[Part One of Asphalt Gods can be found in the May 2021 issue of ev0ke.]
Remember when I said that Father was recognized for mapping three previously unknown roads? Well, I found one, too.
It was a complete accident. We were traveling home along Khendaar Lane, a little-used path between Detroit and the desert realm of Khendaar; the scenic route, Father liked to call it.
And I … wandered away.
I was eight years old. Call it undeveloped, untrained Walker instincts. I knew there was a road, so I took it.
What I had found was a back door into Zerzurrah, a twisty, weedy little pathway that probably hadn’t been walked since the Gods created that realm eons ago. Instead of coming up the main road and stopping at the gate — where the Zerzurrahns ran an invitation-only auction a few days every year — I popped out in the middle of the hatchery.
The Zerzurrahns freaked.
Every species has their own creation myth, and Zerzurrahns are no exception. They consider themselves to be the first, best, and truest children of the Gods. Given the fact that they’re borderline immortal, their blood will cure almost any illness, and their feathers are known to regenerate dead ecosystems, they might be right.
Which, of course, also makes them prime targets for hunters, mercenaries, mad scientists, soulless corporations, and really really rich people.
When the Zerzurrahns realized what I had discovered, they didn’t kill me. Maybe it was my family’s reputation; maybe it was their past dealings with my family; maybe they just couldn’t kill a child. Instead, they made a hasty offer: leave the road unregistered, and I would be granted a full-access pass to their city. I could go anywhere. See anything. Buy anything.
Father was a good man. He knew that registering that back road — making it public knowledge — was tantamount to genocide. The Zerzurrahns would never be able to keep out everyone who wanted to kill them, experiment on them, and harvest them for parts.
I agreed. Father put the word out that I had a city pass, though he never, ever explained how I had acquired it. (Rumors were plentiful and wild.) People from worlds we had never even heard of reached out to him with their shopping lists. Money poured in. Other people tried to buy my pass off him, promising even more money. He just laughed.
And a month later, Father disappeared.
Had he been killed for access to Zerzurrah? Had he found a Forbidden Road? Gotten lost and wandered away?
We didn’t know. Grandmother, Mother, and I had eventually resigned ourselves to the fact that we would likely never know.
And my city pass? I never used it. Holding onto it for a rainy day seemed like a good idea. Grandmother insisted, even after we had to return all of the money that had been sent by those eager shoppers; the income from Millicent Avenue and their taxi cabs was just enough to keep us going until I finished my apprenticeship and took over Father’s business.
People still try to buy my pass. Several of Jerseea’s wealthy families had tried on more than one occasion; so had the Sayahk of Khendaar, the Elders of Homana, and the Frtilsk of Frtilsk.
But Amkhira had the one thing that I would absolutely, without question sacrifice that pass to find: my Father.
“How?” I stammered.
Amkhira blinked at me slowly, and remained silent. The pink carved cetacean disappeared back beneath their cloak.
Herbert cleared his throat. “I believe that Walker Brown is attempting to ask how you would like to go about making arrangements for your journey —”
“Oh that is not what I’m asking and you know it!” I punched his shoulder. Turning back to Amkhira, I leaned closer. “How did you find him? I looked for years.”
“I will not say. Just as you will not say how you acquired safe passage to Zerzurrah.”
I felt my jaw clench. My chest was tight, and my heart was beating too fast. “Fine. The contract is as follows: I will enter Zerzurrah and acquire … what is it exactly that you need?”
“A page from a book. The original, not a copy.” Amkhira tilted their head slightly, taking in our crowded surroundings. “I will specify the book later.”
“Very well. I will enter Zerzurrah and acquire an unspecified page from an as yet unspecified book, which you will pay for …?”
This time, Amkhira looked around. Apparently satisfied, their hand emerged again, this time holding a small piece of folded cloth. Amkhira held it towards me.
I took it carefully. The cloth was fine and light in my hands, doing little to hide the shape and color of the object wrapped inside it. My breath caught. I felt Herbert edge closer as I gently unfolded the fabric.
Amber. A tiny, perfect tear-shaped bead, the spark of light within setting off the dark golden hue.
