Project Super Nex – Chapter Fourteen – Homesick

I barrel down the stairs from the steeple, bolt through the dining area, through the entrance vestibule and past the kissnut queen with its spiky branches looming over me. The ashmelin double doors slam open before I can touch them and I jump back from the frenzied throngs of Vermusk piling in. I squeeze my way past them, almost tripping over a grayish-white agudlin that scurries between my legs, and I’m standing outside the Camerad with trepidation pulsing through my blood and a thick fuzzball of warmth buzzing in my chest and Vermusk are spilling out of houses everywhere and their shouts are mixing with the howling Rabzen—
I start when someone grabs my shoulder, spins me around, and I’m facing Belldon as she yells over the alarm, “Go to the guesthouse! Enbo will take it from there!”
I dart my eyes down the road ahead of me, it stretches all the way down to the edge of Asulon where the guards are fending off Grimhets. Some of those guards are paladins, and their energy appears from this distance to be nothing more than glints and sparks of brilliant blue light.
I turn back to Belldon, about to ask her how this is mudding possible, but she cuts me off. “The guesthouse, now!” Ultimately it’s the way she bores her vivid green eyes into me that makes me shut up and give her an affirmative nod.
She takes me by the shoulders, spins me around so my back is facing her, pushes on my shoulder blades and shoves me forward. I start sprinting off, but I have to look back and she’s quickly marching down the southern road with her peach hooded cloak swelling behind her and her open palm is glowing blue and then a mace with a spiked ball for its head sprouts from her hand.
My mind’s whirling as I weave through the sea of people and reach the guesthouse and Enbo’s on the porch and he ushers me inside and we speed up the stairs to the third level and I’m right on his heels as we gallop down the hallway and up a second stairway, one flight of steps, and we run through the wide-open door and now I’m on the roof of the guesthouse. Like every other house’s rooftop in Asulon, this one’s been turned into a vibrant garden, brimming with fruits and vegetables and flowers, and I take a quick whiff of their aroma before noticing that Laddi from the Sterion is up here already. She’s next to a white noyu resin table with some sort of dome-shaped device sitting on top. About ten inches in diameter, it’s built from matte black metal with thin vents slotted into the lower half of its humming body. A blue ring is glowing dimly around its summit.
“Stand right there,” Enbo instructs, at a normal volume since the Rabzen just stopped, thank heavens. He points me to the side of the table opposite Laddi, and he stands on my left. I scan Asulon, its perimeter lined with guards and a few paladins warding off Grimhets pouring from the woods. The residents are herding into the Camerad and some of the other houses in a semi-organized manner, as though they’ve overcome the initial panic and steeled themselves for surviving this invasion.
I whip my head at the thudding of footsteps. Yentus Noribay emerges from the stairs, sweat glistening on her pale green face, half-cloak swooshing behind her. Muttering in Vermusk with the irritation of one who had to get up in the middle of a nap, she joins the three of us around the table, standing on the empty side of the table on my right. Without any prompt she plants her open-palmed right hand, which is shining with vivid blue light, on the black dome thingy. Enbo and Laddi follow suit, their own hands glimmering just as powerfully, and it gives this scene the feeling of an arcane ritual. I’m so dumbfounded into a standstill and I’m distracted by the warmth flittering in my chest—the sensation that I should’ve caught onto earlier, it only pops up when I’m in the presence of a paladin, and apparently I’ve been surrounded by paladins this whole time—that Enbo ends up taking ahold of my left wrist with his free hand and slapping my palm down on an empty spot on the dome, inches closer to Yentus’s hand than to his or Laddi’s.
Now the blue ring on the whirring device is appearing to reach its brightest level, and heat explodes inside me, spreads to the tips of my fingers and toes, a sheen of blue sweeps over my world for a long moment before fading away. I crane my head up at the immense forcefield that’s protecting Asulon now, a translucent blue dome glinting with energy that the four of us paladins are pouring into it, casting a blue illumination over everything. None of the creatures are able to break through it, even with all their desperate thrashing and roaring. Now all the guards and paladins, relieved of their sentry duties, are pulling back from the perimeter.
