BEN

Last time we saw BEN… (click for recap)

After discovering Mica is the arsonist, Ben, Peter, and Cassandra question her about her illegal activities. Ben realizes that Mica doesn’t understand how much danger she put everyone in, and, worse than that, now that she’s been seen by soldiers, they will all have to flee. Without anywhere else to go, Cassandra offers them safe harbor at the Unseen City in the White Mountains. Realizing Cassandra is one of the legendary Unseen, Mica and Ben question her. She tells them she came to West Six looking for Perseus. Ben knows there’s more to her story, and Peter’s, and wonders about the strange Prophets of the Unseen. With morning just a few hours away, soon Ben, Mica, and Anda will be heading off to their new life. That is if nothing else goes wrong…

Ben didn’t have much to pack. A few books he’d grab from the box out back right before they left, his winter coat, some food. That was all he needed and all he could carry. With his leg aching from his run through the woods, he tried to rest up in the few hours before sunrise and their journey to the White Mountain.

He tried to sleep but couldn’t. The wind scraped the side of the house, keeping him awake. He got up and sat in front of the window and watched the old elm knock on the glass with its knobby fingers. After all these years, they were finally getting out of Nova. The Unseen would keep them safe, and he could keep Mica and Anda safe, just like his mother had wanted.

The one thing that bothered him was his mother’s insistence that their father was coming back someday, and that they had to be here, at this house, when he did. She had always been so sure about that. But it didn’t matter anymore, not with Mica’s life at stake—all their lives at stake. They had to run, and they had to run fast. It was the only way to keep their little family together and safe, and he would do whatever it took to do that. The moon peeked over thin paper clouds. Ben and the moon stared at each other until he fell asleep.

The moon kept watch.

He awoke with a sore neck and a stiff leg. Somehow he’d managed to sleep upright in his chair for an hour or so. His room was still dark, but the window glowed gray with early morning light. Dawn was coming. Today they would leave Nova behind and never look back. He smiled at the thought: today they would take their first steps towards freedom.

Darkness chilled the morning air, and Ben shivered. Ben packed up the few belongings he needed: a heavy sweater, extra socks, the wool hat Anda had knitted him. He’d take their picture from the mantle and a book. And that was all. He’d take nothing more into freedom because nothing more mattered.

Downstairs, cold breakfast sat on the table, and he leaned his crutch against the wall and helped himself. The back door opened and closed. After some shuffling, Peter and Cassandra appeared, red-nosed with cold. Ben wondered what was so important to Peter that it had delayed their escape by a few hours.

“Anda and Mica?” Peter asked as he pulled his worn gray jacket closer. Ben shrugged. “They should be ready by now— Mica, Anda! Let’s go!” Peter yelled, lifting his red beard to the ceiling. He paced while Cassandra sat down to food.

Ben continued eating. The thought of finally leaving had taken his appetite, but he knew he would need energy for the day ahead.

“They’ll be here any minute,” Ben said through bites of bread and cheese, but he knew they were probably out back selecting a book to take from their stash. He wondered which ones they would choose to remember this place by. He would grab that silver and white book by Frost before they left.

The back door opened, ushering in a puff of frozen air. “Morning,” Mica said behind them.

“Eat,” Ben said without looking at her. She dropped something to the floor with a thump, shuffled over, sat next to Ben, and began picking at a slice of bread. She usually ate more than that.

Peter paced the room. “Got everything?” he asked, his eyes on the floor. “Just what you can carry.”

Mica nodded.

Ben looked at her, but she kept her eyes on her bread. She should be happy they were leaving. This was what she had wanted, yet she did not seem happy.

“Where’s Anda?” Peter asked.

But Mica only shrugged.

“You were supposed to get her up and tell her we were leaving.”

“She didn’t sleep well. Had a bad dream,” she said. “Thought she could use a little more sleep. Don’t worry. I packed for her.”

“Well, go get her up,” Peter said. “We don’t have time for this. We need to leave now.”

“I’m eating here, go wake her yourself!” Mica said.

Ben had his head down, so he didn’t see it, but out of the corner of his eye, he saw Mica look up to glare at Peter. Cassandra froze, tensing like an animal sensing danger. Something cold fell over Ben as Cassandra slowly got up and walked over to Peter by the fireplace. Ben turned to watch her, the back of his neck tingling.

“We’re too late. They’re here,” Cassandra said, staring at the stone around the hearth.

Ben tried to swallow but couldn’t. His mouth had gone dry.

Peter froze. “Are you sure?”

“Yes. There’s one here right now.”

“Dammit.”

“What’s wrong?” Mica asked.

Ben stared down at his plate. Fear laughed, and it was a cold and wet laugh.

“Is it Mica?” Peter asked.

Cassandra said, “yes.”

“Mica, close your eyes.”

“Why? What’s wrong?”

