Previously: Chapter 6 <Part 1>
The two sides clashed in a broiling melée. The Novices didn't actually resist when attacked and forced out of the way by the frantic crowd of villagers. For some of them, Carsius noticed, it was as if they did not know they were under attack until someone touched them.
He ducked and twisted as a pair of arms flailed toward him like an undead thing.
"Why do you do this?" he asked the Novice who had no thought but to lay hands on him. "Who has tricked your mind?"
The young man did not answer. When Carsius evaded his reach, the Novice flailed pathetically, though his quarry stood but three paces away. Carsius prodded the unfortunate individual out of the pathway for Laurel.
Gorrmunsa and Hunter ended up side by side. The Kytarr lashed out viciously, but with his claws retracted, so the prey only found itself stunned and bruised instead of slashed to ribbons. It seemed that for every Inoculate they pushed aside, three more took his place.
Hunter, for his own part, fought valiantly, using his girth and considerable reach to beat back the fumbling crowd. One enterprising individual attached himself to Hunter's leg. Hunter tried to shake him off, but to no avail.
"Ho there, friend!" he hollered at Gorrmunsa, "Get this thing off me!"
Gorrm immediately snatched the Overseer bodily away, only to feel him lurch out of his grasp and fall on Hunter, this time landing on the unfortunate man's head.
Gorrm could only stand back and watch as the Overseer and Hunter grinned as one. Still stacked as they were, the two reversed and returned to the fight, both men functioning with the same senses and mental capacity, as the Overseer used Hunter's eyes and ears (and feet, as matters stood) to fashion a sort of four-armed beast with one mind and one objective. Hunter moved wherever the Overseer wished, without even knowing he was doing anything out of the ordinary.
Laurel watched him stumble past, watched the Overseer latch onto another victim, adding another pair of eyes and hands to the conglomeration.
"Eyes but they cannot see," she murmured to herself, "ears but they cannot hear; mouths but they cannot speak." She pushed the horror aside and focused on getting through the crowd without being touched. True that Ra'dith's serum was powerful enough to rejuvenate her, but there was no telling what might happen if one of the Inoculates laid so much as a finger on her. The villagers were accomplishing this task admirably, but short of killing them, there really was no way to stop the onslaught of human-wyrts, who seemed to know her intent and desire above all else to stop her.
Lyam showed up on one side of her, and a merchant named Wynter on the other.
"Do you really think the Brethren would resort to this?" She asked Lyam.
The young soldier gazed over the crowd. "Indeed, you are right, there is something wrong. For even as we soldiers were Inoculated as these are, we still possessed the power of speech, something that seems strangely absent here."
Laurel shivered, "So you are saying that even the Inoculation still gives the victim the same abilities as the one controlling him."
Lyam nodded, "Yes, though why it has affected these differently, I don't—"
"Watch out!" Wynter cried, throwing himself on Laurel. Lyam moved in and tossed the Novice away, and the little band trudged forward another step.
"We'll never make it," Laurel sighed.
"We shall," Lyam disagreed. "Which way are we headed?"
Laurel paused to reflect on the pull of the influence that had plagued her for so long. Though it had been eradicated from her mind to the point that Atis' scanners could find no trace, she felt as if some part of her were only loosely fastened in the right direction, needing only a small nudge to turn it back. Laurel carefully folded it aside now, reigniting the dangerous flame while keeping firm control over it this time.
"Left," she gasped to Lyam and Wynter. "We need to go to the left!"
Lyam glanced in that direction. "Are you sure?" he queried. "That will take us right through the thick of the battle!"
Laurel nodded. "I am certain. The alcove on that side leads to a secret tunnel, which will bring us to the caverns where we will find the mother-mind."
Wynter and Lyam glanced at each other, but there was nothing else for it. This was their only choice.
They forged ahead, pushing madly for every step. All around them, Inoculates were creating conglomerate groups of affected people, ensuring that they could see in every direction and making even the touch of a friend that much more dangerous.
As they neared the center, it became much more difficult to progress. Laurel was practically squashed between Lyam and Wynter as they protected her with their bodies to beat back the Inoculates.
She could only look on in horror as her defenders were swept away from her by a rush of hands and bodies. Laurel flung her arms over her head and kicked away anyone who tried to grab her shoulders. She could not kick fast enough.
"Help me!" she screamed as the Inoculates and their wretched influence threatened to overwhelm her. "SOMEBODY PLEASE HELP ME!"
Bodies, legs, hands, and every once in a while, a face fell very close to hers, staring wildly out of sightless eyes. Laurel could do nothing to protect herself beyond curling her body as tight as it would go and praying for a swift end—
Then, suddenly, the bodies were no longer swarming, and a pair of very strong, deft hands grasped Laurel's wrist and coached her back onto her feet. Laurel looked up and only saw a black shadow—until two silver eyes glinted back at her.
"Ra'dith!" she gasped.
Ra'dith did not waste an instant. From somewhere she produced a length of silvery rope, fastened already to some unreachable part of the vaulted ceiling. She wrapped an arm around Laurel's waist and murmured, "Hold on."
Laurel threw her arms around Ra'dith's neck as the mysterious woman lifted off and fairly flew over the heads of the dull Inoculates. They swung off toward that left corner of the forum. Laurel cringed as with a sudden upheaval, a veritable stack of Inoculates and their recently-turned victims rose up in front of them, too quickly for Ra'dith to avoid them. Laurel screamed as they both plummeted into the waiting crowd.
Still Ra'dith never left off holding Laurel or standing against her as she fended off the hungry mob. Noses shattered, bodies fell, and arms twisted as Ra'dith employed her astonishing fighting skills, all the while keeping Laurel perfectly safe. Laurel only noticed when they at last entered the tunnel that Ra'dith had also somehow managed to herd them both in the right direction. Ra'dith activated a panel on the wall and a gate slid into place, keeping a majority of the Inoculates at bay, in the outer court. She glanced at Laurel, panting softly but showing no weariness on her face.
"Go," Ra'dith urged softly.
Laurel nodded and took off down the tunnel, where she knew she could find the entrance to the cavern holding the mother-mind. It made sense, what with the Inoculates behaving like wyrts—they must be controlled by the mother-mind, who had no mouth to speak, ears to hear, eyes to see, or thought for anything but her own survival, which she understood Laurel intended to jeopardize.
Laurel rounded a corner and nearly collided with an Inoculated Mentor. Before he could make a move toward her, Ra'dith slipped between them and shoved the blind man out of the way. She nodded calmly to Laurel.
It happened this way every time Laurel came across an Inoculate or, as they drew closer to the deep caverns, any racing wyrts. The humans Ra'dith spared, but the wyrts she killed. Laurel rarely had to break her stride as Ra'dith hovered around her like a cloud of smoke, removing obstacles without becoming one herself. Deeper and deeper they traveled; Laurel dimly wondered how her friends fared, now that the largest threat was no longer present.