Pepper shifted his weight on the tree branch, hoping it would relieve the pressure on his bladder. The rock he’d brought up here tipped slightly where it was balanced in front of him and he almost let it crash to the ground. He flung both arms around it and tried to slow his panicked breath.
Down below, no more than ten paces out from the tree, Kema leaned over an arrow spinner to smooth out some arrow shafts he’d just baked dry. His black horns and tail stood out against the pale ground, and the contrast almost eliminated the bluish tint Night People skin usually had. The man was slow and deliberate with each part of the process, and that let Pepper watch exactly how everything was done. It didn’t look hard at all. Pepper was sure he could do it if he tried. It would take a while to get all the parts and tools, like the deer horn and the flint and the pitch, but he was sure he could do it.
The old scout didn’t react to the shuffling sounds Pepper had made just now. He kept his head down on his work. Pepper breathed a quiet sigh of relief.
His pelvic bones hurt from sitting on the branch like this for so long. The overcast sky made it impossible to tell the time, but it must have been hours already. And although he’d made water before climbing up, now his bladder felt like it had been punched a hundred times. He was worried it would just burst open and spill out his stomach.
But it was his fault, and he would just have to wait. When Kema first came walking up the little trail, passing right under where Pepper was sitting, Pepper had been too nervous to drop the rock on him. Then, in all this time, Kema had only gotten up once and that was just to make water, which he’d done off the edge of the outcropping. That was when Pepper started having to go again.
Pepper wasn’t too nervous now. Kema needed to get up, walk back down the trail, and that would be it. Just a little push right here, and the rock would slide off and fall between the branches and mash the man’s skull.
And after all, Kema wanted to kill Pepper; he’d looked for him all day long yesterday with his bow at the ready. So Pepper had to kill him first. There wasn’t anything he could do about it. Old Natuak couldn’t save him--old people didn’t fight. And Papa always said that justice was doing good to your friends and harm to your enemies. Kema and Farat were definitely his enemies.
So he had to kill Kema, and this was the best way to do it—a surprise attack. A trap. Papa was very clear about fighting adults: Don’t. You’ll lose. Get away instead. Run, bite, run again. Children can’t fight adults and win. But if you have to, Papa said, there aren’t very many places you can stab someone and actually make them unable to stab you back. The neck, down into the collarbone. Under the sternum, right up into the lungs. Right in the belly button, but only if you could stab it exactly and not miss. If you missed, they’d hold their guts in with one hand and kill you with the other. Other places would work, but they were harder to do—the tendon above the heel, both eyes at once, the armpit…
Pepper thought he heard something coming from the direction of the road Kema was watching, but as he squinted and leaned down to try and peer through the trees, he didn’t see anything moving. Just branches waving in the gentle early-spring breeze. But from up here, looking anywhere was just a tangle of branches. There weren’t any leaves, but he still couldn’t see very far except up and down.
Kema peered over at the road from his little perch on the rocky outcropping, but he didn’t get up so it must not have been anything. Pepper noticed for the first time that one of the man’s sharp black horns was longer than the other, at least a finger’s length. How could that happen? It didn’t look any different, just shorter.
Pepper shifted his weight again as his discomfort grew. The muscles holding Pepper’s water in suddenly convulsed, leaving him with only seconds left. In a panic he scrambled to get the hem of his pants down far enough, but with his legs draped over the branch like that it turned out to be almost impossible. He could only use one hand or the rock would fall, but thank Palthos the knot in the drawstring came untied on the first pull.
No sooner did he get his rod out than a strong wind raised a roar and caused all the trees to sway, including the one he was in. He squeezed the branch with his thighs and managed to stay in the tree, but that was the end of holding his water in. He didn’t even have time to choose his aim--it arced down onto a branch halfway down the tree, except when a strong gust flung it into mist and carried it away.
Pepper held on in terror and did his best not to fall or drop the rock. If he dropped it, Kema might discover him. If he fell from this far up the tree, he’d die. His water took ages to empty. Longer than the longest even Papa ever took. His bladder and stomach muscles hurt the whole time, and his legs hurt from squeezing the branch.
