WHEN DAWN FINALLY broke, it took Mik a solid few minutes to realize it. They’d gotten through the gates and stumbled into the surrounding woods away from the burning camp, but the blaze lit the sky as though dawn had already come. The man and woman she’d miraculously managed to keep close to had stopped close to the place, and the woman had snarled when the man had made to keep moving. So, three hours later, Mik sat on the lower branches of a tree a few feet from the pair, watching them and the natural light finally take over.
“Now what?” Isibel whispered in Mik’s ear, the girl managing to maintain a death grip on her arm all this time. Mik didn’t comment on the tingling in her fingers or the thin welts from her nails. Mik exhaled.
“Dunno,” Mik muttered. They’d lost Kia, their friend. It wasn’t right to have just left her. Mik glanced around, seeing the other two people not even flinch as the sunlight rapidly flooded the sky, the woman in a sleeveless shirt. So their danger was limited to humans, but Kia would have been a great edge right now. “Should find Kia.”
Isibel gasped. “What? Go back in there?” she screeched in Mik’s ear. Mik finally turned and looked at her, and any annoyance at her behavior was snuffed out. Despite being the older of the two, and their history, Isibel seemed so young and lost now, her delicate crystal eyes wide with uncertainty, and her pretty hair and face smeared with dirt and ash. Mik sighed and put her fingers on top of Isibel’s, gently prying the fingernails off her skin only to hold her hand firmly.
“We’ll figure something out,” Mik said, glad her voice didn’t betray how utterly out of ideas she was. “Kia is our friend and one of us, we need to try. But we also need to keep ourselves safe. Think,” she leaned closer, feeling the something in her flicker. “We’re out. We’re free. We go somewhere else.”
Isibel’s face matched Mik’s excitement, their tentative grins growing as they looked at the one growing on the other. Until a snapping twig and a cough broke it and their heads whipped around to see the man stepping towards them.
“Name’s Atlas,” he said gently, raising his hand and tilting it in a sort of wave, but Mik felt Isibel flinch. He saw it too, because his cautiously open expression dropped into a grimace. “That’s my sister, Octavia, we’re waiting for her husband now. But then we can go.”
“Go where?” Mik questioned. The man’s face lit up in excitement, setting off most of the alarm bells in Mik’s head.
“To a place where you can start over,” he said quietly, almost conspiratorily. But the woman stood behind the man, Atlas, not seeming to care about the conversation as her entire body seemed attached to the direction of Meedra.
“Meaning?” Mik dragged out the word, her tone icy. Atlas just smiled gently, his gaze over Mik’s shoulder, she realized, resting on Isibel.
“We found an abandoned campsite, Blackwater,” Atlas explained. “We want to go ’round and find people. People mistreated where they are now. And we can bring them, and have place for them.”
“People like us?” Isibel leaned forward against Mik’s shoulder, her voice quiet but no longer shaky. The man, who was really more of a boy up close, nodded eagerly. He opened his mouth but Mik cut him off.
“What about people not like us?” she said slowly, the words deliberate. He looked at her as she leveled her stare at him, but he didn’t even stutter. Instead, he matched her and his own next words were just as clear.
“Any person will be welcome.” If anything, he seemed more sincere than she did in that promise. Mik nodded her assent, ignoring Isibel clutching her hand tightly now in excitement. Atlas looked back to Isibel. “What are your names?”
“Isibel,” she said immediately, and Mik used her well-honed skill of not rolling her eyes. “And this is Mik. Don’t mind her, she always looked out for us back…back there.”
“The girls?” he asked, his face falling slightly. Mik tilted her head slightly, unsure if the pity there was an act or genuine, naive sorrow. Isibel nodded.
“Well, Kia and I,” she amended.
“We need to try to find Kia,” Mik said. Atlas nodded, looking back at Octavia, he sighed.
“Probably going to need to go back in there. Try to find Greyar and your friend.” Mik nodded, and stood with him and Isibel as they walked to Octavia.
