Unbreakable by Kami Garcia

  Priest didn’t seem like the handful of homeschooled kids I knew back home, who were still catching up on shows from the last two decades. At my high school, he would’ve been in all the advanced placement classes, but instead of hanging out with the valedictorian hopefuls, he probably would’ve opted for the skaters. It wasn’t hard to picture him in the hall wearing his headphones and deejaying parties on the weekends.

  “So you always knew you’d be in the Legion?”

  “Yeah. I was an only child, and my cousins are all pretty stupid. My granddad wouldn’t let them change the batteries in a TV remote.” He shook the box searching for more charms.

  “I wish I grew up knowing the truth about my part in all this. If there’s really anything to know.”

  Priest stopped walking. “The truth is relative. Maybe your mom was going to tell you, but she died before she got the chance.”

  I wanted to believe that so badly.

  He popped another handful of charms in his mouth and smiled. “So Jared, huh?”

  “What?” I tried to sound shocked.

  Priest shrugged. “If you don’t wanna talk about it, I get it.”

  “There’s nothing to talk about. Trust me.”

  “Nobody else knows if that’s what you’re worried about. I’m a lot more perceptive than the rest of them, a result of my superior education and high IQ,” he said sarcastically.

  I didn’t know how to explain my feelings for Jared, or if I should try.

  “Jared doesn’t care about me.” I emptied the contents of the cart onto a conveyor belt.

  Priest tilted his head. “You sure about that?”

  I was afraid to consider the possibility. “I can’t afford to take any more chances. I’m trying to hold it together.”

  Priest gave me a knowing look. “Maybe you’re not the only one.”


  Hearts of Mercy

  An oxidized plaque on the stone building confirmed we were in the right place: HEARTS OF MERCY HOME FOR CHILDREN. Behind the iron gates, the yard was a tangle of weeds and rat-infested ivy that snaked up the sides of the chipped stone. A layer of black dust coated the windows that weren’t completely shattered.

  This place looked more like a prison than an orphanage, from the rusted playground merry-go-round to the rotted weeping willow split down the center.

  Something lay in the dirt near the scarred tree—a book, bound in faded cloth. I picked it up and brushed off the cover.

  The Secret Garden.

  My chest tightened and the book slipped from my hand, loose pages fluttering to the ground. My dad read me the story when I was too young to understand most of it. But I remembered the title, and I’d still never read it.

  “Kennedy?” Lukas looked worried. “What’s wrong?”

  My eyes rested on the book for a second before I walked away. “Nothing.”

  Jared passed out the equipment. “We’ve gotta be careful inside. Lots of kids died here, and some of their spirits are probably still hanging around.”

  A single palm print was branded in the center of one of the windowpanes.

  “How did they die?” I asked.

  Lukas slung a paintball gun over his shoulder. “The articles said it was an outbreak of meningitis.”

  Jared tossed us each a two-way radio and a pack of batteries. More supplies from the sporting goods store. “Priest rigged them with splitters so we can stay in touch. If we can keep the batteries charged.”

  I shoved the extra batteries in the pocket of my cargo pants. “Why wouldn’t they stay charged?”

  Priest unscrewed the back of his EMF detector and swapped out the double As. “Spirits absorb the energy from things around them, including batteries. If this place has more than a couple inside, we’ll burn through these fast.”

  “Lukas, take Priest and Alara and check out the attic and the second floor.” Jared loaded the black paintball gun. “Kennedy and I will take the first floor and the basement. We call in every twenty minutes. If the radios die, we meet by the front door after a half hour.”

  Everyone collected their gear except Lukas. “Why is she going with you?”

  Jared didn’t take the bait. “What difference does it make?”

  “If it doesn’t matter, then she can come with us.”

  “Because you did such a great job of looking out for her last time?” Jared turned his back on Lukas and waved me over. “Let’s go.”

  Lukas flinched. “I guess nothing could happen to her with you around? Because you never screw up.”

  Jared froze and the color drained from his face. Lukas was referring to something specific.

  I stepped in front of Jared, unwilling to be a pawn in their game. “Don’t talk about me like I’m not here. I’m a big girl. What happened wasn’t Lukas’ fault.”

  Jared stalked toward the orphanage’s cracked concrete steps.

  Lukas ignored him. “Come on. Let’s go.”

  I waited until Jared was out of earshot. “I’m going with Jared this time. He can’t go in there when he’s angry, or he’ll be distracted. That’s dangerous.”

  Lukas’ face fell, but he forced a smile anyway and tucked a stray strand of hair behind my ear. “Be careful.”

  “I will.”

  Jared waited at the front door with Priest and Alara. The rotted wood didn’t offer much resistance, and he forced it open easily.

  “Catch you later,” Priest called as he climbed the staircase with Lukas and Alara.

  The first floor was dark, with patches of light slipping through the scum-covered windows. A moth-eaten yellow sofa surrounded by empty beer cans and cigarette butts was all that was left of the living room. A rat scurried across the floor and I jumped, bumping into Jared.

  “Sorry,” I mumbled.

  He switched on a flashlight, and I followed him to the kitchen.

