/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy / Series: Well of echoes

Alchymist

Ian Irvine


Ian Irvine

Alchymist

Part One: Phynadr

One

The mud was made from earth and blood, organs and entrails, for the battle had raged back and forth until the dead carpeted the ground. It was the most ghastly sight Irisis Stirm had ever seen, and after a day and a night she was still stuck in the middle of it. The flower of humanity's youth was being slaughtered outside the walls of Snizort, and there was nothing anyone could do.

Dropping her broken sword in the mire, Irisis took up a sound one. There were plenty to choose from. 'Scrutator,' she said as they climbed a little knoll, boots skidding in the wet. The rising sun picked out red eyes in their dirty faces. 'What are we going to do?'

'Die' Xervish Flydd grimaced. 'This marks the end of civilisation, of everything I've fought for all my life.'

'I won't give up, surr.'

'Very noble of you, Irisis.'

'There's got to be a way.'

'There isn't. There's too many of them and they're killing us twice as fast as we're killing them.'

Irisis looked around. 'Let's try and get to the command post. It's not far now.' It stood on a flat-topped hill away to their right, and the Council flag still fluttered there. 'At least we'll be able to see what's going on.'

'Where's Ullii?' said Flydd, very belatedly.

'Hiding, I expect.'

'Then she's got more sense than the rest of us. What about Pilot Hila?'

'She was killed in the first attack yesterday morning, not long after the air-floater crashed. You stood over her, holding the enemy off, until she died.'

Flydd shook his grizzled head. 'I don't remember. I can hardly remember anything about the past day.'

'I remember every minute,' said Irisis, 'and I wish I didn't. Come on.'

A lyrinx staggered out of the wallow to their left. The creature stood head and shoulders over Irisis, who was a tall woman, and its great mouth could have bitten her leg off. One leathery wing dragged in the bloody muck; a mighty arm had been severed at the elbow. It slashed feebly at the scrutator, who swayed backwards then lunged, plunging his sword between the armoured skin plates and into its heart.

The creature fell into the red mud, splattering it all over them. Flydd did not even look down.

'Where did you learn such swordsmanship, Xervish?' said Irisis. The scrutator was a small, scrawny man, past middle age. She had seen him fight before, but never with such deadly efficiency as in the past day.

'The scrutators have the best of everything, so I was taught by an expert. Even so, that move wouldn't have worked on an able-bodied lyrinx.'

They passed between two clankers – eight-legged mechanical monsters big enough to carry ten soldiers and all their supplies. The one on the left looked intact, though a headless man lay on the shooter's platform up top, slumped over his javelard, a spear-throwing device like a giant crossbow. Another body was sprawled on the catapult cranks. Once the node had been destroyed its field vanished, and the clankers became useless, immobile metal.

A lone shooter stood behind the loaded javelard of the right-hand machine, training his weapon back and forth across the battlefield. He fired, and the heavy spear was gone too quickly to trace, taking a distant lyrinx full in the chest.

'Nice shooting,' said the scrutator, squelching by.

The soldier shook his head. 'Not good enough to save us, sum' He jumped down. 'It was my last spear.'

'Where's your operator?'

'Dead!'

'What are you like on the ground?'

The soldier turned out the inside of his jerkin. Irisis caught a flash of silver.

The scrutator stopped dead. 'You earned that with a sword?'

'And a long knife, surr. At the battle for Plimes, two years ago.'

'I need a good man with a blade. Find yourself a weapon and come with us.'

Irisis was astounded. The scrutator was known for decisiveness, but to select a stranger so quickly was unprecedented. 'I hope you're a good judge of character,' she said out of the corner of her mouth as they slogged through the bloody mire.

'I chose you, didn't I?'

'That's what I mean.' She grinned. Irisis, with her yellow hair and that long, ripe figure, was a beautiful woman, even covered in mud and gore.

'You didn't see, did you?'

'The badge? No.'

'That was no badge. It was the Star of Valour, and it falls to few living men to wear their own.'

They angled across the field towards the command-post hill, skirting a wallow in which lay the head of a soldier like a single flower in a brown bowl. The eyes stared right at them. Irisis looked the other way. They'd seen a thousand such sights in the past day but still it made her stomach roil.

'Your name would be Flangers, would it not?' said the scrutator.

'That's right, surr/ said the soldier. 'How did you know?'

'It's my business to know the names of heroes. Do you know who I am?'

'Of course. You're the People's Scrutator.'

'Where did that name come from?' Flydd exclaimed.

'I can't say, surr,' said Flangers. 'The soldiers have always called you that.'

Disrespectful louts,' growled Flydd. 'I'll have a detachment or two whipped, and then we'll see if they dare such cheek.' There was a twinkle in his eye, though, and the soldier saw it.

Irisis chuckled. Flydd liked to be in control and to know everything; it was a rare sight to see him surprised. 'I'm Irisis.' She offered Flangers her hand.

'You're not from these parts, Flangers?' the scrutator went on as they began to climb the hill.

Flangers shook his head. He was grey eyed and fair haired, with neat, sunburnt features set off by a jutting jaw. Though not overly tall or muscular, he was lean and strong. 'I'm a Thurkad man,' he said, staring blankly at a pair of bodies that lay side by side without a mark on them. The swarming flies were already doing their work.

'Refugee?' asked Flydd. Thurkad, the greatest and oldest city in the west, had fallen two years before, ending the resistance on the great island of Meldorin.

'No. I joined up when I turned fifteen. Six years ago.'

'Did you see much fighting before Plimes?'

Flangers named half a dozen battlefields. 'More than I care to remember.'

'You must be a fine shooter,' said Irisis, 'to have survived all those.'

'Or a lucky one,' said Flydd, slipping in the mud. 'I could use a bit of that now.'

Flangers helped him up. 'It ran out today. I've not lost an operator before.' He was not bitter about it, though many a man might have been. 'We're done, surr. It's over.'

'You're a hero, Flangers. You can't talk like that.'

'I've seen whole nations wiped out, surr. The ancient wonders of my homeland are no more, the millions who dwelt there dead or scattered across the globe. Even Thurkad, the greatest city the world has ever seen, lies empty and in ruins. There's no hope left. The enemy will eat us all.' He gave a little shudder of horror. 'Even our little children.'

'You know the penalty for despairing talk, soldier?'

'For many of the common folk, death at the hands of the scrutators is preferable to being torn apart and eaten.'

'Yet despite your despair you fight on.'

'Duty is everything to me, surr,' said Flangers.

'Then may you take comfort from doing your duty. Give me a hand up here, would you?1

Taking the scrutator by the elbow, Flangers helped him through the steep pinch to the top of the hill. At the edge, Flydd took Irisis's arm and moved away. Tell me, Irisis, do you despair as well?'

'No.'

'Why not?'

'I know you'll find a way to save us.'

'Be careful where you put your faith. I'm just a man. I can fail, or be brought down as easily as any other man.'

'But you won't. I know you'll see us through, surr.' He did not reply. 'Surr, what is it?' she went on.

'Flangers has shaken me, Irisis. The people now see death as their only escape. Despair will bring us down more quickly than a horde of the enemy, and how can I counter that?'

'With a bold strike; a miraculous victory.'

'It would take a mighty miracle to save us now.'

'Then you'd better think of a way,' she retorted, 'We're counting on you, surr, and you can't let us down.'

On top of the hill was an oval of cleared land, almost as flat as a tabletop, containing a large command tent in the centre and clusters of smaller ones to either side. A wall of guards lowered their spears to let them through. Inside, a line of crossbowmen held weapons at the ready. The lyrinx always attacked the command post first, if they could get to it.

Flydd nodded to the captain of the guard, then turned to look over the battlefield. A shadow passed across his face and he made for the command tent.

General Tham, a bouncing ball of muscle topped by a shiny bald head, met him at the flap. 'Scrutator Flydd! We'd given up hope of seeing you -'

'Where's General Grism?' Flydd interrupted. 'He's not dead?'

'He's over the far side. Shall I call him?' 'You'll do. What's our situation?'

Tham plucked at an ear the shape and colour of a dried peach. 'We've lost fourteen thousand men, dead, and another six thousand will never fight again. The Aachim have lost six thousand and, even with their grudging aid, we're failing fast.'

'Grudging aid?' Flydd said sharply.

'I – I'd hesitate to call our allies cowards, surr, but…'

'Spit it out, General.'

'Even before the field went down, the Aachim never gave what we asked of them. They always hung back. And since then, I've seen only defence of their own lines. When we counterattack, they never come with us…'

'It's a long time since they've fought to the bitter end,' Flydd mused, 'knowing that, if they lost, all would be lost. Their noble exterior, it seems, conceals a rotten core. More than once they've failed in the uttermost hour, when the difference between victory and defeat was simply the courage to fight on, no matter what the odds. Even so, the Histories tell us that the Aachim have more often fallen through treachery than military might. Well, General, if that's the kind of allies we have, we must fight all the harder.'

And die all the sooner. I beg you, Scrutator, allow me to sound the retreat or by dawn there won't be a man left.'

'Sound it,' said Flydd, 'though if the enemy truly want to destroy us, that will give them the chance to do the job by nightfall.'

'You doubt that they do?'

'It's doesn't seem to be their main objective,' said Flydd.

'Then what are they really here for?' Tham exclaimed.

'That's what we'd all like to know.'

Tham gave orders to his signaller, who ran to the edge of the hill. Horns began to sound. Irisis watched the scrutator from the corner of her eye as he paced back and forth, looking sick. Nothing had gone right since they'd come to Snizort. The Council of Scrutators had ordered him to destroy the lyrinx node-drainer, for similar devices at other vital nodes had immobilised clankers and led to the destruction of the armies they escorted.

Flydd and Irisis, aided by the seeker, Ullii, had stolen into the underground maze of Snizort. Ullii had led them through the tar saturated tunnels to the uncanny chamber of the node-drainer, and Flydd had succeeded in destroying it. Unfortunately that had caused the destruction of the node itself, in a catastrophic explosion. All the fields, weak as well as strong, had vanished, rendering clankers and constructs useless, and leaving the army of sixty thousand men, plus twenty thousand Aachim, unprotected.

Such a force should have been a match for twenty-five thousand lyrinx on an open battlefield, but Snizort was surrounded by a maze of tar bogs, mine pits, windrows made from cleared woodland, traps and ancient tar runs that the enemy had set alight. And when the lyrinx emerged from their underground labyrinth they were far more numerous than expected – near to thirty-five thousand. The soldiers, lacking the armour of the clankers, had been slaughtered.

Flangers stood guard outside the command tent as Flydd and Tham went in. Irisis stalked the rim of the hill, looking down at the battlefields but seeing nothing. After all their work, and all their agony down in the tar pits, the result was worse than if they had done nothing.

Yet she'd had a personal triumph in Snizort. Under extreme duress, and with Ullii's help, Irisis had recovered the talent that had been hidden, or suppressed, since her fourth birthday. Her ability to draw power from the field was back. Irisis was no longer a fraud, but a true crafter at last.

All her life she'd obsessed about getting her talent back but, now she had it, it gave her no joy. Why was that? Was she incapable of taking pleasure in her own achievements? Or was it that nothing would ever come of it?

A shiver passed up her spine. Her life's dream, after the war was over, was to be a jeweller. Irisis had a rare gift for that craft and had been making jewellery in her spare time since she was a child. Once the war ended, and controller artisans were no longer required, she planned to follow her dream. However, from the moment they'd escaped the tar pits, Irisis had been troubled by intimations of mortality. She felt doomed.

Despite her earlier talk, today or tomorrow must see the end of them. Not even the scrutator, wily dog that he undoubtedly was, could get them out of this fiasco. There was no hope of escape in the air-floater, for it had been damaged in the explosion of the node and would take days to repair, assuming it had survived the battle at all.

Discovering that she had returned to her starting point, Irisis sat down on the edge of the hill, to the rear of the tents, trying to get a picture of what was going on. Everywhere she looked, desperate men fought and died. A lyrinx could take on two human soldiers at once and win, and often, three or four.

There were few enemy in the air, though that was not surprising. Many lyrinx could fly, but on this heavy world they had to supplement their wings by using the Secret Art, if they had a talent for it. Even then, flight took so much out of them that they could do little else at the same time. But to fly here, they would have to draw on a distant node, and only the most powerful mancers of all could do that.

Irisis saw a pair directly above, riding the noonday thermals, conserving their strength. They were watching the formations on the battlefield and relaying simple messages to their brethren on the ground.

Scanning the sky, Irisis caught sight of an oddly-shaped speck just above the eastern horizon. It did not look like a lyrinx. Another speck appeared to the left of the first, and a third to the right. The air was hazy; she could not quite make them out. Squinting until her eyes watered, she saw that the specks were slightly elongated, with a smaller mark beneath each.

More specks appeared, until there were a dozen. Irisis ran to the command tent. 'Scrutator! Scrutator!'

He looked up from the map table where he and Tham were moving pointers, planning the retreat. Scribes were taking down the orders and passing them to a stream of messengers outside.

'Go away, Crafter' he snapped. 'This can't wait for anything.'

'Come outside, quickly! You won't believe it.'

Flydd peered at her from beneath an eyebrow that snaked from one side of his forehead to the other. At the look on her face he dropped his marker and hurried, in that crab-lurch of his, to the entrance.

She drew him around the back of the tent. 'Look!' Irisis threw out her arm.

The shapes were unmistakable now. 'Air-floaters!' said Flydd. 'Twelve of them, and coming fast. So that's what the Council was up to.'

'Any reinforcement is welcome,' said Tham, pushing between them, 'though a dozen air-floaters can do precious little to help us now.'

'Let's wait and see,' said Flydd. 'Can you rustle up some breakfast, Irisis?'

In twenty minutes the air-floaters were overhead, flying in perfect formation, four wide and three high. They made a circle over the top of the battlefield and the fighting broke off as humans, Aachim and lyrinx stood by to see what their intentions were. Being so light, air-floaters could be driven by a distant field.

'They seem to be working to a plan,' said Irisis, wolfing down a gritty hunk of black bread. It was tasteless army fare, but she was too hungry to care.

The machines had maintained formation all the way around the circuit. 'It's almost… It's as if they're all controlled by one mind.' Flydd carved slivers off a distinctly green cheese and popped them into his mouth, two at a time. 'Though I know that's not possible.'

Flangers came up beside them, one hand resting on the hilt of his sheathed sword. 'They'd better look out!'

The two lyrinx sentries were now converging on the ranked air-floaters. One corkscrewed down to the left side, the other plummeted directly towards the top-right machine. The attack was co-ordinated so they would reach their targets at the same time. And air-floaters were vulnerable. One slash of a lyrinx's claws could tear the gasbag right open. Moreover, an attack from directly above was difficult to defend against.

The air-floaters shifted slightly out of line. Just before the higher lyrinx reached its target there came a flash that lit up the creature. Its wings folded up and it fell out of the air. Rotating slowly, it disappeared behind a boulder-topped hill. 'What was that?' said Irisis. 'I don't know,' the scrutator replied.

The corkscrewing lynnx beat its great wings, coming out of the dive right beside the gasbag of the air-floater. It gave a measured slash but, before its claws could part the fabric, it too was hit by a flash of light. The lyrinx's wings churned, it somersaulted backwards and fell, upside down. Halfway to the ground it seemed to recover, flapped several times and almost broke its fall, but lost it and plunged into the bloody mud of the battlefield at a speed that must have pulverised every bone in its great body.

'I don't sense the Art,' said Flydd, puzzled. 'What are the scrutators up to?'

The battle had not resumed. The air-floaters pulled back into that perfect formation, now hanging motionless above the battlefield, their rotors turning just enough to counteract the gentle motion of the air.

'I wonder…?' said Flydd. 'Who on the Council has the boldness for this kind of venture, and the foresight to know that it would be needed?'

Irisis had a fair idea, but she would just wait and see. From the topmost middle air-floater, rods extended to either side, all the way to the neighbouring machines, which latched on. A roll of shimmering fabric fell, was caught as it passed in front of the middle row of machines, and again at the bottom.

'What on earth are they doing?' said Tham.

No one answered. The air-floaters moved ever so slightly this way and that, bending the rods and pulling the fabric into a gentle concavity. It took a long time, for the slightest change in the breeze tended to drift the machines apart, and much manoeuvring was required to get them aligned again.

'It's a mirror,' said Irisis. But what is it for?'

'They're not using the An at all' Flydd replied. They simply hit the flying lyrinx with a dazzling beam. Lyrinx have poorer eyesight than we do, and their eyes are sensitive to bright light. They only fight in the middle of the day if they have to. The beam disrupted the An they were using to keep aloft, and they were too close to the ground to recover.'

'They're moving,' said Flangers.

The twelve air-floaters wheeled in perfect formation. The sun flashed off the mirror, the beam lighting up a strip of ground some twenty spans long.

The beam crept across the battlefield, to play on a group of lyrinx attacking a line of soldiers. Irisis focussed on the scene with a spyglass. The lyrinx threw up their arms, trying to shield themselves from the boiling glare, then broke and ran, staggering from side to side. One bold soldier attacked from behind, felling his quarry with a sword thrust between the back plates, but the others escaped.

The beam stepped to another group of lyrinx, who broke like the first. As it tracked across the ground, the mud began to steam gently. The next detachment, some fifty lyrinx, resisted longer than the others, but within a minute they too had fled.

'With a lens, anyone can focus the sun's rays so as to set paper or cloth alight,' said Irisis, 'though I don't think that's their aim here.'

'The beam isn't tightly focussed,' said Flydd, putting down his spyglass, 'but it's enough to dazzle and confuse. And blind too, should you look directly at it.'

The general had a calculating look in his eye. 'Shall I order the counterattack, surr?'

'Wait,' said Flydd. 'If the mirror tears in the wind, or the lyrinx make a determined attack on it, we'll be more exposed than we are now.'

The enemy now attacked desperately, but the beam stopped each onslaught. Within an hour the lyrinx began to fall back en masse, whereupon the beam moved towards the ranks of enemy surrounding the walled perimeter of Snizort.

Suddenly half a dozen lyrinx took to the air, well apart, rising into the path of the air-floaters. This'll be interesting,' said Tham. "They'll never move the mirror quickly enough.'

The air-floaters did not attempt to. The first lyrinx to approach took many crossbow bolts to the head and chest. It tumbled over and over, wings cracking in the wind, before slamming into the ground down the slope behind the command tent. The second suffered a similar fate, for the air-floaters were packed with archers. The other lyrinx flapped away. In the air they were too vulnerable. The mirror beam continued its inexorable progress.

'Something's happening,' said Irisis in the early afternoon. She was watching enemy movements inside the southern wall of Snizort. Lyrinx were running backwards and forwards through the drifting smoke. 'Looks like they're sending out reinforcements.'

'I don't think so,' said the scrutator.

Flangers said quietly, 'They're carrying boxes and bags.'

'Where's my spyglass?' Flydd demanded.

'You left it by the tent,' Irisis replied, passing him her glass. He focussed it and said, 'You've got good eyes, soldier.'

'That's why I was chosen as shooter.'

'What are they doing?' Irisis and Tham asked together.

'A group of.., perhaps one hundred have formed up behind the southern wall,' said Flydd. 'They've all got big packs on, which is unusual, and they're carrying what appear to be boxes, or cases. Or coffins!'

'The same thing happened yesterday morning,' said a sentry standing nearby. 'Even before the node exploded their fliers were heading south-west, carrying huge packages.'

'Is that so?' said Flydd. 'How odd.'

"The tar's burning underground,' said Irisis, 'and it would be the very devil to put out. They'd have to abandon Snizort, whatever the result of the battle.'

'I wonder if those cases contain flesh-formed creatures?' Flydd gave Irisis a keen glance. 'If we could only…'

'I hope I'm wrong about what you're thinking' said Irisis.

'Regretfully,' said Flydd, 'you're not. They're weapons we don't know how to deal with, but if we had one or two little ones to study, we might be able to find a defence against them.'

The mirror beam now carved across the eastern wall, towards the enemy ranks on the other side. It was not causing as much confusion as before, but the lyrinx were still retreating from it.

Fighting broke out near the northern wall. A band of some twenty lyrinx had advanced in a rush that took them right through a line of human soldiers. The beam did not shift to counter this new threat, but kept moving back and forth across the ranks of the enemy, on the far side of Snizort.

'That was just a diversion,' cried Irisis. 'They're retreating.'

The group of lyrinx carrying the baggage rose into the air together then spread apart, holding low to the ground until they crossed the southern wall, where there was little fighting. There they climbed rapidly, disappearing into the smoky haze that hung over the fortress.

'They're mighty mancers' said Flydd, 'to fly under these conditions. Whatever they're carrying, it's more important than winning the battle.'

There was no way to bring them down; the lyrinx were out of range of the catapults and javelards, and the fleet of air-floaters did not seem to have noticed. The flying lyrinx reappeared out of the haze, flew into a pall drifting from the molten remains of the node, and vanished.

The scrutator shook his head. 'I think we're going to regret that.'

Two

Inside Snizort, the remaining lyrinx began to swarm over the western and southern walls. Fighting their way through the few human defenders nearby, they headed south-west down the tar-crusted valley. One by one the detachments outside the walls turned to follow them. Those lyrinx not yet called to the orderly retreat fought on.

The air-floaters turned together, drifting closer so as to direct the beam at a skirmish on the northern wall. The lyrinx must have been waiting for that, for three catapults fired at once and their balls of stone went through the mirror sail, tearing gashes which spread until the fabric hung down in tatters. It was released, the shreds winking in the air like tinsel. Each machine produced many smaller mirrors, the size of large shields, which the soldiers aimed individually. The effect was not as dramatic, but the lyrinx still broke when the beams struck them.

Eiryn Muss, Flydd's personal prober, or spy, came up beside him, whispering in his ear. Flydd looked surprised. He whispered back and Muss, an entirely nondescript fellow in his present disguise, slid away.

'What was that about?' said Irisis.

'Scrutators' business,' he "replied tersely.

The air-floaters continued their work for another hour, until, suddenly, it was all over.

'The last of the lyrinx are retreating,' said Flydd. 'We've survived – at least until nightfall.'

'So you think they'll come back?'

'You can't always tell with lyrinx. Since they've had to abandon Snizort, they may not. But then again, the opportunity to destroy our army in the dark may be too tempting to resist.'

The air-floaters were rotoring towards the command hill, but they did not all make it. A squad of lyrinx catapult operators had remained in position, camouflaged, waiting for just that moment.

A ball went right through the cabin of the lowest air-floater, shattering it into splinters and sending at least a dozen people to their deaths. Another missile struck the ovoid bag of a second machine, deflating it instantly. Fortunately it was, by then, only a few spans above the flank of the hill. The crash made a loud noise, though the machine did not seem to be damaged further. The other ten air-floaters made it to the ground a safe distance from the catapults.

'The lead one's flying the Council flag,' said Flydd, squinting through his spyglass again. I wonder who can be in command? Surely not Ghorr. The chief scrutator would never do anything to risk his mangy hide.'

'We'll soon find out,' said Irisis.

'I'd better go to meet them.'

Again Irisis felt that foreboding. She was following the scrutator when he turned and said, coolly, 'You won't be needed, Crafter. Wait here for my orders. If you would be so good as to ask Fyn-Mah to come down?'

The sudden, cold formality was like a slap in the face. He kept going so she headed back to the tents, found Perquisitor Fyn-Mah and gave her the message, then resumed her pacing around the hill.

Flydd did not hurry, for he also had an uncomfortable premonition. Despite their truly heroic efforts, the mission to destroy the node-drainer had been a failure, doomed before it began. The device the Council had given him had been faulty, perhaps deliberately so. Because of that, a third of the army had been lost. Flydd could not avoid the blame, nor would he, had he been able to. The soldiers lives had been in his hands, and he had failed them. Though inured to war, and hardened by it, every death weighed on him.

But another leader might have won this battle, he thought, despite the loss of the node. Another leader might have seen that the mission to the node-drainer was fatally flawed. Another leader might have done a hundred things to avert this disaster. Having done none of them, he could only feel culpable. If duty required him to pay, he would do so.

Nonetheless, his heart lurched when he saw who was getting out of the air-floater that had crash-landed. A tall, deep chested man, apparenthr in hale middle age, he was broad shouldered, dark haired, full bearded and of noble good looks, except when his smile revealed those vulpine teeth. It was Ghorr, the chief scrutator, and his temper looked fouler than usual. Behind him were ranked the ten other members of the Council of Scrutators, four women and six men. All were bruised, dishevelled and furiously angry.

Though Flydd was still a scrutator, he was no longer on the Council. He ran down to help Ghorr over the side, but the big man smacked his hand away. Blood droplets clustered on his left eyebrow from a gash at his hairline.

'I'm glad you've come,' said Flydd, putting out his hand. 'Your mirror is a fine innovation, though it'll only work once. The next time we meet the enemy they'll have a tactic to neutralise it.'

The chief scrutator ignored the gesture. 'I should never have allowed you back!'

'You should have led by example,' said Flydd, 'and done the job yourself. But that was never your way, was it, Ghorr?'

Ghorr brushed General Tham's hand aside, too, and panted to the top of the hill, where he paused to survey the battlefield. It was a pose, of course – he'd had hours to study the scene from the air-floater.

The other scrutators followed, and not even Flydd's former friend, Halie, the dark little scrutator, had a sympathetic glance for her former colleague. Flydd had expected no less. Though few knew it, the scrutators answered to a higher power – the shadowy Numinator. Someone must take the blame and he was the man responsible.

Ghorr was about to speak when the last of the air-floaters edged up over the hill, to settle directly in front of the command tent. A small man climbed over the side, rather awkwardly, for he had only one arm. Flydd gave an involuntary gasp. If there was one person he had not expected to see, it was this man.

As the air-floater lifted off and headed down the slope, the man turned and the sun caught a gleaming platinum mask that covered the left side of his face. Twin metal bands encircled his head like a helmet, and the hole in the cheek plate of the mask had been repaired. The single eye had the glare of a deranged man.

'You won't get away with it this time, Scrutator Flydd,' said Acting Scrutator Jal-Nish Hlar.

Irisis was catching a moment's rest in the shade behind a tent when Perquisitor Fyn-Mah shook her awake. Fyn-Mah was petite, black of hair and eye, with a stern, frozen beauty that deterred rather than attracted. The perquisitor normally exuded dignity, but now she was flushed as if she had run a long race.

'Get your artisan's pliance and your sword, and follow me, Crafter.'

'I have them,' said Irisis tersely. They did not like each other; moreover, Irisis's sharp tongue had once done Fyn-Mah a wrong and she did not know how to repair it.

'Now!' rapped the perquisitor. 'Scrutator's orders, Crafter.'

Irisis knew better than to question her. A perquisitor, the rank below scrutator, could give orders to the master of a city and expect them to be obeyed without question. Besides, Irisis knew why Flydd wanted her out of the way. Ghorr would not have forgotten her escape from Nennifer, and he still wanted to know how she'd killed Jal-Nish's mancer up on the aqueduct at the manufactory. It was a secret that threatened all mancers.

Fyn-Mah reappeared carrying a small pack and they slipped through the guards and over the edge of the hill into a shrubby gully which ran away from the battlefield. Flangers was standing in the shadows halfway down. He nodded to Fyn-Mah, then fell in beside Irisis.

'What's going on?' she said in a low voice. 'I'm to assist you to the limit of my ability,' he said, which was no help at all.

Fyn-Mah kept to the centre of the gully, where the cover was densest, and after ten minutes they reached the foot of the hill. One of the air-floaters was tethered only a stone's throw away. She headed for it.

'Act as if we own it; Fyn-Mah said over her shoulder. They emerged from the scrub directly behind the machine. Fyn-Mah stood up and rapped on the side. The vessel suspended from the airbag was about eight spans long and three wide, shaped like a round-ended boat, but flimsy, being made from stretched rope, canvas and light framing timbers. The deck was canvas, the sides just rope netting that served to stop people from falling overboard, while a central cabin about four spans by two provided shelter, sleeping space and a tiny separate galley. It was also made of canvas framed with timber, with a light timber door suspended on leather hinges.

The air-floater was a different design to the one Flydd had brought from the east. A ten-bladed rotor, shielded at the front by a wire grid, was mounted on a stanchion at the stern of the craft. The rotor could be swung on a steering arm, making the big machine quite manoeuvrable. The controller was fixed to the steering arm. Above the rotor, mounted on a bracket, sat a complex mechanism in a metal housing, with a small water barrel on top. A pipe ran from the mechanism up to the airbag, and another out to the rear. It appeared to be a device to create floater gas, which, Irisis thought, was a considerable improvement on having to fly all the way to a suitable mine to replenish it.

A soldier, lounging against the rail, let out a squawk. He leapt for his spear, let it fall when he saw the perquisitor's badge, and snapped to attention.

Fyn-Mah climbed through the rope mesh and nodded to the captain of the guard. Irisis and Flangers followed. There were ten soldiers on board, counting the captain of the guard.

'We're going to take a look inside the wall of Snizort,' Fyn-Mah said. 'What's your name, Pilot?'

The pilot was a young woman with hair the bright yellow of a daffodil, freckles all over her thin face, and a charming gap between her front teeth. She was small and slender; all pilots were, for the weight mattered.

'Inouye, surr' The pilot bowed her head, unwilling to look the perquisitor in the face, but cast a pleading glance sideways at the captain of the guard. A young man with sunburnt cheeks and a thin, pointed nose, he would not look at Fyn-Mah either but inflated his cheeks and frowned. He did not want to deny a perquisitor, but he answered to another master. 'We're ordered to wait here,' he said, studying the canvas floor.

'By whom?'

'Acting Scrutator Jal-Nish Hlar. This is his air-floater.'

'My orders come from Scrutator Xervish Flydd, the com-mander-in-chief of all the forces here.' Fyn-Mah showed him a parchment which contained the scrutator's seal.

The captain gulped, nodded and gave the word to the pilot. Inouye slipped an open helm of crystals and wires over her head, took hold of the controller and screwed up her face as she sought for a distant, usable field. The rotor began to spin. The soldiers cast off the tethers and the air-floater rose out of the grass.

'Stay low,' said Fyn-Mah, checking an instrument concealed in her hand. 'Head that way, keeping just above the enemy's catapult height.' She held out her arm, directing the pilot.

The air-floater rotored gently towards the northern wall of Snizort, crossing over a number of smaller tar seeps where the hard resource had been mined down in benched cones, then a valley that had once been full of the same material. Now only black patches remained, some still smoking, for the lyrinx had fired the tar runs at the beginning of the battle. They saw no sign of the enemy.

'You're taking a risk, aren't you?' Irisis said quietly to Fyn-Mah. They were standing up the front by themselves.

'The scrutator has given me a valid instruction,' the perquisitor said stiffly, then, thawing a little, 'Besides, I am incurably identified with Xervish Flydd. If he falls, so must I.'

'You could change allegiances,' Irisis said slyly, to see how Fyn-Mah would respond.

'Change once and you are forever tainted, your word worthless. I have sworn to my scrutator and will not break my oath, whatever it costs me.'

'There are many who would not be so noble.' She spoke without thinking.

'I'll watch my back.' Fyn-Mah said icily. Especially when you're behind me, was the implication.

Irisis had not meant her words the way they were taken, but it was too late to withdraw them.

The wall of Snizort was four spans high and equally thick, topped with thorn bushes scarred here and there by fire, and torn and smashed by catapult balls. The wall had been breached in five places and was unmanned.

They cruised along inside. The breaches, and the smashed gate, were piled with the bodies of the dead, lyrinx and human. Other dead were scattered across the enclosed space. Irisis saw no sign of live enemy, though from a high point she could see columns of lyrinx streaming away to the south-west in the direction of the Sea of Thurkad. Their withdrawal had been astonishingly swift.

Smoke issued from a tarry bog and several of the pits, which would make access to the underground city difficult. The ground above the node-drainer, which had risen up in a red-hot dome just before the node exploded, was now a fractured, fuming hole. Further off, though still inside the walls, the Great Seep formed a bottomless cauldron of tar about a league across. The source of the tar at Snizort, it was steaming gently. The exploded node lay some leagues to the north, and underground, but it was too smoky to see that far.

The sun touched the western horizon. Irisis looked the other way, back towards the command hill. The scrutators must be inside the tent, with Flydd. She turned towards Snizort again. 'There can't be any creature left alive underground,' she muttered. 'The whole place is on fire.'

'That's where you're wrong.' Fyn-Mah replied. "Tar burns hot, but it burns slowly. Most of the city will yet be untouched. Let's go.'

'In there? We'll choke before we've gone a dozen spans.'

'The fire draws air to it. Away from the burning core, the air should be fresh. Our orders are to get inside, if we can, and recover any of the flesh-formed creatures left alive.'

'We may get in,' said Irisis, 'though I doubt we'll ever get out again.' She said it fatalistically. Having expected to die for so long now, in so many hideous ways, she was no longer moved by the thought of danger. She indicated the largest pit. 'That's where the scrutator and I entered last time. Though.., we had the seeker to find the way for us.'

Irisis wished Ullii were here now. Objects powered by the Secret Art appeared in the little seeker's mental lattice, which was how they'd located the node-drainer. Ullii could also see people with a talent for the Art, and most lyrinx. If she were here now, they would be able to avoid any enemy who remained inside, and quickly find the flesh-formed creatures that were their target. But Ullii had disappeared.

'Go down into that pit, Pilot Inouye,' said Fyn-Mah, pointing towards the largest, which contained only a haze of smoke. 'Soldiers, ready your weapons.'

Inouye's green eyes widened, but she nodded stiffly. The air-floater drifted towards the pit, just a spear-cast above the ground. The soldiers pointed their crossbows over the side while Irisis scanned the black, lifeless terrain. Nothing moved; with luck, all the lyrinx were gone.

They floated over the pit, a conical excavation in tar-saturated sandstone, with a ledge path spiralling down. Inouye vented floater gas. The air-floater lurched, steadied and began to descend through a rising trail of smoke.

'Where do we go from here?' asked Fyn-Mah, at her elbow.

Irisis did not answer at once. The black rock was featureless and it was taking her eyes some time to adjust. Tunnels began to appear, extending off the path. There were a dozen, at least, and smoke oozed from several. How could she possibly tell? It had been dark when she had come down previously, the night before last.

'We went down 741 steps,' she said, counting them aloud. Fyn-Mah did the same and checked her instrument again. 'There!' She pointed to a runnel near the base of the pit. 'Take us to that point, Pilot.'

The whirring of the rotor died to a gentle tick as they descended into the black pit. The reek, hanging heavier than air at the bottom, stung their eyes. They came alongside the tunnel and the soldiers tossed out grappling hooks, pulling the air-floater up against the steps.

'We're going in,' Fyn-Mah said to the captain. 'Bring five of your men. Scrutator Flydd has ordered me to recover certain.., items from inside. The remaining four soldiers will guard the air-floater.'

The captain shuffled his feet. He looked about fifteen years old and Irisis felt sorry for him. 'I have orders to remain at my post.'

'Those orders are superseded.' She stared him down. 'This mission is for the good of the war, soldier, and we can't do it alone.'

He regarded his boots, glanced up at her, then nodded. 'So you won't mind giving your orders in writing.'

Fyn-Mah took a small piece of paper from her chest pack, scribbled something on it and stamped it with her personal seal. The captain read the document and put it in his wallet.

'Wait here,' Fyn-Mah said to Pilot Inouye. 'If there's danger, go up out of range and keep watch.'

'What if you don't come back?'

'Wait until dawn. If we haven't returned by then, you are released back to your master.'

The underground had a different feeling from Irisis's previous visit. Then it had been a vibrant, working city, still occupied by the lyrinx. Now it was a black, reeking hell where the ceilings had collapsed into heaps of rubble, the floors into fuming sink-holes and dead lyrinx lay everywhere. Fumes wisped down the tunnels like black spectres: sudden winds blew hot and cold; and, always in the distance, was the seething, bubbling crackle of burning tar.

They struggled through into a less damaged area, where they sought for the flesh-formed creature pens for hours without success. Fyn-Mah called out each turn and intersection as they passed it, Irisis noting them down so they could find the way out again. The air here was relatively clean, apart from drifting wisps of fume. Some of the tunnels were still lit by lanterns fuelled with distilled tar spirit, giving the air an oily tang, but they were guttering now.

Fyn-Mah stopped where the tunnel split into four. Consulting directions on a scrap of paper, she scowled. 'We must've taken a wrong turn. Do you recognise this place, Irisis?'

Irisis shook her head. 'The tunnels all look the same.'

'You're not much use, are you?'

'Ullii was leading us the other night,' said Irisis. 'It was dark, as I told you.'

'I can find my way around in the dark,' said Flangers. 'You get used to that, up on the shooter's platform. What if I were to take a few soldiers and go that way?' He pointed to the right. 'You could check the other tunnels.'

Fyn-Mah frowned. 'I don't want to split up, but I suppose there's no alternative. Irisis, take Flangers and him,' she indicated a soldier so young that he had no trace of beard, 'and go that way. We'll follow this tunnel. If you don't find anything in half an hour, come back to this point.' She scratched a zigzag mark into the wall with her sword. 'Don't get lost.'

'Let's have a look through this door,' Irisis said to Flangers. They'd searched dozens of chambers but had found nothing.

He gestured over his shoulder to the young soldier, a pink cheeked, frightened lad called Ivar. Irisis pushed the door open. Inside, in a damp, mist-laden space, stood three rows of objects that resembled chest-high pumpkins connected by grey vinelike cords.

'What do you suppose they're for?' asked Flangers.

'Something to do with flesh-forming. I expect; said Irisis.

He swallowed. That dark Art was beyond the comprehension of the greatest hero.

Other rooms contained similar objects, all with a vaguely organic appearance, all equally inexplicable. They passed out into a round chamber with a series of five closed doors on the far side.

'What a warren!' Flangers wiped sweat from his brow.

He opened the door on the left and uttered a low whistle. The room held ten cages, well separated, and inside each was a creature unlike anything he had ever seen: all horns, spines, teeth and armour plating. Each was different, and all were dead, killed by blows to the skull.

Irisis clutched the bars of the first cage, staring at the flesh-formed monstrosity inside. The grey-green, coated teeth were like shards of glass. 'Imagine that beast sticking its teeth into your leg while you're trying to fight the enemy.'

'It could bite straight through bone,' said Flangers. 'And it looks fast. It'd be hard to attack, too.'

'Doubtless they're breeding thousands of them. Ivar/ Irisis said to the young soldier, whose eyes were sticking out like boiled eggs, 'run and tell the perquisitor we've found them. Can you find your way back to the place where we separated?'

'Yes, Crafter.' Ivar ran off, glad to be going.

Irisis continued around the room. She was examining a beast whose maw was half the length of its body when Flangers called out, 'Irisis! This one's still alive.'

The creature, a heavy-headed monster with as many teeth as a crocodile and a row of yellow-tipped spines all the way down its backbone, lay on its side, its head half-covered in blood. The mouth was open and a trickle of grey matter oozed from one rimmed nostril. The chest did not move. As Irisis approached, the yellow and black eye shifted slightly, then the warty lid came down over it.

'It's dead now. We'll leave Fyn-Mah to check them,' said Irisis. 'Let's try the next room.'

It proved much the same as the first, and all the flesh-formed creatures were dead. Irisis shuddered and headed to the third room. Here the beasts were smaller, still spined and fanged but less armoured, more fleet-footed and with larger brain cases.

'These look smarter than the others,' she said, studying a creature the length of a large dog. Even dead, it made her feel uneasy.

'They've not long been killed,' said Flangers.

'They're thick-skulled. It could take them quite a while to die. Let's try the doors on the far side.'

They took the door furthest to the right. It was dark inside, but as soon as she entered Irisis could tell that this was different. There was no smell of blood, and the stench of fresh ordure was strong.

She motioned Flangers to hold up his lantern. The room had the same layout as the others but the creatures were alive. They were smaller still – the size of small dogs – and as the light fell on them they clawed at the bars.

'We'll take one or two back,' Irisis said, walking along the row. She was wondering how they could carry the cages without the beasts inside striking at them.

As she reached the other end of the room, an unseen door opened and a lyrinx stepped in. It was almost as startled as she was.

Irisis took a step backwards, overcome by panic. The lyrinx, a tall female, carried a bloodstained club. For an instant it stared at her, then swung the club. Irisis cried, 'Flangers, look out!' and threw herself behind one of the cages.

Letting out a deafening bellow, the lyrinx swatted the cage out of the way. Irisis scuttled between two more, knowing she was not going to make it. The lyrinx was too strong and fast. It sprang onto the cages, lifting the club high. The blow would not just cave in her skull, it would splatter her brains halfway across the room.

The bars bent under the weight, one foot slipped through and the fanged creature inside sank its teeth in. The lyrinx tried to jerk free, stumbled and came crashing down on a pair of cages.

One was crushed flat, along with the creature inside. The other burst open, liberating its occupant, which darted into the darkness behind the cages.

Irisis scuttled out of the way as the lyrinx struggled to get up. The little creature was savaging its foot, snarling with bloodlust. The lyrinx roared, found its feet and, with a mighty swing, sent the cage and its attacker creature flying across the room to smash into the wall. It turned in her direction, limping badly. She drew her weapon.

Flangers appeared by her side, sword out. She had never been so glad to see anyone.

'Are you any good with that?' he panted.

'Not much. I normally use a crossbow.' Irisis had done sword training, and had a natural aptitude, but little combat experience.

'Stay to my left, one step back. Keep the point up.'

She moved into position. 'What if we were to smash open a few more cages?' Already she was deferring to his greater experience, a rare thing for her. 'A few of these creatures would give even a lyrinx something to think about.' She had heard tales of the flesh-formed nylatl that had so terrorised Tiaan, and later, Nish.

'We'd want to be sure the beasts would attack the lyrinx, and not us,' Flangers said.

The lyrinx was only half a dozen steps away, advancing slowly. It was a big one, head and shoulders above them, with scars on its right cheek and across its breast plates.

'Looks as though it's seen a fight or two,' she said.

'And won them. It would be handy if Fyn-Mah turned up about now,' he said dryly.

The lyrinx kept coming. With its size and reach, there was no need for subtlety or fancy footwork.

'What's the plan?' Irisis hissed.

'Fight for our bloody lives!'

The lyrinx moved to within striking distance, lunged and slashed with one arm. Irisis barely saw it move, nor the flash of Flangers's sword, but blood spurted from the palm of its hand. It jerked away. The cut was deep, though not incapacitating. They had an instant's respite before the mighty thighs bunched and it hurled itself at him, arms going like scythes.

Flangers threw himself to his right; Irisis went the other way. It ignored her and pursued the soldier, the claws of its bloody hand raking him from shoulder to elbow. Another blow tore the seat out of his pants and four gouges across his buttocks.

Flangers fell to his knees and the sword clanged on the floor. He dived for it. The lyrinx went after him, leaving bloody footprints. Flangers could not reach the sword in time; the lyrinx was going to slaughter him.

Irisis went up on tiptoes, crossed the distance with two strides and thrust at the lyrinx's exposed side. The sword went between two plates, slid between the ribs and jammed. She heaved but could not pull it out. The lyrinx bellowed, spun around and sprang at her, the sword quivering with every movement.

She dived over a small cage, lifted it and in one movement hurled it at the lyrinx's face. It batted it aside like a ball, then tore the sword out and flung it at her. She ducked and scampered up between the rows, not knowing what she was doing, only that she was defenceless. As she approached the rear door, a second lyrinx burst through it. And after it, a third.

Three

Xervish Flydd knuckled puffy eyes as he prepared to face his tormentors. The Council of Scrutators occupied four sides of the makeshift table in the command tent. He was seated at one corner, which meant that he could not see the whole group at one time. It was a particular disadvantage at an inquisition. And, not having slept for two nights, he was in no condition to match wits with Ghorr.

All eleven members of the Council were present. Their late intervention had only saved the disaster from becoming a catastrophe and it would be a sorry remnant of the army that left here, abandoning thousands of precious, useless clankers. To protect themselves, the Council had to have a scalp. The scrutators looked as though they relished the duty.

Jal-Nish, being only an acting scrutator, was not permitted to sit at the table; though, having an interest in the proceedings, he had been allowed to attend as an observer. His chair was placed directly behind Flydd's, who could not see him without turning his head. He dared not. To look away from the inquisition would be a sign of weakness, Flydd could feel that single, malevolent eye boring into his back.

'Scrutator Flydd,1 began Ghorr, without doing Flydd the courtesy of standing or even looking in his direction. It was another bad sign. 'You stand accused of dereliction of duty, fraudulent misrepresentation of your abilities, gross incompetence occasioning a military disaster, exceeding your authority in negotiating with an alien race, corruptly making concessions to that race, contempt of the Council, harbouring a fugitive, wilful assault on the person of an acting scrutator while suspended from the Council, knowingly causing the death of a mancer in the legitimate pursuit of her duties, failure to adequately protect a mine and manufactory under your command…'

Flydd's mind wandered. He knew it was a deadly thing to do, but the list of charges made it dear there was no way out. When the Council genuinely wanted to discipline a scrutator, the charges were brief and specific. When they wanted to destroy one, they put down everything they could come up with.

He felt so very tired. He could have laid his head on the table and slept. Was there any point in defending himself? Might it not be better to remain silent, even though that would be taken as an admission of guilt? They might just execute him.

The errant thought made him grimace. The Council would not allow him the luxury of death until they'd wrung such torment from him that sensitives would be having nightmares for fifty leagues around. He knew how they operated. After all, he'd been one of them for decades, and suffered at their hands before.

Besides, he would not be the only one to fall. Ghorr would destroy everyone associated with him – dear Irisis, little Ullii and her unborn child, Eiryn Muss, Fyn-Mah, and all his soldiers, advisers, friends and relatives. When the scrutators made an example of their own it was worthy of a whole page in the Histories.

What could he do to save them, or himself? What defence was there when the Council had covered every eventuality? Xervish Flydd could think of none.

Scrutator Ghorr finished his iteration of the charges, shuffled the papers and turned to his left. 'Scrutator Fusshte?'

Fusshte, acting as recorder, was a meagre, ill-made man. Pallid baldness made a cruciform shape through oily black hair. His eyes were reptilian, while the jutting teeth gave him a feral look. He made a mark on a document, nodded and passed it to Ghorr.

Ghorr cleared his throat and finally met the eyes of the man he was trying. 'How do you plead, Scrutator Flydd? Be swift! Humanity stands in very peril of its survival.'

'In that case,' snapped Flydd, whose only defence was to attack, 'why are you wasting time on farcical blame-shifting? The Council knows I followed my orders to the letter. Your instructions were faulty. You should be on trial, not I.' 'The tiredest ploy in the world,' yawned Fusshte. Flydd rotated in his chair and locked gazes with the secretary. The game of intimidating an opponent was one every scrutator knew, but Flydd was more skilled at it than most. He'd always detested Fusshte, and had voted against his elevation to scrutator. Moreover, Fusshte had a dirty little secret and Flydd knew it. Its revelation would not be enough to destroy the secretary, but it would taint him in the eyes of his fellows.

Neither could draw on the field here, of course, but scrutators had at hand older, subtler powers, ways of weakening an enemy's will. Flydd used them all. Fusshte's snake eyes defied him. It won't do you any good, Flydd thought. I despise you too much to ever give in to you.

He smiled, grimly at first, but as he saw the first flicker of uncertainty in the eyes of his opponent, Flydd gave a savage grin. The man was weakening. Flydd snorted in disdain and suddenly the secretary broke. Choking back a gasp, Fusshte looked down at his papers and the battle was over.

Such a little thing, but the atmosphere of the room changed subtly. Flydd was not defeated yet. He turned back to the chief scrutator.

'I have a countercharge against Ghorr!' Flydd said flatly.

'We'll hear it after your trial is done,' said Chief Scrutator Ghorr.

'I'll not fall for that one. Once you convict me, as you plan to, I'll have no right to put a countercharge.'

'You were charged first,' said Ghorr. 'The procedure can't be changed.'

'My entire case depends on my countercharge.'

'How unfortunate.'

'I appeal to the Council to set aside your decision.'

'On what grounds?' asked a diminutive dark woman whose cheeks were painted with red wax: Scrutator Halie.

Flydd was pleased to discover that she was the appointed appeals scrutator. Halie had been an ally of his previously in difficult times; he could rely on her to be impartial. 'On the ground that a failure on the part of one or more members of the Council led to the destruction of the node.'

'How so?' said Halie in a dangerous voice.

'My first countercharge is that Chief Scrutator Ghorr provided me with a defective device to destroy the lyrinx node-drainer, and that device failed in use. My second countercharge is this: in commissioning that device, Chief Scrutator Ghorr negligently failed to appreciate that it was likely to cause the destruction of the node itself.'

'These are serious charges, Scrutator Flydd,' said Halie.

'And I intend to prove them.' He held her gaze as rigidly as if she had been his most bitter enemy, then broke it before it became a contest.

'I shall set aside Chief Scrutator Ghorr's ruling for the moment. The Council will hear your charges first. Present them with dispatch, Flydd.'

'Thank you,' said Flydd. He stood up and met their eyes, one by one. 'You have heard my first two countercharges, which relate solely to the destruction of the node. Ghorr's other charges are frivolous and motivated by mischief. He's happy to waste the Council's time, even at this desperate hour, so long as he can bring me down.' He turned eyes like lighthouse beams on the chief scrutator. 'That is my third countercharge.'

'I did not formulate the charges,' growled Ghorr, glancing at the secretary.

'But you gave them your authority.'

'Make your case, Flydd, if you have one.'

'Putting it simply, the device you gave me was defective.'

'On what evidence?'

'It failed when I used it, and led to the destruction of the node.'

'That proves only that you used it incompetently,' said Ghorr.

'Also an assertion that must be proved,' Flydd retorted. 'It's up to the accused to prove his innocence.' 'And I'm accusing you.' Flydd flung out his arm. The chief scrutator smiled thinly. 'Very theatrical! You were charged first. Your claims are countercharges.'

'Ah,' said Flydd, making a desperate gamble without knowing what the answer was. 'But my countercharges are being heard first, and therefore you must prove your innocence. Is that not so, Appeals Scrutator?'

Halie looked dubious, but reached below the table, brought up a bound volume and began flicking through the pages. After some minutes she put it down again and went into a huddle with three other scrutators. When it broke up, all the scrutators, apart from Flydd and Ghorr, went to the other end of the tent, speaking in low tones with much glancing back at their chief. Ghorr grew purple in the face. Finally they returned to the table.

'Though this question is unprecedented,' said Halie, 'we have reached agreement. Confirm that you have, members of the Council.'

Each of the scrutators affirmed that they agreed. Halie continued. 'We have voted, by a margin of six votes to three, that the countercharges must be defended first.'

'Be damned!' roared the chief scrutator.

'Due process -' began Halie.

Ghorr stood up, and he was a huge, dominating man. 'We've lost a third of our finest army. We may yet lose the war because of it. Flydd led them to disaster and now you call on the evil of democracy to let him off!' He spat the word out as if it were heresy, which it was.

'That is the prescribed process, Chief Scrutator!' said Halie. 'Would you care to retire for a few minutes to prepare your case?'

'With the greatest pleasure,' said Ghorr, back in control. He strode out, robes flapping.

The other scrutators gathered at the corner of the tent, talking in low voices. Jal-Nish remained where he was. Flydd moved his chair so he could see the acting scrutator. 'Nice day for it,' he said conversationally.

Jal-Nish shifted in his seat, as venomous and deadly as a nylatl. 'I'll be dancing on your flayed corpse by sundown.'

Flydd felt the touch of fear and was careful not to look into Jal-Nish's eye – it was the one contest he could not win. The man was determined to destroy him, whatever the cost. He could not afford to show his disquiet – not the least trace. Summoning all his strength, Flydd yawned in Jal-Nish's face. 'And you want to replace me, of course.'

'I'll have your place on the Council and crush the lyrinx too.'

'Really?' said Flydd, without bothering to correct him. 'What next? Abolish famine, pestilence, death?'

'You won't be sneering when the torturers have their disembowelling hooks in you.' Jal-Nish stormed out.

I've got to him, Flydd thought. Impossible to resist, but was it wise?

After half an hour, Ghorr came through the flap of the tent, accompanied by Jal-Nish and three people in robes. The first was a thin-faced, sallow fellow, the second a grey-haired woman wearing shoulder pads that squared off her stout figure; the last was a sawn-off, good-looking man with regular features, brilliant blue eyes and a leonine head of brown hair, swept back in waves. He had the rolling gait of a sailor and was only half a span tall. Flydd knew him – Klarm, the dwarf scrutator, an honest man, as scrutators went, but as ruthless as any.

Klarm nodded cheerfully to Flydd, who waved back. The other two newcomers, mancers both, did not acknowledge him. Jal-Nish resumed his seat.

'I present my witnesses,' said Ghorr. 'Mancer Vydale and Mancer Lubis.'

The sallow-faced man bowed formally, as did the stout woman.

'You all know Klarm, of course,' Ghorr went on. There were a few nods around the table. 'Vydale and Lubis, you designed the device that was given to Scrutator Flydd in Nennifer, did you not?'

'We did,' said Vydale.

'Each must answer the question, if you please,' said Halie.

'We did,' said Mancer Lubis.

'And you supervised the team of artisans who built it?' said Ghorr.

They both affirmed that they had.

'Was the device tested?' asked Ghorr.

'It was,' each said in turn.

Flydd sat up, surprised, though he should not have been. The scrutators were notoriously thorough.

Ghorr smiled thinly. 'Who supervised the testing?'

'I did!' said Scrutator Klarm.

'How was the device tested?' Flydd asked. 'With an operating node-drainer?'

'How else could it be tested?' said Klarm. 'We rotored to a node in the mountains that had gone dead, located the enemy's node-drainer and fitted the device to it. After some adjustment by the artisans, the node-drainer collapsed and failed.'

Flydd felt his last hope die. 'What about the node?'

'Its field returned to normal the following day.'

Flydd knew that Klarm was telling the truth, and there was no doubt that he would have done his work competently. Flydd's counterattack had been destroyed.

