Check out Horde, the conclusion to Ann Aguirre’s Razorland Trilogy, available October 29th from Feiwel and Friends!
Salvation is surrounded, monsters at the gates, and this time, they’re not going away. When Deuce, Fade, Stalker and Tegan set out, the odds are against them. But the odds have been stacked against Deuce from the moment she was born. She might not be a Huntress anymore, but she doesn’t run. With her knives in hand and her companions at her side, she will not falter, whether fighting for her life or Fade’s love.
Ahead, the battle of a lifetime awaits. Freaks are everywhere, attacking settlements, setting up scouts, perimeters, and patrols. There hasn’t been a war like this in centuries, and humans have forgotten how to stand and fight. Unless Deuce can lead them. This time, however, more than the fate of a single enclave or outpost hangs in the balance. This time, Deuce carries the banner for the survival of all humanity.
I left without looking back.
This wouldn’t be easy, but it was necessary to leave our loved ones under siege to fetch help for Salvation. The decision hurt my heart too; my foster mother’s face would haunt me, so wounded and brave, older than I’d known a woman could become yet remain strong and vital. She glimmered like a promise of hope that my flame needn’t flicker and burn out before I had a chance to live. Once I’d thought old meant twenty-five, but my time in Salvation had changed my perceptions. Now it was strange to imagine I might not be entering the middle of my life.
Into the dark I quickened my steps, eyes sharp for Freaks prowling beyond normal perimeters. Behind us, I heard them shrieking challenges to the men guarding the walls. Rifles cracked out when they rushed, but I couldn’t turn, no matter how much I wished otherwise. My course was fixed by the shadowy line traced on the priceless map secured in the leather folio in my pack. Before we’d left, I had studied it with complete focus, memorizing each twist and turn of the route, each handwritten note left by Longshot about good game-hunting or fresh water. It was two days to Soldier’s Pond, two more back, once we mustered the necessary reinforcements. That dot on the parchment represented the best hope of saving the people who had taught me so much about life, that it could be more than just hunting and killing.
Momma Oaks. Edmund.
I couldn’t let myself think of them or I’d falter. Instead I pressed on, silent and wary, listening to the Freaks behind us. With a glance over my shoulder, I reassured myself that Fade was still at my back. Tegan and Stalker walked on either flank, she with her lopsided gait and unshakable loyalty, he with his curved knives in his hands and his eyes fixed on the horizon, though he couldn’t see what lay ahead as well as I could.
That came with being the night girl. Reflexively I adjusted my pack, reassured by the weight of the book that had traveled with us all the way from the ruins. Maybe I didn’t need it, but it had become my talisman, every bit as much as the tattered playing card sewn into a hidden pocket inside my shirt. Edmund had explained that my token from down below was part of a fiftytwo-piece set, and it was a low card. That seemed fitting, as it served to keep me humble.
“See anything?” Tegan asked.
“Just some night-prowling animals. The enemy’s behind us.”
“I know,” she said softly.
The grass crisped under our feet, liberally sprinkled with early fallen fronds. It wasn’t yet turning time, when all the leaves changed colors and dropped from the branches, but there were always a few to crackle as we went. We ran all through the night with periodic breaks for rest and water while I checked the maps by the moonlight shining overhead. By the time the sun crept over the horizon in delicate whorls of rose and amber, I was exhausted—and disgusted with my own weakness. Down below Fade and I had run a much more dangerous route in faster time, but we had to account for Tegan’s slower strides too. Though the girl was all heart, her leg couldn’t carry her indefinitely at the same pace that the rest of us set, and she was limping now, brackets of pain beside her mouth. I didn’t make the mistake of noting it out loud, however.
“Time to make camp.” I signaled for Stalker to scout the perimeter, and it was a measure of how much he’d changed that he didn’t balk at the order, merely set off to do as I’d asked.
As I laid out my blankets, Fade asked, “No fire?”
I shook my head. “The sun will be up soon. We won’t need it.”
Tegan added, “We’ll smell them coming if any of those behind us get close.”
I nodded at that. This reminded me an awful lot of when we’d wandered the wilderness with only stories handed down by Fade’s sire. At least this time we have maps, a route to follow. I wouldn’t call it a road, exactly, but I spotted faint lines where Longshot’s wagon—along with others, I was sure—had passed back and forth often enough to reassure me I was still navigating the proper course.
