Last time we saw MICA… (click for recap)
While journeying to the Unseen City, Mica and Aaron are attacked by soldiers patrolling the Empty Places. Aaron kills the soldiers, leading Mica to realize that Aaron is not at all what he seems. She wonders just how dangerous this unassuming professor is. After stealing the dead soldiers’ transport, Mica and Aaron make their way West. Mica asks Aaron about Burners and if the Unseen could find a lost Burner. Aaron says it’s not impossible, but useless. Burners are gone for good. Without their memories, what’s the point of finding and saving them? And then they see the White Mountains…
Mica had never seen mountains before. In the distance, they rose from nothing, great dark rocks speckled with trees and snow shot up out of the earth into the sky. Clouds snagged themselves on craggy peaks and wrapped their bright arms around the dirt and earth. For a moment, for Mica, there was nothing else in the world but dark mountains and sunshine and clouds. And for the first time in a very long time, she felt safe.
Those mountains seemed impregnable. What could possibly hurt her when she was hidden away deep inside those rocks?
But Aaron checked the rearview mirror and started driving again.
“What’s the city like?” Mica asked.
“There are a few things you need to know before we arrive,” he said, ignoring her question.
“Like what?” She leaned forward, her face almost to the windshield, to see as much of the horizon and the towering earth before them as possible.
“First, the procedure for bringing someone to the Unseen is strict. You will be blindfolded—”
“I am not doing that.”
“This isn’t a game, Mica.”
“Are you joking? Blindfolded?”
“This procedure keeps people, men, women, and children, safe from Watchers, soldiers, and Loraine. So no, I am not joking.”
Mica leaned back and crossed her arms. “Whatever.”
“I will blindfold you when we get closer, and you will not remove the blindfold unless I say so. Understand?”
“Good. I will drive us as far as I can, but then we will need to make the final ascent on foot.”
“What about the transport and all this food?”
“We are not permitted to bring Novan transports in, another security precaution. We will leave the transport at the base of the mountain until it has been cleared. When we get closer to the city, we will be evaluated for Watchers.”
“What, they don’t have mirrors in the Unseen?”
Aaron tensed his jaw, but Mica didn’t care if he was irritated. “It’s a bit more complicated than that.”
Mica shifted in her seat, suddenly very uncomfortable. “How does the evaluation work?” she asked, thinking of the shock and the pain and her fizzling muscles from her last encounter with a Watcher.
“It’s nothing to worry about. You won’t even know you’ve been evaluated. The boundary of the city is patrolled and kept secure by Seers. They are specially trained to detect Watchers even if they’re not in your mind. As I said, you won’t even know they’re there evaluating you. You won’t even see them.”
Mica wanted to ask more, but Aaron kept going. “Then, when we’ve been cleared of Watchers, we will be taken in for processing. I will be processed by my superiors, while you will be taken to a more general processing for refugees—”
“Do they have to call it, processing?” Mica asked. Images of Novan Processing Centers and Burners flashed through her mind.
Aaron blinked. “I suppose the word is a little inconsiderate. Our… procedure is unlike Novan processing. We don’t Burn people,” Aaron said and looked at her. “Ever. You know that.”
“Yeah, I know.” Mica looked away. Shame crouched behind her seat, a little warm body radiating heat and sick. “Then what?” Mica asked.
“There will be some brief medical tests and an interview.”
“Then do I get a room at the Inn or what?”
“Then we will see. And no more lies,” he said.
She stared at her lighter. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, you shouldn’t lie to us. We know something about lies, and we’re very good at finding them. So tell the truth when they ask, all right?”
Mica did not respond.
Aaron was quiet for the rest of the drive, but that was all right with Mica. He kept glancing at her or the rearview mirror for signs of pursuit, while she watched the mountains grow darker and closer and taller. She stared at the rising earth and the swirling clouds and wondered if it would snow.
“Time for the blindfold,” Aaron said. They were still driving.
“But we’re still so far away.” Mica didn’t want to miss a moment of this new and astonishing view. She had never seen anything other than plains and woods, and she wanted to see the threatening snow fall on the mountains from gray and white clouds against the now dark sky.
“Protocol. Here,” he said and handed her a strip of cloth like a wide scarf. It looked like he’d ripped it from a dark blue jumpsuit. “Tie that over your head and around your eyes. Tie it tight.”
The fabric was rough and cool in her hands. “Just a few more minutes, please,” she said.
“Mica…” Aaron said, and his voice was firm, and he slowed the transport to a stop. “People die if we do this wrong. Innocent people. If my city is found, Loraine destroys everything. So put the blindfold on.”
Mica flushed, but she lifted the fabric to her eyes and covered her head, tying the crisp blue cotton tight. “Happy now?” she asked.
“I know this is… uncomfortable. But we can’t risk you knowing exactly where our city is,” he said and started driving again.
“Yeah, yeah. I get it.”
