Finally free.

I stilled momentarily as I heard a babble of voices. Sharp commands sounded out. Gun barrels were loading, the echoes of safety catches clicked; heavy boots stomped closer and closer.

They were too close.

I almost shrieked in frustrated terror when I judged the gap under the fence did not look big enough to fit me. But I had to keep going. I did not have a choice. I had to try. I could not live one more day in this hell.

Headfirst, chest grazing the newly-excavated ground, I slipped through the tiny gap under the fence. The flesh of my shoulder grated on the ragged metal of the mesh wire but I did not care—what was one more scar?

Using my hands as claws, I dragged my body forward. I heard clear voices, the crystal timbre of the brothers; their savage dogs, consumed by bloodlust, as they howled with deliberately induced hunger.

“She’ll be searching for gaps or weak links. Secure the second team along the north gate. We’ll head for the south, and no matter what, FIND HER! The Prophet will bring the wrath of the Almighty on us all if she is lost!”

Quelling an anxious cry, I pushed and scrambled forward. I scurried through the dry mud, legs flailing in desperation. Deep scratches covered my skin. My white gown ripped and tore into shreds on spikes of jagged barbed wire, and I watched helplessly as my blood trickled onto the dry ground.

No! I almost screamed out in frustration. The hounds would smell my blood. They were trained to scent blood.

With one final push, my body was through, only my legs were left to go. I shuffled onto my back, heels digging in, striving for freedom.

A feeling, no, a flood of elation at the realization I was all but free quickly evaporated at the sight of a black hound skirting round a nearby bush. Focusing on a tree outside the fence—a goal to crawl to—I tried to pull myself forward, when a jolt of pain seared through my left leg. Razor-sharp teeth sliced into my flesh, and when I looked down, a heavily muscled guard dog held my left calf in its grip; snarling and shaking its head, tearing into fragile skin and muscle.

Paling with the severity of the pain, I fought back a growing sense of nausea. I slapped my palms on the forest floor, finding purchase on a large stone. Choking back a scream that was clawing its way up my throat, I dragged my mauled leg away from the fence toward my goal. The dog tried to force its large head under the fence, tightening its grip on my limb, shaking it back and forth like it was playing with a stick.

With the last of my energy, I attacked. The stone I had dragged myself with came loose in my hands and I hit the dog’s skull over and over and over, its bared fangs dripping with white-red foam, its hellish black eyes burning bright with anger. The disciple guards starved their hounds to make them bloodthirsty and forced them to fight each other to make them permanently angry. The disciple guards reasoned that the hungrier their dogs were, the more vicious they would be when hunting down deserters.

Inhaling through my nose, I tried to keep focus; I just needed to loosen the dog’s grip, just a fractional release to let go of my injured left leg.

And then it happened.

With a final crack of the stone, the incensed canine reared back, shaking its bruised head. I dragged myself free of the shallow gap, my breath coming in short sharp bursts as my body reacted to the shock.

As I shuffled away from the fence, a wry thought sped across my mind; I had actually done it. I am free.

The dog, though groggy and recovering from its hit, lunged for the gap. Once more it snapped its large jaws and sharp teeth and with it, me from my haze. Edging forward, I quickly filled the gap with as much mud as I could gather, then tried to stand, but my injured leg could not take the strain, could not bear my weight. Inside, I cried, Not now! Please, Lord, just give me the strength to keep going.

“Here! She’s here!”

A black-uniformed disciple emerged from the dense foliage, glaring furiously at my crouched form beyond the fence. He removed his balaclava and my heart fell. I would recognize that long scar on his cheek anywhere. Gabriel, Prophet David’s second-in-command; his brown heavy beard hiding most of his face, as was custom with all the brothers at The Order. However, Gabriel was the disciple my people feared most, the man responsible for the atrocity I witnessed tonight… responsible for me losing her…

Tutting and shaking his head, Gabriel inched forward, crouching low to meet my eyes. “Salome, you foolish girl. You didn’t think you could just leave, did you?”

A smirk spread across his face and he leaned even closer to the metal barrier. “Come back through and face your punishment. You’ve sinned… badly…” He laughed patronizingly, the other disciples followed suit. Every square inch of my skin crawled in horror. “It must run in the family.”

I tried to ignore his taunts. With a subtle search, I scoured my surroundings, searching for an escape route. Gabriel suddenly straightened and narrowed his eyes.

“Don’t even think it. We will find you if you run. You belong here, with the Prophet, with your people. He is waiting at the altar, and after the events of today, he is eager to proceed with the ceremony. There is nothing for you outside of the fence. Nothing but deceit, sin, and death.”

Crawling to my tree, my goal, I used the rough thick bark to lift myself up off the forest floor. I tried with all my might to block out his words, but I faltered in my footing. More disciples broke through the dense brush to watch me stumble; their large guns aimed, with perfect precision, at my head.

They could not, would not, shoot. Prophet David would not allow it. I knew I held the balance of power right now. But even if I managed to break free today, they would never give up the search for me—I was what they all believed had to happen. I looked down at my tattoo on my wrist, rubbed across the script and read the inked passage that had been forced upon my skin as a child. I just did not believe in The Order anymore. If this made me a sinner, then I was glad to be a fallen.