Xenolith, Page 29A. Sparrow
Chapter 21: Cadre
Seor had never heard a portal seal so emphatically, rippling the pavement like a carpet, rattling windows, setting off alarms blocks away. Canu ran down the alley as if hell itself was sucking at his heels. She and Ren could barely keep up.
Seor feared that their running would mark them with suspicion, but they were far from alone. Everywhere people fled shops and abandoned vehicles, some to flee, others running closer to see what had happened.
As they weaved through the chaos gripping the sidewalks, Seor spotted the side street she had taken when she returned from caching the other fragment.
“Left, Canu” Seor called to him. Dutifully, he veered without slowing or glancing back.
People approached them on the steep road, inquisitive faces spouting unintelligible words but obviously asking what had happened. Seor could only shrug and move on. At the top of the hill, Canu slowed to a brisk walk and she and Ren could finally catch up. Vehicles with sirens wailing blasted past the intersection below.
They paused for breath, but Seor didn’t like the eyes being directed towards them by people gathered on their stoops.
“This way,” she said, leading them through a grassy sward into a strip of scraggly woodland bordering a stream that provided the only cover in an area thick with houses. They moved upstream along a narrow footpath, often impeded by fallen trees and waist-high tangles of creeper.
One of the ubiquitous vehicles with blue lights up high screamed down a road paralleling the stream. They dropped down, crouching in the mud. Canu released the bunched front of his shirt where he had clutched it up against his belly. The xenolith fragment slipped free and stuck in the mud by his feet. Frost caked the cloth where the stone had contacted it. The skin on his stomach flared red, bitten by the cold.
“Let us … catch our breath,” said Seor, panting heavily.
“That roar,” said Ren. “I’ve never heard such a noise.”
“It was all that metal inside that vehicle,” said Seor. “It amplified the field.”
“Why was he bringing it back to the shop?” said Ren.
“Who knows?” said Seor. “Maybe it scared him. Maybe he wanted to sell it back.”
“At least he’s gone and exiled himself,” said Canu. “Saved us the trouble.”
So soon after a convergence, the xenolith fragment sitting in the mud seemed almost alive. Its colors cycled between gold and blue and violet. Tiny tendrils of mist curled away, some curling back in, adding to the spike of rime ice growing on it. She marveled at how much power could be contained in such a small stone.
Another screaming car whizzed down the road. “Looks like we’ve stirred up the locals,” said Seor. “Come. Let’s get this to its new resting place before it gets dark.” She knocked away frost and peeled off chunks of frozen mud.
They continued up the stream bed, passing through a shallow ravine where the bedrock protruded through the thin topsoil like bones through skin. A series of cascades tumbled over steps of mossy stone, leading them like a staircase to an area where the houses became more widely spaced, the woodlots wider and deeper.
The stream leveled off and deepened. It meandered through a terrace, skirting the yard of a large house that was separated from the wilds by a moat of green lawn. A swampy patch carpeted with skunk cabbage and fern separated it from the next house and yard. Mosquitoes descended, nettles stung her calves as they slogged through the mud to a place where the stream converged with another road, bending until it ran parallel and adjacent.
Seor started up the embankment. “This is where we cross,” she said, pausing in a patch of tall weeds flanking the roadway, their frothy, white blooms buzzing with bees. Her face tensed. She peered down the road, warily. “Someone’s coming!” she said, dropping down. Ren fell to her knees and froze. She stopped Canu with her hand.
Seor crawled back from the road, panic in her eyes.
“What’s wrong?” said Ren.
A woman stalked cautiously down the other side of the road. She carried a crossbow and wore camouflage. The black-striped band of a cadre soldier emblazoned her upper arm.
Ren stood, excited. “She’s cadre! Look at her! She’s Sesep’o!
“Ren, stay down, keep quiet!” scolded Seor.
“But … she’s one of us.”
“Down, Ren!” hissed Seor, her eyes panicked.