The spiral.

Dax’s finger dragged slowly through the dry earth, describing the shape ever wider. The grains caught under his nail, rough against the accompanying spiral of his fingerprints. The soil of the deadlands was fine and crumbled between the palms like sand.

Sunset had been less than an hour ago. White Scarf and the others had built a fire to rest for an hour or so, cutting branches from the dead trees with ritual calls and responses for forgiveness. Their prayers didn’t help much. The fire wouldn’t catch properly; the wood smoked and smouldered, eventually settling down to sullen red embers. The Taugen were huddled around it, watchful, with the firelight in their eyes.

Dax put his finger to the centre of the spiral and began doubling it out, making it grow. The Taugen called Rimegrim the Spiralling Death. Gothgorius’ followers painted themselves with spiralling shapes like the ones carved into his back and flanks. There was an Ancestral circuit shaped like a spiral, power endlessly turning outward… perhaps that was where Gothgorius’ markings came from.

Wasn’t there something you were meant to be doing?

Power. That was… that was the key to this. Nones was powered by ancient circuitry, its buildings ebbing and changing with the flow of Gating energy. The more Gating energy there was, the more it spiralled outward. Like a tornado gathering more and more things in its wake. His fingertips briefly touched his chest, where the sunburst scar of his coming to Nones was still sore.

Or perhaps like a tumour growing, consuming and becoming greater. A body eating itself, creating something that was both alien and intimately part of it.

Kaire was sitting close to him. She had been peeling and eating a stem of root ginger; the smell of it hung around her like a golden cloud. But now she was looking at him. She was saying something. Something not very interesting.

What was it she had said once, about power? When a banru is made, he has to grow, he has to keep going, but he has nowhere left to go except… except himself. To become… more. Ban-reth is power, and your self.

His finger paused.

A spiral again, but a static one. A banru was himself, but himself squared, concentrated. What he had been in life, he became more so as a banru, as a servant of the Greater Powers. But he could not grow outside of that. Only that which is really alive can change.

So it followed, logically, that which was most alive could change the most. Change itself, change—

Kaire’s hand wiped through the intricate spiral he had drawn, obliterating it. Dax looked up, directly into her dark blue eyes—though they seemed less startling than he remembered. Their blue seemed dimmed and washed out.

“Running out of things to destroy?” he asked, mildly.

Kaire shook her head slowly. “You haven’t been listening to a word I’ve said.”

“No.” Dax dusted away what was left of his drawing until he had a clean canvas to begin again.

As he stretched out his hand, Kaire grasped his wrist hard. Surprisingly hard, in fact; the pain was an annoyance. Dax sighed. “Do you mind?”

“Yes, I do mind.” She let him go. “Don’t think I can’t see what you’re doing.”

“And what is that?”

“Praying,” said Kaire.

Dax watched as she got up, dusting off her hands, and walked away. Her shadow sprang and flickered against the trees around them. Where was the grace she had once had? And that face… how had he ever found her beautiful? Her cheekbones were all angles, like the monster underneath was welling up. Her scars were getting darker too, like they were freshly made. For an undying being, she was a poor-looking thing.

If you hold a candle’s flame against the sun, it becomes almost invisible. Don’t be fooled. You can’t forget she—

Dax worked for a few minutes, trying to recreate what he had drawn before, but that white-haired moron had broken his concentration. Finally he rose to his feet and strode toward the fire. White Scarf got up, putting a hand on the Ancestral weapon he carried; Dax ignored that.

“Break up the fire,” he said. “We’re moving on toward the Ninth.”

White Scarf looked affronted, then looked at Kaire who was leaning against a tree and asked something in his language. Kaire simply looked at him.

“Translate what I said,” said Dax.

Kaire said nothing. The whites of her eyes were glowing faintly.

“Did you hear me?”

Slowly, she straightened up off the tree trunk and walked up to him. “Did you forget we have a task to complete? Someone we need to wait for?”

Dax stared, uncomprehending, then turned away angrily. White Scarf was still standing there, his mouth hanging open just slightly. He looked like an idiot, not the warrior and leader he had been before, whose voice seemed to summon up marvels. At the sight, all Dax’s frustration—at Kaire and Athellus, at Nones, at the fucking nightmare mess his life had become—rushed up and took his arm around with it and struck White Scarf across the head.

The other Taugen rushed forward as Dax hooked his fingers into the bandage around White Scarf’s throat and twisted it hard, like a collar. White Scarf barked at the others and they settled back, glaring and tense.

Dax pointed further into the deadlands. “The Ninth. We’re going there. Now.”

White Scarf’s eyes searched his face as if looking for something, then he spoke in his own tongue and nodded. Dax let him go. White Scarf stepped back, putting a hand to his bandaged throat, and spoke to the others. One began piling the soft earth onto the already dying fire.

“Dax—“

“I’m going to the Ninth,” said Dax, watching the fire snuffed out. “Stay here and wait for your partner if you like.”

Kaire shook her head slowly. “No. No, I’m not leaving you alone with them. Someone has to be our eyes if you’re closing yours.”

“As you like.” Dax turned his back on her, picked up his backpack, and began following the Taugen.

The spiral…

* * *

 

Kaire waited until they were out of earshot, then snapped her hand out and bared her forespines. One swipe cut three sharp lines into the bark of the dead tree she’d been leaning against; a single steel feather was shed and lay at its base. Athellus couldn’t miss it.

She retracted her spines and went after Dax and the Taugen, leaving bare-footed prints in the earth. At a distance, from between the trees, masked human eyes watched her go.

 

 

 

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