When the sirens go off, the only thing to do is run. And hide. Hiding is important. But I have to find Elaine first, because if the shroudlings get to her before I do…
I can’t even think about it.
I squeeze the plastic food package in my hands as I wheel about and search the alleyways of the decrepit city. A streetlamp looms above me, with a backdrop of waning twilight. Everything’s still calm. Good. There might be time for everyone to take cover before the shroudlings arrive. But where’s Elaine?
The siren wails in my ears. It peaks and ebbs again and again but never fades away completely. I suck in a breath of dusty air and cough. Today wasn’t a scheduled emergent day. Is the siren a false alarm? No, couldn’t be. I would’ve been informed of a practice drill.
This has to be the real deal.
A shiver tingles up my spine, like a spider with icicles for legs. They’re gonna fight.
Shards, I wish I had their guts.
My breath catches. I spin in the direction of the voice. “Elaine?”
She emerges from the shadows between two buildings, her
golden hair whipping about behind her.
“What’s wrong?” I tighten my grip on the food pack and stare into her grey eyes.
Elaine steadies herself and sucks in a rattling breath. “Morgan,” she whispers. “We were scavenging near Pit 15.” A tear runs down the side of her face, and I glimpse a food package clipped to her belt, identical to the one I’m holding. “Emrys, the shroudlings snatched her.”
The meaning of Elaine’s words strikes my mind like a hammer. I take a step back. Helpless Morgan. Youngest of the children. “What the blazes were you doing with her near a pit?”
“I… don’t… know.” Elaine sobs between the words. Her tears flow in earnest now, and I feel powerless to stop them.
The padding of many small feet echo around us. I catch glimpses of the children’s scared faces as they run past in the darkness—circling abandoned cars and broken chunks of pavement—headed for the safe house.
The siren continues to cut through the air. I grab hold of Elaine’s arm, clipping the food pack I’ve scavenged onto her belt. “Listen. You have to get yourself out of—”
“But Morgan is—”
“I know! But I’m the faster runner, and I need you safe. Right? Organize the children for me.”
Elaine grimaces. She wipes the tears out of her eyes, leaving muddy streaks on her face. “Be c-careful.”
In answer, I run off down the street. Not towards the safe house, but towards the pits once known as the entrances to the London Underground.
As I sprint, I see nothing but empty streets all around. The main road is cluttered with ancient debris: fallen buildings scattered around bomb craters. We haven’t attempted to clean any of the city. The shroudlings never let us alone long enough to try.
And now they’ve got Morgan. The raven-haired child, blind and deaf in one ear, would have no way to escape. Probably too late for her now, anyway.
Elaine will never forgive me.
I trip on a heap of rubble and slam onto the gravel. “Shards!” I spit the curse word out as I struggle to my feet, then notice my trousers are bloodied at the knees. But I don’t feel pain. Not yet, anyway.
Beside me, a cathedral looms up out of the gloom. Spires and turrets jut out of it like ludicrous birthday cake candles, while stone sentinels glower down at me, their hands extended as if to snatch me into the sky.
Something on the ground sparkles. I glance down and see an eye staring at me. Clutching my hands into fists, I stumble backwards. It’s my eye, mirrored back to me. Littered across the pavement are fragments of a shattered stained glass window. I force my gaze away, remembering my promise never to look, never to glimpse that face again.
I continue on my way at double the pace. Every second that ticks by could be Morgan’s last. My legs are throbbing now, blood oozing down them.
I’ve read in books of history that London was bombed during what was called “World War II,” that its population had been subjected to the siren now ringing in my ears. But this is the year 2080, not 1940, and the bombless Blitz I’ve lived through seems like it’ll never end.
On my right, a rocky pit leads into darkness. An inexpertly painted sign above the void reads 14. A guttural noise rumbles through the air, emanating from the blackness.
I close my eyes, willing my hands not to shake. Just one more pit to go. I can do it.
The sharp report of an unseen gun rings out, followed by a yelp in the pit, then nothing.
There must’ve been a slayer perched somewhere amidst the church’s gargoyles. Something to thank God for, I suppose.
I keep running, my heart cold in my chest. If I were smart, I’d turn back now. I could lie to Elaine, tell her I did everything in my power to save Morgan. But what would that make me? A coward and a fraud, that’s what.
For Elaine, I have to at least try and save the girl. But Morgan wouldn’t be the first child I’ve seen snatched, and, if I live through this, she won’t be the last.
The siren’s blare has grown deafening. It always sounds when activity is spotted in the pits. The slayers have, for the most part, taught the shroudlings to stay in the tunnels below the city. But it wasn’t always like that. And sometimes things can go wrong.
I shudder as I remember what these streets looked like before the slayers arrived. The rampages. The bloody aftermaths. London was a feeding ground, and we children were the food.
The images flood in—empty eyes, carcasses—and I tear my mind away from them. I can’t allow my thoughts to go there. It’s always so hard to bring them back. I hum, and it provides a steady tempo for my footsteps. Pit 15 is only a little farther away. I’ll make it if I bite back any panic and use my head. Under my breath, I recite the sentences I’ve worked out to refocus my mind on reality, a tactic I’ve used for years.
