Lessinger’s face was a blank as he advanced. Dax flattened his back against the wall and put up his hands at once, dropping the gun he had picked up inside the barracks. “Captain Lessinger, I -”

Lessinger raked back the slide and pointed his gun directly at Dax’s forehead. Dax felt his stomach and heart go ice cold. “Captain, please, I know I’m on your wanted list, but…”

The soldier jerked his head towards the carnage in the courtyard. “Did you do this? Huh? Did you and Borden set this up? Did you rouse the Earthborn against us?”

Dax shook his head - not difficult, it felt like every part of him was shaking anyway. “No.”

The captain’s voice rose to a yell. “Damn it, are my people getting killed because of you?”

“No! I would never do something like this!”

Raindrops bounced off the barrel of Lessinger’s weapon, which hadn’t moved an inch.

Lessinger said, harshly: “Who are you?”

Dax swallowed. The cut on the captain’s forehead, running blood down, had turned one green eye dark; the other was near opalescent with rage.

“My name is Dax West.” His voice stayed calm, somehow, a momentary vibrato at the back of the throat all that betrayed how frightened he was. He kept his hands still. “My name is Dax West. I don’t want to hurt you or anyone else. I’m dying and I need your help.”

Lessinger stared at him, narrowing his eyes. “…What?”

Behind him, something roared through the rain, a deep, hoarse bellow that echoed for a long time. Dax flinched and Lessinger looked over his shoulder, startled, though his gun still remained completely steady.

“Earthborn -”

“No, bigger,” said Lessinger. He was scanning the area with a kind of terribly focused calm. “Much bigger than that.”

The flesh on the back of Dax’s neck began to crawl. Kaire had never sounded like that, so…

It seemed that wherever he turned he was trapped. Madness in the tunnel below, death in the streets up here, either at the teeth of the Earthborn or a bullet between the eyes or facing whatever new horror this city was about to throw at him. His so-called allies could kill him at any moment, out of necessity or battle lust. There was no escape anywhere. Even the secret darkness inside his head, his own body, had turned against him.

No. Your fear is yours and yours alone - you create it, you are its master. Like any dog, it is stupid and will run riot unless given orders. But you can make it serve you.

“Whatever it is, my people are out there with it.” Lessinger suddenly turned back to Dax.

“Mine too,” said Dax, as forcefully as he could. “So what are you going to do about it?”

Lessinger studied him. “You’re allied with an Evinthei traitor. You tried to kill Commander Aeslin.”

“No. We were defending ourselves. And you don’t understand what Athellus is -”

“I understand that he wiped out an entire riverside outpost,” said Lessinger. “I understand that he shot seven people, one of whom had been his instructor and his mentor, put the bodies on display, and blew up the building. I understand that he broke Adree Aeslin’s heart and humiliated her, maybe enough to damage the entire future leadership of Nones. I understand that his mind is being twisted around like Ormian Amtino’s, and if that’s true, it would be kinder to put him down before he does any more damage.”

Dax swallowed. “And how many more of your soldiers might die while you’re standing here arguing with me?”

Lessinger shivered, once.

“Pull them out,” said Dax, quietly. “Get them home, captain. I don’t want them to die any more than you do. You can save them before anyone else gets hurt.”

“And leaves you the power grid,” Lessinger replied. “Conveniently.”

“We didn’t ask for this to happen! We wouldn’t have hurt you if we’d had the choice! Is it really worth sacrificing all their lives to defend it?”

“We’re all here for the same reason. To do our duty. Whatever -”

“Whatever sacrifices are required?”

Both men looked at each other. The interrupting voice was male but… belonged to neither of them, cutting through Lessinger’s words like a knife. Dax felt an eerie shiver run down his spine. He knew that voice somehow, knew those deep tones that seemed to rumble through the ground.

Lessinger turned, alert at once, his head up. “Who’s there?”

A soft chuckle answered him, halfway between a purr and a growl. It was hard to tell where it was coming from. “I don’t answer to you, captain. I’m having better sport with your underlings. Mine seem to be leaving.”

Under the blood smeared down his face Lessinger flushed dark red. He seemed to have forgotten all about Dax. “You Earthborn piece of shit! Get away from my people!”

“Then leave that one alone, and come and stop me.”

Lessinger hesitated… then swung around and punched Dax in the stomach, full force. It was like being hit with a piston; Dax collapsed, all the air knocked out of him. A hand grabbed his hair, pulling his head up, and Lessinger said to him, quietly: “I’ll be back for you. Believe me.”

The captain grabbed the gun Dax had dropped and charged off into the driving rain. Dax was left curled in a ball on the concrete, trying to breathe. He thought he heard Lessinger cry out, but it was far off and remote.

* * *

The Earthborn were losing their nerve. The humans had reacted perfectly at first, had been driven back and forth as easily as the Leader had said, but now things were going wrong. The Evinthei were beginning to regroup out in the rubble somewhere. Ordinarily that would not have been a problem, only now… there was a new scent criss-crossing the humans’ trails. It smelled of distance and age and strength, and it frightened them, sending them skittering back and forth rather than rallying again. Some even turned on each other, savaging their tribemates out of fear, while others, bereft of the Leader’s presence, fled.

One of the largest, determined to master his terror, began to stalk around the side of the Evinthei. He could see one of the soldiers standing a little apart from the group, a small one that was already wounded. One leap would ameliorate their failure and humiliation, and he could take the head as a trophy back for the Leader. It would be a small success.

He crouched low as a leopard, sneaking forward, utterly focused on his target. He didn’t care about the other soldiers nearby: he could leap onto the small one and clamp his jaws on its throat before the others had time to react.

And then that scent enveloped him, drowning all his other senses out. The Earthborn swung around, faltering mid-step and cringing.

Standing behind him was something that looked like one of the soldiers, but… wasn’t. Female, yes, but the Earthborn had never seen a human that looked like this. Naked and wet from the rain, her body looked sleek and metallic and spiny, as if she was wearing armour, but… it seemed to be actually growing from her skin. The edges of it were razor sharp and swept back elegantly, even beginning to grow in a fine crest from the sides of her head and out of her white hair. The backs of her forearms had four long spines on each one, heavier than the others, while the backs of her upper arms had what looked like growths of long steel feathers. They floated softly behind her, rustling together, no louder than the sighs of the ocean. Purplish markings stood out vividly on her cheeks and against her biceps like flaws in the armour. In the gloom of the rain her eyes were brilliantly white and luminous.

“Hello, little one,” the apparition said.

The Earthborn backed away a step, then another, and another, and then turned and fled into the rubble.

Behind him, Kaire grinned and turned her face up to the rain, tasting the drops against the corners of her mouth. She gave a sensuous shiver, and felt the changes in her anatomy begin to reverse themselves, making her human form reassert itself. It had been a while since she’d... let herself go, but it didn’t do to indulge too much. There would be time for that later.

In the meantime, the worst of the Earthborn were beginning to clear out. She had done her job, and now… she felt like having a little fun. Surely Dax and Athellus could take care of themselves for a while. Besides, if something was running away from you in terror, what else was there to do?

 

 

 

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