Mica wanted to ask Aaron more about the city, but irritation picked at her, so she kept silent. Soon the gentle movement of the transport and the shadows slipping over her closed eyes lulled her into a deep and dreamless sleep…
When she awoke, the transport had stopped, the air was colder, and even with her blindfolded eyes, the world was darker. She shivered.
“Aaron?” she called softly, struggling to get herself up out of her slouch. Her neck and back ached.
The door beside her opened, letting in a prickling, icy wind, and she jumped. Being sightless made her jittery and anxious.
“We’ll be walking now,” Aaron said, his voice in the wrong ear and suddenly too close to her.
“Shit, you scared me!” she said, her heart racing. From what she could tell, he was standing outside the opened door. She hadn’t heard him approach, not even the soft crunch from light footfall on frozen leaves.
“Here,” Aaron took her hand and helped her down from the transport. The ground beneath her feet felt stiff and frozen with cold, but she didn’t feel snow, not yet.
“Take this,” Aaron said and hoisted a pack onto her back. Suddenly, hiking up a mountain blindfolded with a heavy pack in a soon-to-be snowstorm didn’t sound like such a good idea.
“I don’t want to do this,” she said, finding and gripping Aaron’s hand.
“It’s an easy hike on purpose. You’ll be fine.”
“But I don’t even know where I am, can’t I just take this stupid blindfold off? Please?” her other hand went to the blindfold, but Aaron grabbed her fingers.
“No,” he said.
“But I couldn’t find my way back here even if I tried—”
“Mica,” Aaron said, his voice low and threatening like a rainstorm. “This is how people die. They don’t follow the rules, and someone innocent gets hurt.”
She dropped her hand. “Don’t you let me fall.”
So they walked. Mica grasped Aaron’s pack with cold and stiff fingers as they hiked upward. She stumbled but never fell. Aaron would warn her of roots and fallen trees and gritty rocks. At one point, he lifted her from the ground and carried her over what she didn’t know. He smelled like something warm and earthy. He smelled like Peter. And shame was at her side again, reaching for her arm with pale, little fingers.
They stopped for the night. Aaron handed Mica a bottle of water and some sort of bar. It tasted like honey and milk and oats. And figs. Mica sat blindfolded while Aaron put up a shelter for her. Alone inside the makeshift Novan tent of tarps and rope, she took off her blindfold. She didn’t want to close her eyes, but soon they closed on their own, and she slept.
It still hadn’t snowed.
In the morning, sunshine and shadows played together on the green canvas above her. Aaron handed her more water and another fruit bar under the tarp. After eating, she wrapped the blindfold around her head and crawled out into the cold. Aaron broke down their little camp, hoisted their packs, and they kept walking.
Time passed slowly for Mica. Footstep after uncertain footstep. The sounds of birds. Wind. Animals running through the trees. Water.
Snow. She felt the soft flakes on her wrist and neck and smiled.
At the touch of snow and the smell of water and the crunch of pebbles underfoot, she paused, her fingers coming off of Aaron’s pack. She leaned back and caught fat snowflakes on her tongue. She loved snow.
When she was young, she and Anda would run outside and spin themselves dizzy in the falling flakes. Then they would collapse to the cold ground and stare up into the grayness above them, as snowflakes clung to their eyelashes and melted on their lips. Mica’s throat tightened at the pleasant memories, and she had to catch her breath. The cold breeze had taken it from her, leaving her insides hollow and frigid.
“Just a minute,” she said. “I need a rest.” She dropped her pack and sat down in the dirt and rocks and breathed deeply. “Can I have some water?” she asked with her hand outstretched.
She listened for him, but all she heard was the soft sound of falling snow and running water. No Aaron. Mica’s heart began to race, and her throat tightened.
“Aaron? Where are you?” she asked, standing up, her arms outstretched.
She was alone again.
He wouldn’t have left her. She knew that. He would have said something if he was going off for a moment or refilling the water bottles, so where was he? Mica opened her mouth to call out for him again, but froze.
The forest had gone quiet.
No birds sang. No squirrels scampered over thin swaying branches. No hidden animals snapped twigs as they ran. The world around her was unusually still, save for the falling snow.
Something pricked deep in her mind, and the hair on the back of her neck stood up. She held her breath and strained to hear, but heard only wind and snowfall and water. She reached for her blindfold, not about to be stranded alone on a mountainside blindfolded, but something snapped too close to her. A twig breaking.
A cold fear settled in her belly. She knew this feeling, and it frightened her more than anything else. Someone was watching her. Aaron’s words about Seers sparked in her mind—people who have been trained to sense Watchers.
Footsteps, light and soft and sure.
Mica swallowed back a sound and stood still. She could feel them all around her, circling her. Or maybe she was just imagining it, but she felt them watching her, circling her, closer and closer and tighter and tighter.
Aaron had said she wouldn’t even know the Seers were there—so who was standing unseen and so close to her? Fear sparked up and down her spine. Procedure be damned.
She ripped off her blindfold.
