“Why make truth?” Adree wanted to know. “How make truth?”

Ryss said something complicated again, then, rapid-fire: “Truth. True. Straight. Right. Make right.”

“Make what right?”

“Wrongness. Inside wrongness.” Ryss looked frustrated, insofar as Adree could interpret its look. “Wrongness! Our business, our fight!”

Adree said, in her own language: “I’m not afraid of you. Go or stay, it only changes whether my bullet’s in the front of your head or the back.” She switched to the Taugen tongue. “No parley. Painted Oracle is mine.” Padrin Telcane’s bloody face swam before her. “You get nothing from me. Nothing!” She let out a sudden laugh. “Why would I want to trade or do anything that would do the Taugen a favour?”

“Taugen are. Evinthei are. Nones is.” Ryss hissed again. “Words not. Listening, mindspeaker. Listening is. Parley, listen.”

Adree narrowed her eyes, then met those of the enemy across from her and listened. She felt a subtle tingle as the implant in her brain cycled up and fed chemicals into the psychic part of her brain.

Her eyes adjusted, her pupils dilating slowly as her brain chemistry altered. The stairwell was dim, and only the light from biomarker gel misted across the walls illuminated the scene. Two dim pinpoints of light swam in Ryss’s eyes, like the only two stars in a dark universe. Adree could see her own reflection beyond the tiny blueness: the only glimpse of humanity in the monster’s face.

“Oracle I am too,” said Ryss. The words were still unclear, but now they were stitched together with an under-thread of comprehension and awareness that hadn’t been there before. “Taugen Oracle is guide to family branch. Oracle knows the secrets. Bring we the secrets back out of the dark places. Like Chorus that masks the under city noise, we speak in dark places.”

“Why parley?” Adree asked, softly.

“Seek I new ways. Our ways. Evinthei make camp on shifting sands. Nones has no solid place. All Evinthei works are just palace of leaves. Will scatter.” Ryss hissed to himself. “Even our world below the ground has seen such horror. Know we. Have seen. The Spiralling Death can descend on us. You know.”

And she did know. Her mind grazed his; with her heightened awareness she could see through his eyes and visualise a world beneath Nones, a world carved out amongst the massive turbines and under-machines and conduits and sewers by the river, swarming with Taugen, their voices hissing and echoing like the howling of a pack of animals. Another world, as distinct from Nones as Nones was from a place glimpsed through a Gate.

“Perhaps new ways.” Ryss’s eyes swam in darkness before her. “So Evinthei and Taugen ways do not cross. Give us Painted Oracle. Perhaps we make rightness from wrongness. Improve our ways.”

Improve their ways.

Adree’s mind was suddenly burning with other images, not just the carved and bloody features of Padrin Telcane, but the dozens she had seen over the years, since her father had permitted her to see them. Men and women cut down in their prime, sent back bleeding, crying, or silent and dead. People attacked for their beliefs, for their lives, for the crime of being part of a family. Cut down by animals who thought they were worthier than people. Who thought they were worthy of gods.

And now these animals wanted her help? To sacrifice the hope of her people for some sort of ‘wrongness’ in the heart of her enemy?

Let them rot!

The scar down Ryss’s head, like a line drawn on a map, was suddenly marked with a heavy red mark as if a destination had been found. The Taugen’s liquid eyes widened — Adree saw her own reflection in them as she lowered her smoking weapon. Something pulled taut in her heart and mind, and she felt Ryss’s life fade away. But those enormous eyes held hers right to the end. Ryss died with his eyes and mind wide open.

Adree sheathed her weapon, then turned to Robbes and Rachelle. “Take the last of our biomarker gel and all our grenades. Wipe them out. Bring the building down if you have to.”

They nodded and walked past her to the stairwell. Adree turned away from the sounds of battle and the corpse on the ground, wiping at her forehead as if to cleanse the last traces of Ryss from her thoughts.

“An interesting choice, little Emberspawn.”

A darker shadow amongst shadows was standing at the end of the corridor beyond the stairwell. Adree could make out a larger form standing on all fours like a lion.

“You call me to a negotiation and give me a show,” the lapidtalos went on. “For an ancestral enemy you might be quite diverting. But I think you might regret shooting the Taugen Oracle.”

Adree swallowed. This was not what she had planned. “It… presumed to ask for my help.”

“And you presume to ask for mine,” said the lapidtalos. It chuckled. “If I refuse, will that be my fate, little Emberspawn? Will you shoot me for being myself?”

“‘A mansion built in darkness with many rooms, for only one inhabitant therein. When you speak, he says nothing, but when you listen, he whispers.’”

The lapidtalos smiled, baring its impressive array of teeth. “So the negotiations begin. What an intriguing week this is turning out to be. Do you have an answer as well as a question?”

“Something that whispers when you listen, with many rooms. Substitute ‘rooms’ for ‘chambers’, and there’s your answer. A seashell. Am I right?”

“Very good,” smiled the lapidtalos. “A very… human answer. But appropriate, don’t you think? Nones does not answer to those who shout and complain, but she has much to offer to those who listen. Would you like to listen, little Emberspawn?”

“Yes,” said Adree at once. “We have much to offer each other.”

“You’ll need it,” the lapidtalos told her, dryly. “Nones has a visitor — more than one, in fact — that you should know about.”

Adree became alert at once. “Athellus’ partner, and the man with the white blaze. That’s who you mean, isn’t it?”

“The marked woman is beyond your sphere of influence,” said the lapidtalos. “She belongs to Nones… one way or another. But the second? That chap is just your type.”

“What do you mean? —Sir?”

The lapidtalos raised one enormous stony paw and placed it on her shoulder — Adree winced as her collarbone creaked under it. “Come. Leave your soldiers to their killing, little one. And let us talk.”

 

 

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