“We are close to the surface,” Torch said. “The Evinthei-who-was, Athellus, cannot go further. His feet cannot taint the approach to the bones of the Ninth.” She folded her arms. “And I will remain to ensure that he does not.”

Dax exchanged a look with the others. The long trek in the dark had left wet cobwebs and dirt clinging to Athellus’ clothes and his hair. Even Kaire’s normally brilliant white hair was a dusty grey, especially around her ears where dirty fingers had smoothed it back. Dax doubted he looked much better. The paste that the Taugen had smeared on his face had dried, pulling his skin taut, and his hands were grubby where he’d tried to rub oily dirt off.

The bridge they were standing on—mere feet from the blessedly-sunlit, ruined surface of Nones—shivered lightly from the hard-gushing water underneath, the first clean water he had seen in hours. The longing to dip his face and hands in it and wash himself was like a thirst.

But for now, the Taugen stood in a loose circle around them, hands on those strange Ancestral weapons. Waiting for them to answer, so they could decide whether to hand out a death sentence then and there.

Don’t give them an excuse. Think.

“Thoughts?” Dax said, soft.

Kaire scratched at her cheek as if she hadn’t heard anything. It occurred to Dax that she had gone most of the way without speaking a word. He wasn’t sure if that was a good sign or not.

“That device,” Athellus replied, half turning away casually. Only the point of his shoulder indicated Torch, whose eyes were narrowing upon hearing words she couldn’t understand. “The one she carries on her belt, the one that electrified the water when Rimegrim attacked. I think that might be the ticket.”

Dax nodded. “Maybe. But it needs those pylons in the water to make it work—”

“There’s ones on the bridge beneath us. I saw.”

One of the Taugen, the black markings on his snout curling like flames, took a step forward and muttered suspiciously. Kaire glanced meaningfully at them.

“You go,” Athellus said, without looking up. “They’re expecting us to make a move now, if we seem to co-operate it’ll be easier for me later. I’ll catch up with you on the way to the Ninth. Just delay them as much as you can.”

Dax opened his mouth to argue, then remembered a water-soaked street, a huge, awful shadow hanging over a tiny figure with a knife. Athellus did all right on his own; it was Kaire—and, Dax added ruefully, himself—who really needed looking after. They’d have to watch out for each other for a while, in Athellus’ place.

“Don’t try and tackle the others yourselves, and especially not Kaire,” Athellus said. “Wait for me. Understand?”

Torch shouldered her way between them, shoving them roughly apart. Her words spat and hissed like hot iron under rain. “We’re stalling,” Kaire translated. “Either we leave right now, or—” She broke off as another of the Taugen shoved the muzzle of a weapon in her face.

“Go,” muttered Athellus. “Go, go…”

Dax turned to Torch, raising his hands. “All right, we’re ready to go. Sorry. Just saying goodbyes in case you decide to murder us.”

Not taking her eyes off him, Torch barked a few words, and White Scarf stepped up. “He will escort you to the Ninth from here. Four of us. I will stay with two others.” She prodded Dax in the chest, pointing to White Scarf. “He is a great Forager, wise and powerful. If you try to fool him or escape your rightful judgement, he will kill you.”

Without a word White Scarf turned away; the Taugen shoved Dax and Kaire forward after him. With a sudden shiver, Dax looked back at Athellus, who sketched a small wave. The roar of water under the bridge seemed louder. As Dax looked, again a memory of Athellus surfaced. What came back was their conversation in the Chapel of Silence, about the rain on the recording Athellus had seen of the Scorpieth’s rise from the ocean, rain so heavy it was like static. In that instant, Dax could feel it—the cold air hammered out by the rain, the spray alone enough to drench him. A memory of someone else’s memory.

He rubbed his eyes, feeling a faint but familiar pain. Then the moment passed, and they left Athellus behind.

