Numbers Game Shorts Collection 1-5
Numbers Game Shorts Collection 1-5
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- Kick-butt heroine
- Protective hero
- Sweet romance
Ember has thrown the empire into upheaval. The entire realm knows her face, and her name is whispered in alleys and in the underground.
Everyone wants to know what she'll do next, because it's clear she's the only person alive who can challenge their new, strangely powerful emperor. A massive battle is inevitable--and the entire realm is taking sides.
There's just one problem. Every time Ember uses her power, she loses a piece of herself. Fighting the emperor could cost her very soul.
Meanwhile, Stefan worries that Ember is slipping away from him. As she grows erratic and unpredictable, he's torn between his love for her and his desire to protect the revolutionaries.
Can Stefan save the woman he loves? And can Ember fulfill the prophecy written in the stars before she loses herself completely?
Sneak Peek: Chapter 1
Sneak Peek: Chapter 1
The control room was nearly silent as Ember stared at the instrument panel, willing it to come to life. Brennan was ten minutes late, which wasn’t like him. Any second now, he would respond to their calls and give his mission status report.
Small electric lights were strung across the top of the rectangular cavern, giving the room’s eleven occupants and the instrument panels a faint bluish hue. The scent of unwashed bodies and dirt clung to her nostrils. When a settlement of fourteen thousand people only had one water source, they got only one shower a week. Ember had quickly grown accustomed to the griminess of life underground, but others still struggled with it. Particularly cabinet members who thought themselves entitled to special privileges.
Ember glanced up at Stefan, who stood behind her seat, arms folded, ice-blue eyes intent on the speaker—as if he could make it respond if he stared hard enough. He noticed her watching him and gave her a grim smile. His dark-brown hair was longer these days, a shaggy look that felt more . . . well, Stefan. Ember loved the newer, more easygoing side of him she’d seen over the past three months. He still insisted on being clean-shaven, though—an old habit from decades of flicker military upbringing.
That was one reason he stood here now, waiting for Brennan’s report with the rest of the cabinet. Stefan had managed to impress most of the ex-Union officers with his knowledge of tactical theory. Now he ran the control room around the clock, ensuring their “recruiting” missions ran smoothly. Even General Pyne, however grudgingly, had accepted Stefan as one of them.
The Daughter’s former general paced the control room with his usual slow-yet-determined gait. His remaining patches of white hair stuck up wildly today, as if he’d forgotten to use a comb. But there was nothing forgetful about the way he paced the room, glaring at everyone like a king awaiting a late servant. “Should’ve trained the boy myself,” he muttered.
The former Union leader had transitioned quickly from the Union to Ember’s revolution, moving smoothly into the role of war general and senior cabinet member. Like most former Union officers and soldiers, he still wore his deep-green uniform. Ember didn’t mind. Her followers ranged from years of fighting experience to none at all. The revolution had better things to do than replace perfectly good clothing. Keeping fourteen thousand people alive inside a mountain was no small task.
Ember sighed, turning back to the panel. Brennan had taken half her Union flicker team on this mission, including his twin sister, Reina. Were they dying as Ember and the cabinet waited safely in this distant underground cavern? Would this be the day her team was discovered, overcome, and turned over to the Empire? Or would the team return as they always did, with a new ship, eager recruits, and a cargo bay full of stolen supplies?
Stefan must have seen Ember scowl because his hands gripped her shoulders from behind, giving them a reassuring squeeze. Her tension melted beneath his touch. At least Stefan had stayed behind. They’d agreed to remain together from now on, an arrangement she was quite happy with. Despite their separate duties, he found every opportunity to touch her—a brush of his hand against her waist, stolen kisses in the dusty corridors. He lit her on fire like nothing else could.
Even lovers keep secrets from each other, a voice deep inside Ember said. Important secrets.
Her scowl deepened. That voice had a way of jumping in when it was least welcome, and sometimes it was irritatingly right. Ember found it easy to talk to Stefan about nearly everything. But there remained one thorn between them, something she couldn’t discuss. After two months of pushing, Stefan had finally dropped the subject, and that was just fine with her.
