The Iron Seedling

Summary: Sul pursues a fugitive beyond the frontiers of Onisah to a mechanical underworld. Along the way, she uncovers not all necromantic crime involves dark magic.

The Investigation

The river passed lazily before Sul, a mud-choked ribbon saturated in the detritus of prior eons. As the paddle-wheeler passed languidly down the Rustwash River, the rotund Captain Tahun once more attempted to force conversation with her. Once more, she turned disinterestedly to the stark, scrub-covered wastelands beyond the river's murky banks. She fixed her gaze upon a distant metal spire that vomited up sparks like a spigot of captured lightning.

"The river seems a little shallower each year," asked Tahun.

Sul pretended to ignore him, so the Captain made eye contact before addressing her again.

"What manner of business said business brings you to Ewat's Folly?" Tahun said as words fled his flappy jowls. "Most of my passengers are scavengers and traders, and you look like neither."

Sul traveled with two braces of muzzle-loaded pistols, a blunderbuss, a naval hanger sword in the standard Onisahian pattern, long-barreled marksman pistol, and a large-bladed survival knife. By the standards of the Outer Wastes, she was lightly armed. She was a tall and willowy woman of clear Polarian heritage, with steely black hair and green eyes. Her gray robes concealed a light armored mesh underneath. The palette of her appearance was that of a rainy spring day. The combined weight of her arms, pack, and armor was distributed evenly by the clever arrangement of harnesses and belts crossing her body. As she stood on the deck of the river-barge, she yearned once more for the stable placidity of solid land.

"A meeting," Sul said noncommittally. "The details of which I am forbidden to disclose."

"Pray-tell, is it marriage negotiation?" the riverman asked, as she detected the scent of rotting fish on his perspiration-soaked shirt.

"Even if it were, it would be of no interest to you," she said, hoping to deter him from further advances.

The confused Captain never responded to the spurn, as he was thrown to the deck when the vessel struck an unseen object. Resounding through the narrow hull like a cannon blast, Sul retained her balance through the timely grasping of a lifeline, although two other deckhands were not as fortunate. Out of the corner of her vision, a long and ophidian shape slunk through the mire. It caught the reflection of the rising sun, although it vanished like ghost of a waking dream.

The Captain, now occupied by his duties, made a count of the passengers. Despite the reassuring platitudes he uttered, Sul read a well-concealed panic beneath his jovial gaze. From the acute angle of her feet upon the deck, she felt the vessel had not regained its original bearing. While she did not see a crack in the hull, she could feel some manner of damage to the starboard pontoon. She noted the helmswoman suddenly veering towards the nearest shore, and surmised the vessel was sinking.

Sul noted the celerity with which the vessel beached itself upon the soft riverbank, confirming her suspicions. She felt the vessel come to a slow and well-paced halt, whereupon the captain set down a wooden ladder leading to land. Curious as to the extent of the damage, she disembarked with the crew. She followed them towards the other side of the craft, where the pontoon had been riven in the center. Metal prongs of an unknown silvered alloy protruded from the damaged portion. Each reminded her of a misericord, like the one she inserted into the helmet of a downed soldier on a half-forgotten battlefield.

Sul had no desire to encounter whatever inserted spines with the likeness of carpenter's nails deep into the hull. Following the navigator's chart with her own eyes, she intuited the damage would take irreplaceable hours to repair. Ever mindful of the limited time required to follow a fleeing quarry, she resolved not to wait for repairs. Securing her pack and weapons, she resolved to follow the river into town. By her own estimations, it was no more than a few hours' walk until Ewat's Folly. With the fugitive necromancer Yothra at least a day before her, she pressed on with an unmatched alacrity across the wastes.

Sul's trek through the barren wastes was full of constant reminders they were not altogether devoid of life. She saw robust fauna, including the carnivorous cacti that lured in migrating fowl with mesmeric displays of iridescent light. She saw rodentlike scavengers with barbed beaks gnaw on tough thistle, only for them to scatter when half-reptilian, half-canine beast no larger than a house cat seized one. Much of the local flora and fauna possessed particularly potent venom, so she kept her distance from the thorny plants and parlous animals.

