Chapter One: Nesta

It has never been a good idea to scream in the tunnels.

The darkness had its secret inhabitants and sometimes shadows were more than what they seemed. The mere sound of footsteps was enough to draw unwanted attention in the cramped tunnels below Nyheim, and caution was the number one tool to carry if you wanted to survive in the underground.  And if you ventured deep into the tunnels, you needed more than just caution.

You needed silence.

“SON OF A BITCH!” I cried out as loud as I could, looking down as blood trickled out my cracked fingernail.

Yes, just a fingernail.

But it was the last straw.

My voice echoed through the maze of tunnels behind me, but I didn’t care if someone (or something) could hear me. My broken nail demanded all my attention, and I would scream as loudly as possible if that helped ease the pain.

Caution and silence?

Screw that.

Sitting down on a pile of rubble, flashlight strapped to my shoulder, I brought my finger up to my mouth and sucked on the blood as I grimaced. The coppery taste of my own blood made my stomach growl in protest, and I remembered once more just how hungry I really was.

For a moment, I wondered if any Xathi had survived the war. Maybe some of them had snuck underground, feeding on helpless prey while growing fat. I wouldn’t mind having one of the bastards find me right now. I’d carve them up really good, light a fire, and make a career as a Xathi chef. I was pretty sure the spidery assholes would taste like crap, but as long as they weren’t poisonous, I wouldn’t complain. Light a fire, sprinkle some herbs on there, maybe some pepper, as well…

“Focus,” I said to myself out loud, my voice bouncing off the cramped walls of the tunnel. Imagination would do nothing to keep my belly full. Sighing audibly, I ran one hand through my hair, pushing it all back, and eyed the pile of rubble in front of me. Stones with jagged edges were blocking the entrance to a smaller tunnel, one I knew as well as the lines on the palm of my hand. That little burrow had been carved by me, after all, and it had been the place I had started calling home after the first Xathi incursions.

It wasn’t the best place to live if you hated tight places. In fact, I didn’t want to be here now.

But I needed food. And so I’d returned to find my old abode.

It wasn’t cozy—it was nothing but a hole in the stone, one sheltered from view from the blankets I had hung by the entrance—but that was the place where I had stashed my dingy possessions. Not that I cared about possessions, truth be told. The only thing I cared about in that moment was the pack of dried meat I was certain was among my things.

And so, I got to work.

Down on my knees, I started pushing the rubble out of the way with both hands. Beads of sweat started appearing on my forehead, and my stomach growled louder and louder with each movement. After half an hour or so, though, the rubble finally gave way, creating a small entrance that allowed me to squeeze myself into my little burrow.

“You’ve gotta be shitting me,” I said, ignoring the small pile of dirty clothing on the corner and focusing on the packet of dried meat. It sat abandoned in one of the burrow’s corners, the package torn open by the edge of a stone that had fallen from the ceiling. Inside it, fat and happy insects were busy banqueting on whatever was left of the meat.

Gritting my teeth, I kicked the packet as hard as I could, hissing in frustration. I couldn’t believe I had wasted so much time digging through the rubble just to find out worms had stolen my lunch. But what was a woman to do? In a world where spaceships brimming with spidery assholes fell from the sky, and even the plants themselves were doing their best to get rid of you, there was no other option but to be tough.

Squeezing myself out of the burrow, I collected my backpack from the floor and slung it over my shoulder. No use in crying over spilt milk…or lunch-eating worms, for that matter.  Besides, I had survived worse. No parents, raised by a criminal, and then establishing myself as a high-ranking member of an underground gang: a true survivor’s curriculum.

Life had never been easy, but if I were to be honest, I’d had it good for a while.

Being a skilled contrabandist had its perks, and the underground was the perfect place for someone like me to thrive. Then, of course, came the Xathi…and after that, those stupid giant vines. Lifechanging events for the entire population, and even more so for those who dwelled underground.

The Xathi attacks had made sure food shortages started being a daily occurrence, and when the vine dome took over the city, it all got worse. My little burrow got destroyed by the vines moving underground and even Odeon, my mentor and leader of our gang, vanished. Sabre, our gang of rogues and misfits, pretty much disbanded without Odeon’s leadership.

And without a leader and food, Sabre was nothing more than a pretty name.

But maybe getting the gang back together was exactly what I needed to do. Our members were competent, and I was pretty sure that, with some strategizing and team effort, we could rebuild whatever was left of the underground.

It was with that thought in mind that I made my way through the tunnels, this time being more careful about it. The underground was a pretty safe place, all things considered, as long you remained in the main caverns complex and the adjacent tunnels. If you ventured deeper, though, nobody could really guarantee your safety. As for me, I didn’t mind trading safety for a little privacy.