He knew about the nightmares, of course. He held her tightly in his arms on the nights she awoke shaking, and stayed with her until she fell asleep again. But he couldn’t feel the dark presence looming, waiting for her to relinquish control. And he certainly didn’t know how the taint on her soul was seeping into her thoughts.
Stefan was literally holding her together, only he didn’t know it. Nobody did. If the cabinet knew how fragile her mental state was, they’d deem her unfit to lead and lock her up.
You worry about a prison cell? The voice laughed. If you knew half of what we’re capable of, you’d leave this place and claim the power that is rightfully ours.
Ember wanted to retort that she had a settlement full of people to think about first, but this wasn’t the time to be seen talking to herself. The other eight cabinet members already thought her on the brink of insanity these days. Instead she shook her head and placed a mental wall between the shadow and herself, though the laughter dimmed only slightly.
Doubt flooded her mind now. They needed more cargo ships and supplies, but had the cabinet been too optimistic about their chances of success? She should have gone with them, cabinet’s permission or not. Or maybe they should have targeted a smaller ship, one less likely to defend itself.
Amai slipped through the door, bringing with her a burst of cool air. The tube, their main underground corridor, was always chilly. “Any word yet?” The older woman’s head had several days’ worth of dark stubble today. As the settlement’s overseer and Ember’s assistant, Amai was the busiest person Ember knew. She wondered if the woman ever slept.
The instrument panel crackled. “Terra One?”
The room sprang into action, the technicians running tests to ensure the line was secure, the other cabinet members stepping back to allow them more space. Ember scrambled for the microphone, her hands shaking. “Water Two. Are you all right?”
“My apologies for the delay,” Brennan’s voice said clearly. “Yes, we’re fine.”
As a collective sigh of relief sounded behind Ember, she felt her own tension drain away. Just a delay. Nothing more.
Stefan bent over, placing his hands on the panel. “You were successful, then?”
“Mostly. We’ve processed sixty of the two hundred civilians, most of whom are willing recruits, and the cargo bay’s full of cornmeal as we hoped. Not a single loss on our end.”
“And on theirs?”
“Four. That’s why I was delayed—I wanted to confirm my suspicions, so I searched the bodies myself. Each was an Empire soldier.”
A stunned silence fell over the room. Their spy network said that Ruben, the Empire’s self-appointed emperor, now required Empire soldiers to accompany long-distance cargo runs in the outer quadrants. More than just a rumor, then.
Brennan’s voice paused. “That’s not the worst of it. One of the soldiers sent out an alert before we got to him.”
General Pyne cursed. Amai growled something similar. Stefan pulled a stool up next to Ember and sat down, giving her a meaningful look. He’d disagreed with their “recruiting” missions from the start, saying it was just glorified piracy. He was right, but that didn’t mean they had an alternative. They needed three things to win this war—soldiers, ships, and supplies—and this was the only way to get them.
Of course, if the Empire received multiple alerts from the same quadrant, her people wouldn’t be safe here much longer, either.
I told you this war would never be won from a control room, the shadow snapped. Stop being a coward, confront your enemy, and finish what you started.
Ember flinched at the accusation. She’d spent long nights tossing and turning about her decision not to kill Ruben. Was it weakness that had influenced her choice? Had she unknowingly sentenced them all to death? Ember had asked any who were freedom seekers to join her, an invitation that had felt important at the time. She hadn’t expected so many citizens to take up the call. Somehow in the last few months, the war had shifted from overturning the Empire to staying alive.
Meanwhile, every mission she and the cabinet authorized increased the risk of her friends getting captured. And once that happened, the entire base was at risk. It was a tough question—death by starvation, or death by war?
She shook off the thought and turned back to the speaker. “Any weapons, Water Two?”
“Just stunners. Nothing substantial.”
Ember sat back in disappointment. The cornmeal would be welcomed as they were dangerously low on food packets. It would extend their supplies for at least another week or two. But they desperately needed better weapons if they had any chance of fighting the Empire. “Thank you, Water Two. We’ll brief you upon your arrival tomorrow. Send off the nonrecruits, continue processing the rest, and stick to the planned return route unless you hear from us. We’ll take it from here.”
