Book 3 — House Immortal
“This is a bad idea, Evelyn. A bad idea.” My brother, Quinten Case paced the dirt patch just outside our farmhouse door, one hand stuck stiff-fingered in his dark, curled hair. His other hand kept drifting toward the gun holstered on his thigh, while his gaze flicked constantly toward the kitchen window. The flannel shirt and work boots he wore didn’t disguise who I knew he really was: a restless genius and a brilliant stitcher of living things.
I should know. After all, I was one of the living things he’d stitched together.
“Matilda,” I corrected him gently. I was sitting on the top edge of a rain barrel, thunking my bootheels absently against the hollow side of it, and wondering what else about my farm and my world had changed since the Wings of Mercury experiment had broken and then mended time. “I’m not Evelyn anymore, Quinten.”
He pulled his fingers out of his hair and waved impatiently at me. I guess he was still trying to get used to the changes in his world too.
I understood why he was calling me Evelyn.
I was born his sister, and named Matilda Case. But when I was a little girl, I’d become deathly ill. Quinten and his genius mind had found a way to transfer my thoughts, my personality, my mind into the comatose body of a girl named Evelyn. A girl who had been asleep for more than three hundred years.
He stitched everything that made me me into her. It had been a desperate, risky thing to try. But he had succeeded. In my world, in my time, I’d woken up in her body as Matilda, and lived until I was twenty-six.
That was when we’d done something even more desperate: Quinten had sent me back in time to change the Wings of Mercury experiment. We didn’t have much choice, really. If I hadn’t gone back in time, billions of people would have died.
That was how I remembered it. That was what had happened in my time.
But in this world, in this time line, Evelyn had been the one who had woken up when my brother had tried to transfer my mind into her body.
She’d lived until today, just a few minutes ago when I’d found myself standing in the kitchen. I’d felt Evelyn in my mind with me for a moment. Then she had lifted, all her memories and thoughts fading like smoke on the wind.
My going back in time was supposed to save the world. And it had.
But it had also changed it in massive, chaotic ways.
So far, I’d been told there was a war going on between the Houses who ruled the resources in the world. House Brown, or House Earth, as Quinten had told me it was referred to now, was the house that used to be made up of a loosely connected network of people, each living on their own piece of land. Those people had rejected servitude to the other Houses to live free, and were now living in several walled strongholds scattered across the world.
Another huge change I was still trying to wrap my mind around was that the galvanized, people like me who had survived the original Wings of Mercury experiment and whose brains and bodies were more than three hundred years old and stitched, were some kind of wanted criminals.
Back in my time, the galvanized had done a lot of good for the world, and for people and human rights.
“You have a price on your head,” Quinten said, back to pulling at his hair again. “They—those killers in our kitchen—shouldn’t even be here.”
“I know.” In my time, I’d had a price on my head too. That, unfortunately, hadn’t changed. One of these days I’d figure out how to avoid such trouble in my life.
“How can that even be possible?” he demanded. “No one, except Neds and Grandma, knows you exist.”
“Someone knows,” I said, waiting for him to turn and start pacing back the other way.
“No. You can’t be a wanted criminal if no one knows you’re alive.”
“I take it you registered my death when I was young?” It was a weird thing to ask, but, then, I’d led a weird life.
He nodded, his palm resting on the top of his head so his elbow jutted out. “We never registered Evelyn as alive, since she wasn’t technically or medically supposed to be alive. She was just a forgotten medical experiment Dad got his hands on before things really went to hell. There is no Matilda Case alive on record.”
“Still, you couldn’t have kept Evelyn in the basement all her life,” I said, hoping to lighten things up a bit. “We must have neighbors or friends who saw her and maybe thought she was me.”
“Yes, we have friends. But they think Matilda died. And we told them Evelyn was a child our parents took in after the One-three plague killed her parents.”
He stopped, lowering his hand finally. Stared at me, his eyes flicking across my face as if looking for a lie there. “It’s . . . eerie,” he said. “Knowing you’re not you.”
“I am me,” I said softly. “I’m just not her.”
He nodded, and sorrow darkened his eyes. “For the past fifty years, we’ve had a plague hit each decade. One-three spread widely enough, it wiped out millions.”
