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READ THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS: The Crystal War (Fragments,#2)

Last year, author Tracy Auerbach brought us to a riveting dystopia of color coded compounds and drug-controlled teenagers-turned-beasts. Now, Auerbach is back with the long-awaited sequel to The Sin Soldiers, THE CRYSTAL WAR.

This Tuesday we'll rejoin Kai, Finn, and their friends as they fight for justice and try to avoid the most toxic chemical compound the Science Council has conjured thus far.

Be sure to pre-order your copy of The Crystal War (Fragments, #2)!

Chapter One

Bill’s boots gouged through the sand as he was dragged from the vehicle that had stolen him from the safety of his camp; the hands gripping his biceps were huge and rough. A black scarf had been wrapped over his head, covering his eyes, and a gag stuffed in his mouth. The toes of his leather boots bumped up then down as the sand’s softness was replaced by cement underfoot. The footsteps of those who dragged him echoed, and it registered; he’d been taken indoors. Hands repositioned themselves on his arms as he was slammed backward onto a cold metal table. Struggling, he tried to yell, but no sound got past the gag. Restraints, large and cold, closed over his wrists and ankles. He bucked and kicked before feather-gentle fingers touched his temples, a sensation vastly different from the rough grip that had previously held him. The scarf over his eyes was lifted away to reveal slender fingers. He blinked in the harsh light, waiting for his blurry vision to focus. When it did, his heart sunk, and he froze. Struggling had been futile. The woman above him was the rumored head of the New Resistance. Bill stared “into the strange, amber eyes of the woman he had heard about. Over the past few months, whispers had traveled throughout the west: rumors of her beauty and cruelty and, above all, her power. His small army of Resistance fighters had been preparing for her imminent attack. Everything he had heard about her magnificence was true; golden eyes that sat in a perfectly structured face, tan and well-defined but not too sharp to be feminine. White-blonde hair stood in spikes over her arched brows. Gunmetal gray hoops in her ears reflected the light of a small crystal fragment set into a dome lamp over the table. She was dressed head to toe in utilitarian black tactical clothing, but he could still tell that her body was a work of art. He couldn’t guess her height; she seemed tall, with beautifully defined curves and a tiny waist. “Stop staring, prisoner,” she whispered in a melodic voice. Bill was in a lab, but he couldn’t see much. The halo of light from the single “crystal above was dim and focused, but beyond the table where he lay, details quickly melted into shadows. He could barely make out the hulking shapes of the men who had dragged him from his guard post; only the beautiful, terrible woman was clear. He tried to speak, but his lips fought uselessly against the fabric still in his mouth. “Do you wish to say something?” asked the woman. He nodded, and she removed the binding from between his dry lips—he licked them before speaking. “I’ve heard of you,” said Bill, awed. “These past couple of months, everything’s changed.” “It has. I am changing things. And this is just the beginning.” “Are you going to make me into one of your slaves?” “I must have your absolute loyalty. I’ll accept nothing less.” Bill swallowed, feeling ill with the certainty that he wasn’t going to get out of this, and he saw her smile, as if she knew exactly what he was thinking. “Why me?” “Why not?” She blinked, momentarily releasing him from the power behind her eyes. “You’re a good soldier; I’ve done my research. You’re exactly what I’m looking for right now. You will come and work for me, just as they have.” She made a sweeping gesture toward the men around them. “Forgive me, Miss…” “Raven.” “Forgive me, Miss Raven, but what makes you think you can you ensure my loyalty?” “It’s just Raven,” she corrected, her expression unchanging. “And the answer is simple. It’s all about consumption.” “Consumption?” “Yes. Everyone is a consumer. Press the right button, and anyone’s loyalty can be controlled. Even yours, soldier.” “My name is…” “Not important,” she cut him off. Bill sighed. He’d had more than enough of being controlled: given over from his foster home to the Eastern Forces, trained to mine for crystals, months of being a type ‘B’ soldier on blue compound, only to be stolen in a raid by the Resistance and retrained as a guard, led to believe that he was at last working for a higher cause. And now this. Raven gestured to the soldiers standing in shadow, and Bill craned his neck to try and see what was happening, only to close his eyes, feeling his stomach drop when one of the men approached, holding up a faintly glowing blue syringe. So more of the same, then. “What’s his poison?” asked the man with the syringe. “Primarily stimulants,” instructed Raven. “Food as a secondary, pre-established reinforcer.” The man leaned closer, and Bill saw by the light of the glowing crystal fragment that he was young, with a healing but grisly-looking scab that ran the length of his left cheek, ending near his eye.

