The Dirge Dynasty

Summary: The reigning dynasty has been reduced to a decadent shell after four centuries of rule. As supernatural catastrophes and warfare blight the land, a handful of fearful souls turn to desperate means to save themselves.

Act 1: Gilded Souls

A Handful of Dust

Vam Silan dug beneath the bulbous, gnarled roots of the ancient tree, excavating the book away from his uncle's watchful gaze. It was small enough to fit within the silk purse he buried it in, yet it felt as heavy as the overfull water-jugs he once carried from the village well. To avoid Uncle Berv's ire at his second failure of the civil service exams, he found solace in the immaculately unmarred pages of a book he'd found tossed in a roadside ditch. With quivering hands, his dirt-caked fingers opened his copy of The Needful Sadism once more.

Ah, Silan. I knew I'd see you again. You can't resist coming back, can you?

The cuneiformic characters on the pages shifted when Silan blinked. He forced himself to tune out his uncle's shouting and his sister's cries. His muscles tensed, like the cock of a matchlock wick above the pan.

You know what will happen next. Your sister will suffer Berv's wrath in your stead, and he will do far worse than beating her. You always seek me out when you are owed a beating, aren't you? Such a selfish young man.

Yet I know there's more to you than a craven coward. You look at your manicured fingers with disgust, that you were a failure unfit for the soft life of a bureaucrat. You looked up to Ipor, before the family's fate rested on your hands.

Silan sighed, as he remembered Ipor. His elder cousin was a cavalry officer and a merchant of some renown, but his death on the frontier foisted his family's future onto him. As he was physically unsuited towards martial efforts due to his injured knee, the civil service was his only chance at raising his family's station.

You know you'd be ill-suited as some doting fool regurgitating the classics. You know Berv only cares about living beyond his means. You've tasted a sample of what I can offer, of what you can accomplish with your own hands.

Shall we continue where we left off?

Silan nodded as he read. Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw a cloud of dust swirl past his feet like a miniature simoom. He sat nestled amongst the knotted tree, interposing himself tighter into the gourd-like roots at its base. A chill ran down his spine as the dust suspended itself before him for a second. A momentary hesitation stirred within him, as though some malign presence unveiled itself before him. He blinked, and the grit fell once more to the ground, inert and motionless as grave dust on an ancient tomb. He heard his sister scream, and he clenched the book with reddened fingers.

Remember the story of the last Emperor of the Kirn Dynasty, how he was trampled by his own horse? A single grand of sand struck his eye during the battle, causing him to flinch and tumble from his saddle. A grain of sand can change history.

A grain of sand can save Yuli. I know you have the resolve within you. Sometimes, a limb must be severed to save the body. After Ipor died, we both know the uncle you loved died with him. The rabid beast ruts with his own flesh, and you know what must be done.

Silan found the book's words hard to disagree with. The moment became hyperreal. The golden light of the dying day filtered through the canopy of the dark forest. He smelt the decaying leaves beneath his feet, intermingled with a medley of earthen odors. He exhaled, momentarily tasting the dirt on his tongue. He felt the grit clinging to his hands, waiting for his signal. He held the book in his left hand, which felt lighter than it had previously. He raised his right hand with the palm skyward, as though beckoning to the legions of buried dead beneath his feet. He would send another to join their ranks soon.

Silan involuntarily flinched as a cloud of topsoil erupted from the ground. He threw up his hands to protect himself, interposing the book between himself and the dust cloud. The dust fell from the air like the sand from the wake of a desert wind. Doubt rose within his mind, and his ironclad grip on the book waivered. Yuli screamed louder, and he slunk back towards the shadows. He forced the mental images from his head, as he skimmed through the book.

Why are you afraid of your own power? You've demonstrated your resolve. Demonstrate what you have learned. We both know it is long overdue.

