“It’s been five weeks, Matt. Five. How much longer do you think they’ll last?”
Matt Davis looked at me with pity, and the need to scream at the leader of our survivor camp warred with my need to cry because I knew what was coming. It was the thing I’d been trying not to think since the day the old commander killed himself.
“Cassie, you need to ask yourself if there’s any hope your husband and son are even still alive. We both know what that answer is. I can’t risk any of our number on a hopeless mission. I’m sorry.”
My temper snapped, and I slapped my hands on his desk.
“Bullshit. You’re not sorry. You’re afraid. I’m not. I refuse to give up. I will find a way to get to them.”
Matt exhaled heavily as I turned and stormed toward another section of the hangar. Tears fell unchecked until I reached the screened area where I’d left my daughter. My hands shook as I wiped the moisture away. How much trauma was a person able to endure before that person snapped? The idea of giving up, like so many others had, scared me. I knew I’d welcome my own end to escape this new hell I called reality, but I couldn’t leave my daughter alone. Just like I couldn’t give up on finding out what had happened to Lee and my infant son, Caden.
Taking a steadying breath, I quietly stepped around the screen and checked on my daughter. At almost four, Lilly still napped often. Probably more than she should since all of the sleeping meant she would stay up well after a normal bedtime. Yet, staring at her head of dark auburn hair, the same shade as mine, I couldn’t bring myself to wake her up.
Nights were scary at the Whiteman base in Missouri, the only safe zone to survive in the weeks after the earthquakes released the hellhounds and started the spread of the infection. The rows and rows of tents for the survivors set up near the back of the base did nothing to help us feel safe. Every howl and groan that echoed through the night kept a sane person awake. Lilly, even as young as she was, didn’t sleep heavily anymore. There’d been too many breaches in the fence surrounding the base. Too many attacks where I’d had to pick her up and run for the safety of the metal hangars. No matter how little I let her sleep during the day, she wouldn’t give in to sleep until nearly dawn.
I smoothed back Lilly’s hair and stared at her sleep-relaxed face. Would she ever know what it was like to live in a house? Would she grow up sleep-deprived and always afraid? Would she ever see her brother or father again?
Tears started to gather anew, and I quickly moved away from her to look at the meager medical supplies still on the shelves.
Being shoved into the role of the camp’s only doctor did have its perks. No one had questioned me when Lilly and I had started sleeping in the makeshift medical clinic. She had fewer nightmares with the thin metal walls of the hangar surrounding her. Not that they offered much more protection against what lurked outside the fence day and night.
Footsteps reached my ears, the familiar cadence growing in volume as Matt approached. I quickly moved from where my daughter slept and pretended to count the supplies on the shelves, not that there was much to count. I’d used just about everything we’d had almost a week ago on one of those unnerving creatures that now existed in our world. The dark fey looked more like demons than creatures of magic. Unnatural grey skin and eyes that looked like they belonged to a snake sent a shiver of fear through me every time I saw one of them.
I cringed. Matt only called me that when he needed me to be the camp doctor. Otherwise, I was Cassie, another pain-in-his-ass survivor.
I turned slowly and fought not to flinch at the sight of the demon standing next to Matt. As the camp doctor, I usually managed to avoid them, a task that had gotten easier once their leader moved them to a new demon-only safe zone not far from Whiteman.
“Another one of Molev’s men was hurt last night. Molev is requesting your assistance at Tolerance.”
Although I kept my gaze focused on Matt, I still saw the demon’s lizard-like eyes locked on me with an intensity that made my stomach churn. Along with hearing what they were, dark fey imprisoned in the ground thousands of years ago, I also heard they had a thing for human women because they didn’t have their own.
“I can’t,” I said calmly. “It’s not safe for Lilly outside the fence. If the patient comes here, I can attempt to treat him.”
“I’ll keep an eye on Lilly,” Matt said, his expression hardening. “The fey need our help, Mrs. Feld, and we will give it. Grab what you need. You leave immediately.”
My stomach twisted, and panic burst in my chest.
“You can’t do this, Matt. I will not—”
“I’d like to speak to Mrs. Feld alone,” he said, looking at the dark fey.
The demon’s gaze swept over me before he turned and left. I stayed where I was and tried to control the shaking that wanted to consume me.
Matt crossed the area and lowered his voice.
“We can’t say no, Cassie. The fey have given us a lot and asked for very little in return. If we don’t make an effort to reciprocate, we run the risk that they’ll stop helping altogether. We won’t last long without them.”
“And how much do you expect me to give?” I said angrily, careful to keep my voice down. “I’ve helped every time you’ve asked even though I’m not a doctor or even a registered nurse. I was a fucking student, Matt. I’ve done more than half the people here have, and now you’re sending me out there? Outside the fence where you just told me it was too dangerous to send any of your people? I asked for your help, and you wouldn’t give it. Screw you, Matt. I’m not leaving my daughter.”
“We need them, Cassie. The food they bring. The protection they provide. They’re not asking for a lot. Just your help trying to fix one of them up. You’ve already done it once. You can do it again.”
