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Read an excerpt of The Sin Soldiers


Happy #MagicMonday! This week, we’re reading The Sin Soldiers by Tracy Auerbach, an intense adventure about survival, family, and war. Red compound makes them angry. Yellow exhausts them. Blue drives them into a state of ravenous addiction. The thief Kai knows about the chemically controlled soldiers of the Eastern forces and their savage, deadly nature. When a robbery attempt at Club Seven goes wrong, Kai is captured by a handler and his bestial soldier-boy. She wakes up inside the military base with no idea what happened to her twin brother, Dex.Things go from bad to worse when Kai is started on a drug and training regimen, and forced to take injections of blue compound. The scientists in charge plan to make her into a working soldier who will mine the mysterious power crystals beneath the desert. Kai becomes a victim of the bully Finn, a handsome but nasty soldier whose years on red compound seem to have erased his humanity. Still, she begins to pity the Seven Soldiers, including the monstrous boy who tried to rip her to shreds at the club. They appear to be nothing more than genetically enhanced, drug-controlled teenagers.On the outside, Dex and his tech-savvy boyfriend try to crack the soldiers’ chemical code to find a weakness that will break the system. But Kai has already been drawn deep into her new world. Strong feelings for the soldiers she’s come to know have started to cloud her judgment. Can she escape and find Dex without becoming a monster herself?

Chapter One

The strobe lights and blaring music made Kai’s pulse beat along to their frantic rhythms. She and Dex had worked for Leo before, but never on a hit this big. To steal the night’s earnings from Club Seven took more than the kind of finesse that she and her brother were famous for; it took balls. She looked over at Dex, who squatted in a small patch of shadow by the three steps leading up to the club’s first marble floor. Only he could make squatting look graceful. She strained to see him clearly while the blue-white lights flashed like a detonated bomb with a pause button. The strobes were replaced by a dim red glow, and she held up two fingers to signal the all-clear.

Dex responded instantly, their timing down to an art form. He hoisted himself onto the cold marble and did a quick military crawl to where she was lying flat on her stomach beside the liquor bar, propped on her elbows. His long, spiky hair brushed against her. He smelled like hair gel, but his closeness brought her comfort. No matter what sort of situation Kai found herself in, Dex made her feel safe. He looked up and smiled broadly, showing off teeth so bleached, they nearly glowed in the dark. She narrowed her eyes in warning, and he quickly closed his mouth. He could always tell what she was thinking.

Twin power or something like that.

It was important to stay out of sight until they had scoped out the whole scene and gotten a lay of the land. The small service entrance they had used to access the club was situated directly across from the longer of two bars, which ran the length of the club on one side. This bar wrapped neatly along the perimeter, hugging the large entryway’s shiny black walls. It slunk down two steps and kept going all the way across the dance floor. With its white, rounded stone finish and polished glass casings to hold bottles upon bottles of alcohol, it looked pristine. But where Kai was lying at floor level, its façade was shattered by thick patches of dust and some unpleasant-looking stains.

The crystals that powered the club, bringing it to life in all its pulsing, deafening glory, were housed in a nest of wires under the polished stone. They glowed through a transparent square in the bar’s surface with a soft, pale light that somehow stood out even in the midst of the chaotic strobes.

Those crystals were the reason this club existed. The ongoing campaign for power over those precious fragments had made Seven Soldiers necessary.

Sevens were the front line of the Eastern Forces; the heavy hand that held the public in place and kept all opposition at bay. At Club Seven, they were paraded around as spectacles for citizens to gawk at. Kai glanced up toward the enormous body of a soldier walking by the bar, held tightly by his handler as they shoved through the raucous crowd of inebriated revelers. He was so large, he obscured the light from reaching down to where she lay in wait.

Kai shoved herself closer to the bar as a group of giggling women approached the protruding marble above her hiding spot. They surrounded the soldier and his handler, and she squinted up to see them running their hands all over the Seven’s body before leaning close to the bartender to shout for drinks. Kai pulled her hands out of the way of their high heels as they swayed and stepped in rhythm to the hypnotic music, gyrating against the zombie-like Seven.