A man with a black scarf tied around his head stood before her, very close, close enough to touch. He held a staff in one hand and stood with his head bent down like he was staring at the ground between them. He stood very still. But Mica knew better. He was watching her. She could feel it like a taut rope stretched tight between them, connecting them, pulling them together.
Fear flickered over her like tongues of cold flame. The man wore black, and a light dusting of snow covered his shoulders and head like he had been standing still for a long time. She felt as though she had stumbled upon a dark statue. His breath made little clouds around his head. As Mica watched, he raised his black shrouded head towards her. Snow fell from him like a statue come to life. Mica shuddered as his head lifted to her, and she saw his face.
His eyes were covered by the black scarf tied around his head, yet he watched her.
Slowly, he lowered his staff and pointed it at her. The end pointed at her face had two metal prongs.
Panic surged through her, and she turned to run. She took two steps back and jolted to a halt. She hadn’t noticed the circle of others around her. They all wore black masks like the man, they all held staffs pointed at her, and they all watched her with unseeing eyes.
Mica shrieked and fell backward over her pack, dropping her blindfold. She scrambled backward. Rotting and dead vines scattered the ground like layers of nets, tangling her hands and feet, and dirt and ice bit into her hands like shards of glass.
The blindfolded man stepped closer, casually stepping over the pack like he could see it. She pushed herself to her feet to run, but her boot caught in the twist of a dead and decaying vine, and she fell. When she looked up, a woman, also blindfolded, looked down at her from above. The woman’s staff was inches from Mica’s face, and her dark hair, like dozens of delicate black ropes, swung around her shoulders.
These had to be the Seers Aaron talked about. She knew they were safe, that they kept their city safe, and that they would keep her safe, but at that moment, she feared them. Despite her fear, something pushed Mica to her feet, something with bronzed hands. Bravery, that small woman with strong arms and powerful sun-browned hands, pushed her forward.
And Mica decided to stand.
Mica stood, backing away from the woman and her staff, and watched the man with the blindfold. He stepped closer. Up close, Mica could tell that he was younger than the others, maybe even her age. He was smaller than the other dark masked Seers, but his shoulders rippled with muscles just like the rest.
The young man, his head tilting like a dog listening for something only it could hear, faced her, his face so close to hers, she could see the curve of his eyes beneath his dark mask. Mica swallowed back a sick, frightened feeling and stared back at him, her legs weak but holding, her hands in fists at her sides, her head pounding.
As she stared down the strange shrouded man, she grit her teeth and thought of her family. Whatever these masked Seers wanted from her, she would make it off this mountain somehow. She would stand for her family. She would fight for them.
Something flicked in her mind, like a spark. For a moment, the snow seemed to hang in the air.
The young man turned his head like he heard something strange.
“Enough,”‘ he said. He lowered his staff, twirled it gracefully, and set it firmly in the ground as if sheathing a weapon.
And the snow fell again.
The other blindfolded figure echoed him, “enough,” they said and stepped back. They, too, lowered their staffs and planted them in the snow.
Mica’s legs crumpled under her, and she fell to the ground. Her nose was bleeding. Before she could catch her breath and jump to her feet, men appeared from behind trees and rocks around her and rushed at her. Men with guns. She shrieked in surprise.
These men rushing at her were not blindfolded like the others, and they looked directly at her with dark and focused eyes. They sent the falling snow flurrying around them, and they carried small dark weapons raised at Mica.
“Get down! Get down and stay down,” the closest soldier said.
Mica didn’t have much of a choice, and stayed collapsed to the ground, the gritty rocks beneath her palms ground into her hands. Her heart raced and raced and raced, and Mica felt sure that her heart would explode. She was supposed to be safe on this mountain—Peter and Cassandra had said so. Aaron had said so.
She certainly did not feel safe.
The soldier reached her, pulled her arms up over her head, and slipped cold plastic cuffs over her wrists. Mica winced as he pulled the thin bands tight. A wave of anger washed over Mica—she was supposed to be safe here. These people were supposed to keep her safe. Suddenly, all her fear blurred into violence and frustration like a sputtering fire. And she snapped.
“Let me go, let go! Who the hell are you? Get off me!” Mica yelled. She thrashed on the ground. “Let go! Aaron, help! Help!”
But no one came. No one shushed her. No one told her to be quiet and stop making a scene. No one tried to calm her. The strange men just picked her up by the arms and set her on her feet. As the young blindfolded man watched her, his head tilted in thought.
Figures in gray approached the blindfolded Seers and touched their arms. The blindfolded immediately took hold of the gray figures’ arms and allowed themselves to be led away. Except the young man. He kept his head tilted towards her. Mica filled her lungs with cold mountain air and then shrieked at him as loudly as she could. He winced and took hold of the gray figure waiting for him.
Out of the corner of her eye, Mica saw a spark of green. The dead vine she had tripped over had sprouted a single green leaf.
Then, someone put a blindfold over Mica’s head and tied it tight.