'Mancers Vydale and Lubis,' he said, 'can you confirm what Klarm has told us?'

They averred that they could.

'Any further questions, Flydd?' said Ghorr.

Flydd had none, for he believed them too. Nonetheless, the breaker had been tampered with. But how, and by whom?

'Only one. When I began to use the device, it became clear that it was faulty. Someone must have -'

'I saw it sealed in its box,' said Klarm. 'It never left my custody until it was placed in your air-floater, just before you left Nennifer. Were the seals broken when you opened the box?'

"They were not,' said Flydd. 'And no one but myself and my trusted prober, Eiryn Muss, ever had charge of it: 'Then it can't have been tampered with. No one but a scrutator has the Art to break those seals. They were made with scrutator magic.'

'So if it was tampered with,' Ghorr said relentlessly, 'it happened while you had charge of it. Again, the negligence is yours.' He dismissed his three witnesses. 'We'll take a vote on the countercharges. Yea if they are proven, nay if disproved.'

There were eleven nays.

'And my first principal charge, that Flydd's incompetence led to the destruction of the node?'

Nine yeas and two nays.

'My second principal charge, that Flydd's negligence after the destruction of the node lost a third of our army?'

Seven yeas and four nays.

'It is enough,' said Ghorr. 'The charges are proven. Now, scrutators, we must agree on penalties.'

The scrutators dismissed Flydd ignominiously from his position and broke him to a common citizen. However, after half an hour of acrimonious debate, during which time Ghorr became ever colder, they could not agree on a penalty for the second charge.

'I'll take no more of this!' cried Ghorr. 'The enemy could counterattack at any time. I make the Declaration of Emergency. All rights are suspended, and all privileges, that conflict with my duties.'

He stared around the table. All broke under his stare, even Flydd, though he strove mightily against the chief scrutator. Ghorr had played the unbeatable card. Later he would have to justify the declaration but for the moment he was unassailable. Ghorr could punish him in any way he saw fit.

'I beg leave to address the Council,' came Jal-Nish's voice from behind Flydd.

'The matter is closed,' Ghorr said frostily.

'I do not wish to speak about that.' Jal-Nish glanced idly at Flydd, then away, as if he were of no significance. 'Fault and blame are irrelevant now. Rather would I speak about the war. And how we might still win it:

'Go on,' said Ghorr, showing his canines.

'The enemy have abandoned Snizort in haste, leaving behind everything, including their flesh-formed abominations. They must be dreadfully demoralised by the destruction of the node as well as the loss of their great city. The Histories tell us they are slow to recover from their rare defeats. And they have suffered terrible casualties: twelve thousand dead and half as many unable to fight.'

'Our losses are worse,' snapped Ghorr, 'for we've lost all our clankers as well. It'll take years to replace them.'

'Were we to pursue the enemy now,' said Jal-Nish, 'with our clankers and the constructs of the Aachim, they would be hard put to save themselves. The lyrinx are obscenities that flesh-form their own young in the womb. We must eradicate them to the last child!' He looked as though he would enjoy the slaughter.

'The node is exploded, you fool! The field is dead, our clankers useless metal.'

'I can save them,' said Jal-Nish.

Now he had their attention. 'How?' said Ghorr.

'I would bring in bullock teams,' said Jal-Nish. 'And teams of horses, buffalo and men. I'd put the clankers on skids and haul them to the nearest node field, north-west of here. It's only seven leagues away, I'm told. Then I'd go after the enemy with all our strength and strike them down before they have a chance to recover. From this defeat we can yet snatch victory, and what a sweet victory it will be. It could turn the tide of the war, Chief Scrutator.'

Flydd's voice dropped into the following silence. 'This is folly! The lyrinx are at no disadvantage at all. They don't need supplies – they've enough of our good soldiers in their bellies to do them a week.'

Ghorr turned on him. 'We'll hear no more of your cowardly words, Flydd. As of now I strip you of all rights. You are a non-citizen, and the meanest person in the world may strike you down without penalty. Guards!'

Two burly guards burst through the entrance Take Non-Citizen Flydd to the punishment pen. Guard him well and await my further instructions.'

The guards hauled Flydd off, his legs dragging.

Ghorr turned back to the table.' Jal-Nish, take Flydd's place at the table. We would hear more of your proposal, though I don't see how it can be done. To move five thousand clankers that distance would take a hundred thousand men, and even then it would be the most spine-cracking labour.'

'We have forty thousand hale troops,' said Jal-Nish, 'plus many thousands of camp followers. And we can conscript half as many again from the towns and villages to the east and south. Adding their beasts of burden, we'll have sufficient, if we drive them hard enough.'

There was silence around the table while the idea was considered.

'I don't see how it can be done before our supplies fail,' said Ghorr. And who could pull together such an unwieldy force in the time?'

'I can do it,' said Jal-Nish boldly. 'You know my record, surr.'

Ghorr looked doubtful. 'You have never held such high command.'

'No scrutator has, surr.' Excepting Flydd, but Jal-Nish was not going to mention him, in case the Council had second thoughts about the man. 'We must have courage, Chief Scrutator. We must dare the impossible. What have we to lose? And…'

'Yes?' snapped Ghorr, nettled that a mere acting scrutator should lecture him.

'If the enemy should get over their fright and come back, they'll annihilate us.'

That's my main concern. Very well. I will give you the command, Acting Scrutator. But remember, I'll be watching you…'

Jal-Nish went still. 'Acting Scrutator, surr? But.., you told me to take Flydd's place on the Council.'

'Flydd was dismissed from this Council months ago. I said take his place at the table. The test for scrutator is a stern one. Prove that you are deserving, Jal-Nish, and I will promote you. I may even admit you to the Council, should a vacancy occur. Fail and you may share the rack with Non-Citizen Flydd.'

'I won't fail,' said Jal-Nish with such black-eyed intensity that one or two of the Council members, hardened though they were, shuddered.

They worked for an hour before breaking up with a plan. Then they ran, each to their own duties. It fell to Jal-Nish to visit the guards at the punishment pen, a cage made from stakes hammered into the side of the hill.

'Rouse out the slaves,' he said with a liquid chuckle.

Xervish Flydd lifted his head. His face was bruised all over, for the other prisoners had welcomed the fallen into their company.

'What do you want with us?' he said.

'We don't have enough bullock teams, so men must make up the difference. You're going in the first team, to serve as an example to all. The lash will teach you to do your simple duty, Slave Flydd.'

Four

Flames blasted from a fissure in front of Tiaan. Liquid tar, hot enough to sting, dripped from the roof onto her head and shoulders; fumes burned tracks up her nostrils. A red glow lit up the tunnel behind her, for she was trapped in her walker, deep underground in Snizort. Though the lyrinx had repaired her severed spine with their flesh-forming Art, her legs were still too weak to stand on.

There was no field here, and the node was no longer visible. She reached down and felt the amplimet. It was still cool to the touch, thankfully, for heat could destroy such crystals.

The amplimet was powerful enough to draw on a more distant node, so she still had a chance. Tiaan tried to remember where other nodes might lie. In her long flight here in the thapter she had used many, and should have been able to recall them all, those memories were gone.

Everything was strange here; the ethyr was clotted with warpings the like of which she had never seen before. The amplimet seemed different, too. She wasn't sure how, but it was harder to use, almost as if it had grown stronger since the node exploded, or more wakeful and watchful. She did not like the feeling. Fighting down panic, Tiaan sought for a field and, at the very limit of her senses, detected a faint aura.

So far from the node that generated it, the field was tenuous, weak, fragile. She drew power into the controller. One leg twitched feebly but the walker did not move.

Dismayed, Tiaan made another attempt. That was better; she actually got one leg to take a step, though a wobbly, lurching one. She took another. Better still – she was remembering how to manage it.

Ahead, through cracks in the tunnel wall, the flames roared as if pumped by a distant bellows. They died away for the count of nineteen before roaring forth again. If she misjudged the timing, or went too slowly, she would be roasted alive.

Creeping as close as she could get, Tiaan waited for the next exhalation. It was sweltering here. She put her hand over the amplimet to protect it. The cracks flamed, then died to wisps. Now! She lurched the walker forwards and they flamed again, right at the controller. The impulse to jerk her hand away was overwhelming. She fought it, enduring the pain as she tried to make the machine go backwards. It shuddered but did not move.

The flames stopped. She tried to move forwards but that did not work either. Blisters were rising on the back of her hand. 'Move!' she screamed. The walker gave only a spastic twitch. Its front feet were stuck in tar which had softened in the heat.

Hot tar ribboned onto her shoulders. She bent the four legs as far as they would go, then straightened them all at the same time. Three legs pulled free, the other did not, and the machine began to topple. Tiaan threw her weight the other way and managed to save it, though it left her directly in front of the cracks. The next blast would burn her to a crisp. She could hear it coming, a breathy roar.

Flexing the legs again, she gave a mighty heave. The stuck leg pulled free and the walker shot forwards and up as the flames roared by. Tiaan felt the heat on her backside.

Further on, she went down into a hollow where heavy black fumes had pooled on the floor. As the walker crabbed through it lifted inky tendrils as high as her head. Eyes stinging, she lurched down the corridor, having no idea where she was going. Since the explosion, Tiaan could not remember Merryl's directions, and most of the wall lamps had gone out. She just kept moving because she could not remain where she was.

Creeping along, breathing through her sleeve, she thought she heard human voices coming from one of the branching tunnels ahead. 'Hello!' she yelled.

No answer. She moved to the intersection. Definitely voices, from the middle tunnel. She crept up through the gloom, turned a corner into a wider tunnel lit by a single lantern on a pole, and stopped.

Half a dozen people had their backs to her, staring at something that she could not make out. They looked like the human slaves the lynnx had kept here. The walker's legs clacked and they turned, squinting into the dark. She moved forwards and, with wild cries, they broke and ran. What was the matter? Tiaan realised, belatedly, that she must have made a terrifying sight, half human and half machine, and coated with droppings of tar.

'Wait,' someone yelled from around the corner. 'That's just Tiaan.'

The voice was familiar. 'Merryl?'

He appeared, carrying a lantern. She was so glad to see him. 'The tunnel's on fire, Merryl. I couldn't get through.'

'This passage leads to an exit but there's a construct stuck in the tar and we can't get past it.'

'A construct?' Tiaan edged forward curiously.

He caught her arm. 'Careful. The tar's sticky over there. I've sent people to pull shelves out of a storeroom, to stand on. We may be able to climb over the top.'

'Is there anyone inside it?'

'I don't know.'

The construct, which was just like her own thapter, though only half the size, was two-thirds buried in sticky tar. The former slaves, four men and two women, came panting up, carrying long planks, and began to lay them across the tar. The timber ran out just before the construct; they hurried off for more.

When planks had been laid all the way, they began to scrape the tar off with shovels and mattocks so they could climb over. Being unable to help, Tiaan waited where the tar was firm, working her wasted leg muscles until they hurt.

She had to be able to walk unaided. The planks were too narrow for her walker and she was wondering how she would get across when someone hissed, 'What's that?'

The work stopped. Tap, tap, tap came clearly from inside the construct.

Tiaan felt a spasm of fear. The Aachim had chased her halfway across Lauralin. If the ones inside were freed, they would come after her and these unarmed slaves could not stop them.

'Don't let -' Tiaan broke off. She couldn't condemn those inside to suffocation.

'What's the matter?' called Merryl, who was stripped to the waist and covered in sweat. It was growing hotter all the time.

'Oh, nothing.' In her condition, Tiaan was afraid to trust anyone.

She watched as the tar was scraped off the top of the construct. It took ages, for it clung to the tools and they had to be cleaned every minute or two. Someone climbed up, holding the lantern aloft.

"Tunnel's collapsed further along,' the man announced. 'We'll have to find another way out.'

'All the other passages run back in the direction of the fire,' said Merryl.

The hatch of the construct was forced up, tearing the coating of tar into clinging strands. A head appeared in the opening. Tiaan edged back into the shadows, hoping it was some obscure Aachim who had never seen her.

It was Minis. Her heart began to hammer. She had sworn revenge on him and all the Aachim kind, but what was the point of that if they were all going to die?

Another Aachim climbed up beside Minis. Tiaan recognised her too, despite her haggard look. Tirior had also been in on the betrayal. Minis climbed down onto the boards and Tirior followed. A third person emerged, a short, stocky young man with a cap of dark hair that clung to the contours of his skull. Cryl-Nish Hlar, Nish. Her nemesis. If there was any man in the world she loathed as much as the Aachim, it was him.

Tiaan sprang the walker backwards, colliding with the wall. She covered her face, peering through her fingers at Minis, and tears sprang to her eyes. She had invested all her foolish, youthful dreams in him, and he had cast her aside. She had to get away before he saw her. Whirling the walker around in its tracks she set off the other way, into her personal darkness. Towards the fire.

'Tiaan!' yelled Merryl.

She increased her speed, for his cry had given her away.

'Tiaan,' he yelled, pounding after her.

She could not move quickly in the gloom and Merryl caught her around the bend. 'Tiaan, what is it?'

'Those three are my enemies.'

He took her arm. 'You can't get out that way. Can't you smell the fumes?'

Just enough light came around the corner, now that her eyes had adjusted, to illuminate a dark, noxious cloud creeping along the floor. An odd tendril or two escaped upwards. One caught in the back of her throat and her lungs contracted.

All right,' she said hoarsely. 'But don't tell them my back has been repaired. Please.'

'I'll say nothing,' said Merryl. 'I know nothing.'

At the corner she almost ran into a racing Minis. 'Tiaan? Is it truly you?' He stopped abruptly, staring at the walker. His eyes lifted to her face. 'Tiaan,' he whispered. 'What happened?'

Her back was throbbing. She couldn't deal with Minis. All she could do was keep him at bay with words. 'My back was broken when the construct crashed,1 she said harshly. After your father attacked me without provocation.'

'I'm sorry. I tried to stop him…'

'Spare me your lies! I had enough of them in Tirthrax.' She ground the words out, then went past in silence. Tirior stared at her. Nish gaped. Tiaan did not acknowledge either of them.

In the open area, she said to Merryl, 'Is there any other way out?'

He pointed to the left, where another small tunnel yawned. 'It may be possible that way. If not, we're trapped and will die here.'

'Is the way the construct came in completely blocked?'

'It seems so.'

'Then we have no choice. Shall we scout this passage out?'

They had gone only a hundred paces up the small tunnel when they encountered a rivulet of molten tar oozing along the floor.

'I was afraid of that,' said Merryl. 'It seems we're doomed to end our lives here, Tiaan.'

Tiaan said nothing. They went back to the construct.

Tirior examined the walker shrewdly. 'An ingenious device. Did you make it?'

'What's the matter with your machine?' said Tiaan, ignoring the question.

'The node has gone dead and taken all the fields with it.' Tirior was watching Tiaan, head tipped to one side, no doubt wondering how the walker could still move. It would not take her long to work it out.

'Merryl' Tiaan said quietly. 'Order your people to take the Aachim, before they attack us.'

Tirior's hand darted for the pack she wore on her chest. Tiaan hurled the walker backwards, slamming painfully into the wall.

'Take them,' roared Merryl, throwing his handless arm across Tirior's throat and twisting her other arm up behind her back. The freed slaves did the same with Minis.

'Him as well' Tiaan shouted, pointing to Nish.

'You misjudge us' Tirior said softly, but under her breath she was muttering in an Aachim dialect Tiaan did not recognise.

Tiaan felt power flow from her controller and the walker's legs slowly splayed. Had Tirior not been exhausted from the mancery that had got her into Snizort, she might have succeeded.

'Stop her mouth!' Tiaan cried.

One of the slaves wound a strip of cloth three times around Tirior's head and pulled it tight. Tiaan felt the flow ease. Her heart was beating irregularly and she felt faint. So close.

'You taught me the value of your word, Tirior.' Tiaan wrenched open the pack, Tirior had been reaching for a small glass tube, capped in gold, with a scintillating powder inside. Tiaan tossed it into the tar and pressed it down with one of the walker's feet. 'Bind them, please. Merryl.'

Cord was found in a storeroom and the three prisoners' hands bound behind their backs.

'I'm not your enemy, Tiaan,' said Nish. I was wrong about you before. I'm sorry.'

He seemed different to the Nish Tiaan had known. He was more sure of himself, less angry, and made no attempt to fight those who held him. But Tiaan could not forgive so easily. 'Every time I've met you I've regretted it, Nish,' she said wearily.

'We were looking for you, to bring you out of here.'

Tiaan activated the walker and moved away. 'I have a plan,' she whispered to Merryl.

'I thought you must.'

'I think, with my crystal, that I may be able to operate the construct. If you can direct me to the way out, it will carry us through the fumes. For a while, at least.'

'I know every tunnel/ he said.

'Lift me into the construct and I'll see what I can do. The tar around it will have to be cleared away.'

'I'll have it done.'

Taking the amplimet from the walker, Tiaan put it in her pocket, undid the straps and lifted herself on her arms. Merryl carried her across. 'I'm not too heavy, am I?'

He smiled. 'You're no burden at all.'

He boosted her up the side and she slid her legs in. As her feet struck the floor Tiaan's knees buckled. Her muscles might have been made from cloth. Pulling out the operator's seat she sat down hurriedly.

The layout was much the same as in her thapter. She pressed the small recessed button and a hexagonal tube sprang out. Flipping the cap open, she removed the crystal, which was pale blue and striated down the sides. She had never seen one like it. Slipping it into her pocket, she put the amplimet in its place. In her own construct, or thapter as she had called it after learning how to make it fly, she'd made a special device to reduce power.

Tlaan hoped that would not he necessary here, since she was drawing from such a distant node. In any case, she had nothing to build it with.

She pressed the hexagonal tube in and closed the cap. After a long moment, a faint whine came from below, and a subtle tremor. It was working!

It took hours to remove the great gouts of sticky tar, and the work was so exhausting that the slaves had to rest after every few strokes. The job had just been completed when Merryl cried, Tiaan, look out!'

She got the hatch down just in time, as an even bigger clot buried the construct completely. By the time that had been removed, the air inside was stale. A day had gone by since her escape from the patterner.

The black miasma, which had advanced and retreated a number of times, was now flowing steadily across the floor. It would be up to their knees within minutes.

'Better bring the prisoners on board,' she said to Merryl, who was anxiously watching the fumes. Tiaan popped the amplimet out and pocketed it, just in case. There was no room for trust; the whole world seemed to be against her.

The prisoners were brought in and taken below. Minis gazed sorrowfully at her, like a dog that had been kicked. Nish, who looked as though he hadn't slept in days, simply lay down, pillowed his head on his arms and went to sleep. Tirior showed no expression at all. She was the one to watch.

Everyone came aboard save the two who were mattocking away at the sticky tar on the right-hand side. When the black fog was at the level of their thighs, Tiaan called them in. Should a sudden surge overwhelm the construct now, it would be impossible to get out.

Merryl set guards on the Aachim and Nish. The remaining slaves went below, leaving just her and Merryl in the operator's compartment. It would be very cramped down there, with nine passengers. Tiaan reinserted the amplimet and took hold of the trumpet-shaped lever. The whine rose in pitch but the construct did not move.

'It's still stuck in the tar,' said Merryl. ' I don't think -'

'I'll try to work it free.'

He peered anxiously ahead. A billow of black mist was rolling towards them. Tiaan pulled down the hatch and fastened it. It became dark inside, except for the subtle glow from the plate in front of her. The front panel thinned to transparency. The outside was dimly lit by glowing globes that shone intermittently through the fog.

She wiggled the lever back and forth, ever so gently. The whine rose and fell. With a delicate shudder the construct pulled free and rose in the air until its base was at the level of the black fog. Tiaan edged it forwards.

'Straight ahead or to the left?' she said, after they'd been travelling a while.

'The way out into the main pit is straight ahead, but we may not be able to get through that way…' Merryl was looking at her expectantly. 'Is something the matter?'

She realised that she was frowning. I originally came here looking for Gilhaelith. He's a strange, unlikeable fellow, but he was good to me.' Even though he'd cared more for the amplimet than about her safety, Tiaan had to know that he was safe.

'He's an important man,' said Merryl. 'Surely the lyrinx will have taken him with them.'

'I was important to them, yet they panicked and left me behind. They may have abandoned him as well. Do you know where Gilhaelith was working?'

'In a tunnel excavated into the Great Seep.'

A tunnel in liquid tar? How can that be?'

'They froze it first.'

'How?' said Tiaan curiously.

'One of their Arts.'

'If he was left behind, can he possibly still be alive?' she said to herself.

'Not if he's still in the seep.' He looked through the front. 'But, perhaps, in the tunnels near it… We can go that way. It's not much further.'

Merryl was a man of the same heart as Tiaan. She thanked him, silently. 'He treated me kindly. I have to know.'

'Then go straight on.'

They came to a high point in the tunnel where the heavy black mist had not reached. Merryl cracked the hatch open to let in fresh air, but it stank so badly that he quickly closed it again. The construct went down sharply, plunging into fumes which the globes could not penetrate. Tiaan had to creep along, and even then was continually bumping into the sticky, gritty walls.

They turned a sharp bend, then another that formed the other half of an 'S', and the black fog thinned. Ahead, two tunnels diverged at a shallow angle.

'Which way?' said Tiaan.

Merryl was staring blankly through the screen. 'I'm.., not sure. The fog has confused me. Have we missed an intersection?'

'We could have missed fifty for all I could see.'

'Take the left. I think:

After a few minutes, Tiaan felt the right-hand side scrape on the sandy wall. Shortly afterwards the other side did the same and the construct shuddered to a stop.

'It's the wrong way, said Merryl. 'Better go back.'

'I hope we can,' Tiaan muttered.

After much jerking and heaving the construct began to move backwards. They had been heading down the other tunnel for some minutes when Tiaan saw a red glow in a cross-tunnel to their left.

'We're running out of options,' said Merryl. 'Can you go faster?'

She increased speed as much as she dared, following a zigzag path away from the burning area until they hit a broad tunnel that ran straight. There were no fumes in it and they made good time. The walls and roof here were yellow sandstone, hardly tar stained at all. After ten minutes they came abruptly into blackened rock and then, where the tunnel opened out, into solid tar. The tunnel kept on.

'Is this where Gilhaelith was?' Tiaan did not like the feel of the place.

'He would have been some way ahead. We're close to the outer edge of the Great Seep – the solid edge. In a few spans it becomes soft and beyond that it's liquid tar for a league.'

'How did they tunnel it? And why?'

Merryl spoke to the huddled slaves in a language Tiaan did not know. A woman answered in the same tongue.

'They used devices powered by phynadrs,' said Merryl, 'to draw the heat out and freeze the tar hard. Why, I cannot say, only that it was mighty important to them. Matriarch Gyrull worked there every day, and a matriarch does not risk her life needlessly.'

They crept on. Objects were strewn here and there as if discarded in flight – rotting, tar-stained remnants of clothing, a small wooden chest. Further on was a distinctly human-looking body.

Tiaan caught her breath. Not Gilhaelith, surely? She drew the construct alongside, opened the hatch and looked down.

The body was small, female, and tar-impregnated. 'It has a.., withered look; Tiaan said. 'As if long dead.'

'Many people, and many animals, must have become stuck in the tar over the aeons, and been carried down into the depths. I saw a number of them over my time here, all perfectly preserved. You need shed no tear for her, Tiaan. She's been dead hundreds of years, at the very least.'

'I'll go on, just in case…' She edged the construct down the tunnel. I thought you said they tunnelled in a long way.'

About a hundred spans, I heard.'

'We're only in twenty and I can see the end,' said Tiaan.

She lifted herself up on the side, the better to see. The end of the tunnel was but spans away, a smooth, shining black bulge dotted with fragments of wood and cloth. 'It's moving!' Warm tar was creeping towards them like molasses squeezed through a hole. The tunnel had collapsed, 'If Gilhaelith was in there, he's dead.'

Five

Merryl gripped her shoulder. 'Was he special to you, Tiaan?' 'I wouldn't say that we were friends, for he had none. Gilhaelith was quite the strangest man I've ever met, and totally absorbed in himself. Yet he was good to me and I can't forget it. We'd better go, if we're to get out.'

Reversing the little construct, Tiaan turned it about and went back the way they had come. At the first intersection, Merryl said, 'Go left.'

She headed that way but was soon confronted by a baleful glow and another creeping fume.

'There's fire ahead, Tiaan. Try the other way.'

To the right they encountered a cave-in that completely blocked the tunnel. There was no hope of clearing it, for the fumes were knee high and rising. They turned back to the junction and took the middle path, their last hope.

'Fire,' Merryl said dully, after they had moved less than a hundred spans.

Tiaan kept going until it was certain there was no way past. 'What now?'

'Resign ourselves to death.'

It was hot here. Tiaan went back to the entrance to the tar tunnel. She could not resign herself to dying. Turning the construct again, she stared at the oozing face of the tar.

'Tell me about the Great Seep, Merryl.'

'It's a good league across, and hundreds of spans deep. Some say it's bottomless. Things, and creatures trapped in it, sink down and sometimes appear again, countless years later, with the wheeling of the slow currents in its depths.'

'If we remain here,' she said absently. 'We'll be dead within the hour.'

'I'd-say so.'

'How long would the air in the construct last with the hatch down, and all of us inside?'

'I don't know. Two hours? Three? Four, possibly.'

'Then let's live those extra hours. Let's risk it.' Tiaan slammed the hatch, took a deep breath and moved the construct gently forwards until it met the convex face of the tar.

Merryl's eyes met hers. Tiaan's eyes were alive for the first time since he'd met her. 'What have we got to lose?'

The construct met resistance and stalled. Tiaan moved the controls, just a tickle. The skinned tar broke and the machine surged into treacly material that smeared across the screen. Everything went black.

'Are we even moving?' whispered Tiaan. 'I can't tell.'

Merryl looked through the rear screen. 'We're going about two spans a minute. The tar's coming over the top. I can't see anything now.'

She nudged the trumpet-shaped lever. There was no sense of motion. 'It's not fast enough. It'll take an hour to get to the end and we've still got to go up to the top of the seep. How far below ground are we?'

He shrugged. 'More than a hundred spans, but less than two hundred.'

'That's another hour, probably two. Can we make it before we breathe all our air?'

'I don't know.'

'I'll have to go faster.'

'Go too fast and it may tear the construct apart.'

'Too slowly and it won't matter' she retorted.

The minutes ticked by. Occasionally they came up against an object that scraped along the skin of the construct. It was hot inside now.

'How hot is the tar in the Great Seep, Merryl?'

'I wouldn't know. It's warm on top, so it must be warmer inside.'

'Hot enough to cook us?'

'I couldn't say.'

'Do you think we're at the end of the tar tunnel yet?' Tiaan asked.

'Once the node failed, the walk of the tunnel would soon have gone liquid. We'd be in the swirl of the Great Seep right now.'

'We're too slow,' she fretted. And we're not going up. I've got to do something.'

She knew what to do but was reluctant to do it, since that would give away the secret of making thapters-constructs that could fly. But if they were going to die anyway…

'Could you have the prisoners blindfolded, please, Merry!7 And ask the slaves to turn their backs. I've got to do something to the construct and I don't want anyone to see.'

He went down. Tiaan unpacked the set of pink diamonds -powerful hedrons – and the strands of black whiskers, fifty-four of each, weighing them in her hands. So much from so little.

'It's done,' called Merryl.

She lowered herself down the ladder by her hands and Merryl caught her at the bottom. Tiaan exercised her legs at every opportunity but it was going to take weeks before she could walk properly.

Opening a hatch in the floor at the front, she identified a black box among the tangle of parts inside, and prised the lid off. Inserting the diamond hedrons into their sockets, she fed the black threads up to the back of the amplimet cavity, checking everything carefully as she worked. There would be no time to do it again.

As soon as it was done, Merryl lifted her up the ladder. How quickly she had come to rely on him. Tiaan took hold of the controls. The amplimet meshed with her snugly now, not opposing her at all. It wanted to escape as much as she did. The whine rose in pitch as she pulled up on the flight knob but nothing seemed to happen. She could not tell if they were moving upwards.

'Is it working, Merryl?'

He thought for a moment. 'You know how, when you carry a bowl of water, it moves with your motion?'

'Yes! What a clever idea.'

He found a broad metal dish among the bits and pieces in one ot the storage compartments, half filled it with water and sat it on the top of the binnacle. With a pointed instrument he scored marks around the dish, at the water level.

'That will show movement from side to side, or back and forth.'

'But not up, which is what I most need to know.' She wiped her brow. Sweat was running down her neck and her shirt was saturated. The air was getting stuffy, too.

'But if we had something springy…'

He was away half an hour of their precious time, before returning with thin strips of green material. 'I found a diaphragm in one of the drawers. It's a kind of rubber.'

Tying one strip from the ceiling, above the binnacle, Merryl knotted a small coin into the other end, one-handed. 'I've carried this copper nyd for twenty years,' he said with a hint of a smile, 'for luck – not that it's brought me any.' Merryl scored a line across the screen at the lowest edge of the coin and stood back. 'Try again.'

She moved the controller lever slightly. The water in the dish moved back a fraction. 'It works!' She gave him a triumphant grin, then a tentative hug. 'Let's try the other' Taking hold of the flying knob, she pulled it up. The rubbery strip lengthened perceptibly before oscillating around its original position.

'How fast do you think we're rising?' she said.

'Haven't a clue.'

She pulled the knob up further until the machine began to shudder, then backed it off a little. 'If we're only rising at a few spans an hour… I suppose it'll be an easy death, if we run out of air.'

He did not answer.

Tiaan settled back in her seat. 'How did the enemy come to capture you, Merryl?'

'We lost an unimportant little battle near Gosport, way over on the east coast; he said. 'We were fighting for a village you'd never have heard of. I don't remember its name. On the march we went through so many places that after a while no one could tell the difference.'

She wiped her dripping brow. Were you in the army a long time?'

'Only a few months. There was an emergency, and after a week of training we went to the front. I say 'the front", though there wasn't one. The lyrinx prefer to fight in small bands, or even alone. Most of my friends died in ambushes and isolated skirmishes. Afterwards, no one knew where; no one survived to write their Histories. The cursed war!'

There was a bang on the roof of the construct, followed by a scraping down the back.

'What was that?' said Tiaan.

'Something in the seep. Perhaps a piece of wood, or a large bone.' Merryl was staring straight ahead, as if to pierce the black tar.

'What did you do before you went into the army, Merryl?'

'I was a translator, like my parents,' he said softly. 'But that's so long ago it doesn't seem like me at all. I can hardly imagine it now.'

They sat in silence, listening to the whine of the construct, the occasional thunk of some object or other striking the top of the machine, the creak and rattle of the metal skin. If we were going really slowly, she thought, the impacts wouldn't make any noise.

It grew hotter. Tiaan's clothes were sodden; Merryl's too. She could hear his hoarse breathing. Hers was the same. Surely they did not have much air left. Time seemed to be going very slowly.

'What about you, Tiaan? Tell me about yourself.'

She was equally reticent. 'There's not much to tell. I was chosen to become an artisan. I have a talent of thinking in pictures. I -'

Down below, someone groaned and began to thrash their legs. Merryl swung himself down the ladder. 'They're not looking good,' he called.

She poked her head down until she could see. Three of the seven slaves were asleep, or unconscious. The others sprawled limply on the floor, eyes closed, lungs heaving. Tirior and Minis were in better shape, though they looked worse than she felt. Nish lay curled up on a pull-out bunk, halfway up the wall. He had worked his blindfold off but his eyes were shut.

'The air's really bad down there,' Merryl said as he returned to her side. 'They won't last much longer.'

She pulled the knob up until the machine began to shudder. The rubber strip elongated. Everything began to vibrate, including her teeth. The construct squealed as if its metal carapace were being wrenched one way and then the other.

'I don't like the sound of that,' she said.

'Doesn't matter much, either way.'

'No.'

A while later she said, 'How fast now?' forgetting that she'd asked that before.

'I couldn't say, Tiaan.'

It was too much of an effort to talk. She leaned back against the seat, panting. Her head drooped.

The hatch above their heads squealed and a ribbon of tar jetted in from one side, festooning her arm and shoulder with coiling black bands. She tried to brush it off but the hot stuff stuck to her fingers and burned. Tiaan yelped and with her free hand pulled the flight knob down until the shuddering stopped.

Merryl tightened the hatch and sat on the floor, resting his head back against the wall. Tiaan set the controls and scraped the tar off. She felt so very tired; her head nodded. She hauled herself up, hanging onto the binnacle. If she sat down, she would go to sleep, which would swiftly be followed by unconsciousness, and death for everyone.

Something struck the construct hard, sending a shiver through the bowl of water. The hatch scraped as if the machine were sliding along the underside of something large and hard.

Tiaan could not think clearly. She pushed the controller forwards, the squeal became a shriek of tormented metal then, to her horror, the hatch was prised up a finger's width and thick tar began to ribbon in.

The noise stopped. They were free of the obstruction. Tiaan tilted the front of the construct up. The bowl of water slid off the binnacle, pouring its contents down the ladder. Pulling the flight knob up as far as it would go, she prayed.

The machine shuddered, the tar boiled beneath it and with a roar the construct hurled itself vertically. A surge of hot tar coated the wall at her back. The sound was indescribable. Tiaan felt sure the machine was going to tear itself apart.

Then the shuddering ceased, so abruptly that she did not understand what had happened. Had they stopped? No, for the mechanism down below was still screaming. She'd done it. The construct was free, in the open air, and going up like a skyrocket.

Tiaan threw open the hatch and, gasping lungfuls of sweet, pure air, let the machine fly where it would. There were groans and cries as the passengers were flung from one side to the other, but they were alive, at least. She did not look down. Tiaan had strength only to cling to the side, her eyes watering in the gale that swirled in through the jagged hatchway.

It became bitterly cold and hard to breathe; she'd gone too high. Tiaan eased the flight knob down, wondering where to go, but the whine broke for a second. As she levelled out it broke again and smoke belched up on all sides. She put the front down, heading towards the ground. Had something vital been damaged in all that shaking and shuddering? If the mechanism failed at this height they would be smashed to jelly.

There were no more problems until, nearing the ground, she levelled out and the whine faded to nothing. An acrid smell drifted from behind the binnacle and a long black trail smoked in the air behind them. Perhaps she'd drawn too much power and the workings were burning out.

To her right stood the main encampment of the human armies, their command post perched on a flat-topped hill. A little closer to her left, Tiaan glimpsed the seven-sided command area of the Aachim, next to thousands of motionless constructs. She wasn't going that way.

White fumes came up the steps from the lower level. Merryl cried out something she could not hear. There were yells and screams from below.

'Tiaan,' Merryl yelled. 'We're on fire! Put it down, anywhere!

Better that humanity have the secret of flight than that the Aachim get it. She cut the power and turned right, skimming across the brown grass. The whine failed. The construct hit the ground, bounced like a stone on water, bounced again and skidded around in a circle, before thumping into a rock and toppling on its side.

Tiaan hit her head, hard enough to daze her. She hung onto the binnacle, gasping, as the people below scrambled for the ladder.

'Get out!' screamed Merryl.

Tiaan hit the release, snatched the amplimet and pulled herself out through the torn and tarry hatch, tumbling a short distance to the muddy ground. The underside of the construct must have been red hot – she could feel the heat from here because the brown grass began to smoulder, then burst into flame.

Two people emerged from the hatch, coughing so hard that they doubled over. They were freed slaves; Tiaan did not know their names. After them came Tirior, still bound and gagged, two more slaves, then Minis, dragging the fifth. Nish, whose hands were free, crawled out last. He untied Tirior and they hauled the others away from the fire. The burning grass was expanding away from the other side of the construct, which was now enveloped in flames and smoke. Where was Merryl?

White smoke puffed through the hatch. Tiaan thought she saw a shadow move inside. 'Merryl!' she yelled.

She dragged herself back to the hatch and sat up, stretching out her useless legs. The sixth slave lay unconscious in the hatchway. Merryl was behind her, pushing ineffectually.

Seizing the woman by the front of her shirt, Tiaan pulled her out and they fell together on the grass. Merryl flopped beside Tiaan, coughing so hard she could see specks of blood on his tongue.

'The grass is burning,' Tiaan said. 'We've got to get away from here.'

Tirior wrenched her gag off before carrying the unconscious slave to safety.

Merryl stood up, his eyes watering. 'I'm all right,' he said hoarsely. He picked Tiaan up and lurched away.

As they emerged from behind the construct, Tiaan saw a squad of soldiers racing down from the human command area. Behind them were uniformed officers, as well as shadowy figures in robes – the scrutators.

To her left, and closer, a small band of Aachim were sprinting towards her, Vithis at their head. Even from this distance she could see the angry set of his face. Tiaan let out an involuntary gasp.

'What's the matter?' said Merryl.

'That Aachim is my worst enemy.'

'Then he mustn't get you.'

He began to stagger the other way, towards the human lines. Tiaan looked over her shoulder. It would be a close thing. They went by Minis, who had freed his hands. He stared at Tiaan as she passed, his eyes tragic black holes.

'Minis!' roared Vithis, his robes flapping. 'You're alive!'

'Yes, Foster-father, I am.'

'Stop her!'

Minis, who looked as if he was about to cry, said, 'Foster-father, I will not,' and threw himself face-down on the grass.

Merryl kept going, lurching blindly from side to side. His red eyes were streaming. He looked around wildly then ran, not for the human camp but back towards Snizort.

'Merryl,' cried Tiaan, 'you're going the wrong way.'

He turned around, his eyes watering so badly that everything must have been a blur. Vithis was racing towards them but the scrutators were going to get there first.

In the confusion of the moment, Nish must have thought that Merryl was trying to carry Tiaan off. He roared, 'You're not taking her anywhere!' and launched himself through the air. His shoulder struck Merryl behind the knees. He went down, Tiaan flying from his arms.

It made all the difference. In a few strides Vithis was on them. Lifting Tiaan effortlessly in one arm, he drew his sword with the other hand. She struggled but he crushed her against his side, his arm squeezing the air from her lungs.

'Keep your distance!' he roared at the human soldiers. 'Tiaan stole what was mine and I will have it back.' More Aachim ran up to support him.

The soldiers skidded to a stop, swords drawn. Their line parted and a handful of black-robed figures pushed between them, including a tall, burly man and a short one with only one arm. His face was covered by a platinum mask.

'My name is Ghorr,' said the big man, 'Chief Scrutator. Give up the artisan, Lord Vithis.'

'I'll go to war against all humanity first; hissed Vithis.

More Aachim were running up all the time. Already they outnumbered the humans. Behind them Tiaan was pleased to see that the construct was blazing head high. With a loud bang, pieces of metal spun through the air. The secret of flight – the diamond hedrons and carbon whiskers – would be burned to vapour. Only Malien knew, and Tiaan herself. But could she keep that secret from Vithis?

Ghorr raised a clenched fist, took one step forward, then stopped.

Tiaan trembled in Vithis's arms, but the scrutators could not find the courage to attack him. With a sneer of contempt, Vithis turned his back and headed for the Aachim camp.

Six

Nish had made a terrible blunder and this time the whole world had been there to see it. Whatever had possessed him to think that the fellow was carrying Tiaan off? He pushed himself to his knees.

'Don't get up,' said Chief Scrutator Ghorr, pressing him down with a shiny boot. 'Lie in the dirt while we judge you, worm. Who are you, who has so betrayed humanity?'

Beside Ghorr stood Jal-Nish. Though he was greatly changed, and Nish had not seen him with the mask, he knew it was his father. What could be seen of Jal-Nish's face was white, but his one eye was blood red.

'The worm, surr/ ground out Jal-Nish, 'is my own son, Cryl-Nish Hlar. I have long thought that he was dead. Now I wish he had never been born.'

'So do I, Acting Scrutator Hlar. But since he is your son, and you crave elevation to the Council of Scrutators, I require you to prove that you are worthy. Devise a fitting punishment for the creature.' Ghorr's eyes showed his doubt.

Jal-Nish cast a wild glance at his son. Nish could not meet his eye; he was too ashamed. What would happen to him now? A fitting punishment. That could mean anything from the front ranks of the army to a death sentence. But blood was blood, after all. Surely his father would not 'Cryl-Nish Hlar,' Jal-Nish said. 'You have failed as an artificer as you failed as a prober, a diplomat, and at every other task you've ever been set. You are a liar, a cheat and, as has now been proven before my very eyes, a vicious traitor. The tragedy we face today stems from your initial betrayal, with Crafter Irisis, of Artisan Tiaan at your manufactory. Had you not conspired against Tiaan she would not have fled, nor fallen into the hands of the lyrinx, nor been ensnared by the Aachim. She would not have opened the gate that brought them here, with their invincible fleet of constructs. Had we still the use of her talent, and the precious amplimet, we might have gained the upper hand over the lvrinx. Alas, we've lost both, and the secret of flight, and now our alliance with the Aachim is sundered. And it's all down to you, boy'.'

I don't ask why you ensured that Artisan Tiaan, and this most precious of all secrets, should fall into Aachim hands. No doubt you've had vour bloodstained pay already.' No, Father!' cried Nish. 'I never -'

'Be silent!' Jal-Nish thundered. 'The entire Council of Scrutators saw you betray us. Your guilt has been proven beyond doubt. Cryl-Nish Hlar, you are no longer my son. You will be erased, expunged, obliterated from the Histories of the Hlar family.'

'Father,' Nish whispered. 'You can't take my Histories from me.'

'I can and I will, before this day is over.' 'But – what am I to do?'

'You should suffer the ultimate penalty, as all traitors must. But,' Jal-Nish said inexorably, 'we are in sore need of labour to haul our clankers to the nearest node. Therefore, Slave Nish, you will be harnessed into a team of criminals and slaves. You will be teamed with the treacherous Slave Flydd, and every time he incurs a whipping, so will you. You will haul clankers without respite until your heart bursts, and then you will be buried in the road, face upwards, that the meanest citizens in the world will tread you down. They will walk over you, Slave Nish, until there's not a fragment of flesh or bone or sinew left. And ever after, an obelisk at that point shall name your crimes and their punishment. Such is the penalty for high treason.'

Even the chief scrutator looked shocked, though not, Nish thought, displeased.

Jal-Nish turned away, struggling to contain himself, but after a few steps he doubled over and vomited into the grass. Shortly he returned, pulling the mask back into place. A single tear glistened in the corner of his eye, then the iron control was back.

'It is done,' Jal-Nish said to the Council. Take Slave Nish to his doom!'

'You have proven your worth over the past year Scrutator Jal-Nish,' Ghorr said softly. 'Should you save our clankers, and defeat the lyrinx in battle, a place on the Council will be yours. We have need of men such as you.' Taking Jal-Nish's arm, Ghorr led him up the hill.

A pair of white-faced soldiers stepped in beside Nish. 'I won't resist,' he said numbly, but they seized him anyway. One went through his pockets and removed everything of value. The other patted him down for weapons. Finding none, they lifted him between them and carried him away.

As Nish looked back, the crowd dispersed, except for two people. Tirior, who had been watching the proceedings from behind, walked slowly back to the Aachim lines. The other person was the one-handed man, Merryl, who had helped Tiaan. He stared after Nish, then began to trudge around the curve of the hill, away from the command post.

After a sleepless night in a solitary slave pen, Nish was hurled into the bloody slush of the battlefield. A clanker stood just a few steps away, its thick metal legs half-buried in mud. Wooden skids had been fitted underneath. To his left a group of people, slaves like him, were being harnessed together. They looked as despairing as he felt. Behind them were other slave teams, as well as teams of horses, oxen, donkeys and buffalo, soldiers and camp followers, women and even children. Every kind of beast had been harnessed to the impossible, heart-bursting task.

Nish was numb with horror. His own father had cursed him, had sentenced him to a bestial death. Even in this war, which had produced mountains of corpses, in which the whole fabric of human society had been torn apart, that was impossible to comprehend.

Crack' Pain flowered in Nish's ear. He put a filthy hand up and brought it back covered in blood. It felt as if something had bitten a piece out of his earlobe.

Crack! The other ear exploded with agony. Scrambling to his feet, Nish saw a grinning overseer coiling his whip, a good ten paces away.

'What the hell do you -?' Nish roared, driven careless by despair.

The whip lashed out again, catching him on the chest through the gape of his shirt. Muffling a cry, Nish looked around frantically. What was the brute trying to tell him?

He scrambled towards the head of the team, slipping and sliding in the muck, and every time he went to his knees the lash fell on his back or buttocks, or coiled around his waist to nip at his belly. The overseer was a monster, a sadist, and he, Slave Nish, the lowest worm in all of Santhenar, could do nothing about it.

Fumbling with the straps of the harness, Nish took several more lashes before he was fixed in place like a beast of burden. Go away! he prayed. Go and flog someone else.

Eventually the overseer did, the cries and wails of the whipped echoing down the line. Nish could feel no pity for them, though some of their groans were soul-wrenching. All that mattered was that the lash fall on another.

The man beside him at the head of the team, on his knees in the muck, was a scrawny old fellow whose back and meagre legs were crisscrossed with scars. He must have been a slave for a long time. It did not look as though he had much life in him.

'Just what I need,' Nish said to himself. 'Useless old coot will never pull his weight. He'll die in the muck and I'll be whipped for that too.'

The slave turned his emaciated, mud-coated head. Nish did not recognise him, nor even recall Jal-Nish's words, until the man spoke.

'How quickly they forget,' said Xervish Flydd, looking him in the eye.

'Scrutator! Surr!' Nish gasped. 'I'm sorry. I did not recognise -'

'You're just doing what you must, to survive,' said Flydd. 'Don't call me scrutator. Nish. That honour has been taken from me and, gossip tells me, given to your lather I'm Slave Flydd now. What brings you here?'

Nish told Flydd of his latest failing, in the smallest number of words he could. It hurt nearly as much as the lash. All his dreams were dead. He must face up to what he was, a worthless human being.

'We all make mistakes,' Flydd said out of the corner of his mouth. 'Get ready to pull.'

Nish looked around to see the overseer advancing, whip at the ready. The fellow caught Nish's eye, grinned and flicked the lash at him. It caught him on the nipple so painfully that Nish screamed. It felt as if his breast had been torn open.

'No talking!' rapped the overseer, lashing him again. 'Pull! Pull until your hearts shudder and your bowels groan or, by the powers, I'll make you suffer'.'

Nish threw his weight against the harness. Flydd did the same. The leather creaked; the rows of slaves behind them groaned. The whip cracked again and again, but the clanker did not budge.

'Pull!' roared the overseer.

Nish strained until his boots skidded in the mud, to no more effect than before. The overseer stormed back and forth, lashing and cursing them. Nish strained again until his heart felt about to explode in his chest. It made no difference. The clanker was irretrievably bogged.

If Nish had hoped for a respite, he was disappointed. While a bullock team was being brought up, they had to pull as hard as ever, and once it was harnessed in place the slave team was put beside the beasts. For every lash that fell on the haunches of the animals, the slaves felt three or four. All across the battlefield the scene was repeated: with soldiers, with other teams of slaves, with all the peasants and camp followers Jal-Nish had been able to round up, and with beasts of every description.

After hours of the most brutal labour Nish had ever experienced, the clanker began to creak and groan out of the mud wallow, though before it had gone a hundred paces it ended up in another, and many more lay ahead before it could be dragged to solid ground.

By that time it was well after dark. Each of the slaves was given a gourd full of sour water, a slab of black bread as hard as a brick and a mug of something which, with the most charitable will in the world, could only be described as slops. It had a sweet, off taste, as if it had begun to rot in the summer heat.

Nish took one sip and spat it into the grass. It was far worse than the food he had eaten in the refugee camp in Almadin in the spring. He was about to heave the mug of slops after it when Flydd said quietly, 'I'd advise you to eat every mouthful, and lick out the mug afterwards.' 'It's disgusting!'

'Aye, but you can't work without food. If you can't pull, the overseer will whip you into jelly and drag the clanker over you.'

'If this is my life, then the sooner it's over the better,' Nish muttered.

Flydd shrugged and sat down, jerking at the harness in a futile attempt to find a comfortable position. He ignored Nish, eating his slops slowly, as if savouring every morsel, and carefully wiping the mug out with lumps of bread. 'If you're not going to eat that, pass it over here.' Wordlessly Nish handed him the mug. Had it been the finest food in the land, he could not have eaten a mouthful. His stomach was throbbing with despair.

'Better get some rest,' said Flydd. 'They'll be calling us out again in a few hours.' 'But it's dark.' 'It'll be light enough when they start to burn the bodies.'

A few hours later it started again, but this time it was worse. The battlefield was dotted with pyres, blazing piles of human and lyrinx dead. They provided enough light for the overseer to pick his targets, though not enough for him to be accurate. A blow aimed tor Xervish Flydd's back came coiling around Nish's bent head, the hard tip of the lash catching him on the eyebrow with such force that he screamed.

'You stinking mongrel -' he raged, once the pain became bearable.

A dirty hand smacked him in the mouth, cutting off the abuse.

'Don't!' grated Flydd in his ear. 'Whatever thev do, don't react in any way. Just pull, as hard as you can.'

Nish strained against the harness. 'The swine nearly took my eye out.'

'If you attack him, he'll take pleasure in removing the other eye, in a way you will never forget.'

'I want to die!'

'You won't be so lucky. We're put here to suffer, and while we can stagger, that's what we're going to do.'

'It doesn't seem to bother you.'

Flydd forced himself against the straps, grunting with the effort. 'I feel pain the same as any man, Nish. I've just learned not to show it.'

Nish supposed that must be true. The former scrutator was brutally scarred and he moved as though every bone in his body had been broken. There were rumours of his torment at the hands of the Council when he was a young man, for some unspecified crime.

'I can't take much more of this,' Nish groaned. 'It feels as if my leg bones are splintering with each step.'

'You'd be surprised how much the human body can endure,' said Flydd. 'You've got months of slavery ahead of you yet.'

'Then I'll kill myself.'

Flydd's fist came out of the dark, crashing into Nish's chin and knocking him backwards into the slush. The next pair of slaves went over him, tripped and fell down, pulling down the pair after that. The team ground to a halt.

The overseer came up the line, flogging indiscriminately. The slaves fell over themselves to get away. It took a good ten minutes before the tangle was sorted out and they were pulling in unison again. Nish took more lashes, though no more than his share.

'What did you do that for?' he muttered, feeling a split lip. Two teeth felt loose and one had a chip out of it.

'Do your duty like a man and don't whine about it!' snapped Flydd. '1 expected more of you, Nish.'

'But we're slaves,' cried Nish.

'Aye. Even so, we're doing vital work. The fate of humanity may rest on us getting these clankers to the field, and never forget it.'

Nish fell silent. Trust the scrutator (he could not stop thinking of Flydd that way) to keep his eye on the greater goal. Nish could not, and he felt bad about it. The survival of humanity hung by a thread and any little thing could make the difference, but it meant nothing to him. His own troubles were too overwhelming.

He tried to talk himself into it, telling himself what a selfish, contemptible worm he was. Make something of your life, Nish! Do your very best, even if only as a slave.

It was impossible. He had fallen too far. Once he'd been part of a wealthy, powerful family. Now he'd lost everything, even his part in their Histories. Once he'd had an honourable trade; now he was beneath contempt. Once he'd had a father; now he had nothing. He was nothing.

They stopped just before dawn. Nish was so exhausted that he fell onto the mud and slept where he lay – blessed oblivion, though it did not last long.

He dreamed that he was sitting at a banquet table, dressed in robes woven with golden thread. A lovely young woman was at his left elbow, an even lovelier one at his right. He was speaking and the whole table hung on his words. Nish finished his speech to a roar of acclamation. As he bowed, he smelt the most delicious aromas as waiters hurried in, bearing huge platters of roast meats.

Nish woke salivating and the glorious smell was still there. He opened his eyes, realised where he was, and wept. He was covered in stinking, rotting mud. There was no dinner table; no audience. Worst of all, so horrible that he could not bear to think about it, the mouth-watering aroma came from the piles of burning dead. He was salivating over his own kind. He was a monster of depravity, no better than a cannibal.

'Ah, no,' he wailed, and flopped down in the mud again.

Flydd hauled him out, wiping his face with a callused hand. Nish, expecting to be smacked in the mouth again, pulled away.

'What is it?' said Flydd, watching the overseer over Nish's shoulder.

'I once had everything, and now I've lost it all. No, that's not true. I didn't lose it, I threw it away. I'm useless. And then, just then.., my mouth was watering from the smell of cooked meat, and it was human meat.'

Flydd stared at him for a long time. 'Mine too. It's entirely natural. It doesn't make you any worse in my eyes.'

'You're a slave, surr. What you think doesn't matter.'

Flydd clenched his fist, but unclenched it. He sighed and, though plagued by his own self-doubt, put it aside. 'You've done plenty that's right, Nish. You got the best out of the seeker, little Ullii, where no one else could. You thought of the idea of air-floaters, without which the war might already be lost. You sailed a balloon all the way to Tirthrax, and found Tiaan there. You might have brought her and the crystal back, had you not faced people with far greater power than yourself. You killed the nylatl single-handed, and that was a feat worthy of half a page in the Histories. You saved the lives of thousands in the refugee camp. Had you not given warning in time, every person there might have fed the enemy.'

'How did you know about that?' said Nish.

'If a leaf falls in the forest when it should not, the scrutators hear about it.'

Nish must assume that the scrutator also knew about his disastrous attempt at diplomacy, and the unfortunate liaison, if it could be called that, with Yara's sister Mira.

'I have other failings,' Nish said, determined to scathe himself to the bone.

'Who does not? I have so many weaknesses that it makes me shudder to think about them. It doesn't stop me from trying, though. Don't take on the slave's mentality, Nish. Once you do, you might as well be dead.'

Nish glanced over his shoulder The overseer was not in sight, but a slave was squelching down the line with pannikins of water. Behind him, another bore a platter on which chunks of black bread looked as though they had been hacked up with an axe, and a filthy axe at that. 'There's one thing you haven't heard,' he said quietly.