DAYLIGHT BROUGHT THE color back through the leaves, casting a greenish tint over everything beneath the canopies, including the four figures in strategically chosen branches. Two sets of pale blue eyes met with dark, and they nodded silently before all jumping down as one.
“What the hell was that? And where is she?” Gerred was the first to speak as they regrouped, his neck tense. The fires hadn’t been their doing, they’d meant for a quiet way to stir up the camp just enough for information to accidentally slip out of someone. Sky sighed as he and Day ran their left hands through their hair simultaneously.
“No idea. She’s out here somewhere, like the rest of the survivors,” Nicotey said shortly. No one disagreed. Of course Arriel had gotten out, he knew for a fact the girl was way too smart and strong to have perished in the night’s chaos. Although, none of them had been expecting that…
He shook his head.
“Well, don’t worry and cry,” Gerred grunted, hitting Nicotey’s shoulder. “She’d have your ass for that one.” Nicotey couldn’t help the chuckle that slipped out. “We have to decide what to do now.”
Look for Arriel. Obviously. Not only was she critical to their mission, but she was Nicotey’s closest friend, despite herself. They were all friends. But their mission so far had turned up nothing, not even a trace of the hybrid boy. Meedra was supposed to be a stop to rest and re-stock supplies, but Nicotey glanced around at the bags they’d grabbed with them last night and it didn’t look like much more than what they’d entered the camp with.
“We’re not doing well on our job,” Sky voiced his own parallel thoughts. “Fuck it, let’s find Arriel and get the hell home.” Nicotey’s attention jerked to him at that.
“Ferce won’t be too happy about that,” his twin mumbled, not entirely convinced with his own argument, but it was something to consider.
“Ferce won’t be happy about anything except this hybrid’s head on a platter,” Gerred growled. Nicotey raised his eyebrows at the man. Gerred wasn’t one of the most Other-hugging humans out there, none of them were–Arri being an exception, of course–but that hadn’t been their orders, and Gerred wasn’t one to be troubled by morals so long as it wasn’t him doing the executing.
“What? Was that not gonna be the end result?” Gerred asked with mock surprise, outstretching his arms. Then he flipped his arms and held his palms up in surrender. “I know Leaders gotta do what they gotta do to keep us all not running around like headless chickens, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know what it is. And we’re not Ferce’s most precious object–she is, and now, he is. We return with neither, and ‘unhappy’ is what we wish he’ll be.”
He had a point. Nicotey sighed and ran his hand down his face. Everything in him wanted to go back to the torn-up Meedra and climb his way through every rubble-covered street and find Arri. He wouldn’t feel right ever again if he just turned around now and left. He wouldn’t be able to look Lemora in the eye, that was for sure.
“Stop talking about her like that,” Sky said, albeit quietly, but something in his tone demanded their attention. “Arri’s not some damn object of Ferce’s, she’s our teammate and friend. And you’re talking like that doesn’t matter.”
Gerred sighed, his hands flexing into fists before relaxing at his sides. “Arriel does matter to me. I’m trying to think past right now. C’mon, she’s smart, she’s out here somewhere. Probably on her way back to Star right now.”
Nicotey straightened his spine, the hairs on the back of his neck prickling. Sky opened his mouth but Nicotey flung a hand out, effectively signaling to shut up as he slowly began moving his body to turn. The others copied him, all four rotating at the same speed so that no back was left open to the forest. Whatever else was with them wasn’t nearly as quiet, however, as soon as they’d stopped talking they all heard the small twigs snapping and the just-dry-enough leaves crackling. The movements were messy, setting off several small sounds like those but not because the thing was large.
In his peripheral, Gerred slid a knife into his palm. Nicotey left his hands empty, but the feel of metal in his waistband and in the sleeve of his shirt assured him that his own weapons were within reach. He wondered if whatever was making such noise as it slowly approached them was a group of Meedra’s infamous guards–not many camps had them, and rumor was that Meedra’s Leaders not only posted people to watch the gates, but also sent out small groups on missions. But Nicotey’s group was the only one for Star Edge, and it was never for pure violence. Perhaps these were sent to round up survivors, or perhaps to find someone to accuse for starting the fires.
