Raz surfaced in a dark lake, blinking water out of her eyes. It took a few seconds to get her breathing under control— desperate lungs strained inside her chest— and then she summoned the remainder of her energy to kick herself to the shore.
She pulled herself up with handfuls of sharp gravel, coughing and sneezing, to lie shivering on ground that was not dry, but thankfully solid. Above her a cavern disappeared into blackness. To her sides, nothing but rock and gravel. The lake pulled at her waterlogged trainers.
Now, if only she could remember how she got here.
Elizabeth knelt at the summit. Sage-smoke swirled around her, caught and thrown by a sharp wind as soon as it left the bundle of herbs she held cradled in her palms in an effort to keep it alight. Shadows rippled through the perfectly circular pool of dark water in front of her, fringed by wildflowers. They were straining against the wind; it threatened to rip them from their soil. Elizabeth whispered to them, comforted them. The sky darkened. Slowly, it began to rain, big, fat drops that burst open in cold splashes against the ground, against her bare skin.
The winds arrived first, heralding the coming storm. Cassidy sat on the covered balcony, watching them pelt hail down onto the streets below. A few people were still out, mostly businessmen rushing home from work. The homeless man who often sat in the doorway of the closed shop opposite the apartments was nowhere to be seen, and she hoped he was somewhere safer than this. It was going to be a strong one. She’d go down to the community shelter if it got too strong, but for now her four walls would be protection enough. She had work to do.
The second courier’s boots hit the rain-slick streets with the steady beat of a funeral drum. Her face looked pale and frightened in the sodium lights of shop windows as she ran past, casting frantic glances behind her every time she turned a corner. She quickened her stride and turned onto the main boulevard.
A single mistake. She saw the car pull up against the sidewalk and one of the windows open before she had time to stop running, twin barrels emerging.
Her stomach dropped. The rest of her followed, and she hit the floor with a wet thud.
The trees branched at knee-height, reaching up like hands. Ama sat cross-legged in one of them, an open book resting on her knee, while Rafael stood nearby and fired arrows into a target he had carved on a trunk on the opposite side of the clearing.
‘We should leave before nightfall.’ Ama stretched, then steadied the book as it started to slide off her lap. ‘If it’s dark, we can use the roads.’
Rafael’s gaze remained on the trees in front of him. ‘I’m still not sure if that’s a good idea. Could be anyone on the roads.’
Once they were through the forest, daylight was absolute. Occasionally the sky would darken momentarily, like a cloud passing across the sun, but patches of night were fleeting. They were being consumed by the day. Ahead of them, across a savanna glaring with heat, the ziggurats of the moon rose up like great stairs. It was a journey of days. They didn’t have days worth of food or water, but they could not go back either. To go back now would be to fail.
‘We have to press forward,’ the Sentinel said. ‘We may not make it, but we must.’
Was leaving more dangerous than staying here? It was a question that refused to leave my mind as we packed what we thought we’d need: food, blankets, what little medical supplies we had left. Of course, going was dangerous. But the longer we sat here the more complacent we became, and all the while our small stockpiles grew smaller. The decision to go hadn’t been unanimous, and I had forced it. Now I was the one having doubts, and the others were giving me dirty looks behind my back. I hoped that by doing this I hadn’t made everything worse.