Through the smashing of the glass came another noise; heavy gunfire and shrieks of terror from the Evinthei soldiers up ahead. The creature swung around and lunged down the street toward them; Dax threw himself flat as a cloud of razor-sharp feathers blew overhead and buried themselves in the ground and walls around him. God, how was something so big that fast?

“Commander Aeslin!”

“Fire! Fire!”

“Ember, save us—!”

The creature’s spines dragged grooves in the buildings, bringing down brick and plaster in showers. It barrelled at the soldiers—big enough to blot out the sky over them—and fell on them like a storm.

Get your idiot head down! —Run!

Those words, more than the rising screams, shocked him back to reality. Dax turned on his heels and fled, the pooled water dragging at his feet. Where? Where? In his panic, everywhere he looked was streets blocked by masonry, or filling with water, there was nowhere to go but back into that maw of—

The stress sent a pulse straight through his suffering brain. For a full second, in a daze, he thought it was another splinter like the one Kaire had had jammed through her body—

they say good friends… share everything…

—then his feet tangled together and he fell over. Behind him the creature screamed again, resonating differently through his head, testicles and stomach, running up through the palms of his hands. As Dax shoved up to his feet, he almost leapt out of his skin as a hand clamped on his shoulder. He looked back into a familiar face.

Athellus yanked him behind a fallen section of wall and crouched beside him with his head up. He might have been scenting the air.

His fingers fumbled at his sleeve, then he pulled off his red jacket and tossed it to Dax. “Here. Keep hold of this.”

“What? What are you doing?”

Athellus didn’t reply, focused on his task. Dax watched in stunned surprise: Athellus had taken off the black bandage he always wore on his left bicep, and was winding it around his right hand, weaving it between the fingers. He pulled it taut, opened and closed a fist, then tied it off. “Okay. Stay here and keep your head down. Whatever happens, do not move from this spot.”

“God, Athellus, you — you’re going to—”

“I have to. She’ll kill them if I don’t stop her.”

“Athellus, you can’t. This is suicide.”

“You never should have seen this.” Athellus pulled out his knife and looked at it. “This wasn’t meant to happen.”

Dax’s guilt was clay in his mouth, making it difficult to speak. “You need help. I — I’ll —”

Athellus was still staring at the knife. “No. This is between me and my partner.”

He turned and grinned at Dax, as if trying to reassure him. Clad in his undershirt, with a little throwing knife clutched in a bandaged hand, he looked very pale and very human. Across what Dax could see of his chest, the bruise from the Green Warrior’s seatbelt was already shading black and blue. “Sit tight, okay?”

Dax made one last attempt to gather his courage. “You mustn’t go alone.”

Athellus shook his head. “Dax… not everything is about you. Adree is out there, my people, and—” He stopped himself. “Just once, do me this favour without arguing. Please.” He got to his feet. “It’ll be all right. You’ll see.”

He left the cover and started walking down the street.

Dax peered around the pile of bricks, shivering again at that awful apparition in the distance… and with anger at himself. He was unbearably relieved that it wasn’t him going out there, and he hated himself for the relief. But he refused to hide like a coward. If his friend was about to die out there, even willingly, Dax wouldn’t dishonour him by turning away. Not if he had had any part in this.

He stood up to see.

 

 

 

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