As I handed around the meat, bread, and cheese Momma Oaks had packed, Stalker returned. “The general area’s clear, though I don’t like the way it smells to the east.”
“Are we being followed?” I asked.
I ate in economical bites, sufficient to keep me going, but not make it difficult to rest on an over-full stomach. The others did the same, experienced with balancing the need to stay strong against the wisdom of conserving our resources. After tonight, the meat would be gone, but the bread and cheese should stretch all the way to the end of our journey.
Soberly, Stalker nodded. “We should expect an attack while we’re sleeping… and hope it’s not more than we can handle.”
I swore quietly, the worst word I’d learned during the summer patrols. “I’d hoped they didn’t spot us coming out of the tunnel.”
“I don’t think they did,” Fade put in. Out here, he was more his old self, quiet and alert, less of the bleak despair. “I suspect they can smell us just as easily we do them.”
Of course. The minute he said it, I remembered—and recognized the truth. The Freaks didn’t need to see us emerge; the minute we stepped into the wind, we entered their territory. Like any predator, they noticed such incursions and would take steps to eliminate the threat. If we were lucky, it was only a small hunting party, not a significant portion of the horde. Though maybe that would help Salvation if a large number gave chase—we could lead them away from the town toward Soldier’s Pond. The settlers there wouldn’t thank us for it, but they might believe the threat was real faster.
“How’s that possible?” Tegan demanded, looking offended.
“They’re animals,” Stalker answered. “They have keen senses like a wolf too, and they notice anything that doesn’t match the Freak stench.”
“That’s how I was able to—” I cut myself off before I said rescue Fade, knowing it would be hard for him to hear.
Too soon. Deep down, I wanted him to appreciate what I’d done, what I’d risked for him, because there weren’t any limits on how far I’d go for my boy. But his black eyes flashed; he knew even if I didn’t speak the words out loud. With a sinking heart, I watched him turn away to lay his bedroll with exaggerated care.
“Able to what?” Tegan asked.
Stalker replied for me with unexpected tact. “Sneak past some Freaks. Deuce rubbed herself with their parts—blood and worse stuff—until she reeked. They didn’t notice her, though most of them were sleeping.”
Some was a massive understatement. That was our first sight of the horde, sufficient to slay everyone in Salvation, and then sweep onward to pillage any surviving settlements. The memory swept over me, Freaks awful and staggering in their numbers, and armed with fire they’d stolen from our outpost. I battened down my alarm, knowing I wouldn’t do the townsfolk any good if I panicked.
“That’s ingenious,” Tegan decided. “And disgusting.” She cocked her head, thoughtful. “Does that mean they don’t see particularly well?”
“I have no idea.” To the best of my knowledge, nobody had ever studied the Freaks. Anyone who got near one chose to dispatch it instead, for obvious reasons.
“I’d like to find out,” she murmured.
While I wished Tegan luck in her quest for knowledge, I preferred killing them. “It was dark… and like he said, most were asleep. I wouldn’t count on them having impaired vision.”
Stalker sat down opposite me, his icy gaze layered. The kiss he’d given me the night before felt like a weight, one I needed to displace before I could be worthy of Fade, who would hate it even more when I told him that I’d kissed Stalker freely in order to get him to promise to run back to Salvation to warn them if Fade and I didn’t make it back.
At this point, however, we had more important things to worry about, so I set those matters aside, as Stalker said, “I’ll take first watch.”
“Second,” I murmured.
The others claimed third and fourth respectively, which would grant us all a decent amount of sleep. Fade handed his timepiece to Stalker to make it easier to tell when the two hours were up; once Fade and Tegan would’ve argued at Stalker guarding the encampment alone, but both of them merely rolled up in their blankets as the sun rose higher. I was tired, so I dropped off immediately, and I dreamed of Salvation burning while Momma Oaks wept, and Silk, the lead Huntress down below, shouted at me that I was a Breeder, not a Huntress. Jolting awake, I rolled out of my blankets onto the sun-warmed grass and lay squinting up at the blue sky threaded with white wisps. Clouds, they were called. Supposedly, this was where rain came from.
