Ventus – Day 15 of 135


Armiger tried to open his eyes. Something had changed. Deep within him, all his voices still mourned. But something had pulled him back into this body, where he had never expected to return.

His eyes wouldn’t open completely. The lids were drying to stiff leather, and the orbs beneath had shriveled. All he saw was ruined blackness. He was still in his niche, closed in on all sides with stone, as was proper. His neighbors were the dead, and he should feel kinship with them now. He was also dead.

Life to him had been so much more than this one body, that its own survival meant nothing. He was a god, composed of living atoms and enfolding within himself the power of a sun. His had not been a single consciousness, but the coordinated symphony of a million minds. Each thing he touched he felt in all ways that were possible; and each thing he saw, he saw completely and was reminded of all things. All was in all for him, and he had acted decisively across centuries.

He had been brought low by an army of creatures as thoughtless compared to him as bacteria. They were led by a woman to whom he was incidental, merely an obstacle to be removed. And when she killed him, she had no idea that something whose experience exceeded that of her entire species had died. All the questions she could ever have asked, he had answered long ago. She was ignorant, and so all of his wisdom was lost.

This body had no purpose without that greater Self. The fact that it still moved and breathed was irrelevant; the motivating soul was gone.

But lying here, senses blocked, embalmed and shriveling as was proper, Armiger had continued to think. He was locked in the paralytic cycle of grief; all his thoughts had turned on the higher Self, predicated by its existence, and with it gone, every thought hit an impasse and locked hard. He could have no notion, no memory, that did not run up against that barrier, so Armiger’s mind was now a chaos where no thought finished forming, no purpose completely crystallized. Jagged nightmare images, half-memories and monotonous fragments of impulse echoed on and on. The flesh of this body would turn to dust, but Armiger’s real body was a filamentary net of nanotech, and that would last for centuries. So would the echoes of grief.

And nothing should matter, nor disturb his rest. But his eyes had opened.

A faint vibration sounded–footsteps. The sound of someone walking in the catacombs had waked him. Whatever walked was bipedal, with the same period to its step as a man–but it could still be anything. Maybe one of Ventus’ mechal guardians, come to dissect him.

It didn’t matter. He tried to shut his eyes, but they would no longer obey him at all.

He couldn’t stop listening, either, as the footsteps approached, paused nearby, and came even closer. A second set of steps approached, then a third. Now he heard voices. The men were standing just outside his niche.

Anger emerged from the chaos in Armiger’s heart. He should be left in peace. Humans had no idea of his pain; they had killed him, and were they now here to desecrate the remains, play with his corpse? His throat caught in a gesture that would have formed a growl, if he still had lungs to breathe with. His fists rose at his sides, struck the stone overhead, and fell again, trembling.

The anger possessed him. It stilled the mourning voices. Armiger’s attention turned to the wall behind his head as the first blow of the hammer fell outside.


“He’s a general, he’s not going to have jewelry,” muttered Choltas. He looked around uneasily.

The oldest of the grave-robbers, Enneas, watched him good-humored. Choltas had been into a couple of mounds near Barendts city; the operations had consisted of surveying and tunnelling, based on the assumption that the burial chamber was at the center of each mound. They’d been right once, but the chamber had collapsed long ago. They had sifted through clay and stones in a suffocating tunnel by the light of fireflies tethered with horses’ hairs. The operation had taken weeks, but was worth it when they turned up some sintered metal, a little gold and a jade pendant in the shape of a machine.

Choltas had been scared then; how much more so was he now in his first catacomb. This hall was low and wide, so that Choltas’ lantern lit a spot of floor and ceiling, and only hinted at the rest of the space. He kept starting and looking around, because every now and then the lantern light would gleam off a slick surface of one of the pillars that lined the place. Enneas knew they could play tricks on the eye; he had been here before. If you let your imagination run away with you, the pillars looked like men, standing still and silent all around.

“He could have anything,” Enneas said. “You never know what a man will choose to be buried with. If nothing else, if he’s high-born, there’s the gold in his teeth.”

Choltas grunted. Corres, the third member of the party, waved impatiently from a ways down the gallery. His impatience, Choltas knew, was not due to fear, but a simple desire to get an unpleasant job done. Corres had no imagination, no apparent feelings, and seldom spoke. Enneas had no idea what he did with the money he made in these tombs.

They joined him near one wall of the passage. “It’s somewhere along here,” said Corres. He swung his lantern, making shadows lean up and down the hall. Corres was merely trying to get a good view, but Choltas watched the moving darkness with growing alarm.

“It’s okay,” Enneas said, patting him on the shoulder. He pitched his voice at a conversational volume. “This is our place of employ. We belong here.” Choltas stared at him wide-eyed. Enneas chuckled.

Well, it was almost true. Fear battled anger in Enneas’ stomach every time he entered a tomb like this. The fear was natural; he’d never reconciled himself to death. The anger was more powerful, though, and it had to do with Enneas’ legacy: his family had fallen from one of the highest positions in the republic. The deciding moment in his life had been the day his mother took him to visit burial mounds of some ancient warlords. “Your ancestors are buried here,” she had said, gesturing at the earthen hills, each surmounted by a fane of pillars. He’d imagined men and women with his family’s faces standing at attention under those hills, watching him. Their eyes had accused: you are poor, they had said. You are no longer one of us.

Enneas had naively believed that fortunes lost could be regained. His youth had been a comedy of failure; he could enter no guilds, influenced no inspectors with his painstakingly written political letters. Business ventures begun with pride and faith in his fellow man had ended in betrayal by his customers and friends. One day he had found himself wandering penniless near the field of mounds. He was damned if he would beg. And his ancestors’ eyes followed him as he walked among them. He decided to shut their eyes once and for all, and had started digging.

And now he was wealthy. Choltas, too, was from a fallen house, though he was too young to be bitter. Enneas had taken it upon himself to spare the youth the detours that had brought him to this point. Even now Choltas wasn’t sure he wanted to live this way, but Enneas kept at him. Tonight was an important test for the boy.

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