Sidney lumbered up a road to another city square before she staggered to her knees. In turn Wyatt slumped out of her arms and thumped onto the plinth of a soldier statue.
“Comrades!” Corbin exclaimed from down the road, running ahead of the others. “What’s hampering the two of you?”
They slowed down within ten feet, forcing themselves to acknowledge the scene. Sidney was kneeling over Wyatt, one arm drooping at her side, trembling at the waist. Wyatt was not breathing at all, his eyes were half-closed, and light gray dots speckled the back of his hand. Some of the dots turned dark gray, inky black, or pure white. Some enlarged into blurry blotches. His monitor blinked erratic stripes and spikes of those depressing shades.
“Wh-what transpi-spired?” stuttered Gene, pulling at the cuffs of his Gelescents.
Sidney replied in a low, grim pitch, “Hunt down Shemoaniir. Hunt her down right now.”
Penelope moved her away from Wyatt and leaned her back on the statue’s leg. “Don’t get too close to him until we figure out what’s — ” When Sidney nodded tiredly and drew her sweets case, Penelope backed off and turned to the others. “Corbin, Cooper, haul Shemoaniir back here. She can be alive and intact or shredded into a thousand tendons, I don’t care which.” She waited for Cooper and Corbin to leave before she told Gene, “You’re staying here.”
He watched her pinch the wormlike thing of fibrous muscles from Wyatt’s monitor, and he asked, “Pardon, but is that . . . ah, is that one of Shemoaniir’s digits?”
“I don’t know, let me see.” She held it up to her narrowed eyes, wiggled it up and down, and laid it on the ground. Then she hammered it with the butt of her switchgun. “Not anymore,” she said, shaking her head fast at Gene.
As he stepped closer, fiddling with his intraplug through his sleeve, he blanched at the yellowish-golden gleam sticking out of the pinky pulp. Penelope also saw it, and flames raged from her jade green eyes. She picked it up, a purple-veined Gigalek key. Sidney recognized it, too, looking out the corner of her eyes. She turned her head to Wyatt, lips pressing together to restrain the curses that wished to be liberated from her lungs.
For the briefest of moments something unsettling passed over Wyatt’s defined features, an expression of rare voidness. His mouth didn’t move at all, but his voice, one that sounded as if all emotions had been sucked dry, soaked into the agents’ heads. “You were never loyal.”
The agents were speechless until Gene said, “That was not Mr. Durrell’s articulation.”
Bangs, clatters, and Cooper and Corbin’s shouts were thrown out from afar, succeeded by a damp smoke of black, gray, and white spewing out of Wyatt’s monitor. Sidney reached for his hand, but the smoke infused a numbness that sunk into her bones. She pulled back, her fingers crisscrossed with thin indentations and grayish-red bruises.
Then the key that Penelope found in Shemoaniir’s finger leaped from her grip, absorbing into Wyatt’s chest just before the other key — the one she took from him after he came out of the tunnel — wiggled out of her pocket and followed suit. His mouth opened a bit, calmly exhaling.
The cacophony peaked with Cooper’s “Bull livers!” and Shemoaniir’s raspy scream. She flew off the roof of a house in a rolling lurch and slammed into a hut close to the agents. Cooper and Corbin jumped down from the house. Everyone except for the motionless Wyatt reared back when Shemoaniir’s scream echoed from inside the hut. She limped out of the dust cloud, muscle fibers peeling off multiple parts of her body little by little, all her armor gone. She tore off her helmet; her scalp was suffering the same symptom. Even the inside of her mouth was being stripped of its fibers. Clear blood squirted out of her raw skin.
“What the heck’s spinnin’ with her?” Cooper hollered, readying his hammers.
“It’s the fault of my associate,” Saorin chimed in. Multiple people whirled her way as she faltered into the square, holding a hand over the stab wound in her back. Penelope was aiming her switchgun, but the robot held up a hand and smiled easily. “I won’t attack you. Our positions have changed.” She nodded to Shemoaniir. “Including hers.”
