PART 1—The Pit
“The world doesn’t end on the sand, did you girls know that? Yes, if you look over the Iron Wall you would see only sand, but it’s been told to me that there’s a huge, amazing world outside these walls. There’s so much more...”
He always started the story with the same words.
Shri and her friend were sitting on the floor, staring at Shri’s father. Shri loved her father Merrilon’s stories. It was the last day of the week and, as was customary, he would sit down on a stool, get Shri and her friend sitting on the floor down by his feet, and tell them a story. A story of the outside world.
Shri happily curled her little, sandy toes in front of her and wiggled them to get the dried sand away.
Summerhaze giggled and Shri looked at her, smiling. Summerhaze, who everyone called Susu, was her best friend. Shri clasped Susu’s hand to her own and turned her eyes again to Merrilon. Shri focused again on her father’s tale. Though she had heard all of them many times before, she loved to listen to them over and over again.
“And it’s been said that there are seas. Waters so big that this whole city would fit underneath them! And that there are many, many creatures living in the water—fish so big that they could eat you two whole! Little girls like you would only be a snack for a beast like that.”
Shri’s eyes shined from excitement. “When will I see the sea, Papa? And the beasts?”
Her father frowned and cleared his throat. “Well, we’ve got our life here in The Pit. But who knows, maybe someday you might—”
Summerhaze crossed her arms over her chest. “I don’t believe you, Uncle Merrilon.” She shook her head. “No one I know has ever seen those things. Not really.”
Shri’s father pretended to be shocked. “Why, Summerhaze Longhail, do you know all the people? Didn’t realize you did! You should tell me more ‘bout them.”
Susu’s pretty face scrunched up to his teasing, but when Shri’s father tickled her under her chin, she laughed with a bubbly sound. Shri smiled. She was happy to see her friend smiling and laughing. Ever since Susu’s parents had died in the fire six months ago, she had been living with them and she felt like Shri’s big sister. Lately, she hadn’t been laughing much.
But Shri really wanted to know more about the world beyond the walls, and she wanted to know more about the tall, dark tower in the center of the city. She looked at her father’s relaxed features and the smile on his face. Shri bit her lip and squeezed her hands into her lap.
She took a breath and splurted out, “Papa, tell us ‘bout the Spike.”
Heat climbed on her cheeks, her hands becoming clammy. She excitedly studied her father’s face.
Shri’s father sighed and rubbed his face. “You know I don’t like talkin’ about that thing.”
“Pleeease?” Shri and Susu pleaded together with their most compelling voices.
He looked at them with narrowed eyes for a while, but then smiled and his expression softened. “Fine. You’re impossible to say no to.”
He looked outside from the open door for a moment and then began talking. “In the center of the city is the tower Spike. It’s the home for the senatai and the drokashai in this land.”
“What’s inside the tower, Uncle Merrilon?” Summerhaze whispered. Summerhaze called Shri’s father an uncle, though they weren’t related. Summerhaze’s parents died and Shri’s parents took her in.
“Nobody knows, but the rumor says that there are glorious treasures—unbelievable things of magic. But not all of it is wonderful. The senatai are—”
“Why can’t we go there and see it? I wanna see it!” Shri said, bouncing up on her skinny legs. “I wanna do magic and I wanna go on adventures!” Her hands rose up in the air, mimicking what she thought would be a senatai casting magical spells. “I wanna cast spells and be a senatai!”
Susu laughed. “Shri, it’s not your place! We belong here, you silly.”
Shri let her hands fall to her sides and frowned. “Why not? Why are we kept here, Papa? Why can’t we see what’s behind the walls?”
Merrilon, laid his hand on Shri’s head. His hand was heavy and soothing. “The walls are for our protection. The senatai and their magic might sound exciting, but they’re not all good people. And we must always do as they say to stay safe.”
She sat back down. “What do you mean?”
