MIK LET HER eyes roll back, the expression imitating pleasure when really it was just the closest she could resemble rolling them in annoyance without risking punishment. At least this one was gentler, just letting her lie there while he took what he had fairly paid for. She let her sigh slip out, knowing the idiot on top of her would think that was an expression of pleasure too. Tilting her head back farther, she watched the sands trickle, glinting prettily in the shrouded light, and both assuring and taunting her that, no, it hadn’t been hours, it had been only just one. The shuffling of feet outside the room, unable to be silent with the weight they carried, did promise that the hour would be over soon. Torr always made sure it was exactly an hour.
The last grain tinkled, seeming louder than the previous ones, the man lying over her grunted, and the door swung open. Torr’s bulky frame took up the doorway, and Mik smothered a whimper as the man roughly yanked himself out of her hastily. He left quickly, grumbling a bit but Mik didn’t care as he ducked past Torr.
“Good girl,” Torr rumbled to her, remaining in the doorway as she stood gingerly and pulled her dress back on. He fished two bent coins made of nickel from a pouch in his pocket and tossed them to her. Well, tossed them on the floor in front of her, and Mik again withheld from rolling her eyes. “You’re done for the day,” and with that, he left her to clean herself up.
It was a tiny room anyway, shared by three girls including Mik. Three mats, their thickness something more than piles of straw but less than a full mattress, were pushed together on the floor during work hours but were separated for them each to sleep on. They used the small metal tub in the corner to bathe, a single beaten trunk to hold their meager belongings consisting of a hand mirror, spare clothing, two hairbrushes, and strings of plastic shaped and painted to imitate jewels. Their clothing was no silk or finery like Isibel and Kia–the other two girls Mik lived with–remembered, rather linen dresses of pale pinks and purples.
Mik was only 18, and so she had only been a toddler when it all went to shit, but Isibel was 20 and Kia 24, so they remembered their lives. The door opened again as Mik cupped her hands into the tub to rinse her face, particularly her mouth, so she didn’t look to see who it was.
It didn’t matter, because the newcomer stepped into the room, and stood for a moment, before speaking up. “Could be worse, that’s the one who’s usually easy,” she observed, her voice only holding a hint of emotion. Mik sighed and turned to face her, holding out her hand. Kia stepped forward and held her fingers, which Mik squeezed reassuringly. Kia winced though, and abruptly let go and darted to the window, pulling the curtains to shield her from the sun still bright a few hours before dusk. Mik studied the girl’s skin, most of it on display in her shift, but saw no new burns and she didn’t squint.
“I’m done for the day, we could play a game or something,” she offered, then smirked. “Although no guessing games, cheater,” she teased as the girl smiled shyly. Despite Kia being older, Mik and Isibel were the ones who looked out for her and tried their best to take care of her. But the camp Meedra was not a place where women had much strength, let alone Other women.
Only Isibel remembered normal human life before the collapse. Mik had been too young, and Kia never had it.
MOONLIGHT ONLY blurred the uneven texture of the narrow path, making the three figures running through it curse and stumble every few feet. The woman, Octavia, bit back whimpers as her twisted ankles continued to maneuver in order to attempt to keep up with the two men accompanying her, all three having been moving urgently for hours now, trying to utilize the cover of darkness.
Her brother stopped suddenly, and she would have crashed into his back had the other man not grabbed her waist and steadied her. She let him support the majority of her weight as her body struggled to regain oxygen and energy. Her brother in front of them began pacing, his head down and charging his strides.
“Atlas,” she tried, biting back an exasperated huff when he scoffed an “Octavia,” and then stormed past her in his loop. A warm hand encompassed hers, urging her to keep calm, but it only worked a small bit. She turned to the man behind her, her husband of barely a year, his kind eyes looking patiently at her despite his short breaths. But she just looked tiredly back at him.
