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31.5 km from flash curtain
WE MOVE THROUGH the forest like we’re being chased.
Dram and I don’t speak, both of us listening for the drone of Inquiry Modules, or things less mechanical, coming after us. The mountain provinces, once a haven, are now a trap closing. Each day new Mods are added to the small, autonomous hovers patrolling this region in low-flying grids. The Congress is desperate to find me before I can finish what I started on the other side of the flash curtain.
And since we can’t go back to the cordons, that leaves only the protected city—from which Subpars are exiled—or the lawless outlier regions on its far side. Either place could hold Dram’s father. Or maybe Arrun Berrends is as dead as the rumors suggest.
The branches of a pine tree slip through my fingers, the stiff needles scraping against my palm. One touch from a Conjuror, and it could transform into something that would shield us from the Congress’s trackers.
Of course, under my hand it’s just a tree. Which really doesn’t help with our current dilemma.
“Hurry, Rye,” Dram says. “We’re almost there.”
I lift my feet, trying to place them in the snow-packed steps his boots have made. My breaths feel heavier up here in the mountains, and each exhale clouds the air.
Everything looks and feels different beyond the flashfall. Especially the air.
People have a name for the place we came from. Westfall. This side of the flash curtain is considered Eastfall. Dram and I grew up with only the five outposts and the five cordons as boundaries, but here there’s the Overburden, the mountain provinces, Alara, and the outlier regions. Apparently, being closer to safety gives people time to name things.
And apparently, we Subpars weren’t given that much space.
I grasp another branch as we shuffle past, our steps carving a path through the snow. Living with the Conjies has taught me to see nature as something more. Alive, radiating with energy similar to mine. Even the dirt and rocks. I didn’t understand that before.
Or maybe I did.
“Wishing you could conjure?”
I look up at Dram, pine needles slipping through my fingers.
“The way you’re holding on to that tree—it’s the third one you’ve grabbed.”
Words crowd my mouth, but the only true answer is—
I want the ability so badly that at times I think I can feel elements transform when I watch a Conjuror at work. More likely, it’s jealousy stirring in me, a creature inside my soul roused by equal parts gratitude and resentment.
“Me too.” Dram touches the branch and grins ruefully. He sighs, and the branch snaps back. “You ready for this?” he asks, drawing his hood over his dark hair. A chill snakes down my spine as the camo-cloth shifts, altering shades of white, adapting until he blends with our surroundings. In an instant, my Subpar-who-looks-like-a-Conjie is gone. Dram doesn’t look like a Strider—he’s not wearing their electrified armored suit and flash weapons—but still, he doesn’t look like the caver I’ve known all my life.
He looks like someone who belongs in Eastfall.
I’m glad he can’t see my face as he slips the gun from his thigh holster and checks the ammo clip.
“I wish you would use a gun, Orion.” He looks at me now, and I’m not fast enough to hide my revulsion. Guns, like camo-cloth, are tools of the Congress. It’s enough that I’m wearing their stolen cloak.
“I’ll be fine.” I reach to free the pickaxe on my back. “I can handle a couple of vultures.” It’s the same words I said to Bade when I convinced him to let only Dram and me go after the creatures. None of the free Conjies have ever faced down a flash vulture. Except for the two Conjies they found in pieces. Stiff black feathers with thorny protrusions were discovered beside the bodies.
Dram and I knew at once what they were—and what they meant. Flash vultures. In the mountain provinces.
I adjust my grip on the axe handle, but it still feels foreign—this is Dram’s pickaxe. I left mine—my mother’s axe—in Outpost Five. Its handle was split, just a few swings away from cracking apart. I couldn’t justify the extra weight, though I’ve regretted the loss of it ever since.
I regret the loss of many things.
“Orion,” Dram says softly. “We’re going back for them. We’ll get them out.”
My fist tightens around the handle. I wish my thoughts weren’t so transparent to Dram. Sometimes I want to cling to my aches without him knowing.
“How many blades on you?” he asks.
“Three.” I can’t see the knives tucked in my arm holster, but I feel them beneath the lightweight cloak. I wear another, larger knife at my hip and a slim blade inside my boot. But I don’t tell Dram. Telling him I brought five knives would reveal I’m more worried about this than I pretend to be.
We used to hide from the flash curtain’s altered creatures. Now we’re hunting them.
I wish I could unsee what happened to those two poor Conjies. They fought hard, but they didn’t know what they were up against. Beasts with wings so tough they can withstand the flash curtain. Talons that pierce your skin before you’ve even registered that there’s a beak aiming for your jugular.
“They were sighted near the boundary,” Dram says, “about thirty kilometers from the curtain.”
