It was nearly, but not quite a run, for us. The twins hurried, and I noticed occasional glimmers from beneath the hood or drape of their borrowed cloaks: the white dragonstones at Aurora’s tiara and at Silva’s throat were at work, pulsing with each footfall. A dull but steady shadowlight gleamed between the fingers of their clasped hands; Aurora augmented the healing with a black. I did not fail to notice the shrike’s grip firm at each attempt of Silva’s to pull her own hand free.
After three blocks, a long, shrilling wail — lower pitched, with more force behind it than the steam-whistles used in the iron rail barges — lifted into the mist-laden air. It dipped, and then rose, again and again.
Gilliam tried to lift his hands to his ears, but one of Grellk’s men swatted his gloved hands.
“Tuck them in, Uplander.”
The bowman’s retort was cut off as the ground beneath our feet bucked. The pitted paving stones gave another jolt, and then lurched — violently— backwards.
Varis swore, as he stumbled. Ana gave a cry as she lost her footing, her breath cut off as she hit the ground.
“Keep going!” Grellk spat, as we slowed to help the young healer. “Maddok!”
One of the taller figures dropped back, hoisting Ana’s cloaked figure over his broad shoulder, resuming his loping gait.
The street continued to lurch and rumble beneath us, and the wailing continued, joined by a grinding of what sounded like metal on metal.
“Center-ward, here!” Grellk barked, a thick, gloved finger pointing to his left. We rounded that corner, down another wide cobbled street, fighting to keep on our feet as the tug of the lurches threatened to tip us now to our right. Though the street may have been perhaps five carts wide, the mists were growing thicker, and it became more and more difficult to see the buildings’ fronts.
Behind me, Sara coughed, and I felt a sympathetic itching in my throat.
“Use that scarf, girl!”
“It’s— I can barely breathe through it!” she gasped, and coughed again. The itching in my throat spread.
“Better barely breathing than not at all!” Grellk called back. “Unless you know of a way through your magic to breathe through your own blood.”
I’d thought the burning in my throat was from the exertion of our flight, but as I lowered my chin, and breathed through the slightly-spongy scarf’s folds, that pain eased. Was the cloying sweetness that pervaded the folds of the scarf some kind of elixir, or salve?
It was an exchange of ills. The pain in my throat eased, the earlier dizziness from breathing through the scarf grew. As if not being able to draw a full breath was not enough, a fierce stitch was beginning to spread across my side. It was difficult to tell if my vision suffered, or the fog grew thicker. I suspect it was a combination of the two. I fixed my watering eyes on the back of the cloaked figure ahead of me, and kept going.
A turn, and then one more. The fog only grew thicker, and even through the sickening sweetness of the scarf, a harsh tang could be tasted over the course of the last dozen or so strides.
The ululating siren kept up its wail, the fog swallowing only some of its volume. The streets continued to rumble, tugging us this way and then that with each turn we took.
And then, from the gray-green wall of swirling mists, a hulking shape loomed, a crooked dome, like some great mushroom transplanted from one of the other caverns and planted in this crowded city.
It was not made of fibrous pulp, though, but an oddly-smooth stone of some sort.
“Don’t just stand there,” Grellk snarled. “Grab a wheel and start turning. Rightward. Quick now!”
Spaced evenly around the trunk-like “stalk” were wheels of black metal. Some had knobs to assist their turning, others had either lost theirs, or been replaced with by one without.
After an initial reluctance, the turning of the wheels grew somewhat easier. A rasping and ratcheting of gear works, a turning and churning of metal against metal could be heard above. There was barely enough room for the nine of us turning cranks and another nine to huddle close behind and be under the lip of the half-dome above us.
“Two tics! Put some shoulder into it!”
Overhead, the mushroom cap appears to be… growing. Flowering? Wedges were opening up from above, descending, like… petals of a flower, but upside down.
One after another, with a dull, muted clang, panels dropped around us, one next to the other, another dropping between two already-lowered panels, to seal us in some sort of metal cocoon. At last, the siren’s cry began to sound like something distant.
Enclosed though we were, we did not huddle in darkness. The oddly-ribbed underside of the mushroom-cap shed some sort of even, orange-white light, similar to that in the globes suspended over the city streets.
“What now?” the Darra asked.
“Grab some metal, if you don’t want to fall over. No!” Grellk placed a hand over Demarra’s as she made to slip her hand out of the over-sized glove. “You’ll want to keep that on.”
The siren’s down-scaling wail trailed off, not returning with another up-scale. The mercenaries around us, nearly to a man, went to one knee, either gripping the base of one of the mechanism wheels, or one of the handles that protruded from the newly-lowered curved walls that surrounded us. At waist height standing, they were at about shoulder-height as we mimicked our guides.
The jolt that hit would have been enough to send us all crashing against this strange shelter’s far wall.
The sound of cog works and gears, of stone on stone and metal on metal, and metal on stone was nearly deafening, amplified by the domelike acoustics of the metal shell in which we all huddled. Wisps and trailers of the fog curled and seeped through the seams between the metal panes, leaving a sooty residue against the metal, more greenish than black.
These, the mercenaries scrubbed at with the hems of their cloaks.
“At your knee, Uplander,” one of them barked at me, jabbing a finger. “Quickly! You don’t want it to spread!”