The smell of the Taugen Watcher’s blood lingered a long time in the air; at least, to Kaire’s nose, sensitive to such things. It had a bitter, chalky undertone, the blood of something that scampered to and fro in the dark, living shoulder to shoulder with others identical to itself. The scent didn’t compare to the curious, rich notes in Athellus’ blood, or those Dax carried; the scent of something very alive that carried death in its core.

Kaire let the faint luminescence in her eyes go dark. She barely bothered to listen as Torch lectured them on bad omens, and then began leading the way again. It wasn’t really necessary to lead them. Even if they left this tunnel, even if Rimegrim reappeared and washed them all aside, there would be a path for them somehow. If you really sought the Great Maw, you would find it.

She had not been this way in so long.

With her vision dimmed, the tunnel stood out more clearly as a tapestry of scent. Old water. The fading tang of oil in the forgotten machinery nearby. The musk of sweat, powder and copper that the Taugen carried with them, like the little scraps of technology bound to their bodies to defend themselves down here in the dark.

Kaire smiled. Small creatures… like the links of a chain, small separate things, collectively useful. They were foolish, but they were better than most Earthborn, with their silly cult of the Painted Oracle. At least the Taugen revered things genuinely greater than themselves—the Great Maw, the Guardians, their Ancestor… and their society.

Foolishness and reverence, circling each other. How very like their Ancestor they were.

Kaire mentally took a step backwards, into the dim vastness of her memory, and called up what she had known of him. A curious being, that Taugen Ancestor; bold enough to risk allying with a mortal enemy, the Ninth Guardian, and so vain that he created an entire species in his image.

The Taugen Ancestor's body must still be out in the deadlands, only scraps and fragments now, if it still existed at all. No Taugen revered his bones, as they did the Ninth Guardian. What need was there? They all carried his DNA; every Taugen saw his face echoed in their families and friends. Their civilisation was a living shrine to one creature’s desperate longing for immortality, of whatever kind.

Kaire had wondered from time to time why the Ninth would have agreed to any kind of alliance with such a creature. The Ninth had armies of its own; the Taugen would have carried no interest for it. The other Ancestors had already proved themselves to be dangerous by building the Zodiac Engines. Maybe the Taugen Ancestor had known something of them? They were all answers she had pondered before, but the answer always seemed to be the same. The Ninth had allied with the Taugen Ancestor for the same reason it had done many seemingly inexplicable things: because it amused it to do so.

A trait I inherited.

Does the Ninth remember? Kaire wondered, as they walked through the tunnels, past sluice gates and valves and pipework and, once, over an abyss that seemed to stretch deep into the earth. Does it dream of the plans it laid, those vast indecipherable schemes…

Could it ever dream at all?

Dreams had been the first gift Kaire ever received from the Greater Powers. Before that her rest had always been dreamless. In fact she had rarely slept, her body able to sustain itself for years at a time without the need for rest. The first dream, her ban-reth, had been an intrusion in the midst of a maelstrom of pain. After she had become banru, dreams began to emerge every time she rested.

Kaire soon came to enjoy dreaming immensely. Dreams were entire worlds unto themselves, which could be collapsed with a simple thought or an application of logic. She chased them like a cat chasing soap bubbles. When Athellus first became her partner, she would spend entire evenings talking about her dreams; the non-places she’d seen, the un-people she’d met and then undone.

One night, his chin propped on his hand, Athellus had smiled in the light of their campfire. “Sounds like the Greater Powers were onto something, by giving you dreams.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well. They gave you something to destroy that wouldn’t hurt anyone, I suppose.”

Kaire had started, then settled back. It made sense. Dreams were a safe way to channel the undeniable urges bred into her. Much later, she had understood something else: that without dreams, she couldn’t have handled close association with a partner. Eventually, she could have killed Athellus simply out of raw instinct.

That was a bad thought.

At first her dreams had been abstract and simple. Later she began to recognise the places in them from her long, long wanderings. Sensations she had put aside blossomed again for her to enjoy. The vast snowy peaks of a distant mountain range, where no footprint save hers had been left for thousands of years. A village surrounded by low, wet fields covered in autumnal leaves; the people there made paper lanterns that glowed yellow-orange at night, orbited by moths. Plains of cooled lava—stone taking the shape of flesh. The crisp melting taste of a pain du chocolat, bought for her at a cafe in Dax’s world where Athellus had given her lessons in table manners. Grasslands. The echoes inside a temple bell the size of a building. Wall writing like arabesques visible in the light of a flickering torch. A dance under the light of two moons. Gravity. Bone dust. Paper. Clay. Water.

And Marchion.

The light rose again in Kaire’s eyes as she mentally turned away. She did not like to think of Marchion. Not because of what she had done—she had done worse. But she had boasted of Marchion to Athellus, once, and the look on his face had been distressing. His eyes had lingered before her for a long time afterwards, gnawing in her gut. It had all become mixed up with the memory until she couldn’t quite look at it in the same way. Eventually she had asked the Greater Powers what this was.

The answer came back: shame. It appeared to be viewed as some variety of progress. Kaire had mused on this.

She had no doubt that the Ninth Guardian had never felt shame.

The pilgrims paused for a water break and to stretch their legs. Torch had chosen a platform near a series of gigantic water wheels; they turned with a roar and a heavy crash of gears. Conversation was impossible. Kaire stopped with them, sipped from the canteen Athellus passed to her. After a hand signal he dug into his backpack, and handed her one of the raw ginger roots kept in a side pocket. She sat on the edge of the platform, letting her feet hang, and began to chew.

The ginger soon awakened a slow fire in her throat and stomach. Kaire closed her eyes. Unconsciously she rested one hand against the scars on her cheek, remembering another darkness, other sensations of fire from her long-ago battle with the Ninth. She had forgotten nothing. The deafening roar of the water—worse to her over-sensitive ears—merged into that vividly memorable roar in her head, as the Ninth had tried to tear it from her body.

Dreaming awake. Perhaps this was progress too.

Still… Kaire had lived a long time, and fought many battles. In that one she had tasted the Ninth Guardian’s dreadful power, power that lingered long after death. She knew what kept that strength in check.

I should not have come this way again.

 

 

 

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