A door came into view as the pair rounded the corner. Leonidas caught his breath, knowing exactly what this meant and feeling unprepared to face it. When he’d trained for the Human Liberation Army, the final task required for one to pass from an apprentice into the ranks of the initiated had been the same. He knew what waited beyond this door, and he knew, despite the years that had passed since his test, if he were the one on trial, what he would see on the other side would be the same as it had been then.
Now, as he turned his head to face the woman at his side, he wondered what she would see on the other side of the door. He’d hoped never to watch her confront something so horrific—after all, one of his primary goals in joining the fight against the Volucri had been to ensure her safety and that of the family they’d planned to have since they’d been teenagers. Until recently, everything had gone according to his plan, or at least as closely as could be expected when he had signed away his life to serve as a killer-on-command for Admiral Moore, moving his fellow Senators as easily as game pieces in the daylight hours and moving masked and cloaked through the streets of Electra by night to capture, interrogate, and dispose of whatever members of his people’s enemy species he was ordered to face. Complications were to be expected and Leonidas had prepared himself for the inevitable injuries and the fretting of Septima, who’d known enough about what he’d done to have more than enough reason to refuse his marriage proposal and run from him, but had remained with him all the same.
He hadn’t anticipated the Volucri would target her or their three-year-old daughter. He also hadn’t anticipated spending his wedding anniversary here, watching his wife be dragged into the same hell he’d suffered through and hoped she would never have to endure.
“Why is this the final test?” asked Septima now, glancing at the door warily before returning her focus to her husband’s face.
“The Volucri have any number of weapons at their disposal, but one of the hardest to prepare yourself for is a drug they’ve perfected. They call it timortis. If you’re exposed to it, it will make you hallucinate, and not just any random series of images. It targets the portions of your mind that can cause the most damage—it makes your worst, most desperate fears real as long as it’s in effect. Our scientists have tried to duplicate it, and I’d say they’ve done a pretty damn good job.” Leonidas frowned slightly, aware that he hadn’t managed to keep the entirety of his frustration from his tone. According to protocol, he would have to remain outside while she went ahead to face whatever lay beyond the door. This was a violation of everything he’d fought for and believed in, and he detested the idea of putting her through this torment, though he knew they had no options.
Why did you have to volunteer for this? he wanted to ask her for the hundredth time, but he strangled the words. He knew what her reasons were, and as strongly as he disagreed with the idea of both of them being constantly exposed to the threat of death at either the hands of the Volucri or the admiral, who did not handle disappointment well, Leonidas knew Septima had made her choice with the hope of recovering their daughter.
“My worst fears,” Septima repeated, all traces of optimism sliding from her face as she looked once again to the door. “Is that all?”
“The admiral wants us to be able to be ready for anything,” said Leonidas flatly. “To cope if the worst happens and keep fighting. But remember—Septa, look at me.”
She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply before lifting her gaze to meet his.
“Remember that no matter what you see in there, it isn’t real. None of it is real. No matter what happens, I’ll be right outside, and when it’s over, you’ve won. He can’t ask anything more of you—you’ll have succeeded, and we will find Apolline. I promise you.”
Septima nodded slowly and lifted herself up on her toes to meet his lips softly. Leonidas rested his hand on her cheek, and when she pulled back, he attempted to smile at her.
“You can do this,” he said.
“And when I get out, I think I’ll have earned dinner out somewhere.” Septima smiled as well, though the expression was clearly strained.
“That can be arranged. Just remember: no matter what it shows you, you need to find the key.”
She nodded and turned away slowly, pressing both her palms flat against the door and letting only the span of a heartbeat pass before she pushed it open and stepped inside, disappearing from his view in the room’s dim lighting. The door swung closed again automatically, and a click resounded through the corridor.
Leonidas stared at the door with a frown on his lips, unable to do anything to assist Septima and unable to redirect his thoughts as his own experience with the door and the room beyond pushed its way to the forefront of his mind.
Leonidas gave the door a push, and it swung open to reveal a room much darker than the corridor in which he stood. He inhaled deeply and squared his shoulders and stepped forward, forcing himself not to react when the door swung closed behind him and the click of its lock echoed through the space. The light from outside was gone, leaving only what was cast by a dim, flickering lamp hanging from the ceiling, and several moments passed before Leonidas’s eyes adjusted to the darkness. When they had, he began to process that a pale figure lay on the ground before him, drenched in blood. Leonidas’s mind blocked out anything above the neck for a moment, leaving him able to concentrate on only the wounds: an incredible—what seemed to him impossible—number of stab wounds covering her stomach, chest, and neck, which was also marred by a long, jagged cut.
Like one from a knife, thought Leonidas. My knife. The one I used to kill that Volean informant for Moore.
He was screaming before he knew he’d opened his mouth. His voice could never be loud enough to express his horror and agony as he dropped to his knees, dragging himself to her side. He realized then that her eyes were open, her mouth moving as though she wanted to speak. He reached out to her, and she turned her head toward him. When their eyes met, hers widened in absolute terror, and his hands froze in midair.
She opened her mouth again, and though he’d expected her to try to speak, he was not prepared for the bloodcurdling scream that left her lips. He flinched.
“No, stop, please! No more! No more, stay away…” The turn of her head and her efforts to keep him back led a fresh wave of crimson liquid to spill down her ivory throat from the great mouth-like gash that had very nearly beheaded her.
“Septima… I could never hurt you. I could never—”
He reached out tenderly to touch her cheek, and she pulled away, tears rolling into her blood-matted blond hair as she gave her head the smallest shake. He realized she was trembling.
“No more. Stay back. Please, L-Leo, no…”
Her voice faded, dissolving as she choked and spluttered, coughing blood onto her cheek and onto his hand. Leonidas abandoned all caution and picked her up from the ground, pulling her into his arms and kissing her face all over, willing her to be all right. Septima started to try to pull away, but she gave up, evidently realizing she lacked the strength, collapsing in his arms.
Her coughs were saturated with blood, and as she gasped for air, a gurgling sound filled Leonidas’s ears.
“Septa, stay with me. Please. Please don’t go to sleep.”
She mouthed something, but no sound came. He kissed her lips gently, his tears spilling onto her cheeks to mingle with the blood. She made one more great gasp for life, and then she was still.
Even as he stared down at her, he denied what he saw. He pressed his hand to her blood-smeared cheek and sobbed, leaning down to kiss her forehead. This wasn’t possible. She had been standing beside him an hour before, terrified of every scenario she’d imagined for the trial he would have to face but very much…alive.
“No! Gods, no! Septa, wake up! Please, wake up…” His voice broke, and he could not make himself understand. He clung to her tightly and willed this to be a lie.
This is your fault, said a voice in his head. He tried to shake it off, but it kept repeating, looping through his mind and blaming him for the death of his wife. He knew it was right. Everything bad that had ever happened to her was his fault in some way or another, and this was no different. Without him, she wouldn’t have been in this gods-forsaken place, and he couldn’t rid himself of the knowledge that those wounds had been made by his knife.
Leonidas closed his eyes tightly and rocked back and forth, cursing himself and the admiral and everyone else who’d had a hand in bringing him here. Bringing her here.
But she’s…she’s not here. She’s at home.
“This…isn’t real,” he breathed. “You’re not here. You’re safe.”
She evaporated from his arms.
Septima strained her eyes against the darkness before her, barely noticing the mist that had begun to drift over the floor and upward, deftly permeating her clothing and seeping through her skin to poison her mind. Her focus was on the room surrounding her and the distinct lack of anything that might’ve identified what the room was used for when not serving as a torture chamber. There appeared to be no furniture, and as she became accustomed to the dull lamplight, she caught sight of something lying on the floor a few yards ahead of where she stood. She started cautiously forward, her steps slow and deliberate as they resonated against the marble floor, and then she realized what she beheld. Or whom.
She hurtled forward at a dead run, throwing herself down beside Leonidas, who was far too pale. She shook his shoulders frantically and brushed his hair from his face, and as her trembling hands met his skin, she registered how cold he was.
“Leo?” She was vaguely aware that something was wrong—that he couldn’t be here. But he was so real, so solid and so…still.
She laid her head down on his chest and listened for breath, waited to feel movement, but neither came. She waited for what felt like years, and then in a movement so quick her head spun, she jammed her lips into his, trying to breathe air into his lungs. To breathe life into him. She had no idea when she’d started sobbing, but soon she was weeping hard enough to choke as she tried to resuscitate him. At length, she pulled back to hold him tightly as she searched for injuries, and she recognized the deep, jagged cuts lining his abdomen that could’ve been left by nothing other than the talons of the Volucri. Septima had awoken covered in similar marks on an afternoon several months earlier to find she’d been unconscious since the morning and that the invasion that had left her severely drained of blood had also resulted in the abduction of her daughter.
Septima looked up imploringly at the flickering lamp above them, willing her eyes to be wrong, wanting there to be some form of second chance.
When she looked down again, she couldn’t breathe.
A few seconds passed, and then a scream ripped its way from her throat, and her trembling hands flew to the cheeks of her daughter, who now lay where her father had just been. Septima doubled over Apolline’s tiny form, burying her face in the girl’s shoulder as she squeezed her tightly and shrieked.
“Apolline! No! No, not my baby, please no…”
Septima sobbed into Apolline’s shirt, unable to move or to process what was wrong with the scene apart from the fact that they were gone, her husband and daughter were gone, and there was nothing she could do. A small, distant part of her mind was aware that her sobs were not the only sound present, but she couldn’t focus more than a fraction of her thoughts on that or on anything but her daughter, lying limp on the ground.
Then there was nothing.
Septima’s face hit the floor, and her eyes flew open to find that Apolline was gone. She sat up unsteadily to find that there was nothing but air in front of her.
Then she herself stepped out of the shadows. It wasn’t the Septima of the present, but rather her teenage self of less than a decade earlier, who walked to where the present Septima sat and looked down at her with contempt, the double’s hand resting on her own stomach.
“You’ve never been able to protect them,” the double said, shaking her head slowly. “First the one you couldn’t even carry to term, and now them… You never should have been a mother. Or a wife.”
“It—it wasn’t my fault,” said Septima feebly.
“Of course it was.”
Septima stood and lunged at her younger self with a distraught cry, and when the image disappeared and her hands passed through the space the double had just occupied to slam into the wall beyond, she froze, breathing heavily and wiping the tears from her face.
Her attention was arrested by movement from her right. She turned to see Apolline lying in her bed as a group of figures that could’ve passed for human without their sleek, grey wings, their amber eyes, and the feathers protruding from their shirt collars approached the girl. Apolline was screaming.
I will not fail you again. I won’t allow them to take you from us.
Septima hurtled toward her daughter and the Volucri, her hand reaching reflexively for the gun that should’ve been stowed at her belt only to find that it wasn’t there.
“What—? It has to be—”
The gun was part of the uniform she’d been given upon starting her training for the Human Liberation Army. She wasn’t permitted to wear the uniform without it, apart from during the final trial of her—
“Remember that no matter what you see in there, it isn’t real. None of it is real.”
“Leo,” she muttered, glancing to the spot on the floor where she’d found him only moments before, his flesh torn, his breath gone from his body.
“No matter what happens, I’ll be right outside, and when it’s over, you’ve won.”
Septima glanced behind her, her gaze falling on the door that she’d long-since forgotten.
“This isn’t real,” she said, her voice becoming stronger with each word. “It’s…it’s a test.”
“We will find Apolline. I promise you.”
I have to believe him, thought Septima. I have to. I can’t be afraid. But to find her, I have to get out of here.
She whipped around to face the Volucri and the screaming image of her daughter, which she knew, now, was just that—an image. It was one she could not rid herself of in her nightmares, which seldom gave way to productive sleep anymore, but at the very least, this scene was not taking place in the present.
“You can’t take her because you already have. This is not real!” she shouted, her chest heaving with her desperate breaths.
All at once, the room went still.
Apolline vanished along with her bed and the bird-people who had been approaching her, and in their place was left only the faint glint of something small on the floor.
“Just remember: no matter what it shows you, you need to find the key.”
Slowly, Septima crouched to reach for the small object, and her fingers closed around what she realized with a head-spinning crash of relief was, in fact, a key. The illusions—that was all they were, she reminded herself, fighting hard to ignore the quaking of her body as it began to settle back into its normal rhythms after such a deluge of emotion—had been concealing her path to escape. She pushed herself to her feet and turned toward the door, crossing the room with heavy legs that felt as though they might collapse beneath her weight.
She turned the key, and at the click that echoed through the dimly lit room, she let out a breath she hadn’t meant to hold. She wrenched open the door and threw her arms around the neck of Leonidas, who pulled her to him and held her as tightly as though he’d feared the same thing she had—that they’d never again have the chance.
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