The ground around Sul was a visual medley of ochre and crimson, as though produced by a careless artist's intermingling of paints. The terrain was a broken, uneven expanse of jagged boulders and dark defiles that hinted at chthonic violence in the unfathomable past. The very earth seemed to seethe with the repressed rage of forgotten eons. Each step felt as though tempting fate against invisible dice, that the ground beneath her boot would break apart and swallow her. Glancing behind her, she saw the spire continue to vomit forth electric arcs in a regular tempo. Wondering what its original builders intended for it, she nevertheless pressed on through the inhospitable wastes.

Sul moved through the treacherous terrain with the care and deliberation due handling a venomous adder. As she navigated under the uneven shadows cast by rocky pillars, she ruminated on her prey's particularly peculiar course of action. The baleful arts of necromancy, as other forms of thaumaturgy, lessened in potency as one approached the Bloodspire Peaks. Why a man wanted for robbing tombs, defiling corpses, murdering innocents for blood offerings, and other necromantic offenses would head directly for a location where his dreaded powers would be nullified? She wondered if perhaps the information he retrieved tipped his hand towards some other, unknown advantage.

Sul found a corpse atop the hill overlooking Ewat's Folly. The cadaver's head was removed cleanly, as though cut through with an executioner's sword. The remainder of the cadaver was a boneless husk, emptied of viscera and bodily fluids like an empty sack. Nearby she saw the tatters of a rugged pioneer's raiment, jeans with a pull-over tunic. Strangely, they and the nearby stone were nearly devoid of carnage, as though the victim had been entirely consumed by a desiccated vampire. Puzzling over the latest conundrum, she beheld the town below.

Sul stared in abject shock for two whole minutes before regaining control of her senses. The dearth of fire, smoke, or ruin was apparent from her vantage point. Ewat's Folly consisted of a single avenue, containing of a flea-bitten flophouse, tavern, general store, storehouse, and town hall. Beyond it was a small wharf, half-sunken into the river mud. She saw not a single sign of human life, but a riot of inhuman activity. While she could not tell what fate befell the town, she saw the tracks the unknown aggressor left behind all led in a single direction.

Pursuing the Flesh-takers

Sul cursorily examined the town before bounding after the unknown aggressors, for any clues into their nature, motives, or methods. She found two other emptied husks, one of an old man and another of a child of indeterminate gender. A few specks of dried blood on floors and clothes were the sole remnants of their inhabitants. A feeling unable to be put into words crawled up her neck as she flung open closets and cupboards, hoping in vain to find a single hidden survivor.

Sul cleared the second floor of the flophouse before giving up, instead allowing herself to realize a far more macabre fact. When she'd saw or made corpses, insects and other scavengers made themselves at home in the fresh charnel. Despite the utter dearth of corpses, of scavengers, and of sound, her imagination conjured nightmarish phantasmagorias that haunted every dark, forlorn corner. While no stranger to the Outer Wastes, she realized she was well beyond her league. What force, she reasoned, could so quickly and so insidiously annihilate an entire town?

Sul internally debated waiting for the awkward Captain and the ferry to arrive, and explaining what she'd found. The tracks were fresh, but she did not see Yothra's ambling gait beside them. A persistent suspicion correlated her quarry's probable arrival and the fresh tracks, but she knew danger awaited on the other end. Detecting a wind building across the wasteland, she hastily transcribed a note detailing her finds, and jammed it against the empty tavern door. Once the others arrived, she hoped they'd hastily depart.

Sul followed the tracks before the wind would forever erase them, alongside any chance at justice. Her pride as a bounty hunter overrode her reason, driving her deeper into the wasteland. While part of her mind seethed with the rage the murderers of the town, an irrational compulsion drove her on. The pecuniary gains from ending Yothra's flight paid next to her curiosity. Beneath the shadow of the Bloodspire Peaks, she resolved to confront the parlous fate that no doubt awaited her.

Sul used her supplies sparingly as the sun sank over the horizon, burning sanguine red of a fresh wound. The moon rose slowly in the naked night sky, revealing the silver lattices that intersected its surface like finely-carven rings. The light of long-dead stars filtered down from above, casting the jagged boulders around her as monuments in some celestial cemetery. Nevertheless, she pressed on.