“We prepared the generator for an emergency just like this,” Enbo informs me, “in case our defense systems malfunctioned.”
“It didn’t malfunction,” Yentus asserts grimly. “It was sabotaged.”
My eyebrows shoot up my forehead, and Laddi chimes in, “Whoever did that is the same culprit who broke out those pobs.”
It takes a moment for the meaning of those words to sink into my brain. Then a slug starts crawling through my gut, leaving behind a slime trail of poisonous disbelief and terror. “As in, the pobs I just met,” I say flatly.
The others just look at me silently. They don’t have to say anything for me to know who’s responsible.
“How’s everyone getting evacuated?” I inquire next. It can’t involve the ships, they’re probably not repaired yet and there are only two of them anyways.
“Several of these buildings connect to underground tunnels,” explains Yentus, motioning her free hand to the Camerad and other nearby houses into which the crowds have been bustling. “And each one connects to a single passage that goes all the way to Neuanfang.”
Laddi says, “We have to wait for everyone else to escape, then we’ll go down there ourselves.”
I watch the vividly blue shine from the forcefield above us reflect off our forms, the roof, all of Asulon in ripples and swirls. All this light coming from us, the four paladins who are spreading our wings. I was given my wings, albeit unwillingly, thanks to Sibrilich. As for the others . . .
As I consider whether this is the appropriate time to ask how they became paladins, the metallic kla-klunk of something small landing nearby sounds, followed by a soft and repetitive beeping, and I look over my shoulder at the rectangle of rusty brown metal blinking from the ground less than five feet away. Enbo is a split-second quicker than me to react by raising his free hand and casting a forcefield between us and the grenade.
The explosion deafens me and I’m flung into the air and looking straight up for one moment at the stunning dome as it sputters and blinks and disintegrates and I’m looking down at the ground that’s hurtling up to meet me and I’m sprawled out and my ears are ringing and jagged blades are stabbing through my throbbing body and they’re quickly replaced by the pleasant prickling of minute needles in my veins and bones and the knitting-together of my bones and muscles. My chest shudders with arduous gulps of air and I stagger to my feet and hear the renewed roars and wails of the oncoming Grimhets who now don’t have to contend with our troublesome forcefield. Laddi’s already risen to her knees a few paces away, a reddish bruise on her cheek like a poorly applied patch of rouge, and helping up Enbo, who has one arm draped over her shoulder, something red and glutinous trickling from a gash in his cheek and clotting in his thick beard, a dizzy look fading from his face. Yentus is a short distance behind them, pushing herself up to her hands and knees, her half-cloak dirty with soil and dust.
I take a step towards them and something crunches beneath my sneaker. I lift my foot and it turns out I stepped on a fragment of the generator. Dozens, maybe hundreds of them are scattered all over the ground. I lift my chin and take in the scene—the cut in Enbo’s cheek flickering blue as it closes up and leaves half-dried blood on his healed skin; the bruise on Laddi’s cheek flushing blue and then vanishing almost at once; eight guards dashing up the road toward us, four of which are paladins lobbing orbs and spears and daggers at their pursuers, three Rusthunds and a Slange; and the last few non-security locals are disappearing into the buildings, apparently to head below ground and flee to Neuanfang. The numbness of my disbelief and stupefaction is at work, covering my body from head to toe, shielding me from any extraneous emotions that might break me.
The only Grimhet left is the one Slange, slithering and chattering its flat teeth, by the time I streak past Yentus and Laddi and Enbo, slip between the guards, and hold up a hexagonal Paladin shield in front of me and ram it into the Slange’s bulging, spiky head as if I’m breaking through a brick wall. I can almost feel the shockwave coursing through the snake, shattering its body, leaving it crumpled on the ground.