Over at his perch, Kema held down his belongings to keep them from blowing away and looked around with what might have been confusion. It was a strong wind to just come out of nowhere and the old scout looked about as surprised as Pepper was, from how he jerkily looked this way and that, trying to see if something was wrong somehow.
Fortunately, Pepper finally finished before the wind let up. It had blown the entire time, howling across the heavy, melting snow and shaking the last handful of dead leaves from the trees. The wind had scattered his water completely; in fact, very little of it had made it all the way to the ground, at least not that he could see. There wasn’t a big yellow puddle down there to give him away. All that was left behind was a mild ache in his bladder that he didn’t think had ever happened to him before.
Nonetheless, Kema rose to his feet and looked around in every direction, as if he expected to see something interesting. But it had just been wind, Pepper knew, just regular wind. What was he going to find, a giant? And now that he thought about it, Pepper had been captured by the demons the first time because he had to make water too bad to hold it. Why did this keep happening? That didn’t even make sense. How could you have bad luck with making water? That was—
Kema was walking over toward the tree. He must have smelled it. From up here, Pepper couldn’t make out his facial expression, but the tip of his tail was flicking like a nervous Skythander’s. The old scout paused, then went back and took up his bow and nocked an arrow.
Pepper’s stomach dropped as dread gripped him. He could hide himself, but what about the rock? It was just sitting there impossibly perched on a branch. What if Kema saw it? Then he’d know Pepper was up here too and start shooting arrows until he hit him. There was no way Pepper could dodge an arrow while sitting.
He reached forward and picked up the rock with both hands and held it to his chest. Could he even hide things he was holding? What if Kema saw the rock but not him? It had been the heaviest one he could carry, and he’d dropped it twice trying to get it up here, so it wasn’t little.
He had to try anyway. That or get shot. He breathed deep and slow, ignoring all the little aches in his body. He brought in his presence, then sucked it in harder. The weight of the stone in his arms made balancing harder, but he calmed his mind and focused.
Down below, Kema came and stood near the base of the tree, arrow at the ready. He kicked at the snow a bit, then paused and scanned the scenery again.
Pepper realized that he was about to miss his chance. Even so, it took a moment for his arms to obey him as he leaned over. They didn’t want to drop the rock. He didn’t want to do it. He was too scared.
The old scout leaned down and Pepper felt the rock sliding from his arms, almost all on its own. It turned over and over as it fell. It fell very, very, slowly.
Kema looked up too late. The rock smashed into his forehead with a thud that made Pepper nauseous. The old scout collapsed, flopping to the ground like he was all made of cloth.
It worked! Pepper was almost too shocked to believe it. Kema lay there unmoving as blood pooled around his head. The rock had knocked one of the man’s horns off, leaving a bloody red circle that dripped.
All he had to do now was climb down. He’d seen dead bodies before. Plenty of them. Some from getting cut open, some from getting stabbed, some just from getting too close to Papa when he was angry. But for some reason, that dead body down there filled him with such white-knuckled terror that he could hardly breath.
Every time he tried to make himself move, he couldn’t. His legs wouldn’t go, and he couldn’t shift his body weight to start sliding down to the next branch. His whole chest hurt and his lungs wouldn’t work even though they burned for lack of air. Then he thought he might pass out or just die right here, and that made it worse. He leaned forward and hugged the branch with both arms and was surprised by the sobs that came.
He cried long and hard. His whole body was filled with pain, or fear, or nausea, or something else; he couldn’t tell. He didn’t even understand why he was crying. His mind felt clear, but he couldn’t stop. It almost made him mad at himself. Every time he tried to hold his breath to stop, it just made it worse. He cried so long he gave up trying to keep his eyes open. Long enough that his throat hurt.
Pepper only managed to stop when the wind picked up again and shook the tree so hard he had to hold on to the branch for a very different reason. He blinked away the tears and gritted his teeth and held on with both arms and legs, and it felt a lot safer this way that just his legs. The wind died down again, almost as suddenly as it had come up.
Down below, he heard Kema groan and whimper in pain. The man wasn’t dead! Pepper didn’t have another rock. He hid again with a panic, sucking in his presence and trying to calm his racing heartbeat.
