15: What Rough Beast

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Ever woke up coughing. The right side of her neck was stiff and sore and her hair had come loose from its braid where her head rested against the cold, damp wall. Her throat was dry and swollen. The walls of their dank prison were moldy, and she knew from experience in the infirmary what breathing in too much of the stuff could do to a person.

Acel was still asleep in the adjacent corner of the small cell, his chin on his chest. They had both gotten as far away from the grimy iron bars as they could, for whatever good it would do them. The cellblock was small, a short hallway with two holding cells on either side. She could see the dark shapes of Rolan and Chy in the cell across from them. The only light came from a narrow, barred window at the end of the hall.

From what she had seen of Jerusalem on the way in, the ruined city had become a hive of Marmack activity, though her first glimpse of an apostate stronghold wasn't quite what she expected. The people she saw were rundown and dissolute, certainly, and the general atmosphere felt hostile, but there was an ordinariness to the daily life she'd seen that had surprised her. For every leering raider with rotting teeth there was a mother carrying a squalling child; for every man wearing a jagged sword there was one stirring stew over a campfire.

What did you expect? A pack of wolves, fighting over bones? Men and women rutting in the streets? Ever massaged her neck and swallowed a few times to ease the soreness in her throat.

The Marmack with the ponytail, whose name turned out to be Vost, had led them at a fast walk west along Jerusalem Sound, crossing into the old city by a ruined northern bridge. Despite some resentful grumbling from the group of raiders he led, who seemed to think there were better uses for Ever and her companions, all of the men followed Vost's lead without question. Their complaints were quiet and more in the vein of idle chatter than true insubordination. Acel commented quietly to Ever during the two-mile march that they obviously feared Vost for some reason.

The Blessed were allowed little to no conversation amongst themselves, however, so for the most part the four of them walked along in silence. The Marmacks carried their packs for them. Ever had presumed they would divvy up the contents amongst themselves, but in her sight they had only hauled them, untouched.

The Marmacks led them to a great stone building, the massive columns that once supported its entrance mostly intact. Once inside they were funneled down a set of stairs into the dank set of cells they now enjoyed. That had been at least three hours ago. After a short, heated, and ultimately useless discussion of what they should do, Ever and the three boys had given up and tried to get some rest.

Ever heard a squeal and a bang from the heavy door at the end of the hall. Scrambling to her feet, she shook Acel awake. His eyes opened immediately.

"What is it?"

"The door."

Her heart sank when she saw Piker stroll into view.

"Well, well, children," he said, leaning against Ever and Acel's bars, "taking a little nap, are we?" His voice was a lewd, husky drawl. Words dripped from his mouth like sinister oil. Ever had feared him immediately, more so than any of the others that had kidnapped them. Piker reminded her of a dog with brain madness. She wondered idly if he was Damned to some extent—a deformation of the brain, maybe—and decided it didn't matter. He was an animal kept on a short leash by someone; Ever only hoped they'd never have to see him off it.

"You can't keep us here like animals," said Acel, rising from the back of the cell.

"Oh, can't I?" said Piker, sneering.

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