Chapter One

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The world was calm.

A soft breeze blew against my cheeks. The desert air was unusually cold. Little pinpricks of rain hit my skin.

But I felt more relaxed than I had in months.

Out stretching before me were miles of rock hard sand, splotched with slush. It hadn't snowed much since we'd arrived, but that didn't stop the clouds from staying overhead. The temperature was on the verge of water's freezing point - some days it would drizzle, others it would come down in slushy flakes. Occasionally, we would get a legitimate snow storm.

The people here weren't as familiar with those.

We'd arrived nearly a month ago at Rose and Dennis's camp after barely escaping a fate worse than death. The drive had been long and treacherous, but was easily made better because of the vehicle. I wasn't sure exactly where we were, but I knew we weren't near the Equator. And that was all I cared about.

I heard a voice from behind me calling out my name. I didn't want to turn around yet. The view of the storm clouds high above and the lightly orange tinted dunes was peaceful, and allowed me to release my anxiety. Sometimes, the clouds would leave a little gap at the end of the day, allowing us to see the sun setting far in the distance, igniting the entire desert in a beautiful array of reds, oranges, and yellows. Right now was not one of those times.

In mild disappointment, I turned around and saw the source of the noise. Asten stood nearly a hundred yards away at the edge of the encampment, a hand held up to block the light rain. His other hand was in the air, waving at me to come back. His dark hair and bright gray eyes stood out against the orange and tan backdrop - he looked like he belonged more in the snow. The only thing that had really changed about him since then was his skin, which had somehow tanned despite the lack of sun we received. It was occasionally warm enough, though, for the sun's radiation to beat down on us, but those days were few and far between.

I sighed, and gave in. He was persistent. He wouldn't leave until I came with him.

I started back towards him and the camp at a jogging pace. My muscles were sore and aching from the exertion. Ever since I'd arrived, they'd forced all of us to continue our training from when we were at the compound. They always said that if we were to join in their fight to free those trapped in the Equator, then we would have to be capable enough. I understood that. I could already feel myself improving a lot, and wished I'd started learning sooner.

As I reached Asten's side, he turned and immediately started walking with me.

"You know you're late, right?" he asked, raising an eyebrow at me.

"I know. I just figured since I don't have a watch, they can't exactly get mad at me for that."

"Almost nobody has a watch. But they did call you over the speakers multiple times in the past hour or so," he replied. I knew that he was right. I'd heard them, I just chose to ignore them. I knew what they wanted me for.

I was silent.

"You know avoiding it isn't going to get you past it?" Asten commented. Again, correct.

"I just wish we didn't have to go through this. Didn't we already prove ourselves when we fought against Dr. Conway down in the Equator?" I asked, with a hint of frustration. I'd finally said it. The thing that I was anxious about and didn't want to think about. I'd been avoiding it for days, but I knew everyone else had taken their turn, and now it was mine.

A day after we'd gotten to the camp, we'd been informed that all of us had to prove ourselves. It hadn't been Rose's or Dennis's decision. It was Claire's order. Claire was a middle aged woman with graying red hair and warm brown eyes who lead the entire operation here. I'd been surprised first walking into the compound to find adults there, even though I'd been told the truth. These were the ones who'd escaped. Claire, in particular, despite her motherly appearance, had been hardened in this hell to the point where she apparently didn't want to believe our innocence. Because Mace had betrayed us, she worried that it wouldn't be much time before one of us came out and also stabbed them in the back.

I couldn't blame her. The more I thought about it, I didn't really trust us either.

But that wasn't the point.

The point was that I did not want to have to prove myself, because I was worried they'd force me into some situation I was uncomfortable with. They hadn't specified exactly what it was, and nobody was allowed to know about it beforehand. Everyone else had gone, even Asten, and now they were waiting on me. Then, they could be sure.

I didn't know what to expect.

"Just trust me. It's not as bad as you think," Asten said. He was trying to comfort me, but it didn't really help. "And, I can give you a hint: you won't be alone."

I narrowed my eyes at him. He knew more than he let on. "What is that supposed to mean?"

"You'll find out once you get there." He was smiling to himself at this point. I wished he would just tell me. If I knew what it was, it wouldn't be so hard to face it. 

We were almost to the tents of the camp. I knew that the slightly bigger one in the middle was my destination. It was where everything was held: meetings, dinners, and anything else they might need it for. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes.

My face tilted up towards the sky one more time. I could feel specks of cold pinching my hardened skin. I opened up my eyes and noticed small flakes floating down once more, so tiny that they may not have been there at all.

For once, I didn't mind them.

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