Pepper stepped forward instinctively, as if getting closer would help him see better. “Kema?” he asked again. “Are you alright?”
The old scout pulled his lips back from his sharp teeth in something that might have been a smile. Some of the blood from the man’s missing horn had gotten in his mouth, turning them all red. He whipped his thin, black tail behind him, sharply smacking it against the hard ground. “Come closer,” he said. His voice sounded higher than normal. Strained. “Come.”
Pepper gave a quick glance backward to see the entire tribe of Night People squeezed together at the back of the circle on the ground, as far away as they could get without leaving it.
Kema took a shambling step forward, his head cocked and his rolling eyes fixed on Pepper at a weird angle. “Boy should come. I will not eat.”
Pepper’s guts turned to ice. Something was wrong with Kema—very wrong. Everyone else knew what it was, too. He wasn’t acting normal. He wasn’t even acting like he was injured. He kept walking closer, step by uneven step. He should be lying down, not—
Kema lurched forward like lightning and grabbed Pepper by the hair from four full paces away. Pepper had been ready, but the old demon was faster. Only the fact that his hair was still short and hadn’t been washed in months saved him—it was too greasy for Kema to get a good grip.
Pepper twisted away and held the man’s horn in front of him as a warning. “Stay back!” he shouted.
“Boy. Hold still. Kitten-ghost.”
The old demon’s sickening presence oozed its way into Pepper’s skin, making him feel like he was swimming in vomit. He felt his guts twisting and wondered if it was fear, but his mind was clear. He felt calm. Awake.
“Stay back!” shouted Pepper, trying to sound dangerous and commanding, holding Kema’s own horn forward as a weapon. Glancing over his shoulder, he hoped to see someone coming to help him, but none of the Night People had moved. They all just watched with big eyes and blank faces.
Kema spun and lost his footing to a loud whacking sound, crashing into the icy ground. Pepper stumbled forward to his hands and knees before he even realized he’d been hit. The demon had whipped his tail too fast to see and caught him full across the back.
It didn’t even hurt—it just felt like pressure at first. Warm pressure. Then wet, which got cold in the winter air. Pepper realized he’d been cut open across the back just above his armpits, right through his heavy shirt. If Kema hadn’t lost his footing, Pepper might have been cut in half.
Even that wasn’t enough to make him panic. Something was helping him stay focused. He didn’t know what, but his mind was clear and somehow he just knew. He felt something over him, like someone was watching him, telling him to get up. He jumped back to his feet and straightened his shirt, ignoring the blood that had dripped into his armpits and was now slipping down his back, all the way to the ticklish spot above his tail.
Kema’s eyes rolled in his head and rested on Pepper. The cursed man awkwardly rose to his feet while Pepper tried to decide if he should attack. He should. He knew he should. Something inside pushed him to strike, strike now, but he didn’t.
When the old scout’s lips pulled back to bare that same hungry smile, Pepper knew that this was it. There wasn’t a mistake here. Kill or be killed. This was real and there would be no getting out of it.
Pepper wasn’t fast enough to run. He also wasn’t strong enough or fast enough to fight. He had no chance. He was going to die. A child can’t fight an adult and win.
Die a good death. Papa’s words floating up in his mind, and Pepper wasn’t even sure if Papa had ever told him that. But it was the kind of thing Papa would have said, if he were watching them face off. A good death, with lots of the other guy’s blood on you.
Kema stood at full height and flexed his claws, then leaned forward to point his remaining horn at Pepper. But then he shuddered slightly, off balance just a bit like he’d been pushed. His wild eyes rolled in every direction, his head twisting this way and that to accommodate them. He seemed confused.
But Pepper still wasn’t afraid, and he didn’t know why. He could do this. He felt energetic and awake, and glancing back to the Night People again, angry. They were just going to watch him die. Well, the crows take them. The crows take everything!
Again the old scout jerked slightly, and this time he had to catch himself with his foot. He had been pushed! Pepper saw it. He got pushed by nothing. Nothing anyone could see.
But it didn’t really matter how it had happened. Seeing an opening, this time Pepper leaped forward and drove the point of the horn deep into the man’s calf.
He felt the pressure of the man’s flesh through the horn, felt as it slid in and stabbed deep, felt as it slid against the bone. It left a nauseous feeling in his arms that was different from when he’d cut into a rabbit.
Pepper yanked the horn free and jumped back just in time to avoid a wicked swipe from the demon’s claws.
The demon acted slightly more cautiously now, stepping gingerly on the leg with a hole in it and keeping his claws ready for a grab as soon as Pepper got within range.
Pepper wasn’t strong enough to spike the man’s skull through his chin or eyesocket—there was too much bone in the way of the brain. Maybe not strong enough to stab through the ribs to get the heart, either. And regardless, stabbing killed much, much slower than cutting, Papa had said. All the good spots were hard to stab, and it wouldn’t draw enough blood. Even if he killed Kema eventually, Kema would kill him now.
But it didn’t matter. Pepper wasn’t scared. Kema towered over him, solid, massive, and real. But even so, Pepper wasn’t scared. He felt something driving him to action, that and his anger which gathered like a little ball of fire in his stomach and sent strength all through him.
He and Kema circled each other warily, the demon’s focus shifting in and out like his mind wasn’t working right. Never long enough for an opening, though.
Something moved in the air above Kema’s shoulder and pushed him again. The old scout turned his head and tried to swat at the invisible thing.