Silan gently closed the book. He set it into the silk purse, which he hung by his side. He took a step back towards the house. He raised his left hand, as if directing an orchestra. The soil rose in tandem with his gesture, and he felt an enthusiasm he'd lacked since recent memory. He raised his other hand, and another spray of earth erupted. He raised both of his hands together, as if to embrace his destiny. A column of earth rose above him, and it lingered as he kept his hands together. He sliced his left hand as though holding an invisible saber, and the cloud slammed into a nearby tree.

Silan saw the lights of the house through the resultant gash, which cleaved the unfortunate tree in half. Instead of feeling the hesitation of earlier, he instead felt his earlier confidence oozing through every pore in his oiled, perfumed skin. A thin layer of gravel encased his black student's robes, and he gathered a ball of sand into his hand. He approached the house with his legs taking wide, confident steps, and a grin crossing his face. He would no longer flee from his problems.

A moment after he entered, Uncle Berv's screams drowned out his sister's cries.

Two Rotten Faces

A pair of avian shapes trotted across the ochre wastes, seeming conjoined with their cloaked riders at a great distance. Their legs were thick, long limbs that terminated in clawed talons. Their short, stubby wings were vestigial appendages that flapped in brief, spasmodic fits. Their bodies were round, fat things covered with uneven brown feathers that resembled a barbarian's hirsute, unkempt beard. Their axe-like heads were dominated by long, jagged beaks resembling serrated blades. Each was carefully wrapped in a leather and metal harness, as though to preclude them from sampling their riders.

They approached a town divided by a parched creek, a miserable trickle of waterway overflowing with silt and offal. The buildings were primarily single-story dwellings of dried mud and loose stone. The outskirts of the town were half-completed and collapsed husks of dead houses. With them were nevertheless faded, sandy tarps and ramshackle shelters occupied by the vagrants and used to shield property from the ubiquitous sand. Perpendicular to the polluted stream was the town's central avenue, a souk-liked street scarcely large enough to fit a standard wagon through. They rode directly towards the tallest building in the village, distinguished only by its second floor and asymmetric mud tower.

Sword-Sergeant Phiar Hira slowed her grave-bird to a trot as she carefully crossed the wooden plank that served as a bridge over the filthy stream and its gully. The first rays of dawn light filtered in from across the street. Merchants crept into the street, and the bazaar stalls extended their merchandise outwards, as if beckoning to hordes of wished for customers. She narrowly avoided running into an older woman with a basket of withered legumes. Beside her, Chronicler-Captain Arfon halted. He moved his steed up to a wooden post and hitched it. Hira followed suite, and she entered the saloon behind her commanding officer.

"Welcome to Kror Village, official residence of the Western Frontier's Magistrate," Arfon said, a sarcastic tone in his voice. "Quite different than Vigil Keep, eh?"

Hira nodded. She stepped into the building she presumed served as a local garrison, government hall, and commercial establishment. She saw the lines on Arfon's weathered, narrow face as he stepped towards the bar. She counted only a half-dozen patrons in the bar, all clad in the garish outfits of traveling merchants. She remembered the smells and origins of the dyes in her father's show, and the clients that frequented it. Each merchant robe was a chromatic atlas of places travelled. On one outfit, she saw the bright red dyes from the southern provinces, the regal purple dyes of the coastal ports, and the somber indigo and blue from the north. Of the green and yellow colors she identified, she surmised a more local origin.

Hira was about to join her commander at the bar, when a woman's scream echoed from the main street. She turned to see a woman in the bazaar interposing herself between a screaming man and a bruised child. The woman still reeled from his blow, nursing a black eye on her face. The child, a toddler in handspun clothes, cried louder. The irate man drew a dagger from his belt and thrust it into the woman's side. The townsfolk around the feud drew backwards, aghast at what beheld. A man Hira presumed to be a constable from his light mail shirt and short spear was among them. When he turned to flee, she drew her sword and gave chase.

