Authors: Ann Aguirre
Fade had his map in hand when he landed beside me. His silence burned like the hot knives Twist had used to make my marks. Still without speaking, he brushed by me and jogged toward the first turn. If I didn’t keep up, he’d leave me alone in the dark; I didn’t doubt that at all.
We ran all morning without a break. I sipped from my water bottle on the move. It was made of a light, strong substance, a relic of the old days. Someone had scavenged it from the tunnels, brought it back and cleaned it up. Even as a brat, I’d coveted it, knowing how valuable it would prove to a Hunter. As soon as I got my hands on something good, I bartered for it.
I got used to stepping where he did, running in the dark. Sometimes rays of light through broken stone illuminated the murk, but that only made it worse. Then I had to see the bleak tunnels, dirty water standing in the center, and the things that scurried away from our feet.
Like Fade, I’d memorized our route early on, so I tracked his leadership. I wouldn’t put it past him to head away from College, away from Nassau, and lead me into the black to die. He’d seemed mad enough the day before to make sure I came to a bad end. Not for the first time, I wondered about the death of his first partner.
He wasn’t as good as Silk claimed,
he’d said. But maybe what Fade really meant was he’d disappointed him by not sharing his crazy, selfish ideals. Maybe the poor guy had only been guilty of serving the enclave first. Fear tightened my stomach. I would have to be on my guard at all times out here alone with him. At a few points along the way, I smelled Freaks, but we moved too fast for them to hit us. They cried and growled from adjacent passages.
I had no way to gauge how long we’d been running, but he called a halt, long after the stitch in my side became a brand. The tunnels even looked different here, splashed with red and black paint, more remnants of the old days. Our smoke hadn’t penetrated this far. We were unquestionably in the wilds.
The stone ledge to the right permitted us to scramble off the ground, away from the metal and chunks of fallen rock. With a wall behind us, we rested without worrying about threats from all sides. I opened my bag and pulled out a chunk of dried meat. We didn’t have a lot of variety even in the enclave: fresh meat, dried meat, and mushrooms. Occasionally, someone found a tin and once we pried it open, the contents smelled fine and enticing, but that was the exception, not the rule.
I ate and drank a little more water. We had to make it last until we reached Nassau. Worse, there was no guarantee we’d be able to access their supply. If the brat had spoken truly and the settlement was lost, the place might be overrun with Freaks.
“It’s time to get moving,” Fade said, after a while. Those were the first words he’d spoken to me all day. “We still have four more hours to go before we can make camp for the night.”
“How do you know?” At the enclave, we had a few clocks that kept time for us, scavenged in long ago Topside runs. We had no idea whether they reflected the correct time, of course, but it didn’t matter. We only needed to share a common schedule.
In answer he pushed up his sleeve and showed me his wrist. Unlike most, he preferred to keep his marks covered. He wore a small clock; I’d never seen anything quite like it.
“What is it?”
The glowing hands meant he could see it, even in the dark. That explained how he knew when our patrols were done, and that we still needed to run for four hours. Nodding, I stowed my gear and vaulted down from the stone ledge. We had been lucky to eat undisturbed. Time to get moving again, though my muscles felt weak and watery.
This time, I set the pace. I didn’t like letting Fade run at my back, but I didn’t want him to think he frightened me, either.
Along the way, four near misses with Freaks kept us sharp. They tried to hit us as we ran, but they were weak and slow. By tacit agreement we didn’t stop to fight. Fights risked injury, making us even more attractive targets. We killed them near the enclave as part of defending our territory. Here, it was best simply to keep moving.
By the time we found a place to camp for the night, my whole body ached. Here, the tunnel widened. There were double metal lines and a raised area, littered with broken glass and covered in festive paint. Fade pulled himself up, and then offered me his hand.
Unlike the last time, it didn’t hurt when his fingers curled around mine. His strength surprised me, because he tugged me up using his upper body only. I landed beside him and took stock of the area.
A metal gate blocked off one end. On the other, I saw a couple of doors. Fade was already moving toward them, trying the handles. Though the enclave didn’t use doors, I’d seen them before. One of them pushed open, but the smell was so horrific I gagged.
“Did something die in there?”
“Probably,” Fade said.
The white tile was stained black in spots, filth and dried blood. Doors blocked off tiny rooms, except for the last one, where the metal hung askew, revealing a squat chair with a hole in it. Curiosity got the best of me, then overwhelming disgust.
I took a step into the room, intending to check out the place, when side movement caught my eye. I whirled, knives slipping into my palms. The other girl did the same. When I froze, she did.
The mirrors I’d seen had all been tiny and, most of them, cracked. Though I knew I had brown hair and gray eyes, I’d never seen a full-sized reflection of myself before. Fade came to stand behind me, watching me as I did, and discomfort twined like razors around my spine. He made me feel small. Right then, I felt stupid too.
“I’d rather sleep out there.” I jerked my head toward the open, raised area.
“Me too. You can use the facilities first.”
“It’s a bathroom.”
I didn’t see how anyone could bathe in here, but looking at the squat chair, I took his meaning. It held a black, foul water, and probably other stuff too. At home, we did our business above a grate, some distance from the rest of the enclave. The smell in that part of the settlement matched the stench in here, so I got it.
Fade stepped outside, leaving me to it. I was careful not to touch anything, and then I went out to give him a turn. Weird, seeing the echo of how people used to live.
The other door wouldn’t budge, no matter how we pushed or pulled on it, so we took the corner in between the doors, as far back from the edge as we could get. I ate more dried meat and drank a few swallows of water. Thankfully it was cool enough that we wouldn’t lose much fluid through sweat.
“I’ll take the first watch.”
He didn’t argue. “You’ll need this, then.” After unfastening his watch, he passed it over to me.
