In a world where each day and night lasts thirty years, Joah, Misla, and Damien have traveled into the Eternal Night to make contact with the humanoid creatures who live there—the Nocturnals, a people they used to fear. Now that they know the Nocturnals’ terrible secret, they must warn their nomadic community of a planned massacre lying ahead.
To get back to sunset in time, Joah and the others travel deep underground to find fuel for Queen Usai’s ancient starship. Deadly traps, a prisoner’s betrayal, and a mysterious Leather Skin lurking underground threaten to tear them apart, but through it all, the three must persevere.
It’s time to return to daylight. It’s time to tell the Sunsetters the truth about the Nocturnals. It’s time to destroy the real darkness once and for all, before the sun leaves them behind forever.
Someone was knocking on Aoif Deckler’s door.
He ignored the noise, staring out his window at the mountainous shadows darkening the valley where he had forced his people to settle. He could smell the salt from here. Just beyond those cliffs, the sun was balancing on the edge of a great sea, a sea he had been yearning to taste again ever since his boots had crunched back on brittle sand fifty-eight years ago.
“General Deckler, sir,” a voice called from behind the door. “Please.”
He tried to ignore the wretched knocking, but his captain’s voice whined through the wood incessantly. After a few more ticks from his wristwatch, Deckler withdrew his feet from his polished desk and slammed them to the frayed, thin carpet.
“Okay, fine, don’t piss off,” he boomed. “Why don’t you come in, then, Lincoln? We can have ourselves a little tea party while we’re at it. Act like princesses.”
The door burst open. Captain Lincoln stood panting in his doorway, the hallway behind him strangely distorted—its walls had been dented during their most recent Move. A silver badge gleamed on his chest, his hair shined with gel, and his hands were naked of calluses.
“It’s a woman from the Dirt Slums, General,” Lincoln breathed. “She’s going mad down in the office. Tearing her hair out, practically. Won’t stop screaming that she wants to see you, and well…” Captain Lincoln massaged his lotioned hands together. “You sent most of our security ahead with the first wave. We don’t have any jailhouses. Or handcuffs.”
No, Deckler had not wanted the officers and retrievers to come running when the Nocturnals—or rather, the Nocturnal slaves—invaded the Dirt Slums. He had sent those individuals ahead to camp out with the scavengers and sailors on the edge of the Green Sea, where they’d be safe.
Captain Lincoln, on the other hand, would probably get snatched up in his haste to help the chosen victims. So would the Dirt Slummer apparently banging around his office downstairs.
“What’s her name?” Deckler asked the captain, his eyes flicking open.
“Lupita Fertheli, General.”
The name stirred something vaguely familiar in Deckler’s chest. Ah, he needed a cigar. His fingers twitched toward his cabinet, where his last roll of tobacco lay tucked away—but no. When they sailed the sea and left this piece of the aro behind, he’d only get one smoke. Better to save it for something more disturbing, more frightening, than a piss-poor bitch of the slums.
Deckler grinned, opened his desk drawer, and popped a candy into his mouth. He rolled the thing from cheek to cheek until he felt his teeth turn blue.
“Send her up, Lincoln. Let’s see what she has to say.”
The captain bowed and scurried away, his footsteps clunking down the portable stairs past the bend in the hallway. Moments later, a door from below banged open. Lupita Fertheli’s shrieks crashed into Deckler’s office moments before the woman herself did.
“I can walk by myself, thank you very much.”
Lupita yanked her elbow from Captain Lincoln’s grasp, took one look at Deckler lounging in his office chair, and slammed the door behind her with a violent kick of her fraying sandal.
“Well, good evening,” Deckler said, half-amused, half-irritated. “Or should I say good night?” He glanced out the window, where the cliffs cast pools of darkness. He imagined he could see the outlines of the ships Captain Lincoln’s men had built on the shoreline.
“It isn’t a good night,” snarled Lupita Fertheli. Her hair stuck wildly in every direction, witch-like. The palms she slapped on Deckler’s desk left grimy handprints on a stack of papers. Hatred and fury bandaged the grief lining her face. “My son is still missing.”
“Is he, now?”
The gears clicked into place. Yes. This was the woman whose son Joah Cadshaw had been trying to find for the law enforcement office. Deckler himself had halted the investigation so he could send Cadshaw to do more important things, like getting the hell out of his way.
Judging by the repugnance pinching Lupita Fertheli’s face, she already knew this.
“Where’s Detective Cadshaw, General?” she asked now. Deckler felt a thrill of relief at the wobble infecting her voice. It wouldn’t take long for the tears to flow, and when they did, she’d no longer seem to tower over him like a wiry-haired fortress.
