Dax raised a sceptical eyebrow. “So those two could stop a war machine that a whole army couldn’t fight?”

“It all depends on the weapons you use,” Athellus told him. “The Greater Powers realised what was happening in Nones. They knew that the Scorpieth would only grow stronger from fighting here and it had to be stopped as soon as possible. When it was clear the defences of Nones weren’t going to be enough, they dispatched two banru to go into the fray. Merriad and Roscher volunteered.”

“Who were they?”

“They came from a very distant world. Merriad was the daughter of a high priest, Roscher was an inconvenient ‘extra’ son of the royal family, the House of Water. He was abandoned on an island and left to fend for himself, for years and years. Then there was some sort of drought and the temple said that a royal sacrifice was needed to bring the rains back, so they grabbed Roscher off the island and hauled him up to the temple in chains. He never had it easy. Anyway, they actually had his head on the block, but Merriad, who was high priestess herself by then – she couldn’t bring herself to do it. She cut him free and they escaped. Very dashing.

“They were lovers who became banru together…and that made them powerful, really powerful, or the People Upstairs would never let them try to fight the Scorpieth. But the armies of Nones wouldn’t listen to them. They were suspicious of banru and refused their help, despite the danger they were in. So the Scorpieth’s carnage went on, until Merriad and Roscher decided to take matters into their own hands.”

Athellus shut his eyes, hummed slightly as if to get his pitch, then half-sang, half-chanted in a strong, clear tenor:

 

“Yet two came against it, two souls,

United by love and love of duty

Armed with guile and blood and steel

They set to counter the unholy menace.

 

But some foes surpass mere human power

And the Scorpieth’s bloody work went on

Until the two, weeping, made their choice

And called greater forces down to aid them.

 

Light called to light – the bargain struck

Space twisted – and the Scorpieth was sent

Deep into the void, far from any world

To rest harmless until the end of time.

 

But power has its price, and the lovers paid,

Clinging to each other as they died of it.

Their bodies turned to pure dark iron

To rest amongst the shadows of the ruined city.”

 

He hesitated, then sang one last verse:

 

“Tell the tale of the lovers-in-iron

That no banru ever forgets

A silent chapel and two iron statues

Bound for eternity as one.”

 

There was a long silence when he had finished.

“And that’s why the city’s ruined,” murmured Dax.

"Part of the reason, yeah.”

 “So the Scorpieth got…sent to the end of forever? By something Merriad and Roscher used?”

“Yeah. We don’t know what they did, but I can’t even imagine the power it would take, that it didn’t just kill them but turned them to solid iron on the spot.” Athellus balled up the empty packet and threw it on the floor. “When the Entourage’s children grew up, they formed the Evinthei, which just means ‘the ones who inherit’. Their ancestors, who had died facing the Scorpieth, became their heroes, and Jayton Ember is the greatest of them all, as far as they’re concerned. I suppose that’s right, in a way. What happened to him wasn’t his fault, and he did a lot of good.

“But despite what happened, they’ll never really trust or like banru. The Evinthei believe in themselves, in their history, in their technology. That kind of power – it’s not something they understand. And…they have other reasons for disliking banru. Not many people like us, though. We make them uncomfortable."

Athellus drank some more water. Dax could see that his hands were shaking – talking for so long had taken a lot out of him. “So that’s what a banru is, Dax – someone who’s cheated death, travels across worlds, and is destined to die saving people who hate him.”

“Makes it sound as if you hate your job.”

Athellus lay down again, stiffly. “It’s the truth. Just because I love what I do, it doesn’t mean I can’t be realistic about it.”

Dax ran his eyes over the statues again. “So…how did you become banru?”

The reply that came out from under the blanket was surprisingly sharp: “What does it matter to you?”

“I was just asking a q-“

"Well, it’s not important. And I don’t see why you’re curious. You’re not going to be here for much longer, anyway, are you?”

“What?”

“As soon as Kaire’s ready to go, she can Gate you back to London. You can get out of this. And you can get on with your nice, safe life.” There was a rustle as Athellus turned over.

Left sitting there, Dax was dumbstruck. What…as easily as that? Say the word and – he could go home?

He could go back to London, just as he’d imagined. Back to real things, back to newspapers and street lights, back to Cal and Rita and Sam, back to…

Back to…

He raised his head and it was as if he was looking into the mirror in his bathroom as he had the night he went to Ouroboros, standing there in the dark, staring at the face reflected back. Staring into eyes he had had tested a dozen times, thinking he might need glasses. Staring at the planes of his nose, remembering how the headache had once been so bad he’d ended up with a nosebleed. And almost falling into his eyes, the white forelock that always made him stand out, looking like a signal that, in about the same place inside his skull, a dark mass was growing.

Maybe what Athellus had just been talking about had brought it to mind more clearly than ever. But Dax was suddenly even more conscious of his condition than he had been in Dr Brenner’s office, looking at that x-ray. And with that realisation came the glimmerings of a plan.

 

 

 

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