Dex reached a hand into his pocket and brought out the tiny camera he treasured. The crystal shard within it was no larger than a pebble, but it had worked for years. He edged his body along the floor away from the people around them and waited for the strobes to give way to red darkness again. When they did, he launched himself from the ground to his feet, fired off a round of pictures, and sunk back down. His movements were so quick, and so well-timed with the lights, that unless one of the clubgoers or bartenders who stood mere feet away were staring straight at him, they would miss his presence completely. Kai knew that from his vantage point, the arc of his leap gave him a clear shot of the club’s raised central stage. On the dance floor, a mass of writhing bodies clamored for a better view of the soldiers above them.

Kai glanced around to make sure nobody had noticed. In the clear, she gave him a thumbs-up to take another round, this time to the left of the club stage where a smaller bar wrapped around a mirrored pole. Lastly, he took some quick shots of the right side’s wooden buffet tables and then crawled back to the shadows of the entryway steps. Kai joined him, and they opened the heavy stone door just a crack before slipping back out into the night.

“I think you got some good ones,” Kai whispered when they were safely outside the club and leaning against the exterior wall. She could feel the vibrations of the music through the stone, and her hearing seemed to have taken a beating as her ears throbbed. But her pulse relaxed as the cool night air and sky of the desert took the place of the stifling sights and smells of the club’s interior. She reached for the camera, but Dex put up a hand to stop her.

“Let me have a look first.”

She studied the open plains before them while she waited for him to check out the shots he had taken. The halo of light that surrounded the throbbing stone edifice grew dimmer and dimmer until it faded into total darkness. The silhouettes of desert plants near the light’s border looked like shadowy sentries guarding the empty expanse of sand. Huge saguaros and short, thickly-clumped agave cast a parade of midnight black shadows onto the scarcely-lit areas of sand beyond. Further in the distance, Kai could just make out the dimly twinkling lights of Eastern Pless. It was a few miles away, and night lights were a luxury that most couldn’t afford, but being the only other light for miles gave it the illusion of closeness. Above them, millions of stars blinked in and out of existence; only the small red moon and large orange moon remained constant. She shivered—a mixture of the cold air drying the sweat on her skin, and the thought of what could be lurking in all that darkness.

“Hold on a second,” said Dex, keeping the camera out of her reach as she tried to take it. Only a few inches taller, he was still skilled at taunting her by holding things just out of grabbing distance. He continued casually going through the pictures, one by one.

“I’m serious,” she said with a frown. “Give it to me.”

“Not yet,” he snapped. “I’m in man-candy heaven.”

She rolled her eyes.

“You disapprove, sister?”

“They’re Seven Soldiers, Dex. Barely even human.”

“That doesn’t mean they’re not fun to look at,” he protested. “I’m not going to date one. Just having a nice, long stare.”

She tried to glare disapprovingly at him, but he gave her the innocent grin that had always managed to keep him out of trouble. His big, dark eyes seemed to glow in the reflection of the moonlight, and the spikes of his hair cast a funny-looking shadow over his brow. Although they both bore the darker coloring of Northerners, their hair and eyes were so close to true black that their skin paled in comparison. Dex finally relinquished the camera, and she peeked. He wasn’t joking that the soldiers were hot. He nudged her, seeing her expression, and wiggled his eyebrows. She laughed. The two of them very rarely had the same taste in men, thank the Lord, but this was one of those times that it was hard to argue.

“Yeah, well I think the really attractive part of the scene is all the money being thrown at said man-candy,” she retorted. “It looks like the timing will work out in about five minutes. The collection crew should come through to get most of the crystal money out of the way of the dance floor. Clear enough path, right? And dark, so we should be able to blend.”

“Sure,” he agreed.

