Godsend

Greg Howell

1996-12-15

 

Original from http://homepages.ihug.co.nz/~howellg/stories/stories.html. HTML version by Louis Thomas, http://www.latenighthacking.com/, 2011-06-09.

Table of Contents
Part I
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Part II
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24
Chapter 25
Chapter 26
Chapter 27
Chapter 28
Chapter 29
Chapter 30
Chapter 31
Chapter 32
Chapter 33
Chapter 34
Chapter 35
Chapter 36
Chapter 37
Chapter 38
Chapter 39
Chapter 40
Chapter 41
Chapter 42
Chapter 43
Chapter 44
Chapter 45
Chapter 46
Chapter 47
Chapter 48
Chapter 49
Chapter 50
Chapter 51
Chapter 52
Chapter 53
Chapter 54
Chapter 55
Chapter 56
Chapter 57
Chapter 58
Chapter 59
Chapter 60
Chapter 61
Chapter 62
Chapter 63
Chapter 64
Chapter 65
Chapter 66
Chapter 67
Chapter 68
Chapter 69
Epilogue
Part I
— Chapter 1

The rock was uncharted and unremarkable. Seven kilometers of iron-nickel amalgam tumbling on its eccentric eons- old orbit against a backdrop of faint stars and pale hydrogen clouds. The system’s single faded, swollen sun was a distant speck among a myriad of others as the lump of ore and rock continued its endless path around the hub of the tired system.

When the flare of actinic blue light washed across the pitted contours of the rock, the shadows from metal struts and towers reaching into space were thrown into harsh relief against the barren surface. Again the light burned brighter than the bloated sun as clusters of ion thrusters fired, nudging the two- kilometer bulk of the miner ship Aspiration away from the asteroid.

In the heart of the ship, Hayes finally relaxed, watching the rock recede through the glowing vector corridor superimposed on his viewpoint.

“Command: exit.”

The view snapped off, replaced with the interior of a geodesic sphere, every facet labeled with an icon. A wave of his hand and the scene became vague, transparent, overlaid with dayglo-green type: WAITING.

He shucked the VR headset and rubbed at his eyes. Kludge, but that antiquated hardware bugged him. He’d been using the stuff for a lifetime and it was tough and reliable, but on the offside slow and cumbersome. Newer systems utilized nano and bio tech: Microscopically small interfaces linked into the pilot’s nervous system. Just jack in and you ARE the ship; no more video and audio linkups.

“Proximity one hundred and fifty kilometers,” chimed the AI. Well, the whole ship was old: over two centuries old. An ancient Nakuma Corp. miner factory ship. It’d been through several wrecks, a few minor wars, mothballing, and more repairs and refurbishments than an octogenarian entertainer. From the outside it resembled an old-time oil rig that’d been put through a compactor and had other unhealthy things done to it: A cylinder just over two klicks in length, its exterior was an angular and lumpy landscape of shielding, heat exchangers, antenna and sensor arrays, power modules, thrusters, aux. cargo and equipment pods, locks, the grids of high-density gravimeter, and kilometers of piping. Fully a half of that mass was filled with cargo holds while the rest was split between factory and ore processing, the power plant, and the drive modules. On the whole vessel the only area intended for human habitation was the crew module; minuscule by comparison, its whiteness contrasting with the darkness of the rest of the miner, locked to the front of the vessel like a leech to a whale by the mechanical embrace of umbilicals and docking clamps.

The crew of this two kilometer long mass of metal and ceramic was lounging back in his control couch, monitoring his vessel while nursing a bulb of chilled beer.

Each of the windows in the main screen was displaying a different view or schematic. 160/+45 degrees to the rear the asteroid was growing visibly smaller, the refineries and furnaces on its surface already too small to be seen at that resolution. This’d been a juicy system, with five class-four rocks in two months. It didn’t take long to drop a basic package on the face of an asteroid, but you had to wait and make sure the systems were running bug-free; also the Von Neumann servos needed the fusion plant and factory on the miner until their own power plants went on-line. If necessary, stocks of deuterium, tritium, hydrogen, and helium were supplied from onboard stores. When the process was well under way the miner would depart, either to search out new lodes or return to a Tincan for resupply, offloading and trading. In a few months the ore-rich asteroids would fire up their own newly constructed plasma engines and stretch back to an inhabited system where the whole unit would be sold and slagged. For a juicy profit, of course.

Hayes flicked from one external monitor to another, scanning the exterior of the Aspiration. Some shielding bore scratches from debris strike, otherwise it was in as good a condition as it was ever going to get. Same story on a random scan of the interior. Repair servos scuttled through conduits like glittering metal spiders. In the holds the heavy mining servos had had their power packs removed and now were stacked in their bays, almost indistinguishable from the girders and piping and machinery around them. The supply holds had been restocked; the hulking tanks of resources and reaction mass near-full.

This last rock had been a profitable one.

With the extraneous materials strained from the rock mantle, there was still a good core of iron, nickel, zinc, and copper. Any company would pay good chits for this stake.

Hayes leaned back and took a good draught then grinned. Not far to go now and he’d have the installments paid off and he’d be running his own ship. From there the next stop was a private business. Christo, who knew: perhaps then on to a block back on terra, not some tincan or innertube.

The AI chimed again: “Proximity one thousand kilometres. Clearance. Plasma drive initialized. Systems check clearance, grids powered and chambers cleared. Drive engaging.”

At the rear of the miner, in the power module, a star was squeezed, the magnetic envelop encasing it developing a deliberate flaw. More fields seized the outflow, channelling it, accelerating it. There was a subliminal rumble as massive vents to the rear of the vessel glowed, then spewed pulses of white- hot gas at close to seven percent C, jets that narrowed and focused in their magnetic fields until the battered cylinder seemed to be riding a nine kilometre long pencil of light.

“Mass interference still critical. Clear to stretch in thirty minutes.”

“Acknowledged,” Hayes raised his bulb in the direction of the main screens. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

Most rock-hoppers changed their AI’s voice, usually to that of a favourite vid star or singer, usually of the opposite sex. Hayes had just stuck with the default one, a feminine alto. He just had never gotten around to changing it, and the personality had grown on him. Besides, it was an artificial intelligence, just a machine, not an artificial consciousness which could develop its own personality. All the AIs were were glorified expert databases. They could learn, but they simply mimicked a personality. Artificial Consciousnesses on the other hand . . . ACs WERE conscious, alive and aware. They were also heavily restricted: only the largest habitats and military ships used them.

He finished the rest of the beer, belched, and picked up the headset again. It smelt of sweat and age. Familiar. A wave of his hand and the WAITING prompt vanished.

“Okay, Pan, course plot.”

It was a complex chart that appeared. He was floating inside an arm of the galaxy, thousands of systems a multiclolored myriad of points around him. A twitch of an eye and he zoomed in on his local, outlined with a glowing three-dimensional recticle. A word and the database conjured a web of colour-gradiated spheres around significant masses: the contour lines of the universe.

It was virgin territory out here, skirting the edges of human exploration. No matter how many billions; how many trillions of people there were, there were never enough to fill all the spaces. Old Terra was the hub of human expansion. It was from there that five hundred years ago with the advent of the Bausmer Breach that the first ships had exploded outwards.

In the first two centuries over a thousand solar systems were colonised. As mankind — humankind, whatever — finally got the keys to the car and left the home system behind, he spread everywhere. Orbitals financed by every conceivable sort of organizations sprang up: the central governments and massive corporations were closely followed by sects, cults, and other fringe organizations seeking freedom. So many of those small groups were hopelessly underfunded and underequipped. They relied on chartered carriers to get them to their destination where they settled in tiny, primitive tincans with inadequate lifesupport and maybe a single surplus insystem workhorse for mining. More than a few didn’t make it.

There were a lot of ghoststations out there.

However, there were always other successes. The mining corporation stations thrived as they specialised in refining the raw materials needed by everyone. There were the agricultural innertubes with the monopolies on hydroponics, the Corporations producing technologies, others with biotech . . . the list ran on.

Of course the Terran governments had seen these colonies as its own personal sweatshops. It demanded taxes from wealthy, well-developed star systems that were totally self sufficient. Inevitably, as in colonial revolution centuries earlier, the fringe orbitals asked for, then demanded independence.

Homeworld influence was strongest in the systems nearest Terra. Nearly eighty percent of the orbitals were simply residential or administration, receiving their food, minerals, and luxuries from Terra, Mars, and the hundreds of other orbitals already in the Sol system. There were watch stations and a strong military presence, but there was only so much territory they could cover.

Wiser heads in the United Nations council realised that there was no possible way a single planetary system could dominate the infinity of space. The fringe settlements had literally unlimited resources and personnel and trade embargoes were a ludicrous idea. Declaring war was absolutely out of the question, so therefore the Terran government — privately reluctant — gave its blessing.

It proved to be a mutually beneficial arrangement.

The colonies — the tincans and innertubes — began to yield surpluses of raw materials, pharmaceuticals, refined metals, zero-gee composites, and their own technology. These they traded with the Terran zones, for luxuries and more technology, and the one exclusive thing the ancient Sol system possessed.

Life.

In all the hundreds, the thousands of systems explored, only Terra had indigenous life. Mars and parts of Venus could support humans without environment suits, but that was after centuries of extensive and expensive terraforming. In all other solar systems from the Barnad Group out to the Salamander Pearls, mankind lived in sealed jars, hewing a living from dead worlds and the rubble of space. There were few systems with planets in the habital zone surrounding a sun. There were fewer still where that planet was of an acceptable size. Of these many had no atmosphere at all, or that atmosphere was of something interesting but lethal, such as compressed ammonia and methane. Terraforming would take time on the best of these worlds, on the others . . . There were those who said it just wasn’t worth the effort.

Why be planet bound when you have a whole system in which to build? Without the burden of gravity. Tuck in behind an abundant gas giant and you have protection from solar flares and an inexhaustible supply of hydrocarbons and volatiles. Drop a planet-breaker on a small moon and harvest the pieces for raw ore. Use a linear accelerator to lob them across the system on ballistic orbits to be caught by processing stations that would churn out machinery, ships, and even more habitats.

People could live just as well in an innertube or tincan, and they were far more comfortable than a planet. Climatic control. No rain, no wind, no need for housing. No natural disasters.

Build your colony inside a planetesimal with hundred- metre thick rock walls and a layer of collapsium plate and any meterorite large enough to do any damage would be vaporised or deflected by any halfway decent defence system.

And there were always more systems. For fifteen billion light years there were galaxies, each swimming with star systems. And Mankind had scarcely scratched the surface of even his own spiral arm.

Hayes was running calcs through the AI, scanning the chart files he’d bought from remote probes of this quadrant. There were a few MO types within easy stretch, also some GO, but he was hunting the older ones, the swollen stellar geriatrics that’d had time to collect a retinue of debris. A single BO, massing about ten solar mass was a likely candidate. He swung the perspective into a schematic calculating distances, power consumption, stresses, and gravity flux and the AI spat out a course plot within a second. It had definitely been worthwhile splurging to install the new system, a Yamaha AICPU-1263 unit. Cascaded three-dimensional matrix processors and molecular memory modules. Ten terabytes in a casing the size of his head and an access time of 3 nanoseconds. It gave his old AI a great deal more raw storage space and enhanced the artificial personality with an expert system based on a 3M learning array model. It was also able to interpolate the output of his clumsy and outdated General Equipment mass scanner, boosting the resolution, making stretches safer and more economical.

Once the old Aspiration was finally paid off he’d be able to afford one of the new SolTech gravity scanners, boasting a resolution more than five hundred times greater than the old GE module. With one of those he could skip into a system and do deep scans of a rock on the other side. He could do a detailed survey of a system while still in stretch . . .

But that was in the future.

The chaos of woven lines and points of light surrounded him in a cocoon of light, a red line plotting a weaving course onto the next system, a good fifty light years out. He moved his hand to touch a menu and a data screen came up. A BO system, four planets, three of those gas giants the other one a rock. ETA: three days. Fuel consumption including initial boost: two hundred tons. That was way within acceptable margins.

“All right,” Hayes said, nodding slightly. “Lock that course.”

“Confirmed,” acknowledged the AI. Throughout the ship’s superstructure the vibration of the engines changes as thrusters again nudged the vessel, lining it up with its launch window. “Time to stretch point is approximately three hours.”

Hayes moved his hand to pop the interface, then hesitated and moved his hand to wipe the navigation charts and selected a main menu. A few blinks of his eyes on subdirectories and music started, the primitive beat and strings of a new group from the Terra zone, Zacharea Codo according to the album label. Now he punched the exit marker.

He dropped the headset, leaving the visor hanging from its umblilical. The main screen switched to an image of a tropical rainforest back on Terra, filling an entire wall with greenery and mist. The music formed a lively background. Humming along, Hayes descended the access tube to the living deck.

The machinery in the walls was concealed by chitite panels of light tans and greens. Floor to ceiling holorals gave an illusion of french windows looking out across a panorama of deep valleys and mountains. Light came from glowpanels in the ceiling and walls, casting a soft light mimicking sunlight. The floor was carpeted in a cream gengineered biograss, a horseshoe- shaped sunken area lined with gel cushions. Around the rim were terrariums with heatlamps glowing on a multitude of flourishing plants. Moisture beaded on the glass like droplets of sweat. Two other doors led out; one to the galley, the other to the living quarters and the lift down to the service levels.

Hayes made for the galley, brushing his hand along the plastic housing a bonsai. Over a centruy old, from old earth, the gem of his collection. He’d have to clean the few dead leaves off the meticulously kept sand under the tiny tree.

The galley lights coming on as he stepped through the door. “Hey, Pan. Break out a chicken, potatoes, and sweetpeas. Also flour, bread, butter, cooking oil, and the spice rack.”

“Very well, Samuel.” The voice came from all around as non-directional speakers vibrated the air of the room itself. “How would you like it prepared?”

“I don’t,” he said as he unfolded workbenches and a range. “I’m doing myself tonight.”

“All right,” the AI said. It took half a minute before the ingredients were delivered from the stores. Cooking for himself made a welcome diversion from the monotony of shipboard routine, he also enjoyed it. While the AI was a capable cook, it was by no means a chef. Its food was good, but it lacked . . . flair. Hayes enjoyed throwing on an apron and getting his hands dirty. He had flash-frozen and vacuum-packed vegetables and fruit from habitat hydroponics, pro-ten meat substitue, as well as huge range of flavouring and spices and ingredients. After a day in a hardsuit taking core samples it relaxed him in the same way some others might wind down on a depstick.

But unlike a drugstick you got something out of cooking. Hayes called up a real external view and turned the lights off as he carried his meal through. The infinite stars cast their cold light across him as propped his feet up and worked his way through a synthetic drumstick.

— Chapter 2

The plasma drives were finishing their burn. After fourty-eight hours the twin jets — each five times hotter than the surface of sol — were shutting down, but their nuclear ghosts lingered for minutes after. The louvered vents of collapsium and ceramic alloy glowed with residual heat.

Throughout the ship servos were skittering for the safety of charging ports where they clamped into place. Bulkhead seals slammed into place. Saftey grids and nets locked over movable objects. Power was shunted from unnecessary operations, valves were sealed.

Like a spider in the centre of his web, Hayes watched as the VR updated and areas of the intricate wireframe schematic changed from amber to green. Hayes moved through the structure, examining system after system. There was a power drain from the faulty flexors on the third door in hold one and a slight loss of pressure in a steam duct, but both of those problems were negligible. In fact the Aspiration was running smoother than she had for a long time.

“Clear for stretch,” the AI reported.

There was a much larger power fluctuation as the fields went up, spinning a web of reality around the ship, then the drive grids ripped space open.

Hayes hated this bit.

The stars imploded into a single white burst. Superstructure squealed before the fields compensated. Hayes felt his stomach twist and an unbelievable headache flash behind his eyes. The external monitors and viewports faded to black.

Seen from outside, the Aspiration rippled, then without fanfare, sank into the universe.

— Chapter 3

Theoretically, faster-than-light travel wasn’t impossible. Cracking the lightspeed barrier was. The faster to C you got, the greater your mass became and the more energy you needed to accelerate and the greater your mass became . . . Ad Infinitum . . .

E=MC2 still ruled.

Looking at it another way: as its velocity approached the speed of light, the mass of an object also increased, approaching infinity. If you had a way to convert that mass to energy, you’d have an unlimited supply. And if there was enough energy available — from the collision of two particles for example — it was possible to ‘create’ still more mass.

So, again theoretically, a ship could be accelerated to near-lightspeed, but not beyond. Still, even at those speeds travel between stars would be painfully slow and it was discovered that even at a crawl — say half-C — things like electrons and photons and especially neurons started doing strange and unhealthy things.

So a lot of people were extremely happy when it was proven that it was possible to circumvent that barrier.

The Bausmer Breach went around space, ducking out of this level of existence, then in again. The most that was generally understood about the process was that the drive sank a warp through the ‘fabric’ of space, opening a breach into a subuniverse existing on a lower energy level. This subuniverse existed in the same area as the normal one, but within it space was distorted. If it were possible to simply step into a breach walk a few metres, you would emerge into real space several thousand kilometres from where you entered.

A was of describing it was that universes existed like rings in an onion, with our universe as — it was supposed — the outermost skin. To enter the subuniverse was to move deeper in directly towards the core. Any movement made there would be equivalent to a much greater distance out on the surface.

Of course it was impossible to simply walk in. It took a ship and the power requirements of a small city to form the breach and maintain the shields needed to prevent the ship from being sucked into a local gravity well and first pulverised, then fused with already existing matter with somewhat more spectacular results. Nature’s way of ‘Keeping Our Universe Beautiful’.

Matter was not indigenous to the subuniverse. There were no planets, moons, suns, space debris, or even the hydrogen so prevalent in the ‘normal’ level. Light, when introduced in the form of navigation beacons on ships, crawled, the speed of light being several thousand times slower. A ship at little more than twice 1G escape velicoty was travelling at a significant percent of C in the subspace.

So for three days the Aspiration would be coasting that void, in a sense being stretched out over an area of several light days. It could be tricky when attempting to enter a busy system. In such cases ships would drop out of stretch at navigation beacons and ride the rest of the way in on conventional drives.

In the com couch Hayes unknoted his jaw muscles and tried to relax as the screens cleared again and the external pictures switched to the mass scanner images. When in stretch the only ways to navigate were to either keep dropping out of stretch and taking a bearing in real space: a process hideously fuel-hungry, or to use mass scanners. Like the hills and valleys on a contour map the gravity wells of suns, planets, moons, and planetisimals showed up. A scanner would produce a three dimensional map depicting the gravity sinks.

These sinks were the reefs of stellar travel. If a ship drifted too far into the gravitational sphere of influence it would be drawn in all the way to the core where it would drop back into real space . . . in the centre of a planet. A quick — if very spectacular — way to go.

But the screens were showing the course plot: a clear line through clear space. Throughout the ship telltales read green. There were a few sections where metal had been stressed, but already servos were working on it.

“Okay, Pan,” Hayes told the ship as he pulled the headset off. “It’s all yours.”

“Thank you, Samuel,” the AI returned. The lights of the bridge faded out behind him.

— Chapter 4

Some found boredom a problem in singleships. Hayes wasn’t one of these; he’d always found something to keep him busy. There were the CAD/ CAM programs where he worked at redesigning and refining various servos. Coupled with computer aided manufacturing facilities and a completely automated factory it let him design and build practically anything he could design himself or had the templates to. There was a gymnasium, also both holieo and VR vids and games downloaded from his last port call at Tenington III, books, and music.

There were his terrariums to tend to. With classical music and freshner in the ventilation systems it was something he could lose himself in. He also spent time in the galley, working through old recipes and inventing his own.

The ship could run itself. The servos carried out maintenance, even repairing themselves, all centrally controlled by subroutines in the AI. So while in stretch there was really little for the pilot to do.

Except when the computer came across something it couldn’t handle.

The alarm buzzed. “Samuel, could you come to the bridge?” the AI requested in calm tones. He was already on his way.

The screens were lit when he entered. There was too much red and it only took a glance to see what was wrong. “Shit! Where’d that come from?!”

It was a system. A whole kluding system and they’d skim well within its gravity sink. Not a problem; just unexpected.

“I don’t have that information, Samuel,” the AI said. “The scanner just picked up a single planet. The rest have only just appeared.”

Hayes sank down on the couch and stared at the monitor. “There’s nothing wrong with the scanner?”

“No.” A pause. “All systems nominal.”

“That system WASN’T on the database?”

“No.”

“Then there was something interfering with the probe of this quadrant. Where is that sonofa . . . Ah!” Haye leaned forward and tapped at the monitor. “How about a closeup here.”

The AI obliged.

“Ah, okay. Do a deep scan here, this sector . . . forty- five, seventy-three degrees.”

Outside, on the hull of the ship the seventy-meter antenna arrays pivoted and realigned themselves. The streams of individual particles launched down the arrays could be deflected by the slightest fluctuation in a gravity field. The computer registered this deflection. From the ten odd antenna it built up a map, at this range accurate to a few hundred kilometres. Quite enough to map the major objects in a solar system and more accurate than the vastly higher resolution probes used at much greater distances by Survey.

He found the problem. It was on the maps as NSR 275. A pulsar: a spinning neutron star of about six solar masses. About as big as they come without going the one step further to black hole. Probably drew the survey scope’s attention so they forgot what they were supposed to be doing. Also, the emmisions geyser from those things played merry fuck with all kinds of scanners. “Christo, Pan, why didn’t you compensate for this?”

“There was no reason to suppose a system was there,” replied the AI.

Ah . . . Hayes shook his head. If there was no ambiguous data to arouse its ‘suspicions’ then an AI wouldn’t investigate further. “Scheisskopf! Pan, next time, triple-check any area with a high-density object for interference, okay?”

“Logged, Samuel.” The voice was a unperturbed as ever.

Well, anyway, it was a whole unmapped system. Interesting. By the scan its star was at least the mass of a GO type, maybe slightly larger and brighter than the sun. There was still some interference. That damn pulsar again.

Hayes leaned back and considered. It was right on their course, so why not?

“Pan, give me navigation,” he said, already reaching for the headset.

— Chapter 5

Whole sections were shut down as the generators pulsed again. Jagged discharges of energy crackled around the stanchions bracing the field grids.

Vibrations rang through the entire ship as space was twisted around it. Gravity was warped into a hyperdense tube — an impossible black hole — then into a Klein bottle.

Hayes felt the headache blossom again and his stomach twist, then the Aspiration broke into realspace.

Stars rippled and were eclipsed as the bulk of the vessel solidified.

Almost instantly the Aspiration rang like a gong, a 2.6 million tonne gong. Klaxons began howling. Bulkhead seals remained closed. Strobes flashed red throughout the vessel. In the VR interface a model of the ship appeared, the power module flashing red.

“What the futz was that?!” Hayes screamed.

“Collision impact in power module, “the AI reported. “There is oscillation in the fusion containment bottle. Attempting to compensate. Shields under heavy strain. Increasing power to forward shields.”

“Collision? That’s impo . . .”

Another strike rang against the ship, more muted this time. Hayes swore and accessed external scan.

Debris was everywhere: dust and rocks flaring past the sheilds. A larger object struck, sending visible ripples running across the shields. Those impacts, they would have been big pieces that got through. There was a scar of molten metal and vitrified rock down the flank of his ship where where the meteroid had impacted with limited effect against the collapsium armour. It looked impressive, but was superficial. Hayes switched perspectives to see the power module.

He stared.

The starboard unit was all right, but the port . . .

Armour plates were buckled, the superstructure beneath rent and twisted like string. Despite the vaccum there were fires burning in there, along with the mist of escaping gasses. Electrical sparks showered from shattered conduits. The tiny motes that were repair servos scuttled around like ants defending their hive.

Damage reports started coming through.

The rock was inside the shields when the Aspiration had materialised, going the other way. Their relative velocities were a good five percent the speed of light. That in itself may not have been enough to breach the armour, but a combination of angle and velocity meant it struck an achillies heel. A one in a billion chance. It came in low and fast, striking a hatchway, fireballing into the power module in a blast that split the module open like an overripe fruit, taking with it the port stabiliser for the fusion reactor bottle along with the backup.

The main fusion reactor! Without that stabiliser the bottle would break up. The other five could only hold it so long and despite the AI’s efforts it was already beginning to oscillate wildly. Alarms and red lights blinked up right across the board, screens flashing options and readouts until Hayes shut them down.

Without the main power plant he’d have to fall back on the backup plasma containment units in the command module and factory areas, but there was no way they could supply sustained power. And there was no way he could stretch out of here safely.

Indicators were stretching up into the red. More alarms joined the klaxons. In the power module the housing for the fusion bottle glowed from the heat escaping the weakened containment field. Servos scurried around madly as the system tried desperately to repair the assembly. A gout of white heat erupted from the star in the centre of the reactor, fusing metal and spewing out into space.

Even over the artificial gravity Hayes felt the ship yaw in reaction to the blast. Alarms raved anew.

PLASMA BREACH! PLASMA BREACH!

OVERHEAT IN POWER MODULE! MAJOR STRUCTURAL DAMAGE! BULKHEAD TWELVE INTERGRITY BREACHED!

“Jettison!” Hayes snapped. “Blow the unit!” But the AI was seconds ahead of him. Explosive bolts detonated. Fragments of metal sprayed out into space as corridors, girders, conduits, cabling and fibrelines were severed. Umbilicals and massive gantry clamps shifted, locking bolts retracting or being shorn away. In a flash of flame the stern began to drift away. A hundred thousand tons of titanium/ceramic alloy, collapsium plate, and steel poderously separated from the rest of the Aspiration: the heart torn out of the monolith. The distance between them increased, slowly at first, but picking up speed. When it left the lee of the Aspiration the debris began impacting on it. It had little effect on the outer shell, but inevitably dust struck the exposed guts. Sparkles of light flared where kinetic energy was converted to light and heat and globules of metal.

In the VR the telemetry from the engine module flashed red at the peak of its graph. CONTAINMENT FIELD COLLAPSE: 97%

A sun-hot gout of liquid gasses vented from a segment of the module, setting it tumbling like a gargantuan cathrine wheel.

98%

“Bring rear shields to max,” Hayes snapped.

“With foward shields functioning there is insuffi . . .”

“Then CUT the forwards! NOW!”

The hull could take it . . . he hoped. Provided nothing too big met him coming the other way. Even as he hoped the sounds of rock meeting metal penetrated from the distant hull. The field metres for the rear screens were up in the green.

On the rear screens the tiny point that was the power module turned into a star, then into a sun, then into a glare that filled the whole screen.

The sleet of radiation hit first. A wash of heat, light, electromagnetic, and hard radiation washed across the Aspiration, slipping around the screens like water off a frictionless globe. Without the shields that deluge alone would have shorted all inadequately shielded circuitry in the Aspiration, and there was enough of that floating around back there. In the control module he was probably safe, but he wasn’t taking any chances.

The shockwave was lagging behind, seconds behind the radiation. The spherical wavefront of expanding gasses and space debris burst past the Aspiration, rocking the vehicle even through the shielding. Solid particles struck the fields, energy flaring out like raindrops on a pond.

Then the blast was past. The remnants of the short-lived sun dying into a red glow that slowly dissapated in the monitors.

“Default shields,” Hayes ordered, then sagged. “Mother of Mary. Damage report.”

A window flashed up on the screen and a list began scrolling down. There were too many to list vocally, even visually the list seemed to go on for a long time. Even the survey module had taken a battering. Without the shields the whole forward section had been sandblasted by debris, effectively taking out the forward optical array. He’d lost the primary optical scope as well as a couple of low gain antenna and camera arrays: scoured away by the dust. It wasn’t too bad a drawback: he could still use the mainship’s optical assemblies. Perhaps they were old and didn’t have quite the res, but they would suffice.

He was still sorting through the red-highlighted items in the list when the AI chimed, reporting a change in the exterior conditions: “External debris has reduced sixty three percent.”

Sure enough the sound of dust whispering on the hull had abated. Hayes swung the heavily shielded old opticals on the mainship to face forward. Illumination from running lights reflected from the occasional fleck or rock, but besides that there was nothing. Hayes cut the outside lamps.

A single star glowed in the distance. A step up in the gain showed a couple more faint ones beyond it. Likely planets, reflecting sunlight. There were none of the other stars that should be visible.

The whole system was tucked away inside a dust cloud!

It was the only explanation. That was why the scanner probes had been so unreliable. That was why no stars were visible from here.

Ha! He leaned back in the couch, the gel contouring to his every move. He could make a profit out of this astronomical anomoly. Single systems in a clear bubble inside a dust cloud weren’t common. There was bound to be some research group interested in this, or a Corporation. If you could find a safe route in and out of here, it would be a great place to build in. Clear a single channel and defending it would be a cinch.

The interface opened and he powered the chair up to see the main screen. Despite the ventilation in the interface, it seemed stiffling. He plucked a bulb of beer from the seat’s cooler and snapped the top. So he could turn a profit here.

Provided he could ever get out.

Power was okay for the moment. The Plasma Containment Units were still well charged. It was enough to use ion thrusters; sparingly. With the plasma drive gone, he had to find some other way to dump velocity.

“Pan, can you get a good scan of this system?”

“Yes. There are eight planets. The outermost two are small Neptune-type ice worlds. Infrared probe of the nearest shows an atmosphere of methane-ice.”

A computer enhanced graphic of a blue, cold-looking sphere rotated on the screens. Spectroanalysis charts scrolled across the screen. There were trace elements, but not detectable in large amounts.

“The next three are gas giants of varying mass, none larger than Jupiter. The outermost two have debris rings spiralling out to the dust cloud. I recommend further investigation of these in respect to repairs.”

Hayes blinked at the screen. Planets with leashes leading out into space. He had a go at the orbital mechanics involved, then gave up. It would take years by hand.

The analysis of these was more promising, but those rings made them risky for what he had in mind.

The next two were better. Both were rocks, the outermost with two moonlets and a small cloud of large asteroids, the innermost with none. However only the outermost one would be in the right position anytime in the next eight months.

The second planet from the sun was looking much better. Of slightly less than Earth mass, with an atmosphere, three moons and coming into line nicely with the outermost Rock. It was . . . Hayes blinked and leaned leaned forward to do a double-take of the data. Distance from sun: one hundred and seventy nine million . . . It was well within the habital belt.

A prime candidate for terraforming.

Now he had all the reason more to get back to civilization. A system with a world that could possibly be terraformed would make his fortune. He could stake his claim and name his price. A new ship, new equipment, state of the art stuff. He could float a private enterprise!

But first he needed a good look at that planet. From halfway across the system the data he could collect was limited. From closer in, or with the planet eclipsing the sun, he would be able to get a spectrograph of the atmosphere. The ships optics were old, but they were enough to obtain infra-red, UV, and detailed spectrographs. The AI could collate this, compare differences in direct solar radiations and the reflections from planetary atmospheres. It could produce a full spectrum breakdown of an atmosphere, from 300 to 800 nanometres. Certain elements would absorb certain wavelengths, producing blank absorption lines in the spectrum. It was a simple, cheap, and effective procedure, used for centuries, but of course the closer you were , the more accurate it was.

The Aspiration had the velocity to make the centre of the system in a matter of days, the problem would be stopping. However, even without the main engines there were still options open.

Hayes leaned forward to study the screen, scratching at his ear. “Do we have enough juice in the PCUs for orbital insertion around the second planet?”

“Yes, but it would require using plasma from the refinery reserves.”

“How would that affect repairs?”

“The smallest moon has standard gravity of .32 standard. There would be insufficient fuel to soft-land the processing servos and initiate mining operations.”

“Okay. What about the fourth planet. If we went into an elliptical orbit around that and went after the rocks around there, would there be fuel left over?”

“If a broad elliptical orbit was used: yes, it would save a great deal more mass.”

That should be close enough for a good reading. On impulse he asked, “Would there be enough to send the command module on to the second planet while the main body proceeded with repairs?”

“If the module was launched enroute on an unpowered ballistic intercept trajectory, there would be enough. The module has ample charge to maneuver to a standard orbit. Charge would be insufficient to return to mainship.”

Hayes nodded. “Alright, make the course correction needed to get us to the fourth planet. I’ll let you know if I want to separate the comm module.”

— Chapter 6

The corridor ended abruptly, dropping away into black infinity in all directions. Titanium, SpunSteel, synthetic and collapsium forests of twisted decking and beams stretched out toward the dark. Fiberoptic cables sparkled and threw pinpoints of multicolored laserlight against jet metal. Stancions and umbilicals that had deliberately severed to jettison the power module strobed warning lights.

A faint jet of escaping oxy misted the vacuum before boiling away.

Somewhere an electrical source was arcing out, throwing a harsh glare against cold metal like distant lightning reflecting from stormclouds. Every time it flashed it threw a snap of static through Hayes’ headset.

The Agie plates in this sector were out. He floated fifty metres or so away from the ship, his line stickywadded to a wall. The twin beams from the worklamps mounted on his shoulder harness played across the kiblitzed rear of his ship. It looked like a demolished section of apartment building: huge, with the naked interior exposed.

He’d spent the best of a day surveying the damage. The ship was able to handle situations like this; it was the reason it had been designed in modular sections. If that fusion plant had blown before he’d ejected it, the damage would have been a fair bit worse. Perhaps some of the collapsium plating of the outer hull would have survived, but it would have been an empty husk drifting forever. He sighed into the helmet of his hardsuit, then double-blinked at the glowing green icon that began reeling the suit in again. The winch located where the suit’s navel would be began winding on braided molecular fibre.

It would take a LONG time to repair and replace this. A suitable rock or rocks would have to be found. Mining servos would have to land, excavate ore and fissionables, construct processors and begin processing, then shuttle it to the ship. If there was insufficient power, the Factory would have to build makeshift fission plants, use them to jumpstart a fusion plant to power the operations.

Once power was secured, the work would proceed rapidly. Part of the factory would produce more servos that’d seek out another asteroid and begin work there, changing its orbit if need be to make it more accessible. This process would repeat until there could be a dozen asteroids swarming around the mining vessel. Automated factories would start churning out the material necessary for the rebuilding of the vessel.

There was a faint shock as he hit, the bright red hardsuit’s powered limbs absorbing almost all of the impact. Impluse jets in the suit pulsed gas and he drifted toward the mass of grey metal and yellow and black warning legends that was the bulkhead lock.”Hey, Pan! Open Sesame.”

The lock swung open.

That was the advantage with the old model AIs he mused. They were cheap, well-tested, and they’d usually picked up an incredible database of miscellaneous vernacular.

The lock sealed with a heavy thud he felt through the suit. Atmosphere and gravity came up to standard. The inner hatch cycled and he popped the seal on the faceplate. External noises and smells flooded in: the groan of the lifesupport, burnt insulation, the clattering as unseen servos laboured on whatever repairs could be done. The deck grids rang under the three hundred and fity kilo suit as Hayes walked back to the main external hatch. He had to duck in places: these areas of the ship weren’t built to accommodate the bulk of a hardsuit.

“Not to good,” he sighed. “Any estimates on how long its going to take to rebuild?”

The Aspiration’s AI’s reply was echoed through both the ship intercom and the suit’s. “With optimum conditions my estimate is thirty months.”

Great! Futzing Great! Optimum conditions. Well, Murphy still ruled, so give it thirty six months, perhaps more. Three years orbiting a dead rock, digging away without even turning a profit. Kludge take it! He had expenses.

Well, there was a choice he mused as he backed the suit into its bay and the clamps took hold. He fumbled after the safety releases and popped them, then keyed in the sequence on the arm pad. Hermetic seals hissed as they depressurized and the upper chest shell swung open.

He didn’t have to hang around. The ship was quite capable of carrying on with mining proceedures by itself. He could go on and check out that planet in the comm module. It was only a few weeks away. All he’d have to do would be to break away from the main body and make a classic Hohmann transfer to the Second, then insert into a loose elliptical orbit. That’d let the AI get some good mapping shots and all the data he’d need to stake a claim. He could sleep the transfer out in a slowsleep and be awoken by the AI to take a look at his motherlode.

Hayes caught hold of the sweat-stained, chamois-lined hand grips above the suit and hauled himself out of the shell. The suit sagged into the clamps and standby beads began to glow on the limbs and around the faceplate rim. With no-one inside it, the hardsuit was a hulking inanimate red shell of composite laminate. Hayes made a final check of the status panel on the wrist, then started back to the comm module.

“Pan!”

“Yes, Samuel?”

“Get the comm module prepped for separation and plot the most fuel-efficient approach to the second planet. Transfer the necessary fuel and allow an eight percent safety margin.”He ducked through a hatch and slid down a ladder. “Yeah, also get the med unit in my quarters ready. I’m going to sleep this one out.”

“Acknowledged,”the AI said.

“Do you see any problems?”

“There is a great deal of debris in this system. The command module’s shields could be overtaxed by a large strike.”

“What’re the odds?”

“Approximately two to the seventh against.”

Hayes shrugged and stepped aside to dodge a spider- like servo scuttling along the corridor, it’s legs clattering against the deck grating. “I can live with that. Go ahead. Oh,” he stopped and tapped his jaw. “Would there be enough fuel for a controlled landing?”

“Unknown,” the AI said. “Course alterations enroute may be required. Fuel will be required for orbital manuevering systems. Basic life support requires minimal amounts. Maintenance requires one point seven kilowatts.

“In an emergency the module is capable of an unpowered landing. However the module has sustained damage. Avionics have been compromised and there is a chance of further damage, perhaps destruction of the module. Return to orbit would be impossible until the mainship arrived to ferry fuel, which would necessitate the construction of at least one lander.”

“Just asking,” said Hayes. The main lift was located in a storage bay. The battered bins around the walls were crammed with junk, working and nonfunctional parts. There was a status panel with too many lights burning amber. The elevator’s doors rumbled open when Hayes palmed the call button, then closed behind him with a hollow clang and the hiss of a vacuum seal. The lift was designed to carry thirty ton mining servos: it dwarfed a single human. When the mechanism began moving upwards there was a slight lurch as the agies compensated and a vibration felt through the feet. It should’ve been completely smooth: there must have been some damage to the superconducting magnetic bearings.

“Pan, how long until the launch window opens?”

“Four days and seventeen hours.”

“Okay, that gives me time to work out a shopping list. Anything you need.”

“A gravitic and magnetic compression fusion power core and mutistaged reactor system. Preferrably a Nikoma 270.”

Hayes sighed. “I was joking, Pan.”

“So was I.”

Hayes shook his head. Where’d it got that respose from? Some of its previous owners must have been real exotics.

— Chapter 7

Four days gone.

Hayes tugged off his boots and stowed them then sat on the bunk, propped elbows upon knees and rubbed his eyes, carrying his fingers up and through his hair. His quarters were secured: the desk clamped down, bookcase doors closed and sealed. He’d triple checked the plants in the terrariums and assigned a couple of servos to look after them. He’d done everything he could; the AI would take care of the rest.

With a sigh he lay back on the bunk watching the lights dim to a pale imitation of twilight. A small hatch in the wall on his right slid silently open and and a segmented metal arm unfolded. When it touched his right arm it felt cold, then the cold was all over his body.

Status beads blinked gently to themselves in the dark room. A single monitor displayed the vital signs of the motionless figure on the bunk, but there was nobody to read it. With a gentle whine the padded bars of the safety restraint closed over the bunk.

The part of the AI watching over Hayes was vigilant and eternally patient. It would never leave the bunkside, but the rest of it had other work to do.

— Chapter 8

Attitude jets fired and with the ponderous grace of a pregnant whale, the Aspiration rolled along its Z axis. Heavy mechanical noises sounded through the pressurized sections of the hull as huge clamps and umbilicals retracted. Puffs of atmosphere jetted into space, glittering in the pale light of a distant sun filtered through seven hundred million kilometres of dust.

Almost delicately for an object massing over three thousand tons the sharp-angled elongated wedge that was the command module eased away from enveloping nest of metals and ceramics. Seen from inside the module, the main ship would have been a twisted landscape of cold metal hanging impossibly overhead. Against that dark hull, the whiteness of the command module was a stark contrast.

A flattened white wedge the size of an ancient seagoing destroyer. Engine vents were scorched black. Its dorsal tower ran from amidships to the stern and was a change from the smooth metal that the rest of the hull consisted of, instead being covered with the pipes and gantries of umbilicals, antenna arrays, docking clamps, and access tubes.

There was a series of blue flashes as the ion manoeuvering units pulsed. Rapidly the distance between the two vehicles increased as their courses diverged. A single, long, fuel hungry burn from the module’s thrusters then the engines fell quiescent, not to be used again until the final days of its voyage. The only sound inside was the soft whisper of dust against the shields.

In both vessels the presence of the AI maintained a constant vigil. It wasn’t difficult for it to duplicate its functions and store a copy in each vessel, but the primary backups still resided in the command module. The duplicate in the mainship was slightly slower, because of its smaller memory, dumber, simply because it didn’t have the hardware available in the module. Nevertheless, it was still quite capable of doing its job. A pulsed gravity tightbeam of binary bursts linked the two vessels, a system that didn’t suffer from the time-lag posed by standard radio, but like the stretch drive, it couldn’t be used near any object of great mass. If the mainship encountered a problem it couldn’t handle by itself, the module could download a section of memory to help it.

But for the next few weeks the only problem likely to be posed came from stray rocks. Until something happened, the machine/s were content to watch over and maintain their dark vessels, deserted of organics, only the multitudes of servos scurrying about their mechanical ways.

— Chapter 9

First there was the cold, then close on its heels the aching of pins and needles through his limbs.

Where? He groped after the elusive thought, struggling with ideas as sluggish as bubbles in molasses.

Who?

Hayes, uhnnn . . . Samuels Mason. Privateer. ID GRMC1067. . . uh . . .488, running the class five miner TMC 172 Aspiration. Why was it so difficult to think?

The answer was there, it was just beyond reach . . .

There was a cool touch on his arm and a slight sting and a throbbing. A warmth suffused his arm. For a time he lay twitching, as helpless as a babe

Oh . . . suspension.

He opened his eyes to a glaring light and pink floaters spinning. He blinked several times, hard, and his vision cleared. His quarters, with the lights dim and comfortable, the psuedowooden panelling glowing warmly, the globular gunmetal shape of a hovering servo grasping a cup in one manipulator.

It was a few minutes more before Hayes was capable of sitting up to drink. The AI was familiar with the dehydrating effects coma had on the body and its mechanical extension had prepared water laced with a glucose supplement. Hayes took it gratefully.

“Murphy! I hate coma!” grated Hayes. Still, the discomfort of waking was still preferable to the long days of insystem travel. Strange that to travel from planet to planet took longer than a stretch from on sun to another.

The water helped.

“Samuel, you are recovered?”

“Uh-huh. Thanks, Pan. We there yet?”

“No.”

“What?” Hayes looked up in surprise. “Why?”

“Remote surveys on the second planet have been completed and pilot intervention is required.”

Hayes sat upright. Autonomous units rarely required human assistance. When they did, it was for a damn good reason.

“Okay, what’s going on?”

“The primary survey reported a planet orbiting at a mean distance of 160.37 million kilometres. The equatorial diameter is 11,412 kilometres. Polar diameter is 11,386. Mass estimated at 4.9837x10^24 kilograms. Atmosphere consists mainly of nitrogen, 76 percent, and oxygen 23 percent. The remaining percentage consists of various noble gases, water vapour, and carbon dioxide.”

It had taken a few seconds to percolate through Hayes’ skull. Now it hit him, but still it took a second for his brain to engage the gears to his jaws.

“Th . . . That’s earth norm.”

“Not exactly. There is a fluc . . .”

“Burn it!” Hayes exploded. “It’s close enough!” He swung out of the bunk and lurched to his feet, cursing as he wove unsteadily. “Pan, put the data up on the screen in here.”

On the other side of the room the mirror above the old wooden desktop turned mat black and graphics and text filled the space. Hayes wobbled over and dropped into the chair to begin reading.

“. . . Average pressure an estimated 915 millibars. Temperature 15 degrees. A well-developed atmosphere, ozone layer . . . ionosphere . . . This isn’t happening.”

The information continued to scroll through the screen as Hayes flopped back in the chair and stared in disbelief.

— Chapter 10

In the five centuries after mankind had left his motherworld he had ranged far and wide across his galactic arm. Probes and huge exploration ships had stretched thousands of light years in all direction, on journeys that had taken decades. On charts the bubble that indicated the settled, civilized areas of human space was hundreds of light years in radius and still infinitesimal against the area that represented explored space.

In all that time, in spite of all the expenditure of effort and resources, no planet capable of supporting humans without artificial support had been discovered. There were

the terraforming projects: very expensive and time consuming and artificial. Mars was a garden paradise, catering only to the obscenely affluent, but it was simply an imitation, another earth, with imported terran flora and fauna.

Here, before Hayes’ eyes, was a world that would require little — if any — work. The brilliant blue, green, brown, and white promised a world abundant in water, with seas and sunsets and wind and rain . . . all the natural phenomena Hayes had only ever seen simulated in a habitat. And the greens . . .

He spent hours at the screens watching the world, studying the surface through every instrument at his disposal. Those green patterns and the amounts of nitrogen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could only mean life. Prolific life in the form of plants, perhaps some lower animals too. Unless some terran seedship he didn’t know about had visited here, it was alien life. Pure and exotic.

Aside form intense natural atmospheric discharges, there were no electrical emanations of any kind that he could detect, nor any sign of city lights or aerial activity. There was nothing in orbit that might pass for any kind of spacecraft so there was no unknown colony there, no civilisations.

Uncharted and unclaimed and uninhabited. It was his fortune, something he’d never dared to even dream. Seen from space a sunrise takes on a glory all its own, the dark shield burning like a crescent of fire-gold as the sun rose from beyond the curve of the horizon. Its three moons arrayed in stately rings, like necklaces, the two smaller satellites on a much closer orbit than their larger companion. A gem. An oasis in a desert.

It was his future.

“Hayes, when you strike it lucky, you don’t kludge around!” For this he could name his price. He’d have companies throwing themselves at his feet for the rights to the claim. A bit of careful playing and he’d be set for life.

It couldn’t be that easy. There had to be a drawback somewhere: perhaps severe tectonic activity or solar flares, probably new kinds of bacteria that would prove inimical. If so, selling out would be the best way. A corporation had the wherewithall to cope with such things. However if, on the other hand, it was clean, perhaps he could develop it himself, lease the land out to companies. In the long run that would work out to be far more lucrative. The place wouldn’t be worth much as far as mining went: it was far cheaper to hunt rocks. But as a resort, a toy-town, it had definite possibilities.

Could he do that?

Again he turned his eyes to the glowing gem on the screen. It pained him to look on such a thing, a thing of beauty, and picture it as a tourist trap. Hell, people would pay a fortune just to live in an orbital overlooking a world like this. What would this picture look like with the glitter of hundreds of tincans swinging around the planet?

The rim of fire around the planet was spreading, washing across oceans and continent until a cresent glowed blue-green with white clouds swirling in patterns dictated by coriolis force.

Hayes breathed out in reverence as he watched the day spreading across the planet. Softly he murmured, “I dub thee Illuminatus.”

“Registered,” the AI said.

— Chapter 11

Days later and more details were visible. Without the main telescope the AI was restricted, but still the database had collated large amounts of data with just the limited low resolution optical, gravitational, and electromagnetic sensors available. Like Terra, the planet was mostly water: 62 percent water to 38 percent land. Most of that land went into one huge continent stretching across two hemispheres. Aside from that there were two polar land masses as well as numerous islands scattered about the vast ocean.

The continent was impresseve, Hayes concluded. Covering over 70 million square kilometres, an area far greater than any one continent on Terra. Its westernmost seaboard was gentle land climbing to a formidible mountain range forming the backbone running the length of the landmass.

But compared with the crater on the eastern seaboard they were inconsequential.

Hayes whistled as he watched the graphic the computer traced on the screen. “That must’ve been one mother of a bang when that one hit.”

It was ancient, incredibly so, and distorted by tectonic drift, but it was still recognisable. Two thousand kilometres across it was still roughly circular except where the ocean took a semi-circular bite out of it. The crater wall had deteriorated. On the landward side it was now white-capped mountain ranges, ranks of huge mountains that joined with the chain running down the centre of the continent. Even part of the rim that had been breached by the ocean survived as an arc of islands separated by narrow channels. The crater floor was landscaped with rolling plains. Doubtless the asteroid had fused vast expanses of the ground to glass when it had struck, however natural process had prevailed and now there was plant life, showing green and gold. The glittering threads of rivers twisted their way to the sea and Hayes could just make out the lighter wash where they discharged sediment.

Murphy, how he wished for the high power optics! He’d have been able to count the trees in a forest. As the situation stood, he could either make do with these low -quality pictures, or get closer . . .

Was it possible?

— Chapter 12

The AI hemmed and hawed for a while, reminding Hayes that if the module grounded it would have to wait for the mainship to arrive before it could lift again.

“I know,” he shrugged. “But why sit in orbit doing nothing when I might as well be down there looking around. Even if I have to do it in a hardsuit.”

“The planet is an unknown. There could be dangers . . .”

Hayes snorted. “Can you name anything down there that’d have a hope of penetrating a collapsium hull?”

That got it. The computer hesitated a second, then confessed, “Nothing that would have a greater than a five and a half million chance of happening. Also there would be a problem in maintaining communications with the mainship. There is a choice between radio contact or launching a relay satellite.”

“Go with the sat,” Hayes said. “Do we have a power sat on board?”

“No. The only units in the bays are three Boeing NJVC MK6 communication relays.”

They would have been useful for a little extra power, but no matter. Hayes ran a demographic program for a forecast if he continued to consume fuel at the current rate and spent a minute studying the results. No problem. A smooth landing would leave more than ample mass in the containment fields for lifesupport and other basic functions.

The final approach he would make at a shallow angle; still more savings on fuel. That would enable the module to make several orbits of Illuminatus, altitude decaying all the time, during which the cameras could take more detailed survey pictures.

He pondered over a landing zone.

In the electronic web of the VR interface he spun a three dimensional simulation of Illuminatus in full colour and floated above it. From forty-thousand kilometres the land was shades of green, the white-capped mountains looking like paper crumpled, then spread out again. A twitch of an eye and the planet spun beneath him, thousands of kilometres of sea and islands blurring past. The coastline appeared as a streak of white clouds on the horizon then was below him. Another twitch and it slowed to a crawl. Hayes flicked a sequence of command signals, as fluent as a virtuoso on a lightboard, and the eastern seaboard began to drift beneath him.

Where?

The land was mind-bogglingly huge! He’d never been on anything larger than a planetoid that he could circumnavigate in a standard day . . . on foot. Here there were plains that would take weeks to cross. Or mountains ten kilometres high.

The crater drifted into view.

An area small enough to be covered by drones. A varied topology and — hopefully — biology. Again, why not?

Hayes wondered what the seaside was like.

— Chapter 13

High above the blue-white curve of the planet the ship’s engines fired, nudging the module from its orbit. Sunlight glared from white surfaces as the vehicle rolled, turning its belly to the planet. The window was open. The command module began its descent.

From the cocoon of the VR interface Hayes monitored the entry. There was little he could do, the AI was quite capable of controlling the ship and could respond far faster than he could. The Aspiration’s AI had a vast battery of sensors feeding it information. There was a database larger than the libraries of earth it could use to cross-reference the data, then cables of laser light transmitted its reactions. All done in the time a Human was deciding something was wrong. With one of the neural networks a human could match a computer for reaction time, but not for the accuracy. There was a far greater chance of the jellyware making a mistake than the hardware.

So Hayes watched as the planet spun around him, inverting until he hung over it. This was realtime, the cameras on full resolution. Off to the sides green displays flickered, denoting altitude, speed relative to the planet, angle of attack, and various beads showing the condition of ship’s systems.

Then more indicators flashed to life as the ship skimmed the outer exosphere at Mach 27.

All cameras were rolling, probbing the planet in the visible spectrum, infrared, ultraviolet, X-ray. As the module eased into a descent angle at -45 degrees latitude the AI set aside a block of memory for sorting and storing the influx of information. What it was especially interested in was the landing zone.

Illuminatus sped by beneath as the ship’s speed decreased.

On the horizon a brilliant smear of white appeared, resolving into a swirling cloud formation covering a swatch of the western seaboard. The cameras could pick up flashes of lightning among the thunderheads. Scans of the terrain below went to shit.

Hayes cursed.

Minutes later and it was past them, but the AI had gathered enough to confirm the landing zone.

A hundred kilometres up. Braking. The ship shuddering as it began to enter atmosphere proper. Stubby flanges unfolded from the flanks of the ship and twisted, disrupting the airflow around the superheated hull.

Speed was sliced to Mach 15.

The sea was below them. Sub-tropical waters stretched away blue and serene. Reefs — or something analogous to them — became obvious as they interfered with currents around the islands and atols. If there was coral, Hayes knew, there was at the very least life beyond plants. By the looks of the reefs they were big enough, old enough, that something considerably more complex should have evolved.

Still there was no sign of any electrical activity. No lights beyond natural fires and volcanic vents.

Hours later and again the continent was creeping up over the horizon to the east. This time the sharp edge of darkness was spreading across the face of the land.

Mach 10 as the module crossed the dark ranges down the heart of the continent.

At ten kilometres there was air enough to generate a thin whine around the stubby fins of the module and send wisps of superheated vapour curling away as the ship bellied in.

Aeronautically speaking, the Aspiration was a brick. A very heavy brick. The stubby control surfaces were for directional control, with no hope of keeping the vehicle aloft. As the crater wall approached they came into play, slewing the ship into an S shaped approach. Velocity dropped on every turn, as did altitude.

Now there was a cushion of white hot air washing against the module’s underside. Streams of fire fled back from the stubby wings as the final mountain passed and it was above the crater rim, the terrain hidden by bank upon bank of clouds, glowing silver in the light of the three moons. In the distance lighting flickered.

Louvered slots opened in the module’s underbelly: ramjets venting short bursts of high-velocity superheated air. The ship levelled, banked, describing a slow spiral down to five, then two kilometres. Hayes was transfixed, the first wisps of cirrus clouds flashing past, turned to phosphorescent glory by the moonlight. A . . . bird. He’d seen some of them once in a reckhab: colourful feathered things fluttering around the lightcore and fouling the airplant.

“Two minutes to wing deployment,” the AI informed him.

Barely above Mach 2, the ship levelled and lined itself up, then flared. The entire vessel shuddered, superdense metal booming as the airflow buffeted it, wrenching at the control surfaces. Air brakes sprang from the hull and the plasma retros fired a controlled burst. Numerics in the pilot’s display flickered madly as the vehicle gained altitude, slowing to the point of a stall.

The AI timed it as only a machine can. With faultless precision the parafoil exploded and unfolded from its pod on the dorsal ridge. Like a vast jellyfish the transparent canopy snapped into shape with a boom to drown the thunder as the slipstream caught it. The two and a half square kilometres of monomolecular compressed Singlex that composed the parafoil was pulled taut, but in no danger of tearing despite the thousands of tonnes it was supporting.

Now it had wings. Almost silently, with an occasional jet of fire from a thruster, the module dipped and spiraled down into the grey cotton of the thunderheads.

— Chapter 14

The video screens were blotted out by the clouds, displaying only swirling mists and droplets of moisture punctuated by a flash as lighting rippled through a cloud. The entire ship trembled slightly as it ran through severe turbulence. The external broad-band monitors — IF, UV, etc — were hindered, periodically dissolving into white-out as electrical discharges crackled around them.

Silently the Aspiration’s command module flashed across a breach in the clouds, the ground below clear for a split second, then plunged into the cloud banks again.