The old scout groaned again and slowly started pushing himself up from the ground. A small, short puff of wind shook the branch Pepper was on. Then another one, even fainter. Then stillness.
Pepper’s mind raced as he weighed his options. The old scout’s horn still lay on the ground, and it was sharp. Sharp enough. Maybe if he got down there before Kema woke all the way up, he could stab him with it. But he’d have to hurry, and—
Kema rose to his hands and knees and retched loudly. Pepper almost lost his own stolen breakfast when he heard it splashing against the ground. There was a short pause, and the man vomited again. Then moaned again in pain. Then mumbled something that might have been trying to speak.
Another small gust of wind tickled his ear fur, but it hardly made anything else move, almost caressing him and only him.
The horn. He had to get the horn before Kema picked it up. Pepper couldn’t do anything else without it.
His body started moving almost before his mind was ready. He didn’t even want to go down there, not really, but he found himself sliding down to the next branch, then the next one, quietly, but trying to hurry instead of hide. Then the next branch, then the lower one, then around the tree to the next one…
Pepper dropped the last few feet to the ground, his feet crunching loudly into the icy snow. Before Kema could react, Pepper jumped forward and grabbed the smooth, black horn and stepped back. It was still warm, and few drops of blood fell to the snow as he held it in front of him with both hands like a sword.
Kema didn’t seem to notice him. The man kept his face toward the ground and hardly moved at all. Bright red blood stood out starkly against the demon’s blue-black skin and dripped from his brow, where it mixed with the pool of vomit that melted its way into the hard-packed snow of the trail.
The old scout whimpered, then began to cry, softly enough that Pepper was only sure it was happening because he could see the man’s torso shaking in his coat of furs.
Only yesterday, the old scout had been tall and imposing and muscular, but now he looked frail and old and pathetic. Pepper shifted his grip on the demon’s horn, feeling its smooth surface harder than wood. He wondered if it would slip out of his hands if he stabbed Kema with it, or if it would go in.
Pepper couldn’t get away from how the sight made him feel. He knew he needed to kill him, but just not… not like this. He recognized disgust in himself at seeing an adult brought so low, and powerful pity that he didn’t quite understand. Kema was an enemy, but Pepper didn’t want to hurt him. Not anymore. Not with him crying and dripping blood into a pool of his own vomit.
Papa didn’t stab people after he beat them. Or did he? Pepper couldn’t remember. He could hardly think about anything at all, other than the feeling of the horn in his hands and how smooth and warm it was and how sick it made him.
Kema coughed and spat but didn’t vomit again. He tried to speak, but the words came out all garbled and didn’t make any sense. He reached up and touched the hole where his horn had been and hissed in pain. He made a loud sound that was probably supposed to be words but wasn’t; however, it did communicate his misery well enough. The old scout’s voice conveyed misery that froze Pepper’s insides solid when he heard it.
Pepper sniffled from the cold without realizing what he was doing, and Kema turned his head. He didn’t quite look up, but he must have got a glimpse of Pepper standing there because he tried to speak again. Just a single word this time, but it came out like a moan. Pepper stepped back.
The old scout said it again, then again, like he was trying to figure out how to get his mouth to work. It was an unnatural, almost inhuman sound. “Woooo…. Hwahhho… Hep…”
“Help?” Pepper asked.
“Hep,” said Kema to the ground. Another drop of blood fell. Another. “Hep. P-p-pehh…”
Pepper looked around to see what he could do. There wasn’t anything or anyone else around, of course. No bandages to put on, or anyone to help lift the old scout up, or anywhere to put him. Relief filled him, though, relief that he didn’t have to kill him anymore. Or maybe just that he found a temporary excuse not to.
“Hep… up…” said Kema. He turned his head all the way and looked at Pepper, although his eyes sort of wavered like they couldn’t focus right. The bright red blood made stark lines all across the demon’s face, pooling in a scar and running down to his chin. It made him look ghastly. Monstrous.
But Pepper had seen worse. He’d seen worse lots of times so he could handle this much. He tucked the horn into the drawstring on his pants, which he hastily tied again, and stepped forward to try and help lift Kema to his feet.
