This post contains the seventeenth chapter of my as-of-yet untitled sci-fi novel. I present this first draft now, in a raw, unedited format (be kind, hopefully-soon-to-be-constant reader). Feedback is encouraged! You can find the rest of the published chapters here.

Nyx, Fira, and a small retinue of armor-clad Sisters of Winter sit across the large black table with stony faces as Hawk recounts the details of his escape from The Falls, our encounter with the Clockers, and the troubling news of Dex’s apparent betrayal. Stretch and Ugly sit to my right, Frog and Bones to my left. They haven’t left my side since Hawk and I followed Snow back into the city several hours earlier. I think they’re afraid that, if they take their eyes off me, I may run off again. I catch Frog watching me out of the corner of my eye and give him an apologetic smile. He blushes and replies with a sheepish smile of his own. They may have welcomed me back with open arms, but I feel like I have a lot of mountain to climb before I’ll have sufficiently made amends for my betrayal.

            Hawk finishes speaking and a tense silence falls over the assembled group. I shift anxiously in my seat and glace at the faces across the table. Many of the sisters look concerned after hearing what my sharp-faced companion had to say. Nyx is a study in unreadable serenity. Fira leans over and whispers a few inaudible words in her leaders’ ear. Nyx nods solemnly and then turns her intense gaze directly on me.

            “What do you know about Cerberus?” Nyx asks, her eyes never leaving mine.

            “Nothing, really,” I reply. “Only that it means something to The Ghosts…and to Dex, I guess.”

            “Which means, whatever it is, it’s probably not super great for us,” Hawk adds as he itches absently at one of the fresh bandages the Sisters had used to dress his wounds.

            “Hmm,” Nyx says, her expression impossible to decipher as she nods thoughtfully.

            “Do you know what The Ghosts were talking about?” I ask. “Do you know what Cerberus is?”

            “We’ve heard the name before,” Fira says, answering for her raven-haired leader as Nyx appears to ponder the new information in frigid silence. “Once.”

            Hawk stares at the rust-haired mystic with incredulous impatience. When he speaks the irritation gushes from his words in buckets. “Care to elaborate on that, Red?”

            “My name is Fira.”

            “Oh, pardon me, Fira,” Hawk snaps back impatiently. “This is all very dramatic, and we’re all very impressed, but if you want our help, I suggest you drop the mystical witch act and tell us what you know!”

            “Watch your tone, boy,” Nyx says. “If you want our help, I suggest you start treating us with the respect we deserve.” Hawk shakes his head angrily and sinks lower in his chair with a sullen scowl.

            “Hawk, enough,” I say, hoping to stop the headstrong boy before he says something we’ll all regret. Hawk throws his hands up in frustration but remains mercifully silent. “Fira, is there more you can tell us about Cerberus? Where have you heard that name before?”

            For a moment, Fira doesn’t reply, but then Nyx directs a single nod towards the lithe redhead, granting her permission to elaborate. I wonder silently why these intimidating female warriors are so reluctant to share this bit of information. What are they afraid of?

            “About a year ago, The Ghosts attacked Helios in force. After your cycle ended, they came for us,” Fira explains.

            “Our cycle,” Hawk scoffs. “I still don’t believe that we’ve been, what…on repeat for the past 2 years? It sounds like bullshit to me.”

            “I don’t care what you believe, little boy,” Nyx spits back, her green eyes flashing with barely restrained rage.

            “Hawk, shut up and let Fira speak,” Snow says before the confrontation can escalate further. Hawk falls silent, but an exaggerated roll of his eyes makes his doubt plain for everyone in the room to see.

            “Fira, please,” I say. “Continue.”

            “As I said,” Fira continues calmly. “The Ghost forces marched on Helios, thinking they were strong enough to destroy us as well.”

            “What happened?” Snow asks anxiously.

            “They were mistaken,” Nyx replies with a satisfied smile. A twinge of unease settles in my stomach as I recall what the full force of a Ghost invasion force looks like when they march to battle. The Sisters must be deadly warriors in their own right if they were able to turn back that level of ferocity and violence on their own. I look at Hawk, and from the expression on his face, I can tell he is impressed as well – albeit, begrudgingly.

            “We paid a heavy price in lives – the lives of our Sisters, but in the end, the day was ours,” Fira explains in the dispassionate, matter-of-fact tone of a historian discussing an ancient conflict in a faraway land. “After the battle, we realized that one of the Ghosts was still alive. He was very young, badly wounded, but still alive. We bandaged his wounds and, despite what he was, we nursed him back to health. He was in a coma for months, and we thought he would die more than once, but he always clung to life with a ferocity that took us by surprise.”

            “All men cling to life, why would that surprise you?” Hawk says with a bored yawn as he twirls his dagger between his fingers with practiced ease.

            “The Ghosts fight with suicidal abandon,” Fira says. “They have no regard for life – theirs, or anyone else’s.”

            “What does this have to do with Cerberus?” I say, nurturing a mad hope that, for once, the answer won’t have anything to do with me.

            “At first, the prisoner refused to speak,” Fira continues, ignoring the question and my nervous, expectant gaze. “He would sit in his cell, motionless and silent, all day and all night. He almost never slept, rarely ate, and refused to speak a word. That is, until a few weeks ago.”

            Hawk and Snow both turn and look at me in amazed unison. My stomach contorts into a fresh tangle of knots at the unspoken question (accusation?) from my comrades in arms.

            “What happened a few weeks ago?” Snow asks, still staring at me in disbelief.

            “The guards woke me in the middle of the night to tell me that something had happened to the prisoner,” Nyx says, picking up the story so fluidly that, for a moment, I wonder if they rehearsed this routine for our benefit. “When I got to his cell, he was laying dead on the floor, as white as…well, a ghost.”

            “What happened to him?” Snow says as he leans over the table like a tree growing towards sunlight.

            “He’d slashed his own wrists with a bolt from the cot in his cell,” Nyx says. “But, not before leaving us a message. He’d written it on the wall – in his own blood.”

            “My god,” I say, suddenly feeling sick to my stomach as I mentally picture the gruesome scene. “I’m almost afraid to ask, but what did the message say?”

            Firas speaks the words like an incantation, sending a chill down my spine. “The dreamer is awake, Cerberus will rise. The gate will swallow all, as earth and heaven die.”

            The room falls silent as Fira’s words settle on the boys from The Falls and The Sisters of Winter like a sudden frost. My eyes drift towards the ceiling of the dome and towards the carving of the battle raging around the ominous black door depicted in stone above my head.

            “What the actual hell does that shit mean?” Hawk says, breaking the silence with his usual lack of tact. Before Nyx or Fira can reply, the massive wooden doors of the chamber and thrown open with a sonorous thud and Rayna, clad in white armor that is streaked with blood and what looks like black earth, storms into the room with blazing eyes.

            “Nyx,” she exclaims breathlessly, “Helios is under attack!”

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