ECO III – Orouboros

Influenced by the work of authors such as Paolo Bacigalupi and N K Jemisin, Ouroboros is the third of a trilogy of epic fantasies set on a world named Eco, and centred on Dragon-witch Caia Esvane and her troublesome daughter Leah. Aeons after inter-planetary war, an undersea city containing the remnants of an industrialised, authoritarian society emerges into an Eden where magic is real, and peoples have adapted to a post-apocalyptic world. The ripples from this event will spread back in time and across the galaxy, leaving nothing unchanged.

Novel I Emergence

City 5 was the fifth undersea survival colony established during an interplanetary war fought 17,000 years ago against the Scitha, a war-like race from the far side of the galaxy. Created from sentient and self-healing materials, the star-shaped city has its own identity and sense of purpose, including the misleading of its citizens. Controlled by the martial centurions and serving a self-indulgent elite, the unprivileged workers of City 5 are enslaved, their life spans determined genetically. Several cults exist, including the ‘all-seeing eye’.

A twist of fate results in the city’s emergence into an Edenic world where the forests of the Great Rift are home to a shamanic people with very different values, and where the all-seeing eye is manifested as a nature-god that creates and destroys. Dragon-witch Caia Esvane, rebellious daughter of the shaman, detects an escape pod circling the planet. Squadron Leader John Mack has been in stasis since the Scitha invasion, until Caia awakens him by mind-joining.  John Mack is already dying, but the escape pod returns him to the surface. It enters the ocean, seeking out City 5, and is discovered by investigator and ex-gladiator Lucas Venn. The pod is taken inside the city. John Mack’s last words are that the surface is safe, and it’s beautiful. As the news spreads, society within the city falls apart as the ruling dynasties compete for power.

The shaman, Robin Esvane, banishes Caia to the Outlands where she discovers her brother, abandoned as a child, and learns of her own past. Meanwhile the city emerges, hungry for new resources. The ensuing struggle between technology and magic leaves Caia Esvane with a fragmented people facing climate change and shrinking resources. In the midst of conflict, she falls in love with Lucas Venn, now blinded and an outcast from the city. Together they must unite warring tribes and refugees to overcome City 5 and its ruling class led by the despotic Hedra Darke.

Novel II Second Dawn

Seven years have passed. Whilst survivors from City 5 struggle to adapt to a new way of life, the conflict has attracted a second survival city to the surface. Unlike City 5, Rax has adapted its occupants to existence under the sea, and with very different values. To Rax, all life on land is a threat. Pregnant with her second child, Caia has to reunite a divided society whilst the cities fight for supremacy in a war with no winners.

Ex-waste disposal drones Hath Ban, his brother Octo and Dil Crown have not enjoyed emergence. Now collecting night-soil, they have the first encounter with Rax, when Dil is abducted by a shape-shifting creature called a biosynth. Dil is taken to the undersea city and sees many wonders, but is adopted by Meena, a tall and beautiful humanoid and double-agent. Later, Hath and Octo arrange for Dil’s rescue, but Meena goes with him. Meena, Hath and Octo are central characters, all forced to challenge their beliefs and their lives change.

Now an outcaste, Hedra Darke has been imprisoned by the mysterious People of White, twelve survivors from the Scitha invasion. Originally serving as navigators for the Scitha, the People of White share a single mind, and want to return to their home world. Their leader, Regis, forms a special relationship with Hedra Darke, and agrees to help her regain control of the city, but she does not know their true purpose.

Unknown to Hedra, City 5 contains the means to contact the Scitha and open a tunnel through space-time. In order to control Caia, Hedra takes Caia’s seven-year-old daughter Leah hostage, but Leah is also a dragon-witch and her powers are formidable. None of the People of White survive the ensuing onslaught, but they have opened the tunnel and one day, the Scitha will return.

Novel III Ouroboros

Fourteen years in the future, the second Scitha invasion is imminent and this time, there seems to be no hope of survival for the nature-loving society of the Rift. Leah Esvane, now aged 21, is more gifted than Caia. Feisty and passionate, she is also very like her mother, with whom she agrees on nothing. Leah can also mind-join across time, and perhaps find a way to prevent the emergence of City 5, even if this means she can no longer exist.

As the conflict begins, Leah seeks a host 17,000 years in the past and mind-joins with trainee fighter pilot Leanne Tai. Her objective is to find and kill John Mack.

When Leah awakens within her host, the seven survival cities are already being constructed, and a pulse weapon is also being designed that will destroy not only the invasion, but all technology on the surface. There’s a chance that the same technology exists in her own time – and she has no idea what the death of John Mack would mean for her people. As Leah gets to know John and his family, and assumes the life of Leanne Tai, the choice becomes impossible.

Meanwhile, Caia has to find a way to impede the Scitha and buy time for Leah, even if it means the sacrifice of her beloved dragons and endangering the forests of the Rift. Some of the Outlanders, led by the sadistic commander Hol Xan and his centurions, want to side with the Scitha. Eventually, Caia must confront the Scitha Prime, calling upon all her magic to buy time for Leah. But Leah has got to know John Mack and his family, and Leanne has a complex life. And if Leah kills John Mack, then she and her sister Asha will no longer exist. How can their world be saved? The only alternative is a gamble – to find and somehow re-arm the magnetic pulse weapon that was used so long ago, if the people from the city can join with Caia’s people and work as one.

Ouroboros – Main story points

Chapter 1. The rings in the sky are changing. The forest reacts, and dragons return from the mountains.  There are other portents – more space debris arriving, time disturbances, the sighting of ghosts. Leah, now 23, discovers the approaching threat.  Much to Caia’s disapproval, Leah has become involved with a centurion. Ross Zane (aged 32) had been serving under Hol Xan in the Outlands before escaping to the Rift. He is treated with suspicion but passes the gruelling tests, much to Caia’s disappointment. Caia forbids her, but Leah mind-joins with the Scitha Prime and learns of their weaponry. She sends her soul-mate Whiteflame to attack, but the dragon does not survive.

Chapter 2. Caia fights to save Leah as we see through Leah’s viewpoint. Whiteflame has not left her, because they now share the same soul and her gifts will increase if she lives. Leah’s spirit drifts through the enemy fleet and discovers the full scale of the threat. She challenges the Scitha Prime but in doing so, reveals their own weaknesses. She is nearly lost, but manages to communicate with their navigator and destroys the primary weapon, known as the Emperor Stone. Leah cannot be awakened, and the threat is still great.

Chapter 3. In City 5, preparations are being made by Hedra Darke, but not enough to defeat the Scitha. She holds discussions with Caia, her old adversary. In the Outlands, the renegade forces of Commander Hol Xan, former head of the centurions, are also preparing for the invasion. Equipped with a fleet of land-ships and committed to restoring City 5’s way of life, the Centurions see the Scitha as an ally. Hol Xan approaches Hedra Darke with a proposition.

Chapter 4. Caia summons Ross in a desperate attempt to recall Leah. He warns that Hol Xan will try to negotiate with the invaders. Caia can see terrible futures, one where Eco returns to how it used to be, polluted and exhausted, another where the Scitha discover a second Emperor Stone that has been hidden on Eco – and Hol Xan knows the location. She must enter the outer darkness to bring Leah back, and together they overcome the Scitha Prime, but the threat is grave.

Chapter 5. Caia decides that their only chance is a mind-join into the distant past to discover how the first invasion was defeated, and if possible, to prevent John Mack from being awakened, so that the emergence of City 5 could never have happened. But she knows that would mean she would not have met Lucas Venn, and her daughters could not exist. She decides the risks are too great, but Leah disregards her. The mind-join is difficult and dangerous, and Leah’s body must lie undisturbed in a smoke-hut whilst the invasion is held at bay and the Scitha search for her.

Chapter 6. When Leah awakens, she has bonded with trainee pilot Leanne Tai, but the mind-join is different from normal. Leanne had been facing death at the time of contact, allowing Leah to take more control. She has effectively become Leanne, and experiences all of Leanne’s memories and her knowledge. She knows that her own body, asleep 17,000 years in the future, can only exist for a matter of weeks. She can feel what’s happening to herself, even though she is existing through Leanne.  She awakens in the same location, different time. Even the rotation of the planet and its location in space are the same, the Rift does not yet exist and there are no forests or wildlife, only city and food factories. The sprawling Birdsong air base sits where ruined buildings exist in the future. This is a world in torment – polluted, over-crowded and over-heating. The military base was not constructed to repel an alien invasion, its purpose is to defend resources.

The second thing Leah learns is that the first wave of the invasion is already happening, and she is in the middle of a war. Many confederation fighters are lost and cities decimated, but the invading craft are eventually brought down. The first wave was purely to test defences, and the captured craft are analysed to discover the technology which will be employed to create the survival cities.

Society is plagued by in-fighting.  Polarisation has led to opposing groups of believers – those who blame everything on the sun (‘solarists’), and others who think that the clock has to be turned back and the current problems are a punishment (‘Edenists’). This polarisation also exists on the base, causing friction in the squadron. Leanne was a solarist.

The third discovery is that Leanne was enjoying an on-off relationship with a dislikeable scientist named Daniel Black, and currently it’s off. In the meantime, she is seeing Adam Taylor, one of the pilots in John Mack’s squadron. Daniel is helping analyse the Scitha weapon systems, and Leah needs to re-establish her connection to him, despite her feelings for Ross Zane – and the culture and behaviours of this society are quite different from her world. No one expects to live for long.

Chapter 7. Caia musters the forces of the planet to discover where Hol Xan is hiding the Emperor Stone. Deep in the Outlands is one of the Sancta, the magical rings used by the People of White to travel between worlds. Each Sanctum was capable of transporting twelve of the giants, rumoured to still exist but never seen. It still retains enough energy to conceal the Emperor Stone, and to defend it. Caia’s brother Darius and his tribe close in on the Sanctum, intent on attacking it, but only Caia’s bond-dragon Firestorm can do so, and the Sanctum is defended by many land-ships armed with energy weapons taken from the city.

