The sound of an approaching engine, breaking the peace of the early morning and the translucent sky overhead, sent Dax sidestepping quickly out of sight. Chilled by the spatter, and acutely aware his clothes were lost somewhere in that immense flood, he waded behind a piece of fallen masonry to watch.

Wide ripples fanned through the water as the vehicle approached. As it turned the corner, Dax relaxed at the sight of familiar paintwork. It was the Green Warrior, albeit far more battle-scarred than he remembered, with a broken window and its undercarriage almost swimming in water, but in one piece. He stood up and waved one arm.

The Warrior pulled up not far from the massive pool; the driver’s door creaked open and Athellus slid to the ground. He looked pale and drawn, and there was a bloody wound on the side of his head, but he was otherwise in one piece.

After a glance at Dax, he reached into the back seat of the Warrior for a blanket, tossing it to him. Dax took it gratefully, wrapping around his shoulders.

“Is she all right?” Athellus asked.

With a splash, Kaire landed between them in a crouch. The scars on her naked body were vivid and dark, especially the new ones—the patches on her shoulder and stomach where the steel girder had pierced her body.

Athellus quickly shrugged off his jacket and held it out, but as he tried to wrap it round her, Kaire took the sides of his head in her hands and brought her face very close, very close, nose to nose, then breathed in as if scenting him. Athellus held still, but never took his eyes from hers.

Dax huddled further into the blanket and turned away, mildly embarrassed and, truthfully, a little envious. He gave them a minute or two. When he turned back, Kaire was wearing Athellus’ jacket, which was just big enough to cover her modesty, and peering at the wound on the side of Athellus’ head.

“That looks nasty.”

Athellus shrugged. “It’s a ricochet, I’m fine. We should be okay. I shook the Evinthei off and laid low for a few hours.” He then gave Dax a level glance. “Speaking of. Kaire, it turns out Dax here has been in contact with Adree. He’s the reason we were attacked.”

Dax took a step forward. “That’s not true! Kaire, Adree lied to me. She said she could help me, she never said a word about attacking us. If I’d known I’d have warned you, I swear.”

Kaire looked at him, then turned to Athellus.

Athellus folded his arms. “I still need to know what you told Adree. About us, and our mission.”

“But I didn’t tell her anything! She just wanted a blood sample, so she could diagnose what was wrong with me!”

Athellus blinked. “A blood sample?”

“Yes!” Dax pointed. “I sent it via that medical thing in the Warrior.”

Athellus frowned, rubbing at the stubble on his face. “And after that, she decided to set a car bomb for us? Why? What did she find in that blood sample?”

“How should I know? And believe me, after this, if Adree thinks I’m doing anything for her, she can go to hell.”

Athellus folded his arms. “You could have got us in on this plan, but you chose not to. And Kaire suffered for it. We both did.”

He wants an excuse not to kill you. Help him out.

Dax held up his hands. “I know. What Adree did was terrible and I’m sorry about that. But there’s a difference between ‘fault” and ‘responsibility’. Adree’s not here to take responsibility, so I will.”

“What do you mean?”

“You got hurt because I made a mistake. So as far as I can tell, I owe a debt.” Dax looked from him to Kaire. “You can do whatever you want later, but give me a chance to pay you back first. A life saved for a life risked. How does that sound?”

Kaire raised an eyebrow.

Athellus studied him. “I don’t know, Dax. You’re just too damned strange for my liking. Sometimes you’re some sort of savant, then you’re our friend, then you’re making deals behind our back…”

He sighed. “But if you are some sort of enemy agent, you’re the worst one I’ve ever seen in my entire life. And you’re right, you owe us. So fine, then. You do right by us when the time comes.”

Athellus looked away, to the rippling sunlight on the seemingly endless water. “But don’t forget. You make a promise to a banru, the People Upstairs will make sure you keep it.”

A shiver went down Dax’s spine. But he simply said: “I’ll remember.”

Kaire stood to one side, proud and alone, her pale skin looking paler against the deep red jacket. “I’ll follow as I can, ‘Thel.”

Athellus nodded, then gently touched her shoulder. “You came pretty close back there, partner. Do me a favour and don’t… change for a while, okay? No spines, no armour, no nothing. Leave the fighting to us. Just be Kaire for a while.”

“Are you sure?” said Kaire. “The Evinthei will be out for blood after this.”

“If you stand on that knife edge, in the condition you’re in, it’ll be more than the Evinthei we have to worry about.” Athellus opened the back door of the Warrior; Dax climbed inside, relishing the warmth of the interior and rubbing at his bluing feet. “We’ll see you there.”

Kaire turned and began running through the water, barefoot. She crouched, sprang toward one of the buildings, and was gone.

Athellus stood for a moment, looking up at her, then climbed into the Warrior. He sat heavily on the passenger’s seat, suddenly enough to rock the vehicle’s suspension, putting his head in his hands.

Dax stared at him in sudden alarm, his hand frozen mid-reach for his backpack on the back seat. “Hey. Athellus? Are you all right?”

Athellus raised his head again, the clotted blood on the side of his head showing clearly under his hair. “I’m fucking exhausted.”

Closer, Dax could see just how pale he was, and that there were cuts on his arms and the backs of his hands. Again, Dax remembered his dream of the jungle, and the guardians on the bridge, of a man with black hair bound, blindfolded and gagged with a black bandage. The same that was tied on his friend’s bicep again now, looking as if it belonged there.

Athellus slumped back against the seat. “Too much. Even normally Kaire’s—being so close to all that power hollows you out.” Then, with a glance back at Dax; “It’ll happen to you too eventually.” He laughed suddenly, his voice growing fainter. “Maybe it has already. Maybe between that and your tumour, that’s why you talk so crazy all the time.”

Dax pulled a crumpled T-shirt from his pack and yanked it over his head, then reached for a spare pair of stained jeans. Dressed, he climbed past Athellus’ shoulder into the driver’s seat of the Warrior. “Get some rest,” he told him. “I’ll drive. Where are we going?”

Athellus stared out at the street ahead. Dax followed his gaze. The sun was almost fully risen. Shafts of golden light were falling through the wreckage of the buildings, turning the ruins of Nones to dusky rose.

“Head for the building with the crescent taken out of it,” said Athellus quietly. “We’re almost to the river. And if we’re lucky, we can blow the pylon, overload the Generator Well, and see this damned business over soon, once and for all.”

He turned away from Dax, curled up in the seat, and closed his eyes.

 

 

 

previous | archive | next