Maggie felt the debris crunch beneath her feet as she inched forward. A fire-blackened beam blocked her path. One rested high above her, at the top of the two-story building. The other had crashed through walls and floor and rested on the ground before her. Cold air and snow blew in through a gaping hole to her left that extended to the roof line. Getting past the opening, without being seen, would be a challenge.
Maggie remembered the thudding strikes, as the cley’s massive mud-colored claws pounded a hole in the wall. Heavily armed Seawatch raced behind the many-legged creature as the Kral ordered it into the breach. Above it all, she remembered the sounds. The clang of weapons, the crashing of falling stones, and the cley’s enraged chittering.
Maggie shuddered and looked at the metal clad beam. She considered climbing it to the roof but the way up was treacherous. The angle was steep and the snow would make it slippery. Debris from the collapsed upper sections rested on it in places, forming a series of obstacles that she would have to get around. Maggie looked at the long vertical wedge of space to the right of the beam. She wasn’t fond of tight spaces, but there was no way around it. She bit her lip and slid her arm into the narrow opening, moving with crab-like steps while her leading hand felt for obstructions. Ragged metal tugged at her clothing and scratched her legs. Her coat dragging along the wall, released a steady stream of grit that fell on her hair, and down the nape of her neck, making her itch.
Then she was stuck.
Maggie fought down her panic and tried, to no avail, to free herself from whatever had snagged her coat. She could hear her heart pounding in her ear and took several slow breaths to calm herself. Her arm stretched forward until she found a metal strap. She pulled as hard as she could, bending her knees, and pushing with her legs until something ripped, and she stumbled forward.
Maggie looked down at the new tear in her heavily patched coat. Great. A few more holes and I can use it to catch fish. She arched her back until her vertebrae made small popping sounds and examined the space. A section of the upper floor and roof rested on the overhanging beam, creating a tent like clearing. The rest of the interior was devastated.
The ground beneath her hiding place rumbled and groaned as the screaming stopped. Soldiers stumbled out of the building, moments before a colossal explosion tore the heavy doors from their hinges and sent them windmilling into the street. Projectile shards of brick and wood rattled against the stone wall beside her head. She was dazed. Faint. Much of what happened next didn’t seem to make sense. Towering green flames. Thick yellow smoke. And water. A wave of water rushing from a huge hole, filled by the body of a now bright-red and steaming cley – a cley that had once been a man, boiled alive in its carapace. It’s human eyes bulging in the insect face. She felt nauseous and looked away.
Well, the water was real enough, she was soaked. Maggie shook her head and tapped the beam. Metal sheathed roofs were common enough on Highmount, but no one living in low town should have been able to afford it, which confirmed that it belonged to one of the gangs making glim. The metal was probably the only reason it didn’t burn to the ground.
The smell confirmed it. Despite all of the holes in the building the smell of burnt glim irritated her nose and eyes. It left a bitter taste in her mouth and made her itch. She touched the tip of her tongue experimentally to see if there was anything coating it and promptly spat. She stared at the offending fingertip. It was impossibly dirty. So dirty in fact, that she had a mental image of Scritch.
Nana would have a fit.
Maggie smiled sadly at the thought of Nana and continued to look for an alternate way to exit the building. The winter sun, filtering through holes in the walls and roof, created a patchwork of shadows. Beams of snow filled light laced throughout, added a strange and unexpected beauty to the scene. Maggie shook her head and felt a moment of dizziness. Have to keep moving. The cold and lack of food was affecting her concentration and she had no idea what long term exposure to the glim could do to her. She might have to run before this was over.
Maggie pulled a piece of dried fish out of her pocket and chewed it slowly to scrub the taste from her mouth while she considered her options. When she was finished, she tugged the shabid to cover her nose and mouth. The once bright and beautifully embroidered scarf was now soiled, its colors muted. She thought she could still detect the scent of the Hetani’s sacred hanais flower. It was a reminder of the past and all that she had survived and she found strength in the remembering.
I’ll survive this too.
Maggie pressed her face against a small opening and examined the street. Twin rows of charred buildings extended outward from her location. No torches, nor movement signaled life – yet she knew someone was out there.
She’d run when she spotted the men following her, easily outdistancing them. Children on the street were frequent victims of those who preyed on the unlucky and the foolish. If you survived it was because you were strong. Or careful. Some joined the gangs willingly. Some by force and then tried to survive the brutal price demanded of them. So far Maggie’s speed had kept her safe, and free. No one could run like she could. She’d turned into this street without slowing her pace. Her feet had inadvertently brought her back to the building she had seen destroyed weeks earlier. She’d known, as soon as she turned the corner, that something was wrong. All she could do now was hope that she hadn’t been seen entering and that the snow would hide any footprints she’d left outside.
Maggie started involuntarily when the tall dark silhouette appeared at the head of the street. Clouds of vapor puffed in ragged streams from his head, evidence that he’d been running. He panned his head slowly, and Maggie felt a sense of foreboding. There was something familiar about his movements.
A single high-pitched screech echoed down the street.
Maggie sucked in a slow hissing breath as she recognized her pursuer. She didn’t need to see his teeth or ears to know. The sound and strange contours of his body identified him. Bash. She shook her head at her carelessness, a chill crawling up her spine. He set a trap for me.
Backlit shapes began to peel away from the darker shadows at the opposite end of the street, drawn by Bash’s call. Maggie’s heart thudded loudly as she counted ..five, six, seven…
Too many to get past.