Everyone quieted down as the Romuteli dropped to her knees and leaned against the wall, or what was left of it around the gaping hole she had smashed into the hut. “This wasn’t part of the deal, Naazang!” she wailed into the sky, pressing her hand into the raw skin on her neck to stop the blood from pumping out. “I’m heir to your treasures! I need to possess your — “
“We negotiated these consequences by implication,” spoke the most unflappable tone, more apathetic than Foxer’s. What was truly disturbing was that the voice sprung from both Shemoaniir and Wyatt, the latter’s mouth moving in time. Then a patch of fibers on the side of Shemoaniir’s stomach crumbled apart, and the blood dribbled into a puddle at her mushy feet. Dust from the hut swirled around and around, some of the particles adhering to her head.
“Implications? Naazang, you made me a promise! You can’t stab me in the back — “
“I distinctly claimed you would inherit my treasures and role as an apprentice to Gargant, the Grimhet Magus, our Faōstol. In no way am I deviating from those words. My treasures have been transferred to your home. My soul is integrating with yours. It seems difficult for you to contain the horizons of my breath. I did expect this from an oozelicker who was careless in masking her plans to betray me.”
“You scheming goblin! Still trying — Gah!” Shemoaniir’s head dipped forward and then to the side, her neck wound still bleeding. “Trying to pin those deals on me? You’re pathetic. I served you without complaint, protected your treasure, given you leads on the most vulnerable planets and moons, while you act as nothing more than Gargant’s puppet. You owe me!”
“I, Gargant’s puppet, owe you.” The pause felt vacuous. “I, Gargant’s puppet . . . owe you. Your views of the universe and your links are . . . thought-provoking. Now, Shemoaniir, you will serve me once more. Thank you for being a gracious figure. Your efforts will be remembered.”
Shemoaniir unleashed a final wail before her head tilted into her shoulder, tore itself off the neck, and thumped into the puddle. More and more muscle fibers shed into a shapeless rim of irregular clumps, leaving a floppy, cartilaginous skeleton. The agents and Saorin backed away. Penelope had to drag Wyatt’s heavy body away from the statue, and Sidney was able to get up by herself, her numbness gone.
Sidney asked Cooper for the heortorr, waiting for him to pop it out of the brassy box he had fumbled from his pocket. She pressed it into the moist smoke on Wyatt’s left palm. Nothing happened, but she stayed there. Cooper watched her for a bit and then pouted at Shemoaniir’s skeleton. A bulb of thick ooze as slate gray as the skeleton sprouted from the neck, shaping itself into a head with high cheekbones and slicked-back hair.
“Come on, Durrell,” Sidney whispered, still pressing the heortorr into his palm, even as the smoke from his monitor pushed back its fuchsia glow in deep, prolonged throbs.
“What are you waiting for, rascals?” said Penelope, firing her switchguns. The air bullets froze inches in front of the skeleton as drops of dusty blood drizzled upward from the puddle, stuck onto the bones, and condensed into a bishop-sleeve suit of shimmering blacks and grays. The familiar pair of sickly yellow eyes finished off the Grimhet apprentice’s features.
“Naazang,” Saorin greeted, stepping forth to deeply bow and extend both hands.
He did nothing but regard the agents with that composed gaze of his. A small side-flick of his hand signaled Saorin to move out of the way. A small forward-flick of his other hand repelled the hovering air bullets to the agents. Corbin threw a hoop, which dissolved the bullets. Naazang shot sludge arrows out of his palms, but Gene’s Gelescent blasts absorbed them. Naazang waited two seconds, then dropped a triangle that fizzled next to his foot and creeped through the ground. Cooper slammed it with his hammers, propelling it back to Naazang in a triangle of mist.
“You are vigorous,” he said in his level voice, clasping his hands behind his back.
Sidney might as well have been wearing a stone mask, squeezing the heortorr tightly into Wyatt’s palm. “Really? That’s all you can say for yourself, after doing this to Wyatt and — “
“And forced Shemoaniir through the gloomy gates of death!”
