Tori woke to the drip-drip-dripping sound of water. When she opened her eyes, she saw nothing but darkness. The ground beneath her was cold, wet stone and the air smelled of gangrene and decay. Around her wrists were a pair of iron shackles connected by a short chain. She supposed she was in the deepest dungeons of the citadel.
Her body was stiff but, to her surprise, upon feeling at the wounds in her shoulders and sides, she found them healed. How long was I out?
Why was she here at all? How was it the Chancellor had not let the Metamorphi slaughter her right there in the square? Make her an example for what she'd done.
What she'd done…
There was something eating away at her memory. All of it, the power she'd released, the attack of the Metamorphi, took her back to the day her mother and sister were killed.
Lazarus the blacksmith had hurried her from the market. As the village plunged into mayhem, as the creatures bore down upon Tori's mother and sister in the square, Lazarus took her by the hand and led her into the Forest of Ghen. At first, they ran. For miles, deep into the forest. Then, when they were far enough away, they walked, trekking through the melting snow. Beneath a towering boulder in the heart of the wood, Lazarus had stored a satchel with a few days' rations. He made camp, but no fire, and they ate dried venison.
"What were those things?" she'd asked, the tears welling up for the hundredth time.
"Dark creatures," said Lazarus. "Hunters for the Supreme Chancellor."
"W-why did they…"
"The Metamorphi hunt magical creatures."
"But my family… we're not…"
Lazarus touched her shoulder gently. "This winter was the hardest I've seen in a dozen years. Many died in our village. We all nearly starved before the traders could come through the pass. Your mother risked magic for the sake of you and your sister, to extend your rations. Not much, just enough for you and your sister to live. But the Metamorphi have been trained to sense the use of power, even harmless things like creating a little extra food. Your mother died to save you. Never forget that."
Tori cried for some time that night and Lazarus wrapped his arms round her. She had never before longed for death, no matter how hungry or cold or worn she'd been, but she could not imagine life without her family.
For three days they trudged through the melting snow of the Forest of Ghen. At night, the trees whispered. Her dreams were filled with horrors. Her mother and Emilia were there, but not quite themselves. Tori slept little in the forest.
When they reached the outskirts of the Fringes of Osha, Lazarus had knelt beside her and taken her hand.
"Astoria, you must listen carefully to me. You are special, but you can never let on what you are."
"But I can't do magic," she pleaded.
Lazarus smiled as he left her at a safe house in the Fringes. "That's right," he said. "And you never will."
As Tori lay in her cell, she realized Lazarus had known this would happen, that one day her power would be revealed. She was special. But what did it mean?
What had become of Darien? She hoped he was alive. That the Chancellor hadn't finished the execution once she was captured. Perhaps he'd escaped in the madness. Though, she knew it was a fool's prayer.
There was a clank and a squeal of metal against metal, and then a door across the cell opened.
A pair of guards entered first, bearing torches that blinded her at the sudden light. They stood by the door as another form entered the cell.
"You'll have five minutes," said one of the guards.
The form stepped toward her. The torches disappeared, and they were alone.
"I am afraid not," said General Scelero.
She couldn't believe her master, of all people, would visit her in her cell. But —
"Darien," she choked. "He isn't…"
"No, Tori, he isn't dead." A rush of relief swept over Tori. "He is on his way to the Battle School. After the events in the square yesterday, he was taken into custody. He and the other drafted soldiers were sent away this morning." Yesterday. It has only been one day? But my wounds? How did they heal so quickly?
The General sounded strained, as though plagued by exhaustion. She wondered what had been done to him after the hanging. One of his servants had defected. The other had destroyed the Chancellor's symbol of dominion and power and killed two of his guards. Tori was overwhelmed with shame. The General had rescued her from the Fringes, had been nothing but good to her, and she had shamed him in front of his Master.
"Master, I'm so sorry, I don't know what came over me."
The General's voice was steady and soft in the dark. "I do," he said. And that was all he said for some time.
"Why am I still alive?"
He stepped closer, groaning. "The Chancellor is a curious man. But he is calculated. I think he finds some amusement in all this. There are rumors spreading on the streets since you revealed your… ability. The Chancellor may let these spread a while. Then, he will end them. Of that, I am sure."
Tori trembled at this thought. It was a game to the Chancellor. Her ability meant nothing. It was no resistance. She was a pawn in his Shadow Legions, even here. He would use the gallows incident to further his dominion over the people of Osha. Even defectors could not die at their own whims. Those who resisted would be crushed.
The door rattled as the guards pounded on it from the other side.
"I must go." The General stepped closer, pulled her into an embrace. He had never hugged a servant before that Tori could remember. Scelero was kind. Sometimes, he would take a servant by the hand or brush their shoulder at a job well-done. But never this. Tori didn't question it, though. She was so shaken by everything that had happened, and now, she was at the mercy of the Chancellor's whims. She sank into her Master's mighty chest, wrapped her arms around him and returned the embrace. At her touch on his back, the General cringed and let out a soft groan.
"What did they…"
The General shook his head. He held her a moment longer, then backed away. "I am sorry it happened this way," he said. "Goodbye, Astoria."
Tori's mouth gaped. She never once told the General her true name.
