The morning came: gray, dull and chilly. Something howled again, but farther away. I thought it had lost us.
I didn't like this place much. Edmond sneezed and snuffled, but Davis took care of him. I thought our healer was looking bothered, though. He looked at the city with despair hardly hidden for a moment. I was sorry we had dragged him inhere with us. The Surfer Dude needed to get back to his motorcycle.
We had a little food, warmed up by magic, which helped. Maggie tested the compass. We were still heading in the right direction. I even found a kind of working bathroom in a partly destroyed building. Water even ran from a sort of shower. Cold, but it was good to wash my hair out a little. We could have done as well with magic, but I realized that this made me feel normal again.
By the time I came out, we had company. The woman from the night before and a few of her friends were standing a little ways off, watching us. They all wore dark clothing that blended into the dusty walls and fallen rocks.
No one was shaking their spears. Davis was carrying Edmond. I figured we were safe enough.
"Where is your big friend?" I asked, looking at their leader.
She made a slight sound of amusement which was better than the night before. "Smart, you."
"Thank you," I said, though I suspected smart might not be the best compliment she could give to someone. The quick flash of a smile told me I was probably right.
She looked human enough. They all did though they tended to hunch over and slink a lot. They did not look up at the sky. I purposely did and noted how they flinched. Maybe it was a case where they thought if they took no notice of the city hanging over them, they would be ignored in turn.
And maybe, I thought, that made the group of us dangerous in an entirely different way than I had considered. We were, clearly, drawing the attention of others.
"We want to travel away from here as quickly as possible," he said. "We do not wish to cause you any more trouble than we have. We are looking for . . ." He stopped trying to find a way to explain it.
"Looking for the door," the woman said. "The one through which go people and never return. Know where it leads, you?"
I looked at Maggie because I wasn't certain of the answer. She stepped forward and gave a bow of her head. "If we are right, it leads back to the place where we were before this. We might, however, simply end up somewhere else entirely."
"Was this other place. . . . " She stopped and glanced at the others around her. There was a little whisper of sound, like a moment of hope. "Was it a good place?"
"Not perfect, but better than here," I said. I understood what she was asking and being a Protector, I knew I had to help. "You want to leave."
Maggie gave him a startled look. She hadn't caught on yet, but then she was probably more worried about what might be going to attack us at any moment.
"Want better place, we. Safe place, away from they who watch."
"You are welcome to come with us, but we cannot say we are going to anywhere better."
"Worse than this?" she said.
I looked around at the desolation, noticed the stench in the air again, and thought about that city hanging over head. "I doubt it could be worse," I admitted.
I looked finally at the other two. They were both nodding agreement, though Edmond, in Maggie's arms, glared a bit. "Are you going to try and eat me?" he asked.
"No, little one. Hardly make a meal for one, you."
Edmond was the one who laughed --
And something flew overhead.
We obeyed, taking cover by walls and in the shadows. I tried to see what might be up there. Davis, beside me, scowled upwards and gave a nod. "Griffin would be my guess. Better than a gargoyle but not something we want to deal with, my friend."
"They hunt we," a young man said nearby. "Kill we. Hunters for the city."
"Why do they hunt you?" I asked.
"Take our magic, they. Hoard it, fuel for the city."
I was starting to dislike this place more and more. The griffin flew on by but we waited and watched as it circled back twice more.
"Go now, we," the woman said and gave a whistle. "Go now, start journey. Long, long ways go we, through perilous areas." She stopped and looked at me again. "You take us, go we, other place."
"I will do my best to see you to somewhere safe," I promised. A dangerous sort of promise, I supposed -- but maybe not. It made allies of a group who had already survived in this horrible place. We had guides and extra guards, and in return I might give them a better life. This seemed a good working arrangement.
As long as I trusted them.
People were coming out from behind walls, most of them carrying packs and some with small children. So they had expected to go -- or maybe not. Looking at them, I realized that they always moved this way, with everything they owned in hand.
Edmond was not looking very happy but I soon realized why. The creature we had faced was moving up to stand with the others. Whatever it was, he gave a bow of his head in our direction.
"I have protected them as best I can," it grumbled. "I will protect them still until they are safe."
I had the feeling he didn't trust me and my companions.
This was going to be a long, dangerous journey. Time to get started.
To Be Continued