Four – 02

[This post is from Matt’s point of view.]

He had never been fully comfortable with the assertion that once Thom and Marin were gone that he would be the one to lead. Of course, he understood it, knew where it came from and why it had arisen, but he’d never been truly at peace with it. He suspected that his wife felt the same, but for her own reasons.

“What will we do if they’re not all right, Phelan?” he asked softly. “What do we do if New Hope isn’t there anymore?” That settlement had never been huge—perhaps two dozen families and perhaps another two or three dozen singular souls beyond those—but it was large enough to be noticed and they’d come to their aid before, as the Valley’s much more formidable numbers had come to aid them in the past. Lara was a good leader and a strong woman, the only leader that New Hope had ever known, vastly different from the experience in the Valley, where leadership ebbed and flowed between a small group of the original survivors. They still formed a sort of leadership council, but for all that it existed, the truth was that everyone looked to Matt Astoris for true leadership, for the final word. The more their settlement grew, the more deeply uncomfortable it became.

And yet no one would have ever let him give it up, and something in him wouldn’t let him do it anyway even if they would.

“I suppose that will depend rather heavily on the particular flavor of their ‘not all right,’” Phelan said softly, gazing at nothing for a few seconds. “Either way, whatever forces are marching are going to require some kind of response.”

“Mm.” Matt crossed his arms, frowning. “Again, that’s going to depend on what the status of New Hope is. Gods and monsters, I hope it’s just raiders, Phelan. I hope it’s nothing more than that.”

“Do you really think that’s the case?”

“I don’t know,” Matt said, his stomach sinking. “I just know it’s what I hope. Raiders we can deal with at the same time shit’s rising. If it’s raiders because of shit rising—well. Then it all starts to get more complicated.”

“And if the rising shit is actually moving the raiders around like pieces on a chess board?”

Matt took a deep breath and exhaled in a sigh. “Then we’ve got a lot of work to do, don’t we?”

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Hey guys, sorry about this, but next update will go up on Monday, April 27 due to various factors.

Much love and thanks for reading!

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Four – 01

[This post is from Matt’s point of view.]

Matt paused in his pacing, staring into the embers. Almost unconsciously, he reached for the bellows, barely stopping himself from stoking the fire.

“You have that look,” Phelan said quietly.

“What look is that?” he asked, though he already knew the answer. It was always the same answer, though it had been a long time since he’d heard those words—at least from Phelan. He heard those words from his wife all the time, but sometimes the look she referred to was different.

“The one where you’re contemplating something you’re not sure you want to be contemplating but have to whether you want to or not.”

One corner of his mouth twitched toward a smile. “You’ve got that one right.” He took a deep breath and exhaled it slowly, glancing at Gilad. “Go get cleaned up and have something to eat. You rode hard to get back here with that news.”

Gilad nodded. “I just wish there was more I could tell you—and that we had answers about New Hope.”

“Aye, me too.” Matt shook his head. “There’s nothing for it. Either way, we’ll know in a few days if all’s well or not.”

“Either by someone coming or not, yes,” Gilad agreed. He scrubbed a hand across his eyes. “I think maybe I’ll wait until I’ve gotten some rest to have that food. It was a long ride.”

Matt just nodded. “As long as you eat something sooner rather than later.”

“Don’t worry, I will.” He slipped out, leaving Matt alone with Phelan.

Matt’s gaze drifted back to the embers, though he could feel the weight of his old friend’s stare.

“I don’t like not having answers,” Matt murmured.

“You haven’t for years,” Phelan said. “None of us ever did, really.”

Matt closed his eyes. “Why did I let them do this to me, Phelan?”

“Let them?” Phelan choked on a laugh. “It was going to be you regardless, Matt. Once they were gone? It was always going to be you. There was no other choice.”

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Three – 07

[This post is from Kailey Astoris’s point of view.]

She lingered after Jacqueline had gone, sitting at the foot of Lin’s bed as he curled beneath the covers, staring at the closed curtains across the room. Once Jacqueline had enlisted her help in treating Lin’s wounds, silence had dominated—silence beyond phrases like “pass me the thread” and “move your arm, please.”

