The Nocturnals III – Mariah Montoya

The Nocturnals III – Mariah Montoya

July 2021

In a world where each day and night lasts thirty years, Joah Cadshaw and Misla Crane have been sent out west to warn the miners of an impending roadblock that may prevent them from following the sun. Among the miners, they find an unexpected mutual enemy: Hickory Glade, Misla’s ex-abuser and the man who murdered Joah’s wife.

As the threat of Hickory’s presence follows them deeper into darkness, they find Damien, a missing boy, on the brink of twilight. Incoherent and crazed, Damien has been infected by the humanoid creatures of darkness—the Nocturnals… and he is desperate to reach them.

Before Joah and Misla can bring him home, Damien escapes, Misla chases after him, and Joah overhears Hickory’s plot to hunt them all. The light of day slips away. The Eternal Night is here.

Part 3

Wisps of cotton still hung from the trees like ghost tears.

It was these, more than the ice moon wrapped in clouds, that lit Misla’s way into the forest, which seemed to swallow the High Road like a dark, greedy mouth might swallow a foreign tongue. The cotton glowed, almost as if the trees had absorbed and hoarded the last sunrays before the Eternal Night covered the world in its inky black cloak.

“Damien,” Misla whispered.

When only rustling and chirping and hooting answered her, she veered off the High Road, into the cotton trees where she wouldn’t feel as exposed. Or as watched.

Just keep the High Road in sight, she told herself. It’s your path home.

She kept her fingers on the bark of trunks as she passed through them, her left hand clutched firmly around a jagged, curved bone. Her heart thumped in her mouth. She had to find the boy. Just had to. For three long years, she had trained to rescue the people the Nocturnals hypnotized and lured into the Eternal Night. She had known she might fail—General Deckler had warned his pupils of this grim possibility—but she had not expected to fail a child.

“Damien… Damien, are you there?”

The branches around her thickened as the cotton trees gave way to pines. Needles scratched her skin and the blossoming underbrush clawed at her ankles. She plunged onward, whispering the boy’s name, not daring to shout in case her cry attracted a night beast.

And then something swooped overhead, sending prickles down her neck. Wings flapped against branches. The yellow pinpricks of eyes glowered at her from a tangled mass of trees, and there came a high-pitched, rasping yowl from somewhere to her left.

“Misla! Misla, where are you? Misla!”

The voice came from behind her. Misla, momentarily frozen in panic, uprooted herself and stumbled away from the howling, toward the High Road and Joah’s calls.

She had not wanted to think of Joah Cadshaw, to even mention his name inside her head after he’d refused to retrieve the boy with her. But now her mind was racing with images of her partner’s bruised and broken face. Her heart crashed against her chest.

He came for me. He didn’t leave me. He’s here. He came back for Damien. He—

The snorts of horses jolted her in her tracks. Horses? The scavengers had said their horses were dead, but there was no denying that steady clop clop clop of hoof against cobble. Misla stared through the cracks in the trees as what seemed like the carcasses of two mares rose from the rubble of the High Road. They burst through the branches, stampeding toward her with flaring nostrils and gleaming white eyes and flattened ears.

“Joah!” Misla cried. The bone slipped with sweat in her hand.

“I’m here, pretty girl.”

There was a blaze of fire, and he appeared, his face shining with glee behind a cylinder of flickering glass. But it wasn’t Joah. It was him, her ex-lover, the one she’d tried so hard to escape: Hickory Glade, straddling a mare, holding a lantern that looked horribly like the same one he had once swung toward her stomach, shattering its glass against her ribcage and watching with beady, unforgiving eyes as the flames devoured her shirt, as the oil melted her skin, as she screamed herself into oblivion. Now, in the lantern’s twitching shadow of light, Hickory’s warped features looked exactly like the night beast Misla had been imagining.

“Hickory,” she choked out. “What—what are you doing here?”

She glanced behind him, at a second horse and the man astride it. He looked vaguely familiar. Misla guessed he had been in the clearing when she and Joah had delivered the news about the early bells. The miner’s forehead shined with lines of grease. He licked his lips at the sight of her, as if in lieu of waving.

“I should ask you the same thing,” Hickory laughed. “I didn’t know Good Old General D sent you to the buttcrack of night. I mean, look at you, Misla, stumbling ‘round in this darkness. That’s one good thing about mining, huh, Sid?” He beamed at his companion. The lantern swung in his hand. “We know our tunnels and caves. We know how to live in the dark.”

Misla swallowed thickly, fingers tight around the slick surface of the bone. Yes, Hickory had known how to live in the dark even before he had become a miner. She remembered the first time he had brought her over: his house had been dim and sweet-smelling, like moss rotting in a cavern. He had made her dinner in the candlelight, and, after a few drinks, told her of his dad’s explorations in the various caves across the aro and his grandfather’s adventures as the leader of their community before his untimely death. He’d even let a few tears slip down the hook of his nose. It had all lulled Misla into Hickory’s personal cavity of darkness.

And now he was here, in front of her, trying to reel her in again five years later.

“I told you to Move, Hickory,” she said, her throat dry, as if she’d swallowed the cotton she’d left behind. “General Deckler told you to Move. You disobeyed.”

She tried glaring him down, but the hypocrisy of her own words made her lips tremble. Chuckling, Hickory slid off his horse with an easy grace. He tossed the lantern to Sid, who caught it by its rusted handle. Then he groped in his saddle pack and withdrew a glinting ax.

“Hickory, what are you—?”

