The moderator threw a handful of something into the fire and it flared high, blinding me and releasing the pungent scent of herbs. I felt Stellan wince. Fire was one of the only things in the world he was afraid of.
The moderator called something in a language I didn’t know, and a smaller group of people stepped forward, holding knives.
“A baptism by flame unites the lines,” the moderator said. This was the last part of the ceremony before the tattoos. I felt a tug in my gut. Were we really going through with this?
“Rule by blood!” the moderator announced.
“By blood,” the crowd murmured again.
Sergei Vasilyev came forward. He sliced a line across his forearm and let the blood drip into the fire as the flames tried to lick at his skin. Then the moderator handed him something.
It was a small box, its lid hinged open. “This same blood, combined as one, will make the Circle complete,” he proclaimed. Combining blood. That sounded as familiar as the box itself.
Mr. Vasilyev let another drop of blood fall into the box, and handed it off to his right. The next Circle family head, and the next, all the way down the line, did the same. The fire crackled, growing as if fueled by the offerings.
I had my eyes planted firmly on the box. Stellan pressed closer, his hand over mine at his elbow. He’d seen, too, and by the look in their eyes, so had Jack and Elodie. It might be the same replica box we’d seen last night. It was the same size and shape. But it looked—different, somehow.
The chanting grew louder. Stellan and I were each handed a knife of our own. By unspoken agreement, we stepped away from each other. The chanting grew frenzied as I came to the edge of the fire. The heat was like a wall this close. I put the tip of the knife to the forearm farthest from Stellan, and drew the blade across my skin. I felt a bead of sweat drip down my chest. I held my arm over the fire, as far in as I could reach, and watched the dark droplets sizzle as they fell.
I stepped back. The box was placed in my hands.
I knew immediately that, though it looked just like the one we’d seen last night, it was not the same. This was far older, like the one at the Melechs’ was a toy. I held my arm over it, and let my blood drip inside onto wood already stained red.
And then I saw it. Etched into the back wall of the box was our symbol.
If anyone had spotted it, they might have assumed it had been specially engraved for today. But this carving was not new. I looked up. Stellan’s eyes were burning into me like he was trying to read my mind. I tilted the box so he could see, and then glanced back at Jack and Elodie and let my eyes widen a fraction.
The moderator cleared his throat and gestured Stellan forward. The chanting continued.
Stellan stepped to the fire, letting his blood drip. He rejoined me, and I reluctantly handed him the box. Once we finished this, the ceremony would be all but done.
I could see the same thoughts swirl behind Stellan’s eyes. He took the box. His blood dripped inside. The bells chimed like a chorus of heartbeats. Row after row, the Circle members got to their knees.
That’s when Elodie screamed.
I jumped so hard, I almost knocked the box out of Stellan’s hands. The chanting cut off abruptly.
“Run!” she yelled, pointing. “They’re coming for us!”
It didn’t matter that she was pointing at nothing. It didn’t matter that it didn’t make sense. This was her version of pulling a fire alarm, and it worked. Keepers were rushing to their families, hustling them toward the exit. People screamed, threw back the hoods on their robes.
“Get to the exit!” Elodie yelled. She grabbed the back of my robe, and Stellan’s, and shoved us in the opposite direction. I saw what she was looking at. There were a couple of passageways off the back of the cavern. We were still holding the box. We’d take it and find another way out, pretending we’d gotten lost in the chaos.
I clung to Stellan’s arm as we disappeared into the dark mouth of the tunnel, and we squinted into the box. The flames from the main cavern were the only light we had. I heard Elodie’s voice, and Jack’s, still ushering everyone out. “Look,” I said. “The symbol is etched into some kind of metal strip that goes all the way around—”
And then there was a bang so loud, it sounded like the world above us had imploded.
Before I could react, Stellan had pushed me to the ground against a wall, sheltering me with his body. In the darkness I felt dust rain from the ceiling, and a deepening rumble seemed to be coming from the rocks themselves.
“Jack!” I screamed, pushing to standing. “Elodie!”
“Luc’s back there, too,” Stellan said.
The ground under our feet started shaking, like an earthquake. I grabbed blindly for Stellan to keep from falling—then there was a grating rumble and a crash, and weak light came from a hole where the wall opposite us used to be. It must have led into the main network of tunnels that ran under the Old City. They were a major tourist attraction. A group of shocked sightseers, the cameras around their necks forgotten, screamed and shoved as they fled the blast. A couple of them looked through the hole and did a double take when they saw us. We probably looked like ghosts in our white ceremonial robes.
The rumbling grew louder behind us, in the direction of the Circle ceremony. I spun toward it. “We have to get them—”
I could tell Stellan didn’t like it, but he said, “They had a way out. We have to save ourselves.” He pulled me to the hole in the wall. The stone scraped at my bare arms as I squeezed through, and then there was a massive crash, and bits of rock and dust slammed into us, throwing us to the floor. I sat up coughing, staring back in the direction of the ruined ceremonial chamber.
There would be no going back for Jack and Elodie and Luc.
Stellan stood and hauled me to my feet. I tucked the box under my arm. “We have to get out of here. It might cave in more.”