I take a moment to inhale deeply through my nose, but on the exhale, a furious screech rips through the air and a Rampa’s stomping down the road on my left, squinting its one eye at me, gnashing its many serrated fangs, muscle rippling beneath its octagonal plates of bony armor. Two growling Rusthunds are loping in its path. I’m in the middle of a crossroads and three more Rusthunds are bounding down the right-hand path. Before I know it, Yentus is standing beside me, mowing down the dogs with a barrage of iridescent blue star-shaped blades, shouting over her shoulder for Laddi and Enbo to get out of here. I look back as the two of them hurry to the Camerad, then I blast the incoming Rampa onto its back with two orbs to the chest, flash a sword with a winged pommel into my free hand, smash my shield into the knifelike head of one Rusthund hard enough to break off two of its four horns, thrust my sword through the other dog’s protruding ribcage and pull the sword back out and slash it at the first Rusthund because apparently clobbering it with my shield wasn’t enough to put it away.
The Rampa’s also got some life left, it’s pulling itself to its broad horn-toed feet and clenching its spiky fists and flicking its forked tongue at me. No, at us, Yentus is letting off a volley of star missiles against the ogre, but they’re not making much of a dent in its bony plates. With a shriek it barges up the road toward us and I hurl my shield at its head and the collision makes it stumble two steps back and my shield clatters to the ground and Yentus constructs a chain with a pair of stubby bar-shaped weights at one end and she lashes it at the Rampa and leaves a bleeding laceration on its left bicep. I rush the monster and drive my sword into its knobby right knee and it draws back its fat lips in a malevolent snarl and kicks up its foot into my stomach and the wind flies out of me and I crash onto my back and everything’s aching and then prickling as I lift my head, wincing, and watch the Rampa thrust an open hand and slap Yentus into the side of a house and then it’s charging at me with my gleaming sword lodged in its knee—
It’s slowing down, spasming slightly, freezing in place four paces away from me with its spiky hands outstretched for me and violet stars glittering all over its massive frame. I look back and there’s Sidney six feet away holding up her fists like she’s lifting barbells, her Choro-Cuffs glowing that same contemplative shade of purple, the weight of her burden creasing her face into a grimace and causing her scar to convulse.
“Wanna scooch out of the way?” she asks, the strain even more apparent in her voice.
Once I scramble over to her, she suddenly lowers her barbells and the wretched Rampa crashes to the ground, still shimmering purple. Teasing shafts of my light into my hands, I dart back to the trapped Grimhet, cup my hands together and raise them over my head, weave my light into a sword with a blade so long and thick it’s unwieldy, bring it down on the creature’s neck like an executioner carrying out death on the condemned. The blade only goes halfway through the thick flesh and bone the first time, so I have to heft up the cumbersome sword and go for a second strike to fully decapitate the Rampa.
The purple glimmers on its carcass died away after the first hit, so now Sidney complains, “I forgot how heavy the bastards are.” She unclenches her hands and rubs her wrists, as if her cuffs are biting into them.
After my sword vanishes, I glimpse Yentus climbing to her feet, amiably waving her arm at me as if she didn’t just get flung at a house, resulting in a sizable dent in the tan wooden wall.
Ignoring the acrid fumes of the gray blood running from the Rampa’s severed neck, I take three steps over to Sidney and ask, “Are you okay? Where have you been? Where are the others?”
“Sure, thanks for asking. Slaying these brutes. Coop, Penny, and the Thistles all went underground. Oh right, did you hear about the tunnels—Good,” she says when I nod.
“And it’s about time we join them.” I spin Yentus’s way as she briskly walks past the beheaded Rampa toward us, stepping carefully around the pool of blood expanding around the beast.
As we begin hastening to the Camerad, I ask Sidney, “You have the nephus on you?” Whoever threw that grenade’s probably sticking around to steal our goods.
She reaches a hand into her cardigan, slips out a clear plastic pouch with the shimmering pink disc and the mount and then puts them away immediately, flashes her eyebrows in a see-I’ve-got-this gesture. But then she shoots a backward glance and her eyes widen and she spins around and holds her hands close together as if cradling a small fruit. Her face is creased again, but in a scowl this time. Yentus and I swivel to face Brone Hennum down the road standing next to the decapitated Rampa, having tossed a grenade that’s now frozen in midair seven feet away from me and coated in purple stars, as if it’s a tiny glittery ornament you’d hang up for the holidays.