“Where is he, Misla? Where’s your shiny new retriever buddy? Thought I’d say hi, see.”

Hickory stepped toward her, part of his face leaping with the light of flame, the other melting into the darkness. Misla’s back hit the thorny fingers of a pine. She could smell the cloud of alcohol wafting from his open mouth: a bad sign at sunset, an even worse sign at night.

“H-he’s taking a piss. Joah is,” she said. “He’ll be back soon, though, and then…”

She squinted over her shoulder as if she could spot Joah through the trees. Her heartbeat rose in her throat like vomit. The smell of Hickory’s breath engulfed her. Before she could flinch away, he was inches from her face, grinning down at her with that ax in his fist.

The ax that had killed Joah’s wife.

Misla didn’t hesitate. She swung her bone toward the soft hollow of his neck. Hickory jerked away. The bone slashed his shoulder instead, and blood peppered Misla’s lips.

“You bitch.”

Hickory flung his ax to the ground and grabbed Misla’s hands with bone-crushing force. She dropped her weapon with a yelp. Pain exploded up her wrist. She heard cracks as her fingers snapped inside his fists, but Hickory laughed. Sweat oozed from the stubble on his upper lip.

“Why don’t we speed up his return a little, huh?”

Hickory wanted, she realized with a sickening pinch in her stomach, to hear her scream for Joah as he tore her clothes from her body. His upper lip always gleamed with sweat when he wanted to get violent, when he wanted Misla to make noise. But Joah was nowhere nearby, and Misla would not give him the satisfaction of screaming—not anymore.

He flung her to the tangled forest floor. She caught a lopsided view of his companion; the man was still holding his glass container of fire, watching them with a greasy smirk.

“You’re just going to let him, are you?” Misla cried at him. Hickory had found the buttons on her pants and was popping them off their threads.

“Ah, Sid likes stuff like this, don’t you, Sid?” Hickory panted. “In fact, Sid, you can have this treasonous little bitch before I do. C’mon, then, it’s not like she’s new and clean anymore. I pounded that innocence out of her a long time ago.”

This is what real darkness is, Misla thought as Sid blinked stupidly; his lips spread in a smile. He clambered off his mare to swagger toward them with his wobbling fire. Hickory’s fingers were nailing her wrists to the ground. He had pinned her lower body with the crushing force of his thighs. Fight them, hurt them, kill them, Misla begged herself.

But when Sid approached, the two men swapped fire for Misla with ease. A dank, buzzing numbness had sprouted from her broken fingertips to her brain. She could not remember how to thrash or scream or do anything but lie there, letting them.

Sid was ripping her pants. He was touching her. Hickory was laughing in his drunken gurgle. The ax glinted a few steps away. The discarded bone glowed white just beyond it. Above them, the dotted orbs of birdlike eyes watched the proceedings with yellow apathy…

And Joah’s voice was screaming her name in a distant world. Damien’s muddied face swam above her. There were shouts. A ping. The pressure inside her released, but the full weight of Sid’s body slumped against hers with a muffled thump that knocked the air from her lungs.

Misla gulped for breath. A slender steel dart stuck from the side of Sid’s skull. His eyes stared vacantly at her chest. Hot blood pebbled her forehead. Men were shouting, but their mingled voices ceased to matter when Misla craned her neck and saw him standing over her:

Damien. The boy she’d come to find.

And he wasn’t alone. Surrounding him, dressed in what could only be snowflakes or stars, willowy figures held what looked like wands, their dark silhouettes somehow sharp against the nighttime forest, their eyes stamps of furious, glowing violet in the night.

Damien, Misla knew even as that darkness pummeled her to sleep, had found them.

He’d found the Nocturnals.

The mares screeched and fled when Joah burst between their flanks.

His old anger returned with the swiftness of a hot knife when he saw the two men. They were bearing down upon Misla’s limp figure buried halfway in scrub.

Without thinking, he lunged forward and scooped up the ax glinting in the brush. He held it high over his head and stumbled toward Hickory, who was mid-turn, the ghost of a laugh still wrinkling his face in the lantern’s leaping light.

For a trembling moment, their eyes met. Joah imagined doing what he should have done three years ago. Swinging that blade down on his wife’s killer. Ending his rotten life.

But the man thrusting himself into Misla had not turned, had not seen, had not stopped, and Misla was deathly silent, and Joah turned to bring the blade through his neck instead.

Goosebumps. A ping.

The man slumped onto Misla, dead, before he could bring the ax down.

A tornado of crisscrossing light whirled around them. Joah whipped around, disorientated by the sudden flare in glowing lines. He felt the ax wrenched from his grip. Hickory roared. A cold pinch of metal snaked around Joah’s wrists. Icy sharp fingers—like talons—closed around his arms, locking him into place.

“No. No. Misla!” he screamed.

Something—a piece of the swirling puzzle of light—had broken apart from the others and was now hauling Misla upward by her armpits. When she stirred, the whirlwind of activity slowed around them, and Joah could see that figures circled them, illuminated by their own glow.

Everything, even Misla, was smeared from his mind when the eddying stopped and his eyes became accustomed to this terrifying new light.

Each figure’s skin was a rich, blackish-blue that seemed made of the fabric of dusk, but glowing spirals, swoops, and lines etched their bodies like luminous tattoos. The effect was blinding, dizzying. It made them blend together, so that Joah had to squint to make out their individual faces. They had beaked noses, elongated arms that looked vaguely like wings, and tiny purplish feathers sprouting from where eyebrows would be.

