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He waited for silence to settle over the city, slipped out of his cottage, and bolted. Over his pattering feet and the roar of his heart, he heard the guards, their murmurs and chuckles wafting through the otherwise lifeless streets. A handful of patrolling Hulcondans was the closest he’d get to vacant.

At least they had no idea what was coming. No idea he wasn’t home where he was supposed to be.

He kept to the narrowest alleys where the wall guards couldn’t see him as easily, avoiding the secured places with their lit torches. Staggered, flickering lamplight from the main streets cast dark splotches across the dirt, shrouding shallow ruts until almost the last second.

He tried not to think about it, tried to keep from envisioning himself tripping, sprawling across the ground. A broken ankle would lead to a broken neck. Or a bonfire. Most likely a bonfire; once they saw what he carried, his arrest wouldn’t be for breaking curfew ------ it’d be for treason. If not the fire, the Itzalin Ward.

Fire would be better.

Just a little farther, and all he’d have to worry about was getting back home. But the square would be the hardest part; they kept it so well-lit. The wall guards would see him. He’d hear their shouts to the other soldiers in the city, hear them coming. It might be the only thing that would save him. But they’d also hear him and come running. From every direction.

This is suicide.

He listed against the stone building, letting his right arm relax and the hammer dangle from his fist. Cold sweat clung to his face and hair, and chills rushed through him as the wet strands stuck to his neck. He breathed as evenly as he could manage; he still had to fight a cough. His fingers ached from gripping the rolled poster, and his thigh pulsed where the hammer kept hitting. If he’d timed it all correctly, the guards wouldn’t look at the message wall until after daybreak. They might pass it, but they wouldn’t notice. Not until some of the people had seen. They’d rip his poster down, burn it ------ there was no question of that ------ but he had to try. For his family. For his murdered sister. For his own shattering sanity. For his daughter, a day away from being taken.

Fear. He was going for fear. To send the terrifying notion of another rebellion slicing through their veins as they’d once sent terror slicing through his. Fear had a funny way of seizing hold at the least opportune moment. It also had a way of dissolving in the face of injustice. In the face of remorseless, unrestrained brutality.

Countless families ripped apart and arrested for daring to hide a mixlin child.

His sister, dead by age fifteen at the hands of her bastard of a husband.

His daughter, barely fourteen, about to become one of their wives.

He would not stand for it. Not anymore. His allies would understand, surely; they’d have to. But he knew they wouldn’t, Shadow especially. He’d lose his head. If not for the indiscretion of what he was doing, then for the insubordination of it.

The thought curled his lip in a sneer. Insubordination. For all of Shadow’s talk of being different, of standing against the evil of the world, he was remarkably like the enemy.

His chest hurt at the accusation, but he didn’t brush it aside. The truth scalded his throat like bile. For almost two years, Shadow had offered hope enough to follow without question. But to say he couldn’t stop the marriage, to give the order to sit back and do nothing and just let that Hulcondan pig take her…

This is betrayal.

He shoved the thought away. It had to end. His innocent darling could not become the wife of a murderer; that was betrayal too. It would kill her. Saving her would kill him. And probably all the rest of them.

Or it could be the spark that saved them all.

He took a deep breath, peered down both sides of the street, and pushed off the wall. The crackling of the torches filled his ears as he raced through the still city. The image of himself in flames flashed through his mind. He gasped, jolting himself from the scene.

Just run. Go.

The bright orange light of the square met him, a beacon of hope in the blackness. A promise of destruction.

They can’t see you do it. Whatever else happens, do not let them see you.

He slammed himself against the curved stone platform and shot a glance toward the black barricade of the Compound towering against the midnight sky. No Hulcondans that he could see, and they were quiet, which meant they hadn’t seen him.


He edged around the platform, darted across the short expanse to the illuminated message wall, and scrambled sideways until he found the poster of the itzalin: the gray-skinned, forest-lurking creature, its lips drawn back to reveal vicious, jagged teeth. Darker gray, flame-like markings spread up its cheeks and toward the center of the face, and eyes the yellow of dying embers blazed out at him. Above the head, precise black paint declared, “Know the face of your enemy.”

It was just like the other itzalin posters peppered across walls throughout the city, though each bore different eye colors, an array of greens, yellows, and coppers. Like the color of cat eyes. Five other posters encircled it, mixlin ones showing human faces with inhuman eye colors and various markings like the ones itzalin bore.

All his life, itzalin wanted posters had tarnished buildings and alleys. They’d only added the mixlin ones in his daughter’s lifetime. If the Hulcondans weren’t defeated, what would the world look like when she was his age?

Most of the posters around the city fell victim to the weather, but they kept the message wall ones in perfect condition, replaced repeatedly so there could never be any uncertainty. So every man, woman, and child who passed by had the message branded inside their mind. Just like the Hulcondans wanted.

As he stared at the itzalin’s face, a shiver traced through him, a thousand warnings screaming through his head.

No, stop. It’s just a drawing, just another of their lies. Do it.

He unrolled his own poster and pressed it over the itzalin one with his forearm. A wave of dread swept through him at almost touching the picture. Even knowing the truth about the Hulcondans didn’t silence his upbringing, the propaganda.

He fumbled for the nails in his pocket, cursed under his breath as he dropped one, and left it. It didn’t have to stay forever, just long enough. With a swift glance around, he beat a nail into three of the four corners.

Voices rumbled through his ears.

He didn’t survey his work, didn’t look to see where the guards were coming from. Fist clamped around the hammer, he whirled and ran.

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