Pepper jumped in jammed the horn into the man’s lower back, in the fleshy spot below the ribs. It went in far too deep, almost all the way to Pepper’s hands. He couldn’t pull it out in time.
Kema turned back around and tried to grab Pepper, who ducked and spun backward. The demon ignored the horn poking out of his back, even though Pepper was sure it went must be stirring his guts to move.
The old scout’s tail whipped in the air, slicing it sharper than a knife. He missed, then stared blankly in confusion.
Pepper saw Kema’s toes curl and his knees dip slightly, just in time to warn him a charge was coming. He shot himself to the side to avoid an attempt at a leaping bear hug that whiffed in the air.
The demon turned his head, and Pepper instinctively sucked in his whole presence and hid without even thinking about it. An instant reflex. He’d felt that he was about to be spotted, and it just happened.
Kema’s eyes slid right over him and the demon kept turning around in a circle, a look of confusion growing on his blood-smeared face. Pepper saw his chance and stepped in to yank the horn out with both hands. It came free cleanly and he quickly stepped back, ducked down, and hid again.
Pepper felt a grim smile stretch his cheeks as he realized he could do this. He could win. His back hurt now, a cutting pain that made his arms feel loose down to the elbow. But it was fine—he could get sewn back up. It was possible to win. Let those gods-cursed, cowardly, black-hearted Night People watch that!
The demon howled, an inhuman, torn sound as if he’d screamed so loud it ripped his throat. He spun, whipping his tail in every direction and swiping wildly with his claws. Pepper saw another chance and stabbed the back of the man’s thigh, right under his butt. He yanked the horn out with both hands and stepped back again.
But he wasn’t fast enough. Kema spotted him and readied himself for another attack.
Despite the old scout’s eyes on him, Pepper hid again, powerfully and desperately. For just an instant, he felt Kema’s gaze slide right over him. The demon’s foot slipped a little as he caught his balance.
The instant passed, and the demon found him again. This time he kicked, catching Pepper at the elbow and flinging his left arm so hard to the side it felt like it was being ripped off. There was a loud popping sound and a fiery pain rushed through his upper body, coupled with the sense that something was wrong. He glanced down and saw his shoulder completely dislocated, his arm hanging uselessly.
Pepper should have panicked then. He knew he should have. But there was a calming presence in the air, reassuring him and helping him focus. He grabbed the horn with his good right hand and prepared himself.
Kema raised his arms to swipe with his claws, close enough that Pepper had no chance to get away.
Right at that moment, Pepper hid again, forcing his presence in with all his strength. He slid away.
It worked. Kema found him again quickly, but he’d lost focus despite looking right at him when it happened. And that’s all Pepper needed—just an instant each time, to get away or strike back.
Pepper hid again, and again the old scout’s eyes slid away for an instant. He leaped forward and stabbed the man’s stomach, then back again, but with only one arm it didn’t go in very far.
The demon swiped with his claws, but Pepper hid and ducked. He stepped forward and stabbed the man’s side, then escaped.
Again he hid and attacked, and again. The knee. The arm. The side. The stomach again. The back. Never very deep, but always something.
But then he screwed up. He went for the throat despite not being able to reach it very well.
Kema grabbed him with both arms in a bear hug and opened his sharp-toothed mouth wide to bite Pepper’s face off. Pepper ducked his head and Kema only got his ear, biting it through and ripping a chunk away.
Pepper screamed as pain flashed white in his mind. A thousand knives cut deep into his brain and spread throughout his body. Even his fingertips tingled like needles.
The old scout laughed, a wet, gurgling sound. Pepper heard him chew and swallow. “Kitten-ghost is tasty,” he said, tiny flecks of blood and spit landing on Pepper’s face.
Pepper twisted hard, trying to free himself. He couldn’t get any leverage with only one good arm, but the attempt made the bones of his bad shoulder grind together and shoot across his chest. He screamed again.
Kema opened his mouth again, widely, but this time with a genuine, blood-soaked smile. He slowly moved his teeth in toward Pepper, who struggled uselessly to get away. Slowly, slowly, to tease and torment him. The old scout’s hot, reeking breath assaulted him. His teeth grew closer and closer and Pepper could push away no more.
He did the last thing he could do. With one last desperate twist, he bit the man’s throat. He forced his jaw shut and clamped off a mouthful of the man’s flesh. He could not help but notice how bland it tasted.
Kema screamed and loosened his hug on Pepper. Not entirely, but just enough.
Pepper flung his good arm upward in a wild and desperate stab. The horn tip barely caught the demon right under the eye, and Pepper pushed up and in with what little leverage he could get. Kema’s eye lost its shape as the tip punctured it, and still Pepper pressed. He pressed until he felt the horn hit tougher flesh and bone at the back of the eye and stick there.
The old scout was too enraged to even scream—all that came out was a strangled hiss of pure fury.
Unable to push the horn in farther, Pepper spat out the bite of flesh and opened his mouth for another.
The demon struggled to push him away, to toss him aside, but they were too tangled up. Pepper fought to keep from being thrown, unsure what he’d do next if he was. He had just one arm to use but grabbed frantically for anything he could. Just as Kema got enough leverage to throw him, Pepper’s fingers closed on his horn—the one still connected to his forehead.
Kema tossed Pepper backward and away, but Pepper kept his grip on the man’s horn. The momentum was strong enough to pull him off-balance. The old demon stumbled and toppled forward. Pepper leaned hard on the back of Kema’s head and pushed down with all his body weight.
