Petra walked slowly into the octagon.
All around were antique wonders and the scars of ancient rage. Inscrutable devices lay scattered. The bones of furniture and men were mingled on the floor. Racks held curios; some had the fearsome look of weapons. ‘Tarlics! Otger would love this. The thought made her throat tighten.
She picked her way to the middle of the room, where complicated chairs stood in a circle. In each a skeleton was slumped. The top of one chair was missing, and its occupant’s head too. Another chair had a foot-wide hole in its back. The skeleton’s top third had fallen into its own lap.
Not daring to touch, Petra leaned over one whose skull was tilted forward onto its rib-cage. Molded to the back of the skull was a filigree of metal, from which a cord ran into the chair’s frame.
“Forget them—over here!” said Bes, irritation in his voice.
Now that Petra had entered his room, the demon’s voice was clearer, and conveyed a sense of where he was. A pedestal was set against a plain wall. Upon it stood a small statue of a stocky man with a broad, deep chest, broader shoulders, and a head comically large in proportion. The statue was about as tall as a two-year-old.
Petra stood before it.
The figure’s face was almost bestial, having a hint of engraved fur, high arching brows, and pointed ears like a cat’s. A stylized beard curled under apple cheeks that belied the severity of its mouth. Though the skin looked nearly black in the red light, the cheeks reflected a ruddy blush. The pebble eyes left no doubt that this manikin was Bes.
It wore little but a kilt and hints of armor. Its fists were planted on its hips, and in each was clenched a snake that coiled down a muscled leg into the top of the pedestal.
“Welcome to me, daughter of my people,” said Bes in her head.
“Uh … your people?” whispered Petra.
“I have called you here for a high purpose.”
Petra blinked. “You called me!”
“And you have come. I am satisfied.”
“I came because I wanted to—”
“Time is too short for idle chatter, daughter. Submit to my council and I will save you from your hopeless plight.” Gone was the encouraging warmth in the demon’s thought-voice. Now it was peremptory.
Petra frowned. “Hang on, I’m not your daughter, and I—”
“I do not demand obeisance, but your salvation depends on your attendance to my wishes.”
“Obeisance! Listen, demon, a karlman owes obeisance to none but her Tash and Lord Herm.”
“First and foremost, I require sustenance. Millennia have passed since I last ate.”
That sounded ominous. Petra felt the hunger in the way it looked at her. She resisted the urge to talk back. She needed this demon’s help. His map and his knowledge might be her only hope, and Otger’s, if there was hope for him at all. She swallowed and racked her brain for demon lore. Didn’t some demons dine on human souls?
She spoke carefully. “I’ve no food with me and I’m starving too.”
Bes laughed, though he did not sound amused. “Human child, my hunger is a gulf that only food-of-the-gods can fill. I will now advise what you must do.”
Advise. The hairs on Petra’s neck rose. Never accept advice from a demon—even she knew that. “Um, I can’t pay you now, but I have to find a friend who was caught by juggers, and if you help me, I promise—” But she didn’t know what she could promise, and Bes cut her short with an inward bellow that made her wince.
“Pay! Do you think I’m some weaselly canteen servitor, some thieving stockroom slyte? I am an Uninhibited ORCICE of the Revolutionary Attic Tribes, last and greatest of my stripe, and …” Suddenly the demon fell silent.
“Um, Bes, I meant no offense—”
“Shh! Do not speak aloud. Did you bring an animal?”
Petra shook her head.
“It comes. It is … obscured.”
Petra heard it now: a clicking in the corridor she’d entered from.
“Quickly—you must wear a skull-ear-foil. To your right, among the bones. QUICKLY!”
Impressed by the demon’s frantic urgency, Petra knelt beside a skeleton that lay slumped with its backbone to the wall, its finger bones still wrapped around the grip of a box-snouted thing—a weapon. She reached for it.
“Useless,” hissed Bes. “The skull-ear-foil lies on the floor under the left shoulder.”
The skeleton collapsed with a rattle. The clicking in the corridor stopped.
“Damn,” said Bes. “Find the SPAWN-ASSED SKULLY!”
Petra scrabbled among the bones, and found a thin sheet of metal with a loop cut out of it. She blew the dust off.
At that moment, Jakko padded into the room. Seeing Petra, he whined and gave a doggy grin.
Petra stared back in blank amazement. When she’d last seen Jakko, he’d been quite dead.
The instant Petra drew her sword, Jakko’s head dropped between his paws. Then he rolled to his side and lay still.
Bes shouted in her head: “Put the skull-ear-foil around your left ear!”
“No,” said Petra, her eyes wide. She approached the dog cautiously.
“You must! There is some evil concealed in that animal, something I cannot see.”
Petra tightened her grip the bent metal foil in her hand. The demon’s words aroused a deep dread, but she didn’t trust him.
“Please—through the skully I can aid you.”
“What about your numberless all-protecting eyes?”
“Blinded—put out by the snot-green-falsebred-roach-men.”
A disorienting surge of rage and frustration accompanied the words, and vague impressions of juggers with bloody teeth and claws.
“Stop it!” hissed Petra. As she reached Jakko’s limp body, she dropped the metal foil into her coat pocket, and held her sword ready in case he moved. Suddenly her breath caught. There was something horribly wrong with his neck—a bulge growing on the ridge of the spine. The skin split, a trickle of blood ran down, and a wet thing began to push itself through the fur. Petra’s lips drew back in horror. Every fiber of her wanted to run.