The old scout was way too heavy for Pepper to lift, but he gave it a good effort. Mostly, he just did his best not to collapse when Kema pulled himself to his feet using Pepper like a ladder. Somehow, they managed not to fall down.
“Hep mnngm back,” mumbled Kema. He seemed wobbly on his feet, so Pepper took the man’s hand and placed it on his shoulder.
“I think you should rest first. You might feel better in a minute,” said Pepper nervously, but the old scout took a shambling step down the trail in the direction of the camp, then another. Pepper stayed alongside him, and more than once the man gripped his shoulder tight enough to hurt when he almost lost his balance.
They had only gone perhaps fifty paces when Kema stumbled and fell forward. Pepper helped him get to a sitting position, then wiped the snow off his face. When he saw all the blood that came with it, he hurriedly cleaned his hand in the snow to banish his nausea.
“Can you wait? I can go get somebody.”
“Kitten-ghost,” said Kema. “What are you doing here?”
Pepper froze. He didn’t remember? The man’s speech still didn’t sound quite right, but he seemed a bit better now. Kema crawled over a bit to lean back into a bush, which didn’t look that comfortable. It was probably not as cold and wet as just snow, though.
“I’ll be right back,” said Pepper. “Don’t go anywhere.”
The old scout gave a limp wave to send him off and Pepper turned to go as a thrill ran through him. If Kema didn’t remember, maybe he didn’t see Pepper at all—maybe he just thought a rock fell! Maybe Pepper didn’t have to say what happened. He could just say--
A branch from a bush caught the demon horn in his belt and pulled it free. It tumbled and fell point-first into the ground. Pepper hadn’t even gone five steps yet, and he was already dropping things.
He looked again at the old scout and noticed how with his head leaned back like that, the neck was naked and exposed. Despite the bluish-black color of the man’s skin, Pepper saw the contours of the voice box and neck muscles and knew exactly where Papa would tell him to stab. Right there, in the hollow between the muscle and the peak of the voice box. That’s where all the blood was. Would a stab do it, or did you have to cut?
Pepper bent down and picked up the horn, feeling again how smooth and hard it was. He tested the point with his finger and found it not quite as sharp as a fresh thorn, but still sharp. Sharp enough. He looked again at Kema, who seemed like he was still awake even though his eyes were closed. Pepper could sneak up on him. He could stab him in the neck. It would be simple.
A gentle wind tugged at the hem of his shirt, pushing him lightly in the direction of the old scout. It faded, and the area grew still again. Silent.
A whisper tickled his ear, too quiet to understand what it said. Pepper choked on a shriek and jumped to the side, nearly stumbling to the ground. There was nothing around. Nothing in any direction—just the scraggly bushes and rocky dirt jutting out of the snow here and there, and bare, black trees. Noisy ground to cross, despite all the hiding places.
Again the whisper--or perhaps just the wind--set lightly, almost imperceptibly, on his face. Fear poured into him, choking his throat and locking his legs. He gripped the horn with both hands, ready to stab the first thing that moved. Something felt odd about it, though, as if not all of it was his. As if someone else’s emotions had found their way in. Anger. Hatred. Fire.
Papa. It felt a little tiny bit like Papa somehow, down underneath Pepper’s own rising terror. A shock of hope raced through him, almost reigniting his courage. Was Papa here? Could it be?
“Papa!” he shouted, as loud as he could. But in the silence that followed, he knew he was wrong. Papa wasn’t around. That had been something else. There was something else here.
No sooner had the idea come into Pepper’s mind than he thought he saw a wavering outline in the air just to his side, the side the whisper had come from.
A shade. It was a shade of a dead person.
He jolted and ran, arms flailing as he tried to keep his balance on the icy trail. His throat tightened up in terror and he couldn’t even scream. He widened his eyes so much the cold stung as the world narrowed in front of him.
Pepper ran until his legs burned. Each footstep either sank or slid on the snow, slowing and exhausting him. He was going back to the village, but he didn’t even know why. What if Farat found him first?