'Oh?1 said Flydd.

'After my latest failing, which put Tiaan into the hands of Vithis, I came before the Council of Scrutators. The head of the Council…'

'Chief Scrutator Ghorr,' Flydd prompted. He stared into space, lost in his own world, and Nish had to nudge him when the trusties held out the bread and water.

'Yes, Ghorr,' Nish said after they had gone. 'He demanded that my father prove his suitability to be a scrutator, by sentencing me. And Jal-Nish did.' Nish repeated the sentence, word by awful word. It was engraved in his mind, and would be until the day he died. 'My own father/ he said brokenly. 'He – he condemned me without a second's hesitation.' Nish related the whole terrible episode. 'I just can't comprehend it, surr.'

Flydd was staring at him, not breathing. 'And how did Ghorr react?'

'He seemed delighted.'

Flydd went so still that Nish wondered if he was alive. The lump of coarse bread was held out in one hand, the gourd of water in the other. His scarred and knotted jaw looked as if it had been cast from bronze. Finally he gave a great shudder, turned to Nish and handed him the bread.

'Take this. I cannot eat.'

'But…' said Nish, 'yesterday you told me I must eat to survive.'

Flydd looked over his shoulder, then lowered his voice. 'What you've just told me makes my flesh crawl. There have always been people who would do anything, even sell their kin, to satisfy their lusts. I've met more than enough in my time. But for the chief of scrutators to encourage such a deed, to demand it as proof of worth to become a scrutator, shows that the Council is corrupt to the core.'

'I always thought the Council would do anything -' Nish began, but quickly censored himself.

'We did what was required for humanity to survive. I've done many things I'm not proud of, though, as scrutator, I would do them again. But this… How can the Council not see?'

'See what?' said Nish, gnawing at the hard bread, which had been milled so coarsely that many of the grains were whole. He spat out a particularly large grain, which turned out to be a pebble.

'That this deed, alone, makes Jal-Nish unworthy to be scrutator, and Ghorr to be chief. A man who puts ambition before anything else can never be trusted to act for the common good. And a man who demands such an act lacks the judgment to be a lowly prober, much less a scrutator. Ghorr must be brought down, and the Council with him.'

With a loud crack, the neck of the gourd shattered under the force of Flydd's grip, showering him with water. He put the ragged end to his mouth and drained it, then tossed the gourd into the mud.

With a rueful smile he spoke, quietly so the next pair of slaves would not hear: 'Well may you laugh, to hear a slave plot the downfall of the scrutators. But I swear to you that I will do it, whatever it takes. This monstrosity, this abomination of the Council, must be wiped from the earth.'

'Including my father?' Despite everything, Nish could not even think of revenge. All he felt was an empty bewilderment, that his father could have done such a thing to him.

'Especially Jal-Nish.'

Seven

In the panic after the node exploded, and the disabled air-fioater crash-landed in the middle of the battlefield, everyone fled for their lives. No one noticed that little Ullii was not with them.

Ullii was so furious with Flydd and Irisis that she stayed behind. The scrutator had gained her cooperation by telling her that he'd found her long-lost twin brother, Mylii, but it had all been a lie. Flydd had no idea where Mylii was.

When the reverberations from the node had faded enough for her to open her lattice, the mental matrix by which she organised her unique view of the world, there were lyrinx everywhere. Huge lyrinx with bloodstained claws and shreds of flesh and skin between their teeth. Ullii stifled a gasp, jumpad over the side and ran after Flydd. Better him than the clawers, as she thought of them, but the bright sun burst up, right into her eyes. Covering her face, she lurched back to the air-floater, but couldn't find her mask or goggles. In daylight she was helpless without one or the other. Ullii was groping under the tilted deck for them when she realised that she was completely alone.

'Wait!' she wailed, but her high, despairing cry did not carry. Despite Flydd lying to her, despite Irisis letting her down as well, in this nightmare of blood and violence Ullii could not do without them. 'Wait!' she shouted in her high little voice.

It was impossible to hear anything above the battle cries of the lyrinx, the sound of weapons on armour, the hiss of spears and catapult balls, the screams of men and beasts in agony.

Her ears hurt; even after plugging them with lumps of wet clay she could still hear the racket.

Her burning eyes were streaming with tears and she could not leave the air-floater. Ullii searched for Irisis and Xervish Flydd. Since they both had a talent for the Secret Art, they should have appeared in the lattice. But Irisis and Flydd were far across the battlefield, and in the chaos Ullii could not pick them out. Thousands of lyrinx showed, and devices powered by the Secret Art. Only those capable of storing power were working now. Anything that relied on the field was dead.

Ullii felt abandoned – it had been happening all her life. What was she to do? She couldn't survive by herself. And what about the little intruder growing inside her? She felt protective towards the baby because she and Nish had made it together, but sometimes she hated it. One day it would abandon her, too.

The battlefield became so terrifying that Ullii had to shut down her lattice. She could not stand violence of any kind. The war was a nightmare brought to life and she did not know how to cope. Ullii did the only thing left to her. She crept into the smallest, darkest space she could find, a corner of the air-floater's tiny galley, curled up into a ball and closed down her senses one by one. The world vanished.

All day the battle raged around her. Several times the wrecked air-floater was struck by running lyrinx, hard enough to shake the flimsy structure. Once a minor battle raged inside as four soldiers pursued a wounded lyrinx and dispatched it. Men and lyrinx died to her left, then in the rear. Ullii was oblivious. Thirst roused her in the cool of the evening. Uncoiling gracefully, she opened her crusted eyes. The galley was a mess. When the air-floater had flipped upside down, pans, pots, food and wine-had been scattered everywhere. Ullii found a battered pot, tapped water from a barrel and gulped it down, though it had an unpleasant metallic taste. She found dried fruit, stale bread and a piece of mild cheese that had gone hard and cracked in the heat of the day. It suited her perfectly, for Ullii could not bear any kind of herb or spice, or other strong flavours, which were to her overpoweringly intense.

Sitting on the floor, she gnawed at the cheese while she used the lattice to sense what was going on around her. The fighting had paused; the battlefield was quiet apart from the piteous groans of the dying and the cackle of fires here and there. The smell of blood, excrement and raw flesh made her stomach heave.

Other fires lit up the human camps, as well as those of the Aachim, but not the lyrinx. They did not need camp fires. And in the distance Ullii could see, and feel, and sense with every one of her senses, the baleful incandescence of the exploded node. It was still molten, concealed by impenetrable fumes, and spurting and dribbling white-hot rock like a miniature volcano. The fields that had once been such a vital part of it had gone, though Ullii still sensed something there.

Once more she sought for Irisis and Xervish Flydd, but did not find them. There were too many people with uncanny talents, and too many devices employing the Secret Art. Her lattice glowed with them, like knotted stars in the heavens. Ullii did not look for Nish, though she longed for him. Having no Art, he did not appear in her lattice at all.

But one point stood out like a nova in the night sky, and she recognised it at once. It was the glowing knot of the amplimet, twinned to a smaller knot that signified Tiaan. After months of searching for them, Ullii knew those marks the instant they appeared.

They were not far away, though she could not tell where. The lattice was twisted up on itself, blasted out of shape by the sub-ethyric explosion from the node. Everything was warped and confused.

Ullii did not feel safe in the air-floater but she had nowhere else to go. She had never felt so abandoned. Nish, she cried silently. Where are you? Ullii had last seen him as a prisoner of the Aachim, and he'd not seemed as pleased to see her as she'd been to find him. She suppressed that worry. Could he be at the camp surrounded by those shining metal constructs? Ullii dared not go to see; the Aachim leader was a harsh man, like the people who had tormented her in childhood.

She ate some more bread, then slept, the baby kicking in her belly like the feathery brush of a fish's tail. The night passed. The fighting stopped briefly before continuing, as brutal and bloody as ever. In the morning her sleep was interrupted by flashes brighter than the sun. One passed right across the air-floater, showing even,' rib, strut and wire of the collapsed gasbag, and her black glass goggles jammed under a bench.

Scrambling for them, Ullii stared up at the sky. The fleet of air-floaters was impossible to miss. Their crystals appeared faintly in her lattice, a perfect formation of three by four. Something else showed, too. The presence was also faint, denoting only a minor talent for the Secret Art, but it had a signature she would have known anywhere – a festering corruption of mind and body that made her belly cramp and her skin crawl. Ullii had not felt it since their escape from the mine at the manufactory, months ago. It was the man she feared most – Jal-Nish Hlar.

She tried to close down her senses again, but this time they would not obey her, for fear of what might happen when she was helpless. Scuttling into the galley, she closed the door and piled bags and barrels against it. Without a window, it was stiflingly hot – too hot for comfort – and though it was dim inside, for once that did not help.

She closed her eyes, but again that beam passed over the air-floater, and light streamed in through a tiny crack in the wall, so bright that she felt it. Ullii was not safe anywhere. As she put her hands over the goggles, the earth began to shake as if thousands of heavy feet were pounding it. The clawers were on the move. If they came this way, one of them would eat her in a few bone-snapping, brain-spurting gulps.

Clearing the door, Ullii crept out, peering fearfully through her goggles. Another blast of light seared from sky to ground. A great wail went up and she saw the enemy running for their lives, a horde of them heading directly for the air-floater. In their panic, they might crash right through the flimsy structure.

Not far away a clanker lay on its side, torn open from one end to the other. It offered better shelter, since the beasts would have to go round it. Slipping over the side. Ullii bent low to the ground and ran. The enemy pounded towards her. Halfway to the clanker she encountered a dead dawer lying in a depression. Ullii froze, staring at the great hulk, whose eyes seemed to be looking right at her.

It was almost her undoing. Ullii could not move, terrified that the creature would come to life and tear her in half. It didn't and, finding courage at the last instant, she leapt over it and scuttled the dozen steps to the side of the clanker. Pulling herself underneath its overhanging side, she closed her eyes and prayed.

The mob thundered past, rocking the clanker. The metal frame creaked and groaned. Ullii shuddered and curled into a smaller ball, knowing that the clawers could find her by smell if they wanted to.

The last went by, limping. She did not move. Not until the stampede faded into the distance did she dare to open her eyes.

The air-floaters still shone their beam one way and another. Ullii slipped inside the clanker, looking for water and food. She did not find any, only blood on the floor, the srhell so sickly that she almost passed out.

She hid underneath in the small patch of shadow, following it around as the sun rose higher then sank towards the west. By the mid-afternoon it became clear that the enemy were abandoning Snizort, but Ullii did not know what to do. Experience had taught her that few people could be trusted. Nor could she live alone, in the wild. Food, clothing and shelter had always been provided for her and, by herself, she would not survive a week. She could not kill another animal for food, nor eat its bloody, pungent flesh if she did.

She would have to follow the clanker column and find a way to live off it without being caught. Though Ullii was a creature of the night, used to moving silently and secretly, that thought filled her with terror. Stealing from the army was a capital crime. Should she be caught, they would kill her like a beast. But she had to eat.

Going back for water, she found the air-floater smashed to pieces. The gasbag, a good fifteen spans long, had disappeared. Searching in the mud she discovered a water barrel with a few handfuls of brown water in it, and drank the lot. There was nothing left of the food.

It was growing dark. She circled around one of the camps, and around again, silent as a ghost in the darkness. Many times she came on ruined clankers, but the smell of blood and death was so strong she could not bear to crawl inside. She was ravenous, and so desperate for a drink that, not long before dawn. Ullii approached a dead soldier. Holding her nose with one hand, she went through his pack.

She found nothing to eat or drink, but the next corpse had a stoppered skin of wine and a bag of flat honey biscuits. After wiping the mouth of the skin a dozen times, and suppressing a shudder, she put it to her lips.

The wine was so sour that it took her breath away, and the taste made her want to wash her mouth out. She took another sip, then a mouthful. It had been watered and was weak, but Ullii had not taken wine before, nor any kind of alcoholic drink.

Moving upwind of the corpse, she nibbled at one of the honey biscuits. It was delicious, though intensely sweet. She ate it all and took another sip of the wine, which now tasted even more sour.

Ullii wandered off, alternately nibbling to break the sourness of the wine, then drinking to rid her mouth of the excessive sweetness. In this way she circumnavigated the camp again. To her right she heard cursing and the distinctive sound of the whip. Groups of harnessed men were attempting to drag clankers out of a bog. She turned the other way and shortly came upon a ruined clanker, just as the sky was growing light. Her head felt strange. Ullii giggled, staggered and threw up.

The sun burst over the horizon, right into her eyes. Ullii stumbled around the clanker, found a hole in the side and crawled in. All around her echoed the roars of overseers and the groaning of slaves. There was only one consolation – the lyrinx had gone. In the core of her lattice she could see their columns, moving steadily away, abandoning Snizort and all they had made here.

Not quite all – they carried a number of strange objects with them, thick with the aura of the Secret An. But they were shielded and Ullii could tell no more about them, even had she wanted to. She sought for the solace of sleep.

Ullii woke with a terrible headache, for she'd slept the day through, and the night. The sun was beating down on the clanker now, which creaked and squealed as the metal plates expanded and slipped over one another. Her mouth tasted foul; she was thirstier than ever but could not stomach the wine. She ate a few more honey biscuits, sniffed the contents of the skin and poured it onto the ground.

Not daring to go out in the daytime, Ullii lay panting in the clanker until sundown, growing weaker and weaker. Her headache was worse than before. She felt sure that she was dying.

The clanker cooled quickly once the sun set and Ullii, idly trailing her fingers along the upper side, discovered that it was covered in beads of moisture. She licked her fingers. Her tongue was so dry that it felt crackly. Following the trail of drops down the side she discovered a small pool of condensation, about a cupful, in a metal hollow. After drinking it dry, she felt strong enough to look for more.

Her senses were so acute that she could smell water, even among the fumes from the bodies that had been burned, and the putrid reek of those rotting where they had fallen. She found a gourd of water, drank her fill and went back to her hiding place, where sleep was her only escape from the stench. The next morning she finished the water and went outside. Something had changed.

All was silent. The hauling teams had dragged the last of the undamaged clankers from the mire onto solid ground, and were now heading towards the nearest field. She was alone with the dead.

Ullii followed the column for days, sleeping in a tree or hollow by day, creeping at the coat-tails of the procession at night, and living on the few meagre scraps she could find. She did not know what else to do.

It was most unpleasant. Several times she saw the one-armed man in the platinum mask, and after that Jal-Nish's knot was always in her lattice, a shuddering horror. And even from half a league away, the smell of eighty thousand unwashed bodies was so strong than she had to plug her nose. The merest whiff made her gag, and it grew worse as time wore on. One night she found nothing edible at all, and was driven by hunger to creep to the front of the procession, where the noise and light were least, to see if she could steal anything.

It was the boldest deed little Ullii had ever attempted. Her whole life had been spent in fear of people and their punishments. Now she must steal or starve. She crept along the line of the leading column, keeping watch in her lattice for Jal-Nish. He was over the other side, thankfully. A gentle breeze drifted the stink of the army away from her. Ullii took out her noseplugs. Smell was her most powerful sense and she needed it here.

The column was still, the slaves taking a few hours' rest before the labour began again at dawn. She slipped closer, as quick as silk in the darkness. An errant breeze brought her an aroma from the camp ovens – fresh bread. Five hundred bakers had worked all night to feed the multitude their breakfast.

Salivating, Ullii scanned the area. The bakers' wagons and their portable ovens, were well lit and securely guarded, so there was no chance of stealing anything there. She moved up the line, looking for something she could snatch. It had to be done secretly. If they saw her she would never get away.

As she prowled, the wind changed, momentarily blowing from the head of the line. Even among the thousands of sweaty bodies, Ullii caught an elusive, familiar scent. Her eyes moistened. She raised her head, sniffing the air. There it was again. Her nipples stood up and Ullii felt an overwhelming flood of desire.

It was Nish! Her beloved Nish, who had looked after her so tenderly before. If only she could get to him, she would be safe at last.

Eight Irisis screamed as the pair of lyrinx leapt through the door; she couldn't help herself. With a backwards flip that she had not known she could perform, she fled the other way, expecting to find Flangers dead.

He was working the sword furiously with his good arm, fighting for his life. The lyrinx was moving slowly now, the hole in its side pulsing purple blood, though one of its blows might still have disembowelled a man.

Flangers hacked at it but missed. It slashed with one hand, then the other, the blows tearing through the soldier's shirt as he wove backwards. He stumbled, slipped in purple blood and fell to one knee.

Irisis, still running, acted instinctively. Leaping high, she landed on the lyrinx's back, caught hold of its crest and brought her knee up hard against the base of its skull. The lyrinx reared up, shaking its head as it reached back with its left hand to tear her off.

As the blood-tipped claws came at her face, Irisis hung on with her knees and pummelled it about the side of the head. The blows seemed to daze it so she poked her fingers into its eyes.

Flangers came up off the floor like a ball from a catapult. The outstretched sword slid between Irisis's knees, found the gap in the plates and plunged into the creature's throat. Irisis, unable to untangle her legs in time, went all the way down with the falling beast. She hit the floor, rolled and came up holding her sword.

At the death of their comrade, the other two lyrinx checked, though not for long. Irisis just stood there, her initiative exhausted. Flangers caught her hand, jerking her away.

'Through the door behind me.'

It was just a few steps away but she hadn't noticed it before. Irisis waved her sword around in a professional manner as Flangers jerked it open.

'Hurry!' he roared.

Irisis took one look over her shoulder and ran for the door. Flangers kicked it shut behind them. They fled across the oval space outside but, halfway, Irisis stopped to look back.

'Come on!' Flangers was limping badly.

She stayed where she was. 'There's something wrong. They're not coming after us.'

He felt his injured arm with his good hand. 'Perhaps they're sneaking round through one of the other doors, to take us from behind.'

Irisis tiptoed back to the door, beyond which she heard thuds and squeals. 'No, they're back at their bloody work, killing the little beasts. They don't want any of them taken alive. I wonder why?'

'I can't bear to think,' said Flangers. 'Hey, now!'

Irisis had opened the door and was peering inside. One of the lyrinx, not three steps away, broke off from its bloody work with the club. Its dark eyes, the size of lemons, were fixed on her. She trembled. In the past year she'd had a number of encounters with the great beasts. It could kill her with a blow, yet it fascinated her. Its size, its strength, the play of muscles down its armoured front, the flickering skin colours, now mauve, now purple and black – and something more.

'What are you doing?' she said, not expecting it to know her language.

'My duty,' it said clearly, in a rumble deeper than any human had ever spoken. The sound tickled her eardrums. 'Seek you to stop me, small one, I must end you the same way.' It hefted the bloody club.

No one had described Irisis as small before, but to a lyrinx the largest humans were puny creatures. The other creature called in a higher voice, almost a chirrup. The first brandished the club. Irisis ducked backwards, the door was kicked shut and something slammed against it.

'Whatever they're doing,' said Irisis, 'they're determined to finish it. I'd better have a look at your arm.'

'It's not too bad.' Flangers peeled back the shirt to reveal two raw gouges from wrist to shoulder. 'Painful, though.'

'I'll bet. What about the other wound?'

He looked abashed. 'Oh, it's all right.'

"Then why are you limping? Turn around, let me take a look at it.'

The seat of his trousers had been torn out, and four deep claw marks carved across his right buttock, two extending onto the left. 'That'll need attention…' she began.

'Don't see much point right now.'

'Hoy!' called a soldier's voice.

'Over here,' roared Flangers.

Young Ivar and the other soldiers came running, followed by Fyn-Mah and a dark-skinned man Irisis had never seen before – yes she had. It was Eiryn Muss, Flydd's spy, in another of his disguises. This one was masterly – he seemed to have altered his size and shape as well as his appearance. He was the same height, but lean, stringy, and his eyes were a glossy dark brown.

'What happened?' panted Fyn-Mah.

'We found their flesh-forming cages, at least five rooms of them,' said Irisis. 'All the creatures in the first three rooms were dead or dying. In the fourth we came upon a lyrinx, destroying the remainder. It attacked; nearly killed us too, and then another two appeared. Flangers managed to kill the first lyrinx and we got out the door. They didn't come after us – weren't interested. They're finishing off the rest of the flesh-formed.'

'They don't want us to get a live one' said Fyn-Mah. 'All the more urgent that we do.'

'What are you doing here?' Irisis said to Muss, who reeked of tar smoke.

'Scrutators' business.' He looked frustrated. It was the first time she'd seen him show emotion.

'So are we. We need a hand.'

'In the struggle, some of the cages were broken open,' Irisis said to Fyn-Mah, and a few animals escaped. If we were to attack suddenly, we might overcome the lyrinx and catch one of the little beasts.'

'By the time we break down the door there'll be no taking them by surprise.'

'Especially since they've barricaded it.' said Flangers.

'But…' Fyn-Mah rubbed her fingers together, reflecting for a moment. 'If I were to blast the door off its hinges, using the Art… All right! I'll try it. Stand back.1

'The node is dead,' Irisis reminded her.

'Artefacts that store power will still work, though I'd have preferred not to waste one here. Put your hands over your ears.'

She pressed a bead into her right ear, another into the left. Taking something small and shiny from a buttoned pocket, Fyn-Mah rubbed it between her hands as if to warm it, closed her fingers loosely around it and held her hand high. The upraised arm shook, her face went red, and a blade of raw sound sheared out between her fingers. The air shimmered, marking its passage. The door burst into splinters. Fyn-Mah was tossed the other way, to land on her back.

The sound, even through Irisis's hands, was a nagging, rasping screech. She crouched down, put her head between her knees and pressed her hands over her ears. Beside her, Flangers grunted as if he'd been punched in the stomach.

Beyond the doorway, the cages had been piled against the far wall by the force of the blast. One lyrinx lay on the now empty floor, kicking feebly. A shard of wood the size of a pick handle had gone through its thigh, severing the artery, and it was bleeding to death. The one Irisis had spoken to had come to rest against the far wall, its neck broken.

Several flesh-formed creatures lay on the floor, dead. 'Go through all the cages,' said Fyn-Mah, stooped and shaking with aftersickness. 'If there's any beast left alive, we must have it.

Are you all right?' said Flangers.

'Go on. I'll be with you in a minute.'

They started on the grim task, keeping a careful watch on the wounded lyrinx. It tried to get up, its claws scraping at the soft sandstone underfoot, but was too weak. Finally it slumped on its side, unmoving, its yellow-brown eyes watching them.

It did not take long to search the cages, but they found nothing alive. Fyn-Mah appeared, shaking her head. 'They must have killed them all' She knelt beside the dying creature; not too close. 'Are they all dead, lyrinx?'

'Yesss…' It was just a puff of breath. 'All dead.' Its head thumped against the floor.

'Some escaped their cages,' said Irisis. 'I don't think they could have got out of the room.'

The smoky smell had grown stronger, suggesting that the fire was moving this way. 'Search the room,' ordered Fyn-Mah. 'Quickly. Every minute we spend here lessens our chance of getting out of Snizort.'

'Here's something,' said the young soldier, on his knees beside a cupboard that had fallen on several others, leaving spaces between. 'A trail of blood goes in here.'

They dragged the cupboards out of the way. Underneath lay a flesh-formed creature, as dead as the others. Fyn-Mah stood frowning at it, took a notebook from her pocket and began to write swiftly.

She went around the room, describing and sketching the dead creatures while the search was completed. Looking bitterly disappointed, she disappeared into the adjoining room. The soldiers followed, leaving just Irisis and Flangers.

'Where's Muss?' said Irisis.

'He was right behind you -' Flangers scratched his head in bemusement. 'I wonder what he's up to?'

'It doesn't do to inquire into scrutators' affairs,' said Irisis. 'We'd better go.'

Flangers rubbed his wounded arm, staring at the floor. 'Take a look at this, Crafter.' He squatted down, further splitting his pants, and emitted the faintest of groans.

'What is it?'

His finger traced a bloody squiggle across the floor. This was made by something trying to hide. Give me a hand.'

They pulled the broken cupboards out ot the way, inspecting each carefully, though it was not until the very last that they found anything. It was a furred creature about the size of Flangers's hand, the oddest little thing Irisis had ever seen. The fur was wet, bloody in patches and sticky in others. It scratched at Flangers as he picked it up, though its soft claws did not break the skin.

'It's newborn, he said wonderingly. 'That must have been the mother and, as she lay dying, she gave birth.'

'Better than nothing, I suppose.' Irisis looked for something to keep it in. 'I'll tell Fyn-Mah. Flangers, what are you doing?'

He was crouched beside the dead mother, holding the little one to a teat. 'It'll need feeding, and there's nothing better than mother's milk.'

The man never ceased to surprise her. Leaving him to his domestic duties, she went into the next room. 'Fyn-Mah! we've found one – an infant.'

The perquisitor came running. 'Where?'

'Flangers is feeding it.' Irisis found a small, undamaged cage which she padded with handfuls of straw.

Fyn-Mah was standing over Flangers. 'Come on, soldier!'

'One feed will make a big difference to its chances,' said Flangers.

'The time could make a big difference to our chances. Oh, all right, but only a few minutes. Where's Muss?'

'He just disappeared.'

Fyn-Mah did not look surprised. 'He's got other business to attend to.' With an anxious glance at the door, she hurried back to the adjoining room to resume her search.

Irisis sat the cage next to the dead mother. It made her uncomfortable to see Flangers feeding the creature, but it fascinated her too. What an unusual man he was. 'Did you grow up on a farm?'

No, I lived all my life in Thurkad, until I signed up.'

'Then how did you know…?' I'm just interested in things. Do you know -'

Fyn-Mah came flying through the door, followed by the soldiers. 'Come on!' She hurtled out.

Flangers slipped the little creature into his pocket. Irisis took the cage. 'What's the matter?'

Fyn-Mah was running on tiptoes. 'There are more lyrinx on the way.'

'How do you know?' Irisis panted. 'Where are they?'

'Shut up and run!'

She led the way, followed by Irisis and Flangers, then the soldiers. The young captain looked very uncomfortable to be bringing up the rear. They raced down the corridor, sticky tar rasping underfoot, turned the corner and saw half a dozen lyrinx ahead. Fyn-Mah spun on one slender foot and darted to her right, into a smaller, darker tunnel.

'I'm not sure this is the right way,' said Irisis.

Fyn-Mah glanced at the swinging cage as Irisis pounded beside her. 'Where is it?'

'Flangers has it in his pocket.' He was in the middle of the line of soldiers.

'Flangers! Up with me. Myrum, go back with Irisis.'

Flangers made his way up. Myrum, a stumpy chunk of scarred muscle, moved back. Irisis studied him as he joined her. Long black hair curtained a high, bald dome. The old soldier was missing one ear, most of his teeth and the tip of his nose, yet she had not seen him without a smile.

'What're you so happy about?' she said.

'Being alive,' Myrum said with zest.

'Enjoy it while it lasts.'

I do – every minute.'

'Lead the way, Flangers,' said Fyn-Mah. 'And take good care of the little beast.'

He flashed her a grin, sketching a salute with his left hand, and moved ahead. Fyn-Mah came next and Irisis just behind, with a short gap to Myrum, the other four soldiers and the captain at the rear.

Fyn-Mah s eyes were fixed on Flangers's scored buttocks, which were round, tight and moved beautifully as he ran. Irisis found her own eyes drawn to the sight, and once there, it was hard to look anywhere else. She could not help wondering what it would be like to lie with him- She'd not slept with a soldier before. Her lovers had been men from the manufactory. She wondered if Fyn-Mah was drawn to him. Impossible to tell; the perquisitor never gave anything away.

Fyn-Mah was fleet, considering her small stature. Irisis's long legs could barely keep up with her. The soldiers were also labouring, but they wore chest armour and carried heavy packs. Behind them a sword clanged on something hard. A man cried out, then there was a thud, barely audible over the sound of their pounding feet.

One down, Irisis thought. Probably the captain who'd insisted on his orders in writing – fat lot of good it had done him. Why was this mission so important? Was this little creature what Fyn-Mah had hoped to find, or had she been looking for something else when she went off the other way? It was unlikely Irisis would ever find out. All quisitors, from lowly probers to exalted scrutators, were close-mouthed, but Perquisitor Fyn-Mah made an art form of it. And she had good reason not to trust Irisis.

Irisis caught a whiff of smoke – the throat-gripping reek of burning tar. When the node-drainer was destroyed, the incandescent blast would have liquefied rock.

A scream and there was one less pair of pounding boots behind her. Attacking from the rear, out of the dark, suited the lyrinx perfectly. There was nothing to be done about it. They had no spears to throw, no crossbows to fire, and they dared not stop to make a stand. The tunnel was too narrow. All they could do was run.

The third man fell without a sound, the sudden lack of footsteps all they knew of his passing. 'That's three we've lost,' Irisis gasped. 'Slow down.'

A grunted cry. Four!

Fyn-Mah threw a glance over her shoulder. Her iron control was slipping; Irisis could see the panic in her eyes. 'We can't afford to.'

'We can't afford to lose anyone else,' said Irisis.

Fyn-Mah called out to Flangers, who wore neither pack nor armour and had heen drawing ahead, despite his injury. 'Slow down, soldier.'

The two remaining soldiers closed the gap. Myrum was still grinning, though it was more forced. Young Ivar's eyes were ablaze with terror.

Myrum clapped him on the shoulder. 'Do your duty like a man, lad.'

Ivar nodded as he ran, his head jerking like a puppet. Myrum ushered him ahead, taking the last place in the line.

But he's not a man, thought Irisis. He's just a boy. What kind of monsters are we, that we demand such sacrifices of children? Yet, selfishly, she was glad that the lad was between her and the enemy. Those few extra moments of life were precious.

I'm sorry, Ivar. Myrum is going to be next, and then you. The old fellow will put up one hell of a struggle, maybe even kill one of the enemy, if he's lucky, but the next will get him. That's all his life was for. And then, just you, Ivar. You won't last a minute. Who'll mourn your insignificant life and brutal death? We won't, because we'll be following you. Everything we've done will have been for nothing.

'Where are you going?' panted Irisis. Fyn-Mah had called directions to Flangers whenever they came to a junction, but apart from that she'd said nothing at all.

'I left a finder in the air-floater. I'm tracking it back as best I can.'

Irisis had never heard of a finder. How could it show Fyn-Mah the way back through this labyrinth?

'Fyn-Mah!' she hissed. 'Why don't you blast them with another of those crystals?'

The perquisitor turned as she ran and Irisis saw torment in her eyes. 'I can't.'

'You don't have any more crystals?'

A long pause. I have one,' she said softly. 'I'm saving it for an emergency.

'And this isn't?' Irisis said in a low voice. You could have saved those soldiers and you chose not to? You callous bitch!'

The whole left side of Fyn-Mah's race quivered. 'I have my orders, Crafter. If I use it now I won't have it later, and believe me, before we get out of here we're going to need it.'

Irisis lowered her voice. 'So the soldiers are expendable?'

'I don't like it, but yes, they are.'

'And me? Is that what I'm here for too?'

'You know it isn't. But, since you've asked, I'll sacrifice you, too, if I have to. What are any of our lives, before the fate of humanity?'

Nine They ran until they could run no further, when Irisis realised that only Myrum was behind her. Ivar had fallen back and been killed without their even knowing it. Irisis brushed a tear from one eye. He had been just a boy doing his duty.

Myrum was scarlet in the face and labouring under his pack. 'I'd chuck that away, if I were you,' said Irisis.

'I can manage it,' he gasped. 'It's needed. We seem to have lost them.'

Iris doubted that. 'We must have run leagues, Fyn-Mah. Are you sure you're going the right way?'

The perquisitor avoided her eye, staring down the three passages ahead.

'In a straight line,' Irisis went on, 'we'd have gone right across Snizort and out the other side by now.'

Fyn-Mah checked the small object in her hand. 'We go right.'

'You're not leading us out at all!' Irisis said furiously. 'You're taking us further in.'

The perquisitor moved into the right-hand tunnel. 'We had to take the long way round,' she said unconvincingly. 'There's fire in a central core of tunnels surrounding the Great Seep.'

Irisis followed, keeping a careful watch over her shoulder. As she passed what seemed no more than a dark niche in the wall, something slipped out beside them. With a yelp she leapt out of the way, for it looked like a little wingless lyrinx. She had her sword out when it said, in Eiryn Muss's voice, 'This way!'

The disguise was a brilliant one – it might even have fooled a lyrinx, from a distance. Muss was truly a master. How did he create such wonders from the small pack on his back?

'I've found it; he said to Fyn-.Mah. 'The tunnel collapsed and they must've thought it was buried too deep to recover.' He still had that frustrated look 'What's still here?' said Irisis. What were they up to now?

Muss did not answer, but led them past a T-junction down a tunnel littered with fallen rock. The floor drops sharply, just ahead.'

Several slabs of the tunnel had slid downwards, like slices off the end of a hollow loaf. Irisis made it down the half-span onto the first step, and a similar distance to the second, but the third slab had fallen so far that only a crescent-shaped hole, the size of a section through the side of a beer barrel, connected it to the space they stood in. There were smash marks on its upper lip, presumably where the lyrinx had tried to break in.

Irisis hesitated. It would be a tight squeeze. 'If we're halfway through and it slips again, it'll cut us in half.'

'I've been down there,' said Muss. 'It's as safe as anywhere in Snizort.'

'That's comforting!'

Flangers squeezed through head-first, grunting with the effort, his feet waving in the air. Abruptly he cried out and his legs whipped through. Fyn-Mah pulled back, snatching out her knife. Irisis drew her sword – not that it would be much use in such a confined space.

'You damn fool, Muss!' cried an enraged Flangers, following that with a stream of oaths Irisis had never heard before. 'Why didn't you tell me the drop was a span and a half? I nearly broke my neck.'

'I got down it without any trouble,' Muss said indifferently.

'Must be a bloody lizard! Pass me the lantern, Fyn-Mah, and come through carefully. I'll catch you.'

Being small, Fyn-Mah wriggled through without difficulty. Irisis followed. It was a tight fit for her and she felt sure she was going to fell on her head, but Flangers's upstretched hands caught hers and she slid into his arms.

He bore her weight without strain and set her on her feet. Taking up the lantern, he led the way down a series of tunnel slices like thigh-high steps.

'Aren't you going to give Muss a hand?' she said in his ear.

'He can bounce down on his pointy head for all I care.'

'You don't like our prober?'

'There's something a bit off about him; Flangers said out of the corner of his mouth.

Irisis looked back but the spy was already standing at the base of the drop, as if he'd floated down. He brushed past, taking the lantern.

'He's a.strange one,' she said quietly. 'His work is always flawless, but he hasn't a friend in the world, unless you count Flydd. He eats alone, even sleeps alone, if he sleeps at all.'

'Maybe being the perfect spy is all he needs,' said Flangers. 'It's a solitary profession.'

'It's just here!' called Muss. 'Get a move on.'

They crowded into a small, circular chamber whose roof was a perfect dome of sandstone. A squat object like an inverted sombrero stood knee-high on a pedestal in the centre of the room. It had a short brown stalk on which was mounted a yellow frilled brim. It was not alive – it had been created by the lyrinx in one of their patterners.

Fyn-Mah skidded to a stop. 'Myrum, defend the entrance. Muss, check that there's no other way in. Flangers, see if you can get that.'

'There isn't any other way in,' said Muss.

'What is it?' said Flangers.

'It's called a phynadr,' said Fyn-Mah. 'The enemy make them in all shapes and sizes, to draw power from the field. We're taking it back so we can see how it works.'

'The lyrinx tried to break in for it,' said Flangers, 'so it's likely they'll be waiting when we crawl out.'

'Then it it'll be time for you to do your duty, soldier/ said the perquisitor.

Flangers took hold of the object, which slipped through his fingers. 'Can't get a grip on it,' he muttered.

Irisis touched it with her fingers. The phynadr was superficially similar to the torgnadr, or node-drainer, she'd helped Flydd to destroy, though it had been leathery. This phynadr was soft, compressing under her touch but springing back into shape when she let it go.

Flangers put his arms around it and heaved, but his arms slid off. To their right, Fyn-Mah was sketching shapes in the air. Whatever magic it was, Irisis prayed that it would work quickly. She threw a glance over her shoulder.

Flangers whipped out his sword. 'Don't damage it,' yelled Fyn-Mah.

He slid the point of his sword under the flat base of the phynadr. The edges, tinged purple, seemed to recoil from the metal, revealing a white underside. Flangers pushed the sword all the way, levered, and the phynadr popped off, emitting a musky, molasses-sweet odour.

Irisis caught it as it toppled. It was rather heavier than it looked. The phynadr bent in the middle and the base pulled itself down hard, trying to reattach to the pedestal, but Flangers kept the blade underneath. Yellow jelly oozed from beneath the cap. Fyn-Mah pushed Irisis out of the way, drew a black bag over the phynadr and swiftly tied the top. Throwing it over her shoulder, she staggered under the weight, recovered and hurried back to the collapsed section.

'I'll go first,' she said at the vertical wall.

Flangers boosted her up. 'Keep a sharp lookout.'

'Don't worry.' She crawled through. 'It's safe.'

'It would be,' said Irisis. "They want the phynadr more than us, so they'll be waiting around the corner.'

Flangers boosted Myrum, then Irisis. Muss gave Flangers a leg-up. 'Need a hand?' Flangers said.

'I'll be right; said Muss.

'Come on!' Fyn-Mah called. 'It's not far now.'

A lyrinx roared near the T-junction. Myrum shouted a battle cry and ran for it. His sword clacked against a skin plate, something whistled through the air, then he was back-pedalling, attempting to defend himself against two lyrinx at once.

He cursed, slipping to one knee. Irisis was sure he was done for, but the old soldier sprang forward, fast and low, his sword sliding neatly between the belly plates of the leading lyrinx. It sagged to the left, crashing into the other beast, and they went down in a tangle of arms and legs. The soldier dispatched the second with a sword tip to the jugular.

'We go right,' said Fyn-Mah, leading the way with the bag slung over her shoulder.

'That was a neat piece of sword work.' Irisis said to Myrum.

'Just luck,' replied Myrum. 'I was sure I was dead.'

'Dare say you will be before we get out of here.'

'Dare say we both will.'

The tunnel now headed steeply down. It was dark, but the way ahead was illuminated by a reddish glow coming from Fyn-Mah's fist. The other crystal, presumably.

It was hard work running down the steep slope. Halfway to the bottom they passed from stone into solid tar. It was so sticky underfoot that with every step they were in danger of toppling. Myrum looked exhausted, Fyn-Mah was staggering under the weight of the bag, and Flangers winced with every step. The scabbed gouges across his buttocks were bleeding. Muss had disappeared again.

'Should we wait for the prober?' asked Irisis.

'He can take care of himself,' said Fyn-Mah, moving the bag onto her other shoulder.

'Do you want me to carry that?' Irisis offered.

Fyn-Mah shook her head.

They were still heading down steeply and the air was smoky. 'How far now?' said Irisis, worrying that Flangers would break down. She felt sure Fyn-Mah would leave him behind.

Fyn-Mah did not answer, which was worrying. They swung around a corkscrewing left-hand bend together and the floor, roof and walls disappeared. Irisis threw herself to the floor on the very brink of a chasm. Flangers landed on top of her. FynMah held up her light. The details slowly emerged from featureless black.

A crevasse cut across their path. The solid tar, or rather brittle pitch as it was here, had recently been torn apart by some great force, leaving a gap of about eight spans to the other side of the tunnel. The tar wall was a sheer face of pitch, as smooth and curved as fractured glass, apart from shards that hung down, or stuck up, here and there. The bottom could not be distinguished, though it must have been a long way below them. The crevasse extended beyond sight to left and right.

The gap had been rudely bridged by an upside-down arch of pitch, a solid, smooth black curve half a span thick but no wider than Irisis's hips. Lyrinx footprints tracked across it.

'What the hell has happened here?' said Flangers, picking himself up and rubbing his backside. His fingertips came up bloody.

'The exploding node must've wrenched the ground apart,' said Fyn-Mah.

'Or the Great Seep has drawn back into the earth,' Irisis muttered, 'cracking away the solid pitch around its edges. This bridge hasn't been here long.'

'And we could run into more lyrinx at any time.' Fyn-Mah edged out onto the span, holding up her glowing crystal.

Even as she spoke, a shadow appeared from the opening on the other side. An enormous male lyrinx spread its wings and opened its bucket-sized mouth in a grin of triumph.

Behind them, Myrurn's sword scraped as he drew it from the scabbard. Irisis looked over her shoulder. A lyrinx, no, two, were coming the other way. They were trapped.

'Let me go first,' said Flangers, drawing his sword. 'That's what I'm here for.'

'Stay back!' Fyn-Mah had one hand in her pocket. She gave Irisis a sideways glance, as if to say, Do you now question my judgment? 'When I give the word, cover your eyes.' She crept a little further along the bridge, which curved down then up, like a suspended rope.

The lyrinx stood at the other end, its eyes glittering in the light from the perquisitor's crystal. It had something in its left hand. Irisis could not see what, but her heart began to thump. This was no ordinary lyrinx. She could sense the power; the intensity. Many lyrinx had a talent for the Secret Art, though few used it for anything but flying. This creature was different. She sensed that it was a mancer every bit as powerful as the great human or Aachim mages, and the device in its hand felt potent.

Myrum sang out, 'Might need a bit of help, Crafter.'

She whirled. A pair of lyrinx were advancing from the tunnel, side by side. Drawing her sword, she stood shoulder to shoulder with Myrum. From the corner of her eye she could see Fyn-Mah on the bridge, only waist high to the mancer-lyrinx.

It let out a deep, roaring bellow that echoed strangely off the hard walls. The left hand slid out, palm upwards. Irisis felt a hot glow on her cheek, had the sense of an invisible cloud roiling outwards, and the floor softened under her. She instinctively lifted one foot, but when she put it down again, the surface had already hardened. The other foot did not move. She was stuck, like a fly to tar paper.

She jerked as hard as she could. It jarred the muscles of her leg but her boot remained firmly embedded in pitch. The two lyrinx were also stuck, though they probably had the strength to pull free.

Myrum cursed and began to hack at the pitch with his sword. She did the same, trying to watch the bridge and the enemy at the same time. Flangers, being closer to the source, was more deeply embedded, while Fyn-Mah was buried to the ankles. Lacking a sword, she had no way of freeing herself.

Flangers hacked the laces off his boots and pulled his feet out. Tearing off his socks, he ran out onto the bridge.

'Go back,' cried Fyn-Mah. 'You can't save me.'

'Then I'll die trying.' He hammered the brittle pitch around her boots with the point of his sword, sending chips flying everywhere.

'Take this and go! It's more important than I am.' She heaved the heavy bag to him.

He lashed it to his belt but kept hacking, the bag banging against his calves as he worked. There's nowhere to go, Perquisitor.'

'Take it!' she roared. 'It's an order, soldier.'

It was too late. The mancer-lyrinx was edging towards them, moving tentatively as if unsure whether the bridge would hold its weight. This small chasm was a dangerous place in which to fly, if it had to.

'Now would be a really good time to use whatever you were keeping for an emergency,' yelled Irisis, still prising at the pitch that held her boot fast.

Fyn-Mah just stood there, one hand holding up the glowing crystal.

Why didn't the mancer-lyrinx blast them? Irisis prised away. Her boot came free, along with a lump of pitch resembling a club foot. She smashed it off. Did the creature want to take them alive? That didn't make sense, since the other lyrinx had tried so hard to kill them. It had to be the phynadr.

The lyrinx edged closer, the bridge shivering under its weight. The beast gestured towards the bag. Irisis could see the knots in Fyn-Mah's jawline. She was terrified but defiant, and Irisis could not but admire her for it.

Behind Irisis there came a roar as one of the lyrinx freed itself and leapt, its foot trailing blood. Myrum, who was still stuck, slashed wildly at it. The lyrinx landed hard on the torn foot, lurched sideways but recovered to beat through Myrum's defences. Throwing its arms around him, it squeezed him against its chest plates. Ribs cracked as Myrum fell backwards, carrying it with him. The great mouth darted at the soldier's head. It reminded Irisis of the time she had been held beneath one of the lyrinx, and only Flydd's heroism had saved her.

She swung her sword against the back of the creature's armoured skull with every ounce of her strength. The armour cracked and the lyrinx's head was driven into the floor. It did not move, though the blow could only have stunned it.

Finding a gap between the skin plates of its side, she drove her sword through the ribs.

It took all her strength, and all of Myrum's, to get him out from under the fallen creature. He was so battered and bruised he could not stand up. The second lyrinx was still nving to free its feet from the pitch. She hacked Myrum's boots out.

On the bridge, the mancer-lyrinx was almost within reach of Fyn-Mah. The bridge shuddered. The creature reached out for her. Her eyes fixed on it. Fyn-Mah tossed the crystal towards the roof of the chasm and yelled, 'Cover your eyes!'

Irisis, watching the crystal arc up into the darkness, screwed her eyes shut. The explosion of light burned her eyelids and sent blood-red pulses through her brain. She opened her eyes, dazed and dazzled, to see the mancer-lyrinx topple head-first off the bridge. Its wings spread as it hurtled downwards, but they were insufficient to support it without the aid of the Art, and the exploding crystal had filled the ethyr with echoes, preventing it from drawing on a distant field. Only devices that stored power, like Fyn-Mah's crystals, could work here, and once that power had been used they were useless.

The bridge softened and began to droop beneath Fyn-Mah's feet. She pulled one foot from its boot and heaved at the other. Flangers scrambled down the curve to her.

'Go back,' she screamed. 'Save the phynadr.'

Fyn-Mah was going to do her duty to the bitter end. You're a better woman than I'll ever be, Irisis thought.

The curve of the bridge steepened and thinned like molasses sagging between two spoons. Soon it must break, plunging Fyn-Mah into the abyss. Flangers kept moving towards her as the stretching strand of pitch pulled her away but, as he grasped her outstretched hand, the bridge snapped. Fyn-Mah fell, pulling Flangers with her. He threw his other arm around the pitch. They swung on the end of the still lengthening ribbon, then disappeared into the darkness. Irisis heard a thud as they struck the side of the chasm, a muffled cry, then nothing. Darkness, utter and complete, swallowed the world.

'Don't suppose you've got a flint striker in your pocket.' Myrum's voice came from not far away.

She felt it out and snapped it a couple of times so he could see the sparks. 'Here. What's happened to the other lyrinx.'

'Was still stuck, last I saw.' He in a lantern. The creature lay on the floor, one foot at a strange angle as if it had broken its ankle. Its hands were pressed against its eye-sockets, its face covered in red-stained tears. 'Burned its eyes, I'd reckon. They don't like bright light.' He put his sword to the defenceless creature's throat.

Irisis turned away. It had to be done but she did not have to see it. 'Bring the lantern when you're finished. We'll have to recover the phynadr, and the little beast if we can, though I don't see how we're going to get out again.'

'I can smell fresh air,' said Myrum shortly. 'It must be coming from the other side.'

'No use if we can't get to it. Got any rope in that pack of yours?'

'As it happens, I have.' He produced a hank of thick cord, knotted one end around his burly torso, and the other around hers. 'Nice chest you've got here, Irisis.'

'This is as close as you 're ever getting to it,' she said with a cheerful grin.

He was philosophical. 'Ah well. I still have my dreams.'

'I hope you live to have many more.'

'What if you go down on the rope, and I hold you?'

'I'm heavier than I look.'

He eyed her up and down. 'Even so.'

All right, but keep your thoughts on the rope.'

His gummy smile widened. 'Don't know as how you can dictate terms when I'm holding you up.'

Myrum lowered her over the edge, which turned out to be an overhang. Irisis held the lantern out in her right hand, though its smoky yellow glow barely penetrated the blackness. Heat wafted up past her and, as she swung back and forth, she caught a glimpse of something glowing in a crack, a long way down. It looked like lava, but wasn't. The tar was on fire and it would burn wickedly if she ended up anywhere near it.

Recalling that thud, she directed the lantern light along the nearer side of the crevasse. Here the wall consisted of a series of sheer miniature cliffs, broken by narrow platforms topped with jagged spires of pitch, some as sharp as broken glass. Irisis cringed at the thought of crashing into them.

It was hard to see, for the black surfaces reflected only an occasional glitter. Unable to get close enough to the wall because of the overhang, she began to swing back and forth on the rope.

'You all right?' called Myrum.

'Yes. Can't see much, though. Lower me down a few spans. Oh, and Myrum?'

'Yes?'

'Keep a sharp lookout behind you.'

He snorted. 'You've got the bloody lantern!'

'There should be another one.'

Her swing was now long enough to reach one of the spikes. She caught hold of it low down, where it was not so sharp, and pulled herself into a space between a cluster of spires.

'I'm standing!' she called, so he would not worry about the weight going off the rope. 'Let out a bit more.'

'Good-oh!'

Irisis edged as far as she could to her left, until she was brought up by a sheer drop that went all the way down to the fiery crack. If Fyn-Mah and Flangers had fallen that far, they were lost. She crept the other way, between spines, shards and spears of frozen pitch. Ahead, the surface formed an irregular series of steps, some almost as tall as she was. Holding out the lantern, she peered down.

Nothing that way either. She looked over the outer edge. A ribbon of solidified pitch was looped around one of the spires further down. It had to be from the bridge but she could not see anyone. Below her the crevasse wall curved out into another spike-studded mound, this one about fifteen paces by ten. Its edges fell away on three sides while the fourth was the sheer, unclimbable wall Irisis leaned out, the lantern tilted, and a few drops of hot oil spilled. From below she heard a faint groan.

'Fyn-Mah? Flang-'

No answer. 'I've found something,' she called up to Myrum. 'Lower me down a few spans, carefully.'

'Not much rope left,' he yelled.

'Give me all you have.'

She went down, swinging back and forth, pushing herself away from the razor shards with her feet. Several spikes broke off. How secure was any of this? The least shock might crumble the lot and send it into the abyss.

There was no rope left when her boots grounded on a shelf at the edge of the spiky mound and, in the light of the lantern, she saw Fyn-Mah wedged between two spires with her head at a strange angle. It looked as if she'd broken her neck.

'Fyn-Mah?' Irisis touched the perquisitor on the cheek.

The small woman's eyes opened, moving all the way up the crafter's elongated form to the rope around her chest. She moved her head back to the vertical. 'Didn't expect to see you,' she said in a faint, slurred voice.

'I came for the phynadr,' said Irisis coolly. 'To do my duty, of course.'

"Course,' Fyn-Mah echoed. 'Help me up. Stuck.' She tried to lift an arm but it flopped down.

'I thought your neck was broken.' Irisis held the lantern close. One pupil was larger than the other, which meant she had concussion.

'You'd be happy then.'

'I don't hate you -' Irisis began.

"Nother time, Crafter!' The last word trailed out and Fyn-Mah looked confused. 'Head hurts.'

Putting down the lantern, Irisis lifted the perquisitor to her feet. Her legs buckled. 'Where's Flangers?' said Irisis, holding her with one arm.

'Who?"

Irisis untied the rope, steadied the perquisitor and began knotting it around her chest.

'What – doing?' said Fyn-Mah, her voice slow and slurring more than before.

'Getting you out.'

Irisis checked the knots, then shouted up, 'Myrum! Fyn-Mah's alive. You're pulling her up now. Ready?'

'Ready.' The rope tightened and Fyn-Mah rose in the air, flopping like a rag doll. Her head went back to that unpleasant angle.

Irisis turned away, weaving through the razor-edged blades and spires. Shards crunched underfoot. 'Flangers?'

He lay at the rear of the mound, among a pile of shattered spikes, unconscious. There was a lump on the back of his head where he'd hit the floor, but that wasn't the worst injury. A long blade of pitch had gone through the outer side of his right thigh, sliding beside the bone almost all the way through before it broke off. There was a lot of blood, but not as much as if an artery had been severed. Flangers would live, though the wound was so wide and deep Irisis could have put three fingers into it. It would be a miracle if it did not become infected.

An even bigger miracle if she could get him across to the edge of the mound to the rope. Even if she could, she would have to stand him up while she tied the rope on. It wasn't long enough to reach to the floor.

She shook Flangers, gently, but he did not rouse. He must have taken a heavy blow. His breathing was steady, though, and his pupils not dilated, so he should recover. More importantly, the bag containing the phynadr was still tied to his belt. She felt it. It did not seem to be damaged. What about the little flesh-formed creature?

She went through his pockets, one by one. The creature was dead – he must have landed on it. She tossed it aside. They'd risked their lives, and five soldiers had lost theirs, for nothing.

Irisis lifted Flangers to a sitting position, regretting that she'd sent Fyn-Mah up first. Flangers was heavier than he appeared. It would be hard to get him as far as the rope.

Slapping him gently on the cheek, she called out, 'Flangers?'

He made no sound. She slapped a little harder and again he gave a muffled moan, deep in his throat. She eyed the wound. Perhaps if she hurt him.., Irisis cut off the ragged trouser leg and tore it into strips, which she laid beside him. She wiggled the shard in the wound. He groaned. It was tapered and should come out easily. Taking hold of it, she pulled firmly and it slipped free. The wound began to bleed profusely. She put two fingers in, feeling around for broken pieces, and drew a sliver of pitch out. There did not seem to be any other large fragments.

Flangers groaned and opened his eyes. 'Bloody hell're yer doin'?' he slurred. 'Get yer hand outta me leg.' A comical expression crossed his face, as if he had just realised what a stupid thing he'd said, and his eyes closed.

There came a faint, fluttering sound from out in the abyss. Irisis held up the lantern, but saw nothing. It must have been the rope scraping across the cliff face.

Lacking anything to sew him up with, she bound Flangers's leg with strips of cloth until the wound closed and the blood flow dropped to a trickle. Irisis tied another pad across the top.

'Flangers!' she said urgently. 'You've got to stand up.'

He didn't open his eyes. 'Can't.'

'It's your soldier's duty, Flangers.'

The soldier wept with pain as he struggled to get to his feet. Irisis crouched and gave him her shoulder, heaving him up with one arm around his muscled waist. They staggered between the spikes to the edge, swaying while she waved the lantern around, looking for the rope. It wasn't there.

