“Dax!”

Athellus stepped over the remains of a wall, his gun down by his side, approaching the remains of the guard post carefully. There were several bodies slumped on the ground as he passed. He checked them all as he went, shaking his head angrily as he failed again and again to find a pulse. All these lives wasted.

“Dax?”

He spotted someone, sitting upright on the ground, a young man with a white blaze. As Athellus came closer, picking up the pace, he saw - with relief - that the younger man looked unscathed. Dax was just kneeling there, his head bowed and his hands on his knees. His hair was so wet that it was plastered to his head.

“Dax. Dax. Hey. You okay?”

Dax looked up at him. He seemed utterly exhausted. “Looks like you made it through all right.”

“Where’s Lessinger?”

“Gone. I think something got him, after he took a swing at me. But I think it’s gone too. I haven’t heard anything since.”

Athellus took Dax’s arm and helped him to his feet. Dax staggered slightly but kept his balance. “It’s okay, I’m all right. -Mostly. Where’s Kaire?”

“I have no idea. She’ll find us soon enough, I hope. We need her to take the power grid out.” Athellus looked around. “The Earthborn are pulling back. We should withdraw and wait for her. I don’t understand any of this…”

“Will the Evinthei come back for their dead?”

“Depends. They usually prize helping the living above recovering the dead.” Athellus began helping him along, pausing beside one of the bodies. He patted the corpse’s pockets gently and removed a spare magazine, ejecting the empty one from his gun and reloading. He kept talking so he didn’t have to think too much about what he was seeing. “After being hit so hard, they’ll probably just get out to minimise casualties. The Evinthei genetic security services prioritise some people for recovery if they die in combat, but I doubt they’d send any of them out on a mission like this. Though Lessinger is one, I think…”

“Genetic security,” said Dax, flatly.

“Yeah. All part of the fun and laughter of a selective population. Let’s get out of here.”

Dax was able to walk, slowly: Athellus helped him along as they moved away from the guard post back into the cover of the ruins. In amongst the crumbling walls, they had some better cover. Athellus kicked a chunk of concrete out of the way, wondering if he was ever going to feel comfortable in a normal city again. Part of the Librais Tower’s oddity had not been its size or what was inside it, but the simple fact that it was intact. Being on street level with walls that went up more than ten feet was going to be a real novelty.

He looked over at Dax, wondering if he should ask what had happened to Lessinger, but changed his mind at once. The young man looked pale and drawn, no doubt from shock. Athellus made a mental note: as soon as the power grid was taken down, Dax might benefit from a stiff drink.

They made their way back to the hollow under the rubble with the V-shaped fallen girders. It had served them well enough as a shelter before, it would do for now. As they approached, Dax slowed. “Wait a second. I thought we left our stuff here.”

Athellus looked toward the back of the shelter. He had pushed the backpacks back there where it was reasonably dry, but the packs - containing their rations, water, spare gear and a million other useful things - had gone. His heart sank. Now what?

Dax crouched down on the concrete, beside a lid Athellus recognised from one of his medical containers. The box had been broken open and left a trail of rose-coloured powder on the ground, already a wet, chalky smear. Dax picked up the lid: against the light there were teeth marks punched in the top. “The Earthborn must have come in and dragged them out.”

Athellus looked around uneasily. “No. They don’t do things like that unless there’s fresh food in the bag. But then again Earthborn don’t launch co-ordinated attacks against Evinthei outposts either.” Damn it. Just when they could have used someone good at finding things, Kaire had wandered off somewhere. Hopefully she hadn’t forgotten what she was supposed to be doing and Gated out to blow off some steam. Again.

“It doesn’t matter why they took the packs, the fact is that they’re gone,” Dax sighed. “We’d better find them before the Earthborn tear them open. I don’t fancy carrying all that stuff around in my hands.”

 

They followed the powder trail through the rubble, but it was already starting to be washed away by the rain. Dax had to make himself look out of the corner of his eye, to see pink traces caught in between bricks or a smear on a flagstone. The backpacks had been dragged a good distance, but eventually, as they left the guard post behind and crossed what had once been a wide circular plaza, Athellus pointed, exasperated. “There.”

