The pungent smell of kerosene lanterns is nauseating and nearly causes Dawn to pass out again. She is saved by a gasmask being put over her face, the inside dotted with an aromatic oil to help block the stench. Looking through the yellow-tinted lenses, she can see that they are in a dome-shaped cavern. None of the locals are wearing masks thanks to years of living within the stifling conditions. There is a sickly tint to their skin and their pupils are barely visible, which makes their eyes appear white at first glance. Tents have been arranged in square groupings with fencing around each one to create front and backyards. Communal buildings are motorhomes that have had their wheels removed since there is nowhere to go underground. Numbers are on cardboard flags that stick out of the top of the structures, all of them written in gold and fringed with glitter. Hearing whispers, Dawn looks up to see that there are ropes leading to a network of walkways near the ceiling. She can barely make out the distant forms standing on the suspended bridges, their gloved hands pressed against the densely packed dirt.
“Scavengers and bandits,” the woman mutters before she remembers Kara. She breathes a sigh of relief when she finds the girl lying behind her, a gasmask already on her face. “The stench must have knocked both of us out. Don’t see the person who slapped this on me. Hey, it’s time to wake up and keep moving.”
“Children need more sleep,” a robotic voice says from nearby. Coming out from behind a dumpster, a scraggly man in a toy mask limps over to the outsiders. “Let the little one rest since she will have to find work soon. Both of you will. Once you come to the underside, you can never leave. We need more breeders too. That is why we risked our fingers to save you. The little one came because a mother would never wish to be separated from her child. Please know that you must take a job and a husband.”
“This is why I live alone,” Dawn mutters as she picks the girl up. She frowns at the feeling of Kara’s rapid heartbeat and notices that her hands are clammy. “As thankful as I am for you rescuing us, I don’t think we can stay here. This girl . . . My daughter is obviously sick. She was fine before we came down here. If I had to guess, I’d say she’s having an allergic reaction to either the kerosene or whatever you put in the mask.”
“Her scent is a combination of lilacs and peanut oil,” the man claims, his gnarled fingers scratching his rash-covered head. He watches as the woman hastily switches masks with the gasping girl, the bigger one difficult to keep in place. “I do remember allergies being an issue before the destruction. Perhaps that is why so many are weak and others have died. I will tell the other elders about this knowledge. Now, what job and husband do you wish to take? I can see that you would be a useful nurse and two of our doctors have a spot in their harem.”
Struggling to breathe in the small mask, Dawn gives up and angrily tears it off. “I can handle this world long enough to get out. Show me to the exit because I have no intention of being in a harem. My daughter and I are heading for the Grand Caravan. That’s where we will reunite with her father, who is a powerful man. He’ll come with his soldiers to find us if we’re gone for too long.”
“Then, all of them will join us.”
“Pretty confident there.”
“Nobody ever leaves the underside.”
“Has anyone ever tried?”
“Yes, and we have built monuments to them.”
Watching the man walk over to a pedestal, Dawn takes the opportunity to look for an escape route. She doubts that she can make it through the town, so the only path is a rope that will take her to the walkways. A sputtering snore reminds her that Kara is asleep and possibly sick, which makes such a climb impossible. Hearing a constant squeak, Dawn’s attention falls on a pulley-operated elevator that is not very far away. An idea begins to form in her mind when the man coughs in his robotic voice, his hand hovering over a blue button. She smiles warmly in the hopes of hiding her intentions, the expression briefly becoming a mad grin that causes the local to reach for a gun on his hip. Clearing her throat, Dawn hangs her head and walks forward to make it look like she is being obedient. As soon as she is standing at the pedestal, the man hits the button and the hum of a generator echoes across the cavern.
“They will always be remembered,” he whispers as electric flood lights in the floor come to life. They shine on a collection of suspended skeletons that are wearing gasmasks and have been posed to look like they are climbing. “We could not let their bodies leave, so we let the spirits travel to the dangerous outside world. They were foolish and paid the price. Look at them and see that it is not the true path. Down here, the monsters never harm us. They do not even know we exist and that is for the best. Now, please choose a job and a husband.”
“Definitely a persuasive argument,” Dawn says as she steps away. Hearing movement, she stares at the display and notices that there is a fleshy body in the back. “You hang them alive and let the flesh rot off? You have the gall to call the two up there monsters when you’re doing something just as bad if not worse. This is what drives me nuts about humans. You do such horrible things to each other, but rationalize it while condemning others for be equally as evil and sadistic. A beast kills one of you and has to be put to death. Yet, a man commits murder and is simply locked away. At least Ian and Addison have an excuse for looking down on humans since they’re so powerful. What the hell goes through your head when you’re doing this to someone who simply wanted to leave?”
“I don’t understand the question,” he answers, his robotic voice sputtering. He blows a whistle that calls the other citizens to the area, many of them holding chained hooks and syringes. “It’s sad that you could not make it a day. We need more breeders and the little one could have helped with the smaller tunnels. She can still be saved, but you will have to be put in the monument. I promise that the woman who cares for your daughter will bring her to visit as often as she can.”
Gripping Kara to her chest, Dawn backs towards the monument until she hits the railing that is slick with damp blood. She scans the crowd for any spot that she can charge through, but the citizens have created an impenetrable wall of bodies. With nowhere else to go, she climbs over the barrier and enters the display, which causes the mob to pause. They are unsure if they should follow into what is considered unholy ground and whisper about who is willing to be sacrificed to catch Dawn. The flicker of hope in her heart is dashed when a child throws a syringe and nearly gets her in the eye. Following his example, the others begin hurling the needles with very little precision. A scratch on the leg sends a quiver up her leg, the numbing agent potent enough that even a drop will have an effect. Lining up behind the throwers, the men with hooked chains wait for the order to attack and drag the woman out of the monument.
A loud crash from above stops the attack and the citizens look up at the sound of a blood-curdling scream. Everyone scatters at the sight of an ebony beak pulling a man out of the cavern by his head. Once the hole is clear, an enormous flock of ravens swarm underground and dive at the people who are trying to get into their tents. The giant bird on the surface continues stabbing holes in the ceiling until the dirt collapses and exposes the entire animal. It refuses to drop into the confined space, but it quickly snatches up those who are hanging onto the remains of the walkways. A cluster of ravens knock over a motorhome and get inside through a shattered window, which inspires the others to do the same. Tents are shredded and sent flying while the hungry birds enjoy their feast. Hearing an echoing caw from the giant raven, the groups begin to grab people and lift them high enough to feed to their companion. Throughout the massacre, Dawn and Kara cower beneath the skeletons that help to shield them from view.