I was dropped not-so-smoothly in front of the Altar’s leader, that angry guy from yesterday. He was waiting for us in the middle of Alchemy, hands on his hips and feet tapping impatiently. His robes looked uncomfortable on him, too long and elegant, and with too many intricate details, gold on fuming red. He almost blended in with the fire I could see from the top of the Altar. But just the top, the rest of the body and walls unaffected. It reminded me of a pineapple in that way. A red pineapple. The guards took a few steps behind me to ensure I wouldn’t go back on my steps and try to escape.
I stayed on my knees, placing my hands into my lap. I didn’t look up, because that would be disrespectful, and waited for him to address me first.
“Follow me.” He huffed, whirling and nearly slapping in the face with his large sleeves.
I pushed myself to my feet and hurried to match his pace, exactly four feet behind, no more and no less.
He glanced over his shoulder at me, noticing this. “Are you mocking me?”
I shook my head and slowed to eight feet. He nodded approvingly. Snooty jerk–four feet was respect but eight meant that they held themselves to much higher glory. How pompous could this guy get? The guards didn’t have to follow this example and were closely following from behind. I resisted the groan in my throat and instead looked up at the Altar. The very tall structure made of bricks was stable and hard to set on fire. I knew that because the old houses in Lower used to be made of bricks and they were the only ones to survive the random town fires. Now, the most important buildings were constructed with bricks, as it helped avoid reconstruction once the place got destroyed.
“You know the Altar is on fire, right?” I asked, just in case.
He stopped, gave me a glare, and went back to walking. “Don’t ask such idiotic questions.”
“So that’s a no?” I had to say it. He had set it up so easily.
I heard him sigh. Then he snapped his fingers and one of the guards slapped me over the head. Ah, he was commanding them via snapping. Clever guy, I admitted.
“What caused it then?” I tried instead, but I received silence as an answer. Knowing that it was probably them giving me the silent treatment, I stayed quiet too, wanting to do the same. If they could play that game, then so could I. I just had to tough it out.
Our strange conga line lead me where I expected it to; the Altar. However, I couldn’t understand why they wanted to see me of all people here. Wasn’t it just yesterday where they were planning to give me a restraining order if I didn’t go home peacefully? These guys sure loved contracting themselves. I wasn’t going to remind them of this though; I wanted to see how far they would allow me to explore this place.
We stopped at the front door, he reminded us to stay quiet, and then knocked on the large metal. The single silver-painted plank of metal in the centre slid away to show eyes that analysed us. When it realized who they were looking at, the piece was returned and the heavy door inched open.
“Welcome back, Elder Orka.” The guard from the inside bowed to the wiry and wrinkly man in front of us.
“Thank you for your hard work.” Orka replied, almost automatically.
“How come the inside isn’t on fire?” I couldn’t help myself, once my eyes got used to the low-light candles and red velvet flooring (and lack of windows).
Orka set his unimpressed look on my face. I turned my head away. Even without having to observe him though, I could tell that he had sobered up, yesterday’s anger dissipated. He seemed more tired and fatigued now that he wasn’t raging with emotion, which made him seem a lot more elderly than before. He seemed like he needed a good rest. Or a good angering again. It would be a major improvement.
“You’ll understand if you follow me quietly.”
I pouted but nodded. One of the guards behind me chuckled, so I purposely swung my elbow back. Because they were already walking behind me so close, it was an automatic hit. It collided with his stomach and he let out a small oomph, stopping in his steps to hold himself.
I turned and watched him. “I didn’t hit that hard, you drama queen.”
He immediately straightened up and gave me a shrug. “Eh, I tried.”
“Orka should learn from you.”
Said elder grunted. “Ungrateful brat.” And he climbed up the stairs, leaving us in his dust.
I skipped the stairs two at a time and caught up to him. It was way brighter up here, compared to the underground which was too dark for human eyes. Here, there was light shining through the curtains acting like doors, the windows coming from in there. The spinning staircase kept going upwards though, so Orka didn’t bother stepping off and instead kept going.
Up and up we went.
Round and round.
Too many levels.
“You’re pitiful, child.” Orka cackled when I started breathing hard, he himself completely unaffected by the thousands of steps we went up. My legs were so tired they were numb. I didn’t even know if I had enough energy to carry myself higher.
I glanced at the super buff guys behind me who were treating this like a walk in the park. “Help me?”
One of them laughed. The other just went “no” and shoved me to keep going. Meanies.
I had to be the biggest humiliation to all of the Lower generation. Damn the Always and their urge to crate the tallest tower to ever exist, just so that they can look down on people. They needed to bring themselves down to our levels just once and a while and see that there’s no need to be so prideful. We were all people living in a world where anything could die at any second. There was no need to make sure the world knows they’re better.
At the very top, at the 12th level (or so Orka says), was the rooftop. I automatically knew, that since the fire was up there, that I was being lead to my death. A very witch-like death.
“You’re going to burn me to the stake?” I asked, collapsed on the floor and leaning against the wall to keep my head up. “I know I wasn’t supposed to go into the Altar but isn’t this kind of punishment too harsh?”
“The council has yet to discuss your crime.” Orka rolled his eyes, hand on the door that lead to the sky. He was waiting for me to take the finals steps upward and reach his side. I didn’t want to take them though. I was fine sleeping on the stairs, thank you. “So stop making idiotic assumptions.”
“You’re idiotic.” I grumbled childishly, crossing my arms and looking away.
There was a snap of his fingers. A hand firmly grasped the back of my shirt and hauled me to my feet, nearly choking me in the process.
“Insolent girl, how free you’ve been addressing me. Don’t you know I could easy chop off that tongue of yours for you to understand my authority?”
I looked away and mumbled. “What authority?”
“Let us haste.” With another swoosh of his long sleeves, Orka moved ahead and shoved the doors open. A familiar wave of heat exploded in our direction. I heard the tiny roar of the fire bird coming from the temperature outdoors.
“You guys don’t know how to take care of a bird.” I realized, smile slinking up on my lips. “So you’ve come to me, the only girl who knows this secret, for help.”
“Speak a word of this to no one.” The elder was cute when he was embarrassed.
“Don’t worry, it’ll go so smoothly you won’t even know I’m here.” I placed my hands on my hips, turned my head away, and tried hard to make my way up the rest of the stairs
To where a small friendly fire bird greeted me.
To where fresh air greeted me.
To where freedom wanted me.