Not realizing anyone else was awake, I wondered aloud, “Of all the people in the enclave, why couldn’t I keep Thimble in my head? Or Stone?”
My friends from the enclave might not have kept me from making the long walk, but I had fond memories of them. Thimble used to make us things even before she was officially a Builder, while Stone protected us both. I wished I could dream about them instead of Silk, who had put fear into everyone under her command.
“I don’t know,” Stalker answered. “But I think about this one cub all the time. He followed me everywhere. But he didn’t have the heart to take power. He died young.”
“What was his name?”
“Rule,” he said. “Because he always followed them.”
It sounded like the Wolves’ naming traditions had been similar to ours, though they focused on a personal trait, not a naming gift. Quietly, I said as much, and Stalker nodded.
“The leader christened our cubs. At eight winters, we earned our names.”
“How?” It was odd to think they had traditions other than capturing trespassers and stealing girls from other gangs, but by the way his face tightened, he didn’t want to talk about it, so I added, “Never mind. You should get some rest.”
“Thanks. It was all quiet.” He handed me Fade’s watch as he rolled into his blankets.
I pushed into a cross-legged position and served as sentry while the others slept. As I had done down below, I entertained myself with studying Fade, but the activity had more meaning now that I’d stroked his hair and kissed his mouth. The ache those memories roused in me were fierce as a rainstorm, thunder booming in my heart. With sheer discipline I looked away from the curled crescents of his lashes and the quiet curve of his lips. Those hours passed with only the quiet chatter of birds and the scramble of small creatures in the undergrowth. We had chosen a shaded spot, beneath a stand of trees, where the grass was soft and the light filtered through the foliage overhead to dappled green.
I was sleepy again by the time I woke Fade, but I was still alert enough not to do it by shaking him. Instead, I knelt beside him and whispered, “Your watch.”
He roused instantly, one hand on his knife. “Anything?”
“No trouble so far.”
“Good. Stalker’s right, though. They’re hunting us.”
I had been prey often enough that I recognized the prickling feel of enemies nearby. Unfortunately until the wind shifted just right, it was impossible to know how far away the Freaks were. We had to rest while we could and then press on. Fighting wasn’t our top priority; our mission was to summon help, and I couldn’t contemplate the cost of failure. If necessary, we’d take evasive action and head for Soldier’s Pond even faster.
“I don’t like our chances,” Fade said.
“Of surviving the run or summoning help?”
He shrugged, unwilling to articulate his doubts. Deliberately I moved over beside him. I set my hand beside his in the grass. He knew—he had to know—that if things were different, I’d lace my fingers through his. But he didn’t want that, couldn’t stand that, and I read the awareness of my gesture in his altered posture. Fade straightened his fingers beside mine, and for a few seconds, I felt every blade of grass on my palm as if they were his fingertips.
“I hope I prove of some use,” he said then.
“You’re here. That’s enough.” I hesitated and decided there might not be a better moment—and I couldn’t continue without telling him. So in a quiet rush, I explained what was bothering me about the good-bye kiss I’d given Stalker in the woods and the one he took by surprise the night before, and how those moments conflicted with the promise I’d made Fade regarding exclusive kissing rights. I felt like I’d broken faith with him, but I didn’t regret bringing him back safe.
His expression went flat, his eyes dark as night-kissed water. “I don’t understand why you’re telling me this. You can do whatever you like. I already said, we aren’t…” He trailed off and shrugged, as if I already knew what he meant.
Worse, I did. He was talking about the termination of everything we had been together, but if Fade thought we could just go back to being hunting partners, like we had been down below, before I understood anything about feelings or the way he held my heart in his hands without touching me, then he was purely mistaken. I clenched my teeth against an angry spate of words. Though Tegan had counseled patience, sometimes it was hard.
He went on in a quietly aching tone, “So it doesn’t matter what you did to get me back. By then, it was already too late.”
“It’s not,” I said. “I won’t let it be. But you deserve absolute honesty. What happened with Stalker wasn’t something I asked for, but I’d do anything for you, and that’s a fact.”
“Some things,” he whispered, “you just shouldn’t.”
I didn’t ask if he meant his rescue or the deal with Stalker that involved kissing. I couldn’t resist pushing, just a little. “So it won’t bother you if I find someone else?”
