Last time we saw BEN… (click for recap)
Ben chases shadows in the dark, hoping to discover what Cassandra and Peter have been up to. He catches them on their way to stop the arsonist who’s been putting the village in danger, and they agree to let Ben help. At the military barracks, Ben alone sees the arsonist and attempts to catch the firebug, but he’s too late, and the arsonist destroys more of the soldiers’ food. As soldiers spill from the barracks, Ben flees but finds that he and the arsonist had the same idea. After a struggle, Ben rips the arsonist’s hood off and….
“Mica!” Ben said, his voice rasping in the cold.
She stared. “What are you doing here?” she asked through chattering teeth.
“This whole time, it was you?”
“What? No, I was just—”
“Don’t even try,” Ben interrupted, cutting her off. He shook a dripping fist at her. “You’re the one who’s been… shit. That nice bottle of liquor—that was Malcolm’s stolen booze, wasn’t it?”
“So?” Mica pushed herself up out of the water. “He has plenty.”
“I can’t believe you were stupid enough to do this.”
“No one got hurt,” Mica waved him off. “It’s fine.” She waded towards the bank.
“Don’t you walk away from me! This is not fine,” Ben’s voice lowered the way it did when he was angry, barely above a whisper. He found his crutch in the water and followed her. They splashed towards the bank, trying to get out of the cold.
Distant voices rang out through the forest.
Mica and Ben froze as the sound. Soldiers.
“Another time, perhaps?” Mica said and pulled her hood down over her face. Ben pulled his sopping hood low too, nodded, and they scrambled up the muddy bank towards the woods. Mica extended a hand to help him up the water’s rocky edge. From the top of the bank, Ben could see the soldiers’ flashlights behind them, blinking between the trees. There was still time. They could make it out if they were fast enough and quiet.
But they weren’t fast enough.
“Freeze!” a voice yelled.
Ben and Mica froze.
“I got them,” the voice said, probably into a communicator.
“Ben…” Mica whispered, and her voice shook.
A clicking sound. The soldier swore to himself. Something was wrong with the soldier’s weapon.
“Go, run!” Ben screamed, shoving Mica forward, but the soldier rushed at them from the darkness like a wild animal materializing out of nowhere. The soldier crashed into Ben, sending his crutch flying. They rolled to the ground, Ben grasping for his crutch, a branch, a rock, anything as a weapon, but the soldier maneuvered an arm around Ben’s neck and pulled. He panicked as his throat began to burn, and he struggled to breathe, ripping at the soldier’s arm and kicking at nothing in desperation.
Mica yelled, and Ben felt the soldier flinch as Mica slammed into him. The flinch was long enough for Ben to shove him off and scramble across the ground, searching for his crutch and gasping for breath. He found his crutch, got to his feet, and turned for the soldier. But he saw Mica sitting with her hood thrown back in a patch of moonlight, stunned, her nose dripping with blood, her face and identity exposed.
If the soldier saw her, it was all over.
The soldier looked straight at her just before Ben flipped his crutch, gripped it hard, and swung upwards, aiming to the soldier’s jaw. The blow sent the soldier flying off his feet and backward. He slammed into a tree and crumpled to the ground.
For a moment, Ben panicked that he had killed the man. A sick, heavy feeling filled him, and fear flashed her too-white teeth. Killing a soldier was a death sentence. But the soldier groaned and moved.
Satisfied that he hadn’t killed the man, Ben hauled Mica to her feet, and they took off as fast as they could down the hill into the forest, leaving the soldier staggering to his feet and mumbling groggily into his communicator.
Ben and Mica moved as quickly as they could, but Mica kept having to stop and look back for him. He’d wave her on, but she’d never run out of sight. The cold ripped through their clothes now heavy with water. Ben’s bad leg ached, his hip screamed with pain, and his lungs felt like they were going to explode, but he kept moving. They had no choice.
Finally, they burst into the clearing behind the farmhouse. They slipped over the field, through the blue stars turned black in the night, past the barn, and towards the house. Mica eased the back door open and held it as Ben clomped up the deck and inside. Mica started to climb the stairs, but he grabbed her sodden hood and dragged her into the main room. Peter and Cassandra sat in the dark, their coats still on, and their boots still muddy. In the confusion, Ben had forgotten entirely about them. He guiltily said a silent prayer of thanks that they were home safely.