Bill jerked in his restraints, even though he knew it was futile, and gritted his teeth as the needle pierced the skin of his upper arm. The fire of the compound made its way through his blood, causing him to sigh in relief. It still felt good, every time, even after being off it for months now. It had only taken him a few weeks back at the Eastern Fortress to become addicted to the compound itself and months for the Resistance to detox him.

Heart racing, his stimulant craving spiked. He refused to beg until the Raven girl held a small vial of pungent-smelling coffee under his nose—then he screamed with want. The compound created an itch that the right thing could scratch, and it felt so good. “Would you like this?” she asked in a silky, taunting voice. “Yes,” he whimpered. “Open up, then.” Bill opened his mouth, sick with anticipation of the bitter cordial that would bring relief to his burning blood. Every pump of his heart demanded it. He greedily swallowed the wetness on his tongue, but it didn’t taste like coffee. He opened his eyes and saw that the Raven girl held a vial that was empty but for a glowing residue. She’s given me Shine. Bill stared at his tormentor. It was too late to spit out the horribly addictive drug. Gulping with a heedless greed he usually reserved for coffee, he’d swallowed a good mouthful of it. Too much. She had him. Knowing that Shine would quickly supersede his moral compass, he tried to hold on to his terror, his ideals; he tried to retain any part of himself. But as he looked into her expressionless eyes, he began to feel the drug taking hold. Soon, the fear faded, along with all thoughts of fleeing. The world shrunk, leaving room for her alone in his mind. His senses sharpened, overwhelmed by the power of her presence and the Shine’s euphoria. The rest of the world faded away, and nothing else mattered but his new queen. I will serve this woman forever.”

Chapter Two

Two months earlier

Kai crept toward the table where Aric stood, staring at his newest toy. It was a type ‘A’ soldier that the Western Army had captured and handed over to him at last. The enormous boy had been delivered in much the same way that C. Manning had been, walking but unconscious, and receptive only to Aric’s commands. Now he lay strapped to a table, still entirely at Aric’s mercy. Only three weeks ago, Charlie had been Aric Abbott’s test subject, lying helpless on that table. Kai sighed and glanced around the slightly upgraded lab. The large white room had several scanning machines built above two metal exam tables, surrounded by rolling cabinets stocked with medical storage equipment. A recessed crystal lighting system was suspended overhead, casting plenty of illumination on the horrific experiments Aric dreamed up. Computers in the corner and against the far wall were attached to wires and connected to a hanging board covered with lights. Each one represented a stationed member of either the Eastern Forces or the Western Army.

The hi-tech cage was new, built with reinforced “type ‘A’-proof” steel bars, tested by C. Manning himself, with sufficient electrical current to make any soldier’s teeth rattle.

“Okay,” muttered Aric to himself. “Here goes nothing.” He approached the prone soldier and flashed his photogun. The soldier blinked, displaying a tiny hint of awareness, but his expression stayed mostly blank. His eyes dilated, but it was too light for Kai to make out the likely telltale glow of serum syndrome in the pupils’ depths. “Swallow this,” ordered Aric. He held up an iridescent pill, and the soldier obediently opened his mouth and gulped it down. “Okay,” Aric mumbled, turning around. “It’s done. Now we’ll just transfer him to the cage and wait for the magic. That is, if you’ve told me the sequence of things correctly.” He cast a meaningful look at Kai’s brother, Dex, who stood on the other side of the room. “Yes, I’ve told you everything,” said Dex. “A hundred times: First, he took the black crystal, then he swallowed the Shine, most likely several hours later. Simple.” They’d gone over this time and time again, and Aric was annoyed that Dex wasn’t certain about the precise timing. But it couldn’t be helped. The only one who might’ve known when exactly he took the second pill was Charlie, and he was gone. Instead, C. Manning stood closely by Dex, acting as a vigilant bodyguard. Aric brushed by Dex in a huff, and Dex scowled at his boyfriend’s disapproval like a child who’d been scolded. Kai hated that her brother seemed to have been reduced to his megalomaniac boyfriend Aric’s favorite accessory. He’d dropped all pretenses of the ‘self’ he’d clung to for Kai’s benefit. His personality was completely different now; even his look had changed.