I thought of the demon I’d stitched up almost a week ago. Attacked by a hellhound, I hadn’t thought he would live. The entire time I’d stitched him, my hands had shaken with the knowledge of what I risked. Hellhounds spread the plague. One bite, and a human became a mindless zombie. And, I’d been forced to work on his saliva-coated body.
“Hellhounds are the only things I’ve seen that hurt them,” I said. “I risked my health once. I won’t do that again. I’m all Lilly has.”
“You don’t have a choice. You help them, or I kick you and your daughter out. We all pull our weight here.”
Stunned, I stared at him for a moment.
“You wouldn’t,” I said.
“I would. I’d hate myself for it, but I can’t put the needs of one before the needs of every other person within this fence. I’ll stay with Lilly until she’s up then take her to Bertha. She’ll be safe in the kitchen and well-fed until you get back.”
Since the moment the first hound howled outside our home, it had been just Lilly and me. The world had gone to shit in hours, and everything had changed. My son, only eight months old, had been with my husband, Lee. I had no idea what happened to them. And now, safely inside Whiteman’s fence, the question of their fate was eating me alive. I needed to know. But, I couldn’t leave the base on my own. Outside Whiteman’s fence, infected roamed, waiting for prey during the day. At night, nothing moved but hellhounds. And only moments ago, Matt had insisted it was too dangerous for a group too. Yet, here he was, forcing me out.
Yep, the world had gone to shit, and the people weren’t very far behind. My fingernails dug into the palms of my hands with the anger I felt toward Matt.
I glanced at Lilly while I shook and wondered, again, just how much one person was meant to endure.
“Anything happens to her, and I’ll be the only person you’ll need to worry about,” I said lowly.
Without looking at Matt, I walked toward the opening of the screened area designated as a medical ward. Each step I took from my daughter felt like I was tearing out my own insides.
I rounded the corner and came up short at the sight of the demon standing there. My skin prickled under the scrutiny of his freakish eyes.
For Lilly, I swallowed my fear and forced myself to meet his gaze.
“Can you tell me about the, uh, person who’s hurt so I know what supplies I’ll need?” I asked.
“Kerr is out gathering what you might need,” the demon said. “May I carry you, Mrs. Cassie Feld?”
My heart started to pound, and a shiver raced through me.
“Carry me? Why?”
“Shax can get you to Tolerance faster and safer by carrying you than we can in a truck,” Matt said from behind me.
The demon’s gaze never left me as he waited for my answer.
“I need just a moment.” I turned and fled to the bathroom.
Bracing my hands on the sink, I let my head hang as my stomach pretended I was in a boat on a wind-swept sea. I gulped in air, trying to keep it together.
It wasn’t just the eyes freaking me out. Several times, infected had breached the fence, and I’d seen what the demons could do. With barely any effort, they could pull a head clean off a body. The strength in their arms didn’t make me feel safe; it made me very aware of my own mortality. I couldn’t help but feel that humans had no place in this new world.
A sharp knock startled me from my thoughts.
“Time matters, Mrs. Feld. You don’t want to be out past dark.”
My knees felt weak with that reminder.
“I understand.” I took another deep breath and opened the door.
The creature was right there, watching me again. Heart hammering, I gave the answer Matt expected.
I barely withheld my flinch when the demon reached for me. A moment later, I was up in his arms. I tried to tell myself to be grateful that this one at least wore a shirt. When they’d first arrived, they’d only worn pants and their leather calf boots and appeared to be completely unfazed by the cold.
The human survivors at Whiteman were very affected by the weather. The brutal Missouri winter, coupled with failing power and limited portable woodstoves, meant that we survivors kept our outerwear on at all times.
“I will return Mrs. Feld before dark,” he said to Matt.
“Keep Lilly safe,” I added, hearing the tremble in my voice.
Matt nodded, and the demon took that as a dismissal. As he walked toward the exit, he watched as I struggled with where to put my hands. Finally, I set them on my lap and looked toward the door.
“It’s snowing,” the demon said. “You need to put your hood up.”
Listening to the demon’s advice, I pulled up my hood before he held me with one arm as he opened the door. Bothered by the ease with which he bore my weight, I tried to focus on the tiny flakes drifting in the air. It didn’t help.
As the creature ran the distance to the main gate, I could feel his gaze still on me, and my already fluttering pulse picked up in speed.
Going outside the fence terrified me. Not only were there things out there that wanted to kill me, but I’d be alone with a demon whose kind only remained on the surface for one reason. Women.
I shuddered harder.
“Are you too cold, Mrs. Cassie Feld?” he asked. “Should I wrap you in a blanket?”
And prevent me from moving? Hell no, I thought to myself.
“I’m fine. Just a little nervous about going outside the fence.”
“I will keep you safe. I promise,” he said.
The guards at the first set of gates watched our approach.
“Where are you going, Mrs. Feld?” one of the men asked. He had his hand on the firearm strapped to his waist. Not that it would do any good. The grey men moved much too quickly to purposely hit them.
