Title: Mutable: Chapter Nineteen, Part Two
Chapter Nineteen, Part Two
The tunnel let out underneath a bridge two blocks away from Rone’s enormous house, in an area labeled “UNSAFE: DO NOT ENTER.” It looked unsafe, at first glance, the smooth rock of the interior of the tunnel giving way to crumbly chalk beneath his feet, but Cas knew a well-preserved blind when he was inside of one. Hells, there was another one of those goddamn murder circles embedded at the exit of the thing. It was well-disguised, but again—Cas had built these sorts of tunnels with his own hands, and he wasn’t going to be fooled just because this one was high tech.
He pursed his lips, then slid out the end of the tunnel before he could second-guess himself. Nothing except a faint glow from the security device. Good. Now, to find the kids.
He was almost positive they’d head for the arcade, a place of near-mythic proportions that Lilah couldn’t stop talking about. “You can fly in there, and there are good games there, not dumb games like these ones, and the food is better, and you can pretend to be a spider.” Cas didn’t get the appeal, but he didn’t have to. Clearly it all meant enviable fun to Lilah and Shar.
The arcade was a little over a kilometer away, along a route that Cas had traced out in the dark last night while giving the phage a break. From here, he needed to go…up onto the main street, then left for two blocks, then right for seven. That was the most direct route, the one the kids had most likely taken.
You let his kids run away on your watch. You’re terrible at this.
“Shut up,” he muttered to himself as he tied Lilah’s shirt over the lower half of his face and climbed up onto the main street level. It was…
Loud. Cas had forgotten how loud a riot could be. There were shouts and screams, the constant crackle of some sort of energy weapon that seemed popular, the slow-burning sizzle of melting glass in storefronts where some people were concentrating those weapons. The arcade would probably be abandoned.
Fuck. That meant the kids could be anywhere.
He merged with the crowd, dodging around people flying grotesque signs high above their heads and others firing off bolts of energy into the air, ramping each other up with every step. Everyone’s faces were covered, some with plain cloth but others with some sort of smart fabric that looked electronic, shimmering and distorting their entire face. Cas’s hands itched to grab one, but he had to focus. He had to look for the kids.
He started to push left, toward the edge of the crowd, so he could get going in the right direction.
“Hey! Wrong way, asshole!” A young man carrying one of the tri-pronged zappers clacked the triggers irritatedly. “This is the fastest way to get around the park and to the prince’s gates.”
“I’ve got someone to find first,” Cas replied.
“You’re getting distracted from the fucking mission, man!” He clacked the triggers again, this time in Cas’s direction.
Cas shrugged. “Not my mission.”
“It’s everyone’s mission!” He engaged the triggers, and Cas heard the device prepare to discharge.
Faster than his attacker could react, Cas grabbed the barrel of the device and twisted it up with one hand while sliding in close and driving his elbow in the guy’s solar plexus. The guy bent over, gasping, and Cas put his free hand on the back of the man’s neck and smashed his head down into Cas’s rising knee. Crack. Cas wrenched the zapper out of the guy’s hand, then let go of him.
Blood sheeted down Cas’s erstwhile-attacker’s face, and he staggered away into the arms of two other people, who were watching with wide eyes over their facemasks. “Bye now,” Cas said, clacking the triggers mockingly, then made his way to the side of the press of people and along the nearest building until he could turn right again.
The alleys were quieter, all doors and windows closed off. They looked secure—for a place used to dealing with falling ash or worse from volcanoes, they’d have to be. Cas went as fast as he dared, looking for more signs of either child as he went. He needed to know he was going the right way…but there was nothing. If they weren’t at the arcade…
Panic later. He would find them. They were kids, not enemy operatives. They had a goal in mind, they went for it. They could slip through the crowd easier than an adult, and Lilah would never let herself be separated from Shar, so they were together. They were at the fucking arcade, and Cas was going to find them there. So get to it.
The arcade stuck out along the street—which considering the weird, eye-poppingly strange ways of attracting attention these buildings had, was saying something. It was taller than any of the other buildings by an extra story, and festooned with the sorts of bright colors and cartoon-like characters that Cas could remember watching on stolen media with Beren when they were young. Just like he had thought, it was closed, every one of those colorful doors shuttered. The glass was scuffed and dinged in a few places, maybe evidence of someone trying to break in, but Cas doubted it was the kids.
There were way fewer people to contend with here—the arcade was pretty far from any official government buildings or royal residences. Cas climbed halfway up the nearest lamppost—it connected with a twin across the street, and would set the filament connecting them ablaze with light as soon as dusk hit—and looked around for a small, safe hiding place. Somewhere the kids would fit together, but people wouldn’t think to look inside.
There were bubble-like pop outs on one side of the arcade, hollow spheres that were probably usually lit up with digital displays. Right now they were in what seemed like their sleep mode, swirling, wavelike patterns in neutral colors. One of them, near the bottom of the wall, was broken—maybe it had been hit by a car? Whatever it was, the damage was new enough to be jagged and unrepaired, and it didn’t light up. It was, however, fairly large. Large enough for…
Cas climbed down, darted over to the side of the arcade, and crouched to look inside the sphere.