“What happened?” Peter asked, jumping up from the bench. “Mica? Are you all right?”
“Just a bloody nose.”
“What were you doing out there?” Peter asked. His expression was calm, but his voice now had a sharp edge to it.
Mica ignored him and held her sleeve to her nose.
“Mica?” he asked again.
“It was her, Peter. Mica’s the village idiot who’s been stealing and burning the supplies,” Ben said. He collapsed into a chair, dropped his crutch with a clatter, and rubbed at his leg with both hands. He couldn’t remember the last time it had hurt so badly.
Mica pulled out a piece of lank hair from her plait and wove a tiny braid. “It’s not a big deal, okay? And that stuff I stole was just… looking for a new home anyway.”
Peter stared hard at her for a moment, but then his craggy face broke into a smile. He chuckled.
“It’s not funny,” Ben said, glaring from Peter to Cassandra, who pursed her lips, but her eyes were smiling.
Peter shook the smile from his face and made a gruff sound, composing himself. “I know. It’s not funny. But, Mica? I have to hand it to you: I didn’t think it was you.”
“Oh, thanks,” Mica said and crossed her arms.
“No, no, no, that’s a compliment. I actually didn’t suspect you. Very nicely done. If I didn’t suspect you, maybe Malcolm won’t either,” Peter said and shrugged. “How did you manage to dye Lincoln pink?”
“Swiped a can of sardines,” she said with a twitch of a grin.
“How did you know about the early shipment?” Cassandra asked.
Mica rolled her eyes, pulled something out of her back pocket, and tossed it to Peter. “I swiped one of their communicators a while back. Been listening to their reports and schedules for a while.”
That’s how she knew about the Unseen Prophet and his scars: she had a communicator. Part of Ben was jealous that he hadn’t thought to steal one himself, while the rest of him was grateful she hadn’t been caught and Burned.
Peter nodded in approval and turned on the communicator. Nothing happened.
“It’s useless now. Someone surprised me, and I sat on it in the stream,” Mica said with a glare at Ben.
Peter fiddled with the communicator for a minute, but nothing happened. He tossed the waterlogged and broken device onto the table. “No one saw you steal this?”
“I got it off a new soldier. Sometimes they leave things at the Wildflower.”
“Got to say, I’m impressed.”
“Peter,” Ben said, shivering. The fire had long since died, and the room was cold. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
“Well, she didn’t get caught,” Peter said. “Maybe things aren’t as bad as we thought.”
“There were dozens of soldiers searching the woods with dogs, and we ran into one on the way back. Hopefully he was new and didn’t recognize us,” Ben said.
At that, Peter’s expression fell. Mica peeled her coat off and set the soggy mess down on the floor. She dabbed under her face with red fingers. Her nose had finally stopped bleeding, but she was a mess. Cassandra got a damp cloth from the kitchen and tossed it to her.
“Thanks,” she said and began cleaning her face.
“Mica, you know how dangerous that was, right?” Peter asked.
“Like you said, they didn’t catch me.”
Ben rubbed his forehead. “I just don’t get why you would do this?”
“You wouldn’t,” Mica said, wiping blood from her face.
Mica set her jaw and stared at Ben. “We can barely afford the permits. Malcolm is charging more and more every season. Sure, we have food now. We get enough with the ration tickets and what we grow here. But these permits are killing us. We work ourselves to death, planting and harvesting and everything else, just to hand it all over to Malcolm and do it all over again. I work so…. I have to…. I’m the only one….” but she made a frustrated gesture and focused on her hands. “It’s time we did something and took something from them. It’s time we fought back.”
Shame, a small, skinny girl with too-large eyes, put her head on Ben’s knee and stared up at him. Ben understood. Mica did more work than any of them because Ben couldn’t, and she was angry. Everything she worked for got handed over to Malcolm for bribes. She worked and worked and worked for what? A chance to not die? A chance to stay in West Six and pull weeds as opposed to getting shipped off to some strange place to pull weeds? It wasn’t fair. She had never said anything before, at least not to Ben’s face, but they both knew. He knew she was angry, and she knew he was humiliated by his leg. But there was nothing to do about it. It just was.
“Did you ever think that there might be repercussions?” Peter asked.
