Last year I abandoned my home, turned my back on my family, and my father tried to kill me. Now I’m an outlaw, living among other outlaws, and we intend to destroy the world we all came from. My name is Ashton Traverse, I’m eighteen years old, and this is my story.
I closed my eyes and felt the wind blow past me, lifting my tangled curls and twisting them into an unmanageable knot. I breathed in the faint smell of ash, the low rumble of working Keuse, the chatter of children forsaking their chores. This was home.
Mint drifted through my nose before I heard his voice, “Ready?” He breathed next to me. I hid a smile and turned to meet his eyes. Those rich brown eyes that were once so guarded but now lit like stars when they saw me, the almost black hair that needed a cut, the little bit of scruff that he’d kept ever since I told him I liked it, and those plump lips that I wanted to press against mine as soon as I saw him.
“Ready.” I smiled. Kaleb touched my hand with his, those rough callouses were familiar, though I’d gotten callouses of my own since I joined the Keuse.
Music met us before we saw the instruments playing or the flowers scattered on the ground. Nathan stood by Eddie, Hector, and a boy named Erik with their homemade instruments, creating a sound that wrapped around me and drew my eyes closed. I could almost feel the music slowing the beat of my heart.
Kaleb pulled me to his soon to be brother-in-law who grinned widely at us; a grin that twisted the scar that wrapped along his chiseled jaw. Beneath his thin button up was a scar much deeper and more gruesome from a gunshot wound my father had given him only a few months earlier.
“Nervous?” Kaleb asked.
Nathan wrapped Kaleb in a strong armed hug, “What’s there to be nervous about?”
Nathan clapped me on the back right when Hannah bounced up. She wore a simple white dress that flowed down to white flats that were already coated in a light dusting of dirt, around her neck was a delicate necklace of flowers that had been weaved together. It was all very un-Hannah except for the massive bronze chains that were clanking together around her wrists and that wrapped around the top of her head like a crown. Jaaz had weaved flowers in and out of the large chains to match the ones around her neck.
“Hannah!” I shouted, averting my eyes, “You shouldn’t be here!”
“Where should I be?” She asked absently, brushing off the shoulders of Nathan’s shirt. He watched her carefully as if he didn’t see her every day, as if she would disappear if he looked away.
“I don’t know, hiding behind a tree or something.” I said.
Hannah set her deceptively delicate looking hands or her slender hips, “Why would I hide behind a tree?” She asked skeptically.
I tried my best not to look at her, though Kaleb and Nathan didn’t seem to have any problem with it, “We shouldn’t see you until it starts, especially not Nathan.”
I peeked up at her from beneath my eyelashes, “It’s bad luck.” I said simply.
Hannah raised a single eyebrow, Nathan’s smile was handsome despite the scars, Kaleb chuckled under his breath. Hannah raised an arm and waved me off, her chains clanking loudly against each other, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, I want to hang out with you guys.”
The rest of the Keuse flowed in, wearing their best clothes despite the grease or ash that still coated their hands. One Keuse woman that I had seen around on several occasions tried to rub oil off her husband’s chin while her son tugged at her skirt, a finger firmly in his nose.
When the rumble and laughter of the gathered Keuse grew loud enough that the music was lost in the noise, Nathan leaned into Hannah and whispered, “I think everyone’s here.”
Hannah looked around, taking time to decide for herself if the crowd seemed large enough, and when she seemed satisfied she seized Kaleb’s hand, “Ready bro?”
“Ready.” The two marched down the row of settled Keuse as the music picked up and the chatter died down. I stepped away from Nathan, who stayed where he was, and took a seat next to my firey haired friend and her boyfriend. Candice flashed a smile at me and squeezed my hand.
When Hannah and Kaleb made it to the end of the rows of Keuse, Kaleb offered her his arm and they walked more slowly back to Nathan. I chuckled quietly; walking up the aisle in front of everyone just to walk back down it. So very Hannah.
They stopped several times for Hannah to wave at someone or hug them. At one point, the music jared while Eddie waved happily at a friend he had just spotted. But Hannah didn’t seem to notice, she had stopped to tell a friend how much she liked her dress.
