The Eight Crimes of The Iconodules

Cult

With a screech of wooden legs dragging across wooden floor, a dresser slammed into the front door of the dormitory-like building, one of the legs snapping as it reached the end of its journey, the entire cabinet, still filled with cloth and boots, leaned heavily on the door. A bench followed with a slam, then a table, three chairs, another bench. Someone approached the pile with a hammer and nails, tearing pieces off of it to hammer them into the adjacent walls. The mood in the room was tense, but there was an attempt at levity.

“Does this count as willful destruction?” One of the black-clad young woman asked.

Another grinned at her in a flash of teeth. “I wonder if they’ll punish themselves for breaking it?” A table soared over their heads, and the two women ducked and covered, backing away from the barricade in brisk retreat as another table, this time their heavy dining table, came down in front of the two windows that were the only other entrance to the street outside. A broad shoulder slammed into it, shoving the entire thing against the windows. The hammer came next, bolting it there with nails.

The cult was riding high on the adrenalin of knowing the moment they had prepared for was coming. The City was coming. William had said so. He had said almost nothing else, except to the Sirens. Their Chosen had retreated into the gardens to prepare. Not one of them had seen him for hours.

They knew, however, in that roundabout way that cultists knew anything, that they had not been abandoned. What point was there in actually saying that Melodia was always with them? If they doubted, they merely needed to ask the sirens to offer another song. But they, too, had retreated into the garden. That sense of nervous anticipation was only heightened by having all those that were closest to her in one place. Maybe she would come herself? It seemed like the time. Everything seemed like it was right.

And in the garden, William prepared.

It was a place that he had requested grown as he remembered it. They had cleared, disassembled another building that stood there and converted or removed its inhabitants. The lot had been clear once, after all, before foundations were laid to make room for more people and fewer sculptures. He had found them buried there. He had unearthed the first with his own hands and directed the believers to find the others. One by one, Melodia’s art had resurfaced. He had struggled to find words for them, and they had watched for the days it took of him wandering among the fresh plants and touching each of the statues in turn to name what they were.

“Sacred.” was the word, and they repeated it in silence. It felt powerful, illicit. A secret that only they shared. And the pulse that followed now grew in the garden. It was a beacon, something that they gathered around and tended in groups or alone. The statues and their garden were sacred. They were a special place, important to William, important to Melodia.

The City had a temple again and its agents would be here soon to defile it.

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The Museum, Part Two

The dwarf in black entered the museum, and the scout followed.

It was, of course, a less momentous occasion than the previous sentence may suggest. The dwarf was, for instance, wearing glasses, which took away much of the solemnity of his all-black garb. So too did the small steel board that he carried, covered in papers, add to his considerably more bureaucratic than villainous appearance. For years the scout would wonder how those two things ended up growing so close together. The scout, despite acting in an official capacity, was on a tour. A tour of a supposedly independent city. Dwarves had always been, historically speaking, slow to adapt. For instance, this concept of ‘two cities’ was absolutely insane. Twenty years ago, maybe. Now? Crazy. Just crazy. Still, she smiled and nodded, acting the diplomat she had been assigned to be as she was taught history like a child, even the parts she had been alive for.

“The time before the Edge was marked as a period of cataclysmic upheval.” the dwarf told her. She smiled. It wasn’t an appropriate response for the subject matter, but it was keeping her face from breaking into a massive roll of the eyes and a sigh, the likes of which her teenage self, now decades dead, would have been impressed by. The dwarf looked her expression over carefully, and after a pause to make certain she was completely bored, continued down the row of displays. The scout clicked after him, the shining black of her boots and the leathers of her outfit well out of place in the cavern-home the dwarves had dug beneath the earth. How did they always find hollow spaces? She wondered. They had to dump all that rock somewhere. She knew she was out of place down here, even with the strange black and white vision her necklace gave her, or the official permission to act as a representative of the city, that crisp paper folded in her pocket.

