Before the dust could clear and the survivors come after them, he went to find Huzzah, but the wall against which she’d been crouching was cracked and curling like a stone wave. He yelled her name as it broke. Her shriek answered him, off to his left. The Nullianac had snatched her up, and for a terrifying instant Gentle thought it intended to annihilate her, but instead it drew her to it like a doll and disappeared into the dust clouds.
He started in pursuit without a backward glance, an error that brought him to his knees before he’d covered two yards of ground, as the Oethac woman delivered a stabbing blow to the small of his back. The wound wasn’t deep, but the shock drove his breath from him as he fell, and her second blow would have taken out the back of his skull had he not rolled out of its way. The small pick she was wielding, wet with his blood, buried itself in the ground, and before she could pull it free he hauled himself to his feet and started after Huzzah and her abductor. The second youth was moving after the Nullianac, squealing with drugged or drunken glee, and Gentle followed the sound when he lost the sight, the chase taking him out of the wasteland and into a Kesparate that had been left relatively untouched by the conflict.
There was good reason. The trade here was in sexual favors, and business was booming. Though the streets were narrower than in any other district Gentle had passed through, there was plenty of light spilling from the doorways and windows, the lamps and candles arranged to best illuminate the wares lolling on step and sill. Even a passing glance confirmed that there were anatomies and gratifications on offer here that beggared the most dissolute backwaters of Bangkok or Tangiers. Nor was there any paucity of customers. The imminence of death seemed to have whipped up the consensual libido. Even if the flesh pushers and pill pimps who offered their highs as Gentle passed never made it to morning, they’d die rich. Needless to say, the sight of a Nullianac carrying a protesting child barely warranted a look in a street sacred to depravity, and Gentle’s calls for the abductor to be stopped went ignored.
The crowd thickened the farther down the street he ventured, and he finally lost both sight and sound of those he was pursuing. There were alleyways off the main thoroughfare (its name—Lickerish Street—daubed on one of the bordello walls), and the darkness of any of them might be concealing the Nullianac. He started to yell Huzzah’s name, but in the come-ons and hagglings two shouted syllables were drowned out. He was about to run on when he glimpsed a man backing out of one of the alleyways with distress on his face. He pushed his way through to the man and took hold of his arm, but he shrugged it off and fled before Gentle could ask what he’d seen. Rather than call Huzzah’s name again, Gentle saved his breath and headed down the alley.
There was a fire of mattresses burning twenty yards down it, tended by a masked woman. Insects had nested in the ticking and were being driven out by the flames, some attempting to fly on burning wings, only to be swatted by the fire maker. Ducking her wild swings, Gentle asked after the Nullianac, and the woman directed him on down the alley with a nod. The ground was seething with refugees from the mattresses, and he broke a hundred shells with every step until he was well clear of the fumigator’s fire. Lickerish Street was now too far behind him to shed any light on the scene, but the bombardment which the crowd behind him had been so indifferent to still continued all around, and explosions farther up the city’s slopes briefly but garishly lit the alleyway. It was narrow and filthy, the buildings blinded by brick or boarded up, the road between scarcely more than a gutter, choked with trash and decaying vegetable matter. Its stench was sickening, but he breathed it deeply, hoping the pneuma born of and on that foetid air would be all the more potent for its foulness. The theft of Huzzah had already earned her abductors their deaths, but if they had done the least hurt to her he swore to himself he’d return that hurt a hundredfold before he executed them.