The severed horn, still in the demon’s eye, hit the ground first. It punched into the skull with a pop that Pepper felt but didn’t hear.
Kema twitched, fell still, and moved no more.
Pepper quickly rose to his feet. He stepped back, then again. A thrill of victory raced through him. He wanted to shout but didn’t know what to say. He did it! He was alive, and against a demon! Papa would be so proud, and Flower would never top that, no matter how good he sang!
He only had a moment of elation before all the pain came back to him. The cut across his back stung like it was on fire, and his shoulder ached with a force like twenty rocks pressing onto him. His ear, or what was left of it, felt like a three-inch-long pulled fingernail in the cold air.
The emotions hadn’t caught up with him yet, except for one. He couldn’t bring himself to look at the dead body. The dread it caused, laying there at the edges of his vision, was enough to wash away his good mood. He closed his eyes and stepped forward, unable to open them until he was certain he had walked far enough the dead body was behind him.
To Pepper’s surprise, the Night People remained where they were, huddled at the far end of their huge salt circle. He had expected them to come running, cheering, and lift him up with praises. But they didn’t. He didn’t know why not, but it felt like betrayal, like abandonment, and that hit him almost as hard as his injuries. It hurt.
For a short time, he looked at them, trying to understand what was going on. None of them moved; some stared in open-mouthed horror, others with expressions he couldn’t see well enough to read. Hundreds of them, all together. So many, and none of them came to help him. No one cheered.
Pepper searched for Natuak and soon found him, still holding Sheth. As soon as their eyes met, the little demon squirmed and escaped Natuak’s arms. He ran forward, his glowing eye shining like a star in his dark twilight-colored skin, dim in the bright sunlight. Several others gave chase, but the little boy was too quick to catch right away.
“Peppew! Are you okay?” he yelled. Right as he was about to cross the salt line, his papa caught a hold of his tunic and stopped him. “Peppew!” yelled Sheth. “Let go!” The little boy fought, but his papa lifted him and pinned his arms at his sides.
It was when Pepper saw Natuak arrive at the edge of the circle that he found his voice. “Why didn’t you help me?” he shouted. “You wanted him to kill me, didn’t you? You were hoping I’d die from him since you promised not to kill me!”
“Black-tail, child, I—”
“If you didn’t want me to die, then why are you so quiet? You just saw a little boy fight an adult and no one cheered! But I won! I’m alive!”
Sheth’s papa’s eyes lit up with fire. He said, “Boy! You—”
Natuak silenced him with a wave. The old demon said, “I would have come to help you if I could, but I could not. But to cheer? I pulled Kema from his mother’s womb when I was thirteen. I cut his cord, washed him, and place him on his mother’s breast. How can I cheer what happened to him?”
The answer infuriated him, but Pepper couldn’t find a reply to that.
Farat glowered down and said, “You are a curse to us, boy.”
“You are a curse to me!” shouted Pepper. The injury pain wracking him just gave fuel to the fire of his anger. “If you’d just left me with the Allobrogians, Papa would have me already and we’d be halfway to the Glories! Instead you chained me up and threatened to sell me, then everyone ignored me and kept me as lonely as possible! And then you decided to just kill me!”
Natuak sighed sadly and said, “Black-tail, child, that is not how it went—”
“If I’m a curse to you, you deserve it!”
“You are bleeding,” said Natuak said with an impatient sigh.
“I know!” shouted Pepper.
“Truly, the gods sent him to torment us,” said Sheth’s papa.
“Maybe the gods sent me to see what you’d do with a lost little boy, and you’re messing it up,” spat Pepper right back at him.
There was a long pause when everyone considered that statement. Pepper had just said it without thinking, but it certainly felt right the longer the words had to settle.
Natuak did not seem to have given it much thought, but who could tell with him? He said, “Do you want to keep yelling and bleed to death, or shall we sew you up?”
Pepper scowled, but his anger quickly slipped away to let more pain slip in instead, along with the recognition that he was really starting to get cold. The cold pressed its way into the cut on his back, and the pain grew more and more with each heartbeat. It seemed to hit his whole body like a wave every time he took a breath. Pepper’s eyes soon filled with hot, stinging tears. “I want to get sewed up,” he said, weaker than he intended.
Natuak smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. He said, “Good. We did not bring the proper supplies, so hurry to my tent and get the basket in the red corner. It has what I need to bind your wounds.”
“Why can’t you get it?” he asked, blinking away the pain tears and trying to keep his voice steady. How could Natuak be so callous, still? After all this?
“He can’t carry anything with his arm like that, Elder,” said a woman in an angry tone of voice. She was angular and severe, with streaks of gray in her black hair that contrasted with the youth of her face. Pepper wasn’t sure if he recognized her, but he could still barely see through the stinging tears he couldn’t blink away. “Come here, child.”
For a moment he wondered if there was a trick—Had she promised not to kill him when the others did? He didn’t know her, aside from seeing her a few times, same as all the rest of the Night People. But she was standing unusually close to Farat. Should he try and flee while he still could?
But a little push from behind made the decision for him. It was a subtle sensation, more like wind than anything, but it got him to move. Pepper wondered briefly if some of the dead were on his side, since he’d felt something during the fight, and maybe before. But how would that even make sense? It would have to be all dead Allobrogians and maybe some Night People.
He stepped over the salt circle, experiencing the sense of separation that he’d noticed before. It really did remind him of one of Mama’s shields, even if you couldn’t see anything with this one.
