They were screaming. All her men were screaming.

The air in her chest didn’t seem to be doing her any good. With her face ground against the concrete, Adree heaved in another breath and tried to turn over, still badly winded. It seemed her armour had trebled in weight, until she felt the blood dripping on her cheek from above, and realised the pressure was a human body.

With a titanic effort she managed to turn round enough to see one of her men — Lieutenant Casseter — had thrown himself over her as the creature lunged at them. Casseter had not been as lucky: one of those spines had pierced his chest cleanly as a knife through paper, and she was pinned by nearly two hundred and fifty pounds of dead weight and armour.

Adree strained, trying to get free. Her men were screaming. She had to get to them. She had to—

—die like Adrigal Lawley did?

No! She was not Adrigal Lawley. She would pull everyone back, she could save them somehow. If she could just get free.

Her fingers clawed at the concrete as she struggled. The terror was tearing her men to pieces, slicing its way through the munitions they had brought like a hellstorm. There—there, Robbes was coming. Ember’s grace, he was running toward her away from the beast, racing to help.

Her hand, smeared and dusty, stretched out for him.

Kaire!

* * *

His balladeer’s training was many unpractised years behind him; with his whole body prickling with terror, at first Athellus wasn’t sure he had shouted loud enough. Then she paused in her carnage and two enormous white eyes—one dimmer than its twin—swung in his direction.

He heard the cries of the wounded behind her—dozens of them, cries that could be his if he had misjudged this—and put them in another part of his mind. He stood his ground, water flowing over his boots and misting his bare arms, and watched as she uncoiled and lunged toward him. She came with steam rising off her armoured skin, bloody and shining bright.

Athellus stood his ground.

She stopped only feet away from him, her enormous head lowering toward him, teeth bared. Blood was still running down one side of her skull from her injuries, incarnadining one of those brilliant eyes. He could smell the rank stench of it.

“Kaire,” he said again.

She bared her teeth and screamed full force, deafeningly, through a maw large enough to swallow a dozen men. Athellus put a foot back to brace himself against it, weathered it, then made his voice as stern as he could.

“That’s your name, whether you like it or not. You are not Kairendyrian any more. You shed that name like you shed that shape. You are not the one who broke Marchion, or burned the worlds you walked—you are not this.

“But the longer you stay this way, the easier it is, right? It’s easier to slide backwards into what you were. Easy to give in, right? But I don’t give a damn what the Librais told you: your fate is your own. You get to choose.

We get to choose.” Athellus looked up at her. “We’re partners. Did you forget what we promised right from the start? What I promised?”

He held up the Saius Blade. “Steel and silver. I promised the People Upstairs that if you ever lost control again, I’d bury this in your spine long enough for them to deal with you. And you promised to make sure I didn’t have to. Remember?” He smiled. “Remember those days, Kaire? When you were still getting used to having a partner? I had to get you to wear clothes again so I wouldn’t keep getting distracted. And we did so much good together.”

He couldn’t tell if she was listening or not, or if she could hear him. “You saved me. When I heard about my father I was ready to cut my throat then and there. But you brought me back to life. You showed me I had a reason to live—no, a duty. Because of the things I had done and the choices I had made. What about you, then? How much obligation do you have?”

Athellus felt a prickle in the corner of his eyes. “Kaire, please. Don’t make me hurt you.”

She huffed. He stretched a hand toward that sleek and deadly head; she reared away and snarled. Those immense wings bated and sent a gale of wind down the street, almost enough to knock him over, but he braced his feet and stood his ground, holding her eye. The thing his partner had become stared at him, unreadable; Athellus stared back. He knew the transformation might already have begun, that Kaire the woman might already have been drowned out by Kairendyrian’s deadly and joyful song. But he had to try. He would not let her down by letting himself be killed.

“Kaire.” He stretched his hand forth again. “Let me help you.”

He stood patiently waiting. Then her head arced down again, gradually, the white eye narrowed with suspicion and dwindling recognition. But Athellus only cared about the other eye, still nearly blinded by blood. In this shape her body healed near-instantaneously. Something must be wrong. With the pain of it distracting her, he might never be able to reach her.

Eventually, her head was low enough for him to reach, the bloody eye almost as large as he was tall. Athellus looked up above the eye socket—there. A chunk of the metal splinter that had skewered her was sticking up through her skin. Her body was trying to reject it and failing; it must be fusing to the bone.

“I can cut it free,” he told her. “But you’ll have to trust me, and accept some pain.”

There was no response. Only the blank reddened stare. It might already be too late.

Touching that living steel bare-handed would be foolhardy: he might as well grasp a spitting iron bar. But with the black bandage wrapped around his hand and the tip of the blade, he was able to lever some of her scales back from around the metal splinter where it erupted through the skin. She hissed and roared under him, but held still.

“Soft now, Kaire,” he told her, then addressed the Saius Blade to the upper edge of the socket. Ignoring her shriek of rage and trying to be merciless, Athellus cut as hard as he could with that razor edge. The bone grated, resisted… then the metal splinter lost its purchase. He backed off at once.

Not a moment too soon. Her head snapped up and writhed back and forth, a dying hydra’s shake. The splinter was slowly pushed up as her body healed; an instant later Athellus leapt back as it dropped to his feet with a ringing clamour. The blood stopped flowing. Within a minute both her eyes burned white and clear again.

“Kaire!” He put every ounce of command he possessed into his voice. “Listen to me! You are banru, you are chosen! You are that which you made yourself! Are you a slave to your blood or not?”

She screamed again, shaking her head back and forth as if in agony. Any moment she’d lash out—

“No? Then prove it!” He screamed back at her, just as furiously. “Goddamn it, Kaire, prove it! Now!

With a rush of wings she leaped into the air, soaring up above the street. Water blew in all directions. For a moment the sky was full of her, a shadow cast for blocks around. Then she descended like a hawk—and vanished in a thunderclap that echoed through Athellus' bones.

Metallic feathers floated down, one by one by one, from the flawless sky.

 

 

 

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