Athellus began turning the screwdriver deep inside the engine. “If this is about that phone again -”

“No. I’m - it’s okay. I understand why you did it.” Dax was still angry about that, but he didn’t want to rake it all up again, not now. “I just wanted to ask… what it’s like.”

“What?”

“You know. Being banru. Getting orders from the People Upstairs.”

A piece of twisted metal, corroded and rusty, clanked on the ground. “Kind of a sweeping question.”

“I’m just curious.” Dax picked up the bit of metal and began idly turning it over, mostly to have something to do with his hands. “You said they give you orders, and those orders come in dreams.”

“That’s pretty much how it works.” Athellus continued unscrewing, reached in, tugged a couple of times, and pulled free a component that Dax had never seen in a car back home. He released a valve on one side and a thick, smelly liquid began trickling out onto the ground. Athellus poked the hole a bit, and recoiled as the stream ran out more freely.

Dax looked down at the metal in his hands. It was an interesting shape, like a puzzle piece. “But - how do you tell what’s true in these dreams? How do you tell between orders coming from these guys, and what’s just your brain?”

Athellus finally looked up. “You’re asking this for a reason. What is it?”

“It’s…” Dax checked around again, then lowered his voice, just in case. “Who is Kaire? I mean, really? How much do you know about her?”

Something changed in Athellus’ face. The expression remained the same, but all at once his eyes were guarded. “I know everything about Kaire,” he said, turning back to the engine. “A little crazy, and sometimes her taste in food makes me want to gag, but she’s my partner. Don’t get in her way when she’s fighting, don’t take a swing at me in front of her, and don’t come on to her. That’s about it.”

“You forgot her odd taste in tattoos.”

“Tattoos?” Athellus looked up from his work, startled. “Kaire doesn’t have any tattoos.”

Dax blinked. “Oh yeah? So what are those purple marks on her face?”

Athellus smiled a bit. “Dax… those aren’t tattoos.” He went on rummaging under the bonnet. “They’re scars. Old ones. Well before my time.”

Those markings on her face were… huge, running up her cheeks and almost down onto her shoulders. “That - I don’t believe you. If someone had hurt her that badly, she’d be dead. I don’t care if she could use the Librais and live, that’s impossible.”

“Okay.” Athellus shrugged. “Think whatever you want. But you asked.”

Bemused, Dax leaned against the side of the truck. “She told me she was demon-blooded. But I don’t know what that means. What is she?”

“Does it matter?”

Dax turned the scrap of metal over and over. “Okay, look. Maybe this really is about the phone, but only a bit. My… those dreams I keep having, the ones that have been leading us - Me, I mean. The ones you were talking about. They are true. Parts of them are. I saw that signpost for Lailenus Street and it led us there. I saw you needed help, and we saved you. Then there was that stone thing, Gothgorius. I saw him and he’s real. You can’t deny all that.”

Athellus propped his elbows on the edges of the truck and looked up at him wearily. “Okay, I can’t. Doesn’t mean I have to like it but, okay. Can I get back to work?”

“… those weren’t the only things I was dreaming about.” Dax stared at the scrap. It was too corroded to send back more than a hint of a reflection, something vaguely looking back. “The first time I dreamed about the Librais Tower… a-and again not long ago, I had this weird one about a jungle and a bridge. Both times there was Kaire. Or something that looked like her. And it’s always bad. She’s attacking me and someone s- I get the feeling I’m supposed to - kill her.”

Distractedly, Athellus wiped his palms on his trousers, already so marked and stained and threadbare in places that a few more marks made no difference. “So?”

Dax blinked. “So? So, if the dreams are right about Gothgorius, and the Librais, and you, why should they be wrong about Kaire trying to kill me? What if… what if that’s the future too? How can I tell what’s real and what’s not?”

The screwdriver was switched for another tool. “Having dreams like that isn’t so surprising. I shouldn’t really need to spell this out for you, Dax, after all you’ve seen. Kaire is a killer. She is not a nice person. She isn’t human, and she does a lot of bad things. But a lot of them are done in order to keep me alive, so I guess it’s hard to criticise. I don’t know what to tell you.”

“But I’m the one having very accurate dreams about her killing me.”

Athellus leaned on the edge of the truck again. “Remember the move Kaire tried to pull on Adree on Lailenus Street?”

“Yes.” When Adree had dodged, Kaire’s forespines had gone straight into the concrete instead.

“I saw her do it once to a man without body armour,” said Athellus. “She didn’t miss that time. The… the sight and sound of… I had a few dreams myself I’d rather have forgotten.”

“But these dreams began before I even met her. Scared the shit out of me, to tell you the truth. As soon as I met her I recognised her. That's how accurate they were.”

“Then I can’t answer you, Dax. I don’t know. I’m sorry.”

Dax looked sharply at him, but that guarded edge was still in the other man’s eyes.

Then Athellus said, not unkindly: “I know you’re curious, Dax, but I’m asking you, as a favour and as a friend, just… Seriously, just leave her alone. Kaire’s past is a place she really shouldn’t go. And whatever your dreams are telling you… listen to me. Kaire likes you. There aren’t many people who can say that. As long as you don’t get in her way, she won’t hurt you, and believe me, anyone who does want to hurt you will be in for a nasty shock.”

Dax opened his mouth, then closed it again. There was little he could say that wouldn’t sound crass after that.

To cover his discomfort he glanced into the engine. With several components removed - and now stacked on the truck’s roof - it looked a little more like the car engines Dax recognised. Although… there was a good trick you could pull with these older VVK engines, if you were caught in a paradigm squall, to give more power to the four-wheel-drive if you -

Dax squeezed his eyes shut. When he opened them again, the schematic images that had danced briefly behind them were gone. But, unable to tear his eyes away, he found himself asking: “You need a hand with this?”

Athellus hmmm’d. “You know what you’re doing?”

“Um…” Dax began rummaging in the toolbox. “Probably better not to ask questions like that.”

The other man looked at him, then shuffled over to make room. Dax reached in, and closed his mind to everything but the engine.

 

 

 

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