“Diplomat.” had been her cover, but “Scout” was really her profession, and her mind had little patience for being told what was happening, either now or in the past. She wanted to see it. Wanted something worth looking at. Circumstance provided, of course, as it always did. “…which lead to the creation of the Deep Bore, with the end of natural caverns and trade cut off for the most part with the citizens of the orc fortresses in the region now called Kelasho-…”

“The what?” the scout asked, sharply stopping her instructor, tilting her head in almost avian curiosity.

“Kelasho? It’s a district in-”

She waved a hand to silence him. Probably not a diplomatic gesture, but she wasn’t a diplomat. “No, no. The first part. What bore?”

“The Deep Bore is a project I’m afraid we can’t take you to see. Too dangerous. We have completed a tunnel to the Edge, where it exists far beneath the surface. If you’d like, the memorial exhibit for those miners who gave their lives in the discovery of-”

When the scout cut him off this time, the dwarf seemed genuinely annoyed. Not being interested in history was one thing. Not being interested in memorials was a dwarven high crime. What were they without their ancestors, after all? The scout would’ve had an answer for that, borrowed from a friend, but now wasn’t the time. “You dug to the Edge? You reached it?” she asked, the questions becoming pointed, more like an investigator who had discovered a crime. This confused the dwarf.

“Yes, the project has been complete for months now. Work still continues to perform experiments, but I am told that some promising-”

“Oh sweet Idols you are all fucking dead.” Aris Gammond said, holding the top of her head with one hand, crushing her hair between her fingers in exasperation. “He’s going to be furious.” Again, probably not diplomatic. But she wasn’t a diplomat.

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The Museum, Part One

The Inspectors gathered in the Museum of the Old World.

The place almost seemed like a gift given all the lies they had been dealt. A curated experience that could show them some aspect of the world that they had missed, or that they had forgotten. It took three of them to open the door, throwing their weight against it until Refay, muscle bulging, dug in her claws and shattered the mechanism that was holding it closed, causing a sifting pile of abandoned dirt and dust to cascade over the front of the old, stone door. She wrenched it open and settled back, letting another go first. It didn’t seem like it was for her, whatever could be held within. Refay felt like that a lot. She blinked slowly at the rest of the Inspectors, her eyes strange and reflective in the glow of magical lights, which swung one by one on necks and belts as they shuffled inside.

Uta’s shining boots seemed similarly out of place as she entered first, slipping inside with all the caution she favored, moving along walls and gingerly touching stones, not believing that just because the place was abandoned meant that it was safe. The rest of the Bitter Trench had been filed with terrors, and this place was likely no exception. But, unlike the rest of the Trench, this Museum was dry. It had not experienced the flooding that the rest of the Trench had, nor the damage from explosive blasts of water. Her eyes flickered from shadow to shadow, starting from the floor up, reconstructing what had happened in her quiet. Outside she could hear the Inspectors shift impatiently, holding back their thoughts until she had given the all-clear.

The foyer was the entryway, she deduced, and she said as much to the others when she emerged from the dark, beckoning them inside. There were things they had to see. First, there was the mural.

It was made of a thousand, thousand tiles. Assembled into mortar and plaster by a steady hand over the course of what must have been years, the colored chips combining to form dwarves, tunnels, cities, a glittering place of mountains and rolling, alien grasses that could only be called the surface of the Old World. They wove together to tell a story. Evenria blinked in surprise when she recognized the language and, thereafter taking on an affect of disinterest, narrated the journey of those dwarves with the steady words of someone who had done her fair share of reading aloud to an audience. ""The People, where they spread through the Old World, were, like us, inhabitants of underground homes, prone to exploration and excavation. Our people explored the distant truths of the past and the more contemporary virtues of wealth and fine living, aided always by the vast riches and shelter provided by-" Evenria stopped, and her gloved hand reached out to run across smooth stone where the script had stopped. Water had scoured it away, a hundred years of erosion in an instant, propelled by some arcane, unimaginable pressure. Anis’ professional opinion was that someone must really have hated what was written there. Where the Inspectors had asked for arcane analysis they instead got a glimmer of possible motivation. And, in Inspector Shor’s inexplicable way, it was still somehow insightful. Someone had defaced this place, and had done so with surgical censorship. Naturally this blossomed into a vast conspiracy that the rest of the Inspectors tuned out. The Museum continued to beckon.