Sul moved deeper into the night and uncharted territory as her stamina failed her. Her resolve compelled her onwards, but her body was well beyond its limit. She leaned against a rock wall and vomited, before greedily drinking her canteen. Her mind, once racked by fears of being watched and followed, now only sought rest. She pulled herself towards the ledge of an outcropping, and she settled into a gap between the stones. She pressed her bare fingertips against the cold stone, only to feel a regular and subtle rhythm from somewhere beneath. Rapidly ascribing the chthonic staccato to an underground stream, she pulled herself into a bedroll. Curling like a resting animal, she drifted to sleep under a lullaby of shrill ululations from obscene creatures.

Sul awoke as the first rays of dawn penetrated the crevasse. Pulling herself from niche she wedged herself in, she withdrew a map and compass. Orientating herself relative to the sun, she estimated her position before looking once more for the track. She cantered down the narrow gorge, eager to pick up the trail before Yothra could flee further from her reach. Her interest in justice was typically motivated by pecuniary necessity, but her resolve drove her onwards like iron dust towards a lodestone.

Blunderbuss in hand, Sul hesitatingly cut around each corner as though a horde of necromantic horror laid around each. Her hatred simmered like the noonday sun. Adrenaline compressed her mind like a well-oiled spring, banishing all but tension. A light wind had partially covered the tracks over the prior night, but she pressed on without incident. Her mind focused and aimed like her long-barreled marksman pistol, she persevered through the badland canyons.

Storming through the eon-worn ruts in the earth felt to Sul like entering the gullet of some vast, terrible corpse. Shimmering metallic protrusions of variable geometries emerged from the canyon walls like the buds of some machine-flower. With some curiosity, she noted the similarity of the spines issuing from their bodies to the metal shards in the ferry's hull. She beheld terrible things carven into those hillsides as well, such as the skeleton of some vast, bipedal lizard with teeth longer than her sword. The rumbling beneath her feet grew more intense, and the swift cadence of her own footfalls came to match it. She paid little heed to the oddities along her path, ascribing them as irrelevant to her immediate task.

Nevertheless, Sul halted after rounding the bend at the end of the trail. She beheld a metallic doorway in her path, covered entirely by cables as thick as the ferry's waterwheels. A gentle slope led down towards the subterranean portal, beyond which undoubtedly laid the answers she thought. While she did not know of how Yothra knew of that yawning doorway nor the way beyond it, the timing of the town's fall and his arrival were too close to be coincidence to her. The Onisahian Constabulary believed her to possess sagacity rivaling that of the city's greatest investigators, but such insights always seemed obvious to her. With her intellect and instinct alike wavering, her wrath fell within her like a quenched fire.

The Tomb of Ages

Sul pondered her predicament while sitting on a rock above the door. She reasoned that while Yothra might have possessed esoteric knowledge through his sorceries or other methods, he still was able to get inside. While the fugitive might have sealed himself in the underground stronghold, it was likely to have other entrances. Noting that the strange metallic protrusions on the canyon wall were similar to the spark-shooting stalk near the river, she mused upon the nature of the machinery.

Sul noted the door was woven like a tapestry of thick metal cables. Given the plantlike appearances of the other artifacts she beheld, she wondered if they ran underground like some great mechanical root. Perhaps, she reasoned, they stemmed from a central source, the trunk of some inverted tree. While the scale of such a facility could be titanic, it would be unlikely that a single man could block off every entrance. Upon this revelation, she backtracked.

Sul noted the size and distance of each metallic protrusion she saw. With quick mental calculations, she noted they increased in size with direct proximity to the sealed entrance. When she performed the same calculations on southern end of the valley, she noted the roots became larger than those in the valley. She wondered if that somewhere to the south, some even vaster structure rested underground, extending its tendrils ever northwards. While she had no idea as to the pace, she put such thoughts out of her head as she continued her trek south.

Sul surmounted a stone heap beneath an illuminated stalk that glowed like a creature from the benthic depths. From the elevation, she beheld the canyons around her spreading like a rhizome out towards the horizon. She wondered momentarily if perhaps the entire Bloodspire Peaks were concealing inhuman engines beneath them, churning unceasingly as their roots extended northwards. After kicking a rock down the mound, she saw it vanish beneath an outcropping on the opposite side. Climbing down, she finally beheld the aperture she sought.