“Nesta, where have you been?” An old man croaked, standing up as I reached the end of the tunnel. I could only see his silhouette, his figure outlined by the warm lights flooding the cavern behind me. “Have you been looking for food? I don’t have anything to trade, but I—”

“No food, Samuel,” I said as I walked past him, ignoring his outstretched hand. “Not today.” I heard him curse something, but I paid it no heed. My mind was already at work as I tried to think of a way to bring the gang together.

The first step?

A visit to Buke’s, a large tent at the end of the cavern that doubled as a bar and canteen. Of course, now that there was no food to go around, the place was nothing but a gathering place for the underground’s hard-hitting drinkers. Whoever of the old crew had remained underground, they had to be there.

I made my way through a sea of tents and merchants’ carts, ignoring everyone’s pleas for food. They all knew me as Nesta, the right hand of the Sabre’s leader, and they were probably thinking I had a stash of food hidden someplace deep in the tunnels. Yeah, as if.

“Alright, Nesta,” I muttered under my breath, standing before Buke’s entrance. “Time to show these assholes what you’re made of.” With a deep breath, I ducked under the entrance, nothing but a large canvas supported by two tall logs, and silence immediately took over the room.

“Hey, assholes,” I grinned, hands in my pockets as I stared at the four guys huddled at a low table in the corner. They were sitting on dusty old pillows, their legs folded, and tall pitchers of diluted beer sat in front of them. Life wasn’t going well for them, that much I could tell. Any other time, and I would’ve found them here laughing raucously, their cheeks already tinged a drunkard’s red. As it was, their faces had been hollowed out by hunger, and their expressions were grim. “You look like shit, the lot of you.”

“You’re one to talk,” Stupid Joe threw back at me, slowly getting up to his feet. A tall bald-headed man, he looked imposing right up to the point where you found even a kid could trick him. He was probably the most gullible person I had ever met, but he compensated by having the quickest fingers in the whole of the underground. He could snatch a purse from someone’s pocket and nobody would notice. “Where the hell have you been, Nesta?”

“Me?” I said with a smirk. “I found a goldmine, and set myself up as the Queen of the Underground. I came here to invite you to my palace.”

“Really?” Stupid Joe’s eyes lit up. “Will there be food in your palace?”

“C’mon, man,” one of the other men, Topan, sighed. “She’s just messing with you.”

“Oh,” he said, lowering his head as he sunk back onto his pillow. He grabbed his beer with a sad expression, and his belly rumbled with a desperate tone.

“What do you want, Nesta?” Topan continued, this time turning his attention to me. He was slightly shorter than the other men, but he had the kind of attitude that made others follow him. “Did you come to share the food you have hidden? Because if not, you can turn around and crawl back to whatever hole you just came from.”

“Is that your way of saying you miss me?” I said, deadpan. “You’re not as stupid as those assholes out there, are you? You know damn well that I don’t have any food hidden. If I had, you guys would have been the first to know.”

“Would we?” he queried. “Because I remember Odeon and you keeping secrets from the rest of us all the time. Who’s to say the two of you didn’t stockpile food behind our backs?”

“Odeon’s dead, asshole,” I sighed.

“I know that,” he shrugged. “Is that why you’re here? Do you want to be the Sabre’s newest leader?”

“I don’t—”

“You were Odeon’s little pet, sure, but that doesn’t mean shit anymore. Sabre has disbanded.” Locking his eyes on mine, he gritted his teeth. “And, for the record, Odeon was an asshole.”

“He did what he needed to do,” I tried, even though I already knew my words were useless. These guys’ minds were already made up. “The underground thrived under him.”  

“Really?” Topan said. “The way I see it, he just used Sabre to lead a comfortable life. Now, don’t get me wrong…I want a comfortable life as much as the next guy. I just don’t think the way Odeon did it was the right one. We should have been making money off the assholes on the surface,” he continued, pointing with his thumb toward the ceiling, “not surviving on the back of those on the underground.”

“You’re wrong about Odeon,” I hissed.

“Am I?”

“Yeah, you are, you dipshit.” Shaking my head, I closed my eyes for a second to gather my thoughts and then turned on my heels. “Fine, if you want to stay hidden in here, go right ahead. Good luck trying to survive on that piss you call beer.”

Without giving them the time for a reply, I marched out of Buke’s. For a moment, I simply stood there, taking in the sad scene in front of me. While before the Xathi the underground thrived, now it looked more and more like a refugee camp with each passing day. I had no idea how the few hundred people that lived in here would survive, but I wasn’t about to curl up on the floor and wait for my turn to die.

I was a survivor…and so I would survive.

Even if I had to do it on the surface.

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