Authors: Ann Aguirre
“I’ve never seen so many of them together,” I whispered.
I shouldn’t have spoken. Though I’d thought my words were so quiet as to be barely audible, one of the Freaks heard me. It went wild, slamming repeatedly against the glass until it began to splinter.
“Up!” Fade shouted. “They know we’re here. Get your weapons.”
There was no room for the club, much to my dismay, so it would have to be daggers. Thanks to Thimble, they fit my palms perfectly. I rolled to my feet as the glass broke. The Freak pushed its torso into the car and I went for the jugular. Twin slashes opened its neck and its disgusting blood jetted out. Then it hung in the broken window like a grotesque blockade, until other Freaks began to tear at it. A few of them fed; others were obviously trying to remove it to get to us.
“How much trouble are we in?” The one on the roof started to jump, as if its weight could break through the metal.
“Depends on how smart they are.”
“Have you been in a situation like this before?”
Incredibly, he smiled. “I doubt anyone has.”
Why did Silk have to put me with a
partner? So many solid, experienced Hunters to choose from and I got Fade. Life wasn’t fair at all.
The stench hit me like a club; the Freaks had torn the one in the window apart. At least half of them entered a feeding frenzy. They knelt and shoved the bloody gobbets of meat into their mouths, their razor-sharp teeth and claws shining red even in the dark.
“As long as they don’t start breaking other windows, we should be fine,” I said.
And then they attacked the other side of the car. Fade vaulted over two rows of seats to position himself, daggers in hands. I had to stay where I was and guard this opening. I didn’t let myself think what would happen if they spread out farther.
Another Freak threw itself at the opening. I missed the neck this time, but I caught it with a side shot, vital organ territory, as it struggled to clear its legs. Like the other, it hung, wretched and dying, while its kin ripped at it.
Fade was doing fine on his end, employing the same tactics. The dead bodies served as an excellent distraction. While Freaks wouldn’t attack their own kind while they lived, if they were dying, it became a different story. Meat was meat.
Their screams and snarls made the hair of my arms stand on end. We held our ground, guarding the two breach points, until they went to work on another window. Two Freaks pounded repeatedly on the glass until it stressed. While killing another, I watched the growing web of cracks with dismay and then fear.
We were going to be overrun.
Before either of us could get there, one managed to climb inside. Without the barrier, another pushed in behind it. If we stepped away, we’d have them behind us on all sides. Grimly, I dispatched another one, and then whirled to take on the one running at me inside.
It dove at me, jaws snapping, and I drove my dagger in through its eye socket. In a smooth motion, I spun and took the fresh one scrambling in the window. Fade dispatched his with cool efficiency. He was better than any of the Hunters I’d watched with such admiration. Even his moves were unique, so graceful I had to work not to watch him when I should be fighting. I didn’t need the distraction.
And then they broke pattern. Two ran at Fade while his back was turned, dealing with the one at his window. Though it meant abandoning my post, I launched myself over the seats, swinging around a pole for momentum, and planted my feet in a Freak’s chest. I lashed out with a powerful kick, caving in its temple, and then I took its partner with twin slashes of my daggers. In saving him, I’d opened a path, though. More crawled through.
“You should run!” Fade shouted. “We’ll kill you all if we have to.”
The Freaks snarled back, wet, hideous sounds that sounded almost like words trapped behind predator’s teeth. I fought on, back to back with Fade, conscious that my muscles were tiring. Humans had limits. But after we dropped ten of them, and the remainder fed on the fallen, they broke and ran. Apparently, we fought too hard to be worth the effort. That troubled me because it showed a certain mental capacity. They might even have taken his warning to heart.
Fade shared my unease. “They decided to cut their losses.”
“That means they’re not just creatures of impulse and appetite, like we thought.” Panting, I wiped my knives on the rags worn by the dead Freak nearest to me.
“You think they’ll believe us?”
I sighed. “If they don’t, we’re in real trouble.”
“Well, Silk already knew their behavior has changed. We’ve been asked to find out why.”
I raised a brow. “You think that’s an attainable goal?”
“I think it’s meant to break us.”
Standing in this car, filthy and blood spattered, I realized it might. I collected my things. We needed to eat before moving on, but it wouldn’t be here. The smell wouldn’t let me keep anything down.
As if he shared my revulsion, Fade launched himself headfirst out of the window. I started to shout at him for being an idiot, but my breath caught when he flipped midair and landed on his feet. When he faced me, he was smiling.
“Showoff,” I muttered.
My center of gravity wouldn’t let me match the feat. I’d have to jump from higher up to stick the landing, so I kicked at some of the glass shards to level it out and then jumped feet first. I didn’t
him to steady me, but I appreciated it.
His hands were surprisingly gentle. “You saved me.”
“That’s my job.” Discomfort blazed through me.
Even in the shadows, I could see his black gaze as intent. “You’re as good as Silk said you were.”
Hearing that pleased me so much it hurt. No more scornful “new blood” from him. No more cracks about my skill. Maybe we could work together after all.
I ducked my head, unable to say more than a choky “Thanks.”
“I think it’s safe now.”
Safe was such a relative word. The bodies mounded in dismembered chunks all around the car. Blood smeared the outside, trailing downward in a hideous memorial. Some of the limbs had been gnawed until they showed bone. Nothing in my training had prepared me for this. Nothing.
I wanted to sit down and shake in reaction. Fade shoved me around the carnage and got me moving. I wasn’t sure I could’ve done it on my own. Once more, we ran with minimal breaks, but the sleep helped. Today I didn’t feel like I might die from the trip, at least, even if every noise made my heart jump in my chest. So far from the enclave, I didn’t think Freaks were just a minor annoyance, either. They counted as a legitimate danger to the settlement.