It had almost been enough to drive her mad, but now that she and her cousin were alone, all the questions she wanted answers to were questions that tasted like ash on her tongue, that stuck in her throat, lodged there and stopped her voice. Her shoes were on the floor and she hugged her knees against her chest, watching Lin carefully. There was a pallor to his face that she didn’t like, one that asked more questions than it answered. Jacqueline had given him some pills to take before she’d left. Kailey hadn’t seen him take them; she’d been cleaning up while Jacqueline got Lin loaded into bed.

“Who told you?” Lin finally broke the silence after what felt like forever. He still wasn’t looking at her, but she could tell that his focus was, more or less, centered on her despite the aversion of his gaze.

“Who told me what?” The question seemed absurd. Did it really matter how she’d found out?

He sighed and closed his eyes for a second. “Fine. Don’t tell me.”

“I just don’t see why it matters.”

“It kind of does.”

“How?”

He shook his head slightly and sagged into the mattress, pulling his blankets closer. “Just…never mind.”

“Oh no,” she said. “We’re not playing that game.”

“What game?”

“The one where you try to make me feel guilty for not telling you what you want me to tell you. I’m not playing it, not when I’m this worried about you.”

“Worried,” he echoed, eyes coming open. He peered at her from within his cocoon of blankets. “It’s just some scratches.”

“Those are more than just some scratches.” She leaned forward. “And you know it but you don’t want to talk about it.”

“That’s right.”

“That’s why you want to know who told me.”

“Bingo.”

“It was Finn,” she said. “And all of the others probably already know.”

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Three – 06

[This post is from Kailey Astoris’s point of view.]

The urge to demand that she make it uncomplicated was building, so hard and so quickly that Kailey had trouble tamping it down. She took a quick, steadying breath followed by another, staring intently at her aunt. The healer worked quickly and efficiently as she always did, but Kailey detected the barest tremor to Jacqueline’s hands as she cleaned Lin’s wounds.

Shit, is she scared?

She couldn’t have blamed her for being, if even half the stories were true or unexaggerated. She always suspected Phelan of exaggerating—it was just instinct. Kailey hugged her arms around herself, brow furrowing.

“Is that why the wounds look weird?”

Jacqueline startled slightly. “Is what why?”

“Because it was a camazotzi,” she said slowly. “Is that why they don’t look right?”

“I’m surprised you noticed,” Jacqueline said.

“I was paying attention most of the time,” Kailey said, glancing down at her feet.

“It’s not that,” Jacqueline said. “You’ve never seen anything like this before.”

“Well, no,” Kailey said. “But I could still tell they didn’t seem like normal cuts and scrapes and it’s not just because they’re deeper, is it?”

“No,” Jacqueline admitted quietly. “It’s not.”

She edged a little closer. Lin seemed to finish as she leaned in for a better look. “Do they always look like this?”

“No,” Jacqueline said. “There’s reasons for it.”

“Reasons?” Kailey frowned. “Like what?”

“It’s my blood,” Lin rasped quietly. “My bloodline, right?”

What? Kailey frowned, glancing at Jacqueline. “It can’t possibly be that, can it?”

The healer sighed. “So far as we know, yes. Yes, it is.”

“That’s insane,” Kailey blurted, looking between the two. “It makes no sense. Why would that make a difference?”

“Because some things hurt people with higher concentrations of Otherworlder blood in them,” Jacqueline said quietly, gently. “And sometimes it has to do with the potency of that blood. We’ve seen nasty infections come from camazotzi wounds before and that’s always seemed to be the cause.”

“When?” she asked. “When did it happen?”

“Before you were born,” Jacqueline said. “Before you both were born.”

“With who?” Kailey pressed.

“My dad,” Lin whispered. “It happened with my dad.”

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Three – 05

[This post is from Kailey Astoris’s point of view.]

“It shouldn’t have happened,” Lin said, lips barely moving. He stared out the window again but there was something about the look on his face that told Kailey that he wasn’t actually looking at anything out there, just staring off into nothing. She’d seen the look before.

“Of course it shouldn’t have happened,” she said, coming closer. “Those things are supposed to be gone. They’re not supposed to bother us anymore.” She looked at Jacqueline. “Right?”

