“What the bugfuck are you doing here?”
That’s the first thing flying out of Penelope’s mouth precisely three seconds after she, Gene, and two of Augen’s faithful pobs showed up out of nowhere. The afternoon sunlight slicing through the library windows and the dusty air casts sharp shadows across Penelope’s glowering face, over the switchguns in her hip holsters. Gene, a pewter-gray canvas rucksack slung over his back, is trying hard to maintain a flat expression, but his brow keeps twitching and he won’t stop wringing the knobby top of his maycewood cane. Both pobs are lying supine on the floor, unconscious, their bruises and scratches and the disheveled state of their clothes evidencing the dispute that left them KO’d.
“Many things led us here, a great deal of life decisions,” I tell Penelope, probably with a touch more wry irreverence than necessary.
“Along with some terrible mistakes we’ve made, karmically speaking,” Sidney adds, smirking cheekily.
“Well, good for you.” Penelope slow-claps her hands.
“Oh come on, Sab,” Cooper groans, clenching his hand over his stomach as if he’s suffering indigestion. “Yeh know how much it wrenches my sausage when yeh slow-clap.”
“I can sympathize, Ruzuberuto,” Gene offers, lifting his open hands as though showing he’s unarmed. “Slow-clapping is such a supercilious mannerism—”
“If I’re yeh, Genius, I’d lock my lips closed and tuck the key in my pocket, cos if anything more escapes yer vault, it’s gonna hurt yeh, be sure of that.” Cooper pauses to glance at Corbin’s tracker, its screen blinking, its low beeps constant. Then he holds out his hand to Penelope and waggles his fingers as if motioning for her to hand over the controller because it’s his turn to play the video game now. “C’mon now, yeh’ve had enough fun with it!”
“Piss off,” Penelope growls, folding her arms together—but not fast enough to stop me from seeing the device affixed to her right inner wrist. It resembles the coppery nephus that the Thistles brought Augen, except it’s glinting a deep pink, a pink you’d see a sunset splash across the edges of the sky, and it’s fitted to a wide steel bracelet.
Is that where Penelope and Gene came from—the Welkin Dimension, as the Thistles called it? As much as I want to believe they’re here to altruistically protect the device from Augen’s goons, I can’t ignore the sneaking suspicion that they could have been stealing it for themselves.
“There’s no need for us to quarrel, I’m certain—”
Corbin can’t finish before dozens of violet stars swirl over the nephus and Penelope’s bracelet. The quiet glow of Sidney’s cuffs, the subtle flick of her wrist. Penelope makes to clamps her hand over the nephus, but the bracelet unclasps from her wrist and shoots into Sidney’s hand.
“Corbin’s right, we don’t have to fight. We’re all on the same side,” Sidney says, her voice lilting and pleasant. She slips the nephus into a belt cartridge after detaching it from its bracelet, which she then clasps over her left wrist like a new bangle. “Aren’t we?” She arches her eyebrows at Penelope and Gene as though waiting for them to challenge her, then adds, “And thanks for bagging a couple of pobs for us—I’m sure we can squeeze some intel out of them.” I realize I’ve never seen her smile as coldly as she is now, a thin smile of unpitying satisfaction directed at the pobs on the floor.
Then she withdraws a pair of tailties from a belt cartridge, tosses one of them to Cooper. They stride over to the pobs and bind their wrists in front of their waists, bright red cords wrapped tightly against the skin and fastened with gray oval locks. Cooper hoists Lumpy Nose off the floor and carries him over his shoulder as if he doesn’t weigh any more than a small bag of groceries. With a wave of Sidney’s hand, Runa rises off the floor with eerie smoothness, her heavily closed eyes and the purple glimmers skittering over her horizontal form making it look like she’s being levitated as part of some occult ritual.
The air around us vibrates with tension as we climb down the stairs, leave the Temple, and walk back to the Wulven. As it turns out, Gene and Penelope traveled here by flying the Thistles’ Pumonski, the car Penelope made fun of the day we met them at Hexaber Mall; it’s tucked behind some houses a couple blocks away, and elicits wary wrinkles from Cooper’s forehead. After a brief quibble over what they’ll do with the Pumonski (Cooper is being kind of a hard ass the way he says the Thistles need to be in the Wulven on the ride to the Citadelle so he can ask them a few questions), Sidney says it can be attached to the cardock on the back of her ship.
Inside, I’m in the copilot seat with my messenger bag between my legs when Sidney opens a video channel with Seris and informs her that we retrieved the nephus. “We’ll also be bringing back some extra luggage to the Citadelle,” adds Sidney.
At which point Penelope pops into the cockpit, lifts her hand and smirks at Seris on the display and says, “Everything okay over there?”
“Penelope!” Seris says, orange eyes widening, a confused smile pulling at the corners of her mouth. “If I may ask—”
“Let’s cover the particulars later. See you soon.” Sidney kills the channel before Seris can say anything else. She gestures Penelope to leave the cockpit, then bites her lip, brushes a hand over the belt pouch storing the pink disc as though to reassure herself she hasn’t lost it, a darkness straining at the crinkled edges of her eyes.
“You okay there?” I ask, resting my hand on her shoulder. Her visage softens, and she laughs, a light but sharp noise like two knives grazing together.
“Sure I am.” She flicks some switches, taps out a command on one of the dashscreens. “Everyone ready for takeoff?” she calls out, not waiting for an answer before powering on the gyrolevs with a mighty roar, lurching her ship off the ground with a shudder, cutting a U-turn in midair, speeding through the sky for the Lumin cityscape with the Pumonski on its back as though it’s a baby hugging onto its mother.