The foyer opened up with statuary and armory, much of which turned out to be missing vital pieces or damaged beyond repair. Names had been struck, recognizable faces had been shattered by the hydraulic power of whatever had swept through. They picked bits and pieces from the mess. Lin stood a long time before a glossy, obsidian tile that represented the Edge in all its horror. It was a sheet of stone, lovingly polished a long time ago and retaining much of its light-drinking luster. Before it dwarves fled, upward and inward. An etched inscription below had not been defiled. But nor had the tile itself. It was hard to deface a wall for being a wall, after all. Evenria offered translation helpfully without prompting, though it was in her own circuit around the room that she did so, almost as a public service. “The advent of the Edge and the Migration brought many hardships, and we must not forget that there was a better era. This does not mean that we should always strive for the return of the past. From the past we can learn, and dwarves can forge a purpose out of any conditions, even the most dire. We must not allow ourselves to lose hope, no matter how much the New World tests us.” She spoke into the relative silence only full of the shuffling of boots. The rhetoric was a far cry from the broken Copperhome that had sent them.

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The Unwholesome Destinies of Neval Tarsus

To Neval・Tarsus, the world had scarcely consisted of anything but a house, a hill, and the rolling miles of ocean. All three of these things had, at least to her mind, always been. She knew as well, in the roundabout way that she knew most things of the world outside, that her house, built on the hill over the ocean, would stand nearly until the world ended. The tides were not quite as fast as the apocalypse these days, but they had been around much, much longer, and they had their last chance now to lap at the ankle of disintegrating earth and desperate, doomed grasses that comprised the hill. There was a tree, too, but it had long since dried and its roots had lost all strength and there was little reason to mention it. Neval・often felt for it in that regard. “The house will be yours.” her mother had said, “But not forever.”

“When will it be given to me?” Neval・asked, hands busy with the work of weaving, not really understanding what she was doing, but enjoying the patterns of no consequence as her mother watched. She had been so young, then, that she was not even bothered by the answer.

“When I am dead.” was what her mother had said, and Neval・had known it to be true.

It was not just the two of them in that house, either. Elsewhere, often in the world outside, were her father and brother, who worked to give them some comfort in this life. Their work was that which might be expected of men by a dying sea. They fished and sifted through whatever washed up from below the waters, which grew darker and more unfriendly by the day, even beneath the cloudless sky. Sometimes Neval would step out onto the cliffs by the house and watch them moving among the wood and stone that washed up more each day, burying the bodies that came with it and offering only the briefest of words for the unknown departed. Neval didn’t wonder what had happened to them. Not everyone was willing to live on the docks. She was a bit older, then, but the knowledge still did not bother her.

It did not bother her in the way that knowing what lay beyond the horizon did not bother her. It did not bother her in the way knowing that the sky was a lie did not bother her. It was all she had known, after all. And when she cared to, she knew all that she wanted. But the cares of a child were mild, and she had already seen that she could not change the world. It is beyond the power of a child, after all, and would be beyond the power of the adult she would become. So she did not concern herself. What point was there to railing against an existence that she did not ask for? It had not asked for her, either. The world and her were complete in their apathy of each other. Neval wondered if that was why she knew things. Maybe the secret of knowing without knowing, that so many had quested for in this world and the world that came before, was simply not caring about the answers.

