In a world where each day and night lasts thirty years, Joah Cadshaw is searching for a missing boy. Before he can find him, bells start ringing throughout the streets; it’s time for his community to migrate east, toward the fading daylight, before the decades-long darkness and its night monsters overtake them all. Joah and his new partner, Misla Crane, embark on a quest out west to warn the people who don’t know it’s time to Move.
On their journey, Joah finds evidence that the missing boy may have been abducted by the Nocturnals—the feared humanoid creatures of the Eternal Night. Joah vows to bring him home.
“Hey, Hicks, get up. Retrievers are here.”
Hickory Glade groaned in his bundle of blankets, thumbing his pounding temples. His tent-mate had poked his head through the open flap to wake him, but the ice moon was still hovering above the northern skyline, sending a stripe of brilliant white through the canvas.
“Retrievers?” Hickory said, sitting up. “What the hell d’you mean, retrievers?”
Scowling, he checked the timepiece strapped to his wrist. Unlike the rest of the Sunsetters, who started Moving when the sun hung ten degrees above the horizon, the miners didn’t have to pack up until five: at five degrees, the sun dangled low in the sky and nighttime prowled just around the corner.
But the hand of Hickory’s watch still hovered over the spindly number seven. Not quite late enough to start chasing daylight like they had to do every two damn years. Strange. Retrievers usually only showed up when someone—some hunter or scavenger or miner—had gotten lost out in the woods and needed their asses saved from the Eternal Night.
“Yeah, retrievers,” Sid said, pushing aside the flap so that smoke and murmurs filled the tent. “Apparently they’ve got something to tell us. General D’s orders. C’mon.”
Hickory groaned, stretched, and cracked his neck with a swift jerk of his head. Something felt off, as if warning bells were clanging in the back of his mind. Loud voices and crude jokes usually speared the morning air, but now he only heard gruff whispers and rumbles, quiet, anxious words masked by the roar of the distant river that ran along the edge of their campground.
“Alright, alright, I’m getting up. Wait for me, asshole.”
He shook away his blankets and pushed through the dew-slick flap, following Sid to the wooded area outside their caverns. Here, a crowd of soot-faced miners elbowed each other and craned their necks to look at whoever stood in the center of the clearing.
Hickory wasted no time, shoving past his comrades until he had squeezed his way to the front of the pack. He jerked to a gut-wrenching stop when he saw who the two retrievers were.
No, it couldn’t be.
Joah Cadshaw. Joah Cadshaw was poised in front of the conglomeration of tents and ashy, smoking firepit, his hands clasped neatly behind his back. Hickory rubbed his eyes, but when he opened them again, the horrible apparition was still there. Cadshaw was dressed in a tight, plain white shirt, very different from the crisp retriever uniform he’d used to wear. His hair was ruffled, his chin stubbled, his frame skinnier than the last time Hickory had seen him.
And he, Joah Fucking Cadshaw, was standing elbow to elbow with—
“Misla,” Hickory spat, cutting through the low grumble of conversation.
When he said her name, the branches around them seemed to still, and the beetles scuttling up their trunks seemed to slow. The distant river, however, thundered with the spite thudding through Hickory’s veins. Angry, white foam filled his chest.
“What the hell are you doing here? With him?”
The miners coughed themselves into awkward silence. Joah Cadshaw spotted him with the faintest spike of surprise, eyebrows lifting a fraction and narrowing again.
Misla Crane couldn’t stifle her shock, though. Tilting her head, she said, “Hickory?” in that sickeningly sweet voice she had always used around him, the innocent one. It made him want to throw her onto a bed and pound that silly innocence out of her.
“You two know each other?” Cadshaw asked coldly.
“Yes, you Nocturnal-loving freak, Misla and I know each other.” Hickory lurched forward, but rough hands cupped his shoulders, holding him back. “She was my girl. She was mine, and now you’ve taken her, just like you took everything else from me. Let me go.”
But Sid’s hold only tightened, and Hickory’s worst memory swirled before him:
It was thirteen degrees. He stood in the middle of the High Road before the executioner’s block, his ax glinting in the sun. People lined the road in thick rivers of hot bodies and excited whispers, watching as the retriever in the distance led his prisoner toward them. An Infected’s execution was usually an exciting ordeal, but this time it was even more so: it was the retriever’s own wife who had been infected, the retriever’s own wife Hickory would kill.
He licked his lips, tasting the salt of his own sweet sweat. He’d never liked Joah Cadshaw. Ignorant, cocky prick. If he could pull the man’s guts through his neck and dangle them around his own, he’d wear the necklace every damn arcsec. It served him right, in a way, that the Nocturnals had chosen to infect Blair Cadshaw. They picked one victim a year to lure to their shit-pit of never-ending darkness; Retriever Cadshaw had always tracked these victims down with ease, forcing them back to their deaths before they could sneak back on their own and wreak havoc on the community. Hickory himself had never hid his fascination with his ax, but Cadshaw had always pretended to be repulsed by the whole ordeal. A reluctant hero.
Now Hickory could see, as Cadshaw and his chained wife drew nearer: the famous retriever was actually repulsed. Pain twisted his face. When he finally reached the executioner’s block, he addressed the man sitting behind Hickory’s post, desperation in his voice.
“I beg you to reconsider, General. I think she’s trying to tell us something.”
At his words, the woman opened her mouth and screamed, “WARN. WARN. WARN.” Drool swung from her teeth. She looked as insane as all the other Infected scum Hickory had gotten rid of before, but behind him, General Deckler made a grunt of pity.
“I can postpone the execution if you have sufficient proof that she is not dangerous.”
“What?” Hickory spat, spinning around.
The general had always loved Joah Cadshaw, true, but why was he falling for such a biased pile of shit? Even as Hickory watched, the Infected woman swiped a pale, clammy hand toward the onlookers, that drool soaking through her shirt.
No, she was still dangerous. Cadshaw would put them all at risk because he would never quit loving the monster his wife had become.
“I’ll consider a life extension,” General Deckler began, but Hickory marched forward. Before Cadshaw could blink, before the crowd could gasp, he raised his weapon. The blade sliced cleanly through the Infected woman’s neck. Her head hit the ground with a thud.
A shivering silence.