  A small window over the stained white sink was coated in a decade’s worth of grease and provided the only natural light. Linoleum squares peeled up from the floor like the curling edges of burnt paper. The pattern of decay led to the pantry door. It was slightly ajar, ruined and warped like everything else in this place. I nudged it with my boot.

  The door creaked open.

  I froze. “Jared—”

  A little girl sat on the floor in a filthy brown nightgown, hugging her knees to her chest. Huge, tormented brown eyes stared past me as if I wasn’t there. She rocked herself gently, her frail body lost in the folds of fabric. Unlike the full body apparitions I’d encountered, she was hazy and faded.

  I backed up slowly.

  The child didn’t look away from a spot somewhere beyond me.

  Jared caught my elbow. “She’s a residual spirit, energy left behind after the person moves on. She can’t hurt you.”

  “I think I’ll keep my distance anyway.”

  Even if we didn’t find a single vengeance spirit within these walls, this place was filled with ghosts—remnants of the terrible things that must’ve happened here. Things I could see as clearly as the broken windows outside.

  Jared opened the next pantry door and I tensed, expecting to see the face of another lost child. This one was stacked floor to the ceiling with vacuum-sealed pallets. Jared bent down and wiped the dust off the thick plastic. I read the labels underneath and gagged.

  Dog food—cans and cans of it—towering to the ceiling. Enough to feed fifty dogs.

  Or fifty children.

  Jared kicked the stack. “My dad used to say the evil we enact on each other is uglier than anything spirits and demons can do to us.” He picked up a dented can of dog food and chucked it against the wall, brown slop splattering across the wallpaper. “I never believed him until now.”

  Static crackled over Jared’s radio. “It’s Priest. You guys okay?”

  “We’re good,” he said. “Find anything up there?”

  “Not yet. Check with you in twenty.”

  Jared shoved the radio in his back pocket. “Let?
??s see if there’s anything in the basement.”

  I couldn’t get out of the kitchen fast enough. The residue clung to my skin like the filth coating the windows. We needed to find the next piece of the Shift and get out of this house.

  The basement door was hidden under the staircase, secured by two heavy dead bolts at the top, far above the reach of a child.

  I couldn’t imagine the terror of being locked in a basement. My pulse raced as Jared unlocked the door. The splintered wooden stairs disappeared into a sea of black.

  He used his flashlight to navigate the cracks in the steps. “Stay close.”

  “No problem.” I had no intention of getting lost down there.

  At the base of the staircase, it was impossible to see more than a few feet. I grabbed Jared’s hand without thinking, terrified that we might get separated.

  A corridor stretched beyond us, but it looked more like a tunnel. “I think it leads to another room.”

  Jared shined the light along the walls, and I shuddered. Drawings covered the lower sections—childish depictions of rectangular houses with triangle roofs, and stick-figure families that morphed into more sinister images. Children crying as monsters towered over them, with gnashing teeth and razor-sharp claws.

  The corridor opened up into an enormous room. The temperature dropped, and cold air crawled over my skin. I squeezed Jared’s hand tighter, my pride back at the top of the stairs along with my courage.

  A bare bulb flickered at the opposite end of the room, revealing the truth about this place in weak bursts. They stood in two rows at the ends of the aluminum beds that were outfitted with thin mattresses and frayed canvas straps:

  Children—at least twenty of them.

  Ranging from four or five years old to nine or ten, they were sickly and gaunt, in matching pairs of stained long underwear. With their hair buzzed to less than an inch, it was hard to distinguish the boys from the girls. Their eyes reflected the light when it hit them, like they were still among the living.

  But something was wrong with their faces.

  The muscles were frozen, contorted in unnatural expressions and exaggerated smiles. Only their eyes moved, conveying the emotions their faces couldn’t.

  “Turn around slowly.” Jared kept his voice low. “We’re going back the way we came.”

  “No, we aren’t.”

  I pointed at two children standing behind me. They watched us curiously, their faces as mangled as the others’. They held hands, the taller one clutching the younger child’s protectively. Steel gray eyes and innocent blue ones gazed back at us.

  Jared pulled me closer.

  The taller child lifted a thin arm, a plastic IV port taped inside the crook of his bony elbow. He pointed at the other end of the room, where the remaining children were lined up.

  “What do they want?”

  Jared pulled my hand behind his back and drew me closer. “Something happened here. I think they need us to bear witness so they can rest.”

  The child was still pointing.

  “Should we do what he wants?”

  “Spirits of children are unpredictable, but I don’t think we have a choice. There are too many of them. If they get agitated…”

  I nodded. “Let’s go.”

  Turning my back on those children-that-weren’t-children was terrifying. I kept thinking about the girl in the yellow dress at Lilburn, who had looked so innocent right before she tried to kill us.

  We walked closer as the flickering bulb bathed the room in pale light. An IV pole was positioned at the head of each dented bed frame, the canvas straps pulled tight across the stripped mattresses, as if they were still restraining bodies beneath them.

  Yellowed newspaper clippings were taped to the walls. I scanned the chilling headlines: Seven Children Die in West Virginia Group Home, Siblings Acquitted for Poisoning Their Parents After Years of Abuse, Nurse in Harken Fired for Administering Lethal Dose of Medication.