He slowed to a stop, mostly because he couldn’t run anymore after sprinting so hard. He stared all around with wide eyes to look for the shade, but his mind was so panicked it wouldn’t process his surroundings until he made himself calm down. Which was hard, almost impossible, with a shade chasing him.
But it was gone. The air was still, and everything was so quiet that he heard his heartbeat thumping in his ears. All around him, nothing moved. The snow didn’t even sparkle because it was melting and damp.
Pepper felt the hard, smooth horn in his right hand and realized that he was still carrying it. A horn from a person that got knocked out by a rock, and he was holding it like it was a stick. It wasn’t as warm anymore, and there wasn’t any more blood to drip out, but the more he thought about it, the more uneasy he felt.
He made himself start walking again. He still had no idea what to do. Just a few moments ago, he’d been so sure: Kill Kema and Farat and not get caught. That’s what Papa would do, and so that’s what Pepper should do. Papa would tell him to go back right now and finish him off, in fact, if not for the shade that was there.
Pepper wasn’t sure what Papa thought about shades, but he knew the Laophileans did all kinds of things to keep them away. You had to bury a person the same day, if you could, so the shade wouldn’t wander. And then, you had to remember them. Carve their names on a stone on their grave, and leave offerings sometimes, so they wouldn’t forget who they were. So they could rest. Because once they forgot, they might go anywhere. They might wander lost and aimless until Raphos Corpse-eater came and got them. Or they might go in a house and torment the people who lived in it.
Papa said that sometimes the gods took people after they died, and other people entered the halls of the Hewer. But some people just went nowhere, and stayed with their bodies, and you never really knew one way or the other. And what Raphos did with the people he collected, Papa didn’t know, but it was bad. That was not a god who liked people.
Right now, none of that information was useful. Shouldn’t there be a prayer to a god or something? Some way to make them go away? Maybe Mama knew one.
One thing was sure: Pepper did not want a shade to attack him or do anything else at all. He sped up and walked a bit faster, feeling all the while like there were eyes on his back.
He would just have to find Natuak first and say what happened. Farat and Kema said they were going to kill him, so he… No, no that’s not what he should say.
Pepper should lie. Lying to enemies wasn’t wrong—it was just a sign of weakness, and Pepper was weak compared to adults. He’d tell Natuak that he was exploring and found Kema like that, and that he saw a shade and ran away. And here’s the horn as proof, since there was no way Pepper could just pull it out of Kema’s head. But Kema was still alive, so they should come get him and help him if they could.
A slight wind picked up and tickled the fur on the tips of his ears. He picked up the pace and started jogging, sloppily, up the icy trail, trying to imagine it was nothing—just normal wind.
After forever, the camp came into view, but something was wrong—there should have been people out. It was the middle of the day, and he couldn’t see anyone at all.
He paused and listened, looking around. A few voices found his ears, coming from near the middle of camp where he couldn’t see from here. It sounded like Night People, so that must be where they were.
His eyes caught a flicker of motion, but when he turned to look, there was nothing. Then another, to his right. And another, just ahead, something ducked behind a tent. Only a flicker of movement, so quick and subtle he might have imagined it.
Then he heard the whispers. All around him, quiet and invisible things whispered words he couldn’t make out. Sounds that might not have been words at all, so faint and quiet he had to hold his breath to hear them. The whispers themselves flickered like the motions had, coming a little from here and a little from there, all over. All apart and disjointed. But it was sounds a mouth made, not a wind blowing on leaves. There was no doubt of that.
Pepper stopped, unable to take another step forward. Forward would be into the whispers. The shades. And behind him, and to the sides. A whisper came from above, just far enough over his head he couldn’t reach. Then another from the ground, down between his ankles. Everywhere. They were all coming to surround him.
The air rippled with shapes, more faint than heat on the horizon. Fainter than the waves of Papa’s anger. All around him, the whispers came closer. Their breath tickled the invisible fuzz on the back of his hand, on his neck, the fur of his ears and tail. A chill on his face like a kiss.
A whimper escaped his fear-tightened throat. Terror came into him so strongly that he couldn’t move. He couldn’t even blink. He didn’t control any part of his body at all, and his mind shrank and shrank until all it could hold was fear.