His jaw clenched, and I saw the muscle move before he got it under control. “I thought you said you’d fight for me.”
“And you said it’s too late.” I offered him a faint smile along with his watch. “So it’s a good thing I don’t intend to listen to you.”
The soft sigh puffed out of him in relief before he could stop it. That was all the confirmation I needed. At least in this regard, I couldn’t take Fade’s word at face value. His mouth was saying things his heart didn’t mean, out of pain and darker feelings that would probably cut me in two. At last I followed Tegan’s advice about not pushing him too far, and I shifted back to my bedroll without further conversation. I didn’t turn my back when I drifted off to sleep, either. Let him look at me, if he wants to. In fact, I hoped he did, and that he felt one fraction of what I did. It might bring him back to me sooner. Just as in this desperate quest, I was running blind and hoping that the journey ended with Fade beside me.
When next I woke, the world was a blur of snarls and yellow fangs.
By the angle of the sun as I rolled to my feet, it wasn’t quite noon, but the Freaks had found us. There were nine monsters, strong and well fed, so this wouldn’t be as easy as it had been before. Good thing my companions were all awake and preparing for a fight.
Stalker snapped at Tegan, “Get behind me.”
My blades slipped into my palms and I lunged at the four encircling Fade. I caught the first off guard with a slash to the torso, opening a gash in its hide. I noticed these lacked the festering sores of other Freaks I’d encountered. Their skin was sleek but tough, if mottled, gray. The stained fangs were the same, however, as were the razor-taloned hands slicing toward me. I spun to the side, ending the maneuver with a dual downward strike. My left knife nicked the creature’s arm, but neither wound was fatal. Bleeding and furious, the thing snarled at me, a challenge in its strangely human eyes. The irises were crystal clear, a stunning amber-yellow, with the sclera white by comparison. I had the unmistakable sense it saw me as a thinking person, not just meat, and yet it still meant to kill me. The realization stunned me, but not enough to keep me from dodging the next hit as another wheeled to face me.
Stalker dropped one of his with an efficient spike into the throat, leaving three. Fade had the next kill, gutting the Freak on the right from chest to groin. Entrails tumbled out in a meaty splatter, staining the grass at our feet. Another keened in grief—that awful, discordant cry that affirmed that the Freaks felt, that they suffered loss—and it went at Fade with a ferocity I found astonishing. It was furious, not just hungry. These behaved so differently from the mindless ones we’d fought down below.
I swiveled beneath the slashing claws and sank both my blades into the Freak’s abdomen, then I pulled the knives sideways with all my strength. That was a killshot. The monster went down as the next one lunged at me. I blocked the strike, but took a rake of claws across my forearm in doing so; this Freak was strong, enough that I felt the impact down in my bones. I had to learn a new way to fight them since they didn’t die as fast anymore. This was actual combat, not the havoc I once wreaked. Fade cried out as one of them sank claws into his shoulder and used the hold to reel him forward for a fatal bite. To my surprise, Tegan brought up my rifle from where she stood in the trees. I was none too sure of her aim, but the shot boomed out, opening the monster’s chest and dropping the one who had Fade. I lifted my chin at her in thanks, then I whirled into motion, my strikes faster, faster.
Tegan shot another as I finished my second. Then I moved to help Stalker, who had two left on him. I stabbed one low in the spine, paralyzing it, then Stalker’s lightning slashes finished the creature. I worked with him to bring down the last as Fade dropped another.
Finally, we had nine corpses and a bloody stink, while Tegan trembled, cradling the rifle to her chest. “I did it. I was afraid I’d shoot Fade but nobody else was close enough.”
“Thank you,” he murmured.
“They’re different,” Tegan said, staring down at the bodies. “Not just in physical appearance but in their habits, too. Did you notice they’re not wearing rags anymore? These Muties actually made clothes.”
She was right. They had poorly tanned skins fashioned into rough armor. But their oddities didn’t change our mission.
“We have to move,” I said. “Pack your gear. The rifle can be heard a long way off in open country, so I hope you all got enough rest. You’ll need it. We’ll tend wounds later.”
In minutes, we had our blankets rolled and stowed in our packs. I handed around some bread for us to chew on the move, then I checked the maps and our route. Stalker helped me orient to the path and we set out at a run while I wondered how long it would take for more Freaks to track the rifle shots. I didn’t doubt we could hold our own against most scouting parties, but each fight delayed and weakened us. Both Fade and I were injured; if we took more wounds, the trip to Soldier’s Pond might take even longer.