I draw the hood of my cloak over my head. I don’t need to see the flashfall to know we’re getting close. The past months with the Conjies have only increased my sensitivity to the elements, to the altered particles that have always called my name.
He turns without another word, and I follow. Adrenaline surges through me like the silence is a cue. This is when Dram and I are at our best—when our actions supersede our words, and we talk to each other with the language we developed down tunnel nine.
Our boots push at the snow, and my hand tightens around my axe handle. White camo-cloth drapes us, and with the snow swiftly falling, I lose Dram at times, even though he’s just ahead of me. It is strange to follow when I have always been out front, but we are east of the curtain, and he is the better leader here.
Snow crunches behind me, and I whirl. At first, there’s nothing but snow-dusted scrub brush, but as I look harder, I can make out a face in the conjured concealment. Roran.
“I told you to stay back,” Dram says.
Roran barely moves. His dark eyes shift toward Dram and away. I don’t say anything. Roran hasn’t spoken to me since he stumbled into our camp a week ago, half dead with flash fever. When he finally spoke, it was to Dram—to tell him—
I press the point of Dram’s pickaxe against my palm and distract myself with the pain. Some pain is easier to take than other kinds.
“Let him stay,” I say.
Roran doesn’t look at me. The path that once connected us is as gone as the people who made it.
Wind blows up through the pass, rattling bare branches above our heads with a clacking and sifting of snow. A narrow twig the size of my finger lifts from where it’s twisted in Roran’s black hair. He brushes it absently, and tiny white flowers bloom.
I wonder if he even knows that he’s conjuring, or if it’s reflexive, a sort of magical respiration. He catches me looking and turns, striding ahead of us. A petal slips to the ground, and I pick it up.
They are for Mere. I can make myself acknowledge that much. Mere, the Tempered Conjie, my friend, his mother, is likely dead. Dram knows how. A flashburst in Cordon Five, Roran separated from the others … He parcels out pieces of the story in moments when he thinks I can take it. The truth is like exposure to the flash curtain’s radioactive particles. It kills me slowly, over time. All at once, and I’d be nothing more than dust.
Hers is the only loss I accept. I must do that for her. For Roran. If he is ever to heal, then he must grieve. He can blame me, hate me, but I won’t leave him alone. I don’t wear a Conjie talisman woven in my hair for Mere, but I made her this promise.
The talisman I wear is on the inside. A hollow place that aches like a bruise, that steals my breath when memories sweep in. Especially the good memories. The sound of her laugh is fresh in my mind, and I—
“Rye,” Dram says, “I can’t fight these things alone. I need you here.” Wind gusts throw his brown hair into a fury around his face. A faint jingle reaches my ears.
I touch the tiny silver charm woven into a lock of his hair. One I’d never noticed before.
“Maybe you should take this out,” I say. “It might warn the vultures we’re approaching.”
“No. That one’s important.”
“They’re all important, aren’t they?” He wears numerous talismans: tiny bits of shell, a narrow strip of bark, the top of a green acorn. It’s not the Conjie way to speak of talismans. But we are not Conjies, and I’m filled with a sudden need to know.
“Yes.” He clasps my hand against his head, trapping my fingers. The charm pushes against my palm. It is strange to think of Dram keeping something important from me.
“Is it for a memory or a promise?” I ask.
I lift my camo-cloth hood. “Lead the way.”
We step over fallen trees, our steps slower, cautious. We catch up to Roran, where he stands like an extension of the trees around us. “I hear them,” he whispers.
We stand unmoving, ears strained for the sounds I’m already dreading, sounds that wake me at night when my nightmares take me back to the cordons.
I hear the faint jingling of Dram’s talisman and the clacking of beads from Roran’s sash. Then, the guttural, drawn-out hissing of agitated flash vultures.
Roran leans in close. “The vultures in the provinces eat only dead things. They don’t attack people.”
“These aren’t normal vultures,” I whisper.
“There,” Dram says, pointing to a snow-dusted tree. “Five of them.”
Five, when once no flash vultures existed beyond the flashfall.
They shift on the branches, like the tree is too small to contain them. Wings extend, the span longer than Dram is tall. These are the largest I’ve seen. Their bones don’t protrude like those of their siblings in the cordons. Perhaps they’ve found prey to feed their appetites. I watch them arch their necks, black eyes fixed on us, and know that whatever they’ve been filling their stomachs with, we are what they hunger for.
“How are they getting through?” Dram asks.
I don’t have an answer. Not one I’m willing to share yet.
“Bade says he’s seen tunnel gulls—”
“Tunnel gulls?” I’m so shocked I lower my axe. “Where? They nest in stone.” I have a hard time imagining gulls surviving beyond the caverns. They don’t have the flame-resistant wings of flash vultures.
