Arcis, 324 E.V., Cent. 40
The gate of Arcis stands wide open and though he swore to meet me there, Aron is nowhere to be found. No one stands there, in fact; it is as if the officers deserted the moment they received report of our rush on Quarantine. The first foot into Arcis is mine. Crossing the threshold into the city of my birth is at once terrifying and calm—terrifying because all the corners of my mind are spinning in different directions.
The houses are smaller than I remember, and yellowed as if they have not been cleansed since I left five years ago. Moss grows in cracks and tops of walls too, a strange phenomenon because greens are not seen during the Centennial.
My Sparks and I take the main road together, searching for any signs that our fellow Cerani are here, but there is nothing. Windows are boarded up, lights turned out, and a few faces peek up to look at us, only to return to their hiding places as quickly as they appeared. The hospital lies straight ahead, but once again, it looks deserted.
“Adrau!” a male voice calls. “Zafirah!” I stop at the sound of my name and turn on my heel to see a man with his face pressed between his front door and the jam. He beckons to me as soon as I make eye contact.
“Yes?” I ask, confused.
“You are looking for the Feral—no, not feral. The tribe. Those people. Yes?”
“Yes,” I say.
“Hospital. Achad has them.”
“I wish to remain nameless,” he says. “You understand why. But you are welcome, Zafirah. Your father was one of my closest friends and I am sad he is gone.”
“Thank you,” I say. The man touches his nose and retreats inside again.
Fear rules this man. Achad was right all those years ago.
The Cerani are silent as we walk through Arcis, perhaps because it feels like a cemetery. Everything is neglected and crumbling. This is not the way I remember Arcis. Though it blurs together in my memory as a sea of grey, it was never this depressing.
The hospital is not far from us now. Once again, the doors are flung open for us, as if Achad is welcoming us to his fair city.
At the closest open doorway, I turn back to my Cerani sisters.
“Let me go in alone first,” I say. “Follow in a few minutes.”
No verbal confirmations are made but several curt nods indicate their agreement. I step inside the threshold of the hospital, a place a thought I would not see because I also thought a return to Arcis wasn’t in my future. Instead of being structured into rooms and wards, the building is one large, long room, and at the far end, clumps of people sit, huddled.
“It worked?” Achad. The voice I dreaded. “I am shocked—here you stand. Can it be? And alone too... have you finally ditched those parasites?” The man himself emerges from a shadowed corner with a whip in hand. He twirls the barbed point without releasing the whip from its casing. He walks along the far wall, balancing his attentions between me and his huddled hostages. I, in turn, walk towards him slowly.
“Or if they did accompany you, as I suspect, all the better. Thank you for saving me a return trip!” He flicks the whip from the casing and allows the cording to drag along the cement floor behind him.
“That was a clever trick you pulled,” he jeers, flicking a low-hanging light bulb. “Turning off all my lights and unlocking the doors. It didn’t quite pan out the way you had hoped; all the Arci remain in their houses. I told you that fear is poison.”
My heart nearly stops when I realize that Aron is huddled before me, next to Darius and several other Cerani. All of them look like they’ve been in a fight; bruises cover each from ear to ear. Aron’s eyelids are so swollen, he peers at me through slits. Achad could not have inflicted this kind of damage. Aron is a foot taller than the boney man, and twice as strong. He had a gun, too, he would have defended himself. I need to get him out—to tend to him. To hold him tightly and not let go.
Despite Achad’s advancing footsteps, I kneel before Aron.
“Ambushed,” Aron breathes. “Did not—oh, Z.” He winces, doubling forward but unable to press his tied hands to his stomach. “The guns did not work,” he finishes.
“That is my fault,” I say, reaching behind his back to untie his bindings. “I sent Darius to disable the array, I did not realize it would take out the weapons too. I am so sorry, Aron.” The knotted rope is loose. I still my hand and look up at him in surprise. He presses his lips against my temple.
“There are good men in his company. Not all, not the big one,” he says, eyes darting towards a hulking guard in the corner. “But enough. This is not the end.”
“He thinks you are all tied?” I whisper, wrapping my arms around his neck.
“Yes. He does not know about Hali and Marek,” Aron says.
“What about them?”
“Evacuating the Arci through the sewer, according to that one with the blue stripe on his lapel,” he says, kissing my cheek again. I suppress a proud and delighted smile, making eye contact with an officer behind Aron. Blue stripe. Small smile on his lips “Told me quietly, after he punched me,” Aron whispers.
