But rage and revulsion were fueling his pneuma, and when it went from him it brought down not one wall but several, passing through the teetering houses like a bullet through a pack of cards. Shards of pulverized stone flew as the houses toppled, the collapse of one initiating the fall of the next, the dust cloud growing in scale as each house added to its sum.
He started up the alleyway in pursuit of the pneuma, fearing that his disgust had given it more purpose than he’d intended. It was heading towards Lickerish Street, where the crowds were still milling, oblivious to its approach. They were not wandering that street innocent of its corruption, of course, but neither did their presence there deserve death. He wished he could draw the breath as he exhaled it, call the pneuma back into himself. But it had its head, and all he could do was run after it as it brought down house after house, hoping it would spend its power before it reached the crowd.
He could see the lights of Lickerish Street through the hail of demolition. He picked up his pace, to try and outrun the pneuma, and was a little ahead of it when he set eyes on the throng itself, thicker than ever. Some had interrupted their window-shopping to watch the spectacle of destruction. He saw their gawking faces, their little smiles, their shaking heads: saw they didn’t comprehend for an instant what was coming their way. Knowing any attempt to warn them verbally would be lost in the furor, he raced to the end of the alleyway and flung himself into their midst, intending to scatter them, but his antics only drew a larger audience, who were in turn intrigued by the alleyway’s capitulation. One or two had grasped their jeopardy now, their expressions of curiosity become looks of fear; finally, too late, their unease spread to the rest, and a general retreat began.
The pneuma was too quick, however. It broke through the last of the walls in a devastating shower of rock shards and splinters, striking the crowd at its densest place. Had Hapexamendios, in a fit of cleansing ire, delivered a judgment on Lickerish Street He could scarcely have scoured it better. What had seconds before been a crowd of puzzled sightseers was blood and bone in a heartbeat.
Though he stood in the midst of this devastation, Gentle remained unharmed. He was able to watch his terrible weapon at work, its power apparently undecayed despite the fact that it had demolished a string of houses. Nor, having cut a swath through the crowd, was it following the trajectory set at his lips. It had found flesh and clearly intended to busy itself in the midst of living stuff until there was none left to undo.
He was appalled at the prospect. This hadn’t been his intention, or anything like it. There seemed to be only one option available to him, and that he instantly took: he stood in the pneuma’s path. He’d used the power in his lungs many times now—first against the Nullianac’s brother in Vanaeph, then twice in the mountains, and finally on the island, when they were making their escape from Vigor N’ashap’s asylum—but in all that time he’d only had the vaguest impression of its appearance. Was it like a fire-breather’s belch, or like a bullet made of will and air, nearly invisible until it did its deed?
Perhaps it had been the latter once, but now, as he set himself in its path, he saw that it had gathered dust and blood along its route, and from those- essential elements it had made itself a likeness of its maker. It was his face that was coming at him, albeit roughly sculpted: his brow, his eyes, his open mouth, expelling the very breath it had begun with. It didn’t slow as it approached its maker, but struck Gentle’s chest the way it had struck so many before him. He felt the blow but was not felled by it. Instead the power, knowing its source, discharged itself through his system, running to his fingertips and coursing across his scalp. Its shock was come and gone in a moment, and he was left standing in the middle of the devastation with his arms spread wide and the dust falling around him.