Chapter 8. Leah gets to know John Mack and his family. Leanne enjoyed a close relationship with them, especially John’s wife Imelda and her six-year old daughter Vanessa. Leanne’s own family are trapped in China, now a wasteland devastated by the effects of climate change. Leah tries to get closer to John Mack and can’t help liking him. She discovers that his seventeen-year-old son Harry is taking drugs and depressed about the state of the world. She warns John about it. When Harry tries to kill himself, Leah finds herself drawn into the family and wins John’s confidence.

Chapter 9. Despite the loss of their primary weapon, the Scitha ships are winning the war. Caia knows she will have to summon greater forces to oppose them. She refuses to sacrifice more dragons and their riders, knowing they are hopelessly outnumbered. But the planet Eco has other weapons she can call on, even though they will also endanger many living things, including her own people.

Chapter 10. Leah’s second mission as Leanne is to help track down and kill the surviving Scitha, with the rest of John Mack’s squadron. They are hiding in a ruined city, and Leah has to prove herself to John, without revealing her dragon-witch powers. The cull reveals much about their enemy.

Chapter 11 concerns the construction of the first survival city, and the process to select who will populate it. The city is to be dropped into the ocean depths, out of reach of the magnetic pulse weapon being prepared to destroy the Scitha fleet – and which will also destroy all digital systems on the planet, leaving them defenceless.

Subsequent chapters to be decided. The storyline can be expected to change.

Sample Chapters

1

Leah Esvane stood alone on the windswept headland overlooking the Birdsong Estuary. It was late September, and the deciduous trees of the forest were already turning to russet and gold under a cold blue sky. The Rift People were busy harvesting acorns and berries, and singing their traditional songs, but not Leah. She drew deeply on the chan-pipe and felt her senses twang. She had never felt so aware of her body, but also so free. She span around laughing with her arms outstretched, and the world continued spinning when she stopped. She dropped to the springy turf and laughed some more, until it began to sound crazy even to her. City 5 was still there, squatting on the edge of the sea, and how much she detested it.

The city was vast, the far side lost in the early evening mists. Over ten miles wide, some said. One hundred foot high. When she was little, the city was a monstrous, five-armed, rusting replica of a starfish. Then it was destroyed, but not dead. Now it lived again, but this time, gleaming spires rose from the centre. Unoccupied other than the Feelers, as far as she could tell, and the blind engineers kept themselves to themselves. She had refused to go back inside the place after what had happened thirteen years before – the world had moved on, but she had not. It was not easy to forget a war between two such cities, and to see the white heat of dragon fire sear through the endless, twisting passageways, or see people falling and writhing in flames. Leah could still hear the devastating thunderclap that hammered down when the city of Rax at the entrance to the bay erupted in steam and flame. The calm grey waters had been filled with burned corpses, and it was Leah who caused the deaths of the sea people – she and her mother Caia and the ghosts of the aunt she had never met, and an ancient crone called Aris Dol who had been her mother’s teacher. Now, Leah could not look into a hearth or sit beside a song-fire, preferring to be in the safety of cold night air.  She drew on the pipe and let the chan blot out her memories. Chan was her friend and her confidant.

She lay on her back, watching the swifts as they soared and darted. Then she was seeing the air-world through their eyes and the mind-join happened so easily, almost without being aware. She darted across the headland, wheeling back and saw a flame-haired, barefoot skinny girl wearing a tattered black uniform that was too small for her. The girl looked very like Caia Esvane, with high cheekbones and brooding eyes that dominated all other features, but these were emerald green instead of black. The girl looked like she should smile more often. The swift swept across the sky and then the mind-join was broken abruptly, but not by her. Leah opened her eyes and was afraid.

The rings in the sky had been there for so many years that people no longer noticed. They were like ripples in water, frozen in time since the city war. Now the rings were moving, and Leah could sense the change. The light was different, harder. The swifts were gone as fast as they came. The forest held its breath. She watched as the giant circles in the heavens slowly rotated, and the sky within them grew darker as if seen through a lens. The edge of Alpa Tapana, the giant red sun, lay behind the circles and even that was darkened to the colour of dried blood. Tiny points of space debris streaked across the sky, leaving white trails. They had been circling Eco for over 17,000 years, but now, something was changing and it was bad. Then she saw an ancient crone dressed in black rags, who was trying to speak. When she looked again, fear-frozen, there was no one. Leah put the chan-pipe and flints back in their hiding place and ran back to the village.

It was dusk by the time Leah arrived, barely out of breath after covering twenty miles. The village of Fern was far bigger than it used to be – more of a town now. She reached the outskirts, where the poorly built tree-houses of refugees from both cities lived in ghettos. City 5 people did their best to copy the spherical houses of Rifters, but the new survivors from Rax were still struggling with the idea of life on land, decorating their homes with pathetic mats of seaweed and leaving the ground littered with discarded fishbones. Leah padded across the leafy floor. The autumn evening was already chill and she could smell frost in the air. A drumming session was underway from the central space, and she could smell wood smoke from the song-fire. Her parents would be there with Asha, busy indoctrinating her into the ways of the Rift. Leah felt the usual resentment bubbling away, but it had lessened in recent years. Caia had spared nothing in lecturing her about her faults. Jealous of her younger sister – ‘sibling rivalry’ – selfish and so on. Just words. But Leah was old enough now to acknowledge secretly, and begrudgingly, that perhaps there was some truth in what her mother said. She just shouldn’t say it that way. At least Caia did not know about Ross Zane, and the feel of the Centurion’s strong hands, and what they did together deep in the forest. That made Leah smile. The smile dropped when she thought of what her father might do if he found out. In her mother’s day, she would have been banished to the Outlands for such a heresy – even though she herself bonded with a Centurion. Leah walked between the colossal trunks of the oaks and iron trees, glancing up at the swaying houses as she stroked the rough bark and listened to the voices of the trees. Many windows flickered with candle-light amongst the ruddy leaves, and it was beautiful.

She reached the clearing edge and leaned against a tree. The fire at the centre was just getting started, and men were walking towards it in their russet clothes before bowing reverently and placing sticks on it, singing thanks to the Great Tree – a willow-bearded green giant armed with a spear of light. They sang about how the Great Tree once rode upon Dolor the first dragon, and life then sprang forth from the twisted spires of rock that littered the Rift. Caia was there with thirteen-year-old Asha, a perfect replica of her mother with silver hair and jet-black eyes. Flame-haired, green-eyed Leah was the image of the Royals who once ruled over City 5, and strikingly similar to Hedra Darke, once the despotic queen of the city.

Leah’s father Lucas Venn was busily drumming, sitting next to one of his friends from their city days. Leah didn’t like Hath Ban, the one-time waste disposal drone who became a warrior and a hero. She didn’t like the way he looked at her, as if he could see all her faults. As if he knew she had once tried to betray them all. She wouldn’t have minded if he just lusted after her, like most men. Caia spotted her and got up, indicating to Asha to stay. She walked between the many people sitting cross-legged on the leafy ground, and they glanced up at her and smiled as if she was their saviour. She walked so effortlessly, so slight and beautiful. So desirable, still young, and so dangerous. And then she reached Leah, a head shorter than her tall daughter. She smiled up at her with those pitch-black eyes, and touched her face with a small, cool hand.

“Come to the fire, Leah. Sit you with us.”

“Why does you keep saying that? You knows I can’t.”

“A dragonwitch frightened of fire, that be a novelty. You mind-joined again. You promised me not to. You joins too often. I smells chan on you. I can smell something else too. Man-smell. What be you up to? Let me see this man.”

Leah smiled down at Caia, preventing the mind-join, knowing it would annoy her. “Be this the dragon-witch talking to me, or my mother?”

Caia took her hand away. “It’s both.”

“I ain’t no a child. I’m twenty-three. What were you doing, when you were twenty-three?”

Caia shot her a rare smile. The smile was beautiful. “That’s for me to know. Walk you with me, child. I won’t bite. Not this time, at any rate.”

“That’ll be a change then.”

They walked under the leafy boughs and the drumming faded, replaced by the soft sweet wind. A tawny owl hooted from very near, telling them about a night-worm that had passed that way not long before, but such things were no concern to dragon-witches.

“The rings in the sky be changing. I sees space debris and there was a lot. I thinks it came through the rings. It feels wrong. It feels bad.”

Caia gazed up at the fragments of sky between the many boughs. “Aye, I have seen this myself. There’s been changes for weeks now. People speaks of seeing ghosts.”

“Wood spirits?”

“No, this were different. I thought I saw my father, he were standing right in front of me and he were speaking, but I couldn’t hear nothing.”

“Wait – just now I seen an old woman dressed in black, and I think it be Aris Dol. She were pointing and saying something, but there was no sound.”

Caia seemed sad. “How I misses her, Leah. She were a mother to me, she taught me everything. She would have been saying that space-time is being twisted and bent, and there’s nowt we can do to stop it. She was warning us that we face great peril.  I’ve waited thirteen years for this, and prayed every day that it would never happen. The dragons feel it, can’t you tell?”

Leah closed her eyes for a moment, seeking her bond-dragon and finding Whiteflame far away, on one of the three moons. She was old now and running hot. And when they mind-joined, it was as if Whiteflame had been there all the time. Their conversation needed no time and no words, and below the thoughts was a well of love. She opened her eyes to see Caia smiling at her.

“What says your dragon? I heard none of it.”

Leah found it impossible to share. “What do Firestorm say?”

Caia found a fallen log and sat down, patting beside her. “He says the Scitha are coming, Leah. They are coming to wage war and take Eco from us, and this time our world has nothing to fight them with, apart from magic, and magic ain’t enough. We will have to run and hide deep in the forest, but even that may not save us. He says they have not forgotten what happened seventeen thousand years ago.”

