Wilds outside Quarantine, 324 E.V., Cent. 15
My eyes are open but I cannot see. I blink my eyes, but darkness overwhelms my vision. A gust of wind tickles my cheek, making a piece of cloth flutter over my face. A blindfold! My hands fumble for the ends of the wrapping and I tear it off. The panic eases out of my chest as pinprick stars glint above me. Outside. I am not surrounded by cement, trying to peer up at the sky through metal bars. I am in communion with the sky. I have never seen it so black. In Q, the outside lights pollute the nighttime and the sky does not get dark enough to reveal the stars. This is the very first time I have seen them, as far as I remember. They are brilliant. They shine, like I have heard they would, but they also pulsate, slower than a lightning flash and yet faster than my heart beats. If I stare at them long enough, will I memorize those specks of light? Will I know them like I know the places on my body where the skin is stretched too tight? Will they tell me stories when I dream? Am I dreaming them now?
I have sweated through my clothes. Even at night, the air is stale and sweltering. Sitting up is difficult and my left arm is sore where the needle was imbedded, but the leaded toxin no longer pulls my blood. The scenery stretches on until the night blanket cloaks the land, and the sky cannot be distinguished from the ground. Directly in front of me, the terrain drops off into nothing. I scoot forward to peer down the face of the cliff, but it is an abyss, and something I would rather not fall into. I swing my legs to the side and reach for the dirt. It is only a few feet down; the stone I am sitting on is merely a natural cot of sorts, but neither sharp or rough. I suppose it is soft, at least compared to the metal cot I have slept on for so long.
Where have I dreamed myself? Where is Aron, if indeed I am dreaming? Standing, I stretch my hands up towards the language of the night, my stars with their modest twinkling. I test my limbs. My head is congested with the effects of the drug that nearly killed me—heavy, as if my brain is coated in a viscous film. My neck is paying for it too, although it is likely residual from the aftermath of my collapse. I remember little before I blacked out, except many strong hands lifting me. I remember a feral woman, though—my neighbor to whom I slid the keys. Her face was so familiar. Not her appearance so much as the feeling that looking at her gave me, like I knew her well in the past. Nothing comes immediately to mind, but it bothers me. I suppose it could be her eyes. They are bright of course, like all feral people, and like Vesper and Aron’s, her eyes are also a striking shade of green. The clouds turn the same color right before a storm, and they are tricky; they might warn of lightning or foretell rain. I suppose if she had meant to hurt me, her eyes would have been filled with wrath, but I saw something like... delight. Admiration. And she knew my name too. How odd that I did not—do not—know her. I do not know a lot of things, however. Even the stars are strange to me.
The formless land is a vast plain of desert and uncertainty. Where I felt caged and abandoned in my cell, I am free here, and aware that if I step off this plateau, I might be swallowed by a crevice so deep, I will fall forever. It also occurs to me that my fears are unfounded, but my mind is overactive nonetheless. Even the rocks breathe like hulking, jagged men, crouched and prepared to pounce on me.
The wind picks up a chill and I shiver. All the follicles on my arms bristle, and I breathe out. Not an arm’s length away, two glowing orbs appear, storm green and gentle.
“You are awake,” she says. I squint my eyes; hers are piercingly bright against our dark surroundings. It is as if I divined her here simply by thinking of her. There is no doubt in my mind that this is the woman whose storm-green eyes haunt me as much as the mantra Vesper planted in my bones. Se, verum oculus. I did not mean to involve myself with feral people, but now they pursue me into my dreams.
“You look much better than you did this morning; no longer deathly white,” she says.
“I am alive,” I say. “Perhaps you know why.”
“You were only pricked by the needle, and we ran very fast,” she says, and her lips pull back to reveal her teeth. She had this same expression when we first met, too, as she lifted me out of death.
“Se, verum oculus,” I say, but I cannot voice a thought about it. The phrase has rattled between my ears since Vesper spoke it. They all repeated it like a battle cry after she died.
“Se, verum oculus,” the woman repeats. She pulls a hood off her head. Her scalp is poorly shaven like all the new patients at Q. The skin is lacerated above her ear, while a neglected lock of hair peeks out from behind it. She does not notice the way the wind whips over the bluff, as if being shorn allows the wind to bend around her without touching.