“My name is Emrys. I’m a scapegoat, an innocent sent to appease this labyrinth’s minotaur. I’ve seen people snatched, and I’ve nearly been snatched myself. But I know how to survive, because I know how to run.”
I hasten my stride. Almost there.
A breeze stirs up cyclones of ash and debris, bringing with it a scent like charred rubber and food that has gone off. Another gunshot sounds behind me. Apparently, the shroudlings are antsy. Perhaps they heard my footsteps above the din of the siren. I reach a fork in the road, take a right, and there ahead of me is Pit 15, its craggy steps leading down to the tunnels. The street and buildings around this entrance to the Underground look to be empty. That doesn’t fool me, though. Shroudlings are crafty beings. They were once human, after all. Once.
Caution is key. I came up with that saying years ago, forcing every member of the colony to memorize it. I don’t always follow it, though, which my actions are proving right now. Maybe I should start following my own rules. And maybe I should rethink the rule about carrying weapons into the streets. Carrying a weapon would encourage the children to fight instead of run. And running is the only way to survive out here. So as their example, I’ve refused to carry anything I could use to defend myself.
Such a stupid decision.
I dash towards the pit, gritting my teeth, and then the siren stops. I halt so abruptly that I almost fall flat on my face. The siren is supposed to keep going until everyone has gotten to safety, and I’m not safe yet—neither is Morgan.
Why’d the bloody siren turn off? Have they given up on us so soon? Shards, someone’s going to catch it when I get back.
I’m thinking about how I’ll punish those in charge of the alarm system when a soft noise reaches my ears. I stop breathing and listen. The soft crooning rises in pitch then swings to a lower octave before launching into a trio of familiar notes. Humming. A gentle, haunting lullaby. It’s what Morgan hums to herself at night in the room next to mine, when we’re the only ones still awake.
Morgan is alive. And nearby. But if Elaine saw her snatched, why would the girl still be here? A trap? Did the shroudlings guess someone would come after her, so they’re using her as bait in hopes that another—possibly meatier—kid would come to the rescue? No. Shroudlings can be smart, but not smart enough to conquer their brute instincts.
And then it dawns on me that Morgan could’ve gotten away, that the slayers might have driven the beasts back into their pit long enough for her to escape. If that’s the case, then maybe my coming here wasn’t as pointless as I’d thought.
The humming has grown quieter. I start forward again, wincing every time my foot crunches against the asphalt. I pan my vision from one side of the street to the other. How far can the girl have gotten? Despite her handicaps, Morgan’s always been sharp. She could have escaped the pit by herself…unless she was injured.
The siren rattles to life again, and I curse under my breath. The noise drowns any hope of finding Morgan by her humming. I didn’t pinpoint where the noise had come from, but the image of a bloody Morgan at the bottom of the black pit consumes my mind. I have to check there first, because I can’t be positive she made it out.
I creep forward and stop three feet away from the edge of the pit, my heart beating against my ribcage as if it wants to break free from the stupid, reckless boy I’ve become. For Elaine, I have to do this. Gritting my teeth, I step to the edge.
A smashed-up stone stairway leads into the belly of the darkness. My eyes adjust slowly to the dim lighting, and I catch sight of a shape at the bottom of the stairs. It’s a girl crumpled on her side, face obscured by a tangled mess of raven hair.
“Morgan,” I whisper, my voice washed out by the siren.
I rush down the steps and stop when I see six inch claws protruding from her fingertips.
My insides freeze as Morgan’s spine seems to ripple, lifting her to a sitting position. The hair around her face falls away, revealing the milky eyes of a shroudling.
“You’re… not… Morgan.” My left foot finds the stair behind me.
The creature bares its jagged teeth and falls forward onto the palms of her hands. She crawls towards me, up the stairs, her claw-like nails clacking against the stone steps.
I scramble backwards up the stairway. Several silhouettes appear behind the shroudling. More of them. Shards!
The creature rises onto her stubby legs and belts out a gurgled shriek, and then they’re all running at me, ten, fifteen, twenty.
I wheel around and dart back onto the street. Three cloaked slayers with drawn broadswords are there to greet me. One of them—a tall male, just older than myself—grabs my shoulder and shoves me behind him, and then the trio descends on the pit as the shroudlings start to emerge.
I gape as the blades dismember the clawed demons, but there are too many. The shroudlings spew out of the pit like lava from a volcano, climbing over one another, overwhelming the swords by their sheer number.
My heart has gone cold in my chest. I know I should help them fight, but my limbs are frozen in place. As I watch, the slayer on the left is disarmed, and three pairs of claws latch onto him, dragging his kicking body into the pit.
Two slayers remain. The tall one yells over his shoulder at me. I don’t know if he wants me to run or to help.
Knees quaking, I take a step back and pause. Then I turn
and sprint away, the siren wailing in my ears.
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