New is the first nonbinary character in the Shadows, and the introduction to the Novas. It’s been a fantastic challenge to write them, and I can’t wait for everyone to meet them! They’re sweet an innocent, a little air-headed but good natured.
When I set out on this book, having the introduction on non-binary characters to the series was so important and I’m glad I had the extra year to do more research and even explore my own gender. I hope you all love New as much as I do. And without further ado, here’s a special snippet of New’s introduction in Halo’s Rag Doll.
Chapter 7: BRIMSTONE
Another rock hit the ground, thrown high and landing terribly close to Kip’s feet. Hastily, Kip got out of the open in case another one came flying. The others crowded at the entrance of the cabin.
“What is it?” January called from inside.
“There!” Mark pointed up, spying the trajectory of another rock, a bigger one which trailed black smoke. A comet of black hellfire came crashing down, directly into the windshield of the van. As it shattered, January almost screamed and Mark grabbed Kip’s arm. “Get inside! Everyone get inside!”
Just before they shut the door, hot gravel rained from the sky, no warning, no rumble, no explosion, but that was the only explanation they could conjure: an eruption. Flaming rocks hit the roof like hail, setting the shingles on fire, and very quickly burning away the mosquito nets.
Mark couldn’t protect all of them from the fire, but he couldn’t keep it at bay without absorbing it. Without intent to burn, just to consume, he shot his own crimson flames out at the lava seeping in through the glassless windows. He set all their belongings on fire, creating a barrier of hotter fire to beat back the foreign flames. Maybe it was strong enough. He didn’t know. He’d never had to compete with natural fire before.
“This is an illusion,” Emilie shouted, laying a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry about our stuff. We’ll be fine.”
Shards of molten glass dripped through the ceiling right over them, and Mark wasn’t fast enough to spray fire above them. But even where he had managed to cover them, the glass dripped through the flames, raining over them now with little intent to burn. The distraction cost him. “Mark!” His father yelled right as a flying stone hit one of the cots and set all its contents ablaze.
Mark looked over his shoulder, but before he met eyes with his cousin, he caught sight of Sil. His friend had overturned one of the beds near a center support beam in the cabin, and he was huddling into it, terrified. Sil knew it wasn’t real, but he still covered his head and hid. Clenching his fists and gritting his teeth, Mark looked over at Kip. “All right, I need your help!”
Kip’s eyes filled with hope. They were both immune to the flames, so it was up to them to be the violent force holding back a destructive volcano. Nodding surely, Kip put his hands out in front of him and they lit up as bright as stars. He fired beams of energy into the hardwood floor surrounding them, reducing it to carbon and stopping any further spread. If they were going to be stuck in a fire for a few minutes, at least they would be in control of what got burned.
“Mark!” Kip looked over his shoulder. “What do we do now?”
A flaming rock crashed through the ceiling inside their barrier, and Mark immediately covered it in his own fire. “We can’t stay in here.”
“Great! Any other bright ideas!” Emilie blared over the crackling flames.
“Why are you complaining?” Mark yelled. “You could get out of here and tell us where to get to safety.”
“Or I could just take you there,” Rita suddenly chimed in, garnering stares since everyone thought she and Mark weren’t on speaking terms.
“No,” Mark snapped back, not at her, desperate. “This is the Orchestrator trying to get our attention.” The flames encroached on their circle, more and more lava seeping in. “We’re here! So, what do you want?” he shouted at nothing.
Smoke filled the cabin to the point where the other Shadows coughed, struggling to keep low. Only Mark, January, and Kip were able to withstand it.
“Stay down,” January advised everyone, spreading his hands over them and covering them in white flames as a calming shield.
Finally, the onslaught started to slow, but the embers didn’t disappear. Mark took a step away cautiously, meeting eyes with his dad. “Stay with them.”
January nodded and Mark made his way toward the door. Footsteps pattered behind him, and Mark spun. A bright light burst through the fog. Kip followed close behind him, his hands raised, holding two tiny stars, and keeping visibility clear for him. Kip so rarely used his powers that Mark nearly forgot that Kip wasn’t just pyrokinetic, he wielded the power of the sun.
