29. 12:00 A.M..-. Long Midnight. BETH

“Beth!” Jessica shouted for the hundredth time. “Where are you?”

The cave had to be around here somewhere, she was positive. But three weeks ago Jessica and Jonathan had flown here, not walked. Somehow the path had disappeared right under her feet, fading out into scrub and tree roots. Everything looked weird and unfamiliar here in the rip, the edges of the leaves glinting with purple and crimson fire.

She checked her watch. It had been almost ten minutes since she’d left Melissa behind. Soon the younger darklings would be closing in.

She pulled out her flashlight and whispered its new name: Foolhardiness.

The beam surged through the forest, driving away the violet shimmer of the rip. Jessica heard movement ahead, a slither—or something larger—fleeing before the white light.

“Beth!” she cried. “Where are you?”

Finally an answer came. Not to her ears, but in words that sounded distantly in her mind.

To your right, fast. They need you.

Melissa. The mindcaster’s taste washed across Jessica’s tongue—a strange sensation, given that she’d never thought of Melissa as having a taste before. But there it was, bitter and caustic, like chewing some pill you were supposed to swallow.

Jessica began to run, veering right until a high-pitched scream reached her through the trees. She barreled toward the sound, ignoring the branches whipping at her face and clothes. The rip had cleared the suspended raindrops from the air, but the trees were still heavy with water—dumping gallons on her as she crashed through them.

Another scream came from dead ahead. Close.

She burst out into the familiar clearing, saw the finger of stone thrusting into the air, then stumbled to a halt, eyes wide. A thing was wrapped around the cave entrance, like a great jellyfish attached to its prey, its tendrils sinking into the rock itself. It had no head that Jessica could see, just a tangled knot of stringy appendages, all matted together like hair caught in a bathtub drain.

A small human figure stood just inside the mouth of the cave, pale and shaking, the creature’s tendrils wound around her arms and legs.

Jessica ran toward it, playing Foolhardiness’s white light across the creature.

But its tendrils didn’t burst into flame; instead they sizzled angrily with blue fire, coiling tighter.

Rex had warned them that they might see new things tonight, things born well before midnight had been created, so old that mere white light wouldn’t be enough to slay them.

In which case, he had said, there was always fire.

Jessica pulled a highway flare from her pocket and, in a move she’d practiced all week, flicked its top off, banging the two pieces against each other in a glancing blow.

“Ventriloquism,” she said, and the flare burst to life, its radiance white-hot and blinding.

In its radiance she saw one of the thing’s legs reaching for her, snaking across the ground. She knelt, thrusting the flare at it. The tendril sizzled, a low flame racing across it, bringing up a gagging smell of burned hair and dust.

It retreated, slithering away from her, but another reached through the air.

“Haven’t had enough?” Jessica said, fending it off. The arm darted around her, just outside the reach of the hissing flame. In the corner of her eye she saw another arm stretching its way from the creature.

She swallowed. Since she’d become the flame-bringer, the darklings had been so afraid of her. But apparently these old ones didn’t cut and run.

This was their night, after all.

Jessica lunged forward, swinging the flare into the closest tendril. A gout of flame exploded, bringing a low, mournful scream and another rush of the burned-hair smell.

She looked around for the other arm….

At that moment something wrapped itself around her leg, soft and feathery but bitter cold. The chill climbed through her, shooting up her spine, bringing with it a tidal wave of emotion: old fears and nightmares rose in her, forgotten terrors dredged up to the surface of her mind.

Suddenly Jessica felt lost, filled with the certainly that she was failing out of school, was leaving her old friends forever, going to a place where reality was warped and strange. The panic of finding a new classroom after the tardy bell had rung paralyzed her, cold as the stares of a thousand unfriendly strangers.

Everyone in Bixby hated her, she suddenly knew.

Open your hand, Jess, a distant voice implored.

She obeyed unthinkingly, hoping to please the voice in her head, her fingers releasing the flare. Her only weapon fell from her grasp.