Just ahead of him, a bolder shape appeared, rippling into existence more strongly than any of the others. Still only barely visible, but Pepper saw that it was a stone man, tall and proud, with braided hair like Papa did sometimes, and a knee-length chiton and sandals. It swung an arm ferociously, and the whispers all stopped.
Its eyes rested on him. It glided forward, now only a single pace away. Pepper had never felt more naked or more scared. It could see him. It could see him!
Pepper strained to turn his head and look away, or to fall over and roll and get up and run, or anything. Anything at all, but he couldn’t. His whole body felt like it had lightning in it, burning him up. Lightning made out of terror.
The shade raised his arm and rested its hand on the top of Pepper’s head. He didn’t feel any fingers, just the coldest sensation he had ever imagined, so cold it almost burned his skin. He was going to die. There was nothing he could do. The cold reached further inside him. The shade would suck all the life out of him, then it would…
Something jolted inside Pepper. It felt almost like a pot broke in his mind and all the fear spilled out. It had finally been too much: He was too scared to be scared anymore, so he quit being scared entirely.
He swung the horn at the shade, passing right through it. Only a moment later, the shade vanished completely. Even its presence faded. Vigor filled him. He could move again!
All fear and doubt fled out his skin like sweat, or like a big pot of water rushing over him and then away into the ground. Calmness rushed in to fill him in its place. Confidence. He felt strong in his arms and legs instead of weary and unstable.
He wasn’t scared of the whispers because he had no fear left to give. He’d been too scared for too long, and he’d used it all up. He might never be scared again for the rest of his whole life! Instead, now he felt like Papa always looked. Bold, courageous, confident, and angry, but a good anger.
“Leave me alone!” he shouted at the whispers all around him. He scowled and pointed the horn threateningly. His mind felt open and free, like he was in control. He saw the anger in him swirling around, but it was his power now. He could think clearly. It was incredible.
Pepper paused, ignoring the shades for a moment. He gripped the horn in his hand and considered his options. Papa always thought about things before charging in; at least, that’s what he said he did. It was hard to tell. So what did Pepper want? What was he hoping would happen?
He needed them to protect him until Papa came. Or maybe just until Papa was close enough Pepper could go find him. He needed food and a warm place to sleep. So that was one thing. Also he needed to find out if Natuak would protect him from Farat, or even if he could. He was an old man, after all, and Farat was the biggest Night Person.
If he found Dyana first, he could ask her. She was strange to him—sometimes warm, sometimes cold. Flower or Garbi would have known why and what to do about it, but how was Pepper supposed to know? He used to think he was good at talking with people until he saw Flower and Garbi do it. They always said exactly the right thing. Garbi didn’t even have to talk, just smile, and everyone fell at her feet like she was a queen.
And could he even trust Dyana? She turned her back on Papa once, so why not him? That was if he could even find her.
The whispering wind tickled the fur on his ears, even the fur inside them, which made him shudder. He ignored it. He ignored the feeling of the fur on his tail starting to stand up by itself, too. He ran his thumb back and forth on the horn where he held it.
Natuak… Natuak didn’t do things because of honor or anything like that, now that Pepper thought about it. He did things because it was good for the tribe, or because it was a good bargain to make. That was the only two reasons. He wasn’t like Papa at all. Papa always did things for honor, and that was the main reason all the time for everything.
The old demon always talked about offering this or trading that, so what did Pepper have to offer, other than eating all their food? They didn’t need Papa to rescue their children anymore, if that young woman could really remember where the field was.
The only thing Pepper had to offer was where Kema was and that he was still alive. He went over the lie again in his head—Kema was attacked by shades, and Pepper helped him and knows where he is. All he could do now what see how much safety that got him in trade.
Pepper walked forward like normal, not in a hurry and not slow, as a burden lifted from his heart that he hadn’t realized was there. He didn’t want to kill Kema—he had been forcing himself to do it. It made him sick to think about it. He’d seen lots of dead bodies but he’d never caused one, and it wasn’t the same. And he didn’t even really like looking at the ones Papa caused, either.