“She deserved to die, Mr. Thistle,” said Saorin, shrugging at Gene. “She was scoping the best ways to murder my associate so that she could study Grimhet under Gargant’s tutelage.”
Naazang asked, “Saorin, how much of the heylenorr have your Andropis drained?”
“Ninety-six percent. We’re prepared to escape in the auxiliary pods — “
“Return to your home base. I will temper our stalwarts.”
“Yes, Naazang.” She flashed her charming smile at the agents. “Goodbye for now.”
Penelope flashed the middle finger as Saorin backed out of the square, swiveled with a hand still on her back, and swept herself up a road. She vanished with a mass of shadows that jumped out from behind a hut. Naazang advanced toward the agents, not making eye contact with any of them. Sidney left Wyatt and the heortorr in Cooper’s care so that she could rush her foe with boomerangs. He deflected them by unclasping his hand and firing triangles from his palms. Small forcefields were built wherever she tried to stab him. Smoke wrapped her wrists and ankles in clear lines and tossed her into a tower. He delayed Cooper, Penelope, Gene, and Corbin in similar fashion. He shook his head at Wyatt, who was lifeless on the ground, then enclosed the heortorr next to him in a blob of rippling ooze.
Naazang blended with the shadows as the agents tottered out of the buildings that he threw them in. Gene closed his shaky, Gelescent-gloved fingers around the blobbed gem, held it up to his bloodshot eyes, read the data in the cuffs of his gloves, and sniffed it with a crinkled nose. “Grimhet semifluid of the purest viscosity. Oh dear, the forbidding fetor.”
“They never smell like carnations and cloves.” Sidney took it away from him and melted it into an arm pocket of her jumpsuit. “I’ve been exposed to this sludge enough. I can handle it.”
Cooper slung Wyatt over his shoulder. “Naazy, why’re you messin’ up Com’dore?”
Naazang emerged from the darkness of a house’s second-story balcony. He jumped down, almost seeming to float to the ground, and hand-flicked a wall of translucent whitish-gray smoke between himself and the agents. It propelled them away with a wave of dust crossing the whole city square. In spite of his shoulder turning numb and his knees sagging under Wyatt’s dead weight, Cooper refused to let go.
Sidney briefly smiled at them. “Take care of him, Cooper.” She looked at everyone. “I know where to catch him. Stay here, okay?” She dashed alongside the grumbling wall of smoke.
“Don’t you dare chase Sludge Jr. without us!” Penelope yelled, starting to run after her. But she slowed to a stop after ten or so feet, growling to herself, watching Sidney disappear into an alleyway. Penelope glanced back at the other agents — Corbin and Gene were pushing Wyatt onto Cooper’s right shoulder after he slipped off the left one — and told them, “Apples’ll need backup. Get your asses moving.” She hustled them across the square, into the alleyway Sidney entered, stopping near a pool of a bleached aquamarine liquid at the other end.
“Ya got” — Cooper paused to make an uggu-gugha noise, trying hard to not touch the ooze and smoke that was creeping up Wyatt’s left arm — “Whaddaya got, Penny?”
“I’m picking up her scent.” Penelope pointed to the pool. “She dove in here.”
Corbin’s right eye twitched. “Did your doctor prescribe you any olfactory boosters?”
“Trust me, I know her scent. She’s smelled like fresh-baked bread ever since she was little. Makes me wanna bite her hand off sometimes.” Penelope pretended to gnaw on one of her switchguns, making Corbin’s other eye twitch, Gene gasp and duck behind him for cover, and Cooper snort. She said, “But if she wants to drive a boomerang down Naazang’s throat — “
A strangled cry from afar made them bolt toward the source, straight down a road to the Bacatrahe, where Sidney was on top of Naazang, pinning him to the rim of the central pool, thrusting the bright heortorr into his chest. Her jumpsuit was dripping wet with the aquamarine liquid. She shouted, “Let Durrell go!” and drew a boomerang, crunching it into Naazang’s neck. A spurt of whitish-gray ooze flew onto her mask, but she wiped it off with her arm.
