret weapon when the Scorp Royal Guard barged in and arrested the handful of soldiers that had been living here.

  Stanton and Mathias stand with Strident Engle at the other end of the room, studying the real star of the scene: the Marad’s missile monstrosity, with its nuclear core that has the potential to devastate a whole planet, if operational.

  But I hang back by the toys on the table, unable to look away from their mutilated bodies . . . until a blade stabs my arm, slitting my scars open.

  I gasp and jump back, hugging myself. I know the pain is just a memory of the real thing, but it still makes me nauseous, and beads of sweat tickle my forehead. I snap my gaze to the guys, hoping they didn’t notice.

  They didn’t.

  They’re still scoping out the weapon, the three of them indistinguishable from one another in their bulky black radiation suits and facemasks.

  “So this is everything?”

  Stanton’s voice breaks the radio silence inside my heavy suit. “Aside from this weapon, five years’ worth of compressed meals, and the creepy toys, you didn’t find
anything else? Nothing to tell us where the Marad’s headquartered, or who’s leading the army, or what the master’s plan is?”

  “We found the Risers we arrested.” The second voice belongs to Strident Engle, a Zodai in Chieftain Skiff’s Royal Guard who’s been guiding our visit to House Scorpio.

  “Have they said anything yet?” presses Stanton.

  “They will, once we find a way to break them.”

  One of the figures flinches and takes half a step back. That must be Mathias.

  “If you couldn’t break them in two months, what makes you think they can be broken?” I identify Stanton’s shape by his familiar stubborn stance, how he tilts his head and crosses his arms.

  “Every man has his breaking point,” says the Strident.

  “That’s ignorant.” My brother looks toward Mathias. “Some men are unbreakable.”

  Mathias doesn’t acknowledge the compliment as he ambles away from them. Stan’s been praising him a lot since learning of everything he’s been through. And yet, even now, my brother’s warm words lack actual warmth. There’s something else cooling their effect, only I can’t tell what it is.

  Mathias joins me by the table and stares at the toys. I wonder if he, too, feels Corinthe’s blade cutting him open.

  “None of the other Houses have any leads or ideas?” I say into the facemask’s radio system, mostly to escape my darkening thoughts.

  “We agree it’s likely they knew we were coming, given they had enough time to make this macabre masterpiece for us,” says Engle, recycling the same theory the Houses have been repeating to each other. He and Stanton stride over to join Mathias and me. “And if the Riser who betrayed you—Aryll—sent a warning, they had enough time to get rid of anything they didn’t want us to find.”

 

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