This was not regular amber, the kind that could be found on the shores of innumerable oceans. No, this was divine amber, the crystalized tears shed by Freyja as she wandered the worlds in search of her husband.
The Zerzurrahns had a corner on the market. They bought every amber tear that became available. Rumor had it that they had a private company of Walkers whose only job was to hunt down divine amber. My five-times grandmother had launched the family courier service with the money earned by selling the Zerzurrahns the single tear she had found by accident.
They were mad for the stuff, and no one knew why.
I swallowed. “That should do it. And, in exchange for acquiring a page from a book, you will safely guide me to my Father, and then allow us to safely return home to Detroit.”
Amkhira blinked slowly, silent. Then an equally slow nod. “Agreed.”
Herbert clapped his hands together. “Excellent! As I said, Bertha, three whole egg shells.” A bag of coins plopped into my lap. “And I cannot emphasize enough: whole egg shells. Would you like me to have Peterrmenn escort you to the Crossroads? He is very good at clearing a path.”
“No, I would —” I drew a breath. Between the servers, the bouncers, the musicians, and the guests, it would not be long before word got out that I was loaded down with coins and an amber tear, and that I was on my way to Zerzurrah. Ambush followed quickly by death was a definite possibility. Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if Jerseea’s ruling families intercepted me en route to the Crossroads and made me an offer I shouldn’t refuse. “Yes. Fine.” I stood, shoved the coin pouch and the cloth-wrapped amber tear inside my shirt, and grabbed my bag.
Amkhira stood, as well. “I will accompany you. You return to your home realm, yes?”
“That’s the plan.”
I could only wonder how Grandmother and Mother would react when Amkhira walked through the front door.
Peterrmenn wasn’t just very good at clearing a path. He was excellent. Everything got out of his way, even the transport buses and the heavy cargo carriers.
As we neared Sleipnir Delivery Service, Chinnis swept an eyestalk back and forth. A sort-of apology with a question mark on the end.
I waggled three fingers in response, accepting the sort-of apology, but refusing to stop and explain any further.
(I slowed down enough to toss another handful of small coins into the offering box in front of Mercurius’ temple, though. Just to be safe.)
Amkhira followed along behind me. I couldn’t hear their footsteps over the shouting, grinding, and roaring, but they just seemed to … well, almost glide over the road. There wasn’t so much as a flutter of movement beneath their cloak. Actually, I wasn’t even sure if they were breathing.
When we reached the Crossroads, Peterrmenn turned and looked down at me, frowning. “Fair travels, Walker Brown. Do not become deceased. This one enjoys seeing you and engaging in stimulating conversation.”
I smiled up at him and gently tapped a fist against his arm; it was wider around than my thigh. “Right back at you. And you enjoy that Oscirian berry wine.”
A solemn nod, and he backed away a few steps until he was clear of the Crossroads. Around us, other Walkers moved in a chaotic knot, coming and going, popping in and out of Jerseea, following one road or another, loaded down with supplies and trade goods and letters.
I held out my hand to Amkhira. “Shall we?”
They glanced down, blinked slowly, then looked back up. That strange, dark, cracked approximation of a hand emerged from their cloak to close around mine; stubby, rough fingers and a scratchy palm. I felt very faint sparks against my skin.
It was unnerving.
Keeping my expression neutral, I drew a deep breath, and envisioned the road that I wanted to travel and my destination. Exhaling long and slow, I whispered the name of the road, tightened my grip on Amkhira’s hand, and stepped forward.
Detroit Boulevard is wide and always busy. I could vaguely see and hear the hordes of Walkers around us: they were smears of deep purple and red in an infinite brightness, exhalations and whispers a wind that pulled at my clothes and pushed against my ears.
Amkhira was more substantial, and strangely so: black instead of purple or red, an unexpected weight on my arm, and … singing?
They were no longer silent. That grating, gravelly voice had transformed into a warm hum; like a hummingbird or a bumble bee. It danced across my skin, thrumming, raising the hairs on the back of my neck. Electricity moved across my flesh along with the hum. A shiver slid down my spine, and the amber tear felt warm against my chest.
