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Under the Never Sky
Under the Never Sky 26
“Help me, Cinder. ”
“I can’t. ” The words were softer than a whisper at her side.
She was close when she noticed the stone wall. It was so unexpected, rising amid the evergreens. It soared to high above, many times her height. Aria hobbled up with Cinder, flattening her free hand on the rough surface. She had to feel it to be sure it was real. She followed it, keeping close enough that her shoulder dragged against the wall, until she came upon a heavy wooden gate. A screen was embedded in the mortar to the side. She gasped, seeing a device from her world here on the outside.
She swiped her hand across the dusty screen. “I need help! I need Marron!” Her breath came in ragged sobs. She tipped her head up to a tower high above her.
Someone peered down, a dark figure against the bright morning sky. She heard distant shouts. A few moments later, the inset screen flickered on. A man appeared, his face plump and fair and blue-eyed. His damp, butter-blond hair showed the traces of a thorough combing.
A disbelieving smile broke over his face. “A Dweller?”
The gate opened with a rumble that clattered in her kneecaps.
Aria wobbled into a broad grass courtyard, her shoulders screaming with the effort of keeping Cinder on his feet. Cobbled streets linked stone cottages and garden plots. In the distance, still within the wall, she saw pens with goats and sheep. Smoke drifted skyward from several chimneys. A few people glanced at her, more curious than surprised. It looked like a keep in a Medieval Realm, except the enormous structure at the center resembled a gray box, not a castle.
Ivy grew along its walls but did nothing to soften the cement structure. There was only one entry, heavy steel doors that slid open smoothly as she watched. The round-faced man from the screen emerged. He was short and portly but graceful as he hurried toward her. A young man followed close at his side. She’d been standing there long enough that the gate behind her began to close.
“No!” she said. “There are two more people coming! Peregrine and Roar. I was told to find Marron. ”
“I’m Marron. ” He turned his blue gaze toward the door. “Perry is out there?” By then, shouts of “Croven” rained down from the wall. Marron gave quick orders to the lanky young man at his side, directing people to take posts on the wall, others to head downhill to help Perry and Roar.
Two men came forward and took Cinder from her side. Cinder’s head fell back limply as they picked him up.
“Have him taken to medical,” Marron told them. When he looked back to her, his expression softened. He pressed his hands together beneath his soft chin, a smile lighting in his eyes. “Blessed, blessed day. Look at you. ”
He tucked her neatly under his arm and ushered her toward the square structure. Aria didn’t protest. She could hardly walk. She let herself be cushioned to his soft side. Perfume flowed into her nose. Sandalwood. Citrus. Clean smells. She hadn’t smelled perfume since she’d been in the Realms.
She rushed through an explanation of the Croven as he led her inside. They crossed an airlock chamber that had been left open, no longer serving the purpose for which it had been designed. A wide cement hall brought them to a large room.
“I sent my best people to help. We can wait for them here,” Marron said.
It was only then she realized Marron was wearing Victorian clothes. A black tailcoat over a blue velvet vest. He even had a white silk puff tie and spats.
Where was she? What kind of place had she stumbled into? She turned, searching the room for understanding. Three-dimensional wallscreens, like people had before the Unity, framed two sides of the room. They showed images of forests, green and lush. Birdsong twittered through hidden speakers. The other walls were covered in richly patterned fabric. Every few feet, glass cases housed collections of odd items. An Indian headdress. A red old-fashioned sporting jersey with the number forty-five in block numbers across the back. A paper magazine, the dinosaur illustration on the cover framed by a yellow border. Spotlights showcased everything, like in ancient museums, so that Aria’s eyes traveled from one burst of color to another.
At the center of the room, several lush couches were ordered around an ornate coffee table with curved legs. Aria’s brain flashed with recognition. She’d seen a table like that in a Baroque Realm. A Louis XIV piece. She peered at Marron. What kind of Outsider was he?
“This is my home. I call it Delphi. Perry and Roar call it the Box,” he added, with a quick, affectionate smile. “There’s so much I want to know, but it’ll have to wait, of course. Please have a seat. You look so very tired, and standing won’t bring them here any faster, I’m afraid. ”
Aria moved toward the couch, suddenly feeling self-conscious. She was filthy and Marron’s home looked rich and immaculate, but the need to get off her feet overpowered her. She sat down, a gasp of relief escaping from her lips. The plush couch gave beneath her weight, melting against her back and her legs. She brushed her hand over the chocolate-colored fabric. Unbelievable. A silk couch. Here, on the Outside.
Marron sat opposite her, twisting a ring around a pudgy finger. He appeared to be a 4th Gen, but there was a childlike curiosity in his eyes.
“Perry is hurt,” she said. “His hand is burned. ”
Marron issued more orders. Aria hadn’t even realized there’d been other people in the room until they sped off. “I have a facility here. We’ll take care of him as soon as he’s inside. Slate will see that it gets done. ”
She guessed Slate was the tall young man who’d just been outside. “Thank you,” she said. Her eyes were closing on their own. “I didn’t know. I wouldn’t have left him. But he was gone before I knew it. ” She spoke without realizing it.