She was tired, and scared and they were utterly alone. Her younger brother was brilliant, it was known by everyone, including their Leaders. In White Cliff, people were separated into a sort of rough caste system, more so to do with utilizing skillsets rather than wealth, since no one was really wealthy anymore. Atlas was a gifted scientist, Leader Christobel tutoring him personally since her brother had been ten years old. The Leaders stressed the importance of scientific work, Octavia herself being praised for her understanding and building upon what was left of documented physical research.
But he had pushed too far, gotten too clever. And now they were running for their lives in the darkness.
“I needed to see Rayne,” Atlas said suddenly, and Octavia’s spine stiffened. This had been his project the last several months, sticking the poor Other woman with needles and trying to find something…Octavia wasn’t sure what. And the Leaders had finally decided it was enough.
“Atlas, this already had to stop,” Octavia said for what she was sure had been the millionth time. Atlas glared daggers, but rather than flinching in pain, Octavia stepped forward and matched it.
“Atlas, Tol was planning to make us disappear, we’ve now just beat him to it,” Greyar spoke up, startling the siblings. He hadn’t partaken in many of these conversations, and the siblings had had hundreds before now, just watched quietly and kept their matching tempers from burning what had been their home to the ground.
“Do you have any ideas where to go now?” Octavia turned to Greyar, knowing Atlas had none. When he had stormed into their family home, now occupied by just the two of them and Greyar, Octavia had taken one look at his wide eyes and known. The three had packed supplies and snuck out of camp White Cliff as soon as the sun had sunk beneath the ocean, their quiet footsteps completely masked by the constant crashing of the waves against the cliffsides. They couldn’t go back now, and only hoped that their few hours of moving had bought them at least half a day’s head start–although she was doubtful anyone would hunt them so long as they hadn’t spoken.
Greyar sighed and shrugged, at a loss. “Suppose we ought to continue this direction, keep the ocean near. There’s got to be another camp somewhere soon.”
They spent the rest of the night moving, slower than the sprints before, but not at all at leisure.
ARRIEL TRIED NOT to let her disdain show too obviously, since Nicotey made a good point. The five stood at the treeline several yards from Meedra, one of the largest and most developed camps known and classified as a Stronghold because of it. Though she tried not to look down her nose, her own home camp being a High Stronghold–the most developed category. It had a wall of logs strapped together with a medley of leather, nails, and wooden planks lying across it, and Arriel could hear muffled life from behind it. Out of both discomfort and awareness of the sun high in the midday sky, she wrapped the edges of her sleeves around her fingers and reached up to adjust her hood, pulling it lower over her face. She didn’t like the place, however, because a large portion of their commerce was prostitution, and the few times she’d entered the place in the past she had been treated with clear hostility despite representing Star Edge.
“We could use the rest stop,” Gerred grumbled, his sentiment not far off from hers. “Plus, we need to think about this, we’ve been traveling for two days without much of a set direction. And you could use some shelter,” the last part directed at Arriel, whose scowl deepened at the reminder of her flaw.
“We should continue north,” Sky said. “Keep to trees, more space between known camps–an Other on the run can hide better there.”
“We should be looking where he would,” Day agreed. Arriel nodded enthusiastically.
“We also need to eat and replenish,” Nicotey said, his voice slightly louder than theirs and edged with authority. The twins sighed and nodded together. Arriel’s body was still tense and she let her scowl show. “And people talk. Meedra is a busy place, always with others passing through. We see, we overhear, we may find hints.”
Arriel felt herself slouch as she knew she had lost. “Fine, but I’m not enjoying myself,” she said, adding a mocking tone to the last two words as she remembered the last man who’d spoken to her in the stronghold. Gerred chuckled as he shared the memory.
“I dare you to,” he smirked mischievously.
THE NEXT TIME Atlas stopped suddenly, Octavia did walk into him, hitting his back and nearly falling backwards. She vaguely heard Greyar’s amused chuckle behind her, but forgot to snap at him as she studied her brother’s stance. It was still in mid-stride, as if he’d just stopped without thinking to. He was surprised, but looking intently at something because he hadn’t acknowledged Octavia.
