Ash’s world went fuzzy. No. No, that wasn’t possible–what this man was saying was impossible. Objectively impossible. Subjectively impossible. Improbable, too, yet from the inflection in the Original’s lofty voice when he said those words, she knew they were true.
Jax’s sister was alive. Alive and there, somewhere deep in the bowels of the caravan where a girl escorted from a cage on a leash was commonplace. One of them was alive, and Ash couldn’t even fathom how.
It was a story he had shared so many times throughout their journey, recalling details as they drifted from the ruins of place after place: remembering his sister’s eyes in the soot-stained capital, the beam that trapped his father in the backwoods of Virginia, how he strained against the crumbling pieces of house that had trapped his family. The imagery was as vivid in her mind as if she’d been there–Jax had seen the fire, the smoke, tried as hard as he could to lift the beams and rubble that trapped them in the dining room.
At that moment, the moment when those words dropped from those moist and frothing lips, she forgot all about her designation, her future, her horror at the endless suffering, her terror at her impending fate. Jax’s countenance held a fragile spark of hope weaved with the shock. He was hopeful, and she knew it would all come crumbling down. Soon.
Her plan could ruin it all, any chance for him to see his sister, but she knew she must. She refused to kneel there silently and become that awful man’s plaything. It wasn’t right.
Shoulders flexing, convalescing her energy, veins rushing, Ash knelt at the feet of a sociopath. Twitching. Panting. Don’t look up. Don’t move. Don’t blink. Now.
BOOM. A resounding thud pounded the road as her face slammed to the asphalt. Cheek pinned to the ground, stinging like a flurry of hornets stabbing her skin, Ash shot her legs out to the side in a wide scissor. Snap! The chains shattered in a clinking jolt, exactly as she’d expected–the rusted-out link was even weaker than she thought. A hand rushed at her shoulder and she rolled out of the way, clamoring to her feet.
Flash of metal. Her back seared, blade slicing deep through the thin fabric, shearing off hair. Punch. Fist. Connection. Burning through her knuckles. Sharpness, a whirl of arms and feet, sneakers slapped skin and metal tore through flesh and Ash fought and fought and fought. A blur of motion. A knife clattered to the ground. She seized it, slicing at the mass of bodies crowding around her, slashing at the remains of her chains.
The crowd thinned. The air was thick with blood and metal. She had made a dent in the tide; guards howled with their wounds, staggered back, fell to the road. They would keep coming. She didn’t have time to recover. Those people who Rita had referred to only as Them clouded Ash like mosquitos, returning in thick, overwhelming swarms the instant she batted them away.
She caught sight of Jax, kneeling in the fray. She pushed towards him, slashing a path with her knife, ripping herself from the desperate hands.
She reached him. He was screaming something. She couldn’t hear him, couldn’t make out the lip movements or attribute them to words. Slashing down hard, his chains shattered under the blade. Jax leapt to his feet, grabbing a man by the ear and ripping the blade from his hand. Then he paused, glittering knife still clutched in his calloused fingers. Ash thought he looked like an angel from an old scripture: a young man with golden hair, streaked in sunlight and soot, frozen in the churn of battle.
The image seemed so familiar, so ironic that it took her a hot second to retract from the fantasy and move her limbs. He looked beautiful, so perfect, so blazing and glorious. Why was he standing there? Why wasn’t he fighting?
Ash jabbed her elbow out, sensing a presence, felt the crack of bones under her skin. Blood sprayed her brow. A quick glance, Jax was still frozen; a wild man careened towards her. Flashing metal—razor blade bared in his palm.
He lunged towards her. She tripped back, flailing for balance and a pair of arms grabbed her in a visceral grip, throwing her to the ground. Knife spun away across the highway. The world swayed above her. Black tread above her. Blank faces above her. The blue sky, clear and dulcet loomed above her and she panicked. Bucked uselessly.
The boot descended.
Her air exploded from her lungs. A beat of rest like an orchestra on a grand pause, she attempted to roll over and heard a pop, not good, and the boot descended again, hurtling into her side. Hot bursts of pain crackled through her ribs. She clawed the simmering ground. No purchase. Where was he? Where was he?!
Ash roared and kicked up, nausea tossing her stomach through a roller coaster loop, vision like a poorly produced action movie with an unsteady camera.
Four figures lifted her off the ground, one for each limb. Ash writhed, a demon of messy hair and snapping teeth, searching for a victim to rip into. She couldn’t reach. Couldn’t reach. Where was he?
She heard the clamp of manacles encircling her wrists. Exhausted. Pathetic. Tired beyond lifting a finger, Ash was laid yet again at the feet of the Original. The one she would serve for the rest of her foreseeable future, forever and ever until she was shelled out and hollow of fighting spirit.
“Would you still like this one to be your Wife? Or should she be staked and roasted, like the other Rebels?”
Ash thrashed once. A plastic face against a blue sky. This wasn’t what she wanted. This shouldn’t be her last memory. She should be in school right now, climbing out the bathroom window, scaling the wall down to sneak off to the ice cream shop on the corner.
“No. This one has a spirit to her. I believe she has a special set of skills which could be useful for more than my own pleasure.” Her eyes bugged. She wouldn’t be a Wife, so what was the use for her? And still, where was Jax? Resentment joined in with the delightful tea party in her gut, other guests being the usual: terror, fury, denial, hopelessness, regret.
Fury because he could’ve saved her. Regret because she had set him free, and he had stood there while she was beaten and restrained. Hopelessness because Ash could have escaped without him, and she had squandered her last shot.
