Ben continued through the exhibits, each time getting a little closer to Melody. The crowd grew more restless with each claim of a missing person. The artists and guides never remarked on the lost individuals from the group. Ben thought he heard a radio crackle to life and someone’s voice. Did Officer Lyle make it? No one else in the crowd commented on the noise if they heard.
“I promise, my husband is missing,” the woman from earlier said.
Yet, no one knew if she was telling the truth. After the red-haired woman that painted had hidden within the crowd at the beginning, no one felt inclined to believe her. Ben knew that if he could get to Officer Lyle, he would survive. He saved me once, so why can’t he save me again? Did Ben dare call for Officer Lyle to see if he was nearby?
“Lady, shut up,” a man said. “No one believes you. Can anyone confirm you brought a husband with you?”
The group murmured in agreement. Some patrons stepped away from the woman. The Artist Apprentices didn’t comment, but closed in on the peripherals of the group. Fists clenched, red faced, and mouthing soundless words, the woman glared back at the accusing man.
“So you think I’m one of them?” The woman asked.
The woman pointed a finger at the closest Artist Apprentice, who laughed. Other apprentices joined in on the laughter. Ben got an uneasy feeling and abandoned his goal of nearing Melody. The hooded figures walked through the gaps in the crowd, and no one tried to stop them. Ben tried to move toward the woman, but a firm hand pulled him back. When he looked down at the hand on his arm, it turned out smaller than expected. Ben turned to find Melody staring at him with tear-filled eyes. Melody shook her head.
“Our first pledge of the night,” a woman said.
The voice held the rasp of a chain smoker.
“Do not fear, the Artist will pass judgement on your ability.”
Ben couldn’t see the woman anymore. There was no scream to warn of danger, but some people in the closed circle grabbed the woman. Half of them carried her away through an opening in the fabric wall. The woman’s accuser slumped to the floor. Two hooded figures drug the man through the wall. A final apprentice turned to the crowd. Even under the shadow of the hood, Ben saw the crooked smile.
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