“Cadshaw?” he asked, blinking up at her politely.
“Yes, Cadshaw. The one looking for my son. The one you sent away. I know he went to you after the Moving bells rang early. I know he left the community with another retriever. But I’m begging you—begging you…” And there it was: a glistening eye. “Tell me where Cadshaw is now,” she said. “Has he found my Damien? Did h-he ever come b-back?”
“Listen, Lupita. It’s Lupita, isn’t it?” Deckler didn’t wait for her to nod; he put a hand on the same wrinkled elbow she had yanked from Captain Lincoln. “I sent Joah out west to see if your son had… strayed. To see if he’d gone after the Nocturnals.”
This was a lie, but when Lupita’s shoulders sagged from their previous rigidity, he didn’t regret it. He massaged her elbow, and she let him, sniffing up tears that wobbled on the edge of her nose. Such an easy lie. The truth hit harder, especially since he’d actually liked Cadshaw.
“But he didn’t come back when I told him to, Lupita. Last I heard, he and Retriever Crane warned the grahsm miners about the early bells and continued west. The oil scavengers said they never saw them. As far as I know, Cadshaw’s still searching for your son.”
Or being hacked to pieces, he didn’t add when Lupita split into sobs. He had his own suspicions about the fate of Joah Cadshaw: the man’s enemy, the one who’d cut off his wife’s head, hadn’t returned from his western duties either. Just poof. Gone. Deckler had chuckled a little to think that the two would meet again when he’d sent Joah that direction, but now that neither had returned, it wasn’t hard to imagine a bloody battle in the woods at sunset.
Ah, well. There were more important things. Like ships. Or the invasion that would tear through the valley within the next arcsec. Or the sobbing wench before him.
“Listen, Lupita, if you have an arcsec to spare, I could have my secretary make you some tea. Our herbalists found a new kind of mint on the way here, I’m sure it would help calm you.”
He didn’t know what made him say it. Why should he care for a grubby life like hers? The sooner she left his office, the sooner he could focus on his impending date with the Nocturnal king. But something in her wild, crazed face mirrored the smut of that horrible season after his mother’s death and before he became general. When he had been poor and hungry and scared too.
Lupita Fertheli wrenched her elbow away from his stroking thumb, her eyebrows hardening. For a mad moment, she looked the same shade of sick Deckler’s own mother had been so long ago. Flames pierced her eyes, and she thrust her chin in the air.
“I won’t stay here if you don’t have answers. I’m missing my son, dammit, and if you don’t know what happened to Detective Cadshaw, I’ll find someone who does.”
She whipped around. Deckler’s eyes followed her trembling figure to the door.
“Suit yourself,” he said somberly, after one of those sandals had kicked it shut again.
He waited for the night to begin with tightly pressed fingertips. Nobody disturbed him again. He opened his drawer, popped more candy in his mouth, rolled it along his gums. The clock ticked. The shadows deepened. Eventually, Deckler hoisted himself up and approached the cabinet. He glanced at the glossy poster hanging above it, that many-eyed figure leering at him behind lamination. The image cheered him up. It was funny, really… he’d spent the last sixty years teaching his students at the Retrieving Institute that the creature painted on the poster was a Nocturnal: as far from the truth as day was to night.
With a whistle, he opened the cabinet door.
When the clock struck three degrees, smoke was already curling toward Deckler’s ceiling. It was not quite nighttime, but the cliffs blocking the sun bathed them in a rich darkness. He strode to his window and thrust it open, inhaling that smell of salt and ocean breeze.
From the crevices in the distant cliffs, disfigured shadows scuttled into the valley. They wended their way between wheeled structures, into the slums that had Moved from there to here.
When the first screams rent the air, Deckler looked back at his pinned poster and winked at it, as if enjoying a silent joke with an old friend.
Joah watched the ground shrink through frosted windows.
As they rose above the netted treetops, the landscape became a mass of intersecting light. Patches of foliage were re-growing where their sun counterparts had died. Blades and leaves and trees glowed with the energy their roots had sucked from the ground. The plants were feeding off the reservoir of sunsap they had collected during the thirty-year day.
That same sunsap now fueled Joah’s flight through the clouds.
As the clouds thickened, mist swathed his view of the aro below. He withdrew from the window and turned to find Prince Kal explaining various parts of the starship to a wide-eyed Damien Fertheli: there was the control system, slathered in buttons and knobs more complex than any vehicle Joah had ever seen; and over there were the storage bins, metal compartments filled with canned sugar water, spare spider silk cloaks, and weapons.