'Myrum?' Her voice echoed shrilly.

There was a long pause before he answered. 'Yes?'

'I've got Flangers. He's badly injured. Where's the bloody rope?'

'It's coming. I've.., had a few problems up here.'

Again that fluttering sound, a whispering echo back and forth in the crevasse. Sympathetic shudders fluttered down her spine.

1Hurry it up. I've got a nasty feeling about this place.'

The end appeared, wriggling like a brown snake in the lamplight. Setting down the lantern, Irisis pulled the rope as far as it would go and looped it around the soldier's chest. Flangers was just clinging to consciousness. His fingers dug into her shoulders and his knees flexed as he swayed, but the rest of him had shut down.

It was hard work tying a secure knot with his weight on her, but she managed it at last. "It's done. Pull him up!'

The rope went taut. 'He's a heavy sod!' Myrum's voice echoed down.

Get Fyn-Mah to help you.'

'She's passed out.'

The fluttering sounded again, closer, followed by a scraping sound like a fingernail on rock. Or a claw.

'Hurry up,' she shouted, unable to keep the fear out of her voice. 'That lyrinx is still alive.'

Flangers jerked up, stopped, jerked again. Blood running down his leg began to drip off the toe of his boot. She watched him pass through the circle of light, then directed the lantern around and below her, trying to pick the creature out. Maybe it wasn't the lyrinx. Worse creatures dwelt in the abysses of the world, creeping about their unknown and unpleasant business. All sorts of beasts had made their way to Santhenar when the Way between the Worlds was open, and at other times in the mythical past. Not all of them wanted to wage war, as the lyrinx did. But if they were disturbed, if they felt threatened…

Ten

'Stop it!' Irisis said aloud. 'Don't make things worse than they need to be. It's just the lyrinx.'

Just the lyrinx! There was no such thing as just a lyrinx, even if it was injured and unable to use the Secret An. She scanned the gulf again, but finding a dark-skinned creature against the blackness was impossible. Her lantern began to flutter, making threatening shadows. She sloshed it back and forth: not much oil left.

Another scrape, much closer, followed by a deep rumbling purr. She still couldn't judge the direction, but it wasn't far away.

'Where are you?' she screamed. 'Show yourself!'

The echoes had a strident tone that frightened her. She was losing it. Stay calm – you've been in dangerous situations before and got out of them. You can do it again. It didn't help. Irisis was at her best when she could react swiftly to danger; she didn't like waiting. It allowed her to dwell on her inadequacies.

Well, do something. Take the initiative. Don't just stand there moaning.

Drawing her sword, Irisis swished it back and forth. It made a comforting sound as it sliced through the air. Pity she'd had so little training with it. If only she had a crossbow. Irisis had done most of her manufactory training with that weapon and was a fine shot, though of course she had to see her target. The lyrinx was not so handicapped. It could smell her well enough to strike in the dark.

'How's it going, Myrum?'

'Nearly done. He's a heavy bugger.'

She started to say, 'Hurry it up,' but broke off. Myrum was doing all he could, and he was injured too. Irisis paced back and forth on the platform. It was shaped like a stepped brain studded with spikes, which restricted her movement considerably. About to smash them down, she realised that they would also restrict the movement of the lyrinx, though it could probably take the risk of crushing them under its armour.

Irisis had not heard the fluttering for a while now, which was even more worrying. Why was the creature taking so long?

Lacking the Art to support itself, it would have fallen a long way. What she'd heard must have been its death throes. As she picked up the lantern to look down, the flickering light went out. Irisis clicked the flint striker, to no effect. The oil was gone.

Moodily, she tossed the lantern over the edge. It fell for several heartbeats before the glass smashed on something, and several more beats before crashing, rolling and banging all the way to the bottom.

'You all right, Crafter?' Myrum's voice echoed hollowly.

'Oil's run out. Where's the rope?'

'It's coming now.'

The darkness was not perfect. When she looked straight up, Irisis could see a feeble illumination. Myrum must have lit another lantern. Feeling her way to the brink, she peered over. Below her, a faint light appeared then vanished, like the reflection in a staring eye.

She looked away, and back. There it was again, shining steadily. Irisis felt in the air for the rope. She could hear it whispering down the sheer face above her.

Snap! That was a pitch-spine breaking off. She would know that sound anywhere. Snap! Snap! The lyrinx wasn't dead – it was coming for her.

Irisis reached up for the rope but couldn't find it. She waved arm and sword in the air. The tip of the sword met a slight resistance. Her fingertips just caught the rope's end and she pulled it down.

Behind her a great shadow rose, one wing spread, the other folded. More spines snapped. She whirled. Forests of them went down as it crunched across the mound towards her. It was taking its time, watching her all the way, and still she could not see it.

Irisis felt the air swirl; smelled the hot breath of the creature. No time to tie on; she let go the rope and swung the sword in a low, vicious arc. The shadow, definitely a lyrinx, kept coming. Her sword struck it on its armoured thigh, wedging there.

'Crafter!' Myrum called urgently.

She had no time to answer. Jerking her blade free, Irisis took a step backwards and froze. She was standing on the brink. Could she lure it over? Unlikely. Lyrinx could see better in the dark than humans. She went sideways, fixing the location of the rope in her mind. It would be difficult to find again, if she lost it.

Irisis stumbled against a miniature pitch spike, too black to see. She hacked at the shadow, again connecting with its thigh plate. The lyrinx slashed back, though feebly. It must be badly injured: Irisis tried a higher swipe and this time the tip of the sword carved through softness. It had gone between two belly plates. Something gurgled; she hoped it was the creature's intestines.

The shadow slumped, panting. Irisis thrust the sword into its sheath, went backwards to the hanging rope and, by a miracle, found it. She pulled herself up, hand over hand, as far as she could go. Not far enough. Her arms didn't have the strength for rope-climbing and the swinging bag was pulling her down. It was all she could do to hold on.

The lyrinx sprang at her, missed, and its fingers brushed the rope. One hard pull and it would have her, and Myrum, over the side. Irisis twisted the rope around her left wrist a few times, hung on with her knees and slashed below her with the sword.

She missed. The lyrinx caught the rope end and began to pull, but very gently. First the phynadr, then her. She drew the length of the blade across the rope, below her knees. It parted and the lyrinx fell back, smashing a thicket of spikes. Irisis hauled herself up another arm's length but could go no further.

'Myrum,' she screamed. 'Pull me up, quick! The bloody lyrinx's right here.'

Silence. The rope jerked up a little way and stopped. The lyrinx lurched at her and missed, its eyes fixed on her as it gathered itself for another attempt. Irisis could only hold the sword pointed downwards, and pray.

Again it sprang, its claws whistling through the air just below the hanging bag. She pulled it up. One claw tore open the side of her boot, before ripping it off. She threw the other one at it, but missed.

'Myrum!' she wailed. 'Pull your heart out or I'm dead.'

The rope moved up again, as much as a couple of spans, before stopping. It was enough to get her out of the creature's reach, though Irisis began to fear that, with his broken ribs, Myrum was incapable of lifting her higher. What if he'd been slain and a lyrinx was now hauling her up? Her empty stomach contracted. That possibility had not occurred to her before.

Something winked in the dim light before whirring past her ear. The lyrinx had thrown a shard of pitch at her. Another spun to one side. They were poor projectiles, difficult to aim.

The rope began to creep up and Irisis dared to hope that she might make it after all. Then the fluttering began again and she heard a whooshing sound, as of a breath rapidly exhaled. What was it up to now?

With a deeper, gasping whoosh and a creaking flutter, the lyrinx lifted off. It moved out into the dim lantern light, its wings clubbing the air so violently that she was buffeted from side to side on the rope. How the beast had managed it she would never know, for one wing was torn in two places and its blood-covered head was the wrong shape, as if stoved in when it had fallen into the chasm. And since it could not use the Secret Art here, it must be flying on sheer indomitable will.

Struck with terrified admiration, she watched it drive through the air towards her, only courage keeping that heavy body aloft. Surelv there had never been such a feat until now.

Her strength was fading- Even with both hands, she could barely hold on. There was no possibility of defending herself with the sword, so she sheathed it. Rising fumes whipped past her face, making her eyes water. Pulling up the frayed end of the rope, Irisis made a quick knot around her waist, one-handed, in case she lost her grip when the beast attacked. It was staggering through the air, now rising, now falling, but always heading for her.

She looked up. No way to tell who, or what, was lifting her. The lyrinx rose above her, struggling to grip the air. Now it plunged, though by her rather than at her. It did not want to lose the prize.

Irisis tried to sway the rope out of the way. It moved but not far enough. The lyrinx caught her by the arm. She tore free, which must have upset the creature's delicate equilibrium for it veered off, flapping furiously.

Now it attacked from the other side. Strands of luminous saliva hung from its open mouth. It was tiring rapidly. She watched it come. If it was so easily disturbed, a more direct attack might just tip the balance.

It swooped. She doubled up her legs and shot them out at its head, as she'd done when a lyrinx attacked her at the manufactory last winter. The rope went the other way and her powerful kick ended up as no more than a tap on the jaw. Irisis lost her grip, fell and, caught by the knot around her waist, flipped upside down.

The lyrinx's teeth snapped together, it swung its left arm but just failed to snatch the bag from her belt. The rope slipped and she thought she was going to fall head-first all the way down into that fiery crack, but it pulled tight. It held.

Irisis swung back and forth without the strength to heave herself upright. The lyrinx came again, a last desperate effort.

Ropes of clotted saliva oozed down its mighty chest. With a hoarse, despairing cry, it lunged for the bag that now hung by her shoulder.

'Help!' she wailed, staring at the flickering light just a few spans above. An unidentifiable figure swayed there, swinging something around its head like a cannonball in a sling. The object hurtled down, looking for all the world like a human head. I must be hallucinating, Irisis thought, as the object struck the lyrinx on its brow ridge. Red showered into its eyes.

The lyrinx gagged, the wings missed a beat, it slid sideways into the sheer black face, and fell out of sight.

The rope jerked and she was hauled up, still upside down. Her head cracked on the sheer fracture surface as she was dragged over the edge, then Irisis was dropped onto the pitchy floor.

'Myrum…' she gasped.

It was not Myrum, but Flangers, on his knees in a small pool of blood. He looked ghastly. A mutilated corpse lay not far away, strangely shortened, though she could barely see it through the tears of relief. Or perhaps it was the fumes. Fyn-Mah was sprawled on the path at the beginning of the broken bridge, unmoving.

'What happened, Flangers?'

"Nother lyrinx.' He sucked in a breath as though it was his last, glancing towards a hollow where the dead creature lay. 'Myrum thought he'd killed it.' Flangers hunched over, supporting himself with both arms, gasping. 'He hadn't. Tore his head off.'

'That was Myrum's head you threw at the lyrinx?'

'First thing I could reach. Poor fellow. A good soldier and a decent man.' Flangers lay on the floor without the strength to lift his head.

'Is Fyn-Mah dead too?'

'Don't know.'

Irisis crawled to the small woman and felt her throat. 'She's alive.' She peered over the edge. 'We'd better move. I wouldn't bet that lyrinx is dead.'

'Leave me,' said Flangers. 'Can't walk.'

'Then crawl – I'm not leaving you behind. That was a mighty heave, Flangers. Any idea how we get out of here?'

One finger pointed to the right.

She discerned a series of ledges between the pitch spears, which might have been close enough together to form a track, though it would be a dangerous one.

'I'll carry Fyn-Mah. Bring the bag and the rope.' Unknotting the phynadr bag, she handed it to him.

'Don't think I can.'

'Just try,' she said. 'I can't get it back without you.'

Once more the appeal to duty lifted Flangers beyond what any normal man could have achieved. What a hero he was. And what a waste that such courage should be directed to so bloody an end.

It buoyed her up as well, and Irisis found the strength to lift Fyn-Mah onto her shoulders. She set off, trying not to think about the path ahead. It was killing work. Several times she had to hoist the perquisitor onto a higher ledge, hoping she would not fall off while Irisis clambered up herself. After a desperate twenty minutes they reached the other side. The black mouth of the tunnel was just above them. She pulled herself up into it and smelled fresh air.

'It's not far now, Flangers.'

They lurched along like two bloody wrecks, turned a corner and emerged halfway up a deep but narrow mine pit. The sky was just growing light, though not enough to illuminate the pit. 'At last,' said Irisis, limping on bloody, pitch-stained feet. She turned the other way. 'Where's the air-floater?'

"This isn't the pit we came down,' said Flangers, who, astonishingly, appeared to have rallied a little. 'We're in the wrong place.'

Irisis put Fyn-Mah down on the ledge. 'Then we'll have to climb.'

Flangers was staring at the rim. 'I can see something moving up there.'

They stepped back into the tunnel entrance. Fyn-Mah said, more clearly than before, 'Go round base of pit.., through tunnel.., other side.'

'You're conscious!' Irisis wished she did not have to pick her up again.

The perquisitor did not answer. Hefting her, Irisis followed the path to the bottom of the pit, around the base and in through a tunnel that had not been visible in the black wall. They were underground for only a few minutes before emerging in a larger pit. The air-floater was waiting across the far side, right where they had left it, its four guards with their crossbows ready. Irisis pushed Fyn-Mah through the ropes, fell through herself and lay on the deck without the strength to rise. Two of the guards carried Flangers aboard.

Muss was already there, gazing up at the rim. He had assumed his old persona – the slim, middle-aged man she'd first met in Gosport – though he still looked frustrated and unhappy. So he didn't get what he went in for, Irisis thought. I wonder what it could be?

'Where were you when we needed you?' she snapped. 'On other duties,' he said, impassive again.

'Where are our mates?' cried a young soldier.

'Dead!' Fyn-Mah tried to sit up but sagged back against the wall of the cabin. 'Go up,' she whispered to Pilot Inouye. 'Out of crossbow range.'

The grapnels were pulled aboard. Inouye twisted a knob on the floater-gas generator and gas whistled up the pipe. The air-floater shot up out of the pit, rising above the hummocks and tar bogs of Snizort, and just in time. A detachment of some hundred soldiers had come through the broken eastern wall and were advancing towards the pit. They stopped and someone waved. Pilot Inouye turned to Fyn Mah. 'They're signalling. I think they want us to land.'

'Keep going!' said Fyn-Mah, forcing herself to her feet. She hung onto the rope mesh, swaying dangerously. 'I have other orders. Guards,' she said to the four men, 'ready your weapons. We cannot be taken.'

The soldiers looked uneasy, but complied. Irisis felt the hairs rise on the back of her neck. She took a crossbow for herself. The loyalty of these men had already been tested. Surely it would take little for them to mutiny – if Fyn-Mah was taken, they would be condemned with her.

On the ground, there was a flurry or activity at the front of the detachment. A black-robed figure waved its arms, a perquisitor Irisis did not recognise. A soldier put a speaking trumpet to his mouth.

'Land at once, whoever you are,' he boomed.

'Go higher!' hissed Fyn-Mah. Clinging death-like to the ropes, she shouted down. 'I may not. I'm on a special mission for Scrutator Xervish Flydd.'

The robed figure snatched the speaking trumpet. 'There is no Scrutator Flydd, only the condemned criminal, Slave Flydd.'

Fyn-Mah let out a muffled cry. She turned to Irisis and Flangers. 'What do I do now?'

'Follow your orders,' said Flangers unhelpfully.

'Muss?' she called.

Eiryn Muss was squatting on the deck, deeply immersed in his own thoughts, and did not answer. Whatever was bothering him, it was more important than their imminent demise.

'Land immediately, in the name of Acting Scrutator Jal-Nish Hlar!' shouted the figure on the ground.

'Perquisitor Fyn-Mah,' said Inouye, 'I must go down. I have a direct order from your superior.'

Fyn-Mah covered her face with her hands.

If the scrutator had fallen, what hope was there for any of them? 'You're risking everything on Flydd,' Irisis said. 'Do you think he can possibly rise again?'

Fyn-Mah groaned, then mastered herself. 'Scrutator Flydd ordered me to go on, no matter what happened to him, and so, I must. No matter what the consequences.'

Irisis felt Death look up from his work on the battlefield, rub a testing thumb down the blade of his scythe, and smile grimly.

The scrutators will torment us all,' cried Inouye, desperately defiant.

'I'm taking the air-floater,' Fyn-Mah gritted. 'If you won't cooperate, we'll throw you down to join your friends and Crafter Irisis will take over your controller.'

Irisis doubted that she could operate it, or that Fyn-Mah would be so ruthless, but the pilot did not know that.

Inouye licked her wind-chapped lips. The bond with the machine was intense, and pilots, like clanker operators, had been known to go insane after their craft was destroyed.

'They'll slay my man and my little children,' she said in a barely audible voice.

'Not if you're forced to it.' said Fyn-Mah in more gentle tones. 'Flangers, make a show.'

Flangers liked it no more than the pilot did, but he took Irisis's crossbow and pointed it at Inouye, in full view of those on the ground.

'This will ruin us all,' wept little Inouye. She obeyed and the air-floater lifted.

'Go north, with all speed,' said Fyn-Mah.

The soldiers on the ground fired their crossbows but the air-floater was out of range and the bolts fell harmlessly back. Someone ran to the broken wall, climbed it and began to signal frantically towards the command area.

'I feared this was going to happen,' said Fyn-Mah. 'With the scrutator lost, there's only one option left.' She groaned and slumped to the canvas deck.

Behind them, three black air-floaters rose from the mound next to the army command area, and followed.

'Or maybe none,' said Irisis, picking the perquisitor up and carrying her inside.

Part Two: Tears

Eleven

Gilhaelith was slipping ever deeper into the bottomless pit of tar and there was nothing he could do about it. He'd tried everything, but his geomancy was useless without some kind of a crystal to serve as a focus, and he had none. He'd even attempted to use one of his ever-troubling gallstones, but under the strain it had burst into jagged fragments that were causing him agony. Before they passed, should he live that long, he'd be wishing he were dead.

His only other resort had been mathemancy, that strange branch of the Secret Art Gilhaelith had developed long ago. It proved singularly useless. Mathemancy was a philosopher's Art, ill-suited to any kind of direct action, much less such immediate peril.

Gyrull, Matriarch of Snizort, had abducted him to scry out the remnants of a village lost in the Great Seep seven thousand years ago. Afterwards, she'd kept Gilhaelith beside her, refusing him the use of his globe and the other geomantic instruments he'd brought with him as his means of escape. But the tunnel into the Great Seep had failed, its shell of frozen tar had cracked and hot tar had been forced in. The lyrinx had fled with their relics, just in time. Gilhaelith had tried to follow but he'd not been quick enough.

He took the numbers again, raising a series of random integers to their fourth powers to see what pattern they offered. It was awesomely bad. He tried again, with an even worse result.

The tar now reached to his hips, its suction far too great for him to pull himself out. Ribbons of liquid tar, from a breach in the roof, began to fold onto his head and shoulders, its bituminous reek burning his nose, throat and lungs.

And it was hot. Not burning hot, not enough to blister, but uncomfortable and getting worse. Eventually, if he survived long enough, he would simmer like a crab in a pot. Fortunately, he wouldn't survive. In a few minutes, when that great oozing clot came down on his head, he would suffocate.

A possibility slid into Gilhaelith's mind as if it had been whispered in his ear – to couple his two very different Arts. Geomancy was hopeless because he lacked a crystal to draw power and focus it. Mathemancy was not a tool for directing power at all. But what if…?

If he could create a phantom mathemantical crystal, and use it to draw power and focus it, might that be the solution? It was a last resort – such a crystal must pull power directly into his head. A little too much would cook him from the inside, a gruesome, slow death. A lot too much and he would suffer the agonising fate of anthracism, human internal combustion, though that would not take long to kill him.

The very idea of such a crystal felt alien, and it reminded him of those links the amplimet had drawn throughout Snizort, including one to him. Could it be directing him for some purpose of its own? Too bad – without a crystal he was going to die.

He slipped further into the tar, which was now creeping up his groin. It felt hotter than before. Fortunately he'd worked out the mathemancy of crystals long ago, though to create one with numbers, purely in his mind, was another thing entirely. Still, he had always relished challenges.

Gilhaelith began to construct a crystal in layers, beginning at its base and building towards the apex. It was painfully slow – literally painful, he thought wryly. By the time tar had risen to his waist, the phantom crystal was only half done. His shoulders were covered with ribbony black epaulettes; it was dripping down his forehead, clotting over his eyes, and rubbing just smeared it everywhere.

As Gilhaelith built another layer, the tar seemed to dissolve beneath his feet and he slid down to his chest. A bucket-sized clot landed on his head, pushing him face-first into liquid tar, which was forced up his nostrils. Though he clawed it away, he could not clear his nose enough to breathe.

Turning his head sideways, he managed to get a breath through his mouth. Hum'! The layers went more quickly as he approached the tapering apex of the crystal. Only one layer to go. As he sucked another breath, the rest of the clot fell, burying him completely. And it was so hot. His feet were cooking.

But the crystal was done. Gilhaelith looked for power but found none – the field, which had been waxing and waning for days, was dying. The tunnel had failed because the phy-nadrs had not been able to maintain sufficient power to keep it frozen.

Yet for what he planned, only a little power was required. Gilhaelith sought in another direction and discovered a drifting loop of field, cut off from the rest. He drew power into the phantom crystal but there was not enough to energise it.

He had barely enough breath to try again. He found another loop, this one strong as the field waxed dangerously. The node was desperately overloaded and something had to give. But if it just lasted another minute…

His lungs were shuddering for air; fire burned behind his temple as the crystal powered up at last. Gilhaelith used a geo-mantic spell to drive heat from the tar surrounding him, into the seep itself.

He kept at it until the heat licked from his skull to his stomach, the first sign of anthracism. He had to let go. Would it be enough? As the spell faded, a most bitter cold enveloped him, as though he'd been frozen into a block of ice. Then, as the heat of the seep attacked that rigid, frigid shell of tar, it shattered into a thousand pieces.

The shards broke away from his body, leaving him in a cavity lined with fractured tar. The suction was gone; it was solid underfoot. The mosaic fell from his eyes and he could see. Gilhaelith took hold of the still-hard shell of the tunnel and, with a wriggle and a shake, pulled himself onto the floor.

He hurt all over and, behind his eyes, needles pushed relentlessly into the bone. He'd tried too hard and damaged something. He began to crawl blindly down the tunnel. That was where Matriarch Gyrull, who had come pounding back for him, found Gilhaelith. Tossing him over her shoulder, she clawed the last chilly remnants of tar from his nostrils and raced off.

The next few hours were a blur of belching fumes, pounding feet and panicky lyrinx. Gilhaelith saw nothing, for the pain was so all-enveloping he could not open his eyelids. And he was so cold – he could feel the shape of his stomach in ice.

He was carried through a myriad of tunnels, with Gyrull cursing and turning this way and that, and her growing escort hard put to restrain their terror. There was fire underground and they couldn't find a way out, though that wasn't their greatest fear. Gilhaelith had learned enough of their language to deduce that many of the escapeways had been cut off and they expected the unstable node to explode at any time.

They reached the base of a pit with steep sides. The lyrinx made a living tower which Gyrull climbed to get out, a box of relics strapped to her chest, and Gilhaelith, folded over in an elongated travesty of the foetal position, tucked under one arm. The gamy odour of her sweat was intense.

Before she reached the top, the phantom crystal picked up wild fluctuations from the field that seared his forebrain. Gyrull muttered something.

'What?' he croaked, but she did not answer. He could just see out of the crack of one eye. It was dark and he felt so very cold. Beyond the walls, the battle still raged – the groans of the maimed, the clash of weapons against armour, the thudding of catapult balls into walls, ground and tar seeps. Fire flickered in half a hundred places.

She climbed over the rim of the pit and set off without looking back to see if her fellows were following. Gilhaelith supposed they had sacrificed themselves to give their matriarch a chance, or to get the treasure away.

"The torgnadr is going to destroy itself,' she said, finally answering his question. 'How did the humans get in to attack it? They're more cunning than I imagined.'

In the distance, the ground surface domed and a fountain of fire tore through. He was in no state to see the danger. To Gilhaelith it just seemed extraordinarily beautiful.

The matriarch was running full pelt, considerably faster than a human could move. Several times she flexed her wings and leapt in the air, but each time landed hard and kept running. There was not enough in the field for her to fly with such a burden, for Gilhaelith was a big man.

He felt worse every minute. Either he'd burst something inside or the tar was poisoning him. He felt sure he was going to die. He would never solve the great puzzle and achieve a true understanding of the earth. His life had been wasted. And, to his surprise, Gilhaelith felt a creeping remorse for all he'd done, and all he'd neglected, in blind pursuit of that aim – most especially, Tiaan.

His stomach boiled and he threw up all over Gyrull's side and thigh. She wiped it off without breaking stride. Shortly, as she was climbing the southern wall, the sky erupted into a spindle of fire that he could see with his eyes closed. Pain crept, singing, along every nerve fibre. The fire died down, taking with it the last vestiges of the field, and Gilhaelith felt the snapping of that ethereal thread Tiaan's amplimet had drawn to him. His phantom crystal exploded into fragments with a hundred sparkle-like throbs. Now he truly was helpless. It did not matter. Nothing mattered – it was all over.

The new day dawned, as hot as the previous one, but the cold, which had bitten into him ever since he'd cast his freezing spell, grew steadily worse. He lost everything but the rocking motion. Like a pendulum running down, even that sense failed, until finally nothing was perceptible.

Gilhaelith roused twice, once to realise that Gyrull was still running, another time to discover that she had stopped and was speaking in low tones with several other lyrinx, though he still lacked strength to open his eyes. They seemed to be talking about the destruction of the node. What would such a thing look like? How could a node explode, all its contained energies vanishing into nothingness? Surely there had to be some residue?

He felt that there was something he should follow up, but was too lethargic to think.

Days and nights went by, full of running; hasty meetings in shadowed caves or gloomy woods; exhortations to hurry; and other urgent matters that were conducted out of earshot. Gilhaelith was dosed with potions and fed at intervals by a lyrinx who squeezed greasy pulp through its hands into his mouth. His senses were so numb that he could taste nothing, though he felt better afterwards.

On what he thought to be the fifth day after the escape, or possibly the sixth, Gilhaelith felt well enough to sit up. It was not long after dawn and the lyrinx had camped in a wooded valley by a meandering river. There were hundreds of them, with more appearing all the time. They must have felt in no danger now, for they were lying about in full view, chatting with voice and skin-speech, their bags and boxes of relics piled in the centre. It surprised him that they should be so casual, after the loss of Snizort.

The underground galleries had been on fire and the tar might burn for a hundred years, so whatever the result of the battle, they could not go back. That must have been a blow to the lyrinx, for Snizort had made a formidable beachhead on Lauralin from which to launch further attacks. On the other hand, the destruction of the node would have immobilised both constructs and clankers, so the lyrinx were in no danger once they escaped the immediate area. They could attack at night and do great damage, though it did not appear they were going to. He got the impression that the fliers planned to return to Meldorin.

In that case, why did Gyrull still want him? He could see her across the clearing, squatting under a tree, talking in a low voice to two other aged lyrinx. Their skin-speech lit up the shadows in lurid reds and yellows, which meant an important conversation.

He dozed during the morning, waking to see Gyrull giving orders to another small group, and later to a third. He learned nothing about what those orders were. His brain hurt whenever he tried to think. There was a strong field here, but he could not have blown a fly off the end of his nose with it.

A cry disturbed his chaotic thoughts. A lyrinx, one of the recent arrivals, was running around the clearing in circles, crashing into trees and other lyrinx, and making a shrill keening, as if in pain.

The matriarch sprang up. Several lyrinx tried to catch the distressed creature but its flailing arms knocked them out of the way. It began to claw at itself, tripped and fell just a few paces from Gilhaelith. He recognised it: one of the diggers who had excavated the lost village in the Great Seep.

The lyrinx was covered in red, swollen pustules and it began to claw furiously at itself, tearing its chest armour off in bloody chunks. The sensitive inner skin was exposed, not the usual pink, but red, pustular and oozing.

Within minutes the lyrinx had ripped most of its armour away, though that did not seem to improve matters. It began to scrape and scour at the living flesh, screaming in agony, until Gyrull motioned, Enough!

Another lyrinx came up behind it and slashed across the back of its unprotected neck, severing the spine. The suffering creature fell dead. They dug a deep hole, buried the lyrinx and left at once. The clearing was now a place of ill omen.

'What are you going to do with me?' Gilhaelith said to Gyrull a couple of days later. She was still carrying him, climbing a steep hill near the coast. He could smell the sea.

She worked her massive shoulders as if she were uncomfortable. The lyrinx often seemed to be, inside their armoured outer skin. 'You were not truthful with me, Tetrarch.'

'What do you mean?'

'When we were looking for the relics in the Great Seep, you spent longer studying the node with your geomantic devices than you did searching for the lost village. You should have found it a week earlier, and we would have got everything away in safety. You're to blame for this situation.'

Gilhaelith was not going to deny it. 'What did you expect? You abducted me.'

'On the contrary, I saved your life. Vithis arrived at Nyriandiol just days later, with a great host of constructs. On learning of your perfidy, he would have slain you out of hand. Besides, you agreed to assist me -'

'Ah!' said Gilhaelith, 'but in the excitement at Booreah Ngurle the price was never fixed, therefore the contract is void.'

'Not so, Tetrarch, for I could see what was in your mind. You had nowhere to go, and both Aachim and scrutators were after you. It suited you well to be taken to Snizort under our protection, to spy on our work and further your own studies. Though never stated, you were happy with that price. The contract stands, and by your procrastination and deceptions, you've dishonoured it. I've not had my price from you, Tetrarch, but I will.'

Gilhaelith bowed his head. 'I can do nothing to stop you. What do you require of me?'

'I shall take you across the sea to Meldorin, and hold you until I find a need that you can satisfy. Once you've done that, I may release you.'

That also suited him. He couldn't save himself, so let the lyrinx do it for him. Once they'd taken him out of his enemies' reach, he'd find a way to get free. He had to, for his own sanity. Since Gyrull had first abducted him, he'd had no control over his life. To Gilhaelith that was like a never-healing sore.

As Gyrull lifted into the air from the top of the hill, with a host of lyrinx rising around her like moths from a meadow, Gilhaelith was trying to think of a way to win his freedom. Once on Meldorin, which was occupied by the lyrinx, he would be trapped. Even if he could get away from them, he did not have the skill in boat craft to make a seaworthy vessel. He would effectively be Gyrull's slave.

They were crossing the sea from a peninsula of Taltid where the gap was only three or four leagues. It would be about an hour's flight, since they were flying into a stiff westerly. Gyrull was at the head of a great wedge of lyrinx, the arms of the flight trailing back for the best part of a league. She was flying easily, despite Gilhaelith's weight, though from time to time her wings creaked as they were buffeted by a particularly strong gust. Ahead, Meldorin was already visible, a forested land clothing mountains that ran down to the coast. He saw little sign that humans had ever inhabited it, just the scar of an overgrown mountain road and what might have been the ruins of a port.

Gilhaelith's thoughts returned to the problem he had wrestled with earlier: what had happened at the node. As far as he knew, no node had ever exploded before, so all he had to go on was his experience as a master geomancer, and his intuition. Both told him that something could not be reduced to nothing – here had to be some consequence, other than the raw power of the explosion itself. But what could it be?

The traumatic escape had left his thoughts sluggish, memory fractured and logic in tatters. By the time they'd passed the midpoint of the journey, Gilhaelith had made no progress on the puzzle.

Then, as they were being battered by updraughts in the base of a cloud, it came to him – the answer that could set him free.

'Gyrull,' he cried, twisting around in her claws so he could see her face. 'I know what's happened at the node.'

The movement put her off-balance just as an unexpected gust jerked her upwards. Torn from her grasp, Gilhaelith fell towards the dark waters, far below.

Twelve

Jal-Nish had taken charge of the clanker-hauling operation. Day and night his short stocky figure was everywhere, issuing orders and threats, and maintaining control of every aspect of the vast operation. The generals together could not have done in a week what he achieved in the first three days. The platinum mask reflected the light of the pyres by night, and the blinding sun by day. He was not seen to eat, drink or sleep in all that time.

Rumour of what he had done to his son spread, and when that mask appeared on their doorstep none dared refuse him. Eighty-two thousand soldiers, camp followers, peasants and slaves had been harnessed into teams. Neither women nor children, nor the wounded who could still walk, had been spared. Another eighteen thousand horses, buffalo and other beasts of burden had been assembled for the monumental task. Every usable clanker, more than five thousand of them, had to be dragged from the festering muck of the battlefield onto solid ground.

The haulers fell dead in their hundreds, hearts bursting under the strain. Many more collapsed, and those who could not get up quickly enough died where they lay, for Jal-Nish would not allow a moment's pause to get them out. He ordered the clankers, on their wooden skids, dragged over the fallen, as a bloody spur to the rest to do their duty. They did, and they kept dying.

Finally they'd heaved the clankers out of the putrid wallow, but that was only the beginning. They needed to move the machines more than six leagues to the field of the nearest node, and already man and beast were exhausted.

The agonising days went by. Nish's sunburnt, whip-torn back was covered in festering sores. Already lean from months of privation, after seven days of slavery he was so thin that he barely left a shadow. He could not sleep; could scarcely eat the slops they were fed on, which had a rotten stench and crawled with maggots, so desperate had the supply situation become. The army's supply wagons had been hauled by clankers, and half had been kept back, leagues to the east, in case the enemy overran the main camp, as they had. Most of the supplies here had been trampled into the mud. Without them, and with many more mouths to feed, everyone had been reduced to quarter rations. The slaves' portion came from that which even the guard dogs wouldn't eat.

Xervish Flydd looked unchanged. He'd been whipped even more than Nish, but was taking it better. He seemed, and it felt strange when Nish first had the thought, at home here. Not as though he belonged, but rather that he had adapted perfectly to his slavery. Flydd was a driven man. He was going to bring down the Council and nothing else mattered. Pain and privation he simply endured.

Tonight, through the smoke from five thousand camp fires, a blood-red moon, a few days past full, was rising over the eastern hills. Not a tree or bush remained and they were now burning grass and chunks of weathered tar. The army had stripped the land to its rocky bones.

Today had been the hardest. They were well out of the battlefield bog now, moving down the valley, and the overseer had driven them like the beasts they were, to make up lost time. Nish's boots were falling to pieces and would soon be gone. Slaving barefoot over this stony ground would cripple him, and the fate of crippled slaves was not something he liked to contemplate.

The whip master had allowed them a scant two hours' rest this evening and it was nearly over. 'I can't go on,' Nish thought, as he had many times, but each time, as the lash coiled around his belly and through the rags of his shirt, pain drove him to one last effort.

Flydd was slumped beside him, head between his knees, snoring. He took advantage of every opportunity to rest. The moon lifted itself clear of the horizon, showing mostly its dark, mottled face, said to be an ill omen. Nish did not believe in omens but its bloody visage made him shudder.

'Surr…' he began.

'Don't call me surr. I'm a slave, just like vou.'

'Thanks for the reminder. Xervish?'

'What?'

'Where's Irisis?' Nish's thoughts had often turned to her over the past days.

'How would I know? A long way from here, I hope.'

'I hope she's safe.' And didn't hear about my disgrace. Nish couldn't bear for her to think ill of him.

Something scuttled across his field of view, slipping into the darkness further along the line of slaves. Nish felt no curiosity -that was a luxury no slave could afford. The figure flitted out again into the darkness. He yawned, closed his eyes…

A whip crack dragged Nish out of sleep. Instinctively he flinched, but it was just the overseer, practising on someone nearby. Nish dared not drift off again; sleeping slaves were a favourite target. He eyed the overseer, who kept raising something the size of a brick to his mouth. He liked to whip as he ate. As the man approached, Nish caught the aroma of freshly baked bread, a whole loaf. He would have killed the brute to get his hands on it. He thumped his clenched fist into the dirt.

'Easy,' said Flydd beside him. 'That'll only get you another lashing. Keep your head down.'

'I'll bet that bread was meant for us.'

'I dare say it was. Don't think about it.'

'I can't help it,' Nish muttered, drooling uncontrollably.

The little shadow flitted behind the massive bulk of the overseer.

'Did you see that?' said Nish.

'Someone's trying to steal the overseer's dinner. I wouldn't want to be the lad when he's caught.'

Nish shivered. The overseer stopped, sniffed the air, took the coiled whip from his shoulder and cracked it, reflectively, against a slave's belly. The man screamed. The overseer chuckled and tore at the bread. The hand holding the loaf fell to his side.

The shadow sprang, snatched the loaf and bolted. The big man cursed, swung the whip and caught the flying figure around the knees, sending it crashing to the ground. Within seconds the overseer was on the youth. A wail rang out; a very familiar cry.

'That's Ullii!' Nish hissed, pulling himself up with the harness. The other slaves began to grumble. 'What's she doing here?'

"Trying to survive.' Flydd was also on his feet, rubbing his scarred thigh.

'He'll kill her.'

'Or worse,' Flydd said grimly.

'What are we going to do?'

Flydd, still rubbing his left thigh, did not answer.

'Leave her alone, you vicious scum!' Nish bellowed.

The overseer whirled and, crushing Ullii under one brawny arm, strode to the head of the line, lashing indiscriminately. Something fell and was crushed underfoot – her goggles.

Ullii convulsed, almost succeeding in getting free. 'Nish!' she cried despairingly. 'Nish, help me.'

Her cry tore at him. All the slaves were on their feet now. Nish wrenched at his harness, which did not budge: no slave had escaped from this overseer.

'Stop it, you damn fool,' hissed Flydd. 'Get out of my way.'

Giving his thigh one last rub, Flydd threw out his right hand. Rays roared from his fingertips to strike the overseer in thebelly, just missing the squirming figure of Ullii. The man was hurled backwards as if he'd been struck with a catapult ball. Flydd moved one finger and the ray severed his harness, followed by Nish's, before fading out.

Ullii scrambled free and ran into Nish's arms. 'Nish, Nish!' she sobbed. 'Save me.'

'This is no time for a family reunion,' Flydd growled. 'Come on.'

He bent over the prone figure of the overseer, taking the whip and the man's belt, which he buckled around his bony hips. It held a sheath knife, a metal pannikin and a pouch that jingled. The loaf he broke into three chunks, handing Nish and Ullii a portion each.

The other slaves in their team began to cry out, holding up their chains and begging to be set free.

'You have an important duty here,' said Flydd senten-tiously. 'To haul clankers.' From the vicious cursing that followed, the slaves did not appreciate that duty as well as they might have. Flydd turned to Nish. 'Take one mouthful and save the rest. After me.'

Ignoring the wails and beseeching cries of the harnessed slaves, he bolted towards the south-east, where a cluster of low, rock-crowned hills broke the horizon. As Nish set Ullii down, she clutched his hand and they ran for their lives. Flydd, despite his age and a limp like a broken-legged crab, was at least fifty paces ahead, almost out of sight in the moonlight.

Ullii ran easily at Nish's side and they caught Flydd as the slope began to rise. He had slowed to a fast walk. 'What did you do back there?' said Nish.

'Later!' Flydd said, hobbling badly now.

He did not look well. Nish guessed it was aftersickness, which all mancers suffered after using their Art.

Flydd looked over his shoulder. Nish did too. There were lights everywhere along the line of the clankers, and someone was running with a torch back towards the officers' tents. More urgently, a group of figures with torches had formed lines at the head of the clankers and was moving in their direction. A bellow came to them on the wind.

'It's a search party,' said Flydd. 'The first of many. Jal-Nish will hunt me to the furthest corners of the world, but he's not going to get me.' He set off again.

'He'll hunt me just as hard,' said Nish. 'My father has betrayed me, Ullii. What am I to do?'

'My family cast me out to die.' said Ullii.

There was no answer to that. He squeezed her hand and followed, walking awkwardly, for the stitching on the side of his right boot had come undone and the sole was flapping. The other boot was nearly as decrepit.

'Why didn't you free the slaves, surr?' said Nish.

'Weren't you listening?' Flydd growled. 'Hauling clankers is vital work.'

'Isn't that a bit hypocritical?' panted Nish. 'After all -'

'I have more vital work,' Flydd said tersely, 'and no one else can do it. But feel free to go back, if your conscience troubles you.'

'It's more flexible than I'd thought,' Nish said hastily.

'So I've noticed,' Flydd said dryly. 'Besides, if I did set them free, they'd want to come with us, and then we'd never get away.' He broke into a pained, lurching trot. 'We'll go around this hill, not over it,' he continued. 'Else we might be seen in the moonlight.'

Beyond, to left and right, were more hills – not a range but a scatter of individual mounds that seemed to grow higher in the distance. All were topped with rocky crowns and a bristle of shrubbery or scrubby trees.

'Good land for running,' said Flydd, 'though not for hiding. They'll have the dogs on our trail before too long.

'What are we going to do?' said Nish.

'I haven't the faintest idea.'

They followed a goat track that wound between the next pair of hills. The bushes were tall enough to conceal them, though the moon lit up the path, which was a blessing. The scrub was full of thorns and burrs, painful to negotiate in the dark.

By the time they reached the other side of the hill the moon was halfway up the sky. They stopped where a ledge of resistant rock stuck out over the slope like the edge of a plate hanging over a tahle.

'Let's take a breather' grunted Flydd, sitting down.

'How did you do that?' said Nish, who was bursting with curiosity. 'If the node is dead, how can you do magic at all?'

'Mind your own business.'

Ullii crouched beside the scrutator. 'Does your leg hurt, Xervish?' She peeled away the torn flaps of fabric covering his left thigh. They were darkly stained in the moonlight. Ullii drew back, visibly distressed.

'More than somewhat,' Flydd replied. 'I'll just dress this, then -' A howl drifted to them on the wind, followed by a furious baying. He rose to his feet with an effort, muttering, 'I thought we'd have a longer lead.'

They hurried down the stony slope. The sole of Nish's boot was practically off but he couldn't stop to fix it. The path narrowed, the scrub closing overhead until it resembled a rabbit run.

Towards the bottom, Flydd, who was limping worse than ever, stopped. 'Ullii, can you smell water?'

'Of course,' she said.

'Lead the way, quick as you can.'

She went down on hands and knees, crept under a bush, turned left and scuttled along a path that had not been visible to Nish. He followed. Thorns tore at his clothing and caught in his hair. Ullii was out of sight, making so little sound that he could not tell which way she'd gone.

'Left!' growled Flydd in his ear, 'And make it snappy. Those aren't puppies behind us.'

'I can't see the path.'

Flydd muttered an imprecation, pushed past and stood up. Letting out a muffled gasp, he pressed his hand to his thigh.

Are you all right?' said Nish.

'I'll have to be.'

They zigzagged down a steep decline where dry leaves and gravel slipped underfoot, over a bank between head-high tangles of berry bushes, and found themselves under some tall trees. The undergrowth disappeared and the ground became springy.

Ullii waited beside a leaning tree. 'The river is straight ahead, Xervish.'

'Can you swim. Ullii?' Flydd asked.

'No,' she said with a shudder.

'What about you, Artificer?"

Nish started. A long time had passed since anyone had called him by that title. 'I can, but not very well.'

'Useless fool!' Flydd said it without rancour. 'The rivers in Taltid aren't deep, or fast, but you can still drown in them. We have to go into the water or the dogs will have us. Ullii, come with me. Hang on to my shoulders, not my neck! Don't make any noise. Nish, you'll just have to do your best. No splashing.'

They went over the bank and Nish lost sight of them. Occasional shafts of moonlight touched the water. There came a splash, a faint cry, a curse, then the sound of paddling.

Nish followed gingerly. He had never been confident in water. To go into a river that he could not even see, in pitch darkness, took a deal of courage, though he'd done it once before and survived. Nish suppressed the embarrassing memories of the escape from Mira's house. Recollecting that the dogs were not far behind, and doubtless the overseer with his whip, he pushed forward.

The bank gave way, dropping him into the river with a mighty splash. Water went over his head and his foot caught on something – a fallen tree or branch. He kicked free, came up and looked around. The trees were taller here and the canopy closed. Not a glimmer of moonshine reached the water.

'Flydd?'

He could hear nothing over his own splashing and heavy breathing. Being prone to panic in deep water at the best of times, Nish was not game to stop paddling so he could listen.

He moved out into a current, which pulled him downstream. It was eerie. For all he could tell, the river might have been three spans wide, or a hundred, though Flydd had said there were no large rivers here.

Nish was beginning to feel more confident. He moved his arms in gentle circles, scissored his legs, and discovered he could keep his head above water without too much effort.

'Flydd?'

There was no answer. He'd surely go downriver as far as possible, so there would be more area to search. Nish floated along, calmly now. The water was cool enough to ease his throbbing wounds; it was the best he'd felt since his slavery began.

His feet grated on gravel – a shoal touched by light and moon-shadow. He pushed around the edge of it, heading for deeper water, then drifted towards the far bank.

A hand seized him by the collar. Nish thrashed, went under and water surged up his nose and down his windpipe. He was dragged choking and gasping onto the bank. He struck at his assailant, only to receive a blow that drove him into the mud. A big foot pressed him down; mud filled his mouth and eyes. He clawed at the bank.

'Don't move!' said a voice he had never heard before. 'Hoy, Plazzo! I've got one. Told you they'd come this way. Oh, boy, I can taste the reward money already.'

Thirteen

Someone grunted. The bushes rustled and footsteps came in their direction.

'Hey! Any sign of the others, Plazzo?' the fellow continued. 'Ungghr.'

A body fell into the water, making a loud splash. Nish was hauled up by the arms.

'What a useless fellow you are,' said Flydd amiably. 'Wipe the mud off your face – you're giving us a bad name.'

Nish blew the muck out of his nostrils and followed. 'There's another of them somewhere.'

'He's already floating downriver,' Flydd said laconically, tearing leaves into strips as he walked. It made a zipping sound, like cloth being ripped, and Nish smelt a pungent odour that resembled mustard oil.

'Where's Ullii?'

'She's here. Being quiet!

They continued on a track winding through scrub. Ullii fell in beside Nish and took his hand. He made to pull away, knowing how badly he stank, but she clung to him.

'Where are we headed?' said Nish, feeling vaguely uncomfortable. The intimacy he'd had with her months ago at Tirthrax was long gone. Evidently her feelings were unchanged. He felt, as he had briefly when they'd met in the Aachim camp weeks ago, that she expected something of him. Nish could not work out what it was, and was too exhausted to think about it. He could have slept standing up.

'I'll tell you when we get there.' Flydd was still tearing leaves. Ullii was carrying them too – Nish could smell them on her.

't' s the red mustard bush; Flydd said quietly, 'since I know you're going to ask. Ullii found it for me. Puts dogs off the scent, hopefully.'

'But not people?'

'I hardly think so.'

The sky had clouded over. Judging by an occasional glimpse of the moon, they now seemed to be heading north. Nish wondered why, but didn't ask.

Long before daybreak he smelt tar and knew they were passing Snizort again, further east. Flydd continued north, bypassing the now abandoned command hill, before turning onto a north-westerly heading across undulating country covered in crunchy, withered grass.

After several hours of weary trudging, it began to get light. The cloud had passed and it would be another clear, hot day. They climbed a rocky mound, not big enough to be called a hill. Nish sank into the shade afforded by a boulder shaped like a two-humped buffalo, closed his eyes and began to doze off. Flydd scanned the scene, keeping to the cover. 'I don't see anyone behind us.'

Nish grunted. He'd eaten his bread long ago and was so hungry he could have bitten off his arm.

'Better fix your boot,' said Flydd.. 'With what?' Nish snapped.

Flydd tossed him the whip and knife. Nish unbraided several strips of leather, poked holes in the boot with the tip of the knife and began to weave the strips through.

Flydd picked shreds of cloth from around the tear in his left thigh, careful not to touch it with his dirty hands. The edges looked as though they'd been burned.

'What happened there?' said Nish.

Flydd waved the question away.

'Do you want me to bandage that?'

'Touch it with those filthy paws and I'm likely to get gangrene.'

Ullii squatted beside Flydd, staring anxiously at the wound. She was wearing a tent-like smock made from a piece of green cloth fastened at the throat, and baggy trousers. She knotted a mask out of a strip torn from the hem of the smock, and covered her eyes, nose and ears. Horizontal slits over her eyes allowed her to see, not that she needed to.

'You're hurting, Xervish, Ullii said, eyes blinking behind the mask as the light grew.

'Somewhat, Ullii.' Flydd touched her affectionately on the shoulder. 'I'll attend to it as soon as we find water.'

She packed surplus cloth into her nostrils and snuggled up to him, which Nish found extraordinary. Ullii was so wary of people. Gazing up into Flydd's eyes, she said, 'I forgive you, Xervish.'

Nish had no idea what she was talking about. Ullii turned to him then, as if challenging him, and her stare was so intense that he had to look away. What did she want? More of the intimacy they'd shared at Tirthrax? It felt like half a lifetime ago and, even though he cared about Ullii, Nish could not turn his feelings on like a tap.

She tossed her head, leapt up and stalked into the scrub. 'What was that about?' said Nish.

Flydd, bound up in his own troubles, answered the question he thought Nish had asked. 'A long time ago I promised to help find her twin brother, Mylii. They were separated when she was four and she hasn't heard from him since.'

'You mentioned him the other day,' said Nish.

'But I didn't tell you I'd lied to her in Snizort, at the node-drainer. Ullii was being uncooperative, so I told her Muss had found Mylii and was bringing him back. Unfortunately, she discovered that I'd lied.'

'Well, it's all over now.'

'I hope so,' said Flydd, 'though I've a feeling it isn't. Go and have a look around, will you?'

Nish was behind a tree on the other side of the mound when he caught a whiff of something burning, or at least extremely overheated. It was a-strange smell, nothing like burning wood or leaves, or flesh of human or lyrinx. The odour was like roasted rock. He called Flydd over. Ullii came out of the bushes, scowling.

'What's that?' Nish said, sniffing.

Unusually, Ullii answered. 'Iron tears.'

Flydd gave her a keen glance. The rising sun carved him out in profile, a black cut-out in a bronze wall. 'You've been here before, haven't you, Ullii?'

She adjusted her mask over her eyes, moving a little closer to the scrutator. 'Came with Irisis ages ago, looking for the node-drainer.'

'Is it the node?' Nish couldn't see anything unusual.

'What's left of it,' said Flydd. 'Let's take a look, shall we?'

'Shouldn't we try to get away while we can?'

'I've got to check something first.' Flydd scanned the landscape. There was nothing to be seen, though ten thousand soldiers could have hidden in any of the valleys still in shadow, or behind any of the stone-crowned hills. 'We've time enough. They haven't found our trail yet. Over there.' He indicated the hill to their left.

They wound up the hill, which was no more than a grassy undulation. From the top, not two hundred paces away, a black hole in the ground emitted wisps of steam.

Ullii stopped abruptly, her small head darting this way and that.

'What is it?' said Flydd. 'What do you see, Ullii?'

'A hole; she said.

'Of course there's a hole,' Nish muttered.

'Don't be a fool, boy! Ullii?'

'Hole in my lattice, Xervish,' said Ullii. 'A pair of holes.'

'A pair?' said Flydd. 'Are you afraid?'

'No,' said Ullii. 'They're empty now.'

Flydd's feet left pale trails in the dewy grass. Nish followed in silence, unable to make sense of it. Why was Flydd squandering their lead for the exploded remains of a node?

Shortly they began to encounter patches of burnt grass, each containing slaggy aggregations of melted rock which must have been blown out of the hole. The patches coalesced, the blobs of slag grew larger until the ground was knee-deep in them. The bigger ones were still hot enough to warm Nish's ankles as he wove between them.

The hole formed a perfect oval about forty spans wide by sixty long. Its rim was as sharp as cheese cut with a knife and crusted with exhalations of red, yellow and brown sulphur. Within, the land had subsided in a series of concentric oval rings, like a squashed spyglass. The outside ring, the highest, bore a hide of withered grass. On the next, the grass had been carbonised in place. The soil of the remaining rings was burnt bare. The centre of the hole was obscured by rising steam.

There were nine of these oval rings, each about the width of a span, the drop to the next being roughly the same distance. They formed a series of giant steps down to the centre, though the shimmering air obscured what lay below. The humidity was choking.

'You're not planning to go down there?' said Nish, eyeing the hole anxiously.

Flydd chuckled mirthlessly. 'Indeed we are.'

He lowered himself onto the first ring and held his arms up. Without hesitation Ullii slipped into them. Flydd could get her to do things that no one else could. The pair turned their backs and went to the edge.

Nish was reluctant to follow but Flydd was not a man for excuses. Going backwards over the first edge, he felt his chest tighten, his pulse quicken.

Flydd and Ullii were well below him as Nish climbed down to the next level. The sides of the oval rings, as smooth as polished stone, resembled a series of pistons one inside the other. At the ninth ring it was stifling, steamy. Waves of heat pulsed up from an oval trench five or six spans deep and, when the steam clouds parted, its base glowed red. Within the trench, a cylinder of rock rose from the centre, listing to one side. The once-smooth stone walls had run like toffee.

On its flat top, like a pair of teardrops on a pedestal, sat two shining globes of liquid metal, bright as quicksilver. They were shaped like drops of water, though each was the size of a soup bowl. A faint humming sound came from them. Ullii had taken her mask off and was staring at the globes as if entranced.

'My, oh my,' said Flydd. 'Can you hear the song of the tears?'

'What are they?' Nish sat near the edge, not too close, praying that Flydd was not going to go after them.

'The distilled tears of the node,' said Flydd.

'I don't understand.'

'No power is ever completely destroyed, Nish. There's always some residuum – and it's ever more complex, warped and strange. I wonder… Can this be an accident, or were they created?'

'Flydd?'

'According to myth, or rumour, the tears are the essence of the node, purified of all base elements by the blast that destroys it. They're believed to be made of the purest substance in the world, and desired by mancers more than any other. But no mancer has ever obtained so much as a speck of that matter, much less a complete tear. They represent the value of a continent.' Flydd gazed at the tears with greedy eyes.

'And you want them?' said Nish. 'Are they magic?'

