Authors: Ann Aguirre
Our sparring gathered an audience. I tried to ignore them, as I wanted to make a good showing. I went for his leg but he leaped and I recovered in a clumsy stumble while he pressed forward. When he swept, I didn’t slide away in time and he took me down smoothly. I tried to roll out of the lock, but he had me. I glared up at him, but he held me until I tapped.
Fade offered me a hand up. “Not bad. You lasted a couple of minutes.”
With a grin, I took it. I refused to make the excuse that my arms were sore. He could see that for himself. “You got lucky today. I’d like a rematch.”
He walked away without giving me an answer. I’d take that as a maybe.
That night, I honed my blade. I double—and triple—checked my equipment. Even with all my training and my preparations, I found it hard to sleep. I lay and listened to the comforting sounds of life around me. A brat cried. Someone was breeding. Moans of pain mingled with softer sighs.
I must have dozed because Twist roused me with a foot in the ribs. “Get up and eat. You’re due on patrol in a little while. And don’t think I’ll be bothering to wake you personally after today.”
“I won’t,” I said.
It was a wonder I’d slept at all.
My first patrol.
Excitement warred with nerves. Using a touch of oil, I slicked my hair into an efficient tail and geared up. That meant looping my club across my back and sliding my blades into the thigh sheaths. I had made all of the equipment myself; Whitewall thought such self-sufficiency encouraged greater care, and maybe he was right.
As I approached the kitchen area, the smoke stung my eyes. Copper was roasting something on a spit, and the grease hissed as it dropped into the fire. She got out her dagger and cut me a hunk of meat. It burned my fingers as I took it and gobbled it down. I’d never eaten breakfast first; only Hunters did that. Pride blazed in me.
I watched the Hunters wolf down their portions, each larger than I’d ever received before. They all looked hard and ready, not nervous at all. I glanced around for Fade and found him eating alone. The others didn’t talk to him. Even now, he was an outsider, still regarded with subtle suspicion.
As we finished our food, Silk stepped up onto a table. “There have been sightings closer to the enclave than we want.”
A male Hunter whose name I didn’t know asked, “Freaks?”
A shiver ran through me. Freaks looked almost human—and weren’t. They had lesions on their skin, razor-sharp teeth, and claws instead of fingernails. I’d heard you could detect them by smell, though in the tunnels, that could be hard. It already smelled of a hundred things down here, only half of them good. But Twist had told me Freaks stank like carrion meat. They feasted on the dead, but they would eat fresh meat if they could get it. We had to make sure they didn’t.
Silk nodded. “They’re getting bolder. Kill any you come across.” She held up a cloth sack. “Your goal today is to fill this bag with meat. As long as it’s not Freak, I don’t care what you put in it. Good hunting.”
The others headed out. I cut through the throng and headed for Fade. He looked even scarier than he had the night before. He might not be more than a couple of seasons older than me, but it was a lifetime of hunting experience. His weapons shone, a reassuring sight. For all I wanted to prove myself, I also wanted a partner I could count on. I would be stupid not to worry that his last one had died out there. Maybe someday he’d tell me the circumstances.
“Let’s do this,” he said.
I followed him through the kitchen area and into an adjunct tunnel. Long ago, we’d erected barricades in key points, preventing an easy flow to our main settlement. We exited through the east blockade, and it required me to scramble using my hands and knees before I got past the rubble. To my eyes, it needed shoring up again with new salvage, but that was Builder work.
Beyond the light of the enclave, it was dark, darker than I’d ever seen. It took my eyes long moments to adjust. Fade waited while I made the shift.
“We hunt like this?” Nobody ever told me. Primitive fear scuttled up my spine.
“Light attracts Freaks. We don’t want them to see us first.”
Reflexively, I checked my weapons as if mentioning the monsters could bring them slavering out of the murk. My club slid free cleanly. I put it back. Likewise, my knives found my palms in a smooth motion.