I can take you up to see the generator, if you’d like, Kal told the boy.
Even after spending a whole season with the Nocturnals, Joah still marveled at the words hissing, not from the prince’s lips, but from his mind. Telepathy suited the circumstance, though. It was hard to hear voices over the rattling of the starship as they flew.
Oh, yes, please, Damien said, obviously trying not to appear too eager. His face remained nonchalant, but his thoughts quivered with excitement. I mean, why not?
This way, then.
Prince Kal pulled a lever dangling from the ceiling. A narrow ladder unfolded itself from the upper floor, and Kal mounted it, motioning for Damien to follow.
When he and the boy had disappeared into the crawlspace above, Joah turned to Misla, who was fingering the rough wooden edges of the table quivering in the middle of the room.
“Are you alright?” he asked, touching the other end of the table. His mind mimicked his tongue, so he knew she’d be able to hear him as clearly is if he were whispering into her ear.
She had bathed since they had retrieved the sunsap from underground. Her hair fell in tight waves below her breasts, and she wore a honied blue dress made from one of the queen Nocturnal’s old cloaks. A bruise spiraled around her neck where the creatural roots had strangled her below the aro. Beneath her dress, she wore another scar, the remnants of an abuser now gone.
Joah moved closer. She gave a hesitant smile.
“I feel sick, to be honest.”
“Couldn’t have anything to do with the fact that we’re zooming through the air faster than the sun moves across the sky, could it?” Joah asked.
Her lips twitched.
“Could be. Or maybe it’s because I’m about to confront the general I swore an oath to and tell him his ass is fried if he doesn’t step down. That would make anyone want to puke.”
“Hey, you know that’s not part of the plan.”
No, Deckler would never step down. They all knew that, even Damien. Their plan was no longer to fly to the Sunsetters and dissuade their general from a deed he’d been planning for six decades. They were heading southeast, yes, but toward King Isce’s fortress instead, where they would kill the Nocturnal king before he could give his orders. If they made it in time, that was. And if they could kill him.
“Don’t,” said Misla, clasping her stomach. “I really might puke.”
Again, Joah felt that desire to hold her, or be held by her, or do more than stare at her with a table between them. But he swallowed his thoughts and said, “Why don’t you go to bed, then? If Prince Kal is right about how fast this thing flies, we’ll be there in a dozen arcsecs.”
Swaying a little, she crossed the circular room and approached one of the rounded outlines by the control panel. She pressed her cold palm against it. The wall slid upward obediently, revealing one of the tiny sleeping compartments Prince Kal had shown them earlier.
She paused outside the door, jolting as the starship rocked violently.
Will you come with me, Detective Cadshaw?
Joah’s heart raged inside him, louder and more fearsome than Moving bells could ever be. He clutched the table’s edge, more to steady his mind than his body. Outside, rain began to thrash against the glass, and the mist flared with occasional bursts of light.
I mean, why not? he said in the same offhand tone that Damien had expressed.
She rolled her eyes and ducked her way into the compartment, which housed a pull-down cot beneath some overhanging shelves. She crawled onto the mattress, sinking into its spongy material. Joah followed. He could hear the faint drone of Prince Kal and Damien’s thoughts in the crawlspace above, but when he lowered the compartment door behind him, the buzz of their conversation faded. The only sound in here, it seemed, was Misla breathing.
He sank onto the bed, reaching out to find her in the denseness of this new, rich darkness. His hand found her shoulder; his fingers traced her neck, hovered over the bruise, and worked their way up to her chin, her lips. Hot desire shuddered through him, as if he’d inhaled sunsap.
She grabbed the back of his neck and pulled him onto her, and then their lips brushed against each other, and her thighs were wrapping around his waist, drawing him closer.
I want you, they said together. Their thoughts were merging, twisting and twining like the glowing designs of the aro during the Eternal Night. And they were kissing—he was tasting her, and she smelled like sweetened sunshine. Misla, Misla, Misla. He pulled up her dress, and…
In the darkness, it might have been Blair, the corpse of his dead wife lying in his bed, running fingers through his hair, muttering that she wanted a baby…
And Misla’s thoughts scampered with panic too. In the darkness, it might have been Hickory, the corpse of her ex-lover bowing over her with that greedy stench of rape wafting from his tongue, ready to sink rotting teeth into the burn scar he had inflicted upon her…
They broke apart, gasping for breath.
No! Joah cried.
No, no, no, Misla moaned.
