Kaire scooped water in her hands and let it trickle over her head, with a sigh. Tiny tendrils of steam rose up from her skin.

“My first memory is of the smell of metal,” she said. “Iron. Or blood. It could have been blood. But I think it was metal... it was a confusing moment. I had gestated inside the Third Guardian, and now I was killing it, and it felt right. Wonderfully right. All things want to fulfil their function. Their paradigm. And I was fulfilling mine.”

You’re in incredible danger.

“One by one, I found them.” Kaire’s voice was velvet; she was looking past his shoulder, into another time. “I’d been a long time growing, they’d gone back to their strongholds, their… positions of safety, of power, all their little minions arrayed around them. Those were nothing. Only the Guardians mattered.”

“But you were killing your parents,” said Dax. His mind was churning. “You were killing the ones who made you.”

“ ‘Parents’. The Guardians constructed me as a weapon, cell by cell, with the same compassion you’d use on a sword blade when you heat it, and beat it into folds over and over and over again. They made me what they wanted: something that kills but cannot die.”

Kaire smiled. “Humans, Earthborn, Taugen… those who die instinctively know that chasing immortality is like calling a curse upon yourself. The Guardians didn’t care. I was to be their defence against the Engines.

“It could have been perfect. It might have been their salvation, though that’s not what they cared about. I was the one thing that united them: the Guardians might have made a permanent alliance and pooled their knowledge. The worlds would be unrecognisable… But instead, they gave me the greatest gift of all. Joy.”

Her smile was beatific. “Joy in destruction.”

Her eye snapped to his. “You know a little about that joy yourself.”

“I… I don’t think I do.”

“Yes, you do. Think.”

Dax swallowed. Of course he didn’t. He couldn’t.

But… weren’t there moments, sometimes? Like the time Sam had got drunk, and built that amazing house of cards on the pool table in his flat? He’d used three decks of cards to make it, and it was enormous, almost a cathedral. It had been beautiful.

And when it was done, Dax had clapped with everyone else, but… hadn’t there been that urge to just tug one card free, and bring it all tumbling down? For the fun of it?

“It’s not the same,” he said.

She didn’t seem to hear him. “Now imagine that feeling extends to everything around you. That everything you see and hear, everything that was created, exists to be destroyed, and you have the power to do it.”

She looked at her half-submerged hands, her head on one side. “The Guardians were the ones who had created me. The most powerful beings in existence, so vibrant, so alive. Irresistible. Their deaths were the greatest moments I’ve ever known.” Her smile faded a little. “Until the last. The Ninth Guardian.”

“The one you told me about,” remembered Dax. “The one whose skull was left behind.”

Kaire sank back into the water, sinking her shoulders. “The Ninth had seen the others die. It had plans for me… oh, such plans. But I had to destroy it, no matter the cost. Though it made me suffer for my victory.” Her hands smoothed over the markings on her cheeks and neck. “When its armies were rags and bones, the Ninth decided it had a way to ‘kill’ me. It tried to tear off my head, so I could be controlled. It wanted to bring me to heel. Well. There was only one death it deserved.”

For a while there was only the splash of water, and the inaudible sketching of the stars on their courses overhead.

“You went from killing the Guardians, to being… “ Dax gestured at her, helplessly.

“There was nothing after that,” whispered Kaire, looking at the stars. “The worlds were so full of life and order… I cut my way through the Ancestors and gloried in it. But it wasn’t enough—even Marchion wasn’t enough. Nothing was. I had the blood of twelve Guardians in my body, I was half Gating energy already… I knew what I wanted. To silence that endless, endless song all around me, and laugh while I did it.

“So… I Gated. Away from everything. As far as I could go, from world to world, back as far as I could. Gating is instantaneous, Dax, but that journey… took me years.”

“Where were you going?”

“There were no words for it. I was drawn, but I didn’t know by what, or where. And finally, I found… the Far Reach. The moment where everything began. In heat, and noise… and its own kind of joy.”

The whites of her eyes were beginning to glow softly in the darkness. “There aren’t names for the forces in the Far Reach, just as there are no names for the things I’ve done. A fraction of a second, and I Gated away. Instinctively. Being there for even that sliver of time seared my entire body, welded these scars to my skin, broke my mind almost beyond recognition. But I was there. In that instant I could have stretched out my hand, I had the power…”
“Kaire…” Dax was finding this difficult to grasp. “You… saw the beginning of creation… and tried to stop it?” He swallowed. “What did it look like?”

“Light.” Her voice was cooler now. “Blinding light. Not unlike the light I saw when the Librais showed me your future.”

Dax stared at her. “You never told me that.” A thought struck him. “My future—what else did you see? Do I get this tumour removed?”

She made no answer. She was floating now, face up, as if her body was formed of white lilies drifting in the water.

Agitated, Dax splashed toward her, forgetting himself. “Kaire, do I die? Tell me! Do I —”

Her hand flashed out and grabbed him around the throat, just as it had the first time they met. Her fingers locked in an iron grip; the heat of her skin was excruciating. Dax’s mouth parted in a hollow gasp; his fingers flew up and clawed at hers.

Kaire rose out of the water and leaned into him, a kissing closeness. Her eyes were glowing bright and white now, like the beast she had been and the light she had described. “Oh, Dax, Dax, Dax, I want very much to kill you, I do, because, you see, I feel it in you, the goodness, the urge to survive, that creativity of yours, everything I was bred to hunt and destroy, it’s all here driving me mad, that force incarnated in a fragile mortal shell in flesh and bone in a body I can snap like a twig and I want to snuff… it… out.”

His legs thrashed in the water, kicking up white spray; fingernails scrabbled uselessly at Kaire’s hand.

No, don’t give up! Hold on!

Kaire’s deep blue eyes gazed into his. It had been a long time since he was close enough to look, and they were extraordinary, Dax saw faintly, a gorgeous rich sapphire blue like the prize of a kingdom.

“The Evinthei bitch was right,” said Kaire quietly, as she continued methodically crushing the life out of him. “You don’t know what you are.”

 

 

 

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