We made such good time that we started seeing signs for Nassau earlier than I expected. They were accompanied by the normal warnings about traps.
ENTERING NASSAU TERRITORY
WATCH YOUR STEP
. I avoided a couple of snares along the way, and as we got closer, I noticed with a sinking heart that they hadn’t been checked in days. Some of them contained rotten meat.
My flesh crawled with the smell as we made the last turn. I’d long since gotten used to the darkness and the chill, but the stink was new. It was like the Freaks that had surrounded us in the car, only a hundred times worse. Fade stilled me with a hand on my arm. I read from his gestures that he wanted us to stay close to the wall and move very slowly on the approach. He got no argument from me.
We came up on the busted barricade first. There was no guard posted. Inside the settlement, Freaks shambled about their business. They were fat in comparison with the ones we’d encountered on the way. Horror surged through me. For a moment I couldn’t take it all in; the silence of corpses drowned every thought.
There was no one here to save, and our elders had killed the sole surviving Nassau citizen. That meant our nearest trade outpost lay four days in the opposite direction. Fade put his hand on my arm and cocked his head the way we’d come. Yes, it was time to go. We could do nothing here but die.
Though I was tired, terror gave my muscles strength. As soon as we gained enough distance through stealth, I broke into a headlong run. My feet pounded over the ground. I’d run until I buried the horror. Nassau hadn’t been prepared; they hadn’t believed the Freaks could be a large-scale threat. I tried not to imagine the fear of their brats or the way their Breeders must have screamed. Their Hunters had failed.
We wouldn’t. We couldn’t. We had to get home and warn the elders.
Fade took us back a different way. These tunnels were narrower, and I saw no signs of Freak presence. I found hidden energy reserves and though our pace dropped down to a walk, I kept moving. By the time we broke for a rest, my arms and legs trembled.
He turned into a doorway and went up some steps. I slowed, gazing into the dark. Over the years it had been ingrained into me; steps were bad. They led Topside.
“Come on,” he said impatiently.
Shaking, I swallowed my misgivings and began to climb. He stopped on a landing and followed a narrow hall around a couple of turns. It ended in a room swimming with dark shapes. To my amazement, Fade did something, and then we had light. We had scavenged lamps before, of course, but we didn’t have the power to make them work. This one contained a flickering flame at its heart.
“How did you do that?”
“It’s an old storm lantern. Runs on oil.”
I wished we had some of those in the enclave. The torches we used smoked a lot. Fade shut the door and turned something while I took stock. Full of relics from the old days, the room looked as though nobody had touched anything in years. A thick film of dust covered all the shelves, the desk, but it didn’t conceal the nature of the artifacts. There were four tall, slim books here, all colorful and full of pictures. I started to reach for one and stopped, casting a guilty look at him.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I won’t tell anyone if you look before taking them to the Wordkeeper.”
It didn’t count as hoarding, I reasoned, as long as I turned the stuff over as soon as we arrived. I picked one up and stared with disbelieving wonder. It showed a brightly lit tunnel and one of those cars, connected to a bunch more, zooming along the metal bars. And people sat inside it: cheerful, reading, talking.
“It used to be like that,” I said, surprised.
“Yeah. People just came down here for transportation. Then they went back up.”
I marveled at the weirdness of it. “You were born Topside?”
“It’s not like you’ll believe me if I say yes,” he muttered.
Well, I had that coming. I ignored the impulse to apologize and instead buried myself in the thin books. They had slick, glossy pages and lots of pictures. The blue skies and greenery enthralled me. I’d never seen anything grow but a mushroom.
Finally, I stowed them in my bag and searched the rest of the room. Anything I carried back would help restore my reputation with Silk and the rest of the Hunters. Nobody had stumbled on a treasure trove like this in a long time. I ransacked all the shelves and furniture; my bag bulged by the time I finished taking everything I thought might interest them back at the enclave. The desk held tons of interesting paper, smooth and fine, even if it had started yellowing with age.
“Are there more places like this? Full of artifacts?”
Fade shrugged. “Probably.”
For a moment I was tempted to look. But then Silk could claim we’d disobeyed our primary command. This room, I could state confidently we had found by chance. Regretfully, I ate a mouthful of dry meat and downed some water.
Now that the wonder had worn off, reaction set in. I remembered—and didn’t want to—the horror of Nassau. To contain the shakes, I pulled my knees to my chest and wrapped my arms about them. I tried to control my breathing. A Huntress didn’t crack under pressure. She might bend, but she could handle anything.
I felt Fade hovering beside me. “Is it your shoulder?”
“No. It’s that everyone at Nassau is dead.” I raised my head and looked at him.
“I don’t want to go to sleep,” he admitted.
He dropped down beside me, wrapped his blanket around my shoulders, and left his arm around my back. Hunched over, I felt the strength of him even more clearly.
I had enough resolve left to object. “That’s against the rules.”
“You’re cold and scared. Relax. It’s not like I’m trying to breed you.” His tone said that was the last thing he’d do.
Good enough. I’d take his hand off at the wrist if he tried anything. Honestly, it felt good to sit next to him. He was the only living soul who could understand how I felt right now, my head crowded with images I didn’t want and couldn’t banish.
“Have you ever seen anything like that before?”
“Never. The balance has shifted.”
“We have to be able to tell Silk why. Otherwise we haven’t completed our mission.”
“I know why,” he said.
“If they didn’t take what Nassau had, those Freaks would’ve starved to death.”
I recoiled. “You sound like you sympathize with them.”
“I’m sorry for the people who died. But I understand why it happened.”