It was ladies’ night, and the whole thing was super creepy. Kai had known about the club scene forever, but she preferred to stay away. Not that poor-looking thieves like her were allowed in by the bouncers anyway, but it would’ve been easy to pass as a wealthy citizen and have a night out. Dex had done it often, and offered to give her a ‘Club Seven makeover,’ but the whole concept gave her the shivers. Her experience tonight served to confirm her instincts. There was a disturbing aspect to the pictures that sent chills up her spine. She couldn’t decide if it was the predatory, animalistic glare on the faces of the soldiers themselves, or the indifferent smirks of their handlers that unnerved her more.

“Let’s just get this over with,” she sighed. “I don’t like it here.”

“Alright,” agreed Dex, getting serious. He was a great thief because, in the end, he easily shed his usual air of arrogance and got down to business. “Just like we planned with Leo. I’ll go around the side of the smaller liquor bar, and you sneak around to the other wall by the food. That’s likely where a lot of the swept crystals will accumulate since the collection crew hovers around there.”

“Got it,” she said as they slid back through the side door and into the awaiting sensory overload.

This time, Dex walked casually across the stone floor and down the two steps to the dance area. Upon reaching the back of the dance floor, he waited for the strobe lights to give way to dim redness, and ducked into a crouch. He skittered across the last few feet of polished wood, situating himself between the club’s back wall and the smaller, circular bar. Kai watched him disappear behind the smooth rock before she ducked and ran along the nearest wall, cutting close to the guarded front entryway on the right. She slithered through the undulating crowd of eager ladies, and toward the stage.

She paused for a second to look at the young men being held there like circus animals. She had never seen actual Seven Soldiers this close before, and her curiosity got the best of her. Yes, they were attractive; perfectly built and handsome as hell. But they were dauntingly huge, and their eyes were empty; unseeing and unfeeling. Each one had a thick collar around his neck, buzzing with pale blue electrical energy. They were powered by a different sort of crystal, she assumed. Those collars were supposedly the only thing that could keep them docile. She shivered again.

Their handlers, who ranged in appearance from mildly attractive to downright ugly, had a wider range of facial expressions; some attentive and at-the-ready, while others were apathetic and bored. The huge throng of screaming women threw small, flat crystals at the performing soldiers on stage, doling out more money than Kai had ever seen just for the chance to interact with a monster. The money they spent allowed them to climb up and pour a glass of liquor down a soldier’s throat or feed him food from the long table to the right of the stage. They could also have a dance with a chained, brain-dampened soldier, or do even less savory things in private rooms upstairs.

Supposedly, the young men couldn’t resist the offerings. They were Seven Soldiers, which meant they were sinners, and this was a place to witness their unleashed gluttony. They opened their mouths each time, indifferent but accepting of the food and drink that gorged them through the course of the evening. Their rage, too dangerous to be put on display, was kept in check by the handlers, so supposedly, they were as complacent as puppies in this state only. No sex, though. That was too much of a liability. That was the club’s cover story at least, but Kai knew that handlers could be paid off. She had even heard of women scoring tickets for backstage passes to the Eastern Fortress where the soldiers were kept.

She shimmied along the perimeter of the club beside the stage, shaking her hips to the music’s frantic beat, trying to blend in. She darted under the long, beautifully-decorated food table once the strobe lights started up again. With quick, fluid movements, she settled herself centrally under the table, where a hanging silvery cloth obscured her from view. She saw Dex across the way, sweeping up handfuls of the crystals that had fallen to the floor, putting them into his cloth sack. Perfect timing was critical, because there had to be enough money to be worth Leo’s while, but not so much that the club collectors noticed something wrong when they came through to bag it up. She pulled out her own sack and started brushing in money that had fallen or been swept under the table by the collectors. Simple.