“My dear . . . ,” Marron said, looking at her with concern. “You need rest. What if I have you informed the moment they arrive?”
She shook her head, fighting off a wave off exhaustion. “I’m not going anywhere until they get here. ” She folded her hands in her lap, recognizing the gesture as her mother’s.
Any second, Perry would get there.
The bells rang everywhere. Perry couldn’t tell where the sound was closest. He scanned the woods. “Where are you?”
His eyes locked onto movement. Downhill two Croven stalked toward him, their capes dragging along the earth. They didn’t wear masks. Perry knew the exact moment they saw him. Fear slashed across their faces and then they dove behind a tree.
Perry pulled his bow off his shoulder, but he couldn’t move the fingers of his burnt hand. How was he supposed to draw his bow? The Croven peered around the tree, testing for danger. Sure, they crept onward in quick bursts, clutching their knives.
He had to do something. Aria and Roar were moving too slowly with Cinder. They wouldn’t make it to Marron’s unless he held off the Croven.
Perry sat where he was and wedged the bow stave across his feet. With his good hand, he fumbled to nock an arrow to the string. Then he pushed his legs out, drawing the string back and loosing it. It was a clumsy shot—he hadn’t fired an arrow using his feet since he was a boy sneaking off with his father’s bow—but the arrow flew, forcing the Croven to scramble for cover again.
“Perry, your bow!”
Roar pulled the quiver off Perry’s back as he ran up. He took Perry’s bow, nocked an arrow, and fired. Perry shot to his feet and drew his knife, and realized that it was backward—Roar with a bow and him with a knife—but they were moving. Keeping the Croven back as they worked their way up to Marron’s. He became Roar’s eyes, spotting whenever one of the Croven made a reckless charge. He found them. Roar fired.
Perry sensed movement at his back, and spun. A dozen men sprinted downslope toward them. Perry gripped the knife tighter. There were too many and too close. Then he realized they weren’t Croven.
“Marron’s men, Roar!”
oar spun, his eyes wide, sweeping. Arrows sliced past them, flying at the Croven. They ran, legs tearing into the slope. They didn’t stop until they’d crossed the gate into Marron’s courtyard.
People surrounded him, telling him to follow. Perry did what they asked. He could barely speak. He stumbled into the Box and through Marron’s halls, not thinking beyond moving his legs.
He was taken through a heavy steel door into a wide, empty hall with gleaming tile floors. Repellent smells surged into his nose. Alcohol. Plastic. Urine. Blood. Disease. The medical facility’s scents had reminded him of Mila last year. Now he thought of Talon, and his legs almost gave out beneath him.
He’d gotten here. Marron would fix the Smarteye and he’d find Talon.
A man in a doctor’s coat asked Perry something about his hand, jumbled words Perry couldn’t focus on. Perry looked at Roar, hoping he knew the answer, when shouts burst across the hall.
“Cinder,” Roar said, but Perry was already running, pushing past the knot of people clustered by a door. He scanned the room. Cloth partitions divided it into smaller areas with cots. Cinder slumped against the far left corner, a feral look in his black eyes. His noxious scent burst in the back of Perry’s nose, followed by the icy burn of his fear.
“Don’t come near me! Stay back!”
“He was unconscious,” said one of the doctors. “I was trying to give him an IV. ”
Cinder hurled curses at them.
“Easy,” Perry said. “Settle down, Cinder. ”
“We need to tranquilize him,” someone said.
Cinder’s eyes snapped over Perry’s shoulder and he yelled, “Get back or I’ll torch you!”
The sting in Perry’s nose surged as the lights flickered and then went out. Perry blinked hard, willing his eyes to adjust, but he was no good in pitch-black. “Get out,” Perry said, spreading his arms. He couldn’t let Cinder burn them, too. “Roar, get them out. ”
Fumbling, feeling through the dark, he and Roar herded everyone outside. Then Perry shut the door, leaning against it as he caught his breath. He couldn’t see anything. For long seconds, all he heard were the muffled voices in the hall. Then Cinder spoke.
“It’s me. Perry. ” Perry frowned. Had he even told Cinder his name until now?
A sliver of warm light peeked beneath the door. Candlelight out in the hall. Enough for the room to take shape before him.
“You like getting hurt?” Cinder asked. “You want me to burn your other hand?”
Perry didn’t have any fight left in him. He didn’t think Cinder did either. The kid was still shoved against the corner, barely keeping himself upright. Perry walked to the cot nearest to Cinder. It creaked as he sat down.
“What are you doing?” Cinder asked after a moment.
“You should leave, Scire. ”
Perry didn’t respond. He wasn’t sure he could leave. The last bit of strength drained out of him, leaving his muscles twitching. The sweat that covered his shirt was cooling.
“Where am I?” Cinder asked.