TIME WAS THE COILS of the serpent—endless cycles of shadow and light, ebbing and flowing. They came with their wounds and diseases, and the darkness sucked it all in, swelled with it as will and memory drained away. Exhausted then, she would sleep, and there would come the faint whisper, a catch of haunting silver melody. . . . Then they would wake her for more healings, and the humming voices would be drowned by the need, the glut of power, the sluggish pulsing release.
And it would begin again.
Ariadne leaned against the burned wall, soaking up the heat of its bricks through her back. Solidity, rooting her. And there was something else here, a glimpse of. . . . What? Something she needed. She couldn’t remember. But she had to stay here, with the restless flutter of wings, rustle and scurry of rats, the human moans and whimpers of the sick. No beginning or end to it, lost in the maze—
Crack! An explosion ripped the shadows. Wings burst outwards in a clapping whir. Crack! Another shot. Shrill squeals as her rats scattered. A stutter of bullets crackled from the ruins.
People screamed, cowering or running. More gunfire erupted. Ariadne stood rooted against the wall, blinking in confusion as the white pigeons and the black crows wheeled to flail the sky. Her ears rang, hurting. She hunched, pressing her hands to her pounding head.
Someone ran up, shouting. More bullets sprayed the air. The crowd broke into panic. Hands grabbed her arms, tugging her away. Overhead, a loud pop, a whine and hiss. A small dark shape shot over the blackened buildings in a streaming trail of green smoke.
Ariadne gasped, alarm finally burning through her numbness. Gunshots. Gas. Memory ignited. They were after her.
Another pop, gas canister hissing over the squatter hovels. Screams, as the people shoved blindly, blundering through flimsy shelters and falling, racked with coughs in the settling green miasma. Through the haze, a glimpse of two figures in bubble helmets pushing through the pandemonium.
The tendrils curled closer. Wrenching free of the clutching hands, Ariadne ran.
Another popping hiss ahead, to the left. She veered blindly right, tripping over broken cement footings, scrambling on all fours beneath draped blankets as a choking haze clouded her eyes. Coughs racked her. She groped on, knocked over a water bucket, grabbed up a soaked rag to cover her face, blundered into a clear alley. Hacking, eyes streaming, she ran, one hand trailing a wall.
They were after her. She had to escape. Gasping through the wet rag, vision blurred by tears, she fled through broken walls, down buckled streets. Shadows fell over her. She ran on. Higher walls enclosed her now, trapping her in endless cobbled passages, doors barred against her. But the greenish haze was behind her now. She dropped the rag, sobbing for breath, lungs burning.
Behind her, a muffled shout.
Face jerking over her shoulder, she crashed into a wall and staggered back to stare at a blank cul-de-sac. She spun, searching frantically for escape. A narrow passage ran between two walls, plunging steeply down the slope of terraced buildings.
As she dove toward it, there was another shout down the dead-end street. An insect whine shot past and hit the wall by her shoulder. A convulsive leap carried her into the dark passage as a second dart furrowed the dirt at her feet. She pounded down the passage, careening off mortared walls, skidding the last stretch into a cobbled street. She slammed into a milling crowd along rows of vendor stalls, clawing her way through outraged shouts and curses. She staggered on through bartering shoppers, knocking over a cart of clattering metal trays. Commotion erupted behind her.
A clear alley magically opened to her right. She ran down it, hand pressed to the ache in her ribs as she sobbed for breath. Shouted commands rang out behind her. She bolted through traffic for the cavelike dark mouth of a building across the street.
Sunlight glare, and then shadow falling over her. Forcing her way through a wall of heat, bodies, and voices, she fell through into dimness. She faltered, blinking, numbly registering cavernous walls opening up before her. Overhead, a high ceiling of curlicued iron grillwork in flyspecked peeling white, flecked with red. Blood everywhere.
Slabs of meat dripping blood. Headless poultry hanging. Severed tongues piled. Rows of hearts, livers, brains. She staggered forward, eyes glazed, deeper into the meat market. Convoluted twists and turns carried her on through swarms of buzzing flies, between racked carcasses lining the passages. She was jostled by hungry figures haggling over the meat, mouths shouting as they jabbed fingers at the raw red cuts.
She was lost in the maze, gagging in the reek of blood. She stumbled past slashing knives, muscle and guts tossed on the scales, thrown dripping over the heads of the buyers to be wrapped. She came up short, staring at trestles of twisted pale intestines, numbly tracing the convoluted kinks until someone pushed her aside. She tried to find a way out, but the passages kept turning and twisting back on themselves. Voices shrilled, ringing in her ears, and she could hear the distant shouts of her pursuers.
The flecked white walls swayed, closing in. She looked up, straining for escape, stretching for the distant rafters and a thin slice of sunlight shimmering through them. Grisly joke high overhead, crucified on a butcher’s hook, a life-sized pink naked baby doll smirked down at her.
Ariadne screamed her fear and confusion, exhaustion and despair, up at that empty leering face.
More faces turned toward her—accusing eyes and mouths—and she was running again, tripping, hands scrabbling over the slippery stained floor, scrambling up to run on.
Suddenly, somehow, she was out of it. She stood swaying on a cement platform, staring at refuse bins in an alley. A truck idled, loading door ajar.
Thudding boots and shouts behind her in the building. She scuttled across the platform and into the truck’s cargo space. Gagging, she started to back out. The door slammed shut behind her, wheels lurching into motion. She fell to the floor, huddled beneath swaying racks of meat as the truck carried her off.
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