“Their magic is wild and dangerous. They had to create these walls to protect us from it and the winds that arrive with every monsoon season. But the senatai fight all the vicious monsters in the world, they protect the land, and we have an important part to help to keep the tower up and running and—”
“But why can’t we see what’s behind that wall? What’s it like in the Fourth Ring? Or in the Third Ring? Is the sea there? Or the forest, the one with trees and birds?” Shri babbled, glancing at the open door towards the wall that separated the Pit from the Fourth Ring.
“Girls, I know it’s hard to understand—”
A boy’s head popping from the door cut him off. He was the same age as Summerhaze, four years older than Shri. His black hair was messy, his face dirty, as always. His trousers had holes in them and they were way too short for him. His brown shirt had big stains on it, and the sleeves rose high to his elbows. He was out of breath but his brown eyes twinkled.
“What?” Dago said, spreading his arms. “You’re still here! Come on! It’s starting! The Gate Run! I wanna have a good place so that I can see the runners!”
“Papa, can we please go? Pleeaase?” Shri grabbed his big hands. She tried her best cute-eye look on him, for she really wanted to see the opening ceremonies of the Gate Run. When the previous Gate Run had its opening ceremonies, she had been too little to understand it all. But she understood it now. She did! She was almost seven years old.
“I don’t like that thing, the Gate Run. All those poor men getting themselves killed.” Merrilon shook his head.
“But they’ll get away from here! To adventures!” Shri’s face lit up, but then she frowned. “Why can’t we go and see?” Tears obscured her eyes. She wanted to see the brave men with their weapons and a real senatai who would be there. Someone who could actually do real magic. Shri had never seen the opening ceremonies of the Gate Run. Or a senatai.
Merrilon shook his head. “No, Shri. You’re too little to go there. Susu, you can go with Dago if you want to.”
Summerhaze frowned and bit her lip. “If Shri can’t go, then I won’t go.”
Dago waited in the doorway. He sighed and frowned. He looked disappointed. “You’re not coming? It’s the Gate Run!” He glared at Merrilon. “Everyone who’s not working is gonna go.”
Summerhaze shook her head and clasped Shri’s hand. “I’ll stay with Shri.”
“No, you can go, Susu,“ Shri said and nodded, though her bottom lip shook and she was on the verge of tears. “Go, and tell me all about it after.”
Summerhaze looked at her. “Are you sure?”
“Mm-hmm,” Shri said, hugging her.
Summerhaze walked to the door and gave one uncertain glimpse over her shoulder, and Shri smiled to her. As soon as Summerhaze had vanished from the door, Shri’s eyes watered up and overflew with tears. Her father grabbed her into his arms and wiped away her tears.
“Shri, my sweet girl. You’ll get to see it one day. You’re six years old, eh? Almost seven. I’ll take you to Iron Forge with me tomorrow. You’ll start as a coal girl. You’ll get some marks for the family.”
“Yes, Papa,” she muttered, hanging her head. She didn’t really want to be a coal girl. The job was dirty and boring. She would have to clean the fire pits and take the ashes and coals away and sweep the floors of Iron Forge. Merrilon was a smith at the Forge, and they created all the weapons for the drokashai and the senatai of the city. They would get some marks, which were pieces of iron marked with the symbol of the Spike. Iron marks were their currency in the Pit. They would buy the food and other items from the carts, delivered to the Pit, with the marks.
Merrilon lifted Shri’s chin with his hand and looked into her eyes. His gaze was comforting, but still tears rolled down Shri’s cheeks.
“The Gate Run is not an exciting game, or a way to adventures,” he said, his expression growing darker. “It’s a wicked trap. A way to lure the people to their deaths by letting them believe that they’ll get inside that tower, but nobody ever survives it. They die in there. I don’t know why they want it like that…to see them dead.” His last words were so quiet that Shri barely heard them.
Shri’s eyes rounded. “Die? Like for good? They’ll take the last trip to the Rivers of the Underworld, they’ll sail with their demons?”
