Dax struggled against his captor, thrashing like a landed fish, the rope biting into his wrists. He had to get free and speak or everything was lost. Trying to breathe past the gag, he bit down on it as the Taugen hauled him up onto his knees and held him there, bent over. Dax twisted and a hand clamped against the scruff of his neck. Talons bit into the skin hard enough to draw blood.

Cold sweat was sticking his clothes to his underarms and the small of his back. It was absurd, but past the fear, he felt a kind of indignance. He had been carrying that bloody tumour around in his head, suffering headaches and crazy dreams, and now it wasn’t even going to be the thing that killed him. He’d almost become used to it; used to knowing exactly where his death was, carrying it about with him. He felt… cheated.

No. He wasn’t going to take this.

Out of the corner of his eye he could see the forearm of the Taugen that held him down. One of those Ancestral weapons was strapped to its arm; the weapon itself had several studs protruding from the top. Not sharp, but… they might do.

Several Taugen were emerging from the crowd now, dressed in hoods, criss-crossed bandages or in one case, a loincloth and even more elaborate tattoos. Ragged was speaking rapidly in the Taugen language, pointing to the three of them. Dax felt his captor’s grip ease a fraction, as if he was listening, and tensed himself. He would never get a second chance.

Don’t think. Do.

Wrenching his head free, Dax rolled partly onto his hip, freeing his left leg. Summoning all his waning strength, he kicked up and back as hard as he could, his heel meeting flesh. The Taugen roared and collapsed to one knee.

As the other guards rushed him, Dax leaned down to the Taugen’s weapon, snagged the gag on one of the weapon’s studs and yanked it down, out of his mouth.

Kaire!” The white-haired, scarred face turned to him. “Kaire, translate for me!” Dax struggled as half a dozen Taugen piled on him, a blade pressed against his throat. “Translate! Pilgrimage! Pilgrimage!

Kaire’s shout echoed off the inside of the gigantic tunnel, across the entire city. Ragged fell silent, her hands falling to her sides. Hundreds of grey heads stared at them.

Pipe Staff took a step forward. Dax tried not to move an inch. The blade at his neck was razor-sharp and pressing hard; if he so much as swallowed, he’d cut his throat.

“What did you say?” Pipe Staff wanted to know.

The blade was removed. Dax slowly got to his feet, holding his hands out to show he wasn’t a threat. The Taugen surrounded him, weapons ready, dark eyes suspicious. “ ‘Pilgrimage’ ,” he repeated. “If we’re heretics, if we’re evil, then let us go on a pilgrimage to purge ourselves. On foot. No Gating energy. No nothing.”

Ragged snorted. “And where would you go on this pilgrimage, that would purge you so well?”

Dax took a deep breath. “To the only place that’s fitting. The Great Maw. The skull of the Ninth Guardian in the deadlands. To bow before it and apologise for our… our trespasses.”

The scorn went out of Ragged’s eyes, replaced by… fear, maybe, or disbelief. The other Taugen rustled, then subsided to silence. Dax spotted the look Athellus was giving him, and the words he was mouthing: the gag in Athellus’ mouth made it impossible to read his lips, but Dax knew exactly what the words would be: You’re insane.

“You wish to stand before the visage of the Ninth?” Wave Mark said. “And… ask for forgiveness?”

Ragged suddenly let out a nervous laugh. “Impossible. Impossible. Humans know only dread of the Great Maw. And rightfully. The deadlands drive humans to madness, and death.”

Dax held her eye. “Isn’t that a death we’d deserve, more than any you can give us? We sinned against the Guardians. So let the Guardians kill us.”

“This is a ruse, some trick,” Wave Mark said. “You cannot—”

Dax took a step forward; the guards stepped with him. “I want to stand before the Great Maw,” he said, firmly, “and be judged for my crimes. If you really serve and revere the Guardians, you’ll take us there.”

Wave Mark looked at Pipe Staff, who simply blinked. The rest of the Taugen whispered and muttered in a vast susurrus.