'Empty,' Ullii interjected.

'Not at the moment,' said the scrutator. 'But their substance, which has been called nihilium, takes the print of the Art more readily than any other form of matter, and binds it much more tightly. Oh, I want them – to make sure no one else can have them.'

'How are you going to get across?'

Flydd gauged the distances. The oval trench was red hot, making it impossible to climb down and up the other side. The stone pedestal seemed cooler, though it still radiated such heat that they could not have gone within a couple of spans of it, even could they have reached that far. Besides, it was well out of reach, its top being three spans below them, and eight or nine out from where they stood.

'Even if we had a rope or a grappling iron we couldn't collect them,' Flydd muttered.

'And I dare say they're heavy?'

Flydd thought for a moment. 'If they have weight as we know it, they would be heavier than lead; they could have the weight of gold, or even platinum. But then again, they may weigh virtually nothing… Let's go up.' Flydd gave the tears one last, lingering look, then turned to the wall.

Nish boosted him up, then Ullii. Flydd reached down a hand to him.

'What are you going to do?' Nish wondered as they reached the top.

'I don't know. The time is all wrong.'

They repaired to the shade of a grove of trees some ten minutes' walk away. Flydd filled the overseer's pannikin from a tiny spring, kindled a smokeless fire under it with dry twigs, carefully washed his hands then lay back with his eyes closed.

'If the field is dead,' said Nish, 'how come you were able to make that blast back there, to save Ullii?' It had been preying on his mind ever since.

Flydd looked up irritably. 'Can you be quiet? I'm trying to think.'

Nish stared at the scrutator as if unable to make him out. Finally Flydd snapped. 'Damn and blast you, Nish! Go away.'

Nish rose abruptly but Flydd said, 'Oh, you might as well sit down. I've lost my train of thought anyway.' He peeled back his torn and bloody pants leg to reveal the jagged, blistered gash in his thigh. 'I had a charged crystal embedded in my leg a long time ago, for just such an emergency.'

'You had it all that time?' Nish exclaimed. 'Why didn't you use it to save yourself?'

'It was for emergencies.' snapped Flydd.

And being enslaved didn't count?' Nish found that incomprehensible.

'My life wasn't in danger, apart from being bored to death by you, I wanted to remain with the army for as long as possible, so I'd know what Jal-Nish was up to. You do know that yoar father plans to lead an attack on the lyrinx? An unbelievable folly that can only end one way.'.'

'I've heard the slaves gossiping about it,' said Nish. Now I'm out of contact, and that's bad.'

'What about the crystal in your leg?'

'Once used, it can't be reused.'

'Why didn't you sew two crystals into yourself? Or twenty, for that matter?'

Flydd sprang up, his face thunderous. 'Don't you ever think before opening your mouth? Nothing comes without a price, Artificer, and putting powerful crystals inside you exacts a hefty one. Discharging one -' He shook his head.

It was a nasty tear, the length of Nish's little finger and burned at the edges. 'That must be painful,' Nish observed.

'You use words the way a blacksmith cuts flowers! Scrutators are trained to overcome pain, and I've had more practice than most, but this hurts like bloody blazes.' Tearing off the sleeve of his shirt, Flydd ripped it into strips and poked them under the boiling water. After a minute or two he fished them out, waved them in the air to cool them, then bound them around the injury.

'That'll do.' Turning away from the pit, Flydd began to limp towards a hill some half a league to the east.

'Where are we going?' said Nish.

'We can't recover the tears on our own. I've got to find help.'

It took the best part of an hour to reach the hill, which was mounded like a breast and topped with a cliffed nipple of gullied grey stone. Flydd panted his way up, emerging on a patch of flat rock some thirty paces across, bisected by a cleft from which a solitary tree sprouted. They sat in its meagre shade while he got his breath back.

'You'll have noticed that this hill is quite distinctive,' said the scrutator. 'Irisis and Fyn-Mah were to rendezvous here with the air-floater, if they got out of Snizort alive.'

'What were they doing there?'

'None of your business.'

'Did you know you were going to be taken prisoner?'

'Ghorr needed a scapegoat and there was nothing I could do about it without -' He broke off, staring back towards the node. 'But of course, if Irisis and Fyn-Mah did escape, they would have been here days ago. Spread out. Look for a sign.'

It took the best part of an hour to find it, an ornamental dagger partly embedded in the ground, as if dropped from a height. Rudely scratched on the blade was: Yes, no, 3.

'What can that mean?' said Nish.

'It means Fyn-Mah found what she went into Snizort to find, that she was hunted and had to flee, and that she's gone to the third place I mentioned previously.'

'That being?'

'None of your business.'

Nish sighed. In this mood, Flydd was impossible to deal with. 'Then we have to walk,' he remarked gloomily. Despite its dangers, air-floating was the most pleasant of all means of travelling. 'Is it far away?'

The reply was pure Flydd. 'Further than the people hunting us.'

They were climbing down the cleft when something winked in the sun to the south. 'That's an air-floater!' hissed Nish. 'Could it be Irisis coming back for us?'

Flydd squinted at the object, which was moving low to the ground along a line of trees that marked the course of a creek. 'She wouldn't dare, in daylight.' The machine began to zigzag back and forth as if following something. 'What can they be doing?'

'Dogs!' whispered Ullii. She'd been so quiet since leaving the node crater that Nish had practically forgotten she was there.

'They've found our tracks,' said Flydd.

Nish hefted a knobbly stick. 'We'd better get ready to fight.'

'Stay down! We can't fight that many people.' A leathery tree grew horizontally out of the cleft before bending to, the vertical. Flydd pulled himself up into the curve and peered around the trunk. Nish crouched between two rocks splotched with bright yellow lichen.

The air-floater lifted and ran directly towards the node crater. Flydd groaned, the tortured sound two trees make when rubbed together in a storm. 'Let's pray no one recognises what's down there.'

The machine settled. Nine figures went into the pit: seven people and two dogs. The pilot and one other person could be seen moving about on the air-floater. Nish twisted his fingers, together. After some minutes it lifted, moved over the depression, bucking in the updraught, and drifted down.

'That's a dangerous manoeuvre,' said Flydd. 'If the walls of the gasbag touch something hot, they're dead.'

Time passed. They could see nothing but the top of the airbag. 'What are they doing?' said Nish.

'A really good pilot could bring it down right over the pedestal. Someone could simply pick up the tears.'

'They're taking a long time,' Nish said later.

'Be quiet!'

The air-floater crept out of the crater and hovered in the updraught, its bow pointing at their hiding place. 'Whoever it is,' said Flydd in a curiously flat voice, 'they have the tears.'

The air-floater lurched, turned away and began to drift, low to the ground, towards the army camp in the distance.

'We'd better make sure/ Flydd said.

They scrambled down the gully. 'I dare say the tears are more important than we are,' said Nish hopefully.

'They are, but the scrutators won't give us up, Nish.'

They could see the smoke well before they reached the hole. It was yellow-brown with threads of black, and smelled like burning hair and meat.

'I can't see anything.' Flydd was peering over the edge. 'I'll have to climb down.'

'Do you mind if I stay here?' said Nish. The stench was making him sick.

'Good idea. Keep watch. You too, Ullii. Ullii?'

She was hanging back, holding her noseplugs in. 'This is a terrible place,' she whispered.

'You don't have to come near.' Flydd eased his injured leg over the side.

Nish watched him go down. A surge of greasy brown fumes obscured Flydd as he reached the fourth oval. He bent double, coughing. Nish moved away from the edge. When he returned, after the smoke had thinned, Flydd was not to be seen.

'Is he all right?' he said to Ullii.

She gagged and doubled over, unable to speak. Nish circumnavigated the depression, seeking a better vantage point, but did not find one. After five or ten minutes, Flydd began to labour up again.

Nish helped him out onto the ground. The skin below Flydd's eyes had gone the purple of a day-old bruise and it took him quite a while to focus.

'Are the tears gone?' said Nish.

'Yes.'

'Who could it have been?'

'Ghorr is my guess, though it could have been any of the scrutators. Can you tell, Ullii?'

'No,' she whispered. 'Can't tell anything. Can't see anything.' In times of stress she sometimes lost her lattice.

'But whoever did take it,' said Flydd, 'they've made sure no one will ever know.'

'What do you mean?' said Nish.

'The trench at the bottom is clotted with bodies. Six soldiers and the air-floater's chart-maker. And the dogs. In an hour, the witnesses will be ash.'

All but us,' said Nish. 'And the pilot.'

'He needs her to get back to camp, but as soon as the air-floater lands, she's dead. He'll call it a seizure.'

And the soldiers?'

'He'll say I ambushed them and blasted the soldiers into nothingness with another crystal. No one will be able to prove otherwise.'

'If he knew we were watching, our lives could be measured in minutes, said Nish.

"He knows we've been there,' said Flydd. 'The air-floater tracked us to the node. Once the tears are safely hidden, he'll come after us.'

'Then we'd better get moving. Which way, surr?'

'North.'

They set off, keeping to the lowest ground. Ullii whimpered and moved close to Nish for comfort, though he was too preoccupied to notice. After some minutes she flounced away and took Flydd's hand. Flydd put his arm around her as he walked. She was red in the face and struggling to keep up, which Nish found surprising. When he'd last been with Ullii, she'd climbed the slopes of Tirthrax more easily than he had.

'Was this an accident?' Flydd mused as they rested among a pile of boulders a couple of hours later, 'Or was it planned from the beginning?'

'What do you mean?' said Nish.

'What if the device Ghorr gave me was designed to be faulty, so as to destroy the node and create the tears?'

'How could that be, surr? You told me it was tested, independently.'

'I don't know. Scrutator Klarm would not be easily fooled, but neither can I believe that the destruction of the node, and the creation of the tears, was an accident. But if it was planned, why didn't the perpetrator come to the node straight away?'

'Maybe he was delayed by the battle,' said Nish. 'Or thought that the tears would form at the node-drainer.'

'I hadn't considered that,' Flydd said appreciatively. 'And perhaps, until today, it was too hot to get near, too steamy to see if the tears were there.'

'Then why not put a guard on it?'

'That would announce that there was something special in the crater. Whoever he is, he wouldn't want anyone to know about the tears.'

'Not even the other scrutators?'

'Especially not the other scrutators…' Flydd toyed with a piece of gravel, deep in thought. 'There's more here than the eye can see, Nish.'

'I don't understand,' said Nish.

'Neither do I, but it bothers me that someone knows far more about the Art than any of us. Why were the tears made?'

"To further one man's ambition.'

'Or one woman's. Four of the scrutators are women, remember? It doesn't do to make assumptions. But what ambition could -?'

Breaking off, he began to pace, glancing from Nish to a silent Ullii, who sat by herself, arms crossed over her belly, rocking back and forth.

'What is it, surr?'

Flydd jerked his head. Nish rose and followed him. 'Surely you trust Ullii, surr?'

'She doesn't need to know.'

'Do 1?'

'A half-baked mooncalf like you?' Flydd said fiercely. 'Certainly not, but you're all I've got. Breathe a syllable of what I'm about to tell you and you're a dead man.'

There wasn't a trace of levity in his tone. Nish swallowed.

'I'm wondering,' the scrutator went on, 'if this might not be an attempt upon a higher power:

'I didn't know there was a higher power than the scrutators.'

Flydd hesitated, as if having second thoughts. 'It's worth my head to speak about this, and yours, but since we're both outlaws in peril of our lives, and I desperately need a sounding board, I'll make an exception. It's the best kept secret of all. The scrutators make out that they run the world, but the Numinator pulls their strings, and has since the Council was formed.'

'Clawers,' called Ullii. 'Coming fast!'

Her eyes were covered again, her face was turned to the north-west. Nish couldn't see anything, but Ullii did not make mistakes. In a few minutes three specks appeared, flying high, directly towards the fuming node crater, which was now a good two-thirds of a league from their hiding place.

'What can they want?' said Nish.

They've worked out what really happened to the node/ said Flydd, climbing the jumbled boulders to get a better look. 'But they're too late.'

Two lyrinx flew down the fuming hole while a third circled, on watch. Within a minute, the two reappeared, rising high into the sky and flying in widening circles before heading in the direction of the human army.

'They won't find them,' said Flydd. 'The tears will be hidden by now. I wonder what they'll do?'

The lyrinx disappeared into the haze. 'Who is this Numinator?' said Nish.

'If anyone knows, they're not saying. Some scrutators think it stands for "The Numinous One", though anyone who styles himself as a divine power must be supremely arrogant. I can only say this: more than a century ago, soon after the war had become worldwide and the Council of Santhenar, as it then was, was struggling to form a united front against the enemy, the power calling itself the Numinator took command. There was a bitter struggle and many mancers died before the Numinator defeated them. The survivors became the Council of Scrutators. The Numinator, he or she, set down the rules by which the Council was to run the world, but afterwards took no part in day-to-day affairs. From time to time the scrutators have chafed under this regime, and even tried to rebel, but were always taught a brutal lesson.'

'And you were one of them?' asked Nish.

'That was long before my time. My crime was simply to inquire into matters that weren't my business. The scrutators taught me my lesson to avoid being punished themselves. They taught me well.'

Nish digested that. 'So you think the Council deliberately created these tears, so as to take on the Numinator?'

'Not the Council. One individual, who may want to control the Council, first!

'But why now, when the war is going so badly, and division could be fatal?'

'I don't know. It may have been decades in the planning. And there's no saying that the person who created the tears is the one who ended up with them.'

'Are we going to find out?' said Nish.

'Don't be a bloody fool, boy. Look at me!' Xervish Flydd held out his arms. 'See the scars, the warped and twisted bones, the very flesh scraped away. 1 was a handsome man when I was young, Nish, but not after the scrutators had finished with me. I should have died then. They did their best to break me, but were ordered to let me live. I was to be a lesson to the other scrutators, not to pry into what wasn't their business. I've often wished they had killed me; I've not had a day without pain in thirty years. But here I am, a living example. Take heed, Nish. Some secrets are meant to be kept.'

Despite his words, Nish could see the resolve in Flydd's eyes – he was going to find out. And what then?

'So why the breeding factories? Why rewrite the Histories? Why-?'

'Good questions for which there are no answers.'

'But-'

'Come on!' Flydd said roughly. 'As soon as the tears are hidden, he'll be after us. He can't afford to let us live.'

Fourteen

Vithis took charge of Tiaan's amplimet and hedron, wrapping them in sheets of beaten platinum which he folded over carefully before putting the packet in his pocket with a shudder. He passed Tiaan to a young cheerful man, a deep-chested giant with blond curly hair, unusual for an Aachim.

'I'm Ghaenis,' he said to Tiaan as the group raced back to their own lines. 'Don't be afraid. You'll come to no harm while I'm looking after you;

For some odd reason, she knew it was true. She had perfect confidence in Ghaenis, and she'd not felt that with any Aachim before, apart from Malien.

Vithis said no word to Tiaan in the half-hour it took to reach the Aachim war camp, running all the way. As soon as they arrived, Ghaenis set Tiaan down on a metal chair and drew Vithis aside. He began to put a case animatedly, with much arm-waving and gesturing towards the constructs.

Vithis listened with set face. Ghaenis's accent was difficult to follow and Tiaan learned only that it had to do with the amplimet. At the end, Vithis shook his head.

Ghaenis renewed the argument even more passionately but with the same good humour. One hand swept out in the direction of the stalled constructs. The other reached for Vithis as if begging a favour.

'I cannot permit it,' Vithis said tersely. 'It's too dangerous.'

Ghaenis kept on. Vithis paced up and down, head bowed, then finally he nodded. The young man listened carefully while Vithis gave a series of instructions, or warnings, then handed the platinum-wrapped packet to him.

Ghaenis gleefully shook the older man's hands, bowed low and, with a cheery wave to Tiaan, ran to a group of constructs and climbed into the leading one.

Tiaan went on with her exercises, surreptitiously clenching and unclenching her leg muscles. She needed to regain her strength. She had to be able to walk, and no one must know it. She was going to escape, somehow.

The camp was furious with activity. A dozen people vied for Vithis's attention, all urgently. He listened to their messages, frowned and called an attendant. 'Bring her!'

The fellow picked Tiaan up as if she were a child and followed Vithis halfway across the encampment to a large tent. From a good ten paces away, Vithis shouted, 'Come out!' in the Aachim tongue. Malien had taught Tiaan a little of the language in Tirthrax.

A young noblewoman emerged. She was small for an Aachim and, with her reddish hair and pale colouring, strikingly different from the other Aachim here. The attendant set Tiaan on the dusty ground.

'This is Tiaan Liise-Mar, the thief who stole our construct,' said Vithis in the common speech. 'Guard her with your life, Thyssea, or Clan Elienor will answer for it.'

The young woman bowed but, as the grim Aachim stalked away, she made an obscene gesture to his back, then gave Tiaan an impish grin.

Tiaan could not help smiling. 'Hello, Thyssea.' The name sounded strange on her tongue. 'Did I pronounce that right?'

'Well enough, for a human. It's Thyzzea.' She spoke the common speech fluently, though with a slight nasal intonation.

'I'm sorry. Thyzzea. I tried to say it as Vithis did.'

'Thyssea is an.., uncouth word. He was being deliberately insulting.'

'Why?' said Tiaan.

'Do you know that Clan Inthis is called First Clan?'

'Yes.' Tiaan put her hand over her eyes. She'd been underground for many weeks and, though it was late afternoon, the sun was painfully bright.

'Come into the shade.'

'I can't stand up,' said Tiaan. 'I broke my back.' She wasn't going to reveal that the lyrinx had repaired it – once her legs were strong enough to walk, it would give her a tiny advantage.

Though they were the same size, Thyzzea lifted Tiaan with little apparent effort, carried" her beneath a scrubby tree which had red-tipped thorns growing out of the trunk, and sat her on the withered grass. 'Clan Elienor is, in the eyes of Inthis and some other clans, Last Clan.'

'Why is that?' Tiaan's curiosity was piqued. She was always more sympathetic to the underdog.

'We're different. Most Aachim are tall and dark, but our clan tends to be small and pale skinned, and many of us have red hair. Inthis reckons our blood was corrupted long ago, by a visitor from another world.'

'Was it?'

'I don't know. The elders guard our heritage closely. We're-so disliked because we're not compliant enough. We often disagree with the decisions of the Ten Clans; or Eleven, now that Inthis has rejoined. We are seen as disloyal but, even worse, individualist. It's a great failing.' She smiled as she said it.

'You're not armed, Thyzzea. That seems odd, in a guard.'

'I'm not a guard. I am of noble blood, and my father's heir, Vithis hates my father, so forcing me to do guard duty is an insult to him and all Clan Elienor.'

Tiaan considered that. 'Is Elienor a small clan?'

'It was the smallest on Aachan. But, unlike other clans, we all made the decision to come through the gate, and most of us survived it. Of the twelve Aachim clans, we are now ninth in numbers. There are five thousand of us.'

'In Tirthrax I met an elderly woman called Malien,' said Tiaan, 'who had something of your looks. Her ancestors were Clan Elienor; she said, though the Aachim of Santhenar no longer hold to clan allegiances.'

Thyzzea frowned. A few of my clan were shipped here as prisoners, or slaves, in ancient times.'

'She's a famous hero. Malien is in one of the Great Tales.'

'Then I hope to travel to Tirthrax some day and meet her. We know little about how our kind have fared on Santhenar in the thousands of years they've been exiled here. Would you care for something to drink?'

'Yes, please. I'm really thirsty.'

'I'll carry you to our tent.'

Tiaan found herself liking the young Aachim, and that would be a problem when she tried to escape, though Thyzzea had not asked Tiaan for her parole.

The tent was the size of a cottage, with a large living area and small rooms opening off it. Rugs on the floor looked costly, though the space contained nothing but some metal chests and a small table, at which a red-haired youth stood, writing in a book.

'My little brother, Kalle,' said Thyzzea, holding Tiaan in her arms. 'Kalle, here is Tiaan, who opened the gate and made the construct fly.'

Tiaan felt embarrassed at being carried like an invalid. She resolved to exercise harder than ever.

Kalle dropped his pen, awe-struck. 'Tiaan!' Remembering his manners, he put out his hand. The long Aachim fingers wrapped right around Tiaan's hand. 'It is a great honour to meet you.'

Kalle looked to be about thirteen, though it was difficult to tell the age of the Aachim. He was also her height, with pale, unfreckled skin, a lengthy, bladed nose, green eyes and hair the most brilliant deep red.

'How is it…?' he looked from Tiaan to his sister.

'Vithis ordered me to guard her,' said Thyzzea.

Kalle flushed the colour of his hair. 'But… Oh! Oh!' He could not look at Tiaan. 'We are dishonoured. What are you going to say to Father?'

'He hasn't come back from the battle…' Seeing the anxious look in her brother's eye, she amended hastily, 'yet.'

Kalle struggled to control himself. 'But he'll be all right, won't he?' His voice was shaky.

'Of course he will,' Thyzzea said in reassuring tones. 'You'd better get back to your studies.'

Kalle began to turn the pages of his book, but his eyes were fixed on the open flap of the tent.

Thyzzea picked up a basket in her free hand. 'Shall we sit under the tree again? It's cooler outside. This is a hot world.' For me too,' said Tiaan.

'You come from the other side of Lauralin, don't you? The city of Tiksi, on the west coast?'

'You know a lot about me,' said Tiaan.

'You saved us. You're in our Histories.'

'But…'

'Yes?' Thyzzea said politely.

'I don't wish to intrude on you. You must be anxious about your father.'

'I am,' she said, 'but that's a private matter and I've a duty to watch over you. Let's talk no more about it. In truth, you're a welcome distraction from worries I can do nothing about.'

'It still seems a bit.., casual,' said Tiaan.

'What do you mean?'

'Sitting here, talking, while the war rages only a league away.' She waved one hand in the direction of the battlefield.

'The battle ended some hours ago and the enemy are retreating west.'

'Did we win, then?' Having been underground for so long, Tiaan had no idea how the struggle had gone.

'No, but nor did we lose.' Thyzzea explained about the unexpected destruction of the node, and the fleet of air-floaters turning the tide of battle at the critical moment. 'The enemy are withdrawing, as they must, because Snizort is on fire. But since there's no field, we can't move our constructs. Until that problem is solved, we young ones have little to do.'

'Why did Vithis leave me with you? I thought I would be imprisoned.'

'You made the gate that brought us to Santhenar, Tiaan. And you learned how to make the construct fly, a secret we've been searching for since the Way between the Worlds was opened. Vithis may be our leader, but the other clans will not follow him into dishonour. You'll be treated with the respect you've earned, in our house.'

'Thank you,' said Tiaan, a little uncomfortable with such praise. 'But I don't understand. Am I a prisoner or a guest?'

Thyzzea looked embarrassed. 'The situation is an awkward one, Tiaan. You are Vithis's prisoner, but my guest.'

Tiaan found this difficult to take in. 'But why you? I mean no insult,' she said hastily, 'but surely, for such an important captive…?'

Thyzzea smiled. 'I'm skilled in all manner of arts – few of my age more so. Even were you not handicapped, you could not escape me. But that's not why I was chosen.'

'Why then?'

'To humiliate my father and degrade me. I'm firstborn, my father's heir, and he is the leader of Clan Elienor. That I should do guard duty for a prisoner who is not our own kind…' she coloured, '.., and now it is I who mean no insult – demeans us both.'

'I don't understand.'

'Clan Inthis has always hated Clan Elienor and tried to do us down. Now Inthis has been reduced to two men, and Vithis is sterile, while Elienor has a higher place than before. It's bile to him.'

They returned to the tree, where Thyzzea unpacked the basket. 'I'm sorry there's no wine to offer you.' She handed Tiaan a mug of water. 'Our supplies are low.'

'I rarely drink wine,' said Tiaan. 'It makes my head spin.'

'We used to take it at every meal, on our own world, though that was the weak wine, not the strong. Strong wine is for adults, except on special occasions, and then only sparingly.'

'I thought you were an adult.'

Thyzzea unpacked hard bread, which was brown with a purple tinge, a variety of dried and smoked fruits of kinds that Tiaan did not recognise, a glass flask of red oil and a string of stubby sausages. With each item she apologised for the lack. Carving slices from the bread and the hard sausages, she drizzled them with red oil and handed the platter to Tiaan.

'In your years I would be about seventeen,' said Thyzzea. We mature slowly compared to old humankind. I am a woman, but not of adult age.'

Tiaan found it strange to be referred to as an old human. She just thought of herself as human, and the Aachim did not seem that different, though clearly they considered themselves to be a distinct human species. Perhaps that was connected to their obsession with their clans. 'Then we're not far apart. The day you came through the gate was my twenty-first birthday.' She took a piece of bread but laid it down again. I hope you find it edible,' Thyzzea said anxiously. 'I enjoyed the food Malien gave me in Tirthrax.' Tiaan tasted the sausage. It was heavily spiced, burning the tip of her tongue and making her eyes water. 'Delicious,' she said, taking a sip from her mug, 'though rather hotter than I'm used to.'

'I'm sorry,' said Thyzzea. 'If it's…' 'I'll just take a little at a time,' Tiaan said hoarsely. Hearing a high-pitched whine from their left, Thyzzea stood up. 'It's a construct. The field must be working again.'

'I don't see how it could be,' said Tiaan though, lacking her amplimet, she had no way of telling. Shortly a construct floated by, whining furiously yet moving slowly, towing another seven with stout cables. The blond-haired giant stood at the controls, looking pleased with himself. He waved to Thyzzea and Tiaan as he passed.

'That's Ghaenis.' Thyzzea rose to watch him go by. She sighed, her breast heaved. 'Doesn't he look magnificent?'

'He carried me from the battlefield. He seemed like a decent fellow.'

'He's a brilliant young man, even cleverer than his mother. He's brave and honourable, and modest too. If anyone can get us out of here, it will be him.' Another sigh. 'But.., of course,' she added, now speaking about herself, 'it can never be.' 'Why not?' said Tiaan.

'He's spoken for by the beautiful Rannilt. And even if he were not, his mother is Tirior of Clan Nataz, and she hates my father even more than Vithis does.'

Tiaan did not ask why. Deep currents ran between the clans.

Thyzzea wrinkled her brow. 'It one construct can go, why not the others?'

'Vithis gave Ghaenis my amplimet, and it's powerful enough to draw from a distant field.' Tiaan wondered how long it would take to move the thousands of constructs stranded here. Weeks, surely.

Thyzzea had gone pale. 'He's using the amplimet? Hasn't anyone told him? But of course, Clan Nataz have always desired it…'

'It'll be all right if he takes it slowly,' said Tiaan.

'You don't understand. We can't use -'

A few hundred paces away, the leading construct screeched to a stop and thumped down. The seven towed machines thudded after it, shaking the ground.

'He must have lost the field,' said Tiaan.

Ghaenis threw himself over the side and landed hard, rolling across the dry soil in little puffs of dust. He stood up, looking back at his construct as if he expected it to explode. A cloud passed in front of the sun and momentarily Tiaan felt icy cold.

'Something's wrong, Tiaan.' Thyzzea's eyes were huge.

'He'll be safe if he's lost the field.'

'You don't understand,' Thyzzea wailed 'He shouldn't have gone near it. We Aachim -'

'He begged Vithis for it,' said Tiaan.

'But Vithis has always been against using this deadly crystal.'

'Ghaenis was most persuasive -'

Scarlet rays streamed out of Ghaenis's torso. The air seemed to shimmer.

'Tiaan!' Thyzzea cried. 'You know the amplimet best – can't you do something?'

'I don't know what the matter is.' Yes, she did. The chill ran all the way down Tiaan's back. 'Power must still be flowing from the field.' She pulled herself up by the trunk of the tree, pricking her hands on the red thorns. 'It's hurting him. Carry me across, quickly.'

Before Thyzzea had taken a step, Tiaan could feel the power – and something else, a brittle, inanimate crystal rage. The treacherous amplimet had refused to be cut off, and it was directing all that power into Ghaenis.

'Can you stop it?' gasped Thyzzea, running as hard as she could.

'If I can get near enough.'

Ghaenis was staggering about with his hands tightly pressed to his ears. The Aachim from the other machines ran towards him, including a striking young woman, presumably Rannilt, whose wavy black hair streamed out half a span behind her.

'Ghaenis, love!' she cried. 'What's the matter?' When Thyzzea and Tiaan were still a hundred paces away, Ghaenis collapsed. Steam or smoke wisped up from his mouth. He arched his back, drummed his heels on the ground then, to the horror of everyone there, burst into flame. Ghaenis screamed but once. Aachim raced up with buckets of precious water but it made no difference. He was burning from the inside out.

Thyzzea stopped dead. Ghaenis arched up in a semicircle, just his heels and outstretched hands touching the ground. His body was grotesquely swollen, his nostrils emitting rings of black smoke. Then he exploded. The legs and head fell back but the rest of Ghaenis was gone. It was the most hideous sight Tiaan had ever seen.

Thyzzea clutched Tiaan hard, making incoherent sounds in her throat. Rannilt screamed so shrilly that the flask of oil under the tree cracked. Two Aachim carried her away from the dreadful scene, still shrieking, and thankfully someone cast a cloak over the smouldering remains.

Thyzzea just stood there, choking. Tiaan wished she were a thousand leagues away. 'Take me back, please. We can't do anything now.'

Thyzzea stumbled back to the tree, gasping for air. Putting Tiaan down, she fell to her knees and began to weep into her hands. Tiaan reached out, drawing Thyzzea to her and folding her arms around the younger woman. She said nothing. Words had no value whatsoever.

Finally Thyzzea disengaged herself and drew away. With a visible effort, she internalised her grief. The Aachim seemed able to do that – or perhaps they preferred not to show emotion in the presence of strangers. 'Rannilt will go out of her mind' she said hoarsely. 'Why, why did Vithis let him have the amplimet?'

Tiaan could not answer that. 'Once anthracism starts, there's no stopping it. But at least it was quick.'

'Ghaenis was a wonderful man. Everyone loved him. What will his mother -?'

Tirior, recognisable from a distance by the black curling hair, came flying across the dirt. Several Aachim tried to stop her from passing through the circle but she knocked them out of the way and pushed through. A great shuddering cry rent the air.

Vithis appeared from the other direction, robes flapping. No one hindered his passage. The crowd separated behind him, before moving away hastily. Vithis converged on Tirior, who was standing by the smoking remains. She turned, ground out something that Tiaan did not hear, then struck Vithis down with a vicious blow to the midriff.

Laying her cloak over the other cloak, she knelt by her son's remains, head bowed.

Vithis picked himself up and retrieved the amplimet from the construct, keeping the platinum sheet between it and his hand at all times. After wrapping it carefully, he stalked towards Tiaan's tree, waving an attendant across. 'Bring her!'

The attendant picked Tiaan up.

'Where are you taking Tiaan?' said Thyzzea with desperate dignity, determined to preserve her clan's honour no matter how far Vithis outmatched her.

Vithis did not deign to reply.

'I must insist on knowing' she said stoutly.

"How dare you question me, child of an outcast clan!'

'You required me to take Tiaan into my house, and so I have. She has guest right.'

"The Eleven Clans do not recognise guest right for aliens.'

'Clan Elienor does,' Thyzzea said, 'and your actions are a deliberate insult to my father, our clan, and myself.' A red spot had appeared high on each cheek; one knee shook as she faced him. 'And to Tiaan, whom our Histories honour, despite your insulting behaviour.'

'You have not reached your majority and cannot offer guest right. How dare you lecture me!'

'My father put me in charge of his house when he went to battle. He gave me his seal and full authority to run his affairs.'

'Then let doom fall on his head! I shall tell you nothing. Attendant!'

As Tiaan was carried away, she was trying to work out what Vithis would do next. It was impossible to focus – she kept seeing Ghaenis's cheery face, and his gruesome death.

Now that his own efforts had failed so disastrously, Vithis would do whatever it took to force the secret of the thapter out of her. She had to resist him. Fortunately the construct, coated with tar, had burned hot. With luck the diamond hedrons and the carbon filaments connecting them to the amplimet had been consumed, and Vithis need never learn they had existed. Let him think the secret of flight lay in the amplimet and how Tiaan had used it. She could not resist torture but, after what Thyzzea had said, it seemed unlikely that the Aachim would permit that. On the other hand, after the death of Ghaenis, anything was possible.

Could she pretend not to understand the talent that enabled her to make the construct fly? Pretending stupidity was a dangerous course; they knew too much about her. But how else could she save herself?

They reached a tent guarded by four Aachim men. 'Let no one disturb us!' Vithis ordered.

The guards saluted and he went in. The attendant sat Tiaan in a metal chair and departed. Vithis walked round the room several times, pushing his fingers through his hair until it stood out like bristles. The hollows under his eyes had a yellow tinge.

He swallowed and turned to Tiaan. 'I have much to get done,' Vithis said softly, 'so let us get this over with as quickly as possible. How did you make the construct fly?'

Vithis, an exceptionally tall man, was standing so close that she had to tilt her head right back to look at him. A fly buzzed around the tent. The sun was going down but the heat and stillness remained oppressive.

'I don't know,' she lied. 'I've never understood how I used the amplimet, even after all the instruction the Aachim gave me. My talent just seemed to grow. Sometimes it was as if the crystal was instructing me.'

His face was as expressionless as metal; she could not judge his thoughts.

'You're lying,' he said without emphasis. 'You blindfolded everyone in the construct and did something to it to make it fly. What did you do?'

'Nothing,' Tiaan said as steadily as she could. She could not match his strength so she must give before him, then spring back. 'You can check Tirior's construct.'

'We will, once it's cool enough to get inside. If you didn't change it, how did you make it fly?'

Any construct can be made to fly if you have an amplimet,' she lied.

'How?' he roared in her face. And why did you blindfold everyone?'

'I didn't want anyone to see the amplimet. Look what it's done to Ghaenis, after you gave it to him. It causes trouble everywhere I go, and everyone who sees it wants to take it from me. It's mine!. Joeyn gave it to me with his dying breath. It's all I have left, since you forced Minis to break his promise to me. Since you killed little Haani.'

'I did not kill her!' he snapped, but it put him off balance. 'It was an accident and reparation has been paid. Neither could Minis break his promise, since he did not have the right to make such a commitment to you.'

Tiaan had to reinforce his false impression of her character. She tried to make her emotions as flighty as a hutterfly. 'I did everything for the love of Minis,' she said with a sweet, dreamy smile, like a smitten adolescent. Then she screeched, 'He promised me! He lied, and you forced him to it. I hate you'.'

Vithis took a step backwards. 'Minis does not lie.' He grimaced as if he'd just swallowed something nasty.

'He lied to me!' she shrieked. 'Liar, liar, liar!' You're overdoing it, she thought. Vithis is a clever, subtle man. Don't be too emotional.

'You show your true nature at last. The amplimet can never be yours, sad little creature that you are. You're unworthy of it.'

'No!' she shouted. 'It's mine.'

He shook her until she felt like vomiting fragments of red sausage all over him. 'You're no geomancer, Tiaan. You have a brilliant native talent, but not the intellect to control the amplimet.'

'I flew my thapter all the way from Tirthrax,' she muttered.

'The crystal would end up controlling you. For the last time, how did you make the construct fly?'

'I had to work the balance between the two crystals,' she said, making up a meaningless term. 'For flight, the balance between the amplimet and the smaller crystal, my hedron, must be just right. I set up a kind of.., oscillation in the field, but it grew stronger and stronger, as if it was feeding on itself. It hurt so much! I thought it was going to anthracise me. Like you did to poor Ghaenis.'

He ignored the barb. 'But it didn't; said Vithis. 'How did you overcome that?'

'The oscillation vanished and the field seemed to be pushing the other way, lifting the construct off the floor. Then… I can't explain it. I visualised the construct flying.., something grew hot beneath the floor and up it went…'

"That's gibberish,' he said doubtfully. 'You're making it up.'

A drop of ice slid down her gullet. She was making it up, and if he was sure of it he would crucify her. Careful, she thought. Be more convincing in your stupidity. 'That's what happened, I swear it!' she rushed out. 'I didn't understand. The feeling of the crystal was soul-deep.' She said it with wide-eyed, gullible since:

'Soul-deep? What mumbo-jumbo is that?'

Someone was at the flap, beckoning. Vithis spoke briefly to the man, then returned. 'I have urgent business elsewhere. Before I go, answer me this. What did you mean, it was as if the crystal was instructing you?'

She seized on that. Back in the manufactory, one of the workers, a girl called Sannet, had heard voices all the time. It had been tiresome to work with her, for Sannet needed to consult her voices before undertaking the simplest task.

'I heard voices. In my head,' lied Tiaan, looking up at the Aachim stupidly.

He was disgusted. 'Have you always heard them?'

Could she reinforce his feeling that she was not completely sane? No, better to pretend that the amplimet had damaged her. 'Never!' Tiaan cried theatrically, 'Until I was given the amplimet by old Joeyn. He was my only friend.'

'I'm not surprised,' said Vithis.

'That very night I dreamed about Minis,' Tiaan went on. 'And afterwards. But.., it wasn't until I used the amplimet in the ice cave that the voices began.'

'Is that so?' he said softly. And did you hear them all the time after that?'

'Only after I used the crystal, and then only for a day or two. In the months it took to travel from Kalissin to Tirthrax, I didn't hear voices at all. There were no nodes by the great inland sea; the crystal could draw no power there.'

And after Tirthrax?'

'I've often heard the voices these last few months.'

'What do they tell you?' He sounded as if he believed her.

Tiaan did not relax. He was weighing everything she said, and if she made one inconsistent remark, one false step, he would have her.

Fifteen

Tiaan recalled something Vithis had said just after coming through the gate to Santhenar. Tirior had wanted the amplimet but he'd been afraid of it, saying that it was corrupt and dangerous. Could she play on that fear?

'I can't bear to be without the amplimet; she said softly. 'I haven't suffered withdrawal since the gate was opened, but whenever someone else has my crystal, I feel the most indescribable longing for it.' She looked Vithis in the eye. 'Yet it frightens me. After Tirthrax, it was as if the amplimet wanted something. As if it were using me.'

The man who had come to the door was back, gesturing furiously. Vithis waved him away.

'Using you? How do you mean?'

'I felt that it was a million years old,' she said breathlessly. And all that time it had lain underground, drawing power from the node. Waiting, and planning what it would do when it got free.'

'What does it want to do?' Vithis spoke as if humouring her, but he was plucking uneasily at his chin.

Perhaps he was superstitious about such things. 'It's following a mineral.., instinct, from times so long ago that the shape of the land was different. I dreamed that it was controlling me, though it didn't want me. It's looking for someone stronger, a great mancer like you! She reached out to him.

He sprang backwards. 'Don't touch me! It's telling you to work on me now, isn't it?' His breath whistled in and out through his teeth.

How could it be telling me anything?' she said with childlike innocence, 'I don't have it.'

Wait here, if you please.'

How could she do otherwise? Again Tiaan reached towards him but he stepped back smartly and slipped out through the flap.

He returned some time later with a woman Tiaan had not met before. She was old, her dark skin weathered to the texture of bark, her hair as grey as aged thatch and her back bent.

"This little thing?' the old woman said, fixing Tiaan with cloudy eyes. She came up close but avoided touching her. Her voice was croaky, crackly. 'It hardly seems possible.'

'We've all seen her fly the construct, Urien, and we know she made the gate.'

Urien stared right into Tiaan's eyes. 'The crystal talks to you, child?'

Tiaan shivered and the old woman smiled to see it. Her gums had withered, exposing snaggly yellow teeth which looked as though they'd been stuck in clay by an inexpert hand.

After I've used the amplimet,' said Tiaan, pretending awe, 'it whispers in my mind, the same way it talks to the node.'

'What!' cried Vithis and the old woman together.

'That was the reason Malien sent me away in the thapter -'

'Thapter?' scowled Urien.

'My flying construct,' said Tiaan. 'Malien had to send the amplimet away, even though she wanted the thapter for herself, because the amplimet was talking to the node. And then the Well of Echoes, trapped inside Tirthrax, began to thaw.'

Vithis's dark face went grey. 'Thaw?' he whispered, staring at her in dismay and a growing horror. Urien was more controlled, but for a moment Tiaan saw fear in her eyes and wondered just what it was that old Joeyn had given her with his dying breath.

'Malien was terrified that the Well would break free,' said Tiaan, 'and with the amplimet there she couldn't hold the Well in place. Had she not sent the crystal away, the whole great mountain and city of Tirthrax might have been destroyed.'

The Aachim withdrew to the far side of the tent in agitation, then went outside and she heard no more. They were gone for ages. When they finally returned, Vithis looked sick.

'How was the amplimet talking to the node, child?' said the old woman.

'The tiny light in the centre blinked on and off, too quickly to count,' Tiaan replied truthfully. 'But as soon as I, or Malien, took the crystal out of its pouch the blinking stopped, as if to hide what it was doing.'

'What else can you tell us about it?'

'After I left Tirthrax, it wouldn't let me go where I wanted.'

Urien pounced. 'But you did get away.'

It was a dangerous moment; Tiaan didn't want them thinking too hard about the secret of flight. 'I took out the amplimet, put an ordinary hedron in its place and hovered away until I was beyond the influence of the node.'

'What else did the crystal do?' said the old woman.

After fleeing your camp – where you shot at me without provocation! – I tried to take the thapter to Lybing, in Borgistry.'

'Why?' said Urien, ignoring the outburst.

'To do my duty and give it to the scrutators, but the amplimet wouldn't let me go that way. It took the thapter towards another powerful node, at Booreah Ngurle, but when we reached the mountain, and I turned for Nyriandiol, it wouldn't let me go there either. I was so furious that I resolved to smash the amplimet -'

'What happened then?' Vithis rushed out, and Tiaan was sure that he believed her.

'It cut off the field and the thapter fell into the forest. That's how my back was broken.' She didn't plan to mention that the lyrinx had repaired it.

'Do you have anything else to confess?' said Urien.

Tiaan did not like the implication, but explained about her time at Nyriandiol and Snizort, and how the amplimet had communicating with the nodes there as well.

The ancient lore mentions such a thing,' Urien said quietly io Vithis. 'It may be at the heart of the mystery of the last amplimet we used – and the catastrophe it caused:

After the death of a clan, followed by aeons of cover-ups,' said Vithis, 'how can anyone tell?"

'You say the amplimet talks to you,' said Urien suddenly. 'What does it sound like?'

'What?' said Tiaan, who hadn't thought of that.

'You said it whispered to you!' Urien snapped.

'It sounds.., a bit like you, but much older. It's a rustly, scratchy sound: Tiaan made a hissing crackle. 'A bit like that. I can't do it very well.'

'What does the crystal tell you, Tiaan?'

Tiaan was ready for that question, for she'd spent the last two hours thinking of the answer. 'The node-master is coming. I must protect the amplimet for the node-master.'

'What node-master?' said Vithis, with a trace of eagerness.

'It didn't say. But…'

'Yes?' Urien and Vithis spoke together.

'I don't think he, or it, comes from this world.'

Vithis visibly steeled himself, then withdrew the platinum-wrapped amplimet from a metal case and exposed it to view. 'Let's see if it wants to talk to you now, Tiaan:

Tut it away,' cried Urien, shuddering. 'How dare you bring it here after what it's just done.'

'Do you think I want to?' he snapped. 'I've always counselled against it. But Urien, our supplies are nearly exhausted and without constructs we're helpless. Should the enemy return in force, they could finish us in a single day. The amplimet terrifies me, but it's our only way out. Take it, Tiaan.'

Tiaan could sense Ghaenis's death in it. 'I'm afraid: She reached for the crystal, but stopped short of it. 'Everything seems so clear when it's talking to me, so perfect, but afterwards it fades like a dream.' Giving a little shiver of yearning. Tiaan put her memories of withdrawal into it, to make the action seem more real. 'All I want is to listen to it again.' She unfocussed her eyes, staring raptly at the wall of the tent.

Tirior slapped the tent flap out of the way and hurled herself in. Ghaenis's death had leached her chill beauty away, leaving her puffy faced, red eyed and aged by twenty years. Seeing the amplimet on Vithis's outstretched hand, a cold rage seized her. 'Have you learned nothing from my son's death?' she said furiously.

'Can you find us a way out of here?' said Vithis, taking a step away from her fury. He folded the platinum over the crystal but did not put it away.

Tirior's eyes followed it. 'There's no way out for Ghaenis!'

He could not meet her eyes. 'I'm sorry. He begged me for it, Tirior. I warned him of the peril – you know how I feel about it – but he would not relent. He said you'd taught him how to handle it.' His eyes burned like fire.

'How could I have?' she said, but now it was she who avoided his eye.

'I don't know, but either he lied or you're lying now.'

'You always return to the same tune, Vithis.'

'And Clan Nataz to the same obsession that brought us ruin in the past.'

What ruin? Tiaan thought. What history does this crystal have, or another just like it, that I know nothing about?

'At least my son didn't lack the courage!' Tirior flashed. 'If you were afraid to take the risk yourself, why not pass the amplimet to your foster-son?'

'He's all that's left of Clan Inthis,' he said, as if that explained everything.

'There's nothing left of Inthis but a callow, lovesick fool and an old man who's no man at all.'

'How dare you!' cried Vithis.

She spoke calmly, carefully, coldly. 'You're not sterile, Vithis, as you try to make out – you're impotent! You don't have the manhood, which explains your cowardice.'

'If I did not know that grief has turned your wits,' he replied. 'I would call you out for that. Clan Nataz has always lusted for the deadly crystal, as for the first in ancient times. And Inthis has always warned against it.'

'Enough, said Unen She did not raise her voice, but made a curious unfolding gesture with one hand, from Vithis towards Tirior.

Vithis, with a mighty effort, calmed himself and bowed his head towards Tirior. 'I am very sorry for your loss, Tirior. Ghaenis was a fine young man. He convinced me that he was strong enough, and reluctantly I allowed him to try. But tell me, Tirior, did you want the crystal for yourself, or for him'to use?'

'I would never have risked my son.' Tirior's eyes flicked to the amplimet and Tiaan saw that, even after the death of Ghaenis, she still desired it.

'Let's get on,' said Urien.

Vithis reached for Tiaan with his free hand but was cautioned by the old woman. 'Best not to touch her while she's under the spell of the crystal. Tiaan, tell us about the node-master.'

'What are you talking about?' said Tirior.

Urien explained.

Tiaan tried to recall those images of Aachan she had seen in her first crystal dreams about Minis. 'Born on fire…' she put on a slurred, dream-like tone. 'Black star-flowers.., red rock creeping, creeping. A shadow in robes, against the flames. Dark hair and long, long fingers.'

Vithis and Tirior stared at one another. 'First Clan!' Vithis hissed. 'I was birthed by the very cracks of Mount Szath. Born on fire!

'Or borne on fire,' said Tirior, 'which might be any of us. And the black unishhta flowers are the symbol of my clan.'

'Clan Nataz was at the heart of all the trouble with our amplimet, in ancient times,' said Vithis.

'Clan Shazmaor caused the trouble!' Tirior said coldly. 'Nataz saved Aachan at great cost to ourselves.'

'So your tales tell,' sniffed Vithis. 'Our Histories have always disputed it.'

She ignored that. 'Besides, if you were to be this node-master she speaks about, why has not Minis foretold it?'

•Who can say what his foretellings mean?' Vithis replied.

'You're too hard on the lad,' said Urien. 'Without him we wouldn't be here.'

'I don't count that in his favour' Vithis said curtly.

'I do! And as for this business of the node-master, it could be that the little wretch has made it all up.'

How little regard Urien had for Tiaan's humanity, to speak that way in her own language. Unless they wanted her to know how they felt…

'It feels so right,' said Vithis. 'Can she be lying, Urien?'

Urien turned away. 'I sense no falsehood. Come over here.' She drew them over towards the wall of the tent.

Tiaan, still staring into space, strained her ears to hear what they were talking about.

'This amplimet is even more deadly than we feared, Vithis,' said Urien in a low voice.

'It was I, remember, who cautioned Tirior about it in Tirthrax.'

'Had I taken it then,' Tirior said bitterly, 'we would not be in this situation now. I would never have allowed the crystal to come to the first stage of awakening.'

'It had already reached it,1 said Urien. 'Had you taken it, your whole clan might now be dead. Destroy it, Vithis.'

'I can control it,' said Tirior. 'If I'd taken it, Ghaenis would still be alive.'

'Don't throw your dead in my face – I mourn my entire clan!' Vithis directed a smouldering glare at Tiaan. 'And I will do whatever is necessary to rebuild it.'

'First Clan is finished, Vithis,' said Tirior. 'You cannot rebuild it from two people. Two males!'

'A few First Clan women have partnered into other clans. They must come home. Duty to clan surmounts all other responsibilities.'

'You would break families, tear partners apart, to stay what is inevitable?' Tirior ground her teeth with rage. 'You'll create only clan war and believe me. Clan Nataz is ready -'

'Even that,' Tirior.

'Enough: snapped Urien and they both fell silent. There's a higher duty than clan, and that is kind. We are all the Aachim left. I don't count the bastard breed of Santhenar, so corrupted by contact with humanity that they are scarcely Aachim at all. Our numbers dwindle each day this war goes on and, if we are to survive, we must put species first. Is that clear?' She fixed them with a glare that brooked no argument.

Tirior bowed her curly black head. Vithis nodded curtly.

'This amplimet is a great prize,' Urien said, 'but I cannot countenance using it. Remember the fate of poor Luthis?'

'The bitter tale is carved into my heart,' said Tirior, 'though the event was aeons ago.'

'We have no choice but to abandon our constructs,' said Urien. 'The risk of remaining here, defenceless, is too great. Tomorrow we'll march south to meet our brethren at the camp near Gospett.'

'Without our constructs, we'll starve,' Vithis announced after a weighty pause. 'This land has been stripped so bare it would not feed a grasshopper.'

'We can't recover them,' said Urien. 'Besides, we have five thousand more at Gospett, and elsewhere.'

'I can save these ones by using the amplimet,' Vithis insisted.

'No! In ancient times many Aachim died, corrupted inside by such crystals. Many more wished they could die. Luthis, as I recall the tale, lived another eighty years after the.., incident with the amplimet, and suffered every minute.'

'Hear me out, Urien; we have to take the risk. But we don't have to risk ourselves,' he went on in a lower voice, just on the edge of Tiaan's hearing. 'Why not use her?' He tilted his head in Tiaan's direction. 'She's used it safely for months. And, watched carefully enough, we may learn more about this node-master she has spoken of, if there is one.'

'You think she's lying?'

'I think she's mad. She hears voices, Urien.'

'Only since she first came into contact with the crystal.' Even so. What do you say to my proposal?' 'I'll think about it overnight, Vithis, but I warn you: I'm against using this amplimet in any circumstances. And you know why.'

'I do. Until the morning then.' He came across to Tiaan. 'I may well have a use for you tomorrow. But for tonight, you will return to your guard dogs. Wait here.' He went out, calling for his attendant.

Sixteen

The black air-floaters rose swiftly from the mound next to the command area and sped towards them. Irisis watched them come, overpowered by those recurring feelings of doom.

Fyn-Mah was supporting herself on the door jamb, swaying with every bump and lurch. The perquisitor was uncompromisingly honest, yet if she obeyed the scrutators she must repudiate Flydd, her superior, whose orders she was following. But Flydd had failed and been condemned, so where did her duty lie? Neither the agony nor her injuries showed on her pallid face. Fyn-Mah was a native of Tiksi, and Tiksi folk kept their feelings to themselves, but by the set of her jaw and the quiver of her normally rod-like back, she was having a hard time of it.

So was Irisis. Flydd was now a condemned man, Slave Flydd, and all his plans were undone. Undoubtedly he was a wily old hound, but the scrutators were equally cunning. There was no possibility of rescuing him. Her face and figure were instantly recognisable, and she too faced a death sentence if Ghorr ever caught her.

Fyn-Mah thrust away from the door and stalked rearward. She'd made her decision. 'Faster!' she said hoarsely, seizing the crossbow from Flangers and brandishing it in Pilot Inouye's face.

'It won't go any faster,' the little woman wept. 'I'm doing all I can.'

'Then we'll be taken.' Fyn-Mah twanged the rope rail, gnawing at her lower lip. 'Flangers, how good are you with a javelard?'

Among the best,' he said uneasily, seeing what was coming He was slumped on the deck, hanging on desperately to the ropes, and the bandage around his thigh was completely red. Flangers should have collapsed long ago, but duty drove him on.

'There's a light one at the bow. See what you can do with it.'

'You're asking me to fire on my own?' he whispered.

'If they catch us, the scrutators will put us to a pointless death.'

'That's no excuse.' He was as honest in his way as she was in hers. 'I've always followed orders.'

'Then obey mine. If the war is left to the scrutators,' gritted Fyn-Mah, 'humanity will be defeated before the year is out.'

'They're my lawful superiors,' said Flangers. 'The war will be lost a lot quicker if we defy our officers as we see fit.'

She drew herself up, saying stiffly, 'As I understand it, I am your superior officer here. I represent Scrutator Flydd, who has ordered me to save myself, and what I carry, no matter who should try to stop me! Taking a paper from her pocket, she handed it to him. 'Does this satisfy you?'

Flangers bowed his head. 'It satisfies the soldier but not the man.'

She seemed to take pity on him. 'No need to kill them,' Fyn-Mah said softly. 'Disabling the air-floaters will do as well. Aim for their rotors.'

Irisis helped Flangers to the bow and together they lifted the javelard out of its bracket. It was lightly built, like a large crossbow. They carried it to a bracket on the port side, halfway down. Flangers picked a wasps' nest out of the bracket and locked the javelard in. Irisis brought down an armload of stubby spears. He wound back the cranks and fitted a spear. His face was as grey as boiled mutton and he could not stand without clinging to the javelard.

'Can you hit the rotor from here?' said Irisis. 'It's an awfully long way.'

He wound the crank another notch, and another, sighting at the leading air-floater, whose large rotor was partly visible behind its cabin. 'I'd say we're just out of range, though it's hard to estimate in the air.'

