We raced through the dark woods until we were breathless, and even then we didn’t stop. The dry branches sheltered us from the burning embers that fell from the sky, but the blanket of gray ash left clear tracks that would be easy for King Richard’s guards to follow.
Jazmine began to lag behind, so I gave up my seat on the slagpaw. I frowned at Camina’s pale, sweaty skin, and the bloody wounds from the slagpaw’s razor-sharp claws.
She was losing too much blood, but we couldn’t afford to stop. I knew the king’s guards would be right behind us.
I helped Jazmine onto the shaggy beast and kept going on foot. I felt like I could run a hundred miles – my blood was still buzzing with elixir, and the angry red digits on my diamond wedding bracelet practically screamed a warning: 12%.
Already much higher than normal, but I knew it would drop quickly if we kept up this pace. I shuddered, remembering Jessica’s crazed, bloodshot eyes as she tried to take a bite out of my neck and slurp elixir straight from the source. First we were chosen, then trained to compete in the trials. But it wasn’t supposed to be like this.
One of the rebels—a woman with tight braids—saw me looking at my wrist and scowled.
“We need to get rid of that thing,” she said. “They’ll be tracking us.” A few dozen rebels had fled from the citadel after the attack, but they must have split up into the woods. Only the woman and two men were still with us, dressed in rough leathers and merchant clothes. I realized with dread that I had no idea who they were, or where we were going.
“This way!” the older man shouted. He had a dark beard and light blue eyes. His long hair was tied back with beads and leather straps. We cut sharply through the trees, emerging between a group of massive boulders next to a rushing waterfall. Ancient pipes and channels cut through the rock, along with the crumbled remains of a stone bridge, torn apart by ivy.
“Take off your bracelets,” he said, gesturing towards me. I turned my hands over in the light, my eyes widening at the dark, jagged markings on my palms and wrists. I’d always had the birthmarks, but the shapes seemed to have changed and morphed. When I realized it was because of the dried blood covering my skin, I stumbled down the rocks to the creek and began scrubbing my hands raw. The dark blood formed clouds under the water, staining the waterfall red for a few moments.
Jazmine took off her bracelet, then unfastened Camina’s as well. Camina’s eyes fluttered open and she whispered something, but she was too weak to resist. Jazmine handed both bracelets to the man, and nodded at me. I bit my lip, and unclipped the diamond wedding band from my wrist. I knew I shouldn’t be sentimental, but the practical value of it alone made me reluctant to part with it.
“Isn’t it valuable?” I asked. “Couldn’t we trade it for supplies?”
“Only if we live past today,” the woman smirked.
I glanced up at the thick gray ash, falling between the dark trees. My experience of the wild had been short hunting trips barely outside the walls of Algrave, and traveling to and from the citadel. I had no idea how to survive for real, and the open space around me seemed suddenly paralyzing. I took a deep breath to steady my nerves—but then choked as I tasted ash on my tongue.
My eyes widened as I realized I was out in the open, breathing the poisonous air without a scarf or mask. We were still wearing the gossamer pink skirts and white leather jackets the king had picked out for the trials, though now torn and stained with blood. I ripped off the sleeve of my shirt and tied it around my head as a makeshift filter. The leather jacket covered my neck and arms well enough, though my legs were bare.
The rebels were more prepared, in dark layers of heavy clothing, their hoods pulled up and fabric masks that attached behind their ears.
The bearded man took three large sticks and strapped the bracelets to them, then chucked them downriver off the edge of the cliff. I watched them bob in the water before disappearing around the bend. It made me feel lost and adrift.
“That should buy us a few hours,” the man said. “But we’ve got to keep moving.”
“What a shitshow,” said the younger man. His eyes were a dull green, and he was wearing dark jeans, studded leather bracelets and bands running up his forearms.
It was the first time I’d heard him speak, and his voice grated on my nerves. “Some rescue. Where’s Father Marcus? Where’s Trevor? All we got was three chosen – their elite are sure to come after them. This wasn’t the plan. We should leave them here, or let them go back.”
“Go back,” Camina rasped.