Leah tried to absorb what she was hearing. “Will it be worse than the war with City 5, when Rax was destroyed? Will it be worse than that?”

Caia was holding her hand and this time, Leah did not pull away. “I fears so. This will be a war against Eco, as far as every horizon, even across the sea to the edge of the world.”

“can’t we summon the Great Tree to destroy them with his spear of light? Can’t the dragons burn them like they did to Rax?”

Caia’s hand felt cool and strong. “How many dragons should die, to save our world? Would you sacrifice Whiteflame?”

Leah felt her eyes burn with tears. “You can’t ask me that. You knows I can’t. She and I be soul-bonded.”

Caia gripped her hand hard enough to make her gasp. “It may come to that, sweetheart. We must do whatever it takes. Do you understand me? Whatever it takes. The world depends on us now, you, me and your sister Asha. But above all, it depends upon you.”

“I don’t understand – why me?”

Caia said, “You will find out soon enough.”

2

The smoke-hut had been built deep in the forest, on a ledge below Fire Mountain. Dolroth, the glass mountain, lay opposite, rearing up above the misty trees. The gleaming flanks reflected the clouds and the sky, as if the mountain was trying to hide itself. Leah had never been inside Dolroth but she had heard the terrible stories about how Robin Esvane led his people to safety along a narrow path, and how some had fallen to their deaths. Caia had been there too, but she had never spoken of it, just saying she wanted to forget. Caia was there now, standing beside Leah as the freshening wind blew back her silvery hair. She was watching the rising sun catch the icy spires of Dolroth, and her expression was sad. Leah knew she would remain there in silence until the sunlight flooded the Rift, and then she would clap her hands in a child-like way and laugh, as if it was a great surprise. For someone who could be so terrifying, Caia retained an innocent quality that was somehow worse. Just as Leah was thanking Dolor for Asha not being there, she heard a shout from below and the sounds of a large animal. Soon enough, her sister came into view. She was astride a large stag as it bounded up the zigzag path, her honey-coloured legs gripping tight as she waved. The stag was clearly not so happy about the favour, and stopped some distance away, tossing its head. Asha slid down and it turned and was gone. Then she ran up the path, tugging down the russet tunic. She arrived, combing her hair back with her fingers in a perfect imitation of Caia, then she put her hands on her hips.

“Well?”

Caia regarded her without smiling, and Asha gazed back innocently. “Now you be here, Asha, you can make yourself useful. Go collect more of the dry timbers, and the fallen branches of juniper. Someone’s used the smoke-hut and not bothered to rebuild the fire.”

Leah knew what she was thinking. “One of the city folk, no doubt. They’re not all bad, you knows.”

Caia shot her look but said nothing. There was a chan-bush not far away, still with some berries left. Chan-addiction was another problem, amongst the Drone community in particular. She went over and began picking the ripe ones, to be crushed and added to the fire.

“You knows what you has to do, Leah. You remembers what I said.”

Leah helped her pick, sneaking a berry into her mouth, feeling the acrid juices explode over her tongue.

“Leah, is you listening to me?”

“I’m to mind-join a lesser within the Scitha fleet so I can observe. And I can use Whiteflame to see how many there are, but I’m not to do anything that might show them we’re preparing. I get all that, I’m not a child, for fuck’s sake.”

As soon as she said it, she felt her mouth clamp shut.

“And don’t use them city-words. They sounds ugly. It’s not attractive. I doesn’t know where you gets this from.”

And you’re not going to find out, Leah thought.

Caia released her from the silence spell. “Say something useful then.”

“Why does I have to do it?”

Caia did her reaching out thing, stroking Leah’s hair and pushing it back from her face. Leah hated people touching her hair. “Asha be too young, and you has the strongest mind-join. There, I’ve said it, Leah. You has the greatest gift, and so now you has to use it for us and for your world. But I warns you – don’t let the Scitha Prime discover you, or you won’t be coming back, and neither will Whiteflame. It could be the end for us all.”

Caia’s last words were a jolt. Leah watched her sister dragging a fallen branch towards the hut and went to help her. The building itself was half-buried in the ground. The sides had been plastered with mud. There was a hole at the top of the roof, and the windows were covered with slatted smoke-stained shutters. She and Asha dropped the branch beside the pile of dry wood.

Asha was watching her. “I knows what you’re going to do. I were listening.”

Leah studied her sister. “I didn’t know you was there. You mind-joined our mother. Don’t never let her know you can do that, she’d be mightily vexed. Promise.”

“I promises. Our secret then. That and Ross.”

Asha opened the low doors and went inside. It smelled damp and cold. The hut was about twenty feet wide, with a fire-pit at the centre filled with charred stumps. Simple benches stood around the walls that looked very uncomfortable to Leah. Asha went back outside, singing to herself. She returned with an armful of wood and began building the fire.

“I wants to watch, when you asks Whiteflame. I want to see.”

Leah helped her, kneeling on the cold earth. “Not this time.”

“Maybe I should tell about Ross, then.”

Leah grabbed her by the arm. “And there’s some things I call tell about you, little missie. You can guard the hut in case a night-worm comes, or mantis and stuff. Maybe a reptyl will eat you up.”

“Maybe a baby trex will come, like the one you found when you was little.”

Leah didn’t want to be reminded of that. The woodsmen shot the poor thing with arrows. They said it was the runt of the litter and had no chance of surviving, but she still didn’t believe that.

“How much does we need on the fire, anyway?”

Leah studied it. “I think that be enough. I don’t want to be cooked in here.”

Asha stood up, dusting the earth from her knees. “You will come back, won’t you? You will be careful? Because you’re never careful, Leah. People say you got city-madness in your blood.”

She heard movement outside, and Caia entered. She sat on one of the benches and rested her head against the wall, closing her eyes and Leah realised how tired she seemed, and how small.

“Are you okay?”

A small smile flitted across Caia’s unlined face at the use of another city-word. She opened her eyes and the seemed very dark.

“Aye, I be okay, Leah. But since I first set eyes on your father, there’s been one thing after another, and now this. I tellee, the Scitha are going to rue the day they came back here. We will rain fire and death upon them if they dares to hurt us. This be my promise.”

Leah caught Asha’s eye and there was no laughter this time. She nodded. “Fire and death.”

“Now, Asha. Time to light the fire you has so carefully laid. Will you do it for me?”

Asha grinned, a flash of white in the brown face. Then she pointed, and flame licked around the dry sticks. They caught immediately, and Leah warmed her hands against it as Caia laid the green wood on top, and cast in some chan-berries. Now white smoke began to ooze between the green fronds. As soon as she smelled them, Leah felt her right hand start to shake. She sat on it quick.

“Now you won’t use all them berries, Leah. I doesn’t want you being sick. And not too much greenwood neither. That’s plenty on there.”

“Stop fussing, mother. “I’ve been in smoke-huts before. And I’ve had chan.”

The predictable response. “Is that so? Who with, may I ask?”

But Leah had lain down on one of the benches with her hands behind her head, and she was thinking about Ross and where he might be at that moment. And then she thought about her father, Lucas Venn, and how much she loved him, and she let Caia see that thought.  The smoke thickened and the room got uncomfortably hot. Leah stripped down to her slip and lay sweating on the hard bench. She was already starting to feel light-headed, and the chan in the smoke and from the berries she had just eaten, combined with that already in her blood, made the room start spinning. She thought about Whiteflame, and her companion was already there in her thoughts. Whiteflame already knew everything there was to know. There were no secrets from her but she never judged. When the voice finally spoke in her head, Leah realised how old it sounded.

Are thou afraid, dearest one?

“No, I ain’t afeard, not yet at any rate.” The acridity made Leah choke. “I’ve got to do this on my own, Whiteflame. I’ve got to find the invaders and discover their weaknesses, if there be any. You can’t go there. I won’t allow it.”

A low chuckle. “I was playing on the moon before life existed here, dearest one. And I will do whatever is needed to keep thou from harm. Now it’s time to sleep.”

Leah felt her head spinning. She felt very light, as if she could float into the air, but at the same time, she couldn’t move her arms or legs. She should have been frightened of the smoke-hut, but she could feel Whiteflame close by, even though that was impossible. She could smell the warm sulphurous breath and hear the gurgling of fermenting chemicals, but above all, she could feel the endless love surrounding her and she was no longer afraid. The moment when Leah left her body was unclear, only a floating sensation as the walls of the smoke hut vanished. She was lying on the bench, but the bench seemed to be on a beach beside a calm sea and it was nowhere she recognised. The smoke around her became sea fog and somewhere high above, the single sun was a pale halo. Leah got up from the bench and when she looked down, it was no longer there. She walked barefoot along the beach, almost certain that this place did not exist, hoping Whiteflame could be a part of it. Something huge swirled the sea mist and the air blowing at her was cold and fresh. A large shadow blocked out the sun momentarily and she heard immense wings beating. Whiteflame was almost transparent now, a dragon-shaped hole in the churning mist. The white heat inside her pulsed, blindingly bright, then cool blue. Leah shouted but sounds seemed deadened if they existed at all. Then she saw Whiteflame heading towards her in a long glide. She saw the mighty limbs and the sinuous tail drop and gouge deep into the sand. And the wings rotated, air-braking. The extraordinary face with its drooping whiskers and feathery eyebrows was within reach, and a soft purr came from the blackened nostrils as Leah reached out and stroked the scaly cheek.  Everything seemed so real, and the soulful, deep green eyes looked deep into her own as the wings slowly folded, creaking like old doors.

“Is you real or a dream? Because this place can’t be real.”

“I am as real as thee, Leah. Thou hast to mind-join with one of them, but that won’t be enough, believe me, I know these creatures. There’s a navigator on board.”

