Authors: Jaye Wells
What waited for Bravo and the others at the camp was not honorable. The path they were on now was a slow slide into hell. There would be no quick death for my friends. Vampires liked to play with their food.
I glanced toward the deer again, thankful I could no longer see the blood pooled underneath its too-still body.
ray ash coated
my skin and lined the interior of my mouth with grit. It mixed with the blood on my palms and the wounds on my arms. After hours trapped in a wooden box with no food or water and the beating that closely followed our arrival at the camp, my arms hung useless at my sides and my legs hurt so much I couldn’t walk without a limp.
They’d made me leave Mica at the main building. I’d learned quickly that it was useless to fight the guards. It only gave them an excuse—as if they really needed one—to make me bleed.
After the beating, they laughed as they shaved my head. They laughed as they tattooed my neck with my blood type. They laughed as they hosed me down with frigid water and shoved me into a uniform and too-tight shoes. And through it all, through the shivering and the pain and the fear, I silently vowed to myself that I would survive long enough to watch them burn.
After the intake process, I’d been pushed out into the night and told to report to building number seven, which was one of the women’s barracks. Someone there would show me the ropes and tell me where to go at work time.
The avenues and barracks that made up the camp were sun-bright, thanks to tall lights studding the compound. The harsh glow enhanced the uninterrupted grayness of the landscape. The buildings, the bricks making up the tall walls surrounding the compound, and even the prisoners’ uniforms were all hopeless, dusty gray.
A cluster of prisoners limped along in front of me. Hard to tell their genders because they were all bald, like me, and their bodies were emaciated past the point of having any curves. Just beyond the barracks two guards watched us approach.
The guard on the right, a male with moon-pale skin and a mean glint in his eyes, licked his lips. A whimper rose from a prisoner as the guard pulled him behind the building. The rest of the group continued walking.
Screams filled the air.
The prisoners continued. No one even glanced in that direction.
The other guard saw me coming and must have spotted the horror on my face because he flashed his fangs at me. “Keep moving.”
I lowered my head but cut my eyes to look down the row between the buildings as I passed. The guard bent over the prisoner’s neck. Feeble legs kicked the air, but it was like a rabbit fighting a wolf.
I’d never seen a vampire feed from a human, but that wasn’t what made bile rise in my throat. No one helped him, including me. Shame and fear made my skin crawl.
The rest of the camp was quiet, which amplified the noises of the struggle. I picked up my pace, but that earned me too much attention from the guards lining the path. Slowing, I attempted to breathe deep to still my racing heart. But doing so only brought more of the choking ash into my mouth. The acrid taste on my tongue, the flavor of charred lives, suffocated me. I jackknifed forward and vomited yellow bile into the gray dirt.
Rough hands grabbed my shoulder. I yelped and fought the hold, believing they belonged to one of the guards.
“Shut up,” a voice hissed. “Keep moving.”
It took me a moment to realize the face next to mine was female. I couldn’t tell her age, but there were permanent frown lines creasing her ashy brown skin. “Contain yourself.” Her tone was low and mean, even as her hands helped support my weight.
Wiping the back of my hand across my mouth, I allowed her to help me stand.
“Don’t look around. Just walk.” She tightened her grip. “One step after another,” she whispered. “Just keep moving.”
Our feet moved in sync through the gray dirt.
“Hey!” a nearby guard called.
She kept moving, but waved a hand in a nothing-to-see-here motion.
“Oh, it’s you.” He backed away.
I watched the exchange but couldn’t make sense of it. How could an old woman in a work camp have that much influence?
“Who are you?”
“You shouldn’t be here.” She said this in a tone so low, I wondered if she’d even meant for me to hear it.
My hollow stomach quaked and cramped, as if it couldn’t decide whether it was too sick for food or too hungry to worry about being sick.
Before long, she led me to the dark doorway of the building marked with a number seven. I stumbled through the entrance and fell into a support column. The wood felt solid and sure in my hand, and it offered a measure of much-needed equilibrium.
Several dirty faces watched me with blank expressions. It was hard to tell them apart with their identical stubbled heads and hollow, hopeless eyes.
“What is your name?”
Every eye in the room turned toward the woman who’d brought me.
I tried to swallow, but the rawness there mixed with the inescapable dust made the walls of my throat click together dryly. I coughed and tried again. The old woman watched all this without an ounce of pity.
“When did you arrive?”
“This evening. Can you help me? I came with a child, a boy. They wouldn’t tell me what would happen to him—”
“You should be more worried about your own fate, girl,” she said. “Not even a full night inside and you’re already courting death.”
I raised my chin. “No one did anything to help that prisoner.”
“That prisoner’s name was Joe. He was chosen because he was caught stealing bread.” The woman’s mouth lifted on one side in a mockery of a smile. “Would intervening have saved him?”