“What does it mean?” I ask, scratching the nape of my neck. My hair has not been shaved in a few weeks, so it prickles in the breeze. I feel every whisper of air against my scalp.
“You are not meant to learn it yet,” she says.
“It echoes so fiercely in my head, I cannot think. Please, tell me and maybe it will ease,” I beg. It is on the breeze now, the way crackling fibers give themselves up to flames. Se, verum oculus. Se, verum oculus—it loses weight the more I think it, becoming a feather on the wind, becoming nothing, and meaning nothing.
“When will I know?” I ask when she does not answer me. “Do I have to wake up?”
“You are awake now, Zafre. You will learn it when you become it.”
“Is it a prophecy?”
“Will you be content with the mystery for a while? I tell you that you will know it, but you must wait.” She glances at a bag in her lap, which is illuminated by her eyes. She unties its strings and retrieves something from inside. “You are an impatient thing! The more I hear, the more kindred we, for I too am anxious to know how this will conclude. But we do look alike, for our bare heads if nothing else,” she says as I shiver. She wears a thick Arci cloak, the type my father wore when I was five or six, but no one has needed for years. I am not sure how she stands it now.
“But I am not fer—” I catch myself. She is not feral. That is a crude nickname bestowed upon them by the officers, who see them as animals instead of people. “You are not from Arcis, and I am not familiar with any of you. How could I be anything like you?” I ask.
“We are so base and savage, are we not?” the woman says and I bristle. She must find me unintelligent at the very least, if not idiotic.
“My apologies. I was rude,” I say. I am confused and my head throbs.
“No, the fault is mine. Here, we have taken you from your cozy cell, out into the wilds; you are fearful of the people who saved your life.” She narrows her eyes and I step forward towards her.
“I am grateful, but you mistake my meaning,” I say. Frustration hammers in my chest. This woman thinks she knows what I am feeling, but she has never spoken to me before now. She is twisting my words. “I have not been outside my cell since I entered it five years ago and now I am outside, so far from Q that I cannot see the light from it, and with a person who is a stranger to me. I was a child when I entered, but I left Q grown. I do not know how to make my way in the world. Forgive me for not knowing how to address you, or what to make of any of this—”
“Zafirah, I do not mean to insult you,” she says. “Surely I am allowed some mystery as your savior? I did not think you so rash when you slid me the keys. But then again, only someone with guts could break out of her cell. I suppose you are allowed a certain amount of fire, for liberating yourself as far as the hallway.”
“I suppose you liberated me to save your conscience, then,” I spit, but my hostility dissipates as she clasps my hand.
“Come sit,” she says. She produces a flame between her fingers and ignites a thin piece of cording, which she then coils in the dirt. “We will better understand one another if we see each other’s faces.”
“How did you do that?” I ask, crouching closer to the burning cord.
“With two fingers and little effort.” She takes my hand and places two metal rings on my palm. “Slip one over your second finger, and the other on your thumb.”
Each band sits around the tip of my finger, but goes no further than my first knuckle. They both have a hooked point, which settles over my fingernail, as if my own were made of metal. The rest of the bands are etched in a crisscrossing pattern. “What do I do now?”
“Slide the bands against each other.”
I do so hesitantly. “It did not work.”
“Not like that,” she says, removing the bands from my hand. She slips the bands on her fingers and demonstrates. “Do as I do. Hold your hand up with your palm facing you. Press your second finger and your thumb together. Slide your second finger down fast, like this.” She does it and a flame sparks. Once my hand position is satisfactory, she places the bands over my fingers. I press my fingers together and slide my second finger but nothing happens.
“Faster, with pressure. Make the metal sing,” she instructs.
After several tries, I manage a tiny spark. “I did it,” I gasp.
“With practice you will be able to produce larger flames, but you are doing well,” she says. I remove the bands to return them, but she stops my hands. “Keep them.”
“You have my gratitude,” I say. I turn the bands over in my palm and they clink together.
“Say as we say, Zafirah: gratulari.” She rolls the word into the recesses of her throat.
