The Flame Never Dies (The Stars Never Rise #2)@Rachel Vincent

Acknowledgments

About the Author

To every intrepid real-world heroine out there who knows that one girl can make a difference. You, fearless ladies, make the world go round.

I crouched, tense, in the derelict remains of a high school gymnasium, one of the last buildings still standing in the town of Ashland, which had been mostly burned to the ground during the demonic uprising more than a century before. Though standing might be giving the gymnasium too much credit. The walls were upright. The floor was buckled, but intact, and dotted with rotting insulation that had fallen through the ceiling long before I was born. A few weak beams of daylight shone through small holes in the roof, highlighting dust motes in the air, and as I turned slowly, I marveled at how still and quiet the huge room felt.

A footstep whispered behind me and the sound of my pulse swelled in my ears. I spun and drove my heel into my attacker’s solar plexus. He flew backward with a breathless “Oof!” and landed hard on the warped wooden floor, scraping the last flakes of paint from what had once been standard basketball court markings. Or maybe a cartoonish depiction of the school mascot, like the one still clinging to the gray brick wall.

The assailant tried to get up, but I dropped onto him, straddling his hips, and shoved my left palm down on his chest. My right fist was pulled back, ready to punch him in the face, just in case.

Maddock held both hands palms-out between us, his hazel eyes wide as they stared up at me. “Nina, I give!”

I laughed as I climbed off him, wiping sweat from my forehead in spite of the cool spring morning.

“You’re getting good at this.” He pushed himself to his feet for the sixth time in ten minutes, rubbing his flat stomach where my boot had connected with it. “You’re almost ready to take on Devi.”

I turned my back so he couldn’t see me roll my eyes. “I’ll try to contain my joy.”

We’d been sparring for nearly an hour, burning energy we had no way to replenish in order to hone skills we couldn’t survive without on our own in the badlands.

Growing up under the tyrannical thumb of the Unified Church had been no picnic, even before we’d discovered that we were actually being governed by demons, raising human citizens like cattle for the slaughter. But at least food had been easy to swipe from the corner store less than a mile from my house.

Outside the Church’s walled-in cities, survival required much stricter planning. And vigorous self-defense. After five months in the badlands, we were all lean and ragged from the meager diet and frequent exposure to the elements, yet I was faster and stronger than I’d ever been in my life.

Maddock used the short sleeve of a sun-bleached blue T-shirt to wipe sweat from his forehead. “Maybe we should take a break,” he said, in the quiet way he had of making a suggestion sound like an imperative. I’d been impressed by that ability from the moment I’d met him. Devi could shout and make demands, and, truth be told, she probably could have taken him in a fair fight if she weren’t until-death-rends-me-from-your-side in love with him. But she could not lead Anathema because we would not follow her.

Devi did, however, get credit for naming our motley band of outlaws. When the Church had declared us anathema—cast us out, claiming we’d been possessed—Devi had insisted we make the label ours. We’d been wearing it like a medal ever since.

Finn stepped out of the shadows behind a crumbling set of bleachers, the sun shining on his short-cropped dark curls. My pulse spiked when he pulled me into an embrace in spite of the layer of sweat and grime coating my training clothes. “If he’s too tired to take you to the ground, I’d be happy to step in,” he whispered into my ear, and warmth glowed beneath my skin at the scandalous subtext. My connection with Finn had grown bolder with every mile that stretched between Anathema and the authority of the Church, until daily, unchaperoned conversation with boys no longer made me glance fearfully over my shoulder.

Yet the novelty of that easy contact lingered, intensifying the excitement of my first serious relationship. As it turned out, indecency was terribly exhilarating. Devi had been right about that all along.

“Sounds like fun,” I whispered in return, and Finn’s embrace tightened. “If I weren’t afraid of hurting