Hayes’ watched the green bar of the artificial horizon tilt then level off again as the ship’s inertial navigation system homed in on the designated landing zone. Altitude continued to drop, below 5,000, the airspeed at just over 700 klicks.

They dropped out from the low cloud cover and the starlite cameras flicked in. Flat plains were passing below the ship. Once they crossed what looked like a long line of forest. Growing along a river? Hayes looked around with fascination, seeing as if the bulk of the ship wasn’t there. The plains seemed to stretched off to the horizon, to merge with the dark wall of mountains supporting the roof of clouds.

Long minutes passed in silence.

When it came, the AI’s voice startled him, saying, “Landing may be rough.”

The altimeter was counting down, the final couple of hundred feet flashing by too quickly. Speed was 267 klicks. Altitude into two digits . . .

Shallow gullies flashed by, then an impact that rattled his teeth and pounded him against the restraint web. Anti- inertial systems fluctuated under the strain. Cameras went dark. hull and structural supports boomed and screamed. At the rear of the craft struts integral to the ship’s docking facilities were bent and crumpled as it hit stern-first, gouging a huge rut through the alien earth.

The sound of wind and rain in grass was joined by the ticking and groaning of cooling metal.

— Chapter 15

A thermal lance glared like a miniature sun, throwing dancing shadows and sparks as the servos swarmed over the damaged section of inner hull, cutting wreckage apart. Other units carted the scrap away.

Hayes blinked away the afterimages and shook his head, sending the beam of his lamp bobbing around the crawlspace. Not good. The collapsium section of the hull had held well, but in this section of the stern, standard titanium/collapsium composite structural supports inside the hull had failed. It would take a while to replace them. There was other damage, mostly minimal: here a cracked coolant pipe, a strap breaking and sending a piece of equipment careening and smashing a console. The parafoil was being salvaged, ready for recycling.

The crawlways riddled the ship behind the walls, under the floors, in the ceilings. They were close, cramped, and dark. Hayes hated them. He swore as a servo scuttled past him, clattering along the wall on its six legs. He hated these damned places and his mild claustrophobia — unusual in a spacer — didn’t make it easier, but he made a point of eyeballing things himself.

He paused to open an inspection panel, spending a few seconds to trace the optical connection inside, then pulled a cable from his wrist Nexus and jacked it into a port. The holographic display glowed to life above the Nexus and Hayes’ fingers played across the lists of files, selecting a diagnostics program. Circuit after circuit was tested by the wrist unit, all coming up green.

While the program ran, Hayes leaned back and sighed. Wedged into a stuffy tube while a whole planet waited outside . . .

“Hey! Pan!”

The intercomm indicator on the Nexus flashed on. “Yes, Samuel?”

“Are the tests done yet?”

“The medical systems are examining samples as fast as possible. I have dispatched a pair of remote servos to collect samples from remote areas. So far no inimical bacteria have been found, however at least another day of testing is required to be reasonably certain a human can survive without protection. The longer the testing period the better.

“Preliminary soil analysis reveals an abundance of silicates, also large quantities of lead, gold, silver, zinc, copper, mercury, and tin. There are low trace readings of iron, nickle. Rare earth elements . . .”

“Hold it,” Hayes raised a hand to interrupt. “That’s not a representative sampling, is it.”

“That is just in this area.”

“Well, get some more servos out to take more samples. There’re two geoprobes on board: use em and get back to me with the results.” The diagnostics had come up clean. He unjacked the plug and closed the inspection panel. “Now, what I’m interested in is if I can live out there.”

The AI hesitated. It was designed to protect its operator and it was old enough that it had had experience with a wide sampling of humans. That experience told it they would often take risks a machine would deem unnecessary. At the moment it was seventy-three percent certain a human could survive unaided. A human might decided to risk it, therefore . . .

“Insufficient data.”

— Chapter 16

This day the view in the holorals was real. Hayes tended his plants with panoramas of seemingly endless plains around him. The grasses were golden, blending to a slight purple where they met the sky. Patterns of light changed as wind riffled through the stalks. He spread some more nutrient on the plant beds and turned the sprinkler system on low. The transparent display cases housing the plants filled with mist.

Was that what those distant cloud-topped mountains would be like? Massive peaks enshrouded in mists?

Murphy, but he longed to be out there. Fifteen years he’d spent in this ship, but suddenly it seemed close. A new world and it was just beyond those walls. The holorals weren’t the same thing at all.

Out of idle interest he called up a window in one of the holorals, listing the data coming in. Some of it was beyond his ken. Molecular biology, complex organic chemistry. The AI was recording EVERYTHING.

Hayes shook his head and went across to open a storage cabinet. The small package he pulled out was of genuine tooled leather, the tiny blades and trimmers inside shiny, razor sharp. He spread it out on the biograss beside him as he set himself down tailor-fashion, selected a pair of tiny clippers and began trimming the delicate branches and needles away.

“Samuel.”

“Hmmm?”He didn’t look up from his work.

“A servo has caught a local animal. It’s being brought back to the module now.”

Now he looked up.”What is it? What kind?”

“A small herbivore. Quadraped. Perhaps analogous to an terran rabbit.”

“A what?”

An archive picture appeared on a holoral. A small furry creature with long pointed ears and big hind legs. It hopped around the screen, looking harmless. Beside it the AI showed a computer reconstruction of the Illuminatus equivalent: round ears like furry radar dishes, bulbous black eyes, black nose, and long whiskers. It ran, didn’t hop.

When the servo scurried back to a service lock it was carrying a limp bundle with a laser burn through the base of its skull. More servos met it to seal the prize into a cannister and cart the package into the heart of the ship.

Hayes leaned against the transparent plex isolating the sterile medical bay watching the multiple lenses and manipulators of surgical servos hovering over the small carcass on the table. Already there were more probes and sensors stuck onto and into it than any human patient would warrant. When the scalpels came out he watched for a second, then grimaced and turned away. “Christo! People used to EAT that?”

He walked back to the elevator and leaned against the back wall, watching the door close: “Main deck.” The lift moved smoothly. “Pan, how are the tests going?”

The AIs voice came back as unperturbed as ever. “The creature is a female, warm blooded and marsupial-”

“Marsupial?”

“A mammal of the order Marsupialia. The young are ejected from the womb before they are completely developed and complete their term in an external pouch. On Terra these include kangaroos, wallabies, bandicoots, opossums, and wombats. Found principally in the Australian region and South and central America.”

“Right. Thanks.”

“Warm blooded and marsupial with a rapid, carbon- based metabolism. Blood temperature is approximately twenty- seven degrees with a probable pressure of about 30/20. Amino acid groups have been broken down into — “

“Hey! Just a second!”The elevator stopped, the doors opening and Hayes exiting. “Look, I just want to know, can I live out there?”

The hesitation was so slight Hayes never noticed. “So far tissue biopsies have detected no inimical bacteria. However, there are proportionally large amounts of lead and potassium in the animal’s system. Ingesting native fauna or water would prove hazardous or fatal in the long term.”

Hayes entered the living area where his pruning tools were still spread out on the floor. He knelt to pack them back into their places and rolled the kit up. The plants were beautiful, organic masterpieces of life, but still the terrariums were poor mockeries of the verdant excesses outside. Standing before a holoral he could see the wind in the grasses, he could see the clouds and mountains, all as clear as if they were just beyond a window. But it wasn’t even that satisfying.

He stared into the holoral for a while longer, tapping his hand indecisively against his leg, then spun on his heel and made for the lift.

— Chapter 17

Metal decking grids rang under his feet when he stepped from the lift, drowning the hum as the door closed. Low intensity worklamps powered up as he entered, illuminating a room with cargo doors running off to bays and the heavy seals of the dorsal access hatch. Normally used when docking with a habitat or another ship, it was now dogged tight.

The walls were white chitite, battered but clean, convoluted with the molded doors of lockers and storage bins with their bright legends and warning logos. Hayes pressed his right wrist against a locker, the imbedded chip popping the door. There was an assortment of equipment inside, from packs to work lights, including four suits: a fairly recent model red-shelled hardsuit and three softsuits: two of those Kisuki-Ford models over fifty years old, their green pectoral armour and smartseal fabric scarred. The last was an Altair Fabrications softsuit, barely three years old, gleaming white. Hayes checked the diagnostic, then unplugged it from the support systems.

As light as an off-the-rack standard suit, highly flexible, it was his suit of preference for areas too restricting for a hardsuit. It had damned effective life-support and recycling facilities, chameleon capabilities, and best of all the Flexlink outer layer was impact armour: for all intensive purposes puncture proof.

Hayes separated the suit into its components, then stripped off his boots, pants, underwear, and nexus, leaving his tunic, and pulled the suit’s lower half on. There was an uncomfortable moment as the catheters lodged themselves in place. The inside lining inflated to hug his legs. The boots with their nearindestructable high-grip soles bonded with the leggings, the seam almost imperceptible. As with the leggings, the padded jacket’s lining adjusted itself to fit.

“Samuel.”

Hayes picked a set of gauntlets off their rack and stuffed them into a pocket. There was no point in trying to ignore an AI: If they wanted to talk they’d generate a subroutine to keep trying until they got your attention. You’d go mad before they got bored.

“Yeah?”

“You are intending to leave the ship?”

“Uh-huh.”

“That is not wise. There are still tests to be completed. I do not have the facilities to be entirely-”

“Pan, you have the specs for this suit.”

“Yes.”

“What are the chances of bacteria penetrating if it’s sealed?”

“Close to zero.”

“Fine. Sas. Then I’m going out. No more debate . . . that’s an order.”

“Acknowledged.”

Hayes grunted and pulled a helmet from its charging sockets. He pressed the TEST stud and the status beads glowed green. Power cells full, respirator cycling perfectly, software diagnostics reading 100%.

From another locker he withdrew a canteen and ratcakes, packing the canteen into its place in his suit and the concentrates into an empty pouch. He hesitated over the emergency flares, then shrugged, grabbed a handful of thermal flares and seismic charges and stuffed them into the suit’s dispenser.

He sealed the locker, then pondered for a second and crossed the room to another bin. His Personal Ident Chip unlocked it. The thing they’d found, the psuedo-rabbit . . . pabbit? had over-developed eyes and ears. It had powerful legs for running. It burrowed. That meant there was something it had evolved to flee and hide from.

Predators.

And perhaps there were things that didn’t make these little pabbits their exclusive diet.

The universe was a dangerous place, a place it was not wise to journey in unless prepared. Asides from nature, there was always the human factor. Privateers and Jumpers lurked in the outermost regions of human habitation and on the fringes of the space lanes. Skirmishes between systems and habitats did happen. A century ago the Aspiration had been involved in a minor war, the old miner being commandeered and fitted with missile, railgun, and plasma cannon pods to blockade a stretchpoint. She had one kill — an old heavy carrier retrofitted to transport batteries of thermonuke pulse-bombs.

Those old railguns were still there: seven pods on the mainship still harboured the turrets with their coiled gravitic accelerators. They were used for destroying any rocks that may wander too close to a mining installations, also for persuading privateers to keep their distance.

Risk didn’t only travel outside the habitats. There were places, especially the refineries and Markets, where only the incredibly brave or foolish went without some form of life assurance. Hayes preferred the type with a barrel or blade.

The locker was filled with a clutter of weaponry collected by Hayes and previous ships owners, from Bowies to old chemical firearms to more recent plasma sprayers. Most of them were antipersonnel: effective against humans but of little effect against a vital bulkhead or life-support equipment. They were all in mint condition, the servos breaking them down to clean regularly.

He wanted something lightweight, with enough punch to stop anything that might have a chance of doing him some damage, even in the skinsuit. Something that also made an impressive bang. He choose an electrothermochemical handgun with an explosive load. Big, angular, and black, the tribarreled weapon was psychologically reassuring, but the water cylinder needed replacing, as did the battery. It took a while to hunt down the replacements, but when installed they worked perfectly.

Clipped to his belt the weight of the weapon was a reassurance.

— Chapter 18

Through its multitude of eyes and other sensors the AI watched Hayes prepping the suit. Through suit monitors it saw his elevated pulse and blood pressure, his accelerated breathing. In its own way, the machine too felt concern, part of it compelled to persuade him to stop and wait, but countermanded by Hayes’ order. Again it scanned the ship’s perimeter with every local sensor available, then it switched to the drones and servos, sections of its personality monitoring over twenty eyes scuttling though the grass or skimming the plains nearby.

Pabbits dived for their burrows as the shadow of an aerial passed overhead. Large herbivores stopped grazing and stared at a servo from bulbous eyes, but nowhere did it detect anything that would warrant overriding Hayes’ order for noninterference.

Still it ‘felt’ anxiety. Submolecular gateways rippled in indecision, the arrays favouring overriding Hayes’ order losing out. It needed more data before it could sway the balance. There were discrepancies in the final aerial images, so the machine allocated more processing time to analysing these. If there was something there, it would find it.

— Chapter 19

The decontamination spray smelt like pine needles and sea air and tingled as it touched the skin then dried almost instantly. The light in the battered whiteness of the main lock increased to an uncomfortable level, then faded back to normal intensity.

Hayes blinked, rubbed his eyes and pulled the faceplate down. With a hiss it sealed and double-locked. Pressure in the lock dropped and the suit expanded as the atmosphere was evacuated, pumped back into the ship. For a second the lock was in hard vacuum, then the pressure returned as air was pumped back in, air from the outside.

Atmosphere inside and out equalized. Warning legends lit up and strobes flashed. Locking bolts rotated and withdrew. The seals on the door cracked and the massive hatch slid out, then sideways.

Helmet polarisors came on as sunlight flooded into the dock. It wasn’t the raw, searing stuff of near-stellar space, unfiltered light that could blind eyes and sear skin tissues. This light was slightly harsher than the illumination in the Aspiration; maybe moderately uncomfortable to human eyes, but not terminal.

Hayes stepped out of the lock: cautiously. The ramp and docking umbilicals that would be available at a habitat weren’t there and the hatch opened onto the port side of the hull, high up, so it was a long way down. Cautiously he was picking his way across exposed conduits and connections, then he froze, eyes widening in awe.

The horizon was endless, greens and dusty golds and hazy purples, the sky . . . it was nothing like the depth of space, nothing like the sharp pinpoints of the stars as seen from a cold rock: a boundless blue emptiness that captured the eye and drew it in, deeper and deeper.

Hayes swayed and caught at a flex pipe to steady himself. A glance down and he swallowed. Beyond the docking clamps was the platform of the external lift and beyond that the hull dropped away, straight down.

He couldn’t count the times he’d stepped out of this very lock when going EVA, but this was so different, so impossibly different. Of course he wasn’t afraid of heights: no deep spacer was. He could hang from a belt clamp over a five hundred metre deep cargo hold without a qualm, but this wasn’t normal. Perhaps it was the wind, winding its way around the grounded ship and upsetting his sense of balance.

Anyway, he kept a hand on the control box as the lift platform swung out, then began crawling down the sheer face of the white hull, now marked with carbon-scoring. The module’s ID — TMC-172 — stencilled in black letters three times Hayes’ height passed behind him, his shadow becoming invisible against the dark surface then reappearing against the white collapsium skin.

Despite the parafoil the ship had struck hard. It lay in the remains of a hill shattered when a vessel massing more than it did impacted and tore the top off. That rubble now lay banked up around the ship, covering perhaps two metres of the lower hull; more towards the stern. It was onto this mess of torn loam, sod, and boulders that Hayes dropped.

And promptly landed on his ass.

“Samuel?”The AI’s voice sounded in his

ears.”Your biomonitors show . . .”

“I’m fine,”he spat, sitting up and slapping a

palm disgustedly down on the dirt. “Just slipped.”

Of all the possible drawbacks he’d been expecting, walking wasn’t one of them. It was the combination of near full gravity and the treacherous footing; his life of smooth decks in habitats and ships and micro-gravity on rocks hadn’t prepared him for this. It took him a while to clamber across the loose rubble lying around the Aspiration and he nearly twisted his ankle more than once as an unstable rock rolled underfoot. A small servo scuttled to the top of a knoll to watch him as he clambered out of the rut the ship had left.

The grasses around the landing site were burned, charring a great black, lopsided streak across the countryside. The rains on the night of the drop were a blessing, otherwise the wildfire would have raced across the grasses, wiping the slate clean.

Every time Hayes’ boot touched it raised a puff of dark soot. It reminded him of the obsidian ash found on some larger asteroids, but this stuff, instead of slowly drifting back to the surface, was wafted away. Stolen by the wind.

— Chapter 20

He was still occasionally stumbling over tussocks of grass and an odd, low-lying type of bush over-endowed with long creeping branches that seemed intent on tripping him.

It was on a broad, windswept hilltop that Hayes stopped to survey his world, his breath hissing in his helmet. The Aspiration was behind him, now only the top of the hull and a few sensor array stacks visible above the gullies and hills. Far, far away to the west the hazy purple-blue-grey of the mountains merged with low, dark clouds. Other points of the compass bore hills and grass and long stretches of greenery sprawled across the skyline. He dialed up the magnification in his helmet and the greenery resolved into banks of bushes and larger plants. Trees, Hayes guessed.

Slowly he sank down into a crouch, arms resting on knees. So much, so big.

“And it’s all mine!” he grinned.

“What?”

“Forget it, Pan,”Hayes replied then tapped the sequence on the Nexus to disable the communicator.

For several minutes he watched the clouds drifting slowly across the landscape, the wind rippling across the grasses, then he raised hands to twist the seals on his helmet. The faintest of hisses sounded as the visor swung up. The air outside was cool, a sharp shock against his skin. There were smells and scents, damp coolness, a rich tang. He reached down to pluck a single leaf from a plant and held it up to his nose, crushing it between his fingers: almost a pine-scent, like his bonsai.

Standing, he popped the seals again, turning the neck ring to lift the whole helmet off and clip it to his belt. The wind caught at his close-cropped blonde hair like a live thing.

On his wrist the Nesxus’ comm light blinked on and on, unheeded.

— Chapter 21

It was perhaps three kilometres before the servo dogging Hayes’ footsteps began to falter. It was a localised repair robot, not really designed for long distance travel across this type of terrain. With the Aspiration out of sight it had reached the limits of its effective range.

It hesitated once with a delicate metallic leg poised, then turned and began scuttling back along its tracks.

— Chapter 22

So, what now?

By now acquainted with the uneven ground Hayes was able to let his thoughts drift off on tangents. With a warm sun and cool air it was pleasant. Strange how perspectives change . . . in space it was a star, on a planet it was a sun, the sun.

He could get used to this, he mused. Well, why not? He could take this time as a vacation. The years it would take to rebuild the Aspiration he could use as a vacation, explore this world at his leisure. Perhaps try skiing, or surfing, hang gliding. He’d tried the latter once before, in a habitat, but here, with the unlimited skies, it would be very different: Huge monomolecular wings and foamed framework and you could soar forever.

He resettled the helmet in the crook of his arm.

And he’d have to get a beacon installed somewhere. His claim marker. He could even start construction on a fusion plant downside. That’d give him a reliable power source so he could begin work on a power plant for repressurising the module’s containment unit.

But before then there was so much more to explore. He’d break a surface rover out of stowage to get a little further afield. There were some pictures taken on the descent that looked interesting. Some of those big rivers for instance . . .

Speaking of which . . .

There was a glittering about a kilometre ahead that caught his eye. The optics in the helmet resolved it into water; perhaps a small lake. Hmm . . .

He lifted the helmet off and angled his route in that direction.

The ground changed as he approached. The grasses thinned, turning to clay and gravel. Cracks ran across the terrain like fissures in fractured glass: some shallow, others metres deep. Those he could he jumped across, others he had to skirt around. Erosion, he guessed, water running through here. It must be a seasonal thing, dry now.

It was water that had caught his eye: a small lake of grey water with few stunted plants growing around it. Rivulets trickled down from converging gullies and cracks. Those would be from the rain the previous night. Steep banks led down to the lake in several places where the water had dug away the surrounding soil.

There was something else:

Along the edge of the lake was a strip of land with parallel ruts in it. Animal tracks? They didn’t look like it. Hayes jumped across a small ravine and cautiously made his way along the rim of a steep eroded bank, almost a small cliff, to get a better look. He crouched down and touched his nexus:

“Pan, what do those tracks look like?”

“They resemble vehicle tracks,” the AI replied. “Or possibly animal trails. An exact statement is impossible without more information . . .” There was a pause: then,” Samuel, a servo has detected objects in your vicinity, moving towards you.”

“What? Animals?”

“Visual range is extreme. Enhancing: Objects are vehicles . . .”

“WHAT!”

“Samuel! Behind . . .”

But he had already seen the shadow, spinning and clambering to his feet.

Gaping jaws and amber eyes locked on him. Light glittering from metal, a scrabble of feet launched it forward, a long blade raised and gleaming like copper. The piercing scream that hit his eardrums like an icepick. Automatically his hand darted to his holster.

The clay beneath his feet crumbled away.

He yelled, his arms windmilled for balance as he teetered on the crumbling brink of the cliff. The blade hovering over him hesitated and he stared into eyes that widened as they met his, then he went over backwards, the world spinning, his helmet flying. His suit went rigid as steel as he hit stone and clay and slid, dropped again, his head striking rock once, then again. The sun flared in his head then the world faded . . .

A shower of small stones, dirt, and dust spilled down over the white suit as he slid to a halt. His gun clattered down and splashed into the water. Slowly the dust settled over the motionless heap at the foot of the cliff.

Part II
— Chapter 1

In times of need,

What better recourse than war?

-From ‘Observations of the Blind’

The city was burning.

Above the rooftops of the western quarter the night sky was glowing as fires raged. That would be the area around the breach in the city’s curtain wall, the gatehouse perhaps. There was already the distant sounds of fighting in the streets around him, house to house as the Chrsty Rim soldiery advanced.

Sekher nervously licked his jowls and clutched tighter at sword and shield. The hilt of his Shern’ae blade was damp with perspiration, causing his fur to cling to the binding. His heart was hammering in his chest, the reek of his fear and excitement rank upon the air in the dark doorway. Where in the names of the Gods was he? In the excitement — dodging enemy troops and mobs of fleeing citizens — he’d twisted and turned like a ribbon in a river, completely losing himself in the strange town. For now he tried to get his bearings. Over there to the north, the wall of the female quarters loomed, its whitewashed planes ethereal against the dark sky. Eastwards was the inner wall, the final line of defence surrounding the palace grounds.

The K’streth Plain militia and guard would need all the help they could muster.

Pulling his shield close he ducked his head from the doorway, making sure the coast was clear, then began following the road north at a steady jog, hugging the shadows, tail rigid. He’d try to reach the main thoroughfare below the white wall. From there it wasn’t far to the walls and the fighting.

An explosion thumped. Sekher’s ears and ruff folded flat. That came from the direction of the temple. The priests. He shuddered, refusing to imagine the conflict taking place there. With what Gifts were the shaved Rim priests possessed?

Gods! Being enbroiled in a full-blooded war was not what he’d imagined his tour of the bordering principalities would entail. His sire had decided it was now time for him to see more of the world and at the same time make a gesture of goodwill to his allies and neighbours by sending his son as emissary. It would be an opportunity to make new acquaintances and learn something about protocol, diplomacy, and the idiosyncrasies of other lands in one stroke.

Copulating great timing! he snarled to himself as his toe claws clattered on wet cobblestones. Bless the damp plains night, it would make fires harder to start. There had been ominous rumblings from the south for some time now, but nobody had expected it to flare into all-out war.

He dodged around a wagon sitting abandoned in the middle of the lane, the draft shen ululating lowly and rolling their eyes nervously, nearly ran into the enemy.

A trio of them in their errie red, orange, and black armour were backing a warrior in K’streth cream livery and visored helm up against a wall. The lone soldier’s blade was wavering before him, tip flicking from foe to foe as he tried to watch them all at once. An impossible effort.

And the stink of Sekher’s fear redoubled. He’d been trained, had drilled many long hours with weapons of many sorts, but this was no game where the loser would lose some fur, perhaps gain a bruise.

And that training held fast where his consciousness failed. Still holding the Shern’ae his hand slipped behind the shield, finding one of the four flat blades fastened there, rose, and snapped down. One of the three Rim soldiers screamed in pain and just had time to try to clasp a hand to the flat blade jutting from the opening in his armpit, then collapsed.

As his comrades automatically turned to his cry, the K’streth guard took advantage of the opening. His sword slashed and opened the neck of a Rim trooper beneath the helmet flange. Blood fountained in a dark spray. The remaining one howled and flung himself upon Sekher. He barely had time to fling his shield up before it rang with the resounding clang of swordstrike.

He struck out with the shield and danced back, whipping his own sword around, but the Rim soldier was fleeing back towards his own lines. Panting from shock and exertion Sekher lowered his sword.

Across the street the K’streth guard was also gasping, looking up at Sekher with the most incredible gold eyes showing above the visor. With one hand he reached up and stripped aside the mask to catch a mouthful of air and Sekher’s ears wilted in shock. Not a he . . . she.

A female! He gaped in foolish wonder. A pelt of a grey- blue so deep it faded into the night, making her sand-coloured armour seem to float unsupported. She returned the stare with a slightly amused smile, raised her sword in salute to him. Small Guard, she had to be: the females who kept order in their part of the city where males were forbidden. What was she doing here? in the male sector?

Only one reason.

He saw it. Beyond the White Wall was the glow of flames.

The female followed his gaze, then gave a wry grimace. She had beautiful little teeth.

There was a commotion behind him as a mass of soldiery burst into the street. The light cream armour of K’streth troops this time, some smeared with soot, others bleeding from minor wounds. Sekher flattened back against the wall as they ran past, metal jingling, headed for the palace. Beyond them he saw the female join them.

“Wait!” he began to start after her.

“Hai! Outsider! Hold!” another voice hailed him.

“What?” he jumped as a grizzled mass of red-brown fur in an officer’s helm and armour clamped a hand over his shoulder, forestalling him. “You Sekher Che, right?” A squad of weary looking guards had halted behind their leader, watching their surroundings with nervous eyes. “Orders from the High Lord. We’re to get you out of the city and away in one piece.”

“But the city . . .”

“A lost cause,”the officer growled. The designs on all their shields were scratched and scared. They’d seen action and from the looks of them had barely gotten away with their pelts intact. “Come on. There’s a postern gate to the river on the west wall.” Behind them another explosion rolled across the city. Balls of fire rose from seige engines, then fell in graceful arcs into the packed mass of buildings.

— Chapter 2

The tiny postern gate did open into the river; by way of the storm drains. By the time they reached the grill at the far end, the small band was covered in the filth that congealed in those tunnels. Sekher coughed and spat in disgust, gagging at the reek.

In the cloudless sky the Hole was a brilliant mass of dots in the night, turning the river into a rippling mass of blackness. There was a small boat well concealed near the drain and within a minute the soldiers had it upright and in the water. Before they boarded, the troopers all smeared their armour with mud, hiding the tell-tale whiteness, although after the filth of the sewers there was little to cover. Sekher in his green and brown blotched livery was dark enough to be exempt. For this he had cause to be grateful: the mud had the thick stench of bad flatulence.

The muffled oars made little noise as the two troopers rowing moved them out into the current. Another pair sat with arrows on their bowstrings; ready.

They could all see the dark mass that was the walls of the city moving away behind them. The orange glow in the sky was brighter. The Lightbringer rising or a more mundane fire?

“Where do we go from here?” Sekher asked.

“Shut it!” the elder warrior hissed, cuffing his ears.

Ears stinging, Sekher bristled, about to reply when a hand was clamped over his mouth. “Silence!” the officer repeated his hiss, directing Sekher’s head.

The younger one’s eyes widened as the bridged appeared, the troops on it silhouetted against the sky. Silently the boat drifted past, its passengers holding their breath. They could hear the conversation of the guard above, the laughter. Then they were past.

When they were out of earshot Sekher felt the the pressure on his jaws lessen, but then there was a painful tweak on his ears. “Cub,” the officer snarled. “When I tell you to be shut your face, you obey. Without question. I have my orders to protect you, but I swear by all that’s scared I shall put you off at the first town if you endanger the rest of us! Understand?”

Sekher gaped, feeling the heat rising in his ears, then swallowed. “Yes . . . Sir. Understand.”

“Good.”

“Ah, Sir?”

“Huhhnn?”

“What is your name?”

The warrior grinned, his teeth flashing beneath the fringe of his moustache. “Twistfur. But they,” he jerked a finger towards the other troopers crowded into the small craft, “usually call me Furball.”

None of the others said a word.

“But never to my face,” Twistfur concluded with a glistening grin. “Now stay down and quiet.”

Sekher crouched down low. There was water in the bottom of the boat, wet on his feet. He grimaced in distaste at the feel, water was something he never felt comfortable around. Still, he tried to find a spot where he could wait out a long ride without cramping up.

They moved as silently as they could, the only sounds the water flowing past the gunwhales and dripping from the paddles. In the remote distance, from beyond the mountains bounding the realms of the Trenalbi, the Lightbringer was stirring, the sky bleeding in his honour, while the twin Daughters of darkness danced into the sea.

And ahead of them, against the rising light, four boats moved out into the river, archers standing to draw their bows.

Twistfur saw them also. “Down!” he screamed, throwing himself on Sekher before the younger male had time to react. He landed face down with the warrior on top of him and there were screams of pain and the weight on his back spasmed, then went lax with a gurgling sigh and the boat tipped, spilling him into the water.

He sank, of course, the armour weighing him down.

He tried to cry out; cold tendrils wound their way into his nostrils and down his throat. With frantic desperation he clawed and scrabbled at the encompassing liquid, fighting toward the light above.

Coughing streamers of water, Sekher broke the surface.

“Hai! Here’s one!”

Claws caught at his ruff before he could sink again, dragging him through the water to finally dump him on soft sand. He twitched, shuddered, then vomited. Someone rolled him over.

Voices:

“Others are dead. What about this? He’ll live?” “Huh, just tried breathing some water. He’ll live.”

“Look. The others were all K’streth Plain. He’s Che Plain.”

“Well, well. Do we throw him back?”

“Nah, keep him. Looks like a prize catch to me. Here, look at his sword.” Hands touched the Shern’ae blade pulling it from his belt. Sekher batted out feebly but a foot was planted on his throat, claws biting.

“A prize! Look! The crest! It’s the Che crest. Gods! He’s Highborn.”

A face leaned close to Sekher and hands caught at his jaw and jerked his head around to hiss in his face, “Highborn, Huh? I know someone who’s going to be very pleased to see you.”

— Chapter 3

Sekher ached; inside and out.

He huddled inside his cage, a box of heavywood and expensive metal scarcely twice his length and barely high enough to sit upright in. It filled most of the back of a goods wagon. There were always guards.

He’d been stripped of his armour and weapons, then shuttled, naked, through a Ch’sty Rim encampment to an occupied town that was now being used as a supply staging post for the invading army. There was no telling how long he’d been locked in a half-flooded cellar before they dragged him out, chained him, then threw him into his little cage.

The wagon was part of a convoy. Southbound for the foothills of the Ch’sty Rim. The other wagons carried supplies and troopers bound for home. Also they carried the loot of the countryside. Near priceless silver and jade ornaments mixed with the more mundane gold and diamonds. Sekher had witnessed troopers gambling away earrings, armlets, statuets, and small utensils they’d ‘liberated’. He’d seen villages and quiet towns with burned buildings and Rim warriors in the streets.

Would this be the fate of his land?

He felt his claws twitch, winced, and spread his hands. Projecting from the ends of his fingers were the remaining stumps of his claws.

His land was not one of the most prosperous. The city’s walls were still undergoing extension, as they had been for decades. A little added now and then as budgeting allowed. There were problems with the guard: their equipment was old and worn.

Gods, anyone could find that out. He knew more.

Such as the fact that the grain warehouses stood near empty after the last failed harvest. Many, too many young warriors had been forced to find employment in other, wealthier realms, hence the low muster of the few garrison towns.

Also, there was no doubt he’d be held as a hostage.

Sekher clamped his other hand over his ruined claws, wishing he could take them to his own throat. Perhaps he would be able to escape, but the closer he came to the Ch’sty Rim, the slimmer that hope grew.

He pulled his legs up and curled into a furry ball of despair.

— Chapter 4

A strange cry echoed outside, followed by the shouting of Trenalbi and the clattering of equipment as wagons rolled to a halt.

Sekher lookep up and blinked, then shook his head violently. Outside his cage he saw troopers in armour and others in only fur and kilts running towards the disturbance at the head of the column. Bandits? He saw no weapons being readied.

On all fours he crawled to the heavy bronze grill and twisted his head up against it, trying to see what was going on.

There was a knot of soldiers gathered around a white lump at the foot of a small cliff. An outrider atop the bluff was cautiously leaning over, shouting something down to the others. What was going on?

A couple of the Rim troopers were bending over the object, poking at it with their swords, then examining it more intensely. They picked up a few bits and pieces, pondering over them with much bemusement and scratching of heads.

There was also an argument taking place, with the white lump the object of the disagreement. Finally a solution was reached, one which caused an uproar of snarling laughter that Sekher liked not in the least. Four warriors took up the burden which appeared to have arms and legs. As they hauled the thing back along the line of wagons and draught beasts, Sekher got a good glimpse of it and stared in astonishment.

Then guards were in front of his cage, slapping the flats of their blades against the bars where his fingers had been a split second before. “All right! Get back there, high one! You’ve got a house guest!” The last was delivered in a derisive bark.

Sekher snarled back at them, then scrambled madly backwards in a rattling of chains as swords and spears jabbed through the bars at him. Again he crouched in the back of the cage. Outside, the guards were watching with amusement something he couldn’t see, then they rattled around with the lock on the cage, sliding the door up. Then Sekher understood.

“Hai! No, you can’t!” he cried in panic. “Not in here!”

They beat him back with spearpoints while several of them pushed the white thing inside. The door rattled down behind it.

Sekher crouched in his corner, panting, the smell of his fear overpowering in the confinement. The thing in the cage with him gave vent to a low noise, then raised a head caked with impossibly red blood and saw him.

It gave a yelp, tried to leap to its feet, cracked its head against the overhead, tried to fall forward and was yanked backwards to collapse in a heap, clutching at its skull and making low noises. Now Sekher saw the dull bronze collar about its neck and the very short chain tying it to the cage hatch.

And his captors found this hilarious.

So, it couldn’t reach him if he stayed at the back of the cage. They weren’t about to risk their prisoner being torn limb from limb, but it meant his tiny box had just grown that much smaller. Sekher snarled silently but relaxed a little, his bristling tail subsiding. He warily studied the semi-conscious creature.

His houseguest was not attractive. That hairless face looked like it had been struck by the flat of a shovel. The short fur covering the top of its skull was a light, dusty brown. However that whiteness covering it was not hide by any stretch of the imagination. Clothing; like none he had ever seen before, but clothing nevertheless. Even its feet were covered. Another little point to puzzle: the creature’s furless flat face, fur, and forepaws were coated with dust and a red liquid that could only be blood, but its apparel — the white tunic-like thing and peculiar breeches — were spotless.

Its shoulders were broad, not sloped as a Trenalbi’s, and its broad chest and narrower waist gave its torso a marginally triangular shape. Those forepaws, they certainly looked to be at least as dexterous as Sekher’s own, despite their apparent lack of claws. That face was flat, muzzle-less, with a small, pointed nose and eyes of a piercing grey, like stone, with round pupils.

What was this thing?

— Chapter 5

Chenuk sat apart from the others gathered about the warm glow of the campfire, half-listening to their conversation and jokes while turning the strange artifact over and over in his hands.

That peculiar creature that’d fallen from the cliff that day had dropped it. It’d tumbled and rolled down rocks and a scree slope, bounced across the road, and come to lie at the waters edge. And the thing didn’t have a scratch on it.

Again Chenuk raised it to his nose and sniffed carefully: the thing bore a lingering, indefinable odour; faintly salty, faintly musky, like old armour.

It was larger than his head, rounded, like a bowl of some kind. In fact it reminded Chenuk of a battle helmet more than anything, but there were no ear holes. Also there was that thing that could be a visor: from the outside it was opaque, black, but by tilting it in his hands Chenuk found he could see through without obstruction. The inside was also padded and lined with curious little projections. Outside it was a mat white, thin blue lines running laterally around the back, two red C shapes on either side.

With a claw Chenuk tried to scratch the black, one-way glass on the front. Nothing. A bluesteel dagger was equally ineffective.

Chenuk weighed the thing in one hand, then impulsively tried it on.

His muzzle almost brushed the glass and his ears were uncomfortably pressed back against his ruff, then slowly, almost imperceptibly, the discomfort faded. He realised with a start that the thing was moving, shifting, reconfiguring itself to fit his head. In front of his eyes the night landscape abruptly flared into brilliant relief, the fire, the warriors around it, and dozens of specks in the grasslands beyond glowing white, shades of grey.

“Gods!” With a muffled curse of fear and disgust he tore it off. Twice it bounced, then lay still. He stared at the thing, heart hammering.

“Hai! Chenuk,” a comrade hailed him from the fire. “Problem?”

“Ahhh,” he eyed the cursed thing, then cautiously replied, “No . . . no problems.”

“The spirits wandering tonight, huh?” There was laughter.

No, it wasn’t tales told to frighten cubs that had his fur standing on end. It was lying like the oversized egg of a coldblood in the light of the moons. Not without trepidation he picked it up again. This time it was still.

The guards around the cage pricked up their ears as he approached. “Hai! What do you want?”

“Just looking,” Chenuk said. “What’ve they been up to?”

“Not much. I thought we’d get a little more excitement. Still, that thing scared the fur off our highborn guest, all that banging on the bars and grunting at us. Seems to have quietened down now.”

Chenuk moved so he could see into the dark box. The Highborn captive was sitting against the far wall, Drifting, eyes watching the beyond. He shuddered and focused on Chenuk when he moved in front of the bars, watching him warily. The creature was slumped against a wall, head bowed and eyes closed, unmoving.

Creature? Demon!

And that thing in his hand had to be a helmet. That head would fit it like a sword fits a sheath! A demon-made tool! The fear rose from him, almost swamping the scent that came from the cage. The guards looked at him curiously as he backed away from the cage, then spun and bolted for the commanders’ pavilion.

— Chapter 6

The rise of the Lightbringer roused Sekher from drift. Several times he blinked into the light seeping into his cage before he actually began seeing. From outside came the sights and sounds of the Ch’sty Rimmers preparing to move onwards. He stretched as well as he could, then scratched and spent a while chasing small biters through his fur. Gods, but he stank.

At the other end of the cage the creature was still slumped in the corner with its eyes closed. Occasionally it twitched a foot or hand and made a small sound. Was it ill? The previous evening it had growled and tried to scratch lines on the floor for some time before howling, pounding its head against the wall and finally curling up in its corner.

Even last night, when that Ch’sty Rim trooper had come so close to stare at it, the thing hadn’t moved. Still, for some reason that trooper had been terrified, taking off as if his tail were alight.

Beyond the bars the Lightbringer was eclipsed as a guard crouched to peer into the gloom of the cage. “Your friend all right?” he grinned.

“Gods,” Sekher hissed, “get that thrice-cursed thing OUT of here!”

“Sorry, “the other said, looking anything but, “no spare cages. Here’s your meal. Enjoy.” So saying he pushed pieces of meat through the bars. They fell to the floor at the creature’s feet.

“There you go,” the guard chittered in amusement. “Prime stuff too. Perhaps it’ll share.”

“You’re not fit to give your seed to a riding beast!” Sekher snarled after him as light once again strained through the bars. His stomach growled to him and he shifted his gaze to the steaks, running his tongue around his salivating mouth. How was he going to accomplish this?

As gods-be carefully as possible.

The creature didn’t move as he crept forward one finger span at a time on all fours, eyes flicking from the prize to the thing and back again. Stretch out an arm under the creature’s leg. Almost. Not quite. A little further . . . There!

He attempted to hook a piece, belatedly remembered his claws were gone, then tried to grab it . . . At the instant the wagon started off with a jolt.

Off balance he fell flat on his face, slamming his nose against the floor. Pain blew a white hole in his face. He lay still until the haze cleared, then shook his head and looked up into the open eyes of the creature.

With a howl, Sekher threw himself backward and crouched panting in his corner. Too close . . . and he’d dropped the meat. It still lay there.

A hairless hand scooped the slabs up and raised them to the face as the creature sniffed at the steaks. Sekher groaned in despair. There went his meal, and he’d been so close!

And the creature made a low noise, then held out the meat to him. Sekher froze in astonishment, then gazed longingly at the food. The thing shook it, then beckoned with its other hand. Come.

Slowly Sekher did so. Reaching out carefully, then snatching the meat and scrambling back to his corner. The creature hadn’t moved and watched as he tore into the meat, bolting it. Cold it was, he’d have preferred it warm, barely living, but still the tangy juices flowed over his tongue and chin. He was growling as he polished it off, licked his fingers clean, and belched.

The creature was watching him with head cocked to one side.

“Thanks,” Sekher said, then felt foolish.

Its mouth twitched, then it reached down to its side and fiddled around with a formerly concealed flap in its clothing, producing a small rectangle of some dusty-colored material that it then proceeded to eat: slowly, with no great relish.

Why? It’d had perfectly good food right there in its hand. Sekher watched, not understanding, while it ate, ridiculously tiny mouthfuls and much chewing. Then, from that pouch, it produced a silvery thing like a wineskin that it raised and drank from.

Sekher smelled water, licked his lips again, aware of how thirsty he was . . .

“Hai,” he said, feeling incredibly foolish.

The creature glanced at him.

“That’s water?” Sekher asked, then hesitantly pointed at the flask. “Water?”

The thing looked down at it’s hand, then slowly offered him the skin.

Just as slowly he took it, surprised at its weight. A skin it wasn’t; something else thin and flexible. And he couldn’t get a drop out of it. Again the creature beckoned him and its long slender fingers showed him where to press the neck of the flask. The water that came out was the freshest he’d ever tasted, and as cold as if it had just come from a mountain spring.

He drank his fill: there was an impossible amount for the size of the receptacle. The creature took it back, making it disappear again, but for an instant Sekher’s fingertips brushed its hand: the flesh was warm, soft, and silky smooth. He absently stroked his own coarse fur.

It sat there, staring out through the bars.

“Hai,” Sekher began.

It turned its head. Eyes lost in their shadows, but there was a spark there . . .

“You’re not an animal, are you,” Sekher murmured.

The strips of fur above its eyes drew together.

What then?

— Chapter 7

Jai’stra, seat of power of the Ch’sty Rim domain, nestled in the south-western foothills with its back to the grey, cloud- capped wall of the Rampart mountains. The rolling hills surrounding it were dotted with farming communities, their fields mottled yellow-gold, light and dark chasing each other across the countryside.

The city engulfed five hills on the southern bank of the She’ng River, one of the none-too-modest tributaries feeding the distant Daycross river, then the still more distant Torn Teeth Sea. Dark, stocky, granite walls and docks faced the river, high above the water mark to guard against the floods the mountain thaws brought. Watchtowers loomed over the walls like overprotective dams. On several towers were the skeleton-like structures of semaphore stations, their outlying counterparts mere sticks wandering off across the plains to the horizon. In the river, barges and skips lined the quays in the shelter of a breakwater while workers moved bales and barrels, loading and unloading. The covered bridge that crossed the She’ng was a wonder of engineering: five arches supporting the weight of a thousand-span wide mass of stone, wide enough for two goods wagons to pass. There were three more like it. Beyond them the walls loomed, a massive gatehouse warding gates of Heavywood, bronze, and iron.

It looked too massive to Sekher. You could fit the royal palace of Tsuba into the temple grounds of this place. Crowds began to gather around the convoy as it crossed the bridge. Sekher’s fur bristled to a chill wind as the gatehouse’s shadow swallowed him.

An hour out from the city he had been taken from the cage, his fur stinking, plastered to his body, and had his arms tied to the framework intended for a canopy. He was forced to stand with arms spread high and wide as if supplicating the Lightbringer. Every muscle in his upper torso now ached from holding the impossible position.

Despite the absence of many males off fighting in the north the main street was bustling with activity. The smell of animals and body wastes was just as oppressive as they had been in any other city Sekher had visited. The buildings were strange, with their high-gabled roofs and red and orange trimming contrasting with the black slate of roof tiles.

Stalls and shops lined the thoroughfare, as did carts and traps from which signs and scents advertised the wares. Outside a prospering armourer a troop of Wanderers, their long leather roadcoats dusty from riding, waited on their mounts, watching him alertly but disinterestedly from under their floppy, wide-brimmed hats. Sekher saw this, these Trenalbi living their lives while half a world away he had seen their counterparts fighting for their homes and their lives.

Merchants, soldiers, professionals, mercs, and even a cluster of females in colourful veils with their entourage watched the caravan, jesting with the guards, swapping news, exclaiming in astonishment and mock bravado at the creature in the cage, jeering at the tattered prisoner. Sekher lolled his head back, staring at the dark azure vault of the sky above. Gods, why me?

The main street of Jai’stra was aligned west to east, to follow the path of the Lightbringer. It ended in a plaza dominated by the royal palace: a vast, tiered disk squatting behind its walls, towers jutting up from the top like the spikes on a northern warhelm. Unlike the subtle white and cream stonework that would be employed by the masons of northern realms, the Rim palace was built of a dark material that endowed nothing of the airy grace and coolness of northern buildings. Instead it was solid, indomitable, an edifices designed to withstand the winter storms of the southern climes. Behind it, the north-south wall separating the female quarter was also a dark grey.

Royal mounted guards moved to escort their single wagon as it separated from the rest, their shaggy Shens stamping and tugging at their reings as they led the prisoner’s wagon through the inner gates into the the palace courtyard. He was cut down, manacled, and dragged from the wagon.

“Sir? Where can we put that thing?” one of the caravan guards asked, jabbing a thumb at the cage.

Palace troopers peered into the cage and recoiled slightly. “What in the hells is that thing?!” a sergeant demanded. “This ain’t a zoo! Where’d you find it anyhows?”

“Just sort of dropped in.” There was some laughter.

“Ahhh!” the sergeant growled. “Dangerous?”

“Doesn’t seem to be. No claws. Doesn’t like meat . . . or plants. Gods know what it eats. We’ve had it in with our friend here. Keeping him company.”

“Well, what do you expect us to do with the wretched thing?! Huh? There’s not much room down there at the moment.” He made a noise of disgust and waved at the guards, “Ah, stick it in with him again for the time being. Until we see what the Lord wants done with it, just make sure it doesn’t eat him. Lower level: the royal suites.”

His guards seized him by the scruff and arms and hauled him off. Behind him the cage was being opened and animal handlers with restraints moved in.

— Chapter 8

Sekher sat quietly while the guards fastened the creature’s chain to a ring in the cell wall, two others holding it at bay with noses on poles looped around its neck; they seemed to be half-strangling the thing if that bluish color it was turning was anything to judge by. Sekher really had no choice, the sword resting on his throat made sure he behaved.

Once the chain was fastened securely, the handlers flipped the ropes off with practiced twitches and withdrew from the cell. The heavy door swung to with a dull boom and the light was gone but for the faint glow from around the edges of the door, barely enough to see by. A key turned in the lock and there was the muffled sound of voices outside, footsteps receding.

Then there was silence, and an emptiness that clutched at Sekher’s chest. Alone!

“Roommates again, huh?” Sekher said, trying to cover the quaver in his voice. The creature looked up from where it was hungrily sucking air, rubbing at the collar around its neck and bared square teeth in a warning grin.

“Just trying to be sociable,” Sekher sighed. Talking to a beast. Gods! was he losing it already? He muttered a hasty prayer that they wouldn’t leave him waiting for long. He’d seen convicted criminals who’d been sentenced to solitary before, and it wasn’t a pretty sight.

Trying to banish thoughts like that Sekher stood and went across to the door, trying to peep through a crack. He could see a chink of corridor and blank wall. He sighed and leaned against the damp wood. “Don’t suppose you’ve got a key tucked away somewhere?” he asked the creature. It just stared at him. “Didn’t think so.”

Twenty-five spans by the same again: a featureless cubical of cold stone. Palatial in comparison with his previous accomodations, but still small. A stinking slit in a corner was the depository for bodily wastes. Sekher made use of it, reflecting that for the eight days they’d been locked in that box, not once had he seen the creature relieve itself. Did it not shit like everything else? Urinate? Gods, was it male or female?

At the moment it had opened that concealed pouch again and was laying upon its lap those little bricks it ate every now and then. There were three left. What did that portend? Sekher wondered. What happened when they ran out?

He settled himself and watched the creature nibble a little of a brick and wondered when something would happen.

— Chapter 9

The door slammed open, startling Sekher out of his drift.

“You! Out!”

Hulking guards in full body armour decorated with the royal Ch’sty crest glared down at him, short swords in hand. The creature stirred from where it had been curled up in a corner and blinked tired grey eyes at the disturbance.

“Move it! The High Lord wants a chat with you.”

Sekher groaned and hauled himself to his feet. “Alright, alright.”

He knew what was coming.

Still, he was surprised they let him get through the door before an armoured forearm cracked into the back of his head. They had their fun bouncing him off the walls for a while before bodily dragging him off down the corridor.

“By the hells! He stinks worse than Feshi shit!”

“Huh! His lordship would have our tails for dropping this at his feet. I think he needs a bath.”

“You reckon all Che royalty looks like this?”

“Huh! Compared with most of them he probably looks elegant.” There was a nasty laugh.

Sekher was hauled upstairs into the lower levels of the palace and tossed into a small chamber, little more than a closet, with slimy wooden grating on the floor, smelling of water. He dragged himself to his knees and shook his head, wondering where the water was if this was a bath. Then he screamed as the ceiling opened and he was deluged. It was scalding hot!

Frantically he twisted and turned, beating at the door, then huddling in a corner with his arms over his head as the water poured on and on.

Finally it stopped, the guards opened the door to drag him sopping and dripping from the cubicle.

“Smelling better, huh?”

“Probably used the hot water for the entire wing,” the other laughed. “Still, he’s presentable now.”

“Burn you!” Sekher spat. “Shave your clan!”

“Talkative, isn’t he,” one of them observed as he rammed an elbow into Sekher’s head. “Save it for his Lordship!”

— Chapter 10

Sheer size made the room cool, colder still for Sekher and his still-damp fur.

In another place the style of the room may have been called gothic, with peaked archways and ribbed vaulting, subtle- cross vistas, dramatic screens of fluted columns framing arched windows filled with coloured glass shedding kaleidoscopes of light across polychromatic marble veneers. It was an extravagantly beautiful sight, a room designed to overawe and impress, and that it did, bringing Sekher’s head up despite himself. The craftsmanship, the skill, the expense! His father’s great hall, the pride of the Che clan, was but a hovel in contrast.

Before a great circular window of gold, orange, and red glass that splintered light as though it were fragmented eveninglight, was the dais of the High Lord of the Ch’Sty Rim.

The guards half-dragged him across the fine white sand of the floor, gouging twin furrows, and deposited him at the foot of the dais. Behind him a menial scuttled across the floor with a hand rake, smoothing the way. Courtiers, sycophants, and hangerson in gaudy gowns and robes gathered around behind a cordon of alert royal guards, muttering and twittering amongst themselves.

This was the conqueror of three kingdoms? was Sekher’s thought upon seeing the one resting on the cushions and furs atop the steps.

A thin, nearly skeletal Trenalbi turned slowly to look at him, letting a sheaf of papers fall to a lacquered table at his side. His fur was a deep brown, like loam, his expansive ruff the same but with grey streaks. Nothing to do with age. His head looked too big for that body, and the eyes . . .

Sekher felt his hackles rise, claws extruded in fear. Gods, they burned yellow with an intensity like that of the Lightbringer. Madness? And those furs . . .

The chill of fear tickled his back, twitching his tail, his anal scent glands. Those furs still had the heads of their previous owners attached, glass eyes glittering lifelessly. With difficulty Sekher tore his eyes away from the glassy stare of one of the Lord’s former enemies.

A nearly imperceptible flick of a wiry hand made Sekher’s expressionless guards retreat a couple of steps. Kissaki Ch’sty leaned forward:

“Sekher She’at Che Youngest?”

Sekher said nothing.

Kissaki sat back and hissed. “Yes. Of course you are. You are, you know, a very pleasing catch. You will undoubtedly save me some time and trouble. You are hungry?” Another twitch of his hand and a servitor scurried forwards with a small tray laden with chunks of meat, pastries, and berries.

Sekher glanced at the tray and felt his mouth betray him by salivating. He clamped his jaws shut.

“Huh! Yes, very hungry.” The High Lord’s ears twitched and he beckoned Sekher go ahead: “You look like you need it, young one.”

“You . . . you have no right,” Sekher finally blurted. “Holding me here like this. You know my father . . .” Sekher stumbled to a halt, woefully aware of how pitiful this sounded to this lord in the centre of his domain.

“No right?” Kissaki leant forward, his lips peeling back in a glistening grin. “Cub, here your rights are my will, here my will is law. I did not have you brought before me just to listen to your ridiculous bluffs.

“Now, young one. I know you must care deeply for your homeland, your people, your clan. Correct? Yes. If you had the opportunity to save the lives of untold numbers of your people would you take it?”

Sekher ducked his muzzle, ears folding back in wariness. “Perhaps,” he breathed. “And how would I do that?”

“Very simple.” Kissaki rose to his feet and continued, punctuating his words with emphatic gestures. “All you would have to do would be provide me with a little information, just answer a few questions.”

“Such as?”

“Simple matters: how well prepared is Tsuba to withstand a seige? Are there any alternative routes into the city? In what towns are the largest garrisons stationed? What steps would be taken in event of an invasion?”

Sekher barked in outright disbelief at that. “Gods! You would expect ME to tell you that? While I’m at it, why don’t I just give you the keys to the city’s gates?!”

Kissaki laughed at that. “And how grateful I would be. I may even give you a town of your own to watch over.” Then he stopped laughing, “or I could simply use the persuasion of pain to give me what I want, just trample over Che as if it weren’t even there.”

“That you would not do!” Sekher spat. “There is a treaty amongst Che, Taiska, and Fhel. Fight one, you challenge them all. I think that even your forces would be hard pressed.”

The High Lord regarded him calmly with what could have been amusement, then turned to face the crowd of courtiers: “Heicko!”

A single figure stepped to the fore. Sekher’s heart lapsed into a triple beat as he recognised the dust-grey robes, differing only marginally from the northlands to the south. Priest!

The elderly male studied Sekher with mild yellow eyes for a breath. Sekher desperately tried to hold onto his thoughts, and it was probably his imagination, but he was sure he felt a chill wind touch his mind; just for a beat. The Priest blinked, then smiled and turned to Kissaki and bowed: “Highest, he is lying.”

Again Kissaki snarled his laughter. “Cub, you waste my time! I give you some time alone to think things over, then I will have you here again to see if you will be more cooperative.” In turning his back he waved his hand negligently at his guards: “Take him. Shave him. The usually treatment, but nothing too permanent; I may want him again.”

They seized him. Sekher howled in pain as his tail was grabbed and he was dragged towards the door. Laughter rose from the court. He scrambled to his feet and was promptly forcemarched from the room.

The huge doors swung shut behind him and again the menial scuttled out to rake the light-stained sands smooth again.

— Chapter 11

Kicking and thrashing, Sekher was dragged down to the lower levels again, to a room with walls hung with blades, needles, vices, irons, bludgeons, and a host of other instruments designed to inflict pain. He tried to break free, but now the guards beat him into submission.

Half-conscious they hoisted him bodily onto a table and strapped him down whilst a mangy male in an apron mapped with stains of gods-only-knew-what laid out a gleaming array of sharp utensils.

