LISTEN TO ME. We don't have much time.
My name is Whit Allgood. I guess you've heard of me and my sister, Wisty, and of the crazy stuff that's happened, but here's the thing: it's so much worse than you think it is.
Trust me when I tell you that these are the worst of times and that the best of times are little more than a distant memory. And no one seems to be paying attention to what's going on. Are you?
Imagine that all the things you love most in the world—and probably take for granted—are now banned. Your books, music, movies, are... all snatched away. Burned. That's life under the New Order, the so-called government—or brutal totalitarian regime—that's taken over this world. Now, with every waking breath, we have to fight for every freedom we have left. Even our imagination is at risk. Can you picture your government trying to destroy that? It's inhuman.
And yet... they're calling us criminals.
That's right. Wisty and I are the offenders in that unhappy propaganda piece brought to you by the New Order. Our crime? Engaging in free thought and creativity.... Oh, and practicing the "dark and foul arts"—i.e., magic.
Did I lose you? Let me back up a bit.
One night not so long ago, my family was awakened by soldiers storming through our home. Wisty and I were cruelly torn from our parents and slammed into a prison—a death camp for kids. And for what?
They accused us of being a witch and a wizard.
But, the thing is, it turns out the N.O. was actually right about that: we didn't know it at the time, but Wisty and I do have powers. Magic powers. And now we're scheduled to be publicly executed, along with our parents.
That particular ghoulish event hasn't taken place yet—though it will. I promise those of you who crave suspense, adventure, and bloodshed that you can look forward to it. And you will, if you're anything like the rest of the brainwashed "citizenry" of our land.
But if you're one of the few who've escaped the N.O.'s clutches, you need to hear my story. And Wisty's story. And the story of the Resistance. So when we're gone, there's someone left to spread the word.
Someone to fight the good fight.
And so we begin with the story of another public execution: a sad and unfortunate event, an accident, as luck or fate would have it. In a phrase that I hate to use under any circumstances: a tragedy.
HERE'S WHAT HAPPENED, to the best of my shattered ability to recall it.
I do remember that I couldn't have been more lost and alone as I wandered the streets of this gray, crowded, and forsaken city. Where is my sister? Where are the others from the Resistance? I kept thinking, or maybe muttering the words like some homeless madman.
The New Order has already disfigured this once beautiful city beyond recognition. It seems like a decaying corpse swelling with mindless maggots. The suffocatingly low sky, the featureless buildings—even the faces of the nervously rushing people flooding around me—are as colorless and lifeless as the concrete under my feet.
I know the general populace has been efficiently brainwashed by the New Order, but these citizens seem a little too hushed, a little too urgent, a little too riveted to the scraps of propaganda clutched in their hands like prayer books.
Suddenly, my eyes spot a word in bold letters on the paper: EXECUTION.
And then the huge video displays hanging above the boulevard light up, and everything becomes clear to me. Every pedestrian stops and stands stock-still, and every head turns upward as if there has suddenly been an eclipse.
On the video screens, a hooded prisoner—small-framed, frail-looking—is kneeling on a starkly lit stage.
"Wisteria Allgood" blares a bone-chilling voice, "do you wish to confess to the use of the dark arts for the wicked purpose of undermining all that is good and proper in our society?",
This can't be happening. My heart is a big lump in my throat. Wisty? Did that voice really just say Wisteria Allgood? My siste's on an executioner's scaffold?r
I grab a slack-jawed adult by his dismally gray overcoat lapels."Where is this execution happening? Tell me right now!"
"The Courtyard of Justice" He blinks at me irritably, as if I've woken him from a deep sleep. "Where else?".
"Courtyard of Justice? Where's that?" I demand of the man, throwing my hands around his neck, nearly losing control of my own strength. I swear, I'm ready to throw this adult against a wall if I have to.
"Under the victory arch—down there," he gasps. He points at a boulevard that runs off to my left. "Let me go! I'll call the police!"
I shove him and take off running toward a massive ceremonial arch maybe a half mile away.
"You! Wait" he yells after me. !"Don't I know your face from somewhere?"
He does. Oh yes. And so would everyone else, if they took the time to notice that there was a wanted criminal running loose in their midst.
But his fellow citizen's eyes remain glued to the screen. They've got an insatiable appetite for malicious gossip of any kind and, of course, an equal taste for senseless death and destruction.
Even when the falsely condemned are kids. Just kids.
I can hear a distant roar now. The sound of hunger—for "justice," for blood.
I forge ahead into the pathetic herd of lemmings. I'm not going to let them take my sister from me. Not without a fight to the death anyway.
