Now, We Burn

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6 | Eliza

6
November 5, 2104

Eliza shut her eyes tightly, barely holding on to her last bit of sanity. They had found out. They were hungry. They were interested in the girls, the way a predator was interested in its prey, or a scientist in its subject. They seemed like monsters to Eliza, closing in on the girls and suffocating them.

Or at least, that’s what it felt like to Eliza.

In reality, the dark haired boy was grinning -- Hugo, she thought his name was, and the blond held her sister’s gaze along with her shoulders. Eliza was crying, thrashing around, but the iron shackles around her wrists held her back. She cried out from the pain, feeling the soft, warm trickle of blood dripping into her palms. The shackles had cut her wrists in a way that would leave scars.

Ember was freaking out. To anyone else, she would have seemed angry -- infuriated, maybe, but Eliza knew. She was afraid. She was devastated. She was acting out the only way she knew how to, but the leader held her back carefully. Ember tried to hit him, but somebody held her back. Eliza tried to get up once more, and she felt a tinge of hope when the shackles began to crack under pressure. Eliza pulled harder, her fury and adrenaline making her muscles clench, but she was cut short by the other dark haired boy -- the one who helped take Ember away -- grabbing her shoulder and shoving her back down in the dirt. She cried out and scrambled back into the wall.

Eliza wasn’t a fighter, like Ember; she wouldn’t bite the boy’s hand and pull herself free like her sister would, but Eliza would shrink away back into the wall. She hugged her shoulders, trying to hold herself together despite her whole being cracking apart. Tears ran down her dirty face as she watched Ember thrash about, fighting the blond leader.

“Ember…” Eliza said in a quiet tone, her throat tightening. “Ember, stop.”

Just for a moment the wild girl turned just slightly, hesitating before she lost her footing and the blond leader slammed her into the scrap metal wall, holding her there, immobilizing her.

There was a crowd now, filling the entrance. They were interested in the situation. All at once, Ember stopped fighting and her tense body went limp. Her fiery eyes boring into the blond leader, Eliza’s fear coursed through her veins like poison.

“You two will help,” the leader demanded with finality. “Pierce” --the boy holding Eliza down looked up-- “don’t you dare cruss this up, or you’ll be a dead man.” The leader let go of Ember and started his way out of the metal tent, but she yelled after him.

“We won’t!” she cried, her voice strong before it wavered.

“You what?” The leader turned halfway around and stared daggers at Ember.

“We won’t help you,” she stated, puffing out her chest, squaring her shoulders, and gluing her bloodied wrists to her sides. “We don’t help gangs.”

The leader turned all the way around, then. “You’d best be sure you will,” he sneered with enough malice to make even the bravest soldier run away. He stepped forward a fraction, his muscled arms tense.

“Thane,” the tan, darkly haired boy he had been yelling at warned.

“You’re just a crusser,” Ember growled. “A no-good, harking crusser!”

“You little--” Thane didn’t finish his statement before he lunged forward and connected his gloved fist to Ember’s cheek. Eliza screamed and tried to cover her eyes before the tan boy kicked her hands away.

“Watch,” he commanded quietly, but his face didn’t show the sternness his voice did. It was soft. Sympathetic. He felt sorry for the girls, sorry that he brought them there and sorry that their father was dead and sorry he had a part in it. Eliza was sorry too, though. She was sorry that she had to be there and sorry that she knew her father had been killed by this boy and how terrible these people were. She felt blind hatred for them -- for the sad boy, Pierce, for the grinning mad boy named Hugo, and especially for the leader, Thane, who was torturing her sister.

Ember did not give in, though. She fought against Thane’s grasp, mustering up as much strength that she could after the long, tiring day.

Hot and heavy tears ran down Eliza’s cheeks, but this time she didn’t hold back her high-pitched cry as Thane grasped Ember’s wrist and heaved her up. Immediately, Hugo bounded up from where he sat on the hard ground and helped Thane haul her sister’s struggling body over next to Eliza. Hugo latched one of the shackles around Ember’s wrist before jumping back as she bit at his hand.