The door opened and the guards returned. As one of the guards turned to close the door, his eyes flashed in the torchlight, yellow with slitted pupils.
The Metamorphi were guarding her cell.
Tori spent what she thought was a full week in the cell without a visitor. She based this off the number of times she'd eaten. Once a day, at least so it seemed, a slit at the bottom of her door would open and a plate with stale bread, a fermenting apple, and a cup of water would come through. This filled her for about an hour, and she spent the rest of the day hungry, trying not to guess how long it would be before her next meal. Little slivers of light peeked through the base of the iron door to her cell and Tori found, once her eyes grew accustomed, she could see rather well in the dark.
Though there was nothing to see. The room was about eight feet squared with no chairs, no windows, no drainage vents, nothing. Nothing but a small bucket to do her business, which now reeked horribly.
Her thoughts kept returning to Lazarus. To the days in the woods with the old man after her mother died. It had never occurred to her to ask then, how Lazarus knew so much about what happened. He was an old sage and she was only a child. She had grown up hearing his tales and wisdom. The children of the village would gather round his fire and he would tell stories of when the Gods walked the Earth, when the Watchers had kept the peace in the world like valiant knights, and in the dead of winter, when hope was waning, sometimes Lazarus would tell of the days when magic had remained in the world.
But he had known she was special. He had known what she was. The General had spoken of rumors around the city. Of course, those could only be one thing.
But is that what I am? Is that what this means? Was my mother a Watcher? Or do the servants spread rumors because they are holding onto myth? Like little children who believe in ghost stories.
Ol' Merri thought the legends true. Most fringers held onto the stories of super-powerful beings sent by the Gods to watch over humanity, but Tori had never heard of anyone seeing one before.
Tori could not understand what had happened in the square. She could not recreate the sense that had come over her when she destroyed the gallows and killed those guards. For the past week she'd tried. She reached out with her senses, tried to focus, to rediscover the incredible awareness that had come over her. But the world of her cell appeared as it always had, blocks of stone stacked to form this cube of a room. Her mind had no effect on it. She thought often of Darien, what horrors he might be enduring in the Shadow camps, how she'd failed him, how she'd taken away his quick death, taken away the power of his attempted resistance. Despite what happened, they were both the Chancellor's puppets.
What if he was punished too, like the General? His back! The General. He had been beaten because of her!
But no matter how outraged, how guilty, how desperate she felt, she could not summon her power.
What did it matter, anyway. The Metamorphi were outside her door.
How will I die? Starvation? Torture? After the Chancellor has fed the people hope, will he mount my head on a spike? A symbol to replace the gallows I destroyed?
The days crawled by. It was horrible to be left alone with haunted thoughts, no one to dissuade the fear, the guilt, the despair. Tori began to lose track of where her dreams ended and her days began. In the dark stink of her cell, as her body weakened from hunger pangs and thirst, she lost herself in her own mind.
She imagined Darien coming to her rescue, waking from slumber to the sound of swords clashing outside her cell. Then, her best friend burst in, cut off her shackles.
"It's all right, Tori," he said. "We're safe."
She crossed the cell only to find the door sealed firmly shut. And she was alone. Ever alone.
The hallucinations never turned dark. It was as though her mind was keeping her going, filling her with false hope. She dreamed of feasts and sunshine and green meadows, while she lay in the cold darkness, starving. One day, her mother came for her, back from the dead. She'd survived the Metamorphi attack, by some miracle.
"I'm so sorry I left you all this time."
"Why didn't you tell me? What I was — what we were!"
Her mother smiled, her lips red and full of life. Her eyes sparkling bright like little pieces of night sky. "I had to keep you safe, my love. I have always been keeping you safe."
Tori grew fond of the hallucinations. They kept her company, kept her mind off the fact that the next time the cell door opened, they might be leading her to die.
When Lazarus came for her, she told him straight away, "I know this isn't real. You left me in the Fringes to fend for myself, and I can keep fending for myself. You're not really here. So you might as well go."
The old man laughed. When he laughed, his whole body shook, just the way it had in the village of Capshaw when she would come begging for more stories in the middle of the working day.
I should just write a book so you can read and I can get some work done!
But Lazarus would always tell her stories. She would sit on sacks of grain in the corner of his shop, while he pounded away, building scythes and plow blades, and she would listen enraptured. With his laugh, it all came rushing back.
"Of course, I'm not really here, little Story," the hallucinated Lazarus said. He had always liked to play off her name and her obsession with his tales. It was his own nickname for her. "But why should that mean it's not real?"
Lazarus disappeared and Tori was left alone once more, lying on the floor of her cell.
Outside the door, there was a thudding sound, like sacks of flour being dropped from the carts at the Oshan City markets. She had never heard a sound like that outside. Sometimes murmurs when the little slot opened with the delivery of food. But no food came through this time.
After a few moments, the door clanked. A lever lifted out of place, and then there was a creak and a crack of light at the door.
This was it. They had come for her at last. How long has it been? Weeks? Months? Now, it will be over.
But the crack did not grow larger. The door did not open any wider, and no one entered her cell.
After several moments, she investigated, crossing the cell cautiously, expecting one of the Metamorphi to burst through any second. She felt at the crack. The door was opened about an inch, the keys hanging from the lock.
Someone was helping her escape!