Smoke curled in Eriphet's nostrils. Bitter and alive, it moved teasingly around his face and down his throat. He coughed. The dusky room had seemed empty, but now as he watched, forms began to gather, winding sinuously in the center of the room. They rose and fell, poured and ascended like the dunes.
It was a dance. He knew he'd heard of it but couldn't remember when or how; only that he'd always known. The dance was for Phado, and for Phado alone. It was performed by Phado's highest priestesses. He watched guiltily. The priestess, whoever she was, danced on as if she did not notice him, or care.
Or maybe she couldn't stop.
Maybe this was how the world ended. Danced to sleep by a sacred priestess. The smoke of her flooded his mind. He needed, he wanted Phado. Yet he was riveted. He couldn't leave.
The hatchling outside, waiting for him- he was her only hope.
Still he stared.
The form went faster and faster until she separated into three. The three crawled along the ceiling, lowered themselves in shimmering threads until they hung as orbs before his eyes. In the reflection of their surface, he saw himself as the priestess did.
A pale monster with unanswerable eyes, that was what he was.
The orbs dropped to the floor and fell together. They rose into a shape: long and lithe and dark, with silver-grey glass inlaid along one eye.
She breathed. "You shouldn't be here," she said.
"I didn't know."
"You're not allowed to know." Losira stared at him, willing him to leave.
"Only temple patrons can know, is that right?" he said. He unstrapped his blades and let them fall to the floor. "There. Consider me a patron," he said.
"Even if your weapons were suitable token, they would not be enough."
"Is nothing enough for Phado?" He grabbed her, half expecting her to dissolve in his arms, but she stayed.
Her eyes were cold. She was real enough.
"You don't know what I've done. You don't know who I am."
"You set my city on fire," he said.
"I don't care. Come with me, Losira. Leave with me. Leave this. Let Phyrnos sort itself out on its own."
"It should have been you. All this time, it should have been you. I know that now. You're what I've come back for," he said.
"We both know who you really came back for. I've figured out a thing or two myself, you know."
"Come with me." He tried to touch her face. She dissolved then, but not entirely. He caught her arm and pulled her back to him, pressed his neck along hers so their skins touched.
"You're shaking," she said. "No zuu?"
"Come with me, Losira. I need you. I need to know you exist in the world. I won't let you-"
Her gaze slipped away. She moved from his arms, refusing to look at him.
"I can't, I can't. Eriphet, I can't." He caught after her but she became threads again and slid up the wall. "My vows," she said. The wall, he saw, was riddled with tiny holes. She slipped through one. "Goodbye," she said, very close-and then suddenly far away, for the Eyes of the temple were connected to every part of the temple by its tiny passages.
He went out from the room and would have forgotten the hatchlings except they came thronging out from behind the body of the dead priestess, waving their thin arms. He cradled two, the brother and the sister, and let the others hold tight to his tail. Again they were racing through the temple, out into the streets of Phyrnos, which were cool now, and quiet.
The breath-bodies of priests drifted over the houses. Broken pieces bled from all the places of Phayara: the burrows and spires of solstice, the ancestral houses and cracked lifters tilting untethered in the air. A hatchling went crying between the houses, crying for a mairon it would never find.
The Mituants were coming. He heard their atomic whine.
Everything around him seemed to focus on that single sound. He held the hatchlings tighter. If they mewed, he did not know it. He ran, knowing only that everything was gone. Every ship; every chance; now he and they would die with Phyrnos. It would be as if none of them had ever been.
The sound seemed to come on forever. He had time to think of everything he'd loved, would never see again. Time to mourn the loss of his life, to regret the things he'd set aside in pursuit of what? Respect from strangers he did not know or love? Time to quiet the host of screams inside his own chest, to find a warm room, to gather the hatchlings close. Time to wait.
"It's okay," he said. Could they hear him? Could they hear it? Could they hear the sound of their death, falling now through the sky?