“Gothgorius?” Athellus wanted to know. “You know this thing?”

Dax folded his arms. “I’m right, aren’t I? I’ve seen you before. That dream about the Librais Tower, you were in it. You were reciting something about the Guardians. How did you do that?”

The lapidtalos snorted. It was bizarre not to see its breath on the cool air. “Why should I trouble myself to trot through your nocturnal ravings? Besides, even if I did, your act of trespass is much worse than that. Wandering around the city as if you own the place…”

“I’d hardly call Nones a city any more,” said Dax, scornfully. “It looks more like a scrapyard after an air raid.”

“What are you doing here, anyway?” Athellus wanted to know, looking up at the huge stone creature. “In history class they told us all the lapidtalii were destroyed by the Scorpieth. When the ‘return to base’ command was issued after the fighting, none of them responded.”

Gothgorius sneered at him. “As if any of us would be stupid enough to come back afterwards, after seeing how much we were valued by Jayton Ember’s merry band. Not that it matters.” His voice changed timbre, with just an edge of regret. “I was the only survivor. So finishing your genocide against Ancestral technology would be pointless. Even if you could endanger me, which I doubt. ”

“That doesn’t answer my question,” said Athellus. “What are you doing here?”

“I don’t have to explain myself to you, Emberspawn.” Gothgorius turned to look at Dax again. Those gigantic green eyes glowed like headlamps as he looked him over. “But I get the feeling this one isn’t part of your fraternity. You don’t smell like a slave of Ember’s cause. You have the scars of a Sundering, I think.”

“What’s it to you?” Dax asked.

The creature chuckled quietly. “Balls as well as brains. …such as they are.” He jerked his head at Athellus. “Get lost, Emberspawn. I want to talk to this one in peace.”

“Forget it,” said Athellus. “I’m not leaving him alone here with you.”

Dax leaned in close and whispered. “Athellus, if he wanted to bite my head off he could have done it already. I might learn something.”

The other man frowned. “You’re sure?”

“Yeah. It’s okay.” Even though this creature was enormous and powerful, and at least a little hostile, Dax wasn’t afraid of Gothgorius. Curious, but not afraid. All his fear seemed to have been used up already, replaced by… a kind of proud self-confidence. “Go on.”

Athellus backed off across the plaza, taking their backpacks with him. They were left alone, the monster and the man.

“Did you attack Arawn Lessinger?” Dax wanted to know. “I heard him screaming. I know you’re the one who called him out there, I heard your voice.”

Gothgorius purred. “I just played with him a little. Perhaps he has a few broken bones, but what of it? His soldiers dragged him off, and your kind heals.”

“Not always,” said Dax. “Lessinger was about to shoot me and you saved my life. Why did you do that?”

“Curiosity, perhaps. And maybe I sensed I was needed. You mocked this place, boy. Out of ignorance. Ignorance needs correction.”

“You called me ignorant before as well,” said Dax. “In my dream. Strange coincidence, that.”

“I don’t have any interest in dreams. You seem to have more of a gift for listening. So use it.”

Gothgorius lay down on his plinth again. “It’s not your fault, as much. Humans are a blip in time. You look around and all you see is a wasteland, a city ravaged by war and infighting. You can’t look beyond for a longer view. There’s so much more to Nones than ruins. She has been here for thousands of years, and she’ll be here for thousands more. All this -” Gothgorius waved a paw. “This is a transitional period, nothing more.”

Dax glanced dubiously at the destroyed buildings. “A transition.”

“You can only see. I can feel. Humans wander back and forth, breathing and breeding and and killing each other. You live for a little while and then you are gone. My kind was created from the very stuff of this city. We were born to protect and defend her. Our minds were connected to the city’s defences, linked to her power supplies, bound to her communications, served those who came before. We lived the beating heart of her for centuries before humans came here at last. We never saw them as a threat. They never touched the heart of this place, not truly. When they learned to use the defences of Nones, we believed humans truly were what they call themselves now - inheritors. We believed they had earned the right to live in this place, that they deserved our loyalty.

“And yet it was human ambition that called the Scorpieth here. Jayton Ember was an idiot who thought his brief spark could ignite an empire, and we - we! - lay at his feet and called him master. We were fools. For thousands of years we watched this place, and our reward was to be spent like ciphers, to save transient human lives that died anyway. My people are gone. Seventy-two sacrifices to Ember’s idiocy, and even Nones herself has suffered for it. But… in the end, she is transcendent of such concerns. One day she will be beautiful again, and powerful.”

Dax was quiet, moved despite himself. Something was nagging at him - he had heard that phrase ‘transcendent of such concerns’ somewhere else. “Wait. That graffiti down in the tunnels beneath the Chapel. That was you. And your markings have appeared on the other Earthborn too. They painted themselves to look like you - you set them on the Evinthei, didn’t you? You’re their Painted Oracle. Is that what this is about? Some kind of… petty revenge?”

Gothgorius shrugged. “The Earthborn are shadows of what they once were. They might be distant kin of my kind, but they disgust me. They scavenge scraps from the humans’ table instead of slitting their throats to feast. But I enjoy an audience. Why not amuse myself?”

Vale’s face, the dead Evinthei near the guard post, were so vivid in his mind. “Amuse yourself? You think this is fun?”

“Seeing foes cancel each other out is quite the sport, for its elegance if nothing else. You might do well to remember that.” Gothgorius hummed to himself. “My mind and my heart are bound to this place. When Nones bleeds, her voice cries out through me. And now… I think she feels the approach of something worth waking for. A true inheritor, not like these upstarts. My curiosity is my weakness - that’s why I brought your baggage here, for a talk. You’re something new in a place needing to change. So I wonder, boy, I wonder just what it is about you and your companions that has roused the city’s interest.” He smiled. “I shall be most interested to see what she decides to do with you.”

Dax folded his arms. “Does this mean you’re going to leave the Evinthei alone?”

Gothgorius raised a stone eyebrow. “Surely the great Evinthei with their guns and their genetics have nothing to fear from an old, malfunctioning defence system like me? If they can’t defend their territory they don’t deserve to keep it. Nones doesn’t treat such ones kindly.”

The creature lifted his head a little more and looked past Dax with a smile. “Yes. I shall be very curious to see what becomes of you, boy. Particularly in the company you keep.”

Dax turned around. Sitting cross-legged on one of the plinths across the plaza, her face like an alabaster mask stained with wine, was Kaire. She was watching them with a thoughtful expression, appearing calmer and more at peace than Dax had ever seen her.

“What is she?” Dax asked quietly.

“In these times? Who knows.” Gothgorius’ voice was a sardonic whisper. “No one ever knows the soul of another. And Kairendyrian’s, least of all.”

“What?”

Dax turned back to Gothgorius, but the plinth behind him was empty. Only a stir of cold air and the smell of old stone was left behind.

 

 

 

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