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Under the Never Sky
Under the Never Sky 17
She’d given up speaking with the Outsider. They trudged in silence, with only the sound of her book covers crunching over the earth. She’d almost laughed when she’d read The Odyssey on the leather. It wasn’t a good omen for their journey. But she hadn’t seen any Sirens or Cyclops so far, just scrubby hills with clusters of trees here and there. She’d thought there’d be so much to fear out here, but her companion was the scariest thing around.
They spent an hour digging with flat rocks around midday. Somehow the Outsider had found water a foot beneath the ground. They filled their waterskins and ate in silence. When they were done they sat for a while, the Aether flowing calmly above them. The Outsider looked up, considering the sky. He’d done it often throughout the day. There was something so intent in the way he studied the Aether. Like he found meaning in it.
Aria lined her collection of rocks in front of her. She was up to fifteen. She noticed dirt under her fingernails. Were her nails longer? They couldn’t be. Nails weren’t supposed to grow. Nail growth was regress. Pointless, so it had been eliminated.
The Outsider brought out a flat stone from his leather pack and began to sharpen his knife. Aria watched him from the corner of her eye. His hands were broad and big boned. They drew the blade over the smooth surface in even, sure strokes. The metal hissed a quiet rhythm. Her gaze drifted higher. Daylight caught on the fine blond fuzz over his jaw. Facial hair was another trait genetic engineers had done away with. The Outsider’s hands stopped. He peered up, a quick flash of green. Then he put away his things and they walked again.
In all the quiet, Aria was left to circle in her own thoughts. They weren’t good ones. Her enthusiasm over finding the Smarteye had worn off. She’d tried distracting herself yesterday by observing the outside, but that no longer worked. She missed Paisley and Caleb. She thought about her mother and wondered about the “Songbird” message. She worried that her feet would get infected. Whenever a headache flared, she imagined that it was the first symptom of an illness that would kill her.
Aria wanted to feel like herself again. A girl who chased the best music in the Realms and bored her friends with facts on inane subjects. Here, she was a girl with leather book covers for shoes. A girl stuck walking across hills with a mute Savage if she had any hope of staying alive.
She made up a tune to match all the fear and helplessness she kept locked inside. A mournful, terrible melody that was her secret, sung only in the privacy of her thoughts. Aria hated the tune. Hated even more how much she needed it. She vowed that when she found Lumina, she’d leave this pathetic part of herself on the outside where it belonged. She’d never sing the sad melody again.
That night, she collapsed before the Outsider had the fire burning, wrapped in the blue fleece blanket. She rested her head on his leather bag, finding that she needed a pillow more than she feared filth.
She had never known this much pain. She had never been this tired. She hoped that was it. That she was tired, and not surrendering to the Death Shop.
On the morning of their third day of traveling together, the Outsider divided the last of the food he’d brought from the cave. He ate, avoiding looking her way, as usual. Aria shook her head. He was rude and cold and eerily animal, with his flashing green eyes and his wolfish teeth, but by some miracle they’d struck a deal. She could’ve had worse luck than to have crossed paths with him.
Aria chewed on a dried fig as she ran through the inventory of her discomforts. A headache, muscle pains, and cramps low in her stomach. She couldn’t look at the soles of her feet anymore.
“I’ll have to hunt later,” the Outsider said, poking at the fire with a stick. The morning was cooler. They’d been climbing steadily into higher terrain. He’d put on a long-sleeved shirt beneath the leather vest. It was a tired white color, rife with loose threads and patched holes. It looked like something a shipwreck survivor might wear, but she found it easier to look at him fully dressed.
“Fine,” she said, and frowned. Monosyllabicism. An Outsider disease, and she’d been infected.
“We’ll be moving onto the mountain today,” he said, his gaze darting to her feet. “Well out of my brother’s territory. ”
Aria shifted the blanket tighter around her. He had a brother? She didn’t know why it was hard to imagine. Maybe because she hadn’t seen any sign of other Outsiders. And she’d had no idea the land out here had any divisions.
“Territory? Is he a duke or something?”
The corner of his mouth lifted in a smirk. “Something like that. ”
Oh, this was champ. She’d found herself a Savage prince. Don’t laugh, she told herself. Don’t laugh, Aria. He was being downright chatty, for him, and she needed to talk. Or listen. She couldn’t go another day with nothing but that melody rattling like a ghost in her mind.
“There are territories,” he said, “and there’s open land where the dispersed roam. ”
“What are dispersed?”
His eyes narrowed, annoyed at being interrupted. “People who live outside of tribe protection. Wanderers who move in small groups or alone. Looking for food and shelter and . . . just looking to stay alive. ” He paused, his wide shoulders shifting. “Bigger tribes claim territories. My brother is a Blood Lord. He commands my tribe, the Tides. ”
Blood Lord. What a horrible-sounding title. “Are you close to your brother?”