Then, like a phone line going dead, the cold disappeared, all her terrors vanishing in the space of a heartbeat. And again the screaming sound filled the air, slow and piercing and mournful, like the Bixby firehouse’s noon siren.

Jessica looked down; the flare’s burning end had cut the tendril as it had fallen, releasing her from the creature’s spell.

“Thanks, Melissa,” she whispered, kneeling to retrieve the flare. She held it in front of herself, charging toward the thing wrapped around the mouth of the cave.

Tendrils began to writhe as she approached, slithering from the arms and legs of the small, pale figure in the cave’s entrance, abandoning their grasp of the stone spire. A smaller set of extremities whirled around the thing’s matted center like the blades of a helicopter, hissing with the sound of escaping steam. It rose slowly into the air.

Jessica hurled the flare directly at the creature and in the same motion reached into her pocket for another. As she worked to light it, the darkling thing burst into flame above her, the smell of dead rat and rotten eggs filling the air. It unleashed its mournful howl again, still rising, then flying across the sky. The flame seemed to be riding the creature, somehow unable to consume it. And then the burning mass passed over the horizon of trees.

Jessica held the new flare out, lighting the mouth of the cave. The small figure had fallen to the ground and lay huddled and sobbing. Another pale face appeared out of the darkness.

“Beth?” she said, squinting through the smoke of the flare.

“It’s me—Cassie.” The girl took another step into the light, then knelt next to the fallen figure, turning her face up.

It was Beth, so pale she was almost unrecognizable.

Jessica dropped the flare and fell to her knees. “Beth!”

For a moment the only answer was a wild fluttering of eyelids. Then Beth sucked in a sudden, sharp breath, and her eyes opened.

“Jess?” she answered.

“I’m here. Are you all right?”

“Yeah. Sure. What a nightmare. Was I screaming or just…?” Beth’s eyes opened wider as she took in Cassie, the burning flare, the red-tinged blue time all around them. “What the hell, Jess?”

“What are you doing out here?” Jessica cried.

Cassie’s expression was dazed, but she answered calmly. “We snuck out tonight. We figured something was going on out here at midnight.”

“You guys were right about that.”

“What was that thing?” Cassie asked.

“What thing…?” Beth said weakly.

“I have no idea. I mean, it was a darkling, but not the usual kind.”

“A darkling?”

Jessica shook her head. “I’ll explain later. Beth, can you stand up?”

Beth rose slowly to her feet. The highway flare cast wildly jittering light into the cave behind them, and both the girls’ faces looked ghostly in its harsh shadows.

“I remember the flashlight conking out,” Beth said, then looked at Jessica. “Why are you here? What’s going on?” Her voice had regained some strength.

“Later, Beth. Can’t you see we have to go?”

“Go where? I mean, what is all this? Is this what you sneak out to do every night?”

“Beth!” Jessica reached back and grabbed her sister’s hand. “I’ll tell you later! Come on!”

“But you won’t!” Beth planted her feet, not letting Jessica take another step. “You never tell me anything!”

Jessica groaned. Her little sister apparently didn’t remember the creature that had taken hold of her; she didn’t realize how close she’d come to being lunch meat. Even Cassie had folded her arms across her chest.

Part of her wanted to scream, but another part wanted nothing more than to stop in her tracks and tell Beth everything. Finally no secrets between them.

Jessica put her hands on her sister’s shoulders. “Okay. This is what I couldn’t tell you about. This is what’s weird about Bixby. It changes at midnight, becomes… something terrible. And we have to deal with it, me and my friends.”

Beth’s eyes were still glazed. “It’s like some kind of nightmare….”

“Yeah, except that it’s real.” Jessica shook her head. “Especially right now. You picked the wrong night to spy on me.”

“Spy on you? I was worried about you, Jess. You were keeping secrets and lying all the time….”

“I’m sorry about that,” Jessica cried. “I really am. But can’t you see why now? You wouldn’t have believed me anyway!”