Fingers knotted into his ruff, pulled it taught, then a knife blade hacked through it, stripping it away. A pot of steaming water was brought over from a brazier and near-boiling liquid splashed on his face. He howled, tried to bite. Deftly a muzzle was flicked over his face, straps tightened. The white edge of a knife came close.

Sekher trembled in dazed humiliation as they delicately shaved him, turning him over like meat on a spit to remove every last tuft of fur.

— Chapter 12

He hit the floor hard, tumbling to lie in a heap against the wall. The cell door closed with a dull thunder that resonated along the corridors and the guards’ laughter faded into distance.

Sekher lay still for a time, then groaned, trying to stir himself. His battered body rebelled, dumped him back on the damp flagstones. There was a deep growling from across the cell. With cheek pressed against the floor, he saw the creature staring at him, at his naked grey skin, bruised and cut, his tail looking absolutely ridiculous; like a twitching piece of grey rope.

He moaned again and closed his eyes.

After his shaving he’d been paraded through the town with other criminals and prisoners of war, then had been left in the pilories for public humiliation until the Daughters were high in the sky. Never before had he understood what it meant to be naked; completely and utterly exposed. He felt every breeze against his skin, every chill, every thrown stone, piece of rotting fruit and excrement as he had never felt anything before. It was a terrible feeling to be so . . . so vulnerable.

Now there was a dull aching in his bones. Gods, but he was COLD! He huddled into a small ball, as if trying to squeeze the warmth from his body, a part of him yearing for the comfort of his dam’s pouch.

There was the growling again. He looked up at the creature making its noises, as if trying to tell him something. It reached up to its collar and fiddled with the catch at the back.

A click and the bronze collar and chain fell away.

Sekher suddenly forgot his discomfort. His nostrils flared, his fear beginning to permeate the cell. The thing moved closer and Sekher retreated until a corner at his back halted him. Crouching, spreading his arms to defend himself, the remains of his claws poked from his fingertips, his toes. Standing upright, the creature was taller than he by almost a full head, albeit not nearly as broad. Sekher snarled, jaws gaping.

It stopped where it was, the corners of its mobile mouth curling up. Then it crouched, kneeling before him. A slender finger with the odd, flat claws traced a path down the middle of its torso, then it shrugged out of its spotless white covering, offering it to him in the same way it had offered food on that first night.

It was trying to be friendly.

Beneath that outer layer was yet more clothing, something of a light grey almost the same hue as his own skin with blue piping. Decorations? Gingerly, Sekher reached out to touch the white jerkin; it was padded on the inside, lined with more unfamiliar materials, smooth and soft, still warm. The creature pressed it into his hands.

Awkwardly Sekher put it on. It smelt strange; of salt and damp grass, felt even stranger against his skin, slick, actually exuding a soft warmth. Parts of it seemed to have things buried in the material, strange lumps that weighed oddly upon Sekher’s shoulders. It was also much too large, allowing him to huddle up and pull it around his legs.

Again the creature’s mouth curved up and it reached over to pat Sekher’s shoulder. Nonplussed for a second, he belatedly returned the gesture. It gave one of those deeps growls again, so deep that it seemed to be more felt than heard, and moved to inspect the door.

“What are you?” Sekher again asked the creature’s back. It didn’t turn, gave no sign of hearing.

— Chapter 13

Chenuk hastily straightened his gleaming bronze cuirass and cuisse, settled his sword sheath and gauntlets more comfortably upon his belt, and entered the audience hall.

He had been here before, of course, standing sentry duty when the high Lord was absent, but this was the first time he had ever been summoned directly. His commander had kicked his tail from the tavern where he had been partaking in a homecoming celebration to the Palace and hustled him into his armour. Chenuk had a nasty foreboding of what was wanted of him, but he brushed his ruff flat and prayed to any deities that might be listening that nobody would smell his nervousness.

Of the two Royal Guards who flanked him either side, their ornate armour making his standard infantry issue appear scruffy, no scent betrayed them. They’d had their glands removed. That thought always made the the base of Chenuk’s own tail clench in sympathy, but that self-mutilation was something they were proud of, making them difficult to scent, and also somewhat inscrutable.

Sand warmed by sunlight pushed betwen his toes as Chenuk walked the length of the audience to the foot of the High Lord’s dais, where the Highest reclined in a nest of intricately embroidered fabrics. “Milord,” he knelt. The guards moved off to a respectful distance.

Unusually, Kissaki was almost alone. Of his regular retinue only a few now stood around their lord, all five of them huddled in their grey robes. Chenuk sniffed curiously. What were priests doing here? He thought he recognised one: Sare, expert alchemist. They were all gathered about a small table on which rested several odd objects, one of which was all too familiar to Chenuk.

“You recognise that?” Kissaki asked without any further ado. “Ahh, yes sire,” Chenuk hesitantly replied.

“Do you have any idea of what it is?”

“No, sire.”

“That was not what you told your commander.”

Chenuk licked his lips, feeling his tail stiffen in alarm.”Sir, I . . . I did say I thought it was a helmet, but I’m not sure . . .”

“A helmet,” Kissaki regarded him with an assessing eye. “That is a most interesting observation. Tell me, how did you come by that line of thought?”

“It . . . it looked a little like a war helm, especially that visor.”

“You tried it on?”

“Yes Sir.”

“Why did you do that?”

“I . . . I do not really know, Sir. I was puzzled over what it was and just put it on out of curiosity. That was when the cursed thing moved.”

“Yes, we are familiar with that,”Kissaki mused.”Also, you claimed this thing belonged to the creature that was found in the plains.”

“Ah, yes Sir. It was carrying it and it did seem to be a perfect fit for its head.”

“I have yet to see this beast,” Kissaki said.

A guard stepped forward and bowed. “It is being brought to you now, milord.”

“Ah, excellent.” Kissaki rose from his cushions, stretched and stepped down to the sandy floor, walking over to the tray of demon artifacts. “Here,” he beckoned Chenuk. “Do you recognise any of these?”

He did, the creature had been carrying all of them, but they were all utterly alien to Chenuk. There were parts that looked like metal, and other parts that were of something he couldn’t identify. Kissaki picked up an object that resembled a lower cannon, a piece of armour intended to protect the forearm, save that the thicker, flattened face of the thing was engraved with a pattern of small squares and circles. Chenuk blinked. Perhaps some of those projections DID look familiar.

“Uh, no my lord.”

Kissaki returned the artifact, then took up the helm-like object and moved over to confer with the priests in muted tones that Chenuk didn’t even try to eavesdrop on. All the while the Lord was turning the device over and around in his hands with a lack of caution that made Chenuk’s ears flick backwards. He hastily caught himself from that breach of etiquette before Kissaki returned his attention to him.

Which Kissaki now did. Briskly he marched over to Chenuk and thrust the helmet-thing at him: “Put it on.”

“Mi . . . milord?” Chenuk stammered. By sheer dint of effort he kept his ears from wilting, but he couldn’t restrain his fearscent.

“I said, put it on,” Kissaki repeated in what could almost have been a bored tone, but again there was that keen glint in his eyes, like the edge of the knife Chenuk could find himself up against if he disobeyed a direct command from the apex of power itself.

“Yessir,” he croaked, and mumbled a prayer as he took the demon device in his own hands. His was not an inordinately religious upbringing, yet it was at time like this that the faith took him, and if ever he needed a god, now was that time.

This time there was far less reshaping of the helmet’s interior, but still air whispered around his face and the visor flared, transforming the room into a hellish scene. There seemed to be no light, no shadows, the walls a shade of grey and the sun-warmed sand a lighter shade. Torches in their sconces were the brightest of all. When Chenuk turned to look at Kissaki he almost screamed.

The High Lord’s visage was that of a demon, with a whitehot mouth and grey eyes and ears. The shape of his skull was visible beneath the pale halo of fur. Not just him, all the Trenalbi, nobility and guards alike, glowed white where fur and flesh was exposed, slighly darker where there was clothing, and darkest of all where there was metal. Chenuk could see the outline of daggers and darters concealed beneath the priest’s robes and that shook him still more. Priests were not supposed to carry weapons.

And they were not the only concealed things. Behind tapestries hanging around the edge of the room Chenuk spied the glowing outlines of hidden guards, also door-sized patches of wall that didn’t match their surroundings.

“Hai, soldier.” One of the priests was addressing him. Looking at the priest was a mistake. It did something to his stomach to be addressed by a creature with a glowing head breathing clouds of glowing steam with every sentence. “You are alright?”

“Uhhnn, yes.” Chenuk’s own voice startled him, deadend in the helm instead of reverberating as it would have in a normal one. “I think so.”

“You see,” the priest declared triumphantly. “It can be used by anyone. The shape changing proves it. It is intended to fit heads of varying shapes and sizes. It does not necessarily have to belong to that creature.”

“Then who does it belong to?” another interjected. “Can you name a craftsman with the skill to produce something like that? And I have never heard of any priest with the skill to devise a visor such as that.”

They were using him as a test subject. Although the helm didn’t actually seem to be dangerous, he would still much rather prefer to be back in the tavern with a chilled ale and a few friends, cracking jokes about climbing the wall.

“Alright soldier, you can take it off now.” Kissaki returned to his seat.

A relieved Chenuk hastily pulled the helm off, depositing it on the tray with the other devices. If a helmet had that kind of power, what capabilities were the others bestowed with? That small box with the little glass window and still more of those engraved squares, what powers was that gifted with?

The double doors at the far end of the hall swung open again, admitting entrance to a squad of Royal Guard and the burden they carried between them. Forgotten for the time, Chenuk stood quietly at ease as the priests scurried forward to inspect the stretcher that was deposited at the foot of the dais. Even the High Lord craned foward to look down upon it from his seat. Chenuk caught a glimpse as the surrounding priests parted: the demon; eyes closed and unmoving, strapped down on the cot by heavy restraints about chest, arms, and legs.

The sergeant responsible for the squad delivering the thing snapped to respectful attention before the High Lord. “Sir, I’m afraid it got loose from its chains. We had to use force.”

“So I see,” murmured Kissaki. “It’s not damaged too badly?”

“Nosir.”

“Very good.” The guards were dismissed. With a clatter of arms and armour they left the hall, the doors swinging shut behind them on well-oiled hinges. A menial scuttled from another concealed door to attend to the churned sand.

Kissaki stepped down to stand above the creature with hands clasped behind his back, then he knelt and took two handfuls of the creature’s clothing and pulled; hard, lifting the cot partly off the ground before dropping it back. The cloth didn’t part. “Huh,” he snorted. “Very well. Hai, Neric, you’re the expert. Can you tell us anything about this?”

One of the priests, a young one, burly and well groomed, obviously uncomfortable in his robes, stepped forward to give the creature a cursory examination. “I have never seen its likes anywhere . . . and I am familiar with all the animals of the plains, lowlands, and mountains. Nor is it described in any of my texts.”

“Perhaps from beyond the mountains?” another suggested.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he retorted, running fingers through the golden fur on the thing’s head. There were traces of unnaturally red blood there. “Still, it bleeds.”

“A minor demon?” There was uneasy stirring.

“Huh! And I am a female! Well, we can settle the matter of where it comes from!”

A hush settled over the hall as the priest settled himself crosslegged at the head of the cot, his hands on the creatures head. Slowly he bowed his own head until his breath was stirring the fine fur, his eyes closed.

Many heartbeats passed.

The creature twitched; once, then again, then spasmed, the straps holding it fast creaking under the strain. Cords stood out on its neck as lips fleered back from square teeth. A rumbling howl shook through the hall.

And Neric screamed also, mouth gaping and eyes staring in absolute terror as his own body was wracked with convulsions. Blood began to flow from the corners of his eyes, his ears, spreading through his fur in dark rivulets as the scream continued to force itself from his lungs. There was an explosive stench as he voided his scent gland and bowels simultaneously.

“Gods! Separate them!”

“I don’t . . .”

“DO IT!”

Guards were throwing the hall’s doors open, pouring in from doors on all sides, but the priests were already prising Neric’s hands from the creature’s skull, throwing him back to the sand and holding him as he threshed and bucked, foaming and bleeding, eyes staring into nothing.

Slowly he subsided, winding down like a clockwork machine, sheer exhaustion subduing him until he lay whimpering and gasping.

“ Neric?” a priest cautiously spoke the name.

There was no flicker in the eyes. Neric was no longer there.

— Chapter 14

Sekher’s ears perked up at the commotion in the corridor outside. At last; already the solitude was beginning to gnaw at his consciousness. Keys rattled and the door swung open. Beyond it the hall was packed with guards, all with drawn weapons, enough raw steel to outfit an army. They pressed back against the walls as more came through, carrying the stretcher.

The creature, still unconscious, looked a lot the worse for wear than when they’d carted it away, despite the battering it had taken. There was blood coating its face and the scent of terror was a palpable aura around it.

Without further ado the guards clamped the chain about its neck then slashed the bonds holding it down and dumped it off the stretcher, retreating in haste. “Hai!” Sekher called. “What happened?! What’s going on?”

But the door slammed shut, not quite blocking out the fear rolling from the guards. In the dimness Sekher stared at the prostrate from of the creature lying in the spread of light seeping under the door.

“Hai, you alright?”

At a push it flopped over onto its back and Sekher stared at its face, the closest he’d been. There was blood on its forehead and what seemed to be a fine layer of fur sprouting on its chin. Hardly daring, he reached out, stroked the face. Yes, there were bristles there. Strange that in captivity he should lose his fur and this creature grow more. That hairless hide was soft, incredibly fine, and that fur . . . He stroked it gently. At his touch the creature twitched, gave an unmistakable moan, and curled up into a peculiar little ball, arms wrapped about knees hugged against its chest, head tucked down.

Sekher looked from it to the closed door. What had happened out there?

— Chapter 15

Was it showing some sign of recovering?

The rumble, as low as that of the mighty sheets of bronze used to signal prayer, stirred the air in the cell as the creature stirred.

“Feeling better?” Sekher asked, looking up.

It didn’t pay him any heed; struggled to sit up, slumped against the wall clasping its head in its hands, contorting its features in a hideous grimace.

“Obviously not,” Sekher said. “You want some water? You’re going to have to get it yourself. I still haven’t figured out how you open this . . .” He shut up. He was babbling. Gods! How much longer would they leave him alone in here. Solitude was not something that any Trenalbi handled well. Give him a few more days and he’d be a gibbering ball in a corner.

He scrambled across to the door, pounded against it shouting, “Hai! Anyone! Say something! Gods, answer me!” Not a whisper from the far side, just the oppressive nothingness of the dungeons. Sekher leaned his head against the wood. “Say something,” he moaned.

And the creature growled at him.

“And YOU close your face!”he snarled back at the top of his voice, ears flattening.

The creature cringed at his shout, shutting its eyes and holding its head, then it rose unsteadily to its feet, the wall its support, and growled again.

“Why by all that’s holy did they have to stick me in here with YOU?!” Sekher howled, impotently furious.

It winced again, then roared back at him. Sekher stared in mute shock, the cell echoing. Gods! The thing was LOUD. His ears were still humming. He awkwardly tried to pat his nonexistant fur flat again, stroking only skin covered in tiny bumps, and coughed. What was the use of shouting at that thing?

“Sorry,” he muttered. It stared at him, head tilted to one side, then beckoned him. Sekher flinched, but the thing mimed drinking so Sekher allowed it to touch him, to open that hidden pocket on the jerkin. It drank deeply from the flask, then poured a little over its face and proffered the flask to Sekher. Gratefully he also partook, it was a welcome change from the metallic- tasting stuff in the pitcher the guards had provided. When finished, the flask was slipped back into its pocket in Sekher’s right side, and the creature returned to its corner, curling up on the floor and closing its eyes.

Time passed.

Its breathing slowed, the only movement was the twitching of its eyelids, then that stopped. Unconscious. Sekher crept close. It was as it had done at nights in the cage. Perhaps a way to avoid boredom? Why did it not just Drift?

He shook his head violently, rubbed at his muzzle, then flopped down in his corner and slowly sank into Drift himself, mulling over this little enigma . . .

— Chapter 16

Door? A noise, movement, shifting light.

Sekher slowly returned, withdrawing nictating membranes from across his eyes. What was it . . .?

There! Again. Metal scraping on metal as a key was fitted to the lock. Sekher groaned; now what? Which of them had they come for this time. Over there the creature was still unconscious, oblivious.

Keys rattled again. There was a muttering outside, then a voice hissing: “Che? Sekher Che?”

“Huh?” His ears pricked up curiously. The warden losing the keys? Not likely. “Who?”

“Friends,” the voice hissed back. Again metal rattled in the lock and there was muffled cursing. Sekher scrambled to his feet to listen at the door. At least two of them, arguing.

“Friends? Who?”

“We’re here to get you out.”

To trust his ears? Sekher gaped at the door in disbelief, then pressed up against it, hands spread against the wood. Again metal rattled in the lock. “Gods!” he hissed. “Hurry!”

There was a pause. “The key! It’s not here!”

“WHAT?!” Sekher slammed his hand against the door. Hard. It didn’t budge a finger.

“Calm down!” the voice hissed. “We’ll get a pry bar.”

“No time!” the other voice growled.

“Then what in all the gods-blasted wastes ARE you going to do?!” Sekher screamed.

“Quiet yourself!” came the desperate hiss and the sound of metal scratching at the lock.

And from behind him came another sound, a questioning growl as the creature stirred and blinked strangely coloured eyes at him. Sekher sank to a squat and shook his head ruefully at the thing. “Even if you could understand, you wouldn’t believe it,” he said.

The scratching stopped. “What?” came from the other side of the door.

“Nothing,” he spat back. “I was talking to a friend.

“Two of them?” he heard through the thick wood. Two of them? Huh, sort of . . . Now what was it doing? Growling and pointing at the door. “Someone’s trying to get us out,” Sekher told it. “Idiots got the wrong key and I don’t need any trouble from you.”

“What’s going on in there?”

“Local entertainment,” Sekher shot back, and even that little exchange excited the creature. Frantically, it pointed at Sekher again, indicating the jerkin, that it wanted to touch him. This time it opened another concealed pouch low down on Sekher’s hip, removing a couple of slender little silver cylinders, each no larger than a finger, some coloured with red and white stripes, others yellow and black, others with even more peculiar colour combinations. Only one it selected, blue and white checks. It fiddled with this, slipped it into the keyhole, and seized Sekher’s arm. The Trenalbi squalled, automatically slashed out and connected with useless claws, but the creature was amazingly strong and hauled him into the corner furthest from the door. Again not hurting him. It was gesturing at the door again, making pushing movments, move back.

“Back!” Sekher shouted at his amateurish liberators beyond the door. “Get away from the door!”

A couple of beats later the lock exploded into a shower of red sparks, then a brilliant scarlet light flared. Sekher squeaked and threw his arms over his face. Heat seared against his hands, arms, legs, ears; all exposed skin.

An acrid smell was hanging heavy in the cell, a haze of smoke obscuring the door. The lock was a formless mass of glowing, heated slag dribbling down the blackened wood. A charred hole the size of a head and a half had been bitten from the door. The lock had been welded to the frame, but was no longer attached to the wood. Nose and eyes running, fanning smoke away from his face, Sekher tugged the recalcitrant door open. For once the hinges chose not to squeal.

Air in the dungeons was heavy, static, slow moving. The smoke hung like a heavy veil over the doorway, stinging his nostrils as he stepped through it. How long until somebody else smelled it, raised the alarm?

His saviours were also wreathed in smoke, blurring but not concealing the arrays of multicolored veils and gossamar robes adorning their bodies. Females? By all the denziens of the Ramparts! Why did they . . .

And Sekher knew that exotic pelt of blue-grey, the eyes that glittered gold.

“You,” he croaked.

She and her companion were both staring past him, at the door, with confounded expressions. “How did you do that?” the dark furred one breathed: awed. Her voice . . . With the exception of his dam and some others when he was no more than a cub, still in her pouch, he had never spoken with a female, had never grasped the subtle differences in their speech.

Sekher’s ears wilted.” Ah, my companion,” he began, then winced. Gods! What would they do when they saw . . .

He knew when their eyes went wide and arms spasmed as they brought claws up. The creature had appeared in the smoke, an apparition from the farthest hell. It halted in the doorway, looming in the moving torchlight, eyeing the females warily while they began to back away.

“Hai! No, it’s alright,” Sekher hastened to reassure them. “It won’t hurt you.” I hope, he added under his breath.

“What . . . is it!” the dark furred one hissed, eyes wild.

“I have not the tiniest idea,” he confessed.”But it seems to be on our side.”

They stared again.” You cannot expect to take it with us?”

“Why . . .”

“Think of it, male! That thing? It would be more conspicuous than a shen in a bed!”

“We can’t just leave it. It appeared when I most needed it . . .”

“A sending, you believe,” she looked doubtful.

“What else?” he asked.

She stepped towards the creature, examining without touching. “It understands you?”

“I think not,” he admitted. “Sometimes I don’t think the thhing even hears me. Nevertheless, it’s more than a simple beast.”

“What must be done, must be done,” she finally spat, obviously not relishing the idea. “Bring it and let’s get out of this stink.”

Sekher touched the creature’s arm, tugging it. “Come,” he said and it followed him, docile as a well-trained shen.

The sight that awaited him in the torchlight of the guardroom to their level was not entirely unexpected. There was a lot of blood. All three of the soldiers on guard there were naked and dead, two sprawled on thin pallets, slit open from crotch to chest, chin to breastbone, the other lying twisted as if he was trying to clutch at the pair of throwing daggers that caught him in the back just before he reached the door.

“Males,” the darkfur grinned. Almost a warning.

“Huh!” Sekher looked around at the carnage. Such ruthlessness was something he’d never expected in a female.

The creature was hovering in the background, staring at the corpses and both females were regarding him in the brighter light. “You know, Sekher,” the dark one said, “you look a great deal different without your fur. And where did you get that tunic?” He ignored that. “You know my name. Do you happen to have one?”

Dark fur stroked at one of her squared little ears, then grinned. “Alright, Sekher Che. Call me Chaiila, my friend is Nersi.”

“I think I owe you.”

“Not this time, male,” Chaiila said. “I’m repaying a debt.”

“You came all this way for that?!”

“I had other business as well,” she muttered. Then: “Alright. Now we get out of here.”

— Chapter 17

“This isn’t going to work,”Sekher grumbled.

In full battle armour, holding the twisted leather leash, he followed Chaiila and the creature. He was beginning to appreciate the effectiveness of shaving prisoners.

He was forced to wear every piece of armour he could find to cover his furlessness, a dead givaway to anyone they might run into. His tail had been a major concern. No trooper would put his tail into the sheath built into the back of the armour specifically for that purpose unless battle was imminent, and there was no way Sekher could leave his pathetic, shaved appendage wave around like a flag advertising to all and sundry that here was a shaved Trenalbi; a prisoner.

Chaiila had solved that problem in a straightforward manner. She’d grabbed the tail of one of the dead guards, cut a ring around the base, slit it laterally, then just peeled it off with a wet, tearing sound. They tied it in place with thread unravelled from an undergarment.

Now Sekher’s tail twitched at the feel of the dead pelt tied to it. There was blood or something leaking from it, dribbling between Sekher’s buttocks. Gods! It looked almost real, but surely someone would smell the gods bedamned thing!

The creature was another problem of epic proportions, but Sekher was adamant: it would go with them. Now it walked in front of him, once more wearing its tunic sealed up, a leather collar around its neck again, the strap in Sekher’s hand while his other grasped his sword. The creature had balked when they first tried to put the collar and leashes on, but Sekher patted its shoulder, making encouraging noises and eventually it acquiesced.

One beside him, one leading in front of the creature. The two females were anonymous in their liberated armour, the masks and visors concealing their features. If anyone stopped them they were taking the creature to the temple. Orders of the priests. Nobody was going to interfere with that.

Hopefully.

“Quiet, male!” Nersi hissed, her armoured elbow thudding into his arm. “And stop that fear-scent!”

“What am I supposed to do!” he hissed back. “Cut them off?!”

“That can be arranged!”

The creature, who had been watching this tirade avidly, abruptly faltered. “Hai!” Sekher began, “What’s . . .”

He trailed off. Trenalbi were approaching them from down the corridor: a trio of warriors in light leather armour and breeks. They froze at the sight of the procession heading towards them.

Sekher prodded the creature with his sword to get it walking again, somehow keeping his own legs moving. The Rim Trenalbi drifted to the side of the corridor.

“Hai!” one of them hailed Chaiila as she passed. “What in the name of all that’s holy is that thing?!”

Sekher’s heart plummeted into his bowels. Surely they would notice!

The leather mask across her mouth muffled her voice. Not by much: she still sounded a little strange for a male. “A guest of his Highest,” she said with a hint of a snort. “We’re to deliver it to the temple. I don’t know . . . perhaps they want to cut it open and see how it works.”

The guard eyed the gangling, tufted head speculatively while grey eyes stared back. “Huh, can’t possibly look any worse on the inside.”

Chaiila’s laugh sounded genuine.

“Well, if the priests are waiting I won’t keep you,” the guard waved them on. As Sekher passed, the guard’s muzzle wrinkled slightly, as though trying to follow a scent. Sekher tried to master his fear.

As soon as they were around the corner: “See,” Chaiila hissed in triumph, “nothing to it!”

“Sure!” Sekher spat back. “Now how do we get out?! Just walk out through the gates then through the town?”

“Why not?” she replied, again staring at the creature as it stared back. “It’s night out there you know. We slip out the gate, then through the town, over the walls . . . nothing to it!”

Gods preserve his hide! They were lunatics! Here was he, escaping with a thing that defied description from a dungeon with the aid of two mad females!

“It’ll work!” she assured him.

The palace was quieter at night, but still there were Trenalbi about. The stairs leading from the servants level to ground were well-travelled routes, with untold scores of menials scurrying to and fro between their masters and duties. The few who saw them paused only to stare at the bizarre prisoner being escorted by three armoured guards. It was none of their concern so they simply kept out of the way then went about their business.

It was dark out.

The chamber that opened upon the front courtyard was vast space, a rectangular cleft in the side of the palace. Three floors over their head strongstone vaulting supported the roof. Around the walls, over a hundred paces apart, torches burned, tiny mites throwing small pools of light. More glows spilled from arrow loopholes and doorways: stables, guardrooms, storerooms. Trenalbi waded through these puddles of light, dwarfed by their own works, went about their business; here individual guards lounging against their pole arms, a courier scurrying on his way, there a group of males back from the town, their barks of laughter echoing.

Beyond the huge archway the sand of the courtyard was blue beneath the light of the Daughters and the Palace walls were distant black ribbons. Past them the peaks of rooftops and chimneys.

Beyond that . . .

Sekher raised his muzzle, unable to scent properly for the mask across his face that blocked the night breeze. Freedom, so close now. To remove the mask would be sheer folly.

The creature was rubbernecking wildly, obviously trying to cope with something it had no comprehension of. How could it? Whatever it was, wherever it had come from, how could it have encountered anything that could possibly compare with the scale of this.

The females were both silent now. Trying to hold themselves like males, and doing a creditable job. It was working! They could bluff their way past the guards, then . . .

Then an outcry sounded. As one the four fugitives looked to where that group of down-shift troopers were struggling with one of their number who was straining against their grasp, pointing across the space at them. His screaming carried: “. . . Demon! It killed a priest! Stop them!”

Guards were beginning to look interested now.

“Alarm! Sound the alarm!” the male screamed. “They’re escaping!”

That did it. Guards began to appear in doors, moved towards them with weapons in hand.

“Oh Gods!” Sekher breathed.

“Don’t pray!” Chaiila hissed. “Move!” So saying, she bolted for the closest door with Sekher and Nersi close behind. The creature, demon the Rimmer had called it, took a look at the charging guards and followed them with leashes dragging. Something whirred and rang against the wall as Sekher ducked through the door: someone had a crossbow.

It was the creature that slammed the door, rammed the bar into place. The door was sturdy, intended to keep things on the other side of it, but it wouldn’t take long for their pursuers to move to cut them off. All this door boasted behind it was a spiral staircase, leading upwards. Already Sekher could hear the females clattering their way up ahead of him. He paused to help the creature unfasten its collar, then swatted its arm: “Come on!”

Its peculiar foot coverings pounded the steps close behind as Sekher scrambled up the staircase.

The females were waiting in a door way at the top of the stair. “Move your tail, male!” Chaiila hissed. They’d both stripped away their masks and now Sekher did the same, gasping air. He was about to speak when Chaiila gave his helm a resounding slap and snarled, “Don’t say it! Don’t even think it. Come on.”

Again the females took off. Sekher gave his creature a resigned look: “Well it didn’t work, did it.”

It growled, then slapped Sekher’s shoulder to get him moving after the females who’d paused at the intersection at the end of the corridor. Somewhere alarm gongs were sounding. “Where now?” he gasped.

Chaiila twisted uncertainly, turning left and right, then she cursed and tore the helmet off and bounced it off the wall. “This way,” she snarled, choosing the left corridor.

They were lived in, these levels. The wooden floors were worn smooth, there were tapestries, simple black and white line compositions on the walls, covering the grey stonework. A servant stepped out of a door and promptly dropped his armload of laundry as he cringed at the sight of a grotesque gargoyle and a bevy of armed and armour warriors bearing down on him. They swept past him, then a guard appeared from around a corner.

It was the creature who received the full brunt of his attack. The trooper’s sword flared torchlight as it swung in a brutal arc. If the creature had been of average height the slash would have taken it in the neck, as it was the sword hit it its upper arm.

And, impossibly, snapped.

All the Trenalbi: the females, Sekher, the Rim guard gaped at the shattered blade as it rang against the wall, then clattered to the floor. Then the creature struck out, a single blow from a fist sending the trooper reeling, then came a kick that connected with the audible crackle of ribs breaking.

They left the trooper hugging himself and coughing blood. Now Sekher stared nervously at his creature. So easily it could have killed him in the cell. So easily it could have escaped! Why had it waited?

Another door at the end of the corridor. Another spiral staircase. Easy to defend and space-efficient. They’d started moving downwards when the sounds of shouting, feet, and equipment jangling drifted up. “Back! Back!” Sekher cried as he turned. The creature lagged behind them, pulling out another of the little cylinders. It fiddled with it, then hurled it back downstairs where it clattered out of sight. Heartbeats later the walls were lit with a brilliant red glow.

Cries and screams of terror sounded.

“Come on!” Sekher urged his creature. It seemed even more tired than they were, gasping hard. He caught its arm to pull it upwards and was surprised at its weight. It wasn’t as broad as a Trenalbi, but that was deceptive. It was solidly built. The way it had handled that guard . . .

They caught up with the females again on a landing a floor up just as they opened the door.

The hall beyond was full of guards charging towards them, spears lowered, swords drawn.

“GODS!”

Chaiila slammed the door. There was no bar on this one, just a lock. Then the creature pushed through them, ramming a small cylinder into the keyhole then frantically pushing them back, herding the Trenalbi upstairs.

They’d gone a couple of revolutions up the stairs when the shouts sounded behind them. A vicious snarl twisted Sekher’s muzzle. He wished he could have witnessed that: the door exploding in demonic fire just as they reached to open it.

When the stair ran out, there was another heavy door blocking the way. Unlocked, it was, hinges squalling loudly as it was pushed open. Sekher rammed the bar into place, then leaned his back against the door, praying for his trembling legs to hold him.

This corridor, leading left-right, was a barrel vault, tiled in dark blue with the wooden floor stained a dried-blood purple.

“Alright,” Sekher said. “Now where? There’s no more up.”

“Uh . . . This way,” Chaiila pointed left. “There should be another stair down.”

“Which will have a hundred warriors on it by this time,” said Sekher.

“You perhaps have a better idea?”she snarled back.

No, he didn’t.

From somewhere on that level came the sound of a door slamming open. Voices echoed from the hard tiles.

Wearily, the fugitives once again began running. At one intersection they were spotted by a pair of guards, who howled the alarm and immediately gave chase. The creature threw another of those fire-cylinders behind it and the resulting small orange sun that flared in the centre of the corridor effectively discouraged pursuit.

“This . . . is . . . hopeless,” Sekher gasped. The Sh’sty Rim forces knew they were on this level. It was but a matter of time before they found them, and then . . . How many of those little cylinders did his creature have? An escape? Huh ! A farce! The Rim troopers were doubtless enjoying the hunt.

Nersi poked her head out to check the next corridor they approached, then she signalled ‘all clear’. It was more conventional, this passage: Plastered stonework with murals of gods and deities depicted in bas reliefs. Long, also. They had traversed perhaps half the length when the squad of Rim warriors in full battledress rounded the corner at the far end. Several of them raised crossbows and the flat snaps of the strings being released sounded down the corridor. Nersi cried out and stumbled wildly, mewling in pain. Two bolts struck the creature, staggering it slightly, then clattering harmlessly to the floor. Another little cylinder was hurled back down the corridor to explode into a yellow glare that obscured anything beyond it.

“In here!”Chaiila ordered, catching and hooking Nersi’s arm about her shoulder to help her through the door to their left. Sekher was the last through, throwing his weight against the heavy door to seal it. There was no lock on it save a simple dowl bolt.

“Haiii,” Chaiila hissed despairingly. “Gods preserve us.”

Slowly Sekher turned to look.

A temple. Here in the palace, a temple!

The circular room of Communion was nothing compared to those in the great temples, nor was it as impressive as the Audience Hall he had so recently been introduced to, but it wasn’t the size of the room that shook the Trenalbi, it was the essence, the power that emanated from the very walls and floor.

Masks of the gods watched from niches around the walls. The great faces in gleaming black Nightglow stone watching their every move, dark eye sockets glowing with a green light. Phast, the god of war, was in ascendancy, snarling at them from his position at the peak of the triangle directly opposite him. Along side him the effigies of Chith’as’ Tre and Hirol, gods of storms and fire took their unaccustomed places. The altar in the centre of the room was marked with dark stains and streaks, still glistening wet.

Lingering scents of fear and pain rent the air like screams. Sekher froze. All the nightmares, the warnings, of what happened to those who violated the priests’ sanctuaries came flooding back, leaving him trembling. His fear mixed with that of the females, even Nersi, her leg now coated in blood.

The creature simply walked out into the room, touched the drying blood on the altar, then turned and stared at them, questioning.

A low murmuring sounded from one of the paired arches flanking the war god. A hooded figure in grey robes drew aside the curtains across the right archway and moved to stand below the mask of Phast.

There was a pounding on the door behind them.

Unperturbed the priest continued chanting his mantras, lifting his head to focus on the creature. The hood fell back. He was old, his mane frizzled and nearly white. Still the creature continued to stand before the altar like a target for a bow, seemingly puzzled by the unarmed old Trenalbi before it.

The priest raised his arm and the creature half-raised the cylinder it had taken from its pouch.

There were multiple flat cracks like the snapping of a dozen whips. From the walls of the room jagged flashes of blue- white lightning clawed out at the creature, outlining it in a momentary nimbus of sparks and power which faded in the blink on an eye.

The creature looked startled, swinging its arm around.

A stream of fire erupted from the rod in the creature’s hand, washing over the Phast’s mask, down, engulfing the priest who exploded into flame, staggered forward waving his arms frantically. Fur burned with a vengeance. Eyeballs burst into steam and flame ate into the body, erupting from the mouth as a visible scream. The smell of burning flesh was overpowering, starting Sekher’s mouth to watering.

The creature stood unharmed by the priest’s assault, looking — if Sekher could read its expression — surprised at the dying priest. It let the cylinder drop to the floor and glanced back at the other Trenalbi.

The twisted corpse on the floor still burned, smoking and steaming, looking like a charred log only vaguely Trenalbi shaped. Blackened skin and fur burned reluctantly, bubbled as fat hissed and spat. Sekher and Chaiili gave it a cautious berth as they half-carried Nersi around it.

Behind the curtains, the arches both opened into the same hallway. At one end this terminated in a room with little in it: some stark wooden benches and chests, but the other ended in another stairway, going up.

“But this is the top level!” Chaiila stated, confused. “Where’s this go?”

“Only one way to find out,” Sekher said. “We can’t stay around here.”

These stairs were broader than the others they’d ascended in their flight. They were also newer: the stones still bore the distinct marks of masons’ chisels. It was awkward hauling Nersi up those steps double-time, strung between them leaving a trail of blood. The creature trailed behind them, glancing back over its shoulder. There was little doubt that the Rim troops were now in the temple, right on their tail.

And when this stair ran out? What then?

Sekher’s hand drifted to the hilt of his sword. Good, he still had that, but would . . . could he use it?

He reached the top gasping. Nersi was yelping each time her foot touched the floor and she was beginning to weigh upon his shoulders like a wet shen. “Get back,” Sekher snarled to the females, in no mood for argument. Chaiila hauled Nersi through the small doorway and Sekher watched it close, then drew his sword and turned to face stairs. At least he’d take a few of them with him.

His creature stood there beside him, also gasping.

“Sorry about this,” Sekher nervously laughed. “Could have had some time to find out just what you are.”

Already voices and rattling equipment.

He grinned at the creature, clutching tighter to the hilt of his sword. It grinned back at him, then held up a single cylinder, stripped yellow and black. It twisted the top, starting a flashing red light, then dashed down the stairs.

“Hai!” Sekher yelled, but it was already out of sight.

Seconds later, it was back, sans cylinder. Sekher had time to squall in surprise as it grabbed him, hurling him away from the stair.

The blast that roared up the staircase was almost a palpable force, bringing a could of dust and small ricocheting debris that rattled against his armour.

Sekher found himself on the floor, a heavy weight on his back and a layer of dust coating his mouth. He coughed, spat, and raised his head. A deep growl beside his ear echoed his own sentiments. “Hai! You said it!” he agreed as the creature dragged itself off his legs and dug in an ear with a finger.

Sekher’s ears wilted in awe at the extent of the damage. That little piece of metal had destroyed and blocked a section of stair and effectively added another window in the three-span thick walls of this tower. He could see that was what it was now, a single tower with the rest of the palace spread out below. The battlements on the roof were swarming with soldiery as the first tinges of the Lightbringer tainted the darkness.

“Well, they’re not going to get through that in a hurry!” he snorted to himself, regarding the rubble. “Now we just starve to death.”

Gods! What was better? Locked in an underground cell, or in a tower? Either way you bit it, they weren’t going anywhere.

A bleak thought. Sekher snarled, startling his creature, then headed back up the stairs, slapping loose clouds of powdered masonry from his scratched hide. He pounded on the door: “Chaiila! It’s me! Open up!”

A bolt scraped on the other side, then the door swung aside and Chaiila was staring at him, at the grey coating covering him. “By my Mother, what happened?! That noise . . .”

“That thing again,”Sekher said, jerking a thumb at the creature behind him as he pushed past her, then stopped and blinked in surprise.

A strange room. Not little. The floor was carpeted, the walls panelled in expensive-looking timbers, and over those were hung tapestries. Not the usual scenes of hunting, battle, and geometric designs, rather these were maps. Maps of the known lands, maps of the sky, even charts of the seafarers, plotting known currents and winds within the bounds of the Teeth. There were shelves with over a dozen books along with countless other trinkets. Ornately carved, almost to the point of gaudiness, a cabinet of burnished dark Splitwood filled a corner, stained glass fragments in the doors protecting the top shelves. Before another door in the wall to his left, opening onto a broad balcony, was a well-worn desk, covered with a blotter, a neat stack of parchments, inkwells, a small rack of reed pens, a small waterclock, and other paraphernalia. A good-sized whitewashed adobe fireplace still held the remains of a fire, wood in a stack beside it.

Nersi was laid out on a pelt spread across a bed in a curtained niche opposite the balcony door. Her eyes were closed as she hissed breath through clenched teeth. The crossbow bolt was half buried in her upper thigh, the orange and white fletchings poking out. Blood: it was still trickling through the matted fur, not as much now as before. Her eyes opened as Chaiila sat down beside her head, caressing her facial fur. “How’re you feeling, cousin?” Chaiila asked, unable to hide her anxiety.

Nersi grinned: “How’d you feel with a lump of wood through your leg? Sweet mother, it hurts!”

Chaiila looked distressed and patted Nersi’s shoulder. “I know, I know,” she said.

“Huh! I got myself into it. My choice.”

Sekher felt useless, like a crippled limb. A Trenalbi who’d undoubtedly saved his life now may have to lose a leg because of him. And to cap it all, she was female. Gods! He was supposed to protect them!

“Gods! I’m sorry,” was all he could say.

Chaiila turned, teeth showing. “Leave us cub,” was all she said, an edge on her tongue.

Stung, Sekher retreated to the far side of the room. He caught a parting murmur from Nersi: “. . . not his fault . . .”

Perhaps it helped a little.

Well, first thing. He twisted around and grabbed at the false tail, snapping the threads as he yanked it off. His own pitiful remnant was slimy wet with fats and other bodily juices. He wiped it as clean as he could on an expensive-looking tapestry.

Then he perched himself on the edge of the desk, ruminating while unfastening various superfluous pieces of ironmongery strapped about his person and letting them fall in a clattering heap. Purple morninglight was saturating the sky, seeping through the balcony door. There was an impossible silhouette out there: A tall, thin, angular figure standing at the balcony’s parapet. The rising Lightbringer struck glinting highlights from the white clothing . . . armour, whatever that be- damned stuff was.

Huh! An inexperienced young warrior, two females, and a monster of dubious civility attempting to flee the heart of the Ch’sty Rim. Why had they bothered. Over there Chaiila was hunched over her cousin, voices low. She hadn’t followed him from K’streth, had she? No, he was incidental. She’d said something about some other reason for being here. Apparently that hadn’t been successful, so she’d taken second best (third? fourth? She didn’t appear overly infatuated with the idea of his company). Sekher hissed in frustration, anger, and stabbed at a sheaf of parchment, forgetting his claws had been cropped. He picked it up by hand, read it: some obscure prayer to gods of knowledge and understanding. He tossed it aside, watched it sideslip down, miss the desk, and plane to the floor like a falling leaf.

Priests: that one had had power, an immense gift, yet his creature(dare he call it that?) had shrugged off the anger of lightning like rain from a roadcoat. Also, there was that guard who’d betrayed them. What had he been screaming? It had killed a priest?

Two priests dead?

But why had it languished in the dungeons with him? Why had those guards been able to subdue it, beat it senseless? And how in the unnamed hells had it been able to kill a priest while strapped down?!

Gods! The unanswered questions!

Sekher shook his head, then loosened the neck guard on his armour to rub at where the metal was chafing his bare skin. How long would it take his fur to grow? He picked up the waterclock and peered into the complex workings where a steady drip of water moved a tiny model of the Lightbringer on its path. Another gadget, a simple glass bulb with four small vanes inside, the faces of each painted black or white. As the room lightened the vanes began to rotate. Sekher poked at it, but the vanes continued to turn. Well, he wasn’t going to mess with that. Priest wizadry wasn’t something for an uninitiated neophyte to fool around with.

He glanced a couple of requisition forms and noticed some items were a great deal more expensive out here. Gods! A bodyweight of incense required a transfer of fifteen silver rods from the palace treasury to the priesthood’s. Interesting.

Sekher swept a couple more such ledgers aside, uncovering a small grey slab, about the size of his palm. Curious, he picked it up, turning it over. It was solid, but not heavy. A strange material: not wood, not metal. One face was decorated with narrow blue lines forming patterns of circles, rectangles, and squares. Along one edge was a little flap concealing little silvery nubs and tens of tiny holes. A puzzle.

He yelped when a hairless pale arm shot past his shoulder to grab the slab. “Hai!” he turned. “What do you . . .”

But the creature was gripping the little grey box in both hands. It looked up at him with eyes gleaming, grabbed his shoulder and shook him, roaring, shaking him so Sekher’s teeth rattled, waving the box under his nose.

Then stopped when a sword tip pricked at the skin under its jaw.

“Tame is it?” Chaiila snarled in a voice as cold as the winds off the Ramparts. “Cub, we have gone to a lot of trouble to get you this far, now I am not going to have you torn apart by some monster from a nightmare; sending or not. Do I kill it?”

It was frozen, storm-grey eyes in a dirt-streaked face locked on him. Those eyes moved, flickered as Sekher reached out to take the little box from its unresisting fingers. One quick stab and an unknown variable would be removed from the picture.

“No.” Sekher put the box back down on the desk between them. “No, don’t. It’s saved our hides and if it wanted me dead it could have been done with it long before this.”

Chaiila hesitated, then gave a resigned twitch of her ears and pulled her sword away. A bead of redness appeared where the tip had dimpled the skin, grew, then trickled downwards. The creature clutched its prize tight and drew back several steps, looking from Chaiila to Sekher with startled eyes.

“Huh!” Chaiila spat. “Very well, cub. Be it on your head. Now you can help me.”

“How?”

The dark furred female sheathed her sword in one smooth motion, eyeing Sekher. The rectangular horizontal slits of her pupils were large, dark, stretching across her exquisite golden eyes. “Nersi,” she said. “We’re going to have to get that arrow out.”

“Oh, Gods!” Sekher groaned.

Nersi grimaced as they approached. “Just make it quick, alright?”

“Your desire, cousin,” Chaiila reassured her with a pat on the shoulder.

Sekher’s duty would be to restrain Nersi’s arms, to hold her down. Both Nersi and Chaiila insisted that Chaiila be the one to remove the bolt. Sekher wasn’t about to argue. He awkwardly clambered astride her so he was looking down upon her face. Scared face, he saw. Her eyes were wide and she was almost panting. Her scent was a spicy smell in the air, tangy and fresh.

“Here,” Chaiila passed him a strip of leather, doubled over to make a thick pad. “She may need this.”

He swallowed and turned down to Nersi. She plucked the biting cloth out of his hand but paused with it near her mouth. “You know, she said with what was almost a smile, “you really do look peculiar with no fur.” Then she popped the thong into her mouth and spread her arms above her head. Sekher took hold, leaning his weight forward. Her fur was warm, coarse against his palms.

And he knew the semibeat Chaiila began.

Nersi went swordsteel rigid, her eyes exploding wide as she strained against Sekher’s grip with such force as to almost unseat him. He steadied himself but the first spasm was over. She was trembling, shivering, her eyes staring through him. Every so often a noise would escape her, a small sound, but nevertheless painful to hear.

Behind his back Sekher heard Chaiila’s panting, her cursing, then the gasp of triumph. Nersi almost jerked off the bed, her eyes so wide as to near burst from of their sockets. Then she fell lax, sucking air and whimpering behind the biting rag. He heard the sounds of tearing cloth as Chaiila made more bandages to strap the wound closed with.

Gently Sekher lifted the sodden, well-chewed strip of leather from the female’s mouth. She mewled and turned stunned, half-focused eyes on him.”Calm,”he murmured.”It’s alright. It’s over.”

Yet he waited until Chaiila completed bandaging the leg.

A blood-soaked hand touched his shoulder.”Done,”the dark female told him. When he tried to stand, Sekher found his limbs trembling. Chaiila had done a good job: the wound was well wrapped, but still . . . Sekher had known of many die from wounds magnitudes smaller than this. The festering . . . Gods! He shuddered, tried not to think of it.

A rumbling voice, dropping out of hearing from sound to feeling. The creature caught his arm again, this time gentle, helping him lean against the ornate Splitwood cabinet, proffered the silvery flask. Gratefully Sekher drank. “Thanks,” he said, wiping his mouth on his arm, “I needed that.”

It growled in acknowledgment, then hesitantly moved over to where Chaiila was sitting at the foot of the bed, watching over her cousin. She looked up, saw it coming, and had her sword out and levelled in a heartbeat. The creature recoiled from the stained point.

“Put that away, Chaiila,” Sekher wearily admonished her. “It’s only trying to help.”

“What’s that?” she asked suspiciously, eyeing the flask.

“Water,” Sekher said, watching her with some amusement. “Huh, it’s safe. I’ve been drinking it.”

The creature held the flask out and pointed at Nersi. “All right!” Chaiila snarled. “I’ll do it. Here!” She stuck her hand out and the creature faltered, then surrendered the silvery flask. Nersi growled as Chaiila propped her up with pillows and lifted raised the skin to her mouth. She drank greedily, licked her lips. “That’s good,” she sighed, then relaxed, sinking into Drift. Chaiila stroked her cousin’s neck, watching her for a while.

She sniffed the flask, poked the silvery skin, then drank. Her eyes widened at the first mouthful.

“A little,” Sekher said. “I don’t know how much is in there.” Chaiila blinked at the flask as if it had just spoken to her, then tossed it back to the creature. It awkwardly caught it. “Thanks,” Chaiila said, dipping her head in embarrassment. Storm cloud grey eyes watched her warily.

— Chapter 18

Sekher cautiously peered over the side of the balcony. The battlements below were still filled with warriors, archers, although he was not certain a normal bow had the range. However he saw several light arbalests being set up, aimed at the tower. They saw him as well, bows were leveled and voices rose in alarm, but nobody fired. He drew back within the sanctuary of the doorway. “Why do they wait?”

Chaiila shuddered and blinked out of her Drift. “Huh?”

“Down there.” Sekher twitched his tail toward the door. “All that weaponry, and they sit on their tails. I haven’t even heard anyone trying to clear that debris off the stairs.”

Chaiila snorted and settled back in the low, stocky chair behind the desk, her feet up on the blotter, right crossed over left. “Doesn’t surprise me. The High Windbreakers are probably deliberating just what in the unnamed hells to do with us. Huh! Our own pet daemon.” She barked a laugh. “If it is a daemon. Hai! Is it male or female?”

“I’ve no idea,” Sekher said, looking over at the thing where it was poking through the books on the shelves, selecting some and almost seeming to read them, except it was holding them upside down.

“Huh! How’d you two get thrown in the same box anyway?”

Sekher scowled, then related the situation that had brought them together. She listened attentively, chuckling a couple of times while she lounged back. She’d stripped away almost all her Rim armour, down to the breastplate and chamois breeches. Her tail was wound around to her front and she absently preened at the twitching black and grey ringed tip while following Sekher’s words.

“An interesting life you lead, cub,” she said when he was done. The creature had stumbled across an illustration in the text it was leafing through and righted the book. It was an amusing, yet somewhat disturbing sight, a parody of a Trenalbi reading. “Where do you suppose it came from?”

“I don’t know. We were in the middle of the plains when they caught it. I didn’t even see how it happened.”

“It’s a weird mix. It bleeds like any other mortal creature, and what god would send something like that? It doesn’t have the characteristics of any deity I can think of.”

“It manifests fire,” Sekher said thoughtfully.

“And also water,” Chaiila pointed out. “And thunder. And death.”

“I think that may be accidental.”

Chaiila looked surprised: “Explain.”

“Look at it. Often it seems confused, terrified, like it doesn’t know what’s going on. It doesn’t understand us, and sometimes I believe it doesn’t even hear us.”

“Great,” Chaiila muttered. “What do we do when it gets hungry?”

“It’s got some food.”

“Really?” Chaiila looked interested. “Could you get it to share?”

“I don’t know,”Sekher confessed, rubbing at his arm.”And do you really think it’ll be necessary? I reckon that long before we’re hungry enough to need it they’ll either have that debris cleared away, have scaled the outside of the tower, or knocked or burnt it down around our ears.”

The dark female stretched, the fur on her tail bristling.”Perhaps, but I think the very fact that they’re taking so long to come to a head means someone is reluctant to damage one of us,”she stared past Sekher’s shoulder to where the lanky, naked-skinned creature was examining the tooling on an engraved letter pouch.”Or they’re reassessing what they’re up against.”

“I’ve been doing that from the day I saw it.”

The creature tired of the bookshelf and ambled over to poke around the splitwood cabinet. It examined an iron candlestick, apparently more interested in the bluebark sap candle than in the ironmongery inself.

“Oth’c ne’thirin te ne’lirin,” Chaiila recited.

“What?”

“An ancient tongue. Used by the warrior castes of the Hub,” she replied. “I think it means ‘what you don’t know, don’t trust’.”

“Huh! That kind of thinking won’t make you many friends.”

“Could keep you alive though. Now, any ideas on how we’re going to get out of here?”

“Hai! That’s my line,” he grinned, then sobered. “In a tower in the middle of a copulating castle, surrounded by soldiers and seige engines, with a wounded female and something from a dramatist’s nightmare. Wait till it’s dark, scale down the walls with ropes?”

“Ropes of what?” She twitched her tail. “And they’d doubtless see us and have us for target practice.”

“Huh! Well then, short of flying out, I’m out of ideas. What about you?”

“I’ve tried,” she hissed. “I couldn’t come up with anything either.”

Sekher moved behind her chair, to stand in the doorway. the city was spread out below him, wisps of smoke curling up from chimneys, steep rooftops of slate-grey and black tile. There were the indistinct blots of Trenalbi going about their business, oblivious to what was happening in the palace. The She’ng river sparkled blue in the morning light, the green fields along its banks fading into burnished gold the further they drew from the water so the horizon was a line of copper grasses. Far in the distance the dark blue thunderheads of a plains storm roiled lazily: one of those storms that flashed out of nowhere, drenched a Trenalbi, then vanished again.

The air was still cool, the morning breeze chill. Against Sekher’s bare skin it was like nothing he’d ever felt before and he didn’t know whether he liked it or not, then decided it wasn’t something he cared for.

That priest had a couple of spare cloaks and Sekher only hesitated an instant before taking one. Chaiila lounged back in the chair, watching him in vague amusement, then yawned, curling her grey tongue. “That looks even weirder” she said.

“What?”

“You in that robe,” she smiled. “Without your fur . . . Gods! You should see yourself!”

And Sekher’s skin broke out in countless tiny bumps as his nonexistant fur tried to bristle in indignation. He’d opened his mouth to snap back a reply when he was forestalled by a resounding yelp from the creature.

It had opened the top doors of the cabinet, the stainedglass doors, and now was clutching something that resembled a piece of forearm armour, but for the colour: that light grey with red and blue designs.

Chaiila’s chair legs had hit the floor with a loud thump as the chair tipped forward. “What’s it got now?” Chaiila asked suspiciously..

It stabbed with a finger at the thing, examined it, then yelped again, brandishing it before the Trenalbi and baring its teeth in a grin.

Both Sekher’s and Chaiila went for their swords.

The creature’s eyes widened and it took a step backwards, hands coming up while it shook its head. Then it feverishly fiddled with the device, slipping it onto its left forearm, adjusting something so it locked in place.

“So it’s a piece of armour,” Chaiila muttered warily, not sounding completely convinced. “Is that so important?”

The creature stabbed at the piece of armour with a forefinger as if it were trying to punch holes in it. A hum sounded in the air and the creature growled at its own arm.

Sekher was more than mildly surprised when the arm growled back.

“Gods!” Chaiila stumbled backwards, tripped against the chair, and sat down heavily.

“What’s going on?” Nersi called groggily from the bed.

“N . . . nothing,” Chaiila swallowed hard. “Don’t trouble yourself cousin.”

And Sekher was gaping.

The air above the creatures left forearm blurred, darkened, and strings of tiny green creatures began filling the space in neat rows. Lines and grids appeared, spinning about each other in a complicated dance. A small globe, covered with lines, solidified into a blue, green, and white ball, spinning in blackness. All the time the piece of armour hummed and rumbled sporadically, seemingly echoing the creature’s own noises.

Rapidly the ball changed, seeming to leap towards Sekher.

The image became a square like a window, a picture of a dark circle; Like looking down into a bowl half filled with green, brown, and bronze paint, the other half with blue. Veins, glittering blue, crossed the green patches, running into the larger blue mass.

“A map!” Chaiila whispered. “Gods! That’s a map of all the demesnes.”

