“Oof, you’re heavy,” grumbled Petra. “I thought demons could float.”
“I’m as light as a sprite, as empty as a jugger’s skull,” muttered Bes.
Petra too felt hollow, lightheaded. After the fight with the dragonfly—spygaster, Bes called it—a crushing tiredness had taken hold. She’d curled over her knees in the angle of the wall and Bes’s pedestal, surrounded by ancestral bones. For the first time in days, her sleep had been untroubled by pools and floating eyes.
But when Bes had woken her with a scratching in her head, the pain in her backside and knee had returned with a vengeance. She’d nearly wept trying to stand. At least the pain drowned the itchiness of her many scratches.
Now she limped along a narrow corridor with Bes on her back. She shrugged the demon’s carrier, fashioned from her coat and a piece of hook cord, into a less uncomfortable position. If it embarrassed Bes to be carried that way, he showed no sign. He’d seemed firmly fixed to his pedestal by the carved snakes whose necks he gripped. Yet the instant she’d seized him under the arms, his fists were empty on his hips and the snakes were down around his feet.
Three old weapons clinked in the carrier with him. The ones with ‘juice,’ he’d said. Having seen what ‘juice’ could do, the clinking made Petra nervous. But the demon had promised to keep the weapons calm.
“So, how do you know about me?” she asked.
“Your prison brands tell much about you, and about ninety generations of your ancestors.”
Petra plodded on, frowning. Brands? He must mean her clanmarks. “But how can you see them?”
Bes continued. “In this place, they make a beacon of you. It is because of them that I found you—though making contact was like shouting at a stone, your senses are as yet so dull. The juggers would find you too, had they not lost the art.”
Petra’s frown deepened. “I bet my clanmarks didn’t tell you my name.”
“I know what the spygaster has seen and heard and chosen to remember. It has hunted you overland, across ice strewn with bodies, and through this place onto a canyon ledge. There, on Gronnor’s command, it killed your companion Canuut.”
“How do you know his name?”
“The same way I know yours. The spygaster remembers the words Gronnor spoke while he wore his skully.”
Petra’s breath caught. “Skully! You mean like …”
“Less capable than yours.”
“It’s not mine. It was some dead person’s.”
“It belonged to a five-oh-nine—a Drakhorn. She was the nest’s commander. Shall I tell you about her?”
“Her!” Petra thought about it. “Maybe later. Anyway, I’d rather not wear it.”
“It’ll get inside my head, won’t it—what you’re doing now, only more.”
“You were born with the faculty to confabulate. It is innate.”
As usual, the demon’s unfamiliar thought-words were accompanied by fleeting, dreamlike impressions meant to convey meaning. Petra saw a jakalute mouthing words, chattering metal skulls, floating lips whispering to disembodied ears. The weird impressions made her grimace.
“To hear demons whisper, you mean.”
Bes answered with a roar. “I whisper because you won’t wear the damned skully!” His tone became almost wheedling. “Your prison brands are proof that your brain’s enhancements have not been corrupted by time. But to use them inside the prison is dangerous. The skully will safely enrich your senses. It will allow us to talk over distances with less effort and without risk of detection.”
Petra mulled that over. Enhancements? The demon’s words begged more questions than they answered. But they also felt like a trap for the curious.
“I’ll think about it,” she muttered.
“You’ve taken braver chances, child. Your short life has not been dull, if the spygaster’s memories are testimony.”
There was that patronizing tone she disliked. She muttered, “Better than two thousand years alone in here.”
“Of course I slept for most of it. Two days ago I was woken by the echo of an old weapon’s discharge: a mind bomb. You did that, didn’t you.”
“I’d no choice.”
“I knew the man who made that one. His was a brilliant, devious mind.”
Petra turned that over in her head. A man had made the weapon she’d thought a relic of the gods. What did that mean?
They turned corners, ascended narrow stairs. For a while, the corridor had no doors, then it ended at a blank wall. Through the silence came thumping.
“You wear the skully.”
Petra said nothing. Bes evidently had it all worked out.
“On the other side, no light that you can see. And there are juggers. If you are not wearing the skully, they will smell you.”
“But we find Otger.”
“First we find food for me. If I don’t eat, then I, you, and your friend will die in here.”
It was hard to doubt a two thousand year old demon, even if he hadn’t been paid and was the size of a toddler.
Hands on hips, Petra growled, “Then we find Otger.“
“Then we should escape.”
“Otger first—you promised,” said Petra, fiercely.
“Is that an order?”
Petra’s eyes narrowed and a sly hope dawned. “Yes, demon, that’s an order.”
Bes laughed—a dry cackle that made Petra wince. “Gotcha! I don’t have to take orders from a fifteen year old brat, however good her tattoos. Remember, I’m Uninhibited.”
“Uh … what?”
“Means I’m no slave, no gelding. I can kill a human. Doesn’t even make me twitch.”
Petra was silent. She would wear the skully, but not because of the demon’s boastful bullying.
“Relax. We’ll find your Otger—alive or dead.”