“You think you saved us?” I asked, crossing my arms. “You might have gotten us out of the maze, but you’d have been stuck at the gates if we hadn’t opened the the doors for you.” So would I, for that matter, if Damien hadn’t helped. It had all happened so fast. I could feel my brain trying to puzzle out what exactly took place in the citadel, but there wasn’t time. We had to keep moving.
“Go back,” Camina repeated.
“She’s burning up,” Jazmine said, with a hand against Camina’s forehead. She pulled back her thin blonde hair. Her silver eyes looked feverish against her pale skin. “I don’t suppose anybody has more elixir? I mean, you guys did steal some, right?”
The woman took out a small knife, and Jazmine’s eyes flashed. In less than a second her blade was drawn as well—the long, scrap of metal she’d torn from a mechanical spider during the trials.
“Hold up, I just want to check her wounds,” the woman said, palms raised. Jazmine stepped aside, eyes wary, and the woman cut open Camina’s dress. A deep, ragged gash cut across her abdomen, and three more sliced through her arm, nearly to the bone. The blood was bright red against her pale skin and the white costumes we’d been forced to wear. My stomach twisted painfully.
She would already be dead, if not for the elixir in her system, but she’d probably burned through it all trying to keep her together.
“We should just leave her,” the young man repeated again. He was a few years older than me, in a green hooded rain jacket. Brown hair poked out around his ears, and stubble darkened his chin. His bushy eyebrows and an unfortunately crooked nose gave him a grumpy expression.
“She’ll just slow us down. She’s not going to make it, anyway.”
I grabbed him by the shirt and lifted him up over the edge of the cliff, letting his feet kick over the drop towards the churning rocks below. His eyes widened in panic.
I could feel the elixir burning inside me, giving me superhuman strength. I knew it made me reckless, irrational – but right now I didn’t care. My loose hair whipped in the wind. I probably looked as crazed as I felt.
“Let’s get one thing straight,” I growled. “I’m grateful for the little stunt you pulled in the arena, but I don’t know you, I don’t trust you, and I’m having a really, really bad day. So either you save my friend, or we can part ways right now.”
The man lifted a pistol and pointed it at my head. I turned and smirked at him. I was pretty sure I could disarm him before he pulled the trigger.
“Easy now,” the woman said. She pulled out a small glass vial from her bra and held it up. It was mostly empty, but there were at least a few more sparkly drops clinging to the bottom of the vial. She gently removed the cork and tilted the vial to Camina’s pale lips. I watched as the bright blue drops of glittering elixir rolled down past her teeth. I counted three – three times the weekly dosage humans were allotted during the renewal ceremony, but only a drop more than the daily allowance we’d received since becoming chosen. I prayed it would be enough.
The woman shook the vial, then held it up again to show me the empty container.
Only then did I release my grip on the man and set his feet back on the ground. He scowled at me like a frustrated teenager, even though he was probably in his early-twenties.
My arm was burning from lifting him so long, but I stuffed them in my pockets so he wouldn’t see me shaking.
“We’ve got to go,” the man said. “We’re too exposed here.”
“Go where?” Jazmine asked, looking around uneasily.
“I left a package of supplies nearby, for emergencies. We pick those up first, then head for higher ground. I know a place we can stay the night, even hole up for a few days if we have to.”
The slagpaw whined and licked its chops, then sat down awkwardly. I realized for the first time the beast had several arrows buried deep in its hindquarters.
I looked at him, trying not to be unnerved by the creature’s glowing red eyes and jagged rows of teeth. Even sitting, it was as tall as me. I’d never been this close to one before, or had the opportunity to really study the creature. Slagpaw were the shadow demons of children’s fairy tales. Few people saw them and lived to talk about it. But I knew this one meant me no harm. It was like a dog, but with the shoulders, muscles and arms of a large man, with long claws that practically dragged on the ground.
“This is going to hurt,” I whispered in his large furry ear.
The creature nodded, then I grabbed the first arrow and yanked it out. The beast yelped and shuddered, but didn’t bite my arm off at least. I removed two more arrows, then led him to the creek and washed the wounds, up to my ankles in shallow water.
“How are you even controlling that thing?” the younger man asked.
“I’m not,” I said.
“Then why hasn’t it eaten us yet?”
I didn’t know how to explain. I wasn’t sure I was ready. Jazmine looked curious as well, but if I thought about what I’d done, I’d come apart, and we didn’t have time for that.
