"The sight of Phayara always lifts my spirits," Qabal said. "Even on this darkest of days, see how she shines. Wait. Something isn't right." He leaned forward.
Phayara Khado was burning. Its fringes were lit with snapping flames; lifters scuttled back and forth, pouring sand. The heat hurt. Qabal felt it press between his scales, insistent, angry.
"Halt, soldier," he said, stopping a soldier as she ran through the streets. She was lithe and dark, with an easy smile. One of her brows was underlaid with silver-grey glass. Losira.
"Sir?" She nodded at Eriphet.
"What's the meaning of this?" Qabal said. "This blaze, what's happening?"
"It's the followers of Phado, sir. They're burning Phayara to the ground. As an offering to the goddess, sir."
His eyes bulged. "Phado condones this?"
"I don't know, sir. She doesn't say. And we can't catch the firestarters quick enough. It's easier to start fires than to put them out, sir." She turned at a crack behind her and watched warily as a charred minaret fell into the street. "So Phayara is burning."
He dismissed her with a nod, and Losira broke again into her seamless run, disappearing into the maze of ancient architecture. Qabal looked at its horizon. He had taken pride in the skyline of Phayara all his life: the minarets etched against the sky like horn and claw; the way the suns seemed to catch and then bleed against them, so when night fell it came heavy as death-
A dome in the distance crumbled to the street. Qabal felt the heat edge deeper between his scales. It burrowed at his flesh. He put his hand on Eriphet's shoulder. "Quickly," he said. "To the temple. Quickly." There was something strange now about the old warrior's eyes.
"Quickly!" Eriphet said to the driver. "Take him to the panel. Don't stop for anything, or for anyone." He jumped into the street and ran down the convoy, dismissing the other lifters as he went. "Save Phayara! Bring in all the Ni Chee desert if you must." When he reached the end of their convoy he turned and could have sworn he saw Losira again, standing in the shadows, watching him. He would recognize her anywhere. The form melted away as he came closer.
A wild-eyed Evok stormed past him, reins streaming behind her. She was headed for the safety of open sand. Time was wearing thin, but he couldn't help himself.
"Losira?" Smoke chewed at his eyes; sand sprayed between his teeth. He licked them. Waited but no answer came. He had no time. He had to go. If the Mituants came.
He hoped she would know, somehow, that he'd waited for her. He went on to the temple.
Losira slipped out from the shadows, pulling the torch out from behind her back. She touched it to the doorway she stood in. Then to the one beside it, and to the one after that. She went that way all down the alley, setting it alight.
At the temple gates Eriphet was stopped by the priests. Entering the temple was a ceremonial rite. Before one could step within the carved jaws of the ancient temple, first one must be cleaned in sand, and then provide a suitable offering. He had nothing but his claw blades.
The priest accepted one grudgingly. "It will have to do," he said. His teeth were intricately carved, nearly translucent. The work was masterful. It would have cost a fortune. How much of it had been paid for with offerings to Phado?
"You look as if you've done well for yourself," Eriphet said. "I'm sure a blade will please her just fine."
The priest snorted. "This way," he said. "The panel's already begun. You'll have to be quiet." He led the Valkyrie into the throat of the temple, the walls of which were fluted with sculptured scenes from the HuVyrnna. He had walked this passage as a hatchling with his mairo. To think of Mituants drilling these familiar walls-