When I walk into the Citadelle through the main entrance, the atmosphere of the lobby is abuzz with a palpable tension, as if preceding a crucial event in the future. Warbearer Overseers seem to frown even deeper at me from their giant portraits, the battles between the crimson force and Grimhet emanate more violence from the painted floor, the tigon statue doesn’t look any less inclined to pounce on someone, and the bronze statues of high-ranking cubs are proudly standing in their niches. Even the cubs bustling about the area seem to be running on a higher energy level, as though they’re distracting themselves from the main task by focusing on a hundred small tasks.
I cross the lobby to the elevator bank, enter one that’s already open, press for the thirty-fourth floor. The doors hum closed. I climb up the pillar, peering at my reflection in the red mirrored walls, plunging a hand into my right pants pocket and clasping onto the cube form of my Kasma, and then the elevator stops with a jerk on the eighth level and my stomach drops to my knees. The doors open to reveal Cooper, Newcomb, Laddi, and Marsden talking in low voices, but they stop suddenly after seeing me.
Marsden darts me a look, then nods to her cubs by way of farewell and marches off into a corridor. After her cubs join me in the elevator, it resumes its upward journey, the number above the door flashing through the floors. I’m next to Laddi in the back of the car and I look over at the dull grief etched into her heart-shaped face.
“You know, um . . . I’m really sorry,” I tell her, hating myself before I even finish the sentence for popping off the same hackneyed apology she must have heard a hundred times on Enbo’s behalf. I keep fingering my Kasma, and a beat passes before she blinks and makes a microturn of her head in my direction, as though it took that long for her to process my words.
“We were planning to dine at Tiny Commodore’s over in Jem-7 last night,” she says wistfully. “A favorite spot of ours. I would have ordered the orchid syrup dumplings.”
“And the grilled rho-mor belly is a real treat too,” recommends Newcomb, standing with their back against the elevator’s right wall, left hand clasped over their right wrist at waist level, dressed in full crimson attire.
Cooper’s against the left wall fiddling with the travtoks on his belt, his hammer slung over his back and glinting brown and pink. His lips are compressed together, his eyes angled downward and heavy with a somber emotion I can’t identify.
“The bastards haven’t been arrested yet,” Laddi says tonelessly.
The quiet anger seeping into her aura unnerves me enough that I hesitate for a beat before responding, “But they will be. I mean, they were caught on camera.”
Cooper snorts like he’s deriding my unsure tone, which annoys me, but he doesn’t say anything. Then the elevator stops and the doors slide open with a ping, and I look around the group one last time before adjusting my bag on my hip and stepping out onto the thirty-first floor.
“Remember, Durrell, training at six,” Newcomb reminds me before the doors close.
As if I could forget. Every session I’m reminded of why I’m spending them under Newcomb’s supervision instead of Sidney’s. And I’ll let my mind drift off for small moments to the playful grin Sidney flashed when I fought off mites, to the bright gleam in her eyes when she dared to make a horrible pun, to the mysterious allure of her wing-etched pendant, to the tingling heat that bloomed in my lips during a kiss and quickly surged throughout my body and unbound my brain with overwhelming pleasure. And I’ll contemplate texting her or calling her or talking to her face-to-face because these figments haven’t stopped barging through my shields and what if they’re blots of memory, genuine memories that don’t exist solely in my fucked-up head?
A grave mood hangs over the lab as well. I haven’t seen Penelope this pissed off since that time last year when a Starsapien crimson officer fatally shot an unarmed Vermusk teenager in Neuanfang. She thinks they’re going to take as long as possible to arrest Bansmer and the other cubs.
“Otherwise it sends out the message that these tigonasses can’t rely on crimson loyalty to grease the fucking system. God forbid they ever lose that privilege,” she asserts, reaching for her sanus, squirting sanitizer onto her hands.
“They were caught on camera, though,” I press, almost the exact same way I told Laddi, but with even less certainty.
Her scorching gray eyes glare over her glasses at me—Do you honestly think that matters?
At two Penelope and I take our lunch break together. As we eat, we open a live Walnut feed on our phones to watch Overseer Marsden give a press conference in the Triangle Gardens of Revallet House; a humungous beige and creamy stone mansion north of Lumin, her family has owned it for four generations. Standing up on the stage in a fashionable red pantsuit, her auburn hair smartly bobbed as always, she starts off by offering her heartfelt condolences to Enbo and his family and friends, then condemns Bansmer and his three associates for the roles they played in his death, and announces that they’ve been terminated from work (“they should be arrested, too,” I note).