The weather was bright and clear before we entered Aabryn Temple, but now some milky clouds are beginning to gather in the sky, filtering the sunlight into gray beams. I watch the haunted grandeur of the Temple and the husks of all the other houses retreat in the rearview dashscreen. A minute or two later, a groggy moan behind me punctuates the synth-pop pumping from the speakers. I turn in my seat, look down the cabin at Lumpy Nose and Runa, both strapped into the capsofa that Sidney folded out of the right wall with the double-tap of a dashscreen; the source of the noise is Lumpy Nose, his eyelids are drifting open and his chest is rising.
“Yeh comfy?” says Cooper, his drawl infused with languidly snide inflections, leaning back on the capsofa opposite the pobs, rhythmically patting his hands on his stomach. This attitude draws dismayed looks from Gene and Corbin, sitting in swivchairs between the cockpit and the capsofas, sharing a bag of airjumped wheat chips they found in the galley, Gene’s rucksack hooked onto his armrest and his cane propped against the wall, Corbin’s drawstring pouch in her lap. Penelope is in the swivchair across from them, taking a deep pull from the flask she produced from her wrinkled leather blazer, which is patterned with faded red and maroon bruises the shade of just-dried blood.
There’s a moment where Lumpy Nose wriggles helplessly against the capsofa straps that have been clipped over his chest, stomach, upper arms, and shins, and he tries pulling his wrists against his tailtie, but he stops pretty fast, as if he subconsciously reconciled himself with his fate while knocked out. It’s not even a minute later when Runa stirs with her own dazed moan; upon realizing where she is, she struggles more violently against her bonds and keeps it up a few seconds longer than her companion, then gives up and favors all us Starsapiens with a look of utter malice.
Then Lumpy Nose makes a dry smacking noise as if he’s got a hair on his tongue and he speaks up for the first time: “May I have water?”
In spite of the polite delivery of his request, Cooper scoffs, “Yeh kiddin’ me, right? Yeh can wait till we hop back to Alphacos.”
“But I’m thirsty.” Lumpy Nose bobs his head at the galley directly to his right. “If you could grab me—”
“Yeh can stand it for ‘nother hour. Not even that, we’ll land in less than—”
I suspect it’s the dashboard-fiddling Sidney’s been doing since Lumpy Nose asked for water that’s now sliding open a ceiling panel above the him and letting a coil of laptube drop from the opening, unroll to a four-foot length, dangle between Runa and a flustered-looking Lumpy Nose. The lower end is inches beneath his chin at first, meaning he would have to lean over to get his mouth around it, but Sidney looks back from the cockpit, taps another input, and the clear laptube lifts half a foot higher, leaving it the perfect height for him to suck up the water as it comes trickling down. After the first swig he pulls back, takes time to swallow, and the rest of the water in the laptube gets blocked off by the spherical plug bulging four inches above its lower end; a couple drops manage to fall on the capsofa anyways. Two more drinks, and Lumpy Nose mumbles something to Runa, who vigorously shakes her head. Lumpy Nose gives Sidney a nod of thanks in the rearview mirror, although his air feels like that of one who’s oddly unsatisfied with the act of kindness he received.
Cooper, who was gaping at Lumpy Nose and then Sidney, appalled, scratches his ear as the laptube retracts into the ceiling. “Okaaay, then.” He releases a disturbingly hostile bark of laughter.
Corbin’s frown is clearly one of unease, contrasting with the contemptuous twist of Gene’s mouth as he chomps on more chips. Penelope takes another pull from her flask, her dead eyes and the surly pucker of her mouth giving her the appearance of one making a valiant attempt to zone out, and failing.
“So, are we not gonna talk ‘bout the ginormous skysang in the room?” Cooper prompts, spreading an arm over the back of his capsofa. “Yeh two”—motions to Gene and Penelope with a mixture of disgust and puzzlement—“wanted to pinch the nice little donut before we could take it. Were yeh gonna sell it on the black market?”
“Let’s cover the particulars later,” Penelope quips, more tersely than Sidney.
Cooper rolls his eyes, leans back on his capsofa, crosses his arms behind his head. He juts his chin at the pobs. “And when d’yeh come into the picture?” Runa shrugs and neither she nor her accomplice speak, forcing Cooper to turn his attention to Corbin. “I’d bet a whole damn hog yer in on the scheme too—”
“As a matter of fact, she is not,” Gene sniffs, pivoting his swivchair to sneer at Cooper, the foil bag crinkling in his hands as he rummages for a chip. “I alone proffered my assistance to Penelope in order to achieve our shared goal of acquiring the nephus.”
“That’s untrue,” Corbin objects. Despite the Elvaric that Gene sputters in opposition, Corbin goes on, “Even before the tracking program finished homing in on the device, it collected enough evidence that I was able to arrange for Gene and Penelope to wait in the vicinity of Travmee so that once the target was pinpointed, they would obtain it before we arrived.”
“Before we arrived,” I repeat tonelessly. Did they not learn any lessons from Myrius? It’s enough that Augen has a nephus, we don’t need to screw things up further and drop a second one into her hands.
“And then what were you going to do with it?” Sidney questions.
“Obstruct Augen’s ploys, clearly,” Corbin answers levelly.
When I ask Penelope and Gene if they meant to enter the Welkin, Penelope snipes, “No, we got lost on our way to the Assbrains Dimension.” I can imagine the prall perched on her bun shaking its triangular head as if to bemoan my own assbrain.
“Who brought the mount?” chimes Sidney, holding up her arm to display the bracelet that came with the nephus. I haven’t noticed until now that part of its surface has been molded with a ringlike indentation almost as wide as the bracelet itself, fitted perfectly for the nephus.