The older woman nodded and knelt down to inspect his shoulder. She made him let go of his arm, and letting it hang free again hurt enough to get a whimper out of him. She felt around his shoulder to get a sense of what had happened in there, then turned his wrist and gently gave it a tug.
The bones slid back together so quickly Pepper didn’t even realize what was happening until it was done. The pounding pain vanished, leaving behind only a mild ache. He’d expected it to be awful, and even opened his mouth for a scream he didn’t need.
“Feel better now? Good. Be careful with that arm for a while. Don’t lift anything too heavy or it’ll happen again,” said the woman. “Now go get that medicine basket. Hurry, but don’t run. Just walk.”
Pepper moved his arm up and down, testing to see if it really was fixed. It was. It felt almost like normal.
“Get moving, Kitten-ghost. You’re still bleeding,” said the woman. She folded her arms and looked very much like Mama for a moment, even if she was a completely different kind of person.
“I’ll be right back,” he said. As soon as he crossed back over the salt line, the whispering came back, and the feeling of the presence of things moving around that he couldn’t see. Why are there so many here, he wondered? Why are there so many at all?
Natuak’s tent wasn’t that far from the center of camp and it only took him a moment to get there, even at a walk. Once he arrived, the basket of medical things was right where the elder had said—in a corner that was mostly reddish in color from deer skins. Pepper was tempted to try and lift it with his bad arm just to see, but the feeling of the bones coming apart was too fresh in his memory. Instead he lifted it with both arms, whimpering quietly from how it pulled at the long cut across his back.
When he got back to the salt circle, he found that most of the Night People had moved forward again and were waiting for him. Farat, Teshwan, and a few others of the tougher men met his gaze, but as he got closer they parted to let him in.
Crossing over the circle and walking in between them made him nervous, but they had promised not to kill him and he was done being afraid… although, now that he thought about it, some of the fear was coming back. It wasn’t gone forever after all—thinking about all the blood coming out his back was pushing away what little calm he still had.
Natuak directed him to kneel, and several hands lifted his arms and carefully pulled his shirt off. He grit his teeth and clenched his eyes shut and tried to ignore how sharp the pain was, but the thing that got a squeal of pain out of him was when they dragged it across the bit-off part of his ear. The pulled-fingernail feeling was even worse than having his back laid open.
He’d never felt more naked in his life than right now, kneeling on the cold, hard ground, surrounded by people who even after so long were still strangers. He still had his pants on, but the cold air on his torso wouldn’t let him forget how vulnerable he was. At least they hadn’t stepped on his tail yet. It was the fear making him feel like this, he realized. The fear was back.
No sooner did he close his eyes to try and think about something else than two small hands grabbed his, and he peeked to see little Sheth standing there looking heartbroken. “It’s okay, Peppew.”
“I know,” Pepper said, struggling to keep his voice from breaking. He still had one friend here. He didn’t need to be so afraid. He was, though. This was going to hurt. “But… can you, um… can you keep holding my hand? Because it’s gonna be bad when they sew me back up, and--”
Someone dragged a cloth across the cut all the way from shoulder to shoulder and Pepper squeaked like a stepped-on dog. Tears filled his eyes and he had to close them again. He felt Sheth grip his hand even tighter, probably as tight as the little boy could.
“It’s okay, Peppew! It’s okay!” Sheth urgently insisted.
A moment later, Pepper felt the first jab of the needle as they started to sew him back up. The needle hurt bad enough, over and over and over, but the worst was how they had to squeeze the skin back together. Every poke felt like he was getting cut all over again and they were going at it from both sides, working their way in toward his spine and causing double the pain.
Pepper suffered through it as patiently as he could. He was worried if he started crying he wouldn’t be able to stop, and it would be loud and embarrassing, so he kept his chin up and did his best not to. Mostly just meant he held his breath a lot. Sheth valiantly held his hand the whole time, repeating each time Pepper winced.
Shortly after the sewing got close enough to the center that only Natuak could work on him, a commotion passed through the tribe. Many of the demons who had been standing around watching him turned their attention elsewhere, in the direction of Kema’s dead body. Pepper nearly stood and ran, thinking the old scout must have come back to life again and was still coming for him.
But before he could, Sheth dropped his hand and yelled, “Dana!”
When Pepper turned to look, Natuak grabbed his head and turned him back around, almost poking his face with the needle. “Stay put, Kitten-ghost. We are almost done.”
Pepper heard Dyana come running from quite a distance as her feet slapped the wet ground. She stopped about thirty paces behind him, probably right by the dead body.
“What in the watery hells is going on?” she shouted. Then, in a quieter but just as confused voice, she said, “What happened to him? And why are you all in there? Where did all the angry spirits come from?”
He heard movement, which sounded like she was moving the body around to examine it.
“Why did… From the size of the footprints, it looks like a bunch of women took turns stabbing him? What did he do?”
“Dana!” shouted Sheth again, and this time he was heard.
“Oh, Sheth! There you are. Hold on, let me put these down somewhere.” Dyana dropped something big and heavy that landed with a thud only a few paces away. “Come here, you darling boy. You can tell me what all this is about, since no one else is.”
Pepper heard Dyana pick up Sheth and groan as she hugged him tightly. He squeezed her back and made the same sound. Pepper felt the familiar pangs of envy, even through the pain of being sewn up. “Oh, you’re so strong!” she said. “You’re…”
She fell silent, and so did everyone else. He could feel their fear of her, see it in how they held still and silent and tried to look anywhere but at her.