No, it couldn’t be.

They looked nothing like the buggy humanoids imprinted on General Deckler’s poster in his office. Joah felt faint with unease; for a moment, he tried to tell himself that these people poised before him could not be the Nocturnals who had infected his wife and so many others in his community, not with the intelligence shining beneath the feathered frames of their faces.

Then one of them stepped forward—male, Joah somehow knew. Like the rest of them, he only had two eyes, and each one was a striking violet. He was clutching Hickory’s lantern with those curved, talon-like fingers, while his free hand rested on the bony little shoulder of—

“Damien,” Joah choked, twitching forward. The icy grip on his arms tightened. The truth lodged itself in Joah’s throat like he’d tried to swallow a broken wristwatch. No other night beast besides a Nocturnal could have lured the Infected boy to their circle.

Damien was still wearing Joah’s t-shirt like a skull-white dress. He wasn’t shaking or rocking anymore. He gazed calmly and curiously into Joah’s face. Then he looked at Misla, who was straightening in her captor’s grip, and Hickory, who was still thrashing and cursing against the Nocturnal who held him.

Finally, Damien Fertheli glanced at the dead man lying curled at their feet, the slender dart jutting from the man’s head like a single antler. He pointed at the corpse.

He’s the only one who never worked for General Deckler.”

If Damien hadn’t opened his mouth, Joah would never have believed that these coherent words had flowed from his lips. Even Hickory fell silent to gape at the Infected boy, who had paused, gazing upward at the Nocturnal still gripping his shoulder.

“Yes, I know,” Damien said eventually. He turned back to Misla and added, as if in explanation, “They don’t tolerate what that man did to you here. Someone will take care of you when we get back to the others. But Prince Kal still wants me to—yes, okay.”

Joah’s mind reeled, trying to absorb the new information. All the other light-tattooed figures seemed to be looking at the lantern-holding Nocturnal as if he were their leader. Prince Kal. Prince. An insane chortle almost escaped his tongue. Oh, how General Deckler would have pissed himself laughing if he’d known the Nocturnals practiced a monarchy.

His strange mania died when Damien stalked toward Misla and peered down at her.

“This one here works for Aoif Deckler now,” the boy told the prince Nocturnal, who cocked his head like a hawk examining a mouse. “She wanted to drag me back when she found me in the fuel tower back at sunset. She wanted to stop me from reaching you.”

Misla whimpered. Damien moved toward Joah.

“This one used to work for him. He was the one who kidnapped so many of the bilinguals. He’d force them back to the community. To their deaths. My friends and I used to watch him lead the bilinguals back in handcuffs before our last Move.”

Joah’s throat had never been so painstakingly dry. Before he could attempt to speak, Damien moved to Hickory, who scowled at him. The boy’s voice took on a frosty, forbidding quality that kissed Joah’s neck with fresh goosebumps.

This one beheaded the bilinguals. My mom didn’t know, but I would sneak into the crowd and watch each time he did it. He would’ve killed me if he still worked for Deckler and I’d been forced back. He’d kill me right now, if he could. He brought his ax.”

A flock of creatures swooped over their heads before Hickory could respond. Branches jostled around them. The pinholes of eyes blinked at them between trees, little half-moons that reminded Joah, inexplicably, of Lupita Fertheli.

“Damien,” he said, ignoring the tightening around his wrists. “Damien, I’ve spoken to your mother. She’s worried sick about you. Think about your mother, kid. She doesn’t know where you’ve gone off to. She doesn’t know that you—that you chose this. To come here.”

He was determined to tread carefully around this newly revived Damien, but the boy only stared at him and said, his face blank, “My mother would’ve been the first to die if I hadn’t come to the Nocturnals. They told me something, you see. Something important.”

“What did they tell you, Damien?”

“Oh, the kid’s ears are filled with Infected shit,” Hickory hissed. “I knew you were a cockhead, Cadshaw. Didn’t realize you were gullible too. These monsters don’t even speak.” He twisted his neck and spat on the Nocturnal locking him in place. The figure didn’t flinch, but the others in the circle shifted. Hickory laughed. “I forgot, though. You don’t give a piss about whether they speak or not. You always loved them Nocturnals, didn’t you, Cadshaw?”

I always loved a good shut-the-fuck-up, Joah thought furiously.

He locked eyes with Damien again.

“Listen, kid, can you communicate with them?” When the boy nodded, Joah said, “Okay. I believe you. Can you tell him—Prince Kal—that we don’t mean any harm? He can keep the ax. We just want to bring you home. We’re not built to live in the night,” he added, glancing at Misla, who was sagging in her captor’s incandescent arms.

“They can’t let you go unless you promise to help,” Damien whispered. The lantern’s firelight was fading, but the prince Nocturnal’s strange tattoos irradiated the boy’s face. “They told me, but I can’t do much about it. They only called my name because they were getting desperate and thought a kid might listen better than a grown-up. They thought I might convince you. You could stop it from happening. You could save my mother. And the rest of them too.”

Joah paused for a heartbeat.

“Yes, okay,” he said before Hickory could intervene. “What is it, then? What do they want to tell us?” In his mind, he heard his wife’s Infected voice squeaking, “Warn you. Got to. Warn, warn, warn,” and his heart clogged with renewed fear.

Damien glanced up at Prince Kal. The Nocturnal didn’t nod, but something unspoken seemed to pass between beast and boy’s locked gaze.

