Page 27 of Pretties (Uglies 2)

Finally, as the sky was fading to pink, Tally decided to come to a halt. She found an open clearing where the sun had beaten down all day, maybe drying out enough wood for a fire. The brutal hike had raised a sweat - Tally's shirt clung to her, and she'd never once worn her coat - but once the sun set, she knew the air would turn freezing cold again.

Finding dry twigs was easy, and Tally weighed a few small logs in her hand to find the lightest, which would contain the least water. All her Smokey knowledge seemed to have come back, with no scraps of pretty-mindedness remaining after the escape. Now that she was out of the city, the cure had settled over Tally's mind for good.

But she hesitated before putting the firestarter to the pile, paranoia staying her hand. The forest still made its sounds - dripping water, bird cries, the skitterings of small animals among the wet leaves - and it was easy to imagine something watching her from the darkened spaces between the trees.

Tally sighed. Maybe she still was a pretty-head, making up irrational stories about the empty forest. The longer she stayed alone out here, the more Tally understood why the Rusties and their predecessors had believed in invisible beings, praying to placate spirits as they trashed the natural world around them.

Well, Tally didn't believe in spirits. The only things she had to worry about were Specials, and they would be looking along the river, kilometers behind her. Darkness had fallen as she built the fire, and it was already halfway to freezing. She couldn't risk another fever out here in the wild, alone.

The firestarter flicked to life in her hand, and Tally held it to the twigs until a blaze erupted. She nursed the fire along with larger and larger branches until it was strong enough to ignite the lightest of her logs, then banked it with the others to dry them out.


Soon, the blaze was hot enough to push her back on her heels, and Tally felt warmth stealing into her bones for what seemed like the first time in days.

She smiled as she stared into the flames. Nature was tough, it could be dangerous, but unlike Dr.

Cable or Shay or Peris - unlike people in general - it made sense. The problems it threw at you could be solved rationally. Get cold, build a fire. Need to get somewhere, walk there. Tally knew she could make it to the ruins, with or without a hoverboard under her. And from there she would eventually find Zane and the New Smoke, and everything would be all right.

Tonight, Tally realized happily, she was going to sleep well. Even without Zane beside her, she had made it through her first day of freedom in the wild, still bubbly and still in one piece.

She lay down, watching the fire's embers pulsing beside her, warm as old friends. After a while, her eyelids began to flicker, then to fall.

Tally was deep in pleasant dreams when the shrieking woke her.

HUNT

At first, she thought the forest was on fire.

There were flames moving through the trees, casting jittering shadows across the clearing, darting through the air like wild, burning insects. Shrieks rose up from every side, inhuman calls strung with meaningless words.

Tally staggered to her feet and stumbled straight into the remains of her fire. Kicked embers flared to life in all directions. She felt hot needles through the soles of her boots, and almost fell to her hands and knees among the glowing coals. Another shriek came from close by - a high-pitched cry of anger. A human form ran toward her, a torch raised in one hand. The torch hissed and sparked with every step, as if the flame were a living thing impelling its carrier onward.

The figure was swinging something across its path - a long, polished stick, gleaming in the firelight. Tally leaped back just in time, and the weapon whistled through empty air. She rolled backward on the ground, feeling the sting of the scattered embers in the middle of her back. Jumping to her feet, she spun away, dashing toward the trees. Another figure blocked her path, also brandishing a club.

His face was obscured by a beard, but even in the jittering torchlight Tally could see that he was an ugly - fat and with a bloated nose, the pale skin of his forehead pocked with disease. He had ugly reflexes, too: The swing of the club was slow and predictable. Tally rolled under the flailing weapon, lashing out with her feet to take his knees out from under him.

By the time she heard the thump of his body hitting the earth, Tally was up and running again, slashing through branches, angling toward the darkest part of the forest.

Another chorus of shrieks rose up behind her, the pursuers' torches casting flickering shadows onto the trees ahead. Tally crashed through the undergrowth almost blind, half-falling as she ran, wet branches whipping her face. A vine grasped her ankle, jerking Tally off-balance and throwing her to the ground. She stretched out both hands to catch herself, and felt one wrist bend too far backward with a wrenching burst of pain.

She cradled the injured hand for a moment, glancing back at the ugly hunters. They weren't as fast as Tally but they ducked and weaved through the forest skillfully, knowing the way through the trees even in darkness. The hovering lights of their torches flowed into place around where Tally lay, the racket from their reedy cries surrounding her once more.

But what were they? They looked small in stature, and they yelled back and forth in some language she didn't recognize. Like pre-Rusty ghosts risen from the grave...

Whatever they were, there wasn't time to ponder the question. Tally rose to her feet and made another dash for the darkness, aiming for the gap between two torches.

The two hunters closed on her as she approached: bearded men, their ugly faces marked with scars and sores. Tally crashed between them, close enough to feel the heat of the torches. A wildly swung club caught her shoulder with a glancing blow, but Tally managed to keep her feet, and found herself stumbling down a hill into blackness.

The two cried out as they followed her, and more shrieks came from up ahead. How many of them were there? They seemed to be rising up from the ground itself.

