Jakko loped through the dark corridors of Karlward. To his eyes, the darkness was not as pitchy as it had been to Petra and Otger. Panels in undamaged walls gave off a dim violet light better suited to the eyes of juggers and of dogs.
A dog’s nose is better than a jugger’s, and Karlward’s breath had not entirely dispersed the scent of the human pair. The perfume of oil and sweat still clung to things they had touched. The scent was growing fresher; that was comforting. It brought the anticipation of happiness.
To Gronnor, whose mind sucked like a limpet on the mind of the dog, the effect was deeply unsettling, but he had no choice but to hang on and drink.
He understood what had happened from the lore of his ancestors. Of its own accord, the dragonfly had abandoned Lucan’s corpse to enter the carcass of the dog. It had done so while the dog’s brain was still alive enough to comprehend and feel in the way a dog did. Inside the dog, the dragonfly had waited until Petra had gone, then followed her.
Gronnor sat hunched in his tent, wrapped in blankets, shivering. His heartbeat was irregular. The terrible coldness that had nearly dragged him to the grave still clung to him. To make it worse, his limbs wanted to twitch to the rhythm of the dog’s gait. The stupid animal’s primal hope, its yearning, its worshipful need for its young masters made him want to scream.
The babbling was back in Petra’s head, urgent, insistent, drowning even the water’s clatter. It had returned with the echo of her scream, as though the scream had woken it. The pebble eyes were fixed on her. With the back of her head pressed to the cold iron, she squeezed her own eyes shut.
I’m dying, she thought. It’s the chatter of the dead.
One raspy whisper rose above the rest. She could not distinguish words, only a pattern that changed, like a chant at impossible speed. Even as water ran down her neck, the hairs rose and her skin prickled. It’s trying to speak to me, but it needs … permission. Okay—slow down, I want to understand.
The voice slowed.
And Petra understood. The sounds were not words so much as impressions that had the effect of words. She heard the sound and felt the meaning, though if she’d tried to voice the sound, it would mean nothing to her.
“… hear you. See you. To my presence you are near.”
Her head was against the iron, her mouth open, her heart thudding.
“Come closer. Be welcome to me.”
“Wh … what?” whispered Petra.
“I am the answer. Come closer. Come.”
“Who are you? Where are you?”
“You question. You seek. Come find.”
The babbling had stopped, leaving the raspy voice clear in her head. It was sound without sound, yet as real as though the speaker was standing inches behind her. The voice was a masculine baritone, but rough, like sand on a drum. Petra swallowed. I’m going mad, or …
“I am the undoing of madness. I am the answer.”
“Are you a demon?” croaked Petra. She could hardly speak for the chattering of her teeth.
“I am safety. I am warmth. Come.”
Petra’s thoughts flowed like tallow. Demons. What did she know, what had Genna told her? Don’t trust them—that was the main thing. You can’t trust a demon unless you paid it. Even then …
She shouted, “You’re a demon, aren’t you?”
“I am an orcice. I am called Bes.”
Bes—a strange name. “What do you want?” asked Petra.
“I would help you to be warm, to be safe, to escape.”
“Why not? You are cold. You are afraid. You are not a green-skinned-enemy-jailor.”
In Petra’s mind, a fleeting impression of deep-sunk eyes, sharpened teeth in a brutish jaw, swinging worm-like hair. The impression of a jugger was clear, yet strange—was it her own memory? She didn’t know, and just then, couldn’t care.
“Pointless question from one so near to death.”
The demon was right; she had no choice. “Okay. How do I come?”
A heartbeat’s hesitation. “Simply come.”
“I can’t!” screamed Petra. “I’m freezing in the dark on a ledge and the door is closed!”
The demon hesitated for another heartbeat. Petra felt its pebble eyes on her like lamps. “The door is open a little.”
“Which side are you?”
“You can see me, can’t you?”
“I see you. I remember the door.”
Petra breathed hard, trying to keep her mind working. There was a dangerous prickling numbness in her arms and neck, the kind that comes before fainting. “Western side,” she panted.
The response was quick. “Touch inside the near frame, feel for the gap. It is passable.”