“Sidney, what kind of hyena shit are you pulling? Get the fuck away from him!”
Sidney shouted back, “Shut up, Penelope!”
As she pulled the boomerang out of Naazang’s neck and the ooze began to coagulate and fill the deep wound, he told her in his confidently calm inflection, “Sidney, I sympathize with the poison that has infected your soul. You believe Wyatt can cure it, but I know you are mistaken.”
The agents moved closer to Sidney when she pressed the heortorr harder into Naazang’s chest, which caused rings of fuchsia light to spread through his body. Cooper yelled, “Get on with killin’ ‘im! Lotsa gray speckles’re in Com’dore’s saucer eyes.”
Penelope started marching to the pool with both switchguns drawn when Naazang said, “Your tenacity is admirable, but it cannot upset his fate.” With minute hand-flicks he projected a smoke wave to blast her and Sidney into huts at the Bacatrahe’s edge. Further hand-flicks to hold off the other agents gave him ample time to stand up, face the pool, and spread his smoke over it in a revolving fan. It morphed into a moaning whirl of black, gray, and white as he said, “Gargant believed he could prevent you from entering this realm, but I knew better. Now it’s up to me to cleanse your perversions of the light from both Cosmotic and Lunatark.”
“Pardon me, you repugnant phantom of a soul,” Gene said, with small cracks in his voice, “but your choice to view us as hostile antagonists is, at a minimum, fatuous.”
Naazang took two backward steps away from the pool — its vortex spun increasingly fast and gurgled in short bursts — and turned around to regard Gene with those yellowish eyes from ten feet away. “Gene Thistle, in fact, it is your perspective that’s fatuous.” He backed up over the pool’s edge and dropped in feet-first, its gurgles building up into dreary wails. Membranes, eyes, claws, and other appendages of smoke and ooze started to bubble out of the vortex.
After Sidney and Penelope returned to the agents, the former made a wide arm-wave that summoned a hologram of her yellow-and-black cycle, which solidified into the real thing. It was the same one she used on Ovsecuu. “Hand him over,” Sidney told Cooper, lugging Wyatt off his shoulder, plopping him onto the cycle’s front seat. Her mask was off, so the anxiety in her eyes was clearly visible when she stole a look at him. She hopped on the rear seat. Cords appeared out of thin air to secure his arms to hers. Clasps locked his ankles to the cycle’s sides. She sat close to him and stuck her head over his shoulder despite the numbness leaking into her chest and chin.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, where do you think you’re rollin’ to? We’re at the bop-bang-split of a creature crash!” said Cooper, grasping a handlebar to stop Sidney from leaving.
“I’m gonna take care of him. All you have to do is hold off Grimhet.”
Making a Tuh! of displeasure, Penelope said, “Fuck that. Sidney, you can’t cure Wyatt by yourself. We need to get out of here and stop Tyrobe from stealing heylenorr — “
“Sidney’s plan is reasonable,” Corbin interjected, motioning a hoop to the vortex. “We have to restrain Grimhet. Otherwise they will rampage through Lunatark.”
“I hope you can cure Mr. Durrell,” Gene said, his curls of hair seeming to tighten up in response to Wyatt’s worsening appearance. The gray dots in his pupils widened enough to fill them almost entirely. The moist smoke squirmed up his left shoulder. The monitor wheeled around and around in unsteady lefts and rights, slowly dripping reddish-white blood.
“Remember, guys, he is cured, back to normal and as healthy as an Utherwoldian grain mouse.” Sidney smiled at the agents, warmly but uncomfortably, before her mask reappeared. With a twist of the handlebar she zoomed her cycle out of the Bacatrahe.
“Al’righ’, rabbits, let’s see how long it takes to clog this drain,” Cooper said with a throaty relish in his voice, brandishing his hammers.