As she was shoveling the crystals into her take-away bag, the smell of the food on the table above hit her nostrils and her mouth began to water. The soldiers really did get the good stuff. What a waste. There was fresh fruit, cakes and chocolates, and platters of meat and cheese. She couldn’t remember the last time she had eaten something besides dry bread, and even that had been scarce lately. She continued to absentmindedly shovel money into the sack, but now her eyes were focused on a spot where the tablecloth had accidentally gotten tucked up in the corner, affording her a crooked view of the tabletop. There sat a huge piece of cake that hung precariously over the side, shaking as dancing women jostled by. Her breath caught in her throat as it slid off and landed on the floor about a foot to her left.

As her hand seemed to instinctively reach out and grab for the fallen treasure, she saw Dex shaking his head frantically out of the corner of her eye. She felt a boot-clad foot slam down hard on her hand seconds later, and a wave of pain shot through her body. Her head hit the underside of the table and food spilled all around her. Terror gripped her insides like a live wire, and she froze. Quickly, she shook herself out of it and tried to reclaim her hand, but it was too late. The black boot held tight, and she saw a hand reach under the tablecloth, getting ready to lift it and expose her completely. She had to think fast.

Kai shoved herself sideways, toward whoever was standing on her left hand, and bit into the person’s calf, right above where the boot ended. Her teeth sunk easily through the thin cotton uniform into skin and flesh. She didn’t hear any scream over the blasting music, but the booted foot slid sideways just enough as a hand clasped it defensively. That was all she needed. She saw the face of the person who had caught her for only a second. He was young and gaunt, with pasty skin and pointy features. A handler. He must’ve been in the process of escorting his soldier past the front of the stage when he had spotted her fool attempt to grab the damn cake. She could beat herself up later. Now, she had to run.

She darted past the table and away from the stage, choosing the back door across the dance floor as an exit point. She shoved around several club-goers, knocking a few to the floor as she fled through the crowd. She didn’t dare to glance at Dex as she practically jumped over him on her way out. The last thing she needed was the guilt of getting him busted, too. They could reunite back at the rendezvous point. She slammed into the door in her panic, frantically felt around, grabbed the exit bar and pushed, then bolted out into the night.

She was at least twenty yards from the building, sand rising to resist in slow, messy heaps with each crunch of her shoes, when she stole a glance behind herself. Her heart jumped into her throat. Not only was the handler chasing her; he had brought his soldier, too. The man-beast couldn’t have been more than seventeen or eighteen years old, but he was huge. He had to be at least seven feet tall and almost as wide, with muscles popping out everywhere as he bounded soundlessly after her. Taut muscles rippled over his entire body, highlighting the contrast of his distended stomach, and making him appear even more savage as he darted across the sand in his bare feet. He was clothed only in the gold loincloth that was his club outfit, but the blankness in his eyes had given way to something far more primal, his snarling face letting her know that the party was definitely over. Whatever the mental switch was that kept him calm—it had been flipped.

“Get back here, you biting little bitch!” yelled the handler.

She froze for a second, hoping his limping from her bite would slow both him and his monstrous soldier-boy down, but to her horror, the glowing chain slipped out of his hand. He cursed and made a grab for it as Kai screamed. She picked up speed as she headed across the desert sand in the direction of the outer wall of the city. Eastern Pless would hide her in its cesspool of overcrowded streets. She could go back to Leo’s place. The soldier might get his hands on a citizen or two, but he would be stopped. They were always taken down if they got loose inside the city’s walls.

Kai still had her heart and eyes set on the safety of the city’s distant lights when the snarling soldier dove and grabbed her around the legs. She screamed as she fell, and tried to claw at his arms, but he didn’t seem to notice. His fingernails ripped her skin as he flipped her over and dragged her toward his waiting mouth.

He’s going to eat me alive.

His face was very close to her now, and even in this dim light, she could see that he had the pale skin of a southerner, and ear-length blond hair. She was surprised again by how very young he looked. Then she saw his eyes. There was no humanity in the heavily-dilated pupils; only death. His open-mouthed roar exposed a straight line of teeth, with four unnaturally sharp, piercing incisors. Now face to face, she saw that the tiny rings of iris around his pupils were light brown, but the pupils themselves weren’t black the way they were supposed to be. The spot in the middle of the brown glowed with an odd blue tinge that lit his face.

