I crouched down behind a tree, clutching my bow tightly against my chest. How had this happened? When had it happened? I hadn’t been gone that long; it didn’t make any sense. I took a single step forward, leaning out from behind the cover of the tree to see if I could make anything out.
A hand snaked out from behind me and covered my mouth before I could make a sound, dragging me back behind the tree and into the cover of the bushes. I lashed out, the bow falling to the ground as I flailed with fists and kicked out with my feet, trying to score a blow against any exposed part of my assailant’s body.
“Knock it OFF!” a voice hissed. “It’s me. Quit it and be quiet!”
Recognizing Ven’s voice, I relaxed into his grasp.
“Are you okay now?” he whispered, so quietly that I could barely make out the words. “If you aren’t going to scream, I’ll let you go.”
I nodded mutely, and he released me at once.
“Thank GOD you’re okay, Thirteen,” Ven hissed. “I thought that you were still inside.”
“What happened?” I asked, pulling at his arm. “We have to go back. We have to–”
“What we have to do is go,” he interrupted, turning me in the other direction, away from the Enclave. “We have to go now.”
“No!” I cried. “I’m not leaving! I have to go back; I have to get in there! Nine is inside!”
“We are going,” he ordered, tightening down so hard on my arm that it was sure to leave a bruise and hauling me further into the bushes. “We have to get away before they find us.”
There was a loud booming sound somewhere behind us, and I peered back through the leaves to see more smoke billowing out of the door closest to us. A man dressed all in black stumbled out of a new opening in the wall, then turned around to pull another man through the opening. They came spilling out, one after the other, and I had never seen any of them before.
“Who are they?” I whispered to Ven.
He held a finger to his lips to tell me to be quiet, and drew me further back into the brush. His arm around me was confusing—I was scared, but at the same time I liked the way that it made me feel. I liked the way that he made me feel.
The men trailed away in the other direction, disappearing under the cover of the forest’s trees. I sat back against Ven for a moment, stunned into silence. “What now?” I whispered, overwhelmed by the sheer number of intruders I had just seen flee into the woods. “Do you think they’re all gone?” I looked over my shoulder at him in time to see him shrug.
“I have no earthly idea,” he replied.
“I want to go back. I want to go inside.”
“Let’s just wait a minute and see if any more come out.”
“How many WERE there?” I asked, aghast.
He shook his head. “I don’t know. There were so many.”
“What happened?” I asked again.
He sighed. After a moment, he said, “We were eating breakfast. They ran out of plates on the line, and I offered to go get some more. I was in the supply room when they busted in. I wanted to help; I wanted to do something. But I heard what sounded like guns, a noise I haven’t heard since before the Great War. And so I chickened out. I dropped the plates and slipped out of the closet, and I ran. I ran and I got out as soon as I could. And then I found you. And here we are.”
“Here we are,” I repeated after him. A few minutes later I whispered, “Do you think that it’s okay to go in now?”
“No one has come out,” he murmured. “Which means they’re either hurt or hiding. Or…”
“Don’t,” I said. “Don’t even finish that thought. And don’t be such a bloody coward. We have to go back.”
I shrugged my way out of his grasp and pushed back through the brush towards the Enclave. A few seconds later, he followed me.
“What are you going to do if you go in there?”
“I won’t know until I go in,” I told him, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
I walked down the path until I was up against the wall, and I tried to peer in through the hole. I couldn’t see anything but smoke piles of crumbled brick. No source of the fire, and no people. I pulled back from the hole and followed Ven as he crept straight in through the door.
Reaching behind me, I clutched the bow and drew it forward, putting it to the ready just in case. “Do you see anything?” I hissed. “Anyone?”
“No,” he replied. “Nothing yet.”
With my bow forward, I drew up beside him. “Let’s go to where you saw everyone last. Where you were eating.”
We moved down the hall together silently, stopped outside of the room. The smoke was so thick that I had a hard time making anything out. Before I could step into the room, Ven held out an arm and pushed me back. “Don’t,” he choked out. “Don’t go in there.”
“Why?” I asked. “What is it? What’s in there?”
His voice shook as he answered, “No one. Not anymore.”
“What?” I cried out, pushing past him and into the eating area.
One, the leader of the Enclave, was slumped over in his seat, a single bullet wound right between his eyes. His wife was on the ground next to him, and she had fared no better. There were bodies all over, at every single table. Men, women. Children.
It felt like someone had taken my lungs and squeezed all of the air out of them. A single tear trickled down my cheek as I whispered, “They’re dead. Everyone here is dead.”
“Let’s go,” Ven said, resting a hand on my shoulder.
“What if Nine is here? I have to know.”
“She isn’t here,” a voice came from behind an overturned table. Slowly, carefully, Four stood up from within his makeshift hiding place. “When they came, she wasn’t here.”
“Well where IS she?” I cried. “Why isn’t she here? We have to FIND her!” Pushing away from the men, I tucked the bow under my arm and took off down the corridor at as fast of a clip as I could in the smoky darkness.
“Thirteen, wait!” Ven called after me. “Stop!”
I pounded down the hallway until I reached our room, wrenching around the corner and falling down to my knees. She wasn’t there. She wasn’t under the bed, she wasn’t in the closet. She wasn’t anywhere in the room.
I struck my fists against the concrete floor in frustration. I had left her. I had had something to prove, and I left. And then everything fell apart. The entire world had disintegrated.
“Thirteen,” Ven whispered, grabbing my fists before they could hit the concrete again. “Stop. Just stop. This isn’t helping anybody.”
“It’s all my fault,” I moaned, sinking back onto my butt. I remembered sitting in the same place less than a day earlier, watching Nine folding the laundry. “This is all my fault.”
“How do you figure?” he asked gently. “You weren’t even here.”
“Exactly,” I answered grimly.
“You couldn’t have stopped them,” he told me. “There was nothing that you could have done.”
That didn’t make me feel any better. “I have to find her. I have to know whether or not she’s okay.”
“I think they took her.” Four came up behind us. “I think they took Nine and Six.”
“Your wife?” I asked, looking over at him.
He nodded. “There was commotion in the hall. I heard women’s voice. And I haven’t seen them. So I think….” His voice trailed off.
“What do we do?” Ven asked. “Do you think we could go after them by ourselves? There were so many. What’s our best bet?”
Four held his hands out helplessly. “I would say that our best bet is to strike out and try and find the next Enclave. See if they have men to help us. We can’t compete against their arsenal, or their power. Not by ourselves. It would be more dangerous to the girls.”
“But what if something happens before we get there? What if they kill them?”
“What if we rush after them now and we get killed ourselves? Who’s going to help them then?”
I shook my head. After a moment I sighed, “So, where do we go?”
“Your guess is as good as mine,” he shrugged. “I suppose that any direction we head in we’re bound to run in to something eventually. Question is whether that something will be good or bad.”
“Guys, we should get out of here,” Ven said. “This place is a loss. It’s going to crumble down around us.”
I accepted the hand that he offered and let him help me to my feet. Reaching back down, I scooped up the bow and clutched it to my chest. “Fine then. Let’s get out of here.” All that I knew was that I had to find her.