“Malcolm has more than enough,” she said with a shrug. “He’ll get over it.”
“Shit. You don’t get it, do you?” Peter sank into the bench.
“What? It was just some booze and food.”
He sighed. “Things in West Six are the way they are because every single person here has been bribing Malcolm for something. It’s not just Ben. Ever wonder why we don’t have those weekly lectures? Or random inspections? Mandatory service hours? Because everyone is bribing Malcolm. And Malcolm is bribing his direct superior and giving all of his soldiers way too much freedom to keep them quiet. Malcolm is corrupt and lazy, and you’ve just put all that in jeopardy.”
Mica went white. “So… things could get worse?”
“But… but it was only some fruit. Who cares?”
“Malcolm’s commanding officer, that’s who,” Ben said. “And his commanding officer. And the person in charge of shipping the supplies. And the general in charge of the West territory. Every one of those people will notice when a little backwater unit suddenly needs three times the usual amount of supplies. This won’t go unnoticed. When they notice, they will question Malcolm, figure out about all the bribes, and relieve him of his post. Now things are about to get real bad, real fast. Why would you risk it, Mica?”
Ben watched Mica digest his words and wondered how she really couldn’t have known. Even though no one talked about it or openly paid Malcolm, he had thought for sure that she had known.
She gestured around the room. “Because this is all there is. And I’m sick of it,” she said, looking down at the red cloth in her hands.
“Fine. But you don’t get to decide that for everyone else,” Peter said.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“It’s not so bad here, is it?” Ben asked. His question hung in the chilled air.
Mica looked up from the bloody cloth. “Come on, Ben. You’re waiting for someone who’s never coming back. You’re waiting for something to change, but it won’t. Nothing is ever going to change.”
“You think I don’t know that?” Ben asked. Their father was never coming back, and their mother was gone. Of course, Ben knew that. But what was Mica talking about?
“Then why are we still here? We could have tried to get out. We should have tried. Mom might have believed that he was coming back, but she was wrong. He is never coming back. There is nothing special about this place and no reason to stay.”
“Of course, he’s not coming back,” Ben said. “That’s not why we stay.”
“Then why don’t we leave?” Mica asked.
“Because like you said: this is it, Mica. You think if we left West Six that things would be better? They won’t be. Things are just as bad here as they are in East Eight, South Thirty-Two, or wherever, worse even. And getting out of Nova isn’t easy. First, we’d have to make it to a border city, and I can’t… Travel papers cost ten times what a work permit does. Then we’d have to find and pay someone to take us across, illegally, I might add. Work permits and national travel papers cost nothing compared to that. That’s why we stay. Because this is the best we can do.”
That was what he said, but his promise to their mother still haunted him. He had promised their mother that he would take care of Anda and Mica. Always. And he couldn’t do that running through the forest towards freedom. Now Anda and Mica were going to tear everything apart with their books and fires.
Despite his promise, Ben knew the real reason he hadn’t tried to leave. Everything else was just broken promises and excuses. He knew, and Mica knew. She’d never say it, and he flushed. How could a damaged like him ever make it all the way across the country to freedom? His weak leg itched, and his crutch seemed to grow bigger and bigger until it was all he could see.
“And because… because… I promised to keep you two safe,” he finally said, unable to say the truth. “I promised her. And I can’t do that out there, but I can here. So I’m going to keep you and Anda safe. You got that?”
Mica looked down at her hands. “Yeah. I got it. But I still want out.”
Ben knew getting out was hopeless. His hope had died a long time ago. To Ben, hope was a ghost that haunted him, sneaking up behind him and tumbling into him, grinning at him from behind trees, her eyes glittering with a promise. Hope used to be but was no more. She was nothing but a glimmering ghost who smelled like pine and earth and wind. He had no idea that Mica thought that the flicker of hope playing in the leaves was real.
“Then you tell me where is there to go, Mica? What else is there?”
“Wish I knew. If I did, I wouldn’t be here.”
“Well, you got your wish. Can’t stay here,” Peter said. Ben and Mica looked at him, too surprised to say anything.
Peter continued, “They’ll be looking for you two. I can’t imagine Malcolm will let this one go. A shipment burned on the first night it’s here? No, he’ll have to do something now. Bribes or no. They’ll find you, Mica. And when they do, they’ll Burn us all.”