Tears scorched Joah’s cheeks as he rolled away. He had thought he was over his wife, that he’d come to accept her death. And God, he really did love Misla. But his body shook with tremors from that morbid vision, and he knew he had not healed, had not yet reached the light at the end of his vast and monstrous tunnel.
Neither have I, Misla said. She was crying too, her breath hiccupping as their mingled tears dampened the pillows. She still felt haunted by her own personal chasm of darkness too.
“What do we do?” Joah whispered out loud.
They found each other’s hands as the walls gave a nasty jolt.
“We help each other find the light,” Misla said.
He nodded, turned toward her, wrapped his arms around her waist and buried his face in her neck. Yes, they would help each other find the light. He closed his eyes.
They’d walk the tunnel together, even if it felt like that walk would never end.
When they finally shot from the clouds, sunset pierced them through the windows.
Joah, Misla, and Damien squinted, shielding their eyes with their hands. Prince Kal donned his hood and clipped the edges of his cloak together, skulking in the shadows.
I can’t touch the control panel anymore, the Nocturnal said, nodding at the stream of thin, orange light running from the windowpane to the many knobs and buttons. One of you will need to follow my instructions to land. We’re almost there.
“I’ll do it,” Damien said.
Joah and Misla glanced at each other, but the boy had pinched his eyebrows together in obvious determination. With a unified nod, they stationed themselves on either side of him, ready to pounce on the panel if he ever became overwhelmed.
Okay, see that gear shift in the upper left corner? Yes, that’s the one. Put it in low.
Damien did as Prince Kal commanded, his forehead wrinkled with concentration. He pulled levers, pressed knobs, and tapped keys with nimble hands. Soon they were plunging into a maze of cliffs and valleys and winding rivulets.
“Look,” Misla said with a half-laugh, pointing, “I think it’s that river we were going to float. The one that ran by the grahsm cavern. See how it’s heading southeast.”
Sure enough, a widespread snake of water glittered between canyons, and it led to—
“Oh,” Joah breathed.
The horizon expanded as they descended, winking with pink light. And the sun—that brilliant bowl of orange Joah had so missed—teetered on the edge of a sea he had only ever heard stories about. It was, he thought as he stared out the window, like an upside-down sky, filled with rippled green water and sprinkled with stars. The fabled Green Sea.
Hard left, Prince Kal said. We don’t want to land on my father’s front lawn.
Damien drove the starship into a gulch surrounded by walls of rock. With Prince Kal’s thoughts puppeteering his bony arms, the boy landed the contraption beside a twisting stream, where bushes and scrubs throttled its pebbled bank.
Now go, Prince Kal said, sinking into a crouch against the wall. I can’t go too near the castle, or my father might sense me. This stream leads straight to his fortress. And remember… They turned to look at him as they gathered their packs and rods. His eyes were mere violet slits within the darkness of his hood. You may find it difficult to remember both languages without a Nocturnal by your side. Don’t let yourself get disoriented. Find your tongue.
A cold chill spread through Joah’s abdomen at this newest thought. Of course. He had become so accustomed to using telepathy and his tongue, both with ease, that he had forgotten how Damien had described the Nocturnal language away from the Nocturnals: “It’s like somebody’s calling your name through the far end of a tunnel.”
“Hopefully we’ll find King Isce right away, then,” Joah said grimly.
The star’s double doors slid upward, steaming. Joah, Misla, and Damien clambered onto the rocks below, leaving the prince behind. The stream gurgled to their right, but they couldn’t see past the tangled shrubbery congesting its bank.
“We’ll follow the sound,” Misla said, hitching her pack higher up her back. Joah adjusted his too and nodded. Inside their many hand-stitched pockets were packets of seeds, water cans, ropes of fibermud, and cloaks. But they clutched the most important tagalongs in their hands as they started down the narrow channel of pebbles between shrubbery and cliff: rods with darts coated in sunsap that they would shoot at King Isce when they encountered him.
The gulley twisted this way and that, narrowing and widening, sometimes speared with orange light, other times bathed in twilight shadows. As they trudged forward, the greenery thickened, and mud squelched beneath their shoes. They began ducking beneath gnarled branches, pushing through the thorny arms of bushes, clambering over moss-cloaked boulders in their path.
The foliage clotted like a shield. Spikes poked from stems, some the size of Joah’s thumb, others needle-like and hairy, reminding him all too well of the Leather Skin living within the depths of the sunsap. Hickory’s ax would have suited them well now, but they had left it lying in the water in the underground tunnel along with the broken shards of ceramic.