“They’ll tell you if you can prove your innocence,” Damien said. “In a trial.”

“Prove our—?”

“Innocence, yes. Your loyalty.”

“And how the fuck,” Hickory spat without warning, writhing in place again, “do you expect us to prove our goddamn loyalty to animals who can’t talk? They’re even uglier than the pictures back home. Vultures is what they are. Great big buzzards without wings.”

Damien stared at him in silence. Joah decided not to break it. He had lost track of time, of how many cycles it had been since he’d first set out with Misla to warn the miners and scavengers about the early bells; daytime seemed like a distant, decaying memory now.

He was surprised, therefore, when the sky above seemed to shift with moving wisps of clouds and a sliver of the ice moon grinned down upon them. The moon is king of the Eternal Night, Joah thought weakly. He glanced at Misla again, and his stomach twisted.

He needed her to be okay.

“You said she’d be helped, Damien,” Joah said desperately. The prince Nocturnal turned his violet eyes upon him with fierce curiosity. “Get Misla some help, and we’ll do whatever we need to do. Tell us how to prove our loyalty.”

An exhale passed through the ring of Nocturnals. Moonlight glinted off something in their hands, and for the first time in his bewildered state, Joah noticed they were all clutching identical, foot-long rods. Somehow, he knew the rods contained darts like the one that had killed Hickory’s comrade: darts that might imbed themselves in his or Misla’s skulls too.

Damien smiled.

“You’ll have to learn their language first,” he said.

“Learn their—?”

“Language, yes.”

Joah had never believed in the Eternal Night before now. Nighttime lasted thirty years. Same as the day. It had always been so. Yet the darkness spreading through him when he understood what Damien was saying—that seemed eternal, like endless ribbons of curling black.

The Nocturnals wanted to Infect them. And Joah was supposed to let them.

They were forced down the High Road, their footsteps loud as they crunched and crackled over dead pine needles and twigs.

The Nocturnals, on the other hand, trod soundlessly. Their tattoos blazed like some absurd, glowing maze of rivulets. Joah stared at them as they ducked beneath overhanging branches. General Deckler had always described Nocturnal skin as dark and dense, all the better to blend in with the Eternal Night and sneak up on prey. But this conglomeration of patterns would scare prey away. It would also confuse—maybe even blind—nighttime predators.

Were the Nocturnals hunted by something worse than themselves?

He shook away this absurd curiosity and craned his neck for Misla. She was staggering along behind him, unbound but prodded in the spine whenever she faltered. Joah bit his tongue until he tasted the copper of his blood. He’d have to play his part perfectly, refrain from raising his voice at these voiceless creatures if he wanted to save Misla and escape.

Hickory, however, didn’t seem to care about offending the Nocturnals. Up ahead, he was bellowing names at them, spitting at their bony backs, and laughing.

The Nocturnal clasping his elbow didn’t react, but Damien turned widened eyes upon him every so often, and the prince kept shooting glances over his shoulder with narrowed violet slits. Again, something besides terror clogged Joah’s throat—embarrassment. For some unshakeable reason, he didn’t want these night monsters thinking humans were inferior. Yet one of them had already been caught mid-assault, and another was roaring songs like a madman.

Focus on Misla, Joah bade himself. Just get Misla the hell out of here, then re-evaluate your idea of the Nocturnals. You can tell Deckler everything when you find sunlight again.

Ahead, the High Road snaked its way into a cave. Joah blinked, swooning, on the verge of collapse. He was shell-shocked, he knew, maybe even hallucinating. The branches of pines had shot braided arms across the road, clasping hands with their counterparts on the other side. It formed a kind of knitted roof overhead. Like an upside-down nest.

Even Hickory quieted when the party prodded into its depths.

The Nocturnals, it seemed, had used this forest to build their temporary home—not by chopping the trees down, but by lacing them together using a glistening, rope-like material Joah had never seen before. The shining spirals of more Nocturnals lingered beyond the edge of the trees. Glowing dots peppered the ceiling, moving in lazy waves.

“Sunflies,” Damien told him. “They carry little lights in their butts.”

Joah jumped. He hadn’t noticed the boy fall in step beside him. Most of the Nocturnals were drifting off into the forest to join the subtle movement of a hundred other bodies, but Damien and Prince Kal led Joah, Misla, Hickory, and their captors onward. The dwindling party stopped at a hulking contraption blocking the High Road like a giant metal toad. Beyond it, a tangle of material, like the extension of branches, formed a wall. The back of the cave.

“In here,” Damien said.

They turned left before the contraption, into the spaces between trees. The braided ceiling continued overhead, blocking them from the moon’s glaring grin. More violet eyes watched them pass, pausing mid-work. Some were chiseling stones that formed unfinished, indiscernible statues. Others were tending to pens of what looked horribly like hand-sized spiders: Joah watched a Nocturnal gathering strings of silk from a nest of webs before his captor jabbed him onward. Everywhere around them, those strange glistening ropes wrapped around groups of trunks, forming miniature caves or nests or…

Houses, Joah admitted, shivering. The monsters he had always feared didn’t have a dozen eyes. They killed rapists with slender darts and made statues and lived in little woven houses.

Prince Kal led them to a trio of cage-like structures surrounded by even more watching Nocturnals. They were all roughly the same height, Joah noticed, and their heads glimmered in the light of the sunflies, inky from those sprouts of feathers. They didn’t wear clothes, but their tattoos were like clothes, and Joah suddenly felt naked without designs imprinting his own skin.

