Kaire shook her head. “You can’t speak of the Earthborn as a whole. They operate as tribes, as families. Most of them aren’t even the same species. Think how different these southerners are to the Taugen…”

The Earthborn seemed to recognise the last word, and spoke. Kaire smiled wryly, then translated: “It says the Taugen have heard the Oracle’s word and refused to spread it. They say the Oracle is just another tool of the corruption that infests the city, and kill those who listen to him. The Taugen have settled their own fate.”

“What are the Taugen?” Dax wanted to know.

“A bunch of Earthborn who live near the river and don’t like the Evinthei,” Athellus told him. “Smarter than these guys, it has to be said.”

The Earthborn was looking up at Dax, then rolling its eyes back to look at Kaire. Finally it spoke again.

“It says the Oracle often talks about humans. He says Earthborn are all one species, all one kind, compared to them. He says humans are interlopers, that they’re brutish and cruel. They bring war and divide against each other. Humans are the outsiders. It is they who don’t belong. One day it’ll be humans who are driven out.”

“Oh, someone give me a tissue,” said Athellus.

“It says you’ve proved how humans like to be cruel.”

Athellus looked down at the knife embedded in the creature’s leg. After a moment he reached down and drew the blade out, smoothly but quickly. The Earthborn let out a bark of pain.

“Where can we find your Oracle?”

It was a while before the creature could answer. “It says he comes and goes as he pleases. All the city is his domain. But he speaks of humans often. He has spoken of humans who have –“ Kaire paused, and appeared to be finding the right words. “This Oracle has talked about humans with pale hair.”

Dax raised his head, startled, touching the white blaze over his forehead. “Pale hair?”

Thoughtfully, Kaire tucked her own snowy hair back behind her ears, and spoke to the Earthborn. It spat something back at her; she shrugged and addressed the others. “I asked it what the Oracle had to say, but it just says the Oracle’s justice will find us.”

“I’m not particularly worried about the justice of someone who gives out fortunes to a bunch of rubble rats,” Athellus said. “Translate that.”

“I want to know what it’s talking about,” Dax insisted, as Kaire did so.

“So do I.” Athellus folded his arms. “It sounds like one of the Earthborn has got smart. But… ‘stories of the old time’? What stories? And what old time? Why would an Earthborn care about those?”

Dax wasn’t listening. “Pale hair… those Earthborn from the south – do you think this Oracle is following us around or something?”

“If we weren’t talking about Earthborn, maybe. Usually they’re not the following type. This is really… odd.”

Kaire turned to them. “It won’t say anything else. It says we should kill it now if we’ve had our fun.”

“Tell it that it’s free to go.”

She frowned. “Better to kill it than just let it go. They don’t understand the concept of mercy.”

“But I do. And I want their Oracle to know we’re onto it.”

“Finding a corpse would tell it plenty.”

Athellus gave her a look Dax couldn’t decipher. “Kaire, just give it the damn message.”

Kaire shrugged. “Fine enough.” She pushed the Earthborn with her toe. “Go then. Go back to your prattling master.” She repeated it in the sibilant Earthborn language, and the creature began struggling to its feet.

Dax watched as it limped away: the Earthborn looked concussed, or half-paralysed, as if Athellus’ knife had been poisoned. Steel and silver, he had said. Dax remembered old stories from home, things he had read as a boy, about how faerie folk were afraid of the touch of iron, how silver could kill monsters. If a simple throwing knife could inflict that much pain, no wonder Athellus wasn’t afraid of the Earthborn, quite apart from his other skills. If Dax had a weapon like that, he might feel a bit safer around here.

“How much further is it to the primary power grid?” he asked, once the creature had dragged itself out of sight.

Kaire shook her head. “Still a way. Two days, maybe, afoot.”

Athellus wiped the blade clean and put his red jacket on, retying the black sash on his arm. “Okay. I think that’s enough messing around for now.”

He still looked pensive. Kaire must have noticed too, because she shook her head at him. “They have short memories, and their own squalid lives to think about. Leave it, ‘Thel. Our mission’ll be over soon and we’ll be long gone.”

“True,” Athellus replied, as if he was saying it to himself. “An Earthborn, smart or not, is nobody’s oracle. -Which way?”

She pointed, and they started off. As Dax followed them – loping along in the back, as always – he looked over his shoulder. The Earthborn had crawled out of sight, but that didn’t mean there wouldn’t be others to take its place. At least Kaire seemed to have snapped out of her silence. His head was full of what the Earthborn had said, now, full of caution as they trekked through the ruins. The dream which had troubled him was quite forgotten.



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