“La-ri. Gratulari.” My pronunciation is abysmal, but I feel accomplished.
“Good,” she says.
“What is your name?” I ask.
“Riva. I am from one of the original ten tribes. We are called Cerani, not feral, as the Arci call us. In turn, we are devoted to the Decuriate, the ten chiefs of the cosmos, to whom our existence is owed. Do not worry yourself with remembering these names; if you are the one we believe you to be, you will come to understand them yourself,” Riva says.
I am not sure who I believe myself to be. How will I become something they think I am—who must I become to know anything at all?
“Who do you believe I am?” I ask.
“A pyre that will make Vesper look like an ember.” Riva nudges the burning rope into a tighter coil. The flame jumps higher for a moment, then settles low across the woven fibers.
I am sure Riva is mistaken. I am neither like Vesper, nor capable of the things I saw her do. Anyone who conjures lightning is beyond fathoming. I am simple. I am too skinny, and almost bald, and weak, and sleep deprived. The way Riva regards me, though, I am not sure she sees me. She sees what she wants to see: someone powerful enough to take Vesper’s place. A new icon. She must have mistaken me for her pyre, but I do not and will not burn, even if you could strike a match on what is left of my hair.
“How do you know about me?” I ask.
“Ah. Our faculties are varied, but some of us are sighted—that is, capable of perception beyond our field of vision, beyond our present location even,” Riva says. She pulls her hood onto her head as the wind strengthens, and it makes me relieved that she is not immune. “Vesper had Sight, and it manifested in Vesper through her dreams. She dreamed of you. No more complicated than that.”
“But she knew my name, even—” I stop. Aron. He came to my dreams, did not he? Could he be real too?
“Would I have dreamed about her?” I wonder aloud.
“Perhaps not. But you do dream vividly, do you not?” Riva asks. She touches my arm.
“Yes,” I breathe.
“It stands to reason that you too have Sight, Zafre.” She shows me her teeth once more.
“But nothing I have dreamed has ever occurred.” That is a partial lie. I saw Aron in my cell. Even if he was not truly there, the vision of him saved me from the physician. Even though I routed the man, it did not happen the way I defeated Aron the first time he appeared to me.
“Perhaps not. But your dreams tell you important information.”
“I would not know if they did,” I say. “And I cannot conjure lightning.”
Riva pinches the end of the burning rope at the tip. With a flick, the flame is extinguished and the rope bursts into ash, which the wind promptly whisks away.
“Vesper’s communion with lightning had nothing to do with her Sight. That is what you must learn next.” She stands and pulls me with her. “You are just beginning, ocelli.”
“What does that mean?” I ask again, a request I expect will go unanswered.
“It means ‘little eye’,” she replies to my amazement. She leads me to the rock that I awoke on, and gestures to the head. “Lay yourself down, Zafirah. Sleep if it comes; dream if you wish.”
Riva’s black form retreats and I lay down. The rock is chilled against the back of my head, but the air is thick and humid. No more wind. Far distant, thunder rumbles against the hills, a sound I have not heard since before the Centennial. When the storms are at their worst, and the clouds brawl for a piece of the sky, thunder rolls after each flash of lightning. It has been so long since I last heard thunder; its resonance frightens me.
I saw lightning mere days ago but heard no thunder. Vesper’s lightning had no thunder.
Lightning streaks into the blackness of the chasm at my feet, but the flash illuminates everything around me. One, two, three masses rise from the ground. Then four, then seven, then more. The feral woman who liberated me from Q! A boom of thunder shakes the ground and startles me. I remain still, unsure if I am meant to be asleep as Riva suggested. I shut my eyes as a calloused hand grips my shoulder, and another, and another. Hands press against my arms, down my legs to my feet. The women shuffle around me; some are silent, while others mutter words I do not understand. I am afraid to open my eyes to look at them, but I am also afraid of what they might do to me. The rings dig into my right palm, and I fit them over my fingers.
A finger graces my forehead. I open my eyes to Riva above me, her own eyes burning. She presses her lips to my forehead and I gasp as fingers wrap around my wrists, and ankles. Trapped.
