“We’re not going to be out that long,” Ajax had protested, looking at the pack that Savannah had tossed him.
“Doesn’t matter,” she said. “Everybody heading out of the Tower carries their own survival basics. Especially tenderfeet like you.”
“Better not argue,” Seth muttered. “They even put packs on the dogs.” It was true. Both the big mastiffs and the smaller spaniel that accompanied the Prowler patrol had lightweight packs attached to their harnesses.
Now, Jehane, Ajax and Seth tromped along in the wake of Savannah and her Prowler team. The air outside the Tower was crisp and dry. A light breeze carried a scent reminiscent of lemon and nutmeg from a distant grove of bulbous trees, while the aroma of sage drifted up from the hard-packed road. The Tower rose behind them, all lines and angles against the curves of the land and the trees. Although the glowing sky made all shadows fuzzy pools, the shadow of the Tower seemed to somehow stretch much farther.
“How far out do we have to go before we’re beyond the Tower’s oversight?” Jehane called to Savannah.
Savannah stopped and smiled. “So that’s why you had a sudden interest in the life of a Prowler.”
Jehane scowled. “Elian’s being a pain.”
“So are you, I hear. Just to be fair. There’s a lot going on.” Her smile changed. “But you aren’t the only ones who enjoy a chance to get out and away from Kentigern’s— or Elian’s— eyes. And I suppose Elian is a lot less neutral. He was a fellow student, wasn’t he?”
Jehane shrugged. “I thought he was a friend.” She looked away from Savannah’s expression. “So how far do we have to be?”
“Well, nothing can be casually overheard here. And we’re pretty sure no eavesdropping at all can occur past that clump of trees.” She added thoughtfully, “Unless there’s screaming. The trees themselves interfere with radio signals. If you want to head into the grove, you should be totally safe. Well, safe from eavesdropping. And mostly safe from wildlife. We keep that grove pretty clean.”
Jehane stepped off the road. The ground crunched underfoot, like new fallen snow: tiny lichen breaking apart to reveal the fine, dusty soil below. Then she looked over her shoulder at Ajax and Seth. “Come on.”
Ajax strode ahead of her, but Seth lingered, looking around. Then he shook his head and followed Ajax.
The clump of trees in the middle of the lichenous steppe seemed like it should surround a pool of water, but instead there was only a central trunk, swollen and enormous. The foliage of the trees was complicated: each twig ended in several sharp spines and a fall of soft orange and dark green fronds. The ground between the trees was filled with a variety of blade-and-feather-edged ferns, along large boulders covered with more tiny plant life.
The trees had their own shadow music, a slow see-sawing tone that Jehane seemed to feel through her feet. There was a buzzing in the air that reminded Jehane uncomfortably of the common room at the institution she’d spent her childhood in. It was like the sound of forgotten televisions.
Ajax leaned on one of the boulders. “I’m ready to get out. For good.”
Seth stuck his hands in his pockets. “Did you watch that video, man?”
A pair of Nightlights had staggered in the night before after an encounter with Aya and Tainter, and that morning, a Reader from Earthside had shown up with a compilation of security videos that had shown the pair of Echthroi on what could loosely be described as a shopping spree.
Ajax scowled. “Yeah. And we’re just running away, leaving them with the whole world. I can’t let that happen. I’ll spill everything to the military if I have to.” His gaze moved to Jehane. “What about you? Malachi wasn’t with the others.”
Neither was Natalie, Jehane didn’t say. “I think I can do more good out there.”
“It’s ridiculous that we’re even talking about asking the Earth authorities for help,” grumbled Seth. “We shouldn’t be in this position.”
Ajax shrugged. “The Guardians think they know everything about what they do. They’re wrong.”
Seth narrowed his eyes, then tucked his hands behind his head. “Guess so. Better you than me. Your family’s on that side still. But I’ll do what I can to help. Want me to acquire a luminator for you? It’d make talking to the guys with guns a bit more interesting.”
Jehane burst in. “That doesn’t matter, if Elian won’t let us out. He won’t even open portals if we’re in the Portalry now, have you noticed? How are we going to get around that?”
“Convince him,” said Seth.
“Or… use another Tower? Like Hatherly’s been doing?” Ajax suggested.
“I don’t think Towers are usually as functional as Hatherly’s found them,” said Jehane doubtfully. “He’s been doing something, maybe with one of his Cambions.”
Ajax gave Jehane a long, thoughtful look, until finally she flinched. “What?”
“You used that goo we found to sort of… project your anima into Elian’s system, didn’t you? When Elian found Natalie… Natalie’s…” He shook his head. “The other day.”
“So?” she said defensively.
“You could do it again. If we set it up right, maybe he’d open a portal. Or maybe you could… do whatever that Cambion is doing to make the other Tower ghosts more cooperative.”
Jehane gave Ajax a nasty look. “Just like that. You know, we’re not all like you. Gifted. 0 to Stage 3 in three months.”
He blinked at her, bewildered. “But—”
“Years!” she snapped.
Seth’s hand came down on her head, gently pressing. “Down, girl.” She whirled on him, and he grinned at her. “You do bring a different perspective to things, just like Ajax. How could it hurt to just take a look around?”