The hydraderor let out a piercing keen, a sound that echoed from the entire river, and more lightning crackled up its body. The surface of the river swelled, sending another wash of water flooding over the concrete. Dax felt the memory pulse again, stronger than before. Water. Stone. What?

“Enough,” said Kaire, suddenly.

“Don’t—” Athellus tried to grab her, but she knocked his hand aside, shoved past and strode out into plain sight. Ripples spread out from her bare feet.

The hydraderor’s head was weaving slowly, back and forth, as if sensing, waiting. Kaire clapped her hands briskly.

The blind crystalline head moved with unnatural speed and lunged at her. Kaire dodged deftly, but one of those razor teeth sliced a gash across her leg. A bright trail of blood spiralled up through the hydraderor’s body as it gnashed at her again.

Kaire dodged again, cleanly this time. She was grinning, her eyes aglow. She clenched a fist and her forespines sprang out, denser and longer than Dax had ever seen them. When the hydraderor lunged again she struck back with one hard jerk of her elbow. The spines sliced cleanly through the hydraderor’s body, spilling water over Kaire’s skin.

A second later, it was followed by a fat blue spark jumping from the beast to her. A crackle of electricity discharged right up Kaire’s arm and sent her skidding backwards.

Dax almost swallowed his tongue. Kaire’s fingers were crooked against the concrete; she was still on her feet, but strands of her hair were standing on end and her skin steaming. She shook herself like a dog, then glared up at the creature. Any trace of humour was gone.

There has to be some way to stop that monster before she loses it completely.

Dax found himself staring at that stone dais again. The water dripping down it. The steps leading up to it. Then comprehension dawned in a bright white rush.

Athellus was staring at Kaire, one hand lingering close to the hilt of his knife; Dax put a hand on his shoulder. “Athellus. I’ve got an idea but I need you to help me.”

“How? Doing what?”

“Never mind! Just draw that thing away any way you can. I only need a minute.”

Athellus drew his gun; Dax balanced on the balls of his feet, tensed, ready. As Kaire keened with rage, baiting the monster to battle, Athellus sighted and fired twice. Explosions of steam puffed out of the hydraderor just behind its blind eye sockets. At once it turned in Athellus’ direction, gaping its jaws. Dax took advantage of the second before it went after him; he took off, ducked underneath the monster’s long neck, and sprinted for the dais.

Tensed for teeth at his back every step of the way, he jumped up the five steps, his feet splashing through the puddles on the stone.

And that was it, wasn’t it? Water and stone. The last message the phone had given him before Athellus threw it off the skyway:

Five steps to safety and to death.
Only the stone and the word can hold back the flood.

There was no time to think about the rest of the message: “holding back the flood” was all that mattered. Standing there, as more gunfire echoed from behind him, he stared at the top of the dais for a clue. There was a handprint cut into the stone, nothing else.

Gingerly, remembering Kaire’s electric shock, Dax put his hand into the impression. There was nothing but the feel of smooth wet stone against his fingertips. Cold. Solid and real. But nothing happened.

“Come on, you bastard!” Kaire’s voice was nearly a shriek, punctuated by another shot. “Come on!”

The stone and the word. The stone and the word. What word?

“Stop, end, cease—” Dax looked over his shoulder as the hydraderor snapped at Athellus, coming within inches of biting him in half. “No, that’s not it…”

Athellus fired again; a good shot, straight into the hydraderor’s gaping maw, scattering it apart in droplets. The neck retreated, thrashing as the head re-formed. “Ember’s blood, Dax, whatever you’re doing, hurry!”

“But I don’t know—”

You can’t control something without knowing its name.

“Hydraderor,” Dax said to the handprint. Nothing. “Hydraderor. Hy-dra-der-or!”

The monster twined its neck and began to grow, longer and taller, pulling more water from the river. The waterline crept down the banks, revealing slick weeds, the meaningless tips of ancient sunken debris. Dax realised what it was going to do: smash the length of its body down onto them.

The word. The word to hold back the flood.

“You idiot!” Dax screamed suddenly. “Of course!”

The shadow of the hydraderor’s body began to descend.

Dax slapped his hand into the imprint afresh, seeing the letters cut into the dais as clearly as if they had been chiselled into his own mind. “Rimegrim! Stop!”

And then he snatched his hand back, dropped to his knees and covered his head against the dais, waiting for death.

But there was sudden silence, broken only by a slow, measured drip of water. Cautiously, Dax peered over the edge of the dais.

The hydraderor was poised over them in an arc, breathing slow gouts of steam. Its blind head hung low, as if suddenly it was too heavy to keep aloft. Water was running through it and over it, dripping from the point of its sharp snout. But it made no move to attack.

Athellus splashed up to the dais, bruised but in one piece. “Well, I’ll be damned.”

“Not yet,” said Kaire.

Dax ignored them, absorbed in studying the creature. Now it was quiet and close to him, he could see the extraordinary detail of its head and neck. There were fronds around its muzzle like a catfish’s whiskers, and the nostrils actually flared back and forth as it breathed slowly, in and out.

“Rimegrim,” he said again.

Athellus waved a hand in front of the hydraderor’s head. “You think it could understand us?”

—and all of them flinched as Rimegrim let out a sudden loud sneeze of hot steam that smelled of river water, and rust, and Kaire’s blood.

“Yesss,” it said, in a voice that shook the water.

 

 

 

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