Book 1 in The Mercy Series
Charlie hides her true identity, but her very presence places everyone around her in danger. With no other choice but to remain where she is, she stays with a community that might not be as benevolent as it appears. In this new and dangerous version of the world, where a friend might be an enemy and an enemy might be a friend, seventeen-year-old Charlie protects her baby sister and herself from grotesque monsters outside the community as well as human ones inside. Will the truth she discovers about her protectors save her or ultimately doom her to a fate worse than death?
My life wasn’t a freaking animated fairy tale like the ones in movies or on television long ago. I knew that very well, thank you very much. Movies and television were gone now. No more radio, no more Internet, no more tests of the emergency broadcast system. All gone, and we were back to basics, back to primal earth in a never-ending game of predator versus prey, and we were no longer the predators. Trust me, it was no fun being the prey.
In the community, I’d had bad days. I’d had days where I questioned if I really had an advantage inside the protected walls. But tonight took it to an extreme level. Night in the compound terrified me, what with undeniable death constantly clawing to get inside. Yet, this night eclipsed them all.
I covered my ears, gritted my teeth, a bubbled scream trapped in my chest. A tight hold on my emotions kept my fear from popping free in a loud, long wail. But just barely.
Others around me didn’t possess my level of control, especially Zeke, who sat beside me. His breaths came labored and loud to my ears. Part of me itched to reach a hand out, to reassure him that this night would pass like the ones before with all still safe inside, the sun rising on a new day. But I didn’t currently do girly, and I was no longer Charlotte Baker. Here, I was Charlie Little, the boy the community took in, along with a baby sister and a dying mother, a little over eight months ago. If they ever thought differently, I wouldn’t last the night.
Screeches and clangs bombarded the combination wood and chain link metal fence surrounding the brick structure. We cowered in windowless cells inside. My hands firmly planted over the sides of my head, I couldn’t make myself pull them free. Sure, our security protected us well. The fence was electric and the building reinforced from the inside, but tonight, something was different. The creatures never attacked with this much intensity, and a wish to crawl into the deepest, darkest hole and hide there until it all ended crept over me.
It would end. It always ended.
Zeke’s muffled voice penetrated my flimsy hand armor, and I shifted my gaze to meet his. His dark-brown eyes were wide and expectant.
Right? I hadn’t heard a question, wasn’t sure I could focus on anything he wanted to know now.
My response—a shake of my head.
He pulled one of my hands free from my ear and asked, “It’s worse than before, right?”
Before? Before what? Before tonight? Before I stumbled through the community gate? Before the world turned to blood, survival, and hiding at night, always hiding at night?
“I don’t know, Zeke. Is it?” The panic in my voice was buried by the jarring crashes outside.
“Yeah. It’s worse. Something’s changed.”
I looked at my lap. The truth would show in my eyes, so I didn’t dare look at Zeke. “They’re becoming more aggressive.”
Like last winter. Last winter, I came face-to-face with a Draghoul. Then I fought through a horde of them to get here. My fear wasn’t from ignorance. I’d seen them up close, and they were beyond frightening. Their exteriors weren’t that much different from when they were once human. And they were once human, as unbelievable as it was. But the transformation into a monster was permanent and dreadful. The pale sallow skin, the glazed, souless eyes, the malicious teeth were a vision I would never forget. The fact they used to be people we knew, some we loved, made the sight of them all the more devastating.
He continued, “But why? They’ve always lurked just outside. They’ve never tried to get inside before. It’s like…they’d claw through the metal and concrete to get inside, I mean, more than ever before.”
An explosive bang vibrated the walls and I jumped. God, I hated the night. It was too real, a reminder that humans no longer ruled the planet, a reminder that we were no longer the dominant species. My hands shook, and I lowered and squeezed them between my thighs to keep them out of sight.
Zeke’s whispered words carried across the room to his cousin sitting on the opposite wall. “What do you think, Thomas? You’re the smart one. Is it worse?”
I chanced a look in Thomas’s direction and felt more than saw his intense dark-eyed gaze burn into me. So often, he just stared, and questions lingered behind his intelligent eyes. Sometimes I wondered if he knew or at least suspected the truth. Life could always get worse for Star and me if he worked out my real identity. We wouldn’t survive in the forest again, and we had nowhere else to go.
His gaze turned to Zeke’s. “No doubt, it’s worse. It was only this bad once before, last year, in September and October.”
Zeke pressed, “What’s bringing them so close?”
“I don’t know, but the Council will figure it out and fix it.”
“You’re right. The Council will fix it.”
The Council! My mouth tightened to a thin line as they mentioned the Council.