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Under the Never Sky
Under the Never Sky 18
She ached to talk to someone. Anyone. She needed to not be alone right now, thinking of that tree person. When she heard rustlings in the depths of the cave, Aria crawled to the Outsider’s leather pack and found her Smarteye. It didn’t work, but maybe wearing it would calm her as it had the first day. And it would annoy the Outsider too. That counted for something.
She went back to the mouth of the cave and applied the device. It grabbed tight to her skin, pulling uncomfortably on her eye socket. She held her breath, praying to see her Smartscreen. The message from her mother. Anything. But of course the Eye hadn’t fixed itself.
Pais, she pretended to say through the Eye. Paisley was dead. She still couldn’t believe it. The tears came out of her in a rush. Since I’m pretending already, I’m going to pretend you’re still alive and that this is a big joke. A Practical Joke Realm. But a really terrible one that should be deleted. I’m in a cave, Paisley. On the outside. You’d hate it. I hate it. She wiped her tears with her sleeve. This is the second cave I’ve been in. It stinks like rotten eggs in here. And there are noises. Weird draggy noises, like something is dragging? But the first cave wasn’t so bad. It was smaller and warmer. Can you believe I have a favorite cave? Paisley . . . I’m not doing so great right now.
Crying had sent her headache piercing through the backs of her eyes and she knew, she just knew the tree thing was in the cave shuffling toward her. She pictured that big stare and the gnarled mouth with all the crooked teeth and glistening drool.
Aria grabbed the knife and darted outside.
Silence. She sniffed and looked around. No tree people. Nothing but the woods. The cave loomed behind her. She was not going back in there.
She picked her way down the slope, overly aware of the knife in her hand. She found the berry bush without any trouble. Smiling, she stuffed as many berries into her cargo pockets as she could and then made a bowl with her shirt.
She imagined what the Outsider would say when he saw them. It would be one word, no doubt. But he’d see she could do better than stay. Aria hurried back uphill, deciding she’d take control over what she could. She was tired of being useless.
She hadn’t been gone more than half an hour, she guessed, but darkness was falling fast. She smelled the smoke first and then saw a pale column up ahead, against the deepening blue sky. The Outsider had returned. She almost called out to him, wanting to brag about her berries. She decided to surprise him instead.
Aria came to a dead stop a few feet away from the cave. Smoke tumbled from the top of the wide mouth like a waterfall pouring upward. Several male voices spoke inside. She didn’t recognize any of them. She backed away as quietly as she could, her heart thundering in her chest. With her ringing ears, she couldn’t tell how much noise she made. She found out when three figures emerged from the cave.
By the failing light, she saw that one man, the tallest, wore a black cape, the hood pulled over a mask with a long, crowlike beak. He held a pale staff with bits of rope and feathers dangling from the top. He stayed by the cave as two other men came toward her.
“Rat . . . is that a Dweller?” said one.
“It is indeed,” answered the other. He was slight and bald, with a large pointed nose that left little doubt as to the origin of his name. “You’re well gone from home, en’t you, girl?”
She heard jingling. Aria’s gaze snapped to Rat’s waist. Bells hung from his belt, winking in the dim light. They trilled with each step he took.
“Stop there. ” She remembered she had a knife. She went to raise it, and saw that she already held it in front of her. Aria raised it higher. “Don’t come any closer. ”
Rat grinned, showing teeth that looked like they’d been filed to points. “Easy, girl. We’re not going to hurt ya. Are we, Trip?”
“No, we won’t hurt you,” said Trip. He had intricate tattoos around his eyes, like embroidery. Like something she might see in a Masquerade Realm. “I never thought I’d see a Mole. ”
“Not alive,” said Rat. “What’re you doing out here, girl?”
Aria’s gaze flicked to the crow man, who’d begun to come forward, moving with total silence. As frightened as she was of Rat and Trip, the crow man scared her more. Rat and Trip went still as he approached.
The crow man stood well over six feet tall. He had to look down to see her. The mask was terrifying, the beak angular and pointed, made of leather that had been pulled and stretched over a frame. The smooth parts were the color of skin, but a dirty inky color stained the creases. She could see his eyes through the holes in the mask. They were blue and clear as glass.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Aria. ” She answered because there was no way she couldn’t.
“Where are you heading, Aria?”
“Of course. ” The crow man tipped his head to the side. “I’m sorry. This must frighten you. ” He removed the mask, letting it hang by a leather cord that he twisted so it fell over his back. He was younger than she expected. Only a few years older than she was, with dark hair and those clear blue eyes. She realized how much calmer she felt now that she could see his face.
He smiled. “That helped, didn’t it? My people bring in the night with ceremony. We use masks to scare off spirits of darkness. My friends aren’t initiated yet, or they’d be wearing them too. I’m called Harris. It’s good to meet you, Aria. ”
His voice was a beautiful, smoky baritone. He sent Trip and Rat a pointed look.
“Yes. Good to meet you,” they said, tipping their heads and setting the bells ringing again.
