Above the terrible noise in his ears and the muffling fog in his mind, Dax could hear a strange hissing that seemed to be both near and far away. He literally couldn’t think what it might be: his brain seemed to be on standby.

Gradually bits and pieces began to come together as his senses joined up again. The ground he was lying on was cold and hard, and there was a stink of gutted engine and hot metal in his nostrils. He must have been thrown out of the Green Warrior just after the blast.

And… there was something wet all over his body. His clothes were soaked in it. Blood? Petrol? Oh god no, not fire, not that way— He tried to sit up.

No, don’t. Check yourself for injuries before you try to move.

Obediently, Dax tried clenching and unclenching his hands. They hurt, as if he’d tried to save himself when he fell, but there were no missing fingers. Then his toes: he could feel and move them too. He reached up — realising in the process that he’d skinned both his elbows — and felt his head. His hair was wet with something but there was no pain.

Then you’re okay. They didn’t want you dead.

He sat up on his elbows and looked around, blinking. The bomb — likely a heavy concussion charge — must have been set in a nearby building, because one side of it was blown out. Girders were bent and pieces of concrete were still dropping from inside. Now he saw the cause of the hissing noise. There must have been a big water main in the building or somewhere beneath it. A huge jet of water was gushing upwards in a white plume perhaps fifteen feet high, and pouring down into the street. Dax’s clothes were drenched from the spray.

The blast had sent the Warrior flying; it was upright and battered as if it had rolled over and then righted itself. The paintwork looked as if someone had attacked it with an angle grinder, but the heavy protective bars had saved it from being totally destroyed, along with anyone who… who…

Dax lurched to his feet and staggered towards the Warrior. The engine was still running and inside, like a sentinel, was a dark shape slumped back in the driver’s seat. The passenger door had been blown off; Dax reached in, terrified of what he might see or hear or feel but needing to look. He could smell iron but whether it was blood or the damaged Warrior, he had no idea.

Blood… the sample I gave Adree… oh god. Oh god, did I do this? Did I hurt —

As he gingerly reached for Athellus, the other man suddenly shuddered and twisted in his seat. “Uhh!”

“Just keep still,” said Dax, or at least he thought he did; he was barely able to hear himself speak over the ringing in his head. Under the shadow of a fine mist of spray covering the windows and windscreen, he felt Athellus’ neck and shoulder, the only parts he could reach. Given the colour of his jacket it was difficult to tell, but he couldn’t see any bleeding.

Athellus struggled again and Dax realised what was wrong — the seatbelt had locked and pinned him into the Warrior’s heavily-reinforced seat, which had probably saved his life but was now threatening to compress his chest. Dax struggled with the release button for a moment before giving up, reaching into Athellus’ jacket and feeling for the hilt of his knife. One quick cut sawed straight through the belt and it snapped away in both directions. Athellus coughed and gasped for air, shaking his head with his hands over his ears.

He’s fine. He’ll be all right.

“We’re okay,” Dax told him.

Athellus coughed again, weakly. “Where’s Kaire? Is she all right?”

“I don’t know. There’s a first aid kit in the glove compartment, we can—”

“Dax West!”

He froze in place. Between the rush of the water and the rush in his ears, the voice could have come from any direction, ringing out high and metallic between the buildings.

“Dax West! This is Commander Adree Aeslin! I have this area sealed off!”

Dax slid down out of the Warrior’s cab and looked down the street. Through the haze of dust and water spray he could see soldiers emerging from the side streets. Dozens of them, maybe even a hundred. The woman in front of them was a dark smear among other dark smears, but her red hair shone out like a beacon.

“Dax?” wheezed Athellus. “Dax, what’s going on?”

“I know you survived! That charge wasn’t timed for you or Athellus! It was intended for the woman with you!”

“Kaire’s… dead?”

Dax took in a deep breath, tasting wet plaster dust behind his palate. “You bitch — I trusted you! I asked for your help!”

“I am helping you! I’m saving your life!”

Athellus was looking at him with a stunned expression — he looked puzzled rather than angry. His eyes fell on the blade in his hand; Dax watched as his hand very gently put it on the empty passenger seat beside him.

The woman is dead. Good. Whatever happens now, happens.

…what?

“You have to come with me! Both of you!” Adree’s voice sounded strangely high. She didn’t sound triumphant. She sounded scared. “Please!”

“Why would I go anywhere with you now?”

“Because you don’t know what you are!”

The answer came not from Dax, but with a terrible, raptor-like scream. It rang out across the street, across the city: Dax felt his stomach and his testicles clench up, until the scream abruptly stopped.

Utter silence came in its wake, broken only by the soft hiss of the pouring water.

Athellus’ breath was rasping in his chest. Dax could feel every tiny droplet of water on the backs of his hands. Somewhere up ahead, he could sense only stillness from the soldiers and Adree.

 

 

 

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