Saving Ourselves: Ch. 6: Escape

Dira Bae

The rest of the trip didn’t amount to much. Dira studiously kept himself from hitting his head again by sitting in the middle of the cart, tail curled around his legs where he had them crossed. He started to whistle before Noyo told him to cut it out. Since they were the ones exposed to any threats out in the smog, he did as he was told to shake things up for a change. Frankly, it was dull. He should be happy about that. No creatures in the smoke went after the carriages, meaning they were out of the path of any crystals that drew them in. That kind of luck on their exit would make this trek a fireside tale to boast about to the littles in Genoa. With some parts cleaned up for young ears, of course.

He conveniently forgot that fortune wasn’t one to smile his way.

First, it was in the whistle carried through the smoke. Noyo directed the horse towards it so sharply, even for the cart, that he moved closer to the slit.

“What? What is it?”

“Stay,” they commanded, hopping down from the driver’s spot and joining Loren—probably the whistler. That explained why he was banned from it or at least gave him a reason not to have his pride wounded.

“I’m tied up!” The reminder was senseless, maybe even eaten up in the heavy smog. His aura had pressed in close to the point where it barely covered his body. When he tested the door at the back, it rattled and stayed shut. So, locked. He could burn it open, then have Noyo mad at him and still nowhere to go. Dira settled back down facing the door and grumbled. “Stay, they say. It’s locked.”

They couldn’t stay still long. Not in conditions like this, no visibility and the risk of beasts anywhere. They could leave a carriage behind if it turned out they didn’t need it, though. It or the tied-up prisoner in the back. Voices outside got muffled in the smoke, so Dira couldn’t make out words. He pieced together that there weren’t many survivors, at least from who was talking, over the course of ten or so minutes. The situation didn’t sound sunny based on hissed whispers and people interrupting each other. What was bad for them probably wound up worse for Dira.

He exhaled and put his forehead against the wall of the cart. This time, he’d outdone himself.

The carriage door opened, and it didn’t get any brighter.

Loren’s aura kept most of the smog away, but hers didn’t even reach his. It stopped short of it—maybe two hand lengths away from one shimmering border to the next and shrinking. Her absent mask proved they’d only barely made it in time for that to run out, leaving only her charged tattoos to keep her safe from the smoke.

Anyone else leaning towards him with a dagger drawn wouldn’t catch Dira being still, and that wasn’t saying he wasn’t nervous. The elven fighter in her hid it well if she felt a fraction of the betrayal Noyo did. She had him free in two quick cuts and stepped back to give him space to get out.

“It’s Fekhi.”

“Who?” Dira shuffled out the open carriage, dropping to the packed dirt. A main street, it had to be. This was their city-state, and they knew where to find it even in the dark. Side streets wouldn’t have been so easy.

“Our mayor,” Loren kept her voice taut like a bow and led him with purposeful steps. For someone barely up to his shoulder, she had a way of looking in control. “She’s not well.”

Dira followed her, stretching his four arms out. Having them tied left an uneasy feeling with the stiffness and that took care of both. He could make out people in the aura of two ward generators, one glowing brighter than the other. Made sense, since a human Union mage was transferring the energy they’d harvested earlier into it. It moved in a slow, lazy arc with the usual orderliness that Union casting fostered. Why have beauty coursing through your magic when you could have predictable structure?

…Not that it was really the place or time to nitpick.

Noyo sat maskless with a couple townspeople, he figured, maybe farmers or builders. The human and elf on their right looked familiar with long days in the sun, based on hallmark weathered skin. There wasn’t much else to tell about two strangers lit only by the wards. He pulled his own useless mask off, then glanced where Noyo glared and found who he had to believe was Fekhi laying down on a battered bench.

Stepping closer, he saw midnight violet markings on her arms through the blood drying on her skin. Her own blood—he could see that with it also seeping through her shirt. Red hair clung to her clammy face, mostly serene from her being unconscious. Loren stood with him and looked down at their injured mayor with her shoulders squared. She was like Stefan that way, he guessed. Nothing determination couldn’t solve in that perspective of theirs. At least until you stood over someone bleeding out when help was all the way past the smog settled in over their city-state.

“Underplayed that, don’t you think?” Dira wouldn’t just describe her as ‘not well’. He’d need to learn what Loren actually meant with things like that, assuming Noyo decided later on that Dira deserved a speck of trust. He leaned in for a better look and didn’t like any of it. The worst of the damage was across her torso, and he spotted some grazed scrapes on her arms for good measure. “Whatever made you think I can help her, it’s not true.”

Dwarves were strong, not fast. Most of them leaned on endurance too much because of it. Fekhi got caught by surprise with a creature sometime in all this and she didn’t die right away, but she didn’t have good odds of living either. He shook his head, flicking his tail impatiently, and the handful of townspeople there took that for what it was: Their mayor wasn’t likely to make it. If they stayed much longer, no one would.

“You can sense the energy.” Noyo spoke up, standing and challenging him to lie with a firm glare. Everyone huddled in the aura—except for Loren and the Union mage—were briefly more concerned about them than the crushing smoke. “How bad is it?”

In other words, should Fekhi be left behind? Dira examined her again and frowned. Abandoned, she would die. There were better ways to be shuffled off this plane and not many worse. His connection to the crystal energy afforded him some privileges, he’d say. Immunity from the blatantly eavesdropping mage didn’t feature on the list. If he gave Noyo an honest answer, he’d be inviting extra attention from a group of people who just captured him earlier that day and had a presence in every city-state within their sphere of toxic smog.