Next, the reporters start throwing questions at her. One of them’s about whether they know who seeded the video, and Marsden says they’re still investigating the matter. About halfway through someone from Bicap News One asks for her opinion on how this may affect the current wave of Vermusk riots, and as she begins to answer, Sornis leaps onto the stage (“Where the fuck did he come from?” Penelope shrieks) and takes his place next to Marsden.
“Look, the protesters have my sympathies,” the Head Councilor declares, patting his hands over his very rumpled gray suit in a futile attempt to smooth its stubborn creases, his overly sculpted face looking even more waxen than usual. “But we’re not going to let them use this as an excuse to incite more violence, more destruction, and more chaos. They’re barbarians at the core, and we need to smother the flames of their fury before they burn us.”
“Thank you, Aldous,” Marsden says, clipped, eyebrows arched, jaw tensed up. I suspect she’d watch Sornis strip naked and take a dump onstage with the same expression.
“We refuse to soften up on these protestors,” he rambles on. “This is a time to grieve for Enbo, not bury his death in hate and disharmony.”
“Again, thank you,” Marsden says, shooing him offstage. From that point on the press conference regains some sense of normalcy. It wraps up just as Penelope and I finish lunch, leaving us slightly more discouraged. It doesn’t help that I check Walnut minutes later to find Sornis’s latest seed: WE WON’T SOFTEN!!!
Oh, I’m sure he won’t.
After work, I say bye to Dr. Fulbright and Penelope and take the elevator up to the thirty-eighth level, where I meet Newcomb in the elevator bank. They escort me to the Savvy and, while unlocking the door with their ID, ask me, “You probably haven’t seen the tribute yet?”
I shift my messenger bag. “For Enbo? Where?”
The corners of Newcomb’s mouth inch upward. They usher me into the Savvy, where rock music pulses from the speakers. The Warbearer banners and flags hung around the fitness center are drooping as if left distraught from this morning. I notice Gene, Belldon, and Yentus walking into one of the passages that branch out from here, the path designated as SP-2; all three of them are carrying colorful bouquets, cloaks rippling in Belldon and Yentus’s wake.
Newcomb leads me past all the exercise equipment and their sweaty operators, and we head into the SP-2 corridor. I stop to take in the tribute displayed around the doors, which have been left wide open, for the second arena on the right. A large portrait of Enbo has been set up with a globius wreath—a series of glassy globes radiating a soft white glow, hovering in a circle around the photo, typically used for funerals. Photos and digigraphs of Enbo cover the walls and the doors. I watch as Gene, Belldon, and Yentus rest their bouquets on the floor, adding onto an ample pile of flowers. There are luminous blue Super Nex constructs too—a statuette in Enbo’s bearded likeness, charms strung to the door handles, a candelabra with several gleaming candles.
“Salutations,” Gene says tersely as Newcomb and I join his group.
Heat buzzes in my heart from being close to other paladins as I scan the contents of the tribute in amazement, then peer through the doorway into the arena, where Laddi, two more Vermusk, Ray Easton, and a Starsapien woman have gathered around a second tribute arranged along the left wall, around the spot where Bansmer shot Enbo. More flowers, photos and digigraphs, and energy constructs, one of which is a full-size statue of Enbo with a globius wreath levitating in a bright white halo above his head.
As Newcomb, Belldon, Yentus, and I shuffle into the arena, Yentus states, “So many of our people have lost their lives to these horrid acts.” Her voice is dim with simmering anger.
“I hope those cubs get arrested,” I say, even as I recall Sornis’s unsettling words.
“If history is any indicator, they will probably receive nothing more than a slap on the wrist,” Gene sniffs, his cane clacking the floor with every other step.
I see Laddi’s shoulders shaking as we stop next to her group and I realize she’s silently crying. Newcomb pats a sympathetic hand on her shoulder. Without a word she turns and takes them in a hug, tears streaming down her face. The other Vermusk, Easton, and the Starsapien woman greet us newcomers with amiable glances.
As Yentus takes two steps toward the tribute, gets down on her knee, and stretches out her glowing hands to start a construct, Belldon declares, “Eight years ago it was Harry Molvos. Seven years ago, Sembi Narrett. Four years, Darge Loudone. Do we ever learn from the sparks they touch off?”