Jacqueline didn’t look at her. “Lin, flex your arm a little for me.”

He winced but obeyed. A trickle of blood oozed from one of the gashes in his biceps and he winced.

Kailey took a step closer. “Right, Aunt Jac?”

“It’s a lot more complicated than that, Kailey,” Jacqueline said, starting to clean the oozing wound. Lin hissed in pain but held still except for a slight flinch and a contortion of his expression.

“What do you mean it’s more complicated? You guys stopped them before I was born. They never get close, they never hit us. They’re afraid of all of you.” Kailey was much closer now, barely a foot away. Closer up, the gashes look nastier, and she could tell that they were from claws. They had already started to look red and angry around the edges and that made her stomach drop.

What could all of those monsters of old really do? What did one attacking Lin so close to the Valley actually mean?

“They weren’t afraid,” Jacqueline said, a note of bitterness in her voice. “Not afraid enough, anyway. There was an agreement and now it’s breaking down.”

“An agreement?” The urge to make her aunt face her rose sharply but Kailey restrained herself, knowing that her aunt was working and that it was work that she didn’t actually want to interrupt. “Why would we have an agreement with monsters and things that were attacking us?”

“Like I said,” Jacqueline repeated. “It’s complicated.”

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Three – 04

[This post is from Kailey Astoris’s point of view.]

“Now isn’t a good—” Jacqueline glanced back over her shoulder to see who’d opened the door and Kailey swallowed hard, almost retreating. She swallowed once, then again, meeting first Jacqueline’s eyes and then Lin’s.

Her cousin sat ramrod straight in a chair, complexion washed-out, as if something was leaching the life right out of him. There were small gashes on his shoulders and upper arms, deeper ones across his chest. His lips thinned as he stared back at her.

She swallowed hard again. “What happened?” she asked, her throat so tight she could barely speak.

“Long story,” Lin mumbled, looking away—staring at the window at the far side of the cottage, at the curtains that fluttered in the summer breeze. She had a matching set in her room at home; they’d made them together the summer she turned ten from some fabric they’d found in one of the storehouses. “I’m okay.”

“Really,” she whispered, slipping inside and easing the door closed behind her. “I’m not sure how much I believe that.”

Jacqueline shook her head and turned her attention back to the rag in her hand, one already stained pink with Lin’s blood. “He tangled with something that shouldn’t have gotten the drop on him. He will probably be fine assuming that nothing goes horribly sideways.”

Kailey nodded, drifting closer. “What was it? Where?”

“Out in the ravine,” Lin said, closing his eyes for a second. “I was just taking a walk.”

“What jumped you out there?” She stared at the wounds, a chill creeping down her spine. What could have been out there that left cuts like those? They look like claws. A wolf? That would have been more than claw marks, and those would have been in more than one place, not like the ones he has. Something else?

“A camazotzi,” Jacqueline said.

She froze. “Like—like from Uncle Phelan’s stories? Those?”

“Yes,” Jacqueline said softly. “Those.”

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Three – 03

[This post is from Kailey Astoris’s point of view.]

She slowed down as she got closer to Lin’s cottage, her heart beating hard against her breast, throat burning. What if it’s not nothing? What do I do then?

She couldn’t imagine what not nothing would be, but it scared her all the same.

She looked around, biting her lip. Everything seemed normal, like nothing was amiss. Up on the hill, smoke curled lazily from the forge’s chimney, drifting on the wind and disappearing in the trees that clung to the rim and walls of the ravine. There was the faintest scent of rain on that wind, though it was far away—likely wouldn’t come until night started to close in on the world. She couldn’t be sure, though, not the way Astrid would be sure based on the same hints—it just wasn’t her gift.

Her steps slowed even more as she crossed the last few yards to Lin’s front door. It was almost hard to breath, heart fluttering in her chest, now, making war with the butterflies that had exploded in her belly again.

What if it is something? What would it be? What would it mean?

She was more terrified of learning the answers than of not having them at all.

Biting her lip and steeling herself, she opened the door.

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Three – 02

[This post is from Kailey Astoris’s point of view.]

