Reef pushed his braids back, looked at him with an expression he couldn’t decipher. Perry could’ve searched for his temper, but chose not to. He climbed down the craggy slope, over rocks and hard sand and tussocks of grass. He’d done this a hundred times with Roar and Liv and Brooke. This climb had meant freedom then. An escape from the never-ending chores at the compound, and the closeness of tribe life. Now, instead of feeling eagerness to reach a hideaway, he felt like he was heading into a trap.
Skitty with nerves, he realized he was moving too quickly, and had to force himself to slow down and wait for Cinder and Reef, who were upsetting small avalanches behind him.
When they reached the sand, he was out of breath, but not from the climb. The steep walls of the bluff curved around him in the shape of a horseshoe, and he could already feel the weight of the rock inside the cave pressing down on him. The surf crashed against the shore. It felt like it pounded inside his chest. He couldn’t believe what he was doing. What he was about to say—and show them.
“This way. ” He led them to the narrow cleft in the rock face—the entrance to the cave—and slipped inside before he could change his mind. He had to lean at an angle to fit along the narrow crevice until the way opened into the vast main cavity inside. Then he stood and made himself breathe, in and then out, in and then out, as he told himself the walls wouldn’t fold on him. Wouldn’t crush him beneath unknown tons.
It was cold and damp in the dim cavern, but sweat ran down his back and along his ribs, dripping from him. A brackish smell flowed into his nose, and a hollow silence roared in his ears. His chest was tight—as tight as it’d been under the churning water the day of the Aether storm. No matter how many times he’d been there, it was always this way at first.
Finally he found his breath, and looked around.
Daylight streamed in behind him, enough for him to see the vastness of the space—of the wide, open belly of the cave. His gaze moved to a stalagmite in the distance: a formation shaped like a jellyfish, with dripping, melting tendrils. From where he stood, it looked small and only fifty yards off. It was actually many times his height and a hundred yards away. He knew, because he’d shot arrows at it from there. He and Brooke had. A year ago, he’d stood in the same spot with her while Roar whooped loudly, laughing at the way the sound echoed, and Liv wandered off, exploring the deeper reaches of the cave.
Reef and Cinder stood in silence beside him, eyes wide and scanning, glinting in the low light. He wondered if they could see what he saw.
Perry cleared his throat. It was time for him to explain. To justify something he hated and didn’t want to admit.
“We need a place to go if we lose the compound. I won’t wander the borderlands with the tribe, searching for food, for shelter from the Aether. This is big enough to fit us all. . . . There are tunnels that lead to other caverns. And it’s defensible. It won’t burn. We can fish from the cove, and there’s a freshwater source inside. ”
Every word that came out of him felt like an effort. He didn’t want to say any of this. He didn’t want to bring his people underground, to this dark place. To live like the ghostlike creatures from
the deep sea.
Reef looked at him for a long moment. “You think it will come to this. ”
Perry nodded. “You know the borderlands better than I do. You think I want to take River and Willow out there?”
He pictured it. Three hundred people under an open, roiling sky, surrounded by fires and bands of dispersed. He imagined the Croven—cannibals in black capes and crow masks—surrounding them like they were a herd and picking them off one by one. He wouldn’t let it happen.
Cinder shifted his weight, watching them silently.
“We have to be prepared for the worst,” Perry continued, his voice echoing in the cavern. He wondered how it would be with hundreds of voices in there.
Reef shook his head. “I don’t see how you’re going to do this. It’s … a cave. ”
“I’ll find a way. ”
“This isn’t a solution, Perry. ”
“I know. ” It was a last resort. Coming there would be like standing on the prow of a ship as it sank. It wasn’t the answer. The answer would have to come with Roar and Aria. But this would buy time as the waters rose.
“I wore a chain once,” Reef said, after a long moment. “Much like yours. ”
Surprise moved through Perry. Reef had been a Blood Lord? He had never said anything, but Perry should’ve seen it. Reef was so determined to teach him, to keep him from failing.
“It was years ago. A different time than this. But I know something of what you’re facing. I’m behind you, Peregrine. I would be, even without having sworn an oath to you. But the tribe will resist this. ”
Perry knew that too. It was the reason he’d brought Cinder. “Give us a few minutes,” he told Reef.
Reef nodded. “I’ll be right outside. ”
“Did I do something wrong?” Cinder asked when Reef had left them.
“No. You didn’t. ”
Cinder’s scowl faded. “Oh. ”
“I know you don’t want to talk about yourself,” Perry said. “I understand that. Pretty well, actually. And I wouldn’t ask you unless I had to. But I do have to. ” He shifted his weight, wishing he didn’t have to press. “Cinder, I need to know what you can do with the Aether. Can you tell me what to expect? Can you keep it away? I have to know if there’s any alternative—any way at all to avoid this. ”