Then Cadshaw was screaming. He threw himself forward and tried to wrestle the ax from Hickory’s hand. His eyes bulged, and Hickory clung to his ax like a lifeline, and they threw each other to the High Road, rolling in Blair’s blood, the blade narrowly missing Hickory’s left ear…
General Deckler’s men had jumped in to break them apart. Afterward, Hickory had been fired for misconduct, but Cadshaw himself had simply been transferred to another department for his own “mental wellbeing,” or some soft-hearted, bullshit excuse like that. Hickory had watched in a drunken stupor as Misla, once an angelic little creature he’d wooed and won with all the right words, had packed her things and left him. He’d become like a headless pheasant, staggering around, making a wage by pounding grahsm from cave interiors like his father had once done. A regression in familial stance for sure.
“You lost me my job!” he said now, jerking against the arms wrapped around him. It wasn’t fair that he, Hickory, was still out here, while Cadshaw had obviously wormed his way back into a retrieving position. Always General D’s favorite, that was for bloody sure.
“Well, you killed my wife, so consider us even.”
Cadshaw wasn’t trembling, but his face had turned a blotchy, veiny purple that made Hickory feel triumphant. Oh, the mask was there, but it was slipping.
“Well, it looks like you paid me back, didn’t you?” Hickory panted. “Looks like you’ve gone and stolen my woman. Is that why you left then, pretty girl? So you could be with him?”
He bit his lip. Tasted blood. His last encounter with Misla had not been pleasant, he had to admit, but she didn’t look the worse for wear. She was wearing the same fitted white shirt Cadshaw was, but hers hugged her curves, and she had added a frayed scarf that bore a resemblance to the Retrieving Institute colors. She was plumper than he’d last seen her. Her hips were wider, her breasts lower, her cheeks rounder. A good weight gain. It added a flush to her face, a look of strength in her thighs.
But her eyes weren’t flickering downward like they’d used to. They squinted at him with no trace of that soft, liquidy warmth he had come to associate with melting candle wax. These new eyes looked hard and gray and unyielding.
Before Hickory could say anything else, Misla cupped her hands around her mouth to address the crowd, as if his outburst had been nothing more than the irritating chirp of crickets.
“The Moving bells rang early because the High Road was severed.”
At that word, severed, Hickory saw Blair Cadshaw’s head at his shoes. The wisps of her hair brushing his ankles. Her blood soaking into the asphalt of the High Road.
“We have to stray from the road our ancestors have been using for centuries,” Misla continued. “You all need to pack up immediately.” She paused, glanced at Hickory, and cleared her throat, throwing a braid over her shoulder. “It’s been easy to follow the sun our whole lives, because we can travel four times as fast. But this detour will slow us down. The Nocturnals won’t be far behind.”
“Any questions?” Cadshaw asked, his eyes trained on Hickory.
“Well, how come the High Road was severed?” someone called.
“We don’t know,” Misla said. “Possibly a quake. Some kind of natural disaster. Either way, it’s going to take longer than expected to reach the Green Sea. So get Moving.”
With that, Hickory’s woman—yes, she was still Hickory’s woman, he felt that deep within him—whipped around with her new bravado and strode back through the path of trees, that frayed scarf bouncing on her neck, Joah Cadshaw on her heel.
The arms holding him back loosened. Hickory turned to see Sid raise an eyebrow at him as the rest of the miners burst into movement, tearing down tents and lugging supplies to the pack horses in another clearing through the trees.
“Sorry, Hicks, had to do it,” Sid said. “Couldn’t let you kill the nut. Though I guess if you had, there’s no General Deckler around to fire you.”
“Good Old General D’s obsessed with Joah.” Hickory licked the last beads of blood from the cracks in his lips. “I knew it back then—if Joah wanted to delay his wife’s execution, Deckler wouldn’t just grant the wish. He’d blow kisses into Joah’s asshole too, for good measure.” Hickory mimed a kiss without humor. “If I killed him now, the general would track me down and staple my face to his office wall, right next to that shiny Nocturnal poster of his.”
Apparently, Sid decided this was funny, because he belly-chuckled. The tension cracked inside Hickory, who laughed with him, eyes tracking the last patches of Misla’s new, widened ass as she pushed through branches and disappeared in the thickness of the trees.
“So,” Sid continued when they had quit laughing. He spit into the nearest fire. A coal sizzled. “You ready to Move, Hicks? The city’s so slow, we’ll catch up to those slugs in no time. Might as well bring the shiniest grahsm with us. Get some extra silvers for it.”
“Oh, I’m ready to Move,” Hickory said, still gazing at the place where Misla had melted into the woods. He could practically feel her shrill breath in his ears again, but that may have been the sudden breeze whistling between the trees. “I’m not Moving toward the sun, though.”
Sid’s eyebrows reached his shiny, slick hairline. Hickory laughed.
“I can’t let him steal her again. I’m going to get my girl back.” He paused, imagining Aoif Deckler. “I think my face getting stapled to a wall is a risk I’m willing to take.”
Joah and Misla left seven degrees behind them like an old, fallen-off shoe.
When they reached six degrees a dozen arcsecs later, the sun cast dark purple shadows; its rays had shrunk until it resembled a neat orange ball hovering inches from the horizon behind them.
“Oil scavengers should’ve started Moving by now,” Joah told Misla, forcing himself to sound as if he hadn’t just exchanged words with his wife’s killer. “We’ll probably pass them on the High Road. We’ve just got to make it to that tower near the oil reserves, make sure no one got left behind. Then we can head back.”
“Right,” Misla said.
Five degrees. They continued in dense silence. The stretch of forest and caves where the miners had been residing morphed back into tall, naked cliffs, as if they were entering a dead zone between two forests. Beyond the tower, Joah knew, the woods would rejuvenate.
Four degrees. They’d be passing the scavengers any moment, but Joah hardly cared. His whole being quivered with suppressed rage. Oh, why hadn’t he just charged at the man? Why hadn’t he finally killed the monster haunting his dreams? And why hadn’t Misla mentioned it—that she’d dated such a beast? That he was the one who had burned and abused her?
I was there when it happened, you know, she had told him. In the crowd…
Three degrees. Dark shadows leapt across the High Road. Hares, Joah thought numbly.
Then the steed’s magnetic clock read two degrees, the bright blue of the sky glistened with dark streaks of orange, and he couldn’t restrain his words anymore.
“It was him—” he began.