Gene sniffed, “Refrain from calling us ‘rabbits.'”
“Sure thing, hogs.”
Nobody had time to exchange irreverent banter once the vortex bubbled open with an ungodly bawl and exploded with Grimhets.
The second Wyatt regained consciousness, he wanted to claw at the monitor and rip it off his wrist. He could feel droplets of ooze swirling through the empty numbness of this poisoned device and seeping into his skin, his blood, his bones. It was slogging through his whole body, draining away any bit of life he may have, weighing him down until he was nothing more than a lifeless husk.
A lifeless husk, thought Wyatt, a dull ache pulsing through his skull. His ears tingled from the cacophony of unintelligible, ghostly murmurs. His nostrils flared from the odor of sickly grease. And then he realized his eyes were not open. All he could see was a flat grayness, and something crusty and moist was covering his eyes and trickling down his cheeks. His eyelids felt stuck to his eyeballs. He tried to lift his hands, but they wouldn’t move. They were not shackled to anything, but they were so heavy, especially the left one.
A moment passed with him lying wherever he was lying in this dismal state before a small spot in the middle of his brow suddenly stung, like it had been pricked with a pin. But no, this quickly grew to a reeking pain that twitched from one part of his brow to another and then back again — surely a little bug of Grimhet’s creation eating away at him. Maybe it was an Acrichill; he had read about their parasitic habits of burrowing into a victim’s brain, hijacking its nervous system, and turning it into a host.
I have to find out where I am, he thought, the pain fading a little. A spot in his forehead stung next. This time it crept down the left side, scraping his temples, dripping onto the top edge of his ear. He summoned the strength to awkwardly jerk sideways, starting to roll onto his right side but then stopping and returning to his back. He could feel the residual burning in his brow when it furrowed, and with a resolute grunt he jerked sideways again. The greater momentum helped to roll him fully onto his side, his left arm flopping behind his back.
It took longer to curl his right arm close to himself, but dragging it across what felt like a solidified chunk of cold ooze would be less painful than lying here blind and motionless. When he rubbed his eyes, a string of slimy crunching noises filled his ears and a splatter of white and black blotches flooded his vision. It took a few more moments for his eyes to open, but blurry gray blobs were everywhere. They cleared up to show a room decorated in dusty, rickety pieces of furniture with white and black inlay. Pendulous pouches of ooze hung off the filmy ceiling ten feet overhead. Hanging on each of the five walls was a mirror with a concave surface. For all Wyatt knew, this was a small meeting room in the derelict mansion he had seen earlier.
There was a soft thumping in his chest, and he didn’t know what it was initially. But he lifted a hand and groped in his jacket, his fingers clasping around something round and warm. The calming heat concentrated in his chest, then flowed into his hand and up his arm. A fuchsia shaft of light broke out of his jacket.
. . . as healthy as an Utherwoldian grain mouse, he heard a familiar voice say, sounding bright with hope but equally burdened with worry. Closing his eyes, he recognized the figures fading into view around a swirling vortex, its sludge lapping at the edges.
Two spots on the side of his neck stung in succession, and he had to open his eyes and wipe the ooze off his neck with his sleeve cuff. More droplets were continually streaming from the ceiling directly above him, so he scooted a few feet away, then propped his right elbow into the floor and pushed himself up. He folded his legs beneath himself, leaned forward on his knees, planted his right hand on the floor, and stood up on what felt like two bunches of cotton. His knees shook, but he spread out his arms and he didn’t topple over.
Glancing down his left arm, he grimaced at the monitor as it squeezed reddish-gray blood out of his wrist. Then he blinked at the absence of cobalt dots in his palm. Instantly he held it towards a wall and focused, but nothing happened. It was the same when he tried his other hand.
When high-pitched chittering noises bounced around the room, he pulled the warm heortorr from his jacket and closed his eyes. This next vision constantly switched between swerving through the roads and watching a dozen Betelarks swarm after him with their barbed mandibles. The vision caught fragments of Cooper bashing a Hagga with his hammers, Corbin and Gene sticking close together to fight a pair of Gorulies, and Penelope riding a Betelark around the floating slabs.