“You’ll stay here until you can hear them like I can,” Damien said. “They’ll bring you food and water and medicine, but you can’t leave until you prove—”

“Our innocence. Yeah, yeah,” Hickory spat. “Just call me roadkill already.”

They were ushered into the cages. The metal around Joah’s wrists snapped open with a small click. He buckled to his knees. The walls surrounding him were porous. He could see flakes of Misla as she collapsed too, and Hickory as he rammed a shoulder into his closed door.

The next few arcsecs blurred together.

Buckets of water met Joah’s lips. Wooden bowls were shoved into his arms. Hot liquid was squirted up his nostrils. Joah’s body relaxed as the pain floated off his shoulders. His ribs quit aching. His throat quit burning. He nearly inhaled an offering of chewy, rain-sized seeds, not knowing or caring where the Nocturnals had found them.

Eventually, the violet eyes dispersed. Damien and Prince Kal disappeared. Refusing to sleep just yet, Joah watched Misla through the holes in his wall. She had regained a flush of color, and somehow, the Nocturnals had repaired her clothes.

“Misla,” he croaked.

She turned her head, but Hickory snorted before she could speak.

“Okay, Cadshaw, keep trying to woo my girl, why don’t you? I know how this’ll go. You’ve got some magic connection with the Nocturnals. Not that I think these crows are the Nocturnals—they don’t look like the things that killed my grandpa when he was general—but you think they are. I can see it in your eyes. You’ll find a way to woo them too, get on their good side, and then Misla will choose you over me. Yeah, I get it.”

“I am not your girl, Hickory.”

Misla hadn’t uttered a single word since the appearance of the Nocturnals. Since her attacker had slumped dead upon her body. Now her voice dripped with smooth venom.

“Don’t ever call me your girl again.”

“Oh, c’mon, Misla. You know I love you. I’d do anything to—”

“You don’t love me, Hickory. You hurt me.”

A sunfly wandered into Joah’s cage, carrying its own little speck of sunlight. Joah wrenched his eyes away from the mesmerizing light in time to see the pain contorting Misla’s face. Hickory’s next laugh shook with forced humor.

“I’d never hurt you, pretty girl. It’s Cadshaw—it’s him who’ll hurt you.”

“You wouldn’t hurt me?” Misla whispered. “You wouldn’t hurt me? Four years ago, you squeezed my ass in front of your friends and told them you’d like it a bit thicker.”

“Well, you did thicken up, and now you look better than ever, so I was right, wasn’t I?”

“You called me a whore,” Misla said, that deadly voice raising an octave, “even though you were the one sleeping with other women. Pretty girl. Whore. Pretty girl. You used those little nicknames interchangeably.”

“As if you didn’t dream of sleeping with other men. I saw the way you looked at some of them. The way you looked at Cadshaw whenever he led the Infected back.”

Joah wished he could rip Hickory’s tongue from his throat. Stop the beast from mangling Misla more. But Misla was rising, curling her fingers through the holes in her cage.

“You talked me out of becoming a retriever again and again, and when I’d argue with you, you’d yell and grab my arms and shake me until I couldn’t breathe.”

“Retrievers don’t do shit, Misla. They let the Nocturnals kill my grandfather. They’re scams, every one of them. You wouldn’t have taken me seriously without a little yelling or—”

“You killed a woman before General Deckler gave you permission.”

“She was Infected. A lunatic! A danger to the community.”

“You were going to rape me after you watched your friend do it first.”

Hickory’s mouth jutted open, but Joah cut through the inhale.

“Don’t you dare try to make some pathetic, half-assed excuse for this one,” he said, his old anger roiling inside him.

Misla sunk back into a crouch, hugging her knees to her chest. A chorus of buzzing had swelled around them, but her last, lethal whisper cut through this new noise like a blade.

“You have never refrained from hurting me before, Hickory. So why start now?”

The sunflies outside their prisons scattered at her words. Despite that roof plaited somewhere between forest floor and treetops, Joah felt the moon’s descent, a release of pressure in the back of his skull. One cycle down in the Eternal Night. How many more to go?

“You know, Glade, you’re right,” he said. Through the gaps in his wall, he caught a flicker of movement as Hickory’s head snapped up. “I will woo the Nocturnals. Misla and I will escape. And if you don’t rot in this cage, if I ever see your free face again, I’ll bury one of those sleek darts in your head. Just like what happened to your little friend.”

He had hoped this last threat would crumble Hickory’s façade, but his wife’s killer just grinned, and Joah understood with a jolt: night monsters didn’t have any friends to weep over.

Can you hear me, Joah?

Over the last countless cycles, Joah’s eyes had become more and more adjusted to the darkness, until his surroundings looked slathered in gray film rather than an ink-black cloak. By the time the whiskers on his chin had grown into a nest of facial hair, he could make out the other animals haunting this enclosed forest space. There were swooping, flapping creatures Damien called bats. Coons slunk from tree to tree, and owls hooted from the crooks of their branches. Reptiles with smooth, flexible bodies and centipede-like legs scuttled through the grass. Massive spiders caught hordes of sunflies in their sweeping webs.

Damien had been visiting their cages regularly to deliver more of those raindrop-sized seeds, along with heaps of nuts, roots, mushrooms, and cooked nettles. He’d tried teaching them the Nocturnal language by staring silently into their cells for arcsecs at a time.