“A navigator?”

“Thou remembers the People of White?”

Leah remembered twelve giants with snow-white skin, but covered with strange writings that came and went. She learned they were a pod, and each pod travelled in a ring-shaped aircraft called a sanctum, but theirs had been destroyed when they first arrived with the Scitha seventeen thousand years ago. She had met one of them, a kind giant called Regis.

“Regis rescued Hedra Darke when she was escaping. She lived with them for seven years but she didn’t change much. Nothing changes her.”

“Then thou knows that the navigators are slaves to the Scitha. They hate them.”

“You’re saying, find the navigator and get them to do something. Or kill them. What are you saying?”

A deep sigh that she knew too well. “We need to stop them attacking. We need to find their weapons. Then we have a chance. Find out what thou canst, the navigator will not betray thee.”

“Then what will you do, Whiteflame?”

But the ancient creature began to fade. The reply seemed to come from far away. “That is to be decided, little one. Close thy eyes. It is time.”

Leah wiped the tears away. She walked to the top of the beach and felt the sharpness of dry seaweed against her feet. Then she sat down cross-legged on the dry sand as the sand-flies whizzed about her, but none of it was real and from some invisible place, she felt Caia’s cool hand stroke her forehead, and heard a door closing softly. The mists were gone and the single sun burned down, making Leah sleepy. Her eyes drooped, her head nodded, and sleep came fast, but this was sleep within sleep. It was as before, a re-awakening but this time, the beach was far below and the air around her was icy cold. She was travelling upwards at immense speed until the clouds were below her. Higher still until she saw the curvature of the planet, and the layer of clouds lay below a veil of dazzling blue. Eco was an endless curve of green continents separated by deep blue sea, and she realised with shock that the Rift was insignificant compared to this vastness. She could not even tell which continent it was on. There were at least four huge land masses, endless coastlines and countless islands. A colossal storm was raging over one of the land masses, forming an immense spiral with a hole at the centre. Lightning flickered endlessly across it as the sky grew steadily darker. This was the domain of Whiteflame, the world of the dragon. Compared to Eco, Caia, Leah and Asha were as insignificant as ants to a mountain, and yet Caia once said, ‘I am Eco,’ and Leah still believed her.  Now the sky was black and ablaze with stars, and Leah was heading directly into the giant ring visible from the ground. It was the entrance to a tunnel, and the walls pulsed and sparked with amazing colours. Leah was still moving with immense speed, and yet she felt nothing but the gentle floating sensation from the smoke-hut.

“How’s she doing? Should I wash her?” the voice belonged to Airdance, Caia’s bitchy sister.

“Leah be fine, Airdance. Stop fussing over her. Open the shutters a bit, there be too much smoke in here. She needs to breathe easier.”

Leah gazed into the inky blackness within the space-time tunnel, searching for some sign of the Scitha ships. She expected them to be hurtling towards her, perhaps driven by great jets of flame. Then a dark shape moved through darkness, and she saw it.

The first ship was almost identical to the wrecks that littered the Outlands and the Rift, and as far as she now knew, entire continents and the ocean floor. It was insectile, shiny and black. Something like a hornet and a machine fused into one. Her first instinct was to hide, but it was moving slowly, almost reluctantly.

“It can’t see me. I ain’t really here. I be in the smoke-hut.”

The words did nothing to reassure. She moved closer, still in her underwear and realised the size of the thing – bigger than Firestorm, the material of the body bearing a faint honeycomb pattern, punctuated by lines of small holes. She reached the side and tried to feel it, but her hand passed through because this thing was real, and she was not. Leah swallowed and tasted wood smoke, and then passed through the hull. She found herself in a large empty space with arching pillars made of glittering, crystalline material. It seemed too organic to be part of a machine, and the thick black struts stretched across the space were sinewy in appearance. Areas of the wall bore coruscations that reminded her of the brain corals that washed up on beaches after the worst storms. There were tiny lights deep between the lobes that twinkled and sometimes pulsed together. She tried a mind-join with one, and found a mind preoccupied with life support systems, propulsion, braking, banking, and a host of other mundane things that told her the ship itself was intelligent. She explored further through the labyrinth of thoughts, seeking the weapon system, but this entity was only responsible for testing. The source of the power for the ship and its weapons was a closely guarded secret, and when she tried to delve further, Leah encountered resistance. She remembered Whiteflame’s teaching – and dragons were the masters of mind-join – ‘Thou must become one with the mind’. Leah did so, fusing her own thoughts with the machine, surrendering herself to the alien impulses, keeping just enough of Leah Esvane so she could escape. This time she could see everything and it was beautiful, but it did not help her. Leah extricated herself from the mind-join with great care, severing one thought and then another, fearful of being discovered. The machine-brain became aware of her instantly. It was designed to detect intrusion and subversion, maybe an ancient form of attack. Leah panicked and was horrified to see wisps of smoke escaping from the blackening coruscations as the tiny lights blanked out. The thing was dead and she felt the ship wallow violently. The outer walls creaked and groaned as the pilot fought for control. She drifted through the ceiling and the inner chambers of the ship. One room contained naked three-legged animals of some kind, cowering together and shivering. Their wide-open eyes and hairless bodies were disturbingly child-like. She suspected they were a food-source, like the ones discovered in City 5, so adapted that they were incapable of independent life.  She moved towards the front of the ship and entered the cockpit. There were three Scitha in there, twice the size of a man, and their appearance was a shock to her. They were semi-transparent, sinuous entities with cone-shaped faces – if they could be called faces – surrounded by a wavering ring of violet light that flooded through the outlines of the carapaces. Their corrugated skin glowed within the countless fissures, reminding her of the brain-like growths. As they became aware of the intrusion, whip-like tails with three spines lashed agitatedly, otherwise there was no change in expression, just a tensing of the long bodies. The one seated in the centre could not move its head, because a silver rod was planted in the centre of it, and to Leah it looked painful and cruel. There were no other controls, no obvious way of flying the machine other than this brutal connection.  The nearest one to her expanded an elaborate fan of bright red around its neck before beginning to pulse in different colours and complex patterns, exactly like the cuttlefish she had seen feeding at night in the bays. These creatures were utterly unlike anything she had encountered before, even during the strange replays that sometimes occurred within the crashed machines. The colours became more violent, and then the three fell into a sequence of purples and blues, all the time with no sound. Then the nearest one opened its mouth by peeling back three segments at the pointed end of the cone, and the mouth gaped wide. There was no sound, only a blast of energy that shimmered the atmosphere inside the machine. It flooded around Leah hurled her back against the metallic wall. That should not have happened. It had detected her, somehow, and made her part of the physical world inside the machine. The cone swung towards her, and the array of eyes were fixed on her. It could see her, and that was impossible. It was out of the seat in an instant and the tail lashed at her with the three spines outstretched as she threw herself clear. She knew that the spines were toxic. The blast of energy came again, this time burning hot. There was no time for reasoning, but there was time for anger. Leah was not aware of how it happened, only that she thought of fire. She stabbed her fingers at her enemy as the tail whipped down at her, and it was as if Whiteflame herself was there. A stream of white heat struck it in the chest, and an instant later the Scitha was ablaze and this time there was sound. It writhed on the floor beating at itself, keening with agony, but the pain was brief. Another instant, and the blackened remains were still and silent before crumbling to ashes. All the while, the pilot kept to its task, fixed by the metal tube in its head. The other was more cautious, moving around the cockpit as Leah tried to escape, but the shimmering energy caught her again. This time she mind-joined with the pilot, and almost instantly she was freed. She could see through the pilot’s eyes as its comrade searched for her. The thoughts were too strange and she could not understand or control it. She could find no common concepts, only the one purpose of flying the craft, nothing else. It was as if this creature was part of the machine, as much as the brain-like things within the superstructure. She’d once heard that an octopus had nine brains, the one in its head, and another in each leg, and these things were the same. But she needed to know if there was a navigator in the fleet and so she concentrated on an image of Regis and the Magda Stone, and then she saw it. There was a Magda Stone in the craft she was in. There was one in each one of the machines in the fleet, and there was one Emperor Stone to command them, and to power them. She switched the mind join from the pilot, seeking out the stone and found it deep in the machine, surrounded by one of the brains. She found her way inside the enclosing tissue and exerted her will, telling it to sleep. Would it work? Did these things ever sleep? She matched the biorhythms, slowing it down, finding the patterns of sleep whilst forcing herself to stay awake. The brain’s activity dropped and finally there was only unconscious activity taking place. She entered the Magda Stone.

3

Inside the Magda Stone was a different world. The shock was so great that Leah forgot her purpose, even that she was in a mind-join. The stone contained a memory of immense size that seemed to have existed forever, and forgot nothing. The memory of the stone was endless and told the story of the Scitha race from the very beginning, when early lifeforms developed the ability to kill using streams of energy – the same as the shimmering force used on her. The same single-celled entities used a crystal to store information, a symbiosis that was to develop into the Magda Stone. But somewhere in this early evolution a split developed between the creatures that would become the People of White, tightly bonded with their stones, and the Scitha. The Magda Stone inside the small craft was tiny, little more than a pebble. Yet even this seemed to remember every detail of the Scitha’s home world, from the moment it first came into existence. And Leah was lost in that world, blundering through time-lines, witnessing wars and destruction, the persecution of the People of White, enslavement of other worlds and different races. She witnessed gladiatorial combats where a Scitha faced three of the white giants and the sands ran with blood, and she learned that the Scitha were a ruthless hierarchy with the empathy of an ant’s nest, ruled over by the Scitha Prime for thousands of years. The Magda Stone knew everything and forgot nothing and it did not judge. Leah found herself running down endless corridors of her own making, searching for a door – any door. And eventually a door appeared. She tore it open and fell through, and found herself in a giant circular room.  The floor was decorated with a pentangle and when she turned round, there was no door. The room smelled of pine and chan, and it was stiflingly hot. Then shapes began to form in the centre of the room. A cloud of purple spheres of different sizes, glowing with an inner light, with one much greater, brighter sphere at the centre. The Magda Stones within the fleet were being shown to her, but she did not know who was doing it until a tall figure also began to appear on the other side of the spheres. He was twice her height, the head bowed below the ceiling, and he was massive, as powerfully built as a wrestler, with thighs like tree-trunks.  He reminded her of Regis and although they all had identical features, it was not him. The memory came with a pang of longing for her friend. The white figure was naked, and strange black symbols flowed over the alabaster skin as he looked at her with understanding eyes as dark as her mother’s. She knew it was the fleet’s navigator, and maybe the Magda Stone wanted her to connect with him. She wanted to know so much, but he put a finger to his lips. Then she was given a glimpse of his thoughts, and she was reminded so much of Regis that she felt her imaginary eyes burning. His thoughts were part of a collective and the other minds were on the other side of the galaxy, but distance had no effect. He knew her and he had known Regis, and he understood. Then Leah watched the outlines of the countless craft forming around the images of the Magda Stones, and the biggest stone of all was not within the huge flagship carrying the Scitha Prime. It was within a much smaller craft like the one she was in, and keeping close to the flagship. She wanted to ask questions, but all the images faded and were gone.