He glanced at her. His breath caught on his tongue. Under different circumstances, the new lighting might have made her beautiful. But dried tears striped her cheeks, and those smile-shaped scratches marked the hollows of her neck, which she had tried to hide by wrapping the tattered remains of her retrieving uniform around her throat like a scarf.
“It was Hickory Glade?” he grunted, before he could swallow himself into more silence. “You dated him? He’s the one who gave you your scar?” And mine, he didn’t add.
“He was charming, at first. He always told me the most fantastic stories. Some were about his father. The miner. He told me all about his dad’s adventures, how his dad had discovered magic metals and secret caves, how he would come home with beautiful stones for their rock collection. Hickory still had those stones. He kept them in empty jars and placed them all around his house, and in the darkness lit by fire, it was all so…so beautiful.”
Joah knew for a fact that Hickory Glade had loathed his status as a simple miner’s son, had only told these stories to glorify the poverty-stricken childhood he had grown up in.
“But most,” Misla continued, and her next words came as no surprise, “were about his grandfather. The general before Deckler. He told me about his grandfather’s rise to leadership. How he developed the warning system. How he died. Hickory talked a lot about how he died.”
Joah knew that Hickory’s grandfather had been killed by Nocturnals about six decades ago. But he couldn’t force himself to conjure any pity. He stared ahead as the High Road made a sharp bend around a crag. With the light dimming, branches and twigs that jutted from the cliffs looked more and more like long, crooked fingers. There were occasional muffled hoots and far-off yowls that sounded like glitches in the normal noise of life.
“Listen, Joah,” Misla said earnestly. “I left Hickory after he murdered your wife.”
Chills wormed up Joah’s spine at that word. Not killed. Not executed. Murdered.
He stared without seeing at the bluffs before them. Everyone else had considered his wife’s death a violation of procedure. Hickory Glade had been fired for misconduct, not murder.
Yet, finally, here was someone who believed otherwise like him.
“I always suspected Hickory enjoyed his little executions,” Misla continued in a deadpan voice. “He always convinced me otherwise. He told me it was for the good of the Sunsetters. He was saving children’s lives. The Nocturnals and everyone they infected were demons that would infest our community if left untreated. It wasn’t until he swung that ax before General Deckler’s say-so that I knew he’d been lying. He liked killing. I could see it on his face when—well…”
“Yeah,” Joah managed to choke out.
The crests of the distant mountains glowed purple, like the treetops had caught a violet fire. Migrating birds freckled the sky. At the thought of birds, Joah became distinctly aware of the cushioning in his back pocket: the remains of young Damien Fertheli’s green cat shirt. Evidence that the Nocturnals had gotten into the head of a child.
Misla had asked about the shirt after they had scrambled into their sleeping bags three cycles ago, but he hadn’t found the right words, had instead mumbled something about making sure she finish cleaning and wrapping her cuts. Now, though, after seeing the way she had addressed the miners so calmly in the face of her fanatic ex, he knew he had to tell her about the Infected boy.
He opened his mouth, but Misla spoke before he could.
“Anyway, I decided to become a retriever after I left Hickory. I’ve always hated how we behead the Infected as soon as we bring them back—”
“Not true,” Joah retorted. The green shirt was pushed momentarily from his mind. “If we can drag them back before they reach… well, what you’d call the Eternal Night, we put them in a white room and wait to see if the madness subsides. Sometimes it does. More often it doesn’t. But the public doesn’t see that. The public only sees the Infected that managed to make physical contact with the Nocturnals, the ones who sneak back after a few years to ravage our community. Retrievers track down those ones before they can surprise-ambush us—”
“I know, Boss,” Misla cut in. “I just graduated from the Retrieving Institute. I got top marks, you know. All that you just said was in our senior exam.”
“Well, what’s your point, Crane?”
“I want,” said Misla, with a breath so deep it seemed to suck the air from Joah’s own lungs, “to see if the Infected can talk to the Nocturnals and find out what they want.”
Joah’s heart thrashed against his ribs. All thoughts of telling Misla about the ripped green shirt in his pocket fluttered away, alongside the migrating birds overhead.
“Crane…” He tried to sound casual. “You don’t think I tried talking to every single Infected person I brought back? You don’t think I delayed missions to interrogate them?”
She looked at him. He kept his eyes pasted on the winding High Road. Fat rodents were pattering across their path now. He swerved to avoid running them over.
“You don’t think I purposely ran out of fuel to give the Infected extra time to heal? You don’t think I spent a whole year with my crazed wife out here in the wilderness trying to find a cure, only to fail, only for General Deckler to send more retrievers to force us back with a death penalty hanging over my head as well as hers?”
“Of course you didn’t know.” Snot clogged Joah’s throat. “Everyone thinks retrievers are cold and cruel. But once the Nocturnals lodge their whispers into your head, they don’t withdraw those whispers—but, of course, you’d already know that. Retrieving Institute, and all, right?”
“Look,” Misla said, crossing her arms, “I know you’re bitter. I know you’re sad. But you don’t need to treat me like—like—scavengers.”
“Like scavengers?” Joah repeated.
“No. Look. Scavengers.”
Misla pointed through their cracked windshield. During their conversation, the High Road had rounded a cliff and continued into a wide expanse of hardened, rocky aro. Now, perched on the opening beyond, the outline of a cylindrical tower bowed over the High Road.
But the High Road wasn’t empty. Each strapped with bouncing silver canteens, sprinting toward them, were the oil scavengers who should have started Moving five degrees before. They were hollering indistinguishably, their voices like blunt knives failing to slice the air.
Cursing, Joah sped toward them until they were close enough to hear each gasping word.
“Hey, hey, hey!”
“Did General Deckler send you?”
“Thank God you’re here.”
Joah punched the brakes as they met the scavengers, who were coughing and panting. Their mops of hair were gray with dust. Their hands were slimy with oil and blood.
“Hold up.” Joah tugged on the parking stick and jumped out onto the dusted High Road to meet them. “It’s almost sunset. Why the hell are you lot still here? I thought you might’ve taken a shortcut and that’s why we didn’t see you on the High Road, but I never thought—”
“Mack got killed,” one scavenger piped up, breathless. “He’s my friend, Mack is. Was, I mean. A night beast came braver than usual. Tiptoed into sunset. It got Mack—”
“And all our damn horses,” another scavenger added.
“Aye, and all our horses,” the first scavenger agreed, “it’s like nothing I’ve never seen in my life. Like a cat, but bigger, and it’s got scales.”
