The healer's sandals smacked the stone rooftop with an urgent beat. He skidded around a smoky greenhouse and dodged an old woman who'd been watering her potted flowers: she looked up with bewildered eyes, first at the retreating billow of orange robes, then at the huge masked woman that sprinted in quick pursuit.
The healer hopped to the next rooftop, vaulted over an arch of clay shingles, and scrambled up the twisting bark of an enormous root that towered into the sky. He crouched in a bend of the wood, craning his neck, listening. His back was to Iris: he didn't know he'd been followed.
He only waited a moment before the rumble of an engine drew closer; two linked airbikes curled toward him out of the sky, carrying orange-robed riders and Ruskali in a stretcher between them. They drew close enough for their comrade to climb on the back of one of the bikes.
"Hey man," said one of the riders in a guarded voice. "Your eyes are kinda... You feeling ok?"
The skinny young man twisted around in his seat, and looked back to scan the rooftops he'd just traversed. His eyes glowed bright neon blue. The veins in his face had begun to bulge dark beneath the skin.
The riders revved their bikes, ready to take off toward the hospital.
The Alley/The Square
While Cedar rushed off toward the empty square to find Archer (who wasn't there at all), Fluke rocked on his heels and watched Listener through the hot twisting pipes and rods of his heavy mask."Still can't see, huh?"
he grinned, and he spoke into the earpiece radio that Iris, Cedar, and (tragically) Listener would all hear. "I'll tell you then: Steely broke into an abandoned building and Archer went after her. They didn't come out. Some guy just jumped out of a window of that building and Iris is chasing him across the roof. Cedar Plank went back to find Archer, but he's probably gonna end up gone, too."
Fluke grabbed Listener's elbow and dragged her along after Cedar, marching single-file through the narrow alley. "Hey Plank. You wanna, I dunno, maybe move a little faster than a lame turtle, and maybe your friend or whatever won't be dead by the time we get there? Why am I the one in charge? Where's the drone? Rule number twelve: don't split up!"
Once they returned to the empty market square-- where a couple of armadillos skittered quickly away into the dark corners --Fluke pointed out the rotted door of the highrise. The building was barely standing, held up by invading twists of enormous roots and vines. The bricks bulged and rippled, violet smoke drifted in the air overhead, and all the windows gaped dark and jagged.
From between the tattered curtains of a third-floor window, Archer's horned mask looked out. It was empty.
The Highrise"You're a... Ze? You're a Ze? So you're not dead?"
With every *wham!*
of Rose's shoulder against the hidden door, the entire building seemed to shudder.
The floor at her feet began to crackle and shift as a disturbed root writhed like an enormous snake beneath the floorboards.
The Nox had gone quiet. Ruskali had not.
"WHO'S THERE! I HEAR A VOICE BELOW! RUN! RUN BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE!""Vern, even if you're a Ze it just means the Nox can't see you, they can still get you."
Jay's voice spoke urgent, close to the thin wall between them. "Everyone is here. The Nox, they nest in your head until they pry you loose from your own body, and they lock you in here. There's something coming for us. The Ravel said... they said we're evolving. They said we're going to wake Amalgam. They're going after the Light, Vern. They're going to take the Light and do this to everyone. Until there's nothing left of us."
"THE LIGHT IS NOT YOURS, FOUL DEMONS!" Ruskali laughed maniacally. "THE LIGHT OF AMALGAM WILL NEVER FALL INTO RAVEL HANDS! THE ZEPHYR EXTINCT WILL NEVER ALLOW IT! THE SMOKE! THE ROOF! THE SWARMING STORM APPROACHES! BUT IT WILL NOT DEVOUR ME!""I think I can control the plants a little, put a crack in the wall. But you need to have something ready for me to... uh... haunt. Like a bottle or something. Genie in the lamp, right?"
The roots in the walls and the floor began to shift; the drywall cracked.
Something dark and writhing skittered along the ceiling out of the far stairwell, like a gruesome spider with too many shifting legs. Its shining eyes seemed to look straight through her, and it would move on over Rose's head as if she weren't there at all...
...as long as she didn't make a sound.