The leading air-floater was furiously signalling them to go down. Flangers's eyes pleaded with Fyn-Mah They're giving us a direct order. Perquisitor.'

She set her lips. 'Fire.'

Flangers wound the elevation crank, sighted on the first of the pursuing air-floaters, wound again. His hands were shaking. He wiped sweat from his brow and pulled the lever. Click-thunngg.

After a good few seconds the spear fell past the front of the leading air-floater.

Flangers seemed pleased, and Irisis could not blame him. 'Out of range,' he said. 'Only luck could hit the rotor from here.'

'Try again,' urged Fyn-Mah. 'Their shooters are getting ready, and they'll be experts. Inouye, slow up momentarily. As soon as Flangers fires, go full speed.'

The air-floater slowed, allowing their pursuers to gain fractionally. Irisis held Flangers up. He gave the elevation crank another quarter-turn and fired.

'Where did that go?' said Irisis to herself.

'I think that's Scrutator Klarm in command; muttered Fyn-Mah, staring at the first machine through a spyglass. 'He's an honourable man, as scrutators go -' She bit off the heretical thought.

The spear, falling at a steep angle, plunged through the top of the balloon into the roof of the cabin. The impact must have created a spark for the floater gas exploded, sending fire in all directions. The air-floater turned upside down, spilling bodies into the air, and fell, trailing flame. The balloon of the machine beside it collapsed from the Shockwave. The third machine veered away sharply, fired its javelard then raced back towards the command area.

Flangers cried out in horror. Irisis clung to the rail, her stomach churning. The fire had gone out and what was left of the first air-floater was spinning round and round, the rags of the airbag streaming out behind to break its fall. The second machine fell past, slamming into the ground hard enough to break bones. The first also struck and was dragged by the wind into a patch of trees.

Fyn-Mah's face had gone the colour of mud. Her lips were white, and she had trouble speaking. 'I've just killed a scrutator and broken my sacred oath.'

And condemned everyone on this air-floater. Irisis turned away. 'What do your orders say now, Perquisitor?'

Fyn-Mah turned to her. 'We run south with all possible speed and don't stop until we reach the uttermost pole. Or even then.' She covered her face and staggered into the cabin. Irisis heard retching.

Flangers lay sprawled on the canvas deck, arms up over his face. Stepping around him, Irisis went to the stern, where Inouye clung to the steering arm like a drowning sailor to an oar.

'Where are we going?' Irisis said, trying to be calm in the face of disaster.

Inouye was plucking at the hedron of her controller. 'The scrutators will expunge my family from the earth for this, even my little baby. I've brought doom on everyone I love.' Her voice broke and she hurled herself at the rail.

Irisis caught Inouye as she went over, dragged her back and carried the small woman to the cabin. Inouye began to wail and thrash about. Laying her in a hammock beside the silent Fyn-Mah, Irisis went out and bolted the door from the outside.

The air-floater was curving around in a circle. She wrenched it back on course, lashing the steering arm so the machine would continue due south. By the time she'd finished, the rotor had stopped. The air-floater would no more move without its pilot than a clanker could go with a dead operator.

Irisis could not use Inouye's controller, which was tailored just to her, without completely rebuilding it. She replaced it with her artisan's pliance, made from carnelian, layers of glass and silver filigree. Her pliance enabled her to see the field and tune a controller to it, and also to draw power. Nowhere near as much as a controller, of course, but air-floaters did not require much. Setting the pliance to channel power into the mechanism that drome the rotor, she left it to run by itself.

The four dark-faced soldiers stood together at the bow rail. They moved well out of her way as she approached, giving each other significant glances. Their muttered talk had broken off as she approached. They were afraid of her mysterious talent, and bitter that they'd been forced to become renegades.

None were from these parts, nor did Flangers know the country. That left only one person and Irisis had been avoiding him. She did not know how to deal with Eiryn Muss, a man who had reinvented himself so completely that there was no trace of his former self. He made her uncomfortable because she had no idea who he was or what he was thinking. He seemed impervious to everything in life, except the cloak he put on himself to become a different man each time he went out spying.

She found him around the other side, sitting on the canvas deck in the shade, studying a journal roll smaller than his little finger.

'Excuse me,' she said.

He looked up. 'You're wondering what to do and where to go.'

Irisis could not look at him without superimposing the fat, bald, leering halfwit from the manufactory, yet nothing about him, not even his voice, was the same. He did not fit. She preferred him as the halfwit.

'I'm lost,' she said. I have no idea what to do.' She wanted to throw up her intestines.

'Find a safe hiding place, then I'll try to contact the scrutator.'

'How?'

'That's what I do best,' he said simply, and his confidence calmed the roiling of her insides. 'Keep going south until we're out of sight of the battlefield. No, continue until after dark, then I'll give further instructions, if Fyn-Mah isn't capable.'

'She was told to leave Flydd a message,' Irisis recalled. Swinging around in a great circle, she drove the air-floater towards the hills north of the exploded node. 'In case he escapes.' Unlikely as that seemed.

That night they hid in a cluster of ovoid hills, like a nest full of eggs standing on end, in the forest south of Gospett. It was the best hiding place Muss could find close by. Without further word, he went into the cabin to change his clothes and appearance. Emerging scant minutes later as a bent old man, he walked into the trees.

Three days passed and nothing was heard from him. They spent the time on full alert. Though the air-floater was hidden at the bottom of a steep-sided valley between three of the egg-shaped hills, and concealed from all but a lyrinx or air-floater going directly overhead, they could never relax.

The air-floater was so cramped that privacy was impossible, but no one dared go far from it, in case of an emergency. The soldiers kept to the port side, muttering among themselves and giving everyone black looks. Fyn-Mah hardly spoke from one day to the next. She'd risked everything on her loyalty to Xervish Flydd. If he failed her, or if he was dead, she'd have betrayed her oath and her cause for nothing.

The little pilot had gone into a decline. Long periods of silence were followed by frenzied weeping and wailing for her family. Her only solace was her bond with the controller. She slept with it in her arms, rocking and humming to it as if it were a little baby. Without it, Inouye would have turned her face to the wall and withered away. Fyn-Mah, normally considerate of her inferiors, was incapable of comforting her.

Flangers also kept to himself, insofar as that was possible, fending Irisis off whenever she approached. However, on the third afternoon, as she was taking refuge from the heat by wading barefoot up a tiny rivulet, she came upon him sitting next to the water, head in hands. He must have heard her splashing but did not look up. There was a fresh bandage on his thigh and she was pleased to see that no blood showed through it. Flangers's sword and scabbard lay on a mossy ledge behind him, though she though nothing of that. A good soldier always kept tns weapons nearby.

She put a hand on his shoulder This bloody, bloody war.'

Flangers did not look up. I'm just a simple soldier, used to obeying orders. But when the orders contradict each other, what's a man to do?'

'Follow your conscience.'

'It's pulled in two directions, Irisis. The scrutator is a good man and I'd have followed him anywhere. But Flydd has fallen, so how can his orders be legitimate? Or Fyn-Mah's, since her superiors have contradicted them? I have followed her orders, but at the expense of my oath, my duty, my honour. I'm forsworn, Irisis, a traitor in my own eyes. I killed the people in Scrutator Klarm's air-floater, betrayed those I'd sworn to protect. How can I live with that?'

'We must keep faith with our master/ said Irisis, 'and trust to Flydd's purpose, no matter how hard the road.'

'You don't understand,' he said quietly. 'You haven't been forced to choose. A soldier's oath is paramount. For six years I've laid down my life to defend those weaker than me. I did my duty and was decorated for it. I was a hero. Now I'm a vicious traitor who turned on his own and shot them down without warning.'

'You followed orders,' said Irisis uncomfortably.

'Can that excuse any act?'

'I don't know.' Irisis had never thought about it.

'I didn't have the courage to refuse Fyn-Mah, but I should have.'

Irisis could not find any words to say to him.

'All I ever wanted was to do my duty,' he went on. And afterwards, hard work, a good woman, children and friends to share my life. That's all lost. There's only one way out, and it's the coward's way, but at least it'll put an end to it. If you would leave me now, Irisis.'

He rose, reaching for his sword. Irisis was slow to realise what he intended until he had the scabbard in his hand and the sword half out.

'No!' she cried, barring his way.

Flangers was a gentle man, for all his trade. He did not thrust her out of the way, but said, 'Please go, Irisis. It's not a sight for -'

'Will you hear me first?'

'There's no point.' Slipping by her, he drew the sword with a silent, practised movement. In another movement he reversed it and put the tip to his belly.

Irisis hadn't expected him to be that quick. Surely there'd be some last words or, at least, a moment of reflection. Without thinking, she caught hold of the blade with both hands. The keen edges sliced into her palms and fingers.

He grew distressed at the sight of her blood. For a man of war, that struck her as strange. 'Let go, Irisis,' he said softly. 'This blade could take your fingers off in a second.'

'Then I'll have to live without them, for I won't let go. Put down your sword, Flangers. Hear me out.'

He measured her resolve, then, with a little shake of the head, his rigid body relaxed and he pulled the tip away from his belly. She went with him, not releasing the blade until he'd laid it on the ledge. She'd been down that road too.

Taking her wrists in his, he turned her hands palm upward. Blood was flowing freely from deep cuts across both palms and six fingers.

'Look what you've done to your beautiful hands! Why, Irisis?'

Truly an unusual soldier. 'Because we, and Xervish Flydd, can't do without you, Flangers.' She raised her head, never more beautiful, and looked him in the eye. 'And because you and I fought back to back in the tar pits of Snizort, and I care for you as a comrade-in-arms.'

"Then you'll understand that I must salve my honour in the only way left to me.'

'You won't relent?'

'I can't, Irisis. But first let me see to your hands. You must be in pain.'

She said naught to that but allowed him to lead her back to the air-floater, where he cleaned the cuts, smeared them with ointment and wrapped them in bandages of yellow cloth. When that was done, all with great gentleness and consideration, he put her hands in her lap. 'Now will you allow me to make my end?'

'Once you've paid your debt,' she said.

He frowned. 'What debt is that?'

'I risked my life, going down into the tar chasm to save yours. According to the customs of my people, and I think yours as well, you owe me a life. That is also a matter of honour.'

'And I pulled you out afterwards.' He was sweating.

'I might have climbed out anyway,' she lied, 'so you didn't save my life.'

'You're asking for my life in return?' said Flangers.

'It's the only coin you have.'

He thought the matter through, and finally bowed his head. 'It is, as you say, a matter of honour. My life is in your keeping, and no longer mine to take, until you should release me.'

She let out her breath. 'Thank you, Flangers. You won't regret it.'

'I'll regret it every minute my own honour goes unrequited; he said, 'but I've given my word and won't go back on it.' He rose, turning towards the stern. 'But of course, should I ever save your life, the debt is paid, and mine will be in my keeping again. Honour must be satisfied.'

Irisis let him go, her troubles only postponed.

'Irisis, wake up.' Flangers was shaking her by the shoulder. 'There's something going on.'

'What?' she mumbled, still half in her dream, for it was the middle of the night.

'Shhh.' He hauled her out of her blankets. 'The soldiers are set to mutiny. Take this.' Pressing a knife into her hand, he stood by the door of the cabin.

No time to look for her boots. She roused Fyn-Mah and Inouye. Inouye took a deep, quivering breath. Irisis slapped her bandaged hand over the pilot's mouth.

'Don't scream!' she hissed, 'Or we'll be slaughtered where we stand. Inouye, is there any way to get out of here without them knowing?'

Inouye gulped, her breaths coming hard on each other. 'Only by cutting through the ceiling canvas.'

Irisis climbed onto a shelf and pushed her knife through the fabric, which gave with a ripping sound, too loud for comfort.

'What are they doing, Flangers?' she whispered.

'Getting up the courage to attack. They're well trained. We can't hope to beat four of them.'

'I doubt if they'll attack women,' said Fyn-Mah. 'The prohibition against harming females of child-bearing age is a strong one. Besides, as perquisitor I have a certain legitimacy, even after what happened the other day. Whatever they do, they'll be blamed for it.'

'Desperate men with nowhere to turn might well slay us all,' said Irisis, 'and worry about legitimacy afterwards. Can you make a diversion while I cut through the roof?'

Fyn-Mah did something which, in the gloom, Irisis did not see. Suddenly a man's voice boomed through the wall. 'Kick the door in, Rulf. I'll take the traitor first -'

'Why are you shouting?' shrilled another, so loudly that it hurt her ears.

'I'm not -' He broke off.

'Sorcery!' whispered a third, as loud as steam hissing from a boiler.

Irisis slashed through the roof and pulled herself up. Flangers followed swiftly. The soldiers were milling about the door. A stocky man drew his sword with a squeal like a knife skating across metal. He hesitated for an instant, found courage and kicked the door off its flimsy hinges. The sound was like thunder in the still night.

The soldier sprang through, but came flying out again, juggling his sword, which was glowing red. He dropped it on the canvas deck. Smoke belched up and someone kicked it over the side.

The next man to move gets a bolt in the eye;' said Flangers, showing his crossbow. Put down your weapons.'

The soldiers looked up. No one made any move for a long moment. Irisis held her breath. If he shot one, the others would be on him before he could reload.; Four against one could only end one way.

'Who's going to be the first?' said Flangers, pointing his weapon at each in turn. 'You, big man?'

The dark-faced fellow still clutched his sword. 'I'm prepared to die for my duty,' he sneered, 'and I'm not afraid of a stinking traitor like you.'

Irisis could sense Flangers's pain, but he said nothing.

'But are you afraid of a perquisitor?' said Fyn-Mah from the doorway.

White smoke was coiling up from the bush where the red-hot sword had landed. As the leading soldier looked over the side, his weapon drooped.

'Run,' said Fyn-Mah softly. 'Tell the scrutators I forced you with the Art. It's close to the truth.'

He nodded, not looking at her, and slipped over the side. The others followed, disappearing into the forest.

'Inouye,' said the perquisitor, 'go to your station and be ready to take the air-floater up. Irisis, you and Flangers unfasten the tethers.'

'Where are we going?' said Irisis.

'To the next place on Flydd's list. I daren't stay here, in case they get their courage back.'

They spent more than a week travelling from hideout to hideout, sometimes staying only long enough to check if Eiryn Muss had left a message, though they did not see him in that time. On the ninth day after the mutiny, as they drifted over the latest rendezvous – a dead tree with a fire-scarred, hollow trunk, broken off about ten spans above the ground – a head appeared at the top. An arm waved.

Inouye hovered, Flangers let down the rope ladder and Muss scampered up. 'Go west,' he said.

'Did you find the scrutator?' cried Irisis.

'I learned where he is,' Muss said grimly. 'He was sent to slave in one of the clanker-hauling teams. Cryl-Nish Hlar was with him, condemned by his own father.'

'Nish?' Irisis found her voice had gone squeaky. 'He's alive?'

'For the moment.'

'You said was', said Fyn-Mah. 'What's happened?'

'Flydd escaped six days ago and fled north, beyond the Snizort node, with Nish and Ullii.'

'We can assume he's received my message then,' said Irisis. 'We'd better get after him.'

'Unfortunately,' said Muss, 'they're pursued by all the might of the scrutators, including no less than three air-floaters. We can't risk it.'

'So what do we do?'

'Go to the rendezvous. Sit tight and wait.'

'Wonderful!' said Irisis, who hated enforced inaction in any form.

And there was another problem. The phynadr, which they had risked so much for, and lost more to recover, was withering daily. They kept it cool and damp in a wetted sack, but it wasn't enough. Within days, Irisis felt sure, it would be dead, and all their sacrifice would have been for nothing.

But at least Nish was alive. She'd thought she was over him long ago, but lately Irisis had been thinking about him all the time. She would have given anything to be with him now.

S EVENT E E N

Gilhaelith fell swiftly, feet first, so by the time Gyrull could react, he was a hundred spans below her, hurtling towards the Sea of Thurkad. At this speed it would be as hard as rock.

She folded her great wings into the shape of an arrow and dived after him, though at first she did not seem to be gaining. He looked up at her, then down at the sea. He could see whitecaps and the fluid streamlines of windblown spume.

She matched his speed, now more than matched it. Gyrull was gaining, but so was the sea. He knew what she was trying to do, but how could she do it in time?

She mouthed something at him, though the sound was whipped away by the wind. What did she want him to do? Slow down! Gilhaelith spread his legs and drew out his coat on either side. It flapped wildly, the wind trying to tear it out of his grasp, but braked his fall a little. Would it be enough?

As the water came hurtling up, Gyrull flung herself at him, the claws of her outstretched feet striking him hard in the sides. They went straight through his coat and shirt, his skin and flesh, and in between his ribs. Gilhaelith screamed in agony. It felt as if the claws had gone right into his lungs.

She roared out words of power as the huge wings cracked to slow her plummeting fall. Something tore in his side; it felt as if the strain was stripping the ribs from his living flesh. Crack-crack, another tear. The pain was excruciating. The angled wings broke the free fall into a dive, then into a steep glide. His fragile brain throbbed from the power she'd used to keep them aloft.

He guessed trajectories. They must still hit the sea, and neither would survive it. Lyrinx were helpless in water, for heir bodies were too heavy to float Swimming was harder for them than flying, and panic soon pulled them under. Gilhaelith was a competent swimmer but could not survive these chilly waters to reach the shore, more than a league away.

Again his brain sang as she drew more power. The glide shallowed, the roaring waters rushed closer. She pounded her wings, digging into the salty air. Now they were just ten spans above the sea, now five, now three, two, one. His feet skimmed the water, the wings cracked harder and Gyrull lifted a fraction.

But the matriarch was very tired now. He could feel it in her movements, which were more sluggish than before, the slower beat of the wings, the droop of her neck. One claw slipped from between his ribs, leaving him dangling in the path of the swell. Driven by the wind, it was a good two spans high.

She tried to climb above it but only succeeded in dragging Gilhaelith through the crest. It broke over his head, drenching him. She let out a cry; her colours flashed and faded. He was sure she could not hold him. But Gyrull was not matriarch of a great and powerful race for nothing. Drawing on her last reserves of strength, she dug her claws further into his flesh, lifted him free of the water and slowly began to beat her way up.

The lyrinx surrounded her in a fluttering, spherical shell, offering their strength and shepherding her the last league to the shore of Meldorin. She hovered above a platform of yellow rock, a stone's throw from the water. Gyrull retracted her claws and Gilhaelith fell heavily, ruddy salt water streaming off him. Misty rain drifted down from the hills. It was as cool as Taltid had been sweltering.

Flashing dark browns and reds, colours he could not interpret, Gyrull settled beside him. He expected her to abuse him for his stupidity, but she bowed her head, displaying camouflage colours.

'I beg your indulgence. Tetrarch Gilhaelith,' she said hoarsely, inclining her head towards him. You startled me, but that is no excuse. The conveying code is a sacred one and I should not have dropped you under any circumstances What was it you wished to say to me?'

Gilhaelith lay on the wet rock, so frightened and dazed that he failed to capitalise on the advantage. A matter of the greatest moment, and great urgency too. It concerns the Snizort node that exploded and died to nothing.'

She tipped her head to one side, studying him with eyes like liquid gold. Her breast was heaving. 'Go on, pray.'

He pressed his fingers against the throbbing punctures between his ribs, praying her claws were clean. 'My knowledge of geomancy, and my studies of many nodes, tell me that a node cannot simply explode and disappear.' He explained how he came to know that. 'There must be some residue left behind to balance what has been lost. That residue, in the wrong hands, could be perilous indeed.'

'Present your reasoning, if you please, Tetrarch.'

Before he was finished, he saw, from the look in her eyes and the patterning of her skin, that she had reached the same conclusion. He had forgotten what a frightening intellect she had. Indeed, because the lyrinx ate human flesh and mostly fought with their bare hands, it was easy to underestimate them, to think of them as savages. That could be a fatal mistake.

'This residue,' said Gyrull, 'could be a mighty power, in the hands of someone who knows how to use it.'

'That is my belief,' said Gilhaelith.

'And you want it for yourself, of course.'

'I don't,' he said untruthfully, 'for I've never sought power over others. Knowledge and understanding are my passions. I would, however, like the opportunity to learn from this residue.'

'Then why tell me?'

'As a token of good faith, to set against my debt.'

Again that sideways, birdlike glance. 'You hope I'll gain for you what you can't get by yourself. And when the debt is repaid, what do you ask of me, Tetrarch?'

'My freedom. And carriage to a place where I may continue my work.'

'We'll see about that after my searchers return.'

Calling her lieutenants together, Gyrull spoke rapidly in a low voice. For once she displayed no skin-speech at all, and the others little more than blushes of yellow or grey. After a few minutes, three of the strongest lifted off from the platform and headed back across the sea, in the direction of Snizort.

'They go to establish the truth of what you've told us,' she said. 'We'll rest for an hour, then take you to Oellyll.'

'What's Oellyll?' said Gilhaelith.

'A city of ours, the best part of a day's flight from here.'

He felt the familiar panicky tightness in his chest, the difficulty of getting enough air. Once she had him there, it was unlikely she would ever let him go. And, held like a pet in a cage, subject to Gyrull's whims, he must eventually go mad.

After flying through dense cloud that night and all the next day, they arrived at Oellyll on a dark and rainy evening. Gilhaelith had no idea where in Meldorin they were. He was carried blind-folded through caverns lined with cut slabs of carven stone, into a deeper underground that the lyrinx had excavated out of rock. It was warm here, which was pleasant, for he was still saturated with an inner chill.

He learned nothing about Oellyll that night, save that it was ventilated by great bellows up on the surface. Several times he passed through their blasts of air, so strong that they almost tore him from the lyrinx's grasp. He was left in a warm room on a low platform which passed for a bed. It had an open doorway. They had no fear of him escaping for he could not stand up.

He lay on the platform, closed his eyes and did not wake for twenty-four hours, not even while their healers attended his injuries.

Two more days Gilhaelith spent in his room, lying on the platform without strength to raise his head. He had been badly hurt by immersion in the tat His liver troubled him, his head still throbbed, his heart would race for no particular reason and he felt incredibly weak. Walking the few hundred steps to the privy was beyond him. And the movement of those gallstone fragments along his internal ducts proved more excruciating than his most dismal imaginings.

Making matters worse, the food they gave him was a murky sludge the colour of rotting leaves. Reaching over the side of the platform, Gilhaelith dipped a finger in the bowl. The stuff turned out to be vegetable in origin, but quite bland. He pushed it away. The only vegetables he cared for were strongly flavoured ones, such as onions, turnips and radishes. He'd lived on a diet of slugs, pickled organs and other delicacies most of his adult life, and his palate craved exotic and the intense tastes. But if this pulverised goop was all he was going to get, he'd better eat it. He extended bony fingers, scooped up a gob of the green-brown muck, and swallowed. The repulsive blandness reminded him of his miserable childhood and the repressed memories exploded.

An orphan who had been dragged screaming out of his mother's lifeless body, he'd been carried to a far-off land by his loyal nurse, travelling by night and hiding by day. Gilhaelith had never learned why, or who he was, and had long since decided that he did not want to know. It could only cause him more trouble.

He'd never fitted in. Gilhaelith shivered as the distant memories ebbed and flowed. He'd been plagued by illness and stomach upsets as an infant. As a child, learning had been difficult, and if not for the patience of his nurse he'd still be illiterate. Once he'd mastered reading, though, and especially numbers, the whole world had opened up to him.

Then came the greatest tragedy of his life. His nurse fell ill and died, and Gilhaelith ended up in an orphans' home, fed on tasteless gruel and little enough of it. He thrust the bowl away so roughly that mush slopped all over the floor. In the home his stomach had begun to trouble him again and it wasn't until he began to feed on slugs, grubs, fish organs and other exotica that it had settled down.

Gilhaelith had been out of harmony with the world and had to fight it every step of the way, though the world showed him only brutality or indifference. Always an outsider, his feeding habits made him an object of derision and disgust. He was ostracised and bullied, and the only way he could cope was with absolute self-control. Forced to master his feelings and emotions, he had gradually extended that control to everyone around him, and then to everything.

Once grown to manhood, that iron control had helped him to accumulate great wealth, which allowed him to retreat to a place he could control completely. He'd built Nyriandiol so as to be master of his own environment, though he'd discovered that, without perfect understanding of the world, he could never have complete control. Gilhaelith, a man determined to overcome all obstacles, had set out to do just that. And first he had to discover why the world was the way it was. His life's work was born.

He'd become a geomancer and, after a century and more of study, the greatest geomancer of all, but his goal seemed as far off as ever. He still felt threatened – some unpredictable event might still overturn his carefully constructed existence. Then it had: Tiaan had appeared, and her amplimet had opened up all sorts of previously inconceivable possibilities.

But Tiaan had upset his control mechanisms. At first, because of his attraction to her, he'd found that exhilarating. Soon, however, his carefully structured life had fallen into chaos, which he'd found increasingly difficult to handle. Vithis had come, and Klarm. His servants had begun to plot behind his back. Then Gyrull had abducted him and Gilhaelith's hard-won control began to falter. He'd felt like an orphan again. In Snizort he'd allowed his relationship with Tiaan to founder. Gilhaelith regretted it, both for the loss of her friendship, and the loss of an apprentice worthy of him, but at the time there'd been little choice.

Since being trapped in the tar his life had careered out of control. His health grew worse each day, he felt ever more stressed and panicky and there were signs of breakdown that he could not admit to himself. He'd never thought he could be so vulnerable. The panic exploded, choking him.

In an effort to calm himself, he began to recite a list of minerals and their properties. He'd previously found rote exercise to be soothing in times of stress. He'd listed all the properties of quartz and fluorspar and was about to begin on calcite when his mind went completely and unaccountably blank.

Calcite, he thought. Rhombohedral crystals, sometimes prismatic or.., or… Nothing! He could not recall any of the dozens of properties on the list, not even the variety of its colours, only that calcite was mostly white.

He picked another mineral at random, barite. Nothing. Dolomite. Nothing. Sulphur. Nothing. Then, with a horror that could not be described, the entire catalogue of minerals faded from his mind. He'd known the list by heart for a hundred and thirty years, and in that time had never forgotten the smallest detail.

It's just exhaustion, he told himself. You're pushing too hard. Give yourself a chance to recover. He put the failure out of mind, or at least tried to, but the appalling thought kept returning. He hadn't been pushing at all – the recitation had been meant to be a comfort. And from there, only one conclusion was possible. During the escape from Snizort he must have damaged a part of his brain.

Gilhaelith did not try again; he was too afraid. In his long, long life there had been few problems he'd not been able to solve by intellect, geomancy or sheer will. He'd even found a solution to the vexation of human relations – he controlled everyone who came into his life. Those who could not be controlled he simply pushed away. Until Tiaan appeared, emotion had played no part in his existence, or so he liked to think. He was a man governed by pure reason, and if his intellect deserted him, what would he have left?

After a few more days' rest he was mobile again. Gilhaelith was tracing out the familiar journey to the privy for the third time in a few hours, hobbling like an old man, when a lyrinx fell in beside him.

'Would you come this way, please?' she said politely. 'The matriarch wishes to speak with you.'

Her tone gave no indication as to whether Gyrull was pleased or otherwise. He shuffled after her, unable to raise much interest either way. His illness preoccupied him all his waking hours. He had begun to wonder if he would ever recover.

Gyrull was standing at a stone table, an oval slab that rose from the floor on a tapered stalk carved out of the native shale. She was studying a collection of papers but put them aside as he entered.

'My people have come back from Snizort,' she said. 'You were right. There was a residue left behind by the failure of the node.'

'Did they recover it?'

'Unfortunately someone found it first.'

'Who was it?' said Gilhaelith. 'One of the scrutators?'

'It would appear so.'

His idea about the residue at the node-drainer had been an inspired guess. Now that it had been confirmed, Gilhaelith was furiously thinking through the implications. Could the residue have had anything to do with Tiaan's amplimet, its communication with the node and those strange threads it had drawn throughout Snizort? Or had so much power been taken from the node that it had been unable to sustain itself and had collapsed into nothingness – nihilium? Much depended on the answer. And how might it impinge on his life's work, to understand the workings of the world, and control them?

'This residue may give humanity additional confidence,' Gyrull added. 'But then, knowing they have it will benefit us, in a way…'

'How so?' said Gilhaelith.

'Despite their near-defeat at Snizort, the human army is pursuing our Land forces towards the sea. We'll prepare a trap and wipe then out. What do you think of that, Tetrarch?'

'I would be sorry to meat an army' he said, 'whether human or lyrinx.'

'I regret the necessity, but we did not start this war, despite the propaganda of the scrutators. In the early days they rejected every peaceful overture we made. They regard us as abominations, even denying our right to exist. Now that we have the upper hand, and may soon win the war, I won't let the fate of their soldiers stand in the way.'

Gilhaelith was still thinking about the residue. 'SoJ was right about the node.'

'And I keep my bargains. I'll take you wherever you wish, within reason. I can't carry you far into Lauralin, nor to any place that would endanger my own life. Where do you wish to go?'

'I'm not sure,' he said. 'Because of…'

'Your betrayal of the scrutators,' she said helpfully. 'And the Aachim.'

He felt a momentary embarrassment. 'Quite. There are few places in Lauralin where I can live in safety now, unless I dwell in a cave as a hermit. I can't do that – my work is everything to me.' It had been and still was, though the earlier failure had shaken his confidence…

Gilhaelith realised that the matriarch was staring at him. 'I must have my geomantic instruments and be near a node,' he went on, 'preferably a powerful one. I'd prepared a refuge in the far south, but my health isn't good enough to go that far, without servants and loyal guards. Because of my, er, situation, suitable ones may be impossible to find. But…'

'Yes?' she said.

'Were you to give me a safe conduct, and a small number of your human prisoners to provide for my necessities, there's a place in Meldorin which would serve equally well. It's filled with ancient resonances and I could continue my work there.'

'You want me to provide you with servants?' she exclaimed.

'Now you're asking for more than the bargain. Should I agree, what can you offer in return?'

'My aid with problems you may encounter, of a geomantic nature,' said Gilhaelith.

'What makes you think I'm likely to encounter any?'

'I believe you will, as the war progresses. I imagine you may want to further develop your node-drainers, for example.'

'How can I trust a man who has betrayed his own kind in favour of an alien race?' Gyrull said reasonably.

'I'm descended from several human species, not just old humankind, so I don't consider I've betrayed anyone. Besides, you lyrinx are not as alien as you appear. And has not my word always been good?'

'Not always,' she said, 'since you make such a point of it. But it's enough, for the moment. You can't cause too much trouble in Meldorin, I think. Tell me – what is this place you want to go to, filled with ancient resonances?'

'It was called Alcifer, long ago.'

'Alcifer!' Slivers of yellow shone out on her flanks. 'Is that the limit of your needs, or do you demand yet more?'

Her reaction bothered him. 'It can't be more than a few days' flight from here. It was the great city built by Rulke the Charon -'

'Oh, I know all about Alcifer.' Gyrull began to laugh. Lyrinx rarely displayed amusement, but this became a great, sidesplitting guffaw that showed all her hundreds of teeth and made her sides heave like the bellows upstairs. 'Alcifer!'

'Is there some problem?' he said, anxious now. 'You did agree to do this for me…'

'I'm pleased to be able to repay you so easily,' she chuckled 'You could walk there from here. Oellyll is delved into the rock directly beneath Alcifer.'

Eighteen

Ullii was sitting on a rock a pebble's throw away, Staring at Nish, as she had done all morning. She expected something of him and he had disappointed her. What could she want? He liked Ullii and cared about her, but did she really expect him to pick up from where they'd left off, months ago, as though nothing had happened since? It seemed she did – her nature was single-minded, obsessional. Nish could not reciprocate, for his life had been turned inside out and he could not make sense of it. He wished Irisis were here – she understood such things instinctively.

'Let's get moving,' said Flydd.

Nish brushed away the few tracks they had left on the stony ground. Flydd rubbed crushed mustard-bush leaves over their boots and they set off to the north, taking advantage of the cover afforded by vegetation along dry creek beds. It was midday and a sweltering northerly blew in their faces. Nish, who came from a cold and drizzly land, had never experienced such heat. Green, iridescent flies hung about their eyes, noses and mouths, not to mention their wounds and whip marks, and no amount of arm-waving could get rid of them.

'I've swallowed enough flies to make a hearty meal,' he grumbled as they took a hasty break in the early afternoon. 'Where do they come from?' They were sitting under an arch of grey rock, its roof toothed like the mouth of a shark.

'Good eating for maggots, over on the battlefield,' Flydd grunted.

'Can't say the same for us.' Nish was chewing on the stem of a piece of dry grass. It generated a little moisture, which only reminded him how hungry he was. And his boot was coming apart again. He looped another lace through it, knowing it would soon wear through like the others.

Pull your belt in another notch.'

'If I do it'll cut me in half.'

'At least it'll be an end to your infernal griping.'

Nish didn't react – Flydd's carping was almost affectionate these days.

'I'm thirsty,' said Ullii plaintively.

'We'll get water down in that gully, Ullii,' Flydd said. 'It won't be long now.' He treated her far more gently than he did Nish. But then, Ullii never did anything wrong.

The baked earth crunched underfoot as they went out into the sun again. It seemed to grow hotter, and the flies more numerous, with every step. For some reason that Nish could not fathom, they swarmed around Ullii. The little seeker plodded on, not complaining, but in misery.

'Stop for a moment, Ullii.' Flydd tore the bottom off her green smock, knotted the corners into a bag and dropped it over her head. Ullii didn't need to see where she was going.

Several times they saw air-floaters behind them but all were moving around the army camps, or following the lines of clankers being dragged to the north-west. Late in the afternoon, however, one appeared close to the node crater, now two leagues distant. The machine circled it several times, floated upwards, then turned directly towards them.

They were scrambling along the rim of an undulating plateau which afforded a good view but little cover, just scattered mounds of orange boulders, sparse, scrubby undergrowth and occasional small trees twisted into bizarre shapes by the wind. Some distance to their left, a deep ravine cut through a corner of the plateau.

'I don't like it,' said Flydd. The air-floater seemed to be following every twist and turn of their path, as if they had left a trail on the ground. 'How can it track us from that height?'

'What if we were to slip into the ravine?' said Nish.

'Too easy to bottle us up.'

They watched the air-floater in silence. Ten minutes passed. 'It's still tracking us, Nish said anxiously. 'Is there something you haven't been telling mem surr?'

'There are a thousand things I haven't told you!' Flydd exclaimed in vexation. Pulling his tattered trousers up, he felt along his right thigh. With his knife, he made a careful slit that matched the one on the left thigh, and felt inside. After some wincing he withdrew a bloody crystal half the length of his little finger.

Flydd bound the wound with his other sleeve. Limping across to the edge of the ravine, he peered over and tossed the crystal in, underarm. 'I don't know how they could track a charged crystal, but how else could they have followed us?'

'Perhaps they have another seeker/ said Nish, 'and she's sensing some aura it leaves behind.'

Flydd cast him a perceptive glance. 'I hope not. A seeker might locate me, in which case I've wasted my only weapon for nothing. We'll soon find out. Come on.'

Before it grew dark, from a hill only half a league away, they saw the air-floater drop out of the sky into the ravine. 'If they're tracking the crystal, that'll be the end of it; said Flydd. 'We'd better keep going, just in case.'

'I'm at my limit, surr.' Nish felt quite light-headed from hunger. Nothing seemed real any more, and he could hardly think straight. 'My belly feels like a pickled walnut. And my boots are falling to pieces.'

'I thought you'd fixed them.'

'I did, but the leather is worn out.'

'Then you've got a long walk ahead on bleeding feet.'

'Thanks!'

'Sympathy won't get us out of this mess, only sheer bloody-minded toughness. How are you getting on, Ullii?' Flydd was always solicitous of her welfare, though Ullii was nearly as tough' as the old monster himself. Life had taught her to endure. fortunately, the moment the sun had gone down, the flies disappeared. Ullii took off her head-covering and her mask. 'Hungry,' she said softly.

Then we'd better find you something to eat,' said Flydd. 'After all, you're eating for two.'

It was like having a bucket of cold water thrown in his face. Ullii was pregnant? How had that come about? It took Nish a long time to make the link to their lovemaking in the balloon after they had repelled the nylatl. It wasn't that it hadn't mattered to him. It had been a precious moment, but so much had happened since, it seemed like another life. Another him.

That day, he realised, probably marked his delayed transition from youth to adulthood. It seemed so far off; almost like a tale he'd heard about someone else.

'Are you saying that I'm a father?' Nish said, to Flydd rather than to Ullii.

'You will be, in a few months.'

'Why didn't anyone tell me?'

'I assumed you knew.'

'How could I know?' Nish exclaimed. 'I'm not a mind-reader.'

He perched on an angular rock, trying to come to terms with this dramatic, momentous development. He was going to be a father! Nish was so caught up in the whirlwind of emotions that he didn't even look at Ullii, who was watching him anxiously, desperately waiting for some gesture towards her. He gave none, for Nish was still running through the implications. And what would his mother say?

She would not be pleased. Ranii Mhel was a clever, ambitious woman who'd always tried to control her children's lives. Nish could only imagine what she would make of Ullii, who had no family, no money, no education or social graces. As far as Ranii was concerned, it would be the most disastrous match in the history of the world, and she would have no part of it. Ullii would be paid off and sent away with the baby, as far as a ship could take her. Nish would never see her, or his child, again.

And deep down, Nish understood why Ranii would do that. He and Ullii could have no future together, for he could never give her the total, cloying devotion she required. They would tear each other apart, or drive each other mad.

But how could he let her suffer so? Equally important, how could he go through life knowing that his child would never know its father? Plenty of children had lost fathers in the war, but few were abandoned by them. Not his'. Children were infinitely precious. I will not become my father! he thought, and the decision was made.

Nish realised that Ullii was watching him out of the corner of her eye. She must feel exposed, vulnerable, afraid. She was looking for some kind of commitment from him and afraid he would not make one. Afraid that he would not want the child, or her.

On the contrary, Nish was pleased he was going to be a father. After all, everyone was brought up to cherish parenthood, in a world where there were never enough young to replace the people who had died because of the war.

'Oh, Ullii,' he exclaimed, reaching out for her. 'Why didn't you -?'

The blow came from nowhere, knocking him backwards. 'I don't want to have a baby,' Ullii said shrilly. 'And I don't want you!' She fled into the darkness. 'You abandoned me. You never cared about me. I hate you!'

'The balloon carried me away,' Nish cried. 'I couldn't get back.'

He began to run after her but Flydd caught him by the collar. 'It won't do any good. Leave her.'

'How can she blame me?' Nish said, bewildered. 'I was half the world away – I couldn't do anything about it.'

'She needed you but you didn't come back. To Ullii's mind, with her history, that constitutes rejection. And then, in the Aachim camp before the battle, you didn't seem very pleased to see her.'

'I was a prisoner,' said Nish. 'And.., it's hard to show your feelings amongst a crowd of strangers.'

'It's hard to believe you even like her,' said Flydd. 'She's been reaching out to you and you've ignored her.

'I -' Nish hesitated. 'I like Ullii a lot, but…'

'Just as I thought,' Flydd said coolly. 'You want the child but not the mother. Stay here.'

'What was I supposed to do?' said Nish.

'You were supposed to think before you made her pregnant. Some women just want the child and don't care about the father, but Ullii isn't one of them. When she gives, she gives her entire heart, and you've refused it. What is she to make of that, after her tragic life?'

'Can't you make her see sense?' said Nish.

'It would be easier to beat it into your numb cranium.'

'But it's my child too.'

'You took your time about it.' Flydd sighed. 'I'll see what I can do, though it has to be said my credibility with Ullii isn't high either.'

'But…' Nish was confused. How could she not want him? He was the father.

It was a long time before Flydd came back with Ullii, and Nish had plenty of time to fret about what had happened, and fail to understand it. Had she expected an instantaneous declaration of love and commitment? He wasn't like that; he had to think things through and become used to them. It didn't mean he cared any less.

They appeared out of the darkness, right beside him. Ullii could move as silently as a tracker. He could not see her face, so Nish had no idea what kind of mood she was in. Flydd, however, seemed pleased with himself.

'We found a tree in fruit,' he said, pressing a knobbly object, like a bush lemon, into Nish's hand. "Try this. They're rather good.'

Nish broke the skin with his thumbnail. The fruit was soft in places, firm elsewhere, and with the creamy texture of avocado. He peeled the pointed half and bit into it. It had a rich, oily taste, immensely satisfying to a starving man, though a residue clung to the roof of his mouth afterwards. He put the other half in his pocket for later.

'Finish it off' Flydd advised from the darkness.

'I gathered a shirtful.'

Ullii kept her distance and, with Flydd beside her, Nish found no opportunity to talk. They tramped through scrubby bushland then long dry grass before entering a patch of open forest. The moon was rising through the thorny branches sur-rounding a small clearing. It was nearly ten o'clock.

Flydd let out a stifled groan. 'We'll stop for a few hours' sleep. I can't go another ell.'

Nish was surprised the old man had managed to go this distance, with a wound in each leg and his hack a mass of sores. Not daring a fire in case the air-floater was still searching from on high, they felt around on the ground for obstacles before lying down. At least, he and Flydd did. As Nish was working out what to say to Ullii, she disappeared. Perhaps she was curled up in the fork of a tree. There was no point looking, for she could have been anywhere. Tomorrow, he thought. As soon as it's light, we'll sort it all out.

Around midnight, Nish woke with a crick in the back of his neck. The moon cast long shadows across the clearing. He rolled onto his whipped back and had to bite back a groan. Through the trees, in the southern sky, a light flashed and was extinguished, like a silver dagger plunging through black velvet.

'Are you awake, Xervish?' he said softly, touching him on the arm.

'I saw it too.'

'What do you think -'

'I don't want to know,' Flydd murmured, 'but get ready to move.'

'What's the point, if they can find us wherever we go?'

Flydd did not bother to answer. 'Ullii?' he hissed. A small shape detached itself from the trees behind them. She went to Flydd, not to Nish. 'What can you see in your lattice?'

She was as still as the night. The tension in her was palpable. 'Nothing.' she muttered.

There was a long silence. 'I don't believe you, Ullii,' said Flydd.

She walked away into the trees. Nish turned to go after her.

'Leave her, Nish,' said Flydd. 'Something's very wrong. I can feel it.'

They stood together, staring at the field of stars. Nish caught another flash, though this one was the moon catching something high up.

'Was that a night-bird, do you think?' Nish knew it was not, 'It's an air-floater, searching for us, and it hasn't got this close by accident. They must be tracking me, and my only defence is at the bottom of that ravine. Why didn't I think before I threw it away?'

Shortly Nish heard the distinctive whirr of the air-floater's rotor and its silhouette appeared low down in the west.

'Shouldn't we run?' he said.

'It's too late – we can't outrun it. We must make our stand, Nish. Here we survive, or here we fall.'

Here we fall. The air-floater would carry armed, well-fed soldiers. Nish was no warrior and had no weapon. Flydd had only the overseer's knife and the partly unravelled whip. In the dim light Nish looked around for a stick, but all he could find was a sorry, worm-eaten item that would break at the first blow. Just slightly better than nothing, he thought, hefting it above his shoulder.

'I'm beginning to feel something,' Flydd said softly.

'What?'

'There's a weak field here. We must have moved into the influence of another node last evening, though I was too tired to realise it.'

Does that help?'

'It just means I'm not completely defenceless.'

Ullii came drifting through the trees, again going to Flydd. Though it was a warm night, her teeth were chattering. What was the matter with her? She hadn't reacted that way the last time they'd seen an air-floater.

Flydd put am arm around her. 'You can see something in your lattice now can't you Ullia.

She pulled away which was strange. In times of danger she sought out physical contact. See a crystal:

'It's the one in the air-floaters controller, isn't it?

'Yes,' she said, no more than a sigh.

'What else? Can you see any of the people in the air-floater?'

'No' she muttered, in a way that meant, Yes, but I'm not telling you. When piqued, she took pleasure in nurturing her little secrets.

'Of course you can,' Flydd cajoled. 'Surely you can see the pilot? To use the controller, she must have some talent.'

'Hardly any -' Ullii began dismissively.'

He drew her back to him. 'And of course, someone must be directing the air-floater, otherwise they would never have been able to track me. Someone with a considerable talent for the Secret Art. A querist, or perhaps a perquisitor. Maybe even a scrutator!'

She recoiled and tried to get away but Flydd held her firmly. 'Well, Ullii?'

'I can't tell,' she said, struggling furiously. 'I can't see into them. They're hidden.'

'What?' His head jerked up. 'Deliberately hidden? Shielded?'

'Yes.'

'Oh, this is bad. Bad!' Letting her go, Flydd walked across the clearing and back, staring up at the sky. The rotor sound had faded. He took Ullii under his wing again, and this time she did not resist. 'What else, Seeker? Is this person using some kind of device to hunt me down?'

'No.'

'Then how? Is there anyone else on the air-floater with the talent?'

She did not answer.

'There has to be, said Flydd. 'Who is it? Ullii!'

The moon slid between the trees and a single moonbeam touched her face. She looked as if she had just seen her own corpse. Her face was silvery pale, her eyes wide and staring.

'Seeker,' she whispered.

'Another seeker?' Flydd cried.

'Yes…' The word trailed off to oblivion. She stared up at the empty sky.

Flydd took Nish by the arm and drew him across the clearing. 'We've got a problem and I don't know how to solve it.'

'If a seeker is watching you, you can never escape,' said Nish.

'Though I'm wondering if there might not be a way to confuse one. Or even use one against the other.'

'Could be dangerous,' said Nish, 'if Ullii begins to feel sympathetic to her counterpart.'

'Good point. Sometimes I'm glad I've brought you along, Nish.'

Faint praise, but better than nothing. 'How could you confuse a seeker?'

'I can't think.' Flydd went to the other side of the clearing and began tapping his knuckles against the side of a tree. 'If only I had that crystal.'

Ullii was still staring raptly upwards.

'There's no point in trying to find it, I suppose?' said Nish.

"They'd catch us before we got to the ravine.'

'What scrutator powers do you have that could influence the mind of another person?'

Flydd was still tapping. 'I – What's that?'

It was a subtle ticker-tick-tick. 'It's the rotor of the air-floater. They're coming back.'

It sounded as if it was heading right for them, though Nish could not see it.

'Take my knife,' said Flydd. 'I'll be busy with other things. I may have to hypnotise her.'

Thrusting the knife into his belt, Nish said, 'Isn't that a bit lame?'

'Mancery would be like cutting your nails with an axe. It could break her mind. I'd get myself a big stick if I were you.

Nish probed around in the gloom and came up with a better weapon than the wormy branch. The stick, heavy and gnarled on one end, made a fine cudgel, though he'd only get one blow against a swordsman. He moved into the shadows, trying to still his thudding heart.

'Ullii?' called Flydd. 'Come here. I need you for a minute.'

She was standing in the middle of the clearing, staring at the sky.

'Nish?' said Flydd, thinking he was near. 'This is what we're going to do -'

Leaves crackled underfoot and Nish did not catch the rest. He started back towards Flydd, who was an indistinct shape in strips of moonlight and shadow. 'Surr, I didn't hear what you said…' But now Flydd was moving his hands in front of Ullii. Nish caught whispers, soft and sibilant, but could not make out the words.

Suddenly Ullii began to scream. 'No! Get away.' She thrust both hands hard against Flydd's face. His head snapped back and he overbalanced. Wailing, Ullii ran into the trees. Nish hurried across and helped Flydd up.

'Someone must have tried that with her before,' said the scrutator. 'I suppose it was Ghorr, in Nennifer.'

'Or my father,' said Nish.

'As soon as I began, her defences went up.'

'What are we going to do, surr?'

Mistaking the question, Flydd replied, 'I'll have to try stronger measures.' His voice went strange, as if he was choking. 'Though it will be like betraying a friend. I -'

The rotor roared and the air-floater appeared above them, bathed in moonlight, a bladder like a gigantic ovoid football with a boat-shaped compartment suspended beneath it. Soldiers were ranged along the side. At the front a slim figure held an object resembling a stubby spyglass to one eye. The images of machine and men, black and white against the black sky, froze in Nish's inner eye like brushstrokes on paper.

The soldiers moved; it looked as though they were readying crossbows to shoot. With bare seconds to act, Nish did the only thing he could. He hurled his cudgel straight at the rotor.

'No!' hissed Flydd, but it was too late.

The whirling club went true, for once. It flew straight into the wooden rotor, which was not meshed at the back, and smashed it to splinters. Some scythed across the clearing, tearing leaves off the trees and sending up clouds of dust. Others went straight up, tearing through the fabric of the balloon. Floater gas hissed out. The air-floater lifted, hovering for a second before turning over and plunging towards the ground.

'You wretched fool!' cried Flydd. 'If there's a spark when that hits, it'll blow us halfway to Borgistry.'

The air-floater struck hard, hurling soldiers and crew everywhere. There were thuds, snaps, screams. The airbag collapsed. Someone called out in an unnaturally high voice. It was Flydd. What was the matter?

Nish tried to answer but his voice was just as shrill. He waited for the spark that would blow them to pieces, but it did not come.

'Flydd?' he whispered after a minute or two. His voice sounded normal again.

'Here' Flydd said. 'Quiet.'

Someone emerged from the wreckage. It was the slim figure who'd been looking through the spyglass, a young man dressed in white. Long hair streamed down his back like a waterfall of black ink. He disappeared into the shadows.

A pair of soldiers hacked themselves free. One helped out a third soldier, who fell down. A fourth crawled out from under the collapsed gasbag. The first two lunged at Flydd. The fourth soldier came for Nish, limping badly, though his sword cut the air in a professional manner.

The sword flicked out. Nish backpedalled frantically, feeling for his knife. He hit a tree, leapt sideways and almost spitted himself on the soldier's blade, which had anticipated his every move. He slipped on wet leaves and the point crunched into his ribs.

He hurled himself backwards, landing hard in the darkness behind a pair of dose-growing trees. The soldier pushed forwards, feeling with the tip of his weapon to the right of where Nish lay. Nish held his breath.

The sword rustled in the leaves, left and right. Nish tensed. As the soldier moved, one leg was outlined in a sliver of moonbeam. Nish stabbed for the knee. The blade went in, the leg collapsed and the soldier went down.

Nish dared not go for the kill; the man still had the sword. He scuttled away, holding his ribs. Blood was trickling down his side though he felt no pain, so the injury couldn't be that bad.

Peering through the trees, he saw Flydd wrestling with a soldier. The other soldier lay on the ground. Ullii stood by the wreckage, staring into the forest behind the air-floater. The dark-haired man emerged, then froze, staring. She let out a faint cry; he ran at her.

A cloud drifted in front of the moon and Nish lost sight of them. Twigs crackled to his left. He turned slowly, so as not to give away his position. The rustling moved closer. He held his breath, afraid lest even that faint sound should give him away. Nish felt desperately frightened. A civilian with a knife could not hope to defeat a soldier with a sword.

A branch snapped, even closer, and he jumped. A drop of sweat made an itchy trail down his nose. He wasn't game to rub it. A shadow moved just a few steps away. Surely the soldier could smell him from here?

Nish's fist, clenched around the knife, shook. Just keep going, he prayed. He did not want to use the knife – he wanted out of here as fast as possible.

After an agonising wait, the shadow moved on and he lost it in the darkness, though a faint crunch of leaves told him that the soldier was not far away. Nish slid forward, one slow step after another, until he reached the edge of the clearing.

We could hear Ullii making a high-pitched keening sound.

Where was she?

There, close by the air-floater, and she appeared to be struggling with the dark-haired man. Nish could only make tarn out because his clothes were white. Ullii's pale face seemed to be floating in mid-air.

Holding the knife out, Nish tiptoed across the clearing. The man seemed to be wrestling with Ullii, who began to make choking noises. Nish crept closer.

As the moon came out, he threw his arm around the young man's neck and pressed the knife to his back. 'Let her go! Don't move.'

The young man gave a frightened cry, reared backwards and the knife slid into him like a red-hot poker into a block of cheese. He let out a soft sssss, stood up straight and tall, and fell, thumping face-first into the ground.

Ullii threw herself on him, turned him over and tried to lift him. She got him as far as a sitting position before he slumped over again. A silver bracelet glinted on his wrist. A moonbeam caught his glazed eyes. He looked as if he had been dead for a week.

Ullii let out a scream of anguish that froze Nish's blood, and it went on and on. 'Mylii,' she wailed, kissing his face and hands. 'Mylii, come back.'

Nish could only stare at her, the fatal knife hanging from his hand. Mylii?

Flydd came running across, reeking of blood. 'What have you done now?'

'I thought he was trying to choke her,' Nish whispered. 'I tried to stop him but he reared back onto the knife. What is it, Xervish?'

'I hardly dare to think.' Flydd was shaking his head. He squatted beside the seeker, who was frantically trying to rouse the dead man. 'Ullii?'

She did not answer. Ullii began to rock the young man, making a moaning noise in her throat. Flydd conjured ghost light in the palm of his hand and held it out.

Ullii looked up and, momentarily, the two faces were illuminated side by side. Nish's scalp crawled. Apart from the young man's black hair, they were identical.

'Ullii and Mylii, said Flydd in a voice as old as death. How often does that happen?'

'I don't understand; Nish said.

'Twins identical in all respects but their sex.' said Flydd. 'They were separated when she was four, Nish, and the trauma drove Ullii to become the sensitive creature that she is. You've just killed her long-lost brother, Mylii. She's been searching for him all her life.'

Nineteen

Tiaan leaned back in the chair and closed her eyes, afraid that she'd not convinced the Aachim. She was a novice at intrigue, while they were experts – especially the cold-eyed Urien.

She was woken by someone at the flap of the tent. It was Thyzzea, with her brother. 'Are you to be my guard again?' said Tiaan, taking comfort from a friendly face. Don't trust, she told herself. Thyzzea is Aachim, too. You have no allies here.

'I am. Vithis is determined to grind my family into the dust.' Thyzzea coloured, as if realising her words could be taken as an insult.

