Everyone was staring. From every nook and cranny, from high above and deep below, eyes were watching them. The same eyes, a thousand times over, not just physically identical, but the same in their cold hostility.

Together, flanked by their five guards, the three walked along a high gantry stretching across the interior of an enormous tunnel, descending dozens of feet below them and vanishing into darkness in either direction. Built into the walls and every inch of the space below them were shelters and buildings and what might have been markets, hung with banners all showing the same symbol, meaningless as an inkblot to Dax, but obviously important to the Taugen.

Here and there, enormous clusters of pipes sprouted from the walls only to wind round and disappear elsewhere. Some were tapped by huge valves that were six feet across. The bottom of the tunnel was a narrow canal criss-crossed by bridges, the water flowing strong, steady and clear. Dax realised he was looking at the very arteries of the city of Nones. The tunnel was lit by slowly-rotating constructions hanging from the roof of the tunnel, Ancestor-designed lamps that cast a steady golden light.

“Wonder how many Taugen hearts are powering those,” said Athellus sourly as Dax peered at them.

Instead of the wet sewage smell of the tunnels before, Dax could smell the pleasant tang of wood smoke, spices, a peculiar mushroom-half scent coming off the Taugen’s skin. Their footsteps joined the melange of shouting, talking and laughing that echoed through the tunnel from what must be a thousand Taugen or more, going about their daily business; carrying heavy loads, working hard on the pipe workings. But as the three of them passed by or walked over the gantry above them, hands stopped, heads turned, and those dark eyes became fixed on them. Male Taugen, female Taugen, young, old… the stare said the same thing. Outsiders. The enemy.

“They all look the same,” said Dax quietly.

“Not so surprising,” Kaire replied. “They really do have an Ancestor.”

“What do you mean?”

“The Ninth Guardian, the one who lost its head…” Kaire shrugged wryly, “… there were a few Ancestors that grovelled at its feet and begged forgiveness for daring to create the Zodiac Engines. The Ninth accepted an alliance, and they prospered, eventually forgetting to be afraid. One Ancestor became so pig-ignorant and arrogant, it thought its genes were somehow superior. So it took its DNA and made an entire race based on it.”

Dax looked around at the identical, identically-hostile faces. “They’re clones.”

“Or close enough.”

“But… but they breed together. Don’t they?”

“No doubt the Ancestor took care of little details like that. The Taugen seem to manage.”

Dax blinked. “They’re all family. All of them. —Like the Evinthei.”

The closest Taugen turned his head at the last word, as if recognising the name of the enemy, and snapped a few words that Dax didn’t need translated. “Okay. Sorry. Sorry.”

“Soft,” Kaire murmured as they walked on. “To the Taugen, those are the heretics who use the holy powers of the Guardians for hopping between worlds, cooking their food and lighting what’s left of their city.”

“I’ll remember.” They had gone on for a few minutes before Dax thought of another question. “What happened to this Ancestor? The one who made them?”

A smile crossed Kaire’s face, though it didn’t enter her eyes. “It came to a bad end.”

“Forget I asked.”

The gantry dropped to a long series of steps, each descending to a platform clustered with a dozen guards around a massive gun turret, the muzzle pointed up the steps. Weak as he was, Dax wanted to grab the steps’ railing and lean on that, but the bore of that gun made him think twice about doing anything that could be misinterpreted. Athellus took his arm and elbow and they went down slowly.

“Can’t do anything with those turrets there,” Dax muttered.

Athellus nodded discreetly. “There’s nowhere to go. This blasted place is swarming with Taugen.”

“Swim the canal? It has to lead out somewhere. Maybe back to the river.”

Athellus shook his head. “We’d be sitting ducks. Everyone here’s armed. And we might end up swimming right back into Rimegrim. Maybe they’ve decided on execution already but if they want to talk to us, that means a chance to bargain.”

“We still have Kaire—”

“Ember’s blood, don’t even think that too loud. She’d crack this place like an egg, kill us and take the city apart.”

Is that what I meant? “Okay. But we need another plan, pronto.”

“Working on it…”

Their guards led the way off the gantry and into the streets; they were immediately joined by a dozen or so more, providing a cordon between the three of them and the milling crowds of Taugen beginning to gather. Dax expected a hail of missiles, angry insults, spitting, anything.

But the Taugen massed in the streets, climbing low roofs and peering from windows, dropping their loads to their feet, were utterly silent. They watched the procession with those judging eyes, and made no sound.

“Ember’s blood,” said Athellus suddenly, pointing.

Dax felt one hand go to his mouth as the shock ran through him. On the street ahead, given pride of place among the houses, was… something. A shrine, maybe. A monument? It was a metal plinth with a series of shelves above it, dark copper like most of the metalwork here. Two Taugen stood by it, one holding a candle, the other a bolt of cloth; they had paused in their work to watch the trio pass.

It was obvious why this place merited attendants. The shrine’s shelves were draped with cloth, and filled with skulls. Earthborn, mostly, judging by the shape; several were human. They had been scrupulously cleaned and polished, arranged in neat rows. Dark blue blindfolds had been tied primly over their eye sockets. Without exception the victims had all suffered the same injury; a devastating blow to the centre of the forehead, likely with an axe, that had split the bone straight down the middle.

One of the Taugen guards spoke, mockingly. “He asks if this makes you afraid,” Kaire translated.

“Depends,” said Athellus, sounding shaken. “How long does it take to die from an injury like that?”

The Taugen spoke again. “He says these are the kills of his … ‘branch’, his clan. We should all be very impressed.”

Dax could see very clearly the moment in his mind: it wouldn’t be like being beheaded at Tyburn in the old days, with the executioner standing behind. You’d have to watch the axe swinging down at your face.

Beyond the monument was a small open square. A dozen or so Taugen were waiting there like a hanging committee, now rising to their feet as the group drew closer. Dax glanced over them one by one for axes; he saw none, but there was no hint of conciliation or sympathy in those identical faces either. Only that cold anger. Outsiders. Unwelcome. Heretics.

As they approached, an eerie sound began humming through the air. It wasn’t coming from the crowd: it was coming from above them. Dax looked up. Several stems of pipe work jutted from the walls of the tunnel overhead, the ends sawed off and refitted in a familiar manner. They were for… for projecting sound. The noise from them warped, echoed, resolved itself… and became music. Choral music, hauntingly beautiful, like the music he had listened to in the tunnels.

“They sing through the pipes,” Dax breathed. That music could be coming from anywhere in the tunnels. There could be miles of pipes like these. The sound might be announcing their arrival, but it announced something else: if those pipes could project, they could probably receive. When it stopped, all the Taugen would be listening.

 

 

 

previous | archive | next