I round a corner, and then, across the top of the crowd, I see... Is that my sister, Wisty, up on the stage? She's hooded, dressed all in black, but standing now. Proudly. Brave as ever.
A man—if you would call him that—is on the stage with her. He's leaning on a crooked stick, his wickedly sharp black suit hanging strangely motionless in the wind that's begun to howl through the civic square. His angular face is glowing with smug self-satisfaction, as if he's just devoured a potful of whipping cream.
I know him; I despise him. The One Who Is The One. Quite possibly the most evil individual in the history of humanity.
Are there minutes or seconds left before this hideous execution? I have no way of knowing.
I knock people aside as I barrel through the thickening, or should I say sickening, throng. I can see a line of well-armed soldiers holding everyone back from the platform. If I can knock one of them down and snatch away a gun...
I look up at the stage just in time to see The One raise his knobby black stick and shake it menacingly at my sister. He has a look of absolute triumph.
"No"! I yell, but I'm unheard in the roaring crowd. They all know what's about to happen. I know, too. I just don't see how I can possibly stop it. There has to be a way.
"Nooo"! I scream. "You can't do this! This is cold-blooded murder!"
There's a flash—not of light but somehow of blackness—and she's gone. Wisty. My sister. My best friend in the world.
My little sister is dead.
IF I'M STILL DRAWING air, it's not because I care about living.
The last person in the Allgood family that I knew for certain to be alive, the person who knew me better than anyone else in the world, the person who looked up to me in everything, is gone. What an incredible waste of an incredible life.
Wisty died while I watched, and I could do nothing to help her.
The One just vaporized my sister... and that monster, without any hint of conscience, doesn't even seem to have broken a sweat. He throws his arms in the air like he's just scored a goal, like he's mocking the pointlessness of human existence. I go weak in the knees. I feel as if I might throw up as I hear a deafening roar of approval sweep down the concrete canyon of this city—a place that now seems despicable and evil and beyond repair.
The One has just achieved his biggest public relations triumph ever. He basks in the adoration—but his usual impatience and anger soon erupt.
His command sweeps across the city, obliterating every other noise.
But I'm unmoved. Still shell-shocked. Numb everywhere, including in places that I didn't know existed.
"My good citizens" he thunders, without aid of a microphone, "this is a truly magnificent occasion. What you have just witnessed is the obliteration of the last significant threat to our stewardship of the Overworld! Wisteria Allgood, a leader of the Resistance, has just been removed from this dimension. Forever."
He raises his arms again, and a new gust of wind brings a thin layer of ash and the horrible smell of burnt hair across the crowd. These "good citizens" begin cheering again.
I'd collapse to my knees, but I'm surrounded on all sides. Then, suddenly, there is space for me to move. The cheering turns to screaming and the crowd is surging—moving backward—and I see a fiery explosion erupting not fifty yards from where I stand.
I know that fire.
"Oh yeah"! I shout as the mere sight of it makes my heart almost burst with joy. "Oh yeah, oh YEAH"!
That's my sister! Wisty's alive! She's just set herself on fire, and that, believe it or not, is a good thing.
AS SURE AS I am Wisteria Rose Allgood, I have only one thought: I'm gonna burn everything and everyone around me. Burn it all down.
I'll start with the death-drenched stage, move on to this ridiculously pompous plaza, then hit the whole cold city of stone—this disastrous nightmare of a world. Even if I fry myself to ash in the process, I am going to obliterate all of this, all of them.
The One Who Is The One just killed my friend Margo up on that stage from hell. I recognized her even with a hood over her head. Her purple sneakers and black-and-purple cargo pants were the giveaway. The silver streaks and stars on the sneakers were the final clue. Margo, the last punk rocker on Earth. Margo, the most fearless and dedicated person I've ever known. Margo, my dear friend.
Don't ask me why that monster in the black silk suit was pretending she was me. All I know is that I'm going to burn that evil madman to cinders.
So I turn myself into a human torch, just as I have in the past. Only this time I abandon all caution. Suddenly ten-, twenty-, thirty-foot tongues of flame are coursing around me, ripping upward in the formerly cool afternoon air.
The crowd backs away, screaming, and I can't help myself: I smile. I nearly laugh out loud.
And I'm about to turn the heat up another notch—to send jets of fire everywhere around me, to burn brighter and hotter than ever before—when my breath catches in my throat.
I feel him. I feel his wretched, diseased mind. I feel his eyes somehow locking on to me.
A thousand soldiers turn my way in unison, and now it's The One who's smiling. He's starting to laugh. And he's laughing at me.