He wasn’t afraid anymore, but everything else was still there. He could still hear the thud from dropping that rock and picture Kema crumpling. And the blood. But he didn’t have to kill him anymore. Kema wouldn’t die and it wouldn’t be his fault. He wouldn’t have to look at his dead body and remember that forever.
He circled around one tent, and then another, and finally he saw them. The Night People stood huddled together inside a big ring dug in the dirt, right in the middle of camp—all of them. Even the children were there, and Pepper was surprised to see how many there were. Children of all ages, some hiding against a grown-up’s leg, some holding hands with friends.
With the whole tribe all huddled close together like that, they looked strange, like they were one thing instead of many. Somehow, the bright midday sun made their blue-tinted charcoal skin even less distinct instead of more. It formed together into one big shape, looking very much like a piece of the late-twilight sky they claimed they came from, and their dark-brown leather clothing lost all definition as they shifted around. Their horns looked like a thousand spikes poking out of a big lump.
Pepper saw immediately why they were all inside the circle—countless shades made the air ripple all around the circle, and the whispers all seemed to be coming from or moving in that direction. Shades were coming from all over the King’s lands, Pepper supposed, since there were so many. And they were gathering here, right outside the circle where the Night People were.
All at once, the people spotted him. The visual effect of hundreds of heads turning to look at him all at the same time almost made him step back, off-balance. Near the front, a flash of light like the sun on water caught his attention. He blinked and looked again.
Sheth! They even brought out Sheth, and he had his headband thing off so the light came out his eye. Happiness swelled in Pepper’s heart and made him grin with his teeth out. He walked forward, heedless of the shades. They didn’t scare him anymore.
As he got close enough to make out everyone’s faces, they backed away and whispered sharply to each other, and he knew they were scared of him. He wasn’t even hiding, though, so… Oh, the horn. Well, it was too late to put it away. He held it in his hand, and everyone had already seen what it was.
Natuak was the one holding Sheth, although the parents were right alongside. And Farat, who looked so surprised that his forehead might pop.
Sheth tried to wriggle out of Natuak’s arms, but the old demon held him tighter and shooshed him. Sheth kept his shining eye on Pepper, but it wasn’t bright enough to be blinding in the daylight like it was in the tent.
Pepper stepped over the circle and noticed the immediate change. Inside, the air was still and a bit warmer, and quiet. There was also a sense of relief because so many shades had a sort of feeling they caused, and he couldn’t feel it anymore.
“Hi Sheth,” said Pepper.
“Hi Peppew,” said Sheth. He seemed nervous or scared, which just made Pepper want to go hug him.
Natuak’s eyes had a look in them that Pepper had never seen before. He couldn’t quite tell what it was, but it felt dangerous and made him uneasy. “Pepper, whose horn is that? Where did you get it?”
Pepper met his gaze calmly, standing straight and not wavering at all. Part of him knew that he should be getting scared again by now, but he simply wasn’t. Not at all. He crossed his arms and even made his tail hold still.
“It’s Kema’s, and I got it from when Farat sent him to kill me.” He changed his mind about lying the instant the words started coming out, but it felt right. He wasn’t scared, so why should he act like he was and lie?
Dozens of Night People whispered and muttered to each other, raising a rushing sound that reminded Pepper of the wind from earlier. Sudden, loud, and then vanishing just as suddenly.
Farat didn’t react, however, aside from tightening his lips and lowering his eyebrows a bit. The man’s hand crept to the hilt of one of the long knives in his belt.
Natuak looked at the ground beneath Pepper’s feet, only glancing up to meet his eyes once or twice.
Anger bubbled up inside Pepper and burst out before he could stop it. “Did you know, Natuak? You knew, didn’t you! You knew!”
Natuak seemed like he wanted to say something, but didn’t. Instead he just looked at Pepper sadly, the skin on his old, wrinkly face seeming to sag more, like he got ten years older overnight.
Farat drew his long knives from his belt and stepped forward. Natuak caught his arm.
The big war leader turned and said, “You can stop me, Elder, but we both know the price. I’m not changing my mind, so pick one. Me or him?”
“Why must you persist in this foolishness?” said Natuak, but Pepper could tell he’d already given up. There was no muscle in his words. “He is harmless, as you well know.”