“Se, verum oculus,” a voice says.
“Se, verum oculus,” the others repeat, except Riva.
“Se, verum oculus. Se, verum oculus. Se, verum oculus,” the woman chant, over and over until they are screaming Vesper’s mantra.
My heart beats in time with the chanting, my blood thrums with the thunder.
Riva crouches behind me and I strain to see her. She places two metallic objects on either side of my head, both pressing against my temples. The objects hum. Riva stands over me again, presses a finger to her own forehead, and then to mine.
“Ignis,” she breathes.
In the sky, beyond the strange stars, a faint light flickers. I hone in on the tiny light and at once I am pulled towards it, through the blackened sky, past millions of hovering celestial orbs. I must be dreaming now, or else they have put me in a trance. The light melts outward, burning up the black night like ignited oil. Oil turns to water, which flows past me and pulls me into its embrace as if I have dived to the bottom of a deep pool. Ten stars are anchored in a circle at the bottom of the pool, each straining for the surface. The stars are dormant inside iron spheres, and a number is carved into the surface of each. I reach for the closest star, the tenth. I close my fingers and the chain disintegrates, releasing the star from its anchor. I kick off the bottom of the pool and swim for the surface, towards a beaming light above me. The star cracks the moment it meets the dry air. I clutch the star to my chest to hold the two halves together, but it ruptures, forcing white heat into my body. I scream as electricity arcs through my veins, throwing me back towards the planet below. The rapidly distant pool is swallowed into the oil of darkness. The iron sphere melts through my fingers as I fall, and the once-peaceful hanging stars burst as I pass them. I collide with the ground; my head snaps back against a rock and a sharp pain shoots through my spine. I cannot think with the pain.
Where have Riva and the others gone? The stars have been extinguished and there is no moon to occupy the darkness. Neither is there sound.
My lungs will not inflate. I gasp—over and over. Come on, Zafre. I cannot; sharp pain in my side like a knife under my ribs. Three ribs are uneven beneath my fingers, but no broken skin. They are cracked. Could be worse. Eyes burn, tears streak down my cheeks. Both legs move, but my right’s response is delayed. Arms... operational, but exhausted. My blood takes an inventory through my veins but my heart beats wildly against my cracked ribs. My creaking bones check in like rusty hinges. Then something else--
“Zafre, stop moving.” It is Riva. She sounds like she is underwater.
“Riva?” I try, but nothing comes out. I have managed to inhale, but it feels like my lungs are expanding onto protruding knife points.
“Do not try to talk.” Where is she? She is nowhere near me, as far as I can tell.
“Zafirah, please! We must care for you.” Her voice is clearer; she stands near to me, but I still cannot see her. I nod slightly and my head pounds.
“Hali is going to cut into your stomach. I want you to be prepared. Open your mouth, I will give you a strap to bite into,” she instructs.
“No,” I whisper. I point to my ribs.
“The rings are lodged in your abdomen. You will bleed to death if they are not removed.”
Riva’s rings! It must have happened when the star exploded. I touch my hand to my stomach and sure enough, there is a gash through my shirt. My lifetime shirt from Q is shredded, and damp with what I assume is blood. I am afraid to feel the skin behind it.
“Do it,” I breathe.
“Take this,” Riva says, placing something in my hand, which I assume is the strap she spoke of. “Put it between your teeth and bite down.”
I do so. Someone takes my left hand and clasps my shoulder.
“Do your best to keep her flat,” Riva says.
“I will.” It is a male voice.
“I am about to take them out, Zafre, all right?” another female voice says. I nod.
“Squeeze Aron’s hand instead of bucking up, if you can help it,” Riva says.
Wait. Aron? My Aron? Am I dreaming again? I search for the face of the boy above me but it is too dark for me to see him. If only the stars had not burned out!
A sharp point nicks my stomach and pain sears through me. I reach up for another hand to squeeze and someone’s hand finds me. It is almost as excruciating as the fracturing of the star against my body. I bite the strap so hard that my head throbs. I try to force my body flat but my muscles spasm around the blade.
