Dax sat up very suddenly and immediately wished he hadn’t. The crick in his neck sent a jolt down his spine and up into his skull. The migraine—which had been surprisingly quiescent lately, like an animal curled up asleep in the back of his skull—started awake and sank teeth into his head. Dax jerked and winced. It was a minute or so before the spots cleared. The cool cotton sheets under his palms helped.

Wait. Sheets?

His last memory was of the vast and ancient eye sockets of the Great Maw, and the voice breathing out from the Ninth Guardian’s bones. The smell of a dying landscape, held in its last throes, still clung to him. Then there had been the attackers; the Evinthei, led by Adree Aeslin.

Dax looked around. Instead of a prison cell, he was sitting on a bed in an airy, pleasant hospital room. He had been bathed; his wounds had been dressed, and he was clothed in a clean shirt and trousers. A pair of shoes with a balled-up pair of socks sat under a chair across the room. The walls were painted pale lavender.

His hand reached out and parted the blinds. The window looked out over the courtyard of some kind of office complex, bathed in afternoon light. Craning outside, Dax caught sight of sentries sitting along the roof, rifles propped against their shoulders. Beyond were high-rise buildings and apartments, with bizarre pylons on the roofs. White banners snapped in the breeze.

This was Lyon’s Boulevard. The heart of Evinthei territory.

Dax sat quite still. His mind was clear now; shockingly clear. He couldn’t believe some of the things he’d thought about Kaire—heck, the things he’d said to her face—while they were in the deadlands. He hadn’t cared about anything but getting to the Great Maw and hearing its message. He hadn’t even realised it, and if he had, Dax knew, with shame that sent a flush to his hair, that he wouldn’t have cared. He had been on the very verge of having his mind devoured.

He had heard the voice of the Ninth in that terrible place. For a moment Dax wondered if he could remember what it had been saying, then he shuddered and mentally turned away. He had no desire whatsoever to end up like Ormian Amtino. Besides, he had bigger problems… like the fact he had been taken prisoner by one of the most dangerous factions in Nones.

Where is Kaire?

Dax swung his legs off the bed and noticed a few bottles on the bedside table. He snatched one up, then another.

One’s a systemic antibiotic. That one’s for treating headaches, and that’s an anti-psychotic. Necessary, after being anywhere near the deadlands.

Dax put the bottles down. Whatever all these medicines were for, the Evinthei seemed to have an interest in keeping him alive, and healthy.

Fretting, he put on the shoes under the chair—they were slightly too big, but the socks helped—and then began roaming back and forth, trying to think. He could understand them targeting Kaire, and he’d certainly done his fair share of ruining the Evinthei’s plans. He’d had an agreement with Adree, but she’d broken her word when she set a roadside bomb for them. So, what? What was going on?

One thing was certain: there were no answers in this room. He wandered back and forth, examining the window—four storeys up, no help there—and the little air conditioning vent, before his eye fell on the hospital room’s door. What if…

The handle moved at his touch. When he pushed, the door opened freely into a softly-lit corridor that was tastefully decorated. Potted plants stood along the walls. Somewhere a PA was speaking politely: “Officer Saragh to deployment please… Officer Saragh…”

Adree Aeslin was sitting in a chair directly opposite the door. It took Dax a full second to recognise her: this was the first time he’d seen her out of a field uniform. Instead, she was wearing a dark blue dress uniform that looked like a business suit. Her auburn hair was neatly braided and there were touches of colour on her lips and eyes. Even as he backed away, Dax finally understood just what Athellus had once seen in her.

“Mr West,” Adree said, rising to her feet and holding her hands out placatingly. “Please. It’s all right.”

Dax shook his head rapidly. “I’m not believing a word you say. Not after that car bomb. Not any more.”

“I’m sorry,” Adree told him, pleadingly. “But it was necessary, believe me, just as your presence here is necessary now. Please. Please, just listen—“

He advanced out of the hospital room and poked a finger in her direction. “What did you do with Kaire?”

Adree’s eyes clouded. “If it’ll make you feel better, the monster’s being… held, elsewhere.”

“Held?” A horrible thought occurred. “How are you keeping her prisoner? Did you…” Dax swallowed, remembering Athellus’ words when Kaire had been badly maimed by Adree’s bomb. Even like that... she— can’t die... “Did you… take her apart?”

“No,” Adree said. “Should I?”

They looked at each other.

“So Kaire’s a prisoner, but I’m not.” Dax spread his arms. “Is that how this is? You just leave the door open and I can go?”

“If you like,” said Adree, “but I’m asking you—I’m begging you—to do one thing first. My father wants to speak with you. Mr West… Dax, you need to listen to what he has to say.”

“Why?”

“Because I’ve spoken to Gothgorius,” she told him. For Dax, the name conjured up a memory of luminous green eyes; the mocking laugh of a statue driven to wisdom by loneliness. “Because there’s things you need to know and understand. About the people you think are your friends. About yourself.”

Dax narrowed his eyes and shook his head slowly. “You must think I’m an idiot. Go and have a little chat with your father while my friend’s sitting in your dungeon? Forget it!”

“Trust me,” Adree said, firmly, “we’re treating that creature much better than it ever treated its victims. You need to get this into your mind, Dax: that thing is not your friend. And not Athellus’ friend either, whatever he may believe.”

“Adree—“

“And if you still don’t understand that after all you’ve seen, my father can prove it,” Adree interrupted. “Along with many other things.”

She spread her hands. “All we’re asking for is time. Yes, I’ve done terrible things. But I see now why I was so wrong; Ember’s blood, I understand so much that—“ She broke off suddenly, looking ashamed for no apparent reason.

There’s little to be lost. And much to gain. If nothing else, you’ll learn the layout of this place.

Dax folded his arms. “Fine. I’ll go with you; I’ll speak to your father. If I get to see Kaire immediately after we’re finished.”

Adree nodded. “That can be arranged.” Her mouth quirked. “If you still want to see her.”

She gestured down the corridor with one small hand. “My father’s office is this way. He’s waiting for us.”

Dax hesitated a moment more, then went.

 

 

 

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