“Ember’s blood,” whispered Athellus. The next few steps were the worst, even compared to those that had come before. He staggered and lunged at one of the nearby trees for support. The bark scraped his hands. He laid his cheek on the rough surface of it, trying to feel something real. There was a sticky foam forming at the side of his mouth.

Kaire and Dax’s trail led into the deadlands. Even coming out of the tunnels he had begun to feel deathly ill at the nearby presence of the Ninth, but there was no other way to find them. Like the pig-headed idiot he was, he had trudged on, ignoring the steely pain growing in his head, the nausea, the tremors in his hands.

No one knew why some people were more affected by the deadlands’ presence than others. Some Evinthei officers were able to cope long enough to run brief operations or sweeps on the outskirts. Some almost thrived on it—those were the ones the Evinthei watched more closely than anyone else. And some, like Athellus, felt like the insides of their heads were melting just by being close to it. His resistance had improved since becoming banru, this was true, but that only meant the crippling pain was slightly less crippling.

So much for death making everything else feel like a breeze.

But, for the first time in a long while, Athellus could also feel the presence of the People Upstairs, outside of his dreams. They made no move to help him, they never did such things… yet through the maelstrom in his head, Athellus could just about sense their steady concern, their compassion. Feeling some outside presence had been enough to push him on this far.

But no further.

Athellus slumped against the tree, then slid clumsily to the dry ground. His vision was split by hazy grey and red lines. There was no way. No way he could go on. If he tried he was going to kill himself.

He put a hand down—and jumped as it touched something sharp. Blearily, he looked down and held the mystery item up to his face. It was pointed, and fronded, and bright. A steel feather.

Kaire.

Moving his head was agony—his skull seemed to be brimming with hot, bright poison—but Athellus forced himself to look down at the ground. The dust of the dry ground showed a few Taugen footprints, the mark of Kaire’s bare feet, and bootprints covering them. The heavy tread was standard Evinthei issue.

Athellus used the trunk at his back as a prop to force himself on his feet. Evinthei soldiers had passed this way, and very recently.

Something. There was something smeared on the trunk of the tree, visible in the corner of his eye. Using his thumbnail, he scraped off a small trace of blue paint someone had left on the bark as they passed. He smelled it and wrinkled his nose. There was a strong herbal edge to it. Even in a small quantity it smelled revolting.

Blue paint? With… what, some herbal concoction added? That wasn’t standard issue, was it? Not here, surely?

He pressed his hands to his face. But all that came to mind was a piece of doggrel from his childhood: “a slap of her hand to run the ghosties through / the blue she wore and the poison too.”

No. No, it had been something else. A passage from an old children’s book, The Other Lives. “They marked themselves in sky-blue and rode out under a beautiful autumn moon. Each one carried a silver lance fluttering with a white banner. They kept a man’s length between each one, because the lances had been dipped in poison that very morning, and to touch the point of any lance meant certain death…”

In the madness of his pain, there seemed a kind of sense there; a terrible realisation just out of reach. What he did understand, however, was that the Evinthei were on Kaire and Dax’s trail. And there was no way he could follow.

“Shit,” Athellus whispered. The sticky foam on his lips was flowing freer now. He wiped it away.

He had to get out of the deadlands. But he knew the routes the Evinthei had in this area. There weren’t many ways here from Lyon’s Boulevard, and those were heavily guarded and checkpointed. He might be able to catch them on the way.

Then what?

He couldn’t think. He couldn’t think. He had to go. Staggering, he went, whispering a prayer that Dax and Kaire would be all rightand then another one, for himself.

* * *

Don’t listen! What’s wrong with you? Evil doesn’t take hold of the unwilling! It’s a seed nourished in pride and wilful ignorance. Wilful ignorance is how it’s got hold of you. It’ll corrupt a man like you—a good man—worse than any Taugen; worse than that Kairendyrian creature. Don’t listen to it!

You must not listen!

Dax frowned—he had started thinking about wilful ignorance, for some reason—but then the air around him sighed. And the Ninth spoke.

Built of echoes, and time, and the memory of wind-in-dust, the words came; gentle, conversational. The Ninth Guardian spoke directly to Dax, as if they were old friends in the corner of some midnight bar, with strangers wandering past the plate-glass window.

It spoke of endless wastelands, dry with straw, dreaming of towering thunderclouds and fearing the lightning.

It spoke of the music formed when wind blows through a vast bone instrument—like a great skull—and the dances such music inspires, which end with the dancers’ feet being pattered with blood.

It spoke of the stars scratching out lines in the immensity of space.

It spoke of the Librais Tower standing against the dawn with wisps of cloud still gathering in the east, and the lightning; lightning, always lightning, hammering down on the four pylons at its apex.

The Ninth spoke, and it said…

Pffft.

“Dax—“

Kaire’s voice, almost puzzled, seemed too low to carry over the vast, dry immensity of the Ninth’s words, but somehow he heard it; he opened his eyes. Kaire was swaying a little on her feet, and something was sticking out of her back. It took Dax several seconds to comprehend that it was some species of tranquilliser dart, with a large glass vessel on the back. A few silvery drops still clung to the sides.

There was another pffft and a second dart hit her, this time in the back of the neck. The liquid inside was already beginning to pump into her body when she reached around and yanked it free. Her long fingers crushed the vessel in what looked like a spasm. Silver droplets spattered on the ground. Kaire looked at them with a kind of admiring smile. “Strychnine in a silver base,” she said, faintly. A convulsion quivered through her body. “Clever

Someone seized Dax from behind as Kaire toppled to the ground, her eyes staring. A cold substance, not unlike the gritty paste the Taugen had smeared on his face for this pilgrimage, was wiped onto his forehead and cheeks. At once, it was like a cloud lifting; the voice of the Ninth Guardian faded, not as if it had been driven out, but as if it was disappointed and was choosing to withdraw. Dax cried out in loss.

A figure stepped in front of him. It was Adree Aeslin, shouldering a strange weapon loaded with those bizarre tranquilliser darts, dressed in light body armour. Her face was partially covered by a mask. What he could see of her skin was marked with blue paint in strange symbols.

“Now,” she said. “Quickly.”

He felt the prick of a needle in his arm. Strong hands caught him as a fog rose up and drew him down. The last thing he heard was a clamour in his head, some nonsense in a voice he vaguely knew: Just in time. Just in time. Just in time. Just—

* * *

“Get them out of here,” ordered Adree. She studiously kept her back to the Great Maw. Even with the protections she had cobbled together, she could feel the terrible god-like presence surrounding them, amused and curious and indescribably powerful, like a tsunami with a mind.

Two of her men hauled the convulsing, staring Kaire onto their shoulders; one yelped. “She’s got spines on her arm—“

“Give her another dose every five minutes,” said Adree. “A full dose.”

“That’s enough strychine to kill a battalion.”

“Yes. Use it all.”

Adree knelt beside Dax. He was deeply unconscious. His face, marked with the mixture Adree had created after studying The Other Lives—faerie tales for a military operation, so ludicrous—was slack and peaceful. They had to get him out of here.

She looped his arm over her shoulders and lifted him up. “So undignified,” she whispered. “I’m sorry about this, sir. You’ll soon be home.”

 

 

 

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