Glancing down at Rabbit, Ivy said, “Shh,” but his excitement made her smile. Her pet had investigated every corner of the compound by now, sniffed at everyone—even the Arrows—but remained full of energy.

“Your conditioning”—Isaiah’s dark eyes zeroed in on her smile—“it’s totally fragmented?”

Ivy was trying very hard not to dislike the male near her own age, but there was just something so smugly superior about him that it was near impossible. Now his question sounded like an accusation—but Ivy wasn’t about to apologize for who she was. “Yes.” It was true enough, given that the malfunctioning lock on her abilities, the source of her nosebleeds, was scheduled to be removed tomorrow.

It would leave her free of mental restraint for the first time in her life.

“My Silence, too,” Jaya said softly, her dark brown skin glowing in the sunlight, “is close to complete failure.” The pretty young woman, tall and with a quiet elegance that belied her years, petted Rabbit when he wandered over. “I was certain I’d be forced into a deep reconditioning . . . then Councilor Krychek mandated the fall of Silence.”

“I’m here because I’m being paid to be here.” Isaiah stared at the Arrows visible on the other side of the clearing, his hands clasped loosely between his knees. “I don’t believe in a hidden E designation. It seems pointless.”

Ivy couldn’t understand his attitude. “Did you talk to Sascha Duncan?”

“No.” Muscles worked in his jaw. “Councilor Duncan’s daughter has deluded herself into thinking she has some kind of an ability when she’s nothing but a flawed cardinal.”

Since Isaiah’s Silence was cracking like an eggshell to anyone who had eyes, Ivy decided to leave him to his theories and directed her words to the rest of the group. “I believe.” She spread the fingers of one hand over her heart, thinking of how she’d never, not once questioned her parents’ love or commitment, not even during her early childhood—when Gwen and Carter had adhered more strictly to the tenets of Silence. “Looking back, I know I’ve sensed emotion my entire life.”

Big-boned, her hair a tumble of dark blonde, and her skin pale cream, gorgeous Brigitte spoke with a distinctive, raspy voice. “Two months before I was contacted for this,” she said now, her accent that of a woman who’d lived all over Europe, “I witnessed a car accident. It was on a largely untraveled road through the Pyrénées, and I was the only one nearby to offer assistance.”

No one spoke when she paused, her throat moving.

“After calling the authorities”—she tugged her white shawl snug around her shoulders—“I ran down the bank to where the car had come to a violent stop against a large tree, and managed to open the driver’s-side door. The man inside was covered in blood and trapped by the way the car had crumpled around him.” A long, deep breath, air releasing softly from her nostrils.

“He was human, and he was so scared that it felt like nails being driven into my flesh.” Vivid, brutal, the image hit hard. “When he grabbed my hand, I didn’t retract it, and I thought that if only he wasn’t so afraid, his heart rate would calm, his breathing would even, and he’d have a higher chance of survival.”

“What happened?” Ivy whispered when the other woman stopped to stare at the ground, as if once more alone with a dying man on a lonely mountain road.

Cornflower blue eyes met Ivy’s. “The terror, his terror . . . it drained away . . . then it was inside me, choking me with a panic that blinded.” She shook her head. “I excused the experience as being brought on by the stress of the situation. But a week after the accident, the hospital forwarded me a note from the injured man.” She twisted her interlinked hands. “He thanked me for being there, for taking his fear.”

A whispering quiet, the trees waving in the breeze.

Bearded Penn was the one who broke it, his big body throwing a shadow across the ground. “I haven’t had a comparable experience, but the idea of a mind healer makes rational sense to me. We’re a race defined by our minds—it would be illogical not to have a designation focused on psychic injuries.”

Isaiah’s biceps bulged beneath the thin fabric of his thermal pullover as he gripped his left wrist with his right hand, but even he had no words to refute Penn’s statement.

“I’ve felt the darkness,” Concetta blurted into the quiet. “The rot in the Net.”

Everyone focused on the amber-eyed woman.

Her skin flushed. Ducking her head, she whispered, “It’s licking at the Net not far from the town where my family makes its home. I didn’t go near it, but it ‘tasted’ malignant even from a distance.” Fingers trembling, she picked at the fabric of her black pants. “How does anyone expect us to deal with such malevolence?” she asked, voice cracking on the last word. “What gives Kaleb Krychek and his pet assassins the right to force us into this?”

Ivy bristled at the derogatory description of Vasic and the rest of the squad. “Were you coerced?”

“I may as well have been.” Lip thrust forward in a pout that made the twenty-five-year-old appear younger than Jaya, Concetta wrapped her arms around herself. “The head of my family unit ordered me to accept—the contract fee, he said, was too generous to reject.”

Ivy kept her silence during the ensuing discussion, but she was disturbed by the realization that the other Es weren’t all a hundred percent committed to the success of this project.

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