Tiaan politely ignored it. 'What would happen if I escaped?' she asked as Kalle picked her up.

'You would not.' Thyzzea seemed to find the idea amusing.

'I don't suppose so. But, just say I did?'

'Since we are at war, my family and clan would have failed in their duty. We could lose everything, if Vithis so chose.'

It confronted Tiaan with an unexpected problem. No matter how much she told herself not to like Thyzzea, she did. So how could she escape, if Thyzzea and her family would be punished for it?

Kalle carried her through the dark; Tiaan smelt cooking before they reached Thyzzea's tent. A middle-aged woman stood outside, in the light of a glowing globe half-covered in black moths. She was searing meats and vegetables on a metal plate, then stirring them into a bubbling pot. She looked up with the same smile as Thyzzea, though hers was tentative, fretful. She was smaller than her daughter and her hair was red-brown.

'Welcome, Tiaan Liise-Mar' she said. I'm Zea. Switching the ladle to her left hand, she held oat the right. 'What a terrible day. When I think about poor Ghaenis – such a world this is.' Seeing the despairing look on her daughter's face. Zea said, 'Come inside, child. Put it out of mind, just for the moment.'

Tiaan shook hands. 'Are you Thyzzea's mother?'

'And bound to regret it.' Her quiet amusement was reflected in Thyzzea's face. They had the capacity to submerge their pain, these Aachim. 'I'm joking, of course. Thyzzea is a daughter entirely without faults.'

Thyzzea rolled her eyes, but shortly the despair was back. The grief was more than she could cover up.

Tiaan liked Zea instantly. Like her daughter, she seemed so normal. The other Aachim Tiaan had met were remote and wrapped up in their own affairs. 'Dinner smells good,' she said, unable to remember when she'd last had a full meal.

'I hope it isn't too hot for you.' Zea exchanged glances with her daughter.

'After being interrogated by Urien and Vithis, it won't seem hot at all.'

Again that exchange of glances. 'Urien,' said Zea with a little shiver.

Shortly they were sitting in the tent, in surprisingly comfortable metal chairs, with bowls on their laps. Tiaan was about to take the first sip when the flap opened and a man came wearily in. He was of modest stature, trim and well proportioned, but with the same dark-red hair as his son. He looked exhausted, his clothes were torn and muddy, and the front of his shirt was stained with purple blood.

Zea ran to embrace him, her eyes moist. Thyzzea followed, and Kalle clasped his father's hands. The man's gaze swept across the room to Tiaan; he checked for an instant then came on.

'I'm Tiaan' she said, placing her bowl on the floor and putting out her hand. 'I'm sorry – I can't stand up.' He flinched, shot a glance at Zea, then took Tiaan's hand. 'Tiaan, of the flying construct. My name is Yrael. We are your rs, I presume?' I'm afraid so. I'm sorry for the trouble -'

He gave her a genuine smile-. The folk of Clan Elienor recovered quickly. 'Guest right is yours while-ever you are under our roof.'

'But…'

'First Clan will do what they can to bring us down, whether you're here or not. Let's say no more about it. How is the water, Zea?'

'Running low, but there's enough for a hero of the battlefield to wash his face and hands.'

She followed him into the other room, her arm linked through his. Water splashed in a metal bowl and shortly he returned, dressed in clean clothes. He took a bowl, filled it, and they sat in silence while they ate.

After the meal, Zea opened a flask of wine and poured them each a small portion.

'This is our strong wine,' said Thyzzea, sniffing delicately at her goblet. 'For special times and honoured guests.'

Tiaan raised her glass and said, 'To the good fortune of Clan Elienor, wherever it may be.'

'To Clan Elienor,' they echoed, after which Kalle went to his room and his studies.

'If you will excuse me,' said Yrael to Tiaan, 'I must speak to Zea about the war.'

'Would you like to carry me outside?'

'I've nothing to say that an honoured guest may not hear.'

'What is the news?' said Zea. 'There are a thousand rumours, though if there's truth in any of them I've not sorted it out.'

'The lyrinx have gone, apart from the last few still creeping out of hidden tunnels delved deep inside Snizort. Who knows how they survived the cataclysm? The human armies have begun to drag their clankers north-west to the nearest field, using teams of animals, soldiers and slaves. Rumour has it that Scrutator Flydd, with whom we negotiated recently, is now one of the slaves. The old humans fall on each other like dogs.' Glancing at Tiaan, he looked abashed. 'I'm sorry. That was ill-mannered of me.'

'How long will it take for them to haul away all their rattletrap clankers?' asked Zea.

'Many days, though they'll be long gone before we move any of our constructs.'

'Do you think they might help us?'

'Not after Vithis snatched Tiaan from under the scrutators' noses.'

'I had not heard that,' said Zea.

'Did you hear about Ghaenis?' asked Yrael.

'Tiaan and I were there,' Thyzzea cut in. 'It was horrible, Father.'

'Yet I'm told Vithis still presses to use the amplimet,' said Zea. 'What will come of it?'

'Such a dangerous device. Some of the clans,' he named several on his fingertips, 'consider that the crystal should be destroyed, unused. I confess that I think so too.'

'And others want to use it whatever the cost,' said Zea. 'Especially Clan Nataz.'

'That's so. Dissatisfaction is building with Vithis's leadership, particularly among Clans Nataz and Dargau, who have been intriguing for the amplimet since the moment they knew of its existence. Tirior has done everything she could to stymie Vithis's plans, so as to create an opportunity to seize it. Nataz is not displeased at Clan Inthis's fall' He turned to Tiaan as if feeling a need to explain. 'When we came to Santhenar, we should have met your leaders at once, and parleyed for land. There's plenty here for all and we had much to offer humanity. What could the scrutators have done but agree? They could not send us back.'

'Vithis could not humble himself,' said Zea, her eyes contracted to steely points. 'Embittered by misfortunes of his own making, he must seize first and make demands.'

'He hasn't taken any land,' said Tiaan. 'He will once he gets what he really wants,' said Zea. 'Your flying construct. His obsession has cost us dearly and the clans are close to rebellion. Abandoning all our long-laid plans, he brought us to this bloody battlefield in pursuit of your flier.' She laid a hand on her husband's arm. 'Be sure your heroism and sacrifice is appreciated… What is it, Yrael?1

Yrael began to flush in waves of deep red until his face seemed to be on fire. He rose abruptly, to pace the room with jerky steps, head bent. After half a dozen turns he sat down again, meeting Zea's eyes.

'We're not heroes!' he said harshly. 'We weren't allowed to be.'

'What are you saying, Yrael?'

'The clan leaders would not allow us to fight beside our old human allies. They pulled us back time and again. When our allies looked desperately for our aid, it was not there, and they died for it. We are deeply shamed.'

Zea stared at him, her hands over her mouth. 'But you're the leader of Clan Elienor…'

'Not on the battlefield. Our clan was commanded by Vithis and I had no say in the matter.'

'But this is terrible, to have so let down our allies when they needed us. The old humans must be calling us cowards.'

'With reason,' Yrael said heavily.

'So we've lost thousands of young lives, and more injured, for nothing! And our supplies are running low, we'll surely have to abandon our constructs. Once that happens, we'll be beggars in a hostile land.' Zea's voice rose. 'So why are we here, Yrael?'

'That's what I keep asking myself.' Yrael sat with head, bowed. 'We'll have to plunder to survive and the whole of Santhenar will rise up against us.'

Zea made an effort to be the one in control. 'This is a big world and there's land aplenty. In the last year of the war humanity have lost more people than all our population put together. If we deal honourably with them surely they will embrace us.'

'I doubt that, said Yrael, though I agree it's our best course.'

'Clan Dargau urge war against humanity.' said Zea. To strike hard, seize what we need and be ready to hold it.'

'Dargau have always been warmongers.' Yrael contemplated his untouched goblet. 'Though when it comes to the sticking point they prefer to risk the lives of other clans.'

'Rumour tells that the enemy have fled,' said Zea. 'Is that so, Yrael?'

'They've withdrawn but I doubt that they're far away. We're terribly vulnerable, should they attack again.'

He looked afraid and it spread to the others, but Zea said, 'If it comes to that, we'll fight – even if we must fight barehanded. We won't go meekly to our deaths. In the meantime, we must attend to our dead.'

'We begin recovering the bodies in the morning. Luxor is designing a memorial and we'll work together on a protection for it.'

Tiaan could only admire them. Even in such peril, they were driven to honour their fallen. 'Urien warned Vithis against using the amplimet,' she said into the silence. 'But he says there's no other way to save the constructs.'

'He may be right,' Yrael agreed, 'though after today, who would dare?'

'Urien suggested that they force me,' said Tiaan.

'Such dishonour!' said Zea.

'And folly,' added Yrael. 'In ancient times an amplimet almost destroyed our civilisation and undermined our very world.'

'What happened?' asked Tiaan.

'I don't know. It occurred before our clan was founded, and the whole truth has never been revealed,' said Yrael. 'It's said that not even Urien, Matah of Aachim-kind and Keeper of the Secrets, knows all. Some chroniclers say that the Charon found our world because we had used that crystal, and their led to thousands of years of slavery. You should be very afraid of the amplimet, Tiaan.'

Kalle came hurtling in. 'Vithis is coming for Tiaan.' Thyzzea covered her face with her hands.

Tiaan was back in Vithis's tent. It must have been long after midnight. The interrogation had been going on for some time, and the differences between him and Urien were more acute than ever. Urien had rejected his proposal to use the amplimet, whereupon Vithis tried another tack – to employ it to uncover the secret of flight.

'With flight,' said Vithis, pacing back and forth, 'we can recover all that we've lost.'

'Except the lives!' Urien countered. 'I forbid it, Vithis. We must cut our losses, abandon the stranded constructs and go.'

'Flight is the only thing that can save us. I won't give it up.'

'Tiaan doesn't know how to explain what she does,' said Urien. 'We can't indulge you any longer, Vithis.'

'I'm not walking away from a fleet of constructs, carrying my goods on my back like a homeless vagabond.'

'You don't have any choice.'

'I want to put Tiaan at the controller of a construct,' said -Vithis. 'If she truly needs no more than the amplimet, she can make it fly. And if not, she can tow the other constructs to safety.'

'You'll only succeed in destroying her, and probably yourself as well.'

'She's been using it for months, so she doesn't have our vulnerability.'

'It can develop over time,' Urien said ominously.

Tiaan looked from one to the other, fearful of the consequences no matter who prevailed.

'Those who fear the crystal can walk to Gospett,' snapped Vithis. 'I got us into this situation and I will get us out, with our fleet intact. And if I don't, you may elect a new leader. Just give me the chance, Urien.'

Urien stared at him, unblinking, for a very long time. 'Very well,' she said. 'But you may make one attempt only.'

'I'll begin right away,' Vithis said.

Tiaan, afraid as she had never been afraid before, was carried to the nearest construct and strapped into die seat. The night was as black as the pits at Snizort.

Vithis, holding the amplimet between a folded sheet of platinum, slid it into its cavity. Tiaan, find a suitable field and make this construct fly.'

She was going to be exposed as a liar. What was she to do? Tiaan took a deep breath then drew just enough power to lift the construct off the ground. She pretended to strain for more as she drew upwards on the flight knob. The construct did not move, of course, and then the field slipped from her mind. She couldn't concentrate for fear of the amplimet taking charge, as it had done to Ghaenis.

'What are you doing?' said Vithis sharply, as if suspecting her of sabotage.

'This is how I made my thapter fly,' Tiaan lied. She wiped her face and tried again. 'It's not working,' she said in a small voice.

'Try harder!'

'Don't push her,' snapped Urien. 'That kind of talent must be coaxed.'

'I'm sorry.' Vithis bowed to the Matah. 'Zeal overcame my good sense for the moment.'

After pretending to make several more attempts, Tiaan said, 'I can't seem to work the balance correctly. The field isn't oscillating at all.'

'You're not trying,' said Vithis. 'You made Tirior's construct fly in a few minutes.'

'That was different,' Tiaan said, white-faced. 'We were all going to die. My talent just flowed.'

'If you're keeping the secret from us,' Vithis said fiercely, 'I'll make sure you regret it.'

'Threats aren't the answer,' said Urien. 'If she goes the way of Ghaenis, we've got nothing.'

He regained control of himself. 'Will you try again, Tiaan?' Vithis said softly.

Urien had shown Tiaan the way out, though she had to make it convincing. She drew power hard, as much as she could bear safely, then a little more. To her relief, the con-struct's mechanism spun up to a roar. Could she make the field oscillate, to convince them?

She fed power into the field, drew hard, then fed it back even harder. The roar from below rose to a screech, died to nothing and rose again. Suddenly the construct whirled like a top, throwing the Aachim against the side, though Tiaan had not moved the controller.

Vithis let out a muffled curse, Urien a cry of fear. Tiaan could feel her hair standing up, smell the ends beginning to smoulder. Her cheeks grew hot; her vision blurry. She rubbed her eyes. She could just make out Vithis and he wasn't convinced. She had to make him believe, and it had to be done quickly. She could not withstand him much longer.

She forced more power through the controller, then back into the field, then out, then back again, until the field began to go whoomph-whoomph, whoomph-whoomph like a fire driven by a bellows. Even with her eyes open, she could see its patterns beating all around her.

So could Urien, for she cried out in alarm, 'Enough, Vithis. This isn't right.'

'Keep on, Tiaan,' he grated.

The mechanism let out a metallic screech and began to thump itself to pieces. A burning pain flared up Tiaan's middle. She tried to cut off the field but power kept flowing -the amplimet had taken over. She'd gone too far.

She opened her mouth to scream but only steam came out. The burning intensified. Even her eyes felt hot. Tiaan had no idea what to do about it. She could no longer think straight.

Vithis was staring at her in horror. He cried out a warning but his words emerged as a dry croaking, like a frog caught in a forest fire..'

Urien slammed her fist down on the release. The amplimet shot out of its cavity and she fumbled it out of the air in agetwisted fingers, grimacing as though it had burned her. Still holding it, she uttered three words in a guttural tongue. Tiaan's pain eased. Urien hastily wrapped the crystal in the platinum sheet and thrust it into her pocket.

Tiaan fell off her seat, hanging by the belt. As she swooned, Urien's crackling voice came to her.

'You're a bigger fool than I thought, Vithis. Are you satisfied now?'

He was staring at Tiaan as if he expected her to explode in his face. He looked as if he were going to be sick.

Tiaan came to as she was being carried to the healers' tents Vithis and Urien were still arguing.

'You will abandon the search for flight, as of now,' Urien said coldly, 'or I will dismiss Inthis from the Register of the Eleven Clans.'

'Inthis has always been First Clan!' he cried. 'And it was re-chosen just one year -'

'Only because you manipulated the votes,' came Tirior's voice from the other side. 'Inthis is not fit, Urien. Do you know what Vithis really did to my son?'

'Go on,' said Urien in a deadly voice.

'He made it a matter of honour for Ghaenis to use the amplimet, knowing that he was too noble to refuse. Vithis killed him -'

'He begged me for it,' said Vithis, rigidly controlled.

'You didn't have to agree.'

'He convinced me that he had the best chance of anyone, because you had taught him how it was to be used.'

'Tirior?' Urien said sharply. 'Is that so?'

'Ghaenis and I had spoken about it; Tirior said reluctantly.

'I knew it,' said Vithis. 'You put him up to it and now blame me to ease your own guilt.'

'That's a lie! Dismiss him and his clan, Urien. Put them below Clan Elienor.'

'You hypocrite!' Vithis cried furiously. 'And all this after you took Minis, the sole survivor of Inthis First Clan, into Snizort, in defiance of my direct order that he remain in our main camp.'

'So that's what this is all about,' said Tirior. 'Your shabby revenge.'

'Explain your actions, Tirior,' Urien said sharply.

Minis begged me, over and over, to take him with me. I rightly refused but he kept pestering me, and finally used his rank to countermand my order. There are witnesses, not of my clan.'

'I've spoken to them,' said Vithis. 'They say you preyed on his weakness for Tiaan. You took Minis into Snizort hoping he would die there, and Clan Inthis with him. Clan Nataz has always chafed at its inferior status and you'd take any risk to raise it above its station.'

'I brought Minis safely out of Snizort,' said Tirior. 'You killed my son and heir.'

'Tiaan brought Minis out. She saved your life, and his.'

'Enough!' said Urien. 'The clan leaders will determine the rights and wrongs, later. Put your grievances aside. We must find a way out of here.'

'We must, but who dares risk the fate of my son?' said Tirior.

They were walking across uneven ground. Tiaan kept her eyes firmly closed, though brightness on her eyelids indicated that it was morning. It was hard to concentrate on what they were saying, for she hurt inside as if scalding water had been poured down her throat.

'Urien could use it,' said an unknown voice.

The person who was carrying Tiaan stopped dead. Someone let out a shocked cry. Another said, 'How dare you insult the Matah of all the Aachim?'

'I'm sorry,' said the unknown voice. 'I allowed myself to be carried away.'

'No need to apologise,' said Urien. 'The Matah has a duty to her people, as much as they to her. And here is my reply. I might use the amplimet once or twice, and get away with it, but not even I could employ it every day for weeks, as would be required to save our constructs.'

'What if we took it in turns?' said Vithis. 'If our strongest, all volunteers, could iust use it for a few hours each, we could save some of our constructs.'

'Yes, show us the way, Vithis,' Tirior said venomously.

The silence was finally broken by Urien.

'How can I do that and leave my clan undefended?' he said.

'Inthis Last Clan,' sneered Tirior. 'Cowards all!'

'There will be no volunteers,' said Urien, 'for most would die as horribly as Ghaenis did. And there are greater risks…'

'Not here!' cried Tirior.

'We must talk about the other problem I said Urien.

'What problem?' said a dreary voice that Tiaan recognised as Luxor, chief of Clan Izmak.

'The amplimet communicated with the nodes at Snizort, Booreah Ngurle and Tirthrax, where it went close to unbinding the trapped Well of Echoes.'

'So it is like the one that nearly brought down our world in ancient times,' said Luxor heavily. 'I feared as much. It would be better to destroy the amplimet and walk away from our constructs. Even if we abandoned all these here, we still have five thousand near Gospett, and elsewhere. Nothing on Santhenar can match them.'

'The old humans would take apart the abandoned ones,' said Vithis, 'and soon learn to make their own. Where would we be then? And there's another matter. The lyrinx have not gone very far. If they attack in the night, they could wipe us out. We can't risk it.'

'What are we to do?'

'How is Tiaan?' asked Urien.

Tiaan felt the cool hands of a healer on her brow. 'She'll recover,' said an unknown voice, 'though she'll be in much pain when she comes round. You'll get nothing out of her today or tomorrow.'

'Give her the best treatment we have,' Vithis ordered. 'Don't spare our most precious medicines. Tiaan must be ready by dawn the day after tomorrow. She must use the amplimet to tow our constructs to safety.'

It seemed that other Aachim had joined them on their long walk. 'Even if Tiaan were an enemy, this would be a dishonourable act. But she's a hero who saved us from extinction. This is sheer infamy!'

Two more voices, both unknown, objected just as strenuously.

'What do you say, Urien?' said Vithis. Do you still forbid it?'

She did not answer at once. There was silence for several minutes, broken only by the tramping of many feet. 'I have agonised about this all evening and night. I've weighed the arguments. Every choice represents a hazard.'

'And your decision?' said Vithis.

'You may use Tiaan to try and save our constructs, but for no other purpose, and it must be done with great care.'

'I will not put my name to it,' cried Luxor.

'Overruled,' said Urien. 'My position on this amplimet is well known – I hate and fear it – but Vithis has convinced me that we have no choice. We must wield this perilous crystal for our very survival.'

'Then our Syndic must be told of these matters,' said the second unknown voice, 'and given the opportunity to debate -'

'There's no time,' said Urien. 'Vithis, your leadership is suspended. In this emergency, I've no.choice but to rule by decree. We will use Tiaan and deal with the consequences afterwards.'

'How dare you subvert the very founding principles of our Syndic?' cried a new voice, high in outrage.

'The Matah is above the clans, and even the leader,' Urien reminded them. 'In an emergency that threatens our survival, it is my duty.'

That only raised more outrage, until Urien declared in a voice that brooked no disobedience, 'It is done in the name of the Matah. Let anyone challenge it at peril of their life and their clan!'

Silence fell, long and pregnant. Tiaan could hear her heart thumping.

'What if the crystal comes to the second stage of awakening and takes control of her?' said Luxor. 'Should it break out to fulfil its destiny, we won't be able to stop it.'

'From what she's told us.' said Urien, the amplimet is far from ready. We'll salvage all the constructs we can, for as long as her body can take it.'

'We will rue this dishonourable day for as long as our Histories last,' said Luxor.

'How will we write this into our Histories?' said another objector. 'How will we explain it to our children, and their children?'

'History is as it is written,' said Urien. 'It will be recorded thus: Tiaan begged to be allowed to aid us in our extremity, out of her great love for our kind, and recognising that Aachim are the superior species.'

'You would put a lie into the Histories?' said Luxor incredulously.

'Once it's in the Histories, it is truth.'

'Not if everyone knows otherwise.'

'All other Aachim will be kept away from her. How will they know?'

'I know,' muttered Luxor. 'I will make it known.'

'Then you have your own dilemma. Let it be done.'

'What if -?' Luxor began. 'What if the worst comes to pass and the crystal reaches the third stage – full awakening? Would you risk this world, too?'

'We'll stop well short of the node,' said Vithis. 'The amplimet won't be able to get close enough to draw real power.'

'And if it takes over Tiaan?'

'Archers will be standing by in the towed constructs,' said Urien. 'And mancers, alert for any sign that the crystal is overpowering her. If they detect such signs, the archers will be ordered to shoot to kill.'

Even Vithis let out a muffled cry at that. Perhaps he was remembering that Tiaan had saved Minis from a fiery death. It was all Tiaan could do to remain silent as they reached the healers' tent and carried her within.

'It's a shabby way to treat someone who saved all our lives,' said Luxor.

If she knew what a fully woken amplimet would do to her,' said Urien, 'she'd thank us on bended knees.'

Twenty

There was shouting in the night, not far from Thyzzea's tent. Recognising Minis's voice, Tiaan looked out the window flap.

'How dare you abuse her so!' Minis roared, struggling against a number of guards.

Shortly Vithis came running and, after a low-voiced argument, Minis went away with him. Tiaan was pleased to see him go. Whether sincere or not, Minis could do nothing for her.

She was woken before dawn by Thyzzea, who handed her a steaming mug. 'You must be quick, Tiaan. Vithis will soon be here. I brought you clothes, since yours are.., in need of cleaning.' That was a politeness. Tiaan's clothes were no better than tar-stained rags. 'Do you need help to dress?'

'Thank you,' said Tiaan, Taut I'm used to doing it.'

Once Thyzzea had gone, she eased her legs out of bed. Her thigh and calf muscles ached but she had more coordination than before; more strength too. She was able to stand up and take a couple of halting steps, and it felt like a personal triumph.

The red drink practically needed to be eaten with a spoon. It was sweet, with a slightly bitter under-taste that she came to appreciate by the time she had finished, for without it the beverage would have been cloyingly rich.

The clothes fitted well enough. She was dressed and sitting at the table, eating bread and hot sausage, when Vithis burst through the flap of the tent.

'Time to go to work. Bring her, Guard!

Thyzzea put her head through the door of her parents' room, said something and picked Tiaan up. Vithis set off with great strides, so that Thyzzea had to trot to keep up.

'What do you want of me?' Tiaan asked Vithis as they crossed between row after row of silent constructs. She knew, but wanted to hear him say it.

You're going to operate my construct with the amplimet, and tow the other machines to the nearest field. Thyzzea will guard you, and if you attempt to escape, her family will suffer the prescribed penalty.'

At the furthest end of the row, Vithis stopped at a construct that was somewhat larger than most others. Its hatch was open. Aachim ran back and forth, packing gear into it and into a number of other constructs. Each was connected to the first by stout ropes, around which were looped finer cables that ran underneath.

Vithis climbed in. Thyzzea followed, struggling under Tiaan's awkward weight. Vithis handed Tiaan the package, wrapped in platinum, which she unfolded to reveal the amplimet. Again she felt that blind terror, but fought it down. The amplimet offered the only hope of escape for her, too.

'This machine is linked to six others,' said Vithis. 'Once you draw power, they will take enough to rise off the ground and maintain direction, though not to drive themselves. Do nothing hastily. Don't attempt to escape. I'll be with you the whole time, and I have two guards in the following construct, armed with crossbows.'

Tiaan was not planning to escape just yet. First she must be able to walk, even run.

Vithis climbed onto the rear platform, looking back. 'All is ready. Begin, very slowly.'

The nearest node lay not too many leagues to the south. Though small and nondescript, weak and wavering, she could use it. Locking onto its field, she drew power smoothly. The construct rumbled and rose up to hip height. She looked over her shoulder at Vithis, who was shivering with tension. Small wonder.

'All is well,' he said. 'Head directly towards the node. Take it steadily or you'll break the cables.'

She eased the lever and the construct crept forward until the slack of the first tether was taken up The machine shook as the weight of the second construct came on the line. A dull ache tickled across the top of her skull. Tiaan rubbed the spot with her fingers and drew more power.

So it went until all six constructs were underway. After that it was routine, though the work was draining. She headed south towards the node, the construct moving across undulating plains at slightly more than walking pace, in the general direction of Gospett. There was no sign of life. The once plentiful game had been slaughtered to feed the armies.

'Go round in a circle and stop,' called Vithis some hours later. The constructs behind him were signalling. 'They can see the field.'

They were in a circular valley with a rim of low hills on all sides. White quartzite outcropped in lines across the slope, and along the crest. A dry creek, its bed filled with white pebbles, meandered across the floor of the valley. Its path was marked by trees with slate-blue pendulous leaves and hanging purple fruits like curly beans.

'Set up camp here and dig a pit in the creek bed. We'll find good water there.'

Vithis gave orders for the layout of the camp and his people ran to carry them out. The constructs were unhooked, disgorging about a hundred Aachim. The cables were reloaded into Tiaan's construct. The others moved under their own power, making a defensive ring around the camp.

'Head back to the Snizort camp, Tiaan/ said Vithis, smiling. She'd not thought him capable of it. 'Make all the speed you can.' He came down from the turret to stand beside her, leaving a wide gap between them.

Tiaan glanced up at his stern profile and, despite the way he'd treated her, for the first time she felt a trace of empathy. Vithis had lost everything. She could not truly understand his loss, but she could feel it, and it reminded her of something that had been troubling her for a long time. She opened her mouth to speak, but closed it, afraid he would blame her again.

But surely, in spite of everything he'd done to her, it would e wrong not to tell him. She flipped back and forth as they floated along then, when they were halfway back, it just burst out of her.

'I heard them!' Tiaan said suddenly.

'What?' He roused from his thoughts.

'When the gate opened, in Tirthrax…'

He spun around, staring at her. 'Yes? Yes?'

'I heard a host of people crying out in agony.'

He put his hands on her cheeks, probing her eyes with his own. 'What did you hear?'

'They were lost' she said softly, closing her eyes and immersing herself in the horror of it. 'Lost in the void. It was terrible.'

'You heard,' he said. 'Ah, my clan, my clan!' He began to weep, but dashed the tears away. 'Before I do anything else, my dead must be honoured. I will find them and bring their bodies back, no matter how far I have to go or how long it takes.' He sprang out through the hatch.

When she looked back he was standing in the shooter's turret, legs spread, grim face fixed on the horizon. His cloak streamed out in the wind, lifting his hair, which had changed from black to silver since his coming to Santhenar. Tiaan wished she had not spoken.

Vithis worked Tiaan without respite. For the next trip, ten constructs were linked to hers, and on the one after that, fourteen, and they travelled more quickly. It took the most intense concentration to draw enough power, and keep it flowing smoothly. The amplimet could handle it, though Tiaan was not sure how much more she could take. The inside of her skull felt as if hot channels had been bored through it. Once, using her talent had been pure pleasure and the highest fulfilment she could imagine. No more – now there was just pain and a feeling of being driven beyond her strength. She wasn't a human being, or even a slave. She was just a tool to be used and discarded when it was worn out.

They stopped for lunch in the mid-afternoon, while twenty constructs were linked to her machine On the trip after that, the number was thirty. By the time she had hauled all those to the field, it was long after dark.

There was no break, apart from dinner eaten while they waited for another thirty to be linked up. They kept going all through the night, pulling thirty each time, Vithis driving her mercilessly. Dawn revealed another thirty, ready to be linked up, but Tiaan could do no more.

'My brain is burning.' Unfastening her belt, she slid off the chair onto the metal floor.

Thyzzea and one of the soldiers carried Tiaan out, laying her on the brittle grass. A healer was brought, then Urien appeared and laid her hands on Tiaan's head.

'No harm has been done,' said Urien, 'hut you must take better care of her, Vithis.'

'We've moved only a hundred and forty constructs,' said Vithis. 'At this rate it'll take six weeks.'

'That's a hundred and forty more than was thought possible yesterday, and if you work her to death you'll get no more.'

'In two weeks our supplies will run out, Urien!'

'Surely you understand the risk you're taking?'

All right!' he said. 'But there's got to be a way.'

Tiaan lay in a daze, watching as Vithis held a heated conference with Urien, Tirior, and other Aachim she did not know.

A buzzing started in her ears, and hot flushes began to radiate out from the centre of her head. Tiaan heard sounds like speech but could no longer make out the words. She turned over, shielding her face from the sun.

Thyzzea helped Tiaan to a seat in the shade and the symptoms gradually faded. She was sitting there, sipping at a cool drink, when Vithis and Urien approached.

'How are you feeling?' said Urien.

Tiaan told her. 'You're killing me.'

'We've got to move the constructs faster,' said Vithis. 'Should the lyrinx come back we'll be defenceless.' 'We've faced this problem before,' said Urien. "There may be a way. Your sickness is not from the amount of power you're drawing, Tiaan, but the source!

'I don't understand; said Tiaan.

'You're taking all that power from one small field and the draw is too concentrated; that's why it's damaging you. But if you were to draw from a number of fields at once, spreading the load evenly, you could take as much, or even more, without harm.'

'I've tried it before. As soon as I turn to the new field, I lose track of the old.'

Urien rose, drawing Vithis out of earshot. They had another long, heated argument before heading their separate ways.

'What was that about?' Tiaan asked Thyzzea after they had gone.

'It has to do with forbidden knowledge, and the danger of giving it to you.'

'What forbidden knowledge?'

'I don't know.'

'Suppose that it works,' said Tiaan, 'and the constructs are saved. What then?'

'Better to ask my father that,' said Thyzzea, looking worried. 'But…'

'Yes?'

'How could they ever let you go?'

Twenty-one

Ullii had gone, fleeing into the night. Nish began to run after her but Flydd took hold of his collar. 'You'll only make it worse, if that's possible. She'll come back when she has to – I hope!

'I have to explain,' Nish said desperately. 'I've got to tell her I'm sorry. It was an accident, surr. She'll think I don't care.'

'You'll never find her,' said Flydd. 'No one is better at hiding than Ullii.'

'What if she doesn't come back? What about my child?'

'You'd better pray she does, for all our sakes. And that when she does, you know what to say to her.'

What could he say? I'm sorry I killed your long-lost brother, Ullii. I didn't mean to. It was pointless.

They searched the clearing, using Flydd's ghost light. Both of his opponents were dead, as was the soldier by the air-floater. The one Nish had wounded in the leg had fled, leaving only a few specks of blood on the leaf litter. There were three more bodies in the wrecked air-floater, two soldiers and the pilot, a young woman who looked unharmed but was already growing cold. She had a broken neck.

Nish stood by her, his guts crawling with horror. She had been younger than he was. The young soldier, too. 'How could everything have gone so wrong?' he said softly. 'I tried so hard.'

'I told you I wanted to capture the air-floater,' said Flydd, glaring at Nish like an executioner choosing his next victim.

'I didn't hear your orders, surr. I was coming across to ask you what you'd said-'

'Couldn't you have thought before you threw your cudgel?'

'There was no time. The air-floater was coming down fast, surr, and I knew we couldn't deal with that many soldiers. If they'd landed, they'd have had us. I reacted instinctively.'

Surely it was obvious that I planned to escape in it?'

'No surr, it wasn't. I'm sorry.'

I was going to rendezvous with Irisis and Fyn-Mah, then stop your wretched father before he attacks the lyrinx and destroys another army. Now its fate is out of my hands. All I can do is run like the whipped cur I am.'

Nish hung his head. What a miserable, useless worm he was. He wanted to crawl under a rock and die. The wound in his side was painful but had stopped bleeding, so, not wanting to draw any more attention to himself, he didn't mention it.

'Why so few in the air-floater?' said Flydd to himself.

'Perhaps the others got out on the other side of the forest.'

Flydd took no notice. 'Who was directing them? This search must have been led by a querist, at the very least, but there's no sign of one. Unless this seeker was doing it, shielded from us and under their control.'

Nish was sure he knew what Flydd was thinking: that he, Nish, was the most worthless fool who had ever drawn breath. That his father had been right – he was a walking disaster.

'I'll keep going north,' said Flydd. 'Not that I can do anything there, except sweat blood about the war. At least with Mylii dead they won't be able to track me.'

'Do you want me to come too?' Nish asked in a low voice. The way Flydd was talking, Nish was afraid of being left behind.

'Want?' said Flydd. 'Of course I don't want you – though I suppose I've got to have you.' He gave Nish a furious glare, then relented. 'Come on, lad, put it behind you. You clearly didn't know I planned to take the air-floater, and maybe you were right. Six soldiers probably were beyond me. In other circumstances you'd be a hero.'

'But I killed Mylii, surr.'

'A tragic accident that could have happened to anyone. Besides, he reared back onto the knife after you told him to hold still, so you can hardly be blamed for it.'

'I thought he was attacking Ullii' said Nish. 'I was trying to save her, and now he's dead – an innocent man.'

'You were doing your best, so let's say no more, eh? Besides, it remains to be seen whether he was innocent.'

'What do you mean?'

'Was he embracing his sister, or holding her for the soldiers? Did he put his arms around her because he loved her, or because Ghorr ordered him to find her? But enough of this speculation – fit yourself out and gather what food you can, and make it snappy.'

They replaced their rags with clothes from the victims, the least bloodstained garments they could find. Nish's were too big, but he found a pair of boots that were roughly his size, and a hat. In ten minutes they were ready. Pilfered packs contained spare clothing, food for a couple of weeks, water bottles and all the other gear that soldiers carried. Nish had a shiny new sword, unused by the look of it. Flydd had taken the hedron from the air-floater's controller, as well as the chart-maker's spyglass, which had survived the crash.

'Not sure what use this will be,' he said, tossing the crystal in his hand. 'But you never know. Let's go. This place will be swarming with scrutators in a few hours.'

Are we going to the rendezvous?'

'There's no point. By the time we walked all that way, Irisis would be long gone. You can't hide an air-floater in country like this.'

'Where are we going?'

'Into the wilderness.' Flydd smiled grimly, as if at some private joke.

'What about Ullii?' Nish's voice squeaked. 'We can't leave her.'

'There's no way of knowing where she is. If she wants to find us she will, though that's hardly likely now.'

He said it without rancour, but Nish cringed.

It was another sweltering day. They walked all that morning, taking advantage of the cover along creeks, mostly dry, and ridges, whenever they ran in the right direction, which was not often. They saw no sign of Ullii.

In the afternoon, Nish began to flag. The wound in his ribs grew increasingly painful but he could not stop to attend to it. He was continually falling behind and Flydd kept yelling at him to keep up. The scrutator had not mentioned Mylii's death again but Nish ached with guilt.

Flydd seemed to be making for a hill knobbed with round red boulders, one of many in this endless landscape of undulating plains and gentle mounded hills. Nish up-ended his water bottle but the few drops it contained barely wet his tongue. They had crossed half a dozen watercourses in the afternoon, all dry. He sat on a rock, staring at the ground. It was hard to find the will to go on. Every moment of the day he'd regretted his follies; he'd looked everywhere for Ullii but she was gone and his child with her. Why couldn't he have thought before he brought down the air-floater, or held the knife to Mylii's back? Why hadn't he realised Ullii was pregnant? Why, why, why?

The scrutator appeared. 'What's the matter? We can't stop out in the open.'

Nish struggled to his feet. Pain spread from the wound up into his shoulder, and down his hip to the outside of his leg. His feet hurt, too, for the boots were too small and had already rubbed the skin off his toes and heels.

He fell several times on the way up the hill, which was steeper than it had appeared. Flydd, well ahead, did not notice. The next time Nish looked up, the old man had vanished.

Nish slipped on rubble. As he picked himself up, he spied another air-floater on the horizon. They couldn't see him from so far away, but he lay still until it drifted out of sight to the south. He had to crawl the rest of the way up the hill – his feet hurt too much to walk.

He eased between two boulders and saw Flydd sitting in the shade, eating another of those knobbly fruits, licking the skin with the gusto of a child with a piece of honeycomb. The green pulp had oozed all down his front and he hadn't noticed. I just saw an air-floater; Nish croaked.

'It's been there a while. We should be safe from it, unless they've picked Ullii up to track me.'

The cold was spreading across Nish's chest now, but his forehead was dripping with perspiration.

'Is something the matter?' said Flydd..

Nish managed a limp wave with one hand. 'S'orright,' he slurred, holding his side. 'Just a flesh wound.'

'Where?' Flydd unfastened his shirt. 'How did you get this?'

'Soldier in the forest. Stuck me in the ribs. Not serious.' Nish tried to lie down.

Now Flydd was furious. 'I'll be the judge of that. You're a fool, Nish. Why didn't you tell me?'

Nish groaned as the scrutator probed the wound with fingers that seemed deliberately rough.

'This should have been treated last night. Now it's infected. You need a swift boot up the arse!' Flydd proceeded to give Nish one, knocking him down on his face. He leapt up with the empty water bottles and disappeared.

Nish closed his eyes. He deserved no less.

It was dark by the time the scrutator returned. Nish woke from a feverish sleep to find Flydd looming over him.

I didn't want to risk a fire,' he said, the anger gone, 'but we've got to have hot water. That wound must be cleaned out.'

'I didn't think it was that bad,' said Nish, who felt cold all over. 'It didn't bleed much.'

'You've been lucky, but if the infection sets in you'll die of it. And that might not be such a bad thing,' Flydd said cheerfully. 'At least you won't be able to cock up anything else.' At the look on Nish's face, he added, 'I'm joking.'

The scrutator kindled a small fire well under the overhang of a boulder and climbed up to check that it could not be seen from above. 'This'll have to do. I'd have to be really unlucky for that to be spotted. But lately, I have been really unlucky.'

When the water was boiling, Flydd cleaned the wound with rags soaked in scalding water, before making a poultice of herbs beaten into the pulp of one of the knobbly fruits and binding it over the gash. Subsequently he stewed meat and vegetables for dinner.

Though famished, Nish was unable to take more than a few spoonfuls. The scrutator ate the rest, pulled his coat around him and closed his eyes. Nish did too, and slept, until his dreams forced him to wake.

Seven people had died last night and he was responsible for five of them. He hadn't meant to kill anybody, but they were dead nonetheless. It was not an attractive thought. The soldiers might have killed him without a qualm, but he could not feel the same way about their deaths. Mylii had been harmless. Worse still, the pilot of the air-floater had been a female, as most pilots were. He had killed a woman. In a world where the falling population was a disaster, to kill a woman of child-bearing age was the worst crime in the register. He let out a small, squeaking choke.

Flydd rolled over in his coat. 'What is it now?'

'I killed the pilot. A woman. What am I to do, Scrutator?'

'Find a way to atone for it. And you can start by not disturbing my sleep.' Flydd rolled back the other way, snapping the collar about his ears.

Nish kept seeing her face – she had been a pretty little thing. It became a night of horrors. Each time he dozed off he dreamed about the dead, but now all were women with babies in their bellies – his children. Each time, the dreams jerked him awake. Nish stared into the night but their faces were painted on the darkness. And Mylii. For all that it had been an accident, he had killed Ullii's brother and nothing could undo that. It must destroy everything that had ever been between him and Ullii. If only she would come back and he could, at least, explain.

Flydd's poultice proved efficacious, for Nish's wound was better in the morning. It was just as well, as Flydd's left thigh, the one torn open and burned by his first crystal, had become infected. Nish spent the best pan of an hour cleaning and dressing it in the foggy dawn, with the scrutator stoically enduring the pain.

There was no sign of Ullii. They continued north and west in silence. It was like being a slave all over again, only that Nish was pushing himself to the limit of his endurance. He'd hoped that exhausting mind and body might keep the nightmares at bay, but even in his most agonising moments, when the blisters on his feet had burst and he drove himself on raw, weeping flesh, the dead faces were there.

They began before dawn each morning and walked long into the evening. In this flat country they must have been making four or five leagues every exhausting day. Flydd matched Nish stride for stride for the next few days, despite the infection. Nish lost track of time, so long had the days been, and so full of torment.

The scrutator now took them on a westward path, towards the sea, not wanting to get too far from Jal-Nish's army. Outlandish though it was, he still intended to try and stop him. Flydd never gave up, no matter how hopeless things became, and that was a lesson to Nish.

However, when they had wandered more than forty leagues and seen not a soul, one day Flydd began to fall behind. Around dusk, Nish turned to say something to him, only to discover that the scrutator was just a dot on the horizon.

Nish sat down to wait for him, but resting was too pleasant. There was no pain in it. He drove himself back to the ailing figure.

'What's the matter?'

'My leg,' Flydd gritted. 'I can barely lift it.' In a few hours his left thigh had swollen to twice the size of the right, and the wound had become an inflamed, weeping sore.

The dust cloud was moving in a south-westerly direction.

The spyglass resolved it into a large column of soldiers, set to pass a league or two north of him. He made signals with his coat until his eyes were raw, and eventually a small group broke away from the column, heading in his direction.

Nish watched the riders with a feeling of mounting terror. If the army belonged to the scrutators they would torture him publicly, to serve as a lesson to others. For malefactors in every profession or trade, an ironic and appropriate death had been prescribed, and each victim's fate was subsequently written into the Histories, so that all would know that justice had taken its merciless course.

Nish could not forget poor Ky-Ara, the clanker operator who had gone mad with grief at the loss of his machine. He had killed another operator then run renegade with the man's clanker. Flydd had ordered the clanker dismantled before Ky-Ara's eyes and every part of it fed into the furnaces. Ky-Ara had been forced to destroy the controller hedron himself, but instead had called so much power into the crystal that it had burned him from the inside out.

Nish was used to death, in all its forms and horrible finality. He hoped he could face his with dignity intact; he had to, though it would not redeem him. The Histories would describe his folly and inglorious end for as long as they endured. He would be a cautionary tale for the children of the next twenty generations. The only consolation would be that he had done his best.

A horseman trailing a blue banner galloped towards the foot of the hill. Three others followed. Nish waved the coat and trudged down to meet them.

'Did you put out the fire?' Flydd rasped as Nish passed by.

'It's an army. I signalled them and riders will be here shortly.'

'If you're wrong you won't have to worry about the scrutators. I'll kill you myself!'

Nish avoided Flydd's eye and kept going. At the base of the hill he stood on a fallen tree trunk, waving as the soldier with the banner raced up. Nish vaguely recognised the fellow, a pitch-black, good-looking man with a halo of frizzy hair and a nose as hooked as a parrot's beak. What was the name? Tchlrrr, of course. He'd accompanied Nish on that humiliating embassy from General Trout to the Aachim Nish felt his face grow hot at the thought of it.

Tchlrrr grounded his pole. Two soldiers trotted forward, followed by an officer in a cockaded hat, and another pair of soldiers. The uniforms were familiar.

'Who are you?' called the first soldier. 'Why did you signal us?'

Nish took a deep breath. 'I'm Cryl-Nish Hlar. My travelling companion is Scrutator Xervish Flydd, and he is sorely wounded. Without the service of a healer he may die.'

'C-Cryl-Nish Hlar!' stammered the officer in the middle. 'I've often w-wondered what happened to you. Come down.'

Nish practically fell off his rock. The officer was Prandie, one of the lieutenants of General Troist. Nish had saved Troist's twin daughters, Liliwen and Meriwen, from ruffians near Nilkerrand, a hundred and fifty leagues to the north, and subsequently rescued them from a collapsing underground ruin. The army must be Troist's, which meant that, for the moment, he was safe.

'Lieutenant Prandie,' he said. 'I'm so very glad to see you.'

Twenty-two

No questions were asked. The soldiers rigged a litter between their horses to convey a weak but querulous Flydd back to the main force. Nish rode behind Tchlrrr, keeping well out of the scrutator's way, and within the hour they had joined the column. Flydd was placed in a wagon pulled by one of the clankers, and Troist's personal healer called to attend him. Healing was a mancer's Art these days and had advanced rapidly during the war, so Nish had hopes that she could save him.

Nish was taken into another clanker, where he lay on the floor and tried to sleep, though that was hardly possible with the bone-jarring shudder of the machine, and the squeals, rattles and groans of its metal plates against each other. Clankers lived up to their name. However, he did doze, to be shaken awake in the late afternoon. Finding good water, the convoy had stopped for the night.

'General Troist wishes to see you, surr,' said an aide.

Nish got out the rear hatch and looked around, rubbing his eyes and feeling more than a little anxious. Shortly General Troist appeared, a stocky, capable man. His sandy curls were longer than before, and tousled as though he'd been running his hands through them all day. His blue eyes were bloodshot, his uniform the worse for wear, but the soldiers saluted him smartly. Troist drove his troops hard, but not as hard as himself, and he took care of the least of his men before attending to his own needs. They loved him for it.

'It's good to see you again, Cryl-Nish,' Troist said. 'Come this way.'

Nish followed, sweating. True, he had saved Troist and Yara's daughters, twice, but there had also been that unpleasant scene at Morgadis with Yara's sister. Mira, and the fiasco of his embassy to the Aachim camp. Every success was matched by a failure. And no doubt Troist already knew of Flydd's fall, if not Nish's own.

They went up the line to Troist's command clanker, a great twelve-legged mechanical monstrosity the size of a small house, with a catapult and two javelards mounted on the shooter's platform. Nish had never seen one like it. Troist offered him a seat, an oval of slotted metal with an embroidered cover depicting a vase of bluebells, cheerfully but amateurishly sewn. The work of his daughters, no doubt. Troist was a methodical general, but a sentimental father.

'What are you doing here, Cryl-Nish?' Troist asked, holding out a leather flask of ale.

Nish took a careful sip, not sure what to say. The general knew his duty and, if that required him to give Nish up, he must do so whatever his personal feelings. I was sure you'd know all about it,' he said obliquely.

Troist frowned. 'Know what? Tell me straight, Cryl-Nish, I don't have time for foolery.'

So he hadn't heard. Nish saw a chance to save himself, and Flydd, if he could just put things the right way. 'The great battle at Snizort, weeks ago.'

'I knew there was going to be one, but I've not heard how it went. There's been no news from the south in a month, so I brought my army this way to find out.'

'No news at all?' said Nish. The scrutators prided themselves on their communications; it enabled them to control the world.

'The lyrinx locate our messengers from the air. They've also worked out how to track our skeets and kill them. It's next to impossible to get messages through to garrisons along the Sea of Thurkad. Were you at the battle for Snizort?'

'Yes,' said Nish, 'though not as a soldier. I was held prisoner bv Vithis the Aachim.'

'You two have come a long way on foot, with such injuries.' He was studying Nish as if he suspected something had gone unsaid.

Nish wasn't sure how to proceed. If the general discovered what had really happened, he might clap Nish in the brig and deliver him up to the scrutators. But if Nish lied…

He took a deep breath. 'I must be completely honest with you, surr, no matter what it may cost me. The Snizort node exploded, destroying the field, and after that the battle went terribly wrong, for neither our clankers nor the Aachim's constructs could move.'

'I knew something was amiss,' said Troist, rubbing his lower belly, for he suffered with his bowels. 'Tell me all that has happened.'

Nish related the tale of the desperate battle at Snizort, the failure of the node and the consequent slaughter, the scrutators saving what remained of the army with their airborne mirrors, the underground fire and the abandonment of Snizort by the lyrinx. He hesitated, then told the rest, including Flydd's slavery and his own condemnation by his father, the escape, his folly which had caused the death of Mylii and the loss of Ullii, and his father's mad quest to attack the lyrirrx. 'That's all, surr; he said finally, 'save for a secret to do with the node-'

'I don't want to know any mancers' secrets, lad,' said the general. 'Go on.'

'I've been condemned by my own father, surr, and Scrutator Flydd by the entire Council. We fled for our lives, and now you have us…' Nish could think of no defence, nothing at all. 'You must send me back in chains, I suppose.'

'I have no orders concerning you, Cryl-Nish, and must rely on my judgment. In the past you served me well. I haven't forgotten that.'

Nish blushed to think of his flight from Mira's house with his trousers about his ankles. 'But there was an incident at Morgadis…'

'A misunderstanding on your part, Mira tells me. She was mortified that you fled her home in terror of your life, but I'll leave her to explain when next you meet. She's suffered terribly, my wife's sister, and can be emotional.. 'He grimaced. To Troist, such feelings were a private business. To matters that do concern me. You say that the surviving army is being led into greater peril.'

'My father, Jal-Nish… I don't know how to say it, General Troist, but his injuries have transformed him. He's a bitter man, full of hate and rage. He even condemned me-'

'You told me already.' Troist turned away, his mouth hooked down. 'How any father could do that to a son – the man is surely a monster. And you say Ghorr required it of Jal-Nish, to prove his worth? How can that be? Duty is everything to me, yet such deeds shake my faith in our leaders.'

'After the battle, the lyrinx withdrew south-west from Snizort, towards the Sea of Thurkad/ said Nish. 'My father plans to hunt them down, once he's dragged our clankers to the nearest field, and surely he's done that by now.'

'Where would that be?' Unrolling a canvas chart, Troist spread it on a table.

Nish heard shouting outside, then the rear hatch was jerked up and Flydd appeared in the opening, swaying on his feet. His face was grey-green, his lips blue and he was clearly in great pain. It had not improved his temper. A young woman in a healer's cap clutched at his arm but he pushed her away.

'I'm Scrutator Xervish Flydd!' he rapped. 'You are General Troist?'

'I am,' said Troist, leaping to the hatch. Are you sure you're-'

'Surr, I implore you,' cried the healer, tugging at Flydd's sleeve. He fixed her with a glare of such ferocity that she drew back, twisting her fingers together. 'This is most unwise. You risk-'

'You've done your work, now leave me be!' snapped Flydd. 'The fate of the world hangs upon my stopping Jal-Nish. Your coming is timely, General Troist.' He tried to pull himself up but let out a gasp and fell against the sill of the hatch.

Troist and the healer lifted him in and guided him to a seat. Behind Flydd's back Troist beckoned the healer, a sturdy young woman in her mid-twenties, blonde of hair and blue of eye, with worry lines etched across a broad forehead. She sat in the shadows, looking troubled.

'You didn't think so a few hours ago,' Nish said quietly.

'And I'll make you suffer for disobeying my order,' Flydd snapped. 'Out of the way, boy! The men have work to do.'

Nish moved back next to the healer, feeling empty inside.

'I value Cryl-Nish Hlar's counsel, surr' Troist said evenly. 'He has served me well on more than one occasion.'

'And failed you disastrously on others, no doubt,' said the scrutator curtly. 'To business.'

'If you would take the rear seat for the moment, surr,' said Troist. 'Cryl-Nih was briefing me on the situation at Snizort and I value his account.'

Nish sat up, astonished. It was unheard of for anyone, even a general, to defy a scrutator. Of course, Flydd was now ex-scrutator, but it would be prudent to avoid offending him. What kind of a man was Troist, to stand up for someone who was of no further benefit to him?

'More than you fear the just wrath of the scrutators?' Flydd said menacingly. He was unused to defiance and did not like it.

'I do fear the just wrath of the scrutators, surr/ said Troist, 'as any sane man would. I even fear the wrath of those who are no longer scrutators, should I meet one of them.' His eyes held Flydd's and, though Flydd played the game of staring him down the general did not look away.

'Is there no secret you haven't blabbed, boy?' cried Flydd.

Nish made allowances. The scrutator was in pain and not himself.

'I believe the lad felt he was doing his duty/ Troist put in. 'If you please, surr.' He indicated the seat up the back. 'Cryl-Nish, would you go on?'

Flydd sank onto the bench, wincing. He delivered the healer such a black look that she shrank into the corner.

Nish collected his thoughts. The constructs were being hauled north-west to a node. About here, I'd guess' He pointed The lyrinx fled this way He traced a line on the map with his fingertip, south-west towards the narrowest section of the Sea of Thurkad. "But that was weeks ago. They could be anywhere by now.'

'Only the boldest of men would engage the enemy so close to the sea,' said Troist. 'Reinforcements could fly from Meldorin in less than an hour.'

'Jal-Nish thinks his forces will have the advantage of a demoralised and weakened enemy' said Flydd. 'He doesn't know the lyrihx as I do. They abandoned Snizort because they'd got what they wanted, and they'll be waiting for him.'

'I don't know that country well' said Troist, 'but something nags at me, Scrutator. Why has the Council given Jal-Nish command? He's junior to them all.'

'The scrutators are afraid to lead' said Flydd, 'for none are battle tacticians and they value their own skins too highly. Yet they can't bear to give up control to the generals, so Jal-Nish is the only choice. He's a dangerous man, General Troist, for he truly believes he's better than them all.'

'What does he want?'

'Not gold. Nor knowledge, nor the company of beautiful women. Jal-Nish Hlar desires only one thing – to take over the Council and impose his twisted will on the entire world. He's a driven man.'

Someone rapped on the rear hatch. The healer threw it up and a young aide whispered something in Flydd's ear. Flydd nodded and made to climb out, but a man concealed by cloak and hood pushed forward. He and Flydd spoke in low voices for several minutes, and Nish caught only one phrase. At the node?' the man hissed in surprise, before turning away.

'General Troist?' said Flydd.