“Tolerance,” I answered. “Matt ordered me to help a wounded…person there.”
The guard looked at the demon holding me.
“Wouldn’t you rather ride in a truck?”
“Matt didn’t give me that option,” I said, not bothering to keep the bitterness from my tone.
“I will keep Mrs. Cassie Feld safe,” the demon said to the guard.
“See that you do.”
The grating sound of the gate opening made my stomach churn. As soon as there was enough of a gap, the demon slipped inside the pen. We waited for the first gate to shut and the outer gate to open.
“The wind will take your breath,” the demon said. “It is okay to hide your face.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant until he started running. Wind battered my face and stung my eyes.
Unable to breathe, I turned my head toward his chest. I couldn’t bring myself to tuck my face against his shirt, though.
While I was grateful for the coat I wore, I wished I had gloves, too. My fingers began to ache with the chill as the minutes passed, and I curled them into fists and tried to use my sleeves to hide my skin.
My stomach dipped as the creature jumped suddenly, and I looked up just in time to see him slip over a towering wall made of upright vehicles and other debris. The demon landed with a soft thump on the snow-covered grass just inside the barrier.
“Thank you, Shax,” a woman said, drawing my attention. “You can put her down now.”
He did as she said. Nervously, I glanced over the area. Other demons walked around between houses and along the wall that ran as far as I could see in each direction. I didn’t see or hear a single infected, though.
I looked at the woman who’d spoken. Her dark hair was streaked with strands of silver. Unlike so many of us at Whiteman, she didn’t have dark circles under her kind, brown eyes.
“You’re completely safe here, Mrs. Feld,” she said. “The fey built this wall to keep the infected out. It’s much sturdier than the fence at Whiteman. Not a single infected has breached it. Not that they’ve really tried. They know the fey are here, so they tend to stay away.” She gave me a friendly smile and motioned for me to follow her.
The fey who’d carried me trailed behind us as we followed a path through the backyard of a nice two-story home.
“We’re very grateful you were able to come,” she said. “I know it can be a bit terrifying leaving the fence. How is your Lilly?”
The mention of my daughter renewed my anger with Matt and had me glancing at the woman’s profile again.
“Do I know you?” I asked.
“Not really. My husband, son, and I lived at Whiteman before Mya and the fey found us. I’m Julie, Mya’s mother.”
“Ah.” I remembered the girl showing up with the horde of demons in tow, introducing a new level of fear to my hell.
“I’m sorry if I sound rude, but can you just show me to the one who is hurt? I want to get back to my daughter as soon as possible.”
Julie led me to the nearest house and opened the back door. Warm air enveloped me as I stepped inside.
“You have heat?”
“The gas lines still work. The men are fitting all the houses with wood stoves just in case, though. Go ahead; take off a few layers. You won’t need them in Tolerance.”
I stripped out of my coat and an extra sweater as I looked around. The interior was nothing like the damaged, blood-stained homes on the base. Fresh, neutral tones of paint coated the walls, and tasteful pictures depicting a variety of outdoor scenes hung in various places. It felt surreal to be standing in such a normal looking kitchen.
“Merdon, the fey who’s hurt, is back here with Kerr,” Julie said, once again leading the way.
I followed her to a bedroom with three fey in it.
The giant standing beside the bed looked up at me, and my feet froze in the doorway while my heart tried to beat its way out of my chest. His eyes and the small scars that crisscrossed his face made him fiercely terrifying. My hands started to shake.
“This is Merdon,” Julie said, leaning over the creature on the bed and gently smoothing back his hair. “He was attacked by several hellhounds.”
Scratches, gashes, and puncture holes littered the skin of his exposed torso. A few of the wounds oozed, but none of them bled. His chest barely moved with each shallow breath. He didn’t look good, just like the one they’d wanted me to patch up the last time. It was a nerve-wracking experience I’d hoped not to repeat, mostly because of the imposing demon who’d stared at me during the whole procedure.
The second, conscious demon in the room moved, calling my attention. I looked up, and my eyes widened as I stared at a creature with a familiar bright red bead decorating the end of his right temple braid. My hands started to shake. Him.
“I found some supplies,” he said, picking up a plastic bag from the floor. “You’ll have enough this time.”
I heard the threat in those words and wanted to cringe. He’d been there when I’d tried to tell them there was no point in helping the other demon. He obviously still held a grudge.
“Kerr has more supplies in the living room,” Julie said, oblivious to the undercurrent as she straightened away from the injured demon. “Suture packages, bandages, alcohol, iodine, and more. Kerr must have been watching you closely when you stitched up Ghua. These men sure pay attention to the details.
“We’ll give you some room to work. I’ll just be in the kitchen. Shout if you need anything.”
She walked out of the room, and the giant trailed behind her.
Left alone with the demon who’d been tormenting my brief dreams for the last week, I couldn’t look away from his snake-like gaze. Why him?
He lifted the bag of supplies higher.