~ 1 ~
Excerpted from The Second Siege by Henry H. Neff; illustrated by Henry H. Neff Copyright © 2008 by Henry H. Neff. Excerpted by permission of Random House Books for Young Readers, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Deep within a tangled corner of Rowan’s Sanctuary, Max McDaniels crouched beneath a canopy of sagging pines. It had been ten minutes since he had spied a dark shape slinking among the gray foothills far below, and Max knew his pursuer would now be close. He unsheathed his knife, using the blade’s coat of phosphoroil to study the crude map he’d scrawled before setting out. The target was still far away. At this rate, he would never make it—this opponent was much faster than the others.
Shaking off the unpleasant realities, Max concentrated instead on the illusion he had created. The phantasm was a perfect replica of Max, down to its wavy black hair and the sharp, dark features that peered cautiously from a high perch in a nearby tree. He had taken care to mark the surrounding terrain with subtle signs of passage, knowing that a trained eye would spot them.
The shrill cry of a bird shattered the pre-dawn stillness.
Something was coming.
Max’s pulse quickened. He scanned the switchback below for any sign of his pursuer, but there was only the smell of damp earth and the low sigh of the wind as it blew tatters of mist across the mountain.
While the sky brightened to a thin wash of blue, Max watched and waited, still as a stone among the roots and nettles. Just when he had decided to abandon his position, a flicker of motion caught his eye.
One of the trees was creeping up the mountainside.
At least he had thought the shape was a tree—one of several bent and broken saplings clinging precariously to the slope’s dry soil. Slowly, however, the silhouette straightened and began to thread its way up through the sparse wood. It crept toward Max’s double, as dark and shrouded as a specter. When the figure was some twenty feet away, Max realized why he had been unable to shake the pursuer.
It was Cooper.
The Agent’s scarred and ruined face looked like a fractured mask of weathered bone. His pale skin was camouflaged with dirt; his telltale shoots of blond hair were tucked beneath a black skullcap. Reaching the base of the tree on which Max’s double was perched, he drew a thin knife from a sheath on his forearm. Its blade gleamed with phosphoroil.
Cooper began climbing the tree with the fluid ease of a spider.
While the Agent climbed, Max’s pupils slowly dilated. Terrible energies filled his wiry form, making his fingers twitch and tremble.
Max sprang from his hiding place.
Cooper’s head cocked at the sound as Max hurtled toward him with his knife.
Max’s weapon struck home, but instead of meeting flesh and bone, it passed through the figure to thud against the tree in a spray of bark. Cooper’s conjured decoy dissolved in a billow of black smoke and Max realized he’d been duped.
Max whipped his head around and spied the real Cooper darting out from a nearby thicket. The Agent closed the distance in five long strides. Shifting his knife to his left hand, Max swung himself up into the tree as Cooper’s blade whistled past his ribs.
Cooper seized Max’s wrist in a grip of iron. “You’re caught,” he hissed.
With a terrible wrench, Max pulled himself free and sliced his own knife across Cooper’s shoulder, leaving a bright line of phosphoroil on the black fabric. Cooper gave a grunt of surprise. Slashing the Agent again, Max leapt clear of the tree.
In one fluid movement, Max landed and bolted up the path, veering right at the fork and dashing up the steep trail he had marked on the map. Cooper trotted after him, apparently unconcerned that Max was increasing his lead with a burst of Amplified speed. Ignoring Cooper for the moment, Max focused his attention on the coppery summit as he raced up the mountain, climbing steadily above the timberline.
It was ten minutes of hard running before Max spied a small white pennant fluttering from a distant peak of jagged rock. He fixed its position in his memory and grinned in spite of himself. Another ten minutes at this pace and he would be victorious.
As he ran on, however, his breathing was reduced to shallow gasps and then to agonizing, frantic swallows as the air became unbearably thin. A quick glance behind revealed that Cooper had closed to a hundred yards and was running as evenly as ever. Max spat on the path and increased his pace, coughing as he climbed.
The pennant was tantalizingly close, but the pain and dizziness became overwhelming. Tiny motes of light swam before Max’s eyes; his mouth felt as if it were full of hot sand. Stumbling over a rock, he spilled onto the ground, scraping his knee and dropping his knife. He scrambled to his feet just as a blurred shape came into view.
Cooper stood ten feet away, his sturdy black boot planted squarely on the hilt of Max’s knife.
The Agent’s eyes were locked on Max. His chest rose and fell in long, slow breaths as he flicked a cold glance at the red patch on Max’s uniform. The patch was a target, positioned directly over Max’s heart. A successful strike there signified a kill and would bring the exercise to an abrupt finish.
“Do you submit?” came Cooper’s clipped Cockney accent.
Max paused a moment, crouched in a defensive posture while he considered Cooper’s offer.
The very instant Max made his decision, the Agent reacted so swiftly, it was as though he had read Max’s mind. Before Max had even moved, Cooper flicked his wrist and sent the thin black knife darting toward the patch on Max’s chest.
From the Hardcover edition.