The word swirled around her, in her, through her, emanating from the echo of every step. The comforting beat of the Earth’s heart was gone, leaving only the crunch of snow under her feet.
She didn’t even notice when Yale stopped calling after her.
Mary stumbled on, hearing only the word. Outcast. She was Outcast. Yale had spoken to her of kindness, and she’d believed him, and been rejected by everything she’d known. She was Outcast, banned from the Earth itself, with nowhere left to go.
There was only the word, and her breathing, and the crunch of her boots on the snow, for a very long time. She had no idea how long, and didn’t care. It only ended when she walked face-first into a tree. The recoil threw her backwards and she landed hard, gasping.
She hadn’t seen it. It was dark. And something hurt.
Mary reached up to touch her face. The skin wasn’t warm and smooth, like the dirt. It was rough and wet and cold, but it burned when she touched it. There was something on her fingertips when she drew them away. It was slippery, but not like water. It smelled and tasted metallic. She touched her face again, finding more of the liquid. It was hot. How could it be so hot when her face was so cold?
She’d never thought to ask questions when she was with the People. She never needed to. If she’d stayed with the humans, someone there might have explained it to her. But they were gone, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to be around them again anyway. How would they know they weren’t just making another mistake?
The hot places on her face seemed to be starting to cool, and the liquid on her fingers was drying, forming a crusty substance. Her face didn’t burn anymore when she touched it. Bracing herself on the Earth beneath her, Mary pushed back up to a stand.
That was when she noticed the wind. It blew across her face, starting the stinging again. It slithered under the collar of her jacket like a knife, chilling the skin under the clothing. She was shivering. It was winter, not far from the Time of Hibernation. It was too cold to be above the Earth.
But she couldn’t go back Inside.
Perhaps just being closer to the Earth would be enough. She dropped to her hands and knees, feeling around in the darkness. The snow stung her bare palms as badly as the tree had stung her face. Mary ignored it and began to inch forward, digging, looking for the Earth underneath. She found it just as something else smacked into her face, bringing back the stinging-hot feeling that had gone away just a little while before.
She smelled wood. A bush. There was snow on the bush, but none on the Earth underneath. The bush protected the Earth. Maybe it could protect her too. Scrambling forward, she tried to squeeze herself underneath. The bush cried out; she could hear its branches bending and breaking while she sought a comfortable position. Please, please, don’t name me unwelcome just because I am Outcast.
As if in response, the branches shifted a final time and Mary found herself lying supine, her back completely upon the Earth. The branches began to settle their movement, covering her, protecting her. She closed her eyes. She was Outcast, but she would not be killed.
She had no idea how long she had slept, but she had not Dreamed and because of that Mary awoke tired. There was more wetness on her face, but when she touched it, it wasn’t the hot, metallic liquid from before. This was more like water. Tears. She was crying. The humans had said that was something they did when they were unhappy.
But she was not human! She would not cry!
Gasping, gulping, swallowing the unexpected lump in her throat, Mary sat up. She’d forgotten about the bush until she felt the hot-cold scratching of the branches on her face. With a strangled noise, she dropped back down onto her back. The swaying of the bush above her stilled. It was still dark, and she couldn’t see.
The bush’s motion had stopped, but she could still hear branches moving above her, along with an odd, low trilling sound. Was it the wind? Could the wind sound like the People? Some of the branches above her moved again, and she could hear them creaking as if under a weight.
That wasn’t the wind.
Pushing herself away from the base of the bush, Mary tried to scramble out the way she’d come in. Tears dripped down her face again. The Earth didn’t want her after all. She reached up to unsnag her jacket from one of the branches, and then shrieked when something sharp came down on her hand, puncturing the skin.
She felt the same hot-cold stinging reaction she’d had before, but it was worse, so much worse this time. It was almost as if her skin were on fire. She could even imagine she felt it bubbling. The burning spread from her hand up her arm and it hurt. It hurt!
Amidst the burning pain, Mary collapsed. The Earth had decided to kill her after all.
She hadn’t expected to wake up again, but she did, and this time there was light. It flickered and jumped, but it was light. There was also warmth, and while she could hear the wind she couldn’t feel it. Everything around her was soft.
Mary opened her eyes to see a fire like the ones the humans had made the night she stayed with them. She was wrapped in fur. Her hand throbbed when she moved it, but she had no difficulty bringing it up to her face. There was a fresh scar there, circular, and the skin around it had fainter circle marks.
A human head was lying beside the fire, glinting gray-blue in the flames’ light.
Recoiling and trilling the danger warning, Mary scrambled out of the furs and to her feet. They felt shaky underneath her, but she started to run anyway. She had to get away from this place!
She’d only made it a few steps when something caught her from behind. She trilled the warning even louder and fought the bonds forming around her body. She could see hands, and the trills caught on her tongue when she heard a voice.
“Don’t run away. Please.”
Startled, Mary stopped struggling. The hands withdrew and she heard her captor step around her so they could stand face-to-face. It was a human, but not one of the humans that had been with the Eden group. This one was young, male, and dressed in clothing similar to the furs she’d thrown off seconds before.
Her hand throbbed painfully, and she swayed on her feet. The human reached out again, this time steadying her. “You were stung by a Koba. You need to rest.” She found herself being guided back to the fire, to the furs next to that gruesome head. Seeing it, she started to struggle again, trilling her distress.
The human seemed to understand. Releasing her, he reached over to pick up the head. “It’s a mask. Just a mask!” He showed her the underside, showed her how it was empty inside. “See?” He held it out to her.
She reached out with her uninjured hand. “Not…killed?”
“No.” The human let her touch the mask. “Just made.”
She ran her fingers around the edges and then looked back at his face. “Who…?”
He put the mask on the ground and eased her back down onto the blankets. “My name is Whalen.”