XIV.

Anastasia felt sick as she entered the vault. Hundreds, thousands, millions, of lolling skinny figures were attached to the cavern wall via glowing red cords growing from their belly buttons. Anastasia’s stomach clenched as she noted their bloodshot eyes and puny limbs. She tasted puke in her mouth as she caught sight of her three sisters in a line by the wall. Last night’s overhaul.

Anastasia took hold of herself. She brought a sharp knife with a carved ivory handle from her pocket, and bit her lip.

“Here goes,” she whispered, and, the blade flashing, she cut through the first red cord she saw. The figure collapsed on the floor. Anastasia stared at it for several seconds. Then the figure lifted its head.

“Fine,” it breathed.

Anastasia continued to stare, but at that moment the enormous resonant sound of a bell pealed out somewhere overhead. They were directly underneath the church. Or were they?

“Alarm bell. Go now,” said the figure blearily, still on the floor.

Anastasia lifted her head calmly. She wasn’t ready to go yet.

Brandishing her knife, she advanced on the next person, hanging like a rag doll by the red cord. Slashing through it, the rag doll fell to the floor. Stifling a violent shudder, Anastasia ignored the bell pealing perpetually overhead and continued along the wall, slicing viciously through the cords. Some of the stronger bodies took their own knives from hidden compartments in their clothing and started to help her.

Alice was one of these. Alice was physically and mentally exhausted, but a fierce fire burned in her eyes as she struggled to her feet and took out a knife Anastasia had never seen before. Anastasia knew many people had been carrying knives on them lately; she was not aware that Alice was one of these. It was a mark of cowardice, Alice had said only that week. Anastasia had always carried her pearl-handled knife, and she didn’t care what people thought of her. Alice, after scorning carrying a knife, now took one out from the lining of her jacket. Anastasia knew that Alice had worn this jacket out every day for two years. That meant Alice had been hiding the knife in its lining every day for two years.

She said nothing then as she carried on along the deep cavern. Her mind was racing furiously. At the same time, she fought to keep her immediate thoughts empty. Nothing must distract her. Cut this cord. Ignore the sack of skin and bones that falls to the floor. Move on to the next person. Do not look in the person’s eyes, or you will throw up. No, instincts. Do not look in this captive’s eyes. Do not look at her face. Just cut the cord. What are you waiting for? No, quickly! Cut it! Do not look in the person’s eyes.

For an unknown reason Anastasia had the urge to look in the person’s eyes. Knowing what she had to do, she tried to quell her instinct; instinct won and she met the eyes.

They were green-grey in colour, like the sea on a foggy day, and had a smoky look.

A small noise escaped from Anastasia’s mouth, like a quick outtake of breath in disbelief. Her arm dropped to her side, her wrist floppy. Then a surge of anger took her over. It was as if the red cord inside of her had snapped too, in a burst of furious energy. She darted forward and with a quick movement two halves of cord with a dying red glow fell to the floor, along with the weak bag of blood and bones she knew was her mother.

The alarm bell was more consistent with every cut the brigade of outlaws made with their knives. And when the total peals reached one hundred thousand and one, the fiery glow of energy in the cords went out, and the grotto was plunged in complete darkness.

Anastasia froze. She felt the air around her swell and swirl and she knew the shadows were everywhere. What should she do? She took a deep breath. Then, raising her knife to the sky, she opened her mouth and yelled:

The End

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