“Understood. Water Two out.” The speaker clicked off.
“It was bound to happen,” Captain Terrance said immediately. The man was young for the general’s second in the command, late thirties perhaps, with a hard gaze and firm chin. It hadn’t taken long for Ember to gain respect for him. Terrance was the first to arrive at meetings, had intelligent ideas, and, thankfully, challenged everything the general said. “We knew the Empire would see the increase in piracy here and send soldiers. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those ‘civilians’ were actually spies.”
“If they are, Brennan will weed them out,” Ember said, adjusting her seat to face the others. “He and his sister, Reina, are the quickest flickers we have.”
Captain Terrance nodded patiently. “But you’ve said yourself that flickers can only see slightly into the future, Lady Flare. How can we really know what a person’s long-term intentions are? And how do we even know what they’re seeing is the truth? Surely even flickers can be fooled.”
“They can’t,” Stefan broke in, leaning against the panel now. “Once a flicker breaks through your mental shield, you can’t hide or change anything, past or future.”
Captain Terrance blinked as if he’d forgotten Stefan was a flicker too. Since Ember kept Stefan apart from the combat team, the man probably had. “Still. I don’t like this.”
“None of us likes this,” General Pyne began. “But, ready or not, we have a decision to make. If we continue our attacks, they’ll start to see patterns and connect the dots. And we certainly can’t send teams to other quadrants. It’s too dangerous. We’re simply running out of time.”
“We aren’t ready to launch a full-scale attack,” Amai said from the doorway, wiping dirt off her trousers as she spoke. “We have far less than 1 percent of the Empire’s force in numbers and a fraction of that in artillery. And fewer ships than we need for an evacuation, much less a war.”
Silence fell on the room once again. Frustration welled inside Ember as she sat back in her seat.
Ruben hadn’t been grateful Ember spared him. Not at all. If anything, his defeat at Ember’s hand being broadcast to the entire realm had enraged him, and he’d launched a series of propaganda campaigns aimed to vilify her. He’d quickly blamed the emperor’s suspicious death on another high commander and publicly executed the man. That act had in turn ignited the resignations of half the remaining high commanders, who’d all gone into hiding to protect themselves. Ruben was replacing them all with flickers. He’d created a new society where the powerful ruled.
That was just the beginning. Empire law keepers had increased tenfold in recent weeks, scouring the streets and conducting physical searches of homes and workplaces, looking for citizens sympathetic to Ember. Ruben had raised homages to support the new influx of soldiers and built several new military stations, all bigger and stronger than anything the former emperor erected.
Meanwhile, Ember’s recruits trickled in a few dozen at a time, and she was supposed to be excited about a little cornmeal and a few stunners.
Not if you face Ruben yourself. Release me and your victory is assured. Hiding your power will only hurt those you try to protect.
Go away, Ember shot back at the voice. You aren’t wanted here.
The distant laughing began again, grating on Ember’s nerves until she could barely sit still.
The shadow didn’t understand. Ember didn’t want to be powerful. She wanted to be a woman in love with a man, living a quiet life far away from all of this. She wanted what her parents once had.
“You’re right, General,” Stefan finally said, breaking into Ember’s thoughts. “We do have a decision to make. If the Empire is on to us, we need to disappear. I say we pull back, regroup, and focus on training for a while. We’ll have to cut rations again to stretch supplies, but we’ll come out just fine. It’s nothing we haven’t been through before.”
Captain Terrance looked thoughtful, while Amai glared at the ground. The other cabinet members represented all areas of their settlement—an engineer, a ventilation mechanic, a food-service manager, a medical specialist. They considered Stefan’s words with varying degrees of acceptance.
The red-haired female captain over training spoke up. “Have we located the emp—I mean, Ruben Kane yet? A quick, quiet assassination still seems the most practical move to me. It wouldn’t cost many lives at all.”