I wince as the air rushes out of me. How can he have so much power?
I have no choice but to run, at least to try to escape his wrath.
I throw myself into the panicked human tide, my small frame deftly ducking elbows and shoulders. But The One is too close. I can feel his icy gusts chasing me, reaching out with cold, bony finger-like wisps, grazing my face, my neck, sending a chill so cold it hurts everywhere at once.
I'm starting to think how ironic it is that a firegirl might die in a deep freeze when suddenly I'm smothered by warmth. Somebody grabs me, lifts me up, and nearly squeezes all the breath out of me.
IT'S MY BROTHER, Whit.
In a flash, he carries me a hundred, two hundred paces ahead, as if I weigh nothing. Then he and I duck behind a high stone wall. For a few precious seconds, we're out of sight and safe.
I hug Whit with all the strength I have. He finally relaxes his powerful grip enough for me to breathe.
"But if this is really you" He trails off....
"Margo" I whisper. "He killed Margo." Then suddenly I'm crying like a baby. I'm shaking, and my teeth chatter hopelessly.
Margo is dead. The girl who helped me put a third piercing in my ear last week. The girl who woke us all up at five a.m. every morning to report for duty, the girl who had more dedication to fighting the oppression of the New Order than the rest of us put together. She was so young. Just fifteen years old.
"I told her not to go in that building without more help. I begged her" my brother says. "Why did she go in there? ,Why?"
"She was always the last to give up on a mission" I remind Whit, as if I'm trying to convince myself that it wasn't our fault she'd been caught. "First in, last out. That was her mantra, right? Stupid!"
"Courageous" he says, and for an instant I see in his eyes why it is that girls love him, why ,I love him. He's honest and sincere and absolutely fearless.
The mission, one of a dozen attempted rescues we'd undertaken in the last month, was our worst failure yet. We were trying to liberate maybe a hundred kidnapped kids from a New Order testing facility. But our intelligence must have been off. Instead of victimized kids, the building held a platoon of New Order soldiers. They were waiting for us.
"Actually, it's lucky any of us—," I start to say.
"Find her"! The speakers mounted in the plaza start vibrating with The One's irate voice. "There's another conspirator in the crowd! She has flaming-red hair! Close the courtyard exits. Capture her now!"
Whit grabs a gray hat off a passing businessman and plunks it down on my head.
"Tuck your hair in, quick" he says.
I'm doing just that when a policeman spots me. He's a couple of dozen yards away.
Now he's grabbing for the whistle at the end of a cord around his neck... and he'll soon have the attention of every soldier in the plaza. Not to mention that of The One, whom I hate to mention.
But then a small black figure leaps up and knocks the policeman down flat on his rear.
Whit and I exchange looks of surprise. He says,"Did you just —?"
But before Whit can finish, the black figure—an old woman—is at our side. She presses into my hand a crumpled, gritty piece of paper. "Take it, take it!"
I swear she's the weirdest-looking creature I've ever seen in my life, and yet I know her from somewhere.
She cuts me off."Follow this. Go! I'm a friend. Run. Run. Don't stop for a single breath, or it's over. For all of us. Go!"
Somehow she gets behind us, and then she delivers a kick to both of our butts. That sends us staggering into the surging crowd.
I immediately turn back... but there's no sign of her.
"You heard her" says Whit. "Go! Now! Go!",
THE CRUMPLED, quintuple-folded paper the old woman had forced into my hand is a map. She said she was a friend, right? Besides, what better plan do we have? So Whit and I follow the map.
The dotted line on the dirty, handwritten piece of parchment leads us through the south side of the city. So far, so safe and alive.
"I can't place her," I muse as we hike outside the city's perimeter toward a set of railroad tracks. "Was she... maybe one of Mom and Dad's friends?"
Whit shrugs."Doesn't matter, does it? Any person willing to risk her life tackling a New Order policeman is a friend. A really good friend".
Whit rips down a NOTICE from a loudspeaker post near the track and tears it into shreds."By the way, when did you become a ?leader of the Resistance'?" he asks with a chuckle and a glint of his baby blues.
"Hey, if The One says it's so..."
"Leave it to you to be launched into fame and fortune by a totalitarian thug".
"Shut up" I start chasing him down the track, laughing in spite of myself. "You're just jealous!" And Whit starts pumping his arms into a sprint, back in football mode.!
"No fair" I call after him. He's bigger and older, and of course he can run faster. A lot faster.!
For just a few minutes, we let ourselves be kids again. A brother and sister racing along the train tracks. Pretending that one of their best friends hadn't just been murdered, that they weren't on the run from half the world.
