The first solid mass to coalesce from chaos. The first planet born out of the swirling cosmological void when the universe was new.
And living hell.
The sun beat down relentlessly on a landscape so dry and desolate that only a few meager plants somehow managed to eke out life. There were no trees, rivers, or mountains—nothing but sand, an endless expanse of uninhabitable desert.
Only one thing built by man in all the years since the planet’s creation from the void existed on Alpha—a prison. Dug deep into the earth, the worst of the worst criminals were sent there to suffer and die. Not just anyone was sent to Alpha. A person had to do something really horrific to end up there.
Like, try to take over the entire magic dimension, for example.
“Welcome to Alpha,” the guard said with a grin. “Hope you enjoy your stay.”
Four guards escorted Valentine through the levels of the prison: two in front of him and two behind. In other circumstances, he might have wondered at the need for such treatment. They couldn’t seriously think he would try to run away now. But after everything he had been through in the last three weeks, he couldn’t muster up the energy to care.
As unassuming as it looked from above, the prison was surprisingly complex below the surface, where it supposedly stretched for miles. Staircases and support beams gave the hole in the ground structure, reminding him a bit of a snail shell with its spiraling design.
As they passed, other prisoners stared out at him from cells lining the curved walls. There were no underlying similarities between them but for one thing—the despairing look on their faces. Like they had long since given up hope of ever leaving this awful place.
Valentine detested the thought of ending up like them.
He’d lost track of how long they had been walking when the guards stopped in front of a vacant cell. One of them opened the door and another gave him a rough shove to the back, forcing him to stumble inside. There was an awful finality in the sound the door made as it closed.
“Try not to get into any more trouble.” The first guard sneered and then they vanished into thin air.
Alone at last, Valentine curled his fingers around the bars as the reality of his situation settled in for the first time.
Just six weeks ago, he had been heading up a revolution that was poised to change the world. He was going to rule the dimension. And everyone from his life before Ravenwood would know how wrong they were to think he’d never amount to anything.
Now he was here. Alpha.
Because of her.
Sweet little Tamara Kingsley. She’d been the perfect pawn at first—so impressionable, so eager to learn, never asking questions, always wanting to believe the best of him. That was all she was ever supposed to be: useful, convenient, a means to an end. He’d never expected to find himself caring for her the way he did.
And he certainly never expected her to betray him.
Anger flooded his veins and without thinking, Valentine slammed his fist against the bars of the door. The rattling sound was surprisingly satisfying, as was the pain in his knuckles. So he did it again. And again. And again.
Tamara, Tamara, Tamara…
“Oi, will you quit it with the banging! I’m trying to sleep here!”
The sharp female voice startled him out of his rage and he stopped just before his fist made contact again, gasping instead as the pain hit like a shockwave. Lungs aching for breath, he staggered over to the dusty cot in the corner—the only piece of furniture in the cell—and sank down onto it with his hand still smarting and his mind working overtime.
It had been years since Valentine had lost control of himself like that, definitely since before Ravenwood. Outbursts of self-destructive anger didn’t fit the persona he’d so carefully constructed for himself when he’d been given that miraculous chance at a better life.
But now here he was—broken, destitute, alone—just as his fate likely would have been if he’d stayed the angry little boy in foster care.
No. I was better than that. I am better than that. This is not where my story ends.
His hand tightened into a fist, anger sharpening his thoughts into icy clarity.
No one had ever escaped from Alpha? Valentine would be the first.
Life in Alpha wasn’t pleasant, but at least it followed a fairly predictable pattern.
The tiny square cells offered little to no protection against the heat or the sand that blew in from the desert above, which seemed to coat every single surface with a fine layer of grit. Temperatures varied wildly—boiling hot during the day and freezing cold at night, with no respite from either extreme.
Above all, to survive in Alpha, one had to learn to ignore the guards. Almost all were verbally and physically abusive, but the slightest impertinence of any kind merited harsh punishment.
Of course, Valentine had never been very good at following other people’s rules. Which was how he found himself digging holes in the sand under the burning desert sun with five guards close at hand to keep him from trying anything. Supposedly there was a purpose to the digging, but to Valentine it just read like an excuse to make him suffer even more than he already was.
When he was finally escorted back to his cell, he was sweaty, exhausted, and covered in sand. Valentine wanted nothing more than to take a long, cool shower, but that would have to wait until tomorrow. Instead, he flopped down onto his cot, grimacing as the sand rubbed against his skin, even beneath his clothes.
“Goddamn it,” he cursed under his breath, sitting up and trying to shake it out.
A very undignified snort broke the almost stifling silence and Valentine turned to see the tough-looking blonde in the next cell staring at him, her lips twitching.
“Do I amuse you?” he asked, raising an eyebrow as he leaned back on his bed. He normally didn’t talk to any of his fellow prisoners, but after the events of today, his patience was wound to the limit.
She held his stare with dark, piercing eyes. “Newbies like you are always fun to watch. Until they either mellow out into zombies or go crazy.” The sound of her voice was interesting, sort of raspy like a smoker’s and syrupy-sweet at the same time.
“Well I’m sorry to disappoint, but I don’t plan to do either. If you want some petty entertainment, you’ll have to look elsewhere.”
She laughed, a genuine, full-bodied laugh. “Someone’s got a spark of attitude,” she said, sounding almost impressed. “Better learn to suppress it or you’ll be in for an eternity of digging holes and scratching sand out of your unmentionables.”
