Athellus fell silent, looking at the stone floor. The rain was coming down harder on the roof, filling the sudden void. Dax sensed, uncomfortably, that he had hit a nerve. He noticed that Athellus was rubbing at his left shoulder with two fingers, but he didn’t think the other man knew he was doing it.

“Banru are wanderers,” Athellus said, after a long time. “We travel from world to world, completing whatever mission we’ve been given to do there, then moving on. It’s dangerous work, because you never know what might be lurking in the world you’re travelling to, so we all have to be combat-ready. And the missions themselves are often hazardous. That’s why banru usually work in pairs.”

“But who gives you these missions? Who do you work for?”

Athellus stopped rubbing at his shoulder. “I call them the People Upstairs – Kaire calls them the Greater Powers. I don’t think they have a name for themselves, they respond to pretty much whatever you call them. They appear to you when you first become banru, and after that – after your ‘ban-reth’, which is what they call it – they speak to you about what your next job is. Usually in dreams…”

“Who are they?”

“I don’t know. You never see them clearly – I don’t know if they’re human or not. But they seem to have a vested interest in clearing up the various messes the Guardians left behind, protecting people from that. That’s often what our work revolves around.”

Dax snorted. “You don’t know who these people are or what their real agenda is, but you work for them anyway?”

Athellus watched him, steadily. “Yeah. I do. Because without them, I’d be dead right now.”

Dax blinked.

"That’s how it works,” Athellus told him. “I don't think they can talk to ordinary people very well when they're in a normal state of mind. But when someone is badly injured, about to die, their mind becomes open and these Greater Powers are able to communicate with them. They offer a choice. The person can accept ban-reth, allow the People Upstairs to heal their injuries, and become their foot soldier, a banru, with all the power and talent that involves. Or they can refuse, and the People will... let them go.

"And I didn't want to die."

He held Dax’s gaze. “They offer ban-reth – they offer life, but no promises beyond that. It's not quite a second chance, but a chance to fix your mistakes. Maybe enough time to see your family again, to save a few people who would have died too.

“It has its price, though. It’s the nature of what we do. Banru are right out on the edge, right in the firing line. There’s risk along with every mission we take, so our survival rate is… not good. People started saying that banru were an offence to the natural order. That, because the Greater Powers intervened in the event of someone’s death, the person they saved is living on borrowed time. I don’t know about the first part, but the second…most of us believe it.”

Athellus reached for the cup of water Kaire had left on the floor, took a drink, then leaned towards Dax. “Does that answer your question, or have you got another comeback ready?”

Dax swallowed and nodded. He had thought ‘banru’ just referred to a job he didn’t know about. He hadn’t expected this.

Meditatively, Athellus scrubbed at his hair, thoughtfully, looking around. “Not many safe places for us – especially in Nones. The Evinthei… they don’t like us much. But the Chapel is a sanctuary. Because of those two.” He pointed at the statues with a thumb. “Because of what they represent.”

Dax leaned on his hand, looking at the altar. Now he’d got over the initial shock, he could see what Athellus meant about the statues – they really did look sad.

"What’s their story?” he asked.

Athellus had started going through his pack, pulling things out here and there, finally coming up with one of the ration packets. “So before I’ve even eaten breakfast, I have to correct your ignorance about my job, and now you want a history lesson?”

Dax could sense that, despite that, he was in the mood to talk. “Don’t worry. If you get boring, I’ll just stop listening.”

Athellus grinned, tearing open the packet. “Well, if you’re just some poor Sundered sap from London, I suppose I’ll have to go back a little way. I hope you like long stories.”

 

 

 

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