I groaned. Pain racked my brain and my vision was swimming, but I had retained my consciousness. As my vision settled, I saw a redhaired boy lying motionless under a pile of burning wood.
“Ben!” I said as I made my way toward him.
His eyes twitched as I dragged him out from under the debris. He coughed and blinked his eyes open. I smiled and slapped his cheeks lightly.
“Come on, we have to keep moving.” I helped him up.
He stumbled when I let go, and held his ankle. He winced audibly. Cursing, I put his arm over my shoulder and stood up. He winced as I walked forward and tried to get as much weight off his bad foot as I could.
The tunnel was dimly lit by torches whose smoke made them almost redundant. We hobbled along until we reached a ladder.
“I can climb with one foot, I think,” said Ben as he leaned against the wall.
I let his hand slip off my shoulders and looked up the ladder that stretched out of view. I walked up to Ben, turned, crouched, and motioned for him to get on my back.
“No, I –” he began.
“Hurry up, those guys might come after us,” I said.
“Oh, for the love of…” I backed up into him, making him double over. As I stood up, his hands wrapped around my neck. I grunted, grabbed the ladder with both hands, and slowly ascended into the darkness.
There were no torches here so I could only keep putting one hand over the other, and hope for the best. A fainter darkness appeared above, and a breeze blew through my short, bristly hair. I grabbed the edges of the hole and lifted myself up. Panting, I let Ben get onto the edge first, before stepping onto solid ground.
We were in a courtyard under the open night stars. The hole we’d crawled out of appeared to be a well. Faint explosions echoed from beyond the walls behind us, as did cries and shrieks of pain and terror. The buildings on either side of the courtyard were shoddier than the ones that had been damaged in the fighting inside the walls.
Supporting Ben on my shoulders again, I walked down the road leading away from the wall. Even if we’d escaped the fighting, there would be guards searching the slums in the morning, looking for wounded rioters and their families.
The Collar’s part of Chart was a cesspool of poverty, disease, and misery. The streets were littered with junk and outlined by open sewage drains that overflowed with foul smelling wads of grey gunk. The houses were made of mud, with holes and collapsed walls to complement broken ceilings and tiny doorways.
When we’d first arrived, I’d noted how much larger the Collar’s part of town was here compared to in Sett. Sally had said it was because Chart had a larger population, and because Collars weren’t let inside the city. Jerome had added that many Cheeks couldn’t afford to live in the city either, so they moved outside the walls.
He’s also said that it was even worse in Devel and Bass.
“Where are we going?” asked Ben.
“Away from here,” I replied. Even though I wasn’t sure if I was going in the direction of Devel – the next city on the way to Bendeck – I felt confident that getting out of the city was our first priority. Finding Elenor and the others, was the second.
The streets were empty, and all the windows and doors that could be closed, were shut tight. Nobody wanted to be caught on the streets on a night like this, even if the guards were preoccupied with everything that was happening inside the city.
I saw a pair of black eyes peeking out from a window, but they vanished as soon as I met their gaze. I kept to the shadows as much as I could, while avoiding the open drains. I breathed heavily but it was the sound of Ben’s breathing that filled my ears.
I shifted his arm further up my shoulder. His warm breath fell on my neck as he winced from the pain in his ankle. Finally, after what felt like hours of trudging along dirty mud roads, we left the ramshackle mud huts behind, and got onto a hunting path that wound through an open plain.
Under the silvery moonlight, I saw a stone lying on a hill against the navy-blue heavens, and decided it would be a good place to get our bearings. The thought came to me immediately, just like all the other brilliant ideas I’d thought up on the spur of the moment tonight. My brain seemed particularly impressive at the moment, even to me.
Wind blew silver waves into the grass. A starry sky greeted me from above. Despite the soot in my hair, the dust in my mouth, and the injured friend on my shoulder, I felt pretty good. We’d made it out alive to enjoy a lovely night.
I climbed the hill and made sure to hide behind the rock before letting Ben slide off. I moved my stiff left arm and stretched my back. I took a deep breath and looked up at the moon and the stars.
I could never have seen a night sky like this back on Earth. Although I’d lost the House of Wisdom as soon as I’d gotten here, and been involved in one misfortune after another, this sight almost made up for it.
“Val, are you alright?”
I smiled. Cheeky little kid worrying about me despite the state he’s in. “Yeah, of course. Why wouldn’t I be?”
A soft thud, like something closing shut, echoed in my ear. As I exhaled the crisp night air, my energy flew out with it. The image of the front of a closed book imposed on my vision as I crumpled to the ground.
The image faded until there was only darkness.
Author’s Note: If you like the story, leave a comment below! You know, writing seems a lot more glamorous when all you’re doing is reading. As I reader, I’d project my thoughts to the author like: You’re in charge of the story, you can make the characters do whatever you want! Seems amazing, doesn’t it? Well it’s a terrible responsibility. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.