Flinching, she prepared to be ripped apart. Instead, a huge jolt that rattled through her body, from the base of her spine to the top of her head, making her teeth clamp down on a shriek. Her eyes flew open, and she saw that the handler had regained control. He grabbed the chain leash around his charge’s neck and pressed a button. Waves of electricity rocked the giant, sending his body into spasms. Kai breathed a sigh of relief, even as she felt the power surge pass through him and into her own body. The last thing she thought before she lost consciousness was that it was far better to be electrocuted than to be torn to shreds by that monster.

-

Kai awoke to a girl’s voice. At first, it was a non-distinct string of muffled sounds, but soon, it sharpened until she could make sense of the words.

“And you really don’t know what she was doing there?”

“Nope,” said a second voice. This one was male and pretty deep.

“That’s so weird,” said the girl with a huff. “I wonder where she came from. You didn’t pick her up, did you?”

“You can’t be serious,” answered the boy, sounding offended.

Kai opened her eyes. All she could see was a dreary beige ceiling gradually blurring in and out of focus. She rotated her head slightly to the right. She was lying on a hard bed, and the two people speaking sat on a second bed across from her. Her vision blurred. She felt painfully dry and her body ached all over. Something bad had happened, but she couldn’t remember what it was. Where was Dex?

“Where’s Dex?” she croaked, trying to prop herself up. She hadn’t been prepared for how raspy and weak her voice sounded.

“Hey, she’s up,” said the boy. He sounded nauseatingly chipper compared to the way she felt.

The girl stood up and walked across the room, taking a seat on the edge of Kai’s bed, and she came back into focus. She was very pretty, with golden-tan skin and eyes that were an unusual amber color. Her cropped hair was so bleached that Kai couldn’t even imagine what the natural hue was supposed to be. Her eyebrows were also blonde, but a few shades darker. She had small silver hoops in her ears, similar to the ones that Dex always wore, and heavily applied eye makeup. She looked far too sophisticated for the gray sweats and white t-shirt she wore.

Kai tried to take in the room around her. There was no furniture except for the two metal beds topped with thin mattresses, and a small wooden dresser. The beige stone walls were bare and windowless, giving the tiny room the bleak feel of an interior patch of desert. The space between the beds couldn’t have been more than two feet, giving little room to walk around. The floor and blankets matched the walls with such hideous accuracy that the beds looked like two camouflaged animals in a sea of sand. The only light came from a lamp beside one of the beds. She noticed the floor was also beige stone, but nicer. Marble, maybe. It smelled bleachy and sterile.

Am I in a hospital?

“Hey,” said the girl, breaking the silence. “Who the hell are you and why did you come home with Charlie?”

“I don’t…” Kai started, sitting up. The rest of the words died in her mouth as she got her first good look at the boy.

Everything from last night came back to her in a horrible flash of images when she saw his massive form sitting there on the bed. He didn’t look quite as big as he had last night, now dressed casually the same way as the girl, but it was definitely the same soldier who had tried to kill her. At least, she thought it was. He seemed like a different person now—human and alert. She recognized his broad, boyish features and ear-length blond hair. There was a splattering of freckles across the bridge of his nose, which he scrunched up in thought as he studied her. From across the room, in this light, she couldn’t make out his creepy pupils, but that hardly mattered. She tried to make herself as small as possible, cowering on the bed.

“H… h… he…” she stammered.

“He what?” asked the girl. “She’s hysterical, Charlie. Should I slap her?” She paused. “I kind of want to.”

“I don’t know.” He shrugged, acting indifferent.

“He tried to… to eat me,” Kai finished, pointing with an accusatory finger.

The boy’s eyebrows curved downward and he chewed thoughtfully on his bottom lip. Then he shrugged again.

“What?” asked the girl, grabbing Kai’s shoulders and shaking her roughly. “Charlie, she had better not mean that in a fun way!”