Gene tweaks a ringlet rooted to his temple, responds around the chips in his mouth, “That would be me. Obviously we had to verify the nephus’s functionality.” He swallows, jerks his head at the pobs. “Not five seconds after making our ingress into the Welkin do they appear and attempt to rob us of our newfound possession.”
I crinkle my brow, twist my Olympus ring of braided copper wires. I’m about to ask what the pobs were doing in the Welkin since it doesn’t sound like they had their own nephus to enter it, but Cooper interrupts, “Flowerbrains, I gotta ask yeh—are yeh with us or against us? Cos it really, really, really looks like yer pushin’ us into a pit full o’ hungry Rusthunds.”
“Flowerbrains?” Gene is gaping at the muscle-bound cub in comical horror.
“Yes, framano,” pipes up Corbin, “isn’t it such a clever appellation?”
“Oh yes, I most certainly concur, framana—‘Flowerbrains’ is much more droll than the nicknames that other farceurs have bestowed upon us!”
I squint at Gene. “What other nicknames?”
“We will not discuss them!”
“Eh, we’ll do that later on. Righ’ now, yeh gotta be on the level. Are yeh with us or—”
“Clearly we are with you,” Gene tells Cooper. “It is our intention to thwart Augen—”
“An about-face if I ever saw one.”
It’s the first time on this flight that Runa talks to us. She raises her chin, sweeps her gaze over the six of us Starsapiens, directs her attention on the Thistles, both wide-eyed, faces creased in apprehension, like they’re anticipating the next plot twist in a Riley Bolanòs suspense movie.
“Gene, Corbin, she wants you to come back. She doesn’t think it’s safe for you to be with these Starsies anymore.” Runa’s speaking in the tender voice of one doing her best to persuade a stray dog into coming home with her. “You know she can protect you from them, and she’ll—”
“Oh Runa, how effortlessly the truth becomes perverted upon passing through your lips,” accuses Gene, picking up his cane and poking it in her direction.
Cooper sits forth on his capsofa, whirls his finger in the air. “Wait just a sec, rewind the tape. Unless I’m crazy as a cricket, it sounds as if yer buddy-buddy with ol’ Augie!”
My heartbeat quickens. Gene’s voice is a octave too high and too sharp when he says, “Such a notion is completely and totally erroneous and preposterous.”
“It isn’t.” Runa’s staring at the Thistles, as if challenging them to continue contradicting her.
Cooper snickers, angles his eyes up at the ceiling, snickers again with a disbelieving smirk. “Heh, well I’ll be damned! And now I’m left wonderin’ . . .” He slaps his hands down on his knees, lugs his giant frame off the capsofa, ambles down the cabin with the top of his head inches away from bumping the ceiling. “Are yeh”—pats Penelope’s shoulder once, making her smack his hand away—“and yeh”—towers over me in the cockpit, thumps my shoulder twice—“her cronies too?”
He withers me with a look from his brown eyes, which are currently a far cry from their usual gentleness. My heart’s pounding harder, I glance at Penelope as if hoping she can help, but all she does is return an exasperated the-jig-is-up expression.
“No,” I say simply, telling half the truth, because I don’t work with Augen. Who knows what the hell Penelope’s up to, though.
“Don’t be a grazboot, Cooper,” Sidney throws in, keeping her eyes on the airspace ahead of her; we’re going to begin soaring over Maskar Hills soon. “Maybe you forgot that time when Wy got assaulted by Brone Hennum?”
“Maybe Hen had some claws to scratch. Plus, I always thought there was somethin’ funny ‘bout that Myrius scene. Durrell must’ve been talkin’ outta his ass when he said the Flowerbrains phoned him and Sab for help.”
The first signs of alarm flicker across Sidney’s flushing face and she side-eyes me uncertainly, as though she’s truly thinking I’ve been conspiring with the pobel this entire time.
Cursed Cosmotic, why did I ever think covering for the mudding Thistles was a smart idea? My heart and my stomach are entwining into one throbbing organ, blood and bile courses through them, and I want to fix all this, all the damage that’s being done. The only reason I went to Myrius was because the Anex-slash-Sibrilich called me and told me to follow the Thistles there; I wish I could go back in time and tell myself not to listen to her.
I look at the Thistles as Corbin snatches a wheat chip out of her brother’s hand and tosses it in her mouth, chews her stolen snack, and Gene blinks at his empty hand as if the chip vanished into thin air, then peers into his bag and rolls it up into a tube; Corbin must’ve gotten the last one.
Honestly, how did those two get associated with Augen? I just can’t wrap my mind around it.
Cooper’s probably thinking the same thing. “My gut had an off feelin’ ‘bout yeh two. And it’s too bad, really.” He wipes a hand over his cheek, leaving a ruddy patch on his skin. His disappointment matches that of a kid who received a fun-looking toy on his birthday but then the toy broke after an hour of playing with it. “Honestly, yeh don’t need to be fuckin’ sangbanks, ‘specially when you’re hangin’ with—”
“Hey,” I cut in at the same time Gene recoils and chokes out a gasp and Corbin says, “What did you just call us?” Sidney and Penelope’s faces are similarly astonished. So are the pobs, who jerk up their heads, offended to even be in the presence of Cooper’s unexpected epithet.
“Plain as unbuttered toast, don’t deny it,” Cooper defends, regarding the Thistles like he’s sorry they’re running with the pobel and not that he called them “sangbanks”—an obscenity for a Starsapien who dares be sympathetic to the Vermusk race.
“Apologize immediately!” Gene shrieks, leaping out of his swivchair, grabbing his cane, and he stomps up to Cooper and jabs the cane’s gnarled top at his strapping chest and Corbin jumps out of her seat and wraps an arm around her brother’s shoulders to hold him back.