Sekher looked again. A map, yes, but unlike any he’d ever seen before. The view zoomed in again, the central tundras marked out. A red circle appeared in the savanna, a green dotted line tracing a path eastwards, then abruptly turning red and veering south to terminate in a flashing point.

“That was where they found it,” Sekher breathed. “That place where the line changes colour.”

“And that’s Jai’stra,” Chaiila said.

And there was another line, a flashing white line curving out from the circle, turning to follow the red one. The image flickered yet again. There was a black shape, obviously representing Jai’stra, harbouring the tip of the red line. The white line was approaching: slowly, steadily.

“Then what’s that?” Sekher asked, pointing.

Chaiila looked at him and Sekher could smell her fear.

— Chapter 19

It was cool that morning, the wind cold against his nose and hands, toying with the edges of his cloak. Chenuk flexed his fingers then curled them around the grip of the crossbow, the wood and metal a comforting weight in his arms.

The first rays of the Lightbringer had tinted the walls of the tower pink, slowly lightening as the bright orb rose above the Ramparts and began its daily passage across the sky. There had been a few glimpses of the renegades on the balcony, a couple of the demon. Pending orders, nobody fired, but a hush had descended amongst the troops as they stared at it. It scanned the horizon, then looked at them before retreating inside again. The second time it was doing something to its arm, again looking to the horizon.

“I wonder if they’re still alive in there,” the trooper next to him had muttered. The query had percolated through the ranks. Dozens of gory descriptions of what may have happened to the northern plains Trenalbi arose.

Chenuk shuddered. He’d been involved in the chase through the temple, the royal guards behind them making sure the regulars didn’t falter. The third trooper ahead of him on the stairs had been crushed when the roof came down on him. Chenuk had gotten off lightly with bad bruising and ringing ears from the blast that kicked him backwards down the stairs.

Scorched his face fur also.

The gaping wound in the side of the tower was still there, a hole three times Chenuk’s height, choked with debris. Against the sky it was a jagged gouge out of the otherwise vertical walls of the tower. It stood like a single finger above the palace roof, higher even than the watch and semaphore towers. He didn’t know why the priests had ordered it built, they had their own inscrutable reasons, he didn’t really care.

“What is that thing?” the trooper beside him hissed. “Where’d it come from?”

“We found it in the central plains,” Chenuk replied without thinking.

“You were there?” The other’s ears perked up in interest. “How’d you catch it?”

“Just stuck it in a cage,” Chenuk replied.

“That’s all?” the soldier was disbelieving. “It does that,” he pointed at the hole in the tower, “and it just lets you stick it in a cage? Didn’t it also kill a priest?”

“Two,” Chenuk corrected.

“Two?!” The trooper stared at him.

“Uh-huh,” Chenuk flicked his tail. “That thing, whatever it is, it isn’t an animal. I tell you, some of the stuff it had with it . . .”

“You two!” A captain roared at them, making all the warriors within earshot snap to attention. “Shut it!”

Chenuk licked his chops and turned his eyes back to the tower. His palms were sticky, sweaty. Mother! He’d storm the Hub alone if so ordered, but by the Gods, they’d have to find someone else to tackle that tower! If it were down to him he’d burn the place and have done with it.

Of course it wasn’t left to him.

There was a disturbance around the stair to the rampart. Royal guards were pushing up, forming a cordon around the Trenalbi in colour-splashed regalia, armour too ornate to be practical.

“This stinks,” that warrior beside Chenuk hissed. Chenuk said nothing, but his own tail twitched in annoyance.

And he groaned inwardly when the messenger, glittering in his ceremonial armour of office, halted at the peak of the tower’s shadow and hailed the occupants.

The silence of the dead cloaked the rooftop. The distant sounds of the town, cries of birds, came loud. Then there was a Trenalbi on the balcony, hanging back to keep archers from getting a clear shot. It was that male from the cage, Chenuk saw, although without his fur and no longer wearing his stolen armour, instead wrapped in a robe. The skin of his furless head was grey, like the stone of the walls. Briefly Chenuk wondered if his own looked like that and fervently hoped it didn’t.

“Sekher Che,” the messenger called. The male in the tower shifted warily and the intermediary continued: “I bear an ultimatum from the High Lord and the Holy Council. You are willing to hear me out.”

Above them the fugitive male conferred with someone behind him, then turned to shout, “Go ahead! I don’t have anything better to do.”

The messenger scowled, then replied, “His Highest has been most exceedingly generous and offers these terms. You many accept or reject them as you see fit.

“You and your companions will be granted your lives, supplies, and safe passage to the border of your choosing. In return you will surrender the creature into our hands. Alive. It will be unarmed and rendered harmless.”

“And how would you suggest we do that?” the northern Trenalbi retorted. Chenuk would have sworn he detected amusement in that statement.

“That’s up to you,” the messenger replied stiffly.

“And if we decline?”

“You will watch your associates flayed and impaled above the palace gates. You yourself will be treated to some time in our lower dungeons, from where I can assure you, you will not emerge a whole male. Then you will join your friends.”

“Sounds like real fun.”

“I’m so glad you think so,” the official smiled icily, then bared his teeth. “So what is your answer?”

“Hai! Don’t we get some time to talk it over?”

“What’s to talk about? You drop that thing out here and you go free; Or you end up sitting on a spike. Your choice.”

“I . . . We can’t!” the bald male was looking flustered, scared. “It’ll tear us apart! We can wait for it to drift . . . we might have a chance.”

“You have until Pan tomorrow. Then all deals are off. We come and get you.”

Chenuk frowned as he watched the Royal guard bustle the messenger back down into the protective depths of the palace, then he looked to the tower. No. He didn’t like this.

— Chapter 20

“So now what?”

An exhausted Sekher slumped down in the desk chair. “Gods. I don’t know.”

Chaiila glanced surreptitiously at the creature. It was huddled in a corner, creating incomprehensible sorcery in vivid colours that burned in naked air above its wrist. “I think we could take it. It bleeds. If we hit it together, hard enough . . .”

“No,”Sekher stopped her before she went any further. It gnawed at him. That was an idea he had entertained; seriously, but he couldn’t sell his creature out like that. “No, we can’t. We owe it.”

“Owe it?!” She barked incredulously. “And just what do we owe it? If that thing hadn’t been along they wouldn’t have spotted us in the first place! Good riddance I say!”

“Hai! It helped me!” Sekher protested. “I won’t betray it. Besides, would you really want to deliver something with that kind of power into their hands?”

“Power?” she gave a peculiar little half-smile. “If it’s so omnipotent, then why doesn’t it just spirit us out of here,” she clapped her hands, “like that? Huh? Its power does seem a little . . . limited, does it not?”

“Perhaps,” Sekher’s lips pulled back from his teeth as he grinned at her, “but that thing was friendly to me. It helped me. I owe it.” Then he surprised himself by hissing, with more passion than he believed he felt, “I’m not going to hand it over.”

Perhaps surprise flickered in the female’s hard eyes, also intrigue: maybe. Then she lashed her tail around and commenced preening it. “You seem to have stuck a claw in its interests.” She was silent a time, then: “I should tell you that they would doubtless kill us even if we were to surrender the creature.”

Sekher had entertained that possibility. “At least they can’t make me into a cushion,” he muttered, inspecting his furless arm. Was there stubble? He wasn’t sure. So, if he died, would his spirit be doomed to wander the aether bald?

“They can wait,” Chaiila snorted, not improving his spirits.

“What of you?” Sekher asked. “They don’t seem to know you’re female. Would they . . .”

“They would,” she confirmed. “They have . . . specialists for females.” Her tail twitched so violently it almost escaped her hands. For a split semibeat she was transparent as crystal: afraid. Light from the door behind Sekher slanted dully over his shoulder, making her horizontal pupils flick to small squares. Then the window was shut and she hung her head. “Che,” she said. “I fear I must ask a boon of you.”

He dipped his own head. “If it be in my power.”

She heaved a breath, glanced over her shoulder and lowered her voice, “If I should be unable, please, see to it that Nersi . . . that they cannot take her.”

Sekher’s guts twisted, clutching him in confusion. “I . . . I. . . Is it our right . . .”

“Please.” It hurt her to beg him like this, he saw. “Please, Sekher. She would never last in their hands, and she would suffer terribly. It is right. It is the only way.”

Beyond her, Nersi was motionless on the bed, eyes focused on that here-not-here of Drift, the white of her nictating membrane half-extruded. Maybe she was hearing them, but somehow Sekher though otherwise. Small she looked: frail, vulnerable, and Sekher’s ears wilted as he realised Chaiila was right.

Pained, he closed his eyes and gestured assent. No words. Chaiila also had no need of them.

And there was the faint scent of salt, old clothing, a presence at his shoulder. Storm-grey eyes met his as he looked up, furrows in the smooth brow. As white as ever its apparel was, but its skin was dusty, a streak of blood there, the matted fur a dirty brown, tangled.

Was it aware of what they’d been discussing? If so, there was no glimmer of anything comprehensible behind those round pupils. Chaiila was bristling slightly, not even trying to conceal her unease around the thing. It shifted uncomfortably, rumbled softly to her and pointed a finger at Nersi, took a hesitant step towards her then turned, as if seeking confirmation. Again it gestured at the Drift-bound female.

“It wants to go to . . .”

“I know what it wants!” Chaiila snapped Sekher off. “Why? What does it want WITH her?!”

“Why don’t you see?” Sekher suggested.

Chaiila glared at him, abruptly whipped about and faced the creature, then swept an arm to usher it through to her cousin. The instant the creature was abreast her it froze with a swordtip at its throat.

“Perhaps it can’t talk,” Chaiila hissed, “but this it will understand.” Then she leaned forward to growl at the creature, “Harm her, hurt her, and I carve you another mouth.” She lowered the sword point but not her guard and stepped aside to let it past.

Understandably cautious it sidled past her to sit at Nersi’s feet. Chaiila leaned against the wall, arms crossed with naked sword dangling, watching it. Slowly it pulled aside the coverlet and bared her legs. The bandages, once clean white and yellow; lively, bright colours, were crusted and stained with rust- brown. The creature gently lifted her leg and began to remove them.

Chaiila shifted undecidedly, gripping her sword.

The bandages were tossed aside. Beneath them, the wound was swollen red and white, half scabbed, a pale fluid welling out. The creature sucked air in through its teeth. Its clawless fingers gently explored the puncture, working out the sepsis. Nersi mewled and shifted, finally starting to focus on what was leaning over her and Chaiila moved to sit at her shoulder, to keep her calm.

“What’s going on? What’s it doing?” Nersi was wide eyed, trembling under her cousin’s hand.

“Calm,” Chaiila soothed. “It’s trying to help.” She stroked Nersi’s shoulder and Sekher could almost hear her adding,’I hope’.

Nersi panted and watched the creature.

Once more it adjusted something on the face of the device strapped to its left forearm, and aimed it at the wound. For a hearbeat it held it steady, then Nersi yelped in sudden pain, “It burns!”

Chaiila rounded with a snarl, but the creature had already lowered its arm and was inspecting the wound. Still an angry red, it was, but the swelling had subsided, the dark fluid seeping out coloured to clean blood. From another pouch the creature produced that small grey slab and touched it in a certain sequence. It slid open, produced a small mirror-lined draw on which a droplet of blood was smeared, then closed again. Seemingly satisfied, the creature tore a blanket and again waved its arm over the strips. Nersi tensed as it touched her leg and patted her calf, making its noises all the while until she relaxed enough for it to wrap the bandages. For a final time it passed its forearm over the limb and with a gentle stroke of her fur stepped away.

Chaiila examined the medical work, then grudgingly admitted it was quite satisfactory. “How does it feel?” she asked Nersi.

“Ah . . . Hurts a little. Not as much as before.”

“Huh!” Chaiila’s head went back. She was eyeing her cousin suspiciously, as if she didn’t want to hear that.

“You worry too much,” Nersi laughed, plucking half- heartedly at the furs she lay on.

Chaiila’s ears lowered. “With something like that around, how can I not?”

“No, you couldn’t, could you,” Nersi smiled, then licked her lips, a gleam in her eyes. “Is there any water?”

And Chaiila flinched, then spat and turned to where the creature had taken its place in its corner, watching them. “Hai, you have water.”

It stared at her.

“You know, water,” she mimed drinking.

It cocked its head to one side. One side of its mouth twitched and Sekher himself fought back a smile.

“Water,” Chaiila repeated, starting to sound a little annoyed. “Come on you ugly, mange-ridden lump of shen shit! Water!” she snarled, then went for her sword.

“Hai! Stop!” Nersi cried out in alarm, then in reproachful tones said, “You always were too quick with that thing. Try having a little more respect.”

“What?” Chaiila looked offended. “To that?”

Nersi gave a weary smile and while miming, said softly to the creature, “Please, may I drink?”

Immediately it rose and went to her side, producing the water flask. Chaiila gaped then huffed in indignation and disgust.

“Hah!” Sekher barked. “I don’t think it loves you, Chaiila.”

“The feeling’s mutual,” she snorted. “Pet monsters. Gods, I don’t know; things are just getting too weird.” She sucked air, dropped her rear on the desk and began wiping down her sword blade with a rag. It was a habit, Sekher guessed.

“Nervous?” he asked.

She gave him a look that singed his tail. “I’m waiting to die!” she said in level tones, then snarled, “What do you think!”

“Sorry.”

“Haaaa . . . No.” She raked claws through her muzzle fur, down her throat, and stared glumly at her cousin, sitting up in bed examining the creature’s hands and fur. “I’m nervous.” She grinned: “I don’t think I’ve ever been so nervous.”

“K’streth,” Sekher murmured.

“What?” Her eyes narrowed. Then: “Huh, right. Perhaps I have. I never did get a chance to thank you for that, did I.”

“I think you just did.”

“Yeah, well . . . I guess I just postponed it,” she sighed.

“I’m grateful,” Sekher said. “It beats rotting in a cell. I’ll maybe get a chance to take a few of them with me.” He studied her anew, noting how she averted her eyes. “You didn’t come all this way just for me, did you.”

She swallowed. “Did you know someone by the name of Twistfur?”

Oh Gods, oh Gods.

And she caught the expression on his face. “He was my sire. My true-sire. I know it’s not usual, but we’d always stayed in contact. My true-mother left me at the creche and that was that. But he always came to see me. I . . . I think I was closer to him than anyone else. I saw his squad get you away, then later heard that Rim troops’d captured a Tsuba Highborn. I followed you. I found out what happened.”

“He . . .” Sekher croaked, swallowed. “He stopped the arrow that would have got me. I’m sorry.”

“It . . .” she trailed off and turned away from him. Sekher caught a glimpse of her nose: wet, as were the scent-spots on her cheeks, leaking her grief.

The irreparable loss of her town, her home. To have held it so long, bottling it with bravado. She deserved this release.

Nersi gently pushed the creature aside and left it standing there, looking confused, whilst she welcomed Chaiila with gentle touches and soft words. They curled up together in a lose embrace, Chaiila’s muzzle buried under Nersi’s chin. There was soft murmuring, comforting, then they were quiet and slowly their breathing slowed, synchronised, as they slipped into Drift.

Sekher pitied her, also felt a twinge of jealousy. To be able to huddle up with other bodies, sharing warmth, protection, comfort, reassurance.

He sighed and readjusted his cloak, trying to block a lonely draught.

— Chapter 21

The movement alerted something inside him. A part of him, not a consciousness, registered possible danger, increased his heartbeat, respiration, pulled his self out of Drift.

Sekher blinked, shaking his head, the nictating membrane pulling back and clearing his vision. “Huh? What . . .”

A cool hand clamped over his mouth, silencing him. The odours of salt and drying hay were strong in his nostrils. It was still dark, a dying glow of embers in the fireplace. The sparse rudy glow flickered on a alien silhouette leaning over him, flat planes and bone structure accentuated by drastic shadow. It anxiously glanced toward the balcony before lifting its hand.

Sekher breathed deeply, forcing himself to relax, to draw his claws in again. Ai, but his muscles were stiff from sitting in the chair. Before him the creature crouched down, lowering itself to his level. It rumbled softly, pointing towards the female and nudging Sekher to get him moving.

Chaiila’s and Nersi’s rousing queries were the same as Sekher’s, cut off at the same point when he urged them to silence. Chaiila had reached for her sword, alarm blossoming across her face when she realised it was not by her side. “What’s going on?” she hissed.

“Ask that,” he whispered, jerking a thumb toward the creature. It was standing just inside the balcony door with the armour on its left forearm glowing softly. Every so often it would glance out the door as if looking for something.

Chaiila and Nersi both gave Sekher questioning glances. He spread his hands in a shrug.

Cloud was low that night, a light mist in the air, cool against Sekher’s muzzle. Through the dampness Sekher could see the blurred red glows of braziers, eclipsed at odd intervals as Rim warriors moved in front of them. They were still down there.

Huh! Perhaps they’d gone home for the night . . . Of course they were still down there!

Yet there was no sign that anything untoward

was transpiring. It was as quiet as a twelve week gone corpse.

He turned back to the creature. “What’re you up to?” he murmured.

It twitched, looked up from its work and grinned at Sekher. They were small, square teeth that Sekher found difficult to be threatened by; nevertheless he decided to take the better part of valour and stepped back. It shook its head, then touched its forearm.

Without a flicker its brilliant white clothing changed to a pitch black. Sekher gaped wordlessly. Chaiila muttered a hasty warding mantra, grabbing her sword from the desk.

A dark shape against the night fog it stepped out onto the balcony, hugging the curve of the tower wall to further confound any eyes that might be looking. Long fingers flickered, seemingly caressing its left wrist, and it growled.

A line of red light snapped into existence, a reed-thin bar of red light spearing towards the balcony, originating somewhere in the foggy distance. At times that thread of light looked solid enough to touch, at other moments it faded, vanished, reappeared with the drifting clouds.

“Gods,”Sekher whispered, awed.

The beam shifted smoothly until it had pinpointed a spot on the wall several spans to the left of the door. Hurriedly the creature retreated back into the room, closing the balcony door, ushering the recalcitrant Trenalbi to the far side of the room where they huddled around Nersi, agitated and confused.

“What’s going on?”she hissed, wild-eyed. Tendons on her arms stood out as she clenched her leg, trying to get up. Chaiila, pressed her back again, grasped her cousin’s hand and glanced at the creature, awaiting its next move. It growled at its lower cannon, which duly growled back. Outside, beyond the thick tower walls, came a faint howling, a roar that within a heartbeat grew to a crescendo then a powerful impact, the amplified sound of swordstrike on stone, shook the tower, jolting showers of mortar and the dust of ages loose. A penetrating whine, a screech of metal biting against rock, set Sekher’s teeth on edge as something on the other side of the wall tried to claw its way through.

Then there was silence.

A decabeat later; distant shouting.

Six strides and the creature was across the room, pulling the door open. It glanced out then frantically beckoned to Sekher and Chaiila. Chaiila balked.

“Come on!” Sekher hissed, tugging her arm. Reluctantly she came.

The mist was a godsend, but still they stayed low, hidden from Rim eyes and weapons by the balcony parapet. Imbedded in the solid stone of the wall to the left of the door was what could only be the source of the noise.

A stubby cylinder, as long as Sekher’s arm and half as wide, pressing against the tower like a bloodsucker on a herdbeast. The front end was slightly crumpled, four armatures spaced around its circumference splayed out, drill-bits on the end bored deep into stone. With a sharp Thum-Thummp the thing split lengthways, two halves of something that wasn’t metal rattling to the ground. The inside of the thing was a glittering array of compressed struts and reinforcing braces, black boxes and cylinders, all packed into the tiny space. For what purpose Sekher couldn’t begin to guess.

Then the creature detached a piece of the thing, a small rectangular assembly of metal that it pulled out . . . and left hanging seemingly in midair.

Sekher stared, not entirely surprised. There’d been to much strangeness for him not to be inured to some extent. He blinked, peered closely, and finally noticed the thread running from the back of the cylinder and off into the darkness, a minute thing, no thicker than a strand of fur. The condensation beading on it gave it a mercurial sheen.

From the device hanging from the thread the creature unraveled a black strap, adjusted its length until it was a long loop, long enough to loop under a Trenalbi’s shoulders, as the creature showed it wished to do.

Chaiila understood then.

“No!”She backed away.”Not a chance! On that?! Sekher, it’s demented!”

It stepped forward to offer her the loop and she snarled, teeth bared and ears flattening back, drawing her sword in a gleaming arc. She struck, aiming for its head.

The creature desperately flung up an arm, ducking. The sword glanced off its arm, making the beast gasp, staggering it to one knee. Chaiila gave tongue to another yowl and swung around for another strike and Sekher was unable to say exactly what she was aiming for, the creature or the thread, but it was the thread she hit . . .

And the blade was sliced in two. Chaiila stared in shock at the ruined stump she was holding. The commotion she raised had set off something amongst the Rim troops, already milling in confusion from the creature’s sorcery. More lights flared, torches and lanterns, orders were shouted, then came the sharp snap of arbalests.

A bronze-tipped bolt as long as Sekher’s leg caromed off the top of the balcony parapet into the tower wall, striking a shower of sparks and just missing Sekher who belatedly ducked. Smaller projectiles rattled off the rock.

Faster than Sekher would have believed possible in something with its bulk the creature seized Chaiila’s arm, disarming her with a twist of its wrist, then snarled at Sekher, gesturing curtly.

Sekher pressed himself against Chaiila, looking into her panicked eyes. The strap settled around both of them, Sekher hooked it under his arms, around he and Chaiila.

Then it touched its wrist armour.

A distant cough, from far out in the fog, growing to a rumble, a roar, then a scream like the fury of the wind. From the distant night streaks of fire appeared, arrowing down onto the palace rooftop. Gouts of flame and smoke billowed. Explosions thumped, hammering the air with a pressure that was more than a sound.

Screams sounded. Pain and terror and something not quite Trenalbi. Blue fire belched skywards from the temple as priests tried to defend against an attack they couldn’t see.

The creature slapped Sekher’s shoulder and assisted the shaking Chaiila over the side of the balcony railing. Then with a lurch the solid stone dropped away and they were hanging by a thread, the tower falling away behind them, fading into the mists as they gathered speed. Chaiila twisted and kicked, screamed,”NERSI!”

Sekher fought to still her, afraid she would dislodge them, afraid she would draw the attention of the Ch’sty Rim soldiery.

Although they seemed to have troubles of their own. Below them, a brilliant green line lanced arrow-straight from the mists to flicker across the battlements, vanish in drifting cloud, then flash into sight again. Violent fires burned across the rooftop, pyres of sparks and flames where seige engines had been, gaping wounds blasted in the roof and walls, also billowing flames and smoke, other places seemingly melted. The figures of Rim warriors were everywhere, so many sprawled unmoving.

Then they were over the town: far below and dark.

Chaiila was digging claws into his hide as she clung to him. “Nersi,” she whimpered.

Sekher clutched her tighter as they picked up speed, the wet wind howling around them setting them spinning first this way, then that; like a plumb bob on a line. The hum from the assembly clipped to the thread grew.

Gods! How fast were they going? More importantly, how were they going to stop?

Then the river was behind them, the water lost in darkness, when the ground came up out of the mists. Fields, the top of grain, blurred past ten body lengths below their dangling feet. If they hit anything at this speed . . .

But the ground dropped away again as the thread began to curve gently upwards, and as they climbed they slowed, more than the incline should account for. There was a braking mechanism somewhere on the thing Sekher guessed. Or else it was magic.

The ground reappeared again, the flank of a hill, much slower this time: the speed of a fast shen, running speed, then walking.

“Ready?” Sekher asked Chaiila. She grimaced in return.

Without warning, from the fog ahead, an angry beam of green light snapped past them, making both Trenalbi duck instinctively. Then a pale shape materialised from the darkness and banks of clouds before them: Much, much taller than a Trenalbi, many long legs raising it high off the ground, bulky body, glittering dark eyes set in a small head that pivoted to stare at them as they inched to a halt and dangled from the thread attached to it.

— Chapter 22

Someone, somewhere, was screaming, elsewhere another whimpering in fear and pain.

Chenuk huddled behind the crenelle, still stunned by the explosions that decabeats before had rocked the rooftop, shattering light catapults and ballista . . . and Trenalbi. Warriors ran about in confused circles, some firing crossbow bolts at phantoms in the mist. Many more were of the same mind as Chenuk: stay down, keep your hide intact.

Fires made the area a chaotic scene of strobing orange light and jet blackness while smoke burned at eyes and nostrils. There were holes where the roof had collapsed into levels below, some burning.

Chenuk clutched the remains of his crossbow, ruined when that green finger of light raked the battlements. He had begun to poke his head up to fire at the balcony when a green flash sliced through horns, bridle, and stock, the taut bowstring and fragments of bow whipping back to gouge his arm. Beside him . . .

Chenuk shook uncontrollably when he glanced at the lump sprawled on the wet flagstones beside him.

Beside him the warrior had been raising his bow to his shoulder when the green light brushed across him. His head exploded into red-tinted steam and bone fragments. The twitching body dropped like a sack of grain, the head above the lower jaw . . . gone.

He tore his eyes away. Something warm, moist was soaking the fur on both sides of Chenuk’s face. Absently he reached up and brought his hand away red. His ears, Huh! He wanted to chitter insanely. His ears, his glorious tufted ears were gone, charred and bleeding stumps all that remained.

Chenuk glanced up at the tower, the clouds of moisture and smoke parting in time to allow him a glimpse of something dark and silent gliding past overhead, gone before he could open his mouth.

— Chapter 23

The thread hummed and vibrated almost imperceptibly as another harness appeared from the darkness, slowing, stopping before it bumped Sekher and Chaiila.

Nersi had both arms wrapped around the creature’s neck, claws out and hanging on for dear life, but her eyes were bright and she was grinning with excitement. Despite the pain she must be feeling, enjoying herself?!

The creature reached up to snap a red toggle and the straps expanded, lowering the pair to the ground and shrugging the harness off. Nersi was limping badly, leaning on the creature’s arm for support. A most unlikely pair.

“Oh, gods!” Chaiila groaned in disgust.

Nersi halted — drawing the creature up short — and looked up at them, flashing a small smile. “You coming down or you just admiring the view? Pull that little red thing.”

Sekher craned upwards to do so. There was a metallic crack, a whirring, and the straps relaxed to dump them on the ground. Sekher stumbled as his unsteady legs betrayed him. That ride had ruffled his metaphorical fur more than he could ever admit. Chaiila took possession of Nersi, snarling at the creature until it backed off, fussing over her cousin who protested she was fine. Then she saw the pale behemoth looming over them on the crest of the hill.

“By the gods . . . What . . .”

“Beats me,” Chaiila admitted and tugged at her cousin’s arm, pulling her the other way. “Come on, let’s leave a trail.”

“Huh!” Nersi balked and hung her head, touching her bandage. “With this leg I won’t make it, only slow you down. They’d catch us before we made a kilospan.”

She was right, Sekher knew. The Ch’sty Rim law would track them and either capture or kill them. Capture: back where they started. Death: perhaps preferable.

A pale hand touched his shoulder. He turned to see the creature regarding him quizzically. “What do you want?” he snapped. It tugged at his arm, pointing to Chaiila and Nersi, then at the motionless thing at the top of the hill. Sekher’s ears wilted.

“Gods!” Nersi spat in exasperation. “It saved our lives. I don’t think it intends to eat us now!” And she shocked Chaiila by twisting out of her grasp and lurching away to be steadied by a wiry black-clad arm hooked about her waist. The creature rumbled at her and delicately escorted her up the remaining slope.

Sekher sighed and followed, with Chaiila behind him mumbling curses and wards all the way.

The thing was big; far bulkier than a wagon, with six legs thicker than a trenalbi and a chunky body. Its head — if that was what it was — was a cylindrical affair situated halfway down its length. It moved to track them as they approached and Sekher was instantly struck by the similarity to the insides of the thing imbedded in the tower wall: struts and metal and glass and other materials.

Then he saw there were wheels on the ends of its legs. “Wheels?” Chaiila saw them also. “Since when does hellspawn have wheels?”

And since when were demons made from metal?

The creature took Nersi right up to the thing, neither of them reaching the underbelly, and opened a small door in its right foreleg, touching glowing squares in a brisk sequence. Promptly, like a Hetre kneeling for mounting, the wheeled thing lowered itself with ponderous grace, stopping when its belly was brushing the grass. A latticework of bars clanked and hinged upwards like great jaws.

Nersi was hesitant about approaching that, but she did so, looked inside, then laughed and turned to the other two Trenalbi hovering what they hoped was a safe distance back. “Come on!” she called. “I think we’ve got a ride!”

“Huh?” Chaiila and Sekher traded wondering looks.

There were a pair of what could only be seats in the front of the thing. Granted they were strange-looking things: black, covered with something glossy and soft-appearing, without apertures for tails, but they were unmistakably seats.

Arrayed before them were a series of glassy squares and a few glowing lights of various colours. To the right of each position was a strangely-wrought protuberance, a little like someone’s twisted idea of a sword hilt. The creature helped Nersi get settled into the left seat, squirming to find a position where her tail was tolerably comfortable. Behind the seats was a small space, cluttered with small coloured cylinders, box-like things, and other incomprehensible knik-knacks. These the creature swept aside like so much rubbish and folded a small padded ledge down from the back wall.

“Come on!” Nersi urged them again. “It’s not dark forever!” Sekher squeezed in behind the seats, followed in short order by Chaiila. She pressed against him in the confined space, fur brushing against his bare arm. He shivered convulsively and only then understood just how cold he was with night dampness soaking through his cloak.

The seat before him creaked as the creature settled into it. If this was a wagon, where were the draught beasts? Who had brought it here? Surely it could not have been left standing where it was, conspicuous from the town walls.

Above him the latticework of thick bars that constituted the broad canopy swung down to lock in place with a click. Not made to keep anything in or out, simply to protect the inhabitants of the cabin in case of a roll. Around the lip, above a board studded with coloured squares, circles, and other patterns was a shield of a glass of a quality that surpassed anything Sekher had ever seen before.

The creature was hidden from his sight in its seat directly before him, but Sekher saw its hand touching squares on the arm of its chair. More lights flicked to life. With an ease borne of long familiarity it tapped lights. Images flared in the glass plates: lines and curves, pictures, a map like the one conjured by the creature. Then it took a firm grip on the stick with its right hand, accompanied by a low hum pervading the very framework of the vehicle.

Everything lurched and Sekher was pressed back where he sat. Heavy wheels spun, tearing clods of dirt loose, then gripped as the vehicle slewed about and left Jai’stra behind. It accelerated, the body lowering to hug the ground, legs rising and falling with every dip and mound so instead of rattling his teeth like seeds in a rattle the ride was little worse than a boat in a light swell.

But so much faster!

Crushed grain blurred under the wheels and slowly the mists began to thin, turning into a thin cloud cover. White- blue Daughter-lit horizon and plains wheeled as the vehicle executed a gradual turn and passed through a hole torn in a rickety wooden fence and the seemingly endless expanse of the plains was before them.

“I think I’m going to be sick,” Chaiila moaned.

— Chapter 24

“They’re WHAT?!”

“Gone, Sir,” the guard repeated miserably.

“That I heard,” the officer hissed, then howled, “What I want to know is HOW! WHERE?!”

The guard ducked his head and flinched away. “We don’t know Sir,” he confessed. “They’re just . . . gone.”

The officer stared at the subordinate in fury, then dismissed him with a cuff of the ears that drew blood. Still fuming the officer turned and saw Chenuk watching. “What do you want!”

“Watchkeeper Nerfith, Sir,” Chenuk ducked his head and the officer started visibly at the ruin of Chenuk’s ears. Clotting blood from his ears tugged at his head fur, but the pain had subsided to a vague sting. “Sir, I’m Chenuk ser Kifeny. I was transferred to your command. Told to report to you for orders.”

“Another,” Nerfith groaned. “Alright, Chenuk, who was your old commander? Why the shift?”

“Hekira, Sir. He was over there,” Chenuk nodded towards a large smoking hole in the wall and part of the rooftop. They were still digging bodies out of the rubble.

“Huh, pity. He was a good warrior.”

“Yes Sir.”

“Your battlegroup?”

Chenuk twitched, the tattered remains of his ears aching. He swallowed and finally replied, “Some of them are still . . . alive.”

Nerfith just stared, trying not to show his shock. Just a few motley fugitives and they’d lost one battlegroup at the least.

He was spared the ignominy of gaping like a wordless fool when another soot-streaked trooper stopped and saluted the Watchkeeper. “Sir, we’ve found something on the tower . . . We don’t know what it is.”

“The unknown is something I’ve just about had enough of,” the officer sighed.”Very well. Chetik . . .”

“Chenuk, Sir.”

“Whatever . . . Chenuk, follow.”

They’d scaled the tower with ladders and entered through the hole. There’d been nobody there. Nor had there been anyone or anything in the room at the top, which the priests had allowed them to enter only after performing arcane rituals to remove demonic wards. The whole tower had been deserted.

However, imbedded in the tower wall just outside the balcony door was a peculiar object that hadn’t been included by the architects. There were guards in the tower room and a couple more on the balcony itself. All had their fur on end and a reek of fear about them. Chenuk smelt it and his own pulse picked up.

“You haven’t touched it?”the Watchkeeper asked.

“No Sir,”one of the duty guards responded.”It’s just as we found it.”

“Have the priests had a look at it?”

A few of the guards exchanged glances. Their spokesman twitched his tail uncomfortably.”Ah . . . They decided to make their examinations from a distance for the present.”

Chenuk bit back a protest. If the priests were too scared to poke their noses around, what in the hells was HE doing here?! Gods, he groaned to himself, I don’t get paid enough for this kind of thing.

Nerfith scratched at his armour, adjusting his tail in its sheath up the back of the plastron.”So, has it done anything?”he asked.”Moved, prophesied, sung? Anything?”

“Uh, nosir.”

The watchkeeper snorted and stepped out onto the balcony. He took some time to lean on the railing and stare out into the fog before nonchalantly strolling around to examine the thing. Chenuk followed, noting that Nerfith’s sword hand was twitching, flexing restlessly Light was beginning to touch the clouds on the horizon, turning the edges of the clouds molten silver. Morning already. Chenuk blinked at the Pan; finally, after a night that had seemed to drag on forever.

The thing stuck into the wall was metal. At least, most of it seemed to be. There was that watery wave of reflections — pink, purple and scarlet in the morninglight, much like the ripples on a blade of the finest quality steel. Other parts were of a flimsy-seeming white substance that Chenuk knew he’d seen before. In fact he’d worn it on his head. The nose of the thing was crumpled where it had impacted with the stonework, but the stone had yielded also. Mortar had crumbled and several blocks had been pushed out of alignment.

“Gods, it must have hit with the force of a battering ram,”Nerfith pointed out.

Four small arms were splayed out, their tips drilled into the masonry. That was how the thing clung with such tenacity.

“Sir, how could this have helped them escape?”Chenuk asked.

The Watchkeeper’s ears flagged his own ignorance.

Chenuk looked closer. Whatever it was, its skeletal framework was filled with small boxes and strange constructions of metal. In the end protruding from the wall there was a recessed cavity.

“What’s this?”Nerfith stooped to pick something up from the floor.”Looks like a sword blade. What’d you think?”

“Ah, yes Sir. Cheap bronze job. Standard issue. It looks like it snapped.”

The officer scrutinised the broken blade and gave a noncommital,”Humph.”

“Watchkeeper!”a courier popped out onto the balcony and handed over a scroll.”Message Sir!”

“Thanks.”The officer passed the fragment of blade to Chenuk, took the scroll and popped the seal with a claw,”wait over there,”he ordered the messenger with a distracted toss of his head. If the courier had done so, he’d have gone over the edge of the balcony. Instead he chose to retire to the tower room.

Chenuk stepped aside to let the officer pace on the narrow parapet. Why would a priest have a balcony constructed anyway? He’d heard that Kanr, the priest who’d made this tower his domicile, had been a little eccentric, even for the priesthood. Always peering at the night sky and trying to postulate ridiculous theories about the Well of Heaven. Huh! No doubt he’d used this balcony to stare at the night sky. Powerful he’d been too, very powerful, but always reluctant to fight. Still, he’d met his match in the last place he expected, right in his own sanctum.

A slight movement on the device stuck to the wall caught Chenuk’s eye. Intrigued, he cocked his head to one side to closer inspect it. From the recess at the rear of the thing hung a tiny thread, scarcely more than a black shadow a couple of spans long. Chenuk batted at it, then caught it in his left hand. It was so light he couldn’t even feel it. He snorted in abrupt anger at this thing that had so thoroughly disrupted his life and yanked the thread to snap it off.

A brief flash of pain up his arm. Chenuk looked down in confusion, at first not understanding what he saw. Then he started chittering and whimpering in shock.

Nerfith looked up from his dispatch:”What’s . . . Hells! Guards!”he yelled for help as he grabbed Chenuk’s hand and saw the damage for himself.”Gods, youngling! What happened?!”

“T . . . That,”Chenuk hissed, then yelped at pain.”That string . . . It went right through . . .”

“Death on a doorstep! You’ve been losing too many body parts this night,”Nerfith muttered as he strapped the tourniquet in place and tightened it.

Chenuk chittered in agony, his good hand extruding claws and flailing at the air.”Haaii!”

“Calm, you’ll live.”

“North.”

“What?”The Watchkeeper’s ears perked up and he readjusted his position the better to see the trooper’s face.

“North,”Chenuk repeated.”They went north. Where we found it.”

Nerfith digested that information while more guards appeared, staring at Chenuk’s maimed hand. “Hnnn!”the soldier clenched his teeth as the guards helped him too his feet and threw his arms over their shoulders. He was muttering as they carried him off, snarling:”I’m going to find that hairless, motherless, demon-spawned bastard,”he snarled to nobody in particular.”I’m going to find it, and I’m going to tear it apart and feed it to itself. Deformed, furless offspring of a shen. Demon. Sorcery . . .”

Nerfith watched him leave with wilted ears. He beckoned to a lieutenant.

“Sir?”

“I want to find out some more about that Trenalbi. What assignments he’s had in the past. Was he with the convoy that found that thing? where they found it, stuff like that. See what you can uncover.”

“Yessir.”

“And get a message to the signalers.”

— Chapter 25

Sekher squinted into the wind whipping around his head and ears, nostrils working hard. Standing on the pillion bench in the daemon’s conveyance, steadying himself with a hand clenching the framework enclosing the cabin, he had an excellent view. The air was cool and fresh, just beginning to warm after the night but still chilly against bare flesh. Hazy purple horizons, the norm on these rolling prairies, stretched away in all directions. The low, tough scratch-bush and golden grasses would continue to carpet the grounds until another river valley where more hospitable and colourful flora could grow. To the west, the orb of the Lightbringer was only a few degrees above the hazy teeth of the Ramparts. How far had they travelled in the past couple of hours? Certainly far further than any mounted Trenalbi could manage in a day.

He took another deep draught of the morning air and ducked back down into the shelter offered by the cabin. “Morning and waking,”he cheerfully greeted Chaiila who was curled in on herself on the bench. She lifted her head, the white eyelid sliding back as she raised from Drift.

“Burn in eternal agony, male,”she hissed.

“Glad to see you’re feeling better,”he returned. “Huhnnn,”she groaned, rubbing at muzzle and eyes.”I don’t understand how you can stand this. It’s not . . . natural to travel this fast!”

Sekher flagged amusement at her embarrassment and Chaiila bridled. She was a proud one, this female, and she wore that pride like a prized and polished suit of armour; she didn’t like to get it scratched.

Nersi was in Drift, slumped in the front seat with her head lolling on her shoulder. Beside her the creature was bent over a tray on its lap, a scatter of tiny parts spread out on it. A small door had been opened in a cluster of devices on a panel before it revealing perplexing tangles of coloured cables and small black cubes locked into latticeworks. The creature’s armband also lay in fragments while deft long-fingered hands shifted pieces around as if trying to solve a complex puzzle.

“Uh,”Chaiila tugged at his tail.”Sekher, who’s controlling this thing?”

Nersi in Drift. The creature . . . doing whatever it was doing . . .

“Don’t ask,”Sekher replied and sat back heavily. He automatically tried to rub down the fur on his face but his hands only brushed against a coarse stubble. Hai, better than nothing. Wagons that drove themselves . . . what next?

The plains continued to scroll past as the wide, barrel- like wheels hummed through the grasses with a sound like water against a boat’s hull. A family of startled Burrowrunners bolted through the grass ahead and vanished into their holes. Occasionally there was a judder as some obstruction was struck. At that speed any normal wagon would’ve been shaken to pieces long before then.

Sekher touched the cage framework over his head. Metal. Steel. The whole thing was made of metal of various types, much of it unknown to the Trenalbi. Gods, there was a fortune in the stuff here! Even so, it had a battered and scarred look that suggested it had seen better days. Paint had been scratched and chipped and in one particular spot Sekher noticed the metal bars — as thick as his arm — were bent as if some huge weight had fallen on it. If those bars hadn’t been there anyone in either seat would’ve been pounded flatter than a biscuit.

Chaiila had picked up a bulky cylinder with rounded ends from among the clutter on the floor and was turning it over. When it hissed loudly she dropped it, stared at it as if it had insulted her.

“So,” Sekher began after a time of awkward silence, “where do we go from here?”

Chaiila looked up from cautiously prodding the cylinder with a toe claw, looked up. “From here? Well, I’d suggest we get clear of the Ch’sty Rim domain first before we make any set plans.”

Sekher snorted. “Clear? What’re they going to do now? Send infantry running after us? There’s no way they’re going to catch us now.”

“No?” she growled. “Take a look over there.”

Sekher followed her finger.

On the horizon the squat shape of a tower was visible. Too far away to make out exact details, but the spindly branches of the heliograph arms were quite distinct, their reflective surfaces flashing as they snapped open and shut.

— Chapter 26

“So, where are they?”

Kissaki’s voice was level and calm, dangerously so.

Watchkeeper Nerfith swallowed hard. “Ahh, I was informed they were northbound, Sir. We’ve received messages from relay posts twenty six to thirty five reading they’d sighted the fugitives heading north at . . . uh,” Nerfith licked his lips, “about one hundred kilopaces a unit.”

That shook the Lord. Kissaki went rigid in his chair, his pupils dilating into black pentagons. “One hundred?”

“At their best estimate, Sir.”

“Oath!” Kissaki pushed his chair back from the polished darkstone desk and stood. Here, in Kissaki’s private offices, was a world where none but the highest ranking were permitted to enter. These rooms were not of the imposing scale of the audience chambers, intended to awe and intimidate. Instead they were of a more functional scale, easily heated and a great deal more comfortable than that draughty hall.

The Watchkeeper wasn’t the only other soul in the room. So silent and still that it was easy to overlook him a member of the Priesthood sat brooding in a grotesquely carved highback chair of dark wood. A sienna-furred hand propped his chin while amber eyes glinted from the shadow of his hood as he stared at the other two, watching every move.

Kissaki pulled a scroll case from its rack in the desk and popped the end caps off, sliding the lacquered scroll out and spreading it out with a jewel-encrusted astrolabe and statuette of Psaht to weight it down. “What were those relay stations? Twenty six to thirty five?”

“Yessir.”

The Lord pored over the map, tracing a route with a silvertipped claw while a growl hovered in his throat. “North . . .” Then the claw stabbed down and he shot a burning glare at Nerfith: “Send orders to mobilize the garrisons at Chertuk and Red Ford. Move cavalry to heard them to Split Forks where infantry can meet them with ballista and arbalests.

“Also get three royal battlegroups mounted and moving with cages and handlers to bring it back!” His voice rasped again when he snarled, “I WANT that creature! Any way possible, do you hear me!”

“Yessir!” Nerfith barked again. “The others,Sir . . .?”

“The others . . .” Kissaki pondered for a couple of beats, then said, “Kill them.”

“Is that wise?” the priest said softly.

If he’d howled at the top of his voice he couldn’t have made a greater impact. Kissaki stared at him, blinking slowly. “And why do you say that?” he finally asked.

“It would seem to me that they hold some kind of sway over the creature.” That voice was calm and unflappable. “It has protected them so far. Perhaps they could be used to persuade it to,” he raised a hand and made vague, suggestive motions, “work with us.”

Kissaki considered, then said, “No. Kill them.” It was the final stamp on their death warrants.

The priest didn’t object. He just watched as the Watchkeeper bowed low as he backed for the door, twisting his head to expose white-tufted guard fur on his throat. The Lord was seething and Nerfith wasn’t about to be the overly-cocky subordinate who had his rank, not to mention his hide, slashed.

He felt the eyes of the guards outside following him as he let the door swing shut behind him. Within minutes the orders were transcripted and sealed and messengers were were dispatched, racing to the signal stations. Alone now in his cramped little cubby of an office he threw down the stylus and rubbed at his hand. Two garrisons; at least twenty battlegroups and cavalry. There was no doubt that they would be able to intercept the fugitives, but it would take skill and cunning and not a little luck to close the jaws and trap the prey between them.

— Chapter 27

“Sir?”

“Who . . .?” Nerfith turned, not breaking stride. The trooper hurried to catch up with him, gasping heavily. The Watchkeeper knew this male with his bandaged arm and ears. “Chenuk?”

“Yessir.” The trooper sucked air, then half-collapsed against a corridor wall.

“Oath!” the officer exclaimed. “The priests didn’t let you out, did they?”

“Not exactly, Sir,” Chenuk coughed, clenched the claws of his good hand into the stone walls as another wave of dizziness sent his head reeling.

“You should be in the temple! Look! I don’t take to my warriors killing themselves off by stupidity and running around like that’s the most fool thing I’ve seen!”

“I’m fine, Sir,” Chenuk protested, cradling his injured arm with its bulky wrappings. Somewhere within that misshapen lump of bandages, healing clay, and mosses was his right hand, missing three fingers. Some Priesthood at the Hub may have had a shadow of a chance of saving the digits, but while the Ch’sty priests were good, they weren’t that good.

“You don’t look it. Gods! Have you seen yourself?! You look as if you’ve been chewed up and spat out!” He hissed and scowled at the trooper. “What do you want, anyway?”

Chenuk nervously hung his head. “Sir, has there been news about the . . . about the fugitives?”

The Watchkeeper blinked in disbelief. “You hunted me down just for that?! Youngling, I think you’ve got your priorities in a tangle.”

“I don’t . . .” Chenuk began to defend himself, then bowed to his commander. “Yessir.”

“Huh!” Nerfith slipped a finger under a strap on a cannon to scratch while he stared at Chenuk. “Take my advice,” he said. “Forget about that thing. You’re going to get yourself killed chasing after something like that.”

Chenuk’s fur began to bristle, his ruff billowing up around his neck. “Sir, it killed my section. Wiped them out. It’s maimed me for life!” He stopped and took control of his anger before speaking again. “You never saw what it did to the priest, did you. It took his mind!”

“I saw,” Nerfith said. “I saw. He’s babbling about skies filled with stars.”

“You see?! It’s too dangerous! And what if it decides to help the northerners? Gods! We had it cornered and it still walked away. Can we leave it running loose?!”

“But it ran. It was afraid of us. We captured it once . . .”

“We were lucky!” Chenuk insisted, brandishing his clawed fingers before his new commander. “The Gods were on our side once. Who can say what they’ll do next time. Do you have any idea what that thing can do?! It had a helmet that let it see through walls! If it was prepared for us . . .”

“I think you’re overestimating this thing, soldier,” Nerfith growled, reminding Chenuk of their relative ranks. His fur flattened and he stepped away. “Anyway, we’ll soon know.”

“What?”Chenuk’s pupils snapped to startled black squares.

“They’ve been spotted,” Nerfith explained. “There’re at least twenty battlegroups and several more cavalry units moving in on them. We’ll see just what we’re up against.”

“Huh!” Chenuk rubbed his injured arm. “Twenty battlegroups, Sir?”

“Yes,”Nerfith grinned reassuringly.”Enough to tear a garrison to shreds.”

Chenuk grinned also, but if he had been able, his ears would have been plastered back. Enough to shred a garrison, yeah. But is it enough?

— Chapter 28

Even to Sekher’s untrained ear the grinding and grating sounds from the left centre wheel sounded wrong. When that noise turned to a permeating shuddering felt through the huge vehicle’s body he was convinced that something was amiss.

Finally the creature snarled, slammed a fist against the framework above its head, and the vehicle slowed so abruptly that the Drifting Chaiila was tumbled to the floor.

Seen by the light of day the exterior of the vehicle was even more battered than the interior. The underbelly was scored and scarred, the matt white paint scratched away to bare shining metal. Slung beneath the nose was a cluster of glass lenses, some the size of Sekher’s head. The rear of the thing was a vertical face with what may have been doors set in it. There were more of the lenses there also, more set into the stubby extrusion of metals perched atop the vehicle.

The creature was buried beneath the complex joint where the troubled wheel attached to the leg, only its legs and waist protruding. Metallic clanking sounds, occasionally punctuated by a frustrated snarl, sounded from under the narrow space and every so often it would throw out a gleaming metal tool and grope after another one.

Leaning against the left front wheel Sekher watched the hairless hand fumbling after another tool. It latched onto something resembling a bottle with a handle, drew it out of sight. The whining noises that followed laid Sekher’s ears back.

Some strange sight they must be: a six legged contraption that more resembled some outlandish animal than a vehicle sitting in the middle of the heat-browned grasslands. He looked out over the gently rolling hills with their ever-shifting kaleidoscoping of light and shades of gold as clouds scudded across the face of the lightbringer. Gods, the plains were restful to his eyes. How could anyone tolerate living in the mountains? All those vertical lines . . .

“Think it can fix it?” Chaiila vaulted up to squat on the wheel beside him. She curiously fingered the patterns worked into the surface.

“Ask it,” Sekher shrugged. “I’ve no idea.”

“Huh,” Chaiila cocked her head at the creature’s legs. “We should’ve grabbed some shen. They don’t fall apart.”

Sekher yipped his amusement. “True . . . but I doubt we would have made it very far.”

There was another clatter from beneath the vehicle, a loud yelp, and the creature hauled itself out shaking its hand and growling. Chaiila smirked. The creature glanced at both the Trenalbi, rumbled at them, then stuck a tool into a receptacle in the wheel housing, gave it a sharp twist and lifted away a panel. For a heartbeat it stared, then gave a bellowing roar that rang across the plains. Reaching into the hole it tore out a handful of scratchbush and hurled it aside, then another, and another. The tough, wiry strands of the plants were pulped and torn.

Sekher ventured a peek into the hole. Inside a complex network of curved metal plates surrounded what could have been an axle wrapped around with thick cables. And the whole assembly was jammed solid with scratchbush.

— Chapter 29

Sekher crouched low in the grass behind the crest of the hill, nostrtils working as he tasted the scent of the Longrazers being wafted down to him on the breeze. It was a sizable herd, the females and young encircled by the males. The patriarch circled the herd, cropping at the grasses, pausing to raise its head and test the wind. Slowly Sekher surveyed the surrounding land. Where was . . . Ah, there!

Chaiila’s dark fur was very visible against the gold of the grasslands as she circled wide of the herd, moving upwind. Sekher’s tail lashed and his leg muscles bunched as he readied himself.

Chaiila was up, moving slowly at first, then breaking into a sprint. Squeals of alarm rose from the herd and immediately they began to move, the females running from the threat while the males fell in behind them. The patriarch lowered his triple horns and charged at Chaiila who dodged and circled to head off the rest of the herd and drive them towards Sekher.

As the herd passed the foot of the hill he kicked off, felt grass and earth slipping beneath his feet. He stumbled and caught himself by going to all fours, silently cursing his lack of claws as he angled himself to intercept the herd. Already they were reacting to his abrupt appearance, swerving away, but he had a calf singled out. The breath was burning in his chest, his muscles singing in exhilaration as he dodged a female who feinted at him, eyes rolling. His feet skittered but again he caught himself, threw himself forward. The calf was separated from the herd, dodging wildly as it sought an opening to rejoin its kindred. And Sekher felt his legs begin to fail and saw the calf begin to pull away until it made a mistake and turned the wrong way.

Sekher hit it hard and felt the rough bristles of its hide scouring his own furless skin. It stumbled as he caught its neck, his clawless fingers slipping, then it was free again and he only just managed to catch its tail, dodged its kick, then tackle it and bring it to the ground. A blunt-clawed hoof hit him in the stomach, knocking the breath out of his body. He twisted and was on its back, the nape of its neck between his jaws and the taste of its sweat bitter in his mouth. He bit, hard, the muscles in his jaws and neck bunching and flexing.

There was a crackling snapping sound. Blood flowed hot and tangy. The calf thrashed for a while then was still.

Slowly Sekher disengaged his teeth, licked his muzzle clean of blood, then sank back panting hard.

Chaiila was lazing nearby, sprawled in the warmth of the Lightbringer. “You could have put a claw in there,” he said, levelling a finger at her.

“Clumsy,” she criticized. “You almost lost it there.”

“Like to see you do better,” he growled.

“Sure,” she yawned and rolled. “When we get to the forests I’ll show you some real hunting. At least we’ve got some food now.”

Sekher eyes the carcass, already beginning to salivate at the thought of warm flesh. “Huh! It’s been a long time.”

“Prison food’s not what it used to be, eh?” She flicked a smile at him and Sekher became overwhelmingly aware of her . . . her something. He felt a pang, a lurch, like fear, yet like nothing he’d ever felt before. It left him gaping and confused.

“You alright?” Chaiila was staring at him warily, as if she expected him to come at her.

“Ah . . . Yah,” he blinked and rubbed his eyes. “Just worn out. Let’s get this cleaned out and carted back.”

Chaiila gave him another glance before producing a knife and setting down to skinning and gutting the calf.

It was an awkward weight to juggle between them, but the two Trenalbi managed to haul the choicest parts of a carcass that must have weighed as much as the pair of them the not- soinconsiderable distance back to the creature’s vehicle.

Nersi was at the creature’s side, watching over its shoulder as it cleared scratchbush from the works of the vehicle. From somewhere it had cobbled together a crutch to take the weight off her gamy leg. She turned at their hail and tapped the creature’s shoulder. It jumped, banging its head on the lip of the hatch it was half-buried in.

“Looks like it’s almost finished,” Chaiila observed.

Sekher swallowed his mouthful. “About time. I wonder if that happens often.” He took another bite of liver. Gods, raw and still warm as it went down his throat. He hadn’t tasted anything so good in . . . it seemed like eternity.

“It’s not much for a daemon, is it?”

“How’s that?”

“Your creature. Daemon, whatever. Look at it! It’s clumsy. It bangs its head, it makes mistakes. It’s more like a hideously deformed Trenalbi than a Godsend.” She punctuated that by tearing a chunk from her liver and masticating noisily.

“I had noticed,” Sekher reluctantly admitted.

Chaiila chuckled. “Hmmm . . . It must be tough to discover your ironbearing earth is just coloured clay.”

“Huh! It saved our tails.”

She glanced pointedly at his shaved member. “Well, most of them anyway.”

With a sniff he hitched up the strap that supported the haunches strung about his neck and pretended to ignore that cut to his shaved pride.

Nersi had come to meet them halfway, hop-swinging on her single crutch. “Hai!” she greeted them with a smile that turned to a glistening grin at the scent of the meat. “The mighty hunters return. Not a bad catch I see.”

Chaiila frowned. “You sure you should be walking on that leg?”

Nersi’s ears twitched. “Perhaps I should walk on my hands?”

“Nersi!”

“Sorry,” she grinned again. “Don’t worry. It’s fine. That thing replaced the bandage. I can hardly feel it. Say, you going to eat all that?”

