Above, the Aether melded into a single, massive whirlpool. A funnel twisted down, forming a solid brilliant wall that circled Cinder, engulfing him. Perry couldn’t find his voice. He couldn’t move. Didn’t know how to stop Cinder.
A blast of light sent piercing pain into his eyes, blinding him. He flew back on the earth, landing on his side, and shielded his head. Waited for his skin to burn. A hot gust whipped past him, pushing him back for long seconds; then a sudden silence fell over the compound. He peered up and saw no Aether. The sky was blue and calm as far as he could see.
He looked to the center of the clearing. A small figure was curled in a circle of glittering embers. Stumbling to his feet, Perry ran to him. Cinder lay deathly still and bare, his hat gone, his hair gone, his chest unmoving.
I have to find us another way to the Tides,” Aria said the next morning, hugging her growling stomach. The snare trap she’d set the previous night had been empty. “I hurt my knee when we fell. ”
Roar looked up from the flames with lifeless eyes. He hadn’t spoken yet. She tried to remember: had he said her name when they were in the Snake River? She’d been so out of her mind with cold that now she wondered if she’d imagined it.
“We could go part of the way by boat on the Snake,” she continued. “It’ll be a risk, but so is being out here. And at least it’ll get us there faster. ”
She spoke quietly, but her own voice seemed loud. “Roar … please say something. ” She moved beside him and took his hand. I’m here. I’m right here. I’m so sorry about Liv. Please tell me you can hear me.
He looked at her, his eyes warming for a moment before he drew away.
They returned to the Snake while heading west, away from Rim. That afternoon, they reached a fishing town, where she found them passage on a wide barge heading downriver. The hold was cluttered with crates and burlap sacks filled with goods. She’d been ready to fight, ready for anything in case Sable had people looking for them, but the captain, a leather-faced man named Maverick, didn’t ask any questions. She paid their way with one of her knives.
“Nice blade, ladybug,” said Maverick. His eyes flicked to Roar. “You give me the other one and I’ll give you the cabin. ”
She was anxious and hurting and had no patience. “Call me ladybug again and I will give you the other one. ”
Maverick smiled, showing a mouth full of silver teeth. “Welcome aboard. ”
Before they cast off, Aria listened closely to the gossip at the busy wharf. Sable had amassed a legion of men and was preparing to take them south. She heard different reasons for it. He wanted to conquer a new territory; he was on a quest for the Still Blue; he sought revenge against an Aud who had slain his bride only days before their wedding.
Aria imagined Sable spreading this last rumor himself. She hadn’t thought it possible to hate him any more, but after hearing that, she did.
Once aboard, she and Roar settled themselves between sacks filled with wool, rolls of leather, and salvaged goods like tires and plastic pipes from before the Unity. It amazed her that trade carried on as usual. It seemed futile.
She felt like she possessed a terrible secret. The world was coming to an end, and if Hess and Sable got their way, only eight hundred people would live on. Part of her wanted to scream a warning from the top of her lungs. But how would that help? What could anyone do without the location of the Still Blue? The other part of her still couldn’t accept that what she’d seen—what she’d heard planned by Sable and Hess—could possibly be true.
She closed her eyes when they moved onto open water, listening to the crew’s voices and the creak of the wooden ship. Every sound made her feel worse for Roar.
When it was quiet, Aria pulled her coat over her head and tried the Smarteye again. She hadn’t given up hope of reaching either Hess or Soren. She couldn’t give up on bringing Talon back to Perry.
Neither Hess nor Soren responded. She stuffed the Eye back into the satchel. Had they turned their backs on her, or had something happened to Reverie? She couldn’t stop thinking of the glitches in the Realms. What if she’d lost contact because the damage in Reverie had gotten worse? What if it was crumbling? She couldn’t deny the possibility. She’d seen what happened to Bliss in the fall, when she’d found her mother.
Unsettled, Aria rested her head against Roar’s shoulder and watched the Aether turn above. A cold wind blew along the Snake, numbing her ears and her nose. Roar put his arm around her. She gathered close, reassured by this small sign that he was still there, somewhere beneath the shell of silence and grief. She found his hand, speaking to him without speaking, hoping at least this way he could hear her.
She told him she’d do anything to make him hurt less, and then waited for him to take his hand away. He didn’t. His fingers threaded through hers, his grip familiar, comfortable, so she spoke to him some more.
As they floated down the Snake River, she told him about Hess and Sable’s arrangement, and about her fears of Reverie’s condition. She talked about the Realms—her favorites and least favorites—and all the ones she thought he’d like. She told him about her most frightening experience: a tie between when she thought Perry had been captured by the Croven in the fall, and when she couldn’t find Roar in the Snake River. And her saddest: when she found her mother in Reverie. She told him about Perry. Deeper things than she’d ever shared before. Don’t ever spare me, Roar had said once. Now she didn’t. She couldn’t, even if she’d wanted to. Perry was on her mind always.
She thought to Roar so much that it became natural and she stopped thinking about thinking and just thought. Roar heard everything. He knew her mind fully, openly, the same way Perry knew her tempers. Between the two of them, she thought, she was known completely.
She’d been seeking the comfort of a place. Of walls. A roof. A pillow to rest her head on. Now she realized that the people she loved were what gave her life shape, and comfort, and meaning. Perry and Roar were home.
Two days later, they reached the end of their river journey. The Snake had brought them far and given her knee a chance to heal, but now it forked west and they’d need to walk the last stretch to the Tides.
“A day and a half south,” Maverick told her. “Maybe more if that slows you up. ” He tipped his head to a massive Aether storm brewing in the distance. Then he glanced at Roar, who waited on the dock. Maverick had never heard him speak a word. He’d only seen Roar stare vacantly at the water, or at the sky. “You know, you could do a lot better than him, ladybug. ”
Aria shook her head. “No. I couldn’t. ”
They traveled well that day, stopping at night to rest. The following morning, Aria couldn’t believe that after nearly a month away, she’d be back at the Tides that afternoon.