Salvation doesn’t have much time.
My feet pounded the earth, sending up a spray of dust behind me. “I think we should push to reach Soldier’s Pond tonight.”
“I can,” Tegan said, “if that’s what you’re asking. My leg’s fine.”
It had been, and I was glad she wasn’t defensive about it. We had to be realistic about our capabilities. “Good. You’re surprisingly handy with my rifle. Keep it.”
She flushed with pleasure, or it could be running in the heat of the day, which had warmed up with the sun. Light blazed forth, hurting my eyes, and I wondered whether I would ever get fully accustomed to it.
My forearm burned but it wasn’t enough to slow me down. Fade wouldn’t thank me for questioning his strength, so I didn’t ask about the bloodstained patch on his shoulder. Still, he was moving well, keeping up, so he couldn’t be in too much pain. I’d check on him later, provided he let me.
That was a long, grim day with only basic stops for sanitary functions and to gulp some water or swallow a handful of cheese. By nightfall, Tegan’s face was white with exhaustion and pain she wouldn’t acknowledge, but she didn’t ask any quarter. According to Longshot’s notes, this was a bruising trip, much longer than two days by wagon. But he had to care for the mules and let them rest, plus he was towing trade goods whereas we moved as fast as humans could.
The moon was high by the time I spied our destination across the plain. I didn’t know what I had been expecting, but this wasn’t it. From what I could see, this was nothing like Salvation, and a fearful sensation crawled up my back. I stopped, breathing hard, and when I did, exhaustion rushed in like a drowning wave, weakening my limbs to water.
“It looks like the ruins,” Stalker said.
I nodded. “Only it’s not completely destroyed.”
This was an old-world town, but they had cordoned off the heart of it with metal fencing, embankments, and ditches. There were lights too, different from the ones that burned down below or even in Salvation. These were odd and fixed, not fire at all, but more like magic from the stories Edmund told of long ago.
“Have you ever seen anything like that?” I asked.
Both Stalker and Fade shook their heads, but Tegan was studying the glimmer with a fascinated frown. “Not since I was a little girl. We had some in the greenhouse at the university that filled up with light from lying in the sun. Those look a little like that, only bigger.”
“I didn’t know old things like that still worked,” Stalker said. “We scavenged items sometimes but we couldn’t figure out how to operate them, except the tins.”
“That’s because you’re savages,” she said.
“We were,” he agreed quietly.
“How late is it?” I asked Fade.
He checked his watch. “Nearly midnight.”
I sighed. “We don’t have a choice. This isn’t the right time to make our appeal, but waiting won’t help, either. Let’s go.”
Though the perimeter looked deserted, I didn’t trust my eyes. My senses told me we were being watched. So I picked an easily tracked path across the field, waiting for a warning or a voice asking me to state my business. Neither came, right up until I set foot on the metal ramp that led down into the pocked street, similar here to what it had been in Gotham. I could see where the citizens of Soldier’s Pond had tried to keep the surface smooth, filling holes with packed mud and dirt, but it didn’t seal well enough to hide the damage, even at night.
“Which are you,” an unseen male called, “itinerant or tourist?”
I had no idea what either of those words meant. After glancing at Tegan, who shrugged—apparently she didn’t either—I answered, “We’re messengers, carrying word from Salvation.”
“Why didn’t they send Longshot?” the man asked.
I relaxed a fraction. If I wasn’t mistaken, his tone contained a certain fondness, born of camaraderie and nights spent swapping stories. “I’m sorry. Longshot died in the last battle.”
“I think you’d better come in.” Something clanged, and a moving shadow showed me the security measure that would’ve crushed us had we taken another step down the ramp. “It’s clear for you to cross. Hurry now.”
Not wanting to inconvenience our host, I ran, and the others followed me. Behind us, the heavy weight went back up in cadence with grunting men who hauled it into place. Six of them stepped into the light afterward, led by the man I knew instinctively had invited us into Soldier’s Pond. They all wore dusty green clothing, patched more than once, and they held themselves like warriors with shoulders back, spines straight, and their chins inviting trouble. All of them were pretty close to Edmund’s age with silver growing among the bristles on their jaws. They all wore weapons on their hips, similar to the rifle, only smaller, and long-handled knives on their thighs.