  I couldn’t stand to read any more.

  I looked back at the rows of hopeful eyes. Without a word, each child extended an arm. A piece of tape secured an IV port inside every elbow. One of the frailer children handed me an amber bottle with block lettering typed on the yellow label: STRYCHNINE.

  Jared rubbed his free hand over his face. “Strychnine causes muscular damage—” As he spoke the words, their eyes widened. “They were poisoned.”

  Bile rose in the back of my throat. “And those people got away with it.”

  “No.” Jared stared at me, his eyes full of anger. “My dad used to say the evidence of evil can be hidden, but it always leaves a stain. We’ll tell someone what happened here.”

  The older child behind me walked toward the other children, beckoning us to follow.

  We reached the last bed.

  The wall behind it was cracked, like someone had tried to break through. A hole about the size of a small doorway revealed the wooden framework within the wall, and the brick behind it. Whoever started the hole never finished it.

  I heard a sound. It started out faint and intensified. “Is that—?”


  It was coming from inside the wall.

  The kids around us scattered, cowering behind the aluminum frames of their beds. A figure emerged from the hole.

  A boy.

  He was older than the rest of the children—maybe thirteen or fourteen. It was hard to tell, but he was much taller than the others, with sharper features and vacant eyes. A sledgehammer rested against his shoulder.

  He stepped closer, his clothes coated with dust and debris from the crumbling bits of concrete. “I tried to find a way out, I swear. But the brick was too thick.” The boy’s voice wavered, a crazed look in his bloodshot eyes. “Now I’m the only one left.”

  Did he think he was still alive?

  “Father will be angry if he finds out you were down here. He’ll punish me.” The spirit paced back and forth in front of us, muttering to himself.

  “He’s gone,” Jared said. “You don’t have to worry about him anymore.”

  The spirit’s eyes narrowed. “Strangers lie. If I watch over what’s his, he’ll come back for me. He promised.”

  The boy had to be referring to the other children. Was he responsible for keeping them down here until his deranged father killed them?

  Jared raised the semiautomatic paintball gun, shoving me behind him. The spirit vanished as the paintball cases exploded against the wall, brown holy water running down it in streaks.

  An arm swung around my neck from behind. The point of something thin and sharp pressed against the skin below my ear.

  A needle.

  Every breath brought the point closer, and I imagined it puncturing my skin and filling my body with the poison that probably killed every child in this room.

  “You shot at me.” The boy’s tone was menacing.

  Jared tossed the gun. It spun over the footprints on the concrete floor. “I’m sorry. Just don’t hurt her. I’ll do whatever you want.”

  The spirit’s hand moved as he spoke and the needle threatened to puncture my skin. “I have to protect it. Then I’ll be free.”

  “I can get you out of here,” Jared pleaded.

  “It’s too late for that,” the boy whispered in my ear, the warmth of breath absent. He pushed me forward without compromising his grip. “Move.”

  Jared backed up slowly without taking his eyes off me.

  The spirit tightened his arm around my neck and nodded from Jared to the crumbling hole in the wall. “Get inside.”

  Jared stepped into the hole without hesitation, a doorway leading nowhere. I waited, praying I wouldn’t feel the prick of the needle on my skin.

  A second passed, then another.

  One hard shove and I stumbled into the crude opening. Jared pulled me toward him. We were trapped in a cage of wooden framework no bigger than a phone booth, with nothing but solid brick behind it.

  Jared locked his arms around
my waist. “You’re okay.”

  I looked up at him in time to see his expression change from relief to terror. He spun me around and my back slammed against the brick inside the wall. I faced the hole now, Jared’s body wedged between the vicious spirit and me.

  “What are you—” A board smacked against the opening, and nails pounded into the wood. “He’s closing the hole.”

  My throat closed along with it. The darkness, the memory, the terror closed in on me. Dizziness tugged at my equilibrium.

  Another board hit the wall.

  “No!” I threw my hands against it, pushing with all my strength. The wood vibrated each time the hammer hit a nail. Jared turned around so we were both facing the crisscrossed slices of the room that were still visible.

  I couldn’t see the spirits of the other children anymore, only glimpses of the bare bulb and the head of the hammer.

  Jared pounded his fists on the slats of wood, but they didn’t give. “The nails shouldn’t be this strong.”

  The sledgehammer hit another nail.

  The sound reminded me of the bolts hitting the floor of the warehouse when they unscrewed themselves from the window. It had been impossible for Lukas and Jared to hold them in place.

  Was the boy’s spirit strengthening these nails the same way?

  Another board slapped against the opening, eclipsing the last sliver of light. The hammer hit the wood over and over. I counted every nail.


  That was the count when the last one plunged into the wood, trapping us inside.


  Within the Walls

  He shut us in. He shut us in. He shut us in.

  I heard myself screaming, but the only words I could make out were the ones in my head.

  I was back inside my mother’s closet again, helpless and terrified—the memories battering me one after another. Darkness pressing in from all sides, heavy and suffocating. My ragged breathing. The smell of mothballs and cedar. Smooth wood under my hands as I ran them over the walls.

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