There’s a knife on the table in front of me, and I don’t know why. It makes me think that maybe they’re here to sacrifice me after all, but jeans and a Dr Who t-shirt don’t really make for sacrificial clothes, so I don’t know what’s up with that.
I’ve been stuck in this room for five hours now – thank sanity they let me keep my watch, even though they took away my wallet, my phone, even my earrings and shoes – and I’ve no clue why they even brought me here.
At first I thought it was Tommy again – heaven knows they’ve hauled him in for questioning enough time, what with his ‘extra-curricular activities’. But last time I saw him he assured me he’d given up the dope for good, and I believe him, and anyway if this was just about him they wouldn’t have left me here to sweat for five hours alone with a ceremonial knife.
I have no freaking clue what they want me to do. I assume at some point they’ll come question me, but half an hour ago I heard loud noises, explosions I think, and it’s been silent ever since.
I want to know what’s going on. Surely they won’t mind if I just try the door, will they?
I ease myself up off my seat and inch towards the door. No doubt it’ll be locked – it should be locked – why wouldn’t it be locked? – if it’s not locked I am going to be so mad at myself for not trying the door sooner.
Of course, it isn’t locked. I’m an idiot. But not so much of an idiot that I leave the knife behind.
The creamy-sandy stone hallways are empty and silent. I’d expect that, in this part of the Council Chambers; the detention cells are hardly likely to be a bustling hub of activity, after all. But still. It’s deathly quiet. Even the servers that should be whirring in the walls are silent.
I pad around a corner, the worn stone smooth and cool to my bare feet, and jerk to a stop, slapping a hand over my mouth to hold back a scream.
It’s a body, blood-stained, dust-shrouded, in the uniform of a council guard. What could do this to a guard? They train for years to become the elite of the elite, and nothing can wipe them out, not even the mages.
Fear ripples through me, an icy cold hand on my shoulder and a plunging suddenness in my stomach. But it can’t be true. And they wouldn’t know, and they couldn’t have brought me here for that.
I swallow, my throat suddenly dry and my fingers around the handle of the knife suddenly clammy. If it is, I’m totally unprepared.
Unless they left a pencil lying around.
I move off and almost laugh at the stupidity of my own thoughts. Who leaves pencils lying around? Or pens, or even worse, permanent markers? The very thought sends ice and fire chasing each other down my limbs, first raw terror at the thought of such power, and second longing for the want of such power.
The fingers of my free hand twitch, and I remember the feel of slender wood between them, the scruff-frrrrrt of graphite on thick, creamy paper. My throat is tight and it’s hard to breathe. I close my eyes for a second, imagining a blank page, imagining control, imagining the images I need to bring my heart-rate down and flush away the adrenalin.
If I had some paper now, I could draw the most stupendous weapon, and then there’d be no need to fear.
But then there’s another corner, and around it another dust-shrouded body, which sets the fear loose from the cage in my heart to run rampant around my lungs. They can’t know. They can’t know.
More corners. More bodies. The dust thickens so I can hardly breathe, and there shouldn’t be dust here because this morning, five hours ago, I walked these passages and they were light and clean and full of people that bustled back and forth, going about their daily business with bright, sunny smiles and kind words.
But the dust. Only one thing could have caused so much dust.
Ahead I hear the snick-snick-snick of toenails on stone, and then a hoarse breath as though the dust itself could breathe. The trembling in my heart stills, though when I clasp the knife in both hands it slips, slick with fear-sweat.
My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth and when I try to move it, I feel skin tear.
My skin will tear worse than that if I cannot fix what I have done.
Deep breath, shoulders straight, standing tall. I will fix this, or I will die trying.
I round the final corner and stumble. In the middle of the Council Chamber’s entry hall stands a monster, twelve feet tall and covered with bony studs the size of my fist and sharp, with a long tail like a herbivorous dinosaur might have had, and teeth like the bottom of the sea. But that’s not what made me stumble.
Further on, behind the monster that I drew, lies one last body. It’s small and frail, barely heavier than two baker’s sacks of flour. It’s a body I know well, a body I love, a body I swore to protect.
I hear a strange sound, and realise it’s the sound of my anguish, grief slipping out between gritted teeth for the sake of my broken baby sister. Twelve is far too young for anyone to die.
My monster sees me, roars, and charges.
Hurriedly I swipe the tears from my eyes, gulp in the air, say my prayers. The knife is clenched between my hands, and I will die for what I have done.
As the monster looms over me, I have a bizarre moment of calm, and all I can think is that I should have been more careful with the perspective. He was only supposed to be one foot tall.
At least I was smart enough to build in a failsafe. Or not stupid enough to leave one out, whichever way you’d rather.
The monster lunges at me, claws as long as my fingers outstretched. I dive beneath them, score the knife along the bony plates, and trace out a symbol on its inner thigh. It reaches between its legs and rakes my back, shredding shirt and muscle and skin.
I scream. That was my favourite shirt.
Half laughing, half sobbing, I fight to keep the knife from wavering. If I can just finish the pattern, I’ll find the place where the scales part, a tiny crevice just big enough for a knife – though it should have been a dinner knife, had the need ever arisen and I’d got my stupid perspective right.
It reaches for me again and my thigh bursts open. Blood spurts and I scream and scream, but then the knife reaches the parting of the scales, and I stab it in as far as it will go. Not quite buried to the hilt, but it’s the failsafe; it doesn’t matter.
For a moment I think I’ve failed, the failsafe didn’t work, the monster’s still alive – but then it roars loud enough to make my eardrums burst and I don’t know whether to clap my hands over them as the memory of pain fades with the burst, or to slip at the blood pumping from my leg.
Either way, I’m going to die for my sins.
Charcoaled dust rains down on me, ashy, the dust from the corpses, the dust from a pencil held greedily in unthinking hands.
I should have listened. A work of art is a confession. Best leave it to the priests.