No post on Saturday–I’m going to World Fantasy Con to ply my trade. Back to the regular schedule in one week’s time!
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Arcite wished he had a drink. The night was too dark, the empty streets too desolate, to follow the tracks without calming his nerves.
He ran over what he knew. “City in two halves, invincible engineers, Ev with one of them, or them stuck with her.” It wasn’t much. Arcite tightened his grip on the weapon.
A bolt of lightning forked out of the end and Arcite jumped a pace backward. In the brief light, he saw the street: austere, washed-out, without columns and trees like the others. Turner’s Clearing.
The towers cast deep enough shadows to hide the tracks. “Light. Need light.” His claw inched toward the staff again, but if Eventhe was in the next shadow…there must have been something else.
Weather hadn’t been a myth at the Field. On nights when storms swept off the ocean, the families who tented near him would come share the warmth of his hovel. Some would ask why Arcite’s torches always burned through the damp: good driftwood, he said, and a special reed I find sometimes. He couldn’t tell the truth, they’d banish him–
“Red clay is waterproof!” Arcite had only one skill set, but he’d be drowned if it wasn’t more useful than everybody else’s together.
There was garbage everywhere. There had to be some driftwood. After a few steps, he stubbed his foreleg on a stick, less than a pace long. He spread the clay around its top third, and with a flick of his claw set the torch alight.
The fire threw light to either end of the street. The footprints led between two walls into a raised portal to gloom: Eventhe and her captor, or prisoner, had entered the urchin tunnels.
Standing on the prints were four distractingly huge lobsters.
“Awaken,” one said.
“What?” Arcite dropped the torch. The radius of its glow shrunk, hiding the four from view. “Are you engineers?”
“Do you work for Turner?”
“Come to us.” Arcite ran.
He tripped over a broken doorframe and slammed into the ground. Before striking the torch, he hadn’t realized how blind he was. The engineers circled, trapping him against a dilapidated wall.
He got up, manatee wand in his claws. “No more accidents.”
Bolts flew out of the staff. At the same time a force like a charging crab threw Arcite backwards into the half-wall.
“Recoil.” Kragn must have found a way to dampen it. It was beyond unfair how much time he’d gotten with the wands. “Gotta ask Wrest if he felt it.”
He dashed through the patch of alley he’d fired at, grabbing his torch. Though a punch swept over his head, his path was open. The torch showed three engineers left standing.
Staever was going to get an “I told you so.” At the threshold of the tunnel, Arcite braced the wand against his back. As the engineers closed, Arcite fired at the one on the left. The weapon jumped from his back, twisting in his claw, and he spun into the side of the doorway.
Smoke billowed from the torch as he swung back, in time for the engineers to finally hesitate.
“Where’s Eventhe? Where’s my friend?” He pointed at them in turn.
“You pollute,” one said.
Arcite backed into the tunnel. “What have you done to her?” If they both ran at once, he might have time to get one. The other would tear his head off.
“You pollute.” Without the torch the tunnel would have been pitch dark.
“Tell me!” Arcite shouted. “Or I’ll show you what else I can do!”
“You die!” The engineers rushed together into the urchin tunnel.
“Sea damn this!” A blue arc wrapped around one engineer. A rough sand ceiling slid in front of Arcite’s eyes as the recoil threw him into the tunnel. Loose sand broke his fall, though the wand dug painfully into his skeleton.
The torch hadn’t made the jump. It rested in the street, all the light he could see.
“Right. Is it worth–”
The light hovered, and flowed toward him. Pain flashed over his head–the engineer, torch in one claw, clamped the other around Arcite’s throat.
The engineer could squeeze his breath away. But Arcite still had the wand. He pressed its tip against the engineer’s eye, and pulled the trigger.
Two sparks fluttered, then winked out.
“No…” Arcite gasped. “Not fair…”
His claw opened. The staff rolled away.
The engineer let go of Arcite’s throat. Before he could gulp air, the engineer bent him backward over a hard edge. Killing them had earned him the status of a special threat. This one was going to play with him.
The torch was in his eyes. He was breaking along seams, and everything hurt, head to tail to things in his belt rubbing his shell raw…
No time left. His vision exploded in pinpricks. He pulled the sonic detonator out of his belt and blew with the last of his breath.
A bang ricocheted through the tunnels, accompanied by an orange flash. He tumbled downward–not far, but far enough. The torch had taken out the tunnel roof. The engineer hadn’t lived to regret picking it up.
Arcite lay for a long time in darkness, hoping his legs would stop hurting. The entrance he’d used was no longer an option. This was supposed to be easier than the street?
The wand was buried too, but Arcite didn’t mind. The damn thing had confirmed all his friends’ fears about it. “No light, half a bag of clay, no way out. Onward to glory.”
His voice echoed, small in a great and dark space.
The urchin tunnels were old. Arcite could tell from smelling them. The air was heavy with ancient dust, and he kept tripping on piles of mysterious edges. His breath came rapid, his heart pounding. Darkness wasn’t good for him. Occasionally, the timbre of his footsteps changed, suggesting other branching tunnels, but when he investigated–touching a side of the portal and counting paces to the other–they were never as wide as the one he was in. He kept his course.
Suddenly he could identify the piles: unused construction blocks. The dark was breaking.
Light came from ahead of him, an opening on a stairway–perhaps Emaria’s hub. He headed for the steps, spurred on by the prospect of fresh air.
Compared to the tunnel, it felt like an open courtyard. The hub was perfectly round, a dozen dozen paces across. Tunnels of all sizes branched off behind six columns of sand supporting a ceiling several stories high.
A skylight in the center of the ceiling let in raindrops and thin grey light. Torches in brackets ringed on the columns and the outside wall, enough to drive darkness far from the circle. In the center of hub was a raised dais, and on the dais, a higher altar, its purpose uncertain
Eventhe lay unmasked below the dais, her claws and forelegs bound by reeds. Her eyes were closed. Standing over her was an engineer.
This one moved without direction or economy, returning every few moments to cling to the altar like it was a buoy.
“You don’t belong.” Arcite recognized the face even with its cool wiped away, replaced with animal rage. He would have known General Kragn anywhere.
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