Read an Excerpt
A stabbing pain jolts me awake.
It hits quick but deep, a here-then-gone stinging where my neck meets my shoulder.
Did something bite me?
No . . . just a dream. A nightmare, maybe.
That’s not how I should wake up on my birthday. I’m twelve. I can hardly believe it—I’m twelve, I’m not a little kid anymore. I should get to sleep in, I should get to sleep all day. There should be cake, and my friends, and I shouldn’t have to go to school.
The thought of that place chases away my excitement. I’m so tired. Feels like I’ve never slept at all. If I missed my alarm, I’ll be late for classes again. Mom will kill me. I don’t want to go. At school, the tooth-girls and the circle-stars always make fun of me. And I shouldn’t be teased on my birthday. I hate school, I hate them, I . . .
A tingling coolness on my neck, right where I felt that sting. Tickling, spreading . . .
. . . am I bleeding?
I open my eyes to darkness. Total darkness. I hear my own breathing, but nothing else. And . . . and I can’t move. Curved bars, cool and rough, hold my wrists by my sides. I roll my hands, trying to slip free, but the bars are so tight they scrape against my skin.
The word sounds too loud, almost a scream. Something is wrong. My voice sounds odd . . . kind of muffled.
Mom doesn’t answer.
I pull harder, but it’s not only my wrists that can’t move—something holds my ankles, and my hips are pinned so tight I can’t even turn.
This isn’t my bedroom. This isn’t my house. My parents aren’t here.
My chest seems to squeeze in, as if it is clamping down on my hammering heart. My body tingles, every ounce of me screaming Get up! Getupgetupgetup!
“Is anyone there?”
“Someone help me. This is . . .”
My breath catches.
I don’t know my own name.
I thrash and pull, yank desperately at the unforgiving bars holding me down.
“Someone, help me!”
No one answers.
I scream so hard it tears at my throat. Someone had to hear that. Someone has to come get me, come help me.
I lift my head—my forehead clonks against something solid and unmoving. That’s why my voice sounded funny: there is a board right in front of my face.
No, not a board . . . a lid.
Padding beneath me and at my sides.
I am in . . .
. . . oh no, oh no . . .
. . . am I in a coffin?
“Help! Somebody get me out of here!”
The pain that woke me plunges into my neck again, a sting so deep it locks me up, all tight-eyed and rigid and frozen.
I am trapped in the dark and something is biting me.
(If you run, your enemy will hunt you. Kill your enemy, and you are forever free.)
That thought seems familiar, a memory that stuck. Rage blossoms, gives me the focus to move despite my agony, gives me the strength to try harder. I pull and push, lift and twist. I focus all my strength on my right hand—pull, dammit—the skin of my wrist tears against the rough material, but I have to get out. . . .
Pull, push, twist, yank, harder and harder until my coffin rattles.
I feel the bar crack. I can move my right hand more. Only a little, but I can move it more.
The sting slides deeper into my neck, and I cry out.
No one came before, no one will come now.
Will it hit a lung? Pierce my heart?
Will I die?
I jerk so hard the bones in my wrists grind against the bars holding them down. I hear another small crack, then another—my right hand flies free.
I slide my fingers up my body to my neck, blindly grab at the thing slicing into me. My hand locks down on wetness, slickness, a cold snake that moves and wiggles. It’s trying to slither away, but I have it and I won’t let go. I yank it to my mouth and bite down, taste something horrid, crush my teeth together so hard my jaw hurts. I thrash my head, I bite harder—something inside of it crunches.
It falls limp in my hand and mouth. I fling it aside, then spit, trying to get that vile taste off my tongue.
Right hand to left wrist. I grab the restraint. Its surface crumbles at my touch, powder falling away to reveal pitted hardness beneath. Right hand yanking, left fist lifting, the cracking sound comes quickly and my left hand is free.
Both hands grab the bar that curves across my waist. I attack it, push-pull-push-pull-push-pull, making the whole coffin shake around me. The bar breaks.
Now for my feet.