Gritting his teeth, Mark sucked in a breath of smoke, “Stay close, okay?” His voice softened listening for any changes in the storm outside. Was it over?
The door creaked, its hinges dry and stained in burnt oil and the inside of the door was blackened to a crisp. The ground was coated in coarse gravel, a tree had fallen right about where they had been sparring a moment ago, and the sky was full of smoke. Not much was still on fire, but it was heavy in the air. Kip stopped in the threshold, staring upward.
Mark noticed and looked up too, frozen in awe for a second. As quiet as snow, ash rained down from the sky. Kip held out an open palm, catching some of the ash in amazement. Maybe this wasn’t an illusion. Maybe this could actually be dangerous, but maybe it was safe enough to come out. Mark wouldn’t suggest anything to the Shadows yet. The van was utterly destroyed, as was the roof of their cabin. Fallen pine branches littered the ground and the parking lot, and there were many patches of embers amongst the brown needles.
Sil started coughing violently behind them, panicked and shuddering. Emilie hovered over him, whilst Fliiy patted his back, assuring him they were safe as he hyperventilated. Mark looked back long enough to watch Sil fight with three long breaths that were neither calming nor fulfilling. Something was wrong. Nothing had disappeared yet.
Mark laid a hand on his sword only a moment later, realizing it was not Lævatein. Strength panged in his head, his eyes took to the van and the volatile Shadow nagged him to go get his sword. He ignored it, he didn’t need it when he had this far more practical, not to mention sharper blade.
Kip stopped in his tracks and gasped. “Mark.”
Pausing at his side, Mark followed Kip’s line of sight, beyond the fallen tree in the direction of the forest. At the base of one of the trailheads, someone had been caught outside in the firestorm. Picking up their feet, they dashed over, kicking through embers and burning the soles of their shoes.
The person sat up in the pine needles, deliriously facing up the rocky trail, away from the two Shadows charging at them. “Are you okay!” Mark shouted ahead. They wobbled, finding their feet and grasping the sign to steady themselves. Mark’s tracks fell short as he and Kip got a better look at the person. Black robes concealed them, making it completely unclear if this was a man or a woman. Long, wavy black hair cascaded around their shoulders like a veil, and they slowly turned, taking shaky steps around.
Mark grabbed Kip’s wrist as if on instinct and prepared to draw his sword. Whoever they were, they weren’t human.
They looked up, blue eyes shimmering, smooth alabaster skin, a strong jaw, and thick brows but overall feminine features. They looked into their hands, at their pale fingers peeking through the tips of their sleeves. “This is… new,” they said in a soft voice, genderless and gentle.
Gulping, Mark tried to get in front of Kip. “Are you the one who lured us here? What do you want?”
They looked up, directly into Mark’s eyes, with startling speed. Not human, definitely not human. Mark’s feet slid in the gravel to an abrupt halt as the childlike figure fought with their feet to get up and escape Mark’s terrifying eyes. They wobbled, tripping over and landing sideways, their hair falling over their face as they mumbled incoherently, “Bumpy, prickly, new, cold—why? What’s this going to—”
“Who are you?” Mark demanded, stern and loud.
“Give me a minute!” the being snapped, their palms supporting them as they tested their own limits. They sat up slowly, then raised up the hem of their robe to look at their feet as Mark and Kip looked on, confused.
Mark bit his lip, trying not to grit his teeth when all he wanted was to demand answers. But he gave in, choosing diplomacy. “Here… let me help.” He took their hand, startled by how cold their bony fingers were, as if there was no warmth in their body.
Shakily, the creature found their way to their knees and looked deep into Mark’s face. Their blue eyes focused more fully. “Mark?”
Gasping, Mark let go, causing the being to dizzy. “Asha?”
“What?” Kip’s shoulders fell, utterly confused.