He was forced to open his eyes to the stinging splats of ooze on his hands, and he craned his head at the filth above. The pouches expanded and deflated repeatedly, and some of them curled into disgusting shapes as if creatures inside were desperate to burst out. Stuffing the heortorr back into his jacket, Wyatt sped across the room, each footstep pounding with grave deepness, the monitor whining every time it pulsated in and out of his wrist. He thrust a fist forward, but it passed right through the wall. Thin puffs of smoke spread out from the impact. While retracting his hand, threads tangled around his slightly numb fingers.
Wyatt punched the wall again and again, but it only kept puffing smoke. Meanwhile, his body was sinking through the damp air, his knees thudding to the floor. He clamped a hand on his heortorr again, and now he saw a hideous sight. The misfortunate being’s skin was graying and shrinking into its bones. The short hair on top of its head turned from chocolate brown to stripes graduating through black, gray, and white. The dots in the ultra-wide pupils looked like yellow gnats darting left and right. The visible ribcage and the hollowed-out stomach made this being resemble the emaciated build of a Fiss. The limbs were gradually twisting and bending into crooked spirals.
This husk, Wyatt knew, was him. It was his body in Lunatark. He knew he had to escape this room, but he didn’t let go of the heortorr. He had to watch Sidney keep this husk propped up on a wall painted and molded entirely with Lunatarkian motifs. She was kneeling next to him, cupping her fingers over his right hand, pocketing the college ring that had slipped off his thinning finger, and telling him, “You’re healthy, Durrell. Come on, I know you’re healthy.”
More ooze was pricking at the back of his neck, and he immediately reached over his shoulder to brush it away. But his vision dissolved into dust, and he pulled the heortorr from his jacket. He gripped it even tighter, willing the vision to return. All he could see were fragments — a Hagga leaping out of nowhere and smacking Sidney aside with its head, the heortorr rolling out of the husk’s unclenching hand, the Hagga sucking the gem into its round open mouth, its molar-like teeth grinding it with deep crunches that grated Wyatt’s ears, Sidney’s muffled cursing as chinks of fuchsia light shot out of the snake’s crackling skin and pierced the next two Haggas who were leaping into the space, Sidney slicing open the first Hagga and plunging her hands into the carcass’s chunky goop to pick out nothing but some softened heortorr shards.
If that heortorr is destroyed and the only other copy is in my hand now, she doesn’t . . . Wyatt shook his head and tugged at his monitor, causing spikes of pain to shoot up his arm and a bit more blood to drip. I have to get out. He stood up and replaced the heortorr in his jacket, keeping one hand around it while exploring the room. In the stories his parents read to him with these enclosed rooms, there was usually an escape mechanism hidden inside the drawers or shelves, behind the mirrors, underneath the tables, somewhere.
While he investigated all the objects, he kept seeing Sidney sit close to his weak husk. “Naazang, you have no right to drain him of his life, his energy,” she said, her voice infused with a tenuous darkness that Wyatt recalled hearing from her once or twice.
A chill bit at his wrist when a voice that he knew was Naazang’s responded, “No, I would never corrupt myself with his essence. Gargant is the one who respects it, who admires it.”
Sidney drew in a sharp breath, then inched closer to Wyatt’s husk and spoke gently, “It’s me, Wyatt. We’re here, your team’s here, for the heylenorr. You know we need the heylenorr for the Super Nex antiviral. We are so close. But you need to push out Naazang. You can do it.”
“Yes, I’m trying,” Wyatt muttered, rubbing the smooth interior of an empty shelf.
“Let him go, Sidney,” he heard Naazang say. “You may feel as if you have grown — “
Wyatt couldn’t hear the rest of those words over the noises echoing from above him. It sounded like half of a horde of beasts was hacking up muck and the other half was screeching and gasping for air. Looking up, he jumped out of the way before a pouch split off the ceiling and hit the floor, exploding goop everywhere. Wyatt held up his hands, but there was no forcefield.