Chaiila snorted and tossed her cousin the remnants of the liver. Nersi adroitly plucked it from the air. “Thanks.” She took a eager bite.

“You know,” she continued from around a noisy mouthful. “We should find something to call it.”

“Call what?” Sekher asked. They began moving back to the vehicle, slowly; mindful of Nersi’s handicap.

“Your creature,” she said, pointing with her free hand still clutching a gobbet of meat. “We can’t just keep calling it ‘Your Creature’.”

“Alright,” Sekher said. “Any suggestions?”

Nersi lowered her eyes: “I had thought, Seth’Nai.”

“Pale Walker,” Chaiila mused, then laughed in delight. “How apt.”

Sekher thought about it. “Sounds good to me.”

Nersi’s ears flicked and she called to the creature who awaited them. “Hai! They like it! You’ve got a name, Seth’Nai!”

And Seth’Nai cocked its head to one side and blinked at her, then without taking its eyes from them slammed the hatch over the complex workings it’d been cleaning out. Sekher realised it wasn’t as much staring at them as at the burden they carried. “Hungry?” he asked, and tossed it the remainder of the liver. It caught the dripping chunk of flesh, stared at it for a second, then gave a yelp and dropped it, shaking its hands as though burnt.

The Trenalbi stared in confusion.

“Is there something wrong with the meat?” Nersi asked.

“Didn’t taste out of the ordinary,” Chaiila responded, licking her bloodstained muzzle.

The creature was wide-eyed, its eyes flicking from the meat to the Trenalbi.

“I don’t think it likes meat,” observed Sekher.

“Huh!” Chaiila scooped up the dropped piece of kidney, shook it off, then offered it again. “I think you’re right, Che,” she said as the creature flinched away again. “Your Gods’ — shaved monster’s a plant eater!” Her barking laughter rang across the veldts.

— Chapter 30

Well, whatever Seth’Nai did to the wheels worked . . . for about forty kilopaces before the grating noises turned to sparks and smoke.

The creature had taken one look at the damage and slammed the hatch on it in disgust, not even attempting to repair it. Perhaps it couldn’t, Sekher pondered. So, even this Seth’Nai had its limits.

It couldn’t fix it, but the vehicle still had five spares. The entire wheel was drawn up on its leg and tucked out of the way. The loss of a single wheel didn’t appear to hinder it, but the other wheels still complained and it wasn’t too much longer before the right front wheel screamed and died.

“One more to go,” Chaiila grumbled as that wheel was tucked up to join the other.” I for one don’t want to see if thing can manage on three legs. I think I’d prefer to walk.

“And you,” she continued, studying Sekher, “are starting to look like a boiled Ballfruit.”

Sekher scratched uncomfortably with the stubs of his claws. He itched. All exposed skin was red and tender, especially around the shoulders and neck. He could feel the hard nubs of fur beginning to sprout through, but it was slow! so slow! And still his skin felt as though it were burning.

So he’d stripped off his chafing armour and cloak and scratched until even his clawless fingers drew blood. When Seth’Nai noticed his condition he produced a hooded poncho made from some flexible silvery substance that could almost have been called cloth, save that it had no weave whatsoever. It was as light as air and chafed his hide not the slightest. Of course he still itched, but beneath the cool caress of the poncho it was tolerable.

When the fourth wheel expired Chaiila did indeed learn that the vehicle could cope on three. Not very effectively: their speed was more than halved, but still they made far better time than they possibly could have done walking.

— Chapter 31

At first the Red River valley was a blemish across the nearflat horizon to the north, growing clearer and more defined as they approached. The terrain slowly changed, the rolling hills giving way to coarser arroyo and gullies, steeper and higher hills and ridges, broken by the passage of water, whilst the low grasses and coarse Scratchbush surrendered to Spiralleaf bushes, Arrowstems, Scellerian trees and other flora unable to compete with the Scratchbush when it came to thriving in drier environs. Stonewood trees marched along ridgetops, their extensive roots matting the cliff where rock had sheered away in a slip. The thick undergrowth was alive with small animals, insects, and flyers of every description.

Sekher started as a Meneri skitered away through the bush. it was all to easy to imagine one saw the gleam of metal as Rim troops lurked in ambush. That could be awkward. Progress through this rough land was slow and if there was a trail they hadn’t found it, instead making their way cross-country, skirting large obstacles, crushing smaller ones.

And — as Chaiila observed — leaving a trail obvious enough for a blind, mentally-deficient cripple to follow.

There was a lurch and Sekher reflexively grabbed for a handhold, bouncing against the restraining straps

the cre . . . Seth’Nai had made them don. Like some six- legged behemoth the vehicle was using its damaged wheels as feet to step down into a tributary. Water churned as Seth’Nai turned the vehicle and guided it downstream.

“You’re sure this is the Red River?” he asked Chaiila.

“Of course! We came this way when we followed you. Further east though, to avoid the Rim patrols. I think this way is a little faster — you don’t have to cross the Munsk and Plague rivers as well — but we do come pretty close to some garrison towns.”

“How close is ‘close’?”

“Not less than twenty kilopaces. We can be there and gone before they get a glimpse of us.”

“You’d better pray it’s so,” Sekher muttered. “There is a crossing?”

“Uh-huh. At this time of year there is, an easy one. Split Forks I believe it’s called. There are the ruins of an old town around here somewhere, named after the forks. Some of the Trenalbi around here say they’re inhabited by ghosts and demons. We should stop off and let your friend up front go visit its relations.”

She laughed then, her barks ringing among the trees.

Sekher snorted, grabbing for another handhold as the vehicle stepped down a small waterfall. In a flurry of leaves and wings, flyers exploded from the crest of a hill, making Sekher glance up.

He froze, horror melting across his face.

“Oh, Gods, no!” he croaked, then: “DOWN!”

He lunged for Chaiila’s arm and tried to pull her to the floor and the straps stuck and held her back and he was fumbling with the release when the archers on the hill fired and there was a searing pain across his cheek and quarrels clattered into the cabin.

The vehicle surged forward, the three operative wheels scrabbling for a purchase on the stream bed, spraying showers of water everywhere. Low branches whipped against the cabin framework, breaking off with loud retorts, showering them with a debris of leaves and sticks. Ahead another group of Rim troopers appeared, scattering as the behemoth tore through their group, but still a couple loosed shots. Seth’Nai gave a grunt as a bolt struck it square in the chest, failing to penetrate the tunic but evidently scaring the fur off the creature.

Howls of rage faded behind them.

“Gods!” Sekher gasped. “Gods! How . . . Where’d they come from?!”

“They were waiting,” Chaiila snarled, rubbernecking wildly, her sword in hand for all the good it would do her. “I think we’ve lost them though.”

“Mother, they KNEW!” Sekher howled.

“Their thrice-cursed heliographs,” said Chaiila, glancing at him, then blurted, “Che! You’ve been hit!”

“Huh?” He touched his cheek, inspected fingers stained dark purple. “Oh . . . Just a scratch.”

She was about to speak when the trees around them rapidly thinned to low scrub, then even that vanished into a panorama of open space and cloud-stippled azure skies. Before them stretched the river flood plain: kilopaces across, it was a vast stretch of rock-strewn ground which in the flood seasons would be underwater. Now, in the heat of the dry season, it was a baren expanse of river-carried stones, cracked, dotted with the miniature plateaus of beached islands. The river at its current level was a ribbon of polished steel glittering in the glare of the Lightbringer.

For a second the vehicle was airborne, plunging over a short drop down to the dried riverbed and impacting in fragments of pulverised rock and metallic screams as damaged systems were taxed to the limit. The Trenalbi were bounced against their straps like seeds in a rattle, Sekher’s teeth clattering in his head. Then they were accelerating across the flood plain, pulverised rock rising in a cloud behind them.

Sekher stuck his head out, squinting into the wind and dust and twisting to see behind them. From the receding treeline, like a tide flowing between rocks, Soldiers were emerging, several squads of light cavalry and infantry.

But there they stopped, lining up along the bank, not making any effort to pursue. Waiting, as if reluctant to pursue.

But fear had nothing to do with their recalcitrance. It was the creature who saw them first, then Nersi. Her whimper drew the attention of the other Trenalbi and they also looked forward.

Beyond the river was a solid wall of soldiery, completely blockading the ford. Water glittered like molten silver, churned to spray by the hooves of shen as battlegroup after battlegroup of heavy cavalry crossed the river to form skirmish lines. Light seige engines and field artillery bulked behind the infantry, crews crouched at their weapons.

“This,” Chaiila pronounced, “does NOT look good.”

“You have a gift for understatement,” Sekher snarled back, shouting above the noise of the wind as the vehicle slewed, scattering rocks the size of skulls before halting. Frantically Seth’Nai looked around.

“We can still run!” Sekher growled, his skin breaking out in tiny bumps as nonexistant fur attempted to bristle. “We can run!”

“How far?” Chaiila quietly asked. “That wheel isn’t going to last.”

For pounding heartbeats they were silent, able to hear distant battlecries, clashing of swords upon shields, the harvesting of courage. They couldn’t run. The vehicle wouldn’t last. On foot they wouldn’t make it a hundred paces before outriders ran them down. Perhaps Seth’nai could get away, but on foot against so many battlegroups? Sekher had seen it bleed, so could it die?

What about its weapons, the ones it had used against the palace? Why didn’t it use those? Sekher kept expecting his creature to do something, anything, to pull some trick out of the ether to save their hides.

But it sagged, slumped and stared at the ranks of the Rim soldiery.

“Hai,” Sekher leaned forward to touch it and it flinched at his hand on its arm. Those impossible stone-grey eyes met Sekher’s and the young male knew: Gods, it’s as scared as the rest of us! It in turn gently touched Nersi’s shoulder, smoothing the tangled fur, then it returned to its little lights and squares, growling at its wrist as though arguing with a piece of ironmongery.

“Hai! We just SIT here?!” protested Chaiila. “What’s it DOING?!”

Whatever it was doing, it was doing it hastily. Pale fingers flew across grids of tiny squares while it kept up a continuous rumbling in a pattern that locked and interlocked with similar noises from the machine. WAS it talking? Was there another creature in the machine? Barely pausing in its work it reached down to pull out a worn blue floppy bag of an odd tubular design that it tossed back to Sekher. Solid-seeming metal at his side slid aside, revealing stacks of boxes and packets and indefinable objects of a multitude of materials and designs. “Fill it?” Sekher asked, shaking the bag. The creature made no sign that it had heard, once again running a forefinger across lights with growing speed. Sekher hissed and began shovelling handfulls of paraphernalia into the carrysack.

With a whine the vehicle came back to life, turning in a cloud of dust and moving slowly toward the river and Rim ambush. Hidden mechanisms hissed and the cabin lowered, the canopy clanged and swung partway open. Seth’Nai snapped its harness, gesturing frantically to the Trenalbi until they followed suit, then it caught Nersi, all but threw her out, and jumped after her.

Sekher glanced at Chaiila — stunned — then clutched the bag to his chest and scrambled to follow.

He hit the ground hard, rolled, and ducked his head, trying to burrow into the dirt and rocks as the massive, scarred underbelly of the vehicle rumbled overhead, wheels on either side kicking out slivers of smashed stones that stung against Sekher’s skin. Then it was past and he looked around. Chaiila . . . yes, she’d followed and was even now picking herself up. The creature was on its feet, helping Nersi whose leg had gone again. He grabbed the bag and scrambled to his feet.

“I’m going to rip its throat out with my teeth!” Chaiila snarled to Sekher, spitting rock dust. Together they half-ran half-limped to where the creature was beckoning them, urging them to follow.

Already the vehicle was halfway to the river, throwing up a cloud of dust. Sekher could hear it venting a wailing cry, red and orange lights strobing on its upper deck. The Rim troops were hesitating, their ranks beginning to falter as the mass of white metal bore down upon them. Ahead was the creature, leading them, half-carrying Nersi. On the river bank the Rim troops were still hesitating, unsure what to do in the light of their quarry abruptly running back toward them. Slowly their cavalry moved forward, their shen picking their way down the eroded riverbank onto the floodplain.

Seth’Nai stumbled, then changed tack, angling for a pile of boulders — massive water-torn things the height of two Trenalbi that would form a tiny island unto themselves when the floodwaters submerged this plain. That, Sekher thought in disbelief, was where it planned to make a final stand?!

Nevertheless he followed, stones punishing against his tough foot pads, the silvery cloak of daemonthread threatening to tangle his legs, the breath rushing in his lungs. Around the far side of the rock it led them, throwing anxious glances at the approaching Rim cavalry and motioning frantically with its hands.

“Now! You furless freak!” Chaiila snarled at it, breathless. “I have about had enough! Nersi! Are you alright?” she knelt by her cousin.

With a growl the creature seized Sekher, throwing him down, then caught at Chaiila. She snarled and twisted and slashed and the creature cried out as parallel red lines crossed a cheek, then it bodily flung itself at her. Again her claws caught it, drawing more blood before its weight bore her to the ground, atop Sekher and Nersi with an impact that knocked the breath from Sekher’s lungs. Chaiila struggled, the creature swung a fist that rocked her head back, shutting her jaw with a hollow ‘clop’ and spread itself out, trying to cover the Trenalbi with . . .

The world flared white.

A light to beggar the Lightbringer washed across the landscape. For the briefest instant the world was a bleached tapestry. A wave of heat seared Sekher’s face, lungs, skin, causing him to cry out, fling an arm across his face. That cry tried to turn to a scream when a sound, a solid wall of sound smashed into him, tearing away his breath, catching him up, hurling him in a wave of fire — glimpses of trees bursting in flame — then an impact that . . .

— Chapter 32

He ached.

He hurt.

There was a dull, warm taste in his mouth.

He moved an arm, clenched a hand: pain.

“Gods.”

It wasn’t really a coherent word. Rather it was a croak, barely audible.

“Che! Hai! Che, you alright?”

Hands touched him, fluttering and uncertain. He groaned again and spat blood before cracking an eye open. Chaiila was looming over him. “So,” he rasped, “We dead?”

“What?” she was momentarily taken aback, then laughed, “No. Oh Gods no!”

“Oh,” he grimaced. “I feel like it.”

He tried moving then. Muscles protested as he sat, but nothing seemed broken. His cloak was gone and it was a while before he realised he was laying on it. The stubble of his fur was curled, as though by heat, some of it crumbling away as he brushed a hand across his stomach. His skin burned anew. Chaiila’s face was swollen, an eye almost shut, also her pelt was curled and crisped at the edges. They were both covered with a fine sprinkling of dust and dirt and pale ash.

“Copulation! What happened? That light . . . Where’s Nersi? The Rimmers . . .”

“Calm,” Chaiila interrupted. “Nersi’s fine. She’s over there, seeing to your . . . daemon.”

“My . . .” Sekher turned to see Nersi beside a prone figure in white, then he saw what lay around them and gaped in dumb shock.

Trees were still burning, throwing a pall of smoke high into the air to mingle with the cloud that lay over the whole river valley. Tumbled lumps, still smoking, were all that remained of rim troopers, while here and there wandered stunned and burned shen, whining in pain. Somehow Sekher found his feet and stumbled over to their protecting boulders. The scene beyond was beyond comprehension.

The river was damned, slowly filling a circular lake three hundred paces across. Around that the ground was scorched black. There was hardly enough left of the Rim ambush to make charred lumps on the ground. Smoke rose in stately columns from the seige engines. Sekher could see a few survivors moving, a very few. If there were more they had since departed.

The Red river was running true to color.

Already carrion hunters were appearing on the scene. Graceful black and red-crested Spearflyers were circling overhead, twisting in the air as they wound spirals lower and lower to the burnt carcasses strewn along the river. Their clacking and screaming arguments often exploding in a flurry of fur and torn wing membranes.

An area of over a kilopace in radius. Destroyed. Levelled. Annihilated.

Sekher collapsed against the cool granite, not willing to believe what his eyes had just seen.

“You were right,” said Chaiila softly. “It is a demon.” Seth’Nai, their daemon, was sprawled in a loose tangle of limbs, unmoving. Whatever it had loosed upon the Rim forces wasn’t selective. Nersi sat beside it, touching the head with its long strands of fur.

“It’s alive?” asked Sekher.

“I . . . think so,” she replied uncertainly. “Its . . . pulse is hard to find.”

Sekher knelt and put his muzzle near the creature’s face. He could feel breath against his nose. So, it WAS still alive. He sat back and studied it. The scratches down its cheek were caked with dirt and scarlet blood was smeared across its features.

Nersi dabbed at the blood with a scrap of cloth, exercising a tenderness that disturbed Sekher. “You’re too rash, cousin,” she admonished Chaiila. “It was trying to help you.”

“How was I to know,” grumbled Chaiila. “It . . . it TOUCHED me!” She sounded — Sekher marvelled — almost insulted.

“It saved your tail,” Nersi corrected.

“Huh!” was the dark female’s reply. “I don’t suppose you want to leave it?”

Nersi glared.

“Just a thought,” Chaiila hastily reassured her cousin. “Anyhows, we’re on foot now . . . with a wounded daemon to boot. I suggest we perhaps start moving downstream, find somewhere to ‘borrow’ some shen. First though,” she sighed, “we try to get THIS sorted out.”

In its effort to shield them the creature had taken the brunt of the blast. Nearly ten bodylengths it had been hurled, bouncing off rocks not doing it the least of good. While Chaiila went off to see if she could scavenge some weapons, supplies, or even transport, Sekher and Nersi settled Seth’Nai out and did their best to check for broken . . . whatever it had. The creature’s garments hampered their efforts, but there was no apparent way to remove them. The limbs felt strange, the joints . . . wrong, but as best they could determine there was nothing broken. Nersi produced a torn black cloak that they wrapped the creature in.

The Lightbringer was gone beyond the distant Ramparts, the Daughters high in the night sky casting bluish light across the landscape. Three of the Guards moved in their slow, stately climb almost directly above them. On the assent; it was still early. Was that where his creature had come from? The Guards? It made sense of a sort, he supposed.

To the north the Hole, the bottom of the Well, was a vast disk of white specks that shimmered and twinkled, numbers too great to count in three days. The spirits of those who had passed. There would be a few hundred more lights there this night, Sekher mused.

A cloud drifted across the Hole and Sekher sighed, his breath glittering in the air. Gods but the temperature dropped at night on the plains! He pulled the smooth folds of his cloak closer and lolled his head to look at the pale face of the creature, pale like the faces of the daughters.

“Nersi,”he said as they both watched the pale features,”Why did you do this? Come with Chaiila? You aren’t Small Guard, are you.”

She scratched her neck, then gave a rueful smile and began grooming the tip of her tail.”No, not me. When we evacuated the city I came with her. She was sworn to look after me, an honourbond, but she also had to find you. I came along to help her. To tell the truth, I was looking forward to meeting the male who got her so . . .”

Sekher cocked his head, puzzled.

“Who saved her life,” Nersi finished rather lamely, ears drooping. In the awkward silence that followed she dampened a cloth with saliva and dabbed at the blood drying on the creature’s face. It stirred, recoiled from the female’s touch with a yelp, eyes snapping wide open and fingers clenching into fists.

“Calm! Calm!” Nersi urged, patting its arm. And calm it did, blinking at her and Sekher while its breathing slowed. “Good, good. It’s alright,” Nersi crooned.

“Gods,” Sekher spat in disbelief. “It totally destroys a few hundred troops and rearranges part of a river, and you treat it like a lap-pet!”

“Try kindness,” she growled back at him. “Perhaps it can understand that.”

“Understand what?”

Chaiila stepped into their mids with an armfull of sharp edges and other clutter. She glanced at the creature. “Oh, awake now, is it. Here,” she dumped the assorted ironmongery on the rocks with a racket that sounded like a suit of armour falling down a staircase. “Take your pick. It’s like a noble’s armoury out there.”

“You went a little . . . over the top, didn’t you?” Sekher observed, eyeing the pile. Chaiila had scrounged everything from bronze swords down to little daggers and bladebreakers.

She gave a negligent toss of her hand. “Take what you can use. We chuck the rest. There’s enough stuff lying around out there to equip an army.”

“It was,” Nersi reminded her.

“Huh! Well, some of it was was melted anyhow. Bows were ruined.”

“Any food?” Sekher asked.

She grinned, running her tongue over

sharp teeth: “Plenty.”From a piece of scorched cloak doubling as a sack she pulled pieces of shen haunch. “Tough,” she confessed, “and overdone, but scrape off the char and underneath they’ll be fine.”

“Shen . . . meat!” Nersi bit each word off, then spat it out. “That stuff is . . . Gods, even the Wharf Taverns didn’t stock that!”

“It’s edible,” Chaiila said. “And we don’t have time to be hunting down a five-course banquet. Someone’s going to come to see what happened. Can your Seth’Nai travel?”

The creature in question had produced its water flask, drank deeply, then passed it on to Nersi and Sekher. After a moments deliberation it tossed it at Chaiila and clambered to its feet; somewhat unsteadily. She glanced once at the flask. “Thanks. I’m not thirsty.”

When she threw it back, it was harder than need be. Seth’Nai caught it against its chest then tucked it away into the concealed pocket on its side; slowly and deliberately, as though hurting. Sekher wondered whether perhaps it had come out of that blast worse than he had.

“It can walk,” he said. “I don’t know how far . . .”

“Doesn’t matter. We can find a settlement and buy some transport.”

“You’ve got money?”

Chaiila hefted a bulging pouch that hung from her belt. It rattled when she shook it. “Have now.”

“You looted . . .”

“Their bodies were ash,” Chaiila stilled Nersi’s outburst. “They had no need of it. I suggest you take what you think you may need, and we’ll get moving.”

Sekher picked up a leaf-shaped shortsword. It was a simple weapon, standard issue, but it was steel, with half-way decent heft. He sighed, wishing for the superb craftsmanship and balance of his Sher’ae blade, but that was gone forever. To supplement the shortsword, instead of a shield, he took a

small bladebreaker; also steel. Nersi took a second shortsword while Chaiila had already found her weapon: a long, straight, wellforged steel cavalry blade — doubtless officer issue — settled across her back in its harness.

“Hai,Che!” she called. “You going to wear that?” she asked, eyeing the silver poncho.

He looked down. The moonlight made the material flare icy blue. “A bit conspicuous, huh?”

“Like shit in a soupbowl.” She tossed him the battered old cloak Seth’Nai had been using for a blanket.”Try that.”

The coarse weave promised to chafe, so he donned it over the daemoncloth. It wasn’t too hot: the wind still wound up under his clothing, crawling across his naked skin with cold tendrils. He shuddered and shook his head. To be naked-skined all the time, how could anyone live like that. He cast a sidelong glance at Seth’Nai and inwardly hissed in disbelief.

So much power in such an ugly shell. The paths of the Gods are twisted indeed.

And when Chaiila wanted to head east . . .

“Haahhrrrr!” Chaiila snarled, her ruff whipping about as she tossed her head, baring teeth at the creature that blocked her path. It hastily backed off and she swung her attentions to the other trenalbi: “CHE! What does it want!”

“I don’t think it wants us to go east,” he said, half amused at the thing’s efforts to stop the stubborn female. It continually caught at her arm, was shaken off and forced to turn to the other Trenalbi before returning to her.

“Well, where would it have us go?” Chaiila demanded.

“West, I think,” Nersi said. She got the things attention and pointed West. It bobbed its head furiously and tugged at her hand.

Chaiila went very quiet, sucking air in a low hiss, Without another word she spun about and continued east.

Seth’Nai caught her arm again.

“GET AWAY FROM ME!” Chaiila howled and a dagger was in her hand.

For a second the creature stared, then its face darkened, lips drew back from small, square teeth and it roared back. Smoothly it sank into a crouch, right side toward the female, arms up at odd angles.

“Chaiila! Don’t!” Nersi urged her cousin.

But Chaiila’s head went back, ears lowered as she recognised a challenge. Not male to male, nor female to female . . . it was female to an unknown. At first she hesitated, then moved forward in a gracefull standard Rain opening: jab, jab, claw, spin kick.

Which the creature all blocked just as effortlessly. Chaiila hesitated then floated into more patterns: Light, Wind, Thunder, and Storm. All the the creature somehow batted aside before redirecting Chaiila’s blade, seizing her arm, and twisting. She howled in pain. The dagger spun away in a glitter of moonlight on metal to clatter on riverbed rock. Chaiila twisted free and tried to dart past to recover the weapon. The creature caught her by the ruff and hooked a leg behind her knee. She yelped as she fell, landed hard on the rocky grund, then was lying staring up at the creature’s grinning face, its hand poised above her throat. Sekher could see both were panting, the puffs of breath mingling then dissipating in the night air.

It wouldn’t kill her? would it?

“Chaiila!” Nersi called. “Don’t be a fool.”

Slowly, Chaiila closed her eyes and laid her head back, exposing her neck. After tense heartbeats the creature lowered its hand and smoothed patches of her rumpled fur before standing; somewhat stiffly and with a hand pressed against its side. Chaiila stared up at it, then let out a deep breath and sat up: “Alright, alright. We go west.”

— Chapter 33

Morninglight found the skies as grey as stone, a carpet of mist spread across the landscape. Through this the river cut a clean path. A flight of Broadwings skimmed the surface of the water. Low hills crested with trees poked from the fog like islands and a village — just a cluster of huts really — floated in the white carpet, smoke from early fires trickling from chimneys.

Sekher gave the scene a last look, then turned his back and pushed his way further back into the copse. The females and Seth’Nai awaited him. Both females were wearing the best cloaks and carrying the bags, trying to look as much like legitimate travellers as possible. Chaiila was chewing on a strip of shen. She swallowed hard when she saw Sekher. “Well, we’re ready.”

He eyed the pair of them. Two females, travelling alone. That may bring a few questions. He hoped Chaiila was capable of some verbal fencing.

“You sure you want to go?”he asked.

Chaiila snorted and hitched the daemon’s carrybag across her back. If asked, it was a . . . well an article of northern craftsmanship. They produced some exotic weaving.

“Well, Che. You and your friend there could go, but don’t you think a shaved male and something from a torturer’s nightmare may attract . . . attention?”

“I know, I know!” he growled, batting at her arm.”Go on, get moving.”

She grinned at him, then slashed her own hand, her claws scratching lightly across Sekher’s chest. He shivered as a shock ran through him, his skin pebbling as his fur tried to stand upright. Nersi made a choked sound.

“Come on,” Chaiila beckoned her cousin, and flashed Sekher a final grin as they vanished into the bushes. The creature started to follow them then hesitated.

“No,” Sekher told it. “We wait.”

It stared at him, after the females, then back at him, but when Sekher flopped down in a patch of morning sun it awkwardly lowered itself to sit nearby. Sekher paid it little heed: he was still twitching from that feeling her claws raised. He didn’t understand it.

It scared him.

— Chapter 34

The guards snapped to attention and held the door open for him as he strode into the corridor. Apprehensive, Nerfith ignored them as he patted smoothed the pleats in his kilt, then entered Kissaki’s offices.

There were already Trenalbi waiting. He recognized the priest: the high-ranking one who had been here when Kissaki ordered the fugitives intercepted, the liason to the Temple. Nerfith was tempted to ask if the priest knew what this was about, then decided that Kissaki would reveal all.

Possibly the Lord wanted a progress report on the reconstruction of the palace roof. Then why get a report from a scribe? And why would that involve a priest?

No, something more drastic. He strongly suspected it was to do with the fugitives who’d wreaked so much havoc those nights ago.

Nerfith’s speculations were dispelled when another door opened and Kissaki stepped through. Immediately the officer stiffened and stood before the Lord’s desk whilst he seated himself. The priests didn’t budge.

Inwardly the Watchkeper groaned the instant he saw Kissaki. It was in his gait, his posture: something was ill in the world. Slowly and deliberately he settled behind the massive darkstone desk, slipping his tail into the slot splitting the back of the chair. Then he took up a well-used scratchstick and proceeded to hone his claws as he spoke:

“There is a problem. A serious one.

“Our fugitives . . . they destroyed the battlegroups.”

Nerfith wasn’t sure he’d heard correctly: “Destroyed . . .?”

“Destroyed, decimated, wiped out,” Kissaki elucidated. “Forty one survivors have been found: The commanders and priests, twenty two infantry and fifteen cavalry.”

“From twenty battlegroups . . .” Nerfith felt ill. His troops, his responsibility.

“Forty one,” Kissaki repeated. There was a crack as the scratchstick snapped in two. “They all told the same tale: Something like a giant wagon without shen charged into the greatest congregation of troops and exploded into a wave of fire that immolated everything it touched. It was only their distance from the explosion that saved them.

“The nearest signaltowers reported a distant thunder and seeing a strange cloud hanging over the area. Guards were dispatched from the nearest towns. They reported a new lake and the whole valley strewn with bodies.”

The priest sat still, his underlids flicking white across his eyes the only sign that he was actually alive. Gods shave him! Didn’t he have any feelings at all?

“The . . .” Nerfith choked on his words, swallowed hard and tried again: “The northeners, Sir?”

The High Lord hissed. “We don’t know exactly. Some soldiers say they saw them running before the explosion, so we’re going to keep looking. Notices and heralds will be distributed to all towns.”

“And what do you intend to do if you find them?”

Again the priest startle Nerfith. He’d almost forgotten he was there. Irritated, he promised himself that wouldn’t happen again while the priest continued:

“Would you lose an entire town if you did manage to capture it?”

“You would suggest something?” Kissaki asked.

The priest bowed his head. His greasy ingratiation irked the Watchkeeper and he clenched his hands to hide the claws that slipped from his fingertips.

“Chasing after this thing with an army . . . I do not believe that that is the way to go about this. There are individuals who specialise in this sort of thing.”

Kissaki looked thoughtful. “Bounty hunters?”

“Why not? I think it’s been proved that brute force wasn’t successful. A few well-motivated individuals can move faster and more unobtrusively than a battlegroup, find our fugitives, then concoct some scheme by which to be done of them. If nothing else, they can alert us and track them until we are able to muster more . . . capable forces.”

Kissaki was silent, bobbing his head as he absorbed this, then he asked, “Do you believe the Temple could handle this creature?”

“That is not for me to say with any degree of certainty,” the Priest replied. “But doubtless we couldn’t do worse than the bumbling of the military.” With this he looked directly at Nerfith and blinked slowly. “There are Masters at the Hub who have power comprable to this thing’s.”

“Sir, Kanr was quite formidable,” Kissaki reminded him, “yet it went through him like a razored blade.”

“True, Sir, but Kanr had no idea what he was up against,” the priest pointed out. “Nor did the troops you sent after them. Now we have some inkling.”

“Huh,” Kissaki began grooming the fur on his wrist in an abstracted sort of way. “I assume you already have hunters in mind.”

“We have a list of possibles, Sir.”

“Very good. I will want to see it. Wachkeeper.”

“Milord?” Nerfith bowed his head.

“Send orders to the command holding the K’streth Plain lands. Tell him to leave a suitably equipped occupying force, but I want the battle divisions ready to move in a day, all of them, with seige artillery.”

One day! thought Nerfith, It’s not possible! But he was careful to keep that thought from showing as he said, “Yessir. That can be done. May I ask where they are to be moved to?”

Kissi snarled. “We march on Tsuba. I want that town RAZED!”

— Chapter 35

Godsend PT II

Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth

and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings . Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

Of sun-split clouds — and done a hundred things You have not yet dreamed of — wheeled and

soared and swung. Chased the shouting wing along, and flung my eager craft through footless halls of air. Up the long, delirious, burning blue

I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace Where never lark, or even eagle flew.

And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod The high untrespassed sanctity of space

Put out my hand, and touched the face of God. High Flight John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

The wind picked up after midday. Gradually — without haste — the light drizzle turned to a steady downpour, rattling through Needletip leaves and pattering to the ground. Swollen grey clouds cloaked the heavens, leaving the lands below bathed in a sallow light.

The village had vanished into sheets of rain and except for a few dozen paces of hillside, nothing else was visible. Sekher wiped moisture from his muzzle and ducked back under the meagre cover his crude lean-to offered. There was nothing to do now but wait. Awkwardly he settled down and leaned back against the tree, relaxing, letting his breathing slow.

Water trickled through the matted boughs of the roof, running straight off the silvery material of his poncho. When he blinked it was automatic — a reflex flicking his translucent nictitating membrane out as a droplet of water touched his eye — yet he saw nothing.

In Drift the world was an amorphous blur. His body would watch for him, would breath for him, could even walk for him while his mind slowed, rested, methodically ticking over. So in a sense it wasn’t Sekher who sat there. He was far away, floating in a warm dark, drifting through remote memories:

. . . the hot metallic taste of fresh meat.

. . . his eldest brother riding beside him as they left the palace. A guard leaning againt his spear and enjoying the midday heat tipped his helmet back and saluted casually. The streets were unpaved, the buildings small . . .

. . . shabby. The unyielding stone walls of K’streth and Ch’sty, their bustling streets . . .

. . . two cubs ran across the street to tumble in a whirl of gangling limbs, dust, and laughter before racing off.

“It’s going to be empty around here without you,” Methlin said, leaning forward on his saddle horn and watching Sekher.

“Huh, you’ll find something to keep you busy,” Sekher answered.

“Perhaps,” his brother flagged amusement. “And I’m sure you’re going to. Outsiders have some strange ways.”

“So I’ve been told. I thought that’s what I’m going to see. Come on, they’ve taught me everything my head can hold about court etiquette and protocol.”

Methlin barked in outright laughter causing guards and retainers to glance at them. “Diplomacy!” he grinned. “Brother, you’re still young. There are a things in creation besides the stuffiness of court life.”

Sekher blinked. “You have something particular in mind?”

Methlin reached over to clap Sekher’s arm. “Hah! Get out of the palaces! See the towns! How they live. You can learn more from some of those places than books could ever teach you.”

Sekher cocked his head; interested.

“Try the taverns in Taiska. They brew a hot, spiced ale that’ll set your tail straight. Also their Untiy Houses . . . but perhaps you’ll find out about those for yourself.”

“What?” Sekher blinked at hi sibling. “I’ve tried to drag more than that out of you a thousand times. Now you talk about Unity Houses? Why now?”

“Give you a chance to find out for yourself,” Methlin grinned. “You’re old enough.”

At the town gates they passed a slow trickle of peasants. “Remember,” grinned Methlin; then: “Fare well, brother.”

“Thanks,” Sekher replied and reigned his shen about.

“One more thing: Ware the outland females. They’ve probably got strange ideas.”

Sekher barked his own laughter.

. . . Chaiila knelt: winded, panting, with a gleam in her eye and sun in her fur . . .

. . . a pale face and grey eyes watched . . .

He pulled out of drift, the face still hung before him. Seth’Nai was outside the shelter looking even more peculiar than ever with a tight hood waterproof hood enclosing its head, shedding water as if it were oiled. Odd, but the daemon was fascinated with the rain. Water ran in rivulets from its clothing as it crawled under the shelter and propped its back against the tree the lean-to was built against. The hood retracted into the collar when removed and Seth’Nai ran its hands through the patch of fur atop its head. The fur stuck back and Seth’Nai looked at its hands, growled, then wiped them against its legs.

“So, they’re not back yet,” Sekher yawned. The daemon looked startled. “Taking their time, aren’t they?”

The creature’s mouth turned up, baring square teeth, then it shrugged and began to fiddle with the device strapped to its forearm. A wondrous power, Sekher mused, to be able to produced glowing shapes that danced in midair, although exactly what use it may be was beyond him.

— Chapter 36

After the rains the air was cool and fresh. Moisture beaded on foliage; glittering, transient jewels. The ground underfoot was soggy, with mud pushing between Sekher’s toes. Clouds of tiny insects hummed and swarmed. He growled in irritation as one buzzed in his ear. Of course they didn’t seem to bother his daemon in the least; Sekher watched, somewhat annoyed, as the bugs bent deliberate arcs to avoid it.

Four shen in single file were moving up the slope the hill, two bearing riders, the others saddleless, but fitted with blankets and cargo slings. They had left the hamlet and circled to the far side of the hill before beginning their ascent, threading their way through rocks and scrub to the wood straddling the crest. A few paces short they dismounted to lead their mounts the rest of the way into the trees.

“Any trouble?” Sekher called as they passed.

“Smooth,” Chaiila replied with a grin as they passed.

Sekher paused and watched for a few more beats to make sure they hadn’t been followed or observed, then followed.

The four shen weren’t the specially bred animals used by cavalry, rather they were the sturdy, stocky breed farmers preferred, bred for hauling ploughs and wagons. Three females and a gelding; all scruffy and past their prime, but sufficient for their needs. Both Nersi and Chaiila looked rested, their coats well-groomed. Nersi had a clean set of wraps on her leg and a new crutch made from fresh-cut wood that she was removing from one of the pack animals.

“I’m glad you came back,” Sekher told Chaiila as she worked at the harness of her own animal.

Chaiila grinned: “You thought we wouldn’t?”

“I had my doubts,” Sekher confessed.

“You wound me,”Chaiila laughed and turned back to regard the animals. “Not such bad beasts, huh?”

“Yeah.” Sekher took up a hoof and inspected the underside. It wasn’t as worn as he’d feared, so the animals hadn’t been driven too hard. He dropped the hoof again. “So, what else?”

“Food,” she said, hefting a sack. “Also some clothing and blankets.”

“Food?” Sekher’s eyes lit up.

Chaiila’s twitched a smile and she dipped into the sack and pulled out a small loaf, tossed it to Sekher who snatched it from the air. By the Gods! Still warm! His stomach snarled as he tore into it with a will. “Blessed Gods! I needed that.”

“It shows,” Chaiila remarked and jabbed a digit to where Seth’Nai was trying to examine shen that shied whenever the creature went near it: “You think your creature could do with something? Hai!”

Seth’Nai caught the scone she tossed and sniffed at it, then tore it apart with its blunt fingers and examined the fragments. Carefully it placed a piece in its mouth, chewed, swallowed, and bared its teeth at them. It polished off the rest of the scone in short order.

“I think it likes it,” Chaiila observed dryly.

“A,” Sekher stared. That was the first normal food he had ever seen it eat. Why? He shook his head; that was something to figure out later. For now . . .”Any money left?”

“A little,” Chaiila jingled the purse on her belt. “It’ll last us for a while. I doubt we’ll be doing much spending.

The clothes they’d purchased were scruffy, torn, and slightly odiferous, but they were much less conspicuous than Rim armour and the silver poncho Sekher was wearing. He swore as he struggled into them and laced the seams: they were a little small, and they were inhabited. Well, there was nothing to be done about that. Travelling anywhere one picked up passengers. It was a fact of life.

There were no spare saddles for the extra shen. Two females on their own was unusual enough, but if they’d asked for four sets of tack . . . now that would have raised a few suspicions. The blankets they’d obtained would have to suffice.

The shen turned skitish whenever Seth’Nai approached, kicking out with their blunt claws. It was the next day, after an uncomfortable night, that they were able to break one of the females enough to tolerate its presence.

It was then they discovered it couldn’t ride.

“I do not believe this!” Chaiila groaned, sinking her claws into the bark of a tree, looking as if she were about to start pounding her head against the trunk.

Glumly Sekher watched as Nersi coaxed the creature through the signals that would tell its shen to move, stop, turn. In a way it was amusing, that hulking, pale figure so lost on the back of a beast, but also every moment they delayed meant time for trackers to pick up their trail. That wasn’t so amusing.

It did learn quickly, however. It wasn’t too long before it had the basics and Nersi limped over with her crutch to say, “I think it’s going to be able to manage. I got the stirrup length right as well, at least it shouldn’t fall off again.”

“Alright,” Chaiila sighed. “Then we go. It can work out the finer points on the way.”

— Chapter 37

Shen were infinitely slower than the daemon’s transport. The ride left the base of the tail aching and sore. Windblown dust whipped into your nostrils and eyes and ears while insects tormented you and heat beat down on shoulders and neck. But Sekher understood shen, he knew what they were, he was comfortable with them. Also, they didn’t fall apart or explode at inopportune moments.

They moved in a general northerly direction, skirting towns as they found them, avoiding the main roads and a couple of times detouring some distance where towns controlled a bridge or ford to find a place to cross.

Methodically the shen picked their way through lush gallery forests where streams and pools turned the land to brief belts of brilliant green, then across rolling prairies of golden grasses. All regions boasted their share of dangers. The biota concealed predators and poisons; sometimes the predators rode shen and fast, lean Mrakers, the poisons were on the blades of swords and tips of quarrels.

Sekher drifted as they rode, they all did, but lightly, barely dipping out of full reality, always with at least one part of their awareness watching the horizon. It was not as refreshing as sinking deeper, but over a long period it had the same effect. So they rode in single file, one shen placidly following another while the Trenalbi took it in turns to guide them. Night followed day, for two days. They ate in the saddle, pausing only to relieve themselves.

Sekher blinked himself out of drift to find himself at the rear, following the others. Ahead of him Seth’Nai’s shen was plodding quietly along its way, its tufted tail swatting at insects while the daemon slumped motionless and silent in the saddle. It wasn’t riding very well, Sekher noted, rocking awkwardly with the shen’s rolling gait. Further up the two females were riding abreast, talking quietly. He yawned and fished in his saddlebag for a piece of smoked meat, looking around while he chewed.

They were off the plains again, following yet another of the small river valleys with its gallery forest that divided the prairies a little like spokes on a wheel . . . or perhaps more like branches radiating from a central trunk. The trees were old ones, tall ones, their trunks as thick as his torso and the shade they cast was a welcome relief from the alternating stifling heat and biting winds on the plains. High up in their canopies flyers leapt from branch to branch, chittering and squeaking at the intruders below.

They were harmless, but their excitement could attract the attentions of something that would be willing to have a go at even three . . . four dangerous opponents.

Sekher snarled, then slapped at a bloodsucker that had alighted on his neck. They were near water, in fact he could hear it. The stream was only a few paces wide, the water flowing fast and shallow across a pebbly bed. The shen hesitated on the bank before stepping down into water that barely covered their anklespurs and easily crossed to the spit of fine sand on the other side. They left deep prints in the sand, then lurched up a shelf perhaps ten spans high.

Seth’Nai slipped sideways, then fell from its saddle, hitting the bank and sprawling face-down in the sand.

Sekher yanked back on the reigns: “HAI! STOP!”

Seth’Nai stirred and rolled over as he touched its back. For the first time in a long while he saw its face, really looked, and was shocked. There were large dark patches under the eyes, skin was drawn taut across bones, and the scraggly fur sprouting from the angular chin had grown much thicker, becoming a mane encircling the head.

“Huhnnn,” Chaiila was at Sekher’s shoulder. “It don’t look so good.”

“Gods shave you!” Nersi scrambled over — a half-limping gait — to the creature’s side, kneeling with her damaged leg outstretched. “Don’t just stand there,” she snarled and put an arm around the creature’s shoulder to help it sit upright. It blinked at her, seeming dazed. “What’s wrong with it?!” she demanded.

“I don’t know,” Sekher protested with a shrug. “It just . . . turned toes up and fell off!”

“So it can’t ride worth a square wheel!” Chaiila spat. “We could always tie it into the saddle.”

“Not a bad idea,” Sekher agreed. “You want to be the one to do it?”

She grinned and snapped at him even as he ducked away. Still glaring, she growled, then stretched and looked around. “Well, while we’re here, we may as well make the best of it. My teeth are swimming.”

They left Nersi tending Seth’Nai. The shen were hobbled and left to strip a brightbush while the Trenalbi tended to bodily demands. Sekher finished, filled the hole in, then lifted his tail and bent to void his scent-glands against a tree. The scent would fade in a couple of days, and the pressure had been uncomfortable. One advantage of a hairless hide, he reflected as he cleaned himself in the stream, one didn’t have to worry about shit sticking to the fur.

But it was cold.

Nersi was waiting anxiously for them, fidgeting. “It’s not moving!” she began as soon as Sekher came up to her, there was almost panic in her voice. “It’s just lying there. It just closed its eyes . . .”

Sekher crouched by the motionless figure. No, not dead: the chest was moving, there was breath whistling through its mouth and nostrils, the closed eyelids flickered. “I think it’s alright,” he said hesitantly. “I’ve seen it like this before. It stays like this for some time . . .”

It struck him then.

“Oh, Gods!” He rocked back, nearly falling over with the realization: “Oh Gods. It . . . it doesn’t Drift!”

“What?” Nersi’s confusion was plain on her face. “But everything Drifts. Surely . . .”

“No, THIS is its drift. Completely gone.”

“But,” Nersi stared at the recumbent form, “it’s so . . . helpless.”

“Now what’s wrong?” Chaiila was readjusting her kilt as she returned. She cast a critical eye at the creature. “Is it alright?”

“Sekher thinks so,” said Nersi. “He was saying that it . . . uh . . . doesn’t drift.”

“Huh?” Chaiila blinked. “Come on, everything has to drift.” Sekher sighed, then tried to explain it again. “Look, I was shut in a cage with this thing for weeks and it didn’t seem to drift once, but it did this a lot. It’d just curl up and close its eyes and stay like that for ages. All night. I don’t know. Perhaps I’m wrong, but it’s either wide awake, or like that . . . Nothing like drift.”

Chaiila scratched at a square ear, then patted Sekher’s arm. “I guess we have to take your word on this, Che. If that’s true, I would say it’s been riding without a rest at all for the past two days.” For once she looked at Seth’Nai with something besides distaste. “I suppose we could all do with a decent break. Any objections to spending the night here?”

Nersi had none. Sekher had wanted to return to Che as soon as possible, but the aching in his tail persuaded him that a night out of the saddle may not be such a bad idea. The shen needed a break. They could rest up, perhaps hunt some fresh food. And this was a good a place as any they were likely to find.

— Chapter 38

The fire was small, the dry wood burning clean. The Trenalbi gathered around in the pool of warmth and flickering light, watching insects describing complex patterns around the flames before burning in tiny flashes of fire. Chaiila had made good her earlier promise about hunting and now the carcass of a burrower was sizzling and popping on a spit. On the very fringes of the illumination Seth’Nai lay, silent but for the rasping of its breath.

Nersi finished spreading the blanket over the limp alien body and gave the face a final pat. Stealing a glance, Sekher saw Chaiila’s dark-furred face and ears twitch into a despairing look, then crack into a forced smile when Nersi rejoined them. “Cousin, do you have to do that?”

“Do what?”

Chaiila made a vague geture. “Touch it like that. It’s not . . . right.”

Nersi looked both surprised and hurt. “Why? It’s got soft fur, and it’s not going to hurt us. Look at it; it’s so vulnerable.”

“Yeah,” Chaiila’s eyes instead dropped to watch the fire. “I know, but . . . Look, you’re right; I worry too much. I’m sorry, just forget it.”

“Huhnnn,” growled Nersi softly. “Chaiila, I like Seth’Nai. It’s friendly. It’s gentle, and it’s very intelligent.”

“It didn’t know how to ride . . .”

“Do you have any idea how to do ANY of the things it did to get us out of Jai’stra?” Nersi asked. “Just because it can’t ride . . . What use would a . . . whatever-it-is have for riding anyway?” She used her sword to turn the carcass on the spit over, then tore off a hind leg. “Ahh! Hot!” She juggled the meat a couple of times, then bit into it.

Sekher waited for the females to get their food, then helped himself to remains. A little overdone, he judged as he picked at the white flesh and watched the females as they huddled together, conversing in low voices. Chaiila was meticulously grooming Nersi’s ruff, exploring and combing with her fingers, smoothing her pelt down with long, languid strokes of her tongue.

There was something Chaiila had said. Nersi had misunderstood: Chaiila didn’t fear the creature, it was the familiarity with which Nersi handled that made her hackles raise. Perhaps she was overprotective, but Sekher too had seen the fascination with which Nersi watched the thing and he could sympathise with Chaiila’s uncertainties. He considered it a friend, in the same way he would bestow his affections upon a favourite pet, but still it was an unpredictable thing.

He sighed, stood, and walked over to the creature. For a time he simply stood over it, watching. Its face was still, the mouth slightly open and — despite the fire — breath forming almost-invisible clouds in the night air. On its cheek the scratches Chaiila had scored still glared an angry red against the pale skin. It gave a low moan and twitched then fell still again.

You saved my life. Why do I fear you?

For that he didn’t have an answer. His ears laid back and he returned to the warmth of the banked fire where he curled up in a blanket and watched the warm lump where the females lay huddled together.

— Chapter 39

The lumpy, grey slowburn-gum candles flickered in the draught that kept the atmosphere cold and damp, throwing a dim pool of light across the face of the warped desk and dancing shadows on the stone walls. It made the yellowed manuscripts difficult to see, even more so to read.

Chenuk growled in irritation and hitched his cloak a little tighter then turned another page in the weighty book. The delicate line drawings wavered in the unsteady light, but it was clear enough for him to be certain this wasn’t the one he was looking for. His hand ached again, a throb that made his whole arm convulse, the thumb and ruined stumps of fingers beneath their bandages clenching in a parody of a fist. Chenuk tucked it against his side and used his left arm to turn the page.

A cub in the squared grey-and-green tunic of an acolyte pushed through the door curtain, staggering under an armful of the heavy tomes. “These are the last, sir,” he said.

“Leave them there,” Chenuk waved abstractly at the piles of mildewed old books still to be searched already atop the desk. The ones he had finished with littered the floor. The cub sighed to himself and collected another armful on his way out.

And Chenuk resumed rifling through the untold scores of pages. Another illustration caught his eye and he paused to examine it. There was a vague resemblance to a Trenalbi, but judging by the scale of the agonised Trenalbi it was carefully dismembering with a sickle-like talon, it was much larger. Fleshy webs joined waist to wrist. Its fur was patchy, but it had fur.

No, that wasn’t it either. More pages flipped by.

“Any success?”

“Who . . .?” Chenuk nearly fell off his stool twisting around. “Oh . . . Sir!”

“Don’t bother saluting.” Watchkeeper Nerfith let the curtain fall back into place and stepped inside. He stooped to pick up a book from where it lay open and spine-up on the floor and examined the cover. “‘Searches in Distances’, Huh! These are valuable, you know. I think the Priests would resent you using them as rugs. Well, any luck so far?”

“No sir,” a dejected Chenuk said. “There’re still more to go, though.” He patted a pile on the desk before him, but he didn’t harbour much hope.

“So I see,”said Nerfith, then awkwardly snuffled and Chenuk saw his ears were back. He set the book aside, unease gnawing at his insides. Officers didn’t make social calls. For the Watchkeeper to have personally hunted him down in the bowels of the temple, he must have something to say. By the amount of hedging the officer was doing, it couldn’t be good.

“Soldier, how is your hand?”he asked.

Ah, the crux. The stumps of Chenuk’s own ears twitched and despite his efforts, the faint stink of fear tinged the air. Slowly he raised the bandaged limb. “Most of the pain’s gone.”

“But you can’t hold a sword, can you.”

“Ah, sir . . . I can use . . .”

“Can you.”

“No.”

There was a heavy silence. Wind moaned along the corridor outside, carrying the remote sounds of priests chanting. “Look, Chenuk,” Nerfith sighed again. “You may be new, but you’re one of my battlegroup, so I reckoned I should be the one to tell you . . . face to face.”

“Sir,” Chenuk stood, knowing what was coming next.

“The army . . . it is not that place for . . . for one with injuries like yours. I have been authorized to give you some money to help you on your way. Also this,” he fished under his cloak and popped the seal on a scroll canister hanging from his belt. He pulled out a cream-coloured scroll. “This is a recommendation bearing Kissaki’s personal seal. It will help you find employment.”

Numbly Chenuk took the scroll. It was almost weightless in his hand while his soul weighed like lead. He looked up at the Watchkeeper. “There is nothing I can do? There’s no appeal?”

Nerfith didn’t meet his eyes.”I did try. All the channels . . . You will have to return your sword. Your kit is already packed.”

Sekher stroked the scroll. His life . . . gone. Soldiering was all he knew. He could read . . . a little; about as good as his writing, and the best that could be said for that was that it was almost legible. There were plenty of labouring jobs available — especially with so many males gone to fight — for able-bodied Trenalbi. He swallowed.”Serving in the army . . . it’s my life . . . Shave me! Who will take on a cripple?!”

The Watchkeeper flagged helplessness and turned to leave.

“Sir! Please!”

Nerfith stopped and hung his head, then half-turned back to Chenuk and hissed softly. “There’s the Watch. They are often so desperate for a good Trenalbi that they’ll overlook certain . . . difficulties.”

Then the curtain fell back into place and he was gone.

Chenuk sat back and stared at a cold wall for a long time. When he threw back his head his howl rang through the corridors beneath the temple and his claws punched through the cover of an ancient leather and silver bound tome. “I . . . will . . . find . . . YOU!”

— Chapter 40

Sekher groaned as toe claws poked at the small of his back. “You’re on the morning meal duty, male,” came Chaiila’s voice.

“Uhhhnnn,” he groaned, rolled and flicked back his third eyelid. Her ankle leapt to sharper focus. A very nice ankle, he thought drowsily.

Then that ankle kicked him again.

“Hai!”

“Come on, rocks-for-bones. Move it! I’ve got the wood, you can do he rest.” The foot drew back again.

“Alright! Alright!”Sekher yipped, scrambling to his feet.”Shaved slave driver!” “YOU’RE calling me shaved!” Chaiila laughed at that.

Through the gently swaying boughs of trees a cloudless, azure sky was visible, heralding the beginning of a hot, clear day. Sekher scowled. Miserable weather to be riding in. The skin on his hands and muzzle was already peeling and sore.

Huh! He scratched at an itch in his crotch. So, how was his daemon this morning?

Gone.

He did a doubletake. The blanket was still there, but Seth’Nai, and its bag, were gone. As was Nersi.

“CHAIILA!”

She was engaged tending to the Shens’ tack, tugging on a cinch with a great deal of grunting and muttering. Annoyed, she didn’t turn at his call, just growled, “What?!”

“Where’s the creature?!”

“No idea,” she grunted. “Got up earlier. Didn’t seem any the worse for wear. Went for a walk, came back and got its bag, then went out again.”

“You didn’t try and stop it?”

“What for?”

“And where’s Nersi?”

“Nersi, she’s . . .” Chaiila trailed off and forgot about the cinch strap. She turned on the spot, looking around, then cupped hands to her mouth and screamed, “NERSI!”

Her call rang from the trees, startling fliers. Something in the distance howled back, but there was no answering call. Chaiila snarled, her tail bristling and ruff flattening, then pulled her sheathed sword from her shen’s pack and buckled it on. “Alright. You go downstream. I’ll search upstream. If you find . . .”

“What’s going on!?” A breathless and dripping Nersi limped into the camp. “What’s all the shouting about?”

“Gods!” Chaiila wailed. “Where’ve you BEEN!”

Nersi shook herself. She was soaking wet and droplets went flying until she finished and stroked fur back into place with her hands as she said, “With Seth’Nai. Over that way. Ahh, there’s something I think you should see.”

“You’re alright?” Chaiila asked, catching her cousin’s arm. “Your leg . . .”

“I’m FINE,” Nersi growled, then shrugged Chaiila’s hand off and started off upstream. “You coming?” she asked.

Sekher glanced at Chaiila, shrugged, then started after her. It wasn’t very far. Easily within earshot. Sekher felt annoyed they hadn’t found it; it was certainly a desirable campsite. Above a small clearing the stream cascaded down a series of massive stone steps to fall into a deep, broad pool lined with raw rock worn smooth by the water. The rays of the Lightbringer were already on the rocks, rasing small ripples of heat and warming several basking lizards. Fliers skimmed the air, pursuing insects. Plants grown green and lush with the abundance of water spread across the pool, shading it.