With a push of Sidney’s hands, the grenade shoots back at Brone, but by the time it explodes into fragments and smoke, he’s already taken cover by lunging through the guesthouse’s open door. I project a forcefield even though we’re not in the blast radius, but the explosion leaves a ringing in my ears. I don’t wait for the smoke to thin out before I sprint at the guesthouse and, ignoring Sidney and Yentus’s shouting for me to stop, jump through the door with a shield in hand.
In the foyer I peer up the stairs on my left, down the corridor straight ahead, through the rec room on my right—and into the kitchen from which Brone is training a TF-7 energy rifle at me. I launch a forcefield from my shield. The violently silver shots pop and crackle loudly against it, hailing hard enough to send tremors through my body. I hear Sidney shout my name, and then a Rusthund’s guttural howl sounds from outside. I swivel my head, look out the window at the two dogs with whom Sidney and Yentus are locking horns (or breaking horns, I should say).
Turning back to Brone, it hits me that the gunfire has stopped and now red flecks are flittering for half a second within the TF-7’s slender barrel, bringing back a fragment of a memory from Myrius, a beat of edea pryn. I lunge sideways in time to dodge the charged-up energy blast, silver with cruel red shards, and it hurtles past me and I crash to the floor on my shoulder and there’s a resounding whoosh, not quite a boom, along with a great wooden snap. I scramble to my feet and furrow my brow at the front wall where a gaping hole’s been torn open, gray smoke issuing in thin curls from its ragged edges. Outside I can see Yentus ensnaring a Rusthund in her chained bars and Sidney plunging her stiletto into its throat; the other one’s lying nearby, its slack-jawed head twisted backward.
Before Brone can take another shot, I shoot a crackling blue orb, forcing him to duck. The orb flies over his head into the kitchen, where plates shatter and something metal flings into the air and clatters to the floor. He stands up halfway and then leaps sideways to avoid another orb, which bursts against the breakfast bar and leaves a pale blue imprint on the veneered surface. Changing my shield into a stout four-foot staff, I take two long strides over to Brone as he rushes to get up, swing it at him in a wide arc, strike him on his upper arm.
“That’s for jumping me,” I state in sandpaper tones, impervious to the cry that issues from his throat. He’s back on the floor now, one hand clutching the butt of his TF-7. It only takes the span of one second for me to smoothly bend over, pluck the rifle from his grasp, toss it onto the table where Penelope and Cooper and Enbo were playing a loe match earlier this morning.
He starts scrambling to his feet, but I go for a second swing and whang down on his hip, forcing him back down and eliciting a terrible howl. The third hit, on his ribs, earns an expletive. The fourth strike, on his collarbone, draws out a prolonged and strangled groan. He’s curling in on himself, muttered obscenities streaming from his mouth, anguish and resentment distorting his thin face. That’s when something close to but not quite guilt pangs in my heart, splitting cracks in the cold efficiency I’ve been using to deal with this creep. I let my arms fall to my sides, change my staff into handcuffs, get down on my knee, and he doesn’t show any sign of resistance when I twist his arms behind his back, snap the cuffs over his wrists.
“Wy, you dealt with the grazboot yet?”
After tugging the gangling Brone up to his feet—he’s staggering a bit but staying upright, clenching his restrained hands into fists behind his back—I look back. Sidney’s stepping through the hole Brone blasted through the wall. She cocks her head at him, dips her eyes to his glowing cerulean handcuffs, a half-smile tugging at her lips with a cute slyness. Yentus, three steps behind her on the front porch, quirks an eyebrow and frowns at the pob as though he’s a misbehaving pet.
Sidney announces she’s going to fetch her things from upstairs, so I accompany her, leaving Brone under Yentus’s watch. We pop into our rooms and I grab my messenger bag and come back out to the hallway and she returns a moment later with a small backpack—less than half a minute for the whole process.
I almost go down the stairs, but she says, “Hey,” and grabs my hand and pulls me in for a kiss that sets off waves of heat through my body. Then she draws her warm and damp lips away from mine far too abruptly for my taste, leaves me with a bashful smile before darting down the stairs.
Seconds later we’re racing out of the guesthouse, following Yentus to the Camerad, warding off two Slanges and a Rusthund along the way. She has her hand clamped on Brone’s upper arm, forcing him to keep up with our pace. My lips tingle from the stolen kiss as I ask if everyone has cleared out yet, and Yentus solemnly answers, “Either that, or they’re dead.”