“One left,” the male voice says. It is not enough to confirm if it is my Aron, but it is a relief. The ministrations over the second ring are quick, but the hooked point catches on skin as she removes it and I gasp. The strap falls out of my mouth.
“All finished,” Riva says. “We will get you bandaged up now.” Someone takes one of my hands and places it over a roll of fabric on my stomach.
“Press down on the gauze,” the boy says. “Good, that is it.”
“Aron?” I whisper.
“I am here, Zafirah,” he says, leaning close to my ear. Elation surges in my chest.
“They did not take my name from me,” I say, feeling faint.
“No, they did not,” he agrees.
“Is it really you?” I ask. Heat rises in my cheeks.
Aron squeezes my hand. “I met up with Riva outside of Quarantine,” he says. “You were unconscious, I think. I trailed behind to make sure officers did not follow from Arcis, which is why I was not here when you awoke. It was my intent to be here, however.” He lays his free hand over mine on my stomach. “I am sorry that I was absent.”
“Forgiven,” I breathe. Footsteps return a moment later.
“Help her sit up,” Riva instructs. “Let him do the work, Zafre. Do not exert yourself.”
“Agreed,” I say.
Aron eases one hand behind my neck and the other around my torso, urging me up. Pain shoots through my ribs. I wince. He adjusts his positioning and sits behind me, propping my body against his chest so Riva might wrap bandages around my waist. She binds my whole torso, as well as my head and right calf. Once I am wrapped, Aron helps her wrap me in a cloak. He is my human chair as I work to regain the rest of my breath and clear the aches from my body. It does not do any good; my fresh stomach wound throbs, and the rest of my body is filled with sharp pains. I shudder.
“Relax, Zafre,” Riva urges.
But I cannot. What I would not give for some Quarantine medicine now! I fight for deep breaths but my ribs protest and my stomach heaves in response. The pain is too much, too consuming—hot, white hot, searing agony. I grip Aron’s arm and he holds me tighter.
“Her skin is cold,” Aron says. He grazes my cheeks and hands. His movements make me nauseated. I gag and my stomach rolls.
“Turn her on her side,” Riva instructs.
Aron rolls me against his arm, onto my uninjured side, and another covering is placed on me, a cloak, I assume. My stomach churns again, and I gag, spitting out saliva. Aron rubs my back. My heart races to catch up with my lungs, and my lips have gone numb. Nothing is concrete anymore except for the arm that cradles me, so I cling to it.
“We had better move soon,” Riva says.
“You were not followed, Riva, except by me. She is too fragile to move,” Aron protests.
“I am not fragile,” I breathe, but my bones might shatter if my heart beats too hard.
“Can you carry her? I am afraid I will not be able to for a few hours,” Riva says.
“I will carry her the entire journey, if you wish it,” Aron says. “Have you regained feeling in your hands, at least?”
“Nearly,” Riva says. “It does not usually last this long.”
“Zafirah’s baptism is not a usual occurrence,” Aron says.
A soft hand grazes my forehead, and a sigh follows. I shiver. Aron rubs my arm but the movement is jarring, so I grab his hand. I shake my head as much as I am able.
“I will ready the others,” Riva says. Her footsteps grow faint as she retreats.
Aron sighs. Something brushes my temple. “Are you still with me?” he asks.
I do not want to talk. I am afraid I will expel the contents of my stomach, what little there is. I tighten my grip on Aron’s arm so he knows I am conscious.
“You should not be moved,” he says. “But we cannot truly care for you until we return to camp. If I persuade Riva to travel slowly, the trip will take us ten days, maybe more. Can you give me ten days of strength?”
I nod, but my head is heavy. I am not sure I have any strength to give.
“Good. We need to put miles between us and Quarantine before there is a hint of pink in the sky,” Aron says.
“Lots of time,” I wheeze. Maybe if I speak in short phrases... “No stars. Sky’s still black.”
Aron shifts. “Zafre, it is blue. There are not any stars because it is dawn.”
“No, it is night,” I say. My breathing comes now in shallow bursts. Panic.
“No, Zafre,” Aron says tenderly. He brushes my cheek.
I cover my mouth with my hands to suppress a sob. My eyes burned out with the stars.