Instead Neval cared about colors. She walked out on the cliffs and the scrubby things that grew there, dug in the sand and mud as she grew older. She ground down clay and flower and squeezed ink out of creatures that had also never asked for her, and from all them she had found color. She used the color to show the world what was coming and what had been. She saw those that would see what she made, and was happy. At least she was sharing with someone, even if they would never meet. There was some peace in that. She worked on her paintings even through the day that her mother would die, only going downstairs long enough to comfort her, though they both knew what was coming. “Goodbye.” was all that Neval before that long silence. "I will see you again, before we are all freed. Neval wasn’t sure why she said it. She knew what her mother’s answer would be, after all.

“I know.” her mother said. She died some time in that hour, as Neval cleaned clothing and thought about colors, leaving her alone with her father and brother, who would, stricken with grief, pick to fall into fugue and drink respectively. The last peaceful conversation she would have with either of them had come and gone a month ago, Neval knew. Knowing didn’t make her happy, but little did except painting. So she painted. She produced pictures of monsters and heroes that were not yet heroes, and the people they would become, sagging with knowledge and dragging themselves through a world that didn’t ask for them. But it needed them. It wasn’t really much without them. They wouldn’t be happy to know that. But who was, really?
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The Black Halberd

Lieutenant Percival only saw it once.

His back was against a stone wall. Familiar Periad stone, familiar Periad streets. Percival had not made a lifetime of stealth, but his ancestors had, and that was serving him well at the moment. His calm eyes narrowed slightly behind his slightly upset hair. The familar stones were shaking. What slipped through the streets ahead was larger than he had any idea how to confront. He didn’t panic, of course. The concept would’ve been alien. Part of him did wonder where the new hire was, but she wasn’t even assigned to this corner of the district, and even at her considerable land speed (when using all four limbs), Percival doubted she could handle this.

But the Captain was here.

Admittedly he wasn’t doing much better. Captain Kelling had his back up against the wall across the street, flattening himself as the creature trashed its way across the intersection of Dart and Uriel. Its path of destruction had started in the soft dirt under the Stilts and made its way progressively southeast. “It’s probably seeking water.” Anis had said at the time, completely unhelpfully. “I don’t know any spells that could help with something of that size.” She was remarkably matter-of-fact about her own usefulness. Captain said he would handle it. Percival followed, wholly cognizant of the uselessness of his own spear, because duty demanded nothing less.

Now here they were, a pair of old souls who had spent most of the afternoon chasing something ten times their size while wearing full metal armor. Captain Kelling, whose great misfortune was to be born human, was covered in sweat. Percival had merely temporarily lost control of his bangs which, he took a moment to notice, would need to be cut if he survived.

The creature at the intersection rolled towards another residence, trying to burrow underground through the stone of Periad’s streets in desperate, writhing motions. It failed, and took out its frustration on the suddenly-fragile stone walls. “Captain?” Percival asked. He didn’t need to say much more. They had done all their communicating long ago. The men understood each other.

“I know. I called for help. Just waiting on it now.” Kelling responded, watching the sky.

“We can’t wait.” Percival said. People were fleeing nearby buildings, taking to the streets or basements to escape. The ones in the basements were probably making the wrong choice. “If it comes down to them or us…”

It wasn’t a question. It wasn’t even a reminder. It was just a statement of fact. If it came down to either of them or the life of a single citizen of Periad.

The two paladins stood, stepping out around their respective corners into the street. Kelling shouted something, but Percival was unfamiliar with the language. The old weather vane that the Captain carried was hurled, carried aloft by the Idol’s will. It sunk into the worm’s hide, causing it to immediately change direction. The monster’s movements still struck out randomly at buildings on either side of the street, but now the wall of purple scale and meat was heading for them. Percival glanced to Kelling, now unarmed. Kelling was still watching the sky. This didn’t seem like the time for that.

Until that same sky disgorged death.

Percival would later recall seeing some flying creature well above. Strange, of course, for its height. Usually creatures that high are forced down by the laws concerning the walls. What was dropped, though, was far worse than either the monster above or the one before them.

It struck the ground with remarkable force. At first it seemed to wedge itself between two cobblestones, until Percival realized that neither stone had been parted before that moment, and the smooth rift between them was caused entirely by the Black Halberd. Kelling strode forward, his gauntlet closing around the weapon’s ebony haft, pulling it from the stone and settling the weapon on one shoulder, his stance comfortable and familiar with the weight of it. The entire weapon was black. The haft was ebon, the metal was black iron, the blade was obsidian, curving with razored scallops. There was no color to it, a trait which Percival found familiar somehow.

But never frightening.

Percival scarcely remembered the battle that followed. When the time came that he would become Captain Leroux, and wonder at what happened to his friend, he would return to the corner of Dart and Uriel, where the Captain’s weapon had left perfect, almost melted grooves in the stones of the building and street. Sometimes, Captain Leroux would run his hands along them and remember.

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Copperhome

“…and not while you have those damned bells!”

It was the consideration of Aris Gammond that dwarves liked to punctuate points by hitting things. There had been, for a diplomatic meeting, quite a bit of physical violence compared to what she was used to during such proceedings. Usually there was none at all, or the entire thing had devolved into a fight by this point. Instead, the violence kept appearing, but it was always directed at objects rather than people. Aris wondered if this was merely the dwarven way of making sure their surroundings were stable. She would certainly want to check on a regular basis if she lived underground.

Aris righted her goblet before responding, hoping the care with which she did so would instill some shame in the dwarf. It did not. “I understand. You aren’t the first to raise these objections. That demand isn’t easy to reconcile. The orcs, for one…”

“Should be slaughtered while you have them all stunned, like anyone with a lick of sense would do. Y’recognize they’re a problem, and you refuse to act on it.” The dwarf’s surname was Feldspar. First name…Akar-something? Mentally, Aris just thought of him as Whitebeard. She wasn’t totally sure his beard was white, mind you, but Darkvision did strange things to people that were used to light.

“A poignant point and one that you could certainly express just as well in Council in Brise. We are more than willing to move a sizable proportion of your nobility…”

“Yeah, the ones you pick? The ones you think’ll cause the least trouble?” Whitebeard asked, his eyes narrowing as his expression crunched inward. It was like the entirety of his face was trying to implode. Or perhaps hide behind his copious facial hair.

Damn dwarf was shrewd. Yes, that was exactly it. “Ridiculous. We just have limited space-”

“Because you’re sharing it with monsters. Listen, tart…” It was Aris’ turn to have her expression sour. She made only brief attempt to hide it. “You promised this was going to be a trade meeting, not another one of your damned attempts to drag us into your prison.”

Annoyingly shrewd. Aris felt Navion stir behind her and waved him off, only glancing behind herself long enough to see him shrug and turn away. This was as much information gathering as it was diplomacy. “Nobody is trying to imprison anyone, mister…Feldspar.” Damned if she couldn’t remember his name. “We’re trying to minimize casualties from the migration. You aren’t exactly working with us.”

She referred, of course, to the catapults. Siege weaponry was one of the first things being outlawed by the fledgling councils of Brise. What was the point of destroying the last building materials the world would ever see? What would be the point of uniting in the face of a last, great threat if anyone could just end that threat with a few iron-clad flaming balls of pitch? The City couldn’t endure another fire. Not after the last two.

Whitebeard nodded his head. “Listen, that’s because whatever nation you’re representing, girl, you’re not our allies, formal or otherwise.”

“Because you won’t…”

“I said listen. You’ve come here five times to ask us to give up weapons, move around, give you control over where we make our homes. When you weren’t given that control, you took it with your bells and walls. I don’t know why we’d capitulate for a second to your demands if this is how you do your discussing.” Whitebeard was angry. That was something. He paused for a moment to catch his breath. He was old too. Aris knew she’d outlive him. Knew it. It was a strange thought every time it came up. Could even grow to be as old as Nav.

“You’re listing your own reasons as to why you should capitulate, sir.” She had fallen back on ‘sir’, now, having run out of polite ways of addressing the dwarf.. “We’re trying to give you the way that you can carry on your way of life with a minimum of trouble. The world needs to change if you want to survive in peace with the rest of us. That means no more sieges, no more isolation, and no more slaughtering your ancestral enemies just because you’ve done it forever.”