I stumbled in surprise, but quickly caught myself. If my concentration broke, we would be lost.
I focused on the road, solid beneath my feet. Here, only the road was real, tangible. Only the road was supposed to be tangible. I wiggled my fingers against the strange almost-solidness of Amkhira’s hand, their humming song rising and falling.
Forward, step by step, through the brightness, through the throng. I continued to exhale, my breath and voice joining those of all the Walkers around me; perhaps even the echo of the Gods who had first walked these roads into existence.
Forward, step by step.
Amkhira felt heavier.
My lungs tightened, my breath nearly gone, my whisper beginning to fade.
Heavier, dragging on my arm, my shoulder.
And then we were at the Crossroads of Detroit. The infinite brightness was gone, replaced by the cool sun of a spring day. The wind and echoing whispers of the other Walkers was replaced by a breeze that smelled of asphalt, diesel, and rubber, and that carried the sounds of tires and horns.
I gasped, dropping Amkhira’s hand, and sucked fresh air into my lungs.
Traveling alone was relatively easy. Having to drag along a non-Walker was another matter entirely; I could usually carry one, maybe two other people; but none had ever felt like Amkhira.
“You are weak. Your father does not experience such difficulties.”
Hands braced on my knees, bag pressing down on my back, I glared up at Amkhira. “Yes, you’re right. My father is a stronger Walker. But I have the pass into Zerzurrah.” I straightened, waiting. I dug my single-number pager out of an interior pocket, hit the call button, and shoved it back into my pocket, still waiting.
No apology was forthcoming. Amkhira just blinked at me, eyes slowly closing and opening.
“Right.” Shifting the backpack into a more comfortable position, I led the way through the Crossroads and towards Detroit proper.
Thousands of Walkers swirled around us, coming and going. A Hemkirish carrying a massive boulder of Muspelheim obsidian. A deer-like Cervithian, antlers strung with beads and ribbons, flanks covered in bulging packages. A swarm of tiny Pixins zipped past my head, each carrying a message scroll bound at their waists. Humans and Neanderthals, Oscirians and Felinians, Drakes and Foxin. And, looming beyond and above us all, the skyline of Detroit: sharp steel and gleaming glass skyscrapers, massive graceful statues of concrete and marble, cable cars and elevated trains and dirigibles. Straight ahead, straddling the northern gate of the Crossroads, stood a marble likeness of Cadillaq himself; instinct had led him here, to the nexus point where one hundred and thirteen roads intersected; business savvy led him to give up Walking and found a city.
Jerseea was an important realm thanks to its mining operation, but its Crossroads was the nexus for only nineteen roads. It would never become a trade and diplomatic hub as important as Detroit — something which, I am sure, endlessly aggravated the city’s ruling families.
It took us an hour to navigate through the crowds. Ten minutes into our trek, I felt the pager vibrate. Smiling, I quickened my steps. Beyond the gate, trucks and transports and cabs fought for the few hundred parking slots or circled slowly, belching exhaust even as they were unloaded and reloaded with goods from a hundred worlds and realms and eras.
I pushed my way around a truck that reeked of old fish and clams. Straining, I lifted onto my toes, scanning the swarm of vehicles. After long minutes, I spotted a familiar cab, its bright yellow paint and chrome hood ornament gleaming in the sun.
Stepping forward, I whistled loudly, raising my hand.
The driver saw me through the window. Grinning and waving, she accelerated and twisted the cab, expertly weaving through the other vehicles until she could pull up next to me. She leapt out, her fat black braids swinging under her grey tweed cap as she dashed around her car and wrapped me in a tight hug. She didn’t care how it wrinkled her uniform; she never did. “Bertha, my precious girl! Welcome home! Welcome home!”
“Hello, Mother.” I returned the hug and the grin, inhaling the comforting scents of leather and wood and bergamot. “How long have I been gone?”
One last tight grip and she leaned away, her fingers still wrapped around my arms. “Forty-two days. Have any problems in Kitezh?”
“Nope. But Louhi might be shutting the road to Pohjola.”