“Feisty one, aren’t we?” Hugo whispered close to Ember’s ear as he latched the second shackle. His frustratingly unplaceable accent made bile rise in her throat and she spit blood into the dirt by his feet as he straightened up.

“Stay,” Thane growled at the two boys as he walked out of the sheet metal hut. Hugo and Pierce stood back against the wall on either side of the girls, holding their hands behind their backs dutifully. The two would look like trained soldiers if it weren’t for the fox-like grin plastered to Hugo’s face.

Eliza slumped down against the metal wall, all the energy drained out of her, and cried. She cried and cried and cried for what seemed like hours before finally drifting off into an almost dreamless sleep.

In the early hours of the morning, Eliza jolted awake, her heart still racing from the nightmare that she almost didn’t have.

“Almost,” she whispered to no one. It’s always almost. Ember almost got killed last night; I almost slept well; We were almost okay.

Eliza wiped the sleep from her eyes and checked her bearings. Ember lay beside her, steadily breathing as she slept. Pierce leaned against the wall next to Eliza, his face drooping with exhaustion. Hugo was nowhere to be seen.

Then, the sound of hushed voices drifted in through the dark entrance of the hut.

“Well, what’s your genius plan, huh?” Thane’s voice rushed through Eliza’s ears. Who was he talking to?

“I’ve been saying this -- we need to beat it out of them,” another voice answered. It sounded like Hugo, but there was a new tone to his speaking; it was edged, excited. “Those girls are our only hope in keeping Eeros alive and I’m almost positive they won’t help without being forced to.”

It was silent for a moment while Thane thought.

“We need to torture them into submission,” Hugo added, the excitement lacking in his tone. He sounded serious for once.

There was more silence.

“All right,” Thane agreed finally. “We’ll begin at nightfall. Let the girls rest for now; we’ll need them.”

Eliza closed her eyes as Hugo walked back into the scrap metal room. He took his place back next to Ember.

“They sleeping?” Hugo asked and it took Eliza a moment to realize he was talking to Pierce.

“Yeah, I think so,” Pierce answered quietly, his voice heavy with sleep.

“I think we have a plan,” Hugo said to him. “We’ll execute it tonight.”

“I know, you and Thane are louder than you think.” Hugo made a low noise in the back of his throat.

Ember stirred and mumbled something incoherently and Eliza opened her eyes finally. She lifted her head, sitting up, and her hair stuck to the metal wall from static. She looked over at her sister, whose brown eyes were wide open, panicked.

Out of the corner of her eye, Eliza saw Pierce put one long finger to his lips, looking at Hugo sharply.

The day went by slowly. The girls weren’t allowed out of the hut, so they sat on the dirt ground and listened. They listened to the things around them -- hushed conversations, the whines of some of the animals that were oh-so rare in the charred land, and faint sounds of clashing metal. The girls felt empty.

Eliza hadn’t had time or the opportunity to tell her sister of the gang’s plan to torture them, and she didn’t think she’d be able to at all. The sun was already going down.

Thane entered the room, an air of confidence to his strut. He waved at the boys and they both simultaneously crouched down and unlatched the shackles. In a fit of energy, Ember moved and tried to climb on top of Hugo to bring him down, but he immediately grabbed her by the crook of her elbow and pulled a dagger out of his belt. He placed the cool tip to her sternum and pressed down gently.

“Watch it, darling.” He grinned slyly. “One slip” --Hugo pressed the blade harder to her skin-- “and I could end you.” Ember felt a sharp prick as the knife just slightly pierced her skin and she pursed her lips, narrowing her eyes.

“Try me,” Ember sneered.

“Hugo, stop it. Just take her to the center,” Thane ordered. Pierce was already dragging Eliza out of the building.