“Oh,” I said. “Oh.” There had been no widespread plague in my time. I was still reeling with the changes of this world, and I knew Quinten had his own things to get his brain around.
But in my time, Quinten had died from a terrible explosion. We had been hunted by the Houses who chased us to our farmhouse. The House soldiers had killed Quinten; our farmhand, Neds Harris; and the galvanized Abraham and Foster. They’d killed the others who had helped us too—Welton who was head of House Yellow, and House Brown’s doctor, Gloria.
Even though this news of plague wasn’t exactly welcome, so far I preferred this time and this world, in which my brother and the people I loved were alive.
Whatever else was wrong here, we’d make right. This was the only world left to us. That time-travel trick had been a one-shot deal.
“Could it be the stitching?” I asked. “If someone had seen my stitching, they’d know I was galvanized, right? And galvanized are . . . criminals?”
He pulled up the sleeve of his flannel, his eyes locked on mine.
I glanced down at his tanned forearm. Muscular, a few lines of scars that had healed too white against his tanned skin. A row of neat, small stitches ran at an angle below his elbow.
Everything in me chilled.
“Everyone is stitched, Ev— Matilda,” he said. “At most times, anyway.”
I couldn’t take my eyes off that tidy row of thin gray thread piercing my brother’s arm. “Why?”
“The One-oneplague made healing slower and more difficult. Things go necrotic more often than not. Especially open wounds. If you want a cut to heal, you need to stitch and keep it as clean as possible.”
“So those stitches aren’t permanent?”
He shook his head and rolled his sleeve back down. “I’ll take them out at the end of the month if everything looks okay.”
“Are mine permanent?” I asked, a small hope catching in my heart.
“Yes. You are galvanized. But since nearly everyone goes around with stitches, spotting a galvanized isn’t easy. And no one I know thinks you are a galvanized. “
“So people just assume I’m recovering from injuries,” I said.
He nodded. “You— I mean, Evelyn keeps her stitches covered when anyone from House Earth stops by.”
“I thought you said no one knew I was alive.”
“No one except the people in House Earth whom I trust implicitly. Well, and the Grubens.”
I shook my head. “The what?”
“Family down a ways. Closest we Cases have to relatives. They’re an . . . energetic bunch, but loyal to the grave.”
“So stitches aren’t rare, and my being galvanized isn’t why someone wants me dead. That’s different.”
“Are the galvanized the only stitched where— I mean, when you came from?” he asked.
“Yes. Twelve of them, plus me. They were owned by the Houses. They were celebrities, in a way. World changers. Heroes. They did a lot of good, Quinten. We did a lot of good. I knew Abraham. I knew Foster.” I pointed toward our house, where both Abraham and Foster were drinking tea at our kitchen table, probably at gunpoint. “We trusted them then with our lives, and they died trying to protect us.”
“What’s your point, Ev?” he asked.
“Matilda,” I said. “We should trust them now.”
“That would be suicide.”
“Because they’re galvanized?”
“Because they are here to collect on that price on your head,” he said.
“Abraham said he came to warn us that there was a price on our heads.”
The crease between his lowered eyebrows deepened. “They’re mercenaries, Matilda. All galvanized are mercenaries. Guns for hire. No loyalties to anything other than money. No loyalties to Houses, people, or each other. It’s what they do.”
“Well, that’s not what they’re going to do here. We should at least get as much information out of them as we can, don’t you think?”
“There’s nothing they know that I want or will pay for,” he said flatly. “I do not do business with galvanized.”
“Well, I do.” I hopped down off the water barrel, my boots landing with a crunchy thud in the dirt and gravel. I dusted my hands.
“They came to our farm looking for me and for you,” I said. “I’m not the only one someone wants dead. We don’t know why someone wants me dead, since no one should know I’m alive. But from the way you’re acting all nervous and hair-pully, I think you know exactly why your head is worth hunting.”
“It’s a mistake,” he scoffed.
“No, I don’t think it is. What did you do that has made someone want to kill you, Quinten?”
He pulled his shoulders back and tipped his head up, as if I’d just punched him in the chest. It took him a moment or two before he answered.
“You are not at all like Evelyn,” he said slowly. “Do you know that? She was kind. Trusting. She was the sweetest girl I’d ever known. And she would never have accused me of doing something worth being killed over.”
