“I like you,” she said, when the laughter had died down. “What’s your name?”

“Dax,” he told her. “Dax West.”

“I’m Kaire,” she replied, wringing out the cloth. He saw that she was sitting next to a backpack with the flap open – she must have fetched it from wherever she had been hiding. She tossed the cloth inside it and turned back to him. “How do you feel?”

“All right, all things considered.” He began to sit up, wincing again at the pain in his chest. “I think I owe you my life. Whatever that’s worth at the minute… Thank you.”

“Hmm,” she said, rubbing the back of her neck as if she was embarrassed. “I have a confession. When I saw the Earthborn attacking you, I actually thought you were someone else.”

“Oh, great.” Dax laughed. “That makes me feel much better.”

Kaire didn’t laugh. She looked off, into the silence and dust of the ruins. “I’ve been looking for my partner. We work as a team. He’s been missing for a couple of days. He went out to scout and didn’t come back. I thought I’d finally tracked him down.”

Dax started to nod, sympathetically. Then something occurred to him. It was a crazy idea, but it made as much sense as the other crazy things that had happened so far. Without knowing why, he asked: “Does he smoke, by any chance?”

Kaire’s eyes swung back to him at once. “What did you say?”

Dax’s mind was far away, back in Ouroboros, as he searched his memory. “Does he smoke rollups? And have black hair?”

Her hand flashed out and grasped him by the throat, as fast as a snake striking. He gagged with shock, all the air surprised out of him. She had a grip like a steel gauntlet.

“How do you know that?” she demanded. “What is this? Who are you? You said you dreamed about this place, about me. Why would you dream about us? You’re no Sundered, are you? You’re working for the Evinthei! You're their agent!” She was close enough for him to see that she still had a freckle of blood on the bridge of her nose. “What have you done with him? Tell me! What have you done with Athellus Borden?”

Dax choked, clutching at her hand. It was too easy to imagine those spines sliding out and cutting him open. He had a flash of that little girl in the Aliens film; the one who says monsters are real – that they’re real after all –

He finally managed to gasp what had to be said: “Your – friend is – he’s – hurt – but I can – help you -“

She released him, suddenly, as if only just realising she was hurting him. Dax hauled in a breath, rubbing at his neck.

After a moment, Kaire said, quietly: “Athellus hasn’t smoked for years. It’s something only the Evinthei would know. How could you -?”

“I have no idea,” said Dax hoarsely, “but I know. The same way I know he’s hurt now. I saw it. Like a vision.”

“Do you – know where he is?”

“I have an idea.”

“Tell me where, now,” Kaire ordered.

Dax shook his head. His anger was up now, burning hard. “No. Forget it. I’m not saying anything until I get some answers.”

Kaire’s eyes narrowed. “You’re bargaining with my partner’s life?”

“No, I’m bargaining for mine,” he shot back. “I feel like I’ve fallen through a hole in the world. I’m wandering around in some real-life version of a tumour-induced dream I kept having. I don’t get this any better than you do!”

He got a grip on himself. “Look. I’ll tell you what you want to know, but you help me first. Why did you call me a Sundered?”

For a nervous moment, despite his bravado, he thought she was going to grab him again and just beat the information out of him. Instead, she simply reached out and touched him on the chest, on the ragged remains of his shirt. Dax looked down at the skin beneath. Kaire had wiped off the blood and smeared some sort of herbal-smelling salve on the wounds.

Under the salve, he could see…something. It was a mark on his chest; a symbol, like a cross between a sunburst and a star. When he touched it, it was sore, as if it had been burned there.

He looked up at Kaire, his expression pleading. This was all too much – too much. Whispering, he asked: “What’s happening to me?”

Kaire was looking at him with sympathy. “I don’t quite know. But I can guess –“

“So guess! Tell me the truth!”

She looked away for a moment, then back. “Right now, there’s really only one truth that’s important…”

 

 

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