“People protested for all of them,” I observe, raking a hand over my hair. My parents and I have participated in quite a few of them over the years.
“But their flames died out over time. People eventually moved on with their lives, as if it exhausted them to talk about racism. That can’t happen this time, though. Enough is enough.”
Belldon sounds like she has more to say but stops to watch, green eyes shimmering, as Yentus hangs her finished construct on the wall—a string of brilliant blue letters reading JUSTICE FOR ENBO ALVIZ.
“This spark will kindle yet another fire.” Belldon’s on a roll now. “This time, however, we need to keep the fire blazing, no matter what. That’s the only way we can have the smallest glimmer of hope for healing our sick society.”
Gene mumbles a snatch of Elvaric in an agreeing manner and thumps his cane twice on the floor. We all survey the tribute for a silent minute, and then I hear approaching footsteps and I spin around and Sidney’s crossing the arena in our direction and suited up in her sleeveless bodysuit with her chocolate pack in hand. The sight of her sends a peculiar jolt of something between excitement and dread through my warm chest.
She stops a few feet away from us, waits to swallow a chocolate before instructing, “Come with me.” She gestures her chocolate pack to me, Belldon, and Gene.
The three of us exchange glances of bemusement but say brief goodbyes to the others and follow Sidney out of the arena and through the Savvy. Belldon asks Sidney what’s going on, and she answers in that faint lilt of hers, “We’re gonna take a little hop into the Welkin.”
A wave of anticipation washes over me. Finally, I’ll be going back. I stick my hand in my pocket and clasp it around my Kasma, as if it’s going to vanish.
With a listless sigh Gene says, “Unless you have forged a passageway into the Nave, a Welkin expedition will accomplish nothing.”
“Funny you say that, because your sister just found a passageway into the Nave.”
Almost instantly, Gene’s eyes glitter with enthusiasm, dispelling the boredom that had been sagging on his handsome features. “Oh well then, this merits an expedition, yes, how soon—”
“And your sister will accompany your mother, Wy, and me, while you stay with Dr. Taython and monitor our trip.”
The light fades somewhat from Gene’s eyes. He looks eager to talk when I ask what the Nave is, but Sidney interrupts, “Let’s wait until we go down to the lab,” and now we’re walking up to the elevator bank and she punches the call button. There’s a ping exactly eight seconds later and the doors open. We crowd into the car and it takes us four stories down. During the ride Sidney’s standing next to me in the elevator, the two of us behind Gene and Belldon, and she tries to take my hand, our fingers lacing together for one second, but I pull mine away before it’s too late. I can’t let her back in, it’s too much. Already I’m seeing us and Penelope at Gollinger Park, but the doors ping open and we exit the elevator and move toward Lab F-19, which still has the VERY IMPORTANT RESEARCH IN PROGRESS—WRATH TO ALL WHO DISTURB IT sign on the glass door.
Sidney unlocks the door with her ID and takes us into the lab, which is busier than I’ve ever seen it. Seris is tapping commands into a tablet, causing graphics to flash onto and spin around the huge hologram screen on the left. Penelope is standing next to her, taking pulls from her flask. Corbin’s fervently working at a computer workstation, while Cooper and Xavier Wiley watch her from a few feet away. Late-afternoon sunlight streams through the windows across the lab, bleaching it in pale and fuzzy splotches.
Seris looks over her shoulder at my group, barely welcomes us with a wave. “Go on now, take your seats,” she says distractedly, as if she’s watching videos of dancing animals. She motions to a set of four metal chairs in the center of the lab, arranged in a circle around a small round table, which we approach. Placed on the tabletop is something resembling a short hexagonal column of bluish-yellow metal. The hot pink nephus sits on its tip, fastened with translucent wires spiraling around its disk-shaped body. Four bright red bands small enough to slip onto my finger are stacked up next to the device.
“What happened to the mount?” I ask.
“It conked out,” Sidney replies. “Mounts in general tend to break down easily, they’re so cheaply made. Fortunately they’re just as easy to replace with new models.”
