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She was sitting at home beneath the earth. The comforting sound of dripping water filled her ears, a constant companion to her and her brothers in the dark. Broken and twisted metal pipes jutted out from the nearby walls, eaten by rust and decay and the prying hands of scavengers. The metal of the floor had long since disappeared. Now, it was dank earth—its faintly sour odor filling up the underground with its scent.
The metal of Danielle’s chair dug into her back, her wrists chaffing at the rope that tied her hands behind her. Terk and Dur stood over her, watching her warily. Their identical faces were shadowed, unyielding. Rak stood closer, his gold eyes as big as the moon, gleaming faintly in the dark.
Danielle found herself trying to shift in her chair. This was wrong. It had already happened. Yet Terk’s face had formed a frown as he glanced to his twin, “We shouldn’t keep her. She’s not like us. I say we kill her and use what we can get.”
Dur shook his head, “She’s our father’s daughter. She’s one of us…sort of. She even looks like us.”
“Looks like us? She’s a freak. You just need to take one look at her eyes…”
Their words cut worse than any knife, hurt more than any bullet. Danielle felt herself sinking down in her chair, trying to disappear as a faint whimper escaped her throat. She turned her face away, looking down at the soiled earth. A beetle scurried across the mud, its black carapace flickering once before it disappeared.
A different voice cut off the twins. Rak this time. Danielle glanced upward, swallowing hard as she listened, “She’s one of us. Father told us to take her in, so we will.” Rak took a step closer, crouching in front of Danielle. His eyes seemed to widen further—gold plates in a dark face. More beetles scurried behind him, “But she must be loyal. Unfortunately, she’s already failed.”
She could hear the insects chittering, their shining black bodies undulating like waves on the floor. Danielle tried to shrink back, but she couldn’t move. Instead, she whispered “I didn’t mean to leave you. I’m sorry.”
Rak smiled, his teeth shining and bloody in the dark, “Sorry? It’s too late for sorry, Danny. It’s too late for Terk or Dur.” The beetles seemed to be filling the underground, making the walls move and writhe as more and more appeared. A few plopped from the ceiling onto Danielle’s lap, and she struggled to flip them away. “It’s too late for me.”
Danielle woke with a scream she didn’t recognize as her own. It was a long wail, a sound of pain and mourning and loss. She keened into the dark as pain lanced through her body from her abdomen. Her wrists still burned like fire, her head pounded, and all she could do was lie there wailing.
A hand suddenly clapped over her mouth a whispered hiss hushing her, “Quiet.”
Danielle froze. She could feel tears trickling down her cold face, pooling on the hand over her mouth. Slowly, painfully, she turned her head to look at the owner. The surfacer looked back, blonde hair gleaming faintly in the dark. Without further word, he jerked his head to the side, toward the woods. It was unnaturally quiet.
The pretty girl sat a few yards away. Her hands were bloody, her face drawn and pale. She glanced over at them both and nodded, murmuring, “Technically we shouldn’t move her, but leaving her will be a death sentence.”
Robin nodded in return. Without further word, he gently picked Danielle up in his arms, cradling her. Another sharp pain jolted through her, but she pressed her lips together, determined not to cry out. He began to walk, almost floating over the rough terrain as Kari followed, “And where does Danielle fit in with this little plan of yours? Were you planning to leave her outside?”
Kari’s voice floated toward them, “In a sense, yes. She’s integral to making this work.”
Robin halted suddenly. Danielle noticed that his breathing had suddenly increased, his chest rising and falling against her. Anger. His voice was constrained, polite, suppressed, “She’s not exactly in a position to help.”
Danielle could see Kari’s face through the darkness, a smile curving her lips, “I promise it’s nothing taxing. All she needs to do is light a fuse.”
She could hear them all around her: the restless. They gnashed their teeth and moaned. Limbs shuffled through dead leaves as the snow swirled around their faces. Danielle huddled closer in the limbs of the tree, trying to ignore the throbs of pain from her new wound. The surfacer girl had given her something to dull the agony, but she could still feel it.
Danielle had heard shouts before, the sounds of the girl trying to escape only to be dragged back by Robin. It was according to plan—at least the plan that the girl had whispered hurriedly in her ear as Robin was keeping watch. Whether Robin knew all of it, she didn’t know.
Her escape was the first signal. Now Danielle had to wait for the second. She shifted on her perch uncomfortably, glancing toward the house. No light escaped from it even though it was the biggest structure she had ever seen. The roof spiked upward into a sharp point. Turrets and galleries flanked the building, providing shooters with a wide view of the surrounding area. But it wasn’t the building itself she was interested in. From her vantage point, she could just see the glint of metal set in the ground; the promise of an underground tunnel where she was supposed to throw the smallish object that the surfacer had given her.
Danielle clutched it in one hand—smooth metal melding with wires. She could ignore the girl, of course, but she couldn’t ignore Robin. She wouldn’t abandon him; not ever. She owed him a debt, owed him her life. She would repay it…
She wouldn’t leave him behind.