No one saw him. No one noticed. And if they had, moments later, his dark hair and light eyes, his scars and tattoos would have been forgotten. The small, arrow-shaped needle in his left hand would have disappeared from their minds, like a footprint from dry sand. The closeness of his body to his target’s, the sleight of hand that allowed him to slip the poison straight into the senator’s vein would never have registered to any passerby as more significant than an empty cup blowing haphazardly down the street.
“Eleven.” Nix whispered the word into the air, knowing that the outside world would never hear or recognize the number for what it was.
Nix’s sharp cheekbones and jet-black hair should have been striking. Nix should have been memorable. But he wasn’t. He was nothing. He was Nobody.
And he never got caught.
“Senator Evan Sykes was rushed to the hospital last night after suffering a major heart attack in his hometown of Des Moines. Doctors attempted a double bypass, but the junior senator from Iowa did not survive the procedure.”
Claire’s insides lurched as the newscaster’s baritone segued from talking about Evan Sykes’s untimely demise to his surviving family and potential successors, and then, just like that, the morning news was ending on a local interest story about a water park for dogs. Claire reached for the remote and turned off the television.
Death of a senator. Water park for dogs.
Watching the news was supposed to be Claire’s way of staying grounded in reality, but she could feel the rest of the world slipping farther and farther away. If a senator ranked on par with dogs on slip ’n’ slides, Claire didn’t even want to think where she stood. For a moment, she was tempted to call her parents again. Sooner or later, they’d pick up—the laws of probability were on her side—but Claire could sense the need to wallow circling the walls of her mind, and she wasn’t about to give it entry.
She was going to have a great summer. She was going to be sweet. And sooner or later, she’d be sweet enough, independent enough, something enough that either someone else would notice, or she’d stop caring what other people thought (or, more accurately, didn’t think) at all.
Determined, Claire put on a bathing suit. She pulled a pair of board shorts on over the bottoms. And, head held high, she and a copy of The Hollow Kingdom made their way to the community pool, ready to take on the world.
Nix’s quarters at the institute were eggshell white and completely bare. The Society’s scientist du jour believed that the less a Nobody was exposed to the outside world, the more potent his powers became. Deprive him of all contact with the energy that ran unseen through everyone and everything, and his ability to pass through the world unnoticed increased.
It was the latest in a string of theories that Nix detested.
He was nothing.
Putting something on his walls wasn’t going to change that. It wasn’t going to change him. Who he was. What he could do. Nobodies went through life unable to leave their marks on another person. Maximally unimportant. Metaphysically deficient.
That wasn’t the kind of thing that scientists could understand.
At seventeen, Nix wasn’t the kind of person who had any particular desire to be understood. Most days, he didn’t feel like a person at all.
You’re less than air. Less than shadow.
He put his back to the wall and stopped breathing. He’d learned this lesson so often that it was branded into his mind, the voice in his head a mixture of his trainers’ lectures in stereo.
No matter what you do, no matter where you go, people will always look through you. They will affect you, but you will never affect them.
Nix’s chest began to burn, and with silent, ritualized savagery, he slashed at himself, uneven fingernails carving jagged red lines into his stomach and arms. Beads of sweat rose on his bare skin.
If you let yourself, you could love—but no one will ever love you. Even if they wanted to, they couldn’t. That thing, that intangible thing that other people have that lets them form connections, that lets them matter—
You don’t have it.
You are never going to have it.
Nix began to bleed. Darkness rimmed his line of vision. It wasn’t enough.
It was never enough.
You’re no one. You’re nothing, and that is very, very special.
Sated and soothed by his outburst, Nix slid to the floor, sinking smoothly and effortlessly into lotus position. He sat his bloody, upturned hands on his knees and closed his eyes.
I am everything. I am nothing. I am powerful. I am forgotten.
His words, not The Society’s. His handlers couldn’t do what he did. They had never tasted his kind of power. The Society of Sensors had been studying metaphysics for thousands of years; its members had taught him what he was, what he would always be—but his trainers had never been nothing themselves.
I am shadow. I am air.
Forbidden thoughts. He breathed them in and out, and for the first time since returning from his mission, he spoke, his voice low and rough, but musical in the way of a gravel-voiced siren singing the blues. “I am Nobody.” His lips curved upward, his breathing even. “I am Nix.”
He was unchanging.
He was constant.
And whatever his next assignment held—back alleys, visiting dignitaries, monsters dressed as men—he was ready.
For number Twelve.
“Excuse me, could I get a towel, please?”
Claire signed in at the front desk, dotting the t in her name in a manner almost grand enough to pass for a circle. She could do this. Hot day, cool pool, good book. What more could a girl ask for?
“Could you please hand me a towel?” She spoke a little louder this time, determined to catch the attention of the boy working behind the sign-in desk. The boy in question ran his hands through his hair (blond and gelled and respectably thick) and stared straight past Claire with the kind of complete nonchalance only possible between the ages of fourteen and twenty.
“Ummm … excuse me?” Claire felt like she was shouting, but the boy didn’t so much as blink. Brandishing The Hollow Kingdom like it was a flare, Claire stood on her tiptoes. Suddenly, the boy snapped out of it. Moved to grab a towel. Smiled. And handed it—
To the girl standing behind Claire.
I don’t really need a towel. I can air-dry. That’s what the sun’s for, right?
Giving up, Claire turned to go into the pool area, but the towel thief turned at the exact same moment, and the two of them collided full force.