“C’mon, let’s take the stream,” Misla muttered.
They pushed their way to the bank and splashed into piercingly cold, glass-clear water, which rose up to Joah’s knees. After a few arcsecs of following the current, their hands rigid around their rods, Damien whispered, “What’s that smell?”
The stream had spread out like melting butter. The air tasted like salt and moss and something undeniably slimy. But it was fresh too, and Joah inhaled deeply.
“I think it’s the Green Sea. We should be—”
They rounded a corner and stumbled to a stop, squinting at the sudden slap of naked sunset. The gulley had opened to a coastline spreading eternally in either direction. The stream itself joined an immense, lazy body of water up ahead, which met the sea with the tenderness of a long-lost lover’s kiss. Soaring birds dotted the sky above the harbor.
And to their left, a vast, interconnected collection of turrets and towers lined the coast. This was King Isce’s fortress, where the Nocturnal, his subjects, and his slaves Stayed.
“Okay, Kal said the cellar looks like a half-moon,” Misla said, pointing.
One of the towers up ahead, separated from the rest, curved like a stone horseshoe. This was how Prince Kal had told them to enter the fortress. The cellar would lead to the kitchens, which would help them bypass any guards that might be standing by the front doors.
Joah nodded. They stooped low and trudged through the stream until it meandered right. Then they clambered onto the muddy grass and dashed toward that half-moon tower.
Joah’s ears pounded with the impending crash of the sea. He didn’t want to face King Isce. More than that, though, he didn’t want to witness what lay inside that cellar. They had planned to gather any remaining human bones to bring back to the community. Proof of Deckler’s treachery. Of their looming doom. But as they neared the cellar, Joah’s heart sunk with a tingling suspicion that perhaps they were too late. Perhaps the invasion had already begun.
Okay, who wants to do the honors? he asked, his tongue too dry to speak aloud.
They had scurried into the cellar’s shadows. Vines crawled up the stone, smothering the outline of those circular doors lining the curve of walls. One door stood naked, though, the vines around it snapped in pieces, as if someone—or something—had already pushed its brute way inside. Joah’s head buzzed. He tried to expel his thoughts, but they resounded differently inside his ears. Weaker.
I’ll do it, Damien said.
The boy was about to push his cold palm against the door when movement on either side of them made him flinch back. Two shapes emerged from the deepest thickness of vines: shelled bodies, hairy legs, imprints on their faces like many-eyed insects.
The Leather Skins stared at them. They didn’t say anything, but Joah could hear the faint drone of their thoughts anyhow, like frantic voices behind closed doors.
The deed was done. It was too late. They, the Leather Skins, had been forced into the invasion, had hauled masses of bodies to this cellar. Their buggy eyes seemed to be bleeding a sour green pus, as if they had been hurt in the process.
Joah’s head buzzed and buzzed, but he managed to say, Get out of here, all of you. We’re going to get rid of him. Head north. You’ll find some ships. Steal one. Sail your way back to daytime. He swallowed thickly, choking on tears. They could afford for the Leather Skins to steal a ship because the Dirt Slummers had already been taken. We won’t be far behind.
For a moment, he thought they were going to close their pincers around his throat. But with a ticking, clicking sound, they withdrew hesitantly, then scuttled lopsidedly away.
Damien slapped the door in his haste to get inside, where his mother’s body would no doubt be lying among bones. The door obeyed, grinding upward until a mouth-shaped hole opened in the stone before them.
Joah had a split second to process the heated, stifled darkness inside. Bodies stirred within the cellar’s black abyss. There came the sound of grinding bones, clattering rocks, and clinking chains. Damien sucked in a breath, and Misla reached out an uncertain palm…
Then someone screamed.
Before Joah could back away, a hand emerged from the darkness within and jerked him inside. He hollered, twisting blindly. He felt his rod wrenched from his grip. Misla and Damien shouted beside him. The door behind them lowered with a resolute thunk.
“What are you doing? You can’t let them see us,” growled a horribly familiar voice. It was gravelly and gruff, and it belonged to the person now clutching Joah’s shoulder, forcing him deeper into the belly of the cellar. “To the honest depths of hell, I can’t believe it. Detective Cadshaw and Retriever Crane. I thought you two were dead. And this little boy must be—”
“Damien!” a woman shrieked.
The buzzing in Joah’s head swelled. He clamped hands over his ears, and realized, too late, that his pack was gone. He felt, rather than saw, a woman tear from the mass of huddled bodies surrounding them. He heard Damien cry out and cling to his mother, reunited at last.
