Athellus didn’t need Kaire’s translation to see that the Taugen left at the bridge resented their guard duty. Seated on the bridge, listening to the water, he watched Torch addressing them in their sibilant language. She didn’t spare the barks and angry gestures. Maybe they wanted to enter the Ninth’s ‘holy presence’ along with Dax and Kaire. Or maybe they just resented guarding an Evinthei.

He’d rarely seen a Taugen except in training videos years ago. But they weren’t so different to what he’d been expecting: living in dank tunnels, scavenging bits and pieces of technology from the Ancestors, and murdering anyone who might have even the most tenuous connection to the Evinthei. Savages.

Athellus shifted to get more comfortable.

Yet, when the Taugen had called on him to confess—actually demanded it—he had stood to answer. He had spoken a secret he’d been unable to share with Dax, knowing he would be playing right into their little fiction of how Evinthei were irredeemable monsters. The Evinthei would probably have given him a medal for killing a banru, maybe some counselling if he seemed upset about it. Kaire had never judged him for what he had done, because she wasn’t a hypocrite; Dax had stared, appalled, but he had no power to punish him.

But penance, suffering and retribution were things the Taugen understood wordlessly, viscerally. Their scorn and condemnation had scoured some of the pain away.

Athellus got to his feet and started walking towards the Taugen. Immediately Torch lunged at him, hissing. He shook his head, feigning confusion. She leaned forward and snarled in his face. The torch strapped to her shoulder was shining right in his eyes.

“Okay. Sorry.” He backed away submissively and sat back down, facing the edge of the bridge. Torch loomed over him for a moment, then spat over the edge and turned away.

Athellus waited until she was gone, then slipped the device he’d lifted from her belt out of his sleeve. As he’d hoped it was a simple remote, just enough to trigger the pylons on and off.

He glanced between the slats of the bridge at the pylons attached to it, their tips dangling in the water below. The supports around them were insulated, but the rest was just bare metal. Casually, hunched over, he slipped two fingers between the slats and felt the insulation.

The Taugen had scrounged whatever they could find to make these pylons and insulate the bridge from the electrical charge. This insulation had been made from scraps of heavy rubber glued together. Picking carefully with his fingernails, he managed to peel some of it away. It dropped into the water below, lost in the rushing whiteness. The more he picked off, the easier the rest dropped away.

He didn’t dare look around.

* * *

“But she knows our language,” insisted the youngest, the Herald; one of the messengers who carried words between Taugen encampments. “The meaning of that should be known. If—”

Torch huffed irritably. She was tired of this argument going round and round. “ ‘If, if’, foolish if! It means only that there is something the white-haired female knows. Nothing deeper. And if so, the Ninth sees through the heart and mind. Judgement will be made regardless.”

The Forager, whose black-flame facial markings Dax had noticed earlier, shook his head slowly. “She is human, but not Evinthei. The other male is human, but not Evinthei. Curious. And this after word of the Painted Oracle preaching strange tales to the Earthborn. Nones yawns wide with strangeness lately.”

“Nothing comes that the Ninth does not allow,” pronounced Torch, firmly, making some adjustments to the Ancestral weapon mounted on her arm. “Either to make us strong, or for the good of all things.”

Black Flame folded his arms. “The Spiralling Death returns and grows stronger. The Evinthei range further. An Oracle is slain. Lightning dances on the roof of the Librais Tower. Does it allow all these things? Are they all for the good of things?”

“Do you speak for the Ninth, then?” Torch demanded, putting a hand against his chest. “The voice in the heart?”

He dropped his gaze. “No,” he muttered.

The young Herald was glancing between them nervously. Torch tried to calm herself. “All you speak of is not so out of the ordinary. Perhaps the Ninth tightens a hundred small screws to adjust the water flow.”

“To speak of water, the Spiralling Death’s rise is greatly troubling,” said Black Flame. “Test or no, we lost a fine Watcher today, and all his medicine. It had slept well and long before now. There will be a need to defend against it, whether it is the Ninth’s sending or not. Many tunnels are unprotected.”

Torch waved her hand. “Pylons we have in plentiful supply. Enough to dissuade it from coming close. We will be safe.” As if to reassure herself, her other hand strayed to her belt. It touched, then patted, and she looked around in alarm. “The control device. It vanishes. I had it but a moment—”

Her eye fell on the Evinthei-that-was, sitting so calm and docile on the bridge, leaning against the handrail. His hands working on something just out of her line of sight.

Torch’s teeth ground together. With a roar of anger she clutched at the weapon mounted on her forearm, a beauty of Ancestral construction. Priming it, she took aim at the human's back.

* * *

The only thing that saved him, Athellus would later decide, was Torch being so angry she messed up her aim. His only warning was a harsh pfssap! sound, and a circle the size of his fist just vanished from the bridge’s handrail. The edges glowed and smoked.

Startled, he rolled to one side as Torch took aim again, this time pointing dead centre at his face. Athellus rushed her blindly, shoving her arm upwards. The pfssap! went off, cutting something amid the cluttered murk of the ceiling; a pipe, most likely, as steaming hot water splattered down onto the bridge. The first gush of it hit the young Herald in the face and shoulder, scalding him. He shrieked with pain as Athellus wrestled with Torch, who was trying to bring her arm down or bite him in the face. Black Flame was hissing fiercely, bringing his weapon to bear.

Torch was wiry as a cat, but Taugen weren’t built for strength and Athellus had a lot of muscle on her. He forced her back, bending her arm almost to breaking point, then shoved as hard as he could. She went sprawling, bringing Black Flame down with her.

Athellus took to his heels, snatching up his pack as he passed, and ran off the bridge to the other side. Leaping for the crumbling brick wall of the tunnel, his toes kicked for a foothold.

He glanced over his shoulder and saw the young Herald clawing at his face and crying in pain. Guilt stabbed through him. Then there was Torch, sprawled on her stomach, bringing up her weapon to shoot his head off. Athellus pressed the remote, hard.

Electricity crackled through the pylons and straight through the now-unprotected bridge. The Taugen screamed as it engulfed them. In unison, their voices hit a perfect harmony, a singular anguish. Athellus clenched his eyes shut and turned away. Their singing… it was so like that beautiful song…

After a second that went on forever, he released the remote and let the lightning die. Black Flame and the young Herald collapsed onto the bridge around Torch. Their skin was steaming.

Athellus let himself drop off the wall, his feet inches from the edge of the bridge, and wiped the sweat off his face. That had been too close. He turned and started walking down the tunnel, after Kaire and Dax.

Then he stopped, unable to avoid looking back. The Taugen were slumped in a heap. There was no way to tell if they were dead or alive.

Athellus’ feet wavered back and forth, crunching over the bits of shattered brick underfoot, before he finally went back. Two still had a pulse… and yes, there was the third. Dax’s insanity had to be rubbing off, because now he was pulling out the medical supplies from his backpack. A smear of ointment, to help the scald on the Herald’s face; a bottle of water unpacked where they would find it… and that would have to do.

Shrugging his pack back on, Athellus forced himself to leave, picking up his pace to a run. Dax would only be able to delay White Scarf and the others for so long.

 

 

 

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