If you’re a fan of urban fantasy,
then have I got the perfect teaser for you: Chapter Two of Ann Aguirre’s new short story, Endurance.
Aguirre is a national bestselling author of urban fantasy (the Corine Solomon series), romantic science fiction (the Jax series), apocalyptic paranormal romance (the Ellen Connor books with Carrie Lofty), paranormal romantic suspense (as Ava Gray), and post-apocalyptic dystopian young adult fiction.
Stone had never killed anything. Not an animal. Not an insect. His most sacred charge came in preserving life; he tended the brats when they took ill. He fed them. Played with them. Sometimes he taught them small things, like how to cut meat or tie a knot—nothing significant, the elders argued. It wasn’t as if he played a vital role in enclave life, not like the Wordkeeper. Anyone with two hands could clean the filth off a brat’s backside.
Fearing a freak attack, he’d stumbled into the common area, ready to pitch in, and found that his fellow citizens had gone crazy. Thimble had mentioned something about unrest, but he’d ignored her. He had thought, You worry too much. As it turned out, she had been right. I wish I’d listened. But…how could anyone expect this? All around him, they fought with whatever weapons fell to hand. People were bleeding and dying; death hung heavy in the air.
He backed away, thinking only to hide, but a Hunter stopped him with a look that promised Stone’s end, unless he did something really right. The boy shoved a weapon at him; Stone took the blade awkwardly, stupid with shock.
“Fight or die,” the Hunter demanded. “Are you with us?”
“With who?” He heard the break in his voice, knowing distress made him weak—unsuited to any task but breeding and caring for the young. A smarter male would know what to do, so maybe it was best he had been given only simple work. But that lack left him helpless now.
“Twist, or the elders. Whitewall’s dead, and the Wordkeeper’s corpse is right over there.”
Stone fought his urge to look but in the end, he couldn’t help it. The elder lay sprawled on his side, a dark pool spreading from his cut throat. Behind him, blood spattered the wall. His stomach lurched, and he tightened his hand on the knife to try to control the nausea.
There was no way out of this nightmare. “What side are you on?”
“I’m with Twist,” the Hunter snapped, like that should have been obvious. Maybe it would’ve been to anyone else.
At the best of times, he wasn’t quick to connect puzzle pieces or work things out. He’d always had Thimble for that. An ache sprang up in his chest.
Where is she?
The look in the Hunter’s eye told Stone that if he answered wrong, he’d get a dagger in the chest and end up in a pile next to the Wordkeeper. From this point on, everything would change. No matter who won, the enclave couldn’t continue as it had. Too many lives had already been lost.
“Me too,” he said quickly.
At that, the Hunter gave a satisfied nod. “I’m not surprised. You must’ve have noticed how unfair the rules are and how few lawbreakers actually did anything at all. Your best friend went on the long walk, didn’t she? Took the blame for you.”
The pain in his heart increased. He’d known what she was doing. Stone had pretended to believe in Deuce’s confession to settle any doubts the elders might have about him. He’d been thinking of the brat in his arms, the little one he wasn’t supposed to love. Unfortunately, he knew which one belonged to him, the little guy with his eyes and his smile, and it was impossible for him not to care. It just was. He would’ve said anything to keep his brat safe, and he had. Turned his back on his best friend and left her to die. The guilt of that moment would always haunt him. But maybe his moments were numbered, and it didn’t matter anymore.
Apparently he’d just joined the rebellion.
He went with the Hunter into battle, and only luck let him endure the massacre. Stone stuck close to his companion and slashed with desperate doubt at anything that came close. His size helped; it was rare for anyone to grow so tall. The Wordkeeper said he was a throwback, whatever that meant, a relic of a time when people ate better and grew larger. Stone only knew his long arms let him slam people away. He didn’t want to hurt them. The idea of using this blade on someone—his stomach turned. But he couldn’t help it. Stone tried, but they kept coming. Just shoving them away wasn’t enough, and the Hunter was staring at him.
Someone else lunged at him; and he reacted. With one thrust, he killed a girl, a Huntress, who’d come up in Deuce’s class. She wasn’t experienced, strong, or particularly skilled. Her throat yielded to his knife like the meat he cut for the brats, and hot blood poured over his fingers. The smell was coppery and sweet, and it made his tongue feel thick to breathe the heavy air. Her body plopped, and another Hunter rushed at him.