I opened my mouth to argue, but the grave expressions on every face in that room gave me pause. How many times had they seen their friends and family fall under the fang? How many times had they felt helpless to stop it? Was I a fool to think I could save anyone when I was just as trapped as the rest of them? “No,” I said. “It wouldn’t have saved him, but doing nothing damns us all.”
The woman’s right brow flicked. “Interesting.”
“Who are you?”
“They call me Matri now.”
“Can you help me find out where the children are kept?” I didn’t bother to hide the desperation in my tone.
“There’s no mystery there. All youngs come to me.”
My heartbeat picked up pace. “Can you—would you give them a message for me?”
The woman tilted her head. “What’s in it for me?”
If she’d punched me in the face I wouldn’t have been more surprised. But it was time for me to stop being shocked and start getting smart. “If you tell them that I’ll get them out of here, then I promise to take you with me when we go.”
A laugh exploded from her thin frame. The other women laughed too, although with less gusto. I let their pitying humor pelt me like rocks. It wasn’t the first time I’d been laughed at that day, but I was beyond caring. I needed to keep myself focused on my goal: Stay alive long enough for Mica and me to get away from this place. Nothing else mattered.
“You’ll get me out? Sure, doll. You’ll be lucky if you’re alive come sunrise.” Shaking her head as she walked, she headed for the door. “Rachel?”
A woman whose rail-thin body swam in her uniform shuffled forward. She refused to look me in the eye, as if the contact would somehow curse her.
“Show her the ropes,” Matri said to Rachel before turning to me. “And you, try not to do anything stupid.” She disappeared through the door, but her laughter lingered like a ghost.
abbit ran into the cave
. He waved something in the air. “Six! Six!”
I was sitting in front of the fire listening to Icarus and Dare argue over who should take the blame for how low our food stores had gotten. Happy for the excuse to escape their bickering, I rose from my spot to meet the kid. He thrust a rock into my hands. It was heavy and roughly the size of a grapefruit.
Grapefruit? What a strange thing. When was the last time I’d had one of those? Sometimes when I was young, Mom would bring pink ones home from the neighborhood farmers’ market and we’d share one together on the fire escape outside the window of our impossibly small kitchen. My mouth watered now, thinking about how the fruit had tasted like sunshine and sugar—sweeter still, because of the company.
“Six?” Rabbit’s voice pulled me out of the tunnels of memory and back to the present.
The meager light from the fire gave the air a reddish tinge and each breath was thick with wood smoke. A far cry from the memory of the bright morning with the taste of sunshine on my tongue. “What’s this?”
“I found it in the story cave.”
The story cave was a spot a few miles away where some of the local rebel troops sometimes left messages for each other. Usually the messages took the form of symbolic graffiti on the rock walls, but the rock he’d handed me was obviously a message as well. On the surface of the rock—it obviously hadn’t originated in a cave, because it was tumbled smooth, as if it had spent a good time in water—there was a six-pointed star painted on the surface. Under the star someone had written
“Saga,” I whispered. He was the unofficial leader of the squads of rebels who hid all over the Badlands, trying to evade capture. I hadn’t seen him for several months. After the factory explosion we’d pulled off the previous October, we’d all agreed to go to ground for the winter. Our little squad had spent most of the last couple of months in the network of abandoned caves about twenty miles from Saga’s bunker, which we called Book Mountain. We could have spent a comfortable winter in there with him, but with the Troika hunting us down, we didn’t want to risk all of us being captured together.
So why was he sending for me now?
“What’s up?” Icarus called from the fire.
“Saga,” Rabbit answered for me. He was so excited his feet were practically levitating off the dirt floor.
Dare’s yellow eyes flashed in the firelight. No doubt she was hoping Saga’s summons meant she’d see action soon. I wasn’t so optimistic, and judging from the grim expression on Icarus’s face, he and I were on the same page.
“When do we head out?” Rabbit’s voice had deepened over the last lazy few months and he’d grown a couple of inches. His face was losing the roundness of boyhood and sharpening into the angles of early manhood. Even so, his expression was pure kid as he bounced on the balls of his feet. He loved visiting Saga’s bunker.
“We need to talk about it first,” I said. The kid’s expression fell and Dare crossed her arms.
Icarus nodded. “Agreed.”
“But why?” Dare asked. “He wouldn’t have sent the message unless he needed us. We should head out soon.”
I shook my head. “Maybe I should go alone.”
“Excuse me?” she said.
“We’re low on food, and it’ll be easier for one person to evade patrols than all four of us.”
“Bullshit,” she snapped. “You just want an excuse to run away.”
I opened my mouth to argue, but Icarus cut me off. “Enough! We all go or none of us goes.” As he spoke, his posture dared me to give him an excuse to back up the command physically. Part of me was stung that they didn’t trust me, but the other part of me was ashamed, because they were right.
I threw up my hands. “Fine. We’ll leave at first light, then.”
Icarus watched me for a moment, as if he suspected a trick. I stared back. Finally, he tipped his chin subtly and turned his back on me to begin instructing Dare and Rabbit on gathering supplies for the trip to Book Mountain.
With all the attention off me, I let my shoulders go slack again. I should have known better than to hope that I’d have a chance at escape. I’d been pretending for so long that I’d almost forgotten how badly I wanted to get the hell away from them. It’s not that I wished them any ill, but being drafted into their rebel cause had never been my plan, nor my choice. Like with so many things in my life, I’d been threatened and coerced into cooperation.
I sighed and squeezed the rock in my hand. Sooner or later, I’d have my chance at freedom. I just prayed that the price for that freedom wouldn’t be my life.
inside Book Mountain so long I no longer knew what day it was. There, underground, I didn’t have the moon or the sun to help me track the passing of time. There were only the dimly lit corridors and dirt-walled cells and the gigantic underground silo full of books. At times when the children or I got restless, Saga would repeat his favorite refrain, “Read a book!”
But the youngs and I weren’t used to such luxuries. We preferred to sit in a circle and entertain each other with stories we made up. The fact that we lacked a campfire didn’t matter much. I sure missed Bravo, though. She always told the best tales. Scary ones were her specialty.
I thought now of all the times I’d lectured her on toning down the horror. I worried the youngs would be too scared to sleep, and told her that the world was scary enough. She’d always laugh at me and call me a name, like Old Fart or Stick-in-the-Ass.
Why had I wasted so much time lecturing? I’d spent countless hours talking the youngs through lists and lists of rules, in the hopes that if I could just warn them enough they could avoid running into trouble. But where had that gotten me? I’d walked all of us into an ambush. Now Bravo and Mica were gone, and the rest of us were begging for help from an old man who was probably more than half mad.
“Papa,” Blue whispered.
We were in the book silo. Saga had disappeared into his cell with a book of maps. His massive dog, Polonius, however, had stayed behind and was allowing the children to pet him. I was lying on the floor, looking over a book of photographs of celebrities taken well before the Blood War. How obscene they all seemed with their egos on display as boldly as their garish makeup and expensive clothes. But oh, how we had adored them.
“Who’s she, Papa?” Blue said.
“An actor,” I said, looking at the beautiful, vain face. “She played parts in movies.”
“What’s a movie?”
“A story told in moving pictures. Actors pretended to be characters in those stories.”
“They played make-believe?”
I nodded and flipped the page. This picture was of an old actor, a legend, they called him. I had to read the caption to remember his name. “Yes, but they got paid lots of money to do it.”
She frowned. “What’s money?”
I laughed. Blue had been born after the war to parents who’d managed to escape the city and live among the rebels, until they were caught in a Troika ambush. Toddler Blue had been abandoned by the remaining rebels, who worried about an extra mouth to feed. I’d found her in a cave, half-feral and starved.
“People exchanged money for goods and services. Sort of like how we sometimes trade supplies with other groups we run into.”
Her brow creased as she thought this over. “You never play make-believe, do you, Papa?”
I paused. “No, I guess I don’t.”
She patted me on the shoulder. “Maybe you should try it.”
Polonius let out a low growl and leapt off the floor, unseating the youngs who’d been crawling on him. He took a couple of steps toward the door leading to the corridor. His head was low and his ears lay flat against his skull.
A crash sounded somewhere deeper in the caverns. Voices raised.
Polonius took off like a bullet, barking the entire way. I rose quickly and told the children to stay put while I checked out what was happening.
The voices were louder in the corridor, and now I could tell they were not raised in anger, but in excited greeting. I started toward the mouth of the cavern, but hesitated. Saga had told me he was summoning a particular rebel troop to help us get Bravo and the youngs back. I knew nothing about them. I’d had a few experiences with other groups, and the results were mixed. Some maintained their humanity and were happy to help other humans any way they could. But others had become mercenaries and weren’t much better than the vampires when it came to monstrous behavior. While I trusted that Saga would not summon monsters to help us, he’d called on the sort of people who could infiltrate a vampire work camp—not a job for sweethearts.
No, I decided, I needed to secure the children before meeting these newcomers. I backtracked to the book silo. Once inside, I hushed the youngs and rounded them up. They fell into a quiet line quickly. Then it was just a matter of getting them down the corridor and into the cell we shared. Luckily, the hall we were down was the opposite direction from the main entrance where Saga was welcoming the rebels. I promised them I’d be back soon, but I needed them to stay quiet until I returned. Satisfied they’d follow orders, I backed out of the room and shut the door behind me.
My heart hammered behind my ribs and my breaths came in shallow bursts. With effort, I pulled air deep into my lungs to calm them. I was nervous, yes, but also excited. After several days cooped up in the bunker, we could finally start making plans to rescue Bravo and Mica. I let out my breath and, with it, a promise.
I will get you both back. I swear my life on it.