“Bells are another part of our ceremony,” Harris said, following her gaze.
“Ancient cultures used bells,” she said, hating herself for knowing stupid things and for not being able to keep quiet when she was nervous.
“I’ve heard that Tibetans did. ”
“Yes. They did. ” Aria couldn’t believe he knew that. A Savage who knew more than just digging holes and starting fires. A spark of hope lit inside her. “They believed bells represented the wisdom of emptiness. ”
“I’ve known a few people with empty minds, but I wouldn’t call them wise. ” Harris smiled, his eyes flicking to Trip. “To us, bells are noises of lightness and good. Are you alone, Aria?”
“No. I’m with an Outsider. ”
It was darker now, but by the soft light of the Aether, she saw his eyebrows furrow.
“I meant one of you,” she said, realizing they wouldn’t call themselves Outsiders.
“Ah . . . that’s good. This is dangerous land. I’m sure your companion told you. ”
“Yes. He did. ”
Trip snorted. “Nearly soiled myself when I heard you sneaking up on us. ”
Rat lifted his big nose and sniffed the air. He shoved Trip in the shoulder. “Nearly?”
Harris smiled apologetically. “We have enough food to share and a fire going. Why don’t you and your companion join us tonight? If you think you can put up with these two. ”
“I don’t think so. But thank you. ” She realized she was gripping the handle of the knife so tight her knuckles throbbed. Why did she have a knife? She lowered it. As frightening as he’d looked with the mask on, Harris seemed friendly now. Far more than her Outsider, whose name she didn’t even know. And Harris talked.
“Well,” she said, reconsidering. “I could see what he says. ”
“I say no. ”
They all turned sharply toward the voice uphill. It was her Outsider. He was barely visible in the faint light of dusk.
Aria was just going to call out to him when she heard a sound like a wet slap, followed by the ringing of bells. Rat tripped and fell backward. At least, this was what Aria thought until she saw a stick—no, an arrow—lodged in his throat.
She didn’t think. She spun and ran. Trip caught her arm and trapped it, twisting the knife from her fingers. Then he laid the blade on her neck
and thrust her arm behind her. Aria gasped at the burst of pain in her shoulder. His stench brought a sickening roll to her stomach.
“Lower your bow or I’ll kill her!” Trip’s voice exploded by her ear.
She saw him now. The Outsider had come closer. He stood by the cave, his legs and arms lined up with his bow, a weapon he had been carrying for days but that somehow she’d forgotten about. He’d taken off his white shirt, and his skin blended into the murky woods.
“Do what he says!” Aria cried. What was he doing? It was too dark. He would hit her instead of Trip.
She saw movement to her left. Harris started up the hill toward the Outsider. He no longer held the staff but a long knife that reflected the Aether light. He drew closer in determined strides. The Outsider kept still as a statue, either not seeing Harris or not caring.
Trip’s panicked breath pumped hot foul air against her cheek. “Lower your bow!” he yelled.
She didn’t see anything this time either, but she knew he’d fired another arrow. Aria heard a pop and then she jolted backward. She tumbled over Trip. Momentum carried her down the slope. Her knee struck something sharp as she hit the ground. She sprang to her feet despite the stab of pain that shot down her leg.
Trip lay twitching on his side, an arrow stuck in the left part of his chest. She turned uphill, terror like a shriek in her ears. She’d seen people wrestle and fence in the Realms. She had some idea of what a true fight might look like. Parrying and deflecting. Footwork and guards. She couldn’t have been more wrong.
Harris and the Outsider swept past each other in streaks of movement, one bare-skinned, the other draped in black cloth. She could just make out the flash of a knife or the twisting crow mask. She wanted to run. She didn’t want to see this. But she couldn’t bring herself to move.
It took no more than seconds, though it felt much longer. Their bodies slowed and parted. The cloaked figure, Harris, hit the ground in a black heap. The bare-skinned Outsider stood above him.
Then she saw something roll downhill as if it had been bowled toward her. It hit a bump that shook loose a pale mask, and now she saw clear blue eyes and a nose and white teeth and black hair, tumbling over the dirt and trailing red.
“No, no, no. ” Aria shook her head, her eyes were wide with terror. “What just happened?”
Perry skidded over loose gravel as he sprinted downhill to her. “Are you hurt?”
She leaped back. “Stay away from me! Don’t touch me. ” Her hand came to her stomach. “What just happened? What did you just do?”
Every scent came to Perry clear and strong on the cool night air. Blood and smoke. Her fear, like ice. And something else. A pungent bitterness. He inhaled, scanning, and saw the source. Dark patches stained the front of her shirt.
“What is that?” he asked.
Her head whipped to the side like she expected to see someone. Perry grabbed a fistful of her shirt. She grazed him with a punch to the chin.
“Hold still!” He trapped her wrist and brought the shirt up, drawing the scent in. He couldn’t believe it. “That’s why you left? You left for those berries?”