A few minutes later, the music came to peaceful quiet and Kaleb left Hannah next to Nathan and sat down next to me.
He took hold of the hand that Candice hadn’t claimed and flashed a smile at me. Candice flashed a smile back as if it were meant for her.
Hector dropped his instrument, but Eddie and and Erik kept playing. Hector, his auburn hair and beard catching in the sun, stepped between Nathan and Hannah and grinned between the two, though they didn’t seem to notice. Hannah stared at Nathan with an intensity reserved just for him and all the Keuse around me dabbed under their eyes with tissues or corners of their clothes.
“You all know why we’re here,” Hector began, spreading his rough, scarred hands. “We’re here because we love these two almost as much as they love each other.” Nathan tore his gaze away from Hannah and raised an eyebrow at his friend. Hector cleared his throat, “Okay, not nearly as much, but we do love them a lot. I’ve grown up with Hannah, but since she started dating Nathan he’s become like a brother to me, and because I know this couple so well I’m going to keep this short.”
Hannah smiled fiercely but didn’t take her eyes off Nathan. “Anyway,” Hector continued, “nobody here questions whether these two belong together. And even if they did, I wouldn’t give them a chance to say so. Do the both of you promise to stay by each other’s side until death, under joy or Snatcher reign, would you protect, love, and lead side by side - hand in hand?”
“I do.” Hannah and Nathan said together.
“Fellow Keuse,” Hector said to the rest of us, “Do you promise to guide, uphold, and support this couple, to the very best of your abilities, until you yourselves are taken from this earth?”
“We do.” The entire crowd sounded in one voice.
“Then we, as a family, declare that you - oh.” Hector broke off, because Hannah threw herself at Nathan and kissed him with an unashamed recklessness. Nathan’s muscles tightened, holding her against him like a wall of strength.
When they finally separated, Hector shouted, “Husband and wife!” And the Keuse roared.
Hector sat back down at his instrument and the music picked back up. Nathan swung Hannah into his arms so that he cradled her like a child and marched her back down the aisle while the children threw pine needles up in the air.
Hannah held onto Nathan’s neck and leaned over to whisper in his ear - then his face went white. I didn’t hear the first shot, but beside me Kaleb and Candice already had their weapons out when the second shot fired and a Keuse to my left dropped.
A third shot, and three Changed Keuse came over the hill. I whipped around and saw Erik, the grip on his ax was lax, his mouth hanging open. One of the changed was his father.
In front of him, Hannah grinned wickedly and lifted her skirt to draw a dagger from her thigh. Nathan threw a knife from behind her, and with a flick of his wrist, a small blade was embedded between the eyes of a Changed. Next second, another Keuse threw her war-hammer into the skull of the the Changed that had once been Erik’s father - Erik let out a strangled squeal behind me.
The last Changed didn’t move her feat, but swung her gun up and took aim at Hannah. She drew back her knife but before she had a chance to throw her weapon, Hector came up behind the Changed and drug his knife across her throat, dropping her to the ground.
“Hector!” Hannah shouted. “I had her!”
“She had a gun trained on you.” He said mildly.
“My knife would have been faster.” She said through clenched teeth.
“No. It wouldn’t.”
Hannah squinted at him and without breaking eye contact flicked her dagger at the ground, missing his feet by only an inch.
Hector didn’t flinch.
Hannah hiked up her skirt and started stomping toward the fallen Changed. Nathan’s scared hand fell on her shoulder, “What are you doing?” He asked.
Hannah jerked away and pulled her dagger from the earth, she gestured toward the hill, “I’m checking to see if there are any more.”
“No you’re not.” Nathan said, scooping her up in his arms again.
“What are you doing?” She screamed.
“You’re in a dress.”
“So? I’m a better fighter than most men no matter what I wear.”
“True.” Nathan said, and pushed Hannah into Hector’s arms, “But you’re in a dress.”
Hector dropped his knife and caught Hannah, looking terrified at being the one holding her back. He looked around wildly, then dropped her into Kaleb’s arms and followed after Nathan over the hill. Hannah’s face was the shade of blood.
