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'The Twelve'

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The vampires in Justin Cronin’s 2010 best-seller The Passage don’t sparkle or fall in love. These awesomely violent monsters — dubbed ”virals” — originated when a government experiment went wrong and unleashed a plague infecting people with vampirelike symptoms: bloodlust, immortality, mind control, light sensitivity, etc. The book became a critical and commercial hit — Ridley Scott even bought the film rights for $1.75 million. In the second installment of an intended trilogy, Amy Bellafonte, Peter Jaxon, and Alicia Donadio hunt the original 12 virals 100 years in the future. The Twelve doesn’t hit stores until Oct. 16, but here’s a passage from the second chapter to whet your appetite for blood.

76 MILES SOUTH OF ROSWELL, NEW MEXICO

On a warm September evening, many miles and weeks from home, Lieutenant Alicia Donadio — Alicia of Blades, the New Thing, daughter of the great Niles Coffee and scout-sniper of the Second Expeditionary Forces of the Army of the Republic of Texas, baptized and sworn — awakened to the taste of blood on the wind.

She was twenty-seven years old, five foot seven inches tall, solidly built in the shoulders and hips, red hair shorn close to her scalp. Her eyes, which had once been only blue, glowed with an orange hue, like twin coals. She traveled lightly, nothing wasted. Feet shod in sandals of cut canvas with treads of vulcanized rubber; denim trousers worn thin at the knees and seat; a cotton jersey with the sleeves cut away for speed. Crisscrossing her upper body she wore a pair of leather bandoliers with six steel blades ensheathed, her trademark; at her back, slung on a lanyard of sturdy hemp, her crossbow. A Browning .45 semiautomatic with a nine-shot magazine, her weapon of last resort, was holstered to her thigh.

Eight and one, was the saying. Eight for the virals, one for yourself. Eight and one and done.

The town was called Carlsbad. The years had done their work, sweeping it clean like a giant broom. But still some structures remained: empty husks of houses, rusted sheds, the becalmed and ruined evidence of time’s passage. She had spent the day resting in the shade of a filling station whose metal awning somehow still stood, awakening at dusk to hunt. She took the jack on her cross, one shot through the throat, then skinned and roasted it over a fire of mesquite, picking the stringy flesh from its haunches as the fire crackled beneath it.

She was in no hurry.

She was a woman of rules, rituals. She would not kill the virals while they slept. She would not use a gun if she could help it; guns were loud and sloppy and unworthy of the task. She took them on the blade, swiftly, or on the cross, cleanly and without regret, and always with a blessing of mercy in her heart. She said: ”I send you home, my brothers and sisters, I release you from the prison of your existence.” And when the killing was done, and she had withdrawn her weapon from its lethal home, she touched the handle of her blade first to her brow and then her chest, the head and heart, consecrating the creatures’ deliverance with the hope that, when that day should come, her courage would not fail her and she herself would be delivered.

She waited for night to fall, doused the flames of her fire, and set out.

For days she had been following a broad plain of lowland scrub. To the south and west rose the shadowed shape of mountains, shoulders shrugging from the valley floor. If Alicia had ever seen the sea, she might have thought: that’s what this place is, the sea. The floor of a great, inland ocean, and the mountains, cave-pocked, time-stilled, the remains of a giant reef from a time when monsters unimaginable had roamed the earth and waves.

Where are you tonight? she thought. Where are you hiding, my brothers and sisters of blood?

She was a woman of three lives, two befores and one after. In the first before, she had been just a little girl. The world was all lurching figures and flashing lights; it moved through her like a breeze in her hair, telling her nothing. She was eight years old on the night the Colonel had taken her outside the walls of the Colony and left her with nothing, not even a blade. She’d sat under a tree and cried all night, and when the morning sun found her, she was different, changed; the girl she’d been was gone. Do you see? the Colonel asked her, kneeling before her where she sat in the dust. He would not hold her for comfort but faced her squarely, like a soldier. Do you understand now? And she did; she understood. Her life, the meager accident of her existence, meant nothing; she had given it up. She had taken the oath that day.

But that was long ago. She had been a child, then a woman, then: what? The third Alicia, the New Thing, neither viral nor human but somehow both. An amalgamation, a composite, a being apart. She traveled among the virals like an unseen spirit, part of them but also not, a ghost to their ghosts. In her veins was the virus, but balanced by a second, taken from Amy, the Girl from Nowhere; one of twelve vials from the lab in Colorado, the others destroyed by Amy herself, cast into the flames. Amy’s blood had saved her life, yet in a way it hadn’t. Making her, Lieutenant Alicia Donadio, scout-sniper of the Expeditionary, the only being like herself in all the living world.

There were times, many times, all the time, when Alicia herself could not have said precisely what she was.

She came upon a shed. A pockmarked and pitted thing, half buried in the sand, with a sloping metal roof.

She … felt something.

Which was strange, nothing that had happened before. The virus had not given her that power, which was Amy’s alone. Alicia was yin to Amy’s yang, endowed with the physical strength and speed of the virals but disconnected from the invisible web that bound them together, thought to thought.

And yet, did she not? Feel something? Feel them? A tingling at the base of her skull, and in her mind a quiet rustling, faintly audible as words:

Who am I? Who am I who am I who am I who am I… ?

There were three. They had all been women, once. And even more: Alicia sensed — how was it possible? — that in each one lay a single kernel of memory. A hand shutting a window and the sound of rain. A brightly colored bird singing in a cage. A view from a doorway of a darkened room and two small children, a boy and a girl, asleep in their beds. Alicia received each of these visions as if it were her own, its sights and sounds and smells and emotions, a mélange of pure existence like three tiny fires flaring inside her. For a moment she was held captive to them, in mute awe of them, these memories of a lost world. The world of the Time Before.

But something else. Wrapping each of these memories was a shroud of darkness, vast and pitiless. It made Alicia shudder to the very core. Alicia wondered what this was but then she knew: the dream of the one called Martínez. Julio Martínez of El Paso, Texas, Tenth of Twelve, sentenced to death for the murder of a peace officer. The one Alicia had come to find.

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