As we moved, my other senses compensated. I had done visual deprivation as part of my training, but I hadn’t understood just how much I would need that skill out here. Now I was glad I could hear him moving ahead of me because I could make out only vague shadows. No wonder Hunters died.
Ahead of me, Fade checked the various snares. A couple yielded meat. Another partner might’ve put me at ease; he left me trailing in the darkness and the silence. Fine, I could handle myself. I wasn’t scared.
I told myself that right up until we made a left turn and I heard noises in the distance. Wet, sucking sounds echoed, so I had no idea how close they really were. The ground roughened beneath my feet, broken metal and chunks of stone. Fade melted into the dark, going
Because it was my job, I followed.
We came to a crossing, where four tunnels connected. Above, the ceiling had cracked and fallen, leaving debris everywhere. Sickly light trickled in from a great distance, speckling everything with a peculiar glow, and I spotted my first Freak.
Because we moved as silently as twin knives, the monster hadn’t seen or heard us yet. It crouched over a dead thing, tearing raw flesh with its teeth. There would be more nearby. In my lore classes, they’d told us Freaks ran in packs.
Fade made a silent gesture, telling me he would take this one. I should watch for the rest. A lift of my head confirmed my understanding of the plan. He went in, lean and deadly, and ended the creature with a lightning-fast spike of his blade. It shrieked, likely alerting the rest. The death call carried like a mournful song.
Movement to the north drew my eye. We had two more incoming at a dead run. Instinct kicked in, leaving me no space for fear. My knives slipped into my hands—unlike most Hunters, I could fight with two at the same time.
Silk didn’t lie. I am the best of my group.
I told myself that as the first Freak slammed into me. But I greeted it with an upward slash and an outward thrust with my left hand.
Hit the vitals. Go for the kill shot.
I heard Silk’s voice in my head, telling me,
Every moment you spend fighting this thing drains energy you won’t have later, when you need it most.
My blade bit into rank, spongy flesh and slammed through bone. I shook my head mentally. Too high. I didn’t want the rib cage. It howled in pain and raked its filthy claws toward my shoulder. This wasn’t like training; this thing didn’t use moves I knew.
Grimly, I countered with my right hand. I wished I had the leisure to watch Fade, assess his style, but this was my first real fight, and I didn’t want to come out of it looking worse than an untrained brat. It mattered that I earned my partner’s respect.
My leg lashed out, and I combined the kick with an angled knife thrust. Both connected, and the Freak went down, gushing foul blood. It didn’t look like ours, darker, thick and fetid. I popped it in the heart with my left hand and danced back to avoid getting clawed while it was in its death throes.
Fade finished faster than me. To be expected, I supposed, given his greater experience. I cleaned my knives on the rags the Freak wore and slid them back into their sheathes. Now I understood on a visceral level why the Hunters spent so much time caring for their weapons. I felt like I might never get the stain off the metal.
“Not bad,” he said at last.
I’d done it. I was officially blooded. As much as the new scars on my arms, that marked me as a Huntress. My shoulders squared.
We left the three corpses. Horrible as it sounded, other Freaks would eat them. They had no care for their dead. They did not attack each other, but otherwise, anything in the tunnels—living or dead—offered fuel for their endless appetites.
By comparison the rest of our patrol passed with relative ease. Half the traps yielded meat. A number of animals lived down here with us; four-legged furry creatures we called food. I killed a wounded one, where the snare hadn’t broken its neck clean, and that bothered me more than killing the Freak. I held its warm body in my hands and bowed my head over it. Wordless, Fade took it from me and dropped it in the sack with the others. We had brats to feed.
I didn’t know how he marked the time, but eventually he said, “We should head back.”
On the return, I tried to memorize our route. Though no one had stated it, one day Fade would expect me to lead. He wouldn’t accept excuses, any more than I was inclined to offer them. So on our way, I counted our steps and turns and committed them to memory.