* * *

White Scarf barely deigned to look in their direction. Their path now took them through a network of old stone-lined sewers, but that endless wet-dust darkness was beginning to break. These sewers had suffered over the years, and chunks of stone had fallen from the roof. Pale shafts of light fell through the holes. Dax turned his face up to them as he passed, craving warmth and light, but it was too faint to warm him.

Dax kept turning over that memory, or daydream, or whatever you wanted to call it. The thought of the rain-cooled air was the strongest, almost tangible, though it was warmer here than it had been down in the tunnels. But thinking of that led him inexorably to Rimegrim’s head crashing down onto the bank of the river, water becoming a physical thing that dragged him down into chilly darkness. That awful squeezing sensation as his lungs desperately sought air that was too far out of reach. Drowning. Nothingness.

There was Kaire, he thought wildly. The flooded street, the crater… I went into the water with her, that water healed me…

But even that memory wasn’t enough to shake his horror. He would never, ever be able to bear swimming again. Not knowing the death that could come of it.

Up ahead the sewer ended in a collapsed pile of rubble that led up into pale brightness—real daylight at last. Dax pressed forward to climb up the pile, only for White Scarf to push him aside angrily. He glared at them both, then turned away and knelt at the base of the pile of rubble. With one Taugen—a scarred and red-tattooed female—holding a weapon to Dax’s neck, the other two knelt beside White Scarf, raising their hands to that light. Their shadows moved strangely on the walls.

White Scarf closed his eyes and vocalised three notes in a hoarse, warm baritone. The other two raised their voices to harmonise with sweet, almost holy purity, and then all three were singing a smaller cousin to the great chorus they had heard back in the Taugen city. Dax closed his eyes, but somehow the music couldn’t quite lift him as it had before. The silence around the notes was like a physical thing, resisting their magic.

Finally White Scarf got to his feet, then spoke. His voice was as hoarse as his singing, and Dax wondered what injury had necessitated the white bandage around his throat. “We speak to the Ninth on your behalf. It hears, it does not hear; we cannot know. Take a stone from the pile as you go, if you are pilgrim. Carry it forward.”

Dax knelt. His fingers closed around one of the pieces of rubble, leaving powdered stone dust on his fingers. The stone was broken and jagged, a tooth of the sewer-beast the Scorpieth’s attack had killed. The Taugen were already climbing. Clutching his stone, Dax followed, waiting to taste the breeze on his face. But there was no breeze, only air that smelled slightly of old stone and dry leaves.

He clambered out of the ruined sewer, turned, and caught his breath. They were across the river, quite a long way from it now. Across its faint steely shimmer, he saw the southern ruins of Nones from a distance, for the first time. Athellus had spoken of how big the fortress-city was; Dax had nodded politely. Now he could only stare. Those ruins seemed to stretch from horizon to horizon, broken skyscrapers, collapsed bridges, towers shattered and cast down, the streets all gone to decay and silence.

Yet Nones wasn’t wholly dead. Parts of it stirred, as the four-pyloned Librais Tower drew lightning to itself; parts remembered, like Gothgorius. Even broken, anyone who controlled Nones could reach out and grasp other worlds like the reins of a horse. Gazing at the sight, Dax finally understood the Evinthei’s mission, their desperation to keep this dying metropolis out of enemy hands.

It was futile, though, Dax thought, as he struggled just to keep the sight in his head. It had to be. How could anything human ever tame this?

“Dax.”

He looked around. Kaire was watching him at a short distance, and Dax wondered at how different she looked in this light; so much smaller, and thinner. The scars on her face seemed to weigh it down, twist it out of true. Behind her the Taugen were lean and grey.

The sewer entrance had brought them to the fringe of broad deadlands. Skeletal trees the colour of ashes stood against the sky. Thickets stood in gnarled tangles; the grass underfoot was dry as straw. Dax knew without a shadow of a doubt that when everything here had died, it had happened all in an instant, left unable to rot or be destroyed. Nothing would change here, or become anything new.

“Come,” White Scarf ordered, beckoning him to follow. “The Ninth waits.”

 

 

 

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