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If anything it was worse than the first time Tash had fallen into the void. Lights burned Tash’s eyes, unnameable sounds deafened him, and he felt like he was being torn apart. He and Nera tumbled through what seemed like a hurricane of blowing stones, then a fog that burned the skin, then a waterfall of something like lime ice seething with angry biting creatures. Tash clutched on to Nera with all his strength. There was darkness, and more burning, and cold, and light again. The pain seemed to go on for an age of the world

‘It will end, it will end, it will end,’ cried Tash. But he could not hear his own words.

Something heavy struck Tash and he found himself sprawled across it. It was stone. A stone floor. He had lost his grip on Nera. It was not at all silent: there were voices, making sounds that Tash could not think into words, and other sounds – the crackling of a fire, the crash of something glass falling to the floor. The air smelled almost pleasant, with smoke and aromatic oils and a vaguely animal smell he did not recognise. Tash got to his knees dizzily and looked about for Nera.

‘It is Number Five back,’ said an irritable human voice. ‘She seems to be dead.’

‘By the Lion’s arsehole!’ said another angry voice. ‘She had better not be. We don’t have any more children to spare.’

Two human beings, taller than Nera, dressed in similar black garments, had come up and were standing over a broken thing that lay about a dozen feet from Tash. A liquid much the same colour as the stones the priests wore in the tower of the Overlord was leaking from it.

‘No,’ said Tash. ‘No…’ He stumbled miserably toward the body. What had happened? He had held her so tightly. It must have been a sharp stone in the storm of sharp stones, striking her there. No, no, no. This was not how it was supposed to be.

‘What is that thing?’ said one of the human beings, looking at Tash as if he had not been visible until that moment. It was alarmed, but nothing like as alarmed as you or I would be if a creature like Tash appeared unexpectedly.

The other snapped its head up to look at Tash. ‘I have no idea. Do you think it killed Number Five?’

Some of the red liquid was on Tash’s hands. Nera’s blood. He was bleeding himself, from several little cuts. He stood up to his full height, which hurt. ‘I was trying to save her,’ he said pathetically.

‘Well, that does not appear to have been a success,’ said the human who had first noticed Tash. It came up to Tash’s bottom pair of shoulders, and had fibrous material around the front of its face as well as on top. ‘We could find you another one, if it is particularly important.’

Tash shuffled forward to Nera, paying no further attention to the larger human beings, and crouched down beside her. She was not breathing. Rather a lot of blood had spilled out onto the floor from the hole in her neck. No, this was not how it was supposed to be at all. He was supposed to be a hero. ‘No,’ he said. He struck his head with his hands, again and again.

When Tash did not reply, the human with the fibrous stuff on its face spoke more softly to the other, who looked something like a larger version of Nera. ‘Zara, probably best to get the wand, just in case.’

Then he addressed Tash more loudly, ‘What is your will, Dread Creature of Nightmare?’

Tash paid it no attention.

‘If you have any knowledge of the Elder Magics, we may well be able to come to some mutually beneficial arrangement.’

Tash struck his head with his hands again.

‘Where have you come from?’

Again Tash said nothing, crouching miserably by Nera’s side.

‘Bah!’ said the human. ‘Good, there you are, Zara. I don’t think this thing is dangerous. Or particularly powerful. But it does look like it will cause trouble. I think we should petrify it for now, and we can figure out what to with it later.’

‘I agree, Zymung.’

Tash learned then that petrification is not instantaneous, and that one ceases to be able to move or see quite a while before one stops hearing things. He had his face hidden in his hands, but he still saw a flash of white, and felt a painful throbbing noise that seemed to be only in his head.

‘When Yustus comes back with the apples, I am sure he will have some good ideas about what to do with this unexpected monster,’ said Zara.

‘Of course you do’ said Zymung. ‘You always think Yustus has good ideas. You would be happy to see Yustus as master over us all, I am sure. But he is just one voice, and nearly the youngest.’

‘The fact that he is young does not make him wrong,’ said Zara, with a sharpness that reminded Tash of his mothers.

‘You should use your understanding with him to make him understand his place, instead of encouraging him in his ambitions.’

‘I hardly think you are in a position to be giving anyone advice, Zymung.’

‘It is too bad about Number Five. I really thought it would work this time.’

‘Yustus should watch himself’


And then Tash’s ears were turned completely to stone, and he knew nothing.