“Nah, I’m sure it wasn’t in a fun way. Why would I do that?” He chuckled. “It was probably like cannibalism. Right, little girl?”

Kai nodded dumbly, her head continuing to bob up and down long after she had gotten her point across. She felt like she was losing it and suppressed a hysterical laugh. She froze when the boy named Charlie snapped his fingers.

“Hey, I know what probably happened,” he said aloud. “Maybe that incompetent asshat Marco lost control of me again, and I just went after her. I don’t know why I go after things, Tess. It’s not like I remember. Is that what happened, little girl?”

“I… I’m not a little girl,” said Kai, much higher and softer than she would’ve liked. “I’m sixteen.”

“No way!” He grinned. “I thought you were like twelve or something.”

It was so weird. She recognized his features, but watching his facial expressions change when he talked made her realize that he hardly looked like the same person. What had happened to the monster that had attacked her? It didn’t seem to exist in this boy at all now. His smile showed off flat, white front teeth, but without the snarling mouth, the tips of his incisors weren’t visible. He looked like a typical guy, friendly even. What the hell?

“Well, sorry we had to meet like that,” he said, standing. She peered out from behind the girl he’d called Tess. “I’m usually at least a little less grumpy than the way you saw me last night. I was on-duty. Well, club duty anyway. I’m Charlie, and this is Tessa.”

Running on autopilot, Kai stuck out her hand to shake, but Tessa ignored it and got up to pace back and forth on the thin strip of floor between the beds. She was about to put her pathetically outstretched hand away when Charlie slapped it, giving her a high five. She stared at the place where he had made contact, dumbfounded, before noticing that her left hand was wrapped in bandages.

“You’re pretty dark-featured,” said Tessa, glancing her way. “Are you from the north?”

“Yeah. Heverath.”

“What were you doing all the way down here?”

“I… I’m a…” She stopped short of saying the word ‘thief.’ Charlie was a Seven Soldier, no matter how nice he might seem right now, and Tessa was obviously pretty chummy with him. They sort of worked for the club that Kai and Dex had been attempting to rob. Probably best not to confess anything to them. “I was on a job. That guy who was holding your, uh…”

“Leash?” Charlie asked matter-of-factly.

“Right.” Kai blushed. “Yeah. That guy caught me trying to steal a piece of cake.”

“Oh man,” he said, chewing his bottom lip again. “There was cake?”

“You were there. I think you ate a whole bunch of it.” She felt so detached from what she was saying. He had been there, hadn’t he? But not really there. His eyes had been so empty. She reminded herself that Sevens were just empty vessels—automatons controlled by the will of the Science Council.

Kai felt dizzy as her worldview spun around a few times. Seeing a Seven Soldier talking, behaving like a person, had thrown her. Wrong. So wrong. Tessa’s amber eyes narrowed under her thick black lashes, and Kai wondered what she was thinking. She opened her mouth to say something, but they all turned their heads as a door clicked open.

“Hey, get out here, bitches!” a taunting voice called from outside the little room.

Tessa rolled her eyes and stormed out with Charlie following close behind. Kai figured there was no hiding, and forced herself to stand, dragging her stiff legs out the door after them. She realized that she was in some sort of apartment, and the room she had come from was one of several along a narrow hallway. The hall opened into a living room with a coffee table and bland beige couch, adjoining to a small kitchen with a countertop dining area. On the other side of the living room, next to the couch, was what had to be the front door. It was a metallic piece of work, strong and heavy-looking, like it was a vault door concealing a hidden treasure. Its round handle looked like it would take both hands to turn if she was lucky enough to even reach it. The entire place was windowless, and all the walls were carved of that same sandy-colored stone. The kitchen had counters, cabinets, and a sink, but no fridge. Oddly, there was a locked safe in the wall above the sink.