Merrilon pulled her closer and tightened his grip. “Yes, little one.”
Shri laid her head to his chest and listened to his steady heartbeat. She didn’t understand. “Then why do they go? Do they want to die?”
Merrilon sighed. “Maybe some of them do. Some really think they could survive it and become a senatai. Surely, some have. The strongest, the bravest ones. But most who enter only wanna get away from here. They think it’s the only way.”
Shri was quiet for a long time. “Will we ever get away, Papa?”
He kissed Shri’s head. “I hope so. I’ve been savin’ our marks for some time. And one day we might have enough…” His voice withered down.
“Enough what, Papa?”
“Enough to get the stamps on our wrists and move to the Fourth Ring.”
Shri lifted her head from his chest and her eyes shone with hope. “Really?”
“That’s the right way, Shri. That’s our way out. Nothing like the foolish Gate Run. Your Mama and I, we will get us to the next ring. Shri, I promise you that I’ll do everything I can for you and for Susu. I wanna see you happy and I wanna give you the chance to live a better life. At the Fourth Ring, you could do that.”
He smiled to Shri. “Here,” he said, placing a half a mark on her palm. Folding Shri’s fingers around it, Merrilon stared at Shri’s eyes. “You’re a big girl now, almost seven. You know the way to the market area and back home, eh? Go buy us bread. As fresh as you can find. You'll have it for supper.” Pinching Shri on her cheek, he stood up. “I’ve to get to Iron Forge, little one. My shift is starting. Your Mama’s coming home later.”
“But Papa… Won’t you eat with us?”
“Not tonight, Shri. Run along now.”
The bread in her hands, Shri walked along the street to her home. She was proud that she was allowed to buy the bread all by herself. She lifted her little chin higher. The happiness about her father’s news, the marks, and the Fourth Ring didn’t quite wipe away her anger about missing the Gate Run, for she really wanted to see the opening ceremonies with her own eyes. What did the senatai look like? Did he have a beard? Or was it a woman? Would she do some magic there? Shri would have to wait for Susu and Dago’s stories about it.
She sighed and squeezed the bread, her stomach rumbling. She’d have to wait for the others, for the bread was all they had for supper tonight. It smelled wonderful, the bread. It wasn’t fresh though. All the fresh ones had been taken, the advocate in her fine clothes had said. But it was food nevertheless.
Her mind wandered back to her father’s tales. What would it be like to see the big waters, the seas? She tried to imagine it, but it was awfully hard. All she had ever seen was the small muddy puddles during the monsoon season. A water so big that this whole city could fit under it? She had a hard time imagining it. And the creatures… She would like to see those. Her little lips pressed tightly together and she sighed. If she would just ask the gatekeepers nicely, maybe they would—
Shri lifted her head, frowning as she gazed around.
This wasn’t her home street.
She couldn’t see the Rag Tower, the Iron Forge, or the market place. The housing boxes rose high above her, and the people weren’t familiar at all. Had she turned in the wrong direction? Shri bit her lip. No need to get scared. She would just walk ahead and find someone who could tell her the way home. Squeezing her lips together, Shri took a breath and began walking ahead. The people passing her by looked angry and scary. They glared at her and her bread with narrowed eyes, and she squeezed it more tightly to her chest. She didn’t want to talk to them, but how could she find her way home if she was too afraid to ask?
Something black flashed on the edges of her sight. It had been something big and dark. Was there a shadow of some creature following her? Shri winced quietly. There’s another one, there, vanishing behind the corner. She twisted her head from side to side, and her little heart begun to beat like her father’s hammer.
The streets were much narrower here, and it smelled awful—urine, blood, something odd, sweet. Shri’s nostrils widened and she scrunched her nose. The housing boxes rose high above, one on top of the other. Four boxes, she counted. Ladders stuck out from them like legs, and small holes looked like evil eyes. There were lumps on the ground by the sides of the boxes—people, Shri realized. They coughed and groaned quietly.
