Last time we saw MICA… (click for recap)
Mica, Hannah, and the Burned Rebekah search the Empty Places for the man healing Burners. They drive until their transport runs out of gas, and then they walk. As they search, Hannah tells her Burned sister about her life, as if telling her about her forgotten life will help. It doesn’t seem to. They are awakened early one morning by a strange sound. Mica and Rebekah go in search of the sound and find a herd of deer. They are surprised by gunshots and try and make their way back to camp, but are attacked. Rebekah’s muscle memory takes over, and she fights their assailant, a one-armed man. Mica makes her way back to camp to find Hannah being held at gunpoint by a stranger…
It seemed they weren’t as alone as they thought, way out here in the Empty Places.
“I said, who the hell are you?” the older not-soldier asked. He poked Hannah’s ribs with his rifle, and Hannah flinched but kept her hands up. The sight of Hannah kneeling on the ground with her hands up sent rage simmering through Mica’s veins. “I asked you a question,” the old not-soldier said.
“None of your business. Who the hell are you?” Mica said, glowering at the not-soldier.
“Mica,” Hannah said, her voice stern but not unkind.
“Think you deserve some answers, do you, little one?” The not-soldier looked to Mica. His eyes were just the same as the young, bruised, one-armed soldier’s—clear. Their clear and searching gaze unnerved her.
“You. What’s your name?” the young soldier asked, staring hard at Mica through his barely opened eyes.
“Like I already said: that’s none of your business. Where is your other arm? What happened to you?” Mica asked despite herself. The boy turned an even deeper shade of red under his bruises and blood.
“What’s your name?” he demanded again, stepping closer.
“She’s no one important, just a girl,” Hannah said quickly.
“She looks like—”
“I know who she looks like,” the older one said. “What’s your name, little one?”
“You will speak to me, not her,” Hannah said, her voice coming fast and strong. “Algol is falling.”
The not-soldiers looked at her. The old one laughed. “And what does that mean, my friend?”
“We’re looking for Perseus.”
Mica flinched. Why would Hannah tell them something so secret? If she was wrong, they’d be taken in, questioned, and they’d beg for death before they were Burned. That is, if these men really were Novan soldiers. But their clear and thoughtful eyes flicked to each other, and Mica’s pulse quickened.
“Looking for who?” the old one asked.
“Perseus, the man healing Burners. Restoring their memories,” Hannah said. She pointed to Rebekah. “She’s been Burned. I ask on her behalf, take us to Perseus so that he may heal her.”
“I haven’t the slightest idea who you’re talking about. And Burners don’t get healed, friend, everyone knows that,” the old no-soldier said.
The one-armed man stared hard at Mica, and she fidgeted under his gaze.
Hannah smiled. “Maybe not, friend. But maybe so.”
“So here you are then, wandering around the Empty Places looking for someone to heal your Burner? Right. And you, you think you can beat up my men and get away with it?” he said and stepped closer to Rebekah but kept his rifle trained on Hannah.
“We are from the Unseen, and we demand to be taken to Perseus,” Hannah said.
Again the two not-soldiers exchanged a flitting glance, but this look was cold.
“You’ve heard of us,” Hannah said, and it wasn’t a question.
“Sure. Everyone’s heard stories. What of it? It’s not real.”
“You’re not really soldiers.”
“Well, not Novan soldiers. At least, not anymore. Perseus saved you, didn’t he? News of a man restoring Burners has reached the Unseen City in the White Mountains already.”
The one-armed man shifted uncomfortably.
The old soldier snorted. “I know of your city. Cowards hiding in the mountain. The people who think they’re too good to help us. Yeah, I heard of them. And why do you think that being from the Unseen would get you anywhere? If you even are from the Unseen, which you’re probably not. Probably Novan spies. Probably we should just kill you now. Better that than getting Burned.”
“We’ve come to make an alliance with Perseus, and I have a message for him.”
The young soldier looked at the older, but the older kept his eyes on Hannah. “Is that so?”
“Yes. Take us to Perseus, and we can help you.”
“And what if we don’t want your help? What if we don’t trust you?”
“Then kill us now and be done with it.”
“Uh, hold on,” Mica said, raising her hands a bit higher. “We’re not all on board with that.”
“Oh, no, little one? You don’t want to die today?”
“Are you tired of venison?” Hannah asked.