“The night beast is some kind of reptile, you mean?” Misla asked.
All the men’s eyes flashed over to her, as if they had permission now that she had spoken. They scanned her body for much too long, some with smirks.
“I guess,” said the scavenger, his eyes on Misla’s chest, “but a cat-like reptile.”
“And how did this creature kill your friend?”
“It yowled at ‘im. Horrible yowl, could’ve burst your eardrums. And Mack dropped to the ground, screaming and twitching. And then the cat drug him away into the forest by its claws. Same with the horses.”
Joah and Misla exchanged glances. A grim understanding shot between them.
“You’re sure it was a night beast?” Joah asked.
“Aye. Stayed in the shadows the whole time. Not that that’s too hard, with the forest a little way back, and the tower. That tower makes a long shadow.”
The group all turned to gaze at the strange construction, which looked, Joah thought, like a giant canine tooth, fat and round at the bottom, tapered and sharp on top. It was far larger and more permanent than anything the Sunsetters had ever created in living history. It had been quite the object of horror stories and conspiracy theories as they had passed it during the last Move, but General Deckler had been firm about Moving by, not staying to investigate. Only after they had settled had he sent some men back to collect the oil in a nearby reservoir.
“Can we ride back with you?” the first scavenger asked now. His canteen was dripping beads of that oil onto the dirt of the High Road. “We could cram in the back if we threw some stuff out.” He peered through the window. “You don’t need them tents if we head back now, and we’d only need ‘bout half those cans if we ration. Should make it back in three cycles, yeah?”
Joah and Misla passed that knowing look again. Dimly, Joah felt warm surprise that they could already communicate the vague basics without speaking.
“You won’t make it back before three moon cycles,” Misla said firmly. “And Retriever Cadshaw and I aren’t going back just yet, so no, you can’t hitch a ride with us.”
“Come again?” the scavenger asked.
“The Sunsetters already Moved.” Briefly, Joah explained the fissure in the High Road. “Retriever Crane and I are going to investigate the creature that killed your friend. If the night beasts are starting to chance sunlight, General Deckler needs to know about it.”
And we need to search for the boy, he didn’t add.
“We’ll give you some of our food,” Misla said. “If you stick together and keep a steady pace, you should be fine. Just veer right after the grasslands. You might even catch up to the grahsm miners, they just left and there are a lot more of them, so they’ll be slower than—”
Joah saw it coming a second before it happened.
The first scavenger tilted his head, his eyes flickering toward his mates, his pupils gleaming with that dog-like hunger for survival. His lip curled upward. His mates gave wisps of laughter, like schoolgirls giggling behind polite hands when a boy is doomed for detention.
“Crane, DOWN,” Joah bellowed.
Misla didn’t hesitate. She thudded to her knees; the scavenger’s swinging fist missed her head by an inch, but another one, shiny with oil and dirt, met Joah’s ear.
His skull exploded. His lungs seemed to jump out of his throat. Boots connected with his body from every direction. The High Road pounded his spine again and again, like a crazed, violent mother burping her baby. Dust heated his throat.
Far off, Joah thought Misla might be climbing the shafts of orange light in the sky like a stairwell, screaming his name. Strange. He couldn’t remember who Misla was, exactly, but he thought perhaps she was his wife. Perhaps she was beautiful.
Then the scavengers gave his ribs a final kick, and the Eternal Night folded him in its calm, cold embrace.
Sleep cocooned him. No light disturbed his darkness and no sound punctuated his silence. It was as if he lay in a black pond, where the waves lapped over him seamlessly, lulling him into a cavern where light and sound didn’t exist. And there was no light and there was no sound. No light or sound. Light or sound. Light. Sound.
A dull pounding sensation hammered the back of his head. It was not light or sound, but a feeling, like a beam of bright noise thumping itself into his skull.
“Stop it,” Joah muttered, swiping his hand at the beam.
“Joah,” the beam said back.
His eyelids betrayed him, opening him up to a bright, noisy world. A woman was leaning over him, chanting his name over and over, the left side of her face blotched and purple. The ice moon beamed beyond her shoulders.
“Keep waking up, Joah,” the woman said, and her name came to him.
“Misla.” He tried to sit up. The world tilted. The waves came back and spiraled around him. The woman pressed a palm to his chest and forced him to lie back down.
“Hey, hey, not so fast, take it slow, you’ll be alright, just take it slow.”
She said this all very fast, and her urgency cut through Joah’s haze in a way the moon’s ferocity couldn’t. He blinked. He gazed at the bruise masking her left eye and cursed.
“They hit you,” he mumbled. “The scavengers. Scum. Vultures. They hit you.”
“They did a lot worse to you,” Misla said. “I only wish I could’ve broken all their bones before they ran off. But I—there were too many of them. I think I knocked out a tooth, but…”
Her eyes darted left and right. For the first time, Joah became aware of how bright the moon was, stamped against the blackening purple sky. He tilted his head to find the sun, but it had shrunk to half a dome peeking between two cliffs behind them—a bloodred eye peering at them cruelly. Preparing to blink into nothingness.
“They took the steed, didn’t they?” Joah spat, using his elbows to prop himself up.
Every inch of him ached. He did a quick self-evaluation and guessed he was concussed, with bruised ribs and a broken nose. Dried blood caked his upper lip. His jaw throbbed.
“Yes, they took the steed. Didn’t leave us any food, either. They told me to kiss the sun’s fiery red ass goodbye.”
“How thoughtful,” Joah growled.
“I know, right? Now, first things first, we need to get out of the open. If there really are night beasts lurking around, I’d rather not meet them for the first time with a damaged partner.”
She paused, those eyes darting again. The noise of sunset swelled, but Joah couldn’t tell where the creatures were, exactly; it sounded as if all the chirps and coos and cries were simply eddying around his head, ringing in his ears. As if the rocks were shrieking.
“I say we get to that tower,” he grunted, nodding toward them. “I don’t know if you got a good look when we passed by during the last Move. I didn’t see any doors, but looks like it’s made of metal. It’ll retain the sun’s heat long enough for us to form some kind of plan.” He huffed as he tried to stand. “After the sun sets, it can get cold. Fast.”
“Okay, tower it is. But don’t crap yourself trying to get up so fast. Let me help.”
Misla placed her hands in Joah’s armpits and hoisted him up. He bit his lip to keep himself from crying out, then gasped anyway as his teeth pierced an already mangled lip.