The color drained from her face. The realization that things were about to change swept through Ben like a river, washing away the past and making way for a new and uncertain future. It was a dark and dangerous and thundering future.
“But there’s nowhere to go,” Mica said. “That’s the one thing we all agree on.”
“That’s not exactly true,” Cassandra said. Ben had forgotten that she was there and looked over at her. She stood with her back to a crackling fire. She must have built it while they were talking. Color and shadow blazed around her and outlined her dark shape in red, and her dreadlocks hung about her head like dark vines.
“All right, that’s it,” Mica said and wiped her nose on her sleeve. “Who the hell are you?”
“Cassandra,” Peter said with a warning in his voice. “It’s not safe.”
She ignored him and spoke anyway. “Come with me to the White Mountains. All of you.”
“The White Mountains? And what is in the White Mountains?” Ben asked, eager for, and yet dreading the answer.
She turned and smirked at him. “You’re a smart guy, Ben. The Unseen City is in the White Mountains. You know that.”
“Yeah, I don’t think so,” he said. Mica snorted her disapproval, then winced and gingerly touched her nose.
Cassandra did not argue. She did not fight them. She just smiled and raised an eyebrow. Her silence was oddly compelling.
“Peter?” Mica looked to him for help.
“You know I’m right,” Cassandra said to Peter. “It’s their only option.”
“Is it true?” Mica asked, her voice rising.
Peter just sat, rubbing his thumb across his scarred palm. After a long and unbearable silence, he spoke. “I guess they really don’t have a choice.” He got up and faced the fire. Craggy shadows flickered across his face, his beard even more red in the firelight. “Might as well. Shit,” he said more to himself than to anyone else. He rubbed his palms and sighed. “Yes. The Unseen City is real. Loraine may have said she destroyed it, but she didn’t. I think she’s had trouble finding it, or it really would have been destroyed years ago. It’s a small city, but it is there. If you can get to it, you will be safe. Cassie’s right. It’s your only option.”
Ben let the realization that the Unseen City was real cover him like a snowdrift. He and Mica looked at each other.
The Unseen City was real.
“You’re serious?” he asked, barely able to comprehend it.
Without looking at them, Peter nodded.
Mica sat quietly, a rare thing for her. Then she asked, “what’s it like?”
Ben was well aware that they were all committing treason, and if anyone knew, they would all be dead or Burned by morning. He quickly glanced at everyone’s eyes just to make sure no one was Watching.
“It’s beautiful,” Cassandra said. “Buildings and towers are cut right into the rock of the mountain. Most of the time, it’s under snow. But sometimes, in the summer, wildflowers blanket the mountainside, and it’s covered in blue, green, and red. And no one gets Burned.”
“You miss it?” Mica asked.
“With every breath.”
“You all should leave with Cassandra as soon as possible,” Peter said, pulling them back to the present. Visions of snow-capped mountains and stone towers vanished. Peter’s mouth drew into a line, and his eyes focused on something Ben could not see. And Ben wondered why, if this city was so safe and good, why was Peter here instead of there?
“Is that why they’re after you?” Ben asked, looking at Cassandra. “Because you’re from the Unseen City?”
“That’s one reason.”
She looked at him with a half-smile. “Aaron and I were looking for Perseus.”
Ben caught his breath. No one believed in Perseus anymore—not here. Perseus was just myth and story and stars. “And?” he asked.
“And… did you find him?”
Her half-smile faded. “Of course not. Perseus isn’t real. Everyone knows that.”
“Then why were you looking for him?” Mica asked.
“Because for some stupid reason, Aaron, the intelligent and wise professor, believes in Perseus. Back in Windrose, we got some… strange information, and Aaron wanted to check it out. That’s why we came to West Six.”
“What kind of information? What happened?”
“Mica,” Ben shot her a warning glance. He was curious too, but he didn’t want to know too much. The wrong kind of knowledge could put them in even more danger. “Maybe this isn’t for us to know,” he said.
Cassandra gave Peter a sly glance. “It’s all right. It didn’t pan out, so it doesn’t matter. We met a man named Simon, who said that he could communicate with Watchers. And Simon said a Watcher told him where Perseus was.”