Mother scowled, tugging on the hem of her dark grey jacket. “Again? One of her daughters run off again?”
I shrugged. “Probably.” I cleared my throat. “This is Amkhira. Something’s come up. Is Grandmother still on shift?”
Mother pulled a shiny silver fob watch from her pocket and snapped open the lid; the chain clinked softly. “She should just be getting off now.” Mother looked up as she tucked the watch away again, her gaze darting between me and Amkhira. “Can you talk about it here?”
I shook my head.
“In that case, let’s head home.” She quirked an eyebrow at Amkhira. “Is there someplace I can take you?”
I cleared my throat again. “Yeah. Home.”
It was quiet inside the cab. Mother kept the radio turned down, the music a soft background to the shush of the tires and the rumble of the engine.
The interior of the cab was as pristine as always: soft leather seats, spotless carpet and windows, wooden trim and dashboard. I was almost afraid to touch anything.
Detroit hadn’t changed, either. Dark asphalt streets with bright yellow stripes, sidewalks so white that it almost hurt to look at them, shimmering glass and steel buildings; here and there, carefully sculpted and maintained trees and flowers, their dead leaves and petals swept up almost as soon as they fell.
But then I had only been gone forty-two days. Detroit had been around for almost a thousand years, and even after all this time, Cadillaq would have no trouble recognizing the skyline.
Mother pulled into the reserved parking slot just half a block down from our apartment building. One of the perks of being a cab driver: guaranteed parking paid for by the company.
As soon as I climbed out, she wrapped an arm around my shoulders, hugging me close. We tripped down the sidewalk together, just enjoying one another’s touch again after being separated for so long.
I couldn’t hear Amkhira behind us, but I caught their distorted reflection in windows and steel support beams.
Branson tipped his hat as we approached the front doors. His white gloves were spotless, and the brass buttons on his long jacket shone in the sun. “Welcome home, Ms. Brown. Fun trip?”
“As always, Branson, as always. Anything to report?”
Mother rolled her eyes.
“Mr. Hogarth’s schnauzer had her puppies. Two of the dryers are still on the fritz. A colony of Mousekinth have moved into 13-D and are refusing to pay rent in any recognized coinage. And the city’s entire baseball team defected to Londinium.”
I wrinkled my nose in sympathy. “I’m sorry you won’t be able to watch the playoffs this year.”
Branson shrugged and reached for the shiny door handle. “Ah, well. Not like they’ve gotten to the finals in my lifetime, or ever will.”
“Ugh. Enough.” Mother tugged me through the door and into the cool entryway. “This girl needs to get off her feet.”
Branson chuckled and tipped his hat again. “Yes, ma’am.”
I looked up at Mother. “Dare I ask what the Mousekinth are using as coinage?”
“The bodies of their fallen warriors.”
We crossed the entryway, passing the crowded wall of public shrines: Ganesh and Lakshmi, Hermes and Iris, Hekate, Kryzkaltislk and Phfarzakk, Abeona and Adiona, Mercurius, Odhinn and Sleipnir, Yacatecuhtli, Shanxxix and Horxxix. Curls of incense rose above the altars, which were weighed down with flowers, coins, feathers, glass eyes, ribbons, miniature maps, and colorful stones.
Mother tapped the call button for the elevator. “According to Mr. Hogarth, who can hear it all through his walls, the Mousekinth hold gladiatorial battles every day. Every day. The fallen warriors are stripped to their bones, which are then laid out in the hallway as payment.” Mother’s nose wrinkled. “His schnauzer ate one. Didn’t know what it was. The Mousekinth were not happy. Threatened to eat her puppies in retaliation.”
The elevator pinged and the doors soundlessly slipped open.
“Soooo … they’re being evicted?”
Mother followed me in, tugging off her hat to tuck it under her arm. “Landlord’s trying, but the Mousekinth have a really good lawyer.”
Amkhira trailed along silently. Still not a ripple under the red cloak. They looked between us as the doors slid shut.
“This is a nonsensical conversation.”
“It is a completely sensical conversation,” I countered and hit the button for the twentieth floor.
