They all stared at Gray, whose jaw was firm, set. His hands were curled over his kneecaps as he watched Eva’s eyes, which grew sad as she looked back at him and nodded slightly.
“Then you understand,” she said softly.
“That this world is far more dangerous than anyone suspects? Of course I understand,” he said, his voice turning into almost a growl at the end. “I’ve spent half my life since I realized what was out there protecting other people from everything and themselves.” He shot a pointed look at Terézia before turning his attention back to Eva. “It’s hard work.”
Terézia opened her mouth to either apologize or demand more answers, but closed it again as Eva spoke.
“I know it is. Believe me, I know it is. I never appreciated what those boys did for me when I was growing up until I had to start doing it for other people. It has to be just about the most thankless task anyone’s ever taken on.” She smiled weakly at Gray. “Remind them later that they should thank you. Have you seen many of those things in the last four weeks?”
He shook his head slightly. “No, none. It’s got me a little concerned. I’m overdue.” He looked sidelong at his friends.
Terézia’s heart had begun to beat again, painfully hard, thumping against her breastbone. She wasn’t entirely sure what they were talking about, but it was more than enough to leave her terrified and shaken.
Eva simply made an interested sound and shrugged slightly. “Maybe you’ve found a sheltered zone, then. I can’t imagine that they’d miss you up here for another reason. I found you easily enough, after all.” She scrubbed her hand across her eyes and reached for her mug of tea.
Her hand never made it. She started to slump sideways.
Gray was there to catch her, muttering a curse. Terézia caught a glimmer of shiny, wet red beneath the vest Eva wore, the other woman’s T-shirt sticking damp with blood to her flesh on one side.
“What the hell?” Terézia blurted. “Why didn’t you tell us you were hurt?”
“Too much else to talk about,” Eva said, almost distantly, still reaching for her cup. “I’m all right,” she said to Gray. “Really, I promise, I’m all right.”
“I’ve believed everything you’ve said up until that,” he said flatly. “Wat, come give me a hand, we’ll get her to a cot. Teca, find Elton and tell him we need his expertise up here, quick.”
Terézia nodded slightly, standing up. Told us she got shot at. She never said one of the shots found its mark. She didn’t say another word as she darted out into the afternoon light.
• • •
Every so often, his thoughts returned to the girl he’d left at the border. She’d been pretty, young, but insistent that he continue north while she went in another direction. He could still remember her smile.
“You’ve been a wonderful traveling companion, Cameron. But there’s someone you need to talk to up there. You know that in your heart, and I know that, too. Keep right on following it and I’ll follow mine. Always listen to your heart.”
She’d smiled, squeezed his arm, and they’d parted company. She’d gone east and he’d continued north, following a gut feeling and her advice. It’d been a week since then, a week of wandering steadily northward. The smell of the ocean was everywhere as he worked his way north, mingled with the mists and the pines. His horse didn’t seem to like it much, too damp and chill for his liking, apparently. Cameron teased him sometimes, even though he was fairly certain the horse didn’t understand—or at the very least didn’t appreciate—the playful ribbing.
But when all you’ve got to talk to his a horse, you make the best of what you’ve got.
He’d seen destroyed towns, abandoned cars, and more bodies than he wanted to think about. Sometimes, his mind trailed back to Star Wars, to the death of Alderaan. A hundred thousand voices crying out and suddenly silenced. It didn’t quite fit the situation, but it’s what he thought of when he thought about the day weeks ago when the destroyed asteroid’s fragments had rained down on the world.
There was a lake in the distance; he could see it beyond the trees, just barely. It was quiet out here, up here. Two months ago, it would have been the ideal place to take leave, to just get away from anything and everything he could have worried about during his time off from the service.
Now, it just felt eerily empty and quiet.
But he was growing closer to what he was looking for, he knew that down to the marrow of his bones. The sky was growing dark, either with storms or with gathering evening—unable to see the sun for the clouds, he wasn’t sure which was the case.
The horse nickered softly, nosed his shoulder. Cameron reached up to stroke the horse’s jaw.
“It’s all right,” he said soothingly. “We’ll find some cover before any rain starts.” He hoped it wasn’t a lie, hoped it was sunset that was making the sky dark, not storm clouds. Still, he began to walk a little faster down the roadway through the trees. His sore feet protested a little—he hadn’t marched like this since Basic—but he pushed through. They were so close, he could feel it.
The hair on the back of his neck started to stand on end as he walked onward. Cameron sucked in a ragged breath as his horse began to misbehave, pulling and shying, growing agitated by something neither of them could see, simply sense.
He swallowed bile as the air around him went very, very cold, almost frosty. Black mists rolled in through the trees, coalescing around he and his horse.
Cameron moved quickly, scrabbling for the rifle lashed behind his saddle. If whatever was coming was big, he’d wanted that rather than the sidearm at his hip.
The howls began, and his blood went cold. Something hit him around the waist and threw him sideways, tearing his hands from the weapon he’d almost freed from its bindings. His horse screamed and bolted, galloping up the roadway and swiftly out of sight.
Fuck me, Cameron thought as he rolled to a crouch, reaching for his weapon.
Red eyes gleamed at him from the dark mists. A keening sound like a woman’s cry mixed with a man’s scream split the air, vibrated his very being.
Calm, he told himself, staring back at those eyes. Calm. Don’t panic.
Then one came at him, claws outstretched, the ugliest hag from the depths of hell, all painted blacker than anything he’d ever seen in his life.
Cameron “Dragon” MacKenzie rolled with that first blow and from there, launched into a fight for his life.