A shiver slid down Ben’s spine. Something he didn’t recognize watched them from the corner, something large and bright with strong hands. “You can’t communicate with Watchers—they’re not… I mean, they’re in your head, they’re not people, you can’t talk to them.”
Cassandra raised her eyebrows. “You sure about that? How do you think they get into your head? And if they’re not the ghosts of loyal soldiers, what are they? I thought he was crazy too until I saw it. I don’t know how he did it, but it stood right next to me, and Simon saw it and spoke to it.”
The thought of seeing Watchers set Ben’s teeth on edge, but he wondered what they looked like. He could imagine a great many things.
Cassandra continued, “he gave us a message that we could not interpret, so we came to Peter for help.”
Ben looked to Peter, who frowned.
“What was the message?” Mica asked.
Cassandra’s voice went low. “Where the Water Star fell. Same message as Juliette.”
“Same as who?”
“Juliette was the first Prophet, over three hundred years ago. She foresaw everything: Loraine, the Watchers, the Burn, all the wars—she saw it all. I forget the whole thing, but it’s something about Foxes and ghosts and three kilns, three dead, Perseus being found after the Water Star falls.”
Ben could believe in some things, but prophecy and seeing the future was too much. It had to be a myth.
“And what does, where the Water Star fell mean?” Mica asked.
“It doesn’t matter,” Peter said with a shrug. “There is no Perseus. No one is coming to help us. That’s all a story.”
Cassandra nodded. “All we did was put people at risk for a legend. And now I think it’s time that I repaid you all for your kindness. Come with me to the Unseen City. We’ll keep you all safe there. Promise.”
Mica nodded. “Thank you.”
“Wait,” Ben spoke up. “Who is Seth? This Unseen Prophet?”
Peter flinched at the name, and Cassandra shot him a glance. “He’s no one,” Peter said, but he rubbed his thumb over his palm.
“He destroyed my family. He’s not no one to me,” Ben said.
“He’s a traitor to the Unseen, and loyal to Loraine, end of story. He is her Prophet now,” he added darkly.
“If he’s her Prophet, why is she looking for him?”
“Come on, Ben,” Peter snapped. “Just leave it. He’s no friend to the Unseen, and he never will be, okay?”
Mica rubbed her nose and traded uncomfortable looks with Ben.
“I’m sorry,” Peter said, rubbing his palms. He got up and stood by the mantle, staring at the wooden figurines of their little family. “I know what you both lost because of him. Believe me when I say that you don’t have to worry about him ever again.” Ben did not respond. “It’s maybe three hours to sun up. I have a few things to take care of before we go. Pack up. We leave at sunrise.”
He seemed anxious. Ben wondered why Peter wouldn’t want to go to the Unseen, didn’t he trust them?
Cassandra cleared her throat. “Aaron is coming back with a transport. He’ll be here in the morning.”
Peter shook his head. “We can’t wait for him. Who knows if he’ll get delayed or what. He’ll have to catch up to us. Mica, wake Anda, and get packing. Only what you can carry.”
They dismissed to prepare for their flight, Mica and Peter tiptoeing up to their rooms, but Ben hung back as Cassandra poked at the fire. “What happened to her?” he asked, curious about how the story ended.
Cassandra smiled ruefully. “Story says she lived a good long life, married, had children, and died happy in her bed. But so far, she’s the only Prophet to do so.”
“What do you mean?”
“There are twelve generations of Prophets. Juliette was the first, then the Hidden Prophet, the Mountain Prophet, the Dark Prophet, Water, Poet, Walking, Blind, Sun, Warrior, and the Unseen. All are her descendants. All her descendants. All of the prophets after her since the rise of Nova, since the Hidden Prophet, have been found, imprisoned, tortured, and killed. Guess that’s just what being a Prophet means.”
“Surely not all of them,” Ben said.
Cassandra’s expression shifted to pain as if someone had stabbed her, and Ben felt afraid. He felt as though he was staring out into the darkness, knowing a terror with jaws and eyes waited for him, but he couldn’t see it.
“Yes,” she said softly. “All of them. But we can hope. There is always hope. That is what it means to be Unseen—to have hope. You should get ready, rest a little if you can. It’s a long journey to the mountains, especially in winter.”
As he limped up the stairs, he recalled the prophets she had mentioned. She had only mentioned eleven, but she had said there were twelve. And he wondered why.