Nowadays, he was usually decked out in silk and linen clothing. His spiky hair had been bleached, then dyed burgundy. His fingers bore golden rings inlaid with several colors of power crystals, and bracelets wrapped around both slim wrists. Leather gloves hid the glow of the crystals from view when he needed to be discreet. The cast-iron ear hoops he still wore were the only remaining artifact of their life before moving into the townhouse base with Aric. Everything else had been tailored to meet the tastes of the boyfriend he seemingly worshipped unconditionally. Kai shifted her gaze to C. Manning, lurking behind Dex. She thought about how they were both Aric’s pets now. C was formerly Charlie Manning, but now a generic type ‘A’ soldier, whose mind had been overhauled by a pill filled with black crystal and whose values had been reset by repetitive use of a photogun. To Aric’s delight, C followed orders beautifully, unhindered by things like emotions or free thinking. At over seven feet tall and more than three hundred pounds, he was a wall of solid muscle, and his new goal was to get as close to zero percent body fat as a human could get, thanks to a regimen of rigorous diet and exercise. His blond hair had been cut close to his head, and his brown eyes were still lit by the faintest glow of black light from the crystal. Aric’s current experiment was meant to replicate what had happened to C. Manning so that he could create an army of perfect super-soldiers. “Hey,” said the soldier on the table, suddenly springing to life and pulling at his restraints. “Where am I? What’s happening?"

“Temporarily immune to all outside influence,” muttered Aric. “It’s the Shine. Can’t be helped.” Kai turned away and pressed the button on the elevator that led out of the lab. She had seen enough. If this worked and they could ‘reset’ all of the Eastern Forces’ type ‘A’ soldiers who were currently in stasis or sick with serum syndrome, then the sacrifices of Charlie and her friends might be worth the price they’d paid. After being rescued from imprisonment in the Eastern Fortress, and the horror of being made into a Seven Soldier herself, Kai had placed all her bets on Aric being able to command the soldiers to take down the Science Council that ruled over their entire planet. If that happened, then this would all be worthwhile. She just hated having to trust a narcissistic sociopath whose emotions had been removed by his father before he was “born. That’s what the scientists and doctors did: design and control people to meet their needs. She felt lucky that she hadn’t been given enough doses of the blue compound to suffer any lasting effects. Kai walked out of the elevator and into the opulent parlor next to the entryway in Aric and his mother Elyse’s townhouse. She sat down on a plush mint-green sofa and fiddled with a scuff mark on a dark wood coffee table that held several Fabergé eggs and an antique clock. The high-hat domed marble ceilings let a lot of light in, but the place still felt dreary. At first, she had been impressed with the mansion, the combo formed out of the four townhouses Aric owned. But now the whole place seemed just as sterile and lifeless as the lab downstairs. Any warmth was an illusion, just like Aric’s smile.

Kai withdrew her eyes from the empty room and picked up a coaster, rolling it between her palms. Sighing, she put it down and traced the scuff mark again. She hated downtime. It made her think of him: Finn Turner, who had run away when things got tough, even after he’d promised not to. At first, she hadn’t believed Dex and Aric’s insistence that Finn had left of his own accord. But then, after hearing nothing from him for days, she’d snuck out and returned to the bakery where Tessa had taken her, the one that Finn’s family owned. She’d waited until dark, with no sign of him. When she was about to leave, she’d seen him slip out of a back entrance into the alleyway behind the shop, hands thrust in pockets, hooded sweatshirt drawn tightly around his face. He’d looked well enough. Certainly, no one was keeping him from returning to her; he’d obviously chosen to leave her all on his own. She had closed her heart to him as best she could after that, but thinking about him still brought a vile mix of pain and anger. And Tessa had left, too. Kai had searched for “Tessa as well. She’d scoured all of Pless for any sign of her type ‘C’ roommate, but there was nothing. Either something terrible had happened, or she’d left the city on her own. And when Kai had asked Dex and Aric to help find her, both had continued to insist that Tessa had left on her own and wouldn’t want to be bothered. In the end, Kai was the only one who’d stuck around when things got tough. What was worse, there had been a time when Kai would’ve trusted Dex with her life or the lives of any of her friends… but that time was over. Kai looked up as the elevator opened again and C stepped out. He was dressed in the same style of casuals he had always worn back at the fort—a white t-shirt and gray sweatpants. His cropped blond hair gave him a harsher, more military-style look, and the weight he’d lost over the past few weeks made the angles of his face sharper. The mildly rounded, boyish visage was gone. He looked older somehow and very much the soldier. “So,” she started, “I suppose we’ll just wait to see if the soldier dies, becomes feral, or has his mind wiped like you.” “Yes. That seems to be our course of action now.” Kai shook her head. The venom in her voice was completely lost on him. More and more, she felt like she was the only person in the house with real feelings, ones strong enough to cause her pain. Even Aric’s mother, Elyse, who should’ve been a typical human with a full set of emotions, was withdrawn and cold, like her son.