His words stung. Quinten and I had been close. Hell, I practically worshiped the ground his boots trod upon. It hurt to hear him tell me I wasn’t as good as the sister he loved more than me. A girl I could never live up to. A girl I could never be.
But I knew him. He had a habit of striking out when people got too close to the things he didn’t want to talk about. I refused to back down on this.
I lifted my chin and stared him in the eyes. “I’m sorry I’m not her. Really, I am. I’m sorry you’ve lost her. I’m sorry she’s gone. But you haven’t answered the question I asked,” I said calmly. “Tell me what you did, Quinten. If I don’t know why someone wants to kill you, I can’t help you stay alive.”
It was my turn to study him, looking for clues. His body language said he wasn’t going to budge on his silence. His eyes had gone all sharp and judgy. Closed off.
Fine. He wasn’t the only person on the property who had information.
There were three mercenaries at my kitchen table. They must know who had put the hit out on us. Someone had to be paying them. Maybe they’d have a clue as to why we had suddenly become such hot property.
“I may not be as sweet as Evelyn,” I said, unable to be angry at him. “But you, brother, haven’t changed a bit. You are just as stubborn, smart, and insufferably righteous as you’ve always been. And I wouldn’t want you any other way.” I took a few steps and dropped a quick kiss on his cheek. “I missed you.” I patted his arm. “But you’re being an idiot.”
I strode off toward the corner of the house, and the kitchen door beyond.
The twisting sensation of an elevator suddenly plunging down flights of a building hit me. I stumbled, but caught myself before I fell. The sharp scent of roses filled my nose and mouth as I gasped, and my ears rang with the distance echo of a bell.
My vision blurred, and I blinked hard to clear it. The house in front of me dissolved into nothing but a pile of rubble, as if an explosion had reduced it to smoldering dirt and timbers. Men in black uniforms milled around it.
My heart raced. Something was wrong. Something was very wrong. I looked behind me, and Quinten was no longer there. But it wasn’t just Quinten that was missing. This world had changed.
No. The world had shifted. This world, this property with the broken, burning house, was the property and world from my original time.
But I didn’t want to be in my time. In my time, my brother was dead.
I must have made a sound.
One of the men looked over at me. “Hey. What are you doing? This location is under House Black lockdown. There’s been an explosion. It isn’t safe to be here.”
I heard him—honestly I did. But all I could see was the destroyed farmhouse on the very familiar land where I had grown up. All of it exactly as I remembered, and not the different world I’d woken up in recently.
If this was the time I remembered and had grown up in, that meant my brother was currently dead, buried under that pile of rubble that used to be our home.
I turned to that familiar voice. John Black, head of House Black, wore a black uniform like the other men, but carried himself with a manner of authority and bulldog strength. He had just come around the corner of the rubble field and looked as startled as I felt.
“Were you in the explosion?” he asked striding my way. “Were there any other survivors? Welton Yellow, or your brother, Quinten? Have you seen Abraham?”
I shook my head and pressed my hand over my mouth, words stuck somewhere in the clot of panicked silence filling my brain.
He stopped in front of me. “You’re shaking,” he said, not unkindly for a man who had been sent to bring me in as a fugitive accused of murder. “Matilda, tell me what happened here.”
And then the world twisted again, filling with that dizzy rose scent. John Black reached out for me. I reached back. I felt the warm pressure of his fingers on my wrist, and then he was gone—whisked away as if he were a curtain that had been pushed aside to show the open window behind it.
I was holding my breath, my hand cupped over my mouth.
The house was standing in front of me, whole. The day was quiet and still. In the distance, I heard a bird warble, and a sleepy lizard answer with a rumble.
“Ev— Matilda?” Quinten said from behind me.
Relief washed over me, and I finally exhaled. He was alive. Quinten was alive, and I was back in the time where I belonged.
I turned and dropped my hand from my mouth. The faint ringing in my ears was gone, the flower scent faded.
A very alive Quinten strode my way, wearing flannel, jeans, and boots, an irritated scowl on his face. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“Did you feel that?” I asked. “Just now, did you get dizzy or smell roses or see . . . anything?”
He paused and gave me a look. “No. Why, did you?”
I took in the scenery behind him. This was still the property I’d always known, but the familiar pear orchard wasn’t in sight, and a flock of six pocket-sized sheep of various pastel shades shambled along a fence line, stopping to nibble on weeds there.