We race past the kissnut tree and through the dining area, our footsteps deafeningly loud in the still silence, and Yentus bangs open the double doors that the waitdrones were flurrying in and out of last night. She flips on the lights in this new room, a big kitchen with loads of stainless steel equipment. The lighting is so dim it verges on the bleak. We follow Yentus across the kitchen to an unmarked door on the other side. She waves her hand over a computer lock, which chimes its approval. She pushes her hand on the door and it swings into the next room, which has more dreary lights blinking on in our presence, and more shelving units covering the walls and bearing bioplastic food packs, boxes of blue latex gloves, tidy stacks of folded towels, and other miscellaneous items.
As it turns out, a unit in the far corner has been pulled away from the wall to reveal a narrow spiral staircase heading down into an oppressively solid blackness. Even out here I can feel how thick and cold the air in there is, how impregnated it is with the musty stench of a basement nobody’s visited in a long time.
Not loosening her hold on Brone’s arm, Yentus holds up her free hand, molds her energy into a flashlight, which I eye with dismay. Its thick beam cuts straight through the darkness, tinging the water-stained cement walls a bright blue. Yentus gives Brone a little push between his shoulder blades and he sneers at her before descending the creaky steps, his shadow tearing through the bluish glow on the walls. Yentus follows him down the stairs, suffusing it with more of her light.
Paladins, all this time . . .
I go down the steps next, and make my own flashlight to disperse the darkness further. Sidney’s two steps behind me, her steady and warm breaths tickling the back of my head. At the foot of the stairs is a long, arched tunnel just wide enough for the four of us to walk abreast, cerulean beams bobbing ahead of us in the darkness.
“Digging these tunnels must have been boring,” Sidney remarks.
Neither Yentus nor Brone make any indication that they caught the pun as they march two paces ahead of me and Sidney, Brone’s arm in Yentus’s fist. I’m uncertain whether five seconds or five minutes passes with us trooping along the path, its cement as water-marked and thinly cracked as the stairway, until Yentus says, “Back when we were laying the groundwork for Asulon, we knew we would need strong security to keep out those goddamn monsters. Not just the cloak, not just the traps we were going to arrange all around the perimeter—we knew we needed paladins as an extra precaution. Sornis shot down the idea at first, but Sílvena, with no small effort, convinced him it was necessary for the safety of our community. It helped that Marsden was on our side in the negotiations. She’s always searching for more people to fill her crimson forces.” She says this as if it’s a jab at the Warbearer Overseer.
Drumming my fingers on my messenger bag, I exchange a look with Sidney. The crinkles in her brow tell me I wasn’t the only one to conjecture that Belldon might’ve obtained Super Nex from her sister.
“I’m surprised you never mentioned anything,” I point out, half a statement, half a question.
“You’re not privy to all of our village’s trivial activities.” We tread a distance before Yentus speaks up again. ”Sorry we couldn’t let you leave this way earlier. These tunnels are strictly for emergency evacuations.”
“And infiltrations,” Brone interjects, his voice laced with malicious provocation.
I swallow my impulse to throttle him, Sidney throws a hard gaze his way, Yentus squeezes his arm a degree tighter, but if he’s trying to get a rise out of us, he doesn’t succeed. We keep proceeding down the long tunnel, streaks of light slashing through the darkness and across the water-splotched walls in many blue hues.
A few more minutes and we reach the point where the path takes an oblique right turn into an oval atrium branching off to a total of six passages. Five are behind us and go back to Asulon. Yentus points ahead of us to the sixth tunnel, which is wide enough for seven people to walk shoulder-to-shoulder. Moments after advancing into it, something occurs to me, and as Yentus tells us to stop, passes on her flashlight to Sidney, reaches her hand underneath her cloak into a pants pocket, I query, “Yentus, doesn’t this path need to be blocked off? Otherwise Grimhets can use it—”
Yentus produces something akin to a phone from her pocket, taps one of the brightly colored options on the display, and a deep rumble thunders from the distance behind us and the tunnel trembles under my feet and I whirl around and put up a forcefield. Dense clouds of dust roll through the air toward us, bouncing off my energy and settling to the ground. All that’s visible when Sidney and I shine our flashlights down the path are all the boulders and debris crammed into what was formerly the atrium twenty feet away.
