They came as a pack, leaping and running, springing out of the darkness at them. They were answered by steady gunfire, a deadly chorus as Adree fired and Rachelle laid down a spread while Robbes reloaded and then took over while Rachelle fell back. Their weapons sang in unison and the Taugen fell, dead with blue brightness on their skin, or wounded but still clawing toward them. There was no way to kill them all. Adree stayed calm, her hands working feverishly while her mind was cool and clear from distractions. She saw with clinical clarity the way to attack, one by one, until the lightness of her ammo clip told her there were far more Taugen than she had thought.

“Fall back!” she ordered again. “Radiant three!”

Immediately Robbes and Rachelle began to move, as Adree lobbed a biomarker charge at the stairs. It was on a three-second timer; after that it exploded in a brilliant blue mist. The Taugen screamed but she knew it was a scream of rage as well as pain. They weren’t finished.

Robbes took point, Adree covered the rear as they raced downstairs. “Where?” Rachelle panted. “The street?”

“There could be more out there, we’d be walking straight into a trap.” Adree wiped sweat from her face. “We —”

A noise from up the stairs echoed down to her, more than a snarl of pain this time.

“What was that?” demanded Robbes.

Adree waved at him impatiently, listening. It sounded like… she had studied Taugen languages, but the most the Evinthei knew was very, very little. Perhaps too little… know thine enemy as thou knows thyself…

The noise came again, louder this time as if uncertain it had been heard.

Adree strained her telepathic implant to catch the meaning of what the speaker was trying to say — very hard, with a non-human mind — and trawled her memory for the few Taugen phrases she knew. It didn’t sound like a challenge.

“Commander?” whispered Rachelle.

Every fibre of her being was screaming danger. She could almost feel her ancestors pulling at her clothes to yank her back, but Adree’s feet were drawing her back up the stairwell.

“Speak,” she said, as well as she could in the Taugen tongue.

Sweat was trickling in the small of her back.

“Hold fire.” The voice that echoed was barely a voice at all, Adree thought scornfully: like the harsh bark of an animal. The Taugen might be intelligent but they could never match an Evinthei. “Emberspawn mind speaker. Hear our chorus.”

Why should I?

“Hold fire,” she repeated, tightening her grip on her weapon.

The Taugen said something long and complicated. The only word she caught was a snuffling, guttural syllable that echoed off her telepathy as ‘parley’.

Adree struggled for the right words to express her scorn, but to her frustration all she could come up with was: “Liar.”

It repeated the word again, then to her shock she clearly heard: “Parley for both of us. Hear our chorus.”

I don’t negotiate with Taugen!

Wait. Wait. Remember Padrin Telcane. Remember what you thought then. You need a way to deal with the Taugen. So deal with them now. Maybe you can find a way to exterminate all the bastards through this one.

“Parley,” she said, calmly. She turned to look at her team, pale and sweating, wracked with nerves… and winked. Robbes’ eyes brightened and Rachelle’s face broke into a bitter smile.

There was a long silence, then the sound of movement on the stairwell. Adree was holding her gun so tightly the pattern on the grip was grinding into her hand.

The Taugen that descended looked like all the other Taugen — but then again, all Taugen looked alike. Same greyish, mushroom-coloured skin with darker patches, same short snout and large, blinking eyes. Those darker patches had been teased out into elegant patterns, maybe with tattooing…

Or branding. These are the same beasts that sent Padrin home to die with a message carved into his face.

This one was dressed in faded red wrappings, wound around its arms, legs and torso like bandages. Adree had never been this close to a Taugen before without looking for a kill spot: it must have thrown its climbing device away because its hands were empty. The stubby fingers were taloned, scarred and burned the way a soldier’s hands often are. As the Taugen turned, Adree noted, with approval, a heavy scar ran down the middle of its head as if something had tried to split its skull open.

“Emberspawn,” it said.

Adree raised her gun and pointed it at the Taugen. It hissed loudly. “Hold fire!”

“Holding,” said Adree, calmly. “Speak.”

The Taugen said nothing. It blinked at her, as if not used to being in the light, even such a dim light as the stairwell provided. Then it tapped its chest. “Ryss is.”

I don’t give a shit what your name is.

“Speak,” she ordered, not lowering her gun.

Ryss tossed his head towards the stairwell. “Taugen waiting. You give us, we go.”

“Give what?”

“The Painted Oracle,” said Ryss.

“What?” Adree asked, bewildered, in her own language.

“The speaker. The old one.” Ryss was clearly having trouble speaking simply enough. “The painted rock that speaks.”

The lapidtalos. So she had been right after all.

“I’ll die before I let you take it,” she said quietly, then snapped in the Taugen’s tongue: “Why, to kill Evinthei?”

“No,” said Ryss. “Make truth.”



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