Gears rumbled, and up we went.
“We must depart for Zerzurrah as soon as possible.”
Mother’s head snapped around, her braids flying. “What?”
“The sooner I acquire the map, the sooner your mate and father will be returned to you.”
Mother’s mouth fell open and she gaped at Amkhira. “I — what? Bertha?” She turned to me, eyes wide. She had paled noticeably and she gripped her hat so tightly that she had crushed the brim.
“I, um, yeah. They say they know where Father is. They want to trade. Apparently for a Zerzurrahn map. Map of what? Mom!”
Mother dropped back against the wall, her legs quivering. She grabbed my hand, squeezing painfully. “Your Father — Jeremiah? He — he’s alive? He —” She was crying now. She slid to the floor, dragging me down with her. “I always thought — I hoped — I —” She sucked in a deep breath. Her whole body was shaking. When she spoke again, her voice was a thin whisper. “He’s coming home?”
I glanced up at Amkhira. “Yes. If they’re telling the truth —”
“I do not deceive you, Walker Brown.”
“Then Father’s coming home.”
A sob erupted from Mother’s chest, a horrible sound of grief and hope. She wrapped her arms around me, burying her face in my chest. I crouched awkwardly, half my weight on my big backpack, my arms wrapped around her, too. It took me a moment to realize that I was crying, as well, my nose running, my throat raw.
The elevator pinged and the doors slid open.
Amkhira watched us, silent and unblinking.
That was how Grandmother found us. She must have heard the elevator doors open. She came running down the hallway, still in her cabbie uniform, but she had swapped out her shiny boots for comfy bunny slippers.
She slid to a halt on the carpet, almost falling. “Millicent? Bertha, are you okay? Are you hurt? What in Hermes’ name is going on?”
Mother was hiccuping and sobbing so hard that she could barely speak. “Jeremiah. J-J-Jeremiah. He’s coming home.”
Grandmother raised a trembling hand to cover her mouth. Her eyes bulged and she blinked rapidly. “My boy? My boy?” Her voice shook.
Then she swallowed hard. Shaking her head, she dropped her hand and reached for Mother. “Come on now. Off the floor. Let’s get you both inside.” Grandmother dropped a quick head tilt towards Amkhira. “Sorry for holding you up.”
“They’re with us.” I shoved my shoulder under Mother’s arm and helped her down the hallway. I pushed through the unlocked door and gently lowered her onto the couch.
Mother shook her head as I did so, pressing one hand into the soft cushions. “No. I’m okay. I’ll be okay. Just — very sudden.”
Dumping my bag in a chair, I headed into the kitchen to pour a glass of water. Behind me, I could hear Grandmother locking the door and snapping questions.
“What do you mean Jeremiah is coming home? Bertha, what is going on? Who is this person?”
When I returned to the living room, she took the glass from me, handed it to Mother, and pointed at the chair. “Sit. Explain.”
“There is little to explain.” Amkhira’s voice grated, rock grinding. They almost sounded angry, frustrated. “Walker Brown shall purchase a page from the Infinite Atlas —”
Mother choked on her water.
“— and in exchange I shall lead her to her father. It is a straightforward transaction. I do not understand this need for repeated explanations or for emotional displays. These delays are unnecessary. We must depart.”
“Absolutely not,” Grandmother snapped. Her hand settled on my shoulder. “I want my son back, probably more than you can possibly imagine. But Bertha has been traveling for over a month. She needs to rest. One day.” She looked down at me for confirmation. “One day.”
Amkhira was silent. They stared at Grandmother for a long moment, electric tattoos churning over their forehead and cheeks. The tattoos gradually slowed and then stilled. Amkhira turned their back to us and glided over to the window. They remained there, unmoving; definitely not breathing.
Mother drained her glass, stood, and tilted her chin towards the kitchen. Grandmother and I followed. Mother pulled us into a tight circle along the back counter and flipped on the radio. Aretha Franklin’s clarion voice filled the apartment.
Mother leaned in, arms crossed. “The Infinite Atlas?” she hissed.