But his mind couldn’t comprehend what was happening, and Misla’s own confusion met his like a tentacle of thought groping for land, for something to cling to in this darkness.
Why was General Aoif Deckler in the cellar with the very people he had handed over?
Why were the people—the living, breathing people—here at all? Joah had been prepared for the stink of rotting bodies, not for the stench of sweat and piss.
What are you doing, Deckler? he tried to rasp, but he couldn’t find his tongue.
His foot lurched forward, kicking something small and hard on the floor. At the same time, the people around him began murmuring, and Deckler boomed, “I appreciate you trying to save us, retrievers, but we have a plan. You could have been seen, sneaking in like that.”
What are you talking about? Joah tried to ask, but once again, his lips couldn’t move.
Deckler seemed to hear him, though, and it was this, more than anything else, that spread ribbons of fear throughout Joah’s body. He was immobilized, caught between two languages, but Deckler knew how to execute both perfectly. Deckler was still playing his game.
“If they see us trying to escape, we have no chance,” the general said, his voice carrying throughout the cellar. Lupita muffled her sobs against Damien’s hair. “But when they come in here to butcher us, they’ll be caught unawares. They don’t know we’ve escaped our chains, see. They won’t know what’s coming. It’s our only chance at getting the hell out of here.”
So that was it. Joah wobbled on his feet, dizzy from the buzzing in his ears. Aoif Deckler was still playing hero. The disappearance of half his community would have looked suspicious to the rest—had perhaps been too suspicious last time—so he had developed a new plan with King Isce. One that involved his own acting skills. He had been kidnapped with the rest of his people, dragged to this cellar, and locked inside. He had freed his own prisoners from their chains and helped them develop a plan of escape.
But Deckler wasn’t planning on winning. He would survive, along with a few witnesses, who would report back to the rest of the community that their dear, valiant general had done everything he could to rescue them from the nighttime monsters.
Joah wanted to scream. To curse. To charge at his ex-boss.
He couldn’t move. Misla was a statue beside him, and Damien had frozen in his mother’s arms. General Deckler’s voice hissed inside his head, stabbing him with needles of pain.
It’s no good, Joah. Your little plan. Forget it, and you can be one of the few that live.
Joah closed his eyes, though it made no difference in the darkness. He remembered Prince Kal’s words: Don’t let yourself get disoriented. Find your tongue.
Yes, if he were to save these people from pointless butchering—if he were to convince them that Deckler was lying, that their best chance at escape was to lift the door again and stream toward the cliffs—he’d have to find his tongue.
He opened and closed his mouth, ignoring the increased muttering of the crowded bodies. Shapes emerged beneath his closed lids: he was on the High Road, surrounded by swarms of eager onlookers, but he was not leading his wife to the executioner’s block. He was leading himself, his own handcuffs cutting into his wrists, his footsteps slow, clunky, deliberate.
“Warn you,” he choked out now, opening his eyes. “Got to.”
The cellar hushed. Deckler withdrew his hand from Joah’s shoulder.
“What is this?” the general whispered, a cruel coldness hidden beneath his façade of shock and suspicion. “You’d like to warn us? Of what?”
“Warn you,” Joah spluttered again, lurching forward.
“Scary,” Damien piped up from the crook of his mother’s arms.
“D-don’t listen,” Misla said, breathing fast. “Don’t listen. Don’t listen. Don’t listen.”
And now the muttering in the cellar rose to match the pounding buzz in Joah’s ears, and somebody cried out, “They sound Infected!” and Lupita gasped and wailed.
Find your tongue, find your tongue, find your tongue, Joah begged himself, but it was too dark to find his tongue, and the prisoners were reeling, shouting insults, throwing rocks at Joah’s legs. Somewhere in the back, a child wailed, and a mother said shhh, but the insults rose to a roar.
“Grab them,” Deckler commanded. “They are Infected.”
Damien was wrenched from his mother. Joah’s wrists were pinned behind his back. He was forced to his knees between the boy and Misla, where fragments of bones stabbed his ankles, as if shattered pieces of glass coated the cellar floor. Lupita screamed.
“They’ll ruin our plans,” Deckler said, his voice smooth with apathy.
The prisoners responded with screeches of desperation. Joah did not blame them. They had been kidnapped by strange, scuttling creatures and forced into a cellar like pigs to a slaughterhouse. In their eyes, the Infected were threats now more than ever.
“The Nocturnals will be here any minute,” Deckler said. “These three will only help them kill us. We have to get rid of them before that happens.”