“Let’s get somewhere safe,” I said. “Then I’ll tell you everything. By the way, I’m Emily. This is Camina and Jazmine.”
Camina stirred at her name, and I looked to see her wounds were already starting to close themselves up as the elixir worked its magic. It truly was a miracle.
“Frank,” the older man said. “That’s Luke and Beatrice.”
As we went deeper and deeper into the wild, further out than I’d ever been before, my pulse began to race and I jumped at every sound. I was no stranger to the wilds, but I was usually better equipped, with my father’s bow at least, and much more quiet.
Up above, cawing drew my eyes to a handful of large, dark birds that followed our progress. Probably waiting for us to submit to the ash or exhaustion. Most of the wild animals outside the compounds wouldn’t turn down fresh meat if they could get it. I knew that some plants struggled in the shade and grey skies, but even if they survived long enough to bear fruit, it wouldn’t be fit for consumption. That’s why we had the compounds, and the purification engines. The only place where humans could survive.
We climbed higher up the side of a mountain, trying to stay on the wide granite stretches between the sparse pine trees. We were more exposed, but the wind-swept ground didn’t leave tracks behind us.
Finally, Frank pointed out a rectangular entrance cut into the side of the hill, framed by large chunks of rotting timber and sealed with a metal door and pile of boulders. Up above us, the exposed metal ribs of a large construction jutted out from the rock, with hanging, rusted metal stairs and doors that led to nowhere.
“We’re going in there?” Jazmine asked, frowning. I knew what she was thinking; I grew up warned against the structures of the Before. They were unsound and full of danger. If they didn’t collapse on you, the poisonous ash or slagpaw would get you.
But I knew now, not everything I’d been told when I was younger was the truth, and we needed to get out of sight. Frank shoved the door aside with his shoulder, and it screeched against the rocky ground.
“Do you mind leaving your friend outside?” Luke asked. “He gives me the creeps, and it’s small enough in there anyway.”
“Stay,” I said, pointing at the covered area beneath a ledge. The slagpaw whined at first, but then licked my cheeks, turning around twice before settling into a furry ball.
Slowly we followed the others inside the dark mouth of the cave. Beatrice lit a small gas lantern, and held it up, leading the way. Frank and Jazmine supported Camina, who was walking unsteadily between them, with Luke and I bringing up the rear. It was so dark, I had to watch my steps, even though I could barely see my feet. I gasped as we crossed a thin wooden plank. It wobbled, sending a cluster of pebbles richoteting off the deep walls of a cavern. I heard them plunk into water far below.
Frank led us through the twisted tunnels of stone and metal, then through a narrow crevice into a small cavern, that looked semi-furnished. In the middle was a campfire, some pots and pans, and bundles of old clothes and fabric, stuffed together with leaves and straw for a makeshift mattress. Broken glass and tin cans sparkled in the darkness like a treasure hoard.
It smelled of rot and nature, but wasn’t foul – I realized the stench that had followed us since the citadel had been Trevor’s thick fur and the unnatural stink of a mutid.
Luke started working on a fire, and Beatrice strung up a line of cans near the door.
“So we’ll know they’re coming,” she said sheepishly, seeming to recognize that if the elite found us here, we’d be dead before the early warning hit our ears. Then she pulled out some folding chairs and set them up around the fire.
I sank into mine, crossing my arms. The sensation was uncomfortable, to say the least. In the stillness and darkness of the cave, the events of the last few days came rushing back, and I felt my eyes water. I’d been running on survival mode so long I didn’t know how to sit still. I literally didn’t know who I was anymore. Emily Sharrow wasn’t even my real name; my mother had confessed as much before she died. Damien told me I was a half-breed. An impossible, and possibly the only, elite offspring.
A genetic experiment, he suggested, just before I’d been arrested on charges of conspiracy to murder the crown prince. The look of betrayal in Damien’s eyes when they discovered the pistol in my pocket scorched my heart and filled me with shame. But he’d helped me escape, even after all that. I didn’t know where that left us.
Frank passed out a bowl of soup, some kind of tough meat and wild carrots, then the others looked at me expectantly, their eyes bright in the reflection of the fire.
