The rope slips from my arms. I rub my stiff shoulders, wincing at the tiny sparks of pain. Then I stand up, lock my eyes with Nazka’s, and lunge for him, aiming to pin him against the wall.
Nazka cries out in surprise and leaps to the side, but I’m ready. I grab him by the shoulders and hook one foot behind his ankle, jerking his leg out from under him while pushing backward. He lands hard on the ground and pauses, dazed, before sitting up and crawling toward me, face wild and gleaming with desperation as his hands grip my leg. He tries to yank me to the ground and succeeds with surprising force. I roll, attempting to get the upper hand by landing on top of him, but now I can see what he’s trying to do. His hands are aimed for my throat.
Panic overtakes me and I shoot my hands up to clamp his wrists, forcing them to the ground until he’s pinned. His eyes bore into mine, the muscles in his face hardened, nails scraping at my neck as he tries to rip my throat out. I struggle away from him, hands scrabbling at the dirt.
He lets me go. Perhaps he thinks there is still a chance I will decide to stay and listen to him.
My heart races as I open and close the door to the prison as silently as possible. Screams echo from the rooms above me. I don’t stop and wonder what might be causing them. From the streets, I can hear yelling. Chaos. Perfect. I glance right, left. Then I break into a run down the passageway.
They’re coming after me. Any moment.
This passageway leads to another maze of corridors. Doors are set in the walls randomly, and I don’t waste time opening them. They’re just more cells. With each turn that doesn’t lead to an exit, I can feel my heartbeat increase, sweat prickling on my forehead. Where is it?
I close my eyes and halt for a moment, breathing hard. I must remember something. I was knocked out when they took me here, but how long did it take Nazka to reach my cell? Did I pay attention to the number of footsteps? I search my brain but nothing comes up. Perhaps it’s the panic that clouds over everything.
I open my eyes and continue stumbling aimlessly down the long sandstone hallway. The shouting above me is growing louder, more frenzied, more excited. I know this sound. Violence will break out at any moment. And I’ll be caught in the thick of it.
If I can even find a way out before they get me.
I need to keep moving, even if I don’t know where I’m going. There has to be a way out. Soon. Any moment.
I decide to follow the screams.
Finally, I turn a corner to a steep staircase. I climb the stairs to the world above.
The place looks ransacked. I never saw the bottom half of Nazka’s home, but I can imagine it followed a similar style as his bedroom. Tapestries lie in tatters on the floor, the air is thick and stale.
I am choking in this. I have to get out. The noise is so loud now, there’s hardly any room in my head for thoughts. Before I leave, I snatch a glinting knife from the floor. Then I cross the room quickly and fling open the door, not hesitating to consider a plan.
The streets are packed. Crowds swarm, pounding on the walls of Nazka’s house, pounding to break inside. People are screaming, shouting, attacking each other, hands clawing frantically as they fight away the voices in their heads that contradict those around them. I can’t make out what they’re saying, but they are upset.
They’re going to die.
And something is killing me.
Everything is closing in so quickly. This panic that has been festering long inside all of us has broken loose, stealing minds and strength and consciousness. But I let go of all that a long time ago. So only I see the thing in the shadows.
Something is watching us. Watching as we tear ourselves apart. Prowling around the edges, waiting to strike when we’ve all finally gone mad.
It has been waiting for a long time, this beast.
Not yet. No, they’re keeping some of it in. Or keeping some of those creatures out.
So I run. I run like I always have, but this time I know where I’m going. Away from the crowds of hungry spirits. Away from the prowling beasts.
My hand traces the cold wall, steadying me because my legs are weak and I can’t afford to fall. If I do, I know they’ll get me, and I may never get up.
The voice is high and piercing, caged with terror. I locate the sound and look up.
I see them. Two shadowed figures, standing precariously on the exposed balcony. One clutching the wall, a strange waving cord sprouting from her neck. No. That can’t be right. It’s a rope. A rope is tied around her neck.
I step closer, and their faces come into view.
Chiqu is standing motionless, every muscle rigid with fear. I know she was the one who called my name. And…Sarofa. Her expression is shadowed in the dark, but I can see the sharp angles of her face, contorted in the dark. Her matted hair, gaunt features, skin sallow. Bloodied. Bruised. Burning with a fire commanded her to protect, to look out for, to fight. An angry fire.
She looks wild. She looks mad.
And I know it before I even really register that I know it. They’ve gotten to her.
That’s why she’s tied a rope around Chiqu’s neck. That’s why she looks ready to push.
“You found us,” Sarofa says. She’s hiding venom behind her teeth, I can hear it in her voice.
“Run, Luirlan!” Chiqu screams, but Sarofa calmly shakes her head. “If you run, I’ll push her,” she informs me.
I stand still.
“Do you know why I’m doing this?” Sarofa’s eyes glitter in the dark. “Because she is the reason Mehild is dead. You abandoned her, Chiqu. And she could have saved us all.”
I don’t ask what she means, though the question burns in my mind. I wait, listen, and try to form a plan in my head.
“She had overheard a conversation, in the hallway,” says Sarofa. “We weren’t together. They put us apart. But this is what she told me. She heard a conversation, from the guards passing by, and started thinking. And she figured it out.”
“What?” I ask, because I know she expects me to.
“The Assembly’s plan.” Sarofa’s voice is low, tense. “Mehild thought about so many things. And I was the only one who could hear them. She broke out of her cell. I don’t know how, but she did, and she came to find me. Was going to break me out, too. Tried to explain everything to me—when she saw it. Something.”
I can hear the quaver in her words now, the hesitation, the agony. “Something,” she repeats. “And she did it. Looked for the first way to die, to stop seeing, stop remembering, or whatever it was doing to her, and I had to watch. Watch as she drowned herself. And this time I couldn’t stop her.” Her voice breaks. “She was alone in that cage for too long. Too long.”
She turns to Chiqu, hatred burning in every muscle of her face and body. “Because of you.”
Sarofa grabs Chiqu’s shoulders, and Chiqu screams again. I move forward, hands against the cold wall, searching for some way up, but Sarofa calls down to me.
“No!” she shouts. “Don’t move. Don’t move from that spot, Luirlan, because I’m not finished with you. I know you helped her. I know you were planning it, because she was too weak, or didn’t want to kill. Because she had a soul.”
I freeze, then slowly begin to slip my hand to my waist, where my knife is hidden in its sheathe. Sarofa jerks Chiqu closer to the edge, watching me intently.
“Make one more move,” she hisses, eyes bright, “and she dies.”
I look at Chiqu’s pleading eyes. She didn’t want this. She just wanted to survive. She just wanted the spirits to leave her alone. Like me.
And I know what I have to do.
I run, faster than I ever have because I don’t want to hear the sickening crack that splits the air as Chiqu’s neck breaks, or her shriek of pain if she even has time to. I run because if I don’t, I will break. We are all broken, here. But I’m trying to keep some of it together.
Is it true? Did it really happen? Or was it something Mara whispered into my mind? It can’t be true. Is it true? Right now, or tomorrow?
I hear something close behind me. Something is following me. Phantom footsteps, in step with my own.
And I know.
This is no beast or animal. This is something I fear much more. Slithering hands creep onto my shoulders, reaching deep into my throat and pulling out the choking word.
That word. I’ve been avoiding it ever since she first told it to me.
She was pregnant. Chiqu was pregnant.
And now she is dead.
Dead, perhaps, something whispers to me. But safer. She’s safer now. You know it. Both of them are. Safe from those things that will get to us all in the end. That will get to you. Perhaps they already have.
Death is safer.
Death is the safest place of all.
Not for me. Never for me.
No place is safe from me.