“Nah, I don’t think I will.” Cooper swats away the maycewood as though it’s a fruit fly. “If I got a mirror right in front of me, I’m damn well callin’ it a mirror.”
A scowling Penelope gets up from her swivchair next. “Don’t be like your dickweasel father, Ruz. Listen to the skinny geek and say you’re fucking sorry before I tear off your balls and stuff them—”
“Guys, you need to stop it!” I yell over Gene’s Skinny geek!, jumping out of my seat, out of the cockpit, and I’m standing in the cabin as a barrier with arms outstretched to my sides, Cooper on my right, Penelope and the Thistles on my left.
In the midst of all the drama I pick up on something, a quiet and breathy noise. I shoot my gaze left, Lumpy Nose is whispering surreptitiously to Runa, as though they’re devising an escape plan—Wait, what’s that thing crawling out from the bottom of his pant leg? I squint, it looks like a beetle built from mottled gray metal. Penelope’s asking me what the hell I’m looking at, it’s skittering our way along the floor. Heart bounding up into my mouth, I shove Penelope and the Thistles out of the way and blast an orb, but all it hits is the floor because the beetle dodges it with a sideways lurch, but it doesn’t slip past Penelope and she stomps it underneath her combat boot as if she’s done in hundreds of bugs that way (she probably has, I know she despises spiders like they’re creations of Gargant).
“What in Teönor is going on back there?” Sidney calls from the cockpit, dialing down the music. “Gods, if you’re gonna slug each other, wait until we disembark at least, I don’t need blood all over my ship—”
“Stop being so dramatic, Appleton,” scolds Penelope.
“What was that thing supposed to do?” I ask Augen’s thugs. Lumpy Nose doesn’t meet my gaze and Runa stares at me with her lips pinched together and neither of them answer me.
But it doesn’t matter, because I turn to the cockpit, since that’s where the metallic beetle looked like it was headed, and now a second beetle is scuttling along the ceiling and springing into the cockpit and landing on the dashboard and Sidney whips her head and is about to destroy it as promptly as Penelope but she’s a split second too slow and the beetle sticks its head into an empty padport as if it’s a tick burying itself into the skin of its host.
It doesn’t matter that Sidney rips it out and crushes it in her fist. The dashscreens flash error messages, dials and switches frantically blink red and yellow, a tritone Rabzen alarm shatters the music and wails throughout the Wulven, the hull shivers as if gravely nervous about what’s to come. Then it careers to the right, throws me off my feet and I roll over a swivchair and slam into the wall and Gene collides into me and his bony elbow crushes my cheek and I swear in Teönor and stars flutter through my eyes and he apologizes for his clumsiness and the walls are shaking and the ship is rattling and jolting and with a long groan that clenches my stomach the ship gives a lurch that hurls me and Gene forward and I sweep a forcefield around us so there’s a buffer when we hit the floor and the mendsense tingles the ache away from my cheek and Cooper and Penelope and Corbin tumble down the hatch to the ship’s lower level and the deep thumps make me wince and those pobs are jerking side to side on their capsofa and—
Crap, Gene’s rucksack is in Lumpy Nose’s tailtied hands and he unzips it and fishes out a double-ended dagger and he tosses the sack into Runa’s lap and twirls his weapon in one hand and begins sawing one of the needlelike blades through the cord of his tailtie. The light burns bright and hot in my chest as I grab onto the nearest swivchair and pull myself up onto the seat and I’m going to lunge at Lumpy Nose, but Runa has drawn from the rucksack a small and metallic white gun and she lets off some gigalek bullets that end in a flurry of tiny bursts of dazzling white light upon striking my forcefield. And then Gene yells an Elvaric curse behind me and I twist my head over my shoulder and Sidney’s hands are flying all over the cockpit controls but the error messages aren’t clearing away from the dashscreens and purple glimmers sweep over the windows and I see many trees rushing up to us and I dumbly realize that we’re going to crash in—
I hurtle aside as the Wulven dives through the trees, bonk my head on a bulkhead, and all I see is a sheen of red that instantly turns black and gets hit by a drizzle of dotted lights, the most dizzying kind of night sky. The side of my head throbs, but is it from my concussion or my heart . . . A muffled din swims around my ears, my stomach is swirling on itself and it might rise to my mouth . . . I’m comforted slightly by the indistinct shape that’s glowing a tranquil blue in the center of my vision, it’s unfurling wisps, growing them into broad and powerful wings of light, burning away the darkness with their vivid life. Everything is blue, everything is bright, the edges of the familiar warmth flutter over my skin, and I don’t know how long this lasts, but I’m enjoying every second of its bliss, and the smell of chocolate blends with that of iron fresh out of the furnace, an intoxicating blend filling my nose and my lungs . . . Her voice fades in and out of my ears like she’s speaking through a damaged speaker, takes several moments for her words to come into focus.
“Come on, Wy, we’re—There you go!”
Sidney’s kneeling over me. My pulse spikes at the sight of the spray of red bruises on her right cheek and the bleeding cut above her eyebrow, as if she hit her forehead on the edge of a table. Her scar is wiggling happily from the left corner of her smiling lips and up over her eye and above the eyebrow, as if doing a jig in celebration of my regaining consciousness.
“Hello there,” I say, amicably saluting her. She supports me as I sit up and lean my back against the wall. Then she dabs at my head with a small towel in her hand, the fabric’s blotted with smudge of dark red blood. I reach up to my hairline, and my fingers come away with sticky flecks of blood.
How is it that my getting knocked out for the third time in four days is one of the lowlights of my week? I think to myself, rubbing off beads of blood around a gash that’s knitting together on the back of my hand. My mendsense is lingering in several of my body parts, prickling through my muscles and bones.