She pressed her chin down and tried to walk as fast as she could to get away from the scary place. Someone grabbed her ankle. Shri screamed and tried to yank her leg free. Hollow eyes stared at her deep out of a hood. His face was filled with wounds and bloody blisters.
His voice was hoarse. “You’ve got bread! Gimme! I’m starving…”
“No!” Shri winced and squeezed the bread.
“Gimme yours bread girl!” He pulled Shri’s ankle.
“No! It’s mine!” Shri cried, yanking her foot free.
She began to run, bumping into people. Crouched over her precious bread, Shri ran and ran until the streets got wider and brighter. She stopped where the sun beams found her again, spreading their soothing warmth to her face. All of the shadows were gone now, but she was out of breath. It had been so scary. Sniffing, she wiped the tears from her cheeks.
She had to find her way home.
Shri glanced around and almost started crying again. Still no familiar places in her sight, only weird looking streets, unfamiliar faces…and the inner iron wall. She was very close to it. It was high and uninviting, darkening her sight. Shri walked slowly to the wall and laid her tiny hand on its cold surface. Behind it was the Fourth Ring.
And then her eyes fixed on the building near her, attached to the wall. The Gate Tower.
That was the gate to the Fourth Ring.
The Iron Wall separated the Pit from the Fourth Ring. Shri knew there were several gates where the food carts were delivered to the Pit and where all the items made in there would be fetched to be delivered inside to other rings. Gatekeepers stood on the gates all the time.
A voice of rampage startled her and she quickly snuck to the safety of the shadows. There were three men quarreling and fighting on the small square in front of the Gate Tower. They shouted and pushed each other around, one punching another, and the third kicking one. Shri backed towards the wall, leaning on it with her back. Both gatekeepers, who made sure that only the people with right markings got through, were observing the fight at the square, laughing.
Shri’s eyes drifted toward the gate.
It was open. Just slightly, but enough for her to fit through. She could reach it with seven heartbeats. Or even six. She was fast.
She took a shaky breath and bit her lower lip. What if she could peek in? Just a little? It wouldn’t matter at all. She would just give a quick look and then she would come back. Maybe she could even see a senatai there? Maybe if she would ask he could do some magic for her. That would be a great story for Susu and Dago. The ceremonies of the Gate Run would be nothing compared to that.
Shri’s back was against the high wall, and she tried to be as small and as unnoticeable as possible. She wrapped her scarf around her head to hide her white hair, but the long strands kept escaping from under it and she had to tuck them in. Placing the bread under her shirt, Shri pursed her lips and tip-toed forward towards the gate, glaring at the same time over her shoulder for the gatekeepers. She sneaked forward, bit by bit, and stopped behind the gate door for a moment. She stayed behind the door in the shadows and then, without a sound, snuck through the gate. She glanced around, rolling her head and diving behind the first building she saw. Her heart was pounding and she closed her eyes for a while, waiting for someone to notice her. When nothing happened, she dared to open them again.
Shri’s jaw dropped open and she sighed from amazement.
There were houses, such big houses, made of wood. They were nothing like the small, rusty iron boxes that they had to live in. They had some colorful curtains in the windows—Shri had surely heard about the curtains. The street was carpeted with stones. It was beautiful! Shri glanced over her shoulder, her body freezing on the spot, her heart skipping a beat.
The gate was closed.
Shri leaned her back against the building’s wall, worry shading her thoughts. She would have to wait until they would open the gate again, and then she could sneak back. Was her mama home already? Shri really shouldn’t make her angry. Maybe the Gate Run ceremony had ended. It was hard to tell how much of the time passed. She looked around and saw that the shadows were already longer.
Shri waited for a while for the gate to be opened, but soon got bored and leaned casually on the building’s wall, scratching the scab on her knee and eyeing the gate. It remained closed. She heard quiet chattering, laughter, cartwheels rattling…nothing threatening or too weird. She gazed up and the wall was there. It looked the same from this side, big and uninviting. The houses were different, but what if it really wasn’t different at all, the Fourth Ring?
