Dax splashed after Aeslin, chilled both by the weather and by knowing what he’d see above his head if he drew back the umbrella. That fearful light seemed to be everywhere.

Aeslin was right. He knew what power had split the moon.

They came to a long, thin, crenelated bridge that stretched across the drop below. Most of the crenelations had crumbled away in the wet; the end vanished into the driving rain ahead of them. Wind blew with blistering force across the paving stones. To Dax’s shock, Aeslin stepped up onto the bridge and, ignoring the wind, began to plod across like he was strolling down a street.

Dax hesitated, shivering, then stepped up to follow him. At once he felt the push and tug of the wind, threatening to push him off. The umbrella was flapped and flung about. A sharp gust ripped the umbrella out of his hands and sent it soaring and plunging. The rain soaked him in a second, gleefully.

“Oh, hell!”

It was the stupidest thing Dax could possibly have done, but at the time he didn’t think. He glanced over the edge after the fallen umbrella.

The weather had erased everything. All he could make out below the bridge was a great darkness with water pouring into it. Dax stared, blinking rain out of his eyes. He was surrounded by water. For a moment it was Canyrf’s Avenue, with Kaire’s white form thrashing at the bottom of a great pool. Then it was the Thames, with the white reflection of lights dancing on the waves. Then it was the river in Nones, full of rust and dirt, and that whiteness was the faint outline of the hydraderor Rimegrim dragging him down…

Aeslin was right. You’re not drowning. Breathe.

“God, I hate water,” Dax said aloud, and made himself look away. Aeslin was waiting at the other end of the bridge, where another tower braced the bridge; Aeslin led the way inside and up a set of stairs. It was a difficult climb. The mortar between the stones had been almost entirely washed away. The two men had to help each other over the looser patches of stone.

“My fault,” said Aeslin. The wind shrieked through the gaps in the stones and nearly drowned out—nearly deafened the sound of his voice, Dax corrected himself firmly. “I thought this route would still hold fast. In future my people and I will need to come by another path.”

“Where are we going?” Dax shouted over the wind.

“Up,” said Aeslin. He took a small hand torch out of his pocket and reached for Dax’s arm. “If you’d be so kind—this part seems particularly unsteady.”

Though several of the steps threatened to give way, Dax and Aeslin managed to climb to the top of the tower. The roof had clearly not lasted long. Shards of tile washed endlessly In the corners of what remained of the uppermost chamber; the shards had long been blunted. On the floor was the remains of a beautiful mosaic laid in green and white tiles. Aeslin raised his torch as Dax crouched to see. The light illuminated a stylised bird, something like a peacock, in a circle of green and white symbols. It was the work of a master.

“This was a ritual chamber,” said Aeslin. “The bird is a symbol of a Marchion noble house; those symbols are from the Greater Form of Harmony. Workings would have been done here for health and prosperity for the house, and swift recovery from surgery.”

“Is this what you brought me to see?”

Aeslin shook his head regretfully. “No. But it is a beautiful thing. There are not many of them left. This tower is already very unstable: when it crumbles, the mosaic will be destroyed.”

Dax looked at him. “We’re here. We could save it.”

“I have had it recorded,” said Aeslin. “Not that it’s necessary. I’ve seen it many times, and I could probably draw it and the symbols faithfully. Oh, I could even appeal to the clever fellows in the Archives, and they could recreate it for me in exactly the proportions and the materials used.”

He lowered the torch. The mosaic faded into the grey-silver of the rain. “But can I save what it meant? Who it comforted and saved? No. Those things are long gone.”

Aeslin turned and pointed. “Those things were destroyed.”

They were close to the towers and spires of another building, obviously some kind of palace. Everything about it was graceful; sweeping arches, stained-glass windows now turned colourless, and gorgeous carvings that were gradually being eroded away. A long stain ran down the stone from the flank of the highest tower, where a corpse had been pinned to the outside of the stone.

Dax swallowed. The body—once a man, most likely, by its height—had once been richly dressed and ornamented. His arms and legs had been broken. Thankfully, his face was turned to one side, away from them. Dax could see enough of the head to not want to see any more.

The corpse was not pinned by nails or a spear. It was held by a long spine twice the length of a javelin, tapered and curved in a way that Dax knew well. A few steel feathers still clung to one end, jewelled with raindrops.

“They called it the Year of Dragon Rain,” Aeslin said, almost conversationally. “A terrible evil besieged this world with plague and destruction. The people suffered and died. They begged their king to save them. But the evil was too great for any mortal to defeat. And so the king went to his surgeon-priests, and said: ‘My body is yours. Take me as a sacrifice, and turn me into a warrior that will save our people’.”

Aeslin’s voice became softer, more sing-song as if he was reciting a story. “The surgeon-priests took him. For his bravery, they first took away his pain and his fear. Then they moulded him with the arts they knew, and the arts of the Ancestors. They crafted a great suit of armour on, in and around him, which made him more powerful than any man could ever be. Almost in awe of what they had made from a willing host, the surgeon-priests called their creation Gevuranan, the Mantle of the King.

“When it was complete, the king—no longer a king, but something more—called the great evil to bay; the evil that the priests called Khennenah, the Breaker. And Gevuranan and Khennenah battled for fifteen days.”

Fifteen days?” Dax shook his head. He had difficulty imagining doing anything continuously for fifteen hours, let alone… “How? I’ve seen… seen Khennenah fight. How did anything last that long?”

Aeslin smiled. “The surgeon-priests of Marchion were skilled.”

“I should bloody well think so,” said Dax, then felt sorry for being glib. He looked back up at the body on the tower. “You’re going to tell me that’s the king.”

“In the end Khennenah cast him down,” said Aeslin. “She tore the armour from his body and scattered it. She impaled him there as a lesson to his people. Blood poured from her wounds over his remains, and so the body is preserved in the ichor of an immortal. Then the Breaker lived up to her name. She shattered Marchion’s moon, and left them to drown—it is said that the spirited defence of their world angered her. So she punished them for it.”

Dax looked across the landscape, at the desolation and sadness of it all. “Why?” he wondered softly. “Why attack here?”

“For its faith,” said Aeslin. “For its science, and love of creation. Marchion was a wonder of civilisation, devoted to making and healing. All such things are abhorrent to her.”

Words came back to Dax, words Kaire had spoken: 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…

Yes, Marchion would have driven her mad. A place like this would have been like a splinter in her eye.

The rain seemed to be driving harder against Dax’s chest and suddenly he was sick of this place. “You brought me here for a reason,” he said. “Was it just to tell me what I already know?”

“You didn’t know,” said Aeslin. “You were given words about what she is. This is the truth. Now you see what cannot be denied.”

Dax closed his eyes. But the images—the city, that beautiful mosaic—wouldn’t leave him alone. “Please. I…”

Aeslin’s hand rested firmly on his wet shoulder. “Dax. I know this is hard to see. But the ground had to be tilled first. You needed to know what the stakes are. Come, let’s get out of this wet. And then, I promise, the answers you need.”

Dax could only nod. Moments later the air moved around them in a silvery twist, and they were gone.

The rain thundered on.

 

 

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