“Don’t worry, you can make as much noise as you’d like. I won’t laugh.”
“You’re too kind.”
Misla’s lips twitched as they hobbled toward the outline of the tower before them, Joah’s arm hooked around her neck, the moon glowing brighter above them. Sometimes he glanced sideways and mashed his teeth together at the sight of the bruise that had spread from her eyebrow to cheekbone. When—if—they caught up to the rest of the community, he’d have Deckler throw the scavengers in the smelliest portable prisons, that was for sure.
Greasy, slimy sons of Dirt Slum bitches, he thought. Cowardly piles of shit…
But as the tower rose, grating the gray mob of clouds that had accumulated in the sky, Joah’s internal curses gave way to a dizziness. His fingertips tingled. Even as Aoif Deckler’s best retriever, he had only ever ventured this far into the darkness once before…
He was standing in a meadow. Clouds fragmented the sky, casting a bloody light on the stretch of never-ending grasses and tufts of violet wildflowers. A figure was swaying in the distance, walking away from him, chanting something indiscernible as she staggered westward.
“Almost there,” Misla muttered. “Come on, just a little further.”
Joah stared at the figure, knowing it was her. Her, her, her. The one he’d been chasing for a year now, the one who, the night before she’d run away, had whispered against his neck that she wanted to try for a baby soon.
“Joah, I—I think there is a door. Or some kind of opening. Look.”
He tried to look, but she had wanted to be a mother. Now she would never be a mother. She was a Nocturnal puppet, and Joah was almost too scared to call out her name. But he did call out her name, and despite what they said about the Infected’s inability to understand language after the Nocturnals had twined words around their brains, she turned.
She turned, and Joah saw the face of his wife wearing a mask of purest white. Bright purple veins crisscrossed her cheeks and forehead, like shattered eggshells.
No, it was not his wife’s face, but the ice moon posing as his wife’s face. He felt a newfound tickle, like a stroking finger, caress the back of his neck. A dim part of him realized that the moon was king. Maybe not king of the day, but king of the Eternal Night. And now it had plastered itself over his wife’s eyes, and it was laughing at him.
Her manic smile spread her cheeks as she hobbled toward him, arms outstretched…
“Stay with me, Joah, don’t fall asleep yet.”
Hazily, Joah saw Misla push through a blanket of wool-like cobwebs and help him through a rounded hole in steel, into a cavern of deepest pitch-black. Their shoes crunched over brittle objects scattered on the floor. Misla was saying something else to him, but he couldn’t hear. Tingles scuttled up his spine, as if his wife were in his arms now. She was laughing up at him. Her eyes twitched in their sockets, like a rat was squirming beneath her eyelids, desperate to break free and nibble at Joah’s skin.
Blair, he cried. Blair, Blair, Blair.
But she just laughed and laughed and squeaked, “Warn you. Got to,” and then kept laughing, her tongue shooting in and out, her mouth so widely stretched he could see her uvula and each rotten tooth, and he knew then, although he would try to find her a cure later, that she was gone. Her body was here, but the Nocturnals had snatched her soul right out of his cradling arms. She was gone.
“Gone,” Joah croaked. “Gone. All gone.”
“What are you talking about, Joah? I’m right here. Just lean back. One moment.”
Misla’s warmth disappeared. He was alone, his back pressed against a smooth, cold surface. His head throbbed. When he pressed his hands against the floor to steady himself, something sharp pierced his right palm. He sucked in a breath that made his chest ache.
“Come back, Misla,” he murmured.
She didn’t answer. He blinked, trying to rid himself of the memories infecting him so that he could assess his present situation.
He was slumped against the wall of what felt like a smooth cave. But the mouth, through which streamed a glum pool of bruised purple light, was perfectly square, and there had been no caves surrounding the High Road. He had told Misla to take him to the tower.
Somehow, then, she had lugged him inside the structure. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, Joah saw that there was a hole in the floor, like a giant toilet bowl that might flush away anything wandering in its path. And surrounding the hole in a swirl…
Bones. Tiny skulls. Bird beaks. The skeletons of hares, rats, and other animals Joah knew no name for.
“Misla!” he called, louder, his eyes racing toward that inexplicable entrance.
She appeared at the door, illuminated by a ball of fire. He stared, dazed, as she hurried inside, bringing the fire with her. That flickering kind of light was usually only used for cooking, but Hickory Glade must have taught her how to make torches, because Misla had wrapped the remaining slice of her retriever’s uniform around a dead branch.
“Glad to see you’re awake,” she said, closing the door behind her. The bruised purple light gave way to dancing flames as she skirted carefully around the hole leading underground.
“Yeah, glad to be awake,” Joah mumbled.
They gazed around them, Misla’s firelight illuminating their surroundings. Near the closed door, a stone staircase wrapped around the edge of the tower until it disappeared through the floor above. But Joah could not stop staring at the staircase that began at the edge of the hole in the ground and spiraled downward, into whatever abyss had been created beneath the tower.
“We’ll—we’ll be safe in here, I think.” Misla started toward him, picking her way carefully so as to avoid stepping on skulls. “The night beasts can’t get to us if—”
“But Misla, how did these bones get in here?” It took every ounce of determination to speak coherently. “I doubt all the sunset critters decided to have a death party inside a man-made building.” Joah paused, his head spinning. “I…I just don’t like this, Misla. Where’d that door come from? We—I—nobody saw any openings when we passed by during the Move.”
“Maybe we all missed it.” Misla bent down beside him. One hand still gripping the torch, she dug into her pocket and brought out a familiar green capsule. “Here, take this. It’s the pain medication you wanted me to use after those birds attacked me.”
“You didn’t take—?”
“Oh, don’t give me that look. It ended up working out. You need relief more than I did.”
Joah grumbled, but swallowed the pill dry, realizing as he did so how his throat burned with a parched aridness. The scavengers hadn’t even left them a water canteen, for God’s sake. He opened his mouth to ask if Misla knew of any new curse words he could use, but she rammed a finger to her lips, nodding toward the ceiling.
A strange screeching noise, like grinding metal gears, echoed above them. Then came a thump, and a clang, as if something were banging two kitchen pans against each other.
Slowly, Misla bent and picked up a sharp, curved bone, holding it in a tight fist like a dagger. Her torch’s fire danced and waved eagerly, its flames reaching toward the ceiling. Toward whatever night beast they had trapped themselves in this God-forsaken tower with.