The lid is so close to my face and chest that my hands can reach down only to my thighs. I’m wearing some kind of short skirt? I must reach farther, must keep trying. I have to get out, whatever it takes. I twist to my right hip, use the ankle restraints as resistance to wiggle my body lower, reach down with my left hand. My shoulder and face drag against the coffin’s smooth lid, pulling at my cheek and nose and closed eye, but even then my fingers barely touch my knees.
I must pull harder, harder, I must keep fighting, must get out of the darkness. If I can’t reach my feet, I will die here alone and screaming and—
—my fingertip brushes the rough bars pinning my ankles. So close, just a little farther. Contorted muscles and twisted bones vibrate with pain as I wedge in even tighter, but finally my left hand grips a bar. Grab and shake and yank, must get loose . . .
Crack, crack—both feet come free.
I slide up the coffin until I am again flat on my back. I press my palms against the lid.
I push: it doesn’t budge. I’m not strong enough.
Think. think. You have to get out. . . .
I need to use my arms and my legs, use all of me. . . .
I twist and turn until I’m lying on my stomach. There isn’t enough room to get all the way to my hands and knees, but I push down as hard as I can while I arch my back against the lid. Sweat drips into my eyes. Sweat and maybe blood. I press until my back screams . . .
. . . something in the lid snaps.
A sliver of blinding light hits the bed of my coffin, so bright it burns to look at it. I close my eyes and push even harder. I feel the lid lift, just a little, enough for me to slide my knees all the way beneath me.
(Attack, attack, when in doubt, always attack, never let your enemy recover.)
I take a breath, focus, and shove upward with everything I have left.
The shuddering complaint of something bending and tearing. At the end of the fight, the strong lid breaks like a brittle shell—I am up and out and standing . . .
. . . and falling.
I land hard, kicking up a thick cloud of something powdery. My heaving lungs suck it in. The floor spins and whirls beneath me, and there is light everywhere, so bright it stings even through clenched eyes.
Lying on my side, I blink, trying to see. I cough, trying to breathe. I wait for my eyes to adjust, hoping they do before whoever locked me in the coffin comes to put me back inside once again.
The light blinds me, makes my eyes water. Grainy dust on my tongue, coating my raw throat, so deep in my lungs it makes me cough again and again. The noise might bring the people who did this to me, but I can’t stop. I can’t see, I’m too weak to move.
I am helpless.
The coughing fit eases. My body relaxes enough for me to sit up. I pull my knees to my chest, wrap my arms tight around my legs. I rub my wrists; the rough bars ripped my skin raw.
My coffin was warm. I broke it open, hatched from it, and now I’m in this cold room. I’m shivering. I’m out, yes, but alone, exhausted and terrified.
Where are my mom and dad? Why aren’t they here? Where is here, anyway?
I smell things I don’t fully recognize. Dry odors, stale scents. This place smells . . . dead.
The light still stings, but not as much. I can finally see a little.
Gray. The dust is gray. It blankets everything, hangs in the air, floating specks that spin with my every breath.
My neck throbs where that thing bit me. I reach for the spot. A shirt. I’m wearing a shirt, and a tie. I slide my hand inside the collar, feel the wound . . . my fingers come away with a pasty mix of dust and blood.
I look at what I’m wearing: white button-down shirt, the short skirt—which is red and black plaid—black socks that end a bit below my knee, no shoes. My shirt feels tight. The sleeves end halfway between my elbow and wrist. The tie is red, embroidered with a yellow and black circle of tiny images. White thread in the middle of that circle spells a word: MICTLAN.
I have no idea what that means. And these clothes . . . are they mine?
My vision is blurry; I can’t see anything but my coffin. Sitting on the dusty floor, I’m too low to look inside it. The lid split evenly down the middle, from top to bottom. The half closest to me slid neatly against the side. The far half sticks straight up. Maybe I broke that half, bent something so it can’t move like it’s supposed to.
Parts of the lid gleam under the lights—bloody finger streaks, I realize, from where I grabbed it, wiping away the thin layer of dust that clings to the surface.
Why won’t someone come and help me?
The thing that bit my neck . . . what if it’s still alive? What if it’s in the coffin, coiling, getting ready to slither out and attack me again? I don’t want to look inside, but no one else is here and I need to know it’s dead.
