Dax couldn’t keep up the running pace for long. At first he sprinted, positive there were pursuers at his heels, then jogged in spurts until he was certain there were no Evinthei boots tramping behind him, no shots bouncing off the rubble. Then he settled down to a long walking stride. For once he had simple directions to follow. The water ran down the street and he gave chase.

And there was plenty to chase. To his amazement, it seemed that dozens of pipes had begun gushing water too, sending cascades down buildings or bubbling up from beneath the street, adding to the steady stream. After seeing one or two, he stopped to investigate the third, ignoring the icy rush over his feet. The pipe had been dug free of the surrounding concrete and severed with a single blow from something razor sharp. He ran a thoughtful finger around the rim, then went on, never doubting he was going the right way.

So he walked the thoroughfares of Nones, turned into impromptu urban rivers and shallow canals. He walked as the sky changed and darkened, bringing a greater chill to the splashes on his clothes. He walked, hearing the grinding noises ahead as this building or that building sighed and fluxed according to whatever whims Nones had, sometimes sending ripples fanning out in bizarre and beautiful patterns. As time wore the day away to a nub, he followed the ever-growing flow.

But the walk wasn’t peaceful. He had time to really feel his injuries from the blast, bathe his skinned elbows and knees, rub at the growing ache in the back of his neck, wince at the occasional pulse between his temples. He had time to shiver as his sodden uniform clung to his body, and feel his calf muscles begin to complain. He had time to feel the busy, numb emptiness of delayed shock, bad enough that he had to lean against a building and teach his body how to be calm again.

Worse, he had time to think.

Commander Aeslin had royally betrayed him. She must have used the readings from that blood sample to find them somehow. Perhaps there was something in his bloodwork that identified where he had been. Or… well, she was a telepath or something: the Evinthei must have other sensitives they could use, maybe one of those had been able to find him.

The result was the same. She had lied about ever wanting to help. All she had really wanted was to take him and Athellus prisoner, and she’d nearly torn Kaire in half.

What had she said to him back on the street? It was hard to remember, there had been too much happening. She had said something about wanting to help him, hadn’t she? Maybe that was true. If it was —

It will be. She’s still an Evinthei, she must have some honour, despite her appalling behaviour.

—he could still use that somehow. Guilt was a powerful thing, he knew that. Hopefully Adree would have the same weakness.

Dax tucked his arms around himself and shivered. He had lost his fear of Earthborn out on the streets, it was hypothermia that was beginning to worry him now. The wet Evinthei uniform was chilling. He had to find Kaire fast and dry off.

Not that he was eager to see her again. The horrifying thing she had become was still screaming in his head. But he owed it to Athellus. If he lost his partner because of Dax he’d—

He’d what? Kill me? He’s going to anyway. First the phone, now this. And I’ve lost Kaire’s protection against him, if I ever really had it. The next time I see him he’ll say “Hi”, and punctuate it with a gunshot…

...or worse, forgiveness.

As he passed an alleyway a surge of water nearly took him off his feet. Dax staggered for a moment, flailed, then grabbed onto a nearby lamppost, swinging like a drunk, wincing as an icy splash went right across his stomach.

First the phone. There was something he hadn’t thought about in a while. That final message.

Five steps to safety and to death.
Only the stone and the word can hold back the flood.

Was this what it had been talking about? This flood? Athellus had certainly taken steps toward safety and death. But what “stone”? What “word”?

God, I’m tired.

He stumbled on.

 

Where Vycorn Gate had once crossed with the massive Canyrf’s Avenue, where once traffic had bustled, where soldiers had marched in formation past adoring crowds, where trucks of supplies had rumbled to and fro, there was now nothingness. During the battles between Ormian Amtino’s followers and the HRI, the intersection had been booby-trapped to kill a prominent Amtino supporter and his son, but the HRI had placed the bomb too close to a central power junction.

The result had been catastrophic. Every HRI officer involved had been killed, and the resulting explosion had left a massive crater, at least a hundred feet across and almost too deep to see the bottom. Time, and the Scorpieth attack, had wrecked the surrounding buildings too; there were now only their girder skeletons scribbled against the sky, still hung with old Earthborn tribal markers. The ruins of an old nest still existed, hanging free and drifting back and forth in the breeze.

