I swallowed a screech of frustration before darting back outside. I didn’t feel the cold anymore, even with my jumpsuit still wet, and I hurried through the darkening streets, searching every building nearby with an open door. Bunks I didn’t recognize, buildings with cold entranceways and locked hallways—she wasn’t in any of them. And no matter how hard I searched, I couldn’t find the trail of blood that had to be somewhere.
Just as I decided to head back to the bunkhouse and see if I could trace Scotia’s boot prints, an air horn went off, and my entire body went numb. This time it had nothing to do with the cold.
I was one of the first to reach the railing around the cage. I found a spot where I had an unobstructed view of the rooftop where the Mercers and Knox had viewed the matches the day before, and I waited anxiously, fighting the fear that crept into my thoughts. It would be okay. Everything would be okay.
At last the Mercers appeared, and it was only then that I became aware of the crowd surrounding me, trapping me against the railing. Everyone in the section was here, just as they’d been the night before, and they were all ready to watch someone else die.
I looked up at Knox, waiting for him to notice me. He cast his gaze around the crowd, but at last our eyes met, and he shook his head minutely. I didn’t have to hear him to know what he was thinking: I’d missed dinner, and the Mercers weren’t pleased.
I didn’t care about the Mercers right now. All I could think about was that cage, and as the trapdoors opened underneath, I held my breath.
It would be okay. It would be okay. It would be okay.
But as the familiar mop of floppy brown hair appeared, my blood turned to ice, and I knew it wouldn’t be.
Elliott stood on trembling legs inside the cage, still in his guard uniform. And across from him, wearing a blood-soaked jumpsuit with no coat, knelt Noelle.
“Noelle!” I screamed. “Noelle!”
Even though she couldn’t have been more than twenty feet from me, she didn’t look my way. Her head lolled forward as if she were barely conscious, and her dark hair was matted with blood. Elliott knelt beside her, and for one terrible moment I thought he was going to kill her—until he wrapped his arms around her and buried his nose in her bloody hair, the same way Benjy had held me only hours before.
Desperation clawed at me from the inside out, but there was nothing I could do. They were already inside the cage. Guards holding rifles surrounded the base, making it a suicide mission at worst to even try to get to them.
But the crowd was dead silent. My scream had echoed through the streets, and even Mercer had glanced my way.
They could hear me.
“They did nothing wrong!” I shouted, climbing onto the railing so the Mercers could see me, too. Hannah averted her eyes, but Mercer stared straight at me, his gaze unblinking. Beside him, Knox leaned in and whispered something in his ear, but Mercer didn’t react. No one said a word.
“It’s okay, Lila,” said a small voice. I turned around. Noelle’s head was resting on Elliott’s shoulder, but she was looking at me, her eyes slightly unfocused. Her face already showed signs of bad bruising, and a gash ran from her temple to her chin. That must have been where most of the blood had come from. Even now, I could see it dripping down her cheek.
Tears stung my eyes, and without thinking, I tried to climb over the railing. “No, this isn’t okay—Noelle, this isn’t okay. Knox!” A guard grabbed my waist, and I began to kick. “Knox, do something!”
A second guard grabbed my flailing legs, and I stood no chance of fending off both. Their arms were strong and their grips unbreakable, and no matter how I twisted and moved, neither of them let go. I didn’t pay attention to them, though—instead I stared up at the rooftop where Knox and the Mercers stood, all three of them now pretending I wasn’t there.
“Lila, please,” said Noelle in that same broken voice. “I don’t want you to die, too.”
A choking sob escaped me. “I’m sorry,” I managed. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay,” she said again. “This is as good a way out as any. At least now we’ll be together.”
Elliott held her tighter and turned away from me, and I forgot how to breathe. The defeat in Noelle’s eyes—she didn’t deserve this. She hadn’t done anything wrong.
“This is your only warning,” boomed Mercer from the rooftop, and I stared at the pair inside the cage, unable to look away. Noelle whispered something I couldn’t hear in Elliott’s ear, and he shook his head, his arms tightening around her.
It wasn’t hard to imagine what she had asked and what he had refused to do. Elliott looked uninjured, and with his physical strength, he could have easily snapped her neck. It would be painless—a mercy kill, and he would have another chance at survival. Maybe not as a guard, but he would still be alive. And by this time tomorrow, we’d all be free or dead anyway.
But if it had been Benjy and I inside that cage, I knew without a doubt that neither of us would make a move no matter how close to death the other was. I’d already had a taste of what life would be like without him, and there was nothing in the world that could make me go back there.
No matter how much sense it made for Elliott to kill her to save himself, he wasn’t going to do it. He loved Noelle more than his own life. And in that moment, I hated Scotia more than I thought I could ever hate anyone, even Knox.