“What?” the old soldiers turned his heavy gaze to Hannah.
“Venison. Are you tired of eating venison and whatever you can scrounge from farms barely able to support themselves, let alone a whole camp of hungry people?” Hannah smiled. “You think I didn’t see the deer? He got one. Your other friend. He’s a good shot.”
Mica wondered how she knew that but Hannah was a Seer, and they were still mysterious to her.
“What are you?” the old soldier asked as the wind picked up.
“There are some secrets left under the mountain. Take us to Perseus, and we can offer food. Weapons, soldiers, supplies. Whatever you want, we can get it for you.”
The sun peeped over the plains and lit their little camp. Their shadows stretched long and lean before them like hungry ghosts.
The old soldier lowered his weapon and helped Hannah to her feet. “All right. We’ll take you to Perseus and see what he says. But no peeking.”
“You sure?” the one-armed soldier asked, he trained his weapon between Rebekah and Mica. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Then good thing this isn’t your call now, isn’t it? Put your gun down. You’re making me jumpy.”
The young soldier lowered his weapon but did not drop it.
“I’m Gabe, this is Zeke,” the old not-soldier said, pointing to the one-armed man.
“Hannah, Mica, and Rebekah,” Hannah said.
Gabe walked up to Rebekah and looked her up and down. He was maybe two inches taller than her, but she held his gaze. “You’re a big one, aren’t you?” he asked.
Rebekah only wiped the blood from her knuckles in reply.
The two not-soldiers kept watch as Mica and Rebekah packed up their camp and loaded their packs, and Mica kept watch on the not-soldiers. She didn’t trust them, not yet, but the idea of finally meeting the man who could heal Burners had her pulse racing and her hands shaking. Soon, very soon. She didn’t believe he was Perseus, but she desperately wanted him to be something more than just a man. If he could restore Burners, that was good enough for her.
When their camp was packed away on their backs, Gabe took out three black cloth hoods from his own pack. “Here,” he said, tossing one to Rebekah and Mica. “Put these on.”
Mica grimaced at the cold, black cloth. She’d had enough of secrets and darkness. “Really?”
“Really. We don’t take any chances. You too, I’m afraid,” he said, gently putting a black hood into Hannah’s hand.
“Of course,” she said and slid the hood over her head and her white wrapped eyes.
Mica and Rebekah exchanged ominous looks but did the same.
Then Gabe and Zeke led them across the plains to Perseus.
They walked all morning, or at least it felt like it. Gabe walked ahead, then came Mica with her hand on his shoulder, then Hannah with one hand on Mica’s shoulder, and finally Rebekah. Zeke took up the rear with his rifle pointed at Rebekah’s back. Hannah’s staff was strapped to Zeke’s back. Mica had complained, but they would not allow her to keep her staff. She had gently shushed Mica, saying it was all right, and she’d be fine. So they walked with hands on shoulders. It was slow going with three blindfolded people. No one spoke.
They stopped at midday for a meal, but Gabe and Zeke did not let them take their hoods off, only let them raise the black fabric above their lips to eat. Then they kept walking.
“So, what can you tell us about this Perseus guy?” Mica asked.
Footsteps in the grass.
“Anything?” she said, hopeful but not expecting an answer. “How did you find him?”
“We did not find him. He found us,” Gabe said with finality. Zeke said nothing.
They were silent for a while, walking through tall grass and rolling hills. Mica tried to keep quiet as long as possible, but that didn’t last long.
“How do you mean, he found you? You were Burned?” she asked, and her heart beat faster.
“We were born into darkness,” Gabe said in a low voice.
“You were soldiers,” she said. It was obvious, but she wanted answers. These men had been soldiers. Their former life was written on them in movement and weathered shadow and scar. But they were not soldiers anymore.
“I am a soldier like every other,” Gabe said.
While Mica grew up seeing soldiers, there was still much she didn’t know about them. She knew that many were raised to be soldiers from childhood. After years of physical training, they are Burned. Then, Burned and free from distractions, they begin their real training and service to Loraine. Mica had always wanted to ask a soldier about that Burn. Why would they waste a life, Burn it away for nothing?
“Why do they Burn soldiers?” Mica asked. “What about everything you learned until then? Isn’t it a huge waste?”
“During our formative years,” Gabe said, “we are trained in physical education—muscle memory. As your large friend back there knows, the mind and the body are connected, and some things cannot be lost because they are a part of you.”