“Yeah, yeah,” Hugo lightened his grip on Ember’s arm but didn’t stow his knife as he tugged her along.

Eliza watched with wonder. Outside a throng of people -- gang members, no doubt -- bustled about, talking, smoking, fighting. She could see where the clashing metal sounds came from; there was a small hut where a metalsmith worked. Eliza hadn’t ever seen one of those except for in old history books she found. All the machines used to do the work.

There was a large pit in the center of the area filled with ashes, as well as a wooden pole that had a thick rope tied to it. Pierce shoved Eliza down into the ground in front of the fire pit and held her there by her shoulder. The hard rocks dug into her knees and Eliza shifted uncomfortably.

Ember struggled when Hugo threw her down in the dirt, but she soon gave up, thinking better of it. The boy still held her down.

“You can let us go,” Eliza said harshly, her face cast downward, staring at Pierce’s calloused hand on her shoulder. “We aren’t going anywhere.”

Thane scoffed, walking up to the four. Eliza looked up but didn’t see him immediately. Instead, she saw something that nearly broke her already weary heart.

Standing a few feet behind Thane were two little boys. They looked to be identical twins, with the same unkempt dirty blonde -- or was that just dirt? -- hair and mud-caked cheeks. Two pairs of big blue eyes stared at Eliza, watery and scared but there was a trace of mischief hiding in their pupils.

They wore torn clothes that barely fit their skinny bodies, even more ratty than the girls’. Eliza thought that gangs always had better clothes, but maybe not for children.

These people are disgusting, she thought.

Just as the boys made some kind of indication toward the darkening sky, pointing upward with their dirty little hands, Thane stepped into Eliza’s view.

“I will give you two one more chance to help us,” he stated dutifully. There was something in his hand, and its metal glinted in the descending sunlight.

There was a sharp cracking sound behind the girls and it took them a moment to feel the warmth emanating from the rising flames. Someone had lit a fire pit.

Something clicked in Eliza’s mind and she registered what the little boys were indicating at. Nervously, she looked up to the red-orange sunset but most of her vision was blocked by Pierce, who then also looked up, along with everyone else in the area, for an ear-splitting roar had sounded across the sky in that moment.

The children knew there was a dragon coming.

There was a dragon.

Right above them.

Eliza cried out as another clamor ripped through all of the other sounds and she whipped toward Ember. Her expression was frantic. Thane had gone somewhere in the panic, and Pierce and Hugo were both running further into the camp. Ember was already on her feet, running to the edge of the woods.

Eliza scrambled up hastily and dashed to the forest. Ember was nowhere to be seen, and she swore under her breath, but didn’t dare yell for her sister.

She ran through the trees, not sure of where she was going but sure she had to get out. They weren’t far from their father’s camp, she knew that much. When she thought she was far enough away that she couldn’t hear the roars of the dragon or the crackling of flames, Eliza tried calling for her sister through the darkness.

“Ember!” She cried again, “Ember!”

There was no answer.

Eliza finally stopped running when she reached the edge of the forest. There, she could see the faint outline of the demolished city and the charred grounds of the wastelands. Ember was nowhere to be seen.

She looked behind her, her heart thudding in her ears, in search of something, anything. But nothing was there. She was now a long way from the camp, and she regretted not following right after Ember.

Never separate from each other, their father had always said, but he always looked at Ember as he said it, and Eliza had always known why. It was nothing she could control.

But now they were separated, and Eliza felt guilty beyond anything. She was supposed to be the older sister, the responsible one, the one to protect the other, and she couldn’t even do that. She was disgusted with herself.

Thinking of Ember and her father made Eliza despondent, and hot tears began to run down her face again. She ran for their old, run-down camp, hope suddenly rushing through her. Ember might be there!

But as Eliza neared the small place, she suspected, and when she stared at the empty little area in the empty wastelands, she knew.

Ember wasn’t there.

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