A blue-clad little foot lashed out at him, barely missing his head.
Cas leaned back far enough to be out of the line of fire. “Hey, Lilah. Hi, Shar.”
Shar’s face peeped around the broken edge. He smiled wide, looking a little relieved.
“Are you okay?”
“We’re fine!” Lilah’s voice was a little muffled, and decidedly not fine.
“Are you sure?” Cas went ahead and sat down on the ground next to the bubble, taking himself out of the sight line of any wanderers as possible. “You sound a little upset. I know I am.”
“Why are you upset?”
“Well, there were an awful lot of people out here. Way too many for me. I don’t like when it’s so crowded.”
There was a pause, and then, “Me neither.”
“Plus, some of them were shouting nasty things. I didn’t like hearing it.”
“They were shouting about Daddy and Uncle Amiru. And they had mean pictures of them.”
Oh…oh, she’d seen some of the…fuck those graphics, it was an atrocious thing to hold above your head and display so anyone could see it, twice as bad when children could see it. Ten times as bad when the kids looking at drawings of their dismembered parent were Rone’s kids.
“Yeah, those were awful,” Cas agreed. “I didn’t want to see them, so I stopped looking up. I kept my eyes on the ground, looking for clues.”
Lilah’s face joined Shar’s. “Hey, that’s my shirt!”
“I know, I needed to borrow it. Sorry.”
“Hmmph.” She frowned at him for a moment, then reluctantly asked, “What kind of clues?”
“Clues about where you guys would be. You were really sneaky getting out of the house.”
Lilah nodded. “Daddy showed us how.”
Oh, I know he did. “Well, I’m lucky I found you.”
“Are you a detective?”
Cas smiled. “Not really.” Although there was a lot of investigative work ahead of him. “I guess I just know you guys a little bit by now.”
“So.” Cas leaned in a little closer. “Do you think you guys are ready to—”
“Hey, fucker!” One of the signs that had disturbed Lilah so much crashed against the wall next to his head. Cas instantly jumped to his feet and moved away from the broken bubble where the kids were hiding.
It was the idiot from the other road, along with two of his friends. They had already broken into a run, each of them holding some kind of weapon. Seeing them coming at him like this, eager for it, unwilling to negotiate…it made a tension release inside of Cas.
If they were going to try and kill him, then he didn’t have to hold back.
They were all wearing facemasks, but he could smell the blood from the broken nose he’d already given the one in front. Cas slipped under the metal pole that the man swung at him, drove his palm up and into his attacker’s nose—he felt it break in another spot—and swept his foot out from under him at the same time, sending him flying onto his back in under two seconds.
He didn’t bother with the zapper, he didn’t bother picking up the pole. Cas moved like a striking eel, gliding up to his prey and snapping up the guy’s nearest limb, controlling it and reeling him in, then disabling him joint by joint—elbow, shoulder, neck—not quite hard enough to break it, although he was tempted. He ran the second attacker over the first one’s body, dropping him on top, then leapt over both of them to confront the third, who was charging his own zapper and trying to keep his distance. Cas wouldn’t reach him in time to avoid taking a hit with that, so he’d have to—
“Hey!” A blue shoe hit the man in the side of the head, distracting him. Lilah was outside the bubble, barefoot, hoisting her other shoe in her hand.
If Cas could have spared the time for a heartfelt “Fuck!” he would have right then. Instead he took advantage of the guy taking the time to change his target to a little girl—and Cas had never been so sure another person deserved to be maimed—and closed the distance, kicking the zapper out of the man’s hand before stomping down on the top of his foot. Half a dozen little bones shattered under his heel. The man had just enough air to scream before Cas rammed the blade edge of his hand into his hyoid bone, dislocating it. The man dropped, both hands clutching his throat.
Eh, he’d live. Cas took a deep breath, checked the make sure the phage was still up, then collected Lilah’s shoe and brought it back to her. “Thank you,” he said, handing it back. It wasn’t like it would help to get mad, anyway. “I think we should make our way home, don’t you?”
Shar came out and joined his sister. The pair stared at him with wide eyes. “How did you do that, Beren?” Lilah whispered.
“It’s a secret, special thing I can only do when someone is counting on me,” he said. “Like you and Shar.”
“And only us know?”
“Only you.” Cas set a hand on each of their shoulders. “Can you help keep my secret?” They both nodded eagerly.
Thank goodness the surveillance systems are still out. It didn’t really matter if the kids talked about it, Rone probably would just attribute it to overenthusiasm on their part, but anything that encouraged a little bonding between them was good. And frankly, Rone deserved to be left in the dark after neglecting to tell Cas about the damn escape route in his kids’ bedroom. “Okay then. Let’s get back.”