“You’ve been out for only a few minutes. We crashed in Maskar Hills,” Sidney says, sitting on her haunches, inattentively touching the bulge of her pendant through her jumpsuit, my bag leaning against her hip. “Aannnddd . . . yeah, we’re sort of in deep tigonshit.”
I take in the sparks hissing out of the cockpit’s broken controls and spraying all over the Toppas that’d dropped to the floor, the dinged and scratched bulkheads and wall panels, the galley where the lock on one of the cupboards must have broke because the door has swung wide open and boxes of dried fruit and cans of synthetic meat and a couple water bottles spilled onto the countertop and the floor. A pang of fear hits my stomach when I see that the pobs are missing from their capsofa; the straps are all mangled as though Lumpy Nose tried to chop through them with that double-bladed knife of his.
I begin, “Where are they? Augen’s—”
“We got them covered,” Sidney says. “They tried to make a break for it, but they’re outside with the others now.” She stands up and clenches the bloodied towel between her fingers, their once-scabbed knuckles freshly split. “The comm system is dead, but we activated a beacon. A sauverpod will come to lift us out of here within the hour.”
I massage my left upper arm; the last of my mendsense tickles it before disappearing completely from my body. I peer out the cockpit windows, which are marred with thin cracks, and I can make out the dense trees and shrubbery outside. No Grimhets for now, but that can change in an instant.
I push myself up to my feet, Sidney grabbing my elbow for support, and I take back my bag from her and we proceed to the downstairs hatch and she lets me descend the ladder first. The gigalek turbine looks fine in the engine room, aside from the fact that it isn’t quietly humming anymore and it’s taken some dents. In the med bay, first-aid kits, canisters and tubs of pills and ointment, autoinjectors, gauze packs, and miscellaneous medical instruments are piled up on the counters and in the shelves.
“Sorry about the mess,” Sidney says lightly, as if it’s nothing compared to the larger scope of our situation, and she leads me through the med bay to the open exit hatch.
Outside, massive Bicap pines, kissnut queens, and other evergreens of the Hills surround us, reaching up to the wide slate gray sky, shrubbery clumped compactly between their trunks, bursts of flowers and weeds pushing their way out of the soil. Leading away from my right-hand side is a trail of the mutilated remnants of flora, splinters of wood and snapped branches and crushed leaves and torn bits of shrubs that the Wulven must have mowed down during its crash-landing. The Pumonski must have detached from it in the process; it’s a good distance down that trail, rolled over on its side, gouged and battered. A breeze is sending fragrant, woodsy smells through the air. As for the Wulven itself, one of its wings is partly ripped off, the gyrolevs are dead and cracked, and it looks only slightly less beat-up than the Pumonski.
“You stupid computer!” Penelope snaps, standing two meters away, holding her phone above her head in the classic trying-to-get-a-signal pose, jabbing at the screen.
“Spurring on your cellular device with aspersions will do absolutely nothing to fend off the grayclot pervading this loathsome woodland,” cautions Gene beside her, his rucksack on his back; does it still have that knife and the gun inside?
“Wait, did you seriously say, ‘cellular device’?” Penelope gawks at him, her mouth crawling into a smirk. “How old are you—eighty, ninety?”
Gene folds his face into a peevish frown that distorts the bleeding cut on his chin, thumps his cane twice on the ground. “I am a youthful sixteen-year-old!”
“Ignore her,” Corbin says from a couple feet off to the right, baby-cradling some ovoid device of garishly red metal the size of a large wheatfowl egg in her arms. “At the most, framano, you were born with the ripe maturity of a sixty-year-old.”
Gene narrows his brilliant green eyes at her, flaps his mouth open and closed as if he’s a ventriloquist’s dummy, before settling back into his peevish expression.
A few feet away from his and Penelope’s side opposite Corbin are Cooper and the pobs. The hammer that Cooper had in its harness on his back is now in his left hand, head pointing downward and resting on the ground, the pendant charms glinting in the light as they sway from the head’s asterisk peen; he’s nibbling a delicious-smelling frommbol roll in his other hand. The pobs’ wrists are still tailtied, and they acknowledge me with nothing more than inscrutable glances.
“Is everybody okay?” I ask.
Penelope gives an acerbic laugh. “We are now, but let’s not speak too soon.” She raises her hand, vaguely jerks it at the forest around us, as though to point out the Grimhets dwelling in it.
I turn to Corbin, taking in the red egg in her arms. It shines a gold tinge in the light and a triangle-shaped touchscreen blushes on one side. “Is that the beacon?”
Corbin nods, her face tight with agitation. “It’s taking longer than it should to transmit the signal through the grayclot.” That’s the pheromone-like chemical given off by Grimhets when they gather in large hordes. Aside from the numerous ways it can affect their behavior, it also jams most electronic signals and radio broadcasts, meaning our phones are as good as dead out here in the Hills. However, Warbearer beacons are specially built to overcome grayclot with a brute-force approach, sending transmissions powerful enough to slog through the interference the way you’d have to tirelessly trek across a waist-deep bog.
“Just stay on guard,” says Sidney, flexing her hands the same way I do when I’m preparing to call on my energy.
“Help’s coming, right?” I ask, suppressing the tightness in my stomach.
She says yes and smiles earnestly, but apprehension flattens out the laugh lines around her eyes. She isn’t saying it out loud, nobody wants to, but we all know we’re vulnerable during this lag time. I am a paladin, and my group includes three cubs, two active and one ex-, which does tip the odds in our favor—but not enough to make a hypothetical situation where Gargant’s monsters besiege us all fine and dandy.