She stepped up and beside him, peering over his shoulder and felt the breath rush from her lungs. It was a camp, what was left of one. Small, hut-like structures sat in heaps, piles of rubble and cracked earth that used to be their walls half-buried their wooden frames. Some of those frames and parts of the flat dirt were black, evidence of fire, but most were not. The only sounds were of tiny animals scuttling in the undergrowth, insects clicking, an impossibly faint echo of waves, and the slight breeze rustling leaves overhead. If there had ever been a wall, it was nothing more than pieces of timber and stone strewn about with thick layers of moss and weeds, the dirt there and everywhere beyond the site soft and dark. Octavia couldn’t be completely sure, everything grew fast this close to the ocean, but the destruction didn’t look recent. The earth had reclaimed the territory, plants growing defiantly but clumsily over the structures.
Atlas finally moved, and Octavia followed him before her mind decided to move. It was a large clearing, she realized as it took nearly twenty steps to even come to the edge of the fallen wall, still in a loosely circular shape, and then the first skeleton of a structure was still farther yet. It hadn’t looked so large at first.
“What the hell brought this place down?” Greyar murmured, his thoughts following Octavia’s. “It looks like a Stronghold, or at least a High Ruin. It looks purposefully destroyed.”
“Raids do happen, Greyar,” Octavia said quietly, for once disliking his innocent tone. The man grimaced, then quickly pulled the worn paper map from his pocket. They knew it wasn’t very reliable, a sketch drawn from memory of what California had looked like before the collapse, but the geography was right. However, it only had three camps pointed out besides White Cliff, the ones the Leaders had told of from scout reports.
Raids weren’t unheard of, though such an occurrence wasn’t common, as far as Octavia knew. Most places just wanted to build themselves up, and keep their own populations surviving. And continuing the fight against the Others, of course. This place, or someone who lived in it, must have really provoked another group–be it another camp’s Leaders, or even a large enough and pissed off enough group of Independents.
“Blackwater,” Greyar announced, looking up to see Octavia look at him and nod in acknowledgement, but her brother to not react at all for a moment. He was the farthest into the site, his back to them.
When he turned, Octavia felt her stomach drop and her heart jump at the same time. He was grinning, his eyes wide in surprise and elation, making his barely-adult face seem even more boyish. Octavia bit back a groan and a plea to the heavens, her crazy younger brother was having another one of his ideas.
“Blackwater,” he repeated, as though weighing the name in his mouth. He nodded to himself.
“What?” Octavia said tightly. He ran the few steps back to her and grabbed her hands, clutching them in his own so tightly she leaned back.
“This is it,” he said excitedly, eyes practically sparkling. She just looked at him warily. He whirled around to face the site again, pulling Octavia around and she bit back a cuss at him as she tripped over their feet.
“This is what?” she said, a bit harsher.
“This could be a new home,” he said reverently, and Octavia just stared at him. Her little brother, who, when she was six, was a chubby little two year old that was the last of his age group to talk, had officially gone crazy.
KYR LET OUT breath in a hybrid of a gasp of surprise and excitement, and a sigh of relief at Annar’s words. They avoided other people, human or not, and thus avoided camps. And especially avoided Stronghold-level camps, with thick, sturdy walls around themselves and a decent amount of weapons within themselves. And yet at that very moment, large wooden gates were swinging open a few feet, spilling faint orange light into the cool shadowed trees, and the four young men were walking in, though Annar and Rossen were both a bit in front of Kyr.
“Where are we?” Daynte asked, his voice weak as if he wasn’t allowed to wonder. Kyr couldn’t figure out where the hell he would’ve gotten that notion, but he couldn’t very well mention it because he didn’t know where they were either.
“Meedra,” Annar had stated, his tone edged. Kyr hadn’t thought much of it, stepping for a closer look. It was hard to do so between both brothers’ bulks, but Kyr jumped on the balls of his feet and managed to catch shaky glimpses. He felt the extra fabric of the hood attached to his jacket flap around his neck, but paid it no mind.
As the group stepped forward, Kyr obediently keeping on his brothers’ heels, he wondered why exactly they were coming here at all.