The goop blasted him into the wall, and he fell down on his chest, the right side of his head sinking into the repulsive slop. The burning was so intense that he had to rip his head out of the floor. His eyes were already fogging up, but he could still make out the warm glow of the heortorr a few feet away. It wasn’t in his hand; it was sinking into a puddle. He stretched out his arm, but the gem was so far away that he was only able to touch it with his finger.
You need to be the one to let him go. He’s not giving in to you.
That was Sidney. Wyatt knew she was right next to him, waiting for him to come back, even though he was sinking into the floor. It swallowed up the heortorr with a thick burble, sucking up the light, moments before a barrage of pouches dropped down and blasted open all around Wyatt. More and more of the pouches pounded everywhere in the room, covering the floor in a huge pool of filth, releasing more of the smoky stench into the damp air.
Is this how it all ends? Wyatt thought as the ooze engulfed him. I die here, leaving behind my husk and the other agents? I thought we could actually make it.
In the middle of the ooze eating away at his body, a deep, solemn voice in his head spoke, Te hort vinde te boân. Without any thought Wyatt repeated it with the few breaths left in his lungs. Seconds later a bright voice, Sidney’s voice, began to sing something light and beautiful.
Sailing along this broad, lonely stream of marble water
Brushing along the willows on the edges
Green sunset glowing on the silver peaks
I leave the house and the trinkets on my trail
Give the final words to my loved ones and melt into twilight
God of light on one hand and god of darkness on the other
I cannot judge what is equal
Embrace everything that comes my way
This was “Marble Water,” the Halcyonic hymn that Wyatt sung as a child. Did she know that? But it didn’t matter now. His left hand was warming up all of a sudden. He was holding onto something small. He curled his arm close to his chest, moving it through the gloppy ooze, and murmured, “Sidney. I’m here, Sidney. I’m here.”
Nothing happened for what felt like a century while he suffocated in the darkness. Right as Naazang’s voice began to speak in an unusual pitch, a bright stab of pain shot through Wyatt’s arm. It was powerfully hot, an invigorating feeling that crackled throughout his body and made him scream with enough emotion to drown out Naazang’s yelling. A chink of fuchsia energy was leaking up from his arm, bleeding through all the ooze, washing everything away until Wyatt himself melted into the light.
The first thing Wyatt felt was a soft hand on his shoulder. He opened his eyes, and Sidney was there, blinking back tears. Her other hand was pressed against his arm, thrusting the heortorr into his gash, which explained why he was still enjoying the brisk sensation. Maggots of smoke were wriggling all over his body but ultimately losing the battle to the heortorr’s shining fingers of light. The monitor spun around his wrist with an alarmed humming.
“Sidney, Sidney,” Wyatt mumbled, squinting at her reddened eyes, flushed cheeks, and sweat-matted zigtail. But her eyes looked so relieved, their corners crinkling from her smile.
“I knew you were there,” she said, her voice sounding tight. “Hold still, okay?”
Wyatt stayed quiet when she removed the heortorr from his arm and then pressed it into the monitor. The pain was as exhilarating as before, but it also felt like an ooze-covered dagger just stabbed through his wrist. His shout was not nearly as loud as the monitor’s woeful gurgles, its cracked exterior sobbing ooze on his pants and the floor. Its noises seemed to blast back the stacks of Grimhets who had packed themselves into a wall outside the space — wherever Sidney had taken Wyatt.
His body was returning to life. His eyes were clear, his limbs straightened out, his chest and stomach puffed up, his hair lost their grease. Wisps of ash tore off his body, trailing through the air in jerky patterns and dissolving. He inhaled a clean breath, then another, and another. He would have taken more pleasure in this if it weren’t for the feeling that someone was running a peeler around his wrist. His eyes dipped, and the shivering monitor was enlarging around his wrist with a beaten sigh, peeling off chunks of skin in the process.