Suddenly, her feet splashed into cold water, and Tally found herself slipping, falling into a shallow creek. Behind, her two closest pursuers tumbled down the slope, their torches spitting out sparks as they bumped trees and branches. It was a wonder the whole forest wasn't aflame.

Tally got to her feet and dashed down the streambed, thankful for the route it cut through the undergrowth. She stumbled on the slick, rocky bottom, but found herself outpacing the burning eyes that darted along either bank. If she could only reach some sort of open ground, Tally knew that she could outrun the smaller, slower uglies.

The sound of splashing feet came from behind her, and then a grunt and a stream of curses in their unknown tongue. One of them had fallen. Maybe she was going to make it.

Of course, her food and water purifier were in her backpack in the clearing, back among the shrieking, club-wielding uglies. Lost.

She forced the thought from her mind and kept running. Her wrist still throbbed from the fall, and she wondered if it was broken.

A loud roar rose up before Tally, the stream boiling around her ankles, the ground rumbling.

Then suddenly the earth seemed to disappear from under her feet as she ran...

Flailing through the air, Tally realized too late that the roar was behind her now - she'd run straight off the top of a waterfall. Her flight through emptiness lasted only a moment, then she hit water, a deep, churning pool that wrapped its chill around her, sound suddenly reduced to a low rumble in her ears. She felt herself hurtling downward into darkness and silence, slowly turning head over heels.

One shoulder brushed the bottom, and Tally pushed herself upward. She came up gasping, clawing at the water until her fingers found a rocky edge. Clinging to it, she pulled herself up into the shallows, on hands and knees, coughing and trembling.

Caught.

Torches hovered all around her, reflected in the churning water like swarms of fireflies. Tally raised her eyes and found at least a dozen pursuers glowering down from the stream's steep banks, their pale and ugly faces made even more hideous by the torchlight.

A man was standing in the stream in front of her - his fat belly and big nose marking him as the hunter she'd knocked over at the clearing. His bare knee was bleeding where she'd kicked it. He bellowed a wordless cry, raising his crude club high into the air.

Tally stared up at him in disbelief. Was he really going to hit her? Did these people murder total strangers for no reason at all?

But no blow came. As he stared down at her, fear gradually filled the man's expression. He thrust his torch toward her, and Tally shrank back, covering her face. The man sank to one knee before her, taking a closer look. She dropped her hands.

His milky eyes squinted in the torchlight, staring in confusion.

Did he recognize her?

Warily, Tally watched the thoughts racing across his exaggerated features: growing fear and doubt, and then a sudden realization that something terrible had happened...

The torch fell from his hand and into the stream, where it was extinguished with a strangled hiss and a puff of foul smoke. The man bellowed once more, this time as if in pain, the same word repeated again and again. He pitched forward, lowering his face almost into the water.

The others followed, dropping to their hands and knees, their torches falling to sputter against the ground. They all set up the same wailing cry, almost drowning out the roar of the waterfall.

Tally rose to her knees, coughing a little and wondering what the hell was going on.

Looking around, she noticed for the first time that all the hunters were men. Their clothes were irregular, far cruder than the Smokies' handmade clothing. They all had unhealthy marks on their faces and arms, and long beards that were matted and tangled. Their hair looked as if they'd never combed it in their lives. They were paler than pretty average, with the sort of freckly, pinkish skin of those occasional littlies born extra sensitive to the sun.

None of them stared back at her. Their faces were buried in their hands or pressed to the ground.

Finally one of them crawled forward. He was thin and horribly wrinkled, his hair and beard white, and Tally remembered from her time in the Smoke that this was what old uglies looked like.

Without the operation, their bodies grew decrepit, like ancient ruins abandoned by their builders. He trembled as he moved, either from fear or ill health, and stared closely at her for what seemed an endless time.

At last he spoke, his wavering voice barely audible above the waterfall. "I know little the gods'

tongue."

Tally blinked. "You what?"

"We saw fire and thought outsider. Not a god."

All the others had gone silent, waiting fearfully, ignoring their torches guttering on the ground.

Tally saw a bush crackle to life, but the man crouching next to it seemed too paralyzed by fear to move.

So she terrified them all of a sudden? Were these people crazy?

"Never gods use fire before. Please understand." His eyes begged her for forgiveness.

She stood unsteadily. "Um, that's okay. No problem."

The old ugly rose from his crouch so suddenly that Tally stepped backward, almost toppling back into the churning pool. He yelled a single word, and the hunters repeated it. The cry seemed to release them from their spell; they stood up, stamping out the small fires that had sprung up around their dropped torches.

Suddenly, Tally felt outnumbered again. "But, hey," she added, "just no more with the...clubs, okay?"

The old man listened, bowed, and yelled out more words in the unknown language. The hunters sprang into action: Some propped their clubs against trees and split them with a kick; others pounded them against the ground until they shattered, or threw the weapons off into the darkness.

The old man turned back to Tally, his hands spread open, clearly waiting for approval. His club lay split in two at her feet. The others raised their free hands, empty and open.

"Yeah," she said. "Much better."

The old man smiled.

And then she saw it, the familiar glimmer in his ancient, milky eyes. The same look Sussy and Dex had given her when they'd first seen her pretty face. The same awe and eagerness to please, the same instinctive fascination - the sure result of a century of cosmetic engineering and a million years of evolution.

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