The room was gone. The corridor was gone. Everything she had just experienced was gone, and she was still back in the cockpit as the Scitha sought her out with its shimmering breath, and then it found her. Leah broke the mind-join and fled from the ship, but ripples of the same shimmer spread outwards, rushing towards her. She acted on impulse, summoning the fire the incandescent flame found the side of the ship and spread around it, seeking a way in. She saw the cockpit light up before flames blasted out through the windows. Then the ship exploded, sending debris in all directions. She watched detachedly as they passed through her virtual body, wondering if the rest of the fleet had any idea what had just happened. She sensed the Scitha Prime looking for survivors and seeking out data, and other ships were moving fast, converging on the wreckage as she went looking for the Emperor Stone. The shimmering rushed outwards from all directions and caught her. The Scitha Prime had discovered her, and it was the one pushing into her mind and her thoughts. Its power was shocking. Leah knew that once it was within her physical form, then it could transfer to Caia, or Hedra, anyone. Maybe everyone. And it would know how weak they were. Whiteflame spoke.

“I am here, dearest one.”

She wanted to tell Whiteflame to get away, to save herself, but she had no dominion over the most ancient of dragons. The ghostly form was already there, and the energy within was as intense and blinding as the sun. She was right next to the ship carrying the Emperor Stone and many weapons were already firing as the jet of white heat blasted out, enveloping the ship bearing the Emperor Stone and sending it crashing into the flagship. The explosion was immediate and devastating, enveloping Whiteflame. Leah was surrounded by fire and debris, including the shattered remnants of the Emperor Stone. The giant flagship was also badly damaged, with a jagged hole in the side from which streamed wreckage, the bodies of Scitha, and octagonal containers. There was no sign of Whiteflame. The Scitha Prime had fallen silent but she was still very much alive. A silent scream of rage filled Leah’s thoughts. She needed to escape and go home. She needed to go back to her body in the smoke-hut, but she felt as if she had been wrenched apart. She felt as if she had lost a child, and everything became dark. She knew Whiteflame was dead, and that she would also die.

4

Hedra Darke looked up at the towering spires of City 5 – her city – and marvelled. The war between the cities had been seventeen years ago, and for the last ten years she had been wandering the Outlands, seeking the lonely places as she mourned the death of Regis. When she first met him, she had been denied regeneration too long and was already an old woman, and she had turned from physical perfection to a wrinkled crone in just over seven years. But when she finally regained control of the city and was able to regenerate, he had been there. She had remained young and perfect ever since, and it was now 17 years. She examined her hands, looking for age spots, but there was nothing. She ran her hands down the tight-fitting leather clothing she now preferred, and everything felt taut. There were no lines on her face, the last time she looked which was less than an hour before. She was as energetic and as hungry for life as a twenty-year-old, so why did she feel so sad? Why did she long to hear his rich voice and look up into the eternity of his dark eyes? He had been kind to her and endlessly patient no matter how much she railed at him, but that wasn’t it. As she stood before the city with hew few belongings on her back and the curved swords within easy reach, the truth finally hit her. He had loved her unconditionally and said nothing. It hadn’t mattered to Regis that she was dying of old age, he saw beyond the physical, and when she had been with him, it felt as if they had spent their life together. But she was not the only one to be changed by the People of White. It seemed that everyone they touched and even places they inhabited seemed to acquire something. Including the Feelers who lived in the perpetual darkness of City 5.

“Damn you, Regis. Why did you have to leave me?”

To her surprise, Hedra discovered she was crying. But what was done was done, and could not be undone. She set off towards the distant towering walls, scrunching up the gravel banks that surrounded it. The autumn wind that curled around her was spitefully chill, and the pallid cloud-streaked sky said nothing. The city looked near, but it was still twenty minutes’ walk away, ten for Hedra, who could run for hours. When she was nearer, she could hear the wind gusting across the top of the star-shaped structure, hundreds of feet above. Hard to believe that this behemoth had spent the bulk of its existence five thousand metres under the sea, squatting on the Abyssal Plain, slowly digesting the planet in its endless quest for minerals and energy whilst pumping out waste and pollutants from the central vent. Just thinking about that life now made Hedra shudder. The image of a little girl suspended in the water outside the glass came unwanted, her dead eyes lit up by a beam of light stabbing into the swirling yellow detritus. Hedra stopped running and fell to her hands and knees as vomit rushed up her throat. The child had died on her orders and she could not even remember why. There were lots of things Hedra could not remember, it was the one price of ageing she could not deny. Why had she ordered such a terrible thing? Because it was necessary. That used to be her excuse for everything. And now she needed to regain control of City 5. The rings in the sky seemed to form a halo over the towering walls, and the sky visible through them seemed to be darkening. She had no plan and no idea of what to do when she got inside, trusting to her breeding. She was borne to rule.

Hedra reached the city wall and searched for a way inside. It would take many days to walk all the way round, given the star-shape. But time was one thing she had in plenty. She ran her hand over the smooth grey surface, noticing the many scars that criss-crossed its sides. Even the rows of windows were scarred where they had regrown. She walked onwards, following the well-trodden path against the wall. Scrubby weeds were growing at its base, yellowed and sick-looking. The path ended at a door, a circular groove half-buried in stony earth. Hedra drew one of the curved swords and rapped with the pommel. She knew how thick the walls were, but the people inside that she still thought of as Feelers, had extraordinary hearing. She knocked again and then sat down cross-legged, and waited impatiently. Eventually there was a low mechanical hum and the door slid upwards. She was on her feet in a moment, but a small boy stood there, she guessed he was aged about twelve, but no expert in such matters. His hair was the colour of autumn leaves, tawny and gold, and the unfocused wide-set eyes were emerald green. There were faint scars around them. His face was already handsome. He seemed calm but his hands opened and closed, and he seemed very vulnerable. He wore a golden amulet, she noticed. She had once given it to her daughter Electra, and the sight of it left her numb. There was no one else that she could see.

“Are you Hedra Darke?” he asked.

She waved her hand in front of his face and he moved back, but his eyes continued to stare blankly. “I am,” she said.

“Then follow me.”

He turned and vanished, and she followed. The door slid shut behind her, leaving them in total darkness. She knew this game and was not intimidated. She located his breathing and followed, keeping close behind him.

“What’s your name?”

“Jacob.”

She felt her scalp prickle. “That’s a nice name. I always thought that if I had a son, I’d call him Jacob.”

The reply came back from the darkness. “But you didn’t have a son. You had a daughter.”

The memory caught her unawares and for a moment, she could not speak. She wondered what had triggered it and then realised it was the way he spoke, almost resentful.

“What do you know, boy? Tell me and I won’t be angry.”

“In here,” he said.

She felt with her hands and made out the opening to an elevator. Her patience was at an end. “Put on the lights, damn you. Lights!”

The lights flickered on as the doors slid closed. She was alone. The elevator rushed upwards, pushing against her feet. The walls were scarred by energy weapons and the mirrored walls were melted and cracked. The machinery shuddered and squealed as the elevator juddered its way up. The lighting elements, visible through the shattered coverings, flickered and buzzed. She tried to count the floors, until the elevator slowed and jerked to a stop. The doors opened and daylight flooded the compartment. Hedra shielded her eyes as she stepped out. She was on one of the top levels that used to be reserved for royalty. The curving corridor was lined with vast double doors, and those opposite stood open and let in the light. Just like the elevator, the corridor was still badly scarred, and the marble floor was buckled and cracked. The city had not bothered to heal itself in these areas but she could sense life in the fabric. She entered the room. The windows opposite filled the entire wall and looked out over the delta and the sparkling ocean. From that height she could also see the white cliffs across the sea, and the monstrous volcano they called the Voice of God, rising above the low cloud in a white cone.  The view from the room was breath-taking, but she barely took it in. A woman was standing by the window, thin and hunched. The boy called Jacob stood beside her and her arm was draped across his shoulders in a way that was both protective and loving. Her hair was the same colour as his. Hedra felt her heart lurch as she crossed the room. The woman looked up, and spoke. “Hello, mother.”

