Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Xenolith, Page 35

A. Sparrow

  Chapter 27: The Crossing

  A branch snapped and a shoed foot plunged deep into the brush pile, so close to Pana’s face that he could detect a rank bacterial stench emanating from it, even amid the thick atmosphere of decay enveloping him. The one standing over him wobbled and threatened to fall. Pana’s hand tensed on his dagger. He kept still as death, even as cold metal prodded down through the branches and poked against his abdomen. He prayed that his crossbow remained fully concealed.

  Pressure eased off the tree limb that had pinned his head against thorns. The malodorous shoe lifted, its heel clipping Pana’s chin. The brush pile crunched and shifted. He heard a shoe strike pavement and scuff grit. Steps retreated down the lane. Pana relaxed his grip on the dagger and drew air into his lungs slowly. For many minutes he dared not move, bearing every ache and itch in full, making no attempt to remedy them.

  He stared at the river through his only window unto the world, a triangular gap in the branches covering his legs. He waited for nightfall; watching the water turn glassy as the sun descended, then dull into opacity as it set.

  Even after the darkness solidified, a cacophony of voices and machines continued to rebound down the alleys from the main avenue of the factory. Antsy to get away, Pana pushed the aperture wider with his toe. He could see that the debris pile extended all the way down the riverbank into the water. Lamps along an elevated roadway splashed ovals of light onto the river. One stood dark, creating a gap of deeper shadow. The river was wide here, deeper than upstream, but shallow enough to cross. He chose his escape path.

  He worked his way up through the layers of plant debris like a sprout seeking the sun, sliding beneath the topmost screen of branches, edging closer to the river until his feet met cold water. He pawed through a mat of rotted leaves knitted together with algae, and winced as the water took his body and the chill rose up his torso to his neck. Only head and crossbow protruded as he scrambled crab-like over slimy stones until he felt the tug of the current in knee-deep water. He rotated so he was no longer on his back, but kept low, crawling with one hand braced against the rocky bottom. He rose as the water deepened, but crouched to minimize his profile.

  When wading through rivers in Gi, he had a habit of wondering if any of the water lapping at his legs had also touched Ikarin in some tributary far upstream. To cross a river devoid of such possibilities left his heart empty. This world held no Ikarin. He could share nothing with her here, not even its moon.

  Men came from behind the building, casting a narrow beam of light over the riverbank. Pana submerged his crossbow and braced his feet against the current, fighting to keep as still as a snagged log. The river tried to push him into the light. He resisted, keeping to the shadows until the man had moved on.

  He sidled closer to the opposite bank until his knee bumped into a ledge. He climbed up onto it and slithered the final few meters to a clump of tall grass that grew right against the water. He had hidden from Crasacs in similar grass only half a day earlier in Sesei. But that grass had been bleached by sun and scrubbed by winds off the plains outside Ubabaor. This grass was coated in soot and, like the water that soaked him, bore a faint odor of putrefaction. Even the air was fouled by vehicles passing on the elevated roadway above. The hand of man seemed to taint everything in this land.

  His brief joy to be under thorn tree again, with the mesas and plains of Ubabaor spreading before him, had been tempered by the stranding of half his comrades in Ur and the appearance of a regiment of Crasacs searching for the xenolith. He had expected his homecoming to be bittersweet with Ikarin left behind in Gi, but he hadn’t expected combat.

  The ground trembled from heavy vehicles passing on the roadway. He lay back in the grass, raked by a chill breeze, wondering if Pari and Vul still breathed, and whether he should try to find them. Maybe he had diverted enough of the Crasacs enough to allow them to escape. Or maybe they lay dead on the main avenue of the factory, on display under those garish lights. Judging from the intensity of the fighting he had overheard from his hiding place, the odds did not favor their survival.

  His duty seemed clear. The portal had been breached by the enemy. Protocol dictated that any xenolith that fell into the hands of a hostile party must be recaptured or destroyed.

  The Philosophers had insisted on that provision in the agreement that revealed their secret to the non-secular powers of Sesei. The loss of even one xenolith would rip open a wound deep into the heart of Sesei. Enemies from Venen were bad enough. Unleashing the forces of Ur on their world would be catastrophic.

  Xenoliths had provided Sesei its only advantage in the war against Venen. During the early days of the invasion, many militias had escaped encirclement using the stones. Many raids and counterattacks had been successful only because xenoliths allowed Sesep’o forces to appear unexpectedly on unprotected flanks. Xenoliths had salvaged many a victory or retreat from otherwise hopeless circumstances.

  Pana sat up and took a deep breath, girding himself to head back up the river. He could only hope that the stone lay unguarded. He was not equipped for battle. One set of his crossbow’s twin strands dangled, having snapped. Only a single bolt remained in his quiver. He could make more bolts if he had enough time, but he had no time to dally given how unstably the convergence had been oscillating. It could reopen at any moment, and the next time it did, most of a Crasac regiment stood waiting to pour into it from the other end. He could not allow more of them to enter Ur, not after what his comrades had paid in blood to stop the first wave.

  But if the stone had to be destroyed, he would have no choice but to double back to Gi, the land that harbored Ikarin. That idea pleased him. To destroy the stone would commit an act that simultaneously satisfied duty and self interest. He would destroy the stone, find Seor and whoever survived, then go back to Gi and be with Ikarin. He bounded up from the grass and turned upstream; passing the concrete columns that supported the road, keeping to the darkest shadows.