Now that she was here, she could surely look around, couldn’t she? A grin on her face, she peeked from behind the corner. She couldn’t wait to tell Susu! People walked in their daily errands, the sun shone to the streets, and Shri couldn’t help herself. Boldly, she stepped to the street.
The smooth rocks felt warm to her bare feet. People walked past her, ignoring her. They were so clean and tall and beautiful, and all had well-fitting clothes on. They smiled and walked happily forward. This was surely like a paradise! The sun glimmered on the houses’ walls, which had actual windows with wooden hatches that could be closed or opened, not self-made holes on the side of a housing box. Shri walked forward on the street, her mouth open and eyes round. She tried to see everything so she could tell it to Susu. Next, she would try to find a senatai and ask him to do magic.
A girl jumped in front of her, startling Shri. The girl was about her age, and she wore a beautiful light brown dress and had actual shoes. Her black hair was tied down with ribbons on both sides of her head.
She tilted her head and scrunched her nose. “You are dirty. Who are you?”
Shri frowned at her, but before she had the chance to answer, the girl yelled over her shoulder, “Mama! Is this one of the Pit slaves? What is she doing here? She smells.”
Shri opened her mouth to say that she was no slave, but before she got the words out she was yanked away by big and gruff hands. Shri howled but the man tossed her over his shoulder. Shri kicked with her feet and tried to get away.
“Be still!” the man growled.
Her bread falling on the street, Shri stared at it in horror as the man carried her away. The girl looked directly into Shri’s eyes, made an evil smile, took a few steps towards it, and slammed her shoe on it. Their supper.
Shri squirmed and tried to get her hands and legs free. The pike holder, for that is what he was—Shri recognized his red and black clothes—growled.
“You little rat! This isn’t your place to be. I’ll take you back to your stinky pit!”
He stomped through the gate, Shri on his shoulder, and then Shri was back in the Pit. The gate was closed, and the Fourth Ring was shut from her. Her little face scrunched with anger, she wiggled more.
“Stop it, you rat! I’m gonna take you home and beat you in front of your momma!”
Shri pounded his back with her tiny hands. “I’m no rat!”
The man laughed. “Yes, you are! A filthy rat!”
“You should know that rats bite!” Shri shouted, and bit the man on his hand as hard as she could. The man howled, letting Shri go. As soon as her feet touched the ground, she sprinted away on her little legs, running as fast as she could.
Shri ran for a long time, turning corners and sneaking in the shadows. Finally, she slowed down when she had lost the pike holder. The streets were unfamiliar, people looked mean and strange. Shri was now totally lost, tired, and hungry, and a small sob was caught in her throat. Determinately, she swallowed it away. Crying wouldn’t help her.
Shri turned from a corner again and sighed from amazement when she realized where she actually was. The Safety Net. She had never been this far away from home, all the way at the end of the Ring. She had heard about it though, from the bigger kids. This was the only place in Pit where you could look outside to the passageway that split the rings all the way to the Spike.
Shri walked closer. There were a few other people there too, standing quietly, staring outside. They were silent, like shadows. The Safety Net was as high as the walls around her, reaching towards the sky. It was an actual net, but it was magically woven they said, and impenetrable. She laid her hand on it to make sure and, yes, it was as hard as an iron wall. She could see through, people were walking behind it. People from other rings! Maybe someone was outside of the city! They didn’t even glance at the Pit folk behind the Net, except for one boy who fixed his eyes on Shri’s. But as soon as his mother realized where he was looking, she quickly yanked him away.
Then a new movement caught Shri’s eye.
Carriages. Many of them.