We had only three pocket-sized sheep in the time I was from.
I must be back to the time where Evelyn had grown up.
“I felt something. I . . . saw someone,” I said. “Do you know John Black?”
He shook his head. “Matilda . . .”
“He must have been an echo,” I said. “No, it was more than that. I saw what this place used to be. What I knew it as. He was real. He felt real.”
“You’re telling me you saw something from your own time?”
“Or I somehow stepped into my time. Is that possible? Did I just disappear and reappear?”
He camped back on one foot and stuck his hands in his pockets. “No. You were walking toward the house, and I was walking after you.”
“Maybe it was just a second for you, but longer for me. Why would that happen? What would make that happen?”
“Don’t look at me,” he said. “Until today, I would have told you time travel—of any kind—was impossible, and now you’re telling me you’ve experienced it twice. Maybe you’re just tired, and your brain can’t sort through what’s happened. Maybe it’s old memories surfacing. Some glitch in the switch between what Evelyn knew and remembered and what you know and remember.”
It wasn’t a hallucination. That had been John Black. That had been his touch. And that had been our demolished house. I was sure of it. But I had no way to prove it to Quinten.
“Okay.” I swallowed and nodded. “Okay. Maybe it’s just a onetime thing. I can deal with that.” I set my shoulders and turned back toward the house. Sometimes experiments had unintended consequences. Maybe seeing into my old time stream was that consequence.
Or maybe it was a fluke of the Wings of Mercury mending time. A wrinkle that hadn’t been ironed out yet.
Whatever it was, I would handle it if it came up again. Right now, here in this time—the real time—I needed to save our lives.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“To get the information I need to save both our heads.”
I heard the sound of his boots as he did a short jog to catch up with me. “Does no mean something else in your time?” he asked.
That, finally, got a chuckle out of him. “Just— Please. Listen to me on this. Trust me on this. I know the way the world works, with or without time travel.”
“I am listening. I am also going to get us some information.”
“We do not do business with mercenaries.”
“Is that the family motto?”
“It is now.”
“Well, I’m still following the other family motto: do whatever necessary to keep the people you love alive.”
Quinten swore softly.
We’d rounded the house. The big barn was behind us now, a worn wooden structure two stories high with odd creatures slipping or winging in and out of the windows, doors, and other cracks of it. I hadn’t had time to get acquainted with the stitched beasties my brother was keeping, but from the glimpses I’d caught, Quinten had a full-blown menagerie here.
However, I had not missed the half-dozen winged lizards of various impressive sizes that skulked a little farther out by the trees and filled up the dirt road, belly-flat soaking up the sun.
“Sure are a lot of dragons around the place,” I noted.
“Lizards,” he automatically corrected me, just like I corrected everyone else who had met our single, stitched, winged monstrosity back in my time.
“Do you use them for scale jelly?”
“Of course. Other than stitching, it’s the jelly that keeps this place running,” he said. “But mostly the lizards patrol the property and make sure the things and people we don’t want here never make it to the house.”
“How many do you have?”
I shot him a grin. “We had only one. Big as a barn.”
“Still do,” he said. “And, well, a lot of others, the size of other buildings.”
“As soon as I get the three killers in our kitchen sorted away, I want to see all the critters. We had a unicorn. Well, sort of a unicorn.”
Quinten picked up the pace enough that he reached the door at the same time I did. He straight-armed it, his palm smacking flat in the middle of the wood. “Listen to me, Matilda.”
I stopped, folded my arms over my chest. Waited.
His face was a little sweaty from the jog, but also pale. “We are not on their side. They are not on ours. They want us dead, and they plan to make a profit on our deaths. Anything they say, any information they give us, is suspect.”
“I don’t see that we have a choice,” I said. “Good idea, bad idea—doesn’t matter. We need to know who wants us dead and why. They can tell us.”
The door opened, swinging inward.
Quinten moved back and took hold of one of the guns under his overshirt so quick, you’d think he was on fire.
I stood my ground but didn’t draw the gun strapped to my thigh.
In that doorway, filling most of it with all six foot six of his height and muscle, was the galvanized Abraham Seventh. The man I’d loved.
In a different world.
In a time that I didn’t think existed.
The man who was now a stranger to me.