Standing in the middle of Canyrf’s Avenue, Dax watched as the flood of water poured steadily into the crater, creating a deep, deep pool in the centre of the street. All streams converged here; the flow ended in its depths.

But the watery darkness was… alive. In the chilly dark it was steaming softly.

Dax rolled up his sleeve, crouched, shivering as the streams splashed him, and lowered his bare arm into the water. The pouring water was cold as death, but in the pool it was like a steam bath.

He stared below the rippling surface. Something—too small to be the horror he had seen attacking the Evinthei—was thrashing deep below, something white.

It was getting larger. He rose to his feet and fell back.

In a burst of steam and tiny droplets, Kaire surfaced with a long breath. Her back faced him; her white hair was plastered to her head and the back of her neck like a pelt, over the markings on her shoulders. She was fully human again, her bruised and bare skin steaming in the night air. When she finally spoke, her voice was hoarse and rough, but it was Kaire’s.

“Dax?”

“It’s me,” he whispered.

She looked over her bare shoulder. Her damaged eye was half-closed as if it pained her, but in the faint starlight it was still dark blue and beautiful. “Athellus?”

“He went to draw the Evinthei off.”

Kaire nodded, then turned away from him.

“Kaire?”

She kept treading water slowly and surely, as if her conversation was exhausted.

Dax bit his lip, thinking. Then he began stripping off the Evinthei uniform, shirt, trousers and boots, and threw them away. For a moment his bare feet jittered in the cold, gritty water, before he stepped forward and plunged, naked, into the depths of the pool. He had been nervous of water ever since his “drowning”, but this darkness almost reached out to embrace him. His tired muscles began to unknot almost at once. He stroked forward.

“Don’t touch me,” Kaire said suddenly ahead of him. “You’d lose your hands… or I’ll take them.”

He stopped, treading water. “It’s all right. I won’t.”

She was silent for a time. “You don’t see me, do you?” She let out another long breath, a sigh that billowed away from her lips in the cold air. “You can’t. You make things. You want to rebuild.”

Kaire raised her hands to her lips, cupped with water, and drank. Her hands lowered, and trailed in the water. “But I am a born destroyer.”

“Were you born?” Dax wanted to know, gently as he could. As his feet trod carefully he could feel the heat radiating off her body from here, enough heat to warm this entire pool of water. “Athellus said you can’t die, and I saw… Kaire, where did you come from?”

She suddenly screamed with laughter, a sound perilously close to the shrieks she had made in her other shape. The noise echoed away through the skeletons of buildings around them. Just as suddenly, she clamped a hand over her mouth, shutting herself up.

“Kaire.” Despite her warning, Dax swam a little closer to her. Though he was still afraid, he knew he could only be honest, not only with his words but with his body. “Speak to me.”

“I Gate through worlds like turning the pages of a book. I speak the tongue of man and beast and demon. I rain down torment as it pleases me… and it always pleases me.”

A dark chuckle sent ripples across the water. When she spoke again her voice sounded stronger. “It pleases all things to act according to their nature. Yours is fragile, but vibrant, hands that stretch forth to clasp another’s. Mine is steel and light and heat knives and blood. Always in motion. Always alive. So often at the cost of other life.”

“But what—”

“Athellus told you.” She settled in the water a little deeper. “And Gothgorius. They told you about the war of the Ancestors, when twelve of them discovered the first Gates to other worlds, and turned into the Guardians. How the other Ancestors built Engines, like the Scorpieth, to kill them, until the Guardians united in self-defence to make a weapon of their own… a weapon that turned on them, and murdered them all.”

She chuckled again. “ ‘Made’. Yes, they ‘made’ it. Like a mortal is made, a cell at a time. The Guardians mated at the same time, all twelve, to produce their only offspring. But not a child. A weapon, bred from creatures with Gating energy coded right into their DNA. Something built, without conscience to distract it, a living machine that existed for the joy of destruction, undying, whose song would shiver time and space…”

Kaire dipped below the surface. When she emerged again, glistening and wet and steaming, she was closer, facing him now. The markings on her face were dark as blood, and her teeth were bared in a half-smile. “So who could blame me when I was born, and I saw the Guardians as my prey?”

 

 

 

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