“Teö, get rid of the damn thing,” Sidney said, holding Wyatt’s arm still so she could slip off the monitor. When she tried to toss it onto the floor, though, it stuck to her finger, humming and spurting a bit of ooze and ash.
Wyatt immediately took hold of the monitor, his hands glowing cobalt as Super Nex energy filled the device, and then surrounded it in a miniature force field to separate it from Sidney’s finger. He hurled it away, then pushed back Sidney and projected a forcefield in front of them. With a slobbering roar, in the middle of its long arc through the air, the monitor burst apart, splashing ooze everywhere, staining the floor and walls with black and white and gray streaks.
Wyatt was able to look around for the first time at the space he was in while he and Sidney sat up. It appeared to be a balcony on the edge of Arcaipolis, one of many that ran the rim of the ancient city. This particular one was up on the third level. Paintings and molded figures of Lunatark’s thriving cities and residents covered a wall that stretched along the balcony. A row of X-shaped support beams stood on the open side, engraved with sharp runes in light pink and blue colors. Those floating slabs in the center of Arcaipolis were spread out and slanted instead of arranged in a neat, tall tower. All the agents were visible, brawling with dozens of Grimhets who were leaping back and forth between the slabs.
Rolling his shoulders, inhaling his first full breath of air, he looked at Sidney and mumbled, “I’m sorry.” He sat forth and constructed an energy bandage around his raw, bleeding wrist. “What happened? Is everyone okay? I, I think . . . Naazang — “
“It’s okay, you’re healthy. I’ll explain it all later, but you’re okay. Naazang is — well, not entirely gone. Not yet.” She handed the heortorr back to him. “Where did you get two copies?”
“Gene found one in Quentin’s cave.” Wyatt’s eyes rested on the dim fuchsia shards on the ground close to him. Biting his lip, rubbing the heortorr between his palms, he tucked that and the shards into his jacket. He looked up at Sidney. “How did you know the hymn?”
“I heard it was a favorite of yours. From Penelope. I thought it might revive you.”
Not breaking eye contact with her, he took in a breath and said, “Let’s go.”
She held him back and said, a little rougher than usual, “This really does need to heal.” She produced her first-aid kit to re-bond and re-bandage his arm, then added in a softer tone, “You got rid of Naazang. It’s funny, because” — she chuckled weakly and shook her head — “Never mind. He’s still up there, and I think if we use the heortorr . . “
Wyatt furrowed his brow at her before a distant cacophony of howls and grumbles made them watch many of the floating slabs either melt into goop or explode into smoke. Grimhets were jumping off and raining upon Arcaipolis in a suicidal act to spread their goop. Naazang was on one of the highest slabs, his slate gray body flickering shards of fuchsia and blood pink light. Corbin could be seen throwing two more hoops to force Naazang to collide with a Fiss. Then he rejoined Gene, Cooper, and Penelope on a slab and used his hoops to pull it down towards a slab close to the ground.
“Better get back into the action,” Sidney told Wyatt once she bandaged his arm, standing him up, guiding him to the edge of the balcony. She also wordlessly returned his college ring to him, which he accepted by putting it on his forefinger and nodding to her. Then she unclasped his hands from each other, uncurled his fingers, and held out his lower arms to help him direct his energy towards constructing a pair of jet-boots.
Their flight led them to the Bacatrahe, where the others had landed their now-dead Betelarks. Cooper punched the air with both fists and hooted, “Ha ha ha! Com’dore and Sid are back in the game! Took ya’while, but whatevs.”
Penelope snapped, “Did you seriously mess up your arm again?”
Sidney exchanged a furtive sideways look with Wyatt when he said, “Let’s save the story for later. What’s Naazang’s status?”
No one could respond before the final slabs turned into goop and smoke, leaving the rest of it to instantaneously condense into a gargantuan funnel. With a cold moan that grew into the unholy scream of a thousand cursed beasts, the funnel exploded into a mushroom throughout the entire city of Arcaipolis.