With their curls bouncing, silken and lively, the being started to laugh, low and sullen, a bitterness in their voice, like a laugh out of fear. Their palms stretched out flat on the gravel, feeling it and grasping the stones in their hands like they’d never suffered sensation before. “No…” they cried, and tears began to drip from the apples of their cheeks. “I’m alive!” they slowly looked skyward, tears flowing, joy mixing with relief.
Mark’s mouth fell open, and he stood dumbstruck. “If you’re not Asha, who are you, and who sent you?”
“Yeah,” Kip interjected, “and if it’s not rude, what are you?”
The child laughed harder, but their smile faded, a tiredness lifting their spirits before lulling them down. Kip got on his knees with them, trying to take their arms and gather their attention, just to answer questions, but by then, they looked like their head was spinning, and they collapsed into Kip’s shoulder.
Panicked, Kip gathered his arms around them and frantically looked up to Mark. “Who’s Asha? Is this the Orchestrator?”
Mark’s hands fell at his side. “I don’t know.”
Footsteps rushed up behind them, and he turned about to see January approaching. “Wha-who is that?”
Kip shook his head as his only explanation. “They just collapsed. They were out here in the fire. I don’t think they’re injured.”
January went down on his knees. “They? Is it a boy or a girl?”
“I can’t tell.” Kip shrugged, not curious enough to find out while they were unconscious.
Mousa and Sage crowded at Mark’s shoulders, and he glanced between them. “Where’s Sil?”
Sage pressed his lips together and frowned, gesturing over his shoulder. “He’s not doing good.”
“Is he hurt?” Mark nearly shrieked, disregarding the inhuman person now laying on the ground at Kip’s knees to return into the cabin. The rain of ash kicked up like snow, clumping together and staining everything gray. The girls, Elise and Fliiy specifically, still crowded the beds that had been shoved to the middle of the room, and even Emilie hovered there, her hand on Sil’s back.
Sil sat on the edge of a burned cot, clenching his shirt, a hand tight over his chest with tearstains down his cheeks. His breathing was ragged, hyperventilating and unable to slow down. Mark rushed in front of Sil, taking his wrists and looking up into his face. “Are you okay?”
Nodding as a front, Sil tightened his grip on his shirt. He was not okay, and everyone could tell. Mark’s brows knitted together. “Hey, talk to me. Did you get hurt?”
Sil shook his head, but Mark took a look at his arm anyway. Sil hardly consented, pulling away when Mark tried to lift his hand. “I’m not hurt,” he snapped. He pinned his eyes shut, focusing on getting his breathing to slow down, but he wouldn’t acknowledge anyone else.
“Get a bed cleared off,” January yelled, charging in, followed by Mousa who was carrying the mass of black fabrics and the unconscious child.
Sil forced himself to move, to get away from hands and glares, and he snapped out of it when he saw the black-haired kid laid out on the flimsy mattress. They were sound asleep, unmoving and appeared totally relaxed. January knelt at the bedside, laying his fingers on their neck to feel their smooth deep breathing, but he paused, deepening his pressure into their jugular.
“There’s no heartbeat…” he whispered, brows drawn and shocked. January drew his hands down their collar. “No body heat.” Their chest expanded with a contented sigh, and they stretched out, comfortably asleep and not unconscious at all. January reeled back in surprise. “But they’re definitely alive. What is this?” he looked up to Mark as if he could produce some kind of explanation.
Suddenly, Mark tensed and went for the Proof at his belt, unclasping it and holding it out at the child. Sure enough, the orange orb glowed bright like a coal, and the Shadows stepped back. “That’s it. This is our Orchestrator.”
“This?” Mousa blared, gesturing at them. “This is a kid, younger than us! No way they figured out how to refine an elemental Shadow this much!”
Mark rolled his eyes a little and glared at Mousa. “For all we know, they’ve never had their Shadow inhibited by anything, and we all know what that did to me. Maybe they were able to use their Shadow from a really young age or—”
“We don’t even know how old they are,” January interjected, and everyone went silent. “I’m sure it was hard to tell out there when they were on the ground, but I’m pretty sure they’re almost six feet tall. And they’re not human, I don’t even think they’re a Shadow. And it’s awfully peculiar for a Shadow of fire to have no body heat to speak of.”