“Too bad nephuses aren’t nearly as manageable to acquire,” Xavier interjects, sauntering over in a suave white suit with the triangular tip of a folded orange napkin protruding from his pocket. Then he leans over to us and lowers his voice to a semi-whisper, as if he’s confiding in us his hot take on a fan-favorite couple in a reality dating show. “Foxer wants to see this get handed over to Web’s scientists, you know, for research purposes, but certain people think it’s safest to keep the nephus here.” He glances obviously at Seris as she starts pacing over to us, braided whip of hair sweeping left and right behind her; Penelope, Cooper, and Corbin are joining us too.
“No offense, Wiley, but I wouldn’t even trust Web to tell me the time of day,” Sidney asserts; it takes all my strength to resist eagerly agreeing with her. From the look on Xavier’s face, he concedes the point.
“Before we head off, isn’t anyone going to explain what our mission’s for?” Belldon inquires. “Or what the Nave is?”
“It’s the central point of the Welkin, the part from which reality and all subsequent entities are born,” Seris says, tucking her tablet under her arm. “According to the data we’ve gathered from the nodes we planted, it seems that someone has created an island of sorts on the Nave’s edge, probably so they can break into the Nave itself and hijack the delicate mechanisms of the universe.”
“I bet you twenty units it’s Augen,” Penelope says from the corner of her mouth.
“Deal. Now, we’ve tried to pinpoint this island over the past few days, which has been difficult since its proprietor’s been smart enough to cloak it. Which worked until a mere twenty-two minutes ago, when our nodes picked up both on the island itself and a clear-cut route to reach it.”
“So we’re sweeping the place for Augen,” I assume.
“That’s the idea,” Xavier says cheerfully. “How does it feel, going on your first Welkin trip? Exciting?”
I know not to say this isn’t my first trip—I’m almost certain Sidney taking me to the Welkin back in Asulon would be heavily frowned upon—but she must think I’m going to let it slip, because she interrupts, “Sure, because who doesn’t get off from diving into a weird inter-dimensional space where you may have to face off against a sociopathic crime lord?”
Xavier breezily laughs, then Seris says, “By the way, this route into Augen’s island, there’s a chance it could close at any time, so if we could expedite the process . . .”
Sidney is the first to settle herself in one of the chairs. I slip my bag off my shoulder and rest it on a table, double-checking that Gargant’s mystery box is inside (still can’t open the damn clasps), then occupy the seat on Sidney’s right. Belldon sits opposite me. Gene rushes to take the last chair on my right, and over the next few moments he and Corbin shoot bullet-fast Elvaric back and forth and he tries to defend himself with his cane and Corbin playfully shoves him out of the chair and hurries to plop herself in it before he can steal it back. She grins with sisterly mischief; he counters with a mock glower and a shake of his cane.
When I ask Penelope and Cooper what they’re doing here, he answers, “Isn’t it crystal-clear? We’re gonna watch yeh from the sidelines, cheer yeh on!”
“And boo you if you fuck up,” Penelope remarks.
Seris instructs us Welkin explorers to put on the red bands, or links, which she says she already synced up with the mount; I slip mine onto the first finger, above my Olympus ring. While Seris frowns thoughtfully at her tablet, I rhythmically drum my hands in my lap, Corbin fiddles with the drawstrings of her battered pouch, Belldon teases her light into a little snake that she winds between her fingers, and Sidney noshes on another chocolate.
“It’s a shame, what happened today,” Xavier chimes in, looking at Belldon a little uneasily. “I want to offer my apologies.”
She nods to him, her solemn expression unchanging.
Half a minute later, Seris looks up from her tablet. “Is everybody ready?” Without waiting for an answer, she says, “Good, now don’t come back with too many injuries,” and she reaches over her hand to twist the nephus on top of the hexagonal block.
Immediately her lab falls away and I’m plummeting straight up through an infinite space where yellow and gray swarms of the winged spider from my meadow dream undulate in supernaturally coordinated rhythm and “Delusive Eyes” rings through the air and the scent of chocolates and fresh hot iron wafts up my nose and the spiders flutter around me and ensconce me in darkness until I’m suddenly standing next to the kissnut tree that towers over Bassow Square, from which the four arcades with their multicolored wriggles of fairy lights still branch away. The sky’s a fluttering sheet of sparkling gold bruised with dark splotches of purple and blue. Unlike the last two times I’ve been here (granted, the first was in the Welkin and the second was in a hallucination-or-maybe-memory), no vendors are selling their goods. In fact, only my three partners are present—nobody else in sight.
“Back again, huh?” Sidney tells me in a surreptitious whisper, slowly chewing on a chocolate from her pack, then offering me a treat, which I turn down.