She didn’t break into a jog until they’d cleared the orchard and the Valley’s inner wall, the old wall that her father and uncles had built before she was born. Her little brother peeled off before they reached it, leaving her alone. She tried not to let the worry show on her face, tried to seem casual—her mother had always taught her not to show worry in public, because a member of their family showing levels of concern like that typically got other people worried, too. Right now, not knowing what had happened, even the possibility of stirring up any kind of chaos wasn’t worth it.

She still wasn’t sure where her mother’s belief came from, but she was willing to take it at face value.

Besides, I could be panicking over absolutely nothing. He is probably fine. He usually is when stuff like this happens. I’m rushing off to make sure he’s okay for some kind of twisted ankle or broken wrist or something ridiculous, I’m sure.

The last time something had happened to one of them, Tory had turned an ankle in a hollow and then smacked his head on a rock. It was nothing that a few days of rest, willowbark tea, and some ace bandage hadn’t fixed.

Still, somehow this felt different—she knew that in her gut just as she knew that showing any reaction to this would stir up a panic. Better someone thought that perhaps she was late to a lesson or something than thinking she was rushing to her cousin’s side.

Yes, that was much better.

Of the dozens of children in the Valley, she was among the oldest, eighteen months younger than Kurt and Gwen—now eighteen and practically considered adults by everyone else—and twelve and ten months younger than Lin, Tory, and Anne. They were the ones conceived in that first year after the End. All the rest came after, a baby boom that swelled for several years after the peace her aunt had brokered. If she was honest, it had never really ended. There were always packs of kids and teenagers around, knots of three and four, herds of six and seven and eight, ranging in age from three to seventeen.

There were so many of them, now, that she sometimes wondered if the stories she heard of those first few years after the End could have possibly been true.

After all, how would any of them have dared to have children if all the stories Phelan and the others told were true?

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Three – 01

[This post is from Kailey Astoris’s point of view.]

“Kay. Hey, Kay.”

Kailey Astoris tried her damnedest to ignore her younger brother’s hissed call. Whatever mischief Finn had gotten into was something she didn’t want any part of—she’d gotten into enough trouble on his account in the past few weeks. Perched in a tree with a book open in her lap, she was content to pretend that she simply wasn’t there to hear him.

She tilted her head back, leaning against the rough trunk of the tree, staring at the leaves fluttering in the breeze, at the shafts of light that filtered down through them. It was comfortable there, even balancing on a branch that was perhaps not quite large enough to be a wholly stable perch, but still and all it was her favorite spot.

“Kay, I know you’re here.” Her brother’s voice was closer now. She tucked a finger into her book to mark her place and peered down toward the sound, brow furrowing.

She couldn’t see him.

How does he know I’m out here? No one saw me leave.

“Kay, I found your shoes. Come down. Something happened to Lin.”

Her heart seized, stomach folding in on herself. No. No, no, not again.

She tucked the book under her arm and scrambled down a few branches, then dropped the last few feet to the ground, landing in a crouch. Finn stood a few feet away, his eyes wide and his expression surprised, as if he hadn’t quite expected her to be exactly where she was.

He held out her shoes.

“What happened?” she asked as she took them, tugging them on before starting to walk back toward the village proper.

“I don’t know because no one will tell me,” Finn said. “But Aunt Jac won’t make you leave if you go help.”

“Where are they?”

“Lin’s cottage.”

Kailey nodded, handing him her book. “I’ll find out. Do you know where Tory and Anne are?”

“No. I was up at the forge helping Dad. He sent me to go find Uncle Phelan and Uncle Phelan sent me to get Aunt Jac’s kit and then I came looking for you because no one will tell me anything.”

“Right,” she said, exhaling and starting to walk a little faster. “I’ll find out. You go find the others.”

“Everyone, or just Tory and Anne?”

“Mostly Tory and Anne,” Kay said. “But if you find Gwen and Kurt, too, then that’s a bonus.”

“Right,” Finn muttered. “Why the hell am I always the errand boy?”

“Because most of the time, you’re the youngest.” She waved him off. “Go. I’ll tell you what I find out once I find out something.”

“All right,” Finn said, sounding like he didn’t quite believe her. “You promise?”

“Yeah. I promise.”

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