“Knock her unconscious. I will attend to her later.”
A fist flew at her skull. The world went black.
Voice. His name was being called somewhere in the crowd. Young, desperate, pleading voice that cut through the battle like an arrow and his eyes roved over the swell of people and…
Jax’s breath hitched. He stood completely still, frozen in time and she was there. Far off in the distance. The knife in his hand slipped and clinked to the ground, quickly snagged by an emaciated figure and carried away to god-knows-where. He didn’t care. The world collapsed and folded, and the same tunnel vision he had during football games clicked into place. All that he knew were a few facts built into this moment in time.
Number 1: Caroline was alive, far away in the writhing mass of chaos in the caravan.
Number 2: The people of the caravan were rioting. Everywhere he looked there was blood and blades, and if the sole goal was to capture Ash, this would have been over in seconds. Something was happening. There was unrest.
Number 3: His chains were broken. Slashed and clattered to the road. And nobody had noticed, or maybe nobody cared about one skinny bag of bones. This was his chance.
Jax was sprinting. Yelps and battle cries flooded the air around him; he cut through it all like a swimmer propelling through the water, the individual groans and screams condensing into a static held in the back of his thoughts. Background noise: how easily a cacophony became background noise when your sister’s voice rang in your ears. Your dead sister.
Corpses toppled in his path. Ragged women grabbed at his shirt, dying men on the ground yanked at his shoes, undoing the laces beyond what he could run in. Kicking the strings in front of him, Jax’s gait fell into an awkward pattern, he looked up and she wasn’t too far. Caroline. A necklace of iron clamped around her neck, a man holding her on a chain-link leash. His legs burned beneath him. She screamed and his heart failed, stomach retching acid through his throat when Caroline thrashed against the chains. Throwing one foot in front of the other, he watched as her eyes widened and–
“Jackson! Watch out!” He turned just in time to see a man barreling towards him. He leapt to the side, a great whoosh of air as the man dove to the ground. A sick crunch of bones erupted through the static and Jax realized suddenly that the man hadn’t been coming for him. He had been tackling someone, a small child with close-cropped hair. And it sounded fatal.
The burly man quickly moved on, charging after a slave with the intensity of a bull in a room of red flags. Jax didn’t look at the crushed body of the child, couldn’t bear to even if he tried; the tunnel vision was gone. Plundering forth with renewed energy, Jax reached Caroline in moments and got his first good look at her.
The bouncy, gravity-defying pigtails perched on her head were long gone. The silky blonde hair their mother had stroked looked like dried corn husks: matted and dull against her scalp, unwashed, limp. Her legs were twigs on her body. A smear of dirt wiped across her brow. The infuriating iron collar around her neck, the one that tethered her to her keeper, a cage looming over them, casting its shadow down onto her thin figure.
What he saw in her eyes scared him. It wasn’t an empty, glassy surface on emotions forced away. This was the stare of someone who felt everything, incapable of pushing aside her fear and despair. Gaze broken. Horrified. Haunted.
Caroline was alive. Tethered to a guard–a guard. Argh.
Jax faltered back when he was just steps from her, ignoring the pleading in her eyes. Why hadn’t he kept that knife? Why didn’t he pick it up? Fighting away panic, he searched the area. Finally he spotted a blade on the road in a dead man’s grip. He didn’t waste time prying it from the still-warm fingers.
The guard growled when he approached, baring a dull-edged shiv. Jax winced inwardly but couldn’t conjure a solution to get close enough without being cut. So he did the unthinkable.
He threw the knife. It sliced through the air, embedding itself in the man’s upper chest. He bellowed, deafening roar splitting the cacophony. He toppled. Blood blossomed from the wound. Caroline gasped and ran to Jax, throwing herself against his chest; she was so thin he could feel every rib in her body through his shirt. Gently as he could manage he threw her over his back, weaving through the crowd. They were reaching the outer left edge of the caravan, riot still roaring around them under the blistering sun, and finally, finally, they broke through.
Jax didn’t look back for a moment. He sprinted into the field, snatching on thickets, skin stinging with burs and thorns. He didn’t look back, not until he could no longer hear anything but the rush of his blood in his ears and the thump of Caroline’s sneakers on his shoulder blades. He lowered her down.
“Caroline, I…” he searched her eyes for the answers to a question he couldn’t formulate. “How did…why are…you? What…why…I just don’t–”
She took his hand, holding a finger to her lips, and he glanced around. Was there someone watching them? Was someone coming?
“Jackson, I’ll tell you everything. There’s a few things I need to say and they’re really important, so I need you to listen.” His eyes widened. Her speech was so articulate, measured–she’d called him Jackson, just like she always did. He hadn’t heard that name in a long time. It seemed like forever. He nodded mutely. If Caroline wanted to speak she would speak; whatever she had to say was five times as important as him.
“I do have a lot to say. Starting with the sun. At the house, I watched through the window as it burst and glowed red, brighter than all the stars in the sky. It scorched the Earth. The Sun’s Burn.” Jax nodded, tilting his head quizzically.
“What about it?”
Her lips quirked into a smile, freckle-sprayed nose scrunching like she knew a secret he didn’t. He rolled his eyes.
“What about the Burn, Caroline?”
“I predicted the expansion and scorching of the Sun.” She smoothed her hair back like she was the slyest person in the world. “I don’t need to say it, but here it is,” she paused dramatically, heaving a breath,
“I told you so.”
Jax groaned and pulled her close. And somewhere, far off through a tangle of overgrown wheat and thorns, Ash was unconscious, surrounded by a caravan of murderers and slaves.