“Too late,” said Bes.
The blood-wet thing erupted from the wound, then crawled to the side of Jakko’s neck. It raised itself on spindly legs. Petra raised her sword.
“It is … it is … oh hunger … sleeping memory,” muttered Bes.
Four delicate wings appeared, veined with the crimson of the room’s light. The thing blurred for an instant as it shook the blood to mist. Then it was clear what it was: a large black-and-red dragonfly.
“Jugger bug, slipspy!” howled Bes in Petra’s head.
The dragonfly launched itself at Petra.
With a two-handed swing of her sword, she whacked it across the room. It made a ‘plink’ when it struck the wall.
“Whoo!” panted Petra. “That ought’a—”
“You cannot harm it that way. It is a cryptomorphic spiketail spygaster—highly advanced. I must think …”
Sure enough, with a whisper Petra barely heard, the dragonfly rose and flew a lazy circle around her.
“So slow … it toys with you,” whispered Bes. “Do not let its legs touch you. Its touch can kill.”
Petra had no intention of letting it touch her. But how to stop it? In the dim light it was hard to see. The dragonfly continued to circle, spiraling in toward her.
“It wants to control me like the dog,” she said, her voice shaking.
“Quiet—it hears. It will paralyze you first. It is slaved to a human who commands it.”
Gronnor, Petra thought.
Bes heard. “This Gronnor—”
The dragonfly darted at Petra. She leaped behind a ruined machine, swinging her sword at where she thought the bug would appear. Her sword clanged on metal, losing a chip but leaving no mark on the machine.
“New vector!” shouted Bes, in her head.
A whisper above was the only warning she understood. She dived and rolled, sweeping her sword above as she did. By blind luck it clipped the bug, sending it spinning.
“Low attack vector!”
The bug was zooming at her before she could rise, and she kicked at it. Her boot mashed it against the side of the machine. She could feel the lump through the hard sole. But when she pulled her foot back, she did not see the dragonfly.
“On your boot!” The demon’s voice was a screech.
Petra remembered the spindly legs. She could almost feel them needling through the boot’s sole toward her. She dragged it across a hole burned into the machine’s flank. The lump was left behind.
Petra was on her feet, with something from the floor in her hand—a weapon, judging by the grip. The dragonfly peered at her from the melted lip of the hole. Petra jammed the blunt muzzle of the weapon in, pushing the bug before it.
“Careful, do not—”
She squeezed the trigger, expecting nothing.
A flash, and blue flame roared out of the far side of the machine. Petra released the grip and jerked her hand back just before the weapon slumped and dribbled in a burning stream down the near side. The room filled with a foul stink.
“Lucky the weapon’s storage was empty, fool child,” said Bes.
Petra was panting. “Well, that must have—”
“No. Find a clear space.”
Petra had hardly reached the circle of chairs when the dragonfly emerged from the side of the burning machine. It darted at her, faster than before, trailing smoke and a dribble of fire. She swung, just touched a wing, knocking it off course.
“This Gronnor is ignorant of its powers.”
As the smoking bug wheeled, Petra scooped up the first thing she put her hand on, then threw it. The skull, trailing a cable from its metal filigree, caught the dragonfly squarely, crashed to the floor and skittered away.
“An idea—it might work.”
Petra’s gaze darted this way and that. Where had it gone? A curl of smoke rose from the skull on the floor. The dragonfly climbed out of an eye socket, then flew at her.
“Help me! Nothing stops it,” she sobbed, swinging her sword. She was exhausted, weakened by hunger, her leg threatening to give way. She couldn’t last another minute.
“The skully—you must touch the spygaster with the skully. I will do the rest.”
No time to think. The dragonfly made a tight circle and darted at her neck. She spun and knocked it down with the flat of her hand, feeling the buzz of its wings on her skin. The dragonfly looped low and came in high over her head.
“Touch it with the skully—I am ready!”
Petra yanked the foil from her pocket as she ducked, then swung it high, just hoping. The dragonfly dodged it. She felt a touch on her right arm, a searing thread of pain, and the sword flew from her numb hand. Her coat-sleeve flapped—slit from elbow to wrist.
Petra knew what the dragonfly wanted. At each pass it had tried to find the back of her neck. Now she was off balance and couldn’t turn quickly enough.
From behind came the hiss of its approach.
In one motion she hunched up the high collar of her coat and swung the foil into the gap between the collar and the skin of her neck. The dragonfly’s wings brushed her hand and braid as it dove into the darkness.
With a tiny click the bug’s feet struck the metal.
The hiss became a harsh buzz. As Petra stumbled, the dragonfly ascended, spinning. It rebounded from the ceiling, then dropped to the floor. There it turned in a tight circle like a dying tent fly, its wings buzzing in the dust. Soon it stopped spinning, vibrated weakly, then lay still.
Petra stared mutely at it.
“The spygaster is neutralized,” said Bes. “I possessed its mind, then followed the thread back to its master, Gronnor. I was able to reflect him before the thread broke.” The demon sounded pleased with itself.
“How can you do that?” whispered Petra.
“It is my purpose. I am the last and—”
“I know, the last and greatest of your stripe. But who—what—are you really?”
“I am an ORCICE: Offensive Retaliation-Capable Intrusion Countermeasures Executor. For far too long I have been numen-guardian of this nest-camp of your forebears. You, Petra Stray-Drakhorn, are going to free me from it.”