Crimson Sky - Chapter 1

 

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Chapter 1

The sky used to hold hope for me. Now it only held terror.

My legs ached with every movement, but I didn’t have time for pain. If I stopped to feel it, they would catch me. They would stab their onyx claws into my back and drag me into the ground. They would plunge their needles into my neck to drain all the blood in my body, and no amount of screaming would stop them–

Damn it, Claire! Don’t think about it! Move!

Thinking of my own horrible death was exactly what I needed to run faster.

We’re almost there, I told myself. Close, we’re so close–

A piercing scream came from behind me, startling me so badly I nearly tripped on the rocky ground. I shouldn’t have glanced over my shoulder, but I had to know how close the Hellions were, and who they had grabbed.

Gordon had been taken down, one of the Hellions pushing him into the broken concrete, putting its knees in his back and trapping him. The monster didn’t hesitate, crunching its body down and stabbing the pointed needle of its respirator into the back of Gordon’s neck. My partner screamed as the blood was sucked out of him, feeding the Hellion.

Two more of the monsters charged out from beyond a cracked slump of white stone. They didn’t glance at Gordon or the feasting Hellion. They wanted us.

I hated that daylight didn’t slow them down anymore, and wished they hadn’t learned how to cover themselves from the sun. In the beginning, they only came at night, descending from the Behemoth in their quick raiding skiffs and taking anyone they could snatch in their claws. It was horrifying–it always would be–but we’d been able to predict them.

Now they were prepared. They dressed in black jumpsuits with blood-red buttons along the left breast. The heavy boots, leather gloves, and round helmet almost made them look like the old Sky Guard, aside from the black gas mask with two black bulging glass goggles that made their eyes resemble an insect’s.

A black respirator with a pointed needle on the end covered the Hellion’s mouth, their tool for drinking blood during the day. I’d never been stabbed with one of those needles, and intended to keep it that way.

Kevin sprinted beside me, but he was panting heavily. He’d drawn his flintlock when the Hellion skiffs appeared and found us, but hadn’t fired a single shot. I wished he’d give me the damn thing. I wasn’t a swashbuckler, but at least I would put up a fight, or distract them so–

Distract them.

No time like the present.

Still running, I reached for my utility belt and took out a glass tube. I quickly unscrewed the caps on the top and bottom. Then I turned, arched my arm, and launched the flashbang. I knew the Hellions heard the clicking of the flashbang as gears and cogs spun rapidly inside the tube, powering the wires I’d connected to the fluorescent light. The Hellions skidded to a stop, covering their faces as the flashbang crashed onto the ground and shattered. White light flashed behind me and the Hellions roared their fury. I kept running, knowing I only had seconds before the artificial light faded.

But we were at the entrance to the underground. I never thought I would be so happy to see a sewer drain my whole life. I skidded to a stop along the dust and rubble, dropping to my knees and pulling the manhole cover. My arms strained with effort, but I moved the cover enough to slip down into the tunnel. Now I could lose myself and get back to–

Crack!

I jumped at the sound of a pistol being fired. I looked up and saw that Kevin had fallen. He flipped onto his back and shot at the Hellions catching up to him. All three of them, since Gordon was now lying on the dilapidated street in a motionless, bloody heap.

I hadn’t even seen him fall. Hadn’t even heard him. If I had, I would have done something. I didn’t like that he was sent on this mission with me since he constantly looked at me like I was a piece of meat that needed to be devoured,but no one deserved to die the way he was going to die.

But I was out of flashbangs, and my only other weapon was a pocketknife. Completely useless against something as strong as a Hellion.

I looked at the manhole cover in my hands. I could pick it up, use it as some kind of shield, or battering ram. I tried to lift it, but my arms were thin, frail from so little food–

Bang!

Another shot from the pistol. I tried to lift the manhole cover, finally hefting it off the ground rather than sliding it. I looked up.

Kevin fumbled with the flintlock, trying to get another shot out of it. But the Hellions pounced on him, pinning his arms and legs. Kevin tried to fight, but gave up and screamed when the Hellions began stabbing him with the needles on their masks.

I cringed and looked away, knowing there was nothing I could do. I couldn’t even end his suffering. Anything I did would just get me killed, and there was someone in my life that needed me. If I died, Garnet would make her suffer in ways I didn’t dare think about.

Abby. Think about Abby. You couldn’t save Gordon. You can’t save Kevin. You can protect Abby.

Thinking about her didn’t take the guilty sting from my heart, or the disgust I felt as I saved myself. It wouldn’t take their painful screams out of my head. Wouldn’t save me from the nightmares.

With a heavy, pounding heart, I concentrated on sliding into the sewers, dragging the manhole cover with me. Before I closed the cover above my head, I caught a glimpse of one of the Hellions as it looked up.

This one was bigger than the other two, broader and taller. It paused from its feeding to look at me. Which meant it was smarter, too.

I snapped the manhole cover closed and climbed into the sewer. I fumbled my way down the ladder rungs, unable to see in the pitch blackness now surrounding me. My boot slipped through empty air, telling me I’d reached the bottom. I dropped into the tunnel, sending a jolt through my sore legs, and started running blindly. I had to keep moving in case that large Hellion decided to act on impulse and hunt me down.

I didn’t have a Hellion’s night vision, so I reached for my belt again. My fingers floundered until they nudged across another glass tube, slimmer than the flashbang. When it was closed, my handheld torch fit soundly on my belt. When the ends were pulled apart, it was a clear tube no longer than my forearm, though half as wide. As it was pulled, the gears inside spun together and snapped around a conductor that created a dim light. It was almost like a flashbang, but far less explosive.

A dull yellow glow filled the tunnel as I pulled the torch apart. The runoff from the sewers was dry now, but the sour smell of human excrement clung to the walls. The torch’s light illuminated almost the entire tunnel, but it took me a few minutes to figure out where I had to go.

The underground stretched all throughout Westraven, and was our only safe place since the Hellions took control of the sky and our lives a decade ago. I had been eight years old when they appeared, shrouded by smoky clouds and illuminated by angry lightning. Even ten years later, I couldn’t forget the thunder that exploded through the sky, signaling them to descend in their hellish skiffs to steal anyone they set their eyes on. Those who resisted were slaughtered, torn to shreds by demons with black, razor teeth, onyx claws, and blood-red eyes.

The Sky Guard had been no match for them. Neither had the freebooting marauders. The Hellions came too fast and too quickly, raining fire and death over us, forcing us into the tunnels to escape.

But there was no escaping, because while we’d been struggling to survive in the dark, they had been creating barricades around the city, making it impossible to leave to other parts of Aon. We hadn’t heard anything from other parts of the country, so we had to assume that they were under attack as well. It was impossible to know if anyone had survived, or if we were the last city with living residents. Ten years was a lot of time for genocide.

We were trapped like mice, starving in the dark until we became desperate enough to risk higher ground, where the hungry cats waited to pick us off.

I looked over my shoulder, checking to see if the Hellions were following me. But there was nothing visible at my back. No sounds other than my own footsteps. I slowed down, asking myself the same question I’d asked so many times before:

Why didn’t they finish us off?

The Hellions knew that most of us were underground. They knew we were easy to hunt, attack, and kill. They never tired of taking us. If they were so intent on our destruction, why hold back?

I shuddered. I didn’t want to know what the Hellions final plan was. I simply wanted to avoid it as much as I could.

I continued to walk in the dark. The tunnels of the underground were pitch black until you came by one of the small colonies, which were lit with torches and weak fires. Our locations were obvious if the Hellions ever decided to launch an attack in the tunnels.

But they never came down. They waited until we were on the surface to kill us.

I shook the thought from my head. There was no point in figuring out why the Hellions acted the way they did. They were monsters that saw us as one thing, and one thing only:

Food.

Reasons didn’t matter anymore. Survival did.

Though it didn’t mean that mistakes couldn’t be made.

He heard me before I heard him. I barely passed the turnoff that would lead me to Garnet’s colony when the wide barrel of a blunderbuss swung into my face.

I stopped and held up my hands, though I knew the guard wouldn’t shoot me. At least I hoped not. Given how hard he was scowling, he might allow his finger to “slip” on the trigger and give me a dozen-grapeshot-welcome.

“Shut that damn light off,” he growled. He had a glass lantern dangling from his hip that gave off less light than my own torch did. I might as well have been shining the sun down here. He was incredibly dirty, even for a scavenger that lived in the sewer.

Sighing heavily, I pushed my torch closed, collapsing it inward and hearing the gears click as they worked to shut the yellow light off. I hooked the torch back onto my belt and waited.

“Where are Kevin and Gordon?”

Their pain-filled screams rang through my mind. I shook my head. I closed my eyes, and tried not to remember their agonized faces. The way they screamed for help that I couldn’t give without dying myself. I told myself that wherever they were now, they were free of pain. Ghosts couldn’t be hurt.

The fantasy didn’t dispel the guilt nearly as much as I hoped it would.

The dirty guard’s sigh was even heavier than mine when I finally exhaled.

“Get moving. Garnet will want to see you.”

He turned and stomped through the left tunnel, heading toward the colony.

I didn’t want to follow him. If I did, that meant I would have to tell Garnet why I left two of his men to die. He’d accuse me of being a coward, no matter how much I reasoned with him, or if I told him that he still got what he wanted–the generator powering the substation was working again and the outages would stop.

Garnet wouldn’t listen to me. Why should he? The man was an Electrician, and Electricians held all the power in this subterranean tunnel one step above the abyss–figuratively and literally. During The Storm, all power was rerouted from the surface to the underground. People who weren’t engineers or technicians naturally started following them, offering work for food and shelter. So the Electricians established dominance, knowing they couldn’t be touched as long as they held onto the last remnants of Westraven’s power.

If that wasn’t enough, Garnet took in grounded marauders, the vicious pirates who terrorized the skies before the Hellions forced them from the sky. That made Garnet a tyrant and a warlord.

Not the best man to have as an employer. But I couldn’t walk away. Not if I wanted to keep Abby alive.

I followed the dirty guard without a single word of protest. I did my best to match his pace, but at this point it felt like every tendon in my legs was an elastic band being stretched and snapped back and forth. I was probably going to collapse any second, and the dirty guard would have to come back and drag me to Garnet. So I had to tough it out. There was no other option.

After what seemed like hours, we finally made it to the heavy door that would lead to the heart of the colony. There weren’t any guards out here. Guards would be a dead giveaway that something important was hiding beyond the door, but by itself, not even Hellions would pay it any attention. The only reason my current guide was out there at all was because we’d been sent on a mission. He was told to wait a certain amount of time for us. If we didn’t come back, he would have left his post and went home.

The dirty guard stopped in front of the thick, dark iron door bolted to the tunnel walls. At first glance, it looked like a dead end. There was no visible latch–unless you knew where to look. The dirty guard did. He slid his hand underneath a barely visible slot on the right side of the door. There was a loud screech, followed by a solid thunk. Then the dirty guard put his shoulder to the door and began to push. He couldn’t move it himself, but the four men waiting on the other side were strong enough to pull the metal wall back, leaving the barest amount of space for us to slip through.

“Get in,” growled the dirty guard.

I did as he commanded. I didn’t want to be in the tunnels anymore. I wanted to be… back somewhere familiar. The colony wasn’t home. My real home was gone. This place was just where I slept and ate.

I didn’t look at the four standing beyond the door, slipping past them so the dirty guard could get inside. I shuffled forward and looked at my “home.”

The colony resided at an intersection in the tunnels. Similar doors made of bolted iron blocked all four entrances, though air was able to filter through from the surface thanks to the vents constructed fifty feet above the floor. The air might have been fresh, but it tasted and smelled the same way everything down here did– thick, muggy, and a little sour, like old tar that coated the back of your throat. Whenever it rained or the heavy snows melted, some the colonists were selected to bolt the vents and doors shut so the water wouldn’t fill up the tunnels and drown us. They were opened gradually after the rains stopped, so other colonists could collect the water and boil it until it was drinkable or could be used for cleaning. To empty the worst of our sewage, we had to take the wastewater and chamber pots to a series of bolted dump-holes that had been drilled into the bottom of the tunnels outside the colony doors. It kept the colony relatively clean, though I couldn’t help but wonder what we would do when those dump-holes were filled.

Under the vents were lean-tos made of cloth and held up by metal posts. Garnet’s arrangement with the South Junkers gave us access to all the metal we needed, but building decent homes for the two hundred people that lived here never seemed to be on Garnet’s mind. Not once in the seven years since this colony’s creation had he thought about improving the lives of those he “protected.”

I didn’t know which was sadder–that he got away with it, or that the survivors simply assumed this was the best they could hope for now.

The lean-tos were built around the edges of the tunnel intersection, and each one had a specific task. Survivors bustled through the colony, doing everything fromblacksmithing, engineering, food drying or cooking, sewing, nursing, schooling, to weapons training. Illuminated by stuttering electric string lights crisscrossing over their heads, women held bundles of fabrics to be sewn into new clothes. Men sharpened blades and cleaned guns. Teenagers carefully tended the cooking fires, which smelled like the usual charred rat meat. Younger children ran around with bare feet and dirty clothes. Babies cried, hungry for the milk of mothers just as starved as they were.

Along the back wall was one lean-to larger than the rest. Garnet’s tent. It spanned almost the entire length of the back wall, its tattered, patchy roof seeking elegance it would never have. Black wires snaked down the walls and slipped into Garnet’s tent, powering all his tools and generators. He barely worked any more, throwing down-on-their luck people like me into the fray so he could bask in fake luxury.

But those wires going into his tent were a reminder that Garnet literally held the power. He could shut it off any time he wanted to, leaving the rest of us to go cold, starve, and die.

The four guards from the door and the dirty one surrounded me. They were all big bruisers that had no problem hitting an eighteen year old girl nearly a foot shorter than them and half their weight. I marched with them through the intersection. The busy workers and traders all darted out of their path. Garnet’s men were known for roughing up anyone who didn’t give them exactly what they wanted, exactly when they wanted it.

Sometimes they even did it for fun.

I turned my face toward the ground, but was looking for Abby out of the corner of my eye. She knew that she was safest in our lean-to while I was above ground working, but she never liked being far from my side. I’d raised her in this world. She’d never known our mother.

Some days I wasn’t sure I had either. Or maybe I was just feeling bitter because she’d left us.

Garnet’s two personal bodyguards–bald, dark skinned twins named Tyson and Malik–stood up from the plastic crates they’d been using as chairs on the porch of the Garnet’s lean-to. They looked at me with cold dark eyes, then glanced over my head.

“Where’s the escort?”

“Dead,” the dirty guard answered for me. “She left ’em behind.”

I wanted to protest that there was nothing I could have done, that it happened too fast, but he wasn’t the person I needed to believe me.

Tyson and Malik glared at me. Gordon and Kevin had been their friends, and they were going to look for any chance they could take to punish me for their deaths. The twins stomped forward, each of them roughly grabbing one of my arms and dragging me out of the circle. I stumbled to follow them as Malik (who I think was the one on my right), yanked open the curtain door of Garnet’s abode.

Most of the lean-tos were crammed with the most basic items. Between the one crate for food, one crate for clothes, a dented metal basin for bathing and collecting water, a chamber pot, and one or two thin cots, there was barely enough room to move in your home.

Garnet didn’t have that problem. A chunky metal generator powered the string lights sewn into the ceiling, casting the worn carpets and patchwork quilts in pale saffron tones. Across from the generator was a wide metal worktable with various wire strippers, pliers, gauges, hammers, and wrenches. It looked more like a torturer’s desk than an Electrician’s.

Crates filled with handmade clothes and dried meats sat in the far corners next to a wide metal bathing tub and a tank of purified water. Next to them was a hand-built throne. Or what Garnet probably assumed was a throne. Really it was just a very tall, very wide chair covered in red fleece resting on a metal slab. In front of it was another wooden desk with maps of Westraven and Aon spread across it. Garnet was by neither. He wasn’t in the main tent at all.

At least not that I could see. Though I could hear him.

Behind the throne was another curtain that led to Garnet’s bedroom. I’d never been inside, and never wanted to be. Beyond it, I could hear soft smacks and grunts, often followed by a painful squeal. I cringed and looked at my feet.

Garnet believed in repopulation. He insisted on being at the forefront for it. He took great pride in picking the prettiest girls in the colony to be his one-night brides, then expecting them to take care of his child when it was born. If they failed to carry the child to term, he beat the girls before giving them to his men to try again.

The only reason I escaped Garnet’s hands was because I was an engineer, and he didn’t want to burden me with being a mother when I could fix and create things for him. But Abby was eight years old, and had dreams of being a nurse instead of an engineer. We needed nurses, but not as much as we did engineers. In Garnet’s eyes, anyone could use a needle and thread to sew a wound. Repairing a broken machine to give us light or heat was much more difficult.

If I didn’t escape Garnet before Abby turned twelve…

I stopped that horrifying thought when a sharp yell and another painful cry came from behind the curtain. After a muffled but sharp conversation that ended with a young girl sobbing, Garnet pulled back the door to his bedroom and stepped out.

Garnet Dayton’s stomach spilled overtop of his drawstring pants, sheens of sweat plastering his hair to his shirtless body. One of his arms was the size of both of my thighs. Pockmarks lined his fleshy cheeks, dark red stubble growing out of them like bloody grass. His head was shaved, though I could still see the bald spot growing near the back of his head. Bushy auburn eyebrows pulled together as he glowered at me. Olive green eyes were filled with impatience.

I was in a lot of trouble.

“Did you get it done?” he grunted.

I nodded and glanced at the lights strung through the tent. “Looks like the power’s already back, but is it missing in any other areas?”

Garnet didn’t answer me. He walked over to the crates by his throne, opened one of the smaller ones up, and took out a glass bottle. I stared at it with a parched throat. I needed food, water, and rest. In any order.

“What happened to your escorts?”

“The Hellions caught them,” I reported sadly, wondering how many more times I would have to repeat that. I wouldn’t forget it, but I wanted to move on from it. We were all accustomed to loss, though the pain never lessened, no matter who was taken. “There was nothing I could do.”

Garnet opened the bottle and took a long swig. I gritted my teeth and balled my fists, fighting the urge to rush him, grab the bottle, and either drain it dry, or smash it over Garnet’s head. I would have indulged in the fantasy, if I didn’t think that Malik and Tyson would grab me and pummel me before I got within five feet of their boss.

The fat warlord finished his drink, put the cork in the bottle, and set it back into the crate. He started walking toward me.

“That’s what you said last time, Claire,” he told me.

My heart rate began to pick up. “It’s not my fault,” I defended. “Everyone knows the risks aboveground. The Hellions could show up at any time on a mission, and you told me not to come back until it was completed. I was following your orders, getting the job done. Just like I always do.”

Garnet stopped in front of me, so close his bulging gut brushed against my stomach. I stood my ground, when all I really wanted to do was run.

“I don’t have many men to spare, Clairy. The bastards running around out the colony are barely old enough to hold their own dicks, let alone a gun. How am I supposed to keep my people alive when you get them all killed?”

“It’s not my–”

Pain exploded across my cheek, wrenching my head to the side. For a fat, lazy warlord, Garnet was shockingly quick and strong. My weak legs couldn’t support the sudden hit, so I toppled onto the ground, catching myself on my hands and knees. Garnet said something, but I couldn’t hear it past the ringing in my head.

Large arms crushed my biceps and hauled me onto my feet. I stumbled, but the twin guards jerked me into place. Garnet was in front of me again, so close I could smell the sour wine on his breath and rancid sweat on his body.

“Not your fault, I think you were trying to say?” Garnet taunted. “I don’t think that’s the case, Clairy. See, it was your parents who failed to close the Breach. They didn’t stop the Hellions from coming through and dropping the barricades, trapping us in these piss and shit holes. I was there. I remember. And now you’re doing the same thing. Getting my men–my friends–killed because you just think about yourself. That’s not something I’ll allow, Clairy. I own you, and I will not let you fail my people the same way your parents failed all of us.”

My face flushed with heat, and not just from the forming bruise. Anger boiled in my veins, pushing my temper to the breaking point. It was barely under my control. The last ten years of my life had been nothing but pointed fingers and hateful whispers. Blame for something I didn’t have any involvement with. Blame for something I couldn’t change.

If there was a solution, I would have found it and done something, but I couldn’t get into the sky and fight the Hellions. I wouldn’t have any allies, and no reason to attempt suicide.

I wasn’t going to escape the hatred, or Garnet’s grasp.

He saw all of this on my face, and knew he had won. He stepped back, a smug smirk on his face. He walked back to the crates.

“Leave her face. Don’t want her to get brain damage when she’s still useful.”

One of the twins, the larger one, Tyson, stepped in front of me. He was so big he took up my entire frame of vision.

“This is for Gordon.”

Tyson’s fist slammed into my left side like a brick. The force of it had me stumbling to the right, but Malik dragged me back to center. I swayed on my knees, my entire left side throbbing with pain.

“This is for Kevin.”

The next punch went into my right side. I gasped and sagged again, certain that something had cracked. I whimpered and tried to slide out of Malik’s grip, but he easily dragged me up again. He pulled my arms back, pushing out my chest and straining the bruises on my ribs. I groaned and hoped it was over.

“This is for Mr. Garnet.”

I never said I was lucky.

More fists pounded into my stomach, forcing all the air from my lungs. The beating couldn’t have lasted longer than a couple seconds, but Tyson didn’t hold back. He used his considerable strength to hit vulnerable parts of me. My body felt like it had been thrown into a wall multiple times. I was coughing and dry heaving by the time he was finished.

“Get her out of here before she pukes,” Garnet ordered. “I don’t want her staining my carpet.”

Tyson and Malik dragged me out of the tent, then threw me onto the street. I landed hard on my arching ribs, rolling to a stop and crying out in pain. I turned again and curled into myself. I looked up just as Malik kicked me hard in the stomach.

That time I almost did throw up. I coughed and gasped, but couldn’t breathe.

“That’s because I didn’t get a shot in before, bitch.”

The guard stalked off, leaving me whimpering and groaning on the cold concrete.

I thought about staying where I was. Consciousness flickered on and off in my head. If I didn’t think I’d be trampled or robbed, I wouldn’t have moved. But I had to get back to Abby. It wasn’t past Garnet to hurt my sister while I was battered, just to prove he could.

Every motion hurt, but I finally turned onto my knees and pushed myself up. Sharp pain cut through my stomach as I straightened, making me collapse. I caught myself with one hand and wrapped the other around my middle. I stood up again, staggered once, but kept my footing this time. I shuffled toward my lean-to, trying to remember where it was.

No one helped me. Hardly anyone even looked at me. I didn’t have many friends in the colony. Almost all of them blamed me for my parents being unable to lock the Hellions in their world beyond the Breach, and the others were too afraid to be my friend lest they become victims of Garnet’s wrath. It made living here hard, and walking to my little shelter next to impossible.

Somehow I managed. My insides were raw and bruised, but nothing felt broken. I almost laughed at the thought. Of course Garnet wouldn’t permanently damage me when he needed my skills. But I would be in constant pain until he decided I screwed up some other way and he could hurt me again.

As soon as I slipped under the curtain, I saw my only friend. The only person I cared about.

A little girl with curly blonde hair and bright green eyes stared up at me from her cot. Dirt was smeared across her face, and the tattered clothes she wore hung over her too thin frame. Her eyes were filled with tears, but she wasn’t hurt. I would have sighed with relief if I didn’t feel like it would hurt me even more.

“Hey, Abby,” I mumbled out.

My eight year old sister choked out a sob and launched herself at me. I nearly fell again when I caught her and winced when she wrapped her arms around me, but I let her do it. I closed my eyes and smelled the sugary scent of her hair.

Abby had never known a world that was safe, where monsters didn’t exist and above and below ground. I couldn’t hold onto the hope that she ever would. The Hellions controlled the skies, and Garnet made living a torture. I didn’t imagine either animal would give up their superiority any time soon.

“I need to lie down, Abby,” I told her, stroking her oily blonde curls.

My sister pulled her head back from my chest and looked at me with luminous eyes. I wondered how she saw me, ten years older than her with straight, lifeless blonde hair and tired green eyes, battered and bruised, wearing a stained black blouse, scuffed boots, and grey work pants with a brown utility belt stuffed with tools. I probably looked as strong as I felt.

Abby peeled off of me and stepped back, hurrying to make my cot as comfortable as she could, pushing off my spare tools and fluffing the pile of shirts I used for a pillow. Tiny sparkles of white sugar dusted the cot as she moved. I smiled. Abby had gotten into one of the sugar bags again. I should have known by the smell in her hair.

I sat down on the creaking cot and rolled onto my back, groaning as I stretched out. The top of my head and entirety of my feet dangled off the edges of the cot, but at least I could sleep like this.

While I was shifting and getting as close to comfortable as I could, Abby was scurrying around the lean-to, bundling foods and blankets and water into her little arms. She hurried back to me, kicking over a crate since there was too much in her hands. She set the food on the crate and unfolded the blanket that was bigger than her. She tossed it over my body, most of it landing on me. Then Abby took out a strip of meat and reached into a small burlap sack. She opened the sack and sprinkled it with miniscule crystals. She grabbed a flask of filtered water and handed it to me with a strip of dried rat meat. I took both from her gratefully, draining the flask and chewing the meat that tasted like tree bark. The crystal seasoning she placed on it wasn’t salt. It was sugar. It didn’t enhance the flavor of the meat at all, but I was so hungry I didn’t even care.

Besides, my sister put sugar on everything.

Abby watched me, wringing her hands nervously. “How much do you hurt?” she asked shakily.

I closed my eyes. “I’ll be fine,” I assured her. “I just need to rest.”

“You can’t keep doing this, Claire. You’ll get killed.”

There was no point in denying that. If the Hellions didn’t slaughter me for food, Garnet would let his thugs beat me to death. Neither option was appealing, but I couldn’t take care of Abby on the surface. After our father died and our mother left us, we had nowhere to run. Any friends who might have taken in a ten year old girl and a baby were dead or missing. Going underground was the only way I knew she would live, and where I could use my skills to keep her that way.

I didn’t think my parent’s mistakes would follow me into the earth.

“I’ll get us out of here, Abigail,” I said. “I promise. Nothing will happen to you.”

I meant the last part with every cell in my aching body. But the first half of the promise wasn’t one I could see an end to. I would run if I knew we could get past the Westraven barricades. I’d offer my engineering skills to someone else if I knew they wouldn’t treat us worse than Garnet. I would kill every Hellion I could if I thought for one second I would have a chance.

Instead, I trapped myself in a deal that was sure to end in my death and leave Abby in a worse position than she was now.

“Get some sleep, Abby,” I told her.

She was already shaking her head. “I’m going to find something to make you better.”

I sighed. There were pain remedies available from the nurses, but there was no telling what was actually in them. On the other hand, the colonists tended to like Abby more than they liked me. Probably because she was an adorable little girl without an ounce of darkness in her soul, and she had no interest in engineering.

“Get something from Moira,” I murmured. “No one else. Don’t let Garnet’s guards see you.”

Abby nodded, planted a gentle kiss on my bruised cheek, then raced out of the lean-to. When she was gone, I reached under the collar of my shirt and tugged out the hidden necklace hanging against my chest.

The chain was thin, tightly woven silver. Dangling off the end of the chain was a black steel skeleton key with four blocky teeth. I turned the key over in my hands, but there were no markings to hint at what it was for.

But like Abby, I knew I had to keep it hidden and safe. That had been my mother’s final wish…

She closed the door with a harsh bang, making me jump and Abby wail in my arms. I looked at my baby sister, barely a month old, far too young to understand the loud noises surrounding her. Mom pulled down more furniture, blocking the door as best as she could. The Hellions pounded against it. The wood began to fracture.

She turned to us, pulling a silver chain from around her neck. She looped it over my head and tucked it under my shirt. I opened my mouth to ask what it was, but she spoke before I did.

“Take your sister and find somewhere to hide. Don’t let anyone see the key, do you understand?”

I jumped when a piece of the wooden door cracked and rained splinters onto the floor. The Hellions shrieks drowned out Abby’s cries.

“But you’re coming too?” I asked.

Mom shook her head sadly. Her long blonde hair was tangled and messy, and her green eyes were as sad as they were when Dad was killed.

“I can buy you time.” She looked at the ground. “I have to buy us all time,” she muttered.

I tried to ask what she meant, but another sharp crack made me jump and back away. The Hellions could hear Abby screaming, and it was turning them ravenous.

Mom grabbed my arms and pushed me toward the cellar door. She sent me through, then looked at me from the doorway.

“You need to survive, Claire. You can save us. Not just your sister, but everyone.”

Tears choked me. “What about you?”

My mother smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. There was pain in them, and a look of regret.

A last look. I choked again, trying to breathe and hold my sister close to me.

“Mommy…”

She knelt down touched my shoulder. The door was disintegrating behind her. The Hellions would be on us.

 

“You’re a strong, smart, brave girl, Claire. You have mine and your father’s talents. One day you’ll use that key, and you’ll save us all.”

I didn’t understand. Why was she wasting time telling me this? Why wasn’t she coming?

Mom pressed a kiss onto the top of my head, then bent and did the same to Abby. My baby sister’s cries lessened for a moment as her mother caressed the top of her head. As if she knew it would be for the last time.

Then without a final word, she slammed the door in our faces. I stood in the dark, staring in horror, listening to wood shatter and the rasping screeches of the Hellions while my mother began to scream…

© 2016 Amy Braun. All rights reserved.

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