“I’m bored!” Achad bellows, striking his whip against the concrete floor. I turn back to the false doctor. Achad paces in the center of the cavernous room.
“You have me here, Achad,” I say, standing. “You have won. What more could you want?”
He draws circles on the concrete with the whip. “To play,” he says.
Behindhim, a collection of footsteps echoes as the Sparks enter the hospital. I try not to cringe. I should have made them wait longer. Achad stops, surprised, and then lets out a hearty guffaw. “They followed you? How did I get so lucky?” He glances at two of his men and gestures for them to attend to the new arrivals.
“There are far more of us, and your guns do not work,” Molla warns, pushing through to the front of the group.
The officers halt before the Sparks and take up a wide stance, hands clasped behind their backs. Achad steps towards Molla, smiling.
“They don’t need guns to handle you, Feral,” Achad says to her, spitting at her feet. “I can fell you without even touching you.”
Molla stands toe-to-toe with the pretender of Arcis. “I do not see how.”
A massive hand slips around my throat, lifting me off the ground. No sound, no breath. I thrash against my captor. Heels slamming into points that would be weak on a different man—no use. Cold metal against my throat, little pin pricks, and ice enters my body. Protesting... screaming? My screams, or someone else. I convulse in frigid, grey energy, slowing me down, pulling my blood. I can’t find Ignis in my veins. I call for him, begging him to come down. And he does. Not to my fingers. Molla, maybe, or another, casting a bolt that zips through my captor and pulls his fingers from my gullet... pulls his light. I collapse against the fallen officer, breath seeping in but warmth illuding me. Hands lift me by the wrists—constricting fingers, all bone and no comfort. My head lolls back. Unconsciousness threatens.
“Shall I whip her, too?” Achad. “None of you will hurt me. Not while I have her life. Might as well show you how this whip can take it, one lash at a time.” Behind me, he stands, yanking my arms upwards but unable to lift my body. Footsteps toward me, heavy—booted? “Harmless,” Achad says, releasing my wrists. I pitch forward against a barrel chest. Thick arms catch me. Blue stripe. Good man.
“Let me.” Good Man’s voice rumbles beneath my cheek.
“Why not? I don’t do defenseless,” Achad says, trailing off. He passes over the whip to Good man and steps back.
My weight bared against his chest, Good Man turns us away from Achad. “Put this in your mouth,” he whispers, pressing a small pill into my palm. “It will help.”
With my hands curled against his chest, it is easy to slip it beneath my tongue. The coating dissolves immediately. Sweet liquid touches my tongue. And then fire. It sparks behind my eyes and spreads downward, into my lungs, through my fingers, licking through my veins. My head is clear; my muscles take over the icy chill and replace it with familiar heat.
“Well?” Achad calls from behind his traitorous officer.
“Take the whip, and strike me down,” Good Man says into my ear, setting me on my feet. I step back from him, but my knees shake. I am reeling from the healing heat, but I can think clearly enough to deny his request. I cannot hurt him. “Take it, girl, you won’t get another chance.” Desperation colors his voice and he tries to force the whip into my hands.
“No!” I say, shoving it away. “I will not harm you.”
He staggers backwards, fingers tightening around the handle. Good Man wheels on Achad. The false doctor sits atop a stagnant conveyor belt, arms crossed in boredom. “Don’t do it, man,” Achad warns.
“It might as well be me,” Good Man says. “Nobody else will take you on. You’re weak now, and we won’t fight for you anymore. You don’t have a weapon. You don’t even have these prisoners to barter,” the officer says, gesturing to my huddled Cerani. One by one, they shrug off their loose ropes and struggle to their feet. Aron falters, but Darius supports him. I step back into line with my Cerani as the officer advances towards Achad. Not three feet from Achad, a bolt strikes Good Man where he stands. My heart thunders.
“Who sparked him?” I ask the solemn Sparks, but none steps forward. “Tell me!”
“None of us,” Molla says. “Him, either.” She gestures to the body of the officer who nearly strangled me.
“When I say ‘burn’, what comes to mind?” Achad says, hopping off his perch. He steps over the good officer and retrieves the whip from the place it fell on the concrete.
I say nothing. This man taught me to burn—burned me before Ignis ever touched me. I know what it means to him. I want to strike Achad where he stands, but the danger to Aron is too great. As long as he is near Aron, I won’t touch him. He knows.
An officer enters from somewhere near Achad’s hiding place; he wields a large jug.