Why won’t they stop? What’s the point?
Stone wept as he fought until his arms were heavy and he smelled nothing but burnt meat and despair. His lungs burned raw; his eyes stung from the sweat trickling into them. His blade grew sticky, until it disgusted him to hold it. The Hunter beside him smiled, like they had done good work.
And then it was over.
Silk’s cohort encircled them. The blonde woman who commanded the Hunters strode forward, demanding, “Put down your weapons.”
The rebel Hunter rushed and died on her blade. With deceptive strength, she caught the young man she’d once led and laid him beside the other bodies. In someone else, Stone would’ve judged her expression as bleak and infinite grief.
But Silk firmed her chin, the look faded, and she leveled an icy stare on him. “Do you prefer death to the long walk, traitor?”
What willbecome of Boy23? That was his brat’s number. It seemed impossible and wrong that he would never learn the boy’s name or whether he survived. He’d betrayed
Deuce for nothing. Maybe, he thought, some fates can’t be avoided…and I’ll always be banished for the crime of loving him.
The long walk had become a synonym for slow death. For those of the underground tribes, it meant exile, but there was no light at the end of the tunnels. Other settlements wouldn’t harbor lawbreakers, and everyone knew it was death to venture Topside. Might be better to take the blade in the gut. Faster, anyway.
But he couldn’t summon the courage to speak those words. Instead, others came out. “I’ll go, if I can beg one favor.”
“You’re in no position to bargain with me,” Silk snapped. “I don’t have time for this.”
She didn’t; it was true. The survivors had to clean up the bodies before plague set in. Dead meat attracted bad things. If they didn’t act fast, the enclave would be swarming with Freaks. That might happen anyway, if the smell got to the monsters and drove them to frenzy.
“Let me find Thimble to say good-bye. We were brat-mates.” That wasn’t the whole reason, of course. He meant to ask her to watch over Boy23 for him, but Silk wouldn’t get why. Farewell, she understood.
“Fine. Locate her and say what’s needed. You’d be given time to collect your personal items under normal circumstances anyway.”
Stone squared his shoulders, grateful he would be permitted this much. Living would be hard anyway, after the things he had done. Breeders gave life and preserved it; they didn’t kill.
“Wait.” She seemed to reconsider, taking stock of the ruined common area. “Look, I’m the last elder. Which means I’m in charge. And I didn’t always agree with how they ran things.”
They, meaning Copper, Whitewall, and the Wordkeeper? He waited to for her to go on.
“If you swear your loyalty, the enclave could use you. I’ll do the elections like Twist wanted and everything, though rebuilding has to be my priority. Frankly, right now, we don’t have the numbers left for me to send people Topside for the sake of old traditions.”
“I swear,” he said hoarsely. “I won’t fight you. I won’t plot anything.”
“Then find Thimble. Do a headcount and let me know how many people made it.”
“Yes.” With that, she turned to her remaining Hunters and snapped terse instructions regarding cleanup, but Stone didn’t wait to hear more.
He threw down the knife and sprinted with ever-increasing speed, hurdling bodies and smoldering piles of refuse. The neat organization of their enclave had vanished in a few, devastating hours. It would take weeks to restore order. When he passed Twist’s broken body, he paused. You got what you wanted, I guess, even if you didn’t live to see it. You changed things.
With each moment that he failed to find Boy23 or Thimble, his heart pressed up into his throat. It felt like it would split into two meaty pieces and come up in a hot gush of sickness, worsened by the stench of the dead and dying. This place no longer felt like home; there was no safety. Just wreckage.
If they’re gone, I will be too. I can’t survive this without them.
Then he came at last to the brat dorm, where he spotted movement within a makeshift shelter deep in the shadows. Stone flew across that distance, hardly daring to hope. When he opened the curtain and found Thimble there, safe and whole, surrounded by brats, he smiled for the first time in what felt like forever. He’s there, my little Boy23. She saved him. Oh, Thimble.
He dropped to his knees and wrapped his arms around all of them. He might never let go.