“Elder, you had better have a good explanation for this,” said Dyana, her voice growing dark.
Unaffected, the old demon said, “Come and sit over here, girl. I think our poor Kitten-ghost would like to see a friendly face.”
Natuak squeezed and jabbed again at just the wrong time, and Pepper had to swallow a whimper of pain and try to blink more tears away just as Dyana stepped into his vision.
After a pause of indecision, she sat with a heavy plop, so close her folded knees almost touched his. Sheth stood at her side, holding her hand. She still wore the same loose, baggy trousers as before, and the same old cloth tied across her breasts, but the first thing Pepper noticed was how clean they were. She had bathed, too, since none of the marks and scuffs of dirt and bark and whatever else were visible on her skin. That must have been freezing.
But it did feel good to see her. Relief strengthened him, even as his heart reached out toward her, hoping she was a friend again. Her facial expression was hard at first, however, full of flint and anger. Pepper gazed at her, pleading with his eyes. She stared back, stony and mad. Not at him, though, he decided. She was mad because of him, and that gave him hope.
Pepper hissed as another jab from Natuak’s needle hit a sensitive spot, then kept the hiss going as he felt the thread pulled through. Unable to meet Dyana’s gaze anymore, he looked down. Sheth took his hand again, holding it just as tightly as before.
Dyana grabbed his chin and lifted his head again, and said, “Oh, you poor thing. They even got your ear. It looks like someone took a big bite out of it. I’m sorry, Pepper. I should have stuck around.”
“Yes, you should have!” he yelled, unable to contain the emotion that suddenly welled up and burst out of him. It was a lot of things at all once, but mostly hurt and anger. She could have kept him safe. It would have been easy for her, but she didn’t. “I almost got killed!” he spluttered. He bowed his head again and started sobbing, and it was only through great effort that he kept from wailing at the top of his lungs.
Anger, frustration, betrayal, terror, everything. It was all coming out now and there was nothing he could do about it. He could only be strong for so long.
Dyana placed a gentle hand over the back of his neck and pressed the crown of her forehead against his. She held him silently while he watched the tears drip off his face and make the ground dark. Each jab from Natuak’s needle got another squeal out of him, and every little gust of air on his ear made him whimper.
Natuak finally finished the sewing and started wrapping the bandages around his chest and shoulders, and Pepper’s relief turned quickly to dread when he realized how much it still hurt, and that it would keep hurting like that until it got better.
“I’m not safe anywhere, ever,” Pepper managed to choke out after a while.
“Yes you are, Pepper. I’m so sorry,” said Dyana. He thought he could hear pity in her voice.
“There’s nowhere I’ll ever be safe. Papa’s not even coming, is he?” said Pepper. The idea was so dark he didn’t even want to say it, but it came out on its own.
“I should have stayed. I made a huge mistake. I’m so sorry,” said Dyana. She sounded truly regretful, which made Pepper raise his head in surprise. Dyana’s eyes met his and he barely recognized the person he saw. Where before she had been confident, even condescending, now her eyes pleaded with him. Her mouth that only ever sneered or smiled mockingly was bunched up into a hard frown of sympathy. It looked like ten layers of her had stripped away.
“Dana? What’s wong?” asked Sheth.
“I’ve had so much on my mind, I wasn’t even thinking straight. I just… I really messed up again, didn’t I? I went to go hunt some deer because I thought it’d make everyone happy, but when I get back, I find angry spirits everywhere and Pepper all torn up. And a dead man, who must have been defending the tribe. That was your best scout, right? What was it that got him? Did you drive it off? I’m so sorry, Elder. Everyone. I should have been here.”
“That…” started Natuak, but he paused, unsure how to continue.
“Kema attacked Peppew,” said Sheth plainly.
“What?” said Dyana, her face suddenly flat as she tried to process it. “Then the women came and saved him? All those small footprints, and… Oh, spirits, they fought him with their horns, didn’t they? That’s where he got all those puncture wounds. Was anyone else hurt?”
For a moment no one said anything. Dyana stood back up, and Pepper immediately missed her warmth. “What happened? Why are you all staring like that? Pepper?”
Natuak rose to his feet and gestured with his hand for Dyana to relax. He said, “The circle is protecting us from the spirits. That kind can corrupt us, for reasons of our heritage. Kema was caught outside and overcome. He lost his mind and attacked Pepper.”
“I see. So Pepper made it to you just in time? Why did only the women fight? Are they safer to leave?”
The old demon looked more miserable than Pepper had ever seen him. He looked completely deflated, like he’d breathed out all the life left in him. “Pepper fought him alone,” he finally said, barely above a whisper.
Dyana stared blankly for a moment as she processed what Natuak had just said. Pepper watched her face as it finally clicked into place. “What?!” she shouted.
The elder sheepishly said, “We could not go help him, or we would risk becoming corrupted and violent as well. I regret—”
Dyana stomped her foot so hard Pepper felt the earth shudder. He jumped to his feet, unsure if he needed to get out of the way before he got kicked. Her eyes had changed to pure black with little dots like stars, but the sight made Pepper more confused than scared. When she spoke, however, she still sounded like herself. “You let Pepper fight a grown man and didn’t lift a finger to help? You didn’t even throw rocks? Did you all just stand there and watch? Look at me! Answer!”