Maybe it was the same reptilian beast that had hoarded all these skeletons, Joah thought with a barely suppressed moan. The same beast that had killed the scavenger Mack.
“Misla, what are you doing?” he hissed suddenly.
She had turned to creep toward the staircase by the door, torch in one hand, bone in the other. When Joah made to stand, she whispered, “I’m going to check it out. You stay there. You won’t be able to help in your condition, so find yourself a sharp one and stay awake.”
But she was already climbing those stairs, which were steeper than the portable ones leading up to Aoif Deckler’s office. They had no side railings, and Misla kept her shoulder pressed against the tower wall as she stole upward, around and around, until she had ascended to the landing above. Her absence brought a horrible, mud-thick darkness.
“Shit. Shit. Shit.” Joah pressed his shoulder blades against the wall to scoot himself up. His body ached, but the sharp, dizzying agony he had expected did not come. The capsules worked fast, then, or else his panic had overpowered the pain.
Please be a hare, or a possum, or any kind of small, harmless creature, Joah pleaded as he limped his way around the hole and toward the staircase, hands outstretched in the darkness. But even as he lugged his foot onto the first stone step, he heard a shrill, keening wail above him.
“I’m coming, Misla, I’m coming!”
Now he was bounding up the steps, ignoring his body’s aching protests. The staircase rose until it met a rounded opening in the ceiling, and then Joah was panting in a perfectly circular room lit with Misla’s torch like the one below. Except there were no skeletons infesting this one’s floor. Instead, spirals of steel hung from the ceiling, and Misla was crouching before—not a night beast—but a boy.
“Damien,” Joah whispered, awe-struck.
The boy was naked, but so muddy it looked as if he had developed a new, thick layer of armor. Even so, Joah recognized his face as the same one plastered on sketches in his office. He also recognized the Infected wildness that had crept into the boy’s eyes, the look of shattered eggshells and popping purple veins and a moon-like glow shrouding his features.
“You know him?” Misla demanded.
She had dropped her weapon, which lay discarded at the boy’s feet. Damien was shuffling and panting. He seemed unsure of where he was. There was no hint of that wry smile that Blair had given, only a delirious confusion, the cries of a small babe calling for his mother.
“I—he’s—his name’s Damien Fertheli. He’s—” Dazed, Joah reached into his pocket and brought out the limp scrap of green shirt he had plucked from the High Road. He held it out to the boy, then shook his head. “What the hell am I doing? Here, Damien.”
He pulled off his own shirt. Tentatively, trying to keep steady, he slipped it over the boy’s head. Damien only jerked away half-heartedly. A good sign. Joah grabbed the boy’s hands—which were cold as the dead of night—and forced them through the sleeves.
The bottom hem unraveled to Damien’s knees, so that, in the firelight, it looked as if the Infected child had donned a translucent, moon-woven dress.
Misla inhaled, but she wasn’t staring at the boy. She switched the torch to her other hand and squinted at Joah’s midriff. Damien let out another wail.
Joah looked down. His body glowed blue and green with bruises. They covered his ribs and chest like ripples in a pool. And suddenly it seemed as if the three of them, standing together, formed an eerie, indoor sunset: Misla, with her dwindling blaze of orange like the dying sun; Damien, in his egg-white dress like the ice moon; and Joah, the bruises painted over his body like the looming darkness that came with the Eternal Night.
Then Misla retracted her firelight. The spell was broken.
“How,” she asked in a wavering voice, “do you know this boy? How is he here?”
Joah’s legs couldn’t hold him anymore; the pain had crept back into his head and lungs and ribs. He lowered himself to the floor as Damien wailed again.
“Do you remember when we first met? How Deckler told me to ‘forget the boy’?”
Misla nodded, frowning.
“Well, this is the boy. This is the boy I was assigned to find.”
In whispers, Joah told her everything, including Lupita Fertheli’s suspicions that the Nocturnals had infected her son. Misla’s frown deepened. When he had finished speaking, Damien began turning in circles, his wails morphing into decipherable mumbles:
“West. West. Not scary. Scary. Going back. West. Need me.”
“Honey,” Misla said, taking Damien’s hand. The boy flinched. “You can’t go west. We’re supposed to be going east, remember? We follow the sun. That’s what we do.”
“Sun,” Damien said. “No. Scary. Going back. West. Need me.”
Misla continued consoling him, but Joah stared. He had never witnessed an Infected person respond to conversation by repeating a word. Sun, Damien had told Misla, even though that had not been part of his original, mumbling vocabulary. Come to think of it, Damien was using a wider range of words than the Infected typically portrayed.
“Listen, Misla,” Joah said urgently, “Damien’s got a chance at returning to his old self. A better chance than most. But we need to figure out a way to get him home, and that’s going to be pretty damn difficult without any kind of steed. We need to think of ways to—”
“The river,” Misla cut in. She had coaxed Damien into a sitting position on the floor, where he rocked, mumbling his words, his hand still grasped tight by Misla’s. “I’ve been thinking about it ever since the scavengers took off. It’s the only way.”
“That river by the grahsm miners?” Joah asked. “But we don’t have time to build boats.”
“What, are you afraid of getting a little wet?” Misla smirked. “We’ll find some dead logs and float, of course. The river wasn’t running parallel to the High Road, it was running—”
“Southeast,” Joah said, excitement mounting within him. “The Sunsetters will still be heading south, so we’d run right into them! Yes. You’re brilliant, Misla. If we start now, we might be able to reach the river before the sun’s gone too far down.” He hoisted himself up.
“Hold up. You need rest.” Misla glared at him. “It’s still moontime. We haven’t slept in ages. And he needs washed.” She nodded at Damien, who moaned.
Joah blinked at her. “How the hell do you expect to wash him without the river?”
Misla nodded at the twisted tubes of steel hanging from the ceiling like oddly misplaced rain gutters. “When I first came up here, I found Damien drinking. From those. Whoever built this place must have designed something on the tower roof to store rainwater for drinking purposes, because I think the water’s clean.”
“Well that would’ve been nice to know.”
Joah hobbled to the nearest gutter, where a square metal container, almost like a mailbox, stuck out from the base of the tube. He lifted the hatch, threw his hands inside, and lapped the frigid water from his cupped palms.