“Let us hope so,” Gene offers, doubt dripping off his voice. “I must admit, when I arose from bed this morning, never did I prognosticate a vicissitude of fortune as severe as this.”
Swallowing a bite of his roll, Cooper shakes his head in mock bafflement, sandy bangs flopping just above his scrunched eyebrows. “Really? But that’s what we’ve been ridin’ on this whole time, yer legendary ability to foretell the future with glassgates and Grimhet entrails.”
“Trust me, you blustering bigot, if I was capable of that, my framana and I would have contrived a way to avert these circumstances in which we have found ourselves so painfully entangled.”
“Well, yeh made yer bed! Yeh let Augie buy the sheets and the comforter and the pillows, yeh got all snuggled up with her and her pathetic greenhides, and now yeh gotta wake up—”
A high-pitched pop, and Cooper flies backward, crashes into Lumpy Nose and collapses to the ground on top of him. A burst of shouts and gasps from the group, and Sidney hurries over to Cooper and Lumpy Nose and helps them to their feet. Cooper’s rubbing his chest where a small blast of pale green energy struck him, having fired out of Gene’s maycewood.
“What the sotty hell was that for?” Cooper bellows, his olive face flushing crimson.
“Please, go on, flap your lips further,” Gene goads, continuing to point the knobby top end of his cane at Cooper, as if he’s wielding a sorcerer’s staff; several ovals of wood have split from the top end and spread radially around it, like the petals of a flower, exposing a small bulb giving off pale shimmers of green light.
Cooper picks up his hammer and his frommbol roll, both which he dropped when Gene shot him, and he launches into a long stride towards Gene, but Sidney and Penelope hold him back, and Corbin rushes over to stand protectively in front of her brother and raise her palms in a stop-right-there gesture.
“Would you like to revile us further?” Gene provokes, aiming his cane over his sister’s shoulder. “I’m inclined to discipline you—”
“Both of you need to stop it, now,” I break in sternly, knitting my brow. “And Cooper, watch your mouth. We don’t have time for that shit.” He mumbles something unintelligible. I gesture to the pobs and the Thistles. “Don’t you have something you want to tell them?”
Cooper shrugs away Sidney and Penelope, turns to face the pobs and absorb their icy stares, and then swivels toward the Thistles, whose green eyes are flaring with scorn. “Sorry,” he grunts, as if he’s a grade-schooler being forced to say the same thing to the poor kid he’s been bullying.
“Apology not accepted,” Runa says, her tone chilly with disdain.
Understandable, I agree silently.
For a minute nobody speaks up. Penelope puts away her phone, Gene and Corbin wander a few steps away as the latter keeps the beacon in her arms, Cooper glares sulkily after them and munches on his roll despite Penelope advising him to not do so because it’s been on the ground, Sidney sidles closer to the pobs and keeps a close eye on them, and I take a step back and survey the woods around us where the only sounds are our muffled footsteps—no chirping or fluttering or buzzing or rustling or other audible signs of wildlife. It’s almost as if Maskar is holding its breath, terrified of rousing the demons that it’s harboring within itself. Because they’re out there, they could be haunting us right now—
And right on time, a distant rustle breaks the silence. Heart jackhammering, I whirl at the beasts emerging from the dimness beyond the trees, nine of them prowling toward us with guttural moans punctuating their malicious hisses.
Rusthunds—doglike Grimhets no higher than my waist, the two forelegs longer than their four hind legs, hundreds of smooth scales overlapping each other on their furless bodies, slender almost to the point of being skeletal, enough so I can make out their protruding ribs and shoulder blades. The rays of light sneaking between the trees sparkle off the twenty-plus spikes running along their ridged backs, and dapple their ashy gray bodies with spots of white. Four pointed horns as long as my hand jut out from their thin heads, one above each of their four lidless eyes. They’re snapping their knifelike jaws at us, causing stubbly patches of thin hairs to quiver over their long snouts, baring fangs that secrete a venom which will kill you within half an hour if you don’t treat yourself with the antivenin. They’re keeping their distance from us, restlessly scratching their clawed paws over rocks in the soil, slitting their eyes as if sizing us up.
“God, I can’t remember the last time I had to deal with these mutts.” Penelope’s trying too hard to sound excited, as if she’s overcompensating for the fear in her heart. She unholsters her rose-gold switchguns, toggles one so it transforms into a rapier, keeps the other as a gun and ejects its magazine to assure herself it’s full of rounds and clicks it back in.
“Free us, we can help,” Runa says with a pleading sweetness. She and Lumpy Nose are offering their tailtied wrists, looking between Cooper and Sidney for sympathy.
“You’re funny,” Sidney tells the girl, whose mouth sets in a firm line. “Guard them, will you?” Sidney tells this last bit to Cooper, who has just polished off the last of his roll. “And here, pick a rhythm for us.” She takes her NoteBook from a belt pocket, tosses it to Cooper, who effortlessly catches it in one hand and starts thumbing a dial to scroll through music on the screen.
“Fine by me,” he accepts in a tone intimating the opposite of his words. Propping his hammer back on his shoulder, bowing his head and making the sign of the jurvachall by tracing two concentric circles over his heart in a Dsinolic prayer for divine help, he bustles the pobs back to the Wulven and keeps searching Sidney’s NoteBook for the right tune.
“Why do we need music?” I ask her, arching my brow in bemusement.
“It sets the mood for anything, trust me”—bends over and reaches inside her boot, unsheathes a stiletto with a scarlet brillerine hilt and a short, tapered blade of iridescent purple metal—“especially for this doggone brawl.”
Wincing, Corbin says, “She has a point—one of the best aspects of Psy-Code is the upbeat soundtrack that it relies upon for its fast-paced action sequences.”