“We could not help,” said Farat. “And we would do the same again before we risked another of our own.”
Feeling emboldened, Pepper added, “Farat was planning on killing me. He and Kema were gonna do it in secret. Natuak was gonna let them when he found out. I only lived because I can hide.”
“Are you all idiots?” Dyana shouted, gesturing angrily with almost her whole body. “And I thought I was the foolish one! You had everything you needed to save your tribe. Everything was in place, almost like the gods planned it all out, and you spat it in their faces! I’ve been thinking about this for days.”
Farat cut in and said, “I think it’s time for you to leave, outsider. We don’t need—”
“Shut it! If you say one more word, I’ll kill you where you stand, betrayer. I am not in the mood!” Dyana started pacing, pointing with her finger while she yelled. Her black, star-studded eyes flashed like firebursts in the sunlight. Where had Pepper seen that before? She continued, “All you had to do to get the strongest ally the gods could send you was keep his son happy, and look how you treated him! Did you forget he’s the son of Androkles? Didn’t I tell you not to cross him? What did I tell you? What did I tell you, Natuak? Let me hear it!”
The old demon didn’t answer. Instead, he looked like he wished he could sink into the earth and disappear. In fact, it seemed most of the demons looked more ashamed than angry, which pleased Pepper. They deserved to get yelled at like this, and Dyana was doing a job that would have made Agurne proud.
“In fact,” she continued pacing around pointing an angry finger to punctuate everything she said, “the more I think about it, the more stupid you all seem. You want to beat the Allobrogians? Did you know Pepper here could have taught you how to fight like Laophileans? He knows the complete move set, and you all watched him practice every morning and never asked to join. And then there’s me. I’m worth an army all by myself, but you made me feel like an outsider. I saved one of your own, and you barely tolerate me! Why didn’t you spend every waking moment begging me to fight for you? Are you stupid, or do you just want to die out?”
Dyana’s rant ceased for a moment while she caught her breath.
Sensing an opportunity, in a reconciliatory tone, Natuak said, “Dyana, your failure to understand does not mean we acted stupidly. We have only done exactly what we must, no more and no less. You say I could have acted differently, but I am not free to take risks. The burdens I must carry—"
“The burdens you carry blinded you to the answer right in front of you, Natuak, you festering old sack of bad milk! How are the gods supposed to lift you when you bite their hands? Is being too stubborn and stupid supposed to be an excuse?”
Pepper suddenly remembered where he had seen eyes like Dyana’s before, like hers had become. All black, full of tiny white flecks like stars. “Palthos…?” he said quietly.
Dyana looked at him and nodded slightly, then leapt back into action. “Right, Palthos, how could I forget? Pepper calls a god a friend, and his whole family tells the same story. A god. As a friend. The god of orphans, in fact. And frankly, if you want to see a tribe with a dead god and no ancestors, it would look pretty much like this one. You should know a thing or two about orphans and their usual fate. I know I do.”
She bowed her head, a look of frustration on her face like she was now at a loss for words. An angry murmur began to pass through the crowd. They spoke quietly to each other, filling the air with a disquieted buzz. When she looked up again, boldly staring at everyone with nothing more to say, her eyes were back to normal, white and brown like a regular stone-man female.
Pepper was sure he hadn’t imagined the god’s eyes. It wasn’t a trick of the light, because it was way too bright out here to mess up seeing something like that. Palthos had touched her, or he was nearby, or he was watching, or something. But if the god was around, why wasn’t he watching out for Pepper? Why let him get nearly killed? It hadn’t been the god helping in the fight—that must have been spirits because that’s not how Palthos did things. He always used people.
But he had to wonder now, what would it have been like if the Night People had done what they were supposed to? If they’d treated him like the person he was, a son of Androkles? They still wouldn’t have let him run away like he wanted at first, but they would have kept him somewhere other than chained up alone in a cold cave. And then after Wolfscar came, they would have let him play with their children and he would have made fifty friends. He could have slept with a different family every night, and he would have met Sheth’s parents and told them where he was before Dyana came.
Then when Papa finally came, Pepper would have begged him to help them, and Papa would have. Instead, Natuak tried to get Pepper’s sympathy without showing any real affection, and it hadn’t worked. At least until yesterday, when Natuak said he should have a knife and told about the tents. For a few brief moments, he thought he might be accepted and stop feeling so miserable and alone all the time.
And then Farat and the others simply decided to kill him.
It could have been so, so different. It could have been happy and fun and safe, and thinking about it was infuriating. The more Pepper imagined what could have been, the angrier he got. He could have had friends. The pain of his injuries added fuel to the fire, more and more until he couldn’t keep still.
He jumped to his feet, drawing plenty of eyes. He was so mad his breath hissed between his tightly clenched teeth. He balled his fists. It felt like he was turning red. It could have been different! He didn’t have to suffer like that at all!
Pepper wanted to shout, but he didn’t know what to say that Dyana hadn’t said already. It was probably Palthos himself that put Pepper there, but he could complain to the god the next time he saw him. The Night People were here now, and they were listening. “Dyana’s right!” he yelled, so loud his voice cracked.
He brushed off Natuak’s hand and stomped over to the salt circle as a plan started to form. He stepped outside it to let the whispering of the dead and the soft breezes of their fingers wash over him. He felt again that courage, the thing that took away his fear. What was that? Something he could worry about later.
