Two dogs barked in warning — they knew, as they so often did, of the oncoming quake.
The plague itself was growling in the air, unyielding in its final hours, and the black soot flakes soared on suddenly stirred air currents, all aflutter with anticipation.
On the eastern side of the Guzzle crossing came running the man who could always smell blood before it was spilled, because it was by rights his to harvest.
On the south side of town the cannons on the railroad were turning and aiming, ready to belch fire.
The yargachin stood on the bridge looking into the Stone Yard, where the spear would finally be ripped from the heart of the world. There it was; that glittering silhouette in the hazy air, that crystalized twister touching down by the bend in the river.
The Polyhedron’s manic angles had never seemed so alive. She was baring herself to the world, a witch upon the pyre screaming her last wild curse, and in that moment she and the Earth were not enemies but one being, united in defiance against their coming death.
As the ground beneath his boot soles shivered, the Haruspex at last knew what the odonghs meant when they said they could sense the weight of every pair of feet on the streets of the town.
Because he felt footsteps that should not be there, crossing the Bridge Square.
Walking west, to where the sun set, the steps spoke their own rhythmic language, tolling like a warning bell: I am going to see this to the end.
The butcher’s heart gasped like it too had been pierced through. Artemy heaved in a lungful of acrid infected air and sprinted through the Atrium, past the befuddled soldiers. His bad leg hobbled and nearly sent him down to one knee, but he turned a corner and beheld:
The fog in the square cut by the silhouette of a long leather coat — and he’d even brought his trademark bag; it swung at his side.
The Bachelor looked like a man upon the lip of a train platform, impatiently clasping his luggage, awaiting his chance to travel far away —truly far — the next time an engine thundered through the station.
His upturned head spelled out plainly that his eyes were only on the tower. Transfixed upon his beloved.
Artemy staggered across the paved stones, past the row of bodies left behind by the Inquisition, and caught Daniil Dankovsky by his arm.
And swung him around with one sharp pull. The man’s eyes were wide and red-rimmed, and out from them cracked all those furrows of stress that had been pressed into the man’s face over two weeks of squinting, straining, grimacing, scowling, and perhaps, by the looks of it, weeping.
“No,” was all Artemy could gasp with the last air in his lungs, and then he had to pant and recover.
“Don’t you dare stop me!” Dankovsky cried out, thrashing and fighting the grip on his arm.
Artemy clung to the snakeskin on his sleeve with all the strength he had left. He shook the man just as vigorously as the man was struggling, until his efforts stilled. “You’re not going up there.”
“You should have killed me in the Shelter. But you didn’t, so I’m going inside one last time. Maybe, just maybe, there’ll be one more dream left, and it won’t die alone.”
“The cannons!” Artemy choked out. “I delivered the orders! They’re taking aim!”
“I know,” said the Bachelor, tongue heavy, like he wanted the words carved on his grave. His lips shuddered, and then he twisted his arm, wildness flashing in his eyes.
Artemy grabbed his shoulders before he could wrench himself free. And stared at him, trying to vivisect him with a glare. By the way the man was trembling, the Haruspex was indeed cutting deep, through his medrel, his nerves.
Dankovsky was lost to his grief, seduced at his lowest moment by the Pied Piper herself, the temptress who had spirited away the children of the Town.
And now it wanted him to lie down with it in its grave, as its eternal lover. It had called him here with the siren song, there is nothing else but me, without me you are nothing, and I need you.
“What does a man do without a dream? What does mankind do?” Dankovsky dropped his bag and clutched the front of Artemy’s smock, and from the way his fingers clawed and twitched, he was coming close to reaching up and trying to squeeze his throat. But he did not do that. He just clung.
Artemy struggled for words. “We don’t do. We just are. And that’s enough.”
Dankovsky’s breath caught on a wet clog in his throat. “I can’t live like this,” he rasped. “I’ll never be free again. I never was. Now let me go. I didn’t think you’d have to see this—”
“I’d see it when they found your body in the wreck. Is that how you want to be remembered, mangled and broken?” His jaw was tight as a bear trap, ready to snap. “Is that what you want to leave behind for someone you called a friend?”
The Bachelor’s cheeks were turning ashen. “Someone I called an idiot. Get out of here, Burakh, before you’re crushed by a chunk of debris. Any moment now, they’ll fire.”
“Then move, you bastard!” Artemy yanked on his arm to pull him away, yet still he fought.
A razor-sharp Line was wound all around Dankovsky’s body, biting through his clothes into his flesh like a garrote, and it was screeching the same discordant tune as the wicked metal frame balanced precariously in the Earth’s flesh.
“It’s alive,” Dankovsky croaked. “In a way unlike anything in the universe. It’s so alive it makes the noon sun look like a shadow on the wall of a cave.”
Artemy wanted to sob, the way he had when a being shaped like his favorite childhood toy had tottered up to him on tiny hooves and plaintively asked, could it not live too? Was there not a world where it, strange form of life that it was, could be loved?