Mica thought about how Rebekah had driven the truck and how she had moved when she attacked Zeke—she was a fighter. It was in her body, not just her mind. Mica wondered what sort of things made its way into the flesh and knit itself into someone’s identity. It could be something as simple as driving a truck. Could it also be things like goodness, love… evil?
Gabe went on. “After completing the basic physical education, we are Burned and then taught other more specific skills not tied to our bodies. Protocol. Laws. Tactics. How to follow orders.”
“And now that you’ve been restored, do you remember your family?” Mica asked. “Did he really cure your Burn?”
“I have no family,” Gabe said. “I was raised to be a soldier and taken from my parents in exchange for food and money. As I said, I was raised in darkness.”
Mica considered this. If he had no family, no memories, no past tinged with goodness and light, what was inside this man?
“Then why did you want to be restored?” Mica asked.
“I didn’t. I had no choice in the matter. Perseus came upon us suddenly. We outnumbered him, but he is very powerful. He spared us, restoring our memories from before the Burn. So I follow him.”
But something didn’t quite make sense to Mica. “But why? I mean, what did you lose when you were Burned? It’s not like you had a family or anything,” she said, and then felt ashamed.
Gabe answered gently. “Because Perseus gave me the gift of remembering innocence,” he said, and Mica knew she wouldn’t get any more out of him.
“And you?” Mica said, tilting her head back to Zeke, the one-armed man. “What’s your story?”
He did not answer.
“Zeke’s story is his own,” Gabe said, then they walked in silence once again.
The air grew cold, and Mica’s fingers began to itch. Her boot let in mud and cold water and soaked her sock. They walked on into the night without any more attempts at conversation. Mica only knew it was getting late by the coldness that settled over her.
“Here, stop,” Gabe said.
Mica halted. She smelled smoke on the air. And snow. A light snow brushed at her hands. She could taste food in the wind—venison and something earthy. A sound like snapping, like canvas or flags in the wind. They had reached the camp.
Gabe took their hoods off and stood back. Mica blinked in the early night. Before them stood a camp of tents and fires and people. Zeke handed Hannah her staff and nodded to a tent.
“You can leave your packs in there,” he said to Mica.
Rebekah nodded thanks and stowed their packs inside. Mica wondered how many people lived in this makeshift village and how many of them were restored Burners. All? Surely not all. The rows of tents and campfires, little flames of light haloed by lightly falling snow, stretched to the edge of the darkness beyond.
It wasn’t much to look at, this camp. Cobbled together out of scraps and castoffs, it barely did more than keep the rain off, but she guessed that was enough. The whole thing could be taken down, rolled up, and walked away with in minutes. She guessed that was intentional as well.
“Come,” Gabe said. “Perseus is this way.” He led them deeper into the camp. The fires around the camp popped and crackled as if in welcome, and Mica stoked her hope, eager to meet this strange man who healed Burners. Rebekah kept looking from side to side, her fists tight, her jaw clenched. Mica wanted to tell her to relax, but if she did that, she’d have to do the same herself.
Zeke paused and held out his one hand. “He’s with someone,” he said.
She stopped, peeking out from behind him, and gasped.
By the fire, sitting in front of a row of tents, his face half-hidden in smoky shadow and night was a young man. A short and tufting and wild beard covered his face. A dark cloak with a fur collar framed his wild and bushy jaw and ruffled in the wind. A young woman with a shaved head sat close to him, and he held her face in his hands. His fingers gently caressed her forehead, like a father brushing back a child’s hair. The young woman squeezed her eyes shut, trembled like she was in pain, and cried out.
“Restoration isn’t painless,” Gabe said.
But the young woman opened her eyes and stared ahead despite her trembling, and her eyes glowed a deep, deep blue. Fear smiled at Mica.
Glowing eyes meant Watchers and danger. Glowing eyes meant death would soon be visiting. But the young woman’s eyes did not glow the gold of Windrose spies. Her eyes glowed blue like water, blue like the sky, blue like the deep blue of the bluestar flowers in summer.
A thrill of hope surged through Mica as she watched. Maybe this man really was what he said. Maybe he could save them. After a moment, the man leaned back and sighed, releasing the young woman who sat back and gasped.
After a moment of crackling fire and glimmering stars, the man spoke. “I’m Ben,” he said to the young woman. “What’s your name?”