“What did you say?” Belldon asks, frowning at her suspiciously.
“Hmm, what?” Sidney turns to her with a look of feigned confusion; damned if she doesn’t look cute as hell. Then she shrugs and switches her attention to Corbin, who’s withdrawn some electronic trinket the size of a wallet from her pouch. Small display screen, an even tinier flashing white light protruding from the top, a faint and slow beeping. It looks like a tracker you’d use for a lost ship.
“And that tag’s for—” Sidney begins.
“The Nave offshoot,” Corbin concludes, turning away, stretching out her arm, pointing her tag at the arcade on the left-hand side of the Square like she’s holding a gun. “This way,” she announces, marching off in that direction, and the rest of us follow her into the arcade, where bright forms of blue and green and pink light twist and loop around us, where motes of dust float through the air and reflect the vivid hues, where I’m reminded of the brief talk I had with Sidney on theology and the workings of the Welkin. I remain skeptical towards her speculation that this place is a god, though I’m finding it easier to believe it’s conscious in some form.
Belldon momentarily speaks Vermusk to Corbin, who chuckles. The fairy lights glint off Belldon’s dark red hair as she looks back at me and Sidney with a knowing smirk. “The Welkin was a subject my kindrai would debate at least twice a week over dinner. Is it sentient? Did it create Cosmotic? Has it created any parallel dimensions, maybe even an entire network, a multiverse? Is time-travel a possibility here?” Belldon shakes her head, let her mouth pull up into a little smile. “God, their chatter bored me to death.”
“Theoretical physics isn’t everybody’s cup of kellberry juice,” Corbin reasons as she holds out her tag in front of herself. I think it’s flashing and beeping a degree faster.
We’re three-fourths of the way through the arcade when the blue and pink fairy lights swirl into purple and yellow, leaving the green squiggles in place. The specks keep drifting everywhere and gleaming in the shifting illumination. I don’t know why, but this strikes me as more beautiful than the real thing, even though there’s no substantial difference between either Bassow Squares. But this one, the Welkin’s version, is fuller, clearer, richer. Maybe it’s nothing more than a dream, but it’s more tangible than anything reality could ever give me.
The sky has changed by the time we emerge from the arcade. Now the suns are visible, twin bloody hearts dipping toward the horizon, pulsing red, casting everything in shades of pink and orange. Two roads fork off from here; Corbin leads us down the one on the right, holding her tag at her side as it keeps beeping and blinking at a steadily faster rate.
We briskly walk down the street and turn left at the next crossroad before I ask Corbin for a look at her tag. Grasping it in my palm, I realize it’s even smaller than I originally thought. After a moment of attempting to read the indecipherable signs winking on the display, I hand the widget back to Corbin.
“Take heed,” she warns, “the place may be heavily fortified.”
“Of course it would be,” Sidney says.
We walk along two more blocks, passing a salon, a Lunadivian fusion restaurant, a tattoo parlor, a Maesse dealership, some clothing boutiques. We move along another block before Corbin stops and points out a shop with a steel-gray door and OUT OF BUSINESS signs stuck to the windows. Didn’t I see this place when Sidney brought me here last?
We approach it and try to peek through the windows, but it’s dark inside. Belldon asks, “Are you sure this is the right one?”
“Yes, I am,” Corbin assures her, sounding defensive. She takes a step toward the door, rests her hand on the handle, pushes it down. The door noiselessly swings in, revealing nothing but a gaping void inside. Even when I coax my energy into a flashlight, the beam only penetrates a short distance into the inky darkness.
“When I woke up this morning, I had a short list of things I wanted to achieve. The first item was confronting my aversion to the dark,” I comment.
“Was the second item exploring an extra-dimensional space?” asks Sidney.
“Funny you say that, it was.”
“Wow, you’re doing a great job checking off your life goals today.”
Something in her voice encourages me to turn my head slightly to her. Standing on my left, she regards me with a playful smile, but the distress in her eyes is unmistakeable. An anguish that’s pleading for me to reconnect with her.
If only you knew how badly I wish that was possible.
“This is the destination,” Corbin announces, like she’s telling herself rather than the rest of us. She’s already dug her smartphone out of her leather pouch and turned on its flashlight feature. Even with the combined illumination from my construct and her phone, the void inside the enigmatic shop engulfs much of the light.