Pepper turned to face the Night People and found nearly all of them watching him, a mixture of concern and curiosity on their faces. As loud as he could, he yelled, “You had Pepper, and you treated him worse than a dog! Look what happened to him! Do you see this? Look at my ear! So guess what! You didn’t like Pepper, so now you get the son of Androkles!”
He dipped his toe into the little furrow where all the salt was to make up the circle. A cruel grin stretched across his face, even as the cold air licked at his wounded ear and made his eyes water again.
The Night People screamed as one, and as one, all five hundred of them lurched in his direction to stop him.
But he held his foot in place and they halted, realizing they still had a chance. Just a little kick, and the circle was no more. Then the spirits could get in, right? That’s how it must work, or they wouldn’t have all jumped like that.
Farat and Natuak were the closest, only five paces away. Farat had knives in both hands, and Natuak held his arms forward, ready for a grab.
“What does it feel like to have your fate in someone’s hands who doesn’t care about you, Natuak? Not good, huh!” said Pepper.
“Pepper, please, calm down. See how I have tended your wounds? We are not your enemies,” begged Natuak. He still looked just as pitiable and defeated as before, a man watching his last efforts fall apart.
“No, there’s no more Pepper. Remember? You got rid of Pepper, so now I’m the son of Androkles!”
Farat pointed one of the knives and said, “Boy! If you move a single grain of salt, I will cut you apart if it’s the last thing I do. Do you understand?”
Pepper looked at him for a moment, annoyed. So much for Farat’s oath not to kill him. “Dyana, will you come here, please? But not too close.”
Dyana stepped forward, holding Sheth in her arms. Sheth’s parents tried to pull the boy away, but she shrugged them off and nodded to them, and they relented. She stopped a bit farther behind Farat, and a little to the side.
“You owe my family a debt, Dyana. Androkles helped you and fed you and Sheth, and even made that tunic for him. And then when the Prince and his men came, Papa defended you and then you turned your back on us. Remember that? Remember all the things you said? You said Papa was a murderer and you didn’t want Sheth around him. You said Papa was a fool. But he isn’t!” Pepper folded his arms to look more noble, even thought it stretched the stitches on his back a little and made him wince slightly. To hide it, he tried to scowl like Papa always did.
“Pepper, what are you doing?” she asked softly. “I can’t let you hurt Sheth.”
“I asked you a question first! Do you remember?” Pepper said. How would Papa be standing right now? Probably something like this.
“I remember,” she said, her voice still quiet.
“Papa protected you from the Prince when he wanted to take Sheth back, but you just said a bunch of mean things and left, and then look what happened to us!”
“I know I made a mistake, Pepper. Lots of them. What are you getting at?” she said, her voice losing its softness.
“Farat and Kema agreed to kill me and toss my body in the snow. Kema’s dead already, so as the son of Androkles, I take this oath: our family will forgive you if you kill Farat, right now.”
The Night People gasped as one, all inhaling at the same time loud enough for Pepper to hear it. Dyana blinked, then whispered something to Sheth and set him down. He ran back to his parents, who stepped in around him to keep him safe.
Farat’s anger faltered. His mouth fell slightly open and the tips of his knives dipped toward the ground as he turned his head to look at Dyana. The woman who’d helped Pepper with his arm and stitches stepped forward and begged, “Please, not my husband! Please, not like this! I helped you!”
Pepper paused, almost deterred. He hadn’t known Farat had a wife, or that it was her. But that was the problem, wasn’t it? They never accepted him. And it’s not like Papa ever checked to see if the men he killed had a family first. He swallowed the pity welling up in him as well as he could and said, “Pepper would have cared. But the son of Androkles doesn’t. My enemies can’t be left alive. Too bad.”
Dyana said, still speaking softly, “Pepper, what is this about? What are you planning?”
“I’m doing what Papa would do. Farat will kill me the first chance he gets.”
“This is insane. This isn’t right, Pepper. Please, just stop here. Things will still work out.”
“Did I say to argue? Or did I say to kill Farat!”
Dyana swallowed and shifted her feet nervously. She glanced over at the big war leader, and their eyes met. A deathly calm came over the crowd. Even the evil shades quieted to watch.
An instant later, Farat’s eyes widened. He tried to turn but lost his footing and collapsed to the ground. It took a moment for Pepper to notice the bright red blood pouring out the man’s neck. It had been a deep cut, deep enough to cut off all the blood to the brain and make him pass out immediately. Papa had explained how that worked once when killing a sheep.
Natuak wiped a knife clean on Farat’s clothes, and only then did the Night People react to what they’d seen. Many of them screamed and stepped back in horror. Jeg fell across her husband and turned him over, trying to staunch the blood with her hands. But it was already too late—it had already almost stopped flowing. It spread in a large pool on the ground almost the size of a man.
Although Pepper had seen things like this before, with it so close the sight turned his stomach. Even after everything with Kema. He felt himself turn pale, then green, but a feeling like a heavy hand on his shoulder stabilized him, even though there was nothing there.
The Night People elder met Pepper’s gaze evenly, coldly, still holding the knife. He spoke, although not loud—just loud enough to be heard, and no more. “I give you this man’s blood. What else must we offer for you to spare us, Kitten-ghost?”
The tumult of terror vanished as everyone fell silent to listen. Some repeated the elder’s words for those who didn’t hear. Once it seemed everyone was ready for the answer, Pepper forced his mind to be calm and said, “You have to all come help me find Papa, then you have to help save him from the King. I heard about the King’s armies, so I know already. I know the armies are looking for him, and you don’t think he can get away or come find me.”