Sul lit a small candle and placed it on a lantern. She secured a damp cloth around her mouth and nose, in case of toxic gases or spores within. Securing a grappling hook and rope to the outside, she descended into the tunnel. She climbed using the spines on the stalk as handholds, with only the rope around her waist as a lifeline. The spines were cold and wet, as though they'd recently been lathered in viscous slime. She hesitated between her first few movements, expecting them to withdraw or launch out in a fusillade of thorns. From frantic glances beneath her, she beheld the soft blue lights like stars reflected in the ocean.

Sul banished her sense of mortality from her mind, as she crawled like an arachnid down a titanic plant stem. Within the bones of the earth was evidence of form and design. As she descended, the stone of the upper shaft gave way to metallic stalks coiled like a den of slumbering pythons. Bolts of lightning erupted far beneath her at irregular intervals, leaping between pylons at the pillar's base. She descended with great deliberation, focusing on particular waypoints on her descent. She made a game of it to herself, of which the only prize was her continued survival and sanity.

Hanging above a sea of arcing pylons, Sul found a solid platform to rest her boots on. It was a long bundle of coils, thick and stable enough to find her footing on. As the rope was reaching the end of its length, she untied it from her waist and continued onward. Pressing her foot to the metallic strands beneath her, she felt them slightly give way. While they felt sturdy enough to support her, instinct compelled her to draw her long-barreled pistol and leave her other hand free. She pressed on, with the symphony of singing electricity beneath her.

Sul followed the conduit into a chambered cavern. Above her was a vast hall, ringing with a metallic rancor. Immediately reminded of the underfoot thrumming from earlier, she saw the vast Tartarean mechanisms. An unseen, manic conductor led a cacophony of arcing pylons, pounding pistons, and grinding gears. The walls of the chamber were lined with similar strands, converging towards a single line surrounded by a translucent material. Between the ad hoc walkway and transparent coating, she saw her quarry.

Yothra was leaner and paler than the haughty, swaggering young man Sul remembered tailing through the Onisahian docks. His fingers danced madly across some ancient machine, which his ragged, tattered robes obscured. Noting the translucent material did not universally cover the walkway, she followed the stem along the chamber's rim. With her pistol in hand, she imagined finally pulling the trigger to end his flight.

As she circled to the other side of the vast vault, Sul saw Yothra was not alone on the walkway far above. She saw a flock of curious machines, each of which levitated above the floor on a quartet of evenly-spaced engines. A pair of metal tendrils hung from its cylindrical body, terminating in a bifurcating metallic appendage that dragged along the ground like a primate's knuckles. Beyond the swarm of machines was a familiar tangle of metal coils: the door that obscured her path earlier.

Sul sprinted towards the other side of the room, spotting a break in translucent walls. As she steadied her aim in her hands, Yothra turned towards the door. She did not know if he was aware of her, but something outside clearly drew his interest. The bundled cables that blocked the passage withdrew into unseen niches into the walls, as though opening thick curtains. Sunlight fell into the artificial cavern, causing her to momentarily flinch.

As her eyes adjusted, Sul saw Tahun's unmistakable frame silhouetted against the sun. He clutched a musketoon in iron grip, and he levelled it at the machines before him. She wondered if some misguided obsession brought him to follow her trail. A tongue of fire and thunderous report echoed from far above, sounding like the approach of a distant storm. The machine, bearing no signs of physical damage, turned one of its appendages towards the Captain. The skipper clutched his ears and listed like a drunken sailor, before vanishing into the sulfuric cloud of gunsmoke with the machine. She held her breath deeply, but she knew it the foolhardy riverman's fate was already sealed.

Sul saw the machine emerge with the Captain's head in one appendage, and the other jammed down Tahun's headless torso. With a nauseous slurping, it reduced his skin to a boneless husk like she'd seen in the village. Another machine picked up the discharged skin as though it were dirty laundry, and carried it towards Yothra. The necromancer nodded approvingly as the severed head and skin were inserted into separate containers at the other end of the room. The head was inserted into an opaque cylindrical container, which joined dozens of others in alcoves along the wall. She reflected she, perhaps, had discovered the ultimate fate of the denizens of Ewat's Folly.

In her viewing of the spectacle, Sul nearly failed to notice her serendipitous chance at a clean shot. With nothing between her and Yothra's back, she steadied her pistol in two hands, accounted for the drop of the bullet, and squeezed the trigger. Time slowed down as the gun discharged. The weapon ignited like a talon of hellfire, coming forward to claim the iniquitous felon. The unfortunate fugitive had no chance to respond, only for the bullet to enter his torso and knock him down. A sanguine spot blossomed on his torso, like the blooming of an fatal flower. Whatever fell incantations or spells might have protected him in other regions failed him out here, but Sul felt pride her skill won the day.

