“Seems simple enough,” said Dax. “They died here, so that energy’s here. What’s complicated?”

Kaire got to her feet, not seeming to notice she was standing on the edge of an enormous drop onto solid concrete below. She looked around and then pointed north. “Look there,” she said. “That way, across the river, is Lyon’s Boulevard, the headquarters of the Evinthei. But a little south of that is a dead zone. No roads go through it. Nothing passes over it. If they enter, Earthborn go into a frenzy. The Evinthei soldiers find their thoughts… changing. Some people can’t bear to be near it at all - Athellus is one of them, he can’t go close without getting unholy migraines. The Evinthei run long detours around that place. Nothing grows or lives there. Nothing can.”

Dax looked at her curiously. “How come?”

Kaire didn’t appear to be listening. “But there was one man who used to go there, years ago. He lived in bad times: after his mate died - his wife - he took to wandering the city. That was a long time ago by your reckoning, before most of it was ruined - before Jayton Ember came along. Nones was still at its height. But there were problems on the ground.”

She started walking along the top of the wall, with superb balance: Dax followed her along the skyway. “No doubt that creature gave you some romantic chapter and verse, but… truth be told, Nones really was an impressive place. Though humans have added to it over the centuries, they never approached the success of the original builders. And the majority of Nones was built by the Ancestors. The defences are Ancestral, like the city itself. You’ve seen the Librais Tower, you know what their technology is like: they use living blood and tissue to power and regulate themselves. And some humans find something objectionable about that.” She looked sidelong at him and smiled a little. “I hear you had a certain objection to the Librais yourself.”

“Maybe,” ventured Dax.

Kaire chuckled silently for a moment. “Well, at this time, this particular man was the leader of Nones, the last hereditary leader, I think. And his people were beginning to question the technology they were using to defend themselves. Oh, they had added the larger guns along the river, fortified the shoreline, they monitored the air with missiles bared, but the real defences of Nones made all those look like child’s toys. The lapidtalii, the real assault guns, the river defences, were all Ancestral. It wasn’t just the military aspects, either - the Archive, the aeroponics bays that kept everyone fed, the internal aqueduct network… they were all powered by Ancestor technology using living tissue. Not always from a willing donor, either. And the people began to question the morality of this, whether the cost of their safety and their strategic power was too high.”

She snorted. “At least, this is how Athellus explained it to me, anyway. I still don’t understand it. Seems senseless for a civilisation to needlessly cripple themselves. Morality doesn’t mean anything when you’re trying to survive.”

“It does,” said Dax. “I mean, it should do. What’s the point in surviving if you can’t live with yourself afterwards? And society needs laws and rules -”

“Life exists to live,” Kaire told him. “Just to survive, Dax, not to survive in this way or that way. And if life refuses to accept that, it dies out and another form of life takes its place, one that’s willing to overcome its squeamishness. It’s the law of nature.”

“Maybe that works for animals, or those Earthborn, but we’re different. I’m not saying that if you’re stuck up a mountain somewhere and you’re starving to death, and the only way to survive is… I don’t know, eat your dead team mate, that you shouldn’t do it. But a city is more than one person. It’s got to think of the future too.”

“There’s no point in thinking of the future if you’re not prepared to use all your resources to safeguard that future. Nones is superior. Why deny that? Why not use the advantages they had because of misplaced ideals? There’s time for hand-wringing after everyone is fed.”

“Whatever. It sounds like a slippery slope to me.”

She smiled. “Many of Nones’ people, at that time, would have agreed with you. They wanted to reduce their dependency on Ancestral technology, find other ways to survive, make the city their own. The other side agreed with me. Nones had too much promise not to explore all its advantages to the full - back then, there were things about the city they were still finding out. Even now - especially now, since so much has been destroyed - the Evinthei don’t know all Nones’ secrets. Humans are curious, especially when they think their curiosity could lead to an advantage. This faction thought it was worth the risk.”

“So who won out?”

Kaire was walking like a child on a balance beam, placing one foot carefully in front of another, heel to toe, heel to toe. It was hard to believe she could turn into a spiny, steel-feathered combatant able to cut men down at a stroke. “That’s a difficult question to answer. The city’s leader wanted to resolve it, but… the loss of his mate had depressed him deeply. He let his advisers continue the debate while he explored Nones. At first he was simply providing an accounting of their resources, but it turned into endless wandering. And finally he began walking into the deadlands.”

“I thought you said they made people sick.”

“Not this man,” said Kaire. “There is… something in the deadlands, and in many ways, that thing is the heart of Nones, more than any building or defence system. The city formed around it, like a pearl around a piece of grit - you have those in your world, yes? It is very old and very dangerous. But sometimes it can find a mind it can use.”

“Like a Zodiac Engine.”

“Ah.” Kaire smiled a little. “No. Think of the Scorpieth, how terrible it was.” Dax nodded. “Well, this is what the Ancestors built the Scorpieth to kill, though it never had the chance. The Guardian who died here, the one I told you about, didn’t just rot away like all the others. It died by decapitation - its head was ripped off - and maybe because of that, its skull didn’t disintegrate like the rest of its body. It’s still here, down in those deadlands.”

A shiver went through Dax that had nothing to do with the cold air. After all he’d been told about the Guardians, he’d assumed they vanished in a puff of smoke or something when they died. He’d never thought there would be an actual body left behind. And the skull of one of those things…

“What does it look like? How big is it?”

“It looks like what it is,” said Kaire. “The Great Maw of something very ancient and very evil. Where the Guardian’s blood was spilled, nothing grows. And it’s been there for thousands and thousands of years.”

Dax felt his mind stretching as he tried to imagine it… the thing must be an incredible sight. “But if it’s dead, then how -?”

“The Guardians were creatures whose bodies merged with Gating energy. There’s never been anything quite like them before or since. When it died, the Guardian released that energy into Nones’ atmosphere. Perhaps that’s why the Great Maw still commands a… presence. Like the Guardian’s thoughts are still echoing around in there. And a creature like that must have had some very dark thoughts indeed, enough to linger. The human mind starts to struggle under the weight of them once it gets too close. But though they were infinitely more powerful, maybe the Guardians learned from the Engines too. Maybe they learned that little beings can sometimes act as useful levers. And they were a lot more elegant about it.”

Dax glowered at ‘little beings’ but went on. “So… this skull, this Maw, can still have an influence on people? And that’s what it did to this man?”

“Yes.” Kaire kept walking along the wall. “Perhaps he didn’t realise the danger or he was so depressed he had stopped caring. It doesn’t matter. Either way, Ormian Amtino was about to become a cautionary tale.”

 

 

 

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