“Curate Marcus is dead,” I began, creasing my hands in my lap. “I think… I think I killed him.”
Beatrice sucked in a breath, and Luke flinched. I saw his hand move towards his weapon, but Frank held up a hand for me to continue.
“I didn’t realize, I didn’t figure it out until… the slagpaw,” I said quickly. “They’re human. I think it’s what happens if you consume too much ash. King Richard, he wanted me to kill them, he wanted me to kill the rebel leaders. When they attacked us in the arena, we were just defending ourselves. I think the first one, it must have been Marcus.”
“And the second is Trevor,” Beatrice murmured, her eyes flicking towards the entrance. “That’s why he didn’t attack you?”
“Hold up,” Jazmine said. “Forgive a girl for asking questions, but what the hell is even going on? All I know is, trials. Then Camina was hurt, then people were shooting at us. I came with you to protect her, not to join some rebel alliance.”
“Trevor’s my friend, from Algrave,” I said. “I didn’t know he was a rebel, not until after I was chosen. Curate Marcus contacted me, they wanted me to join them. I wasn’t going to at first. But then… the way Richard treats us, you have to see it’s not right. He made Tobias kill Penelope, his own chosen.”
“She was a rebel,” Jazmine said, with a shrug.
“So?” I snapped. “She didn’t deserve to die. Not like that. When we went back to Algrave, it was to save my mother. Damien gave me elixir to save her, but then his guards came and started arresting people.” I flinched, remembering the truth. “The woman who raised me, the one I was trying to save, she was killed. They arrested me. The trials, it was supposed to bring me to heel. To prove King Richard could control me, by making me kill Trevor. But… I resisted him. When he realized he couldn’t compulse me, he would have killed me.”
“How is that even possible?” Luke said. I frowned, glancing around the circle, their faces red in the glow of the fire. I trusted Trevor, but I didn’t know anyone else here. Damien had sworn me to secrecy, but what did it matter now that the king knew I was renitent? He would hunt me down, which meant these people were in danger. They should know what they were getting into.
“Just before she died, my mother told me I was adopted; that my real mother was executed, and that my real father was an elite.”
“But that’s impossible,” Beatrice said, leaning forward.
“Apparently not,” I said. “Curate Marcus, he said it was because of my grandfather, John Patten. He stole something from the king – an antidote to the elixir. They think he did experiments on his own daughter, my mother, and that’s why she was able to get pregnant; and that’s why the king can’t compulse me.”
The silence lengthened, and I could tell the others were wary. I’d just confessed to a band of rebels that I was part elite. I was the enemy.
The moment was broken when Camina stirred, sitting up, her pale hair sticking to her warm face. Her fingers grasped for a weapon, before finding the large holes in her shredded shirt and checking her wounds carefully.
“What happened, where are we?”
“Don’t worry, we’re safe,” Jasmine said. “Outside the citadel.”
“What have you done?” Her eyes widened, taking in the rocky sanctuary. She rose to her knees, her legs shaking. “We’re escaped rebels now. We were raised to serve the elite. Loyalty, honor, courage. If I hadn’t been chosen, I would have applied to become a soldier or one of the king’s guard. This, this life, I don’t know how to do this.”
“But we can be free,” I said. “We can choose.”
“Are you serious?” She spat, glancing around at the cracked cement and creeping vines. “And what, live underground like rats? Hiding from elite and slagpaw forever?”
“You’re free now. You can choose your own path,” Beatrice said. “Like the rest of us.” Creases formed around her eyes as she smiled, handing Camina a bowl of soup.
“I didn’t choose this,” Camina muttered, turning away and facing into the shadows, away from the fire.
Despite my exhaustion, I couldn’t sleep. The stillness of the cave was broken by slow dripping water and a leathery rustling above that I suspected were bat wings. At any moment the king’s troops could slip into the darkness and slit our throats. And yet, I couldn’t stop thinking about Damien. Even after he thought I’d betrayed him, he still helped us escape. Did he think by letting me go, he’d be killing his own father? Probably not. At the trials, I almost tried, but I couldn’t risk hitting Jamie or Loralie. Damien couldn’t read my mind. I never had time to explain myself after getting arrested in Algrave. And now I’d run off with rebels. He probably thought I’d manipulated him from the start somehow.