Stefan shook his head before she’d even finished. “Our spies only know he’s somewhere in sector two, and it’s far too dangerous for us to go looking for him ourselves. Ruben has flickers at every station reading the passengers.” He didn’t have to explain. If an Empire flicker captured a revolutionary, Ember had no doubt their location would be compromised within the day. And the revolution couldn’t afford to evacuate before they gathered enough ships and supplies to make the trip to Helden Farr, their backup location.
Everyone fell silent again as they considered Stefan’s words. Ember watched him closely. In the seat next to her, he fidgeted with his hands, avoiding her gaze. Clearly he had another reason for rejecting the assassination idea. The entire base knew exactly who that assassin would be. Stefan knew better than most what Ember’s last confrontation with Ruben had cost her.
This was the subject she couldn’t broach with Stefan, the one thing they couldn’t discuss. He believed Ember’s condition was caused by the virus that had taken Dai’s life. If that were true, Ember was next—especially with how often she used her gift. Every time she did, the taint on her soul grew a little deeper, a little darker. Spoke a bit louder. Gripped her a little tighter. Even Stefan didn’t know how bad it really was.
Stefan led with a quiet strength and kindness that endeared respect, but he was also far too cautious. His plan meant they’d continue like this for weeks, maybe months. Meanwhile, Ruben’s hold on the Empire would grow tighter and more permanent—and Ember’s grip on her sanity would slip slowly away.
“A valid opinion, Stefan,” Ember said, shooting him an apologetic look. If only he understood. “But the longer we wait, the more likely it is they’ll find us. Especially with the coordinates they just received.” She sat forward in her chair. “It’s time to commit, to start attacking Empire ships. Our supporters have waited long enough for us to make our move. Once we do, recruits and monetary support will flood in.”
The other cabinet members looked at her, eyebrows raised. Even Amai, who now leaned against the door, frowned at Ember.
Captain Pyne snorted. “And so will Empire fighters.”
She ignored him. “It’s too late to stay under the radar. All we can do is scramble it—scatter more ships, attack from all directions. We have momentum on our side.”
“More ships means more risk, Ember,” Amai said. “You seem awfully willing to sacrifice lives.”
Ember flinched. Amai knew what would sting Ember most. “These people all swore allegiance to me, and I swore to protect them in return. That I will do until my dying breath.”
“All of them? Even the soldiers you seem determined to get killed?”
“I will not sacrifice lives unnecessarily,” Ember snapped. “You know I would give my own if it meant your freedom. But Ruben wants us all dead. Every single person is crucial to the cause.”
“Even the children?” Amai’s eyes flashed as she pushed off the wall and made her way toward Ember. “The elderly, the less abled, the scared? You hold a lot of lives in your hands. I suggest you think carefully before sending them to their deaths.”
Ember bit back an angry reply. The shadow inside thrashed and screamed, and she shoved it to the back of her mind once again. It often took hold of her during moments of emotion, making her say things she regretted. She couldn’t afford to make this one of those times. Besides, the source of Amai’s passion was obvious. Syd, her daughter, was a week away from turning eighteen and officially joining Ember’s combat team. Like every mother, Amai wanted her daughter home and safe. Ember couldn’t fault her for that.
“We only gathered to hear Brennan’s report,” Stefan broke in. Only then did Ember remember the comms technicians still lining the walls, all staring at her through narrowed eyes. There would be more rumors about crazy Lady Flare tonight. “We shouldn’t be discussing this here, where it isn’t secure. Let’s gather our thoughts this evening and meet for an official vote tomorrow, once the team has returned.”
“Agreed,” Captain Terrance said. The others murmured under their breath. General Pyne gave a reluctant nod. He’d probably been preparing for his turn to cut Ember down.
Stefan checked the comms line again as Ember headed for the door. She had a meeting with the housing director, who was hollowing out caverns for their new recruits. Tomorrow. That gave her plenty of time to build a case. The others had to feel the same urgency she did. Ruben held the Empire in his ever-closing fist. If they didn’t move soon, their opportunity to act on the realm’s uncertainty would be gone forever.
You don’t need them, the voice cooed. You never did. The sooner you accept that, the better off your friends will be.
Ember stepped into the cool corridor and began the dark descent, hoping that in this case, the shadow overtaking her soul was absolutely wrong.