“Stop!” the man cried.
“There! Right there.” She pointed toward the wall, where the air seemed to ripple in the darkness. The rattling screams reached a fevered state, making the blood pound inside of his head as he crossed through first, Etta at his back.
The momentum launched him out through the gate at the other end of the passage. He felt his breath catch, the hammering pulse of his heart. The world dissolved into pure darkness, the squeeze of air around him popping the bones in his stiff back. And, as quickly as he had leapt into it, Nicholas was spat out through the other side.
BIRDS AND INSECTS SCREECHED FROM THEIR PERCHES IN THE FLESHY green trees and brush around him. There was always a moment of blindness as his eyes adjusted to being inundated with light. He pressed his face against the wet earth, trying to clear the fog in his mind. No sooner had he started to get up, when a weight crashed into his back and sent him sprawling down into the mud again.
“Sorry!” Etta gasped, rolling off him. “Oww—”
He sat up, his vision swinging back toward the passage’s entrance. When it became clear that the other man wasn’t about to follow them through—that if he was indeed a Thorn, he was a guardian, rather than a traveler—Nicholas began to look beyond it. Jungle—a vast, thick shield of green and brown around him. The air was heavy with the contradictory scents of rotting vegetation and floral blooms, lit green by the screen of bright leaves and tangle of thin branches overhead.
“Are you all right?” he asked, the words scratching out of his dry throat. “Etta?”
She was flat on her back, the sky-blue dress splattered with mud. Before he could stop himself, he began to pluck the long, green leaves out of her hair, flicking them away as the girl groaned, shaking madly.
“You’re all right,” he told her. “Look at me, just for a moment—just a moment, pirate.”
It had taken him at least five trips through the passages during his training before he’d worked the last of the traveler’s sickness out of his system. He knew too well how she was feeling: the weakness, the way every sound was battering her skull, the blood that was turning to ice in her veins. Etta opened her eyes, but they were unfocused. A soft sigh escaped her lips, and her eyelids fluttered shut.
“’S fine,” she said. “Just…need…moment.”
They didn’t have a moment, and they wouldn’t, until he figured out where the passage had brought them and whether more guardians were near. The man in London would report what he’d seen to any nearby traveler, and he or she would be sent to follow them. They’d need to find the next passage immediately, and be gone before they could be tracked again.
Nicholas would bring Ironwood his damned astrolabe, but he wished to do it on his own terms, and keep Etta well out of Ironwood’s grasp. He needed to keep her from sensing that this journey would have a very different end than the one she imagined.
He looked down at her grimacing face, and swallowed the burn of bile in his throat.
After another look around to ensure there was no one nearby, and that the only immediate threats were hunger and dehydration, Nicholas gathered her up into his arms and began to walk.
There was no trail, no evidence of human touch. He strained his ears, trying to hear above the rattle and buzz of the insects, and—there—he heard what he hoped was the sound of rushing water.
Etta’s weight felt good and solid in his arms; but the feel of her in his arms, Nicholas thought with some uneasiness, was getting a bit too familiar. He stepped over the powerful arm of a root jutting up out of the soft soil. He let the branches blocking their way do what they would to his neck and face, and did the best he could to shield Etta.
“Where…?” she asked, already coming around. He fought a smile. The next time would be easier on her, then.
“Not entirely sure, to tell you the truth,” he said.
“Put me down,” she said. “I can walk, I promise.”
His hands tightened around her waist, her legs. The air had grown warm, and he knew he must smell worse than whatever ungodly rotting stench the jungle was belching out, but reluctance tugged at him even as he set her down on her feet.
She can look after herself. Etta knew herself well enough to know what she could and couldn’t fight through.
But that, of course, didn’t preclude him wanting to take care of her.
Etta looked around, taking in the knot of green foliage, the way the canopy shielded them from the sun’s glare. “Well…this is different.”
He snorted. “Come, let’s see what we can find in the way of water and food.”
His ears hadn’t failed him—there was a stream nearby, and it moved quickly enough for him to feel mildly comfortable drinking it. Whenever he and Julian had tried to survive in the wild, they’d carried packs stuffed with supplies. Pots for boiling water and cooking. Blankets for freezing nights. There had been matches to start fires, hooks and lines for fishing. It had been Hall who’d taught him how to survive with none of these things.
He had a small knife he’d carried with him from New York. That would have to be enough.
“Wait here a moment,” he said, gesturing toward a stone on the bank of the stream. “I’ll be right back. Shout if you see or hear anything.”
She nodded, distracted by something in the distance. He walked back the way they had come, veering right when he saw a tower of pale green out of the corner of his eye. Bananas—none of them ripe, but food all the same. He sent up a prayer of gratitude to whoever might be listening as he began to pull them from the tree and stow them in the bag. The most pressing issue now was finding some kind of container in which to boil water, and locating wood and brush that were dry enough to strike up a fire.