But Nicotey forced his muscles to a halt when two figures finally came into view. It was a bit awkward, his bulk so ready to launch itself forward that he almost lost balance. He glanced around and saw the others hesitating too, Sky completely dropping his arms with exasperation.
In front of them were two harmless people, Well, harmless looking. One was a boy who couldn’t have been more than a teenager, his body hunched in timidity. Although, he was dragging the young woman with him harshly by the wrist, as if–
“Well, you’re not gaining any balls being so rude to your lady friend,” Gerred teased, already at ease. The kid looked like he was going to wet his pants as he looked directly at Gerred. Nicotey shrugged to himself and eased out of his tense stance, though he saw the twins remain alert and paying more attention to their surroundings than to the newcomers.
“What you doing here?” Nicotey asked evenly, noting the woman wincing as the boy’s grip tightened further. Her dress was torn at the bottom and dirty, but Nicotey saw its faded purple color at the top where it loosely hung on her shoulders. She looked oriental, but the black hair and dark eyes, but even more delicately built. The bare arm under the boy’s grip was barely more than bones and bright red. Her eyes snapped to his just as it clicked in his mind, and as they narrowed she suddenly didn’t seem as helpless as she looked.
“W-we escaped the fire,” the boy said quickly, voice unnecessarily loud. “A-and now we’re going. And she’s…she’s coming with me,” he stood up straighter, his chest out. Nicotey suppressed his reaction but Gerred didn’t as he chuckled.
“Yes sir,” Gerred said, crossing his arms. Then he shifted his weight as he addressed the woman, and Nicotey saw his expression soften ever so slightly. “Got a name, little one?”
Her eyes narrowed further and she lifted her neck. “Don’t you?” The wavering in her voice betrayed her cool image, reminding him of when he’d first met Arriel.
“I’m Gerred,” the man answered easily. She nodded, but instead of replying, she yelped and looked down at her arm. Gerred swore under his breath before pulling his jacket off, making even the twins turn to look at him with curiosity splattered on their faces. He stepped forward, ignoring the boy’s failed scramble to regain his distance, and yanked the kid from the woman and draped the jacket loosely over her shoulders in one movement. She reached up and adjusted it herself, nodding slowly in thanks, and Gerred came back to Nicotey’s side.
Well, that wasn’t entirely unsurprising. They’d spent years with Arriel, they all knew how Others worked. But the questions in Nicotey’s mind were, what kind of Other, and who was going to turn the conversation unfriendly first.
“I’m a Seer,” she said, loud and clear, looking directly at Nicotey. He nodded, unfazed. “My name is Kia.” The boy turned around and looked at her in shock, this time stumbling away from her and toward the men.
“What, kid? Scared?” Gerred teased, though now it held more disdain. The boy turned around and sighed, shoulders finally slumping completely.
“I don’t even know who she is,” he admitted. “I-I just ran. I’m Daynte, a-and I have… nowhere to go now.” Nicotey felt bad, he really was a kid. The woman looked more like she could handle herself if she had to, she just…didn’t know how.
“You can hitch on with us,” he said, ignoring the looks from Sky, Day, and Gerred. “We haven’t got what we came for, and we haven’t got a new direction. You can come with us back to our camp.”
Then, he did turn to meet the three sets of eyes, one pair accusatory, and two just waiting for the rest of his thoughts. “She’s smart, she’ll double back and meet us.”
The group turned and started moving, Gerred in front with the twins flanking him. Nicotey held out his arm, gesturing for Daynte and Kia to follow them and walk in front of him. He was the leader of this group, and it was his job to get everyone home safely at the end of the day. Gerred’s words prodded at his conscience, though, and Nicotey tried not to think on them any further as he watched the Other woman pulled the too-large jacket tighter over her shoulders.