As she drew another pistol, Sul saw Yothra's prone form turn towards her and mouth something inaudible. While she put no stock in a dying man's curses, necromancers were always an exception to that rule. A similar machine that ended Tahun's life came down to claim Yothra's head and flesh, but he did not resist. Instead, a stoic calm settled over him as his head vanished into one of the jars on the opposite wall. As she turned to run, another of the machines came for her.

Sul knew it was useless, but she unloaded her blunderbuss and all remaining pistols at it, hoping to lose it in the cloud of gunsmoke. The machine continued after her without pause, and another blocked the tunnel she entered with. She swiped at it with her sword, but its tendrils ripped the weapon from her hands as though it were a child's plaything. With only her knife left, she catapulted herself at the machine that blocked her exit.

Before her blade even made contact, Sul felt her body betray her. She staggered to the side, clutching her ears as an unnatural pressure hammered on them. She felt as though an army marched across her eardrums, stealing her balance and sight. She felt the metallic reverberation as the knife fell from her hands, and she noticed the absence of the floor only after shed stumbled over the edge. Looking at the sea of electric pylons down below, she breathed a sigh of relief. While she'd be dead shortly, she'd be granted the swift euthanasia of a quick incineration.

Sul would have reflected on her life, had she felt the need to. The wailing on her ears was gone, and the world tumbled around her. The electric blasts beneath her echoed louder, like a storm-born chorus. She consigned herself to the tranquil oblivion that necromancers' victims yearned for, and she closed her eyes. However, something arrested her fall. Cautiously opening her eyes, she saw one of the machines had caught her. Another approached, and everything finally went black.

Beyond Death

Sul awakened in on the ferry from earlier, staring over the side with two men. One was a younger man bearing the features of Tahun's face, a lean and young mariner with a hirsute beard and green headband. The other was the goatish face of Yothra, his brown, unkempt bangs sliding greasily down the side of his face. While the younger Tahun looked wistfully over the side, Yothra glowered at her contemptuously.

"You know, he's actually smarter than he looks," the necromancer said, speaking the low, oily voice Sul came to loathe. "He was able to track you after finding the note, and I think he understood what was going on, at least on some level."

"What are you going on about? Where is this?" Sul asked. She reached for a pistol that vanished when she tried to draw it. "What sorcery is this?"

Yothra laughed. "A realm beyond death, although one granted by machines rather than magic. Although there is little difference at this point," he said with a chuckle. "I'd planned to enter this realm at some point, but your lucky shot forced my entry under less-ideal circumstances."

"So those machines dragged your victims here? Are the other villagers here?"

"Yes," Yothra said, cruel smile on his mouth. "I've taken the liberty of reading your and Tahun's minds like open books. He appears as such because he still envisions himself in his prime. You'd almost be impressive, Sul, if you hadn't succumbed to the paralyzing sounds."

"We're just the start of his plans, you know," Tahun said longingly from the side. "Death is no issue to a man like him."

A smug grin crawled across Yothra's face, like the shadow of a hideous insect. "As you no doubt figured, Sul, I had plans even in the event of my premature demise."

"Yet you are no close to accomplishing them."

"Oh, that is where you are wrong," Tahun said. "Ewat's Folly was only a test of the automatons. The minds and souls of the inhabitants are mine, as will all of Onisah one day."

"Then why torment us?"

"Because you bear broader perspectives than those insular dregs," Tahun said. "Have you no curiosity about distant antiquity? This facility far predates the Polarian diaspora that founded Onisah, and even the forebears of the Southron Empire and Gorti Protectorate."

Sul thought of a retort, but her mouth refused to move. Yothra snapped his fingers, and her body ceased to respond to her own commands. She did not know how, but the necromancer was in total control of the situation. She doubted he would deign to interact with her and Tahun, outside of crowing over victims.

"The knowledge I am about to tell you was found at great and terrible cost. I had to torment eon-old spirits, to sate demons with blood sacrifice, and to conjure forth entities predating terrestrial life," he said, with an exhilaration in his voice similar to the throes of passion. "It was a grim price, but one that must be paid to reclaim our heritage."

