Other than that, the two groups didn’t mingle, and Ivy knew it was the settlement at fault. Trust was a rare commodity for those who called these sprawling acres home, the majority of them having ended up here after violently traumatic experiences. It was as safe a place as they could make it, one she couldn’t bear to leave . . . and that was why it was imperative she did.
“No more chains,” she whispered, hands cupped around the mug of green tea she’d made herself, “especially not ones created by fear.”
Rabbit wagged his tail in her peripheral vision, chewing deliriously on his treat.
It made her want to laugh, but she controlled the response, conscious once more of the strain she’d been placing on the settlement’s interlinked shields. No one had said anything. No one would, because this place was about pooling their resources to survive, but Ivy had never wanted to be a burden. Even when she’d been little more than the shell of a person, she’d pulled her weight.
Her mother had once told her that her stubborn refusal to simply sit at home, even when she’d been so grievously violated, had given Gwen hope that somewhere beyond her teenage daughter’s blank surface remained the girl who’d once passed a physics exam with honors after a teacher told her she was pathetic at the subject.
“You didn’t even like physics,” Gwen had said that day, as Ivy helped her transfer seedlings from the settlement greenhouse to the vegetable garden the group maintained to balance out their diet. “But you refused to change subjects, not until you’d made your point.”
Knowing she’d need that stubborn streak even more in the weeks to come, Ivy opened the back door, pulled on her snow boots, and stepped out into the gray light of early morning. It was bitingly cold, the snow thick enough to mute sound, but she liked the freshness, the skeletal bareness of the apple trees stretching out in front of her, branches piercing the fog. Beyond them lay peach and plum trees, a row of fruiting cherry trees, even a trellis for the myriad berries Ivy managed to coax to life each spring.
All of it was bedded down or barren in the winter cold, but the landscape was no less beautiful for being so stark. Walking toward the trees, mug of tea in hand, she was unsurprised when Rabbit came after her, an aggrieved look on his face at having been forced to abandon his treat in order to escort her.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, her affection for her small friend a warmth inside her.
Muscles tensing at that snarling sound from a suddenly stiff Rabbit, she looked out into the mist and saw the man. Part of her was expecting Vasic, waiting for him, but it wasn’t the Arrow. This man was running at her, face contorted and hand held out in front of him in a way that shouted of a weapon.
Ivy reacted on instinct.
Throwing her still-hot tea and mug into his face, to his howl of rage, Ivy turned and ran. “Go, Rabbit!”
They zigzagged through the trees to throw off the attacker’s line of sight. Ivy didn’t look back as she hit the cabin, slamming the door shut behind her and Rabbit just as something thudded into it on the other side.
The stranger was using a projectile weapon.
Shooting home the dead bolt, she urged a bristling Rabbit away from the door and crouch-walked to the kitchen cabinets to retrieve a gun her father had placed there. Her skin turned clammy at the idea of using it, of harming a living being, but when another bullet shattered the window above her head, she knew it was either that or die herself. Shaking off the slivers of glass to the sound of Rabbit’s angry barking, she telepathed her parents and neighbors . . . but then the front door was shot open while bullets pounded into the back, and she knew she was out of time.
There were two of them.
She set her jaw and flicked off the safety on the gun. “No, you do not get to steal my life. Not again.” Squeezing herself into a corner so no one could come at her from the back, Rabbit beside her, she waited for the intruder to come into view. While her angry determination to survive didn’t eliminate the nausea in her stomach, she didn’t allow it to affect her grip on the weapon.
A second later, she heard the intruder’s feet hit the wood of the living room, followed by a loud thud, the gun at the back door falling silent soon afterward. Not sure what had happened, she was deciding whether to move or stay when Rabbit wiggled out and ran into the living room, cleverly avoiding the broken glass on the floor.
“Rabbit,” she hissed over the pounding of her heart, but followed him out.
Her front door was busted, doorjamb in splinters, muddy boot prints on the floor and on the door itself. Swallowing to wet a dry throat, her pulse a thudding echo in her ears, she carefully walked outside and around to the back door to find it peppered with bullets. The damage had her releasing a shuddering breath. She hadn’t imagined the assailants in a mental fugue—they’d simply disappeared into thin air in the space of three breaths.
A shiver raced over her skin.
It was no surprise to turn and find Vasic behind her; Rabbit was startled into an annoyed bark at his abrupt appearance. “How did you know?” she asked the man who had, in all probability, just killed two people for her.
His cold gray eyes scanned her from head to toe with the same clinical precision she’d noted on his first visit. “Are you injured?”
“What? No.” Tremors threatened to shake her frame. Gritting her teeth to fight them, she repeated her earlier question. “How did you know?”
“The squad received intelligence just prior to the attack that a certain segment of the population has chosen to blame the empaths for the fall of Silence.”