Though he craved sleep, somehow he wasn’t quite ready to roll over and ignore her. Maybe it was just something about having a conversation. Actual interpersonal communication was something he hadn’t had in a long while and hadn’t realized just how much he missed it.
Valentine studied her out of the corner of his eye. She was rail-thin and petite with a long, angular face and a sharp chin, her skin tanned to a deep bronze. Not about to win any beauty contests, but at the same time, she was… striking. Yes, that was the word for her, he decided. Striking. A sharp contrast to Tamara, who was all pale skin and dark hair and innocent, fragile beauty.
He winced at the thought of Tamara. Like a knife to the chest, the pain was fresh, hot and sharp. Even though several months had passed since he’d become a permanent resident of Alpha, time had done nothing to heal those wounds.
As long as every passing thought of her hurt like the day he learned of her deceit, he wasn’t sure it ever would.
“So much for not going zombie on me.” The blonde’s sharp voice brought him back to the present and he blinked a couple of times to see her staring at him with a slightly twisted smile. “Thinking hard or hardly thinking, new guy?”
“The former.” He added, “And my name’s Valentine, not ‘new guy.’”
She pursed her lips. “Audra,” she offered coolly after a moment.
“So, Audra, why are you here?” He thought it was a simple question but realized too late he’d made a mistake when her face turned to stone.
“That’s a story you have to earn.” Her eyes narrowed. “And you? What did you do that was so bad, Valentine?” There was something almost mocking in the way she said his name that set him on edge.
“I thought you said stories like that need to be earned.”
A hint of a smile crept onto her lips as he parroted her words back to her. “Touché.” Her eyes were light again, almost laughing. “Maybe you’re not hopeless after all.”
Valentine inched closer to the wall that separated them, all thoughts of taking a nap abandoned for the foreseeable future. Maybe it was a mistake to let his guard down around another prisoner, but Audra seemed sane enough and he was relishing the opportunity to actually use his brain again.
“It’s always like this, then?” he asked. “If you look at one of them the wrong way they’ll send you out there to do the most pointless physical labor I’ve ever seen?”
“Mmm-hmm.” Audra leaned back against the wall, running her fingers through her shaggy, dark blond hair. It was darker at the roots, fading out to a pale gold near the ends. “And they can do whatever they want to us because we’re nothing. We’re the garbage the rest of the dimension doesn’t want to remember, so they toss us in here and let us rot away without bothering them with the stench.”
The cynical, defeated tone of her voice made Valentine wince internally. “That’s an awfully pessimistic viewpoint,” he said carefully.
“It’s the only realistic one down here.” She turned her head to look at him as a piece of hair fell in front of her face. “In ten or so years when you haven’t aged a day, you’ll start to see it my way. This place has a way of breaking spirits just as easily as the guards break backs.”
It’s true, then. He’d heard rumors that time worked differently on Alpha, leaving the people here stuck like flies in amber and denying them even the relief of death. Giving a bunch of criminals immortality seemed implausible, but now, having spent time on Alpha, he could see why no one else wanted to live here.
Valentine stole another look at Audra, wondering how old she was and how long she’d been in Alpha. Though she appeared to be in her mid-twenties, something about the look in her eyes seemed world-weary, like she had seen the worst of the world and lived to tell the tale. But he thought better of asking, not wanting to provoke another mood swing.
“I’d heard stories but didn’t think they could be true. We really don’t age down here?”
“Nope.” Audra pushed the piece of hair out of her eyes. “There’s a stasis spell in the air. You must’ve felt it, it’s like the worst kind of humidity.”
Valentine let her words settle around him like stones in a pond. “You sure seem to know a lot about this place.”
“I’ve been here a long time.” She kicked out a leg in front of her, examining a lock of her hair for split ends. “You’ll see what it’s like if you last long enough.”
“I thought you said we don’t die down here?”
“I said we don’t age. But if you’re desperate enough to end your own life—as many people eventually get—it’s very possible to do that.”
Valentine wrinkled his nose. He’d lived through some hellish times but couldn’t imagine any circumstances where he’d actually prefer dying to living. “I’ve never had a single thought of suicide in my entire life.”
“It’s either suicide or spending an eternity stuck in this hellhole with the heat and the guards, never aging, never changing… Most people can’t survive that for a handful of years, much less forever.”
“Or there’s a third option.”
Audra arched an eyebrow. “Hmm?”
She snorted. “You are a newbie.” Audra tipped her head back against the wall, closing her eyes. “The glittering film of hope and optimism will wear off after a couple of years. Trust me when I tell you there’s only one way out of here.” She dragged a finger from one side of her neck to the other. “Anyone who thinks otherwise is crazy or kidding themselves. Probably both.”
“I don’t think that’s true.”
Audra opened one eye, still managing to glare at him with the other closed.
Valentine lowered his voice. “I can see it in your eyes. You put up a good front like you’ve been worn down by all your years in this place, but you’re not the type of person who gives up so easily. You still dream of getting out of here. And you look far from insane to me.”
A sly half smile spread across her lips and she opened the other eye. “And if you’re right? What’s it to you?”
“Nothing.” He feigned nonchalance. “Just nice to know I’m not alone.”
Audra stared at him for a moment before she chuckled. “You’re a quick study, Valentine,” she said, a gleam of something in her eye he almost wanted to call respect. “Maybe you’ll find that third option yet.”