Yothra stopped, snapping his fingers at Tahun. From his posture, Sul assumed the Captain would offer some form a protest. "Humanity, and its children and cousins, have gone extinct and been revived several times on this planet."

Yothra's eyes glowed with a maniacal fervor, a madman before a helpless audience.

"These cycles are over a billion years old. Even as this world reached outwards to other planets and dimensions, this planet has been killed, revived, and sustained by machines, magic, and stranger."

Sul had little idea if Yothra was telling the truth or not, but he certainly believed what he spoke. She'd seen deluded fanatics, but she had no way to validate what he said. If she was to escape or better understand her predicament, she reasoned to play along.

"The first iterations were imperfect, but they invented souls, or at least transcribed them into a form of machine-cant. As a result, the souls of that era are particularly hard to conjure forth," Yothra said, continuing his lecture. "Yet many were sadly consigned to oblivion, similarly to the Lost in the Southron theology."

Yothra unfurled a map of the continent above him. It levitated by some unknown magic or enchantment, as still as a hung painting in the air. Sul recognized several locations, including the Onisahian peninsula, and the Outer Wastes that radiated out from behind the short mountain range that protected it from external invasion. To the south of the Wastes were the Bloodspire Peaks, beyond which were the Trackless Wastes, and then the Grand Canal the marked the northernmost edge of the Southron Empire. To the west was a mountainous subcontinent of subterranean cities, the Gorti Protectorate. To the far eastern oceans were chains of jungled islands of pygmy tribes and sentient plants. The Bloodspire Peaks, however, were highlighted in soft green light, with a small spit extending towards Ewat's Folly and the Rustwash River.

"This facility was built to store the store of a forgotten race, but is able to access souls from subsequent and earlier races as well," Yothra said. "It is one of many, and capable of repairing, expanding, and replicating itself. It was originally deeper in the earth, but was forced up by the geological upheavals responsible for raising the Bloodspire Peaks."

"And you intend to enslave Onisah beyond death, as you did with Ewat's Folly," Sul said. "With an army of invincible machines."

"Not invincible, but close," Yothra said, with his smug grin returning. "You know, this facility was already expanding northwards. It would have encountered humanity once more, and the results would have been less pleasant than my plan."

"We brushed against one of the roots of this facility in the river," Sul said. "And it's been thirsty for water, so it's following the river."

"Correct, Sul," Yothra said. "Perhaps in another life, you'd have been a master of the necromantic arts. But yes, this facility is thirsty, and it eventually will reach the sea. Well before then, Onisah will have fallen."

"But why?"

"All will return to the source. Onisah is in terminal decline. I am merely casting forth its inhabitants, like its Polarian forebears did five centuries ago. By sea, air, land, or sorcery, they shall find new homes, or rejoin their ancestors in my thrall," Yothra said. "It will take decades to build the army to suitable size, but it will be a mercy to put Onisah out of its misery."

"And kill millions?"

"A small price, given the billions that will come, and trillions that have come."

Sul nodded her head, pretending to be agree. As the smarmy grin reappeared on Yothra's face, she charged towards him with her shoulder, preparing to ram the necromancer against the lifelines. The moment her shoulder made contact, Tahun similarly charged. Both halted in place, forever frozen by Yothra's control of that artificial reality.

"I tire of such futile resistance," he said, yawning. "As you are ungrateful of the sacrifices I have made, and the knowledge of which I have shared, I shall grant you an eternity to reflect upon your rash actions."

Yothra vanished, and the world froze in time around them. Sul found herself unable to move or think, only to contemplate the lore imparted to her with an ever-fraying thread of sanity. She did not see the look on Tahun's face, but she surmised he was in a similar position. As the madness of repetition and isolation wore on, the embers of resistance cooled within her. She uttered threats and pleas to Yothra in her mind, yet nothing changed.

When she finally submitted her mind to Yothra, Sul found Tahun broke long before she did. As to further mock and belittle the torturous ordeal, she was informed that only a few minutes passed in the real world while an eternity dragged on in the machine-woven reality. Such knowledge was to her as salt was to fresh wounds, as she joined the dominion of machine-wraiths that Yothra usurped. She had no doubt Onisah would join them.