Beth looked around at the purple light of the world, the silenced wind and rain, and nodded. “Yeah. You got that right.”

“I never wanted to lie to you, Beth. But I just didn’t have a way to tell you. And we have to go right now. Just come with me and I’ll tell you everything. I promise I’ll never lie to you again. Just trust me, please?”

Beth looked at her, and Jessica wondered if she was really listening or whether her suspicions were still whirring away, looking for something to doubt, to scorn or mock. Maybe everything was too broken between them.

But then, slowly, Beth nodded. “Okay. I trust you.”

Jessica smiled, relief washing through her. “Truth later? But do what I say now? No matter how weird it is?”

“Sure. Truth later. But can we get out of here? This place smells funny.”

“No problem.”

Jessica led them out of the cave, Foolhardiness in one hand, the hissing flare in the other. As they crossed the clearing, her eyes searched for the path back to the railroad embankment.

“Hey, can I ask a question?” Cassie said.

Jessica turned. “Do you have to?”

“Kind of.” Cassie pointed into the air. “What’s that?”

Jessica spun around, Foolhardiness sweeping across the sky. Its beam found Jonathan and Rex hurtling down toward them, hands across their eyes against its light. She flicked it off.

Rex landed sloppily, skidding to a stop, but Jonathan bounded from the edge of the clearing, soaring to where they stood. He corkscrewed to a halt and wrapped Jessica in his arms, his midnight gravity flooding into her along with the sudden feeling that she might cry with relief.

He pulled back to look at her. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah.”

He turned. “Hey, Beth. How’s it going?”

“Uh, hi, Jonathan,” Beth said, her voice small again.

Jessica took both his hands. “I think they’re okay, but there are some weird-ass darklings out tonight.”

“No kidding. But Jess, you and I have to go now. We have to get back downtown.”

“Why? Melissa hasn’t even set off the first round yet.”

Rex hobbled up to them, wincing with every step. “We can stop all this, Jessica,” he panted. “Right now, save everyone.”

“What? How?”

“There’s a bolt of lightning caught by midnight. It’s striking the Pegasus sign over the old Mobil Building. You need to get there before the rip does.”

“And do what?”

“Put your hand into the lightning.”

“Do what now?”

Rex raised his hands in surrender. “I can’t explain how I know this. It’s something I got from the darklings, combined with an old piece of lore. But you can force the rip closed again, I’m certain of it. That’s why the darklings were so afraid of you. All along tonight is what they feared.”

Jessica blinked. “But what about my sister and Cassie?”

“I’ll take care of them. Just give me that.” He took the hissing flare. “Melissa needs it. The fire you left her got put out.”

“But there’s darklings everywhere!”

“I know.” His voice broke. “They’re closing in on her now.”

Jessica grabbed Jonathan’s hand. “We can fly there—”

He waved her silent. “You have to go downtown now. There’s no time to waste.”

She stared at Rex. He didn’t look capable of walking another step, much less fighting off any darklings. But his pleading expression silenced any argument.

“Now, Jess!”

In the next split second Jessica realized that she was here again—not knowing what to do, having to believe what the others told her. From the moment she’d set foot in Bixby, the rules of reality seemed to shift every week, as if the blue time were one big practical joke the universe had decided to play on Jessica Day. As usual, there was never time for a full explanation, never time to think anything through.

She could only trust that Rex, whatever the darklings had done to him, was still human enough to want to do the right thing. She had to believe that even though Bixby had been deceived and manipulated for thousands of years, this orphaned generation of midnighters was different. Most of all, she had to remember that Rex Greene would never leave Melissa in danger for an extra second unless thousands of lives were at stake.

“All right.” She turned to Beth. “Follow Rex, okay? Just do what he says. He’ll keep you safe.” Jessica smiled. “Trust me.”

Beth sputtered wordlessly for a moment, then finally blurted, “Your boyfriend can fly?”

Jessica smiled. “Yeah, actually, he can.”

She turned to Jonathan, extending her hand. “Okay, let’s go.”

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