“Maybe he was wrong,” Dram says.
Or maybe the curtain is altering things again.
“Get ready,” he says.
My grip tightens, my palms sweating despite the cold. I find the dark shapes of the vultures in the tree, but my gaze strays beyond them, searching for the flash of a silver-white wingtip. A flash like the blade of a knife. If tunnel gulls survived the destruction of the Barrier Range and made their way here, we are in more danger than I thought.
But the sky is overcast, the clouds so low I feel like I could climb up and touch them. They are a shroud, keeping the rest of the world veiled.
A twig snaps, and we both whirl, Dram with his pistol in hand. I’m the only one who still uses a pickaxe. A soft whistle comes from the wood, and we both relax. Conjuror. A girl emerges from the tree, her hair braided like a crown around her head.
“What is it, Meg?” I whisper. Her face is whiter than the snow.
“Newel sent me to find you,” she says. I try to imagine what could compel the older leader of the free Conjies to send her after us. “To warn you,” she adds.
“What’s happened?” Dram asks, and it’s his commander voice—the new one that sounds more like his father, Arrun, and less like the boy I searched caves with.
“Trackers found us just after you left. He said to tell you he’d meet you—”
Two vultures drop to the ground behind Meg. They fan their massive wings, like they’re barring our escape. She stiffens, but I can tell she’s not afraid. Not like she should be.
Dram takes aim, cocking the hammer back with a click. “Don’t move, Meg,” he orders softly.
“They’re just birds,” she says. But she snaps a bead from her bracelet, grasps it in her palm in preparation to conjure.
“If you conjure,” Dram says, “make it something you can hide behind.”
Wings beat the air behind me, the sound taking me back to the cordons, to memories of blood and burning. I don’t have to turn to know at least two more have dropped in. I glance at Roran. He slides a wooden ring from his finger and conjures it into a shard of rock, sharp as a blade.
“Rye,” Dram says, and it’s more a breath than a sound.
“Yes,” I whisper. I am ready.
“Now,” he says. I pivot and swing my axe at the nearest black body, while shots fire one after another from Dram’s gun. I dive at the second screeching creature. A third shot. I throw all my weight behind my axe and—
Wings. Pain shoots up my arm. I wasn’t prepared for the resistance, and my axe tumbles from my fingers. I reach with my left hand to free a knife while the vulture recovers from my failed attack, grunting and twitching under the force of the blow. It’s on me before I’ve freed my knife. The beak pierces my skin through my coat, and I cry out. It holds fast to my flesh, digging and tearing. I fall back, light-headed, searching for my blade.
The last vulture drops from the sky and lands heavy on me. A beak jabs, glancing off my ribs. I scream from the pain, from the shock of facing these beasts this far from the cordons, in a place that should be safe from the flash curtain’s horrors.
“Stay still, Rye!” Dram’s voice, deadly calm. I force myself to quit struggling so he can get a clean shot. I wait for the report of the gun, but all I hear is a click and Dram’s curse. He drops the pistol and dives toward me, to where I shake on bloody snow that surrounds me like a target.
Dram wrestles the vulture off me, and it shrieks in protest. Two more fly toward him, circling, their bodies so massive that Dram’s camo-cloth ripples with shades of black. I can only listen as he rolls and grunts—and then his breathing changes, and I know he’s in control just before he levers his body atop the creature and beats it with my dropped axe. He’s up on his knees a moment later, a blur of motion, with an overhand grip on two knives. The beasts fly at him, wings extended, and his camo-cloth responds with matching ebony, then they shift away, launching themselves skyward. His cloak absorbs him into the winter woods again. I roll onto my side, clasping the torn skin that burns and pulses in time with my pounding heart.
It smells of blood. With my eyes squeezed shut, and my body numb from shock and cold, that’s all I sense. The smell weighs on me, heavy, like two flash vultures pressing on my chest. I gasp into the snow, needing the clean air to flush out the taste of death.
Dram pries my hands away to look at the wound. I refuse to cry, to give in to the despair I feel tearing into me as sharp as talons. Somehow our nightmares followed us through the flash curtain.
We’re not free yet.
“It’s not deep,” he says, stanching the blood. “But it might need stitching.” He winds a bandage around my ribs, and I hiss as he cinches it tight. “Where else?”
“Shoulder.” I grit the word out between clenched teeth. He lifts aside my camo-cloth and peels back my torn coat. A Conjie curse slips past his lips.
