Kaire led them through the warren of tunnels with only the barest hesitation when they reached branches in the route. Personally, Dax thought it would be an ice skating festival in hell before he’d walk down a tunnel like this without shoes, but she splashed through the water as readily as if she was in waterproofs. He caught up with her, while Athellus came on behind them, out of earshot and apparently lost in thought.

After a time, Kaire said: “Something up?”

“Yeah. Is your partner always like this?”

She tossed a quick glance over her shoulder. “I think he’s still shaken up by what happened, out on Lailenus Street. Seeing Adree Aeslin again…”

“You said they grew up together.”

“That’s right. But when Athellus left the Evinthei…” She seemed to collect her thoughts. “He lost a lot of things. Adree was one of them. They were close. Sending her to capture him was a masterful idea.”

“She shot that soldier of hers in cold blood,” said Dax, quietly, remembering. “That was brutal. It must have been hard for him to watch.”

Kaire studied him, almost curiously, and he thought of steel spines flashing, blood on the ground.  In this light, the markings on her face were even darker, her eyes unfathomable. For the first time out of combat, the fact she wasn’t human was deeply underscored in his thoughts. But without those marks and her hair, she could walk down Oxford Street and not turn a head. Maybe she was human, once, and something happened, something terrible, and now she’s – what? She feels, but just what she’s feeling…that’s a good question…

“Adree had her reasons for killing that soldier,” Kaire said, very low. “But Athellus won’t discuss it, and it would be unwise to bring it up.”

“Whatever her reasons, I hope she’ll listen to me,” Dax replied. “She’s my best chance of living to see Christmas. If you even have that here…”

“Shhhh,” said Kaire suddenly. “Hear that?”

“Hear what?”

“The echoes are changing.” Athellus caught up behind them, at a jog. “I think this is it.”

Dax reached out and put a hand on the wall. Instead of damp crumbling bricks, the tunnel was lined with tiles, cracked and dirty with age and neglect. In the torchlight, he could see that the tunnel came to an end up ahead, with a ladder dropping down from above, connected to a hatch in the ceiling.

“We’re here,” Kaire said, her teeth resting on her lip lightly. “Let’s just hope no rubble’s blocking the hatch.” She scaled the ladder nimbly and took a look at it. “It doesn’t look dented… All yours, ‘Thel.”

Athellus let her jump down, then went up. Dax held the torch for him, pointing up at the hatch, which was locked with a mechanism that snapped shut like the hatch in a submarine. Athellus bent a piece of wire and fiddled with the mechanism for a while, then, satisfied, pulled a switch on one side. The mechanism freed itself and the hatch seal hissed open. With an elbow bent, Athellus pushed up on the hatch and it came open easily. Late afternoon sunlight fell past him in rays.

“Score one for us,” he said with a grin, climbing out. Delicious, fresh air wafted down to Dax. He could feel himself straining towards the light and wind. Kaire crouched, then jumped vertically, pulling herself out. She stuck a hand down to help Dax. “Feels like I need a bath after all that,” she said.

Dax clambered up the ladder and let her help him up. Her grip was as powerful as he remembered, as if there was steel under her skin instead of bones. Then he was out in the open air and he didn’t care about anything else.

“Feels like we were down there for days,” he said, stretching. “Which way now?”

“Nowhere,” Kaire said from behind him. “We’re here.”

Dax turned towards her, expecting to see more ruins, maybe another of those shrines like the one he had arrived when he first came here. But the building which actually stood before them – this, he hadn’t expected.

 

 

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