“I understand,” he said, and he did. “… I refuse to make another sacrifice. Especially not one as meaningless as this.”
“Not everything is about sacrifice!” the Bachelor spat. “My story is, quite simply, over.”
“You love that that tower so much you’d die with it? After two weeks? Barely any time!”
“Enough time to destroy a town and end thousands of lives.” A cruel grimace briefly flashed Dankovsky’s teeth, though it was covering up a flush of mortification. “You’ve known me for those same two weeks, but you’re out here in the open, waiting to be skewered on shrapnel, all over this poor waste of skin. Could it be that you’re—” he clutched a mocking hand to his breast, over his heart — “oh! just as suicidally devoted, my dearest Haruspex—!”
His words had such venom that he must have thought they would shame Artemy into letting go. A blow to his masculinity, or some such stupidity like that.
Artemy’s blood boiled, and then surged without thought. He seized Dankovsky in his arms and bent him over backwards and kissed him.
He tasted the pulse of both of their hearts as a tickle against his lips. Dankovsky flailed and helplessly threw his arms around Artemy’s shoulders, to catch his balance.
And as he did, his body shivered and his back arched into a yearning, yielding shape in Artemy’s tight grasp. Artemy’s own spine tingled from tip to tail, more urgently with every moment that Dankovsky did not pull away.
Artemy’s emboldened hand found the man’s free leg and clutched his thigh, while Dankovsky gasped through his nose and wriggled in embarrassment at the touch, but kept his mouth firmly sealed against Artemy’s.
The Cathedral bore witness; Artemy could feel it rapturously exhale a great gust of seconds into the world. The Crucible’s stately wings shivered and held their breath, scandalized. And the Polyhedron’s needle, jammed into the agonized Earth, vibrated with outrage.
He is mine, the edifice howled.
Not anymore, rumbled the Haruspex’s decree, and he planted his feet and refused to budge. His sympathy for the tower, miracle that it was, had dried up. For this eternal moment, he was the wedge forcing its way down upon those sharp threads tightly binding Daniil Dankovsky to the Polyhedron.
A great crack of gunfire split the sky and rocked the earth.
The scents of metal and blood were indistinguishable from one another, as both exploded into the air as a ruddy mist.
The seismic shudder sent Artemy down to his knees, but he didn’t let Dankovsky go; they sank together, dropping to the flagstones and unsticking their lips as their ears rang from the cacophony.
Artemy unclenched his eyelids. His heart jumped; they were both still alive, and Dankovsky had his gloved — and still very bloodstained — hand clutched over his mouth. But aside from that old gore, there was a faint spray of pink mist on the side of him that faced the river.
Fingers shaking, realizing he was staring at the cure for the Sand Pest splattered against the Bachelor’s pale skin, Artemy traced the droplets across the man’s temple. Magnificent, miraculous, chimeric blood.
“Don’t look so shocked,” he gruffly forced out, as his own mortification got the better of him. “Like I just took your innocence.”
The Bachelor slowly lowered his hand from his mouth, and his dark brows dropped low and miserable, as he turned his head towards the river of blood and the jagged bones of the specular tower. “That’s exactly what you’ve done,” he whispered.
Artemy let go of Dankovsky slowly; his joints felt stuck. “Then I will bear the weight of that evil, and you will live to hold it against me.” He rose on trembling feet and pointed. “It’s over. That’s our cure, doctor.”
Dankovsky remained half-sprawled on the ground, lips forming silent words that could have been numb denials.
“It’s,” he finally said. “It’s… over.”
Artemy swallowed and took a rotten, sin-soaked step towards that beautiful red pool. He understood the hollow tones in Dankovsky’s voice. What even were they now, without the frantic running through the streets, without the smoke from signal fires stinging their eyes, without creeping to avoid the pools of light from streetlamps with a half-shattered blade in hand, without obsessive hoards of trinkets and trash filling their pockets?
The Earth’s thrashing and bellowing in pain underneath him was growing stiller, colder, fainter.
“No more of your self-pity,” Artemy finally forced out. “We have work to do. One more task. I need you, oynon.”
Behind him, by the sound of it, Dankovsky was picking himself up off the smooth stones. “You don’t need me,” he said dully. “I barely helped.”
“Spare me that bullshit. What’s left of the town is alive because of you.”
“Then. Everyone who died.”
“Stop it,” said Artemy. He didn’t turn around. “Don’t goad me right now. I won’t kiss you again, if that’s what you’re looking for.”
For an aching moment, the words caused a ripple, like a stone thrown in a pond.
“Then let’s work,” said Dankovsky, and he was quiet and bitter and resigned, but he was still there. To live in the throes of despair took courage, warm courage borne from warm blood, that still assiduously pumped inside his chest. His unthinking blood cherished the brain that struggled to love itself, and that would do for now.