Vellius felt like a shelf, sometimes.
Well, most of the time. At least half the time. He was a shelf for papers, mostly. Occasionally heavy objects, in the rare circumstance that Master Mintay actually needed something heavy moved, but couldn’t be bothered to let the Menagerie handle it. When Vellius was a shelf for books it was a nice mix of paper and weight that let him exercise the two core focuses of his training. Carrying heavy things. Carrying books. There was plenty of practice, then, for being introduced to carrying new objects, keeping them at slightly higher than floor level for extended periods of time. At the moment that object was a large rodent.
Those with an aversion to rodents would likely be upset by this particular task. Vellius had no such aversion. He did not take offense to rodents themselves, though certain breeds with their pinkish, writhing fleshy tails reminded him of his old job, and made him quite happy to be holding the furry, sedate bundle. Its luxurious brown fur was glossy with freshly washed shine, carefully groomed so that it all flowed in one direction like a chocolate river. The creature’s expression of calm majesty was only compounded by the fact it wore a small amount of cloth barding, like a warhorse dressed for ceremony. The barding was the sort of deep blue that had been eyeing the side of the spectrum labeled ‘black’ but hadn’t quite worked up the boldness to jump the gap. A pattern of grape leaves in ivory adorned its flanks. At least it had no tail.
“Capybara.” Master Mintay had said, as though the single word would explain everything. That had been early on, when Vellius was still new to the whole program. “All the other ones are extinct, as far as I know. Vale may have one in reserve. I have not bothered to check.” Vellius, younger as he was, imagined the rodent had given him a long look of world-weary disappointment. Which was ridiculous, of course. It was a pet. “Its name is Coal. If it has any needs, you will handle them.”
“Is it a he or a she, sir?”
Master Mintay had responded with a shrug, and Vellius, when he had taken the opportunity to check in his master’s absence had been rather painfully bit. The creature’s teeth, though flat rather than pointed, were not insubstantial. Vellius concerned himself instead with keeping it fed (the staff had been appraised of its diet and it apparently had a private menu) and making certain its linens were placed in the wash when they got too covered in long hairs. As near as he knew, the creature had no bowel movements to speak of, and therefore required no strict cleaning up after. It also, Vellius suspected, had been trained to wash itself, and one of the staff confirmed that she had been instructed to draw a bath at a specific time each week, to one-quarter height of Master Mintay’s private porcelain tub, and to empty it an hour later without comment.
It had been trained well. Vellius’ curiosity about its behavior had ended suddenly one day, however, when upon attempting to follow it (to see if it was actually bathing itself), Vellius turned a corner to find the rodent staring at him, its large, dark eyes fixed on his until he had backed, uncertainly, out of the room.
So there was an awkwardness to holding the capybara as he now did. It had given him a look of disappointment (how was this thing so expressive?) as it had settled into his arms. Master Mintay had given his final instructions then. “I know you have experience here, including dealing with the creature yourself, but if it addresses you, you are to remain silent.” Vellius nodded his understanding and the…administrator (Wizard? Politician? Lord?) continued. “Likewise, do not address anyone you see within, regardless of whether you remember them. They may remember you, but they are not who you believe them to be.”
“Why are we here, Master Mintay?” Vellius wasn’t traditionally bold enough to ask questions like that, especially because the master’s answers, if they even came, were meandering and Socratic enough to make one want to punch the man, which was at the very least a career ending decision.
In the rarest of circumstances, however, the master would do what he now did, grinning in the limited light of the tunnels beneath Brise. This state came over the man infrequently. Vellius had only seen it a handful of times. After fights with the Dreamer, or when exiting the Binding Chambers after being within their soundproofed walls for a day and a half, or when they visited the Vaults, long after when Vellius and Tanner had made their trip. Though the master had not emerged from the vaults…happy. At the moment, however, his grin flirted with madness.
“We are going to raise the dead.”
Wizard, then. The master was definitely being a wizard today. This was a ceremony. Diplomatic contact with a monster. The worst of all monsters. Master Mintay adjusted his gloves, placing both hands on the thick, steel door (locks on the outside, Vellius noted) and shoved.
Golden light flooded into the tunnel, reflected off a dome of shifting coins, an army of torches. The dozens of robed individuals, blank-faced and blind to the wealth they walked upon, froze as wizard and apprentice entered the chamber. A voice vibrated the walls as it spoke from beneath the gold, which shifted and spilled as it rose. “Conjurer of the Obsidian Cage…” Master Mintay’s athamé was already out, the narrow silver blade held horizontally before him as though it would be some good against what stirred below.
“I have come to make an offering, Nezket.” the wizard said.
“I have no more need of this world’s gold…” came the voice again. The vibration it caused was unnatural, leaving a pain in the teeth and throbbing in the ears. Vellius much preferred the voice of the dragon. He tried not to look down, all too aware of what was moving below.
“I do not offer gold, Nezket.” Ondras used the name again. Did it have some power? He often directly addressed servants by name, especially those he summoned with magic.
The shifting in the piles of gold had now become a roil, and pieces of what was rising became more apparent. First, the segmented, pinkish limbs that spread like giant worms out across the surface, writhing as they sought purchase on the walls and pillars of the chamber. The servants of this creature knew their place, standing calmly against the outer walls, the passing of a disgusting, fleshy tendril barely ruffling their electric blue hair. Ondras straightened himself as the body of the creature, round and fleshy, tinted with the pale rust of its once-glossy chitinous armor, emerged from its trove.
“What have you brought, then, Conjurer?” Vellius’ old master asked his new.
“Flesh.” the wizard said, and with a gesture ushered in his other servant, and the corpse it carried. “Stronger than any before.”
Vellius had seen the Old Master eat once before. He turned his head away.
Ondras and the rodent looked on, unfazed.