They rolled slowly towards the center of the city, and in each carriage sat one or two black-hooded figures. They were senatai. Shri was sure of it! She stared at them with her eyes round and mouth open. Their faces were like stone. They looked so glorious and fierce, their eyes fixed forward. With them were warriors. Scars on their faces, cruel looking weapons on their laps, they sat on the back of the carriages, their legs hanging over the boards.
The last carriage of the parade rolled past Shri, but all of a sudden, the hooded figure lifted a hand and the carriage stopped. The senatai lowered her hood and revealed her dark, glowing skin. Shri took a breath. She was glorious!
The senatai observed the people behind the net and then she looked directly at Shri. Shri’s heart started to beat loudly, as if it would jump out of her chest. The senatai’s eyes lit up like someone lit a candle behind them as she stared firmly at Shri. Shri’s blood rushed in her ears. She winced and tried to take a step back, but she couldn’t move. She was frozen. The senatai looked at her, firmly, mesmerizing her with those fierce, glowing eyes. It was hard to breathe. The whole world stopped moving, and all Shri could see were her shining eyes.
Then she heard something inside her head. “You? A little girl? So small you are, yet I see them. So many sparkles… Yes, stay strong, little one. Prepare and practice. Become fast, become strong. When you’re ready, we will meet.”
After the voice had withered away, Shri blinked and took a deep breath. The carriages had moved on, but the senatai shot her a glance one more time before settling her hood over her head again and turning away
“There you are, little rat!”
Big hands grabbed Shri’s arm again. She cried out as the man yanked her arm and twitched her wrist. Her wrist markings told him everything he needed to know about her. There was her ring marking, only one big ring, and her housing area written inside it.
“Housing area five? Are you kidding me? That’s like twelve blocks away.” He grabbed Shri by her cheeks and squeezed painfully as tears welled in her eyes. He put his bearded face right in front of hers. “Your family is gonna pay for this. A lot! I’ll take every mark they have, and it’s all your fault, little rat!”
Shri screamed when the pike holder slammed her over his shoulder and began the long walk back to her housing area.
The Last Trip
Twelve years later
Only one thing guided Shri in her life. She wanted to get into the Spike. The tower stood tall and mighty in front of her, and so black it nearly disappeared into the night. Shri barely took her eyes off of it. It cast its threatening and intriguing shadow upon the city of Ironflare, like it had done for hundreds of years. It was the sign of captivity for Shri, but also a mark of freedom, a symbol of power. It was the key to the door that could open the world to her—a world that had been untouchable. Sighing, Shri turned her back to it and concentrated again on her night run. She needed to focus.
Monsoon season had started and the rooftops of the housing boxes beneath her were shiny and wet. Maybe the desert had grown green already. It couldn’t be seen from here on the roofs though. One needed to climb on top of the Rag Tower to be able to see over the outer iron wall. She started running and hurried her pace as she came closer to the edge. Jumping, Shri flew over the alley beneath. She landed on top of the next box, flexing her knees, and then stayed crouched and silent for a while in the darkness, listening. She had to be careful, for she didn’t want the pike holders who patrolled in the Pit to see her.
Shri stood up, scanned her surroundings, and continued her run. She ran softly across the second roof, her shoes not making a sound. The next jump would get her on top of Market Hall, which was the only building in the Pit made out of rock. Shri landed on top of it and rolled smoothly with a rounded back. Rapidly, Shri got to her feet again and continued her run without stopping. Market Hall was a long building. It continued the length of the market area and Shri ran quietly along its curved edge. Rock felt different under her feet, so unlike the iron surface of the boxes.
She still recalled her unfortunate trip to the Fourth Ring as a child. There the houses were all made out of stone or wood, and much sturdier than the boxes they lived in here in the Fifth Ring. If the Fourth Ring was so much cleaner and finer, she had always wondered how amazing it would be in the Second Ring, or in the First Ring under the shadow of the Spike. Or inside the tower.