With a burst of enthusiasm, maybe even fun, we run those last few miles to our destination—a little brick building that appears on the map with an X and the instruction: GO THROUGH SIGNAL HUT.
"You have keys?" I yell to Whit, noting the chain and padlock on the door.
"You have spells?" he calls back.
Oh yeah—that's right. I'm a witch. And Whit's a wizard.
Sometimes it's hard to remember things like that when you're busy running for your life. But I do have spells—and they do seem to occasionally work on chains and padlocks.
And pretty soon we've actually escaped from the fiends of the N.O.
For the moment anyway.
HE IS SURROUNDED BY a dozen or more famous works of art that he's had confiscated—works by the likes of Pepe Pompano, Pondrian, Cezonne, Feynoir—the best of the best. All banned and forbidden. All his now.
"Bring me The One Who Commands The Hunt" bellows The One. He can't take much more of this incompetence, this stupidity, this repeated ,almost capturing of Wisteria Allgood and the very, very potent Gift that she possesses.
As if on cue, the hunt commander appears in the doorway, looking—despite his gray hair and middle-aged paunch—like a dim student who has just arrived for a midterm he hasn't studied for.
"You failed to capture Wisteria Allgood. Is that correct? Is that true"?
The commander nervously clears his throat.
"Yes, sir" he agrees. He's heard unsettling stories of cit,izens who have tried to defend themselves in similar situations with The One.
"And would you say today's spectacle was anything short of a public relations disaster? I honestly want to hear your opinion."
"Well, you did execute the other witch in a most decisive fashion, Your Excellency. The citizenry was uplifted by—"
"She wasn't a witch! She was just a friend of the witch. Actually she was bait for the real witch".
"Well, but... still... she was a valued member of the Resistance, and your destruction of her was magnificent and uplifting to the public in its awe-inspir —"
"The One Who Makes Up The News is going to have her work cut out with tonight's broadcast. Do you have any good ideas about that? How we explain that we executed Wisteria Allgood and then, moments later, we suddenly happened to be chasing another red-haired teenage witch through the city plaza? Be honest. Be forthright. Be quick."
"Silence!" yells The One in a stentorian voice that seems to make the building shake.
The next pause is deadly, truly deadly, and seems to suck all the air out of the room.
Now The One sighs and finally smiles, if you can call it that."Well, I suppose it could have been worse." His suddenly bright tone entirely belies the anger from just seconds before. "Tell me, Commander, do I recall that all you huntsmen enjoy cigars? I'm sure that's correct. Is it correct?"
"Why, um, yes, thank you," stammers the commander. He briefly wonders how he so suddenly has stumbled into his leader's good graces. He accepts a very fine cigar. And then—a light.
"I've always been fascinated with fire, Commander.... Have you?"
But the soldier doesn't have a chance to answer.
The glowing red ember at the tip of his cigar quickly expands. It runs up the entire length, then across the man's face, over the back of his skull, and down his neck. Then the bright red, smoldering line races around and around his torso and arms, down to the tips of his toes—leaving the hunt commander, for the briefest moment, a statue of ash.
Then The One taps his cane lightly on the ground, and the gray powder collapses in a soft plume of smoke.
"You failed to capture Wisteria Allgood, and failure isn't an option in this Brave New World."
WOULD YOU THINK that I was completely mad if I told you that what saved us in that signal hut was a portal that sucked me and Wisty through several dimensions and hurled us back into our current hellish reality at a completely different location?
A year ago, I would've checked myself into a psych ward for that, but crazy is the new sane in a society defined by New Order nutjobs. FYI, a portal is one of these elusive spots where the fabric of this world is... soft. But stepping through one can be anything but. It can hurl you into an entirely different place, time, or dimension... or sometimes force you into places you'd rather not be. Violently.
Like, for instance, in this cramped pitch-black space we've landed in. For all I know, we might be locked in The One's shoe closet. The air feels close, stale. My shoulder's on fire and my head is pounding.
"Whit? Are you here?" I hear a whisper. There's a gentle shifting around about a dozen feet away.
"Yeah." I grunt, half dazed by pain. The sweet female voice is warm, soothing.
"You okay?" the voice asks with concern. Celia? I imagine my long-lost girlfriend, kidnapped and killed by the New Order a lifetime ago. Coming closer, leaning over me, about to touch me, heal me, save me...
"Mmmmmm..." I trail off, waiting for Celia's scent, her arms around me.
"You sound... hungover."
Oh. It's Wisty. Of course.
I groan."It's my shoulder. Got dislocated in the portal, I think."