“No!” Lupita wailed, plunging forward.
Deckler ignored her, raising something into the air. As Joah’s eyes finally adjusted to this new darkness, he made out the outline of a handheld saw—the same tool Deckler must have used to break the chains—bearing down upon Damien’s neck.
Lupita threw herself over her son. The saw’s serrated edge lodged in her neck.
“NO!” Damien roared. “MOM. NO.”
Before Joah could jolt or even process what had happened, several circles of light shot into the cellar like a dozen violent stars. The outlines of a hundred Nocturnal bodies flowed into the cellar, the glowing designs on their skin glinting off the cleavers in their hands. They were cloak-less, and their figures blended together in a whirl of chaotic light.
The prisoners shrieked, bumping into each other, trying to escape like caged chickens. They had expected their kidnappers, the enslaved Leather Skins, not these new vulture-like creatures whose arms rose and fell like wings. Some tried to stab their butchers with tapered bones, but the maze of light was dizzying, and cleavers cracked into skulls with the increased rapidity of popping corn.
Joah looked up, bleary. He saw General Deckler standing in the middle of the cellar, his hacksaw dripping with Lupita’s blood. He was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a Nocturnal whose designs twisted and flared like a lair of glowing baby serpents.
King Isce grinned as he surveyed the massacre.
Find your tongue, find your tongue, find your tongue, Joah cried within himself. But it was no longer his tongue that he needed. He put his forehead to the cellar floor and let his thoughts explode, so that even some of the Nocturnals paused, their cleavers quivering in midair.
PRINCE KAL, WE NEED YOU.
His silent cry rippled through the stone of the cellar, soared against the current of the stream, weaved between foliage. It re-traveled the length of the gulley, found the starship, and embraced the cloaked figure hunkered within it.
King Isce looked up. His violet eyes narrowed when he met Joah’s gaze. He had heard. He knew his long-lost heir was somewhere nearby, knew that Joah had just contacted him.
The Nocturnal king swept toward him. Joah could hear Misla gasping beside him, and Damien weeping into his mother’s body, which still lay draped over the boy like a shield of flesh. He, Joah, wanted to remember his light when he finally met the dark tendrils of death.
He spread his freed hands to try to touch the woman and boy he’d come to love—
The walls shook, and BOOM. The world blasted apart.
A great star burst through the cellar’s eastern walls, crumbling the stone and roof in a blaze of fire, exposing them to the spears of sunset’s light. Prince Kal drove his ship into the ground, and it exploded on impact, sprays of sunsap flying like shards of sky.
Joah grabbed Misla and Damien, pulled them closer. Around them, King Isce’s butchers clawed at blisters blossoming on their skin. King Isce himself had halted; his skin was blackening, falling to the floor in scabbed flakes as the sunset pierced him.
The king half-turned, seeming to realize, too late, what his son had done.
Kill him, he murmured.
Then his body crumbled. It collapsed into a heap of ash on the floor. And all around him, his soldiers crumbled too, until all that remained were piles of ashes, the mangled bodies of prisoners, and a handful of survivors wailing through the smoke and dust.
General Deckler himself swayed on the spot. Joah groped for his fallen rod, which lay in a heap of cinders, and aimed it at him. He was going to twist and shoot. He was going to kill the general he had obeyed and admired his whole life with a dart smothered in sunsap.
Before he could force his hands to move, Deckler’s hacksaw dropped from his fingers. It landed on a pile of ashes with a soft thud. Blood spiraled around Deckler’s neck. He staggered forward, then collapsed as suddenly and violently as the starship had.
Joah lowered his rod. He saw what stuck from the back of his skull, and understood.
King Isce’s last command had been kill him. One of his butchers had stuck his cleaver into the head of the man who had failed his king. There had never been any true alliance, only a kind of hunger and greed that couldn’t endure even the weakest streams of light.
“Are you okay? Are you hurt?”
Both Misla and Damien were sobbing into his chest. His own body shook as he rocked them. Deckler and Lupita were dead. King Isce had disintegrated. Prink Kal had been blasted apart. They had only managed to save a few dozen prisoners from the carnage. If they didn’t get to the rest of the community soon and start sailing, that precious sun would leave them behind once again.
“It’ll be okay,” Joah said. “We’ll find our way out of here. It’ll be okay.”
And he realized, despite the smoking destruction around him, that he had found his voice.
The water roared around them as the ships plunged eastward.
Joah stood beneath the foremast, watching those little white stars jump along the distant horizon. The sun had become a darkened sliver, preparing to leave them behind forever. But they hadn’t let it completely shrivel into darkness. As they sailed onward, it thickened and rose until the Green Sea became a twinkling pool of orange and pink and purple.