“It’ll be okay. Just close your eyes… please?” he added.

Mica bent her head towards her plate and closed her eyes. A dark curtain of hair fell over her shoulder and head like a waterfall, covering her face. Something was definitely wrong if Mica was doing what someone asked without putting up a fight. Ben’s heart began to race. Blood pounded through his limbs and tingled his hands. Everything felt sharp and hot and bright. He turned to Peter, but Peter was pale.

“We have to get rid of it,” Cassandra said.

“Yeah, I know. Just… How long has it been here?”

“I don’t know.”

“Peter, what’s wrong?” Ben asked, but he knew what was happening.

“Now. We need to get rid of it now,” Cassandra continued. “I didn’t think they would get here so fast. They were too fast. Something’s wrong.”

“I don’t have a Shock Stick—”

“I do,” she said, reaching into her pocket.

“Of course you do.”

“Peter…” Mica’s voice was thin and small.

“Yeah, Mics, just relax. Take deep breaths,” Peter said. He reached out and took the little figurine of himself from the mantle and held it in his hand, running his thumb over the rough edges.
Mica nodded, her nose inches from her half eaten bread smeared with butter. She was shaking.

“What’s going on?” Ben asked, he knew, but he didn’t want to be right. If he was right, he couldn’t do anything.

“Nothing we can’t handle,” Peter said and put the figurine into his pocket.

Mica trembled. “Is it a…”

“Yeah, but you’re going to be okay. They can’t hurt you. We’re going to hurt them,” Peter added softly.

Ben could hear Mica’s breath start to come in gasps. She was starting to panic. “But… no… they can’t be here… Not again… I can’t… I can’t…” Mica wheezed.

“Mica,” Ben grabbed her hand and squeezed. “It’s going to be fine. Okay? Look at me,” he said and looked directly at her.

“No. They’ll see you….” She shook her head.

“Mica, look at me.”

She took a deep breath and looked up at him through a tangle of dark hair. Her eyes glowed gold like bright fireflies. The dark hair around her face shimmered red from the glow of her eyes.

A Watcher looked at Ben through Mica’s eyes.

Ben knew full well that he was not supposed to make eye contact with a Watched, but Mica was panicking. The last time Watchers were here, Mica had lost her mother, and dozens of their friends and neighbors had been Burned or killed. He didn’t blame her for getting upset, hell, he was getting upset, but he looked into Mica’s eyes anyway and wondered who else was staring back. If, like his parents had told him, it wasn’t the ghost of a loyal soldier, then who was it? What was it?

“You’ll be fine. Just listen to Cassandra and Peter,” Ben said, keeping his voice level. Mica nodded. Ben smiled at her. “Good. Just keep breathing,” he took a deep breath, she did the same, matching her breath to his.

“We are going to get rid of the Watcher,” Peter said. He came over and stood behind Mica.

She nodded, but her eyes got wide.

Cassandra positioned herself squarely behind Mica. She held a small device like the handle of a gun in her hand. The dark metal fit into her palm perfectly, and two metal prongs stuck out of the top. She flipped a plastic cover off a button and held her thumb over it.

“Wait, what is that?” Ben asked and reached across the table for the device.

Cassandra jerked it back. “Don’t touch it! It delivers an electrical shock. It’s the only way to get rid of the Watcher. We need to get out of here, and we can’t do that with one of these in her head. Mica, this is dangerous. And it hurts like hell. But it will get the Watcher out of your head, okay?”

Mica closed her eyes, hiding away the golden glow. A tear rolled down her cheek.

“Are you ready?” Cassandra asked.

“No, you’re not doing that,” Ben said. “There has to be another way.” He grabbed his crutch and limped around the table to them.

“Hey!” Peter snapped at him. “We don’t have time, and we can’t know for certain when this thing got here, what its seen, or when it will leave. If it even does. She can’t just close her eyes—we all have to run. Now. Do you want to carry her all the way to the mountains? We need to take the chance now, and get out of here. If not, we all risk getting Burned. Besides: they Burn us, we Burn them.”

“No, you can’t do this,” Ben said, stepping in between Mica and Cassandra.

“Ben, listen to Peter. He knows what he’s doing,” Cassandra said with a warning in her voice.

He opened his mouth to challenge her when Mica piped up. “Ben?” She stood up and turned to face them, her eyes closed tight. “It’s okay. We need to do this. I’m ready.”

“Mica, are you sure?” Ben pleaded.

She shrugged and shook her head. “No. But I want to see the mountains. Do it already.”

Peter nodded to Ben and stepped beside Mica, arms ready to catch her. Ben stepped back, unsure what would happen next and unable to help.

“All right, here we go. Five seconds and then it’s over, easy as pie.”

Cassandra stepped close and raised the device a few inches away from Mica’s side. “On three. Ready? One.” Cassandra pressed the little metal prongs to Mica’s rib cage, not even waiting for two.