Hira drew the elongated cavalry saber from its scabbard, a long and slightly curved blade honed over years of mounted combat. She ripped off her sandy-brown cloak and charged in with drawn blade. It was not the signature armor of the Venture Sentinels that caused her quarry to flee, but the associated reputation and imagery. Her armor itself was a centuries-old coat of interwoven stone scales that could turn aside a musket volley as though they were peddles. The black basalt color of the stones, as well as their angled surfaces, was concealed by the tapestry of leathered, preserved faces that adorned the outermost layer. The empty eye sockets of hand-stitched faces met the astounded stares of the crowd.

"Halt!" she shouted, as she darted after the fleeing assailant.

Hira chased the man into a narrow gap between stalls, overturning a crate of fruit as he ran. Each of her armored boots made wet, squelching noises that reminded her of blades cutting through flesh. The man sprinted with a celerity belied by the size of his paunch. He dove under a laundry line, which she effortlessly slashed through. Despite her heavy breathing, she overtook him before he reached the end of the building. The man paused for a breath, before lunging towards a side alley.

Hira smashed him against the wall, pressing the sword to his throat. She saw a look in his eyes, as though he considered surrendering. She noted the bloodied dagger in his hand was clenched tighter, as if inviting her to come closer. She ordered him to drop it, but it did not comply. His teeth gnashed tighter. She smelt his perspiration and unwashed body odor. She tried to interpose her body between the weapon and his torso by pressing against his hand, but he reached faster than she anticipated.

Hira knew the man attacked even before he attempted a final, futile slash with the dagger. His wild swing didn't breach her leather jerkin, but her well-drilled reaction ended the threat. She pressed the blade deeper into his neck, driving onwards as arterial blood lubricated the blade. He flailed around wildly as he struggled to breath, but his body went limp as the blade reached his spine. Now slathered in blood, her turned to see two constables arriving. She briefly explained what happened, but her appearance told the rest. They sent her back to Arfon, so they could directly meet with the Magistrate. Looking back, she saw the constables taking special care to preserve the man's face. The prescence of a uniformed Venture Sentinel was enough to cause them to defer quickly.

Hira met Arfon on the second floor of the saloon, in a furnished office with the gaudy trappings of nobility. In the center of the room, a sprawling mass of expensive fabrics cascaded over a desk of carven marble. She wondered how the heavy thing had been lugged up the creaky wooden stairs she'd ascended a minute earlier. The Magistrate was bundled beneath layers of cushioned robes, colored in a broader spectrum than the traveling merchants outside. From her quick estimate, the components for the dyes alone would have cost more than a typical Venture Sentinel would see in their lifetime. From what Arfon told her, Magistrate Ku was among the outermost scions of a coastal noble family. She wondered exactly why they'd saw fit to remove the pudgy, round-faced man to the end of the world.

Magistrate Ku began to speak, in a nasally voice that Hira found instantly grating. "Captain Arfon, I thank you for taking the time to see to my request."

Arfon bowed his head deeper than Hira had seen him before, indicated a genuine, rather than feigned respect. "It is no problem, Magistrate. My bodyguard has need of the experience."

The Magistrate's gaze moved towards Hira, which she found as revolting as the stare of an enormous slug. Nevertheless, she acknowledged his rank with the slight nod of her head.

"I have to complement you on her training," Ku said. "Her decision saved a woman's life, and allowed us to deliver justice to a man notorious for that."

Hira would have said something, but she simply nodded again. The Captain was here for more important business entirely.

"Now, you must know the reason I requested you is one of immense importance to me," Magistrate Ku continued. "He came into town and confessed to most of the accusations levied against him, freely admitting to capital offenses but vehemently denying the lesser offenses."

"I found this case most peculiar, especially given the confession you sent me," Arfon said. "I do not envy this task, especially given the condemned man."

"General Rask once saved my town from a barbarian horde that outnumbered his own host three to one, and not once did he waver," Ku said, his eyes welling up into tears. "If he did not willingly walk into town, they'd never have taken him."

"Aye, of that I'd have no doubt. When I patrolled with him down the Old Western Road, his troops were as disciplined as a good Sentinel company. I wrote of him glowingly in the Chronicles, so it is