When Hedra came round, she was lying on a bed in one of the royal chambers. The bedding had been repaired many times with neat patches. The chamber was in one of the many suites reserved for what had once been the ruling class, many of whom had been murdered whilst they tried to hide. The walls of this room had been crudely repainted, she guessed by Feelers because the original coverings showed through in many places, either gold or dried blood. There was a glass beside the bed, and a crystal jug. The lights from the ostentatious chandeliers were dim and soft music was playing. The door was open. Hedra threw back the cover and sat on the edge of the bed, and tried to stop her heart racing. Could it really be true? Or had it been a cruel dream. She filled the glass and drank, overwhelmed with thirst. Her pack and her weapons were on a chair in the corner beside her leather boots. The chair was made from simple wood, the only thing that did not belong. She drank some more, then got up and went to the bathroom for a pee. The toilet let her know about her general health, which was perfect. It also recited her true age and stated that since her regeneration was already seven years overdue, she was technically dead. She stripped and took a shower, luxuriating in the experience – her first hot water since thermal springs deep in the Outlands. She dried under the hot air before dressing, and replaced her swords in their scabbards. Then she tied back her hair and went in search of her daughter.

She found Electra with her son. They were waiting where she passed out and she was seated, he was standing, both outlined against the light. They were playing Cat’s Cradle with a length of twine. Which was remarkable since they were both blind. Electra extricated her hands from the cradle and handed it to Jacob. Hedra was thinking, how could her psychotic daughter have become this apparently kind mother who played with her son? Electra had been a monster, even in Hedra’s eyes. She had personally killed hundreds and been responsible for the deaths of thousands. Electra murdered Caia Esvane’s father in front of her, and she had also tried to kill Caia, which had been a mistake. Hedra had not experienced much grief when she learned of her daughter’s death. Now, she was overwhelmed.

“Run along now, Jacob. Go you find Bramble. She be with Liken.”

He smiled in Hedra’s direction before running off, leaving them alone.

“Come here, mother. I needs to see what you look like after all this time.”

Hedra went up to her. Electra seemed much smaller than she remembered. The hands feeling her face belonged to a much older person. Electra ran her hands down Hedra’s body and her expression was sad.

“You regenerated. You feel young. Your face be different – the features are the same, but it’s thinner. You’re still perfect. The only perfect person in the world.”

Hedra studied her daughter who had once been so beautiful. She had once envied her for that perfection. She even envied the cold-hearted cruelty she was capable of. But this woman had laughter-lines, and her spine was twisted. And when she moved around Hedra, it was with a limp. And she spoke with Outlander dialect woven through the remains of her Royal accent.

“How…why-”

“How be I still alive.”

Hedra’s legs felt weak. She sat down in the chair and resisted the second urge to cry. “Why are you so different? Why do you speak like the working class?”

Electra went to the window and place her hands against the glass. “It was in this room, you know. You was supposed to be dead, but Lucas got you out.”

“You gave the order to kill me. I know it was you.”

“Yes, it was necessary – that was how I thought about things, because that was what you taught me. That was what you made me into, a rival. You used to take me to watch executions, when I were little. You used to make me push the button. You took me to the arena and made me decide who should die. And after you’d gone, I tried to stop the war. I tried to make them surrender. The dragons were terrible – burning everything. Everyone. But when the window broke, her powers returned and I saw it, I saw the green man.”

“The Great Tree, you mean. You saw it.”

“Yes. It was real, and it towered over the city. It killed the city – almost. And I fell through the hole made by the spear of light, only it turned into a willow tree. None of it made sense and I was still sick. I tried to kill Caia in the arena, but she was so strong. I was lifted into the air, and the knife I tried to kill her with stabbed me in the thighs. And then I tried again and I stabbed myself in the chest. She didn’t fight, she just turned all my hatred back against me. I lay dying, watching my blood run into the sand and all I kept thinking of was the many hundreds of gladiators I had condemned in that place, and how I used to enjoy watching them die. It was if I was seeing myself for the first time, and then it came to me.”

Hedra waited.

“I saw it. I saw the all-seeing eye and it was in the face of the Great Tree. He looked down at me, and he forgave me for all I’d done. And he gave me a second chance, after everything. And I was changed in that moment. I was washed clean.”

She smiled at Hedra, and the smile was one of pure joy. Hedra had seen that smile before, on the faces of the religious fanatics in the city who claimed to have seen the Eye. Including the sceptical, hard-bitten Lucas Venn.

“But how did you live? Why did you keep this from me all this time? Thirteen years, I’ve thought about you and missed you.”

“The old me, but the Electra you knew is dead. Den Zobe and Tumbler took me, and I didn’t die. It was a miracle.”

“And the blindness?”

“That was part of the deal, Den said. The Great Tree spoke to him and told him I had to give up everything I possessed if I was to be truly free, even my eyes. My sight for my life. It seemed a fair exchange.”

“They took you into the Outlands with them. You were an Outlander. I recognise the tattoos – that’s Darius Esvane’s tribe. I spent years in the Outlands, but I never heard about you.”

Electra sat at her feet, grimacing with the effort. “They gave me a new name. They called me Born-again, but that’s long, so now they just calls me Born.”

She smiled at her mother, and the smile lit up her face.

Hedra studied her and could see that Electra was both older and more beautiful, but this was a beauty from within. The love seemed to shine within her and Hedra experienced a pang of jealousy that Electra should have achieved where she had failed so spectacularly.

“What happened to them? Are they here? I should thank them.”

The smile faded. “They were taken by the slavers. They were taken to Slave City, in the Land of Glass, and we tried to rescue them but it was impossible. Do you know it?”

Hedra nodded. “I know it. And we both know the person behind it.”

“Who?”

“Hol Xan.”

Her daughter did not seem surprised. “They says, ‘evil never dies, it just sleeps’. And why are you here, mother? Why now? Because you weren’t looking for me.”

Hedra felt ashamed, when there was no reason to. “They’re coming back, and the city must be saved.”

“Who? Who’s coming back?”

“The Scitha. The invaders, from the beginning.”

Her daughter got up and faced the window, as if she was looking out over the sea. She touched the glass with outspread fingers. “How could you know that?”

“Regis told me. He speaks to me, in my mind.” She told her daughter about the time she spent in the far north with the People of White, and the journey to the city. She described how Regis and the other eleven opened a tunnel to another world on the far side of the galaxy.  “I killed them, Electra. I shot down the sanctum and it crashed in the forest. They all died because of me. Only his kind don’t die, they just go somewhere else.”

“I’ve heard about the war between the cities and the rings in the sky. But if they do come, then what can we do to stop them?”

“The city has weapons.”

“Not enough.”

“it can make more. It can create a force-shield, if it knows. If it’s sentient again.”

Electra turned around, and the daughter she remembered was back. “No, I forbid it. I will not allow C5 to return. The AI plotted against us, don’t you remember? It betrayed us.”

“Still, it may be the only way to survive. If we’re like this when they arrive then they will swat us like a fly, and you and your son, and everyone else in City 5 will die. Is that what you want?”

Electra walked up and down the room, gnawing her lip the way she used to do, and apart from her patched and ragged clothes and bare feet, it was as if time had been rewound. Finally she stopped, and her expression had hardened. “I will do a deal with you, mother. Bring back Tumbler and Den, and I will restore C5. Don’t ask me why they are important, you wouldn’t understand. Those are my final words.”

5

Hol Xan paced the deck of the Phoenix as it rumbled across the glistening landscape. The gleaming patches of glass crunched pleasingly under the iron-shod wheels. His land-ships had been greatly improved over the last ten years – sleeker, lighter, far faster. The cannon lined up along the rail were breech-loaders, no longer having to be rolled back half-way across the decks. Now they were fixed to rotating platforms giving a much wider range of fire. The downside was that ships were also cheaper. He scanned the flat and empty horizon looking for hostile sails, but nothing moved under the vast dome of blue. The great sun Gura Tapana was half-set and cooler now. The mottled purple disk seemed to fill one-third of the horizon, outlining the distant mountains along the western edge of the Land of Glass. The strange rings in the sky were darker than usual, sharp-edged, but just part of the scenery, as far as Hol was concerned. Lieutenant Twenty stood nearby with her hands clasped behind her back, standing slim and proud in the tatty black uniform. She was watching the deck hands pulling in sail with a critical eye before shouting orders. He smiled to himself, remembering how it used to be in City 5 before emergence, when Twenty was a sex-drone known as Elle. Everything was different then, apart from him and Twenty. Everyone had done or seen terrible things, but Twenty was infamous as a royal-killer. She was the one who took a knife to Rath Gore and her family during the chaos of emergence, ending one of the great dynasties of City 5. How long ago was it now? Over twenty years, he reckoned, and yet they were still fighting and he loved that.

‘Prepare to heave to,” he shouted into the wind.

“Aye aye, commander.” She gave the orders.

Centuria was dead ahead, the place others called Slave City and he called home. Hol admired it through his scope, centreing the cross-hairs on the massive gates built from ironwood and bound with steel. Each gate bore his insignia, an eight-pointed star. The walls of Centuria would withstand any creature that Eco chose to use against it – even a dragon could not set fire to ironwood. Or so he had heard. He glanced upward at the storm clouds circling. It was the first ice-storm of the year, and although they had lessened in number since the People of White were eliminated, they were still a menace. And this storm looked to be a big one. The wind was already driving them too hard, even as the deck hands aloft struggled to furl the sail. This ship was a 3-master, carrying a mass of canvas and rigging and it was a tribute to his vanity, he knew. The men and women fought to keep their balance, bent over the trusses as they heaved in the heavy canvas – far heavier now it was glistening with rain.

“Tell them to bloody well hurry, Twenty. The slowest team gets ten lashes.”

Twenty looked pleased as she yelled into the wind. The was a sudden cry and a woman tumbled from high above, landing across a capstan. It was obvious that her back was broken and no one took any notice of her, just carried on with their work. The ship slowed to a crawl as the giant gates rolled open. Ropes were thrown to teams of slaves waiting within, and the outriggers were heaved up out of the way as the ship was pulled inside and secured next to three others. The walls of Centuria enclosed the living quarters, divided between the squalid shanty town where the slaves lived – little more than shelters made from anything that came to hand – and the more luxurious dwellings of the nobility. And even the nobility, largely comprised of ex-centurions, were divided between the officers and footsoldiers. Much of the city was given to the storage and repair of land-ships, and the accommodation and entertainment of their crews. Hol Xan’s crew had been on the Phoenix for two months, scouring the Outlands for new slaves and the hold was full. Twenty ordered the gangplanks to be lowered, and the crew began to disembark. He waited whilst the slave-masters came on board to check the cargo before taking them off, driving them with whips as an introduction to the culture. He was about to turn away when one of the slaves caught his eye. He shouted at the slave-masters.