“Wrong, lass. We don’t have to change. Never have. Don’t need to join just because you’re putting pressure on. You know what pressure does to my people?” Whitebeard said. Aris wondered briefly how she had gotten so far without some sort of geological metaphor. “We just get tougher.” And the metaphor fell flat on its face. Navion looked at the ceiling, trying not to smile. Okay, maybe he won this one. They’d use his plan.

“Fine.” Aris said, standing. Behind her, Navion’s fingers snapped, the noise travelling unnaturally, as though it were a mosquito hum which buzzed past their ears and up the tunnels. “Then I don’t think we need to move on to trade agreements.” She ignored the instant flash of anger across the dwarf’s features. Her fingers slipped inside her belt pouch, drawing out a single flask of gray substance, sighing as the memory of its taste invaded her thoughts.

Whitebeard scowled at the potion. His guards, who looked to be his sons, lowered their halberds, taking a few steps.

In concert, Gammond and Dran’amir threw back their heads, downing the foul substance as the first note of the Peace Bells rang across the world.

Strangely, what stood out most to Aris on that day was not the re-location or sabotage or rout. It was the fact that she never could remember his name.

Which seemed fair, because he had never seemed to figure out hers either.

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Fireside

“How often are you wrong?”

Then question, when it came, had paralyzed Ondras.

His mind, as it always did, blossomed with fractal possibility. It was being asked because he had done something wrong? Improbable. A flicker of irony in that response to his own question. The reason behind the question was unimportant? No. It was certainly important. Ondras received so few questions like this. And the nature of the question! It played to his arrogance (admitted), his competence (vital) and even picked at the extent of his memory. What possible reaction to such a question was there other than to be impressed by the questioner? He was trapped in an instant, in social fabric that he had, moments before, manipulated with little more than a few commands.

Outside Ondras’ mind, another few seconds ticked by.

A social response was expected, certainly. A joke would deflect the question, but then Ondras would possibly lose respect, and that conflated too easily with competence. It was vital that he was viewed, at all times and places, as competent. But answering the question honestly gave that away instantly. Lie, then? What gain was there in lying? He hardly needed the practice.

Ondras scratched the beginnings of a beard, setting his face in wizardly stoicism as he stared into the wood fire. The scene would have had quiet dignity had Aris not been snoring nearby. The other’s face was unreadable, flat and expressionless. He certainly never had to trade a falsehood for a moment’s compliance.

Higher processes analyzed lower ones. Why was he delaying? Why hadn’t he produced a solution to a simple question yet? Fear, something said. Then, after another second’s thought, it added: Fear of being strange. Impossible. Ondras thought he had outgrown that. Apparently not. And there was the truth: if he spoke truth to this question, he feared he would be found as strange.

Then again, this was the company for it, no? And the time, he supposed.

The full ten seconds he had given himself to consider the question having passed, Ondras moved on to his response. “Not often.”

“Don’t pretend you don’t have a number for me.”

“Approximately two out of every hundred educated guesses are fundamentally flawed because of something I didn’t know over overlooked.”

“Nice of you to bundle an excuse in the answer. What’s the split between those two? Usually overlooked? Usually didn’t know?”

“The unknown does more damage than my distraction.”

“When do you overlook things?”

So it was a question of competence. “When I am distracted, the same as any man.”

There was the dismissive snort. “‘The same as any man’.” echoed back to Ondras, and with it the full weight of his alienation. Their alienation. “Not sure any of us would be cut for this if that were the case. You distracted now, conjurer?”

“Yes.”

“By what?”

“The unknown.”

“Not just being ironic there, are you?”

“I wish.”

“Lots of wishing going on these days.”

The two of them sat in silence a while longer. The fire burned down, but Ondras’ companion grabbed a fresh log with one hand and threw it onto the fire, ignoring the sparks that splashed back.

“It’s got to be done.” said the First Iconodule. “I suspect you just want to see if it’s possible, though.”

Ondras nodded his assent.

But how did he know?

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The Old Master

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.

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Ymaka

It was generally quiet in the small compound that was attached to Dramanaks’ council halls. Once, ostensibly, this building had been a stable. Horses had fallen out of use with all but the most terribly rich (that is to say nearly every Councilor but Iso and Sariya. It wasn’t hard to convert the building into something that the Hunters were used to. They were, after all, products of Rast, which was not a place that put great emphasis on comfort. Quite the opposite, usually.

The hunters worked (that is to say, slept and did little else) out of the building. Ymaka had, tactically, selected the room farthest from the entrance. This was half to give herself plenty of warning and half to inconvenience anyone that bothered to come looking for her. Ymaka did not like to be disturbed.

Heavy footfall on the wooden planks of the hallway outside implied she was about to be.

It was Emanuel Shavrem that opened the door, which explained how someone who walked that loudly got past the mercenaries she had hired to secure the door. Ymaka straightened her mask as she looked up. It tended to slip when she was alone. Probably some metaphorical thing.

“Your lantern is lit, Shavrem. Official business, then?” Yamata asked, trying to be nonchalant. Eman was smiling, and that alone gave her some pause. Normally he was so…unhappy. She could understand it. Ymaka certainly didn’t want his job. “I am not going to give you your quickfire back, if that’s why you’re here.”

“It isn’t. New orders.” he shot back, brandishing a sheaf of papers. The stationary was Brise. Dramanaks had difficulty keeping paper so crisp and white.

“For you?”

“Yes.”

“Nice of you to share.” she said, sarcasm evident even with her mask. “But what you watchmen are doing doesn’t concern our work here, except so far as you stay out of it.”

“Yeah, I know.” Shavrem said, stepping into the room and dropping the papers onto her work. The small pile of bones she was carefully marking with her symbols, damned if she knew where she learned them, was scattered. Ymaka recognized the aggression was just to unnerve her and took the letters in her gloved hand, leaning back to read them.

After a few minutes she looked up. Eman couldn’t make out any anger in her features. The mask, and all, but he could certainy hypothesize. “You are going to get my people killed.” she said.

“Better than all the citizens that have gone missing while this problem has gone unresolved.”

“Don’t pretend to understand what it is we do.” Ymaka’s words took on a dangerous edge. “You realize he isn’t giving permission for any of your people to be briefed. You’ll still be in the dark.”

“I’ll take what I can get.”

“Fine, send two of them down here whenever pleases you. Try to make sure they’re not idiots.” she said, handing the letters back. “And I’ll be writing letters of my own to encourage this interference to end, and that you do the same.”

“You saw why his mind changed, right?” Eman said. He was still in the room. It was growing harder for Ymaka to not attack him. He probably didn’t deserve it, of course, but who did deserve what they got?

“No.”

“Because you confiscated the quickfire. You may be trusted to handle matters sensitive to this city, Ymaka. I’m trusted to keep the people of this district alive. Keep that in mind before you complain about interference again.”

“I will.” She smiled, knowing he couldn’t see it, and watched the watchman stomp his way back down the hall and into his district. The smile fell the moment he was gone. She knew enforcing the council’s decision was a mistake, but it had to be done. It was on their welcome that she was even there.

It was cliche to complain about politics ruining everything, but Ymaka certainly felt like that was the case here.

With a sigh, she returned to carving her bones, dusting the etchings with silver and running a gloved hand along the patterns. They reminded her of something, but that part of her was locked away now. Broken by Rast’s conditioning. She didn’t mind. It was undoubtedly better this way.

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William

The one-time friend walked among the Sirens, but did not listen to their songs.

It was their home that he strode through, unafraid. What looks they gave him were furitive and uncertain. His fingers trailed along the old furniture, leather gloves gathering up dust and splinters. It was not as clean as he remembered. It was not the same. His dark gaze caught one of the Sirens full on, and what she saw there had her recoil, and his gloved hand closed in a fist. He would not judge them, though, whatever mistakes they may make. Sirens did not understand. They knew he was special, but not why. They did not know that he had been like them once, before chum hit the streets and he drowned in sharks.

Animals, all of them.

What else could you call creatures that didn’t understand?

To him it was crisp and clear. Her voice did not command anymore. He couldn’t hear her words. Perhaps she had grown weak, or he had travelled too far, or something else blocked the song. It didn’t matter. So long as a beat, he would follow it. He saw the Sirens experiment, saw how they could lure others with fragments of the song that they heard clearly only in dreams. Those souls gathered here, in dust and refuse, and embraced the miracles, if not the song. There was nobody left that understood the way she could grip your soul and the rightness of being tugged towards a greater purpose. She could show you perfection.

“The best souls…” she had said, not long before the sharks came. William did not remember how it ended. It seemed less important, now. He remembered a time when she was younger, and it was just the few of them that would listen, and she spoke about merely people, not souls. Somewhere in the process of what she was and what she was becoming she outgrew all that. Saw something deeper. It lay at the center of everything, she said. “I have told you this many times, but you never remember.”

And he didn’t.

William paused in the battered place he called home, looking at the feeble souls that looked to him as though he was Her. They couldn’t be more wrong. He was a sliver of what she had shown them. Once, he tried to tell the Sirens what the world was really like. They only nodded, and waited for the song. It was addiction, shelter, comfort. They were cold or confused or fearful, and it was the suggestion of her that made them whole. He offered them something more, but they did not accept, so he grew silent, and they began to create their own truths. “This is what she looked like.” they said, gathering around the statues and relics they had, which were pale imitations. “This is what she sang.” they would say, and sing.

Which is why William was fleeing the room, ears shut tight against the mockery.

Outside, in the cold night air, he stood on the balcony, looking out over the wooden roofs of Dramanaks. Lanterns burned oil brightly in the distance on balconies and porches. People moved in the streets now. There were sources of clean water, even if they were being controlled. People had grown used to burning their friends. Fear of his plagues was waning. The City would not cave to his demands. Leather fingers wrapped around the banister and he leaned forward, slamming the door behind him shut with a sharp kick. The Sirens faltered in their song, but took it up again soon after.

She would never have faltered.

William wanted to listen to The City. That was always where he heard her voice. His gaze wandered upward, away from the glow of the night and towards the black dome of the sky. The song came soon after, hinting at things that were long gone. A thousand lights. A sphere that made the oceans roil rather than ripple. He heard them in the rise of the notes. He knew she listened as well as sang, so he spoke. There had been a word for what he did, once, but it had died.

“I don’t know what to do.” he confessed, and the song quieted, listening rather than dying. “We have not broken them.”

“Many souls have tried to break this city.” Her answer was emphermeral, barely there at all, but she lived. His heart lifted. No news, however grim, was suffering when it was her voice that spoke it.

“What do I need to do? I want them to release you. I want to see you again.” He tried to make it not sound like pleading, but it was.

“You’ll see me again.”

“When?”

She did not answer for a time.

“William, you have done well.” The relief that flooded him was immense. He was glad he held the banister, sinking down to crouch, nearly kneeling as his eyes once again turned skyward. “You cannot free me from there.”

“Then why do I linger? Where must I go?”

“Nowhere. You will not free me.” As quickly as his elation had come, it fled. William felt like he may collapse. He couldn’t manage the words to ask her what she meant. “There is another that will.”

“Who?” His voice cracked.

“You had a friend, once, William. I did too.”

The one-time friend shut his eyes, trying not to remember Rast and failing. “The bells took him.” he explained. “I have seen him once. He is gone.”

“No.” the song said, and its melody carried him to his feet, looking once again over the city. Her voice gave lyrics to the tune as it guided his gaze southeast, towards the glow of the Clean Zone.

“He is here.” Melodia said.

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