“Are the others waiting?” asked Hawkeye.
“Not exactly,” said Ebony. “The others are not sure.”
Hawkeye stared at him. He didn’t just mean the Neighbors. She peered past him and saw the two groups standing near each other, not exactly forming one group, but at least close enough to talk. Some of the Neighbors gazed in the direction of Evernight, some of the Scavengers looked out at the night-haunted desert.
“Mug acted like he had been down here before,” said Hawkeye. “I would have thought he had a plan.”
“He wants to go into the desert,” said Ebony.
“The desert does not look particularly promising, in my opinion.”
“He says it’s a fracture that will take us directly to Farthest.”
She took a second look at the desert. Its sky wasn’t strictly black, it leaned more toward deepest blue, almost like a poorly-lit ocean. But no stars blazed down on the silver sand. It was beautiful to look at, but Hawkeye didn’t want to go into it.
“The aircraft can take us there quickly enough,” she said, “and to Edge – weren’t we supposed to visit there too?”
“No time,” said Ebony, solemnly. “Hawkeye – the aircraft has gone.”
That felt like a dash of cold water in the face. Hawkeye could only blink for several moments. “You mean it just – left us here?”
“Yes.” He didn’t sound any happier about it than she did. But he didn’t sound surprised, either. Hawkeye wondered why she was, no one had promised the aircraft would be available for the whole trip. At the beginning, she had thought the donkeys would be taking them all the way.
Now Daisy and her pack waited in a forlorn bunch near the trough, their ears twitching.
“Do they want to split up? I’m not sure the donkeys will cooperate with that.”
“We can’t” he said, flatly. “The Northern gods say we go together, or we fail.”
She was surprised to receive such a straight answer after breaking the protocol about questioning. Maybe it was okay because she had asked about the Scavengers instead of the Neighbors.
“We should join them,” he added.
So Hawkeye, Wolfy, Brat, and Ebony walked toward the Neighbor side of the division. This was not lost on the Scavengers, and they scowled.
“I’m the guide on this one,” Mug announced. “That was part of our agreement too, in case you’ve decided to forget. I’m the one with the experience down here, and I haven’t taken us the wrong way yet. This town might look all cosy and warm with the lights and all, but I’ve gone through the Dark Desert every time and never gotten lost. You think I’m lying about that?”
“No,” said Boss. But he didn’t look any happier about the idea.
Silence fell between the two groups. Hawkeye looked at the desert again, didn’t like it any better, then turned to look at the city and got a jolt. She recognized something. From her vantage point at the edge of the Dark Desert, she could see a building that might be residential or might be commercial. All of its doors were closed, save one on the seventh level. That one yawned wide, just like it did in the photo in The Lost Cities. She was looking at the open door from the exact angle from which the photo had been taken.
Levels and levels, and on the seventh the door stands open. Go in and look over your shoulder . . .
This was that door.
“Boss,” she said, quietly.
He glanced at her. She looked meaningfully from him, to the open door, and back again. He followed her gaze, frowning deeply.
“If you boys want to go into the city,” declared Mug, “you’re going by yourselves. That’s my final word on the subject.” He whistled to the donkeys, then barked, “Git over here!”
They took a few lurching steps toward him, but stopped uncertainly when Daisy paused next to Wolfy.
Mug turned and marched into the desert without another look. His men followed him.
Boss stepped onto the sand.
Brat hissed louder than Hawkeye had ever heard him, then actually growled. The Neighbors froze in alarm. He began to pant, his distress obvious. He hissed again.
“Something is– ” Hawkeye began.
Boss and Ebony locked gazes. Hawkeye had one second to look at their hatchet profiles, and then a gigantic light blossomed over the horizon.
Mug and his men froze in the glare, and then it stuttered out again, crackling like an electrical charge.
“What the – ” Second started to say, and then more light knifed over the horizon, and with it came a host of racing shadows, of impossible sounds and colors.
Boss roared above the chaos: “To the city! Make for the open door on the seventh level!”
Hawkeye wheeled and began to limp toward Evernight as fast as she could. Wolfy and Brat moved with her, slinking close to the ground, looking over their shoulders in terror.
“Run!” she screamed. “Don’t wait for me! Get up to the seventh level!” Because she wasn’t going to make it. Whatever was inside that light, whatever was casting the shadows that raced past her into the city, it would overtake her soon, and she had no doubt that it was the same thing that had overtaken the Southerners all those years ago. It howled at her heels, drove men and Neighbors up the stairs, and she was lagging far behind.
But Boss would have none of that – he scooped her up and ran with her. Hawkeye clutched his shirt, trying to be as tidy a burden as she could, watching Wolfy and Brat running just ahead, their muscles stretching and bunching as they practically flew up the stairs. Up one level, then two, up three levels, and as they started on the fourth, the sounds and lights and shadows seemed to be reaching some kind of crescendo. Hawkeye buried her face in Boss’s shoulder, sure they weren’t going to make it, yet still he climbed, and now Hawkeye thought she could make out words in the storm, shouts of alarm, panicked voices screaming, “Run! Lock the door! Where are you!?”
But Boss climbed as if he believed they could outrun doom.
Suddenly he was running on a level surface, and when she looked up she saw the open door, Wolfy and Brat running through the doorway, Ebony and Ivory standing just inside, yelling at them to hurry! Hurry! Almost there . . .
Hawkeye felt something lay a hand on the back of her head.
And then they were through, and the door slammed shut behind them.
-from Spirits Of Glory, by Emily Devenport