Shri arrived on the edge of the roof and jumped down with a front flip. She made sure there wasn’t anybody in the square, and quickly ran through it along the wall. She headed towards the Rag Tower in the center of the production area. Shri reached it, circled around it, and started to climb the ladder to the tower’s roof. Her heart was beating hard from the strain, but persistently she continued.
She would have to be in shape.
She couldn't give up.
For as long as she could remember, Shri had dreamed of getting into the Spike and becoming a senatai, a user of magic. Since she was a child and had seen the Safety Net and the passageway behind it, she had stood behind the Net several times. The passageway was the only place where she could see other people than the Pit folk. The passageway split the rings like an arrow shot from somewhere far, and cut a path for the center of Ironflare. Also, the senatai and their servants, the drokashai, used the Passageway to get to and from the Spike on their travels to the wilderness of the land in their duties to protect all people. To Shri, the drokashai looked scary, wild, and strong. They carried peculiar weapons and some had ugly scars across their faces. Drokashai were the companions, protectors, and the assistants of the senatai.
But Shri had eyes only for the senatai. They looked so calm, so perfectly powerful sitting in the carriages and wearing their dark cloaks, their eyes fixed forward. But she couldn’t forget the one senatai all those years ago who had spoken to her.
Stay strong. Prepare and practice. Become fast and strong. When you’re ready, we will meet.
The older she had become, the less time she had to spare to spend at the Safety Net. It was far from her home, and she was an adult now. She had no time to dream behind the Net. But she had practiced.
Shri climbed the final steps of the ladder of the high Rag Tower, her hands shaking from the strain. She crawled on top of the roof, upon its highest point. It was her and Susu’s favorite spot. Here Susu and she daydreamed of the wide world they would someday see, and of a different life they would someday lead, seeing all the things her father had been telling them since they were children. Susu said they were only made-up stories, but Shri wanted to believe in them.
Shri wiped a strand of hair from her face and looked at the Spike again. The black tower was so far and felt unachievable, but every time she looked at it, it seemed to be pulsing just for her. The Spike pulled at her like it had a string attached to her. From the day the senatai had spoken to her—Shri was sure she had—Shri had the desire to get into the Spike to be trained as a senatai. The promise had been alluring. Was the call from the senatai especially for her? Or were there others? Had the senatai spoken to someone else too? Shri had been so little. Sometimes she wondered if the voices had even been real. Real or imagination, the words still burned inside her mind, reminding her of what she could one day become.
Shri pulled her eyes away from the Spike and looked the other way, outside of the Iron Wall. As far as she could see, she saw only sand. It had gathered in the form of big hills around the city of Ironflare, though one couldn’t see all around from the top of the Rag Tower. The iron walls between the rings were high and blocked the view to the other side. The rain and the night had now darkened the hills, but soon they would flourish fresh and green for a few weeks until they would perish again when the dry season would come upon the city. The grand desert was all there was, and never-ending as far as everyone knew. No one she knew had ever seen what lay behind it. All she had was her father’s stories. To know more, to see more, sometimes pounded so hard inside that she felt it would surely someday rip her apart.
The only people Pit folk ever saw or met from the inner rings were the pike holders or advocates, the ones who gathered the supplies which were made in the production area. Otherwise, the Pit managed itself. The people from the inner rings never spoke of the other rings, and the people in the Pit knew nothing but rumors and stories about what lay behind the fourth, third, or the second iron wall.
You could buy yourself a stamp on your wrist to move to the Fourth Ring if you had the marks. Shri still felt the shame. If she hadn’t snuck to the Fourth Ring as a child they wouldn’t have had to pay the fee for breaking the rules. Father and Mother had had to give up every mark they had saved, and so the dream to live in the Fourth Ring was taken away.
One time there was a man who was thrown out from the Fourth Ring to the Pit. He never spoke a single word again and everybody thought he was just crazy, but Remedy-Rilda, Shri’s teacher in the art of healing, or whatever her practice was, had told Shri that the man did not speak because his tongue was cut out.