The leather held warmth from his skin; I couldn’t help but notice as I wound it around my wrist. It fastened easily enough. Now I could keep time too.
“Wake me after four hours. That’s four revolutions.”
I spoke through clenched teeth. “I’m not an idiot. I can tell time.”
Even if Twist kept time for the enclave and rang a bell at the important hours, when meals were served and shifts stopped and started, I knew how. That was part of brat schooling, what you learned in between chores. From three to eight, we learned basic things. From eight to fifteen, we took job training. But he might not know that; he’d come into the enclave late, and gotten his name not too long after. He probably hadn’t spent too much time with our brats in their early years.
“I never said you were an idiot.”
“You seem to think it.” The words just slipped out. I didn’t want to fight with him. Out here, just the two of us, it was the opposite of smart. Maybe I
“No,” he said softly. “You’ve just been taught to think wrong.”
And we were back to the blind brat again. I saw in his eyes that he thought I should’ve done something when they took him. Well, he’d stood silent too. I swallowed my instinctive reply and substituted, “You’re welcome to your opinions. Just don’t let them get in the way of doing your job.”
He sent me a hard look. “Are you implying something?”
you are. You actually believe I let my last partner die because I didn’t agree with him. Yet here you are. Alone. With me.” His black eyes gleamed wickedly.
I realized. I didn’t think that. If the death of a worthless brat troubled him, Fade wouldn’t let a Hunter die for any reason, if he could help it. It wasn’t his fault; the odds must have been stacked against them, or maybe his partner made a mistake.
“I’m following orders,” I said mildly. “But no. That wasn’t what I meant. I’m sure you did all you could to save him.”
That shut him up for a good minute. I knew because I had his watch and I found the movement of the skinny little line mesmerizing. Because we were still and quiet, I heard the soft ticking. It reminded me of a heartbeat.
“Nobody else thinks that. Not even Silk.” For a moment, I recognized how alone he was, ostracized from the others. He came from nowhere. Nobody knew anything about him; he worked to keep the others distant and off balance.
And then I registered hurt. Until I turned up late for briefings and disobeyed orders, I’d thought Silk liked me. Certainly she encouraged my progress through the training circle and told me I’d make a great Huntress someday. So why had she stuck me with Fade, if she’d thought he had something to do with his partner’s death?
He must’ve read the question in my face because he gave a wry smile. “She said if anybody could survive me, you could.”
Ah. A nod at my skill, then.
I took it as a compliment. But even if she’d liked me once, I had lost her regard. She thought I’d supported Fade, against her authority, and at base … I had. Becoming a Huntress was nothing like I’d dreamed, none of the belonging I’d wanted, none of the respect.
To counteract the bleak feeling, I made myself say, “We’ll get through this.”
Nodding, he rolled himself into his blanket and went to sleep. I admired that ability because I didn’t have the knack. Hunters were supposed to be able to turn themselves off and on, but I found it hard to shut down my brain, my biggest weakness.
Through the quiet hours I kept watch. Movement would help me stay alert, but it might also attract attention. I ran practice matches in my head, pitting myself against more experienced Hunters. I had watched them spar and learned their styles when I could, when they didn’t run me off for being a nosy, annoying brat. I didn’t ever remember seeing Fade fight. But then, he chose not to socialize with his colleagues.
Though he’d gone to sleep facing away from me, he’d rolled, so now I could watch his face. At first I tried to avoid the temptation to study him, knowing he wouldn’t like it, but there wasn’t anything else to do. He had graceful black brows, darker in contrast to his pale skin. But then we were all pale.
I looked away and tried to think of something else. Our fish pools kept us from suffering like other settlements when hunted meat ran lean. From the elders, I knew it was important, and that other enclaves coveted our resources. It was why we limited our trade; we didn’t want too many people coming and going. That invited invasion.
Eventually, my gaze found Fade again. His nose was sharp, like his chin and his jaw. Likewise, I could cut myself on his cheekbones. His mouth offered the only softness, and even then, only when he slept. I didn’t like how I felt, strange and prickly.
Uncomfortable, I went back to staring into the dark. I felt I had invaded his privacy, and now I’d find it even harder to sleep, fearing he might do the same to me. The usual regulations didn’t apply on a mission. In the enclave, we wouldn’t be permitted to spend this much time together without a chaperone. It cut down on accidents occurring outside of sanctioned breeding. But the elders all knew that a dirty, Freak-infested tunnel was the last place any Hunter would be tempted to break the rules.
In the third hour of my shift, I heard the scrape of claws on metal.
In the same movement, I bounced to my feet and found my weapons. I nudged Fade in the ribs. He snapped alert, started to ask, and I lifted my finger to my lips.
He caught the telltale sound immediately and readied himself for a fight.
Club in hand, I stepped to the edge, braced, and waited. There was no point hiding; they knew we were here. They sniffed, searching for us. I could smell them too, worse than the filthy waste closet. They reeked of rotten meat and diseased flesh. In another instant, they burst into view, maddened with the scent of fresh meat.
They rushed the platform and I met the first one with a crushing blow from my club. The skull caved with a wet crunch, and blood bubbled from the wound. It fell and did not rise. Fade took down another, but two more scrambled up, and we fell back so we had plenty of room to fight. Based on my limited experience, I hated Freak eyes most of all; in them I could see a remnant of something human, something comprehensible, swimming in a sea of hunger and misery and madness. I tried not to look at its eyes as it rushed me.
After a day of running and without sleep, my reflexes had slowed. Instead of a clean dodge, claws raked across my arm. My recovery was off, but I drove it away with a kick solid enough to give me the crunch of bone. I followed with a hard swing. I didn’t have the stamina for finesse.
End it fast.