Epilogue

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Charlie

There was a light at the end of the dimly lit tunnel. Cliché, but so blessedly true. I sprinted for it, too tired to be running the way I was and doing it anyway. My legs felt like jelly and all of my joints were breaking into smaller joints.

I reached the end of the tunnel; it was boarded up with the same bamboo-looking planks that we used Siguth. I hadn't brought anything with me to break down the boards with, so I just stared at the entrance to Abannon, willing it with the sheer power of my mind to collapse. I was so close. In a futile attempt, I tried to pull the boards from their stationary position, yanking as hard as I could until my elbows felt like they were going to fall off.

I moved back and away from the seemingly impenetrable entrance and crossed my arms. The stubborn prick. Tane was beyond those planks, just waiting for someone to find her. I could hear muffled yelling, but it was distant. Horrible flashes of the possibilities plagued me for the next three minutes as I decided how to proceed. They could be doing some sick ritualistic sacrifice of Tane. They could be pitting her against a mutated Feeder gladiator style for their sick amusement. They could be giving her an unfair trial. Okay, that last one didn't make much sense, but I was extremely unsettled.

And like most young, fairly strong males, I figured violent force was the best way to fix this problem. I hauled off and threw the hardest punch I could manage at the middle board. My hand came away with a little skin missing from a couple of the knuckles. The next natural reaction was to crumble to my knees and whimper.

After a few moments, I got back on my feet. And punched the board again. And again. This repeated for until it felt like my bones turned to ash inside of my skin. I could see the blood stick to the boards, imprinting my memory with every hit. The boards started to crack after I thought that my hands were goners, and my muscles were on fire. I started using my shoulder, ramming the barricade as zealously as my body would let me. I watched the lowest board finally collapse off-center. This gave me a new sense of strength where there was none. I threw my body against the remaining two boards and heard the most satisfying noise. I heard the breaking boards and then the waterfall of sand or dirt come cascading down after them.

I limped toward the gaping hole, relieved that more light was flooding in. With more difficulty than I thought possible, I crawled through the gap and looked around.

I could hear the screaming and yelling and music now, much louder than before, but I couldn't see much. Just a bunch of crates. They were stacked as if specifically put to obstruct my view of Abannon. I pushed until I was completely out of the Earthen, and I lay there on the dirt floor of Abannon too sore and exhausted to do anything else.

I remained this way for a while, convincing myself that everyone was too busy watching Feeder gladiators to come check behind a small tower of crates. My breath came sporadically, and when it did, it was in a gasp or groan. I could have been lying there for fifteen minutes or an hour. I slipped in and out of a hazy state of consciousness, too light to be called real sleep.

When I awoke for the seventh time, it was to the sound of a nearby empty crate creaking under new weight. I jumped up into a crouch, my weary eyes trying to see everything at once. It took me too long to see her, to recognize who she was. My gaze passed her over at least twice.

It was her hair that made me stop on her. I watched that hair blow behind her almost sadly in the pleasant breeze. She sat atop a crate as if she didn't expect to ever get down from it. Her hands sat neatly in her lap, the exact place her stare occupied as well. Either she was deep in thought or unbelievably depressed. Neither would have surprised me.

I knew that if I approached her as I was, she would have too many questions which would take too long or cause a scene or a number of other distracting events. So I moved with as much tired stealth as I could muster, creeping behind her until I could smell whatever soap she'd last bathed in. It didn't occur to me that she shouldn't have smelled like cleanliness, since she'd been in the Land of the Ravenous Children for almost a moon season. What occurred to me was that the girl my world revolved around was alive and in front of me.

Once I was close enough, I snatched her by her waist. Surprisingly, she did not thrash or yell or even tense up in my arms. She was so resigned, so ready to be abducted. Had they prepared her to be taken again? Is that why she had been sitting on the crates? I could not be sure, so I ran as fast as my legs would carry me back into the Earthen, plunging us both back into darkness. At least I'd gotten a few sweet moments of real air.

It didn't hit me that Tane was in my arms until we were both standing in the dark, panting. Her thin frame leaned against mine; I could feel how scared she was. Why hadn't she screamed or fought? We were still in the first few feet of the Earthen that was shrouded in shadow; the light from the close-by exit didn't reach us.

Gently, to assure her that I wasn't a threat, I maneuvered her into the light. I couldn't find my voice. All of my actions, every single step I'd taken since I'd woken up an angel had led me to this moment. Each panic attack, each sore muscle, every black eye, every conversation had led me to seeing her face. When she did come into the wavering light—the torches against the wall like a godsend—her eyes were already trained to mine.

Something clenched in my stomach, something harsh and demanding. It was her. It was her face, and her eyes, and her ears. I'd planned this very second out a thousand times in my head and a hundred more in my dreams, and yet I was frozen. I should have lifted a hand to touch her face. I should have said something straight from a movie (How was she going to know?). But I just stood there, tired and in awe.

She seemed to be doing much better than I. She was nearly glowing, and clean, very clean. I wasn't sure if it was in the Fismuthian Book of Banishing to exile someone in the prettiest attire they had, but she'd certainly gotten it from somewhere. Her eyes narrowed as if she didn't understand. She looked lost for words as well, but she found them before I did.

"Charlie?"

Her voice stunned me for a moment. I had recreated it in my mind when replaying the conversations we'd had, but never had it sounded like that. Maybe it was just because she had said my name. My actual name. No one had said my name since I'd been dragged. I nodded, my wings fluttering a bit behind me.

"How?"

"Dragged."

"When?"

"Seven moons past."

Those were the only questions that seemed to be absolutely vital to ask, because we fell into another silence. We both stood in front of the other, observing, remembering, and definitely not speaking. She took a step closer, and it was like we were back in my bedroom on Earth. The same startled, excited, scared feeling when she was near.

There were only a few things I was certain of: the deliciousness of pollutts, the unfair labor that workers had to do, and what side I was going to fight for during the war I was sure was coming. I could only hope that Tane would be with me when I picked up a weapon against the Prestigious. She wouldn't rejoin them after what they'd done to her. Granted, it didn't look like they'd done much other than put her in a pretty dress and sent her on her merry way, outlining all of the Abannonian resort hotels at which she could stop and rest. But there was no way she'd come out unfazed.

Gradually, Tane reached out her right hand to me. Before I could think to take it, she was already moving it past my head. Her small hand settled on the arch of my wing, her stare fastened there as well. I tried to stay still; no one but Fith had touched my wings. Even then it was just to secure my training harness. But this was an actual touch. This was a connection. Her fingers spanned the entire length of my wing until she decided to stroke the feathers there. Then she was looking at me dead-on, as if piecing together that I was a worker. That I was there in front of her. I recognized it because my mom used to do the same thing.

"Charlie," she whispered again, taking my hand in hers as if I'd finally become a solid thing. And then suddenly, I was.


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