“We cannot fight the King’s armies for you. If we could, we would not be in this position.”
“Well, if you don’t even try, I’ll kick this salt right now, and then anyone that the shades don’t take, I’ll come for in the night. This is your last chance to stay alive as a people.”
Natuak looked no stronger than a moment before. He was still sad, defeated. He looked like his flesh was only hanging onto his skeleton by the horns. His eyes were dark with exhaustion, but now Pepper found a sparkle of simmering, dangerous anger. Where had those feeble arms found the strength to cut Farat’s throat? Farat was the tallest and strongest man in the tribe.
“And what of our children?”
“Dyana will protect Sheth. I don’t know any of the others, do I? So it’s not my problem. Unless you swear to help me save Androkles.”
The Night People unconsciously leaned in closer to see what Natuak would do, making the pressure of the moment almost suffocating. Dyana unfolded her arms and took a position that was supposed to look relaxed but was actually ready. Pepper recognized it. Papa had taught him something like it.
Natuak deliberately placed the knife back in his belt. “You are fortunate I gave an oath not to kill you, Kitten-ghost.”
“You wouldn’t survive the attempt, elder,” said Dyana.
“Perhaps. I know things you do not. Pepper, what you are asking is not possible. We cannot leave the circle until the spirits lose their malice, unless perhaps you wish to make us all charms to ward them off. But even if we could depart, if you drag us all to war, that will be the end of us. I would prefer to deal with the ones who turn and take my chances. Kick the salt and be done with us.” Natuak’s words were level and cold.
Pepper felt himself go pale as fear gripped him again. He’d been sure this would work. Now what was he supposed to do? He almost kicked the salt right then, but then he pictured seeing them all go insane right in front of him, and… and then they’d all come for him. He could barely fight one, so what about five hundred? Could he get away and hide in time?
He looked at Dyana for a hint of what he should do, nearly panicking, but she looked like she was chewing on the inside of her lip from having too many thoughts. His mind went from her to Sheth, and from Sheth to all the little ones trapped under those rocks in that field, and he realized he still had one more thing he could say.
“So much for everyone being like a precious fur that can’t be removed,” said Pepper. “I thought you couldn’t spare any more people. What if that woman who just got back with the child that Papa helped save, I think her name was Etiya? Her, over there. What if she’s one of the people who die, and you never find out where the children are?”
Dyana said, “Natuak, Pepper is a child. You should be negotiating with his father, but the man’s not around. So I’ll help Pepper out. First, we’ll help you make wards or talismans for everyone. You know how to make those, right?”
“Of course we do. We simply didn’t have enough time to make so many.”
“Good. I’ll make you an offer. Come with me and Pepper and help him find his Papa. Along the way, any time we get anywhere near any Allobrogians, no matter how many, I’ll kill them for you, and you can take their weapons and horses, and any armor, too, if you can wear it. You can wear their chainmail, I think. Then once we find Androkles, you can bargain with him in person instead.”
Natuak looked upset at this. He said, “Young woman, I know you think very highly of yourself, but killing any Allobrogians we come across is not a claim you should be making.”
“I’m making it.”
Pepper said, “Papa hates demons. He hates the Night People more than anything in the world. But it’s not really the Night People he hates, it’s the berserkers. So come and tell him about them. He doesn’t know about that they’re made from children. He won’t like that, and he’ll want to stop the King forever.”
"And what if he chooses to simply kill us all instead, like you threatened he would?” said Natuak. He seemed to be growing more and more angry.
“He won’t,” said Pepper.
“And why not? Why has he suddenly changed his mind?” spat Natuak.
“Because I con—” Pepper lost his voice momentarily and had to clear his throat. He could feel the outcome of the statement sneaking up on him from behind. “Because I conquered you, and it’s my decision.”
Natuak laughed, but it was a grim sound and not a joyous one. Some of the other Night People grinned; a few chuckled. None of them seemed truly amused. “And when did you do that? I will not bow to a child!” The elder waved his arm forcefully in a slicing motion along with his words, and Pepper could see real fire in his eyes. Old pride.
Pepper nearly panicked again. He almost stepped back from the elder’s fury as well; only indecision kept his feet planted.
“Be gone, Kitten-ghost! You have been a curse to us. We will not help you, not now and not ever! Leave us and go!” yelled Natuak.
But Pepper knew he couldn’t. He wouldn’t find Papa all on his own, or even with Dyana. Wolfscar might never find him again if he wasn’t with the Night People. His mind flailed for an answer and came up with nothing but fear. It was all falling apart.
Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw a shape in the wind like a soldier of Papa’s people, tall and strong, holding a shield and spear. And beside him, another one, and another one past that. Pepper turned to look and there was nothing there, but he could feel something in his heart that began to give him strength, something like a comforting hand that rested on his shade and not his body. He knew what he had to do. He had tried talking, over and over. It hadn’t worked. There was only one thing left.
Pepper took a deep breath and forced himself to be calm. “I did conquer you, though. Didn’t I?”
Natuak said, “No, boy, you did not. Nor shall you. Go.” It sounded like a threat.
“Yes, I did. I conquered you right now,” said the son of Androkles. He kicked the salt. For an instant, there was only the gasps and widening eyes of the Night People. Into that emptiness, the whispering of shades roared into screams. Pepper felt them rush past him in countless numbers and set upon the demons. Then there was chaos.