Hands on hips, Athellus was standing beside the fallen Earthborn, watching it as it struggled. There was stone dust in his hair, but apart from that, he might have just strolled up and dropped the knife in its leg.

“Nice shot,” said Dax, handing his jacket back.

“Thanks. I thought I was out of practice.” Athellus looked over at Kaire, who was standing at a distance, arms folded. “Translate for me?”

“If I must...”

Athellus lifted his boot and put it against the knife hilt, pressing it in. Dax winced as the blade crunched against muscle – the Earthborn howled, but it didn’t seem able to turn around and slash at his leg, or bite him with those heavy jaws. It just struggled, trembling as if in shock.

“Us two, me and her, we’re banru,” Athellus told the creature. As he spoke, Kaire addressed the Earthborn in the same thick, sibilant language it had used earlier. Dax watched her, curiously, but she seemed to speak almost casually, as if bored. “The weapon stuck in your leg is called the Saius Blade. The steel for it was salvaged from an even better weapon which got broken fighting rubble rats like you. Only, the weaponsmith stirred pure silver into the blade while he was forging this. Two metals which are proof against evil. Steel – rendered iron - and silver. That’s not good for the demon-blooded, I hear. Even a nick from a weapon like this is supposed to be agonising.” He took his foot away.

The Earthborn, staring at Kaire, gasped something.

Kaire turned to Athellus. “It says that there are others of its tribe close by.”

“But they’re not here right now. And even if they were, I’d bet the three of us against a hundred of them.”

Dax felt an absurd, but happy, twitch of pride at this.

“It wants to know if all banru are torturers as well.”

“Tell it I just want some answers. Why was it marking those smaller Earthborn?”

Kaire listened to a stream of its talk. “To show their new fealty. To show how they have been conquered and accepted. The same will happen to the rest of their tribe when they are found.”

“Conquered by whom?”

“The new order. -Hmm – that’s not right. Something like, the new… pattern, the new way of thinking.”

“Okay…” Athellus considered the Earthborn. “What new order?”

“The order spoken of by Malvec’s people, who heard it first. The stories were told to them first.”

“Malvec?” wondered Dax.

Kaire looked at Dax. “Malvec… The tribe who attacked you was led by an Earthborn called Malvec.”

“I didn’t know it had a name.”

“Everything has a name.”

Dax smiled. “I thought everything had a soul.”

Kaire’s expression was blank. Dax decided, quickly, that joking was not the way to go with her right now.

Athellus interrupted sharply. “All the way to the south? We’re sure now?”

The Earthborn replied after Kaire translated. “It says the stories are being carried. Not all have heard them yet, and not all who have heard them choose to answer. But they will.”

“What stories?”

“Yeah,” Dax put in. “Is there an Earthborn messiah or something?”

“It says, not a saviour, but one who speaks and gives answers. One who tells tales of the old time. We are not Evinthei nor banru, to be herded and ordered here and there, pushed hither and thither by words. We listened, and we chose for ourselves to act and bring others to listen, to gather our kind together. The weak, those whose understanding is lacking, must be conquered and guided by the strong.”

Athellus snorted. “What’s this storytelling genius called?”

“He does not tell us his name. He speaks rarely and is difficult to understand, so we cannot waste time with idle questions.”

“You must call him something.”

“It says they wear his markings to honour him. They call him the Painted Oracle.”

There was a brief silence.

“An oracle?” Dax asked.

“I don’t like this,” Athellus said to Kaire. “Remember the graffiti we saw down in the tunnels near the Librais Tower? The writing that had been scratched onto the wall? That looked like oracle talk to me. Something’s stirring the Earthborn up.”



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