Kai motioned for C to come, and he obediently strode across the parlor to stand beside her. His mannerisms were stiff and robotic, including the way he always stood perfectly still and neutral, with his hands at his sides. Sometimes she needed to hear his voice, and although she hadn’t known Charlie for long, she had mourned him deeply. Now she told C things that she didn’t want forgotten and had to repeat them many times to get him to remember. She still wasn’t sure why she did it at all—maybe she was losing her mind. “Please tell me what you remember, C,” she said. Of course, he didn’t remember; he’d just be reciting her memories back at her. “I need to hear it.” “All right, then,” he said, voice detached. “Your name is Kai. They used to call me Charlie. The girl that he—Charlie—loved “was Tessa. And the other soldier who escaped with you was called Finn. Is that enough for now?” “Not really.” She crossed her arms and scowled, hating how petulant she felt. “I just… I mean, I guess I’m just trying to find someone who can feel so I have someone to talk to. I’m lonely, C.” “Why don’t you try Dex, then?” he suggested. “I understand that he has a typical range of emotion.” “Thanks, C. You can go now.” He nodded and left to go to his room up the grand staircase. Talk to Dex? Yeah, right. Easier said than done.

---- Dex stared down at his hands as he rode up in the elevator shaft. He had always loved his hands: long, thin fingers, super dexterous. Now, they were topped off with power crystals, a mark of the aristocratic class. In his opinion, it was about damn time he didn’t have to scrape through a gutter to find his next meal. He had earned the right to have more than two crap-tastic outfits to choose from. That entire part of his life was a huge embarrassment, and he never wanted to think about it again. Not so lucky, though, am I? His newly holier-than-thou sister suddenly questioned his integrity. Now, after he had managed to provide her with a home, beautiful clothing—not that she wore any of it—food, and luxury beyond her wildest dreams… now she had a problem with him. And that was just the icing on the designer-made, bakery-fresh cake. She also completely hated and distrusted Aric with no good reason.

Sulky and distant, she’d started looking down on him for some reason that she didn’t care to discuss. How could she possibly hate Aric? He was perfect. In fact, Dex already felt the pang of his boyfriend’s absence as he left the lab. But Kai couldn’t see how amazing Aric was. She was blind. And he was growing tired of it, fast. In fact, he hoped he didn’t see her when the elevator opened into the parlor. No such luck. There she was, sitting forward on the couch, elbows on knees, looking like someone—probably Dex himself—had just killed her puppy. Her eyes began to well up at the sight of him, and he leaned his forehead onto his jeweled knuckles, wishing she’d somehow disappear. He couldn’t take much more of this dramatic sulking from her. Kai had always been tough, done what she needed to do. Why was she falling apart now?

He felt his hand creep up to tug on his ear hoop on the left side. Damn! He had to break himself of that tell showing he was anxious. He quickly withdrew his hand, wanting to punch himself for being so transparent. Tells were for those who were weak, the kind of people who wore their emotions all over like a second skin. So not him. “What have I done now?” he asked as he stepped out of the elevator. “Nothing,” she said. “It’s just… I miss you.” “Well, I’m right here.” Kai looked up, assessed him in a way that made him self-conscious, then looked back down. “I miss the old you.” “You’d have me go back to ‘pauper chic,’” he spat. “Well, I’m not doing it. Not even for you.” Kai looked down, and Dex stormed past her and up to the master bedroom he shared with Aric. He scrunched his eyes tight and squeezed his hands into fists. His body felt fuzzy—like he was detached from reality. Nothing seemed clear enough. Maybe if he could focus properly, he’d be able to sort out this mess with his sister. Why was she so angry? What had he done wrong? They used to get along so effortlessly, and now… I need some Shine. Now. He leaned out into the hallway to make sure nobody was coming, then quietly shut his door. Lately, Aric had suggested that Dex take it easy on the Shine, so he’d decided to sneak his doses. He sat down on the shiny, black duvet and crept a hand under Aric’s pillow to withdraw the small vial of shimmery liquid, glowing softly against the black of their bed coverings. It was so beautiful. Just like Aric. The luminescence within reminded him of Aric’s eyes.

Dex sometimes found his significant other so overwhelmingly attractive and magnificent that he had to struggle to behave normally around him. Why couldn’t Kai see how amazing Aric was? Dex took a sip of Shine out of the vial—he had dispensed with using the tiny dropper Aric had given him. As the warm liquid hit his stomach and dispersed through his veins, his presence of mind returned in a heady rush. Kai didn’t really matter. How could anything matter when he had Aric and when he felt like this? His life’s choices were purposeful, blissful, and beyond second guessing.

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