He sensed the collective gasp of those on board, the halting of progress to watch the sun’s ascent. Eventually, a woman joined him, curling her fingers around the railing beside him.
“Quite the sunset, isn’t it?” Misla sighed.
Her hair hung in loose waves over her shoulders. The sunbeams made her skin appear golden, her cheeks like two glowing coins. Joah put his arm around her waist, pulled her closer, and pressed his lips against her temple. A long journey still stretched before them, but he felt peace—maybe even a little excitement—that they would cross this sea together.
“Yes, it’s quite the sunset,” he agreed.
“It’s not a sunset anymore.” Damien had appeared on Misla’s other side, tiptoeing to see over the handrail. He wore a newly stitched green shirt, which had been emblazoned with the face of a reptilian cat: not just an homage to the Calic they had killed in the Eternal Night, but a reminder that darkness teemed with good and bad, hopeful civility and wild desperation. “It’s technically a sunrise,” he said. “That’s what you call it when things get brighter.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be in school?” Joah growled.
There were a few classrooms on the lower deck for the children on board: windowless, of course, so that the students wouldn’t become distracted by the sea.
“I gave Mrs. Zemukil the slip,” Damien said matter-of-factly. He was barefoot, Joah noticed, his toes somehow streaked with dirt. As usual. “I wanted to see it. The dawn.”
“And how’d you manage to give your teacher the slip?” Misla asked, folding her arms.
“Oh, I just passed Timby Jenkins a note. No big deal.” When Misla cocked a threatening eyebrow, he added, “It was a dare, that’s all. I bet him he couldn’t burp a hundred times within the next arcsec. Well, Mrs. Zemukil had to stop writing on the board after his seventh burp. By his twentieth, she was yelling too hard to notice me sneak away.”
Joah tried not to chuckle, but his mouth twitched.
“Watch out, Misla,” he warned as the breeze picked up, smacking his face with salt. “This kid’s going to be general one day. Mark my words.”
They hadn’t elected a new general yet. After Joah and Misla had explained to the remaining prisoners in the cellar about Deckler’s arrangement with King Isce, they had agreed that escaping the fortress and boarding these ships were more pressing matters. But one of the survivors, a certain Captain Lincoln, had assumed temporary command, and he was the one who had convinced the rest of the Sunsetters of the truth, even with the community in disarray: between the attack on the Dirt Slums, the disappearance of their general, and a horde of Leather Skins swarming one of their three ships and taking off with it, they had been in an uproar.
But Captain Lincoln had calmed them. He had told them the truth in a giant assembly by the shoosh of waves, organized the remaining ships’ takeoffs, and arranged for the planting of their Nocturnal seeds onboard. There weren’t any penned animals aboard—no, that would’ve reminded them all too much of their own recent captivity—but a garden arena on the main deck sprouted with various squashes and herbs, reminding Joah of Prince Kal and the other Nocturnals who had chased them around the aro to warn them of the darkness ahead.
“I hope Queen Usai gets our message,” Misla murmured, as if she could read his thoughts. Maybe a small part of her still could, although all three of them had lost their sense of the soundless Nocturnal language, like water leaking through outspread hands.
“She will,” Joah assured her.
While Captain Lincoln had been busy organizing the ships, Joah and Misla had snuck into the main, unguarded fortress, where they’d found a young cloaked Nocturnal hovering near a window. With their last remaining telepathic breath, they had told her to wait for her new Majesty, a queen by the name of Usai, who would soon come along to resume King Isce’s place.
The Nocturnal had taken flight, cloak flapping behind her as she raced down the hall and disappeared around a corner. But Joah had sensed the delight squirming beneath her terror, the understanding that King Isce was gone and the aliens would be leaving soon.
“I just hate to think of Queen Usai finding the remains of that Shooting Star,” Misla said.
They all fell silent, immersing themselves in the crash of water and wind. Behind them, activities were resuming: gardeners returned to the arena, Captain Lincoln continued shouting orders, and helmsmen raced to and fro. The deck creaked with movement and life.
Joah didn’t wrench his eyes from the horizon, though. The three of them deserved to see it expand, he thought, to feel the sunshine warm their faces. Their tragedies had snatched away that warmth for so long, after all. They deserved to feel daylight’s ripe embrace.
So with Misla and Damien beside him, with the Eternal Night behind him, he watched the distant dawn yawn itself to life until the moon rose into its new bright sky.