The beautiful, haunting music of the Taugen began anew the next morning, echoing through the pipes like a dawn chorus. It filled the city square, taking the eyes of the Taugen populace from the three unwelcome pilgrims standing out in the open, preparing to leave.

Perhaps, Dax mused as he put on his gear—including new clothes supplied by the Taugen, handed over by individuals with cold mistrust in their eyes—this song was the equivalent of sunrise. There were few lights down here, and none of them changed to show the passage of time. The Taugen lived by their own clock and calendar.

“Remember,” said Pipe Staff as they prepared to leave, “the Foragers who escort you will show no mercy. Betrayal will be met with death.”

“Cheery, aren’t they,” Athellus muttered to Kaire.

A female Taugen was coming to each of them now with a pot of some dark paste. Dax wrinkled his nose as a fingertip of the cold, acrid-smelling paste marked his forehead and cheeks. Wave Mark folded his arms. “I pray the Great Maw opens wide to swallow you whole,” he said. There was a mutter of agreement, or a pious echo, from around them. “It is a greater death, one you do not deserve. Yet you go to it bravely.”

There were no other goodbyes. When they were ready, a group of eight or so Taugen detached from the crowd, armed and provisioned, and surrounded them. One, with a torch strapped to her shoulder, led the way across a long rusting bridge and out of the main tunnel.

Dax looked over his shoulder as they left. The Taugen were watching them as always, grey faces staring from every window and visible nook. But now he felt a strange sadness from them. A kind of longing envy for what they were going to see.

They dream of the Great Maw, too. But not as you do.

He looked away quickly. That sense of unease hadn’t left him, the feel of a debt incurred somehow. But for all the Taugen’s sadness and pride, Dax wasn’t sorry to be leaving.

Only the music lingered.

* * *

With the city left behind, they were soon back in the dark, with the leading female’s torch and the faintest glow from Kaire’s eyes the only real sources of light. But this time Dax was clean and dry; his belly was full, and he wasn’t stumbling around like last time. He still didn’t want to think about that too much. Drowning and waking up in a dark, frightening place had been bad enough the first time.

No one spoke. They followed Torch across the bridge and through a hatch into an old access tunnel that ran for more than a mile. The interior was warm, with pipes hissing quietly to themselves and the sound of machinery patiently ticking over. Parts of it were even visible, like the interior of a clockwork. Dax saw Kaire look at the workings with polite disinterest. Once, she raised her hand to one of the jets of steam, as if testing its heat or her hand’s resistance. Athellus strode along with his head down, flanked by four of the warriors Pipe Staff had called “Foragers”.

Out of the access tunnel they emerged into what looked like an enormous underground irrigation plant. Torch led the way across a footbridge that spanned a gushing weir, only wide enough for one person to walk at a time. When it was Dax’s turn he forced himself to keep his eyes fixed on White Scarf, the last Forager to cross, and ignore the certain knowledge that the cold, dirty water foaming beneath his feet was somehow pulling him down. He finally stumbled off onto the safe platform at the other end, not caring as his equipment unbalanced him.

Grinning with relief, he forgot himself and nodded to White Scarf. “Just going outside is an adventure around here.”

White Scarf turned to look at him. The mirth was knocked right of Dax as he realised the “scarf” around the Taugen’s neck was actually a bandage. The rest of the injury crept up the side of White Scarf’s head and had only mostly healed.

“Never mind,” Dax faltered.

The Taugen kept staring at him, then said something briefly in his language. Dax shook his head and shrugged; White Scarf turned away.

Once everyone was across the footbridge, they descended a long set of winding stairs to another long bridge. This one led over silent, stagnant pools that stank of old weeds. The walls of the tunnel were slick, too. Torch held up a hand and said something. “Go quietly,” Kaire translated.

Dax looked around, wondering what might be living in those depths. Then he noticed weird pylons standing up from the water, each strung with wire. They looked Ancestral, and familiar, recently so. After a moment he remembered seeing them in the other tunnels before his capture. Only those had been—

The stinking water rippled up ahead of them. Torch’s fist rose, and everyone stopped dead. Torch herself crept an inch closer to the edge of the bridge.

A column of dark water erupted from the pools and hit the ceiling, splashing in all directions, then coiled on itself. Recognition stabbed through Dax at the shape of it, as large blind jaws gaped wide—a familiar shape. Only this time there was no stone or word to hold the flood back, and Rimegrim wasn’t finished with his little “game”—

Those jaws, large enough to swallow a man, snaked through the crowd. Everyone scattered or threw themselves flat, but Rimegrim’s maw clamped down on one of the Taugen standing right next to Athellus. Dax never forgot the sound of the teeth closing; it was like hearing heavy ice falling from a great height. Nor could he forget the Taugen’s scream as the cloudy, weed-wracked head of the hydraderor suddenly filled up with blood.

Torch let out a savage yell, raising a small device clutching it in one mushroom-grey fist. The pylons in the water suddenly fizzed with an electrical charge, crackling up the length of Rimegrim. The hydraderor let out a sound very much like a sigh, then slipped back into the water, pulling the dead Taugen with it. A moment later only a slight heave of the pools’ surface showed anything had happened.

Dax remembered to breathe again—just in time for Torch to poke him in the chest and spit something. “The Spiralling Death,” Kaire translated. “It is supposed to protect us. Instead it haunts these tunnels and hunts us for sport.”

Torch turned away. “That was our Watcher, ‘pilgrims’, our giver of medicine. There will be no one to tend your hurts if you fall now. Let us go on, and see if the Great Maw wants you to attend it at all.”

 

 

 

previous | archive | next