BOOK 1 // EIGHTEEN: Narrow Escape

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            There was no time to process it. The force of the impact swept me off my feet, and I flew backwards – my back slamming into the human wall behind me.

Smoke filled the air. It was impossible to see, to feel, to breathe. All I could make out was the blazing heat, and a piercing pain slicing through one side of my face.

For the first few seconds, the explosion had brought silence, but it didn't take long for the crowd to find their voices once more. Screams of panic cut through the air, as painful as a knife dragging through an open wound. Behind each one lay pure, unadulterated fear – and that was something none of us needed to share.

I'd been forced to the ground by the impact, but I managed to pull myself up, head twisting in an effort to gain some sense of direction. My hands were sore from being trampled on, and the splitting pain in my head was getting worse – but this was neither the time nor place to think about injuries. My sole focus was getting out of the danger zone before anything else happened.

Bombs were coordinated. There could be more coming.

Panic was tangible throughout the square, and the force of hundreds of others slammed against me, all desperately trying to scramble for an exit. I could hardly find the space to breathe. With smoke spreading around us, it seemed like air was limited, and we were all fighting for what little oxygen remained.

Then came the next explosion.

This one was further away, somewhere across the square – but the ripples of intensifying panic reached me in no time. Plumes of smoke filled the air, and a new round of screaming turned the noise into some kind of twisted chorus.

This wasn't a single person. This was an organised attack, crafted to hit as many people as possible.

And I was right in the centre of it.

I turned to move, but somebody shoved into my side, and I was sent off balance all over again. There was barely room on the ground to place my feet. Everywhere I looked, there was blood – dripping down faces, splattered onto green T-shirts, coating the street like a sinister paint job. Just the sight of it made my head spin – or was that the heat, the smoke, the fear? Everything had blurred into one, and all I could do was try to hold onto my own consciousness.

I have to get out of here.

The thought arrived in my head with startling urgency, forcing me into motion. Most people were trying to push back the way we'd come, back onto the City Walk – but I couldn't get carried with them. Who knew how many more bombs were planted among us, ready to blow the next group of people to smithereens?

I glanced toward the edge of the square, back at the armed officers – but the chaos had disoriented them too, and I could see them struggling to find a target. How were they supposed to attack when the next explosion could come from any one of the thousands of people? They were trapped in the same boat as everybody else.

In that split second, I made my decision. Forcing myself against the movement of the crowd, I elbowed sideways, slamming against every other person trying to escape. It was slow going, but I could get closer to the edge that way – and a quieter side street was all I needed to stand a chance of making it out alive.

Someone's elbow collided with my head, and another round of splitting pain went through it, but I ignored it as best I could in an effort to keep moving. I was half-aware of the bleeding, and the sensation of warm liquid creeping down my face, but there wasn't time to dwell on it. I had other priorities – like not dying.

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