Then again, they’d done the same to Noyo and Loren.

Dira took a short breath in, held it, and let it out with a nod. Moving red hair aside to her forehead, he checked the markings encroaching on her temple. Stage one became stage two in the mind. Those wisping stains on her skin, disappearing past her hairline, put Fekhi right in the middle of that part of a three-stage transformation. He could blame the dense smoke for a very rushed infection that would make her into one of those monsters, but even that couldn’t make a weeklong process into a matter of hours.

“Wait, it—” He stepped aside to let the glow of the energy transfer shine better on her. The first tank had filled up, so the Union mage moved onto the other one loaded into a wheelbarrow at an unsettling angle. Dira had no idea if that affected how it worked. It did, however, point the light of that glowing magic right where it was needed. The marks branched out towards her eye and down her cheek. “It’s still spreading.”

“It can’t. She’s not in the smoke,” Loren observed for anyone who couldn’t see that much on their own. Ah, to be young.

“What’s that mean?” Noyo refocused the conversation for Dira since he was busy scooping Fekhi into his arms and moving her closer to the light.

“You were at the capital when it fell,” he pointed out to Noyo as the two of them walked on opposite sides of him. “No number of years makes you forget what this means.”

“Who said I—”

“I was too, so,” Dira cut the latest bad evasion off and ignored the Union mage squinting at their combined intrusion on his workspace. “One alike is one recognized.”

“I wasn’t!” Loren insisted on an explanation. She really was a kid of the Howards. Distantly, Dira wondered if they were all so adamant on being in the mix.

“She’s becoming one of those creatures,” Noyo said, wasting not one second on doing away with the widely accepted social standard of not talking about that. Everyone knew but who wanted to chat about it? Yes, most missing people from the capital were now trying to kill anyone who survived the first appearance of the smoke. Plus a few unlucky additions from runners caught in the smog with compromised barriers—which turned to none if you weren’t careful. The subject was unpopular and touchy.

Unless you were Noyo in an emergency. They did the hard part for him, that was a start.

“And these are making her change faster, smoke or not.” In the glow, he pointed to the black-violet substance in the cuts on Fekhi’s arms. “A safe Union outpost could save her. Maybe,” he corrected in the seconds-too-late hindsight that this was their mayor in his arms, “if they know anything about this.”

“You are very well-informed,” the mage interrupted, flicking off a few sparks of magical energy after the transfer had finished. Dira had to admit he looked ominous that way as the dark closed back in.

“Everyone,” Noyo started and stepped between him and the mage, “get into the carriages. Loren, get the other tank.” They lifted the one from the wheelbarrow and met Dira with a look that didn’t suggest a sprawling distrust. “Get Fekhi into a carriage.”

He followed Loren to her cart, passing the Brooks Mills mayor to one of the townspeople who’d been sitting with Noyo before. The elf was stronger than his cut build looked. They shared a nod before Dira doubled back to Noyo’s carriage, where he was captive before, and joined them at the front. Unfortunately, he knew from who wasn’t with Loren’s group that the Union mage decided to keep close by climbing into this one. With the extra weight of four arms and a tail, Dira didn’t have a choice but to go with Noyo or slow down the other carriage—a death sentence to everyone on it.

“Keyah!” Noyo gave the command, and the horse broke into a canter. Faster could hurt it and lose Loren, possibly, all while drawing attention. Slower would mean Fekhi died for certain (or worse).

They weren’t moving long before he felt it: a sensation of being watched blended with the impulse to duck or hide. Neither would help. Dira curled his tail around himself, winding down his leg as an empty comfort. The denser smog behind them roiled deep in its mottled violet shroud.

“Out of time again.” The warning came across different then as opposed to saving Loren from their first attackers. Probably because these ones often had talons and no problem using them on less sturdy folks than Fekhi.

“How can you see—” The man inside the cart had reached incredulity at last, almost shouting from behind the barred window behind the driver’s bench.

“I don’t see it,” Noyo agreed, never mind that they could only risk a scant glance. Not being able to see too far ahead into the thinner smoke was no excuse not to look at all.

“We’re not missing much.” A beast of the smog was fascinating from a distance and in a scholarly way, what with most of them being distinct from each other in the little touches. Not so interesting was when it had every intent to infect your person to become one of its kind. Sensing it in the smoke by the same way crystals resonated with him, Dira could tell it was drawing up in the center. Whichever cart was a better mark first would catch its claws.

“Can it catch us?”

“It’ll try,” Raising all four hands, Dira cast the spell to cloak their carriage and followed his ability to focus on Fekhi’s infection to aim when he cloaked Loren’s cart too. Her spreading contamination was dulled next to the creatures and crystals, but it was enough to direct his concealing spell. One set of palms faced their friends out in the dark while the other was angled a tad awkwardly back at their own carriage.

“You can hold that?”

“Long enough.” He regretted that headache from fainting and hitting his head earlier. Twice. Chiali had larger reservoirs of magic to draw on, yes. Everything had a cost anyway. They weren’t any different from other mages like that. He’d be hungry and tired with sore arms, and in for a questioning with Noyo and Loren no matter what spells he held for however long.

They only needed to clear the thicker smoke trapped into the mountain range’s valley before he could drop the protective spellcasting. Then, in a runners’ haven with charged sigils engraved into the stones underfoot, they could wear him down with endless interrogation.

“I will take over if you fall.” The mage from the carriage decided to contribute to the escape from Brook Mills, however backhandedly.

Dira rolled his eyes for his own sake.

“Astoundingly generous of you.”

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