In the pool a pale shape moved underwater, languidly flowing from one end of the pool to the other, turning and going back again.

“It . . . swims?” Sekher asked Nersi. A foolish question; the evidence was there before his eyes.

“Oh, yes,” she smiled. “Very well. He was teaching me.”

“He?”

“I think so,”she said.

With a spray of water and a gasp of breath the creature broke the surface, steadily treading water. It wiped aside the water running down into its eyes and blinked at the three Trenalbi gathered on the banks, watching it. Nersi beckoned to it, making coaxing sounds and it stared back, then growled and swam forward into shallow water and stood up.

Sekher stared.

“Gods!” Chaiila spat.

Perhaps ‘he’ was a reasonable assumption, although that . . . arrangement was nothing like a male Trenalbi. The fleshy organ didn’t tuck away into a sheath the way a normal male’s did and to have something like that dangling out all the time didn’t look comfortable. That must be the reason it wore clothes, that and the fact it was, for all practical purposes, hairless. It . . . he had body fur. Well . . . patches of it and quite heavy in localised places. The hairless hide was light bronze- brown and slick with water, accentuating strange muscles flowing under the skin. A large patch of the skin, about the size of Sekher’s hand, down the creature’s left side was discoloured by what looked like a large bruise. It probably was; that explained its stiffness.

A strange body. Sekher’s eyes couldn’t find it attractive, nor most likely any of the others, but it fitted; it worked. There was a symmetry there that gave it a grace of sorts.

“What are those things on its chest?” Chaiila asked.

“Nipples, I think,” Sekher replied uncertainly. But if it was male, how could it have . . .

“Breasts? Up there? And what about that?” she pointed at the organ between its legs. “And that hole in its stomach? Is that a pouch?”

“How should I know?” said Sekher. “There are some animals that don’t have pouches, aren’t there? Some trappers brought some in once. The females had teats on the outside, all along their torsos. The babies are born fully formed. They don’t pouch.”

“Sounds disgusting,” Chaiila grimaced with distaste. “Then maybe those teats are vestigial; like your pouch.”

Sekher scratched his ear. Vestigial, that would make sense. Still, the thing was more confusing naked than it had been clothed. “What say we call it male?”

Chaiila tipped her head to one side. “Might as well. To think of that as female . . .” she trailed off and spat air.

Seth’Nai rolled his eyes, looked down at . . . himself? growled something at them, then fell back into the pool with a splash that sent waves lapping at the banks. A gentle kick and he drifted back into the water.

“It likes water, doesn’t it,” growled Chaiila.

Nersi glanced at Chaiila, then said, “You could do with a wash yourself.”

“What?”

“You don’t exactly smell like a rainfall, you know,” Nersi grinned, then cuffed her cousin’s arm. “Come on! Live a little!” Before Chaiila had a chance to pontificate, she had her breeches off and was splashing into the water.

“Nersi!”

“Come on in,” Nersi laughed. “You’ll love it!” She floated on her back and awkwardly kicked out into the pool. Seth’Nai glided up alongside and put his arms beneath her to steady her.

“Hai!” Chaiila snarled, anxiously pacing the pool like a caged beast. “Gods, Nersi. Don’t do this!. . . Che! What’re you doing!?”

“What does it look like,” Sekher growled as he fumbled with the lacings of his scruffy clothing. He threw the jerkin aside and kicked the trousers off. “I’m dirty, dusty, and itching from the Gods-blasted blood suckers in those clothes. This is the first chance in I-don’t-know-how-long I’ve had to get some of this filth off and I’m not going to miss it.”

With that he turned his back and gingerly walked out until the water was up to his waist, then crouched down, pinched his nostrils shut, and dunked his head. He surfaced again coughing and sputtering and shaking water from his ears.

“It’s not so bad once you’re in, ah?” Nersi was floating on her back, lazily waving her hands against the current.

“Hai, Chaiila!” called Sekher. “If you’re not going to join us, why don’t you go and bring the shen over here.”

And Chaiila turned to him and slowly bared her teeth. “Male, you can get them yourself, then you can . . .”

Sekher wasn’t really sure that what she suggested next was was physically possible.

— Chapter 41

A pair of small Hitherdarts twisted and spiralled in the air above the pool, dodging through overhanging leaves as they pursued and snapped at insects. Sekher lazily bared teeth at them, then flicked an ear and rolled over. The Lightbringer was warm against his skin, as was the dark rock, while the spray raised by the waterfall was a cool mist in the air, shot through by a rainbow of colours.

He squinted and glanced over at where Chaiila was perched on a sunlit rock, her fur almost blending in with the darkness of the stone. She had stripped down to breeches, but disdained to swim. She looked hot, also tense; sitting with ears twitching uneasily as she watched Seth’Nai and Nersi.

The mismatched pair were further downstream by the pool, Nersi leaning back, her damaged leg stretched out before her, the bandages pulled back to expose the wound to the sunlight. Seth’Nai’s idea. He was sitting beside Nersi, wearing the silver poncho he had cobbled together for Sekher and practising skipping pebbles across the pool. He was improving, Sekher noted as a series of seven ripples appeared in succession across the water. A Hitherdart dived upon one of the ripples, mistaking it for an insect or small fish. As he watched, Nersi took up one of Seth’Nai’s hands and manipulated the fingers, exploring their flexibility.

Sekher watched the pair, then watched Chaiila staring at them with such ill-concealed apprehension and he had to smirk to himself. It was probably for the best that Seth’Nai had — however unwittingly — donned the poncho. It concealed that strange body — especially the maleness — transforming it into something more androgynous. Certainly Chaiila was nervous enough of its differences without it having to advertise. Down at his feet Seth’Nai had left his water flask lying in the stream after drinking from it. Now, why drink from that when there was a whole damned stream of water running beneath his nose?

He snorted and scratched at the itching across his chest. Gods burned fur itched madly growing in. Still, there was a good stubble there now, although the skin was still very visible. Seth’Nai had as much fur as he.

Ai, hells . . . What was he going to do with the creature?

His lips twitched in an uncertain grin. They could trust it . . . him, see where he was leading them. Or was that perhaps too trusting? His head lolled to the side and he caught a glimpse of white: Seth’Nai’s clothing had been rinsed in the stream then spread out on the rock close by, split down the seams and left splayed out to dry, spread-eagled like a flayed white hide. It was as obscurely confusing as the rest of the creature’s devices, Sekher decided, crouching down beside the clothing, all manner of curious tubing and lumps tucked away under the fabric. There were no visible clasps or closures, and there was an arrangement of devices and tubes in the crotch of the breeches that looked . . . extremely uncomfortable.

Sekher decided he wasn’t about to try them on and turned his attentions to the foot coverings. Peculiars cups with a tough base. Now Sekher could see them he saw that the feet were another place where Seth’Nai differed radically from Trenalbi: long and broad and bulky with five stubby digits and a bulbous heel, the creature’s feet were nothing like the four clawed toes a Trenalbi walked upon.

“Interesting?”

“Huh?” he blinked, looking up to meet Chaiila’s eyes. She grinned and moved to crouch down a little closer, tucking her tail in close: “Anything interesting?” she repeated.

Sekher dropped the foot covering. “Not really. Needs to wash his feet though.”

Chaiila growled softly, shaking her head and poking at the clothing. “It really wears all this stuff?”

Sekher barked, saying, “I can tell you from experience, it gets very cold without fur.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Chaiila smiled, grinning slightly, baring her teeth. It was one of those flashbacks, as vivid as if in drift, Sekher remembered the first time he’d seen her: the fire and smoke, the darkness, she lifted off her helmet and grinned at him.

“Sekher?”

She was watching him with head cocked to one side.

“You have beautiful teeth,” he said, and instantly felt like a prize fool.

“What?” Now Chaiila looked confused.

Sekher’s ears went back in distress as he tried to meet her eyes and failed dismally: “You are . . . you are the most beautiful female I’ve ever seen,” he choked out.

“Seen a few in your time, ah?” she retorted guardedly, tail thrashing.

Sekher hung his head and rubbed at the sparse stubble on his arm. Was he really expecting to get somewhere with this? A young male, barely out of cubhood and threadbare as an old rug . . . Gods, why bother?

“Hai, Che,” she reached out to tap his knee lightly, drawing back after touching. “Thank you.”

He looked up, startled.

The gold eyes burned in that soot-grey face, glinting with amusement.”I have seen more adroit approaches,” she said. “But you are sincere. I’m sorry if I was . . . sharp. Nersi tells me it’s a habit I’ve got to break.”

She stood then and came over to Sekher. He flinched as she stroked his head, giving him the briefest of groomings.”I like you too, Sekher Che,”she murmured in his ear, then raked her claws down his side and left him sitting there, staring while she smoothly crossed the rocks to the water’s edge. Her breeches came off, her tail bristling and dancing as she stepped down into the water.

Sekher shook his head. What in the hells just happened? He was . . . then she . . . Gods, don’t try to understand females.

Downstream Nersi hastily turned away but not before Sekher saw the smile. Seth’Nai caught his eye and twisted his mouth up at the corners, baring teeth. His next gesture left Sekher puzzled: just what did a raised thumb mean?

— Chapter 42

His breath was misting in the early morning chill as he slung his meagre kit across the shen’s back behind the saddle then laboured to secure the straps, snarling softly. His ruined hand flexed stiffly behind its bandages, sending a surge of pain up his arm. After a final check of the tack he gritted his teeth and swung himself up into the worn leather saddle, draping himself stomach-down across it then swinging his leg over to bring himself upright.

Just above the walls two of the Daughters hung in the clear sky, dark blue above, fading to dusty gold in the west where the Lightbringer was still low in the clear heavens, leaving the lower courtyard in shadow whilst the upper stone reaches of the palace were bathed in early light and warmth. There were Treanlbi stirring, as there had been throughout the night; another troop convey leaving the city, menials scurrying to load equipment. A squad of elite cavalry clattered in through the gateway in double file, penants fluttering from their spears tucked upright behind their saddles, eyes alertly scanning their surroundings from beneath flared helmet rims.

Chenuk ducked his head and reined his shen out of the way of the armoured cavalry beasts. They passed him without a second glance. Of course. A single crippled male in patched brown riding cloak and breeches with the orange seal of his pass displayed prominently on his shoulder riding a messenger shen way past its prime. There wasn’t a lot to look at.

“Chenuk!” there was a trooper running to head him off. “Hai! Chenuk! Gods burn it! Wait!”

The shen’s claws scraping on stones as the ex- trooper reigned back and leaned on the saddle-brace as the other jogged up.

Chenuk knew this Trenalbi; had known him for some time. They’d been in the same battlegroup through several campaigns. That had ended that night on the roof of the palace, that night when the sky opened, fire rained and his battlegroup was slaughtered. Who remained? A few.

“Lire.”

“Chenuk,” the other removed his helm, running fingers through his ruff. “Copulation! We heard you were out. You’re really leaving, aren’t you.”

“Not a lot for me here, ah?”

“That bad?”

Chenuk raised the bandaged stump of his hand to the remains of his ears, his scarred face. “I lose a few pieces and they give me my marching orders. Huhhnn, what do they need with another useless mouth.”

“Chenuk, even wrong-handed you could still outfight most.”

“Thanks,”Chanuk’s tail twitched. “Wrong-handed perhaps; one handed . . . forget it. No, they can’t use me.”

“You have plans?”

“Yah,” he started the shen moving again at a slow walk. Lire paced along side.

“Nothing here?”

“No, nothing here.” Chenuk rubbed at his hand. “Perhaps the Hub . . . perhaps not. I don’t know. I’ve a debt to settle.”

Lire’s eyes glanced down at the hand resting on the front of the saddle. “A debt? Something to do with that?”

Chenuk stared back at him. Lire’s fur crawled. This Chenuk had changed . . . The lack of ears? It left him unreadable, cold. Maybe it was something else.

“Perhaps,” Chenuk replied, not offering any more.

There was an awkward pause, then Lire chittered softly. “Well, wherever you go, may the Gods smile on you. Also, there is this,” Lire fumbled at his belt then handed across a small purse made from a piece of old cloth tied with a leather thong. Chenuk felt the weight, the clatter of silver inside.

“You’ll need it,” Lire said.

“I . . . Thank you,” Chenuk said and reached down to clasp wrists with Lire. “Thank them also.”

“They know,” Lire grinned. “If you really want to impress them, find it. Bring back an ear.”

“I’ll do that,” Chenuk acknowledged, then clawed his Shen forward, leaving Lire staring after him until a cavalcade of heavy goods wagons rolled between them.

He took it slowly through the town, although the main street wasn’t nearly as crowded as it was before the wars. The fighting had taken a lot of the able-bodied. The remaining were older males, cripples, and those with skills that made them too valuable to conscript and ship off. There were the few females in their veils and robes with their own contingents of small guard, over in the male sector to procure goods unavailable on their side of the Wall.

None paid any attention to him.

The guards at the gate gave the seal on his shoulder a cursory once-over then waved him on. Chenuk started across the bridge, letting the placid shen have its head while he sat staring at the horizon. Halfway across he tore the seal from his shoulder and casually tossed it over the railing. He didn’t look back as the piece of parchment fluttered down to be carried away by the river.

— Chapter 43

Sekher groaned and rubbed at the base of his tail as he settled down into the curve of a sandbank.

“Hard day, ah?” Chaiila asked, crouching down beside him.

“Huhnnn,” Sekher growled. “Tell it to my tail.”

Chaiila chittered softly and sank down, curling her tail around.

It had been a hot, hard day’s riding, but it was behind them now, with only a few more to go. It was slow, taking longer than it had taken the Ch’sty Rim troops to cart him south. They were still forced to skirt the towns and villages and find their own river crossings. Now with the Lightbringer burning low in the clouds to the east the temperature was dropping. They’d found a sheltered hollow in the midst of a small copse, a tiny ground-fed spring overhung by the interlocking branches and long leaves of Watertails. A pack of Nichir had been reluctant to surrender their territory, but a few jabs from swords had persuaded them to move out.

Now a small fire burned beside the spring with their meagre bedrolls spread out around; three thin sheets to go round. Nersi was sitting cross-legged by the fire, talking softly to Seth’Nai as she showed the creature how to set meat out on a stone slab to cook. The creature was beside her, also cross- legged in an absurd caricature of a Trenalbi, glancing from her hands to her face as if he were actually following her words. Occasionally he’d interrupt with a growl or rumble of his own.

Sekher stretched his legs out — feeling the muscles trembling. “At least we’ve got an excuse to rest up every night,” he said with a nod toward Seth’Nai.

Chaiila looked toward the creature, then at Sekher,”You’re not worried that he’s slowing us down?”

He hesitated. “Is there such a hurry?”

Chaiila sighed and nibbled at a claw, then said, “Che, walk with me.”

Nersi looked up as they left but said nothing.

The night sky overhead was clear and dark blue. The rolling hills of the plains were split between the gold of the twilight and the black of shadow as the Lightbringer sank ever lower on the horizon. Somewhere over there was the Hub, then the sea, then beyond the realms to where the Lightbringer retired each night as all the Daughters came out to dance their ways across the heavens.

Amongst this two Trenalbi wandered through the seas of scratchbush and grasses.

“Sekher, you know where Che stands?”

He wrinkled his muzzle in puzzlement. “Of course.”

“Tell me.”

“In the centre plains, on the Darktonight River.”

“And the kingdoms around it?”

“K’streth, Taiska, and Fhel,” he promptly responded.

“Ch’sty, Taiska, and Fhel,”Chaiila corrected.

“No,” his eyes widened in shock. “Not so soon. There were treaties . . .”

Chaiila barked, her laughter cold and harsh in the remote air and there wasn’t a glitter of amusement in her eye. “Treaties, water in your hands. When the knife was to the stone the other parties let the Ch’sty rim stall them with bluffs and promises until . . .” she spread her hands as though flicking chaff to the wind. “I doubt that what is left of K’streth holdings will last another half-year.”

Sekher huddled deeper into his cloak. “Che . . . they wouldn’t . . .”

“Sekher,” she touched his arm. “You have made some very powerful enemies. Your clan shares them with you and you know as well as I that Che cannot afford enemies.”

“I know,” he groaned, “I know . . . but surely they would . . .”

“Would what?” Chaiila stopped to watch Sekher.

He also halted, rubbing his claws against his throat as the shock of what he was thinking sank in. “We can offer . . . they would be willing to bargain.”

“Your Seth’Nai?”Chaiila asked.

Sekher crouched down where he stood, wrapping his arms about himself and unable to answer.

She stood behind him and with one hand reached down to caress an ear. Gently, she said, “Sekher, I think the time for compromise is past.”

When he turned to look up at her, it was with a wild look, a hope so anxious it almost hurt her to see it. “If we hurry, we can . . .”

She stopped him with a hand on his muzzle. “We can what? ah?” she asked. “We can get there in time to charge in and slay the evil Rim Priests and Lords and carry the day to triumph for Che. Ah?

“Sekher, please, think.”

When Chaiila felt him sag she knew that he had thought, and that he had understood. It was a feeling she could sympathise with; that feeling of utter helplessness. She had felt that as she watched her home burn, watch her friends and clan fight and die. It was possible that was a reason she had gone after the male in the first place: just to have something into which to channel her frustration, some way she could strike back at the amorphous entity that was the Ch’sty Rim.

She stroked the stubble on his scalp: “You understand?”

He growled softly, then flinched as though just realising their proximity and her hands on his head. Standing, he withdrew from her touch to retreat. Alone on the gentle incline of the eastern face of a monticule with the final flaring of the sun behind him. She clasped her hands together before her and watched him

“I understand,” he said. “It hurts.”

“I know.”

“Gods, Chaiila!” he bared teeth at the purple sky, his breath steaming, “I want to do something! I want to hurt THEM!”

“If you want to hurt them,” Chaiila suggested, “the best you could do is not get yourself killed.”

He growled, feeling his entire spine twitch as his tail slashed at the air.

Chaiila hissed. “Calm.”

“Calm?! You try losing . . .” He remebered who he was talking to then. She knew what he was feeling. How had she coped? “Sorry,” he growled.

“I think you need to work it out. It’ll help you think.”

“What?”Sekher stared at her.”You’ve got a suggestion?”

“Sparring,”she shrugged.”Teth’Ai? Third movement? I assume you know a little about it.”

Sekher growled — long and deep — as he turned away, then spun, bringing his foot sweeping around in a arc intended to disembowel had he used claws.

Chaiila yipped, but caught his foot between crossed forearms and twisted. He jumped, spinning in the air, his other leg kicking out to jar her arm when it struck. The dark female’s mouth gaped in a bark and she dropped back, crouching with her arms spread.

Grasses and bush rustled beneath their feet as they circled, warily, slowly, like spiralling scavangers, their shadows stretching long.

Sekher struck again, still on the offensive and angry. taking his frustrations out on the figure before him. The heels of his hands moved in a series of hammer blows that struck only air as Chaiila slipped aside with a fluid shift of her hips then slashed both hands in a Snowflake that batted his blows aside and stroked the fur of his belly.

Then she grunted as his foot raked down her thigh.

Tails lashing, they circled again.

When he struck, she blocked. Her blows he parried smoothly, turning them into an attack that forced her back. The power of her Lightning he blocked with the smooth shifting of Breeze. His hands slapped against the fur of her forearms, their low growls lost on the breeze.

Sekher was gasping when they separated again. His left wrist was throbbing where he’d taxed it too far. He sucked air, flicking nictitating membranes across his eyes . . .

. . . Chaiila struck him low, batting his arms aside and hooking a leg behind his knees. He dropped like a startled rock, twisting and grabbing a handful of fur. Chaiila yelped and went down with him in a tangle of limbs that rolled snarling and barking down the hill to end in broadleaf bush.

Sekher shook his head and raised himself on his arms. Beneath him Chaiila sputtered and spat a couple of scratchbush leaves from her mouth, then grinned and said, “You’re better than I thought.”

“Huh. Where did you learn your routines?”

“Small Guard. We’re well trained.”Then she reached up to touch his ear. “You know, even furless you’re better than many.”

He froze, staring down at her. She smiled back and there was a scent in the air: subtle, unobtrusive, unfamiliar. Sekher’s nostrils flared and his sinuses tingled with a shock similar to the times he had touched metal and a spark flashed, but this time the spark was behind his eyes.

He yipped in surprise, blinked at her with nostrils wide.

There was a silence.

“I think . . .” he finally began. “I think we’d better start back . . .”

He rolled off her, then tried to stand, staggering and going to his knees. What . . .?

Chaiila’s hand was on his shoulder. He snarled and lashed out; she evaded with ease, standing back and . . . waiting? His head was swimming with the blood pounding in his ears, then he keeled over completely with coarse grass pressing against the side of his face. He tried to move, twitched helplessly with muscles turned to water.

And Chaiila’s hands touched him again, rolling him over onto his back. He looked up at her face silhouetted against the dusk, her eyes wide and staring like small amber lamps in the twilight.

“What . . .”he croaked. “haiila?”

She moved closer and the smell was stronger, overpowering when she nuzzled his neck, murmuring, “Calm.”

How could he? His heart pounded in slow pulses, yet he couldn’t move.

Claws ran over him, gently raking, raising uncountable tiny bumps as his fur tried to stand up like needles. Other parts of him were responding also, the feeling in his crotch that seemed to also burn in his mind. Then her hands were fumbling with the belt of his kilt.

“Chaiila,” he gasped again.

She caressed his face, then stood to shuck her breeches.

He saw everything, felt more than he ever though possible. The daughters danced behind Chaiila’s black form as she moved over him, lowering herself.

He howled at the heat that raged through his loins, then through every fibre of his body.

— Chapter 44

The Burrower meat was browned and crisped with spitting fats.

Nersi used two sticks to flip it over, taking care not to knock it from the flat rock into the embers. Beside her, Seth’Nai sat with the device from his arm opened, a multitude of fragments spread on a cloth on his lap. He paused in his fiddling to watch her hands working.

She noticed his fascinated gaze. “You’ve never done this before, ah?” she asked.

He looked up at her. Gods, she wondered, you’re no animal, but why can’t you speak?

“Here,” she offered, passing him the sticks. “I’ll show you.” His pale hands were warm against hers as she showed him how to hold the sticks between the fingers of one hand and pick up the meat with them. He caught on quickly, but still fumbled.

“You need practice,” she grinned.

He rumbled and bared teeth at her. Nersi flinched involuntarily. However it was something he did often, seemingly without intending menace.

“Don’t worry,” she assured him. “You’ll smooth it out.”

He blinked at her.

“Never mind,” she hissed. “Pass that branch . . . Look, rot it, that branch over there,” she pointed. “Pass it to me.”

Seth’Nai looked from her outstretched hand to the branch, then reached to pick it up and broke it in half with a single flex of his arms before handing the pieces over.

“Gratitude,” Nersi said.

He watched her stoke the fire, the flames licking around the dark wood. Flickering light made shadows in the small grove dance and shimmer in the twilight, throwing the planes of Seth’Nai’s face into strange relief. His long-fingered hands worked delicately at the pieces in his lap.

Chaiila and Sekher had been gone for some time now. It was getting dark, and night was not the time to be wandering around the plains unarmed.

Talking, ah? She smiled to herself.

The Lightbringer was all but gone, the sky still aglow with azure and the hard silver disks of the Daughters. Beneath the boughs in the small copse the light was pushed aside by gloom. Seth’Nai paused in his work to dip into his peculiar bag and produce a small white tube about the length of a hand that he propped on a nearby rock. Nersi fell back with a squeak of alarm when it sprang to glaring life.

Panting hard, she stared from the glowing light to the creature. Its teeth were bared and this time she had no doubts of its amusement. Deliberately he touched the tube with his bare hand and gripped it so the light showed red through the flesh. He withdrew the hand and held it up, waggled the fingers, unscathed.

Nersi coughed, embarrassed at her overreaction. “ai, alright, so you startled me. Don’t DO that!”

The tube didn’t bite. It just sat there, glowing. In fact, Seth’Nai showed her how to work it and thereafter she sat there for some time twisting the top, dimming and brightening the tube while watching the meat sizzling. Seth’Nai continued fitting the final pieces to his device.

When the howl rang out, Nersi jumped and stared out into the evening as the familiar wail rang across the grasslands, sending a tingle down her spine and tail. It was about time they . . .

“Hai!”

She yelped as Seth’Nai leapt to his feet and was gone from the firelight, she could hear him crashing through the undergrowth.

“No! Wait! Godsdammit! WAIT!”

Her leg almost gave out as she stood and chased after him, stumbling through the dark trunks. The howl sounded again, giving her a beacon to follow. Seth’Nai’s white form was climbing a low hill. She gave chase, her leg aching abominably and slowing her, yet she still caught up with him.

“Gods! Will you stop!”

Just as they reached the crest.

There was still enough sun. The two Trenalbi amongst grasses on the slope below them, clothing scattered carelessly. Sekher lay sprawled upon his back, twitching spasmodically, mouth working silently. Dark fur engulfed his hips where Chaiila straddled him, rocking, her head back, eyes closed, and mouth gaping.

Nersi sighed and looked up at Seth’Nai, standing tall and pale beside her with his own mouth hanging open. “Seen enough?”

Of course he didn’t reply. As happened so often he seemed not to hear her. Unsure, she plucked at his sleeve. “Come on,”she coaxed when he looked at her,”We’ll leave them to finish, ah?”

When she took his arm — oh, so carefully — to lead him back to camp: he followed like a Shen on a rein.

The meat was burnt.

— Chapter 45

Warm, soft fur surrounded him. On his back, his head resting upon a dark lap. Hands stroked at his face and neck, circling like a gentle breeze. There was the strong scent of crushed grass and tingleweed, the endless darkness above, the silver light of the Daughters in his eyes, the echoing traces of a lust in his muzzle . . .

“Che?”

Darker fur bent over him, amber eyes peering down into his face. “Che, you there?”

He closed his eyes again. Still his limbs felt like stone, moved like rusty armour. He gave up the effort and lay there, panting.

“How’re you feeling?”

He bared teeth, remembering the feelings: the helplessness, the piercing pleasure from his groin, confusion . . .

“I . . . I don’t know,” he finally grated.

“Your first time,” the voice was soft. Sekher could feel her breath. When he opened his eyes her face was barely a span from his own, her lap still warm under his head. “It’s always the hardest for you.”

He licked his lips. “I don’t understand . . . What . . .”

“You were never told, were you,” she interrupted, her voice a soft hum. “A small town . . . They never told you.”

It was true: they hadn’t. The Unity Homes along the Wall were places cublin and youths were not permitted. Males came and went through the doors watched by Small Guard. He had seen the lights through the high, barred windows, heard the music and singing, the howls, but knew nothing of what happened inside. His brother had warned him . . . had he known?

Then he had to ask: “Why did you do it?”

Chaiila looked surprised. “Because I like you. You’re a fine male: healthy, bright . . . If your seed takes, I know it will be a promising cub.”

“Oh,” he said, trying to think. “And where would you pouch it?” he asked. “Our towns . . .”

She smiled and touched his nose pad. “The female quarters in any town would accept it. They would take care of the hosting and the creche.”

“Oh,” he said again, for lack of anything else. There was silence for a time.

The prevailing westerly breeze blowing over the plains had cooled with the going of the Lightbringer and now chilled with its touch. Chaiila’s fur fluffed out, her ruff raising around her neck and atop her head, trapping her warmth. Sekher shuddered.

Chaiila felt it: “You’re freezing! Gods! I forgot! Can you walk yet? Alright . . . Here, I’ll help.”

The fire, even the pale features of Seth’Nai, were welcome, familiar sights after such strangeness. Nersi and the creature looked up as Sekher lurched into the camp with an arm strung about Chaiila’s shoulders. They both stopped and stared with shock at the small tube glowing with strong light. It was only when Seth’Nai arose and moved to take Sekher from Chaiila that the dark female cuffed him aside and lowered her burden beside the fire. Whatever had happened to him was wearing off, now he was strong enough to sit himself up while Chaiila draped a cloak about him.

“Thanks,” murmured Sekher.

Nersi leaned over toward Chaiila to mutter an aside, “Is he all right?”

“Yes, thank you.” Sekher looked up, right at her. “He’s fine.” Chaiila was late to muffle a bark.

“Excuse me,” grumbled Nersi. “It’s just that . . . His first time, right? I’m surprised he could put one foot in front of the other.”

Sekher’s ears went down.

“Sorry,” Nersi hastened to placate him. “I wasn’t thinking.” She passed him a stick on which chunks of bite-sized chunks of meat had been skewered. “You’re going to be hungry. This should help.”

“Thanks.” He took it and, methodically, began working his way along the stick.

Chaiila had been staring at the light-tube. “What IS that thing,” she asked Nersi.

Her cousin shrugged. “A torch of some kind. Not dangerous, it seems.”

“Seth’Nai?”

“Yah.”

“Figures.”

Sekher smiled to himself at that. Even if they didn’t realise it, they were becoming inured to the creature’s strange ways: Anything peculiar happens these days, blame it on Seth’Nai. That one bore enough strange in his hairless hide to satisfy any adventurous spirit.

“What’s the matter with him anyway?” Chaiila asked Nersi with a curious glance at the creature. “He keeps staring at me.”

“He heard the howls,” Nersi explained, looking pensive. “I think he thought you were in trouble . . . Anyway, he saw. Who knows what he’s thinking.”

“Not what a normal male would, I hope,” Chaiila grinned. Nersi’s ears flicked. “A Trenalbi male would have been out of his howling mind at the first scent of you. Him . . . Well, he’s probably got about as much interest in your affairs as a stick.”

Sekher coughed and when the females looked at him asked, “Is it always . . . like that?”

Chaiila ducked her head, flicked her tail around and began grooming the tip. “Your first time . . . it was like being hit by a house, ah? Now you know why some use copulation as a curse.” She grinned as she said that, then grew serious. “You should know it grows easier. Next time, if you can find a next time, it won’t be so . . . traumatic for you, but you will always be slow and as weak as a cublin.”

The light of fire and magic threw strange shadows across her face as she spoke. “Also, remember the Unity Homes. They’re there for a reason, as are the Small Guard and the Walls. Where there is mating madness, there is also fighting. Go there if you wish to mate, for whatever reason, but be prepared to fight. And obey their rules. Always!”

“Rules? What?”

She shrugged. “They always change from town to city. They share the same roots, but details change. Usually nothing drastic: Behave, Listen, Obey.”

“Huh,” Sekher rubbed at his face. “And why be prepared to fight?”

“That,” she grinned, “is something you’ll have to learn for yourself. Now rest up and get some food in you.” She stood, stretched, and yawned. “I’m going to wash off.”

“Watch where you step,” Nersi warned.

“You’re starting to sound like Chaiila,” Sekher pointed out.

“Ah, shave you,” Chaiila spat with a grin.

Sekher returned the grin and took another mouthful of rich meat, watching her gather up a cloak and blanket and move off into the bushes and darkness toward the sound of running water.

Nersi glanced at him then away again.

The fire crackled away industriously as wet wood popped and spat. Seth’Nai was sitting cross-legged at the periphery of the light, toying with the thing strapped to his wrist, occasionally glancing up at them. Sekher concentrated upon eating. She had been right: he was starving.

“You enjoyed yourself this night?” inquired Nersi. “Huh?”Sekher looked up with juices dribbling down his chin. “Oh . . . Oh, yes . . . sure.”

“You don’t sound so sure,” Nersi smiled.

Sekher wiped his muzzle with a sweep of his forearm and considered. “It was . . . unexpected.”

Nersi sighed.”She didn’t mean to scare you like that.”

“Huh?” Sekher looked shocked. He was almost convincing; almost, but not quite.

“Don’t, Sekher,” she warned him. “I can see it and smell it. She had your ruff on end, didn’t she.”

Sekher’s hand moved to run across the back of his neck before he remembered, so instead he hugged his arms around his chest. “Hai, she surprised me.”

Nersi snorted. “Did she now? Don’t worry about it,” she assuaged the male. “She does things like that, like chasing off after a male who was probably dead. Impulsive.” Nersi sighed and shifted to stretch her sore leg out before her, pressing against the bandage. That run after Seth’Nai had left it aching. Would it ever be the same?. . .

“She could have said something,” said Sekher.

“It doesn’t work like that,” Nersi tried to explain, then shrugged helplessly. “She probably didn’t know either. It can just . . . happen.”

Sekher was just staring at her. “I don’t understand,” he replied, still sounding defensive.

“Sekher, she chose you. As I said, she’s impulsive and can be blunt to the point of callousness, but she’s a thrifty one when it comes to dealing out emotions. You’re the only male I’ve ever seen her get so . . . close to. She certainly never meant to scare you away.”

“Huh! Yeah, well if that’s how she shows affection . . .” Sekher grunted and tipped his ears. “It’s like an affectionate shen: a friendship that could crush you!”

Nersi chuckled and Sekher took another mouthful, chewing thoughtfully.

When Chaiila returned her fur was still damp. She looked around the other Trenalbi’s faces, as if well aware that they had talked about her during her absence. It was a look that Sekher found himself unable to meet. So instead he turned his back on the pair and found a hollow among Scellerian tree roots where he hunkered down and pulled his blanket close. Several deep breaths and he felt his heartbeat slowing, his nictitating membranes drawing across his eyes.

“Sekher,” said Chaiila’s voice.

“Huh?” he snapped back to awareness to look across the campfire to where the females were beginning to drift. “What?”

They both blinked at him. “What?” asked Chaiila.

“You said something.”

They looked at each other. “Ahh . . . No.”

“Sekher,” said Nersi’s voice, but Nersi hadn’t spoken.

As one their heads turned toward Seth’Nai. He ducked his head and growled, the sound followed almost immediately by coherent words from his wrist, a jumble of words and voices: his own, Chaiila’s, Nersi’s: “Sekher. Chaiila. Nersi,” He looked from one to the other as it spoke their names. “Can’t. Talk help I you.”

A branch in the fire popped and hissed.

“Huh!” Sekher finally choked out. “It’s been quite a night, huh?”

— Chapter 46

Standing unobtrusively at the back of the room with another advisor and that priest, Nerfith watched, the striped tip of his tail twitching almost imperceptibly.

The two males standing standing so casually before Kissaki’s desk were the source of his distaste, their cloaks sweeping the floor, armour lacquered black against the elements. One towering, massively built, the flesh beneath his fur layered with slabs of muscle and scars, the other a nondescript fawn- furred slender male with notched, black-tipped ears and almost delicate hands automatically searching for the hilt of a sword he was forbidden to carry this close to the High Lord. Bounty Hunters! Nerfith’s lip spasmed in distaste.

The smaller one was the voice of the pair, and he used his words well. It had surprised Nerfith, noticing that this lowlife’s words echoed a trace of a higher teaching. He failed to quite place the accent, but it seemed to be eastern, maybe one of the towns further in toward the hub; perhaps a highborn who’d lost his standing due to clan feud. It happened.

And at the moment he was addressing the High Lord.

“If I hadn’t seen the damage for myself I might have some trouble believing this,” he said with a slight grin. “And they . . . overcome twenty battlegroups?”

Kissaki stared at him with his ears laying back into the dark fur of his ruff. “You have been given all the details we have seen fit to give you. There are four fugitives, two of them possibly female Trenalbi, one shaved male of noble birth, and something else. We do not know what it is, but it is the dangerous one. It is the one we want. The others, all I want is their hides.”

The Hunter laid his head to one side.”Four. That’s quite a contract.”

“For which you are being paid quite adequately,” Kissaki hissed. “You are good, I know that, but not uniquely so.” He emphasized that word ‘uniquely’.

The other smiled. If he had been making a bid for more cash, the look in the High Lord’s eyes stalled him and he wisely passed the opportunity by with a casual wave of his hand. “Of course, High One. May I ask what resources will be at our disposal?”

Kissaki stared at the pair, then gestured curtly toward the Priest who stepped forward with a rustle of robes and acknowledge the High Lord, “Sire,” then produced a scroll case from within his sleeve and turned to address the Hunters. “This document is signed and marked with the Council’s seals. It details your assignment and will ensure the cooperation of the Priesthood across the world, also giving you limited credit for purchase of Temple goods.”

The Hunter took the black leather case, hefted it, then hooked it to his belt.

“Watchkeeper,” Kissaki waved Nerfith.

“Sire,” he bowed stiffly as he stepped forward. “Sir, are you sure . . .”

Kissaki growled, deep and long, shutting Nerfith’s mouth instantly. “You’ve had your chance, Watchkeeper,” he snarled. “You lost it. Now get on with it!”

“Yessir,” Nerfith succeeded in keeping his ears from wilting; barely. The Hunter was casually waiting, not bothering to hide the amused expression plastered across his face. He took the scroll case with a poor parody of a salute. Nerfith let his lips part to flash a glimpse of white teeth before handing the scroll case he carried over. “This is signed and sealed with the Royal crest. It’ll make sure you have the full cooperation of any Lord in the Ch’sty demesnes. It also requires that any garrison or other military body aid you in any way, provided it is relevant to your duty. Understand?”

“Yessir,” the Hunter smiled.

Kissaki spoke again. “Now you know what is required, start moving. Watchkeeper, accompany them and see they have whatever they need.” He paused. “Any questions?”

“One.” This time it was the large one that spoke. “This thing you want us to return . . . Ah, just what condition do you want it in?”

“Alive,” the High Lord replied. “As long as it is in a condition we can work with.”

“Understood.” The tall Hunter bowed. “Alright Sire, you will have your creature.”

Once outside Kissaki’s private offices their weapons were returned. Nerfith watched as the small Hunter sheathed his rapier and slung a flail-blade from his belt. His partner slung the long wooden tube of a heavy darter over his shoulder and took up a two-handed sword. Steel, as Nerfith had noted earlier.

“How can you afford steel?” he asked.

The smaller one grinned. “Hai, Watchkeeper. Just because you can’t do your job, doesn’t mean we aren’t capable of handling ours. We get by.”

Nerfith’s ears and ruff went tight against his skull. “Alright,” he hissed. “Take your documents to the quartermaster. Get what you need, then get your mangy hides out of my town!”

— Chapter 47

“Day not many I/we travel/go.”

Seth’Nai was improving rapidly. His syntax was indescribably terrible, but his vocabulary was increasing at a phenomenal rate. It seemed he never forgot anything he heard; or rather the device on his forearm didn’t. He had also settled upon a voice to use. Now, instead of repeating words in a mangled collection of Sekher’s, Chaiila’s, and Nersi’s voices, he had — with Nersi’s patient assitance — chosen male tones that Chaiila had grudgingly admitted sounded more pleasant than the creature’s features.

“You mean it is not far?”

Nersi was speaking slowly to Seth’Nai, and even so there was a pause before he tried to respond. He growled and words came from his wrist: “Yes. Far not.”

“No, no. It is not far,” Nersi corrected him.

Seth’Nai looked confused. He touched the speaking bracelet and the next time he made noises the device didn’t speak.

Sekher stroked the worn leather of the reigns between his finger pads. The Shen grunted and tossed its head slighty, feeling for any slack. Sekher tightened his grip. When he touched claws to its flanks it obediently stepped up its placid pace to move alongside Nersi and whickered at her mount.

“He’s learning,” Sekher said.

“Hmmm?” The breeze toyed with Nersi’s ruff as she turned to squint at him. “Huh! Ya, he’s learning all right.” She glanced at the creature. “He’s trying to ask questions now, but he still doesn’t know enough to answer.”

“You mean, What is he?”

“How’d you guess,”she barked a laugh. The sound was echoed by the creature. Both Trenalbi stared.

“Sekher,” the creature acknowledged him, then asked, “Means what?” Again it sounded a laugh.

“Ah,” Nersi looked at Sekher, “How do you explain that?”

Seth’Nai waited, his shen plodding along.

Nersi scratched her neck. “A Laugh . . . Like a smile,” she began.

“Smile?” Seth’Nai asked.

“Smile,” Nersi repeated. “Ah, means happy/amusement.”

“Understand!” Seth’Nai bobbed his head. “Smile big laugh is.”

“Yes,” Nersi smiled her approval and Seth’Nai bared his teeth. The female turned to Sekher and said, “Well I learned something: that’s his smile.”

“Showing teeth?” Sekher twitched in surprise. “That’s perverse!”

“I know,” Nersi agreed. “Strange.”

Sekher scratched at his nose where sun-reddened skin was peeling, then leaned forward in his saddle so he could see the creature clearly. “Hai! Seth’Nai.”

The pale eyes and face turned to watch him.

“Where are you from?” Sekher asked. “Ah? Where . . . You . . . From? Up there?”

Both he and Nersi saw it. When he pointed at the sky the creature flinched violently, staring at him with wide grey eyes. Then he kicked his shen and moved ahead to ride by himself.

Nersi blinked at the creatures back, then turned to Sekher. “Do you really think it comes from . . .” she pointed up.

“I don’t know,” Sekher admitted. “One thing though: I reckon he understands a lot more than he lets on.” He shifted on his saddle as his tail twitched. “I think it might be a good idea to be careful what we say around him.”

— Chapter 48

The small group spent the following night sheltering among the collapsed and overgrown ruins of a long-forgotten Trenalbi settlement while a storm flashed and thundered outside. Chaiila had been fortunate enough to stumble across the remains of a garden from where she dug up several tongueroot tubers. When cleaned and baked the roots took on the flavour of spiced bread.

Yet still Seth’Nai refused to eat them, claiming he, “Not can eat.”

So much for him being a grass-grazer.

Morning found the storm abated, yet the sky still overcast and despite the best efforts of the Lightbringer, a persistent slow drizzle soaked cloaks, trickled down necks and kept the ground beneath shens’ hooves soggy. It was, Sekher thought, a thoroughly unenviable way to travel.

The rain, as did all things, passed. The Lightbringer continued on its path. Another night passed . . .

— Chapter 49

The western Ramparts were visible on the horizon, like a distant, hazy grey line stretching from one side of the grasslands to the other. From here to that distant line lay the rolling expanses of the green-gold sunlit central plains. It was in places like this that you could look around and convince yourself that there wasn’t a city, a town, a village, or a house in the entire world.

Sekher settled back in his saddle, rocking with the shen’s gait. It was starting to worry him: the further they travelled westward, the further from Che they went. He was well aware that the Chy’sty troops would be watching all borders for them, especially for a shaved male travelling with a daemon, but still he had to get back. Still, Seth’Nai had been leading them for the past couple of days. The path they followed was a convoluted one, sometimes moving west, then leading north again, always avoiding any sign of Trenalbi. He seemed to have some destination, but too much further and they’d have their backs to the Ramparts.

He flicked the stub of a claw along his forearm, pleased at the down-like new fur that was growing there. Still like a cub’s pelt, but it was growing. Give it time. Cracking a jaw-breaking yawn he flicked an ear toward where Chaiila was talking with Seth’Nai. They were riding a slight distance from the other two and keeping their voices low, so Sekher was unable to hear exactly what was being said. Chaiila sounded . . . embarrassed? Seth’Nai . . . Well, Seth’Nai seemed to be getting grasp on the concept of grammar; now some of the things he said almost made sense.

Almost.

Sekher shrugged at the absurdity of it all and let himself slip down into drift, letting the memories of the past insinuate themselves from the depths of his mind . . .

. . . the book flying across the room in a flutter of pages before striking the wall. “I don’t want to do this,” he scowled petulantly. “It’s boring!”

The Teacher sighed wearily and hauled himself to his feet to retrieve the valuable book. His grey furred hands calmly dusted it off and set it back on the claw-scarred desk before Sekher. “Youngling, you have to.”

“Why!” Sekher sulked.

“You know why.” The Teacher returned to his chair, lowering his age-worn body carefully . . .

. . . Sekher cocked his head to look up at the bulky stranger who bustled around the dusty library, sorting out the precious collection of books and parchments. “Where’s Teacher?” he demanded.

The male stopped what he was doing and smiled a careful smile at Sekher. It didn’t fool him, Teacher had taught him too well for that. “I’m Teacher now, cub,” this new male explained. “Old Hiler won’t be coming any more.”

“Why?” Sekher didn’t understand. “Doesn’t he like me anymore?”

“Yes, of course he does . . . You know he has been ill . . .”

Sekher stood watching the sparks from the funeral pyre spiralling upwards to join the specks in the Well. He found it difficult to understand what was happening. He saw his sire on the far side of the flames, his head bowed and ears low, a small length of blue cloth in his hands, like the one Sekher was wearing, a gift from his Teacher. And Sekher watched as his sire approached the fire and threw the cloth into . . .

. . . he heard a strange cry. Looking out through the bars of the cage he saw . . .

Sekher snapped from drift with a sudden intake of breath and looked wildly around, not quite able to believe his eyes. Their shen were now plodding along a rutted track alongside a small pool fed by rivulets of water still remaining from the last rains. Eroded banks rose above them to their right, tufts of grass and scratchbush sprouting at their rims. The track was worn, obviously used and littered with rocks tumbled from the banks around them. He knew this place!

Seth’Nai halted his shen and swung down from its back, then began poking around the debris at the bottom of the embankments. Sekher dismounted also and trotted after the creature. “Wait! Hai!” Seth’Nai looked around as Sekher slapped his shoulder. “Why’d you bring us back here, ah?!”

“Che!”

Sekher turned at the shout, leaving Seth’Nai with his mouth hanging open. Chaiila was glaring at him, her ears back. “You know where we are? Why don’t you share it with us!”

“I don’t know!” he protested. “I mean, I know this is where the Chy’sty caught him, but I don’t know . . .”

“They caught him here?” Nersi looked around with a puzzled expression. “What was he doing in such a Gods forsaken place?”

“Visiting relatives?” Chaiila suggested, then scowled. “Male, did we come all this was just for this?!”

Sekher shrugged, then looked at Seth’Nai: “Well? Why did you come here? Why . . . are..we . . . here?!”

The angular shoulders heaved. “I come. Look.”

“Look?” Sekher blinked. “At what? For what?!”

Seth’Nai made a meaningless little gesture with his hands, then ran those fingers through his head fur. It had grown, Sekher had noticed, along with the face fur. He stared at Sekher, studying him, then looked around the weather-worn little valley. “Different now, ah?” the creature asked Sekher. “Afraid not. No . . .” he moved his hands in a square shape over his head then drew lines in front of his face.

“Cage,” Sekher supplied.

“Cage,” the other said, bobbing his head. “No cage.”

“But why here?!” Sekher demanded.

Storm-grey eyes met his. “Stop here, not long. Go. Not . . . far.”

“We’ve got further to go?” Sekher exclaimed. “How far?!”

The creature’s shoulders heaved again, then he returned to poking through dirt and rocks, tumbled scrub. The two females dismounted, stretching to ease out the kinks and aches left from the long ride. Sekher turned to them to ask, “Answer your question?”

“In a roundabout sort of way; yes,” growled Chaiila in exasperation. “Why is it impossible to get a straight answer from that thing?”

“Why don’t you ask him?” Sekher suggested.

She didn’t even bother to look at him. “Unfunny, Che.” Seth’Nai kicked a couple more rocks aside, finding only a scuttler that blinked up at him, then scuttled off in a flash of green scales. Then Seth’Nai turned to peer into the murky water and for a few beats Sekher thought it planned to go wading around in there, but the creature growled something that the device on his wrist garbled as, “¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ it! Done. We go?”

Chaiila looked up from where she was sitting, chin on hand. “Why?” she snorted as she rose to her feet. “What can possibly beat this place for sheer excitement?”

Sekher wasn’t sorry to leave that place. It called back too many uncomfortable memories. He shuddered, then nudged the shen and moved up alongside Seth’Nai whose mouth twitched as he bared teeth. “Not far.”

“Not far. Right,” Sekher sighed, then cocked his head to one side to ask, “How did they catch you?”

“They ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ me. I fool. I fall,” Seth’Nai pointed at one of the cliff tops and indicated a bouncing path down the nearly sheer face. “¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ in cage. You looking at me.”

“Seth’Nai, what ARE you?”

The creature turned away and scratched at his ear. For a few beats Sekher believed he wouldn’t reply, then the voice said, “You wait. I show you. You wait.”

— Chapter 50

So Sekher waited.

They left the trail behind and struck out in a westerly direction. That pathetic little trace of civilization vanished into the grasses and left the grasslands to the scattered herds of Longrazers that drifted across it on their yearly migration, Hitherdarts perched on the backs occasionally taking to the air to peruse among the swarms of insects. In the sky above the clouds shared the azure emptiness with the remote specks that were Broadwings, searching the grasslands for their next meal.

Sekher shifted awkwardly on his mount. With only two saddles for the shen they had to take it in shifts, and at this moment was his turn to use one of the worn coarse-weave blankets in lieu of a saddle. It wasn’t a very satisfactory substitute.

He stole a surreptitious glance across at Chaiila to see how she was doing. Drifting? No, just staring off into the middle distance, one hand absently stroking her abdomen. Thinking. About what? Sekher wondered.

That night?

And he wondered also, not for the first time. Had his seed taken? Was she going to bear? Gods! He, Sekher Che, siring cubs . . . the concept was . . . not an idea he’d ever harboured before. How long would it be before she knew for sure? He glanced at her again and wondered if she would let him be with her for the pouching. Male or female? Pray for male. How different would life be knowing there was a small part of him living on in the world?

Perhaps he may even get around to meeting them some day. Huh. If, if, if. There was no way to be certain and it was a sure waste of time to worry over something that may never be. When the time was right surely Chaiila would . . .

“GODS!”

He almost fell off his shen in shock at Nersi’s scream.

“What are you . . .” Chaiila began, then gasped, “Oh, shave it! Not again!”

From their left, moving fast up the flank of a rolling hill to meet them. It was a low, blocky thing that was all angled planes, about the size of a shen, a mottled yellow-brown that blurred into the grasses and scrub behind it. Six blackrimmed wheels sent clods of earth flying as it sped over the rough ground, the only noise it made was the crackling of crushed foliage. It slowed as it approached, a turret on its top deck rotating to keep several dark slots pointed their way. About fifteen paces away it stopped, waiting.

“Another one,” Chaiila growled, hauling her shen back to huddle with the other two Trenalbi. “How many of them are there? Where’re they coming from?!”

“It looked like it was waiting for us,” said Nersi, staring at it with pupils huge and square. “One beat it wasn’t there, the next it . . . I only saw it when it started moving. It looked like a rock.”

Seth’Nai was watching their reaction with another confoundedly opaque expression. He bared his teeth then reigned his shen around to ride back to them. “Is alright. Is friend,” he assured them with another flash of teeth. As if THAT would reassure . . .

“Cousin,” Chaiila started as Nersi nudged her shen toward the thing. “Careful . . .”

Nersi rode close. The turret on the thing turned to track her as she leaned forward and tapped it with a claw, then she looked at Seth’Nai. “Metal. Machine?”

“No understand,” he said.

“Like that?” she pointed at his wrist. “Tool. Machine.”

“Like this,” he held up his arm. “Yes. Like this. “He tapped the thing on his wrist and the next time he spoke his voice boomed out of the wheeled thing. “Like this. All one. All same. Joined.”

Nersi jerked back in alarm.

“Sorry,” Seth’Nai’s voice sounded again, at more normal levels and from the right place.

Nersi’s lip twitched to flash teeth and this time it was Seth’Nai who appeared discomforted. “Not far now,ah?” she said.

“No. Not far,”he replied then turned his shen around and set off again. The machine waited.

The Trenalbi hesitated, then Nersi followed Seth’Nai, then Sekher followed her tracks. There was another pause before he heard a muttered curse, then the snort as Chaiila clawed her shen into motion. With a crackling of scratchbush beneath wheels, the machine rolled after them.

— Chapter 51

Atop a broad, windswept hilltop littered with twisted scratchbush and weather-worn rocks Seth’Nai stopped his shen then threw back his head and let out a howl that set Sekher’s skin to crawling and caused his mount to balk.

“That’s it,” moaned Chaiila, spreading her arms as if appealing to the Gods. “It’s gone mad!”

“Huh! Well something’s got him excited,” said Nersi. “Anyone curious?”

Seth’Nai was waiting for them, his face contorted in a grin fit to petrify cubs. As the Trenalbi approached he waved his arm in a broad sweep as if offering to them the land that lay ahead.

They stopped and stared, squinting, at a distant shape squatting on a hill.

“So, what is it?” Chaiila asked.

“Can’t really tell,” confessed Sekher. “Looks like a hut of some kind . . . To far to see.”

“Seth’Nai,” called Nersi. “Is that it?”

The creature looked at her and the grin wavered, then vanished. “Yes. Go there. Please. Not you . . . you do not be afraid. Not hurt you. No afraid.” He stretched out a hand to her, “Please, trust?”

Nersi glanced at Sekher, then Chaiila, then nudged her shen forward and touched the outstretched hand. “All right. Trust.” Seth’Nai’s pale digits closed around her hand, squeezed, then released her. Without further ado he awkwardly reigned his shen around and started it trotting toward the far-off structure. The Trenalbi exchanged glances and set off after him.

It was Chaiila that noticed they were being watched.

“Over there,” she pointed at a bush. Something small and many-legged scuttled for the cover of shadows. “Also, have you noticed anything strange about that broadwing?”

Sekher looked up at the circling flyer. “No . . . It has been up there a long time, ah?”

“Yeah, they don’t usually hang around one place like that unless there’s something dying, then there’s plenty more than one of the greedy bastards . . . Look! There!”

Sekher snapped his head around in time to see a small, silver thing scuttling through the grass on six jointed legs. Small glassy eyes stared back at him then it was gone behind a rock.

“Ka!” Chaiila was coughing in distaste. “What in all the hells was THAT?!”

“Another of Seth’Nai’s toys?” Sekher suggested. “He’s got eyes everywhere.”

“Huh!” Chaiila was still staring at the spot where the thing had disappeared. “Do you you think that’s why he was telling us not to be scared?”

“Uh . . .” Sekher wasn’t watching her. “No.”

“No?”

“No. Huhn . . . I think THAT’S why.” Sekher pointed ahead, noticing without a great deal of surprise that his finger was trembling.

Chaiila looked and her ruff went flat.

The structure they’d seen earlier wasn’t a hut. It was simply the top of something bigger.

Much bigger.

Not quite the size of a garrison stronghold, although coming close, it nestled in a trail of torn, churned earth. A nearby hill had had its crest violently removed and scattered around the construction. Cliff-like walls of a white material etched with peculiar markings rose a sheer forty paces into the sky. Its flat apex was topped by a ridge running from one tapered end to the flared other and bristling with peculiar projections. That ridge rose above the hilltops. That was what they’d seen.

“A hut of some kind.” Chaiila braked, then began chittering. “A hutttttt . . .”

She was chittering still as Seth’Nai led them down toward the edifice. Only as its shadow fell over them did she fall silent. It was there that Seth’Nai dismounted and bade them do he same. None of the Trenalbi spoke as they followed suit, mutely unloading the weary, nervous shen of cargo and tack, then hobbling them and setting them free to graze. They continued on foot.

Sekher could feel his ears stuck firm to his skull, his tail as rigid as a moss-covered stick. It loomed . . . it towered above them. The torn earth around them was littered with tracks of all kinds, flattened where heavy wheels had rolled. As they moved closer Sekher was able to see the whole structure was raised off the ground on four huge constructions of struts and beams that vanished into slots in the underbelly. The area was alive, was seething, with scurrying shapes, some tiny, multilegged things, others large wheeled things the size of wagons, others with no means of support visible at all. Metal glinted and clanked and grated among the shadows as the things darted about their tasks. Trails of twisted cables and wisps of smoke came from dark tunnels bored into the ground. A large wheeled vehicle would approach a hole, line itself up, then roll down into the tunnel and out of sight. Away in the distance there were metallic clashing noises. Periodically a high screeching sound could be heard accompanied by a shower of sparks from the far end of the edifice.

