Chapter 4

They tracked the Ahamkara to the gutted remnants of an outpost, through vegetation so thick they had to abandon their Sparrows and continue on foot.

It was House of Winter territory, and caution slowed their final approach to a near crawl. Rook could read Von Deuven's growing frustration in the rigid line of his armored shoulders, but neither of them were willing to risk their Ghosts long enough to get a full scan of the area.

The Ahamkara was waiting for them at the center of a ring of moss-covered ruins, as if they'd arranged a formal meeting. It was smaller than Rook had expected, no larger than a jumpship. The creature stood unmoving in the open, spine curled into a dramatic bend, jaws agape. It looked as if it was smiling. More like a comical, preserved specimen from a Warlock's study than a living thing.

Rook opened her mouth to ask if this was normal. Then Von Deuven raised his rifle and fired in the same smooth movement, so abruptly that Rook flinched.

The Ahamkara dropped to the dirt.

Its serpentine coils roiled under paroxysms of agony, the great beast flopping over itself in the dust. But all the while, it still smiled that toothy smile, its eyes gleaming.

Finally, Von Deuven strode forward with a blade and casually cleaved the thing's head from its neck. The Ahamkara's flesh began to fray and deform, as if it had always been an ephemeral substance. Within a minute there was nothing left but bones.

Rook kept a hand on her cannon, expecting the creature to leap to its skeletal feet for an encore. But the sizzling hiss diminished, and the bones lay still.

"Not much of a hunt," Rook said into the resulting silence. Every other Lightbearer in the City had a dragon-hunting story these days, true or otherwise. None of them went like this.

Von Deuven knelt in front of the skull. "Make something up."

Rook watched him, bemused, until the Titan took his sword and turned it over in his hands, using the hilt to hammer a few teeth loose. "I thought the wish-dragons were supposed to be powerful."

"What if the Fallen could wish for our extinction?" Von Deuven said, turning over the smallest of the fangs in his fingers. "That's the kind of power we're talking about."

Rook looked up at the ruins around them. "Wonder why nobody on our side's tried that yet."

Von Deuven shrugged. "Maybe they didn't do it right. Maybe the world where we win is too different from this one, and they left us behind."

The thought made Rook uneasy. A lot of would-be dragon hunters were missing—vanished, as if they'd never existed. She thought of those Lightbearers scattered across a hundred reflections of the same clearing, a hundred impossible wishes. The Ahamkara were dwindling—what if humanity's last ticket off a doomed world was going with them?

"We should… get some bones back to the Warlocks," Rook said.

Von Deuven laughed. He slipped the teeth into one of the ammunition pockets on his bandolier. "Help me gather up the rest of this."