“Cabby, wait,” Belldon cautions, placing a maternal hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “Let’s take a minute to think this through.”
“Is that so? You don’t think you should have advanced that opinion earlier—say, before we slipped these on?” Corbin holds up her hand, waggles her link-ornamented middle finger.
Belldon doesn’t respond verbally, just rubs her cheek wearily.
Her daughter steps through the doorway, into the yawning blackness. I share a tentative look with Sidney and Belldon, then we follow Corbin into the store. It’s disorienting at first, being inside this emptiness, although the soft echoing of my footsteps on the solid floor helps me to regain my senses somewhat, and then a host of multicolored lights bloom in the nothingness around us almost immediately. I hold up my flashlight hand to shield my squinting eyes and when I lower it . . .
I’m surrounded by buildings wrought from stone and glass and metal, decorated with columns and peaked roofs. A warm luminescence ripples and shimmers over their colorful surfaces. The black sky above is dotted with stars.
Belldon’s the first to speak up. “This is the island?” She slightly clenches her hands as if preparing to hurl a punch.
Corbin nods, turns off her phone’s flashlight and replaces it in her pouch, sweeps the place with a frowning brow like she’s checking it out for critters, makes a quiet noise of thought.
“What is it?” I ask, melting away my flashlight.
Glancing at me, she then looks over her shoulder at what’s less than ten feet behind us: a small octagonal garden overflowing with flowers, its only entrance an archway of smooth deep green stone that faces us. The air within the garden seems to be shivering, throbbing, as though it’s being charged full of volatile energy.
“This is the exit. We need to return here once we’re finished.” With that, Corbin pokes at her tracker, then starts marching forward onto a polished white road that leads up to a giant temple three or four blocks away. We follow her, the light from the buildings around us skittering over our bodies in glinting waves.
“Finished with what, exactly?” I query.
Before she can answer, Sidney jumps in. “Cutting the island off from the Nave.” Her airy tone makes it sound like she’s talking about exterminating an infestation of pralls.
“That shouldn’t be too difficult,” I remark, laying a hand over my pocket, touching the bulge made there by my Kasma.
“All we need to do is destroy the ballast—that’s what anchors the island to the Nave. And it’s in there.” Corbin gestures her tracker to the temple, which is only growing more immense as we approach it. Spiraling forms are endlessly shifting and twisting across its red and yellow and pink surfaces. Multiple asterisk towers rise to varying heights from it, reminding me of the Camerad in Asulon. The tallest one must be forty or so stories high, just off-center, its asterlantern blazing a fierce purplish-gold through its glass roof.
“How do we get in?” Sidney asks.
“Why, we use the front doors.” I motion to the large doors in the temple, a pair of dark yellow metal slabs, each with two columns of glass circles built into it.
We stop once we less than ten paces away from the temple. Corbin lifts her tracker as if she’s going to take a photo, mutters something about how she wishes she could pinpoint the ballast. The wisps of an uneasy feeling form in my chest as I take in the place in all its grandeur. I’m getting edea pryn looking at the dead flowers trapped inside the glass circles in the doors . . . like Aabryn Temple, in Travmee. Everything here, just everything about this place is abnormal, off, as if it’s alienating the fabric of reality, as if it’s a small spiderweb of fractures in an otherwise unmarred sheet of glass.
Corbin grabs the handle for the left door and pushes it forward, swinging it open silently. There’s a beat where she visibly hesitates before crossing the threshold into her aunt’s pad, then all four of us are in the octagonal foyer. Measuring about thirty feet long and two stories high, the space is conspicuously bare of furniture. The walls shimmer with a nuanced geometric design in the diffuse lighting. The impossibly smooth floor is a striking mottle of green, yellow, and pink. Two passages are across the ample room, and between them is a staircase that spirals up to a balcony, the stone laminate steps gleaming in the light.
And that’s when Augen emerges on the balcony. Perfect timing.
“Welcome. I was wondering when you’d arrive,” she greets, her pleasant smile incompatible with her eyepatch and the harsh planes of her pitted face. Those wisps tighten over my heart in a ruthless coil.
“It’s been too long, Vena,” Augen says, looking directly at Belldon, crossing her arms and propping them on the balcony railing. She’s in a long, forest-green robe with golden designs embroidered along her loose sleeves; the double-bladed ax strapped over her back and the faded brown hair falling limply across her face somewhat upsets her priestly image. “The only time I ever see you nowadays is when you’re on the news.”