“If they’re not a Shadow, what could they possibly be?” Mark spat with a bit of snark.
Somehow, his tone was what woke them. Their eyes flickered open peacefully, and without the slightest bit of fear to the collection of Shadows huddling over them, they almost smiled. “Hello,” they said in a clear, untainted voice, mid-range, not masculine or feminine. “I’m new.”
The Shadows reeled back in surprise, but Kip stayed closer, reaching out for their hand. “Sorry if we scared you. We’re Shadows. What’s your name?”
The child didn’t look at Kip, only past him to Mark, curious and transfixed.
Exhaling stiffly, his shoulders squared and intimidating, Mark made himself kneel with Kip. “How do you know my name?”
Glancing around the bed, they took in the faces around them. No questions, no answers, just pure curiosity.
“Are you a Shadow?” Sil asked suddenly, breaking his way through to get their attention.
With their young eyes dashing about, they sat up slowly. “No.” Their voice came like a song, like this was all a game of twenty-questions. And before anyone could ask another, they started fiddling with their curls, watching Mark unblinking as they fashioned their hair to mimic Mark’s ponytail.
Kip backed away cautiously. “If you’re not a Shadow, what are you?”
“Hold on…” Mark interjected, “Did you make that firestorm?”
Finding they were unable to make their hair stay and not having any clue what Mark was using to tie his up with, the kid seemed to give up, satisfied with their wild locks and bouncy curls. There was no way this childlike mind had the fortitude to become an Orchestrator. Mark couldn’t imagine the focus it would take in the Realm, and he couldn’t sense anything coming from this child. They were almost a complete idiot.
“Okay, I’m confused!” Emilie yelled, startlingly close to Mark’s shoulder. “They’re not a Shadow, but the Proof reacts to them.”
Elise crowded in closer. “Join the party.”
“If you’re not even a Shadow…” January began a little more gently, “What are you doing here?”
The kid glanced between all of them as they yelled. Interest in their eyes, and curiosity, but they said nothing, just playing with their hair as the Shadows argued over them. Mark crossed his arms over his chest, probably not doing a great job at reassuring the kid that he wasn’t a threat. How could someone so innocent be able to produce an illusion so broad that everything in the area had seen it. Mark couldn’t believe power like that could be wielded by someone so young, unless they weren’t young. Maybe they were very old.
Trying hard not to get frustrated, Mark awkwardly brushed his bangs out of his face and hissed a sigh. “Look,” he got their attention quickly, as if they’d only listen to what he said. “You’ve gotta tell us something.”
Flustering and still clearly uncomfortable, the child shook their head and played with their hair, avoiding questions about Shadows. January leant in close, trying not to scare the childish mind, and Mark realized what he was trying to do. Hurriedly, he took one of the elastic bands from his wrist and offered it to them. “Here. I-I can help you tie it up, if you like.”
Their blue eyes shone with adoration. “Thank you…” they whispered, and with a little nod, gave him permission. Mark shot a quick glance at his dad before drawing back all the kid’s wild hair into a single mass. Before even tying it up, Mark felt it as his fingers pulled the hair behind their ears. They were not a Shadow, and definitely not human. They had the pointed ears, but they were elongated, four inches in length and almost curling down at the tips.
It took a second, but they realized exactly what Mark and January were staring at. They blushed a little and waited for Mark to finish. “I’m… not one of you. I’m a Nova.”
Mark dropped their black hair before fully tightening the elastic, letting the loose ponytail fall, a tangled puff of curls. “What did you say?”
“A Nova,” they looked up over their shoulder.
“How old are you?” January’s brows drew together.
At this, they hesitated again, shrinking down into embarrassment. “I’m new, actually. That’s probably why I can’t be of more help to you.”