“The brain’s a mirror,” he would say when Hickory only cussed and Misla and Joah stared blankly back. “Look into my eyes and find your own intentions reflected inside them. Only then will you be able to see beyond the mirror. That’s what Prince Kal says, anyway.”

They’d cough and stare. Damien would cluck his tongue, his bare feet, Joah noticed, digging into the dirt outside their doors, muddied toes burrowing deep.

“C’mon,” the boy said once, “we’re close. It’s easier the closer you are. When you’re far apart, it’s like… it’s like somebody’s calling your name through the far end of a tunnel. Everything’s dark and damp and squirming with bugs, and you’ve got no choice but to follow the echo to get to the light. But now we’re at the end of the tunnel together. Look into my eyes.”

Prince Kal always stood in the background, his willowy figure leaning into the crooks of trees, watching Damien teach. As nighttime deepened, tree trunks were shedding their bark like scabs, revealing fresh naked wood that oozed with interweaving streams of sap. Joah supposed it was a trick of his new night eyes, but those streams seemed to glisten, blending in with the coiling designs on the prince Nocturnal’s inquisitive face.

After countless attempts to let the boy violate his brain, Joah had decided he simply wasn’t capable of infection like his wife had been. He was immune.

Until now.

Can you hear me, Joah?

It was moontime. The forest buzzed and chirped and squawked and growled, as alive for the moon as daytime critters were awake for the sun. Joah had been lying sprawled on the ground. When Misla’s voice whispered in his ear, he jumped, thinking she must have escaped and unlocked his prison door and slunk into his cage. But no. She was lying in her prison cell, her eyes peering through a hole in the twining wall separating them. Her lips weren’t moving.

Joah. Can you hear me?

Those familiar goosebumps crawled up his neck. He wasn’t sure how to respond.

I think I understand, Misla said.

Joah clapped a hand to his ear as if a sunfly had crawled inside, but her whispers were inside him, kneaded into his own thoughts.

The Nocturnals build these—oh, I don’t know, these walls—whatever they’re made of—to protect them from night beasts. But a long time ago, they must have been more exposed. And when you’re exposed in the Eternal Night, making any kind of sound puts you on a pedestal. A dinner plate.

She blinked, and Joah saw the flicker of a memory that wasn’t his: Misla clawing her way through the cotton trees, calling for Damien in terrified whispers.

Telepathy is safer during the Eternal Night, she said. Invisible brain signals. Words without sound. Kind of like how flocks of migrating birds tell each other when to turn. Only more advanced.

He stared into her eyes, let himself melt into their depths.

You’ve infected me, Misla, he thought. God, this can’t be real.

It’s not infection. It’s connection. It’s what we’ve been missing all along. Damien and your wife and all the others—they must’ve gone crazy because they were at the end of the long tunnel. But here, in the Eternal Night, we’re closer to them. It’s easier to hear and listen.

She paused.

I can hear you, Joah.

He had not meant to reveal his thoughts as he lost himself in the glow of her eyes, which had taken on a purple sheen. She was such a pure woman, no matter what had happened to her. She had a sharp mind, a soft heart. He thought back to her furious determination to save Damien in the conical tower, the way their bodies had cushioned the boy between them.

A tear pricked his inner eye.

I can hear you too, Misla.

For a long while, as Hickory snored in the cage beyond, they swapped their suspicions and plans voicelessly. They wouldn’t try to fight. They would win the prince’s approval, agree with whatever prompted the Nocturnals to lure their people into darkness.

And when the Nocturnals soften, Joah said, we steal Damien and run.

Misla nodded. Despite her insistence that it was telepathy, a tunnel-like connection forging their minds together, he kept thinking, Infection isn’t so bad, actually. He thought of Blair, and his chin trembled with a smile: she hadn’t died raging with fever, after all; she had died bilingual. His old anger seemed to sink below an exhausted horizon within him.

You’re ready, then?

This was Damien. As the pressure of the moon descended, he had appeared noiselessly outside their cages. The Nocturnal prince lurked behind him. Joah blinked. The sap trickling down the deadened trees matched the bright purple veins intersecting Damien’s Infected face. Both looked eerily similar to the designs clothing the prince’s body, and Joah thought, My God, is the Eternal Night just a maze of light?

In a way, Damien replied, his eyes twinkling. Come on, you two. As soon as Queen Usai heard the hum of your conversation, she had them set up the trial.

Queen Usai. Another figurehead to contend with. Joah’s mind burned as he focused on withholding his treacherous thoughts about escape. Prince Kal stepped forward and pressed a twisted stick of steel against the outside of their doors, which creaked open without prompting. Hickory stirred inside his cage, but by the time the ex-executioner had roused himself enough to shout insults through the cracks in his wall, Joah and Misla were already treading after Damien and Prince Kal, boundless, weaving between bleeding trees.

“You Infected TRAITORS!” Hickory bellowed behind them.

Joah wondered if newfound veins were protruding from his own face, just as they had on Blair’s and Damien’s. He peeked at Misla, but though her cheeks were bright and flushed, her skin hadn’t yet split like shattered eggshells.

Damien, Joah said, struggling to keep up with the prince’s long strides and the boy’s quick pit-pattering. Despite the medicine, his ribs still vaguely ached. Where are we going?

To the mountaintop. Damien brushed aside a brittle branch, which snapped and tumbled to the forest floor. Misla stumbled over it, and Joah caught her by the elbow.

The forest is dying, Misla said, her thoughts fringed with fear.

Not dying.