Belldon tilts her head, her earrings glimmering with the movement. “I could say the same for you.”
Augen’s smile doesn’t change; if there’s any physical reaction to those words, I don’t detect it from across the foyer. “Busy, I know. But I’m glad to have spent so much time with my niece and nephew.”
“Is that so?” Belldon says, ticking up suspicious eyebrows at a tense-looking Corbin.
“Best to stick with your blood, that’s what I taught them. Your blood will always be around for you. Well, except in your case, Vena. But it’s fine, it’s understandable.”
Belldon and Corbin’s faces darken at that.
Augen’s smile sharpens and she studies us with something close to amusement. “Appleton, Durrell, how’s life treated you since our get-together?”
Belldon shoots me and Sidney looks of wary puzzlement. Corbin’s face indicates she knows about my and Sidney’s visit to the Welkin.
“Hey, as much as I’d love to continue this chat, we have a mission to carry out,” says Sidney, flexing her hands.
Augen shrugs, almost regretful. “I can’t let you dismantle all my hard work.”
A frown lines Belldon’s features. “Rechin, what have you been doing?”
“Thanks for asking, now I can segue into a monologue about my nefarious plot.”
She isn’t finished talking before a brisk footfall rumbles from the distance. Quickly, it grows louder, the lump in my chest swelling and the hairs on the nape of my neck pricking, and then Vermusk pour out from the two corridors, wearing plain gray jackets and brown trousers, TF-7 rifles at hand, daggers and bludgeons strapped to their belts. I raise both hands and a forcefield wraps around my crew to shield us from the deafening gunfire. I’ve run this track enough times to know at least one of Augen’s minions is going to let off a charged-up round from their rifle.
I’m figuring out how to sidestep such a scenario when Sidney steps up beside me and holds out her hands, Choro-Cuffs glowing a soft purple. She presses her palms against the inside of my forcefield and violet stars start flashing and dancing over my azure energy and she slowly pulls her hands away, clenches them into fists, thrusts them forward, and our combined energy surges through the space and all the pobs lurch into the air and slam into the walls and the spiral staircase and the tapered ceiling and then they collapse back to the floor with TF-7s scattered in between their motionless bodies.
Oddly enough, my muscles ache, I’m short of breath, and my heart is smashing hard against my ribs. It’s as if I’m recovering from hours of heavy labor. Clearly Sidney is drained as well.
“Aren’t you adorable,” Augen, who hasn’t budged from her perch on the balcony, sneers. She vaults the railing, leaps down those few feet to the floor, lands so soundlessly it’s almost eerie. It takes me a half second to remember she’s augmented her body with Aspideum to ward off Sidney’s chorokinesis. She reaches over her shoulder, unslings her ax, squeezes the shaft to cause both blades to pop into the air and fall a few feet and dangle on their clinking chains.
“Someone needs to knock you down a couple pegs, framana,” Belldon asserts, building a mace. To me and Corbin and Sidney, she instructs, “You go on. I’ve got this.” Corbin looks disconcerted, but Belldon waves this off, gives her a push in the shoulder and speaks an urgent snatch of Vermusk.
Corbin hesitates, checks her tracker, points to the passageway on her aunt’s right and darts for it. As Sidney and I follow her, I push out the fact that I feel strangely winded, and Augen calls to us, “It must be nice—being able to fall back on the potent drug of hope.”
Sidney slows down momentarily to flash her a sweet smile, then hold up her fist and flip a middle finger.
The left edge of Augen’s mouth flickers, as if she’s biting back a chuckle at the cub’s defiance. She doesn’t stop us from proceeding into the hallway, which has a tall sea-green ceiling, more of the geometric etchings and diffuse lighting, open archways lining the walls on both sides. Whenever I try to peek into the rooms as we hurry past them, my vision goes blurry and a vague fuzziness clouds my head, as though something is barring me from seeing what’s inside. It isn’t pleasant to experience on top of the exhaustion dragging down my body. Metura, why am I feeling this way?