“Something’s wrong,” he murmurs. “Your wound—”
I crane my neck to see what has him frozen in shock. A shallow gash, no wider than my palm, bleeding steadily. But as Dram lifts the cloth, my breath stutters. The blood … shimmers. The gash glints with opalescent shades of pink and aquamarine, as if the flash curtain took hold of me and left its handprint behind.
“It’s spreading,” he says. Iridescent streaks fan from the wound, illuminating my skin in ominous rays.
As if the sight of it tripped a signal in my brain, I suddenly feel it—pain catches up to my senses, and I scream behind my teeth.
“Worse than orbies,” I gasp, knowing Dram will understand. Whatever this is, it hurts more than the tiny glowing organisms that chewed through our skin down tunnel nine.
“Clean it,” Meg says. She leans past Dram with handfuls of conjured water and scrubs at my skin. “It’s still spreading!”
“Do you think it’s some kind of venom?” Dram asks, his face grim. This, too, he’s familiar with. He drew flash bat poison out of my body twice down nine. A look of resolve crosses his face, and he leans toward my wound.
“No!” I shove his head back, my body screaming with pain. “You’re not putting your mouth on this thing. This isn’t … flash bat venom.” My voice shakes, but my gaze is steady. I tell him more, without words, the silent communication that saved our lives hundreds of times down the tunnels. Whatever the flash vulture did to me, it’s worse than anything we faced on the other side of the curtain.
“Cut it out of me,” I say.
“I’m not cutting it out of you—”
“Cut it!” I throw all the authority of a lead ore scout into my voice, though my designation means nothing now.
“You’ll bleed to death!” Dram says.
“Then burn it!”
Dram’s wild eyes meet mine. “There’s not time for a fire. The wood is wet—”
“Flare,” I gasp. And I know, flash me, I know what this pain is like. “It’s making me sick,” I murmur. “Whatever it’s done to me—I can feel it!”
“I’ll help,” Roran says, kneeling beside me. He holds me steady while Dram yanks a flare from his pocket.
“Her Radband’s changing!” Meg’s voice.
I shift to see my Radband glowing pale yellow at my wrist. It darkens as I watch. Dram’s stark gaze collides with mine, then shifts to my shoulder. “What if this doesn’t work? We don’t know what this is—”
“Dram.” I bite his name out, a brittle command. A moment from now, I won’t be able to speak.
He lights the flare and sets it to my skin.
Pain. Burning. Radiating. Like a piece of a star pressing against me. My eyes squeeze shut, but colors explode behind my eyelids.
Tremors rack my body, the chill of shock on the heels of fire.
“It’s gone. We got it all.” Dram’s voice shakes. “Breathe, Rye,” he murmurs.
Air slips unsteadily through my nostrils. Burning flesh. I choke on the smell. My skin burns so badly I fight the urge to vomit. I shake uncontrollably, as if the rest of my skin is trying to escape from the source of pain. I count to five and push up onto my hands and knees.
“What are you doing?” Meg asks. “Let us tend your wound.”
“There are at least two more of those vultures out there.” I gasp the words, panting past the pain.
I clasp Dram’s hand and tell him the rest with my eyes. He nods grimly. We are back to relying on our tunnel talk. I bite back a cry as he tows me to my feet. Blood spatters the snow like cavers’ marks. I think of flash vultures seeing them. This way to an easy meal. If more come now, I’m done. I’m already dizzy from shock.
“Let’s move, ore scout,” Dram says, tucking his axe into his belt. I didn’t realize I’d dropped it. He scoops snow into his hands and rubs it between his palms, cleaning them of the vulture and Orion blood. “Still with me?” he asks, giving my hands the same treatment.
“I’m fine,” I murmur. We head toward the camp, my staggering steps no longer quiet. I make it a dozen meters before I collapse against a tree. Dram lifts me in his arms.
“Tomorrow I teach you to shoot,” he mutters.
He trudges behind Meg and Roran over snow-covered trails, and I will myself to be lighter, less a burden. At least he’s not injured. Just me—the girl who can’t let go of her caver’s ways. The Westfaller.
Snowflakes whirl down from the heavy blanket of sky so thick I can watch their lazy descent. It makes a hush fall over everything, and I imagine it helping us, covering our tracks, shielding us from the Congress’s trackers.
Then, a glint of silver through the flakes—and I blink the snow out of my eyes to look harder.
Beyond the sounds of their footfalls, the creature calls, Mew, mew, keow. Dram heard it too; I can see it in the tensing of his jaw. I’m suddenly too aware of my hair, dangling past his arm, and Meg’s braids—wound like the nest this monster would use them for.
Mew, mew, keow, the tunnel gull calls again. I slide my knife free and grip it tightly, eyes fastened on the sky above us.
I will learn to shoot tomorrow.
Copyright © 2017 by Jenny Moyer