“I didn’t know! They just said a page from a book. In Zerzurrah. I had no idea that’s where the Atlas was!”
Grandmother snorted. “I don’t think anyone is supposed to know where it is.”
“So how do they know?” Mother flicked a finger towards Amkhira, invisible beyond the kitchen wall.
I shrugged helplessly.
Mother sighed and rubbed a hand over the back of her neck. “Are you absolutely sure that they know where Jeremiah is?”
“They said as much, and in front of Herbert. He witnessed the transaction, and we shook on it.”
Grandmother “hhmed,” her lips thin.
Before I could continue, a loud beep-buzz momentarily drowned out Aretha.
Mother grumbled and returned to the living room. Grandmother and I trailed after her, pausing in the doorway of the kitchen. She pressed the button on the call box beside the front door. “Yes, Branson?”
“Sorry, Mrs. Brown, but I have some gentlemen here who would like to speak with Walker Brown. Has she returned home yet?”
Mother’s head pulled back. She shot a quick glance at me. “No, I’m sorry, we haven’t —”
There was a startled grunt, a cry of pain, and a long beeeeeeep as something was rammed into the entryway call box. Mother released the button, stumbling back a step.
“Okay.” Grandmother kicked off her bunny slippers, grabbed my bag off the chair, and threw it at me. I caught it and swung it over my back. “Time to go. Whoever they are, they’ll be coming up the elevator and probably up the stairs, too.” She unlocked and yanked open the door. “Go out the back way.”
I opened my mouth to protest, then closed it. I could hear the distant rumble of the elevator.
I wrapped my arms tight around Grandmother. Mother hugged me from behind. I inhaled, trying to hold onto the sensation of being surrounded by their warmth and love.
Too soon, we all let go.
“Come on, Amkhira.” I bolted out the door, not bothering to look behind me to see if they were following.
At the far end of the hall, I slowed and quietly pushed open the door to the stairwell. Behind me, I could hear the elevator drawing closer. Below, muffled shouts and racing footsteps coming up, up, up.
Stepping inside, I waved for Amkhira to pass me, then just as carefully closed the door. Finger to my lips, I motioned down.
And down we went.
I hugged the wall, lifting and dropping my feet as quietly as possible. Amkhira floated along behind me. I was beginning to wonder if they even had feet. Or legs.
The voices and footsteps from below were getting louder, closer.
I stumbled, catching myself against the wall. Pushed back up and kept going, down, down, down.
And almost ran right into Aselolla. She lifted all four of her arms and grinned, skin and long hair shifting from the yellow of shock to the deep blue of delight.
“Bertha!” she squealed. “I didn’t know you were home! How wondrous!”
The shouts from below got louder, the footsteps speeding up.
“Sorry, Aselolla!” I pushed around her, leaning over the railing, and caught a glimpse of figures running up the stairs. One of the figures paused to glare up at me: humanoid, bald, bulky, black business suit. He lifted an arm towards me and I leapt back from the railing, jumping down two, three, five steps. “I explain everything later!” I yelled, and shoved open the door to the thirteenth floor.
Aselolla’s delighted farewell followed me, bouncing off the walls. “Okay, Bertha! Have a good day!”
Down the hall. 13-K, 13-J, 13-I. Around the corner.
I was yelling now. “Mr. Hogarth! Mr. Hogarth!”
Wild yipping answered me from far end of the hall.
I skidded to a halt, turned, and ripped open the fire hose cabinet. Unspooling the hose, I snapped to Amkhira, “Turn it on!” and yelled again, “Mr. Hogarth!”
From the corner of my eye, I saw the door to 13-A swing open. Mr. Hogarth stuck his head out into the hallway, frowning, yipping schnauzer under one arm. A couple of puppies tumbled around his ankles.
Bones crunched under my feet.
I lifted my leg and kicked at the door of 13-D. It rattled in the frame. Another kick.
“Bertha! What in Cerberus’ na —”
A third kick. The wood cracked. The schnauzer was still yipping and the puppies had joined in. I thought I heard squeaking from inside the apartment. A lot of squeaking.
Fourth, and the door crashed open.