“You said you have word from Salvation and Longshot couldn’t carry it. There’s been trouble?”
“An incredible amount,” I said honestly. “I mean no disrespect… but are you the elder?” That was what they’d called the leader in Salvation, and what we called Whitewall down below.
“That’s an old word for it… and, no, as it happens, I’m not. I won’t make you tell the story twice. Davies, you’re head watchman while I’m gone. I’ll take our guests to see the colonel.”
One of the men nodded as our escort led us through the warren. This was old-world construction, patched and shored to retain functionality. We didn’t have the means to build like this anymore, however. The size and shape of the structures was uncannily similar, one house after another stamped out with complete precision.
“It’s eerie,” Fade said beside me.
“More like a child’s model than a real town,” I agreed softly.
“This way. I’m Morgan. If we have to wake the colonel, I can’t guarantee how well your news will be received.” His tone held an odd, amused note that I couldn’t interpret.
I didn’t expect it would be glad tidings, so that hardly mattered, but the leader’s reaction could determine whether we succeeded. Morgan led us to a large building with a long front porch; there were lights affixed all over the top of it, which made me think it was some kind of headquarters. Inside, it bore out that initial impression with tables and chairs littered with papers, some of which had yellowed with age, others appearing to be recently manufactured. I could tell the new sheets came from Salvation, as they carried its imprint in the form of a tree thrice encircled. So among other things, Soldier’s Pond relied on Salvation for stationery, which was a fancy word for paper, according to Momma Oaks.
Candles burned, the wax crackling down into saucers, and there were a few lamps unfamiliar to me. They gave off an unpleasant smell as they burned, the flame flickering inside the glass like a trapped firefly. There were chairs too, where a few tired, worried-looking men were sprawled. I wondered which one was the colonel—and what a colonel was. It must be a title, similar to Elder Bigwater, since he wasn’t actually the oldest man in Salvation, unlike down below. Maybe he played a role like the Wordkeeper’s, consulting on important matters. But none of my speculations proved to be right when the colonel turned around; I could tell this was the person we sought by the way Morgan approached, and I smiled, both pleased and chagrined.
I let Salvation change the way I see the world. This never occurred to me.
It should have. Both Copper and Silk had played powerful roles down below. This woman was younger than Momma Oaks, but not quite as young as Ruth, Rex’s wife. I didn’t know how old that made her, but compared with the men around her, she seemed young. She wore her dark hair up in a complicated twist, and her clothes were crisp, despite the late hour. Likewise, her eyes were dark, ringed in faint shadows that said she hadn’t slept much recently. Sharp features lent her an aspect of intelligence; we’d find out whether that was true once we spoke.
“Report, Morgan.” Her tone was brisk but not impolite. In my time in Salvation I’d come to note the difference. Yet her eyes held warmth that belied her words. “What’s the latest word in the territories?”
I figured she must mean all the lands described on Longshot’s maps. Somehow I resisted the temptation to see if that word appeared anywhere on his papers. Instead I fixed my attention politely on Morgan, who was saying, “They come from Salvation, bearing news. I thought it best to bring them to you at once, Colonel Park.”
“I imagine it’s nothing good, but speak,” the colonel said.
There was nothing for it but to lay out the problem. “Salvation is under siege… and Longshot died in the first onslaught. I’m sorry to carry such bad tidings if you were fond of him, as I was.” I pushed past the lump in my throat, the fresh awareness that I’d never again hear his rasp of a voice or see his eyes crinkle as he smiled. “The town’s surrounded and the Freaks—Muties, I mean—are armed with fire. We don’t have the manpower to fight. So Elder Bigwater sent us to request reinforcements, and you’re the nearest settlement.”
Given my experience with people in positions of authority, I expected Colonel Park to say I was crazy and that I should eat some soup, then go to bed. Once again, I was wrong. Nothing in my experience prepared me for her reaction. She slammed a hand down on the nearest table, knocking over some pencils in a cup, scattering papers on the floor.
“I told you,” she snapped at the men looking on with dawning horror.
Horde © Ann Aguirre, 2013