Kaleb dropped her immediately. When she landed, she hiked up her skirt and stalked after Nathan, Hector.
“Aren’t you going to try to stop her?” I asked.
Kaleb shrugged, “She’s going to go anyway, they’re stupid to try to stop her.”
The rest of the Keuse spread out to help in the search for more of the Changed, everyone except Eddie, who was waving us over to him.
“Take a look at this.” He said, stepping over a dead body. “All three Changed had guns, but none of them have bullets - what are you looking at?” He asked me.
“The Changed. She’s looking at me.” I murmured.
Eddie followed my gaze to the Changed laying directly behind him, eyes still open. “She’s dead, Ashton.” Kaleb reminded me.
“I know that!” I said, “But it’s still creepy.”
Eddie kicked the Changed’s face, knocking her head in the other direction so all I could see was the back of her head. “Anyway, look, all three guns are completely empty. Only three shots were fired. Which means that two of the Changed had no bullets, so when that one -” he jerked his head in the direction of the Changed he had just kicked, “- took aim at your sister, there was nothing in the gun.”
Kaleb bunched his brows together, “Do you think they knew?”
“Well they’re hardly alive, the Changed, so that would depend on their comprehension skills in the Changed state. But if they have any intelligence of their own they’d know, it’s a completely different weight.” Eddie laid the gun flat and bounced it up and down on his palm.
Kaleb pursed his lips together, I could almost see the thoughts running behind his eyes, “And you’re sure the guns are empty? There’s no chance you’re wrong?”
Eddie swung the gun up so the barrel was only inches from Kaleb’s forehead and pulled the trigger. I gasped so hard I choked, but Kaleb didn’t blink. “Hmm.” Kaleb said, “Why would the Snatchers send the Changed without any ammo?”
Eddie shrugged and lowered the gun, “The better question is, why did the Snatchers send only three changed without any ammo?”
Kaleb cocked his head slightly to the side, “You don’t think there are any more Changed?”
“Do you hear any more shots? Any Keuse shouting for help? My guess is that this is it.” He kicked the unbreathing Changed again.
“Why would they do that?” I asked.
Kaleb seemed disturbed, but Eddie smiled wide, “We’ll wait until the others come back to let us know if I’m right. But my guess? To poke the bear.”
The Keuse sat around the table that Nathan used to forge weapons. The Council meetings had gotten much bigger since all the Keuse merged together as one large camp after we blew up the Upper Kwaad months ago.
“No one saw any other Changed Keuse? Not even a Snatcher?” Sandra asked, cradling her now very large baby bump.
“Not a soul.” Nathan said.
“So the Snatchers sent three Changed even though they know we’re one camp now?”
“Eddie thinks the Tiran did it like that on purpose.” I offered, “To poke the bear.”
“What makes you say that?” Emery - a member of Candice’s old camp - asked.
Eddie pulled out three guns and tossed them onto the table, Kaleb leaned back and wrinkled his nose at them. He, unlike Eddie, hated guns, “None of the guns had any ammo.” Eddie explained, “Well, except the one shot they blindly fired into the crowd to get our attention.”
Nathan furrowed his brow, “How do you know there’s no ammo?”
Eddie picked up a gun and aimed it at Nathan’s head. Nathan ripped it out of Eddie’s hands and hit him in the shoulder with it, “What do you think you’re doing?” He demanded.
Eddie’s eyes went wide, “I was proving there weren’t any bullets.”
Nathan threw the gun at Eddie’s feet, “Even if you’re sure it’s not loaded, don’t go pointing that thing at people. They’re dangerous even if you do know what you’re doing.”
Eddie picked the gun off the ground and dusted it off gently with the bottom of his shirt.
“So what’s the point of sending three Changed into our camp alone with no means to fight?” Sandra asked, “They’re not stupid. They’d have known they’d be no match for us, it wasn’t even a fun fight. Over in seconds.”
“To poke the bear.” Eddie repeated, smiling again.
“I assume we’re the bear?” Sandra asked her son.
“Nearly a hundred forty of us and probably no more than thirty five of them.” Hector said.
“So what’s the point? Why poke us?”
Kaleb, an official member of the Council since his birthday a few weeks ago, was the one that explained, “Because they’ve had time to regroup and reinforce Perfection. They probably have much better defenses now, and they want us to attack them.”
“Why would they want us to do that?” Jaaz asked.
“So they can prove that we’re the monsters they’ve said we are. Make us look like savage killers so there’s no way the Normals will trust us.”
“Why don’t we attack them?” Candice asked, she sat on the other side of Hector, “We haven’t done anything since you guys attacked the Upper like forever ago, I thought we were going to start fighting!” Candice normally wouldn’t be a part of Council meeting’s because of her age but she could convince Hector to let her do anything.
Hector was the one that answered, “Because not only would a ton of innocent blood have to be spilled to get to the Kwaad now that the Normals know about us and want to fight us, but when we killed their leaders and took over their country there’s no way they would just obey us. They’d rebel, fight us, think we were trying to rule them instead of free them. They chose the Snatchers to rule them, not us. If we take over Perfection by force before the Normals are ready, they’ll never listen to a word we say.”
“So when do we get to start fighting then?” Candice asked, lazily twirling a strand of hair around her finger.
“We have to expose the Snatchers first, we need to show the people what they’ve chosen to ignore, show them how Perfection is being run. They need to see the lab where the Perfects are being created, understand the torture they’ve put the Changed through, hear from the prisoners they kept as surrogates so they’re children could be born. They need to see that the Snatchers are making it impossible for them have children of their own so they can continue controlling them. That their every move is being monitored by the Snatchers and that if they break a law, any law, the Snatchers will kill them too. They have to see what their leaders are doing to sustain their world before they’ll be willing to leave it.”
Candice flopped her head onto the table and peaked out at him with one eye, “Okay, when are we going to do that?”
Hector pursed his lips, but Jaaz hid a smile. Jaaz and Candice were friends so she knew as well as I did that Candice was probably more brave and skilled than any other Non-Perfect - or Normal as the Keuse called us - that had become a Keuse. But she did love picking on Hector. “We’re working on it.” Hector said in an offhand voice, but his eyes were still tight. “It’s much easier said than done.”
Candice sat up, her auburn hair falling like a waterfall down her shoulders, oh how I wished I had her hair. “Well let me know when you’re ready to start moving, ‘cause I wanna help. I was supposed to get a job in the Kwaad as an undercover agent before Declan decided to rat us all out to the Tiran.”
Candice picked at the simple golden chain wrapped once around her wrist, the chain that matched the one around my wrist, the symbol of the Hidden Watch. Of course, the Hidden Watch lost their purpose after we all had to flee Perfection and officially join the Keuse, but we all still wore our bracelets. For a lot of people it was for nostalgia, for me it was because Candice gave it to me.
Hector leaned back and sighed, “Yes, it was a lot easier when we had an army of people sneaking in and out of Perfection, Warning Normals about the Snatchers and bringing them back here, but this is actually better. Now we’re being forced to stop being passive and to actually destroy Perfection.”
Candice rose an eyebrow, “We’re gonna wipe it off the map?”
“No!” Hector said, eyes wide, “We want to destroy the institution of Perfection. End the way it’s been run since it’s beginning and restructure it so it’s not a monarchy anymore. Inform the people instead of control them, teach them to live not dependent on…”
Hector had just caught the smirk that was spreading on Candice’s lips. “You’re messing with me aren’t you?”
“Totally.” She said.
“So what do we do then? Just ignore them?” Sandra pulled us all back to the meeting.
“We continue on with our plan.” Hector said.
“Which is?” Candice flipped her wrist at him.
Hector met her eyes again, falling into her trap. “Exposing the inner lining of Perfection and corruption of it’s leaders. Then helping the Normals to live like they were supposed to from the beginning.”
“And how are we going to do that?” Candice asked.
“One step at a time.”
“What’s the end goal here?” She pushed.
“The destruction of Perfection.” Hector repeated.
Candice leaned over the table, failing to hide a wicked grin, “We’re gonna wipe it off the map.”