Soon Misla couldn’t seem to resist. She gently disengaged herself from Damien, who continued rocking on the floor, his arms hugging his mud-caked knees to his chest. Seconds later, Joah heard her gulping water from a neighboring gutter. He wiped his mouth on his wrist.
“Okay,” he whispered. “How about this? We sleep for a few arcsecs. As soon as we wake up, we fill ourselves with water and head out. We’ll have to keep a brisk pace, which might be…” He glanced at Damien uncertainly. Usually, the Infected struggled and fought against eastward travel. Sometimes they had to be lugged back in handcuffs or ropes. Damien, however, seemed momentarily uninterested in continuing his westward journey toward the Eternal Night.
Maybe because the darkness is already upon us. Maybe the Nocturnals are already here.
Shaking away this thought, Joah continued in a whisper, “He isn’t showing any signs of trying to escape right now, but we’ll need to watch him closely. And it might be hard to get him to cooperate in riding the river east.”
“We’ll manage,” Misla said promptly. “C’mon, help me wash him.”
Together, they brought Damien handfuls of water one cupped palm at a time, lathering it over his skin. The mud trickled away, revealing scratches and sores underneath. Joah tried not to cringe. The boy would need to be seen by a healer as soon as they reached the community.
When they had washed him as best they could, Joah caught Misla’s eye and gave her a slow nod. She blew out her leftover fire, encasing them in a stony blackness. Joah heard the clunk of the torch as she set it down, and then they moved toward one another, feeling for Damien and each other’s groping fingers. When they had found him, they settled onto the floor and eased the boy into a lying position, Joah pressing against his back and Misla hugging him from the front.
They grasped each other’s hands so that the boy was swaddled in a tight cocoon. Now if he had the Infected urge to escape while they were sleeping, they would know.
“Who do you think built this place?” Misla whispered. She was so close, her breath puffed onto Joah’s lips. Damien mumbled incoherently between them.
“I—I don’t know. Whoever they were, they must have Stayed. You can’t build something this big between Moves.” Joah stared upward unseeingly, trying to imagine living thirty years in the constant light and thirty years in the Eternal Night. Who could endure both?
“Could’ve been the Sunrisers,” Misla breathed. “These walls would protect them from night beasts, and the roof would protect them from the midday sun.”
“Or it could’ve been the Leather Skins,” Joah said, grunting as he moved his legs and renewed pain exploded in his ribs. The green capsule had worn off, then. “I’m sure there’s enough insulation here to shield them from the cold of sunset and night.”
“Or,” whispered Misla, “it could’ve been the Nocturnals. We like to call them monsters, you know, but monsters don’t have to be primitive. They could be really, really clever.”
Of course, the Nocturnals who had been infecting Joah’s people couldn’t have built this particular tower: they’d been chasing the Sunsetters around the aro for the last six decades. But there were rumors of multiple communities of Leather Skins migrating at midday, so why couldn’t there be a different community of Nocturnals who had built the tower instead?
Joah remembered the glossy poster in Deckler’s office that he had tried not to look at: that hand-drawn imagining of a Nocturnal had been hunched, with many yellow eyes and pincers for hands and hunched shoulders, an insect-like beast incapable of creation.
But what if the insectile body straightened? What if the pincers shrunk into fingers and the eyes became two and the Nocturnal on the poster simply looked like his wife had, human, with a little cracked moon plastered over the skin of its face?
Damien was snoring between them now. Joah felt himself drifting. It had been a long time since he’d laid this close to other humans, since he’d felt this kind of warmth. Misla’s hand was soft and small in his. In the darkness, it could have been Blair lying next to him, the child they had never conceived sandwiched between their bodies, safe and happy and alive.
“Dream well, Misla,” Joah murmured before he let himself fall into this fantastic sleep.
“Damien? Where is he? Where is he?”
Misla’s panicked voice snapped Joah from his grogginess. Fingernails pierced his bare chest, as if checking to see whether he was man or child. When Misla shifted away from him, crawling along the floor and screaming Damien’s name, Joah sat up. His skull felt fit to burst.
“He’s gone,” Misla cried. “I don’t know—how did we—? He was here! Right here.”
“Okay. It’s okay. We’ll find him. He—”
But Misla was already moving toward the staircase. Her knees clunked against the floor as she crawled in the darkness. Joah blinked rapidly, as if his brain were trying to process the impenetrable indifference between opened and closed eyes. This. This was like rotten death.
“Hold up,” he muttered, crawling after her.
He tried to clear his spinning head. They had fallen asleep trapping Damien between them. The boy must have disengaged himself and tiptoed away without waking them. But Misla had closed that enigmatic door downstairs, and the Infected were hard-pressed to figure out things like knob-turning or door-opening. Surely, Damien was still inside the tower, wandering like a drunken Dirt Slummer on one of the levels above…
When his hands found the topmost step, however, the darkness seemed to thin. Joah blinked and squinted downward, through the gap in the floor where the staircase curled to the ground. A scabbed strip of light—perhaps not even light, but a lesser darkness—spilled from an opening near the base of the stairs.
“Oh my God,” Misla said beside him. She clapped her hand to the wall and stood on shaking legs. Together they crept downstairs: Damien had managed to open the door, which stood ajar like a missing tooth. Outside, the world had morphed into graying shadow.
“He’s gone,” Joah said, dazed.
He had been imagining Lupita Fertheli’s tear-shined face when she saw her son again. The furious look Aoif Deckler would give when they told him the Nocturnals were infecting children. The revival of the boy when the healers tended to him and he returned to his senses under the sun. Now he and Misla Crane would return to the community childless.
“We need to go,” he muttered. He felt numb, like his fingertips had melted away. “I think it’s past sunset. Negative degrees.” He checked his watch blearily. It was stuck at zero.
“Yes, I agree. C’mon, can you walk?” Misla grabbed Joah’s elbow and began marching him across the floor. He staggered after her, their shoes crunching over fragments of bones. “I’m sure Damien hasn’t gone far. If we hurry, we might catch him before—”
“Hold up. Wait. We’re not going after him. Damien’s gone.”
Misla stopped and stared at Joah. Her hand fell from his elbow.
“We’re not going after him?” she repeated slowly.
“No.” Defeat sunk to the pit of Joah’s stomach. “It’s too late. We need to get to the river. Damien—there’s a chance he’ll find his way back in a year or so. The Infected usually do.”