By the time we reached the enclave, other Hunters had already begun reporting in. Twist took charge of the bags, weighing the meat and either commending or berating the team. We heard “nice job” while the pair after us got “thanks to you, the brats go hungry in the morning.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” I said to Fade.
He inclined his head and circled around the fire. Without meaning to, I found myself watching the lean, muscular lines of his back and the way his hair fell against the nape of his neck. Fade moved like he fought, economically and without wasted effort.
“What do you think of him?” Silk asked. At twenty, she stood a little taller than me with fair hair she wore shorn close to her head. Her toughness made her an ideal leader. But her face contorted with contempt as she gazed at Fade. She didn’t like what he stood for and that he didn’t accept his orders with the same zeal as everyone else.
My opinions about Fade were far too tangled to talk about, so I murmured, “Too soon to say.”
“A lot of citizens fear him. They say he must be part Freak or he’d have been eaten out there.”
“People say a lot of things,” I muttered.
Silk took it as a tacit defense of my new partner and her mouth twisted. “That they do.
say you should be a Breeder like your dam.”
I set my teeth and strode out of the kitchen, determined to find a partner and do a little extra training. Nobody would dismiss me as unfit to be a Huntress. Nobody.
Two days later, they called Stone, Thimble, and me before the Wordkeeper. He’d had time to consider the matter of the white card. Though I knew we hadn’t done anything wrong, my stomach still tightened with dread.
He wasn’t quite as old as Whitewall, but he had an air about him that made me nervous. The Wordkeeper was tall and thin with arms like bone. He sat before us wearing a heavy look.
“After examining the tin, I have determined you had no foreknowledge of its contents. I judge you all innocent.” Relief spilled through me as he went on. “You did well in bringing me the document. I will add it to our archives.” He referred to a gray metal box in which he stored all of our important papers. “But as a reward for your honesty, I have decided to read this to you. Make yourselves comfortable.”
That was new. Most of us could read enough to make out warning signs, but not a lot more. Our training focused on other areas, those more valuable to the whole. At his invitation I sat, folding my legs before me. Thimble and Stone did likewise on either side of me.
The Wordkeeper cleared this throat. “‘You are cordially invited to the wedding of Anthony P. Cicero and Jennifer L. Grant on Tuesday, June the Second, year of Our Lord 2009 at four o’clock. Thirty-five East Olivet Avenue. RSVP enclosed. Reception to follow.’”
It all sounded very mysterious. I wanted to ask some questions, but he’d already granted us a favor. The Wordkeeper made it clear we were dismissed once he finished, so I led the way to the common area.
Thimble looked thoughtful. “What do you think a wedding is?”
“Some kind of party? Maybe like we have after naming day.” I did wonder why the paper had been sealed in a box full of sweet-smelling powder, but I had long since accepted that I’d never understand everything. In the enclave, it mattered more that we performed well in our allotted roles. Life didn’t permit extensive curiosity; there was no time for it.
“Do you have any other contraband?” Stone joked. “We could take a look at it before we have to go back to work.”
Thimble leveled a stern gaze at him. “That’s not funny. They’re going to be watching us for weeks now, just to be sure…” She trailed off, not wanting to voice the possible offense.
To be sure we’re not hoarding.
Last year, a boy named Skittle had been discovered with old documents and technology in his living space, some hidden beneath his pallet, other things concealed in hollow objects. Hunters had taken his whole collection to Whitewall and the Wordkeeper for examination and judgment. Most of it was judged significant to our cultural development, and they exiled him. Apart from Fade, I’d never heard of anyone surviving outside a settlement.
There were others down here, of course. We weren’t alone. Sometimes we traded with the closest enclave, but that required a three-day hike through dangerous territory. Natural resources didn’t permit large groups to live in the same area. Coming up as brats, each elder drummed it into our heads how without proper balance, we were doomed. And we believed it because it was true.