Kai’s gaze swept over the living room and landed on the pale, pointy face of the handler who had stood on her hand last night. He was wearing the same black boots, but now she saw he was dressed in tan military gear from head to toe. His close-cut, mouse-brown hair was thinning in places, exposing patches of a peeling, sunburned scalp. When he opened his mouth to speak, Kai noticed how yellow and crooked his teeth were.

“Well, look who’s conscious,” he said with mock enthusiasm. “Mornin’, sunshine. Caught you trying to make off with club funds last night. Naughty thief girl.”

“What the hell, Marco?” asked Tessa with a glare. “What is this tiny Northern thief doing here, then?”

Kai’s head snapped toward Tessa at the word ‘thief.’ So, they all believed the handler. She looked down quickly, trying to hide her expression.

“Hungry?” Marco asked, ignoring Tessa’s question. He hoisted a sack he was holding onto the kitchen counter.

Kai felt her head bobbing pathetically up and down without even realizing it. Despite how crappy she felt, she was starving. Tessa sucked her teeth loudly and rolled her eyes. She tapped an impatient toe, waiting for someone to speak. Charlie’s face hardened into a mask of blankness, making him a bit more reminiscent of the man-beast that had chased her down last night.

“Well, I brought some leftovers, little biting thief-bitch,” Marco said, reaching into his bag and pulling out a cardboard box. He opened it to show her a delicious-looking cake inside. This was the same moist, golden treasure that had apparently cost Kai her freedom, and it was a whole box of it. “Is this what you wanted, mongrel? Is this what you were going for last night when I stepped on that paw of yours?”

Kai’s body reacted. Her stomach twisted with hunger pangs and her mouth watered. This had to be some sort of cruel trick, but she couldn’t stop her physical reaction. It had been too long since she had last eaten.

“Here you go, Manning,” continued Marco, handing Charlie the cake. “Why don’t you share it with your friends?” His smug demeanor made Kai certain this was a joke that she wasn’t in on.

Charlie grabbed the cake and sat down with it right where he stood. He started shoveling it into his mouth, hardly chewing. Kai watched the first few slices disappear, her stomach lurching as she realized she wasn’t going to get any at all. She felt like she might cry and hated how pathetic she felt. She was supposed to be tougher than this. Hunger had made her desperate, and that was why she had been careless enough to get caught in the first place. Dex never would’ve given in to temptation the way she had.

Marco stood with his arms across his chest, smirking wickedly as Charlie finished the cake. Tessa waited with her hands on her hips as Charlie licked up the last of the crumbs from the dusty marble floor. Marco reached into the bag again and pulled out a bottle of some sort of liquor.

“Here you go, Manning,” he said, looking smug, handing over the bottle with a grin. “To wash it down.”

“You ass,” muttered Tessa, as Charlie opened the bottle and chugged down its entire contents in one gulp. Not once did he look at them.

“Not my fault he has no control,” said Marco, shrugging and smiling gleefully. “Stop him if you can, though. He’s starting to rock a wicked beer gut.” Charlie growled, but Marco ignored him. “Anyway, I came here to tell you to wake Turner. He’s on-duty starting at nine.”

“Why don’t you wake him yourself?” Tessa asked venomously.

“Because I can make you do it.” He turned his attention to Kai. “And you wait here until I get back. It was dumb luck that Manning caught you last night, but a tiny thief is something that might prove to be valuable. You’ll bunk here until further notice. Welcome to the Eastern Forces. You’ve just enlisted.”

“The…” she choked, “Excuse me? Are you telling me I’m inside the fortress?” Was she actually in the colossal fortress where the Seven Soldiers were kept and trained?

“We’ll have a chance to talk later, sweet thing. In the meantime, Tessa, you need to haul ass. I’ll be back in an hour to fetch Turner and give you your shot.”

Then he spun on his boots, turned the wheel-like handle, and walked out the door. Charlie stumbled over to the couch and sat down hard, his mouth opening into a big, dumb grin. Tessa knelt and started wiping up the remains of the cake crumbs. She picked up the bottle and the box from where he had dropped them and walked to a small garbage bin in a huff before tossing them in. She glared at Kai in a way that made her want to disappear. It was bad enough that she was a prisoner and separated from her twin; being trapped in an apartment with a bunch of Sevens was the last thing she needed.