The Trenalbi had fallen into shocked, absolute, silence, staring upwards with square eyes as they moved beneath that incredible mass. Sekher cringed as a wheeled monstrosity of battered metal rolled towards him then smoothly detoured around to continue on its way. Chaiila yipped and skipped into the air as a scuttling silver thing on legs skittered underfoot. Nersi was staying close by Seth’Nai with one hand clutching almost unconsciously at his arm as he strode arrow- straight through the madness.

Between the massive front legs a thick ramp led down from a door in the underbelly of the behemoth. The opening was easily the size of a peasant’s small cottage and flanked by odd symbols, black and yellow stripes, and flashing lights. The ramp was metal, solid metal, and cold against Sekher’s toes as they started up. At the top a vehicle with four solid jointed legs, flashing red lights, and a cluster of powerful arms was standing motionless. As soon as they were out of the way it clattered down the ramp.

Sekher was beginning to feel ill. Too much strangeness! Too fast!

And this chamber!

There was metal. Everywhere metal! Gods! There wasn’t this much hard steel in the world! It glittered, it clattered. Flashing red and orange lights reflected from polished surfaces and spills of liquid. The floor was a mesh of metal grids that were uncomfortable to stand on. Above, the ceiling was hidden behind convolutions and clusters of tubes and beams and stranger things. Walls were dark, broken faces of shadowy alcoves and dazzling lights, dark metal glistening with condensation, clusters of small glass squares blinking green lights. Small machines with six legs scuttled across the floor, walls and ceiling with equal facility. The air was heavy with the tangy scent one smelled before a storm, along with other less- definable scents and also the faint, underlying spice of Trenalbi fear. Booming noises reverberated as larger devices manoeuvered. Sparks flew as brilliant lights flared in the distance.

At Sekher’s side, Chaiila’s eyes were eclipsed by the milkiness of her nictitating eyelid. Her lips moved soundlessly and she walked as if in drift, clutching her saddlebag and stumbling occasionally on the awkward footing. With nowhere else to go, the Trenalbi followed Seth’Nai as he led them through the dim confusion to a section of wall that, at a touch from his hand, slid aside in a spill of cool, clean white light.

The noise was abruptly cut off as the door closed behind them. There was a small room with white walls and floor and another door in the far wall. Beyond was an octagonal corridor and more metal, more of that accursed grillwork on the floor. No noise, save for a soft, pervading hum. The light coming from rectangular panels set along the ceiling and walls was bright and even, with none of the flickering or smoking so characteristic of oil or wood.

Another metal door — incredibly thick — slid aside with a high whine as they approached and they entered a room with several more similar doors around its periphery. The walls were covered with what looked like small cupboard doors and nets clamped pieces of what could be either machinery or art or junk to the floor. Seth’Nai slapped his hand against a glowing triangle beside a door and after a pause the door hissed and slid back into the wall. The room beyond was small, and with no apparent exit. It resembled a cell. Seth’Nai stepped in and looked back at the reluctant Trenalbi. “Come,” he said, beckoning.

“Uh-uh,” Chaiila took three steps backward. “No . . . I’m not going in there!”

Seth’Nai’s forehead wrinkled. “Please. Come.”

“No.” This time it was Nersi who spoke against him. “Seth’Nai, not until you tell us: What IS this place!?”

Seth’Nai blinked and rubbed at his chin. “Is ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿.” The words sputtered into incoherence. “Is my home,” he said again. “I am ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿. Come, I show you.”

None of the Trenalbi moved.

“Nersi?” Seth’Nai appealed. “Please, is safe.”

She hugged the saddlebags she was carrying close to her chest, her claws scoring the leather, then uttered a strangled sound and stepped forward to stand beside the creature. She flinched as Seth’Nai laid a hand among the fur on her shoulder while they waited.

Sekher looked at Chaiila. “You really want to wait around here?”

Chaiila’s ears went back and she huddled close by Sekher’s side as he walked across the threshold. Seth’Nai’s mouth twisted up and he tapped a symbol on the wall. The doors thumped shut, they jumped then abruptly Sekher staggered. It was as if someone had dropped a weight on his shoulders and to judge by Nersi and Chaiilas’ startled yelps they felt it too. As quickly as the feeling came it turned, like his guts were floating, then he staggered as they dropped back into place. The doors opened and the Trenalbi, all three, leapt out, the fear-stink pouring out after them.

Seth’Nai shook his head and picked up the bags the Trenalbi had dropped before joining them.

This wasn’t where they’d entered . . .!

What?!

Sekher stared, trying to understand. The room was gone, as was the bare metal and noise. This was a corridor, octagonal like the others, but the wall were a clean white, washed with bright light. The discomfort underfoot was gone, the metal grids replaced by a beige floor covering softer than sand. The air . . .

And Sekher inhaled deeply, curling his tongue to taste the scent the better. It was . . . strange. Fresher, for certain, but also laced with unfamiliar traces that told him nothing.

It was less intimidating than the scenes they’d seen just beats earlier, but all these changes, one after the other . . .

“All right?” Seth’Nai asked, touching his arm.

Sekher sucked a lungful of air and shook his head to clear it. “I think so.”

“You be fine,” Seth’Nai assured him. “Come.”

The floor covering was warm underfoot. Along the corridor walls were floor to ceiling white rectangles that could have been doors. Spaced along between them were pictures of things that made no sense to Sekher: brilliant balls of light beyond a desolate rock landscape; forests with strange plants and multicoloured creatures flying; a ball of blue and white and green suspended against black . . . There was simply no time to study them.

And the room the corridor opened out into was enough to take his mind off such things.

There was bright light, a room with a sunken section in the middle in which large cushions embellished with exotic, almost alien, designs were set. Boxes of what looked like glass were set around the rim of the sunken area, with dew beading on their inner faces. Sekher moved closer and saw a tiny bush, no . . . tree, set amidst immaculately kept sand.

It was no plant he had ever heard of.

Chaiila was staring at the windows situated around the room. Huge strips of glass from the floor to the ceiling, then Sekher realised that beyond the windows, instead of the plains, mountains and valleys surrounded them, the view was as if they were atop a high peak. Pictures again? No, they couldn’t be; there were distant flyers riding the skies.

There was a motion in the corner of his eye. He jumped again and shied back as one of the many-legged things scuttled up to him and just stood there, its glassy eyes locked on him. Another of the things approached the females who hastily backed away. “Ah, give bags,” Seth’Nai told them. By now Sekher was certain the grin it gave at times like this bespoke amusement. Gods burn it!

He stepped forward and handed over the weight of the saddle and tack, then unslung the bag. The forelegs came up and the feet seemed to . . . reform, parts slipping and realigning, turning into pincers that took the burden that was easily the same size as its carapace. Without a sound the things turned and scuttled off down another corridor.

“Please,” Seth’Nai waved a hand toward the cushions, “sit.”

An intimidated procession of Trenalbi moved across to sit. Their surprised yelps sounded as one as the cushions moved and shifted under them. They sat motionless, hardly daring to move while Seth’Nai left them and returned a few beats later bearing a tray with four glasses on it. He passed one to each of the Trenalbi, who cautiously sniffed them then looked at him.

He took a sip then noticed their stares. “Just water,” he assured.

Sekher plucked up the courage first. The glass was made of something that wasn’t glass. It rattled against his teeth and the water tasted like . . . water. He stared at the cup, somewhat surprised at this mundanity.

“Seth’Nai,” Nersi leaned forward, holding her drink between her knees in shaking hands. “What . . . what is this . . . place?”

The creature took another drink before answering. “My home,” he said. “I come here . . . couple day before I see you, Sekher. I not know Trenalbi here. Mistake.”

“But this place! The metal! Where . . .?” Nersi’s mouth opened and closed as she tried to give voice to the logjam of questions.

“I am a ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿.” He frowned as his words were garbled. “What I do. I . . . dig. I find metal.”

“Miner,” Sekher provided automatically, then shrugged when the females looked at him.

“Yes, miner,” Seth’Nai bobbed his head. “I have accident, have to come here, then find Trenalbi. Not . . . not what I wanted to do. Now I have to stay. Not able to leave for . . . two around Lightbringer.”

“Two around lightbringer?” Nersi puzzled.

“Two years,” Chaiila provided.

“Two years, yes,” Seth’Nai agreed.

“Seth’Nai,” Sekher leaned forward, his muzzle wrinkled. “You came a couple of days before you met me. How can you build all this,” he swept an arm, “in just two days?!”

Seth’Nai mulled that over, then shook his head. “Not make. I come in this.”

The Trenalbi exchanged glances.

“From where?” Sekher asked.

Seth’Nai stared at him.

“BURN YOU!” Sekher howled. “Tell us! You drag us halfway across the Gods-spawned world, you owe us an explanation! I asked you before and you turned you tail: are you from the sky?!”

Seth’Nai stared, his throat bobbed. He growled something, then said, very softly, “Yes.”

There was silence.

“Are you a God?” Chaiila asked.

Seth’Nai blinked. “What is a ‘God’?”

They looked at one another. What WAS a God?

“Uh,” Nersi scratched a ear, “a Creator. One of the Balance, the essence, the all. They are everywhere. They build the world, all life, the Lightbringer.”

Seth’Nai looked at one of the windows and growled something. There was an answering growl from nowhere and the window vanished, to be replaced by a smooth blackness on which lines of peculiar green symbols appeared. For a few beats Seth’Nai studied these, then said, “No. I am no God.”

“Then WHAT?!”

He hung his head and the whole strange body heaved. Then, with a peculiar grimace he met Sekher’s gaze with stone- grey eyes. “I am human,” he said. That word, it was a sound never intended for normal mouths: low and moaning. “Like you are Trenalbi, I am human. I come from . . . ah, I think you call the Hole.”

They stared.

“There,” Seth’Nai grinned. “I have just broken all ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ in the book telling you.”

“This . . .” Sekher choked, “Can you prove this?”

Seth’Nai’s other voice rumbled.

The light dimmed, the windows vanishing, until only a minute glow lit the room. In the blackness a blue-white crescent swam into sight. Slowly it moved toward them, rotating until the appeared to hang above it as it slowly rolled below them.

There were gasps from the Trenalbi as a rim of fire flared over the horizon and a brilliant white orb climbed above them. Below, white swirled and circled across blue, then the blue turned to browns and greens.

The view tilted and the horizon shifted and began climbing the screen. Gradually the blackness began to fade to blue, to black, then back to blue. The whiteness reappeared, this time directly before them in a solid mass that ripped toward them in an eyeblink and parted . . .

Clouds . . .

The land below . . .

Sekher watched, spellbound. He saw the world, the circle of mountains upon the face of that giant ball. Beyond the Ramparts . . . lands only dreamed of. It was as it had been back in the tower, the air above Seth’Nai’s wrist shimmering with that blue-white ball . . .

This.

The sea, glinting like grey metal under the sun, flashing by too fast to follow, then land again, then the nightbound Ramparts. If the world was that big, yet appeared small on the face of the ball, and they had just circled it, then how FAST . . .?!

Clouds. This time black, threatening, and they were in them. Lightning flared, dazzling them. They were slowing, circling and dropping from the clouds and the ground was huge, coming up everywhere, a hill.

Instinctively Sekher threw his arms up and the lights came on.

Chaiila started chittering and gasping uncontrollably.

Seth’Nai moved toward her, “She is all right?”

“KEEP AWAY!” Chaiila yowled at him.

A shaking Sekher touched the creature’s arm. Seth’Nai turned toward him, his eyes . . . confused? “I am sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know . . .”

“Please,” Sekher said. “Just leave her for a while.”

The pale head bobbed. “For Chaiila and Nersi. There is a room to rest and wash. Another for you.”

Sekher tipped his head to the side. “That would be appreciated.”

The room was back down the corridor they’d entered by. Seth’Nai demonstrated how to open the door. Inside was a short corridor, just a couple of paces long where he touched a glowing square and the lights came on. As with the rest of Seth’Nai’s domicile the room was odd, with angled walls panelled with a dark wood with a peculiar grain. Hanging plants nestled in recessed niches while above what looked like a chair and a desk of some black material, a wide window looked out over jagged mountains. Set at right angles to each other in the corners to the left of the door, two beds were set into alcoves in the wall. Shelves enclosed by a faint shimmering on another wall supported a multitude of small object. Spots of light from no discernible source were cast on the walls, illuminating the room in a comfortable light.

Seth’Nai pointed at another door opposite. “Water in there,” he said. “To wash. I show you how to use . . .”

“Not now,” Sekher stopped him. “Thank you, but can we rest now?”

Seth’Nai blinked at him, then bobbed his head. “I understand. I go. If you have questions, just ask.”

“Ask who?”

“Just ask.” Seth’Nai waved an arm, “¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ will answer.”

“Oh,” Sekher’s ears wilted in confusion as Seth’Nai turned and left the room. The door made a hissing sound as it closed behind him. Sekher waited a few beats, then went to the door and pressed his hands against the pad in the wall. The door obligingly whipped open almost too fast to see. He waited and it shut again.

Chaiila slumped on the edge of one of the beds, staring across the room at the window beyond which the mountains rose like jagged teeth to sink into the underbellies of clouds. Nersi had opened the other door and was poking around in the next room.

Sekher sat down on the other bunk without speaking. Nersi’s small bag of belongings had been set there.

“Che?”

Chaiila was regarding him with wide eyes. “How can you be so calm! How can you . . . Che, what’s wrong with me?!”

“Wrong? Chaiila, I’m as scared as you , we all are, you can smell it! There’s nothing wrong with you. Chaiila, you smoothtalked your way into one of the most heavily guarded places in the world, then practically walked out again. You’ve weathered things that would have most Trenalbi shedding.”

“It has,” she sighed glumly, reaching up to pull several strands of fur from her ruff. “That . . . picture he showed us . . . That was the world, wasn’t it. He does come from the sky.”

Sekher’s ears twitched. “Yah, but he is no god.”

From the adjacent room came the sudden sound of running water and an insulted yowl. Nersi emerged, dripping wet. “I think I just found the bath,” she said sheepishly as she wrung her cloak out.

Sekher caught his tail to stop it lashing and moved across to the desk while Nersi tried to dry herself. The chair would be uncomfortable; there was no provision for a tail. The desk was a featureless slab of something that wasn’t stone or wood or metal. He leaned on it to examine the window behind it.

“Does this view change too?”

“Yes,” said the desk.

A bodylength from a standing start. In retrospect it wasn’t a bad jump, but then a severe shock can be a great motivator. This was going beyond a joke, the thought spun through his head as he crouched panting hard; too many things were starting to speak.

It had been Seth’Nai’s voice, but he was nowhere to be seen.”

Who said that!” Sekher snarled. “Seth’Nai?!”

“No.”

“WHO?”

“I am ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ ten-tens and five. Made thinking machine

— Chapter 52

“SHUT IT!” Sekher yowled.

The voice stopped.

“Now,” he was trembling again, dammit all to the deepest hells, “you are not Seth’Nai.”

“Correct.”

“What was that you said . . . machine?”

“Correct.”

Sekher’s mind whirled helplessly. A . . . machine? Talking to him? No. A machine was a water-clock, an arbalest, a wagon. They didn’t talk, they didn’t think.

Yet all those devices down below were working by themselves, with no guiding hand.

He sank down on the chair, rubbing at the bristles on his face. Well, Seth’Nai had said to ask questions . . .

“Do you have a name?”

“To say your way may be ‘first-female’. Or cooking tool.”

He frowned. “You’re female?”

“Not male or female. Just a name.”

He thought about it and supposed it made sense. “So . . . First, can you change the picture?”

“Yes. To what?”

“Show us a town.”

“I cannot do that,” the machine replied.

“What? Why?”

“I am forbidden.”

Sekher’s lip began to curl in a snarl and he glanced around at the other Trenalbi. Nersi had backed away and was watching warily, but with interest. Chaiila . . .

Chaiila was curled in a ball up on the bunk, ears plastered flat, hands locked across her eyes.

“Gods burn it . . . Show something restful; water, plains, something flat! Then shut it!” He spat the words, heedless of the result as he turned to Chaiila. Behind him the window flickered and they were looking out across a golden savannah, distant herds moving against a backdrop of purple cloud, the rain below nearly a solid column supporting them. The air in the room also seemed to change: he could almost smell rain and freshness.

Chaiila flinched as he touched her shoulder. Her muscles felt like darter springs. “Chaiila? It’s alright. You’re safe. Ah? Come on, nothing’s going to hurt you.”

She made a small sound.

Slowly Sekher began ruffling the fur on her shoulder with his fingertips, carefully preening through it, then tongueing it smooth, tasting the dust, the dirt, her scent as he cleaned her slowly, the ancient way, then grooming again with his fingers and stubby claws . . .

She rolled over and wrapped her arms around his neck, burying her muzzle against his chest. She didn’t speak, didn’t moved, neither did he; they just lay there, taking their comfort from the other’s heartbeat.

— Chapter 53

Grooming.

Nersi watched the pair huddled together on the bunk, Sekher’s hands and teeth working at knots in Chaiila’s dark ruff, feeling a peculiar wave of envy wash over her. She shook her head and smiled at the absurdity of it. Envy, huh! This Sekher was probably the best thing to happen to her for a long time and he had done a remarkable job in reassuring her. Amusing to think that only a couple of days ago he had never so much as touched a female before.

She scratched at her still-damp arm, then looked at the window where rain was spattering soundlessly against the pane. For a few beats she stared, then left the others to their togetherness.

The corridor was empty when she stuck her head out, no sign of Seth’Nai or anything else. There were other doors in the hall. She approached the next one down the corridor and touched the red triangle in the centre. Nothing happened. She frowned; did that mean she had done something wrong? or was it locked?

She ran a finger over the smooth material the door was made of, thinking. Then she moved to the door opposite the room Chaiila and Sekher occupied. This time the portal slid aside at her touch, the sound and smell of water wafting out.

Another strange room. Well, in general appearance it was similar to the other one, with the bed and window, but it differed in details. The floor covering was a different color, a light brown. The shelves were filled with an impressive number of books, enough to rival a royal library. The adjoining room was filled with misty clouds of steam that refused to cross the threshold.

Cautiously, nervously, Nersi stepped inside, her feet soundless on the floor covering, tracing fingertips along the wall. She breathed out in awe at the books on their shelves, tucked safely away behind glass: So many, and with such a worn and ancient air about them. Seth’Nai’s bag was tossed on one of the beds alongside a pile of clothing that would suit only something like that creature.

A familiar low rumbling sounded above the running water. Nersi cocked her head, turning to regard the door to the adjoining steam-filled room curiously. What WAS he doing in there?

Her third eyelid flicked out and briefly blurred her vision when she stepped through the door. She stopped to orientate herself, squinting through the murk. The white room was similar, not identical, but similar to the one in the other room. There was a small chamber like the one in which she had inadvertently drenched herself, Seth’Nai was standing beneath the shower of water, his back to her and face upturned to one of the jets.

She studied him curiously. He really was different without clothing, and by the Gods, not having a tail looked strange. When he reached up to wipe water away from eyes you could see exactly how the muscles moved under that fragile hide.

Then Seth’Nai turned and recoiled with a loud bark. “Uh . . . Hello,” said Nersi.

He sagged, leaning against a wall of the cubical, then glared and growled at her.

“Oh, I startled you, ah?” she fought back a muzzle- twitching smile. “Sorry.”

He blinked at her with droplets of water running down his pale face, and she realised he couldn’t understand her. Without his little device he was as deaf and dumb as the day she had met him. She remembered that; seeing him like an apparition through the smoke in the dungeon. Now, she was seeing him blurred through steam and there was none of that fear that had flooded through her. Almost hairless hide slick with water. He . . . He was he . . . she was jolted with shock and disbelief as she felt the stirrings deep within her, scents barely perceptible tinged the air.

She looked away in a wave of embarrassment.

“Ah, sorry,” she mumbled again, abruptly anxious to be away and clumsy in her haste. Her claws didn’t help, catching in piece of clothing left on the smooth floor, tangling around her feet, skidding out from under her and sending her over backwards into pouring water and a pair of smooth hands catching her under her arms before she had a chance to hit.

“Gods burned clumsy fool,” she berrated herself while sitting on the floor with water pouring down, soaking her and pooling around her and a weird male kneeling over her. She looked up into the grinning face of Seth’Nai. “That wasn’t the most graceful thing you’ve ever seen, ah? Almost as bad as you. Thank the Pantheon you can’t understand me.”

Still, she took the hand he offered and clambered to her feet to look down at herself in a mixture of disgust and amusement: fur sopping wet, her breeks soaked, both dripping trails of mud that swirled away down grills in the floor. That wave of emotion earlier, that had abated . . . . Ah, well, at least the water was warm. Wonderfully warm. She closed her eyes and sighed as the stream pulsed on her head, caressing her as she had never known water could.

A few beats later Seth’Nai was helping her balance while she struggled out of grimy clothes that seemed to have grown to her. He threw them from the cubicle then helped her get clean.

“Who would think to make water do this?” Her rhetorical question was unanswered and she kept tapping a claw against the small grid of squares marked with little pictures. Each one made the water come from different directions. A horizontal bar with a blue-to-red gradient let her change the pressure and temperature.

“Hot or cold water,” she grinned and changed the water to hot pulsating needles that struck her from head to toe. “Gods, that feels good . . . Higher . . . No lower, down there . . .”

Seth’Nai rumbled something and moved the brush to scrub the spot between her shoulders where she pointed with her tail. The dirt was long gone down the drain and what with the grooming and the hot water, the knots in her muscles were going the same way. He took some time to examine the still-healing wound on her leg that still gave her twinges of pain when pressed. When she hissed in sudden pain he just patted her flank and left it.

There were strangely scented liquids and soaps that Seth’Nai assisted in rubbing into her pelt, his fingers lingering and swirling through her fur. When rinsed out she smelled odd and her skin tingled, but her pelt felt . . . clean.

Drying off was no ordeal. Nersi flinched when the the jets of water turned to blasts of hot air that buffeted her, insinuating itself beneath her fur in warm waves. She closed her eyes and let the wind wash around her. “You know,” she sighed, “I think I could get used to this.”

Seth’Nai dried off a lot faster than she did. He left, taking her trail-stained clothing with him, returning shortly after with others that he left outside the cubicle for her.

Nersi’s fur was gleaming, her ruff puffed out in glorious golden disarray when she stepped from the booth. She picked up the clothes Seth’Nai had procured and examined them curiously; a pair of long breeches and a jerkin, both of unusual make and texture. She discarded the jerkin and tried the breeches. They were of a copper color that was almost metallic, with black angular markings down the legs and around the waist. Stretchable bands around the hips and legs stretched and held them in place as well as any belt could. The slot in the back wasn’t fitted with clasps as with normal breeks, so she had to spend a short while threading her tail through.

Seth’Nai looked up when she stepped out into the main room. He was sitting at the desk, wearing a loose-fitting, one- piece white garment that appeared to be breeches and jerkin in one. “Look better,” he greeted her. His talk-device was once again strapped to his wrist.

“Thanks,” she replied. “Ah, there’s something else I wanted to ask . . .”

Seth’Nai listened, then his speaker barked a laugh. He took her back into the washing room and showed her the facilities she needed, then left, shutting the door behind him.

It was an awkward and new experience. Still, she finished her business without misshap, touched the square Seth’Nai had shown her, then nearly hit the roof when warm water squirted up to clean her.

When she finished she found Seth’Nai lounging back in the chair, his heels planted up on the black desk. He was avidly studying the window which now displayed a bewildering assortment of lines, symbols; a crosshatched- missmash of colors and shapes.

“What is that?” Nersi asked.

He looked up at her, then waved at the window and said, “A map. See.” The lines filled in, becoming a view of the building they were in. As she watched it began rotating and spinning, showing every side.

“First, ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿,” commanded Seth’Nai. The image dissolved from a solid mass to a mess of lines again, then seemed to whip towards them and they were twisting and turning through corridors inside. Then the image solidified and Nersi saw a tiny, dark tunnel where a metal device wielded a brilliant blue flame that struck gouts of spark when it struck the wall. Seth’Nai spoke again and the picture flickered. Nersi found she was looking into a room where a Trenalbi and a peculiar creature were watching a window where a Trenalbi . . .

Nersi shook her head and grimaced in shock. Hells, that WAS her! She wheeled, trying to find the eyes watching her. In the window the other figures copied her, down into infinity.

She pointed at the desk, “What IS that?”

His forehead furrowed. “Is a ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿. . . A part of the machine that runs,” he made a gesture with his hands, “everything.”

“Like in the other room?” Nersi asked.

“Yes. Same thing.”

“Does this also talk?”

“Talk?” Seth’Nai blinked at her, then grinned. “You have already met First?”

“Yah . . . What is it?”

Seth’Nai sighed and leaned back. “Hard to explain. First is not a ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿; is only machine, a tool. It knows more than both of us together, but it cannot . . . feel. It only ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ think. You say something to it, it will do as you say. It can make only ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿.” He scratched his chin, the corners of his mouth twisting down. “Burn it, I do not have the words to tell you.”

That brought to mind another thing Nersi had been wondering about: “You are talking much better suddenly.”

His shoulders heaved and he moved his arm to show her the device strapped to his wrist. “This is a machine like First, but much smaller. By itself it know only few words and makes mistakes, but when it is close enough to talk to First, it works better, no?”

Nersi wasn’t sure she understood that. All she grasped was that they had to be close to work. “But why do you need it to talk?”

Seth’Nai looked startled. “Without it, you cannot hear me and I cannot hear you. Your speaking is too . . . high for me to hear.” He grinned, “I see your mouth move, but nothing comes out.”

Nersi blinked. “And why did it take so long for you to let us know you COULD speak? Why didn’t you say something back in the Ch’sty rim?”

His head shook from side to side. “I could not. I had to . . . change this,” he tapped the band around his forearm, “so it could hear you.”

“Oh,” Nersi said, not entirely understanding that either. It was all stretching her capabilities to absorb. She licked her lips nervously. “You must have powerful priests to work such sorcery.”

Seth’Nai grimaced at his wrist, then looked at her. “I didn’t understand that. What do you mean by ‘sorcery’?”

She clicked her claws together whilst gathering her thoughts before explaining it.

He listened, his forehead furrowed. “No! No, not sorcery. There is no . . . magic.”

Huh, the way he said that. One would almost think he was denying magic existed at all!

“It is just a machine,” he continued. “We make it with our hands and what is up here,” he tapped his head. “There is no magic or gods involved.”

“We?” Nersi asked. “How many of you are there?”

His shoulders heaved. “I am not sure. Many. Very many.”

She cocked her head to one side. “Can you tell me about them? What is it like where you come from?”

He looked back at her, then dropped his feet and leaned forward in the chair, hands dangling between his knees. “Nersi, I came here by accident. Things . . . happened. I have done many things I am not allowed to. Just having you here . . .”

Her ears wilted. “I don’t understand.”

“No, you wouldn’t,” he said softly. “The ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ is a big place. We have never met anything like your kind, but we had . . . rules to follow if we did. I have broken a lot of those rules.”

“Rules?”

He waved a hand. “There were plans for the ways our kinds were to meet. Had to be. What happen if we just walk in and say ‘hello’? ah? I think it may cause some trouble.”

“To say the least,” Nersi agreed, then the realisation of what he was saying hit her. She stepped back in shock and sudden fear. “But you brought us here! You are telling me this! W . . . what are you going to do with us?!”

Seth’Nai stood then, looming over her while his eyes locked with her’s. “What I am going to do,” he said, “is ask you, and your friends, to give me your word and keep your silence.” Then he reached out and lightly rubbed the downy fur on her muzzle.

Nersi’s hand rose to touch the ruffled spot in her fur while she warily watched Seth’Nai.

His mouth twitched again. “Nersi, I don’t know how you keep going, but I’ve got to ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿. That didn’t translate, did it? Never mind . . . Well, I cannot answer your questions now, but there is something that may help. First can show you a . . . moving picture that tells about my kind. Are you interested?”

“Uh . . . yes,” answered Nersi nervously.

“¿¿¿¿¿¿¿,” Seth’Nai bobbed his head and tapped at the desk. Burning green patterns flared within the dark surface and his pale blunt-clawed fingers flashed across them. “All right. Is yours. If you have more questions, ask First. It will answer as . . . simple . . . as it can. ¿¿¿¿¿¿? Just tell it when you are ready. Good night.”

Leaving her standing he rose and ambled across the room, where he stripped off his clothing and hung the garments in a concealed recess at the head of the bunk, then he practically fell into the bed.

“Why do you have to do that all the time?” Nersi asked after him.

Seth’Nai rolled over and blinked at her. “Do what?”

“Do that.” Nersi gestured uncertainly at the beds. Two beds in one room was certainly a luxury and waste of space that would seldom be incorporated into Trenalbi architecture. “Go unconscious all the time.”

He rolled onto his back and grinned at the ceiling of the alcove. “It is the way I am. I wonder why you never ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿. It seems impossible to me.”

“But drifting is . . . normal,” Nersi pointed out.

“To you . . .” He shook his head slightly and closed his eyes. “Have First show you. That should explain.”

Nersi stared as his breathing slowed and deepened. What kind of a life was it to spend half of it in an unconscious stupor? She hissed, then turned to the desk. Alright. “Ah, First?”

“Yes?” the disembodied voice sounded. “Are you ready?”

“No,” she said, “but whatever you’re going to do, do it.” Lights dimmed and the mirror, cleared, fading to a black so deep Nersi felt she could fall into it. Tiny white specks gleamed steel- hard in the blackness. Slowly, a curved expanse of bluewhite rose into view. With a jolt Nersi realised it wasn’t the view of the world that Seth’Nai had earlier shown them: the brown shapes were different and . . . and there was only a single daughter, a huge silver crescent rising beyond the curve.

With all the ponderous, inexorable grace of clouds drifting over the plains that orb rolled beneath her, growing larger, filling the window, the brown curve of land directly ahead.

Faded to black.

The light rose on broad savannahs speckled with outlandish plants. The sky was a cobalt blue, the Lightbringer swollen and yellow. The carcass of a utterly unfamiliar animal lay in the grasses while a number of squat, four-legged animals that bore a disturbing resemblance to Trenalbi tore at it with powerful jaws.

Then something disturbed the predators at their feeding.

They began pacing around the carcass, snarling at something out of Nersi’s field of view.

Dark shapes appeared in the picture, screeching and scampering forward, retreating as a predator rushed them, then milling forward again. A predator turned, distracted for a second, and intruder dashed forward, knobbled white clubs rising and falling on the creature’s flanks. It yelped and limped off, its tail tucked. Other beasts managed to snatch a few mouthfuls before also being driven away.

Dark-furred creatures shuffled forward to gather around the carcass, tearing at the flesh, screeching and squabbling. Females and young hovered around the peripheries, occasionally diving in for a scrap.

First’s voice came as a shock:

“Terra, long ago, long before there were writings or even talking. There were many different types of animals: giant predators, fast and strong, grass-eaters either huge and armoured or small and swift, but there was one creature, small and hairy that was different from the others in one, important way — it moved on two legs instead of four, leaving its hands free to gather food.”

One of the animals filled the screen, rearing up on its hind legs and seemingly staring back at her with dark eyes. Its hands . . . forepaws? clasped a bone. Nersi flinched as it brandished the bone above its head. Gods, that face . . . a small muzzle and nose, the round ears. She’d seen something vaguely like that before.

It was lying in the bed behind her.

The scene faded on the group dragging the carcass away.

“It was much later they learned to use their hands to hold other things. Bones from dead animals were used as weapons for hunting, then, still later, a ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ human learned to break stones to make a sharp edge that could cut food.”

Another view appeared: a rocky arroyo with a group of the dark haired creatures gathered around the carcass of a longlegged furry animal. These were slightly different, being taller, far less hirstute and with features that resembled Seth’Nai even more. One of them was using a sharpened rock to sever a leg from the body.

“With stone tools early humans were able to make use of new lands that were colder and less ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ than the ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ warmlands where they had originated. They learned to work together to survive and the small groups they lived in became larger. They learned to tame fire.”

Another view: a narrow cave with a smoky fire sputtering in the opening. Again another group of the creatures . . . the humans . . . were different. Their fur was thickest in patches on the head and groin, elsewhere it was thin and limited. The ones with the visible sex organs were male, then the others must be females. Gods, strange . . . Still, even the males looked different from Seth’Nai: their skin blacker, the features coarser.

First continued to herald the changes as they appeared in the window.

Crude huts of animal skins clustered around a fire. Dusty cubs scrambled and tussled in the dust. Females ground food between rocks.

A river where boats made from carved trees bobbed in the current.

A male squatted before clay tablets, laboriously etching wedge-shaped markings.

Later, cold plains: a string of the creatures wrapped in heavy furs and mounted on animals moved across the wind- blasted landscape towing their possesions in crude wagons.

Nersi stared spellbound at the pictures, watching thousands of years unfolding before her. Seth’Nai’s kind, from a beginning as simple animals, slowly growing, as a cub grows.

There were towns, then cities. Buildings of white stone rising on verdant hillsides beside a glittering ocean. Roads stretched across the countryside. Strange looking ships set sail from ports to vanish over the horizon, unfettered by the lethal and unnavigable reefs that so restrained the Hub ports. Empires rose and fell across the continent, kingdoms so vast the World could be lost in them. From their ruins others would rise, only to disintergrate again.

Castles rose over the landscape. The towns were masses of narrow houses surrounded by high walls, the narrow streets within congested and so uncomfortably familiar; like a Trenalbi city.

There were wars. Mounted and armoured warriors and filthy foot-troopers fighting in muddy fields.

A new continent was discovered. Settlements grew, then split away.

More fighting.

The cities grew. Huge smokestacks belched fumes. Machines growled and pounded. Incomprehensible amounts of metal pouring from mines into smelters and founderies.

The images and eras passed. Nersi had questions, but she restrianed them, always wanting to see what happened next.

Ships crossed the waters between continents. Cities grew and spread.

Giant cylindrical flying devices wallowed into the skies and crossed oceans, their shadows covering towns. She saw one crash, enveloped in flames that engulfed it in a beat while humans milled in panic.

Vehicles on the ground moved without animals. Still the cities spread.

A war. Battlefields where humans fought from holes in the ground, ranks of troops taking turns to advance on their enemies to be mown down without a chance. Explosions churned the dirt to mud. Mobile fortresses lumbered across torn landscapes while in the skies above flying devices looped and spun and burned.

There was peace again, then war again. Weapons more fearsome, different machines, flying machines in numbers that turned the sky dark. Cities were levelled.

Guarded gates were opened on horrors. They weren’t Trenalbi, but still Nersi felt ill when she saw the living skeletons, the stacked piles of alien corpses. If they weren’t gods, then surely there were some who were demons.

Peace again.

Cities grew. Towers reaching for the skies. Machines flying around the world. She saw twisting infants being birthed and felt a sick sympathy for the female. Vehicles filled the roads.

Another war in a jungle: A major power being humiliated. Then a tower of white and black being held by metal arms that dropped away as flame and smoke blossomed around the base. Ponderously, it rose on a column of fire, faster, arrowing into the sky.

A bulky white figure like a cubs stuffed toy bounced across a grey landscape to plant a flag of red, white, and blue. In the black sky behind it a blue and white globe rose.

They went even further.

Their cities spread above their planet. They built cylinders and sprawling, fragile-looking constructions in the blackness where they lived and produced things impossible on the surface of the world below. In time huge vessels plied the darkness to neighbouring worlds where cities were built underground: tunnels and caverns of metal and rock as they began to change the red deserts on the surface to suit them. More of the floating cities began to appear high above it.

When the change came, it was abrupt.

A single, metallic vessel, like a glittering fish in the darkness, riding atop a lance of blue-white flame before it rippled, then vanished. Distance was no longer a barrier.

Like migrating Longrazers others followed it, spreading out from their world and Lightbringer, bound for the distant points of light in their sky. There they found other Lightbringers, and worlds of unbearable heat and cold, giants of gas, balls of rock, but nothing like the one they had left behind.

So they built new ones.

The cities they had built above their own world were dwarfed by these vast structures. They used machines to build them, and other machines to build more machines. Devices sought out rocks floating in the emptiness and stripped them of their metal. The Daughters dancing around massive worlds of gas and winds were cracked into fragments and melted by titanic mirrors.

Their homeworld tried to spread its influence over the new worlds they were building. Vast, ominous vessels of metal and stone drifted into the shadow of these cities. Sometimes there was fighting, and new Lightbringers would be born as a city or a vessel died.

Still, like ripples on an infinite pond, they continued to spread. Whatever their council on their homeworld was like, it realised there was no way a single world could police that kind of territory. It finally, however reluctantly, conceded to acknowledge the new territories’ independence.

The centuries that followed saw them spreading across the skies. It awed Nersi to see just much territory they controlled, and in all that vastness, in all the time these humans had spent searching, her own glittering world locked away in its secluded corner of creation, was the only other speck of life they had found.

Nersi sat and stared at the window as it faded to darkness for the last time. Her world, everything she had been taught and had taken for granted; in a matter of a couple of hours a machine had successfully desiccated it. The Gods, she knew they were there. The magic and powers of the Priests, they were something that could not be denied. Was it possible that these humans never had gods in the first place? or that their deities had foresaken them?

Or that they no longer needed them?

Burn it! There were others better suited for this kind of thing: scholars who would be only too willing to delve into the intrigues and paradoxes of theological debates. It was something she had been taught not to think about.

She rubbed her temples with her fingertips: hard.

There was something else . . .

“First, humans are aggresive . . . I mean, they have fought a lot of wars, right?”

“Yes.”

Her ruff twitched.”Do they still fight wars?”

“Large wars are no longer fought: they proved to be too expensive for all involved. Small battles between provinces are fought, but such actions are rare and limited.”

“Would they . . .” Nersi anxiously began to speak, then lowered her head. “Forget it.”

First said nothing.

“I’d like to rest now,”Nersi said.”Think things over . . . can I ask you some questions later?”

“I am always ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ to answer questions,”the machine replied.

Nersi bowed her head to the black desk, then stood and worked the stiffness out of her back and cramped tail muscles. Behind her the window shimmered and turned into a mirror, the green lines in the desktop fading away.

Seth’Nai was unconscious. She stood for a time, just watching his face. He twitched and growled something then settled again. Did he see anything in his drift? Was it just . . . nothingness? Perhaps that was the price they paid for rejecting their gods: they lost the time the gods gave them for contemplation.

She sighed — loud in the stillness of the room — and turned to the other bed, letting the copper breeches fall to the floor, stepping out of them. The bed was soft and already warm, but she lay there, an empty feeling nagging at her.

Seth’Nai stirred slightly when she slipped into the bed beside him, but that was all. She huddled up against his back, his hairless hide exuding a gentle warmth and feeling incredibly soft against her fingertips as she stroked his ribs. Gently she breathed against his shoulder, inhaling the green freshness of water, the transient tingle of salt. He rumbled faintly when she licked the nape of his neck, then there was a vague, indefinable sensation of well-being glowing deep inside her as she tucked her head against him and settled into drift.

— Chapter 54

“Che?”

“Huhhnnn?”

Sekher reluctantly rose from his drift, luxuriating in the warm, spent feeling that enveloped him. Other sensations made themselves known as he drew his faculties back to himself. Gods, he was starving!

Chaiila leaned over him, nipping at his neck with sharp teeth. “Hai, Che. Come on.”

He blinked at her. “What?”

“Feeling better?”

Sekher had a brief flash of Chaiila straddling him, his muscles turned to water. He raised an arm and flicked her ear. “Yes . . . Hungry though.”

“Huh,” Chaiila tweaked his ears in return. It was common courtesy for the female to have some food ready for the male when he recovered. “I wish I had something,” she apologized.

“What about you,” he asked.

“Me? I’m hungry too . . .”

“Not that. Stop thinking about your belly, will you?” he mock-growled, then fell serious, stroking her pelt with the barest touches. “How are you feeling?”

She fell silent, taking stock of her emotions and surroundings. Rain was falling on the plains beyond the window, fat drops spattering soundlessly on the glass. The lighting seemed dimmer and whiter than it had been before. Restful. “Better,” she said at length. “The way I acted . . . I don’t know what . . . Sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Sekher. “Too strange, too much, too quick, ah?”

“Yeah,” she nodded, then cocked her head. “Where’s Nersi?”

The lights slowly came up when they left the bunk. Their clothes were gone, as were their weapons and the rest of their equipment. And Nersi wasn’t in the room, nor in the adjoining washing room. Chaiila’s claws were out as she stalked toward the door.

It hissed open.

“Morning and waking,” Nersi cheerfully greeted them as she swept into the room with an armload of multicoloured cloth. Carefully cleaned and groomed, her fur practically glowing and decked out in ankle-long, metallic-copper-coloured breeks decorated with angular black patterns, she grinned at them. “Enjoy yourselves?”

“Quite,” Chaiila said amicably, then exploded: “And where the damnation were YOU?!”

Nersi stared at her, one ear wilting slowly, then she said, “With Seth’Nai. Come on; you two were busy. Anyway, I’ve got clothes for you, and there’s food waiting.”

“Our weapons . . .” Chaiila began.

Nersi snorted and went to open a locker at the head of a bed. Their equipment was neatly stacked within, swords hanging from hooks.

“I wouldn’t worry about the weapons,” Nersi grinned. “They wouldn’t be much use here anyway. And our cloths are being cleaned. I brought these for the meantime,” she tossed the clothes on the rumpled bed and looked the pair up and down. “But I think perhaps you’d like to wash up first.”

Now THAT was an experience. Even Chaiila smiled and barked a laugh of pleasure as they shared the hot streams of water. Then she leaned against him, half-drifting while the hot air buffeted them. She was impressive after, her dark fur polished to a glory that had Sekher staring.

The breeches were comfortable, if slightly overlarge, and with odd color schemes. The pair Sekher took were a deep grey with blue and yellow patches of shades Sekher had never seen before. There was a matching jerkin that Sekher curiously examined, then pulled on. Chaiila received a pair of breeks made from a strong, fine-woven blue material with seams accented by brown stitching and a real belt with a cunningly designed buckle.

“Not too bad,” she admitted, cocking a hip. “The built-in pouches are a good idea.”

“Ah, Nersi,” Sekher caught the younger female’s attention. “Were you saying something about food?”

They could smell it as soon as they stepped out the door. Immediately, Sekher’s mouth began watering. He licked up a thread of drool dangling from his lips.

The room at the end of the corridor was unchanged, save for the mist that now wreathed the peaks. The aroma was coming from an adjacent room, accompanied by bright lights, a rattling and clattering, and a familiar rumbling. It was a room colored in white and grey, with flat benchtops, machines scattered around the walls, and a table set in an alcove. The scent of food brought the air to life while Seth’Nai buslted around at one of the worktops, placing containers into a cupboard. He looked around when they entered and his mouth twisted up, “Sekher, Chaiila. Rest well?”

“Very well,” Sekher replied, then saw the spread on the table. He stared. A thread of saliva dripped from his jaw.

Seth’Nai bared teeth.”Go. Eat.”

It was a meal like none Sekher had ever dreamed of, his hunger lending an edge to his appreciation. There were longrazer steaks and ribs, still warm and dripping. Bowls of Bluespeck Berries and Breadroot. Also there were stranger dishes: stacks of round, flat cakes with a rich syrup; small, crescent shaped pasties; buns topped with sparkling icing that tasted like sweet ice. There were pitchers of water, a tangy orange liquid, also a hot, brown liquid that Sekher tried and choked on the first few mouthfuls, yet after that, it went down smoothly.

Seth’Nai used peculiar utensils to devoured something that resembled eggs along with sausages and rashers of a strong-smelling reddish meat.

Chaiila noticed that: “You do eat meat!”

Seth’Nai looked up, then back down at his plate. “Yes.” He seemed puzzled.

“Then why didn’t you eat earlier?”

“Oh,” His fingertips absently stroked the device on his wrist. “There are . . . metals in your food that are dangerous to me. If I eat too much, especially meat, I will die: slowly.”

Nersi looked dubiously at the food she was eating. “What about your food. Is it safe for us?”

“Some of it. All this,” he waved his hand at the table, “is safe for you. But eating meat could be very dangerous.”

Sekher stopped wondering what that meat Seth’Nai was eating tasted like. “Ah, how dangerous?”

“Lethal.”

Chaiila was still eyeing her meal uncertainly.

“THAT is safe,” Seth’Nai reassured her.

“How can you be so sure,” she grumbled.

“Well, if you die, then I was wrong, ah?” his eyes glittered and he took another mouthful of food.

“Gods!” Chaiila hissed, yet continued eating as though trying to prove a point.

When they were through and done, a machine scurried from its niche to begin cleaning up after them.

It was Nersi who took it upon herself to show the other Trenalbi how to use the facilities in the wash room. The devices were new and uncomfortable for Sekher, giving rise to the idea that Seth’Nai may be different in ways not immediately obvious.

Nersi was standing at the desk, quietly contemplating the plains visible in the window. She blinked when Sekher emerged and tipped her head toward the grasses, “That’s where they come from.”

“Who?”

“Seth’Nai and his kind.” She touched the wound on her leg and sat down in the chair. “Last night he showed me a . . . I guess you could call it a story. It showed their history, from their earliest memories.”

Sekher wasn’t quite following this. “Their?”

“Their,” she confirmed. “Sekher, there are a lot of them. You wouldn’t believe how many. And they aren’t Gods either; they’re bone and blood, like you or I.”

She gestured again to the window, “That’s where they come from. Their world. Look at the animals.”

Sure enough, there in the distance there was a herd of things that weren’t of the world.

“Oh,” said Sekher. And it had looked so like home.

“They’ve got cities that float in the sky, huge numbers of them . . .” she stopped there, her hands twitching. “Perhaps you should see for yourself. First?”

“Yes?”

The quiet, disembodied tones startled Sekher. The voice had changed and now sounded slightly . . . female?

“First,” Nersi continued in businesslike tones that suggested she was carrying out a normal conversation, “ah, that story I saw last night, do you know what I mean?”

“That was ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ name ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿: a general history for children.”

“Oh,” Nersi’s ears wilted in embarrassment. “Oh well, can you show it again?”

“Yes.”

It was then Chaiila came out of the washroom. She looked around in suspicion: “It’s that damned voice again. What’s going on?”

“You interested in knowing what Seth’Nai is?” asked Nersi with a smile.

Chaiila stared at her, taken aback. “You know?”

“I know,” Nersi confirmed, “He showed me last night. You’re interested?”

“Yah.”

“Have a seat,” Nersi motioned the carpet beside her and Chaiila slowly sat, tucking her legs beneath her. “First, lights down.”

The lights dimmed and in the light from the window Sekher saw the dark-furred female glance sharply at her cousin.

Nersi never noticed. “All right, First, show the story.” The plains in the window faded to blackness . . .

— Chapter 55

Sekher followed the bobbing bead of green light as it led him through the noisy metal corridors with their uncomfortable grillwork floors. A heavy door prominently marked with black and yellow diagonal stripping slid open and closed as he passed through. There were metallic servants everywhere, numbers of every different size and shape: from large boxes that rolled through the corridors on wheels to tiny things that scurried among the machinery in the walls. He snorted as the smell of scorched metal assailed his nostrils.

The guiding speck of light turned to dart through another doorway into one of those big, dimly lit rooms filled to overflowing with bins and storage lockers, parts of machinery. A deep growling accompanied a pair of legs protruding from a crawlspace beneath a mass of pipes colored grotesque orange. Sekher squatted down beside the legs. “Hai!”

No response.

There was a metal bar lying atop a handy box. Sekher took it up, hefted it, then pounded on the pipes. The howl from beneath was almost drowned by the clangs.

Seth’Nai was out like a projectile from a darter, glaring at Sekher while stabbing at the translator on his wrist. “What the ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ you think you’re doing?! I almost had the little ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿!”

Sekher stood, looking down at the pale face. “Seth’Nai, can we talk?”

Seth’Nai sat, his grey eyes flicking from Sekher’s face to the metal bar he was holding. He swallowed.”¿¿¿¿¿¿¿, alright.”

The bar clattered when Sekher dropped it and cautiously found a place to lean against a piece of metal .”I saw that story you showed Nersi. We all did.”

“Ah,” Seth’Nai nodded. “You were supposed to.”

“I have a few questions.”

The round head bobbed. “I will answer if I can.”

“That story . . . it was true?”

“Yes.”

“Then your people are powerful. You said you aren’t a God, but some of those things your people do . . .” he shrugged. “And they are warlike, aren’t they.” It wasn’t really a question.

“Warlike?”

“They fight.”

“Ah . . .” Seth’Nai understood. “I have to say we do fight.”

“And our world is the only one like it you have found.”

“Yes.”

“Then you could destroy us. What chance would we have if you wanted to take it?”

“None.”

Sekher stared.

Seth’Nai sighed and settled himself. “Sekher, your world is beautiful, but it is not only valuable for that. It is you. Your kind. All Trenalbi.

“Until now my kind has been alone. We have looked for a long time, and now we have found someone we can talk to, do you really think we would destroy them?”

Sekher thought.

“God,” Seth’Nai shook his head, “I’m not the one to be speaking for my kind. Anyway, there’re agreements and rules about what we would do if we found . . . something like your kind. They say we stay away and watch from a distance.”

“Studying us,” Sekher said with distaste.

“Sort of . . . Yes, studying you. We would stay away, until we could understand each other.”

“You haven’t,” Sekher observed.

“No.” Seth’Nai rubbed his narrow nose and twitched his mouth. “I told you, I have been a bad ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿.”

“A what?. . . Never mind. Why would they stay away? You could teach us so much. Your machines . . . and your metal . . . Any demesnes would pay a fortune for such knowledge.”

Seth’Nai hesitated. “There’s more than that. If we gave you . . . things that made you live longer, stopped diseases, and made sure cubs didn’t die at birth. Would you be grateful?”

Sekher stared.”Of course! Who wouldn’t be?”

“Would you still be grateful when you couldn’t grow enough to feed them all? When they started fighting over the land? When your cities became so crowded that the smell became ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ and Trenalbi were dying in the streets?”

“Oh.”

“If we gave you machines. How would you fix them when they break?”

“Then you could teach us.”

“Yes, but that takes a long time. And to teach everyone . . .”Seth’Nai shook his head. “You saw our story. We learned all this ourselves, like cubs growing up.”

“You are comparing us to cubs?”

“You said it, not I.”

Sekher opened and closed his mouth a few times.

“Imagine if your people suddenly learned the world was round, not flat. If they learned they lived on a ball of rock going around another ball of fire.”

“Huh, wouldn’t that make the priests’ fur stand on end.”

“Priests?” Seth’Nai’s forehead furrowed. “They were the ones wearing long clothes?” his hands described patterns that could be a priest’s robes.

“Yes.”

“Do you know anything about their machines? Like the ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ coil?”

Sekher’s ears went back. “Huh? Machines? What machines?”

And Seth’Nai flinched back. Sekher had known him long enough to think he could read the creature; the emotions were in the eyes, not the ears, and that particular look meant he was surprised.

“You do not know? The ones that made the lighting I was attacked with.”

“Machines?” Sekher was still confused. “They didn’t use any machines. They’re Priests, they don’t need them.”

Seth’Nai’s mouth opened, then closed again. Now he was the one who looked perplexed. “No. There had a ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ in there. That’s the only way you could ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ power like that. Is that how they stay in control, by making a few sparks fly?”

“No,” said Sekher, not understanding where this debate was leading. “Some of them make fire. Some of them move things. Some heal or see far or talk without saying.” His ears flagged helplessness. “There are too many Gifts.”

“What is that word ‘Gifts’?”

“Uhhnnn . . . A present, a gift. Something that is given, out of goodwill.”

“A gift,” Seth’Nai echoed, his forehead wrinkled. “Ah . . . Gifts from whom?”

“The Gods, of course,” Sekher sniffed.

“Of course,” Seth’Nai rubbed a hand across his scalp. “Of course, the Gods.”

Sekher frowned at that. “You don’t believe me.”

“Believe you . . .” There was a sound that the translator rendered as a Trenalbi laugh, but Sekher felt it couldn’t be expressed so simply. “Sekher, I have always understood that there are no Gods.”

“No Gods?” Sekher grinned. “Perhaps yours’ rejected you, but not ours. Look at the Priests and the temple; how can you not believe?”

“I will believe it when I see it,” Seth’Nai retorted.

“What about you?”

“What about me?”

“The fact that you’re here,” Sekher said smugly.

Seth’Nai stared. “What the ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ has that got to do with anything. It was an accident; just an accident. It could have happened to anyone.”

And Sekher grinned. “Anyone? Your kind spends centuries searching, then just as I need help, your ‘accident’ sends you here. What would you call that?”

“¿¿¿¿¿¿¿!” Seth’Nai answered instantly. “Chance! Nothing more. Sekher, gods are just something I cannot believe in. I have never seen anything I haven’t been able to explain.”

“Then you haven’t seen a priest.”

“You . . .” Seth’Nai began to say, then stopped cold and shook his head, saying quietly, “I should not be talking about this.”

“Your rules?”Sekher inquired.

The other didn’t answer.

Yah, his rules, Sekher thought glumy. How was this happening? He had thought this creature a godsend, now, he was being told there were no Gods. There must be, the Gifts of the Priests were certainly genuine enough. But suppose . . .

Suppose Seth’Nai was right.

No. The end of their Gods; the ramifications of that could . . . would! tear his world apart. Sekher bit at a claw, then spat in disgust. How could it be true?

Was this what Seth’Nai had meant when he said his people had a policy about not talking to other people they might find? He was right! If his kind suddenly appeared, refuting everything Trenalbi believed, with the ability to support what they claimed . . .

They had planned for that?

Seth’Nai casually leaning back against the pipes, his arms folded, watching Sekher who shook his head and blinked at the outsider and asked, “Why’d you bring us here anyway?”

An expression that meant nothing to Sekher: “I wanted to learn more about you.”

“More about us?” Sekher was suspicious about that. “Such as?”

“Your speech. What you are. How you live . . . things like that. I really don’t know anything about you.” He paused then, eyeing Sekher curiously. “Such as; what were you doing in that cage in the first place?”

“Ah,” Sekher flashed the other a white grin that made him flinch visibly. “Do you have to know that?”

“I was curious. First I thought you were a . . . a. . . one who does wrong . . .”

“Criminal,” Sekher growled, then relented and wrapped his arms around himself, dredging up the memories. “No, that I’m not . . . At least outside the Ch’Sty lands I’m not.

“My full name is Sekher Che Meas, youngest son. My home is . . . was the Che holding to the north. Not a big place in any eyes . . .”

Give Seth’Nai credit where it was due; those ears may have been absurdly small, but he was still a good listener.

— Chapter 56

Chaiila was trembling visibly. Her ruff, all her fur bristled and her claws were unsheathed. Fear or anger? Sekher wondered. A little of both most likely.

Beyond the transparent screen was a brightly lit white room, about seven paces by seven, featureless save for the table in the middle.

Nersi lay naked on the table, her unconscious eyes staring up at the ceiling without seeing it while an arch of otherwordly materials covered her lower body and the puckered wound on her leg. Occasionally she would twitch or her jaw spasm soundlessly behind the window.

“Gods, I hate this,” Chaiila moaned and asked, “Is she all right?” for the hundredth time.

Seth’Nai cast a practiced eye over glowing pictures of Nersi’s body. “She’s fine. Don’t worry, nothing’s going to happen to her.”