The backpacks were lying at the foot of some sort of plinth: it seemed to have once held a statue, but was now empty. Athellus picked up one of the bags and started rummaging through it. “Looks like everything’s here. A bit chewed up, but they’re both okay.”

Dax caught the pack as Athellus threw it to him. There were more teeth marks in the cloth and the bottom was stained with the powder, but everything was as he had left it. “Maybe the Earthborn got tired of pulling them around?”

Athellus was digging through the second backpack, not paying attention. Dax slid the pack’s straps over his shoulders and looked around. This wasn’t the way they had come to get to the guard post; unusually for Nones, the paving stones underfoot were some sort of bluish granite rather than concrete. Now that he looked, the plinth wasn’t the only one. There were at least a dozen, arranged around the plaza like the numbers on a clock face. Dax turned around, curiously, and noticed that one of the plinths wasn’t empty. The statue of some sort of beast was resting on top of it - literally resting. The sculptor had carved it almost draped over the plinth, giant paws crossed over each other and its head lying on top.

Dax narrowed his eyes. It looked somehow… familiar. The statue was heavy-browed, enormous, with a thick body and markings on its back.

“Okay.” Athellus joined him, shrugging the other backpack on. “We good to -”

He looked up at the statue, and suddenly started laughing. “Ember’s blood. Look at that. That’s a rare sight.”

Dax barely heard him. “I’ve seen this before. In a dream, I think, but I can’t quite remember -”

Athellus snickered. “Really? Your dreams, Dax, are seriously short on the good stuff.”

“But what is it?”

“It's a lapidtalos, a - a kind of… like a cross between a watchdog and a golem. One of the ancient defences of Nones. They were made way back when, long before Ormian Amtino or Jayton Ember were ever thought of. The city was full of places like this, where they were stationed. The lapidtalii were meant to be the last resort in the event of an invasion.”

A lapidtalos…

“How did that work?”

Athellus shrugged. “The technology to make them is partly Ancestral and way beyond anyone’s ability now, but back in the day it worked just fine. Most of the time the lapidtalii sat around, looking like statues, not doing anything. But if the city got invaded and taken, they were activated. They were meant to wait until the invaders were settled in, then - up they'd spring. Help to re-take the city from the inside. They were scattered all over the city in strategic stations.”

“Then how come we haven’t seen any before this?”

“Because there aren’t meant to be any around, not any more. When the Scorpieth attacked at first, Jayton Ember called all the lapidtalii up to fight it, trying to stop humans from being killed. But the lapidtalii were only meant to fight ground troops, and the Scorpieth was out of their league. It destroyed them.”

Dax looked at him. “You don’t sound very bothered about it.”

“Why should I be? It was a long time ago, and it didn’t matter anyway. They were just constructs, after all. It was their job to defend the city.”

There was a thick, grinding sound from the statue. Two huge green eyes opened, and the stone mouth opened in a snarl. “And you, Emberspawn, would do it all over again, wouldn’t you?”

Both men backed off as the creature raised its head, drawing its paws back to sit up. “You’d send the real troops of Nones out to die, my brothers and sisters, defending a city that’s not yours to begin with. Perhaps it’s better that we’re already dead, then?”

“Holy shit,” breathed Athellus. “It’s still operational, too?”

Dax stared, trying to understand how this worked - it was obviously a statue but it moved like a living creature, its hide flexing like molten ceramic. The interior of the mouth was pink, but it seemed to have been constructed that way. The markings on its back were pale and spiralling, and Dax recognised them as the same markings that had been on the Earthborn, only these were crisp and beautifully drawn. On the heels of that recognition came a name.

“Gothgorius,” he said, softly.

Athellus looked at him, startled. “What?”

The lapidtalos purred. His voice rumbled gently through the air, the same voice that had lured Lessinger out into the ruins. “Well, seems like not all humans are completely ignorant after all, though I wonder there’s any sense coming out at all. You’ve got such a loud brain I wonder that your thoughts aren’t dripping out of your ears.”

 

 

 

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