Petra bent her arm around the frame. There her groping hand found the inch-wide slot she’d found before. Beyond the slot was nothing, but fifteen inches to the side was a slab—the door. Below hip height, the gap between the slot and door was plugged by mud. Her pack must have struck the mud, then slid down it. The demon was right; the gap was wide enough for her to squeeze through.
With her left foot planted at the frame’s corner, Petra gripped the edge, pivoted around the frame, and got an arm and leg through. Seconds later, she was on her hands and knees in the passage.
“Adequately done,” whispered Bes.
At the fallen door, Jakko paused and sniffed. He padded two and fro across the hall, snuffling at the floor. To the lip of the rift he gave minute attention, then pricked his ears to listen to the cascade on the far side. He noted the twisted end of the water pipe, now bereft of its funnel, and gazed intently into the curtain of water, dimly visible to him in the glow of the wall panels.
When satisfied with this inspection, Jakko made a run for the edge and leaped into the void.
Petra limped in the dark, sorely missing her staff. The fingers of one hand traced the smooth wall and she kept the other raised in case of webs. Her boots scuffed the dust and crunched on things. The only movement in the ancient air was the eddy of her progress; here, the breath of Karlward was still. Her clothes clung wetly to her, but she had warmed enough to stop shivering. Her backside had begun to ache in a way she knew would become much worse. But of all the aches, the worst was from the knot of hopeless not-knowing that cinched tighter with every step away from the place she’d last seen Otger.
“The way ahead is safe. Trust the map,” the demon whispered in her head.
“That’s what you said before I tripped over that stuff,” grumbled Petra. “Your map didn’t show the rift, either.”
“Old memories,” whispered Bes.
The map was the pebble-eyed demon’s—Petra knew that now. He’d been putting it into her head since she’d first entered Karlward. The map’s web floated in her mind. It showed the corridor and a warren of rooms and passages on all sides.
“How do you know where I am?” she asked.
“Numberless all-protecting eyes.” The demon sounded smug.
But he hadn’t known on which side of the door she’d stood. Petra dismissed the thought quickly. She’d noticed that if she spoke aloud or voiced words inwardly, Bes would respond, otherwise not. That gave her hope that he didn’t know every private thought in her head.
Trust the map, he’d said. But she didn’t trust the demon worth a damn. He’d said the way forward was the only one. She didn’t know if that was true, but she knew she needed his map. And perhaps his numberless eyes—if they were real—could find Otger. She had to learn more before she would ask about him.
She limped on through the dark.
Then came a bend, and ahead, a pulsing, blood-red glow. Petra quickened her pace, and soon reached its source. Between doorways, stretches of wall and ceiling glowed. The slow pulse made her think of a tent lamp when the brook’s flow was too weak for the generator. Here the heaps of debris were licked with red light. Curious, she stooped to examine one. She rustled among the sticks, and lifted a hollow, crusted ball. She turned it—then dropped it with a cry.
It was a human skull. The sticks were bones.
The skeletons lay alone and in heaps. Some were not human. Huge bones poked from under crumbling metal; jaws with inch-long teeth grinned up at her. And everywhere were drifts of dust that had once been flesh.
I bet none of them received the rites, she thought.
“Fear not. They will not stir.”
“How do you know?”
“I, oldest and greatest orcice Bes, staunched the quickening.”
True or not, there was nothing Petra could do. She limped on, careful not to tread on bones.
“What happened here?” she whispered.
“How long ago?”
“Two thousand three hundred years, five months, one week, three days ago it began.”
“The Breakout! You were here? You saw?”
“I was here. I fought.”
“Your all-protecting eyes didn’t …” began Petra. But she decided it would be impolite to finish.
“The time for hiding was over. These humans chose to stay, chose to fight, so that others could flee and live. The battle was magnificent, but all here died. You are proof that others of your kin survived.”
“But you …”
“Bes is hard to kill. In the ruin and confusion, this place was forgotten.”
“Am I the first since …”
“You are the first.”
The corridor opened into an octagonal room.
“Into my presence you are come,” said Bes.