“You down there, hold that man.”

They pulled the man to one side, treating him with respect. The man towered over them but did not resist.

‘Twenty, you come with me.”

Hol Xan moved fast, still exhilarating in his freedom of movement after thirteen years since the reincarnation. For seven years before that, he had been a cripple in a wheelchair, his torso held together by the body armour it had fused with. And the reptyl venom had been slowly eating away at him. Like all regenerates, he was ageing fast but he did not care. This life would be the last, and that knowledge made everything that much sweeter. Twenty waited patiently as he tried to keep up with her. They found their way through the foetid cramped decks where the crews slept, ate, defecated, laboured and died. The low ceilings were stained with smoke. The decking was stained with blood. Another flight of steps and they reached the debarkation deck and the smell of clean air reached them. The end of the passageway was bright with daylight as Hol emerged onto the gangway and made his way down. The prisoner stood between the two slave-masters. They were both ex-drones from the city, avoiding eye-contact with him as the old customs decreed. He found that irritating now. The tall man was unable to have eye-contact because he was blind, but when he closed his eyes, each eyelid had been tattooed with a giant green eye and the effect was unnerving. He was swarthy and bald, and more eyes had been tattooed across his skull. The thick black beard had been platted and decorated with silver beads. He was not young, and carried a stick topped by a silver skull. The face was darkly handsome and he still exuded an arrogant confidence. How old was he now? At least sixty, but he hadn’t changed at all.

“Commander Hol Xan, I presume. And young Elle, by all that’s holy. I am delighted to see you both in good health.”

The man’s smooth voice brought back too many memories. Hol remembered the slave markets on City 5 with a strange clarity, and the moment when Lucas Venn had been stripped of office and sold into slavery. That had been a pivotal moment and a big mistake. Venn should have been terminated, instead of being blinded. Being blinded had turned him into a hero, and the second sight bestowed on him only made Venn more lethal. The Feeler King was responsible for that, handing him over to Den Zobe and his sister, and the other crazy believers in the All-Seeing Eye.

Hol Xan considered whether he should draw his peacemaker and set fire to the man’s skull, or keep him.

“What say you, Twenty? Should we keep the Feeler King? Because I want to kill him right now.”

She walked around the prisoner and the blind eyes followed her. “I say yes. He sold slaves in City 5. He knows the business better than most. He’s got the contacts.”

The Feeler King raised an eyebrow and there was the suggestion of a smile. “If I might speak.”

Hol Xan was getting twitchy and he knew what it meant. There was a slave woman he had been watching, blond-haired like Electra Darke had been, and very slim, the way he liked them. Just thinking about her caused a stirring in his loins and he had been thinking about her a lot. Twenty had found her for him, said her name was Irene, a fifteen year old second-generation drone.

“Commander?”

He refocused. “Make it quick. I’ve got things to do.”

“There’s a new colony in the Rift. They’re living in the cave network they call the Delves, near Mount Fury. There are hundreds in there.”

Hol pushed Irene to the back of his mind, but the throbbing reminder was still there. “Go on.”

“They follow the Eye, and will not fight. I was with them for a while. There are skilled wood-workers there, and metal workers. But there’s also scientists from the city and they know how to repair energy weapons. We could set up a second operation there and I could run it. We can provide the wood and metal you need and you provide protection.”

“Why would I bother doing all that when I can do what I want with you?”

The Feeler King showed no fear, even when the peacemaker pressed into his forehead. He merely shrugged. “I’m just saying, I’m worth much more to you when I’m alive. But if you would rather kill me for kicks, go ahead. Either way can we get on with it? The storm’s about to hit us.”

Hol Xan seemed to have been in a spell. Without warning, the ice-chill wind slammed into him and the noise was a continuous roaring as if a giant beast was trying to push down the walls. The huge gates were rattling and clanging, and the sandy soil below them was being blasted into the compound. Streams of sand were darkening the air above the outer walls, and the sentries were making their way down the wooden ladders. He glanced up and saw a terrible sight. The clouds were so low that they almost touched the battlements, and they were churning violently. But they’d survived storms before, and life was cheap in the Outlands.

“Very well. You will stay in the slave quarters until I make it official. And don’t say anything else, or I might change my mind. Twenty will attend to the administration. I’ve got other business to attend to now.”

Hol fought against the wind as he crossed the main square to the outskirts of the shanty town. The slaves were out in force, busy fastening down the roofs of their dilapidated houses – mostly one-room shacks with windows either empty, or covered by crude sheets of glass from the surrounding area and chipped into shape. The glass worried Hol – something that could made into weapons. But the summary keelhauling and the remains hanging on display were a constant reminder of what would happen, and it seemed to work. As he strode between the groups of people, they shrank away from him and mothers dragged their children back inside. The wind had reached screaming point and he saw at least one roof disintegrate. Debris was being blasted along the street, forcing them to take cover. Shards of glass whistled past as if fired from a gun, and a grizzled man who was too slow taking cover, fell and did not move. Hol ran, feeling objects hammering into his body armour. The wind driving him along was thick with dust and larger debris. He reached the end and turned left, into the lee of the next row of buildings. The wind dropped and snow began to fall. He folded his arms for warmth and made his way to where Irene lived. He pushed open the flimsy door and entered the gloom. Her building had glass and shutters, small rewards for her services. She was sitting at a makeshift table with her mother, holding each other’s hands and they seemed to be praying. As soon as the mother saw him, she got up and left, and that was a wise move. The bed they shared was unmade, which was a good enough reason to let loose some anger.

Irene stood in front of him with her eyes downcast, because to look upon a god was a capital office. Her hands were clasped, and the knuckles were white.

“I doesn’t want to be hurt, your majesty.”

The soft accent of the Rift reminded him that this was no more than a simple ape, albeit an extraordinarily attractive one. Her mouth fascinated him – at once so promising and so vulnerable. Right now, it expressed fear and misery, and that was not what he wanted from her.

“That’s why I enjoy it, Irene. Do you understand?”

She shook her head. Her hair was silver, the same as the witch Caia Esvane, but the eyes now brimming with tears were sky-blue, like most of the rift people. She was like a toy he wanted to smash. He undid the thick belt that only a centurion commander could wear. The metal buckle was heavy in his hand. Irene knew the drill. She pulled up her simple robes as she turned, exposing her neat buttocks and slim legs, still marked with raised stripes and bruising from his last visit. She bent down over the table, pushing up her bottom the way he liked, displaying her shapely pubis. Her body was hairless, like all the Rift people he had seen. Most of them had been dead at the time. The sight of her submissiveness sent the blood thundering through his head as he undressed. Undressing and making her wait was all part of the ritual. He had been with her seven times, which was one of his magic numbers. The seventh time had to be the last, when he would rape her and then strangle her. The anticipation was almost too much to bear. The wind rocked the building as it tore through the narrow streets, clattering the door. The light fell, until it was more like dusk. He lifted the strap and swung it accurately with all his strength. He saw her body stiffen in preparation, but the strap seemed to be jammed in something, almost throwing him off balance. He turned and a heeled boot drove into his ribs with vicious speed, lifting him off his feet and hurling him through the flimsy wall of the hut and into the street, where the wind caught him and threw him down on his back. He tried to get up and felt his ribs grate where the kick had landed. How many had been in there, when his mind was filled with thoughts of fucking Irene? Hol’s weapon was inside the hut, but his body was thick with muscle and he was a master of every fighting style that used to be taught in City 5. He rolled to the wall of the building where the wind was less, and was able to get to his feet. It was impossible to see, but he managed to fight his way round the side of the building and dived in through the door, landing and rolling onto his feet. His attackers would expect him to come back the way he left, he reasoned, but there was only one tall figure waiting for him, and Irene was curled up in the corner. Then he saw who it was, and he almost laughed at the craziness of it. Hedra Darke seemed no different from the haughty queen that once stalked the endless corridors of City 5. She was wearing a skin-tight suit made of some black material, with panels of body armour, although now, her breasts were no longer proudly displayed, in deference to the prudish attitudes of the Rift. The heeled boots made her seem even taller, and their silver tips gleamed in the half-light. The flame-red hair was tied back, and the hawk-like face with its high cheekbones seemed more predatory than he remembered. There was a backpack on the bed, and the handles of two of the Outlanders’ curved swords projected above her shoulders. But there was no peacemaker and no other energy weapon that he could see, and no phalanx of guards. She stood in a defence posture, but she could change that to attack in an instant if she drew one of the swords.

‘You haven’t changed since your regeneration, Hedra,” he said. It was true.

“You look older, Hol. Still up to your old tricks, I see. Is this the time you strangle her? Looking at that hard-on you’ve still got, I’d say yes.”

An obvious trick to make him look down. He was calculating how quickly he could dive to the energy weapon and pick it up. That had been a mistake, not collecting it when he re-entered the room. But she’d anticipated him, so why not pick it up?

“Why are you here, Hedra?”

“I’m here because the Scitha are coming back, and I need something you have.”

The Scitha. Finally it was happening, and all of his schemes of building a new empire now seemed futile. His mind raced as he processed the new information. “What do you need?”

“Den Zobe, and the woman called Tumbler. Give them to me, and I’ll walk out of here. You can carry on with your squalid little life.”