“A circle around the perimeter will do,” Achad says to the officer. The man nods once and unscrews the cap on the jug. He unceremoniously dumps gasoline on the floor behind Aron and the huddled group and circles back until he surrounds me and my Sparks.
“If you make fire, you will burn,” Achad says. “Simple as that.” He crosses the room to a large electrical panel. He opens the metal door and spies a lever. He flicks the lever upwards, and the doors slam shut. The lights turn on, too, allowing Achad to see just how few people I brought to this fight. He’s right; sparking in here would be disasterous.
“That is, everyone else will burn. You, Zafirah, will come to the roof with me.” Achad hands both ends of the whip around Aron’s neck to a large officer who would be largely impossible to overtake by force. “Come, little girl,” he says, gesturing for me to follow him.
I do so reluctantly, because everyone I hold dear is in this room. If I say no, or I try to save someone, everyone will die. Achad holds the roof access door open and waits for me to exit before he closes it behind us. I do not pause on the stairs. Instead, I walk the three flights up to the roof without looking behind me.
Directly in front of the doorway sits a crudely erected metal rod with a blinking green light atop it, not unlike the flashing green towers I saw five years ago on my way to Q.
“Put your back against the rod, if you could be so kind,” Achad says to me.
“If I do, will you still hurt them?” I ask.
“Perhaps. Never can be too sure what will strike my fancy. But if you allow me to tie you to your doom, the chance is greatly lessened.”
I turn away from the rod, allowing Achad to tie me against it. The cording cuts into my wrists. “If you’re going to kill me, do me the courtesy of a dignified death,” I say, pushing my chin out and proud.
“Well, I’m going to conjure up a little lightning storm and we’ll see what happens.” Achad laughs as my face falls.
“You are part Cerani...” I breathe.
“It took you ages! For someone who claims to have Sight, you’re—well, blind!” Achad sticks his third finger against his eyeball and removes a brown contact lens, revealing a brilliant, deep-green pupil. “You saw my mother die for a prophecy in Quarantine.”
He removes the other lens and his eyes smolder with unfettered rage. “She was your mother’s mother. Which makes me your... hmmm... uncle? Different fathers, of course. Mother did have her way about her, and of course she had permission from the Cerani. Who knows which Arci man was my father? Even she wasn’t sure.” Achad steps up to my face close enough to spit in my eye.
“I knew what you had when I came to your house five years ago,” he says. “I knew what you were. Mother talked of nothing else. But the thing is, Zafre? The Cerani don’t understand how life works here. It’s not fair. So even when my mother fell in with another man, I still stayed loyal to her, even after she had more children... until I found out that my half-sister Lia was supposed to be the leader of all Cerani. I have Cerani blood too; that could have been me. I made sure she met an unassuming man named Dabir, and that on the day she gave birth to her first child, I was there to tell them that she wasn’t going to survive. So she didn’t.”
My heart is heavy with all of it. I am worried about what he might do if I’m not careful.
“And now you will die because I am more powerful—at least I have use of my hands,” he snickers.
“You have forgotten something, Achad,” I say as evenly as possible.
“Not a single thing,” he replies.
“No, you’re right. Three things,” I say. He tries to hide his panic but I see it rising so I provoke. “I have been struck three times, all Cerani bolts. I can survive it. No matter how much you want me to burn, I won’t. I am in league with Ignis. You cannot kill me.”
Achad turns his face to me dead on and wildness flares in his eyes. He is no longer calm. He is desperate.
“No matter how many times you strike me, I will come back stronger,” I say, laughing as his nostrils flare in anger.
“You will?” he asks brokenly. He unsheathes a knife from his belt and strides toward me, driving the knife up to the hilt in my stomach. The light slips from me then, just slightly, but I feel it trying to flee. It should hurt, but I feel nothing. As he twists the blade in my gut, all I see are the things that belong to me.
I see my father’s house, and the family who has lived there since his death. I see the tallest hill. I see my tribe as they cower below me, cautious yet unafraid. I see the Spark Mother, in all her brilliant glory, shining from the pool and beckoning. I see my own mother on the day of my birth as she calls down a bolt to bless me. I see Aron, my blood and my guide, broken and battered but alive and fighting to come to me, to help. I see Vesper the prophet. I see myself, Zafirah Adrau, the one, true Eye and the Eleventh star. My body aches, not with pain, but with static charge. Like Lia, Vesper, and man in green before me, I give in to the slipping light, call down the deadly spark, and I fly.