“Psy-Code? What’s that?”
Corbin turns to blink at Sidney for a long, shocked moment. “I hope you’re jesting.”
Cooper must’ve found something, because he clips the NoteBook to his waist and it blasts the moody, almost dreamy synth-pop of Patty Ramondo, which makes the Rusthunds visibly tense up, lean muscle and bone swelling and undulating just beneath their scales. Cooper hangs back with the pobs near the Wulven, underneath the shade of its unbroken wing, as the rest of us step forward. I unsling my bag from my shoulder and plop it on the ground a few feet behind me, getting rid of extra weight, and I summon the light from my pounding heart and a luminous blue sword flashes into life in my hand, a pair of feathered wings sprouting from its pommel, and a shield in the shape of a hexagon appears in my other hand, emblazoned with a Teönor Paladin’s helmeted head, like those old shields Torchen made with demonic designs to paralyze enemies with fright; Gene copies me and drops his rucksack on the ground, then thumbs a knob on his cane and the top end audibly snaps off and hangs by a short and spiky chain, looking like a flower dangling off a thorny vine; Penelope lazily waves her rapier and her switchgun in the air, both weapons on which she has a loose grip, as if she might drop them; Sidney twiddles with her stiletto, Choro-Cuffs glowing a patient mauve; and Corbin stuffs the beacon into her pouch and then withdraws what appears to be an engraved sword or knife hilt of dark green- and orange-streaked stone, a sight that only grows more bewildering when she squeezes it in her fist and it clicks and spits out dozens, no, hundreds, no, thousands of green threads that slither through the air and twine together into a four-foot-long whip with two thick, arched horns on the tip.
When Corbin hits her weapon against the ground with a booming crack, scattering some rocks and clumps of soil, eight of the beastly dogs recoil and whine as though they’d been struck, but the ninth one, in the middle, merely pricks its ears, wags its thin tail, pulls back its lips and bares its fangs, emits a chuckling sort of growl as if to mock Corbin.
Overconfidently, the Rusthund bounds toward her, and she propels it away with a lash of her horned whip, right as Ramondo begins to pick up her thumping tempo. The dog tumbles across the ground back to its pack, staggers to its six paws, gray blood dripping from both of the lacerations diagonally crossing its sharp muzzle and running down its narrow neck, a ribbon of flesh hanging off the corner of its lips. It’s leading its pack in a collective hissing that would be more appropriate coming from a bed of snakes.
“Corbin, remember to explain Psy-Code to us later,” Sidney remarks, thrusting out her free hand at a Rusthund that’s creeping her way. Tiny purple stars glitter over its gaunt frame, stilling it, lifting it into the air and tipping it backward to expose its underside. With incredible speed she hurls her stiletto so it plunges between the dog’s ribs all the way up to the hilt. Its howl is cut short as it falls dead.
As the knife shoots back into Sidney’s hand, the whipped Rusthund unleashes a mournfully furious bay that seems to send a shiver through the trees, and all eight Grimhets bound at us.
With Ramondo in the background I swing my sword at the dog pouncing at me and it falls away with a pained whine and a bleeding cut on its side. I smack away a second wolf with my shield but the two creatures aren’t giving up, they’re circling me, wagging their tails in low left-and-right sweeps along the ground, gnashing their jaws and I can hear their hisses through the music and a quick sideways glance lets me know my partners are holding their own against their opponents—Gene spinning his maycewood’s chained flower around and around as if wielding a flail, Corbin cracking her horned whip, Sidney flipping Rusthunds through the air and targeting them with her stiletto, Penelope slashing a rapier in one hand and firing her switchgun in the other, Cooper defending the pobs and swinging his hammer at the nearest monsters.
And then the hairs on the back of my neck stand up or my stomach lurches reflexively, it’s not because of the Rusthunds that are circling me, and I start to turn around, spy the new threat coming from the corner of my eye but it slams into my shoulder and shoves me to the ground and the sword and shield fly from my hands and clatter to the ground, too far away for me to reach. The new Rusthund presses its two forepaws onto my chest, digs in claws that are stained rust-red from the other poor animals who’ve fallen to this corruption of Cosmotic. The claws tear through my shirt and bite into my skin and I wince, I’d be able to kill this thing if not for the two other dogs clamping their jaws on my wrists, dear Metura, daggers are stabbing toward my bones, shredding the light, flashes of white in my vision, poison shoots through my veins and my hands are growing numb and the fire burns away the poison as it courses toward my throbbing heart, the Rusthund on top of me opens its mouth and all its fangs are about to close around my face—
“Here, yeh deranged little doggies!”
The Rusthunds twist up their heads and something huge and coppery swings in and smacks off the creature that’s on top of me and it rolls away and the others let go of my wrists with terrified whimpers and Cooper hurtles them away with his hammer. My hands are tingling from the poison, the last of which is being destroyed by my light, and my wrists are bleeding, but the cuts are already knitting neatly closed, leaving dried clots of blood on my smooth skin; the scratches are vanishing from my chest as well, and the only injuries left are in my rumpled jacket and shirt and pants, the rips and specks of blood and dirt.
I stagger to my feet as Cooper sweeps his hammer and cracks a Rusthund on the head and it crumples to the ground with blood trickling thickly down its neck. Another Rusthund is sneaking up on Cooper from behind and it leaps at his back at the same time that I push my feet off from the ground and lunge forward and clamp its throat in my left hand and bodily shove it to the ground and impale its ribcage with the sword that’s sprung from my right hand. I give my weapon a vengeful twist. A good five or six inches of its tip pokes up from the back of its neck and it gives a weak whine before the light dies from its eyes and its jaw goes slack.
