Dry air. Dry earth. The deadlands were well named. Dax stayed close to White Scarf as they cut a path through the dead trees. Anything not to have that idiot Kaire lingering in the corner of his eye, glaring at him.

The three of them kept a steady pace, despite the rough terrain. Their feet crunched over dead leaves and loose gravel, splintered branches, broken thorns and dried-up riverbeds. Their footsteps were the only sounds for miles.

Though there was only starlight to see by, Dax had no trouble finding his way. The dry branches parted easily before him like he was swimming through them. He seemed to have stepped onto an invisible thread between him and the Ninth, and vision was irrelevant. He could understand, now, how every step through Nones had been to bring him here. Whatever ludicrous little adventure Kaire and Athellus had been on no longer mattered. They had only been there to facilitate his journey—this final journey. And now he was so close. So close.

No! Kaire and Athellus came to save the city, and you helped them! Listen to yourself! Listen! This is madness!

Maybe some people would call it madness. Dax knew better.

Ormian Amtino had misled his people after being in the Ninth’s presence, sure. It had destroyed half the city of Nones and plunged its entire population into war. Kaire had described him as being maddened by the Ninth.

But what if Amtino just hadn’t understood the message it had given him? Prophets often went insane when higher powers spoke to them—and even Athellus was none too sane, either, with the Greater Powers handing down their incomprehensible orders. Perhaps the real words of the Ninth had become distorted.

That would not happen again. Dax would hear them clearly.

No!

White Scarf abruptly stopped. Dax glared at him. The Taugen pressed a fist to his heart, pointed, then spoke in his own language.

“We’re almost there,” Kaire said. Her bare feet made very little noise on the dry leaves as she stepped across the ground, past the Taugen. “But the Ninth is too holy for them. They will wait for us here.”

“Us?” Dax asked her, casually. “Not too squeamish to approach it?”

Kaire stopped and turned toward him. Her white hair hung lank in her eyes. Then she passed him by, saying nothing; it was like being passed over by a contagious illness.

Dax straightened his clothes, spat on the dry ground, and followed her. He looked over his shoulder at the Taugen, who were huddled together watching them leave. They seemed barely children now. How had he ever been scared of them?

* * *

They walked on in silence. The night closed in around them… then seemed to close tighter. The darkness clenched like a fist until even Dax began to find it suffocating. The very idea of daylight gradually became absurd in and of itself. There was only the long walk to the Ninth, and the faint, feeble stars overhead. There had never been anything else.

The whisper of the leaves and the dry ground was beginning to grate on Dax’s nerves when Kaire finally struck down an overhanging mass of dead branches that hung in their way. Beyond lay an open expanse surrounding a large, steep hill where little vegetation grew. Leaves fluttered through the thick, dusty air, falling straight to earth; it seemed like years since any wind had blown here. The ground was a strange colour.

“Well?” demanded Dax. Kaire was just standing there. “Now where?”

She made no reply.

Dax swung from her irritably and scanned the clearing. And then he flinched. Shadows cast by the faint starlight suddenly made sense. He could see eye sockets, the line of a mandible, a rising brow of bone… but it was all impossibly out of scale. What he had taken for a hill was the skull of some gigantic creature.

They stood before the Great Maw of the Ninth Guardian.

Bleached by time, the Great Maw lay partly on its side; the jaw was slightly disarticulated and crooked at an angle. A shattered knob of spine, too large for Dax to see over, still clung to the base of the skull. Eye sockets the size of rooms gaped at the sky, full of enough dust to choke the entire city of Nones.

And the skull’s maw itself—Dax had once been terrified by the beast-Kaire’s mouthful of teeth. How foolish that seemed now. The Great Maw’s teeth were terrible serrated things that stood taller than Dax himself. With the jaw pulled apart, those teeth became sentinels flanking a long dark passage into the skull, with the dimensions of a cathedral.

The Great Maw towered. Not just physically, but in the mind. It was impossible to hold all of it in one’s head at once.

Dax began to sweat; it was a struggle to keep control of his bowels. This thing, this Guardian, had not died in the same way that other things died. Its death had been a monumental thing, like a quantum event. No, not even that. It was a process, still going on long after the flesh had sloughed off its bones. It was still dying, even here and now…

The strange colour of the ground was not from its soil.

“El tav entol,” Kaire was whispering under her breath. “Hes caral voi…

“There my enemy and I did strive
Death-bringer against the deathless, whose very breath was undying
All things must yield before the deaths they bring to themselves.
I was the greatest of its makings.
I tore as the falcon tears
I broke as the earthquake breaks.
Yet it did seize me, meaning to yoke me to itself once more
To bind me to its service, then,
It sought to remove my head from my body.
I was scarred beyond the survival of any other creature
My blood rained upon the earth and rendered it barren.
But the voice of the death-bringer spoke in vain;
Its strength was turned against itself.
I struck as lightning runs in the veins of the sky
I sank living iron and steel into the throat of my enemy
And rendered it headless…”

“Stop,” gasped Dax. He could feel it; he could feel exactly how the sinew and tendons of his neck would slowly tear apart under her talons. That moment was still here, carried in every molecule of the air. The memories and thoughts of the Ninth were here. “Stop it—“

Kaire turned from him. “Isn’t this what you wanted?” she demanded. The shadow of the Great Maw fell over her. “To taste power outside yourself? To call down the lightning?” A fleck of blood appeared on her cheek. More came as she spoke, as the old scar tissue on her face began to break apart. Her other self, Kairendyrian, seemed to rise over and around her like an aura. “You made demands of this world and every world. All the time. Did you understand what you asked for?”

“Kaire—“

The echoes of her voice were carrying deep within the Great Maw, and bringing back echoes of their own. Dax managed to straighten. There was still time for him to be strong.

The words of the Ninth were coming.

You can't! Don't listen! You'll suffer the same fate he did!

* * *

The two Evinthei had finally gone. The peace of the deadlands belonged to its servants once again. Upon returning to the others, patiently waiting, White Scarf had wearily waved off their questions and urged them to kneel in prayer.

White Scarf found comfort in prayer, but it was not a comfort a human worshipper would have recognised. Back in Dax’s London, prayer was a silent thing sent out from the heart, toward a deity or idea that was accepted on faith. But the Ninth was there. It could be seen—and, if any Taugen had ever dared such a blasphemy, even touched. The fact the Ninth did not answer made no difference. Whatever words White Scarf spoke, if he spoke them in this place, the Ninth could hear them. When he prayed facing the deadlands, he could feel a clear line drawn between himself and his deity.

The white-marked human had walked upon that line. White Scarf knew it. When the human returned, he would carry the power of the Ninth with him, as Revered Amtino had done. Revered Amtino had offered his soul to the Ninth, and been blessed… before he was betrayed by his own people. He was one of the few humans whom the Taugen held in any esteem.

The pressure of the Ninth’s thoughts and wishes was strong here. Very strong. The human was helping, somehow. They had been right to bring the defilers here, after all.

White Scarf smiled calmly, feeling the sacred words ran through his mind. He was at peace.

It was a good moment for him to die. The silenced sniper’s bullet caught White Scarf in his own skull, killing him instantly. Around him, the other Taugen died just as silently, crumpling limply to the ground.

Boots passed quickly over the leaves as the attackers went on. The attackers were dressed strangely, marked with bizarre blue glyphs on their faces and hands. Behind them, the dry earth drank up the Taugen blood.

 

 

 

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