January’s eyes widened, everyone pieced it together, and Mark frowned. This being was not a day old, maybe not even an hour old. Maybe they had been created in that firestorm. He couldn’t know. All he did know was that they were scared, confused, and thrown into this as violently as the Shadows had been.
“What… is a Nova?” Kip asked hesitantly, seeing Mark’s distress.
“New,” Sil finally spoke up, and everyone looked to him instantly. “Nova as in, new.” Sil’s eyes were red and tired, but he pushed through to finally get a look at the Nova. “You’re special, like us. Do you know if you have any powers?”
The child gave a little laugh. “It’s funny that you automatically think right to powers. Would I be any less special if I told you I didn’t? I’m alive, isn’t that amazing enough?”
Mark knew the others didn’t take much notice, but he shot a glance to January, a little confirmation. Being alive was certainly a miracle for someone with no heartbeat and no body heat. They couldn’t be alive.
Sil’s cold eyes narrowed. “And you were just born. Who is your mother?”
The young Nova continued laughing as if it was equally as humorous for him to imply they needed one. “I’m not here because of parents.”
“So, someone made you. Are they the Orchestrator?”
“I… don’t know what that is.” Suddenly, they tried to get up, a bit more confident on their feet, but still swaying a little. “But, I do know where to go! I was waiting for you Shadows. I need you to open the ward for me.”
Mark perked up. This was exactly what they were here for, and the Nova knew that. They knew about the path, the reason for them being here, and even the wards William had put in place. If they knew all that, how come they were playing dumb like this? They had to be lying about something.
“Man, you must’ve really taken a fall.” Mousa snickered, giving Sage a hard elbow in the side.
The Nova felt their arms, looking over their figure and puzzling. “Man?”
Taken aback by the directness of the question, Mousa flustered. “That’s what you are, right?”
They thought for a second, scanning the group of Shadows. They looked hard at Mark, then also to Emilie, seemingly focusing on their long black hair and comparing themself to that. It was just their appearance, not the concept of gender. “No…?”
“Then are you a girl?” Fliiy asked in a little, sweet voice.
The young Nova smiled, their hands frantic and reaching out to touch Fliiy’s short blonde hair, but they stopped themself, aware of personal space if anything. “Why does it matter? I’m not a Shadow. I don’t have powers. I’m not a boy or a girl. I’m alive.” They turned their gaze back to Mark. “I think I’m supposed to look like Asha.”
Without a question, or a further string of them, Mark nodded, a bitter frown on his face. “Do you know who she is exactly?”
The child’s hope rose, and they reached up to Mark, carefully taking his left hand. “Well, I know she’s kind. That’s enough, right?”
Mark’s eyes went a little wide. This kid was completely clueless. Ageless, powerless, genderless, a wise idiot, and somehow, they were going to be leading them. Kind wasn’t good enough. A kind man was what nearly killed him. Kindness could be deceptive. He sighed, only one more question in his head, “What do you know about Novas?”
All he got was another innocent smile, and an open, inviting shrug. “I am the first.”
That was enough. They didn’t need to ask any more questions because this was the answer he needed. This being was everything known about the Novas, by anyone.
“We need more answers before we’re going anywhere,” Mark said coldly, then turned toward the door.
There’s some smoke rising in the distance, do you think we should check it out?
A powerful Shadow has called out to the ASH and Mark realizes he’s not the only Shadow of fire. Not sure whether this is a legitimate cry for help or another trap, he’s reluctant to take the lead on a hike out to Old Rag where the smoke is coming from.
Mark’s one concern is keeping everyone safe, getting answers comes second to that. It is debatably a welcome change. However, with Sil struggling with his mental health, and Kip hiding his deteriorating physical health, Mark is stretched too thin to lead them on his own, and his father, January, might be on the brink of finally getting his memory back.
Not sure how to be a leader, Mark accepts help from the innocent and empty-headed New—the first Nova!
The exciting third installment of The Shadows: Halo’s Rag Doll takes a deep dive into recovering from trauma, dealing with anxiety and recognizing when to accept help.