Every muscle in Mica’s body tensed and locked up. She cried out like a dying animal and fell stiffly into Peter’s arms. Cassandra moved with her, keeping the weapon pressed to her side. Peter laid Mica down on the floor as she spasmed and seized. It was the longest five seconds of Ben’s life. Then Cassandra released the device, and Mica stilled.

“Mica. Mica, can you hear me?” Ben knelt beside her, dropping his crutch with a clatter.

She groaned with pain.

“Just stay down for a minute,” Peter said and put his hand on her forehead, brushing back her hair out of her face.

Mica made a croaking sound.

“Look at me,” Peter said.

She opened her eyes. They were back to normal, the same shade as the blue stars growing in the back field. Ben fell back on his heels, relieved.

“See? Nothing to it,” Cassandra said. “Nice job, Mics.” She sat back with a sigh and smiled at Mica, but her eyes were anxious.

“Mica, can you hear me?” Peter asked, staring down at her. She shook her head. “She’ll probably be out of it for a little while. This thing fries you for a bit. You two, get your things. I’ll stay here with Mica. Anda! Get down here, now!”

“Why didn’t anyone wake her up?” Cassandra asked and ran for the stairs.

“Anda! Get up, we have to go!” Her footsteps pounded up the stairs and down the hall.

Peter and Ben looked at each other.

“Thank you,” Ben said.

Peter waved him off and looked down at Mica. She wrinkled her nose and then opened her eyes wide like she was surprised to find herself on the floor.

“Don’t worry, Mics. We’re on our way,” Ben said.

“Peter!” Cassandra screamed from upstairs. She crashed down the stairs and burst into the room. “She’s gone!”

“What?” Ben pushed himself up from the floor with his crutch and hobbled over to her. “Gone, gone where?”

“How should I know?”

“Shit. It’s market day,” Peter said, looking down at Mica. “She must have gone to the village.”

Fear, tall and thin and solid, draped an arm over Ben’s shoulder and grinned.

“When did she leave?” Peter asked.

“I don’t know,” Cassandra said. “But if they’re sending Watchers, it’s already too late. Soldiers will be at the village by now.”

“I’m going to find her.” Ben grabbed his jacket off of the bench and pulled it on.

“No, you’re not,” Peter said softly.

Ben whirled around on him the best he could with his crutch. “We can’t leave her behind.”

“And we won’t. But…” Peter’s eyes went soft, like he was talking to a child who didn’t understand, couldn’t understand. “You can’t outrun a soldier, and you’ll never make it in time anyway,” Peter said gently but firmly.

A hard lump grew in Ben’s throat. Peter had never said anything like that before. He never in all his years of passing through here had made Ben feel less because of his leg. No matter how much Ben hated it: Peter was right. He wanted to argue, he wanted to scream, he wanted to run to West Six and find Anda. But he couldn’t.

“I can’t do nothing,” Ben said. Fear and her pale eyes watched him closely.

“It’s not nothing,” Peter said. “You stay here and look after Mica. Someone has to, or she’s likely to do something stupid.” Peter hesitated. “I will find Anda.”

“Promise. Promise me.”

“Promise. Back before you know it,” Peter said and started for the front door.

“I can’t let you do that.” Cassandra jumped in front of him. “We need to run. Now. Peter, you know that.”

“I’m going to go find Anda,” he said. “If I can get to the village now, maybe I can get her out before it’s too late.”

“They’ve sent Watchers! You know what that means! Next they’ll send soldiers to the village and Burn everyone and–“

“Don’t tell me what they do,” Peter said, glowering down at Cassandra, a red, immovable boulder towering over a small, dark creature. He started for the door.

“No!” Cassandra jumped in front of him, throwing a well muscled arm across the door blocking his escape. “You won’t make it back,” she said. “If you go to that village, you will be Burned.”

“This isn’t your call. Move.”

“Our best option is to get the hell out of here and pray they don’t follow us. Please,” Cassandra pleaded. Her voice breaking, and something inside Ben broke too. He wondered how he had just asked his best friend to die for his sister, who was probably already dead, and he hadn’t thought twice. What did that make him?

“Don’t do this,” Cassandra whispered.

“I won’t let Anda get burned. It’s my fault, Cassie,” Peter whispered. Sadness passed over his face like water. “I can’t let her get Burned because of me.”
Cassandra dropped her arm from the door with a pained look. “We’ve all got Burners and ghosts. That’ll never change. This country is full of ghosts.”
Peter spoke carefully. “Not anymore. I’m not leaving until I find her,” he said. “No more ghosts.”

Red beams from the sunrise shown in through the yellow curtains. Cassandra stared hard at him, her dark eyes bright in the rising sun. “Fine. Then I’m going with you.”

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