“Not that one,” said Ragged suddenly, shrilly, pointing to Athellus. “That one is Evinthei born, and the crimes he has spoken of—his footsteps would taint the presence of the Great Maw, he will not be permitted.”

“Let us speak of this without their listening,” Wave Mark said, waving her down. “Take them to a secure room.”

* * *

The Taugen might be religious zealots who lived in a sewer, but they cooked half-decent food. Dax polished off three bowls of the strange mushroom stew they had provided for the prisoners in the time it took Kaire to eat one. It was good stuff, creamy and wholesome. He could feel strength flowing back into his veins, though he was still worried about what he might have swallowed during his dip in the river.

From outside, the strains of faint music were audible. The Taugen were singing through the pipes once again.

“You’ve completely lost it,” Athellus said. He was sitting on his bunk with his face in his hands. His bowl of stew had gone untouched.

“You keep saying that, and things keep working out,” said Dax, scraping the bowl with his fingers. “At the very least, I bought us some time.”

Athellus looked up. “Dax, this is the difference between dying from lethal injection, and getting thrown into a threshing machine. The last man who wandered into the deadlands ended up annihilating half of Nones because the Ninth Guardian told him to.”

“We’ll think of something on the way.”

“We’d better, because when I lived on Lyon’s Boulevard, I couldn’t even go within a few miles of the deadlands without blood running out of my ears. This isn’t a joke, Dax! The Great Maw is the psychic equivalent of a…. bloody… leaking nuclear reactor!”

“You won’t change his mind, ‘Thel,” Kaire told him. She was seated beside him, eating her dinner by dipping a fingertip into the bowl and licking it. She’d barely taken her eyes from Dax since the Taugen had left them alone in here. “He’s been wanting to see the Great Maw ever since he heard about it.”

“That’s not true,” said Dax, automatically.

Kaire gave him a patient look. “You did buy us a reprieve,” she said. “But when you spoke to Wave Mark about standing in front of the Great Maw, you meant every word.”

Dax concentrated on wiping the last traces of stew from the interior of the bowl. It had been moulded and shaped from a piece of copper pipe, and traces were caught around the joint. Maybe the Taugen grew the mushrooms down here somewhere. Mushrooms grew in the dark, didn’t they? Or something.

The door to the cell opened and Pipe Staff entered, flanked by armed guards. “Your pilgrimage will be allowed,” Pipe Staff told them. “Tomorrow you will leave. You will be escorted by Foragers, Heralds, and a Watcher so that you do not entertain foolish ideas of escape.”

“Warriors, messengers and a doctor,” Kaire added, seeing their confusion.

“The Evinthei-who-was Athellus will be permitted to accompany you, but only halfway. Then he will remain with the escort. If you survive the judgement of the Ninth, you will be returned here for discussion of what is to become of you. Your equipment is being found.” Pipe Staff paused, then waved his guards away. Dax’s eyebrows raised as the guards glanced at each other, then backed away, out of earshot.

Pipe Staff straightened his back. “No prisoner has ever asked for this judgement, to stand before the sacred bones of the Ninth Guardian. Perhaps you are not as we thought. Or perhaps the Guardians placed the words on your tongue. It is a thing to be considered.”

He turned and left the cell, his staff ringing on the floor. The door slammed closed behind him.

Athellus shook his head. “I’m getting some sleep.”

Later, with Kaire and Athellus dozing back-to-back in one bunk, Dax lay listening to the faint music from outside, the hum and clank of the machinery in the walls. Kaire’s words kept coming back to him, but he put them firmly aside. They weren’t true, not at all. To see the skull of a fallen god held no interest whatsoever for him.

Athellus’ warnings made a kind of sense, though. But getting away from a small group of Taugen would be easier than getting away from an entire city of them; this was the right idea. Still… if they happened to get close enough to see the Great Maw in the distance, there couldn’t be any real harm in that.

Dax rolled onto his back, turning his thoughts to what Pipe Staff had said before he left. It bothered him, but he couldn’t say why. It had to be a good thing that the Taugen were on board with this, surely. He was still turning the problem over in his mind when he fell asleep.

 

 

 

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