This newer, deeper voice spiked Joah’s body with chills. Prince Kal did not turn from leading them through the enclosed forest, which was conspicuously empty of both Nocturnals and other night creatures.

Shedding, the prince said. You see, the trees cannot Move like you or me. They are not nomads. They are not anchored to a segment of daytime like your people. They simply have two skins. One for your sun, and one for my moon.

Joah knew the vegetation couldn’t possibly survive lack of sunlight for much longer, but he didn’t want to cross with this foreboding creature picking his way through the woods ahead of them. He fought the urge to grab Damien’s arm and run right then and there. It would do no good, he knew. His full strength had not yet returned, and they were still trapped inside this strange, nest-like cave.

In a haste to muffle his thoughts, Joah barked in their normal tongue, “Hey kid. Do you think—if Misla and I win this trial—you could have them give us some toilets? We’ve been having to shit in those empty water buckets, and I’m gagging myself to sleep every cycle.”

Damien giggled.

“They thought the stench might motivate you to find your inner tongue more quickly. We don’t have much time, you know. The clock’s ticking.”

Joah glanced at his own broken wristwatch as the forest floor began sloping upward. They panted as they climbed. The ground became jumbled with rock, and the ceiling above their heads began to fray, revealing pores like in their prison walls.

Eventually, when they had scrambled kilometers upward, the trees thinned and a light layer of snow dappled the ground. Roped ends of the Nocturnal-made walls had been staked to the dirt. The opening yawned like the mouth of a cave.

Or the end of a tunnel, Misla told him.

Cold air blasted their faces. At the same time, Joah’s eyes seared with a sudden light. For a moment, he thought the Nocturnals had mounted the moon, but then his mouth fell open.

They were on a flat expanse of snow-laden rock, where a hundred Nocturnals sat in a circle on portable rounded chairs. Their designs glistened, and the snow gleamed, but neither were a match for the sky: despite the ice moon’s absence, thousands—no, millions—of burning dots speckled the air above them, like a horde of sunflies too far to reach.

They are suns, Prince Kal said, finally turning to face them. The rest of the Nocturnals remained breathlessly silent, but they had all twisted their heads to watch Joah and Misla’s entrance: two hundred violet eyes piercing their faces.

Suns? Misla gasped.

Faraway suns, Prince Kal said, giving the faintest nod. We call them stars.

He led them toward the circle of Nocturnals and four vacant chairs half-submerged in mounds of snow. An insistent buzzing rose as they drew nearer. Joah craned his neck for signs of new bugs or animals, but Damien nudged him and whispered, “It’s the hum of conversation. Like the rumble of voices during recess or an execution.”

Prince Kal nodded at the chairs, which were draped with sheeny cloaks that looked as if they were made of spider silk. Damien grabbed his and wrapped it around himself. Joah and Misla donned theirs too, then sank into spongy seats, shivering and looking around.

All eyes flickered toward the Nocturnal sitting at the head of the circle. Strings of teeth-like objects dangled from the sides of her head, where ears would have been if she’d had ears. Her designs, unlike the smoke-like spirals on Prince Kal, resembled a tangled mess of aged flowers—wrinkled circles ringing bigger circles. Wispy feathers stuck from her head like hair.

Queen Usai, Misla told Joah with a brief widening of her eyes.

Welcome to your trial, Joah Cadshaw and Misla Crane, the queen said, her thoughts booming over all the others. The buzzing quieted. I was sad to hear of the other one’s refusal to learn our ways. It was the only way this trial could commence. You see, our tongues are not made for verbal speech. Your people, however, possess the ability to receive our signals. When you are close to us, you can transmit those signals too.

As she spoke, a few Nocturnals stalked away from the ring, crouching low over the mounds of snow surrounding them. They fiddled with something buried in the cold. After a series of pops, flames burst into being, encircling them in a loop of fire and heat. Joah squinted at the bonfire roots. He couldn’t see wood or coal. It was as if the flames were feeding on snow.

Our light scares most monsters away, Queen Usai said as the fire-starters swept back to their seats. But we still need extra protection from the Old Aro Calic. Our hunter. And in addition to the fire, you mustn’t speak out loud. The Calic has excellent hearing.

Joah felt that tingle of curiosity again, a zip of fear mingled with it. He was sitting among his own enemies, yet it seemed as though an even greater danger prowled the night.

Indeed, Queen Usai mused. Now, I am going to ask the two of you some questions. It is much harder to suppress your thoughts in open spaces such as these, so being truthful shouldn’t be too hard of a feat. I have been trying for nearly sixty years, you see, to contact your people, to warn you of the dangers ahead. But I do not know whom to trust.

We are yours to ask, Your Highness, Misla sent, bowing her head. A grumble of voiceless laughter rippled around the ring. Queen Usai pulled back her lipless mouth in a smile.

Very well. We’ll start with you, Misla Crane. Our young friend here tells me that you report to a certain Aoif Deckler. Is this true?

It is, said Misla, glancing at Joah uncertainly. He gave her a nod, his heart pounding.

And why would you want to work for such a man? It seems he orders you to abduct what your people call “the Infected”. He teaches you how to kill us, in the case that we ever—

Joah couldn’t help himself. It was much easier to chew his tongue than to withhold the roar of thoughts in his chest, especially, for some reason, under the vast spread of stars.

It’s not abduction to bring back the abducted. Your Highness, he added. It’s rescue.

Queen Usai’s earrings tinkled in the silence. The fire swaying behind her made Joah’s eyes ache. He looked up at the strew of stars overhead instead.