'Yes?' Troist was puzzled by the interaction.

'That was my personal prober, Eiryn Muss, who's just had urgent news by skeet.'

Nish gaped, for even under his cape the man had not resembled the fat halfwit from the manufactory. 'How did he know you were here?'

Muss's talent for spying, and finding, verges on the miraculous-' said Flydd. He gnawed at a fingernail before going on. Sometimes, beyond the miraculous. His news: Jal-Nish's army left the node some days back, heading for Gumby Marth, a valley east of the coastal town of Gnulp Landing, here. It's preparing to do battle in a few days with a small force of lyrinx, maybe seven thousand. It's a trap, of course.' 'How can you be sure?' said Troist.

'Muss could find no evidence that the rest of the lyrinx have withdrawn across the sea, apart from a small number of fliers, so they must be hidden, to draw Jal-Nish in. And they would number an additional twelve thousand, or more.' 'And Jal-Nish's army?' 'Forty thousand men.'

A man so bold, so forceful and aggressive, might even beat such a force of lyrinx,' said Troist thoughtfully.

'Not on a battlefield of their choosing. If he fights, we'll lose the entire army and a month later the enemy will be dining on the fat burghers of Lybing.' 'How can you be sure?'

'I was there when Jal-Nish addressed the Council, and I know him better than he knows himself. His tactics rest on the enemy being a demoralised rabble, but the lyrinx are leading them into a trap. More than twenty thousand of them got away from Snizort, and that many alone would be the equal of his army. To be sure, Jal-Nish has five thousand clankers, but the country near Gnulp is rugged and rocky, with great swamps to either side. Our machines will be little use there. But that's not my main worry.' 'What is?' said Troist.

As you said, the lyrinx can swiftly bring in reinforcements from Meldorin, by flying and by boat. Whatever position we occupied, they could surround us. The army would be annihilated; humanity could not recover from such a loss.'

Troist walked six paces to the empty operator's seat, head bowed beneath the low roof. He turned back. What do you have in mind? My force might make the difference if I could get there in time.'

'Or it might be lost as well. Flydd said I'd prefer to avoid battle, if that's possible.

'What's your plan, surr?'

"To wrest control of the army from Jal-Nish and retreat back east to safety.'

And then take on the scrutators, Nish guessed.

'How are you going to do that?'

'I won't know until I get there.'

'If you're planning a mancers' duel…' Troist frowned. 'How can you be sure you'll win? He has a reputation for cunning.'

As do I, General.'

'Of course' Troist said hastily. And yet-'

'If you don't think I'm up to it, say so!' snapped Flydd.

'Certainly I do… Er, when you're in health…'

'Then I'll just have to get better in a hurry, won't I?'

'What if the enemy attacks before you're ready? If the main army of the west is lost at Gumby Marth, mine cannot long survive' said Troist. 'Scrutator Flydd, there's no time to wait. We must risk all to save all. We must march to the rescue straight away.'

Troist glanced at Flydd, who was rubbing the bandage on his left thigh. A dark bloodstain, spiralling like a coiled snake, showed through it.

'I suppose we must,' said Flydd.

'Is that an order from the scrutator?'

'It is.'

'Then I will obey it, since I have no official reason to suppose you are scrutator no longer.'

Troist's army had grown both in men and in efficiency since Nish had left it, long months ago. It now numbered thirteen thousand men and more than nine hundred clankers. A powerful force, and seasoned in a number of battles, though seven thousand of the enemy would be its match.

That night after a dinner that sat uncomfortably in Nish's shrunken belly, they stood around the chart table to make plans. Yellow globes glowed to either side.

The general was measuring distances on his map with a pair of silver dividers. 'Presently we're here, around twenty leagues north-west of Snizort, and only a few leagues from the sea. Gumby Marth is some forty leagues south. In good conditions, my clankers can manage ten leagues in daylight, so it'll take us four or five days to get there.'

"Too long.' Flydd lay back in his chair. He was too weak to sit upright for any time, but would not go to his bed. 'What if we travelled through the night?' He already knew the answer, but wanted to hear the general say it, or make excuses.

'We have to sleep sometime, surr, and that's as good as impossible in moving clankers. Travelling part of the night, we might do another league or two, where the country permits us, of course.'

'Of course,' Flydd said sardonically. 'And it does, most of the way from here to the Landing, I believe. It's open plains and gentle hills, easy going for men and clankers alike. The last five or ten leagues are rugged, forested too, but that could be to our advantage.'

'Unfortunately…' Troist hesitated.

Flydd smiled, as if he had been expecting it. 'Yes?'

'We don't have enough clankers to transport thirteen thousand men.'

'Do the numbers.'

'What?' said Troist. 'Oh! We have roughly nine hundred clankers. If each carried ten soldiers, which is their limit, that's only two-thirds of my force.'

'How many are mounted?'

'Another eight hundred and fifty, more or less.'

'The riders should be able to keep up with the clankers.'

'If their mounts don't go lame.'

'Any that go lame, we'll eat,' said Flydd. 'The horses, that is. So all we have to do is cram another soldier inside, and two up on top with the shooter, and we can do it.'

'In theory.' said Troist, though it'll put a big strain on the mechanisms and the operators, not to mention the soldiers.'

'Not as big a strain as facing the lyrinx all by yourself soldier, after they've annihilated Jal Nish's army.'

'If they come upon us instead of Jal-Nish s army, they'll destroy us.'

'I may be able to prevent them finding us,' said Flydd, 'with help from your military mancer I propose to attempt a form of cloaking.'

'Cloakers haven't been a great success with clankers, surr, with all due respect.'

'This spell is greatly improved' said Flydd. 'I learned of it in Nennifer just a few months ago. I think it'll prove satisfactory, for a short time at least.'

'If you say so, surr,' said Troist, 'then I suppose it could be done.' He looked dubious.

Troist was an ambitious man, but an honourable one. He did not want to drive his men or his machines beyond their breaking point, as a headlong march was likely to do. And perhaps he lacked confidence in his ability to fight a full-scale battle. Troist had been a junior officer when the bulk of his army was destroyed by the lyrinx attack on Nilkerrand, and all the senior officers killed. He had built this army from the surviving rabble, scattered across a hundred leagues of country. Troist had done a brilliant job and his soldiers would have followed him anywhere, but he surely worried about his limitations. His skirmishes with the enemy had involved no more than a few hundred soldiers; here he must manage thirteen thousand. If he achieved the impossible, it would make him. Should he fail, he and his army, and Flydd and Nish, would end up in the bellies of the enemy.

Flydd seemed to be weighing the general up. Finally he nodded to himself, 'Then let it be done.'

The fretting healer, who had been sitting in the shadows behind Flydd since dinner, said, 'Surr, such a journey is likely to kill you.'

Flydd swung around in the metal seat. 'What business is that of yours?'

The healer was shocked. 'Surr-'

'What are you doing here anyway, Spying on my secret councils?'

'I'

'I told her to sit there, Scrutator!' Troist said coldly. 'And I'll thank you not to harass my healers, or anyone else under my command.'

'How dare you tell me what I may or may not do!' cried Flydd. 'I could break you to a common soldier for such insolence.'

Troist stood up. Though a compact man, he had to bend his head under the low roof. 'Then break me you must, Scrutator Flydd, for I will defend my healer, as I would any soldier in my army, to the last breath.'

Flydd hauled himself out of the seat, glowering at the general; Troist stood his ground. Nish trembled for what might happen.

Suddenly Flydd let out a great, booming laugh. 'I like you, General Troist. You're my kind of man.' He put out his twisted hand.

After a momentary hesitation, Troist took it, though it was some time before the wary look left his eyes. 'I'll see to the orders,' he said. 'We move in thirty minutes.'

Nish wasn't sure whether to be glad or sorry. He hoped he'd done the right thing this time, but what if it all went wrong and the lyrinx attacked Troist's army instead of Jal-Nish's much larger one? That worry was soon dwarfed by another that had been growing ever since the possibility had first been raised. What would happen when he met his father again? Just the thought made his heart race and his palms sweat.

Twenty-three

Someone was screaming, a long, drawn-out wail of anguish that rasped at Ullii's nerves. Having lost her earmuffs and earplugs long ago, she could do no more than push a finger in each ear. It made no difference – the dreadful wailing penetrated her entire body. It came out of the ground up her legs; down from the sky through her skull; it was everywhere. She ran into the night and the sound followed her.

Ullii burst through thickets, heedless of the brambles tearing through her clothes and scoring her baby-soft skin. She crashed over crumbling embankments, through sandpaper shrubbery and into a boggy wallow where buffalo came down to a creek to drink. She splattered through the muck but the ghastly sound went with her, as if a ghost had thrust its head inside hers and was screaming into her brain.

Ullii slipped in the mud, fell into cool water and, as she went under, the sound cut off. The relief was so miraculous that she lay on the bottom, thinking that she might stay there forever. She felt no urge to breathe; there was no reason to live. Her beloved Mylii was gone, snatched away the instant she'd found him. Killed, murdered by Nish, her lover. He'd done it deliberately, to hurt her. He must have, or he would have come after her and told her how sorry he was. But he wasn't sorry. He didn't care about Mylii, or the baby, or her.

Flydd and Irisis, once her friends, were nearly as bad, hey'd lied to her, used her, and when they didn't want her any longer, they'd simply abandoned her.

Her body's will to live drove Ullii to the surface. She stood op in the shallow water and breathed. The screaming had stopped but the pain was still there, and it was unendurable. Reaching inside herself, Ullii flicked the switch that severed her consciousness. Blessed oblivion.

An hour later she was still standing there, seeing nothing, hearing nothing, feeling nothing.

A memory woke in her and Ullii realised that she was standing in waist-deep water, tears streaming down her cheeks. Her beloved Mylii lay in his blood in the clearing, alone and abandoned.

Ullii had no idea where she was. In that fit of madness and grief she might have run in any direction. She searched the lattice for her brother's knot, which had appeared so miraculously last night, but it was not there. Mylii was dead; his knot had vanished forever and she was lost.

The sense of abandonment grew stronger. Mylii, Mylii, lying on the hard ground all alone. Was there a way to find him? He'd left no trace in the lattice, nor had the other dead at the air-floater. Not even the unfortunate little pilot made a mark now, for death wiped all knots away.

But the air-floater was powered by a controller, and it must still have a working crystal. She sought for it but found nothing – Flydd had taken the crystal with him and he was beyond range. Deeper, further, she sought; there had to be some trace left. At last she picked up a tiny smudge of aura, a chip broken off the controller crystal in the crash. It gave her the direction. Ullii turned that way and started running.

It was only an hour off dawn when she got there. The declining moon slanted across the clearing to light up the canvas of the air-floater from behind. The collapsed airbag was a crumpled rag outlined by black struts and wires. The little pilot lay with her head over the side, her neck bent at an unnatural angle.

Ullii only had eyes for the slim shape lying in the moon-shadow: beloved Mylii. She did not run. Ullii was afraid to approach him too quickly.

Stopping on the far side of the clearing, she stared at her brother Unlike the pilot and the soldiers, who all looked dead, he just appeared to be sleeping. She felt as her sensitive eyes strained to pierce the blackness that she saw his chest rise and fall She tried to make out his features but they blurred into the dark.

She allowed herself to hope that it had just been a horrible nightmare. She did not want to wake him in case it turned out to be real. How could he be dead? Nish was a kind, gentle man who had done so much for her. He would not harm Mylii. It had to be a dreadful mistake, a dream that she had woken from. Or was it? She felt so confused.

Ullii took a slow, fluid step, careful to make no sound. Any noise might wake her brother and everything would turn out wrong. A warm breeze soughed through the treetops, curling round the clearing and tickling the back of her neck, lifting the hair of her nape just as it lifted the dry leaves on the floor of the clearing, sending them whirling like fairy dancers in a circle. It made her smile. Mylii would have loved to see it – he had always been fond of music and dancing.

She took another step, and her brother's prone form seemed to shift, as if moving to a more comfortable position, before settling back into sleep with a little sigh. The gesture was so familiar that it made her heart ache. Tears sprang to Ullii's eyes and suddenly she had to take him in her arms.

Her small feet made barely a sound as she ran. From halfway across the clearing, Ullii called her brother's name Again he seemed to move, then suddenly went still, and with every step she took Mylii grew more rigid. The silver bracelet on his wrist was a manacle fixing him to the earth.

'Mylii!' she cried, but he no longer seemed to be breathing.

She crossed the short distance that separated them and threw herself at him. 'Mylii!'

He did not move. Mylii was as unyielding as a log. Ullii pushed her arms under his back. A bubble burst in his throat and the remaining air sighed out of his lungs. The ground was damp beneath him. His whole back was wet, and when she withdrew her hands and held them up, his congealed blood was black in the moonlight.

'Mylii.' she wailed, picking him up in her arms, holding his body tightly as she rocked hack and forth, back and forth…

A faint ticker-tick-tick roused her this time. It was an air-floater, not far away. Ullii sat up, not so much listening as watching its knot in her lattice. It was roving back and forth across the country south of here, coming steadily closer as if searching. It had come after the wrecked air-floater, and something far more precious – Mylii the seeker.

The machine turned, flying directly towards the clearing. They were coming to take Mylii away. They must not get him. She tried to lift her brother, but he was heavier than he appeared. Ullii had him halfway to her shoulder when a sharp pain in her lower belly reminded her of the baby.

Taking Mylii under the arms, she tried to drag him, but had only gone three steps when the air-floater was overhead. It was bigger than the crashed one, and she could tell that there were scrutators aboard, though in her distress Ullii could not identify them.

'It's down there!' roared a barbed voice. 'Stay well up, Pilot. Captain, your troops must be ready for anything.'

If the scrutators caught her, they would use her in place of Mylii. She had to let her brother go. Gently laying the body down, she crouched beside him for a moment, saying her farewell. Her eye caught a gleam from the bracelet and she tried to unfasten it, as a token of him, but the clasp would not budge. No time to work on it; they were coming. Ullii scuttled into the trees.

The air-floater remained hovering above the clearing while soldiers came down on ropes. They were big, heavily armed, and Ullii was repulsed by the smell of their unwashed bodies. The first three assumed positions at the points of a triangle, crossbows thrust out, while the remainder came to ground inside the triangle. They formed more points and expanded outwards.

Lanterns were unshuttered and directed at the forest. The troops, heavily armoured and helmeted, looked like savage demons. Ullii could not bear to look at them – nor away from them.

Search it." said the captain, pointing to the wreckage of the air-floater. He shouted orders.

Powerful lanterns illuminated the wreckage. Two soldiers headed for it while others moved towards the edges of the clearing. Ullii crept away and, climbing a slender tree, little more than a sapling, took refuge in its canopy. It was so small they would never look for an enemy there. She had to stay close; she could not leave her brother.

The soldiers had set up their lanterns on poles and some began to quarter the clearing while others moved into the forest.

'Here's one,' someone called, bending over the still form of her brother. 'Hey! It's the black-haired seeker. He's dead.'

Dead! As the word echoed through her skull, Ullii almost fell out of the tree. Mylii was dead; she could no longer deny it. The leaves rustled and a man cried out, 'There's someone in the forest!'

The grimly efficient soldiers searched everywhere. They found more bodies: one of the soldiers from the first air-floater, then the dead in the wreckage. Ullii clung desperately to the trunk, fighting down an impulse to scream.

Finally the clearing was secured and the captain called up to the hovering air-floater, 'It's safe. There's no one about. It was just the wind.'

Someone shouted back, 'They're coming down. Stand to attention.'

Ropes whirred through pulleys and a big man in robes was lowered in a suspended chair.

Ullii choked, recognising him now. It was Chief Scrutator Ghorr, and he made a barbed, tangled knot in her lattice. She remembered Ghorr from the visit to Nennifer months ago. He had shown nothing but contempt for her. 'Scurry away, little mouse,' he'd said sneeringly. But subsequently Ullii had done what had never been done in the history of the world. She had used her lattice to get Irisis out of her cell without breaking the spell on the lock or setting off the alarm, and Ghorr's rage had shaken the foundations of Nennifer. Ullii was more afraid of him now, for she knew he wanted that secret even if he had to tear it out of her living body.

The air-floater swung in a gust, causing the rope to sway back and forth like a pendulum. The rotor roared as the terrified pilot tried to regain position but, before she could, Ghorr was dragged through the spiny upper branches, tearing his silken shirt to shreds. Bunches of hard leaves slapped him in the face, releasing a pungent oil that brought tears to his eyes.

'What the devil are you doing, Pilot?' he bellowed. 'Put me down, quick smart, or you'll go to the breeding factory!'

Soldiers ran back and forth, anxiously holding up their lanterns. Ghorr cleared the trees, though his shirt remained hanging from the spines. The pulley-man lowered him precipitously, whereupon two burly men ran to catch him as he swung across the clearing, cursing in a voice as much alarmed as furious.

Ghorr shook them off and wiped away the mortifying tears. His chest proved unexpectedly flabby, while the great belly was held in by a tightly-laced corset. One of the soldiers sniggered. Ghorr spun around furiously but could not identify the miscreant.

'My cloak!' he snapped.

It was tossed down at once. Pulling it around him he stalked off, wounded in dignity, to examine the crashed air-floater.

Two other scrutators came down in the hanging chair, the black-bearded, snake-eyed Fusshte and a cold, dumpy old woman whose name Ullii could not recall, though she remembered her knot in the lattice. She was just as hard and corrupt as the men.

The three scrutators gathered around the air-floater, inspected the dead then came to stand by Mylii. Lanterns flared brightly. One of the soldiers turned the body over.

Stabbed in the back' Ullii heard. See the knife wound here – it went straight into his heart."

Ghorr gestured for silence while he held his hands out, parallel to the ground muttering under his breath as he strained to perform some mancery. Fusshtes black eyes glittered in the lantern light.

'Flydd was here,' said Ghorr after a long interval.

'And he murdered the seeker so they could get away,' murmured Fusshte.

'He may have ordered it,' said the woman, 'but he did not do it. And since Ullii would not have killed her brother, it can only have been that black-hearted villain, Cryl-Nish Hlar.'

Ullii wept silently. It was as if the knife had been twisted in her own heart. Nish must really hate her. But why? She'd done everything he'd asked of her.

After so much trauma, Ullii would have fled,' said Ghorr.

'The body's growing stiff,' said Fusshte. "They're long gone, and without our seeker we'll never find them. We should have killed Flydd while we had him.'

'We'll wait for daylight,' said Ghorr. 'It won't be long now. Then we'll look for tracks. Since we've lost our seeker, we must find Ullii. I'll use her to hunt down Flydd and Cryl-Nish Hlar, and this time they must be executed on the spot.'

'What about the air-floater?' asked Fusshte.

'The artificers say it can be repaired, though it'll need a new rotor and controller crystal. We'll send a team back to fix the damage.'

And the dead?'

'Burn them.'

Ullii clung desperately to her tree as the bodies were dragged into the centre of the clearing like worthless pieces of rubbish. Ghorr crouched by Mylii for a moment, though Ullii could not see what he was doing. He stood up, gestured, and the soldiers piled faggots, branches and logs on top. It was all happening too quickly. She couldn't cope. She hadn't said goodbye to Mylii, taken care of his body, washed him or brushed his hair It was agony to watch, but neither could she cover her eyes.

A burning brand was thrust into the centre. The dry wood blazed up and within minutes the pyre was a mass of flame from one end to the other. The stench of burning flesh made her insides shudder.

The sun rose through the smoke. When the light was strong enough, the soldiers and the two scrutators crisscrossed the forest before picking up Flydd and Nish's tracks, heading north. The vile Fusshte was following another trail, which meandered like an ant walking across a piece of paper. It was the path Ullii had taken in her initial flight, though she did not recognise it. She had no memory of that time, nor ever would have.

The air-floater went after the two scrutators and disappeared from sight. Ullii dared not move, though she was now faint with thirst and hunger. The baby kicked feebly. Some hours later, Fusshte reappeared, tracking back. He began going through the forest in a series of parallel lines, methodically inspecting the ground and the trees. She felt sure he was going to discover her.

Fusshte came closer, studying marks on the bark of a nearby tree, claw gouges from some climbing animal. He turned to the northern sky, cocking his head as if listening for the return of the air-floater. Hearing nothing, he kept to his tracks, this time passing right by her sapling. Ullii prayed that she had left no marks on the bark.

Fortunately the ground was stony here. Ullii did not breathe as he went by, and Fusshte must have thought the sapling too small to bear her, for he did not look up. Soon he disappeared.

The day wore on. The fire died to ash and embers, though a stench of burnt flesh and hair lingered. Ullii remained where she was. Near dusk, the air-floater landed in the clearing. The three scrutators conferred on the ground for some little while, climbed in and it took off, heading south, as the sun plunged below the smoky horizon.

After an hour, when they were tar away. Ullii judged it was safe to come down. The moon had not yet risen but the starlight was more than enough for her eyes. The pyre no longer smoked. The fire had burned itself out.

She circled around the oval patch of ash, marked here and there with elongated humps, the ash-grey residue of the bodies. Something caught her attention, tangled around a white stick a few steps away from the pyre. It was a clump of long black hair, a few dozen strands torn from Mylii's head as they'd dragged him across.

Ullii reached out with a fingertip. The strands were as silky soft as her own hair. As she touched it, the place in her lattice that had once held his knot flared and faded. She shivered, then carefully freed the lock of hair and tied it around her throat.

Returning to the pyre, Ullii went to the place where her twin had been laid, staring at the dimly lit ridge of ash. She could not believe that Mylii was gone – that this was all there was of him.

Stepping into the warm ash, she began to sweep it away from around the ridge with her fingertips. The ash slipped through her fingers but there wasn't a grain in it. Where Mylii's head and body had been, the fire had burned so hot that even the bones had gone.

She flung the ash this way and that, crying for her brother. Then, on a rock not far away, the silver bracelet glinted in the starlight. It must have been pulled from his wrist as they dragged Mylii across. She picked it up, holding it in her cupped hands, and caught the scent of her brother on it. It was all there was left of him.

Cradling the bracelet to her breast, she wept her heart out. There was no longer any doubt that he was dead. Mylii was gone forever and she was all alone in the world.

The moon came up. Ullii was still sitting by the pile of ash, nursing the bracelet, utterly bereft. As the light slanted down into the clearing, her thoughts became increasingly bitter.

Nash must have murdered Mylii to show how much he hated her. Everything he'd done since making her pregnant in the balloon had been designed to hurt her. Nish was a cruel man and must be punished.

The baby kicked, sending a sharp pain through her overstretched bladder. Ullii looked into her lattice and, for the first time, saw the infant's tiny knot. It was beautifully regular and symmetrical, the way Nish's might have looked, if he'd had a talent. Wonderingly, she traced the curves, in and out, over and under, around and back, until she knew them perfectly.

The baby kicked again, and the knot trembled. The child was distressed, for Ullii had not eaten or drunk for a day. Food and drink were not even on her horizon. She was thinking that, though he obviously hated her, Nish had wanted the child.

The contradiction confused her. She stroked the bracelet, breathing in the fading scent of her brother. It was the only thing linking her to Mylii now. Wanting to fix that link, she slipped the bracelet over her hand and snapped down the catch. At first it was loose on her slender wrist, but then the links slithered together and it became so tight she could not slide her little finger underneath.

The baby kicked her bladder, three times in a row, and this time it really hurt. She touched the bracelet for comfort but saw an image of the three scrutators – Ghorr, Fusshte and the evil old woman – standing over her as if she were lying on a table. Ghorr turned to Fusshte, whispering in his ear, then they laughed.

Ullii cried out in horror and the baby began to kick furiously, doubling her over until she was on her hands and knees on the ground. She rolled onto her back, her hands on her belly, which seemed to calm the baby. Lying still, she changed her lattice so the child's knot filled her mind, mentally caressing the surfaces, which were as soft, as silky as her brother's hair. Mylii's face came to her, but as a child, and Ullii lost herself in memories of the time they had been little twins together, the pale and the dark, so perfectly matched.

The complement of each other When they had been perfectly happy.

She could hear their chidish chatter, their happy cries, but a sharp throb low down drove the memories away. 'Mylii' she gasped, clasping the bracelet in panic, but again came that flash of the scrutators.

Come to us, little seeker, mouthed Ghorr. We've work for you.

'Leave me alone,' she said aloud. 'My baby needs me.'

Baby? Ghorr said to the others. She can't have a baby – it'll ruin her precious talent.

She must have dreamed that, for the next instant they were gone, as if she'd only imagined it; then gone completely, her memories of the moment wiped clean.

Mylii wasn't there either, but that awful screaming rang in her ears again. She reached out to the baby's knot, for the screaming seemed to be coming from there. An agonising pain, far worse than the baby's kicks, sheared through her belly. She wrapped her arms around her stomach, trying to protect the baby, but the pain grew until it was like barbed hooks tearing through her.

Ullii made a supreme effort to reach beyond the pain but the barbs ripped through her flesh and she felt a great convulsion inside her, a shearing agony, as if the baby's sharp fingernails were tearing desperately at the walls of her womb. Something burst inside her, then water gushed out between her legs, carrying the baby with it.

'No!' Ullii screamed, falling to her knees and clawing at the ground, but it was too late.

The baby, a little boy no longer than her hand, lay in a puddle, kicking feebly. She picked him up, staring at him in wonder. He was pink and healthy, and so beautiful that she felt a flush of love, but as she nursed him in her hands, the cord stopped pulsing and her stomach contracted again and again to expel the afterbirth. Ullii lifted the baby to her breast.

'Yllii. Your name is Yllii,' she said, as if that could protect him.

She desperately wanted him to live, for it was the only happy link left between her and Nish, the only good memory of their time together, and she loved him so. Yullii gave one feeble suck, a little sigh, but his head fell away from the nipple and blood from his mouth trickled down breast. Ullii tried to blow the breath back into the infant but the pink colour faded steadily from his face. The baby breathed no more. Yllii was dead – her grief for her brother must have killed it, and it was all Nish's fault. He'd taken away everything good in her life.

Ullii felt a terrible, aching loss, but that was replaced by the most bitter fury at what Nish had done to her. A rage that could only be assuaged when he had suffered the way she, and Mylii, and little Yllii had.

I W ENTY-FOUR

Ullii dug a hole through the remains of the pyre, lined it with ash taken from the place where Mylii had lain, so that it made a grey blanket over the dry earth, then placed the tiny body of her baby inside. It was blue now, and even in the moonlight she could tell that he was not at peace. His fists were clenched, his toes curled, his eyes wide and his mouth blood-dark.

My poor little Yllii, she thought. You never did anything wrong. Why did you have to die? Ullii covered the tiny eyes and arranged the clump of Mylii's hair over the top, protectively. She tried to put the bracelet in too, but it would not come off. It was locked to her wrist. There was not a trace of Mylii's scent left on it; it had no sense of him at all. She filled in the hole and covered it with stones so that nothing could dig her baby up, continuing until the place was covered by a flat-topped cairn as high as her waist. Then, finally, Ullii broke down. Turning her face away, she began to walk blindly.

She woke with an ache in her belly that was more than hunger. Ullii had not eaten in days, but that was not the worst of it. Her empty womb was throbbing. She had failed in her duty to protect her child.

Ah, but who made you do it? The voice was a whisper in her head, a rich burr that reminded her of Mancer Flammas, who had let her live in his dungeon for five years, and never once harmed her. His kindly indifference meant more'to Ullii now than the professed friendship of Irisis and Flydd, or the supposed love of Nish. Their words had been empty, and in the and they had betrayed and abandoned her. Only Flammas had never let her down.

You were out of your mind with grief, came the voice again, fever having heard voices before, she assumed it was Flammas talking to her. You can't be blamed for protecting yourself. You loved your baby, despite the father.

I did love Yllii. I would have done anything for him. He was the only good thing that ever came from Nish.

Cryl-Nish is the very devil himself. He is evil incarnate, just like his father, and if you don't stop him he'll destroy the whole world.

'No!' she cried aloud, remembering Nish's many little kindnesses back at the manufactory, on the journey in the balloon, and fleeing from Tirthrax.

Cryl-Nish just lives to destroy everything good.

'What about that time in the balloon, when he saved me from the nylatl, and then I saved him? When we made our love in the balloon afterwards? He was the kindest, gentlest lover in the world.'

He wasn't in danger at all. He just did it to get his way with you. He used you from the very beginning.

Ullii knew that wasn't true, for she'd seen the look of terror on Nish's face as he clung, weaponless, to the ladder with the nylatl crouched over him. It had roused her protective instincts and she'd attacked the creature so furiously that it had scuttled away. But on the very first few times they'd met, Nish had manipulated her so she would cooperate in the search for Tiaan and the amplimet. He'd done it kindly, thoughtfully, but also because it was the only way to get what he wanted.

You see, said the voice that was so like Mancer Flammas, that's how clever he is. Cryl-Nish doesn't have to be a monster – he knows that you catch more wasps with syrup than with gall. Everything he's done since you met, every single thing, has been to get what he wants from you. He's even wickeder than his father. Everyone thinks he's just a bumbling fool, and it's the perfect disguise. It even fooled you.

'No!' she cried. 'Not Nish.' She put her hands over her ears. 'It's not true.'

The voice came through just as loud and clear. It is true, and you know it.

Why would he do this to me.'

He wants to take over the world and corrupt it in his own image. And only you can stop him.

'I can't do anything.'

You must. He's fooled everyone except you. You have to save the world, Ullii. No one else can.

'Why should I?'

Because you're good, and it's your duty.

'I don't care about duty.'

But you must take retribution for Cryl-Nish's wickedness, or little Yllii will never rest in his grave.

She began to cry. 'Go away. Don't torment me.'

The only way out is to do as I say. Stop Cryl-Nish, and then Yllii will be at peace, and so will you. You can have peace forever, if you wish it.

'But what am I to do?'

First you must eat and get back your strength.

'There's nothing to eat. They took the food in the air-floater.'

Look over there, at the edge of the forest! See the ears sticking up? It's a hare, and you've been still so long it's forgotten you're here. Bend down, slowly. Pick up that egg-shaped stone.

'I can't kill a living animal,' she whispered.

If you don't, youil starve and your baby will go unavenged. Pick up the stone.

Ullii bent her knees, ever so slowly, until she could reach the stone. The bracelet slipped on her wrist and for a moment she could not remember what she was doing, or why. She shook herself, it locked again, she recalled, and her fingers closed around the stone. Warm from the sun, it felt smooth, hard and heavy.

The voice was there again. Draw back your arm, slowly.

'I've never thrown a rock in my life. I won't even hit it.' at was a comfort. just do as I say. Don't aim at the hare, for it will dart away. that tussock just to the left? Aim for the very centre of that, then throw with all your strength.

Ullii sighted on the tussock.

That's good. Now throw hard!

She hurled the stone. It went cleanly from her hand, exactly where she had aimed. The hare was slow to move, then darted to its right, directly into the path of the stone, and fell dead.

Animals did not show in her lattice, as a rule, but as the hare expired, Ullii felt a flare of pain. She ran across to the small creature, hating herself and regretting its death. She picked it up, stroking its fur. It was still warm, the eyes still bright. She had no idea what to do with it. She rarely ate meat, and then only the smallest amounts.

'What do you want me to do?' She had no knife to skin it, no flint and tinder with which to kindle a fire.

Tear off the skin with your teeth. Drink the blood before it congeals, then eat the meat and the organs. The very idea made her want to vomit.

This is your first test, Ullii, and if you fail it, you won't succeed in anything and Yllii will lie in torment for eternity.

'But it was a living creature.'

Is it wrong for the lion to kill the lamb when her cubs are hungry? Of course not. Eat it, that you may survive, that poor Yllii may be revenged, and the world saved.

Ullii put her sharp teeth to the creature's throat and began to tear at the fur.

She did not hear the voice for days after that. Ullii wandered across the plains, sheltering from the sun in the day, moving at night. She learned to hunt and kill small animals with her bare hands, or with sticks, stones, pits or snares, drinking their blood and eating their flesh raw. She did not think at all, for thinking led to all sorts of mad thoughts that she could not bear, and grief that overwhelmed her. She simply became an animal.

Then, one morning, maybe a week later, she was snapped back to full consciousness.

Wake, said the voice, and this time there was an inexorability about it that made her afraid. The voice had grown more powerful, and bleaker. It no longer sounded like Flammas. It reminded her of the evil scrutator, the dumpy- old woman. It's time!

'Time for what?' Ullii shuddered, but now she was afraid to disobey.

Time to begin your retribution. Time to set the world to rights.

'I don't understand.'

Look in your lattice. Look for the knot of Chief Scrutator Ghorr.

She searched the lattice and found it at the very limit, a long way to the south. 'I can see it.'

Call him to you.

'I don't know how.'

Change his knot. You can do that.

'I don't dare. He'll attack me.'

He's looking for you. Change it so he knows where you are, and he will come.

'I'm afraid. He's a cruel man.'

Ah, but now you can give him what he wants, he'll do.anything for you.

'What does he want?'

He wants Scrutator Flydd, Cryl-Nish Him and Irisis Stirm, and you can find them. You must, for they've all betrayed you.

'I don't know where they are.'

You can find them.

'Flydd and Irisis aren't in my lattice any more. Nish never has been.'

Ghorr will help you find them. Wherever Flydd is, there Nish will be. Call Ghorr to you.

Ullii reached into her lattice, traced out Ghorr's jagged, angry knot and began to tug at the ends. As soon as she did, a feeling of dread crept over her, a cold shivering of the flesh.

He was a wicked man, even worse than Jal-Nish. Just looking closely at his knot made her shudder with terror.

He's not the worst. Cryl-Nish is the worst, for he pretends to be.'

'Yes,' she thought. Nish is worse, and I'll use these evil people to punish him. She plucked at the knot again, and all at once felt an alertness searching for her.

Withdraw.

She drew back, shivering, though the day was warm.

Reach out again, carefully. Don't alarm him and he won't strike at you like an enemy; just make him know that you're here.

Ullii reached out, touched the knot and turned it around, and as she did so she felt Ghorr thinking, Aaahhhhhh! There she is.

Withdraw and shut down the lattice. Go out into the open. See where that great tree has fallen and the wind has piled scrub and dead glass against it? Burn it.

'I've nothing to light it with.'

'I will show you how.'

The voice had her collect dry grass and crush it between two stones until it was a bone-dry powder. Then it led Ullii around the fallen tree, picking up sticks and putting them down again until she found two different kinds of wood, one hard, the other softer, that were just right. She rubbed the hard stick back and forth across the softer one, pressing firmly, with a steady motion that she could keep up for a long time.

Eventually Ullii was rewarded by smoking wood-dust that set the grass powder ablaze. Lighting a handful of twigs, she thrust it into her prepared nest of kindling, and within minutes the timber was roaring. She stood back and waited for Ghorr's air-floater to find her. The voice in her head had gone. Ullii felt that she had taken command of her life at last.

The air-floater landed just before dusk, well away from the fire, which had consumed the centre of the vast trunk and was now creeping along the length of it. Ghorr got out. Ullii remained standing in front of the blaze, in full view. Her gut tightened as he headed towards her, robes flapping, followed by Fusshte and the dumpy old woman with the balding head.

Ghorr could have picked Ullii up in one hand; he was her peer. And yet, halfway to the fire, his stride faltered and he stopped, stung in ha.

Ullii did not meet his gaze. She did not have the strength for that kind of connection – he knew the balance had changed between them. She might be little and weak, but she had called him, and he had come. It made all the difference. Furthermore, she knew he was remembering those strange things she had done in Nennifer, that no one else on Santhenar could have explained, much less duplicated.

'I knew I'd find you,' Ghorr said.

'I summoned you.'

He smiled at her use of that word. 'Did you really? Why?'

She caught her breath. 'My brother, Mylii, is dead! The word sent a spasm through her bowel. 'Nish killed him. My baby is dead and that's Nish's fault too. He is evil and must be punished. I will find him for you.'

Chief Scrutator Ghorr's eyes narrowed. 'What about Ex-Scrutator Xervish Flydd, the greatest enemy of them all?'

'He lied to me, betrayed and abandoned me.'

'Will you find him for me?'

'I will find him,' said Ullii. 'Wherever he goes. There is nowhere on Santhenar that he can hide.'

'And Crafter Irisis Stirm?' He bared his hyena teeth.

After a considerable pause, for Irisis had not betrayed her as badly as the others had, she whispered, 'Her too.'

Ghorr raised his hands to the sky and roared in exultation. She had to stop her ears until he was done.

'I'll put it about that you're dead,' Ghorr said after some reflection. 'That way Flydd won't try to hide from your talent. Is that acceptable?'

'No one cares whether I live or die,' she said softly, sadly.

Ullii stood watching him, hating him almost as much as the others, but that did not matter. Nothing mattered but that she find the three who had tormented her, and bring them to justice:

'Well done, Scrutator T'Lisp,' Ghorr purred to the old man.

'I never would have believed it possible, even with your talent, but you've excelled yourself.'

T'Lisp smiled and caressed a bracelet on her arm, identical to the one that now strangled Ullii's wrist. She said nothing at all.

'It was a stroke of genius, trapping her with Mylii's bracelet,'

Ghorr went on. 'She didn't realise for a second.'

Ullii looked from one to the other, her guts crawling with horror as she understood what they'd done. They'd set the snare and she'd put her head right in it. From the instant she'd slipped on the bracelet she'd been under their control, just as they must have controlled Mylii before. It hadn't been Flammas in her head at all, but wicked Scrutator T'Lisp. Ullii hadn't taken charge of her life; she'd simply done their bidding.

'Oh yes,' said Ghorr, sneering at her distress, her futile struggle to wrench the bracelet off. 'You're mine, Ullii, just as your brother was, and there's nothing you can do about it.'

Twenty-five

The race to Gumby Marth had been plagued by breakdowns and mechanical problems that could not be allowed to delay the army. Where these could not be fixed at once, the affected clankers and their cargo of soldiers were left behind with an artificer, to catch up when they could. Troist fought furiously with the scrutator about it, for the general did not care to leave the least of his soldiers behind, but if they were to save Jal-Nish's army it had to be done. He had abandoned the idea of travelling at night, instead rousing the army before dawn so they could begin at first light, but still they were behind schedule.

Flydd spent most of his waking hours closeted in another twelve-legged clanker with the army's chief mancer, who went by the absurd name of Nutrid. He was an elongated stick of a man, quite meagre apart from an improbably round, quivering belly, like a jelly moulded in a bowl. His head was the shape of a hatchet, his eyes huge and glassy, and his fluted, constantly pursed lips had the look of an insect's proboscis.

Nish never spoke to Nutrid, nor even went close to his clanker. Mancers were particularly irritable when at work and Flydd's natural irascibility was growing as he recovered. Nish did glean, however, that the two mancers were trying to modify a cloaking spell to conceal the entire clanker fleet from sight and hearing, for the last day of travel. Camp gossip told him that Nutrid was dubious. Such spells had had limited success previously, and had never been attempted for an army as big as this one. The strain on the mancers, not to mention the field, would be prodigious. Twice on the first day of travel, and three times on the second, the entire column had to be stopped so the two mancers could test their makeshift spell. During the first three stops, nothing happened, though Flydd was so exhausted afterwards he had to lie down.

On the fourth attempt, as Nish was climbing out of Troist's clanker, the air turned a shimmering green and every anthill within two hundred paces of the column exploded, deluging the army with red clay and little green ants. Nish was still picking them out of his hair an hour later – and so, unfortunately, was the cook from his cauldrons. Lunch reeked so pungently of crushed ants that not even the hardiest soldiers could force it down.

The mancers tried again at sunset, as camp was being set up for the evening. Nish was taking his turn on watch when a burst of purple flame set fire to a row of canvas privies, sending the occupants hopping, trousers about their ankles, in fear of their lives. Unfortunately the chief cook was one of them and took it personally. He locked himself in his supply clanker and not even Troist could coax him out in time to supervise the preparation of dinner. That task fell to the under-cook, a good assistant but a disorganised supervisor, and the food he served three hours late was worse than lunch had been. A grim Troist, whose belly was giving him more trouble than usual, ordered the chief cook to his post at once, and the troublesome mancers to get it right or desist forthwith, before the soldiers mutinied.

On the following morning, the fourth, a loud bang from Nutrid's clanker was followed by puffs of orange smoke and the two mancers hurling themselves out of the rear hatch.

'Another failure, surr?' called Nish, keeping a safe distance away. He couldn't resist getting a little of his own back. Whenever Nutrid and Flydd went to work, the wags among the soldiers had begun to snigger behind their hands.

'Nothing that compares to your gross and repeated incompetence' Flydd said coldly, beating out acrid yellow fumes issuing from the seat of his pants. 'Now clear out.'

The fleet stopped in the imddle of the fifth day, a good few leagues from their destination, to give Nutrid and Flydd one last chance to master their cloaking spell. The sky was clear and Troist was afraid of being spotted by flying spies.

Nish went for a walk across a plain covered in long grass, and studded with orange anthills twice the height of his head. He was thinking and fretting about Ullii when a hot breath of air stirred the hair on the back of his head. That was odd, for the cool breeze in his face was blowing from the sea.

He turned, frowning, to see an air lens form all around the fleet. The whole camp seemed to rise off the ground, and then the ground with it, as if the light had been bent upwards. A mirrored wall appeared, there came a shrill whistle, rising to a whip crack, Nish blinked and the fleet was gone. The plain seemed to be empty but for the anthills and the gently waving grass.

He paced back, a hollow core of fear in his belly. The army could not have vanished just like that, spell or no. But everyone had heard stories about squadrons of clankers overloading a node and disappearing into nothingness. Could Flydd and Nutrid – ridiculous name! – have taken too much from the node? From a hundred paces he could see nothing but grass and the depressions where the clankers had stood. They were simply gone. He raced back. Fifty paces away the air began to shimmer and he ran right over Flydd, who was lying flat on his back in the grass, observing the effectiveness of the cloaker. As Nish sprawled on the ground, looking up, the fleet appeared out of nowhere.

'I knew we could do it,' Flydd said cheerfully. 'Now we'll give the enemy something to put in their dispatches.'

It was mid-afternoon and they were going slowly over rough ground, in open forest that ran most of the way to their destination. After much tinkering the cloaker was working well, though Flydd was concerned about its massive drain on the field, not to mention Nutrid's ability to maintain the spell while Flydd was recuperating. The cloaker required constant attention and maintenance, and was a strain on everyone who lay within its umbrella, especially the clanker operators and Flydd himself. He was far from recovered and, after an hour supporting the cloaker spell, had to lie down for four hours.

The inside of the clanker was dark but for a conjured ghost light at Flydd's right shoulder. He was deep in a small, thick volume bound in maroon calf, its title inlaid in platinum leaf.

'What's that you're reading?' asked Nish. 'Yet another tome on the Secret Art?'

Over the past days, able to walk only with great discomfort, Flydd had gone through every volume in Nutrid's small library. He was in a fine humour, now that the spell was working.

Wordlessly, the scrutator lifted the volume. The Great Tales, 23: The Tale of the Mirror. No chronicler's name was listed.

'Reading a story!' Nish said with mock sarcasm. 'You really are relaxed.'

'Every human should know the Great Tales,' Flydd said pompously. 'They are the very foundation of the Histories.'

'You're old enough to be in them!'

'Choose your words with care, Nish,' growled the scrutator. 'I'm no older than I look.'

'Two hundred and fifty?' Nish ducked out of the way as Flydd swatted at him.

'I'm sixty-four. A good, round age. An important number too, if you care for such things.'

'Only sixty-four?' Nish said seriously. 'I thought you mancers could extend your life forever.'

'This one has been hard enough; don't inflict another on me.'

'But didn't some of the great mancers live for a thousand years?' Nish bit his tongue, in case Flydd took offence. Perhaps he felt himself to be a great mancer.

Flydd chuckled at Nish's embarrassment Only two, to my knowledge. Extending one 's life is a hazardous process, and more mancers have died in the attempt than have survived it.

Mendark, the long-time magister of Thurkad did it many times but he was a very great mancer, the like of whom we will not see again. And in the end he died, as we all must.

Yggur was also long lived, but in his case it was natural longevity: no one knows why. All those who extended their lives, male or female, were motivated by greed. They wanted what only the other human species – Aachim, Faellem and Charon – had a right to. I've many failings, Nish, but greed isn't one of them.' He pointedly took up his book.

'What part are you up to?'

Flydd sighed, but laid the book aside. 'I was reading the final section of the tale, where Rulke the Charon opened a gate between the worlds and tried to bring the remnant of his people to Santhenar.'

'I.., don't recall that,' said Nish.

'I thought you knew the Great Tales well?' Flydd's continuous eyebrow formed a knot in the middle of his forehead.

'I thought I did.'

'Well, to cut this story to its basics, just a hundred Charon survived the void and the taking of Aachan, many thousands of years ago. The Hundred, they were called, but for some reason they could not reproduce on that world. It seemed as though they would live forever, but theirs was an increasingly bitter, lonely existence, as one by one they became infertile. The Charon were on a one-way road to extinction.

'To save them, Rulke brought the handful of fertile ones through the gate to Santhenar. But Faelamor, the leader of the Faellem, who had always feared the Charon, opened a gate into the void and brought forth several thranx, intelligent winged creatures akin to lyrinx… I think the lyrinx may have flesh-formed themselves to resemble thranx, actually.' He reflected on that for a moment, before continuing. 'While Rulke struggled with Faelamor's illusions the thranx slew the Charon, every fertile one. From that moment, Rulke's species was doomed. Noble Rulke was killed soon after, and the remaimder of the Hundred went back to the void to die.' 'I'm surprised you don't know that part of the story,' Flydd concluded. 'It is, to my mind, the greatest tragedy in all the Histories, and the most poignant tale. Not even the fall of Tar Gaarn can compare to it.'

I've heard many of the tales told, though not by a master chronicler or teller.'

'There aren't many left, since the College of the Histories at Chanthed was sacked by the lyrinx. Most of the masters and students were eaten, and deservedly so, for their scandalous lack of talent.' He smiled – a joke! Flydd was almost back to his normal, crotchety self. 'I prefer to read the Tales as set down by the masters of old. They're closer to the truth-' He broke off, as if censoring a thought.

I didn't know there was a College of the Histories,' said Nish.

Flydd raised the left side of that famous eyebrow. 'What did they teach you, lad? The college was there for thousands of years. Ah, but it was sacked before you were born – the beginning of the end for all Meldorin. After that it was only a matter of time until the whole of Meldorin was lost, even ancient Thurkad. The city fought bravely and long, a noble failure that might have made another Great Tale, were there any master chroniclers to tell it.'

'But there are master chroniclers,' said Nish. 'My mother studied under one for a while.'

'Crass amateurs compared to those of olden times, such as Llian of Chanthed, who made the twenty-third Great Tale. This one!' Flydd lifted the book and began turning the pages.

'Llian the Liar!' cried Nish, recalling his school lessons. 'The biggest cheat in all the Histories. His tale was a fraud. The scrutators had it rewritten a long time ago. My father told me so…' He trailed off. 'What's the matter?'

'I can't talk about what the scrutators may or may not have done, Nish. You know that.'

You said they were corrupt and you were going to brine them down.'

"And I plan to, but I still can't betray my oath of secrecy ' But you told me about the Num-'

Flydd shoved a gnarled fist into Nish's mouth. 'Don't ever mention that name!'

'Why not?'

I can't think how I was indiscreet enough to tell you,' muttered Flydd. 'The infection must have turned my wits. All I can say is, learn to think for yourself.

He took up the book again. The pages turned steadily. Nish had a thousand questions, but he did not suppose that Flydd would answer them. How had the Council of Scrutators come to hold more power than the generals and the leaders of nations? Why had they censored the Histories?

They went without a break until just before sunset, when the leading clankers stopped on the sloping top of a square hill. Higher hills could be seen in all directions, clothed in forest.

The rear hatch was jerked open. Troist stood there with a rolled map under one arm. Climbing in, he spread it on the table in front of Flydd.

'My scouts report that Jal-Nish's army is camped in the valley of Gumby Marth, two-thirds of a league away across those rugged ridges to the north.' He indicated the location on his map.

Nish's stomach cramped at the thought of meeting his father again.

'That's not all, is it, General?' said Flydd.

'The scouts report that there's not a single lyrinx to be found, and no one has the faintest idea where they've got to.'

'Maybe they don't want to fight after all,' said Nish.

'I smell a trap,' Flydd replied, bending over the map. 'It's rugged country between here and there.'

'More than rugged, the scouts tell me,' said Troist. 'It's impassable to clankers and mounted men alike. Foot soldiers could struggle through, though the upper parts of the valley are bounded by cliffs with few paths down, and none are safe.

'We can't go that way. We'll have to march west, this way, for several leagues, to find a way into the valley. We'll begin at first light, Scrutator. With luck we should reach the army by this rime tomorrow.'

Let's hope we're in time,' said Flydd. 'Make ready for war, General, then see everyone gets a good night's rest. For some, maybe most of us, it could be our last. Especially if…' 'What is it?' said Troist. 'You don't mean to tell me…" 'I don't think we can maintain the cloaker much longer. And going after a superior enemy without it will be suicide.'

Twenty-six

When the camp had been set up, the lines of sentries had gone to their watches and all was cloaked and quiet, everyone turned gratefully to their tents. No one could remember when they'd last had a full night's sleep. Soon the clearing echoed to the gentle snores of thousands. Even Flydd was abed.

Nish was not. His father was down in Gumby Marth at the head of the army, and Nish had been brooding about him for weeks. Jal-Nish was the great obstacle in his life and Nish was dreading meeting him again, as surely he would tomorrow.

It was still hot in the clanker, and Flydd was snoring like a hog. Nish felt claustrophobic and oppressed. An insomniac at the best of times, he soon gave up hope of getting a wink of sleep, for his thoughts were racing. Putting a cloak under his arm, he slipped out of the rear hatch. Walking helped him to think and he had a lot of thinking to do. It was pleasantly cool outside though it might grow chilly later on.

He paced along the lines of clankers, keeping inside the envelope of the cloaker. What did Jal-Nish hope to achieve, bringing the army into country like this? The enemy could be anywhere. He must have some plan – his father always did -but Nish could not imagine what.

Nish saw few people, for the soldiers were in their tents sleeping, or trying to, while the sentries were well out from the camp. Flydd had worked the cloaker so that wisps of glamour clung to everyone as they moved. If the enemy came upon a sentry, even half a league from the camp, he would see just a foggy blur.

Reaching the end of the lines of clankers, Nish kept going.

Being a private person, he'd found the past days, surrounded by thousands of people day and night, especially confining. longed for a little solitude, even if only for a few minutes.

Pushing through the cloaker envelope, he felt a moment of unreality when everything inverted, another when he looked back and the entire army was gone. Enveloped in his own little wisp of cloaker, he walked across the few hundred spans of open grassland to the surrounding forest. It had already been checked for signs of the enemy but there had been none.

Just before he reached the edge, something fluttered overhead. It was just an owl, but Nish had a premonition of utter, bloody disaster. Hunching down against the hole of a tree, he tried to shrug it off. Surely it was just a fancy to do with meeting his father again. He'd thought he was free of Jal-Nish a long time ago – Nish remembered talking to Minis about it last spring, when Minis had been so admiring of him.

What a joke that now seemed. He was just as trapped as Minis, and Jal-Nish was less than an hour away, across the rugged ridges beyond the forest. Nish's guts churned. He looked back to the lines of clankers but saw not a glimmer of candlelight. The cloaker was still working, at least. He slipped into the forest, needing to walk, and soon realised that he must have passed through the inner line of sentries without being noticed.

The moon was a few days off full but the forest was dense here, the shadows deep beneath the trees. Nish had learned to move quietly of late. His feet made just the faintest crackle on fallen leaves. Hitting upon a winding path through the trees, probably a deer or bear trail, he ghosted along the edge where there was less danger of being seen.

On the other side of the patch of forest he emerged into an open area of short grass and grey rock, covered with an array of pinnacles roughly the size of termite mounds. Gleaming whitely in the moonlight, it looked like a field of standing stones, but why had they been assembled here, of all places? He scanned the sky; not a cloud. The night was absolutely still. Curious, Nish gathered the cloak about him and, keeping his head low, slid like a shadow across the grass.

Reaching the first pinnacle, he ducked behind it. It wasn't a standing stone at all, but a long vertical blade of limestone formed by the elements. Its top has been etched by rain into a series of steeples with fluted, razor-sharp edges. Nish wandered along the shadowed side, feeling the smooth rock with his fingers.

He had just passed around the edge when he heard the faint but distinctive creak of a crossbow being wound back. As Nish threw himself into the shadows, a bolt smashed right through the blade of stone above his head. He scampered the other way, using all the cover he could, then ran for his life. The guard must be jumpy, to fire without knowing what he was shooting at. The glamour still covered Nish but his shadow had given him away.

There was shouting behind him, and answers to left and right, but Nish did not call out his name. It occurred to him, rather belatedly, that he should not have left the camp. He would get a severe dressing down from Flydd and Troist if he revealed himself, to say nothing of the risk of being shot by an over-anxious sentry. Better to wait until the guards had settled down, then sneak back in. On second thought, Troist's well-drilled guards would stay alert all watch. He decided to circle around and approach the camp from the other side.

He concentrated on moving with absolute stealth and, as he progressed, silence settled around him. He was past the last line of guards. Beyond the pinnacle field he encountered another patch of forest, after which Nish found himself crossing a rugged expanse of grey limestone etched into mounds and sinkholes, grey ridges only a few spans high and canyons little deeper. Shortly that developed into another pinnacle field, much more extensive than the first.

He'd gone further than he'd planned. Beyond, Nish knew from Troist's map, a steep escarpment ramped down to the broad oval box-valley of Gumby Marth, where Jal-Nish's army was camped. On the far side, white peaks rose up equally steep and sharp while the upper end of the valley was defended by a sheer limestone cliff.

He tried to work out his position. Gumby Marth narrowed to a rocky neck halfway down, there falling sharply away before broadening out in the direction of Gnulp Landing. The lyrinx could not come through the neck without being seen.

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