My wide eyes searched the darkness. By the glowing embers of the fire I could make out faded graffitti on the cracked walls.
Vampires suck, wrote one in faded green paint, so old I could barely read it. I didn’t know if it was a joke or a warning.
The strongest shall survive, read another. It was the opposite of what I’d been raised to believe; that the two races could only exist together, symbiotic species that depended on each other for survival.
Death to Elites, read another, in scratchy writing that took up most of the wall. This was probably a rebel holdout, used since the race wars a century ago. When humans and elite had nearly destroyed each other, until King Richard saved them from the brink of extinction. This was the history I knew, at least. The history I’d been told. The very idea of killing elites sent a shiver down my spine; it was more than a sacrilege, it was a death sentence. Undermine the kingdom and the royal order, and we’d devolve back into decades of war, starvation, sickness and pain. Everyone knew this, and yet the rebels risked everything, trying to change the system.
I hoped Damien would be okay, that King Richard wouldn’t hurt his own son, but I wasn’t sure of anything anymore. In a few decades, he’d probably forget about me, like he had my grandfather.
In the meantime, I was all alone. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I didn’t know what came next. I wished Trevor was here, that I could talk with him. I sat up suddenly. Trevor was right outside. Would he stay a slagpaw forever? I remembered the scratchiness when I’d breathed too much poisonous ash; and coughing up dark phlegm. Without the elixir, I’d have died – or, perhaps, have changed, like Trevor. The elixir countered the effects of toxic poisoning. My heart pounded in my throat and I sat up suddenly. Was it possible Trevor was still in there, that the process could be reversed?
I glanced at my wrist, and glared at the bare skin where the bracelet used to be. I had no idea how much elixir was still in my system, but there had to be some. I wasn’t badly injured in the trials, which meant the unused elixir would stay in my blood longer, until I burned it up with activity.
I tiptoed back out of the cave, careful not to disturb any of Beatrice’s traps, until I opened the door to the mine and stepped outside into the cool night air. The flakes were light tonight, and I could see the patch of light behind the clouds that I knew to be the moon. I’d only seen it once, in a blood memory.
It reminded me of something else; something I’d seen when I kissed Damien at the gates and tasted his blood. A buried trunk, an unmarked grave. My eyes widened as I realized it wasn’t an accident. Damien had pushed that memory towards me; he must have bitten his own lip so he could pass me the information. It was a clue, a place to start looking.
But first, I needed Trevor. He wasn’t at the entrance where I’d left him. I felt exposed, looking out over the horizon. I could see the glowing towers of the capital, like jagged crystals against the dark mountains behind it. The citadel of lights. Coming from Algrave, it had always seemed like magic, but I knew now it was science and electricity.
I heard a deep Rumble that seemed to pierce through me. behind me and whirled around. My pulse spiked as I saw the slagpaw above me, a dark silhouette against the sky, on a boulder above the mines. His lip curled up in a snarl, displaying his gleaming white teeth.
“Trevor?” I asked cautiously. The beast jumped through the air and I ducked. It landed behind me and padded forward, its hair bristling.
He sniffed the air and his red eyes burned in the darkness, like twin coals. His claws clicked on the ground as he stalked forward, with a guttural growl I felt in my bones.
“Don’t eat me,” I said. “I think, I think I can still help you. If you drink enough elixir. I hope. Nod if you understand.”
What if it was too late, what if the Trevor I knew was already gone?
Tears welled up in my eyes at the thought, but I had to try anyway. I took the jagged shard of broken glass I’d grabbed in the tunnels and pierced my wrist, feeling the warm blood spill down my fingertips. Then I held them up away from my body.
The beast’s eyes grew round with surprise, and he whimpered.
“Do it,” I said, leaning forward. A gust of wind brushed past my dress, freeing my dark hair. It rippled in the moonlight. My white leather jacket, now shredded and torn, and chiffon pink dress, stood out like a rose against the barren landscape. I shivered, suddenly cold, as I cupped my palms into a bowl to pool the blood.
The dark shadow of the slagpaw hovered over me, hesitated a moment, then flicked out its rough tongue, licking my palms and wrists clean.
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