The people we make contact with have always chosen to come to us, Prince Kal growled when the queen remained silent.

Is that right? Joah asked, a heated panic rising within him. Sweat tickled his forehead. So you think my wife—one night she wants a baby, and the next she’d rather leave me and her own home and the goddamned sun to hang out with a bunch of night monsters?

Misla shot him an alarmed glare. Queen Usai stroked her chin.

If I am not much mistaken, she said, your wife was Blair Cadshaw. Our people do not own two names, but I can see the practicality of joining a second one when you find a mate.

Joah shook in his chair. Misla’s hand slipped into his and squeezed his fingers.

Yes, your wife was Blair, the queen continued. I can taste your grief over her loss, so I will excuse your outburst. Grief can strangle us for so many years. But may I remind you that it was not we who killed her. In fact, we never met her. Right before she reached us, she was snatched away. The queen peered into Joah’s eyes, the violet of her own reeling his gaze away from the stars. Your wife chose to come to us, just as Damien here chose to come to us. We have made contact with others in your community, you see, who refused to come, who shook it off as a bad dream. More refused than accepted. We always respected their decision to stay.

Joah shook his head. If this was true, Blair would have chosen to stay too.

Blair thought she could make Aoif Deckler listen, Prince Kal said. Because she was mated with you. One of the general’s best retrievers. She chose to find us, to get closer so that she could hear the full extent of our message. The closer she got, the more she understood. She knew the gist of it by the time you found her, but the further you hauled her away, the less she could communicate her findings. It’s hard for your kind to access our language from a distance.

Joah could taste the accusation in Prince Kal’s tone. He gripped Misla’s fingers, their palms slipping with sweat. The irony of this situation seared him: he was being accused of kidnapping his own wife. He almost laughed.

You are not being accused of anything just yet, Queen Usai said. The thoughts of the other Nocturnals buzzed around them for a flickering moment. I want to know why both of you chose to work for Aoif Deckler. It is not your actions that matter here. It is your intentions.

To Joah’s left, Damien nodded pointedly at Misla, his warning like a faint breeze. Misla cleared her throat. The Nocturnals around her recoiled from the sound.

I can’t speak for my partner here, she said, but I wanted to talk to the Infected—the bilingual, if you will—to find out what made them leave their homes. I’ve always been horrified that we behead the Infected when we bring them back. I wanted to change things.

The truth of her words shivered around the ring. The fire flared. Joah’s mind bounced back to their conversation right before they had met the scavengers. He hoped the Nocturnals could access this memory to verify Misla’s authenticity. Maybe she could escape with Damien, even if they threw Joah back into the twisted prison cells next to Hickory.

And what of you, Joah Cadshaw? Queen Usai asked after a crackling moment of silence. Why did you become a retriever?

Joah glanced at Misla, who nodded encouragingly. He swallowed.

Well, my granddad was a retriever. Even as he thought it, he knew this was not enough. He closed his eyes, allowed himself to sink into a cavernous honesty that he had never voiced aloud. It’s easy to believe in a day and night, okay? A darkness and a light. After I was fired—after my wife was killed—they put me in a community position. I had to catch the beasts living among us. It was much harder, because they all wore the same faces. But when you’re a retriever, it feels good to pinpoint the monsters so easily. I was saving people from darkness.

He paused.

I didn’t know the Eternal Night could contain so much light. I didn’t know you glowed.

The firelight was dropping, but those far-off suns winked above them.

I see, Queen Usai said eventually. Ignorance, then. Not malevolence. What do you think, Damien?

Damien twisted in his seat to tilt his head at Joah and Misla.

“Will you save my mom if they tell you?” His voice trembled.

“Of course, kid,” Joah said automatically. “Of course we’ll save your mom.”

Damien turned back to the queen and nodded. Queen Usai made a peculiar twirling motion with her fingers, and a deep buzzing drowned out the sounds of popping fire. It became a roar of sound, like blood was thundering through Joah’s ears.

Queen Usai dropped her hands. The roar smothered itself into silence.

Very well. I will tell you. I can see now that you didn’t know… couldn’t possibly have foreseen. Of course you’d think of us as monsters. But you have to abandon that notion now. You must promise to save your people from the darkness, not behind them, but ahead of them.

Yes, Joah and Misla said together, still holding slippery hands.

Good, Queen Usai said. Here it is, then, what I have been trying to tell your people for nearly sixty years: there is no fissure ahead of you. The High Road remains unbroken.

No, Joah said. Warning bells clanged in his memory. He saw Aoif’s boxy figure bending over the map, his finger touching that vicious red slash. General Deckler said the scouts—

Did you talk to the scouts yourselves? Prince Kal asked. Did you see the fissure with your own eyes? Or did your people jolt into emergency status at the word of one man?

Joah flinched, but the Nocturnal queen plunged on before he could answer.

I knew Aoif Deckler sixty years ago, when he was a gangly teenager. I know him better than you do. She paused, her earrings rattling ominously. I know the man still. So trust me when I tell you: the imposter has been planning this since he helped murder your previous general. He is not leading your community to safety. He is leading you straight into a trap.

And Joah could sense the queen’s genuine terror, and he felt Damien tremble beside him, and Misla’s fingernails pierced the back of his hands as the dying fire spit feeble sparks into that everlasting night air, and he knew the Nocturnals were right.

Warn you. Got to, Blair’s ghost sang in his head.

General Deckler was sending the Sunsetters to their graves.

Your thoughts?

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