He knew the slaves well. Both were Feelers and fanatical believers in the All-Seeing Eye. Tumbler had been captured in a raid on a hunting party of Outlanders, but Den had arrived at Centuria voluntarily, saying he had been searching for her for years. And Hol knew something else about Tumbler and Den. She was the one who took Lucas Venn to the secret place in the city where the gift of second sight was bestowed, and Den was said to be a demon-caller. But there had been no demons in Centuria, as far as Hol knew. Tumbler was next on Hol’s list, after Irene.

“Why?”

She shrugged. “Does it matter?”

“No. Let me put some clothes on, I can’t make arrangements looking like this. And it’s freezing, if you hadn’t noticed.”

“Oh, I’d noticed,” she said with the trace of a smile.

Despite his best endeavours, the deep-seated anger was growing stronger. He knew why – he was being humiliated by a woman. He reached for his clothes, thinking about grabbing the peacemaker, but she watching him closely. He pulled on his trousers and the singlet he wore under his uniform.

“The deal’s changed,” he said casually.

Her eyes narrowed to an emerald gleam, and he remembered what he had overlooked – that this was Hedra Darke, who had reigned over City 5 far longer than he had been alive, who had forgotten more than he ever knew.

“Is that right?” The words were charged with menace.

“You want them, I’ve got them. And now, I’ve got you too. So the price has just gone up. And if the Scitha are really coming, then I’ve got something to barter with them. Maybe I can do a deal, help them take over.”

She laughed then, and it was a genuine laugh. He had never heard that from her before. “Poor Hol, you never did understand how things work, did you? Summon the prisoners to me, and we will walk out of here with this woman. I know you’ve got a comms device implant.”

“Or?”

“Or I will kill you right here, right now. And I’ll know if you’re lying. I’m a truthseer, or have you forgotten?”

Hol was not really listening to her. He was thinking about destiny, and how that strange power had protected him despite impossible odds. He had survived a fight with Lucas Venn. He had survived a reptyl attack despite having his face shredded. He had been regenerated and survived the war between cities and dragon fire. He was destined for greatness, and Hedra’s arrogance had always been her weakness. How he had her, and her death would only grow his reputation.

“Sorry, Hedra. I’m not your servant any more. The world’s changed.” He touched the comm behind his ear, opening a channel to Twenty. She would know what to do.

She reached over her shoulders and drew the swords. Her voice was a whisper, filled with menace.

“Move away from the weapon, Commander.”

He moved across the small room. The girl shrank away from him, then ran over to the bed. She snatched up the peacemaker, holding it to her chest as if it was a baby. He smiled to himself, certain that Irene would kill Hedra to protect him. She had no choice in the matter – and it was always the same with his women.

“At least make it fair,” he said. “I always knew I could beat you.”

Hedra paused. Then she placed the weapons on the bed as he knew she would, moving so she was in front of them. She faced him, unblinking and standing side on with her hands raised. He looked at Irene, willing her to shoot but she simply stared back. And then she shook her head, and he felt his scalp crawl. He waited until Hedra was about to speak and then he dropped, sweeping an outstretched leg across the floor, intending to bring her down. She jumped without effort, almost lazily. He leaped and kicked at her head, and no one should have been able to block such a move, but she caught his leg and threw him. He landed on his feet just as one of her heeled boots slammed into his chest, lifting him off his feet. He crashed through one of the crude windows, landing in the street where the storm wind lacerated him with debris. He crawled back in on his hands and knees, clutching a shard of glass. The wind was screaming through the simple hut and it caught the roughly made chairs and hurled them at Hedra as he rushed back in. She batted them out of the way as Hol Xan ran at her, ready to plunge the shard into her chest, but she round-kicked his arms, sending the shard across the room.  Another round-kick with the other leg slammed into the side of his head. He paused, waiting for his senses to clear and she watched him, legs bent, the cold green eyes locked onto his. She seemed to have all the time in the world. He moved nearer and then charged her, throwing her to the ground where his greater strength and weight would count. This time she went down but her thighs were locked around his waist and her strength was crushing. He reached for her neck, forgetting all his training and she gripped one of his thumbs and tore it back. The pain was indescribable. He tried to head-butt her, but her elbow was in his throat, cutting off his air supply. He punched the side of her head with a short, vicious jab. He aimed another at her jaw. Then somehow, she was on top and her knees were pinning his arms down as she drove her thumbs into his eyes. He tried swinging his head and driving his knees into her back, but he knew this time, that all was lost.

Where was Twenty?

He prepared for the pain, but nothing he had experienced compared to this. He felt her iron-hard thumbs drive down and the pressure was unbearable. Then there was no more pressure as her eyes ruptured, only two stabs of pain like lightning bolts, and a flash of blinding white followed by darkness.

“Enough,” he screamed.

“Even now, part of you thinks of treachery,” she panted. “You think you can regenerate your eyes. You think of revenge on your queen.”

He thrashed his legs about, trying to unseat her as her fingers locked onto his throat and she began to squeeze and her strength was terrible.

“This is what you like doing, isn’t it? You were going to strangle Irene, after you’d beaten and raped her. You were going to do it slow, so you could get off on it.”

He tried to speak, but it was impossible. He felt his voice box creak and then it collapsed inwards. The crushing pain was increasing. He was becoming light-headed and starting to hallucinate. He was back in City 5, five thousand metres under the surface of the ocean and his little world was just as it should be. He was walking the endless corridors, looking out of the windows into the endless black when without warning, there was a light. At first it was a distant star, but as it got closer it resolved into something like an angel, half woman and half fish, but with the wings of a bird. It flew straight at him and then he was in the water with it and he could feel its icy embrace as the fishy lips locked onto his. It kicked away from the city and drove straight down into the depths until there was no more light, only the cold silence.

“I think he’s dead.”  The words seemed to jerk Hedra awake. She looked down at the ruination that was once Commander Hol Xan, and her bloodstained hands. The eyeless corpse was barely recognisable. She wiped her hands on his singlet and ripped the ID tag from around his neck. Then she drew a knife from one of her boots and used it to cut out the comms device and put it in a pocket. She got off him and her legs felt weak. She went to the bed and picked up the swords, replacing them in their scabbards. As an afterthought, she slid the peacemaker into the holster on her thigh. Just as she took hold of Irene’s arm and pulled her to her feet, the roof tore away from the building with a rending shriek and vanished, along with the table and chairs. Hedra dragged Irene out into the street, holding her around the waist. She acted without thinking, staggering against the storm, battered by debris until she could run down a side-street where the wind lessened to a steady howl.

Hedra leaned against the rough wooden wall, feeling it shudder from the blows of the wind. Irene stood beside her and seemed to be in shock. Hedra had no interest in the girl. If anything, she felt a callous anger towards her for allowing herself to be defiled by Hol Xan and had no idea why she decided to save her. She had to remind herself that the girl was no Royal – just a slave with no rights. Irene looked up at her as the wind screamed and the dust rushed past in an ochre wall.

“You be Hedra Darke, I doesn’t believe it. My grandmother used to tell us stories about you. We thought she made them up.”

“Whatever she told you is probably true, girl.”

Irene spat the dust from her mouth. “What happens to me now? When they finds his body in my hut they’ll know it were me.”

“You think you could do that to a man?”

“it don’t matter. They’ll want someone to blame and then they’ll keelhaul me. I’ve seen what happens to people who are keelhauled. They get ripped apart by the rocks and its slow. I doesn’t want to die that way.”

“Maybe I should kill you quickly, then.”

Irene’s eyes filled with tears. “Please, I has a baby.”

“For fuck’s sake.”

Hedra was forced to put her arm around the girl to stop the wind dragging her away. There was a door in the wall. She edged along to it and shouldered it open. The store room was empty apart from sacks along one wall. She forced the door shut and wedged it with one of the sacks. The sack was heavy and black powder had escaped from one corner, leaving a trail. Hedra picked some up and sniffed at it.

“Do you know what this is, Irene?”

Irene shook her head. @Irene will be from the Rift. An important character later. Hedra will bring her and the baby, and the others back with her. She will do a deal with the Feeler King before she leaves.

“It’s called gunpowder, for the primitive cannon on the ships and for loading the mortar shells. There must be other stores like this. They located it in the slave quarter in case there’s an accident. A lightning strike for example, or an attack by skysails. I’m guessing there’s too much rock to dig downwards.”

“I supposes.”

Lightning flickered close by, a dazzling arc of blue that hurt Hedra’s eyes. The thunder was simultaneous, a single, vast detonation that made her ears ring. She went over to the sacks of gunpowder and sat down, leaning against the wall. She closed her eyes and relaxed, thinking about Alexa and the boy Jacob. The implications were truly shocking – she had become a grandmother, for fuck’s sake.

The wind had strengthened and the walls of the building shuddered repeatedly, but the powder store had been strongly built and the giant posts driven into the ground at each corner were holding fast. Then she heard the terrifying whistle of huge wings and knew the skysails had returned. She jumped up and went to one of the windows, no more than a slit to fire through. She saw nothing at first, just debris blasting past. Then the wind dropped, and she caught a glimpse of an enormous grey shape skimming past, and the vast mouth gaping open like the gates of hell as it scooped up something from out of the wreckage. It was Hol Xan. Then she skysail turned and shot upwards into the sky, and the last that Hedra saw of it was the long, whip-like tail. Irene was silent for a moment, then she fell to her knees and offered thanks to the Green Man for their deliverance. Eventually she stopped, and looked up.

“What is you going to do?”

Hedra thought about it. “I’m going to help win a war,” she replied.

“Take me with you. Please take me and my baby. We wants to go home to the Rift. I misses the forest.”

Hedra sighed. “This baby of yours, it’s got a name?”

“She’s only tiny. We only names our young when we finds our inspiration.”

“And have you found yours yet?”

Irene gave her another long look. “I’m going to call her Hedra.”

Hedra didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. “Bloody marvellous.”