If I don’t, it could hunt me.
I reach for the coffin’s edge, use it to pull myself up. My legs don’t want to work. They tremble and twitch as I rise and look inside.
White fabric, torn in many places, smeared with long streaks of wet red and a few light spots of powdery crimson. Loose padding shows beneath the rips.
A bloody, white pillow. Next to it, a limp, white snake.
No, not a snake: a tube.
A tube that ends in a long, glistening needle. Its white skin is torn where I bit it, showing some kind of black fibers beneath.
I watch the tube for a little while. It doesn’t move. It’s dead, because I killed it.
I pick up a piece of the bar that held my waist. The surface is deeply pitted, crumbly with that crimson powder . . . rust, maybe? Rust that ate away much of the metal, making the bar thin and brittle. Had it been solid, there is no way I could have broken free.
My eyes aren’t stinging anymore. They’ve stopped watering. I can see the rest of the room.
There are eleven more coffins. Two parallel rows of six, lined up end to end. A wide aisle filled with a flat sea of untouched gray separates the rows. The thick dust coats the coffins, makes hard edges look like soft curves.
I was in the last one in the left-hand row. I can see it clearly now, see all the detail. It is decorated with intricate carvings: cartoonish people with big noses and huge, wild headdresses; squat pyramids with lots of steps; simple versions of the sun; big cats with exaggerated eyes and tooth-filled snarls.
This room is long and narrow, like it was made specifically to hold these coffins. It doesn’t seem that bright in here now that my eyes have gotten used to it—the arched ceiling has only a few lights that work, barely enough to illuminate stone walls that are covered with gray-coated carvings.
At the far end of the room, I see an archway. In that archway . . . doors, maybe? They look heavy and solid, but I don’t see any handles.
Something at the foot of my coffin catches my eye. A flat area, about the size of my hand, surrounded by dozens of small bumps, all of it hazed in puffy gray.
I reach out, trembling, and brush dust from one of the small shapes. It’s a jewel: deep orange, glowing like frozen fire.
I wipe clear the flat area. It’s engraved with seven letters and one period.
Is that my name?
I hear something. A small sound. Very quiet, very faint. It makes me think of being trapped in the dark, and then I realize why.
It’s a girl’s scream, coming from inside another coffin.
My wobbly legs still can’t quite support me. I lean on the coffins to stay on my feet, stumble my way toward the scream.
Each step kicks up a small cloud of dust, as if I am the first person ever to set foot here.
The noisy coffin is halfway up the left-hand row. As I get closer, I can make out faint words coming from within.
“Help me! Mommy, get me out of here!”
I put my hand on the dust-caked lid. I feel tiny vibrations: the girl inside is struggling. I think of that long, bloody needle jutting from the white tube.
With big swipes, I brush the dust from her coffin, accidentally creating a brief fog. The polished carvings gleam under the lights.
I rap my knuckles on the lid; her screaming stops.
“Calm down,” I say. “I’ll try and get you out.”
There is a pause. Then she speaks, the coffin cutting the volume of her words but not the desperation they carry.
“Who are you?”
Who am I? No idea. Somehow, I don’t think telling her I’m Savage is going to make her less afraid. I don’t even have a first name, only an initial, but maybe that will work.
“My name is Em. What’s yours?”
“I . . . I don’t know.”
A feeling of relief explodes inside of me, so intense I almost fall down again: I’m not the only one.
I have to get this girl out.
“Are there bars holding you down?”
“Something is,” she says. “I don’t know what, I can’t see anything. I can’t move. It’s so dark in here, please help me!”
“I told you to stay calm.” My voice echoes off the stone walls, and I hear how harsh it sounds. She’s afraid, she’s trapped; yelling at her isn’t going to help.
“It’s okay,” I say in a softer tone. “Listen, you have to break those bars.”
“Break them?” Her voice cracks. “I tried, they’re too thick!”
“Try harder. I broke mine.”
Another pause. I listen to her grunting and struggling, then hear the raw terror carried on her words.
“I can’t break them, I told you I’m not strong enough. Get me out, please get me out!”
I slap the lid, hard.