Cooper’s patting my shoulder, softer than I’d expect from a big guy like him, and he’s asking me if I’m okay and I nod absently and pull my sword out of the broken Rusthund and push up from my knees and stand up. Hey, don’t yeh go anywhere, and Cooper marches back to the pobs, who look like they were taking tentative steps toward the rear of the Wulven, as if planning to flee into the woods. I’m left to brush the flakes of blood off my wrists and loom over the first Grimhet I’ve ever killed. Slumped over with a bleeding hole in its ribs, and so’s the one I saw Cooper kill, so are the others scattered nearby with limbs bent too severely, heads twisted, bones poking through their scaly skin, horns and spikes snapped off their heads and backs and leaving jagged stumps.
An agonized wail startles me out of my moment of morbid fascination. My pulse skips a beat and my eyes search frantically for the source until they land on Gene sprawled on his back on the ground and a Rusthund, the one Corbin lashed, is bearing down on him and digging its maw into his shoulder. Cursed Cosmotic, blood’s streaming from it and staining his once-polished clothes and Sidney and Corbin are in the middle of killing the only other Rusthund left and Gene’s next cry clashes with the bang of Penelope firing her switchgun and blood spurts up from the dog’s spiky back and it jumps off Gene in a strange convulsion and Penelope thrusts her rapier through its head and cuts off its anguished howl.
For one very long second Corbin stares dumbly at her brother, and then drops her whip to the ground, scrambles over the eight feet of space between them, kneels over him, takes ahold of his hand. I stagger three slow steps toward them, heart racing, brain spinning from what I just saw. The bloodstains on his shoulder aren’t actually that big, but the main concern is the Rusthund poison coursing through his body—his warm caramel complexion fading to a sickly pallor, his lips opening around short rattles of breath, the irregular rising and falling of his chest, eyes goggling up at the gray sky like he needs to drink in every detail before he . . .
A lump of ice plugs up my throat. If not for my healing factor I’d be stuck in the same boat. Without a word Sidney disappears into the Wulven, passing Runa and Lumpy Nose (distress and what may even be guilt crease their faces, as if they know this is all their fault) and Cooper (he killed the music on her NoteBook and re-strapped his hammer to his back and now his face is frozen with almost as much shock as the Thistle sister). Corbin is clutching her brother’s hand so firmly that her knuckles are whitening, her eyes glazed with tears, she’s murmuring to him in muted Elvaric.
But he’ll be okay, he will be okay, Sidney’s going to work her medical magic, like she did for me after the incident with Brone, and she’s dashing out of her ship with a first-aid kit. She gets down on her knees next to Gene’s shivering body on the other side from his sister, rolls his sleeve up to his wounded shoulder. With purple flashes the kit’s clasps automatically unfasten, the lid throws itself open, and a white autoinjector flies into her hand and she jams it in his upper arm. A dot of gold light blinks twice on the upper tip of the device, indicating it’s administering what I’m assuming is the antivenin, because he stops trembling almost at once and some color creeps back into his face.
“Is he . . .” Corbin trails off, gazing intently at Sidney.
Sidney gives a little nod, starts to open her mouth, but then a mechanical whirr sounds from the distance, and a geevee soars out of the forest seconds later, rapidly slows to a hover next to our distraught group, lowers to the soil and sends up an inch of dust. It’s an elegant and narrow thing, peach with silver trimming, its retractable roof of segmented glass panels set to cover the rear half. Two Vermusk are on it, the driver up front, a passenger in the backseat; a door swings open from the low wall and the passenger disembarks, shiny gray boots crunching the weeds and branches underfoot, faded cream half-cloak fluttering with a whisper behind her.
By now Sidney has poured a small cup of a syrupy orange liquid into Gene’s mouth and his breath stops rasping in his throat. And now Corbin is speaking Elvaric to the Vermusk in the half-cloak, who’s going down on one knee beside her and peering at Gene, an oh-crap expression lining her features—light green skin, flat nose, gray diamond markings curling over her cheeks in big loops.
“Who are you?” I inquire, but she ignores me. I observe how her half-cloak is clasped at the breast with an octagonal silver badge; I can’t make out the symbol with which it’s embossed.
“Come with us, now,” she finally says, a smooth and crystalline flow to her phonemes.
Corbin nods, as if convincing herself this is true, blinks away her tears and reshapes her face into one of renewed resolution and hope, and she picks up her whip and her brother’s cane and his rucksack. With a couple tiny gestures the threads of the whip untwine from each other and retract into the hilt, and the flower reattaches to the cane and closes up its petals over the green bulb and returns to its former state as a regular old maycewood. Once Corbin stuffs the whip hilt in her pouch and hitches the rucksack onto her shoulder and sticks the cane under her arm, she helps the Vermusk haul Gene up onto his feet, support him with their arms hooked against his, and his head lolls onto his shoulder, his eyes flicker open and closed.
Sidney begins, “Wait, we need to stay here for the sauverpod, it’ll be here—”
“They are not coming,” declares the Vermusk, as she and Corbin drag Gene onto the geevee and help him lie down across one of the four peach vinyl benches running its length.
I look at the others—Cooper’s face sours into a pout, Penelope curls her lips, Sidney ruminatively strokes her fishtail braid, and Runa sets her jaw and exchanges a glance with Lumpy Nose, whose frown is full of quiet caution. What the hell is going on? I think with a wrinkled brow.
“Come on, before we leave the rest of you behind!” calls the driver.
Within seconds I retrieve my bag from where I dropped it, annoyed by the dried Rusthund blood that has speckled it, and the rest of us board the geevee, which hovers off the ground, glides away from the wreckage of Wulven and into the woods, hopefully towards help.