Rowan went to the closet and grabbed the nearest shirt and trousers. Assistant Lan was roughly of her same built. The shirt fit like one of her own. She was a bit too thin for the trouser waists, but this was quickly remedied with a belt. With the way he was right now, he would not miss a set of clothes. Even if he did, he did not seem the type to care much. He was not Johann.
She left the quarters, and walked out of the fire program guild house. She did not know what she would do, exactly. She just knew she had do something more than just stare at the moping assistant. She needed to find the chief. Yeah. She would start with that.
But as soon as she stepped into the street, she realized that would be easier said than done.
Too many cracks and holes marked the street and the pavement. Broken glass scattered on the street, and no cleaners were in sight to remove them. Windows were either boarded up or left to revealed burned-out interiors. Cement crumbled off the walls where they were loosened. Soot lined the doors and walls of many hollowed stores. Wisps of smoke trailed upward from the remains of fires.
She heard a scream, saw a flash of light.
“Stop it!” a shrill voice begged from just ahead, where the street turned a corner. “Go away!” The voice was accented and strange.
But another flash of light cracked past the corner. It crackled like lightning, stabbing at the pavement, hammering at the stones and sending them flying as pebbles.
Rowan saw a figure dart from the corner, away from the lightning flashes. “We did not do anything!” the voice begged again. The figure wore a dress with the traditional Selati wide sleeves.
“We’ll make sure you never will!” a deeper voice shouted back, sending several blasts of sparks around the Selati girl. “Go back where you came from!”
Rowan had never seen offensive programs like that before, thinner than ice daggers and longer than fire torches. Were these…….lightning programs? There was no such thing.
But there were electric programs. And only one program trainee had them.
Rowan ran forward. She did not care if it was Ren or not. Someone was getting hurt and she was not going to stand there doing nothing. Lan said something about her fire programs, but she did not need them to fight against anyone. Her own two fists were enough and plenty.
She reached the girl in time to pull her away from another blast of concentrated power. Rowan wrapped her body around the girl, cushioning the fall and the roll on the pavement. She felt and even heard the girl’s heart pounding in her chest.
“You alright?” Rowan asked.
The girl shook and tears fell to her cheeks as she hugged her. “Rowan!”
Only then did Rowan recognize Chie. With the sandy hair now loose over her shoulders, it had taken a while. Rowan embraced her tightly as another blast flew overhead. “What are you doing here, and why are you getting blasted?”
“I’ll tell you later. But we gotta get away from Ren! Come on, RUN!”
“The lame kid?”
“Later, Ro! Run! Back to Uncle!”
Rowan bounded from the pavement, and pulled Chie up to stand. They raced to the nearest corner away from the onslaught of electric blasts. As they managed to shield themselves with the wall, Rowan rapidly made a travel cloud. “Lead the way.”
“Left at next corner, then right,” Chie immediately said.
Rowan obeyed. They never looked behind them.
“Another right,” Chie said as Rowan steered the little cloud through a walkway. “Then left. Right at next corner. Then right again.” Even Rowan, who prided herself in a good sense of direction, was beginning to feel lost.
“Now deactivate the travel cloud. We’re doing this on foot from here.”
Rowan felt Chie’s rapid pulse at the hand that held her wrist. “Are you even sure that’s Ren?” she asked, as Chie led her hastily through alleys and streets she did not even know existed. “And I know the capital well, how come I don’t know where we’re going?”
“These are lanes only the Selati tend to use, especially when your people are being nasty.”
“I didn’t mean you. I know better. Come on, Ro.”
People in groups of threes or fours hastily passed Rowan and Chie through the narrow paths. They all rushed past them, in the same direction. Chie sighed. “We have more victims of the attacks.”
“In the name of He who controls all, what is going on?” Rowan demanded.
“You’ll see for yourself,” Chie said sadly. “We’re close. Keep walking.”
They entered a small store, that opened into a cellar, that revealed a basement.
“It’s Rachel!” Chie quickly rapped at the entrance door.
“Are you with anyone?” a voice asked inside.
“She knows the chief, let me in!” Chie replied.
Rowan turned to her. “You mean—”
The door opened. They were pulled in. The door closed.
The room had dim lights on the ceiling and the walls, just enough to know where everything could be found but not enough to see faces well. Everyone wore the long wide sleeves of the Selati. Some had programming sashes tied around their foreheads or arms.
Rowan suddenly looked around for the assistant, surprised at hearing his name. Instead she found heal programmer Beika’s pale face at the far end of the room. The healer stepped backward until she hit the wall behind.
“No.” It was Soji, sitting near her. Calmer than the healer, he sighed as he stood and walked up. “Rowan. You are alright.”
Rowan, however, could not reply. She stared around her with a slack jaw. The floor filled with people sprawled on the floor over blankets, tablecloths, or mats. All had bloodied bandages. Babies cried beside mothers. Mothers wept or cried aloud for missing children. Children screamed as heal programs were placed on them. Young men had arms in slings or feet in casts. Young women had bloodstains on their arm sleeves or dresses, as they groaned in pain. Several healthier young people tiptoed between the injured, giving water or food, but they also looked gaunt and tired.
“What…what’s going on in Pendi?” Rowan stammered. “Maybe this is just a long dream? Chief, tell me this is just a long dream.” A nightmare. One that felt much too real.
She just flopped into bed, didn’t she, after giving Chie words she never wanted to tell her. She found herself in a strange bed, found herself talking with a redhead who drowned in himself. Then that redhead just told her that the music hall was no more, and it was her doing. Suddenly the streets no longer looked like the streets she knew, the buildings were all in pieces and rubble. Now she was surrounded by too many wounded strangers not her countrymen, and her countrymen were acting very badly and weirdly. She did not know why.
Soji looked away from her. Chie sighed as she took her place beside her uncle. Beika took a deep breath before asking, “How is Lan?”
“Miserable, and I understand it’s because you’re here. What in the One’s name ARE you doing here without a proper word to your morose friend?” Rowan said.
Beika smiled sadly. “Tell him I’m sorry. I’m needed here.”
“Tell him yourself, healer!”
“But I can’t leave, I’ll get Soj in trouble.”
“And you might make us lose the defense shield!”
“If anything happens, you’ll make that shield in his place.”
“Dammit, healer! I don’t know that shield thing yet! He locked my programs! I can’t even make a Fire Torch! If anything happens, the secret falls with him! And, for goodness’ sake, you’re the best friend, how in the world can you just talk like that about him!”
Soji raised a hand. “That is enough, Rowan—“
“And you, chief! Why did you just run off without saying anything, to any of us! Of course this crazy healer will run after you! Of course she’ll leave Plain-black to find you! Of course she’s not leaving to make sure you won’t do anything stupid!”
Soji stared at her, before turning to face Beika. Beika looked away.
“If Plain-black does do something incredibly stupid, it will be because of you!”
“But…but…my people…” he stammered.
“Chief! Knock it into you! You have friends in Pendi! You have friends among the Pendika! You don’t have to do this in the dark like before! Why in the world do you think you need to do this alone!”
Rowan took many huge breaths. She could no longer stop the tears from streaming down her cheeks. “Please, someone tell me what is going on. Please. I don’t know why you’re all like this. I don’t know.” She fell to her knees and covered her face with her hands.
She felt a hand over a shoulder. The fabric of a skirt rustled at her arm.
“I’ll tell her.”
Rowan looked up and saw Eloise.