“One thing,” said Kaire, as they crossed the compound. “Here – in the right hand pocket."

She turned to him so he could open the backpack’s pouch, which was zipped tight over something solid. Dax wasn’t sure what to expect, but it was still something of a surprise when his fingers touched heavy, slightly greasy metal. Carefully, he drew the gun out by the trigger guard and held it up.

“Can you use a gun?” Kaire asked.

“Sort of,” said Dax uncomfortably. It was true, in a way: he had some experience from twice-weekly paintball games with Cal. But that was messing around in the woods with paint pellets, and this was a live weapon. More than that, it looked weird – it seemed to have an extra chamber on the side, slender and full of some bright blue liquid.

“It’s in case we need it,” Kaire told him. “The Evinthei don’t know Athellus has a partner; they won’t expect him to be rescued. But the element of surprise doesn’t last long – they outnumber and outgun us. We’ll need every advantage.”

“Okay,” said Dax, warily, still holding the gun at a distance between two fingers. “But if you’re expecting me to kill anybody, you can forget it.”

“Fine, fine,” said Kaire, exasperated. “Just don’t point it and say ‘bang’, okay?” She started climbing the rubble.

“If we go down the other side we can go between the buildings onto street level,” Dax pointed out helpfully, cautious of her temper.

“I want to get the lie of the land first.”

“Good idea. Just in –“

“Shhh,” she said, pausing. “Hear that?”

Dax listened. Nothing. He opened his mouth to tell her so, and then he realised he could hear the sound of boots on concrete, not too far away.

Kaire smiled with relief as she quickly shrugged off the backpack. “That’s them. We’re in time.” She pulled her cloak out and wrapped it around herself, tugging the hood up to cover her hair while Dax clambered slowly up, up to the remains of the wall still standing. It had crumbled in places – he peered between them like an archer sighting through the slits in a castle wall, and saw Lailenus Street.

With a jolt, he recognised the old signpost, the one he had seen in Ouroboros, far down below. Walking along the concrete towards it were several figures, most of them uniformed, their faces covered by protective gear and all carrying rifles. On their body armour were white patches that all bore the same symbol. The foremost figure was slight and feminine, with chevrons on her shoulder. In the rear was the only one not in uniform – a man in a black T-shirt and combats, his hands bound in front of him.

“Athellus.”

Kaire was beside him, indistinct in the gloom now her pure white hair was covered. She only had eyes for the man at the back as the little group came to a halt, just under the sign.

“I’m going,” she whispered, and made as if to jump over the wall and down to the street.

Dax grabbed her around the ribs, pulling her back. “Wait!” he hissed.

“What the - Let me go!”

He kept his hold. “They’re planning to execute him, right? Well, look. They’re all around him now. The second you go down there they’ll kill him. We have to wait!”

Kaire hesitated, then relaxed, though her knuckles were still white where she was gripping the edge of the wall. “Okay. Okay.”

Dax cast a wary eye over her as he let go. Though it was true that these Evinthei were standing around Athellus, he also had a very clear memory of how she had dealt with the Earthborn. It was one thing to see her kill monsters that would have happily feasted on him. It would be quite another to see those deadly spines turned against a human being. Maybe a better chance would present itself. If Athellus was alive, so was hope to get them all out of this in one piece.

Conscious of the gun she had given him – an unwelcome weight in his hand – Dax settled down behind the wall, watching the scene unfolding below.

 

 

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