He looked at the stick in his hands. “We were once. Now he wants to kill me. ”
Aria froze. “Are you serious?”
“You’ve asked me that before. Do you Dwellers only joke?”
“Not only,” she answered. “But we do. ”
Aria waited for his ridicule. She had a fair idea now how hard his life was, if finding a drink of murky water took an hour’s worth of digging. There didn’t seem to be much to laugh about out here. But the Outsider didn’t say anything. He tossed the stick into the fire and leaned forward, resting his arms on his knees. She wondered what he saw in the flames. Was it the boy he looked for?
Aria didn’t understand why an Outsider boy would ever be kidnapped. The Pods controlled populations carefully. Everything had to be regulated. Why would they waste precious resources on a Savage child?
The Outsider picked up his bow and quiver, looping them over his shoulder. “No talking once we cross that ridge. Not a word, understand?”
“Why? What’s out there?”
His eyes, always bright, looked like green lights in the pale dawn. “Your stories are, Mole. All of them. ”
As soon as they set off Aria knew this day would be different.
Until that morning, the Outsider had been aloof, light on his feet for all his size. But now he sank into his legs, wary and watchful. The headache that had been coming and going since she’d had her Smarteye ripped off stayed for good, ringing like a shrill whistle in her ears. Her sandals slipped over rocky slopes, chaffing at her blisters. The Outsider kept looking back at her, but she wouldn’t meet his gaze. She had promised to keep up, so she would. And what choice did she have?
By midday, her feet had begun to ooze a disgusting combination of blood and pus. Aria couldn’t walk without biting the inside of her lip. Eventually her lip started bleeding too.
The way grew less steep as they entered into the woods, giving her feet and muscles a break. She was remembering the last time she’d been beneath trees, with Soren chasing her and Paisley, when they came abruptly to an empty field.
Aria stopped beside the Outsider as they took in a wide patch of earth that was gray, almost silver, and perfectly bare. She didn’t see a single twig or blade of grass. Only the golden wink of a few scattered embers and gentle traces of smoke rising here and there. She knew this was the scar left by an Aether strike.
The Outsider put a finger to his lips, signaling for quiet. He reached down to his belt and slowly withdrew his knife, motioning for her to stay close. What is it? she wanted to ask. What do you see? She forced h
erself not to speak as they wove through the trees.
She was no more than ten feet away when she saw the person hunched in the knot of a tree, barefoot and wearing tatty, shredded clothes. She did not know if it was a man or a woman. The skin was too drawn and dirty to tell. Owlish eyes peered through yellow-white locks of hair. Aria thought the thing was smiling at first, then realized it had no lips, and so no way to conceal its snaggled brown teeth. It might have been a corpse if it hadn’t been for the panicked look in its eyes.
Aria couldn’t look away. The creature in the tree lifted its head, daylight glistening on the saliva that ran down its chin. With its eyes on the Outsider, it uttered a strange, desperate wail. An inhuman sound, but Aria understood. It was a call for mercy.
The Outsider touched her arm. Aria jumped and then realized he was just guiding her on. For the next hour, she couldn’t get her heart to settle down. She felt those bulging eyes on her and heard the echo of that horrid wail. Questions raced through her mind. She wanted to understand how a person could become that way. How could they survive alone and terrified? But she kept silent, knowing she would endanger them by speaking.
Somehow she’d come to think she and the Outsider were alone in this empty world. They weren’t. Now she wondered what else was out there.
They found another cave in the late afternoon. This one was damp and crossed with formations that looked like melted wax. It stank of sulfur. Scraps of plastic and bone littered the ground.
The Outsider set his leather bag down. “I’m going to hunt,” he said quietly. “I’ll be back before it’s dark. ”
“I’m not staying here alone. What was that thing?”
“I told you about the dispersed. ”
“Well, I’m not staying. You can’t leave me here with that dispersed thing out there. ”
“That thing is the least of our worries. Besides, it’s well behind us. ”
“I’ll be quiet. ”
“Not quiet enough. Look, we need to eat and I can’t hunt with you skittering all over the place. ”
“I saw some berries back there. We passed a bush with berries. ”
“Just stay here,” he said, his voice growing harsh. “Rest your feet. ” He reached into his satchel and handed her a knife, hilt first.
It was a small knife, not the long one she’d seen him sharpening. There were feathers carved into the horn handle. It struck her as absurd to decorate such a sinister tool. “I don’t know what to do with this. ”
“Wave it around and yell, Mole. Loud as you can. That’s all you need to do. ”
It grew dark in the cave well before it did outside. Aria moved to the mouth and listened to an odd quiet with a headache ringing in her ears. The cave sat along a slope. She studied the trees around, straining her eyes as she searched downhill for people huddled in knots. She didn’t see any. Some of the trees were leafless and bare. She wondered why some thrived and others died. Was it the soil? Or was it the Aether choosing certain ones to incinerate? She saw no reason in it. No pattern. Nothing made sense out here.