There’s a myth about a city of light, shining against the hellish emptiness of time, giving sanctuary and healing, and let me tell you how I pity those who believe it. Such a dream would never survive in this world. Yet my beloved Enta has become in some sense that city of light for me, brilliant against the pervasive wickedness. Everything is measured against that love and beauty. Everything is changed, and I can no longer face the world on its own terms.
Some say the city of light is Merkasas, a place built upon philosophers, holding up knowledge in all its breeds as the last defense to repel monsters, pestilence, and ignorance, protecting its denizens from all evils. But I have seen the molten hole where Merkasas once stood, and wishes that deny history will not bring it back.
I barely understood the man I rescued from the Children of the Desiderasha. He called himself Netter. His touch with reality tenuous, a crazed grin flashing hear and again. I had little hope to find answers about Enta. He willingly followed me back to my nest near the hives.
“The bratches dragged my mission into a burrow, and I ganged it up to—”
“Shush, old crank. Settle your mind and listen like you have never listened.” I swept my hand across the hives below. The kazhashas crawled everywhere, from this distance looking like a swarm of bugs with their bulging eyes and long skinny legs. “In your time among these did you come across a girl—a child?”
His eyes darted everywhere. “Only the dead one, may she rest in the city of light.”
I sucked air through my teeth. “What did she look like? How did she die?”
“Tiny little cocklebur, she grew like a trungel, never right. Teeth grew backward, couldn’t eat properly and her mother couldn’t bring her to the flat.”
I breathed easy again and had little luxury to pity the thing. Netter wagged his head and his eyes glassed over. I grabbed his wrist.
“Did you hear anything about a small girl?”
Netter smiled and breathed like a bellows, a manner that served as a laugh. “They tell rockers nothing. They hold us in the tanker to grind our volition.”
“They kept you all together?”
“Aye. In with a band of feeders, if not one then another.”
I grabbed his other wrist, steadying myself so I didn’t break his bones. “How long were you there?”
He wagged his head. “Can’t say. A fortnight, maybe.”
“And in that time, you didn’t see her? Might they keep her somewhere else?”
“My privy says no, but I can’t be certain.”
I let go of his wrists and hung my head. Rage and helplessness consumed me. Where was my beloved Enta?
As if he heard me, he said, “Most slaves take the tine of ease.”
“What do you mean?”
“The only way to escape is to feed.”
“That’s why they put feeders in with you?”
“Last chance for what?”
Netter sucked air in his strange laugh. “What did you catch me from?”
“Last chance for what?”
“Last chance to feed or go to the Desiderasha.” His mad grin wilted into a wince.
I felt my scalp peel and melt. “No.”
In the nook of my mind I’d known it. From the time the slavers sold her to the pilolites, all paths led to the Desiderasha.
I stuffed my bag, lighter now without the ammo I lost to the sleemerins.
“What’s the strike?” Netter’s eyes questioned, the sanest he’d appeared since I rescued him.
“I have to catch up. Too far behind her.” I gritted my teeth and cursed. “Always too far behind.”
“Your privy tells you where?”
“Enta resisted the feeders. I know she did.”
He nodded slightly. “The fork’s other tine. They take her to the Desiderasha.” A tear dripped down his face.
The threads of hope and luck that I had followed for so long tangled and knotted, a snagged mess in this damned world, waiting for me to reach it and die in its snares.