“You think all this is a coincidence? Look around you. The spirits? The horn? And didn’t Sheth say some of them look like Laophileans? Let go of my arm, Elder.”
“It is the King, Farat, not little Black-tail. The King sent them. Just look at him. Can you really think he has caused this?”
“Let go of my arm.”
Natuak looked away and let go of Farat’s arm. He turned to take Sheth somewhere else, probably to the back where he wouldn’t have to watch what Farat was about to do. Sheth stared over the old demon’s shoulder at Pepper, confused.
Farat drew his other knife. Right as he was about to spring forward, jumping on him faster than he could get away, Pepper yelled out, “Kema’s still alive!”
Farat almost fell forward, halfway into a step. He caught himself and said, “He is?”
Natuak turned around and stepped toward Pepper. “You must tell us where he is, child! Tell us now!”
“Why should I? You were going to let him kill me,” said Pepper. He kept his arms crossed and scowled up at the two men, who halted only a pace away from him.
Farat bared his teeth and tilted his horns in Pepper’s direction. “Boy, you have no idea what--!”
“Ooh, scary! You’ll kill me, huh? That’s what you were going to do anyway. But guess what? I’m not scared of you. Look at me. I’m not scared at all. Not anymore. In fact…” said Pepper.
He danced backward a few steps and crossed over the line where the shades were. Immediately, their whispers and tugging winds coated him. It didn’t bother him. In fact, he felt as good as he could ever remember. Full of energy and life. “I bet you won’t even cross this line. Why not? Why don’t you come get me, coward? Come out here, you goat-whore bastard!”
Farat stepped forward again, grinding his teeth together, but he stopped short of the line.
Natuak stepped forward, just barely ahead of Farat. He turned Sheth so the boy could see better and said, “This is all an awful mess, is it not? I am not happy about any of it. But please, dear child, you do not understand the danger. Where is Kema? How badly is he hurt? Were there spirits around him?”
“Promise not to kill me. Take an oath. Both of you. And Teshwan, too. I see him creeping over there like a little mouse.”
Natuak nodded and said, “I give my oath. I swear I will not kill you. Now please, where—”
“Him too! And everyone!” yelled Pepper, pointing at Farat with the horn.
Farat was so mad that if he had Papa’s olive skin instead of charcoal skin, he would have turned red. Pepper could even feel anger coming off him like Papa’s, except not nearly as much.
Pepper didn’t care. “Say it!” He tapped his foot with mock impatience.
“I swear I will not kill you,” the big man hissed. At that, most of the other Night People spoke and it sounded like the same oath, although Pepper couldn’t quite pick out every word.
Pepper nodded and said, “I left him about halfway up the trail to his spy post place where he watches the road. I overheard when Farat and him agreed they were gonna kill me, so I dropped a rock on him, big enough to knock him down, but he didn’t die. He could even walk after that, but I think he forgot who I was. He’s resting, but I bet if we hurry we can… What? What are you all looking…”
Then he felt it. A dark feeling that reminded him of pus and disease grabbed at his heart. Angry, violent, pressure almost like Papa’s evil except sicker. Pepper turned.
Kema stood no more than ten paces away, having just stepped out from behind a tent. The blood running out the wound from his missing horn had mostly dried, leaving a vivid red-black smear that ran down his face and soaked into his collar. The man’s eyes were wild, bewildered. He stepped forward, but it was… off, like he wasn’t used to having legs.
The Night People behind Pepper screamed and scrambled to back up and get away, although he didn’t hear them running. He couldn’t turn and see, though; his eyes were stuck on Kema like they’d been nailed there. Something was wrong with him. He didn’t act injured, exactly; his motions were jerky and too forceful for him to seem in pain. He rolled his head instead of turning it, and rolled his eyes instead of focusing on anything.
Somehow, Pepper still wasn’t afraid. He knew he should be. Everyone else was, and something was wrong. “Kema?” he asked quietly.
The old scout’s eyes rotated inside his head toward Pepper’s voice until they found him. The man turned his head to match them. He smiled, baring all his teeth. “Kitten-ghost. Come here, child.”