Petra took the foil from her coat-carrier pocket. She slipped it around her left ear and pressed the thin metal to fit snugly against the skin, pulling loose hairs over it.
Nothing happened but a few tiny clicks and sparkles.
“Adequate,” said Bes.
His voice was richer now, more nuanced, more real. Petra wasn’t sure that was an improvement.
“Lay your hand flat on the wall ahead.”
The wall melted like butter in a fire, but without heat. Brown iron pulled away from her hand and fell into itself. The hole deepened, and through it came mechanical clanking and a waft of rank steam. Seconds later, she stepped though a doorway into heat and garbage and greenish light. The iron silently regrew to hide it.
She was between a wall and a large machine. She could see the machine, and see vague shapes through it, too. There was more of everything than either her eyes or the glimmering map alone revealed. The effect made her giddy.
Bes spoke. “Muggins ahead. Don’t mind them. Juggers north-east, behind the tank.”
“So … what—” whispered Petra.
“Hush! If you voice words clearly in your head, I will hear. I cannot hear whatever other rubbish you think.”
Petra found it difficult to disentangle what she meant to say from the jumble of thoughts.
“Walk where I indicate—quietly,” said Bes.
Taking a breath for courage, Petra followed a silver thread that seemed to float in front of her. Abruptly, she stopped. Two creatures wearing loincloths were working at a tub, one stirring while the other scooped out rags with a pitchfork. A third turned the crank of a mangle. They were twelve feet tall, like small trolls, but uglier. Their hands had each two fingers and two thumbs. Big eyes set far apart in flat, stupid faces turned toward her.
“Go on. They won’t bother you.”
As Petra followed the silver thread toward a rusty tank, she heard jugger voices, and to her astonishment, could understand their speech—sort of.
One jugger said, “Whaddit, Boggs? First scrubbin’ weapons, now standin’ dumb, an’ no dole.”
The second replied, “Got spuds, not so?”
“Pah!” spat the first jugger. “Din, no dink.”
“Dinner, no pay,” said Bes.
“Quiet!” mouthed Petra.
The second jugger said, placatingly, “Humbugs offin’, may it. Dems whacker bad’n six, now loose’n seven. Says that Gobbler, an’ he gets from Guntorg”
Bes said, “Humans nearby. They attacked in sector six, now—”
“Just translate better the first time,” said Petra, this time thinking the words.
“Their language has changed,” protested Bes.
The first jugger spat. “Like dems attack laundry, steal our shirts so you think, dumb-ass.”
“Whaddit know, turd-face. Dem jacks is sly. You be told, you do.”
“Gobbler say they killed twenty. Gots old weapons.”
“An’ that runt Pustug nabs one human, Guntorg fill ‘is nose wi’ gold.”
The second jugger gave a derisive snort. “An’ he loses t’other one, so Guntorg bang ‘is nose flat, whaddit.”
Petra thought, They’re talking about Otger and me!
The first jugger sneezed.
The second stepped back. “Gah! Whaddit, Mulluc. Look, you snot-bang my shirt!”
Mulluc sniffed. “So? You butt-blast my nose.”
“Not so! It be … it be—” The second jugger sneezed violently.
The first had to sneeze several times before he could reply. “Muggin-trump, may it—they bung-bang epic when they fed on b … beans.”
Both juggers were now convulsed with sneezing. Petra peeked around the tank to see a thin one and a thick one stagger out of the door.
“You did that, didn’t you!” she whispered.
“This close, I can delude them.”
“I wanted to hear about Otger.”
“If the sector warden has him, he’ll be nearby. Now the food—it calls to me.”
Petra carried her demon through narrow passages and rooms of machinery, avoiding wider corridors where booted juggers marched and barefoot messengers ran. The corridors were bright with greenish light. The skully helped her to see, according to Bes. Soon she didn’t need his warnings. She tasted the amplified smells, saw the movement of air, felt the footfalls that told of enemies before they appeared.
The skully fit like a second skin and she no longer felt its presence. Strangely, the pains in her leg and backside had faded so that they hardly bothered her. But Bes grew heavier with every step.
“The sector rotunda,” announced Bes. “Stay low.”
Petra crawled across a grille, then peered between the plates of a barrier. Even the map did not prepare her for the sight.
The elliptical room was as vast as a canyon and filled with echoing noise and electric light. A thousand feet below, juggers and muggins toiled. Structures hung from the domed ceiling as far again above. Catwalks ran along the walls, more levels of catwalk than Petra could count. And lining the walls were thousands and thousands of barred cells. The scars of ancient battle showed: ruined catwalks crudely repaired and scorched pits where patches of cells had been blasted away.
A dark tower rose from the floor almost to the ceiling near one end of the ellipse. Where its twin had stood, only a melted stump remained.
Petra’s eyes were drawn up the far wall to a plaque several floors tall that bore enormous lettering such as she’d only seen before on ‘tarlics. The script looked as inscrutable as it always had, yet with the demon on her back, it held a shock of meaning like a sudden memory of a forgotten life.
What she saw was this: