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NO UP by Jez Kemp

NO LIES by Jez Kemp

NO NEVER by Jez Kemp
NO LIES by Jez Kemp No Up icon
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11

No Lies icon
Interlogue 1
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11

No Never icon
Interlogue 2
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 6: Oral

Beige was not Noksalika's colour, but she didn't have the heart to tell them.

'That's Angrodt,' said Hanaman, indicating a stubbly man to the left. 'And Indushki, and Annabelli, and Siri with the spear.'

Neither did she have the heart to say that beige looked most stealthy in probably, say, a sandy desert environment – and not the dry pine forest, full of dark browns and greens, that they were travelling through.

'There's Gebali, and Uidesca to her left,' continued Hanaman, Noksalika forgetting the names almost instantly. She saw the two female mantrels, both sporting fearsome manes of black and red hair, and noticed the bolas strapped to Uidesca's belt. The metal balls were clean and shiny, as though they were a child's toy. It certainly didn't look like a weapon for caving in pirates' heads. Hanaman pointed up in front to another woman, a male mantrel and a man with heavily tattooed arms. 'That's Fitianga, Ossbury in the middle, and Phanyong with the headband.'

They rode fast inland – well, fast for llamas, although Noksalika was surprised at their sturdiness and stamina.

'And these two are Taupua and Taumina, twins of course,' Hanaman pointed out the two lizardwomen to their near right. 'Say hello girls.' The two girls, identical in pale green skin and stunning natural good looks, nodded politely. She smiled back.

Noksalika shouldn't have been surprised that Hanaman's crew were mostly female – with the same exercise and training, women were almost as strong as men and more flexible too. But after acting in so many pornographic films where women were portrayed as flimsy, useless and submissive, it was a culture shock to see reality up close. She found her eyes wandering over their lean, tight muscles under the tight clothes, and was suddenly fixed by the contradiction between her own awe-inspiring figure and her complete lack of health and fitness. She, Noksalika, looked like a woman – what society wanted a woman to be, anyway – but these girls were far more real women than her. Noksalika only had her looks.

She retched inside at the thought that she didn't have any make-up on; now, even her skin-deep excuse for identity had been washed off with sweat and seawater. The fact her bruises were a mere afterthought sent a further flush of hot shame through her.

'So many weapons,' she whispered. 'I've never seen so many.'

Hanaman shrugged. 'Some legal, some less than legal I'm afraid.'

'Well it's very nice to meet everyone,' she said courteously, 'but who are they? I mean, how come they're with you?'

'These fine people are some of the best comrades I ever had,' said Hanaman with obvious pride. The others heard but kept facing ahead. 'And not like friends. I'm not sure how many friends I've got any more, to be honest. These guys are fighters, they're tough, and most of all they're people I can trust.'

They'd dropped their ninja hoods, to reveal men, women, mantrels and the two tetranid lizardwomen. Despite being different species, Noksalika could see the same toughness, the same unyielding iron in their faces. She hadn't seen fighters before; the normal world didn't require it. Their initial coldness had scared her.

'What happened back at the harbour?' she asked.

He sniffed and wrinkled his nose. 'To be honest, I don't know myself. Let's just say I'm not on speaking terms with some of my superiors.' He looked along the track through the trees, scanning the Ethe ahead. 'If it was up to me, I'd have those pirates strung up and their Ethe files forensically examined to find out what the hell's going on. But we don't have time. That's why we're running.'

They'd ridden hard for nearly two days straight, through lush bushland and weird foreign plants, until the landscape blurred and she couldn't keep her eyes open. The pirates were giving chase, although on foot they weren't getting far. Noksalika shuddered at the threats and tirades they'd sent her through the Ethe, promises of what they'd do when they caught her again; she tried to block them out.

She thought about Piarowef's promise of sending help. Were Hanaman and his riders that same help? If so, why did he try and have Hanaman killed back at the harbour? Did he try?

'So,' she said quietly, 'what's the plan? Why do you need me really?'

He shook his head. 'Can't explain properly until we get there.'


'Sorry. I knew you wouldn't like it.'

'And where is "there"?' She'd scanned the landscape ahead, but hadn't been able to pick out anything obvious.

He twisted and glanced back at her in the saddle. 'Goltangi.'

She screwed her face up for a second in puzzlement. 'Goltangi? What the hell are we going there for?'

'I told you, can't explain. You'll find out when the time comes.'

'Oh come on, Goltangi is two hundred million cubic miles of dirt.' She recalled something from the depths of her organic memory, the basic international relations you had to learn as a world superstar. 'Disputed dirt, I believe. Full of crazy religious types, if I'm right?'

Hanaman made an annoyed humming sound.

'Just give me some background.'

Hanaman grunted, both at her and to himself. 'What do you know of mantrel history?'

'I know you haven't got any history.'

'Oh, how very very funny,' he joked sarcastically. 'The typical racist remarks of the ignorant.'

'Oh come on. You've only been connected to the Ethe for what, a couple of thousand years? That's hardly anything in the grand scheme of things.'

'We had written history before; we wrote things down.'

Noksalika burst out laughing, which came out as an ugly cackle. 'Written down! On bits of paper! You're hysterical. Next you'll be telling me you're descended from an "oral culture". Pfff!'

Hanaman looked at her bitterly, hurt. 'That too, thank you. Why do you think those mantrels guarding you couldn't sense us on the Ethe? You knew something was up, but they didn't see. Only some of us have embraced the power of the Ethe into our cultural identity. Most people are just along for the ride. It's not in our psychological habits yet.'

'So what are you going to tell me about your so-called history that bears any relevance to our mission?' Noksalika sat up and tried looking haughty in the saddle, swaying her hips behind him to the movement of the llama. She suddenly felt like a cheap belly dancer and stopped.

Hanaman sighed, his small shoulder blades deflating. 'We're going to Goltangi Province. Not the furthest part, but it's pretty much middle of nowhere.'

'I hate it already.'

'Don't worry they still have bars,' he replied without missing a beat. 'Anyway, as you said, the Federated Mantrel Substate has been part of the normal world for just over two thousand years. This was part of a deal done between our elders and your Committees.'

'Deal? Who got what?'

'We got the Ethe. Oh sure, it sounds obvious if you've been suckling on the Ethe your whole life. But it caused a lot of frustration and anger – especially because your Committees' motives were so utterly transparent. They wanted empire, they wanted control.'

'Hey, they're not my Committees.'

'Really? Both your parents work for them.' He turned and gave her a mischievous grin. 'The Committees sold it as some inclusive spiritual project, like we could all make the world a better place if everyone was hooked up to the Ethe. And there were the obvious economic benefits. The elders might have been fond of their paper-based histories and cute, kitsch little culture, but they knew they couldn't do much without the Ethe. And above all, there's a lot of people in mantrel society who genuinely want it. But that's all besides the point. The Committees couldn't bear the idea that such a close part of the world was unmonitored; people could just walk around and talk and share ideas, free as you like.'

He breathed out again, this time with both sadness and frustration. 'Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of the Ethe and everything it can do – not to mention that it's the huge natural energy that underpins the land, and we were barking mad to ignore it for so long. But there's something backward about the way it's controlled, and the people who control it.' He felt the scar on his back itch under his clothes.

'So the people out in Goltangi weren't in favour…?' Noksalika hazarded.

'Well as I say, there was a lot of dissent in the mantrel tribes. A lot of them didn't fully understand what the Ethe was, and people thought they were being sold out by the elders.' Hanaman chuckled cynically, shaking his head. 'Of course there were very intelligent and well-educated people who disagreed too. It's pretty hilarious how they joined together in opposition to the deal – one group driven by educated concern, the other frothing at the mouth with superstition and hearsay. No common ground whatsoever, but neither seemed to care.'

'But what about Goltangi?' she hissed insistently.

'Well everyone grew to accept it eventually – the opposition caved in the end, either because it actually was inevitable, or they just thought it was – and most of the elders got together and signed the Treaty of Thanodolina, which you really should have heard of.'


'But then there were the tribes out in the far reaches, out in the desert of Goltangi.' Noksalika thought she saw a slight involuntary shake of his head, as if he were thinking about things he didn't like. 'They were very religious, and still are. So not only were they fiercely opposed to the Ethe, they also claimed that their "God" had granted them the land, and they couldn't sign the Treaty because of "His" say so.' He jolted the llama to a halt suddenly and turned, dropping the reins to gesture with his hands. 'I mean, it's a fucking desert. Who in their right minds would think some god granted them a bunch of sand and rock?'

'Well you did say it has some bars…'

'Anyway,' he said, kicking the llama into action again, 'the Committees sent teams of engineers and golems to set the infrastructure up in what you now know as the Federated Mantrel Substate. But they weren't welcome in Goltangi.'

'Why didn't they just kill anyone who didn't agree?' said Noksalika, not understanding.

'Ha! It seems so easy now, doesn't it? But it was a different situation. You can be as brutal as you like to your own society, but when it's international, you risk a public relations disaster if you go in and just start killing people. Yes, even religious nutcases. They couldn't afford for it to look bad. So they just ignored them. Goltangi was basically written off the map. And that's how it remains.'

Noksalika puffed air out of her cheeks, trying to comprehend everything. She looked out across the Ethe ahead and scanned the area she knew as Goltangi. 'But that's not true. How come I can still see villages, animals, people moving around?'

'Can you tell me any of their names?'

Noksalika paused, then gaped. Her jaw just hung wide open, eyes glazed, even with the bumps of the llama.

'The Ethe literally "maps" everything because Goltangi is part of its land. But there's no social map, no tags, no names. The tribes of Goltangi were left out of civilisation.'

Noksalika could see everything so clearly in her mind, the electronic outlines of mantrels, other people, farms, villages and towns. And yet there was nothing underneath, no information – no social data. It was like a ghost town, a ghost region, eerie and silent, ethereal. People opening and closing their mouths without anything going on behind the eyes.

'So where do I come in?' she said with a low voice, shutting it out. For now.

'That, my darling,' said Hanaman turning his head, 'is what I can't tell you yet.' He pointed up ahead, to where the trees thinned out sharply. Noksalika could see an expanse of tundra up ahead. 'We should make camp up here.'

It was dark, and surprisingly cold for Summer. They'd ridden hard for days; Noksalika found herself physically and emotionally exhausted, but was kept awake with the hangover of adrenaline and too many thoughts and questions. She shivered in a thin blanket sitting by the embers of the fire they'd cooked with. Hanaman was still awake, along with the two lizardwomen who were keeping watch. The others said very little to her or each other; Noksalika found them all both impressively professional and disturbingly peculiar.

They'd made chit-chat, they'd told what jokes they could. Now there was quiet.

'After this, this whatever,' she waved her hand vaguely from under the blanket, 'I'll be free to go, right?'

Hanaman just smiled for a second. 'Yes, of course.'

'Because I'm going to Rhajallington.'

He raised an eyebrow. 'Still? What's so special about it?'

'Never you mind.'

'Who's your contact?' The question came abruptly, but without ill feeling. 'The one who helped you fake your death?'

'Don't know what you're talking about,' she mumbled automatically. So … he's either not the help Piarowef promised, or he's pretending not to be. She glanced around into the darkness, and caught a curious look from one of the lizardwomen.

'Oh come on.' Hanaman sat up to his full height, which wasn't much. 'You probably wouldn't have the guts to pull something like this on your own, but you definitely don't have the technical knowledge. Someone arranged it all for you like a package holiday, didn't they?'

'I don't know what's in Rhajallington,' she said, half-truthfully. 'And even if I did, I'm afraid it's something I can't reveal at this juncture,' she mocked with an ugly face.

Hanaman sighed, smiling at her for some unknown reason. He poked around at the embers of the fire. The tetranids, Taupua and Taumina – whichever was which – sat spookily without saying anything. They looked like carbon copies of each other sitting on the same log, staring around with big dark eyes, alert.

'So what do the pirates want you for?'

'Huh, apparently – can you believe this – they were taking me to be sacrificed,' she huffed, trying to sound generally unimpressed. 'They mentioned some god, what was the name, Patakochi, Pagochopsky—'


She looked surprised. 'You know who he is?'

'Only vaguely from my university days,' said Hanaman, biting his lip thoughtfully. 'Patogechy. He's part of random folklore and old ideas that have hung around, stuff that the Committees couldn't completely wipe out. He's the grand god of death, I think, carries lots of hourglasses for some reason. And a black cape! Definitely got a black cape. Oh, and he's the god of misfortune. But also of justice and, erm, balance too. I think. Oh and emptiness, there's a lot of that too.'

'What the hell? What else is he the god of, kitchens? Shrubberies?'

'He's like a kind of multi-tasking god,' Hanaman mused, stroking his small beard. 'You know the way people like to bend gods to what they want at a particular time. It depends who you talk to, and what period of history you're looking at.'

'I don't care if he's the god of losing things down the back of the sofa, it's the getting killed part I'm worried about.' She remembered the daily rapings, and the intense stare of the Captain as he'd buried himself inside her. 'And the lack of courtesy on the journey,' she added hazily. She pushed the thoughts away and snapped back to the present. 'I mean, sacrifice? It's more insane than being kidnapped, and that's medieval enough as it is.'

'Don't know,' mused Hanaman, as though he did.

She narrowed her eyes at him. The embers had almost died, she could barely see him now. 'You don't think that and, and Patogechy are to do with – that thing…?'

She couldn't see his face but for a rare moment on the Ethe, Hanaman appeared uncomfortable. 'Do you know what's happening in the far South?' He clicked his tongue, trying to avoid the words. 'Deaths. Lots and lots and lots of people dying. Apparently there's more things like that – that thing we saw.'

Noksalika froze as she remembered Piarowef's words in the ground. ALIENS, he'd written. BARBARIANS IN SOUTH. 'Like … how many people? How many things?'

'Try hundreds of thousands of people, and hordes and hordes of things. It's really fucked up.' He sighed. 'No-one knows what they are or how to fight them. So in answer to your question, are this Patogechy figure and people wanting to sacrifice you connected to that monster thing that nearly killed us? Maybe. Maybe.'

She sat dejected, staring around in the darkness. An owl hooted annoyingly in the near distance. 'I ran away so I'd stop being hassled by people. To stop being … stop being so fucking important to people. And now I'm important to two sets of crazy people.'

In the last light of the orange-red embers, she saw Hanaman move closer to her, pupils wide and shining. 'Sure. But you're important to me too.'

She slept so heavily that she woke up on Hanaman's llama the next morning, sitting upright. She remembered vague, troubling dreams of being thrown around by dancing sacks of potatoes – but this was nothing compared with the glare that wrenched open her eyelids.

'What the…?' she breathed, screwing her eyes up.

Everywhere around her was yellow.

After a few agonised seconds blinking and refusing to accept reality, Noksalika let her eyelids part slightly and tried to focus.

They rode through a giant desert. It wasn't perfectly yellow, but the entire near distance was filled with flat dirty-beige sand, formed in tiny gentle waves; the morning light sang glaringly all around. She watched the llamas' hooves crunching into its surface, leaving a trail of footprints far behind them.

Dozens of miles away, the dunes rolled upwards with the curve of the cavern; in the far distance, brazen red rocks broke through the surface and piled up like chunks of clay.

Noksalika turned in the saddle, and could see grey rocky tundra and a haze of dark trees from where they'd come. They'd covered a lot of ground in barely half a day.

Travel made her feel queasy – not the endless bumping of the llama's tireless steps, which became strangely calming after time. It was more the slow, churning way the landscape changed around her; almost invisible to the eye, but not the gut. They rode hard across the wilderness of intense beige and rich red rocks.

Out in the middle of the sandy plain, they came to the border, marking the end of civilisation.

There was, naturally, a bar.

They pulled up, a suitable place to rest briefly. Noksalika almost fell out of the saddle and landed awkwardly, trying to massage some feeling into her numbed behind. Hanaman's crew swung down expertly and left the llamas obediently standing in formation, blinking at each other.

The rock turned out to be sandstone – a single large piece had been formed into the shape of a long outdoor bar with small tables and chairs. Noksalika noted, wandering through the "furniture" and staring up around at the vast space that surrounded this most peculiar drinking establishment, that the rock was divided perfectly in half – on the far side, it was simply rough, naked, uncarved, unedited rock. The message was simple: here is the Ethe, here it is not.

A mantrel in a white shirt and black trousers stood behind the bar itself, apparently unworried there were no other customers for dozens of miles. He poured a selection of fresh, clean beers for Hanaman and his crew. Noksalika just stood, baffled, before ordering a dry white wine. It vanished down her throat in seconds; another had already appeared by the time she looked back.

'How come you're all having a beer?' she whispered to Hanaman as they sat down, some on the stone chairs, some on tables, some daringly straddled across the exact border itself. 'I thought we were on a mission?'

'It's just a quick stop,' he replied. 'Besides, I pulled them in at short notice, and we've been working hard. It's good for morale.'

'Morale? They don't even speak to each other.'

Hanaman let out a little laugh, and swigged down some thick, dark, flavoursome ale. 'They get in enough verbal chat when you're asleep. And they talk on the Ethe.'

'Speaking of which…' Noksalika murmured, staring at the precise line of savage, untamed rock glinting in the light. 'What happens when we – you know – cross over?'

Hanaman slurped his beer rather uncouthly, leaving a foam moustache. 'Come and try it.'

They walked up to the line, Noksalika carrying her glass.

'Basically, it's off-grid,' explained Hanaman. 'So, while the land still contains the raw Ethe, the infrastructure hasn't been set up here – it can't connect with people's brains. Physically, you won't notice a thing, but mentally … well, we've all done it before, but you might find it a bit of a shock.'

She tentatively waved a leg over the invisible barrier, before breathing in and stepping forward.

She was suddenly naked.

All the thoughts dropped away from her, all the swirling photos and links and memories flashing around in her brain. She suddenly realised how much of herself was online – not just her memories and her history, which belonged to Tarabonitz anyway, but her own identity, her own personality was enmeshed with the system. A great cold, empty wind swept through her, empty of all the words and videos and articles and bullshit of a normal mind.

'Are you okay?' asked Hanaman.

Her brain surged as her biological memories flooded her mind, kicking aside ghostly pixels and taking residence in the empty space left behind. Her biological memories knew who she was.

She was Noksalika Chuunim.

'Yeah,' she said, eyes sparkling. 'Yeah.'

'Great. But as everyone knows, the Ethe is present in all things. So we can still "live off the land", as they say.' He picked up a tiny rock, put it in his mouth and chewed gently. 'Also, you need to remember – this is a land of people who have never used the Ethe, and quite frankly, resent the idea of it. We're not exactly welcome here.'

'Fabulous. Why are we here again?'

'I'll tell you when we're there. Come on, finish your drink.'

They parted as swiftly as they'd arrived, leaving the mantrel bartender cleaning glasses in the middle of nowhere.

The dry yellow of the sand became a vague, dusty brown. They came across small homesteads and villages, then even ramshackle towns. Mantrels performed manual tasks with simple machinery, eyeing them suspiciously – but the looks from Hanaman and his motley comrades were enough to keep them safe from being hassled.

Noksalika had thought the pirates' brazen roughness had come simply from being shameless unwashed seadogs, but now she saw a shade of it in these people – a rough, dignified simplicity. She felt their accusing gazes, as though they knew not only that she was a foreigner, but a fraud as well. She found her fingertips gripping Hanaman's thin clothes instinctively, pressing against him slightly in the saddle.

They gently rode through the wide passages of a large but unremarkable town. She saw mantrel herdswomen drive cattle through the streets. The cows stared at her blankly, with strange elongated snouts she'd never seen before; then again, Noksalika had never seen livestock in an urban area before either. Agriculture mostly happened outside towns and cities, not in them.

'I understand why you guys are wearing beige now,' she mused, looking around at the dull-coloured landscape. Even the buildings and people looked a kind of pale brown-yellow; the lizardwomen's hands and heads stuck out like little floating green creatures.

Hanaman shrugged. 'It's our natural work gear when on operations in this part of the world – no good in the city at all, but out here in the sticks, all you need. Plus they make the girls' tits look nice.'

'I thought you wanted to take me to Thanodolina,' asked Noksalika, smiling to herself behind him.

Hanaman must have sensed over the Ethe that she was amused. 'Oh, I'd love to take a dignified lady like yourself many places,' he joked. 'But things have changed now. I can't rely on my superiors being on my side any more. We'll be okay in boring places like this, but Thanodolina's a big city – too much of a risk now. There's no way I could guarantee your safety.'

They journeyed on, pushing days deeper into Goltangi. The sandy nature of the soil turned seamlessly into dusty brown earth, and they passed through random networks of the brittle reddish rock. The hot, dry environment became hotter and drier, and the mantrel people appeared hardier and even less welcoming – some swore and gestured, others just spat. They travelled as a group, close together.

The sandy caverns and interlocking spaces got smaller and tighter, and the ruddy rock shapes in the land swelled and turned into solid matter that surrounded them all. They were leaving another small village towards a tunnel, watched with the usual contempt by passers-by, when a half-brick sailed through the air past Noksalika's head.

Hanaman instinctively pulled the llama up to a halt, and the crew all stiffened and looked around swiftly. Around the circumference of the tunnel, mantrels of all ages had suddenly gathered and were coming in close; Noksalika saw a girl mantrel no older than five years old snarl at her. Ahead, tough-looking males with sand-worn tattoos and a variety of bladed weapons blocked the road.

'This tunnel leads to only one place,' called the biggest of them, narrow eyes clenched under a shaved, tattooed head. He gripped a worn but a hefty axe in thick fingers. 'You foreigners ain't welcome. You turn round, and you fuck off.'

One mantrel in the crowd yelled 'Witches!', which drew a series of dark murmuring and muttering. Another screamed 'Immigrants!' with particular bile, and this drew a larger response and the waving of fists.

Noksalika was on edge, her teeth grinding with tension, her hands involuntarily gripping Hanaman's small waist. She looked around from one possible threat to another, and noticed the two lizardwomen were particularly alert, eyes fixed wide and unblinking. They were all foreigners from the bad lands of the Ethe, but having green skin made lizardpeople the first targets…

'Enough!' shouted Hanaman defiantly, quelling the noise of the crowd. Noksalika expected him to then say something noble and statesmanlike, but instead heard him say: 'We're not supposed to be here, and – no offence to your stupid desert – we sure as hell don't want to be. But we don't have a choice. We come to see Kingminister Viega.'

'And what makes you think he'll see you?' grunted the lead mantrel. 'Ethe-scum like you?'

'Because I'm his cousin,' Hanaman snarled, drawing the knife from his shirt. The blade glinted in the hot air, and for a second the crowd gasped, being as fond of drama as they were spiteful of foreigners. 'My name is Freegeneral Hanaman rLodo Gidan. I have ministerial blood, and you will let us pass.'

There was frantic muttering in the normally hardy crowd. Steely stares had turned into frantic glances and peering, faces contorted with anger at the confusion they'd been thrown into. The burly tattooed leader held his gaze on Hanaman, until another male mantrel approached and whispered something in his ear. There was a short hushed discussion between them, and they both turned back.

'Fine. If you're no liar, then carry on.' He lowered the axe and relaxed his grip, but remained as others drifted off the path. 'The Kingminister can deal with you himself. If we see you again, you'll have our trust.' He curled his lip, as if that was never going to happen.

Hanaman nodded, and sent a command through the Ethe to the other riders. They trotted carefully forwards around the lone figure, some mantrels still glaring with hatred, before breaking into whatever constituted as a gallop in the world of llamas.

'Except her!' called the lead mantrel. Noksalika turned in the saddle to see his fleshy face sneering directly at her. 'Patogechy fuck your soul.'

They rode onwards, spread out around the full circumference of the tunnel as it twisted and narrowed through the rock.

'You wanted to know exactly where we're going?' shouted Hanaman over his shoulder. She nodded, then shouted 'Yes' over his shoulder, when she remembered there was no Ethe.

'We're going to meet Kingminister Dorstermaand Viega. He's the chief elder of the biggest mantrel clan, and the most respected out of all the tribes in Goltangi. He lives in a hideout, except it's a palace, except it's a temple. Sort of.'

It was a horrifying hour or more before the frozen grip on Noksalika's heart subsided, the threat still ringing around her head again and again. Suddenly the memories of being raped flashed back at her, and she grit her teeth stonily, wet eyes stinging in the hot desert air.

It turned out to be only half a day's ride from the village. The tunnel narrowed and almost closed, only about ten feet across at its mouth; they had to pass through one at a time. Noksalika felt her gut churn as the llama swung over the edge, into…

A spherical space – maybe two hundred feet across or so. At first, it appeared to be just a naturally-occurring bubble in the rock, with dozens of small holes dotted around its surface. But the holes were laid out in lines like a grid, and a closer look revealed carvings surrounding each one, grand ancient carvings worn gently by centuries. A slight breeze on their cheeks showed the air was swirling slowly in and out of the holes.

Without a word, the crew dismounted swiftly and looked around, taking quiet steps in the still space.

'So this is it?' Noksalika swung her right leg over the llama's back and fell to the ground with the same useless lack of grace she exhibited every time. She craned her neck and looked around the age-old passage entrances, unimpressed. 'Looks like archaeology, not some kind of palace. Are you trying to tell me—'

Two inches from her foot, a crossbow bolt shattered.

Continue to Chapter 7 -->

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NO LIES by Jez Kemp