"Seriously? I slipped right through that one like butter."
I roll my eyes even though she probably can't see them. "Guess it was just the right size for your runty witch butt," I croak out—affectionately, I swear. "So where d'you think we are?"
"How about... a prison? Seems like our favorite crib these days."
I wasn't so sure. "No. This smell—it's not the smell of a prison. It's something... good. Something that reminds me of..."
"Home," we both say in unison.
Wisty releases a small flame from her fingertip to give us some light. I'm impressed at how she's learning to control her hot little temper and putting her talent to good use. In the old days, I used to be the accomplished star around town—MVP varsity football player, plus a top-ranked runner and swimmer—while Wisty was mostly cutting class. Now she's this hotshot witch who can glow, morph, zap, and do other cool stuff. Just not necessarily on command.
In the dim light I see just enough to make out my sister's shape and stacks of cardboard boxes labeled INCINERATE."Books," Wisty says reverently, paging through a few volumes from unsealed boxes. With my good arm I gingerly poke into a crate and spy titles by all kinds of famous authors, from B. B. White to Roy Royce.
"Looks like a book-burning shipment," I guess. The New Order is in the process of destroying just about every known book in the occupied Overworld written before the takeover.
A stabbing pain rips through my bad shoulder, and I wince."Speaking of burning... you gonna help me pop my shoulder back in, Wist?"
"That's positively revolting," she says, but makes her way over to me anyway. "You need to learn a spell for that, Brother. You wizard types are supposed to be good at that kind of stuff, right?"
"It's worth a shot, I guess. Just give me a hand with my journal, okay?" Dad gave me this blank book before we were taken away that awful night so many months ago, and I carry it with me everywhere. (Wisty carts around an told drumstick/wand that Mom gave her.) Most of the time my book's blank and I use it to write in—usually sad love poems for Celia. But sometimes it fills with magazines, maps, whole works of literature... or, if we're lucky, spells. I think wizards are supposed to be able to control what comes when, but so far it's basically a crapshoot.
Wisty takes it out of my pack and helps me flip through the pages for any sort of injury-healing spell, and we finally come up with this mouthful: Voron klaktu scapulati.
"Sounds like devilspeak to me!" Wisty quips, impersonating a crotchety old lady talking about rock music. But the most amazing warmth spreads through my shoulder when I say it, and suddenly—just like that—it's back in its socket. I raise my arm without a twinge of pain.
"Guess we've sold our souls," I say. "Now let's figure out where the heck we are and how to get back to Freeland."
As we make our way to the rear of the cramped space, we figure out we're inside a shipping container. I grab a few books for the kids back at Resistance headquarters—The Blueprints of Bruno Genet and The Thirst Tournament, among others.
"You ready to face what's out there?" I ask as we reach the door.
"Or who's out there," Wisty echoes warily. "Lemme get focused, in case I have to light up or something."
On the count of three, we roll up the container door.
And there, staring right at us, are... our parents.
WELL, AT LEAST it's their heads anyway.
Our parent's photos are on a twenty-foot billboard, their faces looking lost and lonely in this abandoned rail yard. And below their mug shots are words that never cease to chill our bones:
Sure, we know our parents are wanted criminals—for the same bogus reasons we are. But having it in black and white for all the world to see—and slapping the pathetic price of three million beans on their heads!—is a cruel reminder that this nightmare may never come to a happy end.
Wisty, as usual, reads my mind and throws me a semihopeful bone. "They're still free," she points out quietly.
"At least they were," I say,"whenever this poster was put up." The paper does look a little weathered—faded, frayed, and even torn at the edges. We both fall silent as the powerful smell of aging books' brittle pages—full of dreams, stories, tragedies, laughter, and imagination—seems to swirl out from the open door of the trailer and smother us with the bittersweet memory of home.
How can you make peace with something when you don't even know what that "something" is? We can't know whether our parents are alive or dead or being interrogated in a New Order prison or... banished to the Shadowland like Celia. Are they suffering? Is there anything we can do about it? Or are we as helpless and useless as I feel right now?
I punch the billboard so hard my fist goes right through the pressboard backing.
Then I pull my hand out and try to pretend it didn't happen. Wisty gives me a concerned look, and I shrug. I'm sure my knuckles are bleeding, but I don't feel a thing.
I glance at her worried, grief-strained face and quickly look away. I have an urge to hug her, but I need to show her that I'm not letting my emotions take over. I swallow a golf ball-size lump in my throat and take Wisty's hand. "Let's get out of here."
There are no people on the outskirts of this eerie