“Go to the other room, Charlie,” snapped Tessa.

He just laughed and rolled onto his side on the couch. He closed his eyes and was snoring in seconds. Tessa cursed under her breath and walked over to the safe in the kitchen. She spun the lock, plugging in the combination, and it swung open. Kai looked over, surprised to see that it was full of nothing but nutrition bars. These were the same cardboard-tasting bricks that were rationed out to feed the poor in Heverath.

“What do you weigh?” Tessa asked absently, studying the bars.

It took Kai a minute to realize that the intimidating beauty was talking to her. She was the only other person in the room. Why would Tessa care what she weighed?

“I don’t know,” she admitted.

“Of course, you don’t,” muttered Tessa, shaking her head. Her short, blonde spikes didn’t move. “I’m guessing around ninety-five to a hundred. That’s half a bar.”

She broke one in half and tossed it across the room. Kai caught it, staring at it in her hands for a moment. Tessa took out one whole bar for herself, then closed the safe and sat down at the kitchen counter. She took a few bites of it, staring out into space. Kai tentatively walked over to the counter and sat across from her.

“Look, kid,” she started with a growl.

“I’m sixteen,” Kai reminded her.

“Yeah, whatever.” She took another bite. “Look, I’m sorry you got dragged into all this, and honestly, I don’t really like having you here. I have no use for you, but it looks like Marco’s planning on keeping you around for a while, so get comfy.” Silence followed before she added, “You should probably eat that. It’s the best and only breakfast you’re going to get.”

Kai took a bite of the bar and gagged at how tasteless and hard to chew it was. Nutrition bars were always crappy, but this tasted like an old one. Tessa got up and took a cup from a little shelf above the counter and filled it with water. She put it in front of Kai and went back to her bar.

“Thank you,” said Kai. Tessa snorted at that. “Uh, I’m Kai,” she offered. Again nothing, so she gestured to Charlie. “What… what was that all about?”

“Jeez. You really don’t know anything about Seven Soldiers, do you?”

“Just what I’ve heard.”

“And what have you heard, pray tell?”

What have I heard? What have I seen?

Kai considered for a moment how small her knowledge of the system actually was. She knew that from the time she was a child in Heverath, she had seen the armored trucks moving like huge gray insects across the grasslands. They were transporting power crystals—crystals that made the planet work. The vehicles always fell silent before they stopped at the city gates to unload. And then, there was a thunderstorm of stomping boots on the feet of faceless giants. She had seen the Seven Soldiers marching through the streets like a sandstorm, and had known, even as a child, to keep her distance.

Sevens didn’t operate on free will. They followed the orders of the scientists who ruled them, standing guard as their handlers traded crystal power for money to continue their experiments, create more soldiers, and to mine for more crystals. It was an endless, repeating pattern. Years ago, a movement of rebel citizens had joined the game in an attempt to counter the tyranny of the Science Council. Those rogue civilians had grown in number and coalesced, and were known today as the Western Army. That had ultimately caused more chaos and violence. But Tessa had only asked what Kai knew of the soldiers.

“That they’re monsters,” she said, ignoring Tessa’s frown. “Completely unable to control their most basic urges. They’re infected the moment they’re born with the seven deadly sins that are spoken of in the old scriptures. They grow to be trained killers; the attack dogs of the East. They can be seen at clubs and in cages on display sometimes, but they’re not real people. Not like us, at least. They’re more like animals.” She paused, glancing at Charlie asleep on the couch. What she was seeing now didn’t mesh with that definition, so apparently, she hadn’t heard the whole story.

“Wow,” muttered Tessa, looking up and meeting Kai’s eyes directly for the first time. “I’m impressed. You’re even dumber than you look.”

The Sin Soldiers is hitting shelves tomorrow! Pre-order your copy here!

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