The standard reply Sekher noted. He looked at the pictures again. Huh! Sekher suspected Seth’Nai was doing more than healing her leg; to him it looked like he was mapping her insides. Studying her. Learning about them, as he had told Sekher.

There was little talking from then on. They watched over her: Chaiila fidgiting, Sekher standing close by her side, Seth’Nai watching his machines, peculiar light washing across his face and turning it into something from nightmares.

An hour later it was over. Seth’Nai moved the still unconscious Nersi back to her quarters and clipped a small bracelet to her wrist. There was a furless strip around her thigh; where the torn and angry red wound had been there was now only a mere pucker in her flesh. She stirred groggily and mouthed meaningless noises. Chaiila was instantly at her side, touching and reassuring until she fell silent, into a rest far deeper than any Drift.

“Is that normal?” whispered Sekher to the human.

“With your kind, I think so.”

Sekher grabbed his arm and hauled him out into the corridor. “Think?” he hissed.

The grey eyes flickered. “I did the best I could. It seemed to go well, but you are different . . .”

“What? What’s that got to do with it?”

“Medicines for me could kill you,” the other answered. Sekher blinked, swallowed. “Like your food, you mean.”

“Same.”

“Gods!” Sekher glanced toward the closed door. “Look, just don’t let Chaiila know about that, alright? She would rip your face off.”

Seth’Nai grinned. Those marks from last time were still pale reminders on his cheeks.

— Chapter 57

There was nothing.

It scared her.

Her.

Her? Who was her? She?

Oh. Of course.

It was gradually coming back. Slowly — like ice dissolving under a flame — thoughts and memories began to stir. There was a glimmer of the light of reason after so . . . long? there wasn’t any way to measure the time she had been sunk in a blackness; that hole deeper than drift, the utter depths where nothing stirred. Oblivion. Death . . .

She snapped to awareness with a strangled cry and lay panting hard.

The room was silent and still. On the other bunk two Trenalbi lay tangled in each other’s limbs. Chaiila twitched and shuddered and burrowed deeper into the Che’s side, hiding her head.

Nersi lay quietly, just staring at the softly glowing panels above her. That coldness still lingered, a touch of the darkness inside. She needed warmth, familiar company.

Che’s head lolled her way when she swung out of the bed, but she was familiar enough that her movement didn’t trip his drift as made her uneasy way to the door. She still limped, albeit more through habit than necessity. It was after she’d left the room that she realised the pain in her leg was gone. The pale line that remained merely tingled when she touched it.

It was almost completely black in Seth’Nai’s room. He stirred when she slid into the bed beside him. When she moved to huddle up to the warmth of his back he growled something, then yelped and twisted around, face to face in the darkness. She grinned.

“Nersi?” He wasn’t wearing his translator. She could feel his body vibrate with the depth of his voice, the words she could understand coming from a small shelf above the bed.

“A,” she murmured.

“After last time I thought I said . . .”

“I know,” she broke in. “I was lonely.”

“Lonely?”

“Alone. By myself. I needed to be with someone.”

The translator made a sound that could have been ‘oh’, then said, “I understand. Lonely.”

Nersi shifted and carefully touched his shoulder. He flinched. “Do you always drift alone?”

“Uh, usually.”

“It doesn’t hurt?”

“Hurt?” He looked confused. “Like pain? Hurt?”

“Ai.”

“I don’t understand that.”

“Seth’Nai,” she stroked his ribs, “a Trenalbi can go mad if left alone for a long time. That doesn’t happen to your kind?”

“No.” He lay back to stare up at the roof. “No, that’s why I like my job. I like being alone.”

That stung her. She peered at his face, indistinct in the darkness. “You want me to go?”

His head turned her way, yet she knew he couldn’t see her at all. Not in this light. “No. No, not now.”

His hand touched her arm and his fingers moved through her fur, just touching.

“My leg,” she said, feeling his fingers on her arm, watching the pale shadows moving. Darkness, the great equalizer. “I wanted to thank you.”

“It . . . is not neccesary,” he said. She touched his face and felt his mouth twisted in his smile.

They lay there for a time, just close.

Her hand on his chest could feel his warmth, solidity, the slow drubbing of a heartbeat beneath muscle she had never felt before, ribs feeling completely unlike her own . . . and her hand moved, down, touching him in that coarse fur between his legs and his whole body stiffened with a jolt of breath. Then he caught her hand and moved it away.

“Nersi, no.”

“Hnnn?” She made a small sound, confusion at his rejection. Why? he was responding, doing something, she could smell his scent changing, becoming heavier, while her own loins tingled.

“Nersi, we can’t. I would hurt you.”

“No . . .” she began.

“Yes! I wish I could, but I would hurt you very badly, Nersi. We’re just too different.” He caressed the side of her face. “Understand?”

She didn’t. Not really.

Until she touched him again. Yes, he was responding, but the differences . . .

“Oh,” she said, understanding. Gods and Demons! Their females took that?!

There was another silence before she leaned over and gently lapped at Seth’Nai’s neck, tasting the slight salt. “Ah, well. Not your fault.”

“Thanks . . . I think,” he replied.

She grinned and nipped at him and for a while the talk wandered around their differences. His kind wasn’t like Trenalbi; the females, they birthed fully formed young. She had seen the pictures, but even so it shocked Nersi to hear this, even more so to find it caused pain. Those were nipples on his chest, in the same location as human females’, but useless for him. The dimple in his midriff was another peculiarity and she still wasn’t sure she understood his explanation. When she let him, his fingers were gentle against the sensitive skin around the nipples in her pouch.

“Feels strange,” he said.

“Ah, from you that’s irony.”

“Nersi?”

“Huh?”

“May I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“Your towns . . . why are they split into male and female sections?

She blinked, taken aback at the naivete of the question. “Uh . . . because they have to be, of course. Aren’t yours’?”

“No.”

“Oh, Gods. That figures . . . You mean males and females are . . . together all the time?”

“Yes.”

“Then how do you get anything done?”

“What?” He pulled away and propped himself up with one elbow, looking down on her. “I don’t understand.”

She sighed. “You are different. Look, when a woman is wanting . . . when she wants to mate, she scents. We can’t help it, and the males, they smell it and it twists them crazy. They’ll fight for a female, then when they get close to her and she is ready the scent flattens them. It’s like their muscles turn to string; They can hardly move.”

“Sekher and Chaiila,” he muttered.

“Yah. You had me worried, running after them like that. Males generally don’t get on well when there’s a mating going on. But you see what it’d be like if we were integrated; a riot at the smell of a scenting female.”

“I . . . see,”came the response after a couple of beats.”Then the female sections are really different towns?”

“No . . . They are under the dominion of the High Lord. Male, almost always. There is a female Medium who acts as an intermediary between the Lord and the Sister Group, also the Guilds of both sexes have their own Pleaders who negotiate trade among the quarters; cloth for metal, embelished tools for rare foods and so forth.”

This time there was a longer silence. “I didn’t understand much of that,” he finally confessed. “It is all one town, but the two sides only talk to each other through special Trenalbi? Like they are ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ different?”

Nersi mulled that over, then said, “There was a word I didn’t understand, but yes, sort of like that.” She felt him shifting, moving a little closer to her. Perhaps he liked her warmth.

“Then how . . . how do you choose your mates?”

She grinned and stretched, then began trying to explain the unity houses. From there the talk drifted off at tangents, Seth’Nai asking about the most inconsequential things, and listening with fascination to her replies.

And when she grew tired he was the one who made her stop. Nersi listened to his breathing slowing. Several times his legs twitched as the muscles relaxed. Finally he was gone, as helpless as a cub. With a final grin she set a hand on his chest and settled down into the stillness of drift with his heavy scent like a blanket around her.

— Chapter 58

“Gods burn it! He did! I can SMELL him on you!”

“Cousin! We didn’t mate! We can’t! He . . .”

Chaiila wasn’t sounding too pleased Sekher noticed. Finding Nersi and Seth’Nai curled up together had not set her day off to a good start. After dragging her cousin out of there her initial shock had rapidly turned to anger and heedless of where they were, she still wanted to go and rattle Seth’Nai’s teeth. “Dammit! I saw! He was all over you. He was . . . he was naked! by the gods!”

“Listen to me!”

Sekher sighed and let the door slide closed.

Seth’Nai was in the common room at the end of the corridor. He was still wearing the ridiculous-looking fluffy robe he’d thrown on when Chaiila stormed into his quarters and literally howled him out of it. Now he had one of the glass cases open and was kneeling before it, meticulously clipping away at the branches of a twisted little bush. Sekher watched this ceremony.

“She’s really got her fur in a knot at you, you know,” he finally said

Seth’Nai settled back and studied the bush. “Nothing happened.”

Sekher grinned in amusement. “That’s exactly what Nersi’s saying.”

Seth’Nai’s flat face turned to stared up at him. “Then why don’t you believe her?”

“I do,” Sekher said then crouched down on his haunches. “Chaiila probably does too. It’s just that you and Nersi . . . uh . . .” he hunted for words. “Drifting together . . . Chaiila’s scared of you. She doesn’t understand you.”

“And you do?”

Sekher blinked, nonplussed.”Ah, well . . . good point.”

The other bared teeth and carefully snipped a few of the miniature leaves from the tiny tree, click, snick. Sekher watched the ritual, fidgiting uneasily. How was he going to put this? And he already had a good idea what the answer would be.

“Can you help us?”

He cringed. The way that blurted out . . . that wasn’t what he’d planned.

Seth’Nai’s hand froze, then carefully set the clippers aside.”Help you?”

“I told you,”Sekher tried to explain.”I told you about the Ch’sty Rim . . . our homes. Chaiila and Nersi lost theirs’; under Kissaki’s claws. My land . . . I don’t know what’s happened to it.”

The other looked away.

“Ah . . . you . . .”Sekher licked his lips.”You’ve got so much power. Can you help us?”

“No.”

Just that. Flat and straight. Seth’Nai gathered up the tools in a small pouch and stood to leave.

“Hai! Wait!” Sekher scrambled after him, through to the galley. He stopped in the doorway: “Why?”

The human’s pale, long-fingered hands worked at a cupboard latch, then froze and he leaned his head against the white wall. “Sekher . . .” He sighed and moved across the width of the galley to prop himself against the edge of the table.”I wish I could, but it’s impossible. I have already done far too much I am not supposed to. I can probably justify what I did against Kissaki, but interfering with your wars . . . it is out of the question.” He rubbed at his face.

Sekher stared. “People are dying.”

“Sekher!” Seth’Nai’s hand clenched, then pounded against the tabletop. “Don’t! There is nothing I can do.”

“Then what ARE you going to do?!” Sekher snarled. “Just sit here until the Ch’Sty Rim troops find you and lay seige to you?”

The human’s lips pressed into a straight line. “And what am I supposed to do? A?”

“Fight them!”

He nodded. “A. How? I am not a fighter. This is a mining ship. It is damaged.”

“All the machines . . .”

“Are for work. They are not ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ to fight. They cannot and will not. There is simply not enough power left to do anything that would help you. And the Rim will not find me. As soon as the repairs are finished I have to use what’s left to leave.”

Sekher’s short fur stood bolt upright. “You are going home?!”

“I can’t do that. I just have to get the ship away from here. It is not exactly inconspicuous, and someone’s going to see it and report. Then . . .” His head shook from side to side. Sekher had thought that meant ‘no’, but apparently it could mean more than that.

“Then where are you going?”

“Wherever I can. The other side of the mountains. Somewhere.”

“There is no way to change your mind?”

Again the head shook. “Please, Sekher.”

His tail dragged on the floor behind as he turned and left to tell the others. Behind him the human slumped, then drove a fist into the wall.

“Gods ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ it!”

— Chapter 59

The trio of shen picked their way through the charred skeletons of incinerated trees at the edge of the river plain. Green buds were only just beginning to force their way from the blackness. These plants were used to fire. Lightning- struck blazes weren’t a rare occurance on the plains, but always the trees grew back. The two riders hauled their animals to a halt at the very edge of the riverbed, smelling the carnage before they saw it: a ripe stench hanging on the breeze. There were blackened Trenalbi corpses and skeletons scattered among the rocks and wood; just bone, metal, and tatters of rotting flesh rejected or missed by scavengers.

The larger Hunter chittered: impressed.

His smaller companion glanced down at a half- decayed skull. It grinned back at him: “You still think they’re paying us enough, Travi?”

“Huh!” Travi’s head turned on his massive shoulders and he settled his heavy darter in its saddle holster, dark- brown roadcoat shifting. “All right, so the illigit cheaped us. We still do the job?”

Yenitira scowled. They had a reputation: anyone, anywhere. They had never missed a target, and he wasn’t about to start. Not for anyone, not for this. The scent was still there.

“Yah, we still do it.”

The shen picked their way down the bank to the riverbed, hooves clattering on the rocks. There were more corpses here, both Trenalbi and shen, scattered like chaff. Yenitira noticed the fur on the bodies, the front burnt away, the back only slightly singed. There were only a few where it was the other way around. So whatever had happened to them had happened quickly.

There was a crater, now a circular pond, on the edge of the river. The ground crunched under their feet as the Hunters dismounted. Glass. The sand was crusted with a thin film of blackened, cracked glass.

“Perhaps they killed themselves off,” Travi suggested.

“Perhaps.” Yenitira eyes lost their focus as he looked around. “Perhaps, but I doubt it.”

“You still feel them?”

“A.”

There was a pile of boulders, large enough to form a small island when the river filled its banks during the rains. There was a small pile of weapons tucked undisturbed under one edge of the rock. This place had gained a bad reputation for a good reason, so the dead were left to their peace. If there had been tracks the weather had erased them days ago, yet it was here that Yenitira went to stand, letting his hat fall back on its strap, head turning from side to side with nostrils working as if he could scent them. Travi crouched nearby, watching his partner and holding the shen.

“They were here?” he asked.

Traces, not scents, but more like colors he could smell in his head, each distinct and unique. He KNEW, knew without a doubt they had been here. There was that one trace that was unlike anything he’d ever encountered. It . . . felt, for lack of a better word, disquieting. If he was to describe it, it would be a bluegreen sense, not the shifting orange sensations of a trenalbi. He stood and stared westwards. “That way. Ah . . . Fourteen days. On foot.”

Travi brought the shen over and they mounted up. Yenitira settled his hat and roadcoat and stared westwards, towards the invisible Ramparts. West, huh? Very well. They had never lost one yet, but this one was like nothing else he’d ever sensed.

This one was going to be very interesting.

— Chapter 60

Chaiila was inspecting the shen, going over them a span at a time. Sekher lounged back in the warmth of the Lightbringer and watched through slitted eyes as she examined hooves and claws and teeth. Fussy. Always wanting to be sure. He grinned and rolled back in the grass. Gods, but it was a pleasure to feel the breeze again.

The castle-sized bulk of the human’s vessel was a scorched white cliff behind them with metallic shapes scuttling around in the shadows beneath it. Whatever they had been doing around the rear of the vessel appeared to be nearing completion and now esoteric equipment was being carted back up the underside ramp on battered and tough-looking machines.

He blinked when he saw Seth’Nai and Nersi emerge from the shadows near a piece of machinery, engaged in animated conversation. At least Nersi was; Seth’Nai seemed unable to meet her eyes. Abruptly he put aside the bundle he was carrying and set hands on her shoulders and hugged her close, touching her forehead with his lips. When he released her she stared at him, then cast a worried glance towards the other Trenalbi.

Sekher hastily looked away. Chaiila, thankfully, hadn’t seen that, and Gods strike him down if HE had.

Grass rustled under Nersi’s feet. “He said he was sorry . . .”

“But he won’t help us,” Sekher finished for her. “Yah, I figured.” Yah. The same as yesterday.

“He spoke about it last night. He really did seem sorry. I think he . . .”

He what? Sekher wondered. “You were with him again, a?”

Nersi cast a glance across to where a stone-faced Chaiila was arranging gear on the shen. She knew where her cousin had spent her evenings, and now she had given up trying to stop it. She would be rid of Seth’Nai soon enough. They were leaving.

And you, Nersi, Sekher thought, How do you feel about leaving him?

And Seth’Nai . . . He had never asked what he thought of Nersi, but there was that parting gesture; disturbingly intimate. How far have you gone? You’re denying it, but . . .

Nersi shook her head as though clearing her own thoughts from her mind and went to see to her own mount.

No; There were some things that weren’t meant to be.

— Chapter 61

“I’ve got your weapons,” said Seth’Nai as he rummaged through his bag. “Ah, here.”

The Trenalbi took the swords he handed them and it wasn’t a heartbeat before Chaiila snapped, “Hai, these aren’t our blades!”

“I’m giving them to you,” Seth’Nai replied, “So they’re yours.”

Sekher examined his. Chaiila was right: it wasn’t his old weapon, the one taken from the Rim troops. This one was new, so new he’d never seen one quite like it before. Excellent weight and balance with a grip that seemed to melt into his hand. The crossguard was pierced and engraved with intricate patterns of interlacing curls and loops in a design that brought images of clouds to mind. A simple disk was used for the pommel, carved to resemble a stylised Lightbringer: a Trenalbi face with flames around it. Overly fancy perhaps, but it still had a good heft to it. The blade . . .

Gods, the blade!

Lighter than any Sekher had ever wielded. It gleamed as he withdrew it from the darkwood, silver-bound scabbard. The metal carried a slight, blueish matt tint and was utterly smooth; without a single rune, marking, or other embellishment. Sekher squinted to see what kind of an edge it carried. It just seemed to fuzz out of vision.

Chaiila sniffed at hers. “Doesn’t seem very impressive.” Seth’Nai grinned and reached back into his bag, pulling out a bronze sword. He held it upright with a two-handed grip. “Try it.”

“What?” Chaiila looked confused.

“Swing at this.”

She did so. There was a sharp clang, then the top half of the sword Seth’Nai held spun to the ground.

Chaiila stared at her sword with newfound respect.

Seth’Nai grinned. “You won’t be able to break it, and it will never need sharpening or cleaning. Just make sure you always use these sheaths and don’t touch the edges. It will go though your fingers a lot easier than metal.”

Sekher moved his hand and carefully sheathed the sword. “Also, there are these.” Seth’Nai produced a trio of circlets of gold metal with a strip of green stone around the circumference. He passed them to the Trenalbi.

There were fine inscriptions on the metal, the same marks that decorated Seth’Nai’s machines, while the raised strip of stone around the equator of the circlet was of a deep, beautiful green and unbroken save for a small, silver disk set into it.

“What do we do with these?”inquired Sekher.

“Put them on your wrists. Just pull them and they’ll open.” Sekher tried and it did. It clicked shut on his wrist, snugly. With a lurch of apprehension he tried removing it. It popped open again as easily as it had gone on. He hissed air through his teeth and replaced it.

“Only you can open them,” Seth Nai told them. “And they’ve got their uses. Point that dot at the sword and squeeze the bracelet with your other hand.”

Nersi tried it. There was a hissing sound and a curl of smoke rose from the ground beside the broken sword blade. She moved her arm and bronze spurted into nearly invisible flame and a flare of molten metal as she cut the blade in half. Sekher and Chaiila tried it; quartering the halves.

“It does not go far,” Seth’Nai said, “and will only work for a short time before it has to be ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿. . . the power replaced. Just leave it in strong light light for a while. They would make good fire lighters. You can probably find other uses.”

He had other parting gifts. There were pieces of clothing, breeks and cloaks that looked perfectly normal, but these produced their own warmth. There were pouches that kept food fresh, canteens like Seth’Nai’s, and purses filled with silver and gold. “I’m sorry that’s all I can do,” Seth’Nai apologised.

“A, so are we,” Chaiila retorted, then looked slightly guilty and reluctantly added, “But thanks.”

“You’re welcome. Good luck,” Seth’Nai said, then took Sekher’s hand in a firm grip and clapped his shoulder with the other. He went around the females and did the same. Astonishingly Chaiila tolerated it. Sekher would have been less surprised to see the Lightbringer go out.

“Gods smile on you,” the human wished them.

“Thought you didn’t believe,” Sekher grinned.

“Sometimes I hope I’m wrong.”

“Perhaps we’ll see you again?” Nersi said, making it sound more like a hope.

“Perhaps.” The human stared at her, swallowed. Then said, “Go on; get out of here. I hate long farewells.”

— Chapter 62

Hours later and the Trenalbi noticed the faint second shadow that began to appear before them. As one they turned to look back in the direction from which they had come.

Another Lightbringer was rising into the heavens. A pale speck rising on a ball of white light. It seemed to hang in the sky a short time, pulsing like a heartbeat against the azure backdrop. A faint rumble like faraway thunder rolled across the plains. The light flared, moving. Slowly, then more swiftly the light began to recede, shrinking with the increasing distance until it vanished over the Ramparts to the west, faint trails of white cloud marking its departure.

Thunder faded to a growl, then died.

Fliers hauled their way into the sky, shrilling in fright.

“So, he’s really gone.”

Nersi was still staring at the mountains where high wisps of vapour were slowly dissolving. “I’m going to miss him,” she murmured.

“Don’t.” Chaiila’s voice sounded distressed, taut. “Please, don’t. He’s gone home. Where he belongs.”

“No,” Sekher murmured.

“A?” Chaiila looked startled. “You know something we don’t.”

“He hasn’t gone home. He said he couldn’t. Not at the moment. Just away from Trenalbi. He’s still over there somewhere.” He hissed meditatively and cocked his head as the final remains of vapour trails were dissipated. “He might turn up again, somewhere.”

Snow on distant mountaintops sparkled; grey and white. Like pale eyes. Sekher grinned:

“You never know.”

— Chapter 63

“You’re really going back there.”

“I have to. It’s my home, it’s my . . .”

“Gods male! Don’t say it! Dying’s got nothing to do with your duty.” Chaiila bore an agonised look, understanding what he was going through yet knowing what awaited him. “Sekher, there’s nothing you can do!”

He touched the hilt of the sword at his waist; he had no illusions. “Don’t tell me! I have to be sure. I can’t just run without even seeing.”

“But if they find you . . .”

“I know.” He swallowed hard. “Gods, but I know.”

Nothing either of the females could say would change his mind. They had all known this had to come, this moment they went their own ways. Now it was here and they stood atop a wind-blown knoll under dull skies as they made their farewells.

“Then where are you going?”

Chaiila frowned and looked at her cousin, then at the clouds: “Can’t say for certain. North; then perhaps down-river towards the Hub. If we find a place we like that’ll take us . . . well, we’ll hang our blades there a time.” Then she touched her stomach and smiled at him. “And there’ll be a stop at a Creche along the way.”

They moved together for a final time, arms around the other: “You’ll take care,” Sekher told her.

Her ears twitched. “A. You also, male.”

He touched her mouth with a finger, then moved it down, to her stomach. Chaiila flinched and trembled in pleasure when he touched the hot flesh of her pouch. “I would . . . enjoy meeting you again.”

“A.” A single sylable. She laid her hand over his. “As you said before: you never know.”

Later:

Riding eastwards, Sekher twisted in his saddle, finally succumbing to the impulse. Perhaps he imagined the pair of specks on the distant northern skyline. Then again, perhaps not.

— Chapter 64

Days passed by; long days and cold nights alone on the plains, deliberately avoiding other Trenalbi. Once a group of soldiers had spotted him as he turned away from their their patrol. Their interest turned to suspicion by his avoidance, they pursued him for a whole day until he lost them in the tangles of a gallery forest. It was the only thing he could do: although his fur was growing back it was still sparse and his ruff was blatantly patchy, crying out ‘criminal!’ to all and sundry.

Yet he continued west, following the sun, after a few days angling northwards until he reached the Marshlands river. He was another two days searching for a spot to ford it, but once across was on the borders of the Che Plains domains.

The roads were filled with refugees, fleeing. Rim soldiery was everywhere: troopers and cavalry, wagon trains carrying troops and supplies.

Smoke hung in palls over gutted towns and villages.

Carrion hunters fought and squabbled in streets paved with bloated corpses.

And Tsuba?

Sekher could see the smoke long before the walls came into sight. He urged his already-exhausted shen into a gallop, reigning up as he crested a hill. The gatehouses were toppled, the walls in ruins. Beyond, the buildings were blackened skeletons and ruins where guards watched as slave force struggled to demolish them. Outlying farm buildings were being ploughed under and already the palace, without a chance of withstanding a seige, was a pile of rubble, some of the walls looking half melted due to the Rim priests.

And outside the walls a forest of gibbets festooned with tattered bodies. There were soldiers milling around a cluster of impaling spikes where a struggling figure was raised, then lowered. The distant screams rose rapidly to insane heights before dying.

The stench of mortality was faint, but everywhere.

Rim troops swarmed like a plague. Their tents and pavilions and weapons of war surrounded the town. All the time patrols and convoys were coming in or setting off to more remote corners of Che.

None of which had escaped Kissaki’s revenge, Sekher knew.

He howled in pain and loss and the shen shrilled as he yanked it around. He rode hard, not knowing or caring where he was going.

Damn you, Chaiila! You’d been right! Damn your eyes for being right!

He hunched down in the saddle, burying the still-blunt tips of his claws into its tough hide, urging the shen on across fields where farm buildings and peasants huts lay in ruins, cattle gone and crops burnt to ash.

Why so much?! Burn them! Why’d they gone so far? His people were never any threat to the Ch’sty Rim. This was simply retaliation for what he and his companions had done to Kissaki’s troops? What kind of a mind would do that! What kind of a mind could . . . Sekher clenched his teeth and howled.

The shen ran until it was spent, and then some, ultimately staggering to a standstill and collapsing to its knees. Sekher kicked and swiped at its hide, cursing as he tried to get it moving again. He dropped from the saddle and hauled on the bridle. It rolled its eyes back at him.

“Rot you! GODS BURN YOU ALL!” he screamed at the sky.

The twisted leaves and interlaced branches of Wovenboughs bobbed and nodded back at him. The small grove of trees was peaceful, far from the smoke and violence. He stood panting hard, then yowled and drew his sword, wielding it like a bat as he swung. The steel slid through a trunk as thick as his leg with no more resistance than if it had been fog. The tree stood, seemingly untouched. Until the wind caught in the branches and it slowly toppled.

He stood there, shaking violently, then dropped to his knees and snuffled and choked uncontrollably; weeping.

— Chapter 65

The fire flickered like a beacon in the darkness. The Rim patrol had built their campfire in the lee of the burnt-out farmhouse. Several of them were crouched around it, their shadows creating lopsided spokes in the warm-orange disc of light, their low voices carrying as a subdued susurration. Away in the darkness shen whickered and stirred.

Sekher licked his lips and snarled silently. Grain rustled almost inaudibly as he inched closer, his sheathed sword clenched in a death-grip. His nostrils widened as he sniffed the air; there was food and drink, also blood. That was old. There was no scent of alarm.

Closer.

The shen chirred and stamped.

“What’s wrong with ‘em?” a voice voice asked.

“Don’t know.” One of the troopers by the fire rose to his feet, staring out towards the shen.

“A! Perhaps a Che guard?”

There was laughter at that.

“Or worse, a Burrowrunner!”

Laughter barked out again. The one who had stood had moved towards the shen, then glanced Sekher’s way and hesitated. Sekher saw the silhouette of the Rim trooper’s head cock and he took a couple of steps forward:

“Hai! There’s . . . GODS!”

Sekher launched himself forward, his blade leaving the sheath with a hiss. The Rim trooper stumbled back a step, but his hand was only beginning to move for his own blade when the alien steel swept through his neck, nearly severing his head. Blood fountained in a dark spray, knocking the head back on the spine as the body collapsed in a clatter of armour.

“ATTACK!” The others were screaming, scrambling to their feet while drawing swords.

They couldn’t know how many there were, Sekher knew. Another died before he could get up, falling face-down in the fire in a cloud of rising sparks. His fur caught and the stink of roasting meat filled the air.

Another trooper. Armour of scale mail. His sword up to block. Sekher swung wildly and his opponent stared in shock as his sword was reduced to a useless stump. He was still staring when Sekher’s blade came back and eviscerated him through the armour. He went down clutching at his own entrails.

Two more. Sekher struck at another sword and this time felt an impact. That blade had been steel. That warrior howled in sudden terror and staggered back, throwing up his arms to ward off the sword. The alien blade would sever steel; it found flesh posed little difficulty. The Rim warrior staggered, then stared down at his arm twitching on the ground while his own blood was black in the moonlight as it soaked his side. Uttering horrified squeals he staggered off into the grain.

More Trenalbi spilled from the farmhouse with weapons in their hands. The remaining Rim soldier backing away from Sekher was screaming, “KILL HIM! KILL HIM!” Then Sekher’s slender blade thrust forward through his breastplate and ribs and the heart behind. The Rimmer stared, then coughed blood and scrabbled at the sword. That final act lost him several fingers.

The body in the fire was burning brightly now. The fur and cloth blazing in a twisted bonfire that sizzled and stank.

More Trenalbi appeared in the light.

More of them!

The sword slid out again and Sekher crouched to face the new opponents. Three . . . four of them. No matter . . .

They melted back from his charge. Sekher tried again, swinging at another dark warrior who danced back from his blade. Again and again, then something wrapped around his ankles and he cried out as his feet were yanked out from under him and abruptly claws were tearing at his skin as hands grabbed him, an arm curling around his neck. Sekher lashed out madly, snarling as he drove an elbow into an unprotected gut. The warrior holding him in the hammerlock dropped away with a choked grunt and Sekher managed to break away but that chain dropped him again. he twisted around and chopped at the links to be rewarded by a metallic rattle as a chain was severed. Shouts of surprise and the warriors dropped back.

Sekher swung wildly and one-handed, trying to keep them at bay as he hopped around working the chain loose, finally kicking it off and finding himself staring at the recurved tines of a heavy crossbow held in the grasp of a very competent looking male.

Wearing a heavy roadcoat.

Panting hard Sekher blinked and looked around. He was surrounded, but none of them were dressed in Rim armour. Mismatched armour and weaponry; all looking very used.

“You’re Wanderers!” he heaved between breaths.

There were other weapons out by now. By the firelight Sekher could see two of them bore small darters, doubtlessly poisoned. There were grins. The one carrying the crossbow drew his head back a fraction. “A. And who in all the hells are you?”

Sekher looked around at the weapons and warriors. Four of them, but they were Wanderers; they knew what they were doing. “Ser. Ser Kysi.” He lied and glanced down at the bodies of the Rim troopers, then back at the Wanderer bearing the crossbow. “Youre with them?”

The other lowered the crossbow and studied him for a few beats before saying, “Were with them. Looks like our contract’s done.”

“Contract!” Sekher snarled. “That’s what you call it?! Try murder for size! I saw what’s happening at Tsuba!”

The other bared his teeth in return. “We had nothing to do with that lot. Kissaki pays well, but we’ve got our honour. Now, speaking of murder, that’s an interesting blade you have there.” He nudged a fragment of steel sword with a toe. “I’ve never seen one that slices good steel before. Where’d you pick it up?”

Sekher tightened his grip.

“Kenner, see: he’s been shaved,” one of the others pointed out.

“A, I noticed,” Kenner replied. “That where? You steal it? Perhaps it comes from the Temple?” He grinned and gestured with the crossbow, “Tell me, youngling: What’s to stop me skewering you here?”

“I don’t know,” Sekher said even as his hand found the bracelet’s stud, then Kenner howled and clutched at his arm as flame flicked across his fur and sparks flew from the crossbow. The lefthand crosspiece was cut in two, the tension snapping it back with a whiplash that just missed the Wanderer’s face as he dropped the weapon.

The others had reacted in confusion: freezing in place or flinging their arms up at the flash. Anyway, whatever they did, it gave Sekher time to lay his sword at Kenner’s throat. The Wanderer struggled briefly until he felt the edge cut through his hide and spots of blood bead on his fur. There was a blackrimmed gash burned through the Wanderer’s shoulder and Sekher could feel his heart racing as he scrambled around behind the Wanderer with his sword still at his throat and hissed in his ear, “How about this for starters.”

The others shifted in dismay at this turn of event. “He’s Godburned GIFTED!” one of the others hissed.

“Drop the weapons,” Sekher growled. “Drop them! Tell them!”

“A,” Kenner gestured to his companions. “Do it.”

There was hesitation, then they did it.

“All right,” Sekher gasped. Gods, he was tired. “Now, I don’t have an argument with you . . .”

“Sekher Che.”

“What?!” He started. Kenner made a choking noise as the blade bit a little deeper and a whiff of fear reached Sekher’s nostrils. Gods knew his own was strong enough to be smelt all around the campsite. He looked to see who’d spoken.

“Sekher Che.” A wanderer in leather kilt and cuirass worn atop a tunic stepped forward to stare at him. “He matches the descriptions. The Rimmers are baying for him. I heard he destroyed half the palace at Jai’stra, along with about thirty battlegroups. That’s why they came down on Che so hard.”

Sekher growled.

“That true?”Kenner choked out. “You got a reason to be . . .” He cut off with a gasp as Sekher twitched the sword. It would be less than a fingerbreadth before the blade cut arteries.

“I don’t have any argument with you,” Sekher hissed to the group. “Now, just move back. I’m taking your friend here for a walk.”

There were low growls.

“When I’m away he’ll be released.”

Sekher eased up on the sword a little; enough to let the Wanderer walk, then directed him off into the darkness, away from the fire and his shen. He’d circle around later.

“You got nerve, youngling,” Kenner grated. “Either that or a deathwish.”

“Huh!” Panting hard, Sekher glanced back at the campsite, he could see them through the trees. Still there; They hadn’t followed.

“You’re good, but you didn’t kill off thirty battlegroups.”

Sekher grinned. “Nah, it was only twenty. And it wasn’t me who killed them.”

“Who then?”

“Keep going.”

Kenner stumbled a little. The burn on his arm was beginning to bleed. “All right. I wouldn’t mind meeting him.”

“We went different ways.”

“A.”

“Here,” Sekher stopped the other and moved away. “Now; Get down, bite the dirt.”

Kenner lowered to a crouch and hesitated. “You know we can track you down easily enough if we want to.”

That made Sekher pause. “I told you I’ve got no problems with Wanderers. I could have killed you earlier. I could kill you now . . .”

“But you aren’t going to,”Kenner finished.”Look, you’re Che. Che is gone; no more. Where you going now? Aski says the Rimmers are looking for you. He usually knows what he’s talking about.”

Sekher stared at the Wanderer. “What in the hells are you talking about?!”

“Where do you think WE come from?!” Kenner demanded. “Most of us are clanless or outcasts. Sekher . . . Ser . . . whatever you want to be called, don’t you just want to talk about it?”

“About . . .” Sekher stepped back in confusion, then the light dawned. “You are asking me to JOIN you?!”

“A.”

Sekher stared.

“Youngling, you look like a good fighter, but I don’t see you as the sort who’s going to survive on his own. I’m offering you a chance here. You willing to talk about it?”

Sekher realised he was still staring. He looked at the sword in his hand, then at Kenner: “Uh . . .”

“You have my word nothing will happen to you if you agree to talk.”

What?! This was not what Sekher had been expecting. Wanderers . . . how the hells did one handle this?! The fine tip of the sword wavered, then lowered. “All right,” he said in a small voice.

“Excellent.” Kenner grinned at him, then called out, “Right! He’s going to talk!”

“Great!” someone shouted back. “And is he going to put that sword away too?”

Sekher stared out into the darkness and saw nothing but the outlines of trees and bushes. Grudgingly, he slipped the sword back into the sheath.

Undergrowth rustled slightly and two other Wanderers materialised from the darkness, the darters in their hands not quite pointed at him.

— Chapter 66

“Drink?”

Sekher stared at the wineskin but made no move to take it. The Wanderer chuckled and took a sip himself and offered it again.

“Thanks,” Sekher said. It was wine; not very good wine — bitter and with an undertone of the skin’s own leather — but wine nevertheless. He drank, wiped a forearm across his mouth and passed it back. Still, he couldn’t feel comfortable here. Why the hells did they want him?

Altruism was something he didn’t entirely trust.

Two of the Wanderers, two named Diksi and Veydiu, had drawn the short straws. They were out disposing of the Rim bodies. Kenner was grimacing as the one called Aski wrapped a poultice around the burn on his arm. He was older, considerably older than Sekher, with touches of silver creeping into his ruff. More heavily built, with the worn fur and callouses on his hands that betrayed long familiarity with a sword. The scorch mark was an angry black and red streak against the bronzed fur of a highlander. “Ah!” his heavy face wrinkled at sudden pain.

“Hold still,” Aski growled. He was a slightly built Trenalbi, with a most unusual roadcoat: It seemed to be lined completely with pouches. All the medicines and dressing Aski was using came from his coat.

“Easy for you to speak!” Kenner muttered. “You know, Che . . .

“Kysi. Ser Kysi.”

“Probably a good idea,” Kenner grinned. “Alright then, Ser Kysi it is. As I was saying: you’re pretty good with a sword, but not quite good enough to fight your way out of Jai’stra. How’d you do it?”

“I told you, that wasn’t my doing.”

“A. Your friend. He’s a better swordsman, is he? Good enough to take on thirty . . .”

“Twenty.”

“Twenty battlegroups. I would really like to meet such a virtuoso with a sword. Who is he?”

“A daemon.”

The Wanderers stared, then Aski coughed. “You did say a daemon?”

“A. That’s right.”

They exchanged glances. “Look, if you don’t want to tell us, that’s your business.”

“Then how would you explain this?” Sekher asked, patting the alien sword’s sheath.

“I don’t know,” Kenner confessed, then pointed at the sword, “May I?”

Sekher didn’t move.

“You have my word you will get it back. I am quite satisfied with my own blade, thank you.”

The youth scowled, then handed it over. The Wanderer examined the craftmanship closely, turning both sword and sheath over in his hands. He used a claw to trace out the stylised lightbringer on the pommel.

“Don’t touch the blade,” Sekher warned. “It’ll take your finger off before you know it.”

“A.” Kenner acknowledged the warning. “I’ve never seen work like this before. Aski? Your opinion?”

Aski took the sword and squinted at it, then produced a small bundle of black cloth from the depths of his coat and unwrapped a small glass disk. He squinted at the sword through it.

Sekher’s curiosity was piqued. “What’s that?”

“Some gadget he picked up from some of his associates,” Kenner replied. “Makes small things look bigger.” That might have been astonishing. Might have been. Once; a few moons ago. Now Sekher had seen things that made tricks such as that resemble cublin games. Kenner may have noticed his lack of surprise, but he didn’t comment.

Aski concluded his scrutiny. “This is new to me. It’s not steel . . . and the craftmanship; I’ve seen work that’s more intricate and fiddly, but nothing like this style.” He hissed and passed the sword back, “It’s a new one to me. This daemon you’re talking about: tell us more about it.”

And Sekher hesitated, looking from Wanderer to Wanderer. “You worked for the Ch’sty Rim. You start asking questions . . .” He took a deep breath, “How the hells do I know you won’t turn me over.”

“Sek . . . Ser,” Kenner leaned forward. “Do you know anything about Wanderers?”

“A little. You’re mercenary. You work for whoever pays . . .”

“Huh!” Kenner scratched his muzzle. “You know what you’ve been told, and that’s not a whole lot. Look, we’re an old affiliate, almost as old as the Priesthood. You could say we’re almost a clan in ourselves, and we look after our own.”

“Then why me?” Sekher asked. “We draw blood trying to kill each other, then you go and ask me to join you. Why should I?”

“You need us more than we need you,” Kenner grinned. “Trust me, youngling, I’ve got a good sense about these things.”

“True,” Aski agreed.

“Yeah, thanks. Anyway, the way you go charging around attacking Rim soldiers, you’re not going to last long doing that.”

“I think I did alright.”

“They were conscripts. If they’d been a bevy of royal guards or veterans you’d be walking with your ancestors. Listen, youngling: you’re own your own. You’ve lost your entire clan. Where else are you going to go?

“We all saw you fighting, and I reckon you’ve got promise. You had a good teacher, whoever it was showed you the spit and polish approach, not a foot wrong, but no imagination. Clanless and inexperienced, I doubt you’d last long. I’m just offering you a chance to live.”

Clanless. Those were cold words. Sekher shuddered and drew his kness up, hugging them as he looked to the pale orbs of the daughters swinging through the night sky. How could he be sure this was the truth? There was always the chance that Kenner was lying, simply intending to hand Sekher over to Rim forces at the first opportune moment. But . . . he seemed sincere enough, and he was — Sekher considered — probably right: He’d never been outside Che before; what did he know of the world? How could he last? was he sure he wanted to? What was there ahead? Nothing but more running. Home was something he no longer had . . .

Yet there was Chaiila. There was a female who had marked him as her own and carried his seed. That was something to aim for.

Slowly he clenched and unclenched his fist, watching the stubs of his claws sliding in and out of his fingertips. Why weren’t they growing back? “All right,” he said, not looking at the Wanderers. “Alright. I understand. Well, you wanted to know.”

So Sekher told his tale, from the K’streth campaign onwards to this moment. However, it was a carefully edited version: He made no mention of Seth’Nai’s origins and people, nor his metal vessel. He never named Chaiila or Nersi, or even mentioned their sex. In fact if Sekher had heard this story from someone else’s mouth, he’d have never recognised it as part of his own life.

Still, Kenner and Aski listened, quietly. There were doubts, Sekher could see that, but they kept their questions . . . at least until he’d finished.

“And did this daemon also have something to do with your Gift?” Aski asked.

“A.”

Kenner glanced at Aski. The slight Wanderer rubbed his jaw. “Huh! I’ve heard of Trenalbi finding themselves Gifted as they grow older, but I’ve never heard of anyone actually meeting his benefactor.”

“But it didn’t do anything to help my people,” Sekher growled.

Kenner touched the bandages on his arm and grinned. “I wouldn’t complain. It doesn’t seem that useless. That was an excellent crossbow you ruined.”

“But he could have . . . he could have stopped them.” Sekher turned to stare in the direction of Tsuba . . . what remained of Tsuba. Blood scented metallic as his nostrils flared.

“Youngling,” Kenner spoke, his words slow and measured. “Look, that’s behind you. It’s gone. What can you hope to do? one against the Ch’sty, a hero appearing to save the clan . . . Kysi, don’t make a fool of yourself.”

Sekher started to snarl, caught himself. Wasn’t that what he’d been told before? Rush in and carry the day to triumph . . . That time by a female. Huh, perhaps it was some advice he could take. He sagged. “A.”

There were voices approaching, the other two Wanderers returning from disposing of the Rim corpses. Kenner glanced in that direction. “All right. You’ve got a shen somewhere. Yes? Well, you may as well bring it in then get some rest. We leave at first light.”

“Where?”

Kenner shrugged.”Well, for starters we get out of Rim territory, then . . . Well, the world’s a big place.”

A, Sekher thought to himself, bigger than you can imagine. Alright, for now he’d trust them. Fool that he was . . .

— Chapter 67

Could they trust him?

He was a strange one, that youngling. What else could he be? Charging a Rim patrol; his sword; that Gift . . . What about that story of meeting a daemon . . . Huh! He seemed all right, but there was perhaps that chance that he wasn’t entirely sane. It wouldn’t be altogether surprising, after losing his clan, his entire land, then going through a term in the dungeons in Jai’stra. That sort of ordeal would be enough to loosen anyone’s hold.

Kenner touched his burn wound. Then again there was that. That and the sword did corroborate his story. The youngling had shown skill with his blade; also restraint. He had known when to stop, when to listen, and when to talk. There was something there he could work with.

Huh! Kenner shifted the reigns and squinted into the windblown dust. The Che youth was riding before him, hunched down into a cloak that seemed far too thin to offer much protection against the westerly — straight off the Ramparts. It had been a long time since he had had an apprentice. The last one, now he had been quite good, but still foolhardy and unable to hold his liquor. The last Kenner had heard he had gotten himself killed in a tavern brawl. A tavern brawl for godsakes!

Still, he’d been the same way himself. Once. How long ago? Gods! That long? He shuddered. Growing old was something he’d never liked thinking about. It just snuck up on you, never giving you a chance to face it. Worst of all, there would come a time he would be too old for this kind of travelling, but the thought of being relegated to rotting in the confines of a town, freezing to death slowly in an attic somewhere, that brought a bad taste to the mouth. He coughed quietly in disgust.

Yet, there was still time. He had a couple of decades left. Eventually, he would find something more dignified.

For now . . . there was some teaching to be done.

— Chapter 68

Elsewhere:

The river was a sparkling blue ribbon along the green floor of the alpine valley, almost metallic as it glittered in patches of sunlight pushing through the clouds. On either side the mountains rose: forest rising to rock climbing higher to snowbound peaks that buried their heads in a ceiling of shifting clouds.

Animals moved in that valley. There were the small herbivores and scavengers and hunters scuttling in

the undergrowth, hiding from the larger predators who occasioned down from the heights. There were things analogous to fish in the river. Christo only knew how they came to be there; perhaps through an underground channel. Perhaps they’d been there since the mountains raised themselves from the oceans.

From a distance none of that was apparent. There was just the mountain valley.

Hayes perched himself upon a sun-warmed outcropping of red rock high in the northern end of the valley and just watched it all. Before him the sheer drop fell away for more than seventy metres. Beyond that, behind him, all around, the sea of dark green twisted leaves of countless trees rustled in the shifting air. The brilliant yellow, work-scarred metal frame of the loading waldo waiting beneath a nearby tree didn’t fit here at all. Nevertheless, no matter how motionless the machine may have appeared, the sensor cluster inside the chassis cage never ceased its survey of the surroundings.

This place was so different from the vast openess of the plains; so much greener and . . . vertical. Hayes had never seen so many trees in one place in all his life. There were some agrohabs that had parks set aside, several hundred square kays of ‘wild’ terran flora and fauna. One could find a high spot and watch it spreading out along the curve of the horizon until the green vanished beyond the blue of the projected ‘sky’. But they couldn’t compete with this.

And there were no natives here.

That was something Hayes had made absolutely sure of. Drones had scoured the valley from end to end. Thermal, IR, Kirlian, EMR, ECG, enhancement, contrast, seismic . . . none of the sensors had uncovered anything, either natives nor their artifacts. If they had been hiding, there would have been some trace.

There was little doubt that if there had been something intelligent here, it would have seen him arrive. A black scar, seven-hundred metres long, was burned into the mountainside where trees had been vaporised by plasma. This landing had been better than the last, but still the module had taken damage. At the moment it was further up the moutainside, perched drunkenly on damaged landing jacks and looming over the trees like a gigantic white glacier.

The flight had been little more than a hop, but getting that mass airborne had taken power. A lot of power. The superconducting accelerators for the Aggies chewed through megawatts while the plasma engines did the same to reserves of both solid and ionised fuel. Running systems like that from a single PCU was like trying to run a firehose from a bathtub.

“9.056 percent remaining before reaction mass is insufficient to sustain PCU core. Shutdown will be initialised at .26 percent.”

Hayes sighed helplessly and pinched the bridge of his nose. “How long?”

The vaguely gorrila-shaped machine couldn’t shrug. “At minimum consumption, a estimated minimum of thirteen months.”

“Burn it! And with repairs?”

“Four months. And I do not have the onboard facilities to fully repair the number three and seven extensors in landing jack three or realign structural bulkheads in the starboard services pods. Lifesupport filter units 69 percent operational. Rebreather service pods damaged . . .”

Hayes propped his chin in his hands and listened morosely. The list went on.

Jeet! But that last hop had been necessary! What else was he supposed to do? Sit around and wait for those fuzznuts to catch up to him? Then what? Sit around and wait while they tried to crack his shell. They wouldn’t even have anything able to breech the outer hull! Hordes of them trying to burn him out while their bogus priests pulled their parlour tricks. What then? Perhaps turn one of the module’s KK cannon on them? A burn from the engines?

He raked his fingers through his hair. Who’d have believed it? The first terra type world; inhabited! To beat that, by things that looked more like two-legged hairy wolves than people. He’d never thought to scan for a pre-industrial society without even the most basic filament lighting, their small towns built from stone and wood, not much agriculture for a primarily carniverous species. They ate their meat raw, RAW for Christo’s sake! Go out and kill something and eat it while it was still warm! Eating a meal with them was something you wouldn’t forget quickly. When they stood close you tended to remember that, especially when they chose to grin.

And it was stranger yet that he found he had come to call some of the friends. He still wasn’t sure of their real names, he could only hear them as a squeaking and trilling tickling the upper edges of his hearing. Their language was pronounceable if lowered into a range audible to humans, but he’d been making do entirely with software and electronics, splicing code-crackers and translation lexicons and algorithms together in an operating shell. It worked, and the software learned a great deal faster than he could and never forgot, but there were times he felt the machine didn’t really convey what he was really trying to say.

Such as that night he’d woken up to find a hairy body in his bed.

That still confused him. They had talked, but what she had wanted . . . it was also what he had wanted. And that was physically impossible. He had liked her, she had been openly friendly. The talks they’d had told him so much about their society and the natives themselves; the Trenalbi.

She had been related to the other feamle in some way, the dark one with the volatile temper. What did he think of her? Hayes wasn’t too sure. As first impressions went, she came across as abrasive as a sandblaster. She was stubborn, vicious, touchy, and intolerant, but she’d managed to trick her way into a frigging castle, she was perhaps overly protective of Nersi, and her affection and trust for Sekher was obvious enough. Perhaps it took some searching, but there was enough there to like.

And then there was Sekher, that other one he called friend, the one who’d scared him spitless in the cage, also the first who’d begun to treat him as something more than an animal. He wasn’t the convict Hayes had first thought him. A political prisoner, Nersi had told him. The son of the king of one of the dozens of small provinces the crater was fragmented into, to be used as a hostage in the coming war.

Murphy, but he’d had a good run, Hayes sighed. Contact with pre-industrial cultures prohibited and he’d gone so far as to detonate a PCU, killing hundreds of them. Sekher’s appeal for help was something he’d hoped would never come, but it did, and when it came, there was nothing he could do but refuse. Things had already gone too far.

Hayes picked up a fallen stick and twirled it idly between his fingers. Shit! He hoped Sekher would make it home all right. There was nothing he could have done for him. He swung the stick, then began breaking small pieces off and flicking them away, watching as they spun away over the cliff. Now, he was following regs, and where did that get him? A damaged ship on its last ergs.

Another piece sailed down.

Now? Power was ebbing all the time. His lifesupport relied on that, food and atmosphere recycling, also the maintenance systems, computer, comms. After lifesupport went he’d be onto ratcakes; maintenance down and the servo’s would run on batteries for a time, then grind to a halt. Pan . . . the computer had fission power cells capable of keeping the system up for centuries, but the scanners and auxilieries that gave the system its power would be crippled. The gravitic links with the main body of the miner would fail. Before that happened he’d have to upload a copy OS, control systems, and relevant addresses to a tempcore in the mainship. Once communications were reduced to the timelag and distortion of old-style EM pulses, it would be the only way the mainship and factories out in the belts could continue their work on replacement modules. When maintenance died the servos would stop; any damage in the module or equipment would have to be repaired by hand. Not easy. The human body wasn’t designed to squeez into conduits ten centimetres across.

He flicked another twig over the edge. Was there a way around this? With the juice left, there was no way to build another reactor. Sia! but he couldn’t even depend on solar panels. What?

“First, what have you got on supplementary energy sources? Something that can be used downside. Non-emitting, passive, non-polluting.”

“Searching . . . Entries found under library, historical: Hydroelectric, fossil-fuels including natural gas, windpower, tidal power, geothermal, and solar. Is there a particular item you had in mind?”

“Ah . . . What would be most effective in this sort of environment?”

“More geographical data is required before an accurate recommendation can be made. On existing information possible suggestions are windpowered generators, solar collectors, hydroelectric and possibly geothermal.”

“Hydro, huh?” Hayes gazed thoughtfully at the river.”What would that take?”

“A full survey of the watercourse to find a suitable site. The resources involved depend upon the location. An estimate based on optimum conditions downloaded to matrix now.”

Hayes flicked the matrix display on and scanned the listing on the projected screen. Murphy! Most likely types looked to be either the arch or butress dam. Core samples for soil analysis. Steel and plascrete into the kilotonnes. Servos and heavy waldos by the dozen. Construction of a cofferdam, high capacity pumps . . . Perhaps that could be circumvented. Provided the current wasn’t too powerful plascrete and compressed rock could be worked underwater. That would mean ensuring the machinery was waterproof. Then there were the spillways, generators . . .

And in damming the river, what would that do to the valley? Put that on hold for the time.

There were more problems with windpower. Namely, finding enough square acerage where windmills could be erected.

Geothermal power, now that had possibilities. There were hot springs in the valley. They had a source. Perhaps that could be harnessed. Steam turbines were ancient, but they produced power. For a long time Hayes sat muttering to himself and staring into the middle distance, completely lost in thought. When the inspiration came, he could have kicked himself for not having though of it earlier.

“Dammit! First, what about the exchangers in the PCU!”

The AI hesitated, then did its best to answer,”Thirty two Cromwell carbon-rhenium exchange envelopes each generating . . .”

He waved that aside as he scrambled to his feet and began pacing on the rock. “Yeah! I know all that! You know what temperatures they can take?”

“Recommended operating temperature is 1500 c, but they can withstand temperatures up to approximately 3700 c.”

“So suppose you were to use a, say . . . R-19 worm, fit it with the exchangers, then bore down through the crust until you hit magma. How would that compare with the PCU?”

“Theoretically, the idea is feasible. However, there could be technical difficulties aside from the heat. Pressure and moving rock might cause damage. If enough magma congealed around the exchangers it could degrade performance and cause damage.”

Hayes shrugged. “Shielding and reduced friction treatments should do it. The grounds not going to move that much in a year. It’s been done before on Terra. Check the references, then get to work.”

“Acknowledged,” the AI responded.

Hayes turned to watch the valley again. A trio of the featherless alien birds were circling the treetops like miniature aircraft. If they were calling it was in the auditory range of everything else on this world, he couldn’t hear them. Christo, if he screwed up and turned this mountain into a volcano quite a few people were going to be blowing blood vessels.

Hah! What did one volcano matter; he already had enough on record to get the ‘crats and contact specialists ripping their hair. He’d be lucky if they contented themselves with dumping his licence, slamming him in some forsaken refinery orbiting an iceball somewhere and melting down the key. Again, HAH! Grinning, he kicked at a stone, sending it clattering down the cliff.

— Chapter 69

Pale walls of sand-colored stone encircled the town. Behind it, the sluggish brown snake of the Mestrie river wound through the plains, the colors of the crop fields along its banks like a crazypatch blanket in earthen tones. Dust hung in choking clouds above the road as a steady supply of wagons, shen, and Trenalbi on foot braved the summer heat. The bright colors of their clothes and the tassles of their animals and wagons were travelstained but still stood out cheerfully against the golden sienna of sun-bleached grasses. Festival time; outlying farms journeying to town to sell their wares, socialize and join the festivities.

Tenada. Not a large town; an outpost at the peripheries of the Soli Clan holdings, a realm itself at the western edge of the world, several kingdoms removed from Ch’sty lands.

Perhaps here.

Chenuk hitched up his carrybag and started walking down to the road. His shen was gone, sold. Now a sword hung from his hip. It wasn’t much: bronze, no embelishments, but it was almost all his silver. His food was gone, he hadn’t been able to catch anything over the past couple of days. The coppers in his purse would buy a modest meal this night, but no more. He would spend the night . . . somewhere; a disused attic, under the walls, somewhere.

Festival time. Would there be work here? Perhaps the Watch would be desperate enough to take him on. He had been practising — wrong handed he could make himself look dangerous with the sword, but was it enough?

His stomach growled. With a sigh he hitched his bag again and wondered if someone would offer him a ride.

Epilogue

To be continued

eventually . . .