“Not anymore,” Yentus says, pocketing her phone, taking her flashlight back from Sidney. Brone’s expression exudes an uncharacteristic boredom throughout this procedure.
We resume the journey and we’re walking and walking and I can’t stand the chilly air or the dank odor. Time feels like it’s stretching, softening, decaying, evaporating with every step. I take my Kasma from my pocket, flip it in the air over and over, catch it every time, watch it change between forms. The third time it turns into a coin, I pause to squint at the new engravings—a stand of grawtrees on one side, a creepy bug that looks like the spawn of a spider and a moth on the other. When I turn over the coin between my fingers, though, it returns to the original designs—a noble-featured woman’s profile and the Teönor etching CORONLUMN on one side, and a sword and an eagle over Bicap on the other.
Something dark and alien swirls deep in my chest, but I shake my head, stuff the Kasma in my pocket, look up at the back of Brone’s head, and whatever I’m feeling morphs into tentacles of spite wriggling and spiraling through my gut, and I say in my most measured voice, “Was it worth it—breaking out your friends?” He keeps walking but looks back, and I fix my eyes on his. “The terror you caused, the people you killed, the home you destroyed—was all that havoc worth it?” Where are the other pobs anyways? Did they escape through the tunnel we’re in?
“Every second of it,” he confirms, his demeanor completely docile. He’s like a terrorist who’s reconciled himself with the fact that’s he’s been sacrificed for his leader’s cause, which actually scares me more than his other, outwardly demented side.
“Too bad you didn’t get these goodies.” The pouch crinkles audibly when Sidney takes it from her cardigan. She waggles it in front of her as if it contains pet treats instead of the nephus and the mount.
“Who says I want them?” Brone gazes at me and Sidney with subtle contempt, then turns his face away, looks forward at the end of the shaft with such an awful finality that it sets off a glimmer of a tension headache in my neck.
It feels as if we’ve been trekking underground for weeks by the time we arrive at our destination, a stairway as steep and narrow as the one at the start of this journey. We climb the groaning steps, flashlights washing it with lively blues, and at the top there’s a door propped open with a box of nostmelon sauce. It leads into a large room where tall shelves are packed with insta-pouches, canned food, boxes of produce, toiletries, compact paperbacks, glossy magazines, all of which give off a nauseating sheen under the banks of whitish-yellow ceiling lights. If I didn’t know better, I’d say we’re in the storage area of a grocery store.
Then Yentus, as if welcoming us to the headquarters of a groundbreaking tech company, announces, “Welcome to the storage area of Tarnell’s.”
Oh, excellent.
My and Yentus’s flashlights disappear and she guides us between the shelves, refusing to let go of Brone, and we pass paper towel rolls, makeup, jars of baby food, inkbrands that remind me of that Vermusk riot I saw on CMBN last night. I wonder if there’s a demonstration blasting through the streets of Lumin right now.
We come to another door, which is propped open this time with a squat carbon fiber stool. Outside is a parking lot occupied by a vast gathering of medical stations, a smattering of small cars, Vermusk everywhere whether they’re tending to the injured or receiving treatment themselves, agudlins here and there swishing their tails. The gray sky’s burdensome as when I last saw it before venturing underground, seeming to be in danger of tearing open soon.
“Your mates are somewhere around here,” Yentus says, waving her hand vaguely at the stations. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to take care of this pukordo.” Wrinkling her flat nose, she tightens her hold on Brone’s arm in a short but hard squeeze, making him wince, and she hauls him off to the left, past a row of rosebushes and towards a crimson-and-gold patrol car that sped down the street moments ago, a yellow bubble light strobing on its roof. The way he looks back with that perpetually wicked sneer of his (there’s the Brone Hennum we know and don’t love) forces me to recall the exact same expression in Rad-Bio, before he tore open a vortex in the lobby, before I got a concussion, before—
Stop, warns the voice in my head. Stop lingering in the past. Tether yourself to the now.
