Rimegrim chuffed out another blast of steam. “Why should I not ssspeak, Controller? You ssspeak. And I was built by those wiser than thee.”

Dax swallowed. “Um. I suppose that’s… true.”

Kaire let out a derisive snort, as if mimicking Rimegrim. “An Ancestral novelty that doesn’t even have its own life. Leeching off some donated Evinthei heart, probably to—”

“Did Adree activate you?” Athellus asked, putting a hand on Kaire’s arm.

Rimegrim blew again, with more amusement this time. “Aessslins giving me ordersss. It amussses me to follow.”

The head reared back, meditatively. “Between huntsss, I sssleep as the river. Dream as motes, waves, droplets. Everything. Nothing. I came to sssentience in that darkness.” The timbre of his voice deepened. “I hunt as I pleassse. It hasss been a long time since the Evinthei ‘sssummoned’ me.”

A snicker, reminding Dax unpleasantly of his recurring nightmares. “It pleasssed me to pretend loyalty to the Evinthei. Thisss ‘Adree’ thinks to give Nones ordersss. Tiresome.”

“Did she give you any specific orders?” said Athellus.

“Commandsss acknowledged. Observe, report, capture, dessstroy if needed.” A crackle of lightning ran up and down Rimegrim’s body. “I interpret as pleassses me. She ssspecified no order to her ordersss.”

“But you obeyed when I told you to,” objected Dax.

The head turned back to him. “Indeed, Controller. It intrigued me to obey. It hasss been a long time for a human, yet here you ssstand again. Curiosssity.”

“Beg pardon?”

Rimegrim’s great nostrils flared again, but this time he breathed in. Dax could feel the suction on his hair, his clothes. “Sss.”

Athellus looked at Dax and raised an eyebrow.

“Um…” It was hard to say with the gigantic maw hovering so close to his head. “I think you might be mistaken. I’ve never been here in my life.”

“Pleassses the Controller to make jokes, I sssee.”

“No. Really. I’ve never been here before.” A thought struck him: proof. “If I had, wouldn’t I have been able to use the dais the first time?”

There was a long pause. Rimegrim’s head stayed where it was, only the tiniest of movements sending the droplets falling from his snout. Dax felt a chill that had nothing to do with his wet clothes.

Then Rimegrim laughed. Fully, properly: a belly laugh that echoed through the river. A window in one of the adjoining buildings fell out of its frame and smashed across the wet ground. “Ssso this is what the great Controller hasss come to. A ssstone and a word. A name. Ssso sad.”

Dax smiled, forgetting the monster couldn’t see him. “Well… sorry I’m not this Controller you’re looking for. But, it, uh, doesn’t sound like you’re planning to turn us in to Adree, either. So, I guess we can just… go on our way?”

Rimegrim was silent, then nodded gravely. “Just ssso. This Aeslin… what is she? Ssslip of humanity, forgotten in one dreaming. Rouses me from sleep to be her watchdog. Hasss been too long. I have dreamed of Nones too long to be her ssslave.”

The enormous head leaned in closer to Dax. “And yesss, Controller. On your way. I will help you on your way, I think. For old times’ sssake.”

Oh shit. “Wait—no, Rimegrim, please—”

With a final bellow of laughter the hydraderor’s head and body came apart. Torrents of water poured down onto the dais, knocking Dax off his feet. Before he could snatch at the side of the dais, as he skinned his hands grabbing for the concrete, the flood washed him away. He felt himself falling—then he plunged into the river.

The terrible memory of the night he had drowned in the Thames enveloped him and he thrashed for the surface. But his clothes were dragging him down, too fast, as if Rimegrim had fastened his teeth in his body. For a moment he saw a flicker in the distance, a shape in the water, but then panic blinded him and there was nothing but chill, black water. There was no air. There was only the current pulling him, hard, downstream, and further into the dark.

 

* * *

“Dax!”

The last of the water poured over the edges of the bank as Athellus rushed after him. But it was already too late. He caught one glimpse of Dax’s white hair before he was pulled down to oblivion. “Oh god. Dax!”

“Excuse me.”

Kaire flew past him. Spreading her arms in a perfect swan dive, with no hesitation at all, she plunged into the water. Her body and hair were ghostly for a moment before she, too, vanished into the depths.

For a second Athellus stood there, mouth agape. Then he threw up his hands.

“Oh. Oh great. That’s just fucking superb. ‘Excuse me, I have to just go and jump in this river that has a fucking monster living in it without saying a goddamn word. Pow.’ I mean… what the hell was that?”

He began to storm back and forth along the riverbank. “I mean it. I mean it! What the hell was that? You can’t do this! You can’t just go ‘oh ‘scuse me’, and leave your partner on the side of a fucking riverbank! Ember’s blood, Kaire, you’ve got the brains of an immortal and when the hell are you gonna learn to think before you do shit like this? How the hell did I end up the sane one in this partnership?”

Abruptly he gestured at the sky. “No. Wait. This isn’t my fault, this is yours. ‘Hey, Athellus, here’s your new partner, we think you’d be good for her.’ Well who the fuck is supposed to be good for me? Have you seen the crazy stuff she’s been doing lately? Not just losing control—that I can handle. It’s shit like this that drives me out of my mind! I need some fucking consistency in my life sometimes, you know? And Kaire? Consistent, she ain’t.

“Well, I want a new partner. Now. Right now. Consider this a fucking requisition order.”

Silence.

“Anyone. Anything. I’ll take a gorilla at this point, it’s got to be easier than this. Come on! Hell, give me Dax! Him maybe I could deal with. Just send Kaire to a celestial rehab or whatever you guys have, and Dax and me will try to get on with some fucking work!”

More silence.

“Are you listening to me?”

Clouds drifted lazily across the sky. It was going to be a lovely day later on.

“Fine!” Athellus screamed. “Have it your way!”

Furiously, he shook off his backpack and began rummaging through it, throwing his equipment every which way until he found a small tin at the bottom. “Ember’s blood, I remember when this used to actually be enjoyable,” he said, shaking two small pills out of the tin. “You remember that, you bastards? Remember? I actually got to see places.”

He took the pills, hard-swallowing them dry. “That world with all the spires and the lightning and the snow, I liked that. That was new. I even enjoyed the New York heist. Kaire and me, we had a lot of fun. ‘Course, that was before I knew what a fucking mental case you’d saddled me with.”

Athellus strode back and forth, waiting for the pills to kick in. “I could just quit, you know. Take some blockers, stop having the fucking dreams. ‘Course maybe I’ll drop dead, but you know what? At this point, I am willing to entertain that as a serious fucking option. I mean it. It has to be better than this.”

He swallowed a couple of times, feeling a cold sensation in his throat and sinuses. In another minute he would be able to absorb oxygen from the water and stay under as long as it took to find Dax. Though the murk of the water suggested it wasn’t going to be a pleasant swim, either way.

He started throwing things back into his backpack, and pulled out the waterproof sheath to go over it all. When he was ready, he stood on the edge of the riverbank, balancing on the balls of his feet, taking a last few deep breaths. He felt a pain in his arm, glanced down and realised he was clutching the black bandage tied just below his shoulder, hard.

“I know this is meant to be a punishment,” he said, looking at the bandage. “But come on. Have a little mercy.”

Then he swung his arms over his head, and dived.

 

 

 

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