“The Infected adults usually do,” Misla said, and her eyes seemed to flash with the reflection of last night’s fire. “Damien is a child. Plus, in a year’s time, if all goes to plan, we’ll be sailing the Green Sea. He will die.”
“No. We will die, Misla.” Joah watched the way her jaw jutted out and knew that their survival would depend on her cooperation. He clenched his fists, steeling himself to hold his ground. “Listen to me, Crane. General Deckler told you to obey my every order.”
“General Deckler isn’t here, Detective,” Misla hissed, and the word was a stinging reminder that Joah was no longer a retriever. “If you don’t want to go after him, fine by me. But I wouldn’t be able to live knowing I let a little boy walk into the clutches of—”
“And you’re going to fight off the night beasts?” Joah said, his voice rising. “Or are you going to have a civilized conversation with the Nocturnals? Tell them to leave our children the fuck alone? Say please and thank you when they just hand Damien back to you?”
“It’s none of your business how I’m going to do it.” Misla’s raised voice echoed throughout the rounded tower. She bent and scooped up what looked like a discarded jawbone on the ground, clutching it tight in a determined fist.
“Misla, no.” Joah grabbed her wrist, but she wrenched away.
“Don’t touch me, Detective Cadshaw.”
And with that, Misla Crane paraded outside with her jawbone, into the graying twilight. Joah withdrew Damien’s remaining strip of shirt from his pocket and hobbled after her, goosebumps erupting on his arms as the brittleness of the night air found his skin. If he had to tie Misla’s wrists together and haul her back like he’d hauled so many of the Infected, he would, dammit. He’d do it for her own safety—
But the outside world hit him like an executioner’s blunt ax. Even Misla, already halfway to the High Road, stopped in her tracks.
The ice moon glared with yellowed ferocity from the darkened sky, no longer a simple time-stamp for their sleep cycles, but a bowl of concentrated light partially hidden behind the clouds. Joah and Misla must have slept for more than a few arcsecs, then. They must have slept for an entire cycle, too stuck in the pits of their dreams to notice Damien’s escape…
And the sun. The sun was gone. In the east, a faint ribbon of purple clouded the cliffs, but the light no longer extended to Misla or Joah or the tower. The High Road had been reduced to a black strip. Its surrounding shrubs, ablaze with chirping and buzzing, were mere shadows under the cloud-shielded moon.
“Misla!” Joah cried.
She had resumed her march westward, chin raised, free fist swinging at her side. She didn’t turn at her name. When the old anger flashed beneath Joah’s bruised ribs, he took out the fragment of green shirt from his pocket and let it fall from his fingertips, onto the dirt.
Fine. Fine. If she wanted to leave him, if she was so determined to enter the darkness like Blair had, then all the wrist-tying in the world wouldn’t stop her. She was not Infected. She was free to choose. She was free to ignore his warnings, his experience, his knowledge of the night.
Joah turned on his heel, cursing at the ache in his sides. He wanted to scream, rip out his hair, beg Misla to come back, but her newfound absence was already weaving a different kind of pain throughout his chest.
Trying not to think of her or Damien, he scowled at the potholes riddling the High Road.
Damn road developers, he thought. Lazy, arrogant bastards. Well, it’s their fault trailer wheels and horse hoofs got stuck in these holes during the last Move…
No, it couldn’t be. He had imagined the sound. He’d been thinking about hooves, but the scavengers had claimed all their horses were dead; there couldn’t be one here.
Yet the sound of clip-clopping grew louder. And between cliffs in the distance, two blemishes appeared on the horizon, trotting westward at an easy pace. Male voices resonated across the valley, so brash that the chirping around Joah faltered as it hadn’t for him.
For a moment, Joah wanted to wave his arms in the air, holler for his and Misla’s saviors. Maybe the presence of other people would revive her sense. Maybe Joah could still save her.
But then he turned to squint for Misla, who was only a far-off, swaying smudge, and he remembered the scavengers swinging a fist at her. He felt their boots against his ribs and tasted the copper of blood filling his mouth. No, he should be cautious this time around.
Before the men on horseback could spot him, he dove behind a nearby shrub, swiping away a lazy horde of bugs hovering around it. He lowered himself to his exposed belly and watched between prickly branches as the men drew nearer.
There were two of them, and their booming laughter renewed the goosebumps on Joah’s arms. They didn’t sound frightened in the presence of the infamous Eternal Night. They sounded casual, as if this were merely a school picnic. As if the moon were a silly plate of cheese they might pluck from the clouds. And one of their voices rang horribly familiar in Joah’s ears:
“Gotta tell you, Sid, I never cared much for the heat anyway. Wish Deckler would let us hang out in the sunset zone. So much easier on the eyes, you know.”
“Sure, and then we’d be living up to our name,” snorted the other. “Why call ourselves the Sunsetters when we’re so afraid of the sun actually setting?”
“Well,” said Hickory Glade, “as soon as we find Misla and kill that bastard of a bitch she’s been fucking around with, we’ll go back and persuade everyone that nighttime is better.”
Joah didn’t dare exhale. He wished the insects would come back and swarm him again as Glade and the other miner passed his hiding place, their mares nickering when they were kicked onward. Dust ballooned in their wake.
Joah pressed a palm against his mouth to stop himself from coughing on the dust. The men were still close enough that he could hear their commentary on the tower, but his ears rang with Glade’s previous words: As soon as we find Misla and kill that bastard of a bitch she’s been fucking around with… Glade was going after Misla just as he’d gone after Blair. And maybe Misla could survive the Eternal Night for a few cycles until she realized her search for the boy was futile, but she wouldn’t survive an angry man with an ax if he decided to use it.
An icy resignation sagged Joah’s shoulders: he wouldn’t be returning to the light of day.
He would not let Blair’s murderer take another woman he had grown to care for.
The cough escaped him, but Glade was too far past to hear him now. He and his comrade were already smudges like Misla had been, and Misla herself had dissolved into the distance. Clouds now shrouded the moon completely, and Joah could barely make out the edge of the forest he knew lay on the lip of the west.
Hurry, Misla, hurry, he urged, scrambling upward. Lose yourself in the cotton trees before they can find you. And then, before he could reject the thought—I’m coming for you.
He cast a last look at the purple remnants of sunrays in the east, then turned his back to it and started down the High Road: toward Misla, toward Damien, toward Hickory Glade and the Nocturnals and whatever else lurked out of sight. The air frosted his bare skin.
Far off, in the forest, a night beast yowled.