I hitch my bag’s strap higher on my shoulder. An irritating ache is digging into my neck. I reach over my shoulder and knead it while roaming the parking lot with Sidney in search of our partners. We pass patients who are hooked up to IVs, getting body parts wrapped in absorbent bandage, making faces in response to the tiny cups of bitter-smelling tonics they’re sipping. I’m amazed all these stations were cobbled together so fast, it feels like we just left Asulon.
Then I pick out Penelope’s “What took you dopes so fucking long?” from the din and I see her at a nearby station with her hands on her waist and an admonishing glower on her angular features, as though she’s a mom about to lay down the law with her rowdy kids. The switchguns hanging low in her hip holsters bumps up her formidableness another level. Corbin and Gene and Belldon are also with her, all of them surrounding Cooper, who looks alarmingly disheveled and banged-up.
Sidney and I weave past a couple stations to reach them, and Penelope adds, “Good, you brought him back in one piece.” She reaches her hand to muss Sidney’s hair, making the cub roll her eyes and smile at me as if she’s used to this. I take a step back in case Penelope’s going to tousle me next, but fortunately that doesn’t happen.
Then Sidney turns to Cooper and looks him over. “No offense, but you look like graz.”
 “Yeh always know how to pat a pal’s plumpies.” One side of his mouth pulls up higher than the other in a lopsided grin that’s incongruous with his visage—a swollen eye, a cut splitting the middle of his lower lip, a hell of a purplish-yellow bruise on his jawbone. He’s sitting on the edge of the table with his legs dangling in the fashion of a child seated on a park bench and licking his ice cream. He’s in a charcoal T-shirt and dark brown trousers, a bandage slapped on his sinewy forearm, a cup of red liquid in his other hand, his hammer lying behind him on the table. I’m baffled and amused in equal measure to see him petting Kurolt, who’s curled up in his lap, closed eyes fluttering, sleek coat glimmering blue and pink under the ashy clouds.
“Dear Metura, what happened?” I ask.
He shrugs his huge shoulders like he’s talking about brushing off a random stranger who flashed an obscene hand gesture at him, yet there’s something to the gesture I can’t quite read. “Bumped heads with Bronie boy,” he drawls, continuing to stroke Kurolt on the head as if for his personal comfort.
Cursed Cosmotic, does that asshole have a thing for pummeling Aoi guys?
“One of the tunnels led to the lavatory in the gym,” Gene tells me and Sidney, twisting his hand around the top of his cane. “That’s the entry Hennum used, where he encountered our companion.”
I look at Cooper, and he responds, “Washin’ my hands, that’s what I was doin’. Tried to take him down, but . . .” He shrugs again, almost shamefully, as if he feels like he could have stopped Brone and single-handedly saved Asulon.
“I hope you have the nephus,” says Corbin. Sidney pats the bulge in her cardigan, and relief visibly loosens the tense lines in Corbin’s face. Penelope purses her lips wearily as she adjusts the prall pin on her bun, then takes a swig from her flask.
“I, I’m really sorry,” I tell Belldon and the Thistles, the words sounding so paltry as they stumble out of my mouth. Nothing can compensate for what happened to Asulon.
Belldon studies me for a couple seconds, hoops and teardrops glinting on her ears. “We knew the risks, living out there. We decided they were worth it.” She cuts herself off, focuses her gaze on a point past my ear. “You’re coming back home. All that matters for you, isn’t it?” She sounds strikingly similar to that mild tone employed by her daughter during their quasi-argument at dinner last night.
My gaze drifts off to the right. There’s Enbo lying on a table ten paces away and holding hands with Laddi, who’s sitting on an adjacent table and she must have said something funny because now he’s bellowing with laughter and clasping his other hand over his eyes. Witnessing this display of companionship summons a murky image of Sidney and I reading together the hilarious captions of reviews for terrible movies—
Stop. It. Now. I won’t let these delusions ruin the good things I’ve got here.
I glance at Sidney and she reflexively smiles at me, raises her hand and worries at her pendant. I can’t help but detect the anxiety pulling on the laugh lines in the edges of her eyes, as if she suspects something’s off about me.

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