At the end of the path, we have a choice between the stairway in front of us and the two corridors on the left and the right. Corbin swipes at her tracker, says “This way” at the stairs, and we climb three stories up to another hallway with a ceiling the shade of evening purple and paintings hung between the open archways. As we dash down this new path, I steal fleeting glances not at what’s beyond the archways but at the paintings and their Vermusk subjects—some which use vibrant colors and delicate lines for a family ambling through a forest or a girl swimming through a tranquil pond, others which use darkened colors and rough strokes for a gaunt old man in shabby clothes trudging through the slums or a young woman with straggly locks of mousy hair placing a bouquet at the foot of a headstone in a cemetery.
The passage leads up to a round living room with surprisingly plush furnishings—couches and chairs of dark leather, tables and shelves of ornate ashmelin, gilded wall mirrors, bejeweled figurines and dead insects trapped inside orbs of colored glass and other eye-catching knickknacks. Through the skylight in the ceiling I watch the stars sparkle against the black expanse above. What would I find if I fly up there?
“You should leave while you can.” A new voice. I shoot my gaze at Obrin as he emerges from the only other exit, a hallway across the room, with Runa two paces behind. He’s twirling a double-ended dagger in each hand. She’s holding a polearm with a two-foot-long bowed blade.
“It’s not safe here,” Runa says. She’d match her accomplice’s expression of resolution if not for the tinge of pity in her eyes.
“Asulon is gone. You and my aunt poisoned it. You killed it.” Anger lurks beneath the hardness in Corbin’s voice. “We can’t let you poison everything else, too.”
Runa shakes her head but steps aside. With a sidelong look at me and Sidney, Corbin crosses the room, passes between Runa and Obrin into the hallway, moves onward to face whatever obstacle is waiting for her.
I weave my light into a sword, draw a couple deep breaths into my lungs. Sidney murmurs about the importance of good battle music, briefly fidgets with the NoteBook in her belt pocket, blasts the Patty Ramondo hit “On Tap.”
Without warning Runa and Obrin jump from their spots across the room and rush us, dodging the glimmering purple couch Sidney propels their way. Then Runa’s in front of me and she thrusts her polearm, which I deflect with my sword. I aim an orb at her, but she ducks it and it shoves an armchair off its feet. I take a step towards her, try to knock her weapon out of her hands with a swipe of my sword, but there’s a weird sluggishness to my movements that allows her to evade me and all I see is the the butt of her polearm’s shaft slashing toward my head and now I’m sprawled on the floor and the bursts of light fade from my eyes and I can barely hear Ramondo over the bells screeching between my ears and a warm liquid’s trickling down my throbbing right temple and my stomach lurches like a spaceship enduring enemy fire as I scramble backwards away from Runa and the blade of her polearm misses slicing my knee by inches. I stagger to my feet, shoot an orb, but she twists her body sideways and it just passes by her head and hits the wall and leaves a bright blue bruise. Noticing the shattered fragments of my sword on the floor, I want to build a club, but Cursed Cosmotic, every single part of my body is howling for a mudding rest and the light is fading in and out from my hands and I can’t coax it out.
What the hell am I so tired for?
I react fast enough to dodge the polearm when Runa jabs it at me, then drive a right hook at her chin. She stumbles back and I rip the polearm out of her hands and point the blade end at her. She freezes and considers the weapon I’ve stolen from her, then glances past me, alarm creasing her face. I look over my shoulder at the broken furniture tossed about the room, Sidney holding her stiletto with blood coating the edge of its blade, Obrin slumped against an overturned armchair with a bloody laceration in his cheek and a woozy look in his eyes. Sidney turns my way and almost smiles, but then pain erupts in the back of my head and the floor soars up to me and I hear rather than feel the crunching of my nose at the same time Sidney shouts my name.
Gods, I hope Corbin’s having better luck, I think.
I twist around on the floor at the cry behind me, watch dully as a shimmering purple mirror flies off the wall and explodes against Runa. She crumples to the floor, cut all over by the hundreds of glass shards that have fallen around her. Then muffled footsteps sound and I turn back around, push myself up to my hands and knees as the humungous Augen strolls into the room.
“Well,” she says, coldly gazing at Sidney and Obrin’s half of the room, rotating her head to take in me and Runa. I return a scowl, blood gushing over my upper lip and drip-dripping to the floor, and then I suck in a breath when Sidney collapses, mouth open, chest heaving.
“Sidney,” I croak, struggling to my feet.
“Let’s wrap this up,” Augen intones, reaching me in three steps, hurling a fist at my head. Stars flare up, Sidney’s name flutters from my lips, and I tumble into a senseless black pit for the thousandth time in my life.