Day Eighteen

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NISKA SCOUTED THE AREA that morning. Tarak, despite their distance, brought the crew fresh water and some smoked meat for their bags. Together, the siblings drew a map to the mountains on the ground, and the crew spent the first hour of daylight memorizing its every detail. Niska even gave Raina some fresh bandages for her leg, which she changed out of sight of the others.

"I hope you find the others from your group," Raina said as she finished. They said something back, a small smile on their face. But as she made to hobble back to the group, they held up a hand. In it, she spied a piece of charcoal. They had one last message for her.

Raina watched as they bent down and drew something on the ground. Something in her chest stuttered as she realized what they were showing her, this confession given in absolute trust: their home.

Not above ground, but below.

They lifted their head, and their eyes met Raina's. Two of the earth's survivors, one from the skies, one from the soil. They had both escaped, adapted, survived in their own ways. And yet here they stood, at a compromise between the two. A secret precisely because it was theirs and theirs alone, unknown to the skies, valuable in its autonomy, its independence from the colonies above. Raina's heart swelled with respect, and when Niska rose again, she clasped their arm, letting her eyes speak all the words her mouth could not.

At last, she looked back. The others had finished packing, taking one final look at the map. "Are we ready to go?" she called.

"As much as we can be," Kieran said.

They set out. A pang of sadness hit her with every step she took away from the cave, from the siblings who had saved their lives with their generosity, but their life lay far beyond, far above. Raina held tight to her vow to get them home as she pulled herself away from the threads of friendship she felt, cradling it in her heart as a small lump formed in her throat. Two different worlds--at least, for the rest of her lifetime.

The morning sun felt fresh on her face, growing into a dry heat as they walked, searching for the landmarks of rock formations and ravines. The ocean disappeared from view as they moved further inland, aiming for the mountain pass that loomed closer and closer, wedged between two summits that speared into the sky like fangs. Clouds hovered low around the peaks, too heavy to carry their moisture across, and beside her, Kieran frowned.

"It's the start of the wet season," he said. "Do you think we could see mudslides?"

"Niska said it was a risk," Maeve said.

Kieran looked to Raina. "What do you think?"

She studied the clouds above them, their layers of direction and speed. Then she looked behind them, towards the sea. "The season's started heavily this year, and there's no sign of a dry spell. If anything, we're at a higher risk," she said. "We should take extra caution as we climb, scout our routes as much as possible."

"Let the terrain dictate when we stop," Kieran said.

She nodded. She offered a smile of thanks to him, and he inclined his head. Weather was the only piece of her she truly had left; with her leg, she could not trust her body. And after Ava, she did not trust her own promises. A month ago, it was all she could do to be cordial to Kieran as he scrutinized her every move. But that same logic, that same reason, was a pillar to her now. Doubt wriggled in her mind, and a distant voice chastised her for relying on him, said that to need another meant she was not strong enough to lead. She did not know how to answer it.

"That could add on a day, maybe two," Maeve said. "We could be sitting ducks if there are more people around. Or animals."

"Like Kieran said, have to pick and choose our risks," Rance said. He looked to Raina like he could read her thoughts. "Captain, what's your call?"

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