Dax watched as the rumbling inside the Tower slowly died away, and the lights at the base went out. For a moment he thought he heard something like a crowd yelling - some stream of noise he couldn’t make out – and then a cry from within, something no human throat could have made. But then everything went quiet.

The lightning was gone. The only sound was the gentle crackle of the fire behind them.

“Do you think –“ he began.

“Come on,” said Athellus, hurrying towards the Tower.

As they approached the archway that led inside, Dax could hear the sound of footsteps – slow, dragging steps. His imagination showed him Kaire, consumed by the Librais and covered in machinery, coming after them but not to kill, no, to convert…

A soft, thin voice came out. “Wait.”

Athellus stopped; Dax lingered at his shoulder, anxious.

From within the archway, out of sight, there was a sudden rushing sound, and then something like… a flicker of blackness, like negative light. With it came a smell – a thick iron smell, blood or rust, enough to taste, and the rushing noise grew louder before slowly dying away. Finally Dax saw slender fingers grasp the side of the archway and Kaire appeared, walking slowly but steadily enough. Feathers, steel bright, drifted past in her wake as if newly shed.

“Thank god,” he said involuntarily. “Kaire. You’re –“

All right, he was going to finish, but his voice trailed off. He remembered seeing the Librais attack her, those cables going into her body. Now, her clothes were torn where they had hit her, but the skin underneath was smooth, nearly unmarked save for faint creases like long-healed burn scars. There was some dried blood about her ears and nose, and streaked in her hair, but apart from that…

“You’re fine,” he said, puzzled.

Athellus was looking at his partner. “So it went -?”

Kaire nodded, almost mildly. Then she opened her mouth and vomited a stream of blood, thick and unnaturally dark, that spattered across the pale stone underfoot. It smelt appalling. Athellus jumped back before it hit his feet; Dax clapped a hand over his mouth hard enough to sting and turned his head, but not quite fast enough to avoid the worst of the sight. “Ah god! Kaire –“

“That’s better,” she said, wiping at her mouth.

Dax shut his eyes but the sight was still there. That blood had had gristle and chips of bone in it. He sucked in cool night air through his nose, trying to quiet his churning insides. It was a moment before he trusted himself to turn around.

“But you got what we needed?” Athellus was asking. His voice betrayed no nausea, but he was several shades paler than he had been.

“Yes.” Kaire looked up at the Librais Tower, just as lightning flickered from the night sky and struck one of the pylons, returning to normal. “We should go. I cut the operator’s node wide open; it’ll be on minimal power for a while until it can repair itself, but better play it safe.” She gave Athellus a level look; Dax noticed that there was a strange expression about her eyes and the corners of her mouth that hadn’t been there before. “You and I need to talk, later.”

“Okay. But let’s get away before we do anything else.” Athellus went back to the fire and started kicking dust and debris over it.

Dax turned his face up to the Tower, thinking of all the horrors of tonight; horrors – hopefully – over and done with. Now, it seemed more like the Tower he had imagined before; a noble, simple structure briefly illuminated. And again there was that pull towards it – not what he imagined a Zodiac Engine’s call would be like, as if…

It feels as if I’ve forgotten something, or missed something. Something important.

Like... what?

Finally he shook his head, frustrated. They were leaving now, and no power on earth was going to convince him to walk through that archway. Whatever it was, he was just going to have to live without it.

As he looked away, he caught Kaire watching him. Not just watching: her eyes were running over him, back and forth. As if searching.

“Blood bothers you,” she said.

“It... took me by... surprise. I’m okay now.”

“Good.”

But her eyes lingered for a moment longer, until Athellus returned to them with Dax’s backpack in one hand and his own secured over his shoulders. “Come on. Let’s get out of here and hole up for the night. Something’s still bothering me about this place.”

Dax’s shoes crunched over the scattered remnants of the fire as they left. Overhead the stars were thick and bright against the midnight sky, but the Tower’s silhouette persisted for a long time behind them.

 

 

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