The Keld is an okay place if you can ignore the smell. And the lack of space. And the strongly enforced rules punished by very public punishments. Other than those… and the walls… it’s practically paradise on earth.
At least that’s what everyone else thinks.
Walter knew better.
But he’s gone now.
And it’s up to us to get ourselves out of here before it’s too late.
The night is quiet, the full moon casting everything in silver lighting that makes me feel vulnerable. Zeke’s cloak brushing against his wings in front of me makes a swishy sound, and my heartbeat feels so loud in my head that I keep looking over my shoulder expecting a squadron of Striders to escort us back to our rooms.
Or to the factory.
We reach the doorway at the base of the wall, and Zeke pulls a key from his breast pocket. His short cropped hair peeks out from the hood of his cloak, and in the moonlight, I see the glint of his dark eyes. He shoots me a look, holding up the key, and I shrug. Still not fully convinced Damian actually wanted to help us, but he was our best shot… and he hasn’t ratted us out yet…
Maybe he does have a conscience, after all.
Zeke puts the key in the hole, turning it as carefully as he can.
I hold my breath.
The door opens with a soft click, and we stare into a dark narrow passageway. The air coming from it is somehow colder than outside. I feel the hairs on my neck rise despite there being no wind.
Zeke nudges me with a bony black wing. ‘’You first.’’
I roll my eyes, regretting not having any sort of light on me, but grit my teeth and continue forward.
‘’Walter owes us,’ I mumble as the door closes and darkness swallows everything.
Our eyes don’t really adjust to the lack of light, but we start feeling our way up a narrow set of stinky stairs that seems to continue forever. I think of the Striders, who have to climb these multiple times a day to shift patrols. It’s hard enough for the two of us, and we’re not exactly tall or broadshouldered (both of which the Striders are in excess). I can’t understand how their massive crimson wings would even fit in here without getting scraped or cut by the course walls.
Instead of pitying them, though, I relish the thought that their lives might be even a bit miserable.
They deserve worse.
Just as I’m thinking about the worst kind of staircases I would make the Striders climb if given the chance, I walk straight into another wooden door. Pain shoots up my nose and water stings my eyes.
Zeke is immediately by my side, hands on my shoulders, asking if I’m okay. I can’t tell whether I’m bleeding or not, but that doesn’t matter. We’re too close to be deterred by minor injuries. I gesture for him to get the key and open the door. He fumbles for a bit, and everything feels loud again.
Skies, please, please, please don’t let anyone notice us now.
Zeke pulls the door open, and my knees almost buckle with relief.
We’re on the wall.
We’re on the wall and we’re not supposed to be here, but we are, and nobody knows.
Because we’re getting out.
I stretch my arms and wings wide, breathing it in. Seeing the real horizon for the first time in my life, albeit blended with dark shades and blurry lines, stirs my soul and I almost laugh with dizziness.
I reach forward, stupid enough to believe I could touch the moon if I reached far enough. I don’t even care, I’m just this close.
But my fingers don’t meet open air. Instead, there’s soft resistance. Almost springy. Tingles run up my spine and I try to curl my fingers around it but it’s stiff. I move my hand up and it’s still there. Walk along it for a while.
My heart beats in my throat as I run along the edge of the wall, trying to find a way out, anything to tell myself this isn’t really happening.
Fine enough that we could never see it from where we lived -not that anyone but Walter ever bothered to wonder- but strong enough to keep those who dared trapped…
Or is it?
I look at Zeke and I know he knows what I’m thinking because he shakes his head. But it’s too late:
I bundle my cloak, fold my wings in and throw myself forward at full throttle, vaguely aware of Zeke shouting. I’m weightless for a moment, and I’m just wondering what exactly I plan to do so as to not splatter to pieces when I reach the bottom (clipped wings aren’t exactly useful in this scenario), when I feel my momentum shift.
I stop falling.
And bounce right back.
I nearly topple right over the other side, too, but Zeke catches me. There’s hardly any time to feel my spirits sink into my boots before he’s pulling me down as well, hiding behind a lookout post. If it weren’t for the wire we’re resting our backs against, we’d be falling into the open sky.
But that’s the least of my worries right now because…
Uh oh. No no no no. Not now. Of all times, not now.
Hard footsteps sound on the stone wall. Several. A group. Lights flicker, shining in our direction. My heart pounds in my throat. I squeeze my eyes shut, trying not to cry. Zeke’s hand folds over mine and I hold onto it tightly.
I choke back a sob because I know exactly who the voice belongs to.
Strands of hair stick to my forehead but my hands are too shaky to wipe them away.
‘’Kemper,’ Zeke whispers, fumbling for something in his pocket.
‘’Yeah?’’ I’m barely breathing, waiting for the light to shine on us, expose us, for Damian to drag us out of our hiding spot and into the factory, even though we’re definitely not old enough but dangerous secrets require dangerous methods…
Just like Walter…
‘’Kemper,’ Zeke whispers my name again, and I turn around to face him. He points downwards: there, clear in the bright silver light, I can make out a tangle of something. A nest?
I look closer, and feel my heartbeat accelerate.
It’s a gap torn in the wire.
Zeke’s hands are moving frantically, tying the rope around the post, and dropping the other end off through the hole, down the wall. It spools into complete darkness without a sound.
‘’Kemper, look at me.’’
‘’Take my knife. Get out of here.’’
‘’What about you?’’
‘’I’m have a score to settle.’’
The footsteps are closer this time, the candlelight moving faster towards us.
I can barely keep my voice down.
‘’You’re telling me this now?’’
‘’Kemper.’’ Zeke takes my face in his hands, and I try to ignore the way they’re warm and feel nice on my skin, because he’s an idiot. ‘’I promised Walt.’’
I want to push him away, but there’s only so much space behind the lookout post and I can’t risk being seen.
One of the worst things that could have happened tonight, is happening right now.
‘’Zeke, you’re wasting time. Leaving is score settling enough! Walter would understand!’’
‘’I’ll be right behind you, I promise.’’
He pulls me close and kisses my forehead softly. He smells like cinnamon and woodfire, like lemongrass and cedar, but all I’m thinking about is how much of a stupid decision he's making.
Then he gets on his haunches, and with one last look over his shoulder, jerks his head towards the gap. ‘’Go.’’
He jumps up, and I’m left cold and alone behind the lookout post. Every fiber of me is screaming that this is wrong, that he should be coming with me.
Still, I put his knife in my pocket.
Still, I squeeze myself through the gap in the wire.
Still, I lower myself down the wall.
Every aching second is an inch closer to freedom, and I find myself trying to hurry up, moving faster down the rope. The course fibers sting my cold hands, they start feeling numb, but I keep going, telling myself I’m almost there, I’m almost there, he’s right behind me…
My cloak is getting hot and sticky, the backpacks feel as if their weight has doubled, but I’m almost near the ground. I stop moving, take a quick breather, and lift my feet to rest against the wall.
Sudden pain punches into my thigh, shooting down to my knee. Instinctively I curl up, but that just makes it worse. I clamp my hand over my mouth, biting it to not howl in pain and frustration.
And completely forget the fact that I’m still supposed to be holding onto the rope.
I feel myself slipping, make desperate grabs for something to hold onto, anything, but the wind in my ears is confusing and I fall.