“How?” A low whisper. “How do they teach you?”

He thought of having his arm broken over and over as a child until he stopped crying, of being trapped in a suffocating box for hours until he learned to psychically regulate his body temperature, of being thrown into sensory deprivation chambers until he could endure nothingness, and then he looked at Ivy. “Mundane, routine repetition.”

Those eyes of copper that saw too much didn’t stray from his. “You’re lying to me, Vasic.”

“There are some things that shouldn’t be in your head.”

The quiet words broke Ivy’s heart. Taking courage from his earlier startling act, she grazed her fingertips over his gauntlet. It was a hard, cold carapace, but it was part of him. “Trust me.”

He didn’t break the violently intimate eye contact. “It’s too late for me, Ivy. Focus your energies on the ones you can save.”

Ivy didn’t say anything when he rose, her fingers sliding off the gauntlet. He left without another word, tall and strong and alone as he walked across the clearing. He’d saved her life, was the heart of the psychic shield that protected every E here, would act as a living physical shield for any one of them in a split second.

Yet he expected nothing from her, from the world.

She didn’t know how to get through to him, to tell him he had every right. Because if what she suspected was correct, then the Arrows weren’t only the assassins they so often painted themselves to be, but the last line of defense against the infinite darkness that licked at the edges of the Psy race—might always lick at it.

That instinctive awareness was borne out by the historical psycho-medical records she’d downloaded from the PsyNet over the past three days, Vasic having gained her access to a secure database. It catalogued the true rates of mental illness in the Psy race across the spectrum, including cases of suspected or proven criminal insanity.

“I’ve gone back two hundred years,” she said to Sascha later that day, the two of them walking in the trees after the cardinal finished her session with Penn. “The results are near identical. A percentage of our population always goes mad, and it’s always a higher percentage than the other races.”

“The price of our gifts?” The leaves of the evergreens in this region threw lacy shadows on the other empath’s face. “Silence, from everything we’ve discovered, didn’t change that. It simply made it easier for the true psychopaths to hide, while the ones who needed help were quietly eliminated.”

Sascha turned her gaze toward the Arrows visible in the compound.

“Whatever they’ve done,” Ivy said, stomach tight and voice fierce, “they did it believing they were helping their people.” She saw that truth in Vasic’s relentless protectiveness, in Cristabel’s injuries, in Abbot’s intensity on watch. “We can’t blame them.” Ivy would allow no one to hurt the Arrows that way.

“I don’t,” Sascha said softly, “but I think they blame themselves.”

Ivy took a breath of the biting cold air, icicles hanging off the branches in front of her in beautiful, dangerous shards. “Yes,” she whispered. “It’s not fair, when they do so much to keep the Net safe.”

The records she’d downloaded didn’t state that outright, didn’t even refer to the Arrows, but it was impossible to miss the stark difference in certain grim statistics before and after the formation of the squad, the date for which she’d received from Vasic. He hadn’t realized what he was giving her, how it clarified the data she’d begun to piece together.

“No one ever talks about the serial murderers who suddenly stop killing.” Far too many to be explained away by any statistical model, the percentage so much higher than before the squad’s formation that it was obvious they’d dramatically altered the playing field. “Who else but the Arrows would take care of that dirty job year after year, decade after decade?” Because the monsters kept being born, kept creating horror. “Certainly not Enforcement.”

Sascha, her eyes without stars, bent down to pick up a pinecone half-buried in the snow. Dusting off the frosty white, she played her fingertips over the edges as she rose to her full height. “I agree with you. The Arrows act as the only real control on the darkest elements of our race.”

A pause before the cardinal continued. “I think when the squad was first formed, it was about doing whatever was necessary to keep Silence from falling. Even though I might not agree with the actions of those first Arrows, I can understand it came from a desire to protect the Psy race.”

“And now that they know Silence wasn’t the answer,” Ivy said, forgiving those first Arrows for their undoubted part in suffocating and burying the E designation, “the Arrows from this generation are trying to redress the balance. I know Vasic would take a bullet for me without flinching.”

“Yes,” Sascha said at once. “The protective core has always been there, even if turned in the wrong direction . . . and I have a feeling the squad might’ve been manipulated into certain actions by some in power.”

Hugging her arms around herself, Ivy said, “Do you know if they’ve been with Kaleb Krychek for long?” The cardinal Tk was said to be the most ruthless man in the Net, but from what she’d glimpsed during Krychek’s fleeting visits to the compound, Vasic seemed to deal with him as an equal.

Sascha shook her head. “My contacts are light when it comes to information about the squad, but Judd did say Ming LeBon was their acknowledged leader for two decades. As an ex-Arrow himself, I’d say he was deeply trusted.”

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