No furniture, no curtains. Sunlight flooded the room from the large sliding glass doors along the back wall. The Mousekinth had ripped up the carpet to create nests that towered over my head. They had chewed into the drywall, creating openings that mimicked the soaring apartment building itself. The bare wooden floor — what I could see of it — was covered in ritualistic diagrams and bones. So many bones.
The Mousekinth stared at me. Hundreds of them. No, thousands. From the floor, from the carpet nests, from the holes in the walls, from the ceiling fan and the door ledge. Their white fur and their long tails were painted in gaudy reds and greens, and they carried knives and spears fashioned from aluminum cans and paperclips and chips of colored glass.
As one, they opened their mouths and bared their sharp mousey teeth.
I heard the door to the stairwell crash open. Loud steps pounding down the hallway.
“Death to Mousekinth!” I screamed and flipped on the hose.
Water surged through the fabric and out the nozzle. The Mousekinth shrieked at the sudden rainstorm.
I dropped the hose, sending the water roiling across the wooden floor, carrying bones and other debris, wiping away the ritual diagrams. I bolted the rest of the way down the corridor, shouting a hurried apology to Mr. Hogarth as I shoved my way into his apartment. Amkhira glided in silently behind me. The puppies floundered around my feet, and I had to lift my boots carefully to step around them.
Mr. Hogarth followed me, still stuttering confused questions. The schnauzer was still yipping.
There were screams from the hallway, and shouts of bafflement, and then pain and terror.
I stopped, turned, took a very quick peek.
The dozen black business suits, whoever they were, had made it no further than 13-D. The Mousekinth swarmed out of the apartment, around the roiling water, along the walls and even the ceiling. The bulky, balding human in the lead clutched and tore at his clothes, ripping away the Mousekinth who were stabbing and biting him. Blood dribbled from his hands, his cheeks, the top of his head. More Mousekinth dropped from the ceiling, clinging to his ears and eyelids, biting.
He screamed, flailing, the men behind him doing the same.
I slammed the door shut.
“Might want to keep that locked, thanks Mr. Hogarth, I’ll explain everything later, sorry!”
Across the living room, around the mess of dog toys and the mass shrine to Anubis, Wepwawet, Cerberus, and Hades, to the sliding glass doors. I slapped one open and stepped out onto the very narrow patio.
Our building was twenty-seven stories. The building to the east — directly across from Mr. Hogarth’s apartment — was only thirteen stories high.
It had been something of a game while I was growing up. The kids in my building (me, Aselolla, Judith and Judy, Shiranthz) would plot out routes from our roof, down, and across as many rooftops as we could, going as far as we could without touching the ground. The only way out of our building was the back way: from a deck on the thirteenth floor.
It had driven Mother crazy. Father had called it good Walker training; he had done the same growing up.
I could still hear screams in the hallway. Further away, sirens, coming from the street and from a dirigible. I caught the flash of lights in the corner of my eye, high up in the sky.
The alley swelled below me, a cavern of steel, concrete, and glass.
I could do this. I had done this before. I could do it again.
Backing up into Mr. Hogarth’s apartment again, I drew a deep breath. Amkhira watched me silently, hovering just outside. The electric sparks in their stubby hair reflected in the glass of the door. Mr. Hogarth stared at me, his eyes wide, his arms filled with wriggling puppies.
I ran. My bag bounced against my back. I jumped, one foot hitting the top of the railing. I pushed off, arms swinging, legs kicking. I flew.
I landed hard. Gravel skidded beneath my boots. My arms flailed as I struggled for balance. Heat and light radiated off the roof, making me squint.
Panting, I straightened. And found Amkhira beside me, cloak rustling softly in the breeze.
“We depart now for Zerzurrah, yes?” they asked. Aggravation tinged the question.
I didn’t bother to answer. I could hear shouts and pounding coming from Mr. Hogarth’s apartment. Casting up a quick prayer to his favored Gods that he and the puppies would be safe, I turned and raced across the roof, across Detroit, towards the Crossroads, and my father.
[End Part Two. Part Three of Asphalt Gods will appear in the July issue of ev0ke.]
[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]