For now, Tobias Aeslin was a twelve-year-old boy again. Sitting with concrete dust under his fingernails, the cuffs of his jeans powdered with grit and his boots splashed with drying mud… the old sensations were more powerful than he had imagined.

He looked up. Yes, even the view was the same. The immense outer walls of the Generator Well facility, mostly completed, loomed over him as if he had a twelve-year-old’s perspective.

Sparks were drifting down from the upper reaches as the construction crew he had just been supervising got back to work. They had been pleasantly surprised when their general was eager to pitch in, pass a heavy bucket of pitch or two to the roof crews, lend a hand as they finished setting the concrete posts for the interior section of the facility.

Tobias had seen that, too, and marvelled at it. Even in its early stages, pre-testing, the Generator Well was an impressive piece of Evinthei hardware. Constructed from their understanding of Ancestor technology, cared for by their best dimensional scientists, he had seen the central core of the Generator Well, a huge series of crystalline layers vaguely resembling the Archive, like levels of of quiescent water pressed and held in time. It was actually, effectively, a supercomputer to calculate the levels of Gating energy in Nones’ atmosphere, and ensure it was discharged safely to sites all around the perimeter of the city.

He picked a drying clod of mud from the edge of his shoe, and felt it crumble between his fingers.

When the Generator Well was complete—so close now—and brought the Gating energy down to an acceptable level, there would be no more paradigm squalls. No more shifting buildings, no more Sundered, no more madness. There would only be… Nones herself. What he had dreamed of for years.

What a dry, dusty dream to have, of all that could be dreamed. It had been so different once.

Like all Evinthei boys, Tobias had delighted in disobeying the strict rules that confined them and sneaking out into the forbidden areas of Lyon’s Boulevard. Their prize had been an old watchtower on the outskirts. This was the place, the forbidden ground to end all forbidden ground. Because the watchtower looked out directly into the deadlands themselves, and—as some of the older boys whispered—even let you catch a glimpse of the Great Maw itself, the skull of the last true monster to tread the soft earth of Nones.

Like everyone, Tobias had gone to the watchtower, even touched it on a dare. He hadn’t climbed to the top. Nobody did. All the stories told of the boy, whose name changed with every telling, who had gone to the top to look out at the Great Maw and never come back down. Eventually his friends had fled for help back to Lyon’s Boulevard, and a whole squad of soldiers had come back with them to the watchtower to look for him. Only, only, the room at the top of the watchtower was empty

“…and they only found a bloody tooth,” whispered Tobias. “And don’t forget the scraping of his fingernails on the floor.”

But that was it—he couldn’t forget. He felt like he’d heard that story yesterday, instead of decades ago. More and more, he was finding that memory is a lens made denser and more powerful by age.

For a moment, Tobias thought the striking young woman walking toward him was another illusion from the past, a half-remembered watercolour illustration of Adrigal Lawley in a storybook come to life. It took a full minute for him to recognise her as his daughter. His beautiful, capricious, talented, tormented daughter.

Adree was walking slowly, as if lamed, though he had already read the medical reports that cleared her as fit for duty. As much as anyone could be. Tobias recognised that drawn, haunted look: it belonged to a true believer in science who had stared into the face of the non-scientific, the uncontrollable, the incomprehensible, and truly understood what that meant.

You’ve looked from the top of the watchtower, Adree.

She walked up to him and, without stopping, fell on her knees in the mud and bowed her head. Her shoulders heaved for a moment, and the first drops poured down her cheeks.

“Shhh.” Horrified, Tobias pulled her up and onto the bench beside him, cradling her against him. She buried her face in his shoulder, and wept.

* * *

“So Kairendyrian has returned home,” he said, much later.

Adree nodded, her eyes and nose still reddened. Tissues were balled up and thrown around her feet. “We suspected something, from the blood sample we got from the Librais Tower. But now it makes sense. Its DNA has a snowflake structure because of its Guardian heritage… from every Guardian. Beyond that, we only have bits and pieces of concrete data. Jayton Ember himself classified the documents relating to it; Nandie Harpeti and Luso Tayner are chasing down old records the Entourage may have left about it.” Her grey eyes went stony. “And it killed so many of us—”

“You challenged a demon, one of the most powerful who ever lived, with bullets and C-4,” Tobias chided her. “What did you think would happen? If she is the same despoiler mentioned in the stories about Marchion, you were lucky the city’s still standing.”

“I had to get Athellus away from it. And… the other. Dax West.”

“I read your report. I understand.”

Adree stared into space. “A drop of synthetic blood and I knew. I felt it, through my talent.” She suddenly rounded on him. “I could only report what I sensed. Not my opinion. Father, I can’t… you know I can’t accept this.”

“I can,” said Tobias, feeling the calm certainty flowing through his soul as he spoke the words. “Isn’t that enough?”

“I don’t have the comfort of your faith.”

“Then take my orders,” he told her, becoming sterner. “This young man, this ‘Dax’, is now more important to our people than the execution of a dozen Athellus Bordens. Athellus may have somehow… allied himself with Kairendyrian, but every account, every writing, every piece of scripture warns that she is a being of unfathomable evil and discord. We cannot risk her harming Dax. You need to be his protector.”

Adree wrapped her arms around herself. “Ask Lieutenant Casseter how well I protect people.”

“You knew men could die when you led them out there. Just as they could whenever you set foot in the ruins. Nones is built on death.” Tobias glanced up at the silhouette of the Generator Well. “Though we do what we can to bring life. The Generator Well will bring peace and stability; it means Nones may have a future. This young man could mean the same for us, as a people.”

Adree frowned. “That… thing won’t take it kindly if I try to help Dax. I’ve seen how attached it is to him. Maybe it knows how important he is to us; that’s why it’s so defensive. You might be right about it bringing the city down, if I try to save him.”

“Don’t think like a general, Adree. Think like a sniper.” Tobias thought for a moment. “Go into my private collection and find The Other Lives. Particularly the notes Adrigal Lawley made in the margins.”

Other Lives? She used to read that to her children. Faerie tales won’t help me.”

“You’re fighting a faerie tale,” Tobias rebuked her. “Know thine enemy, the first rule of war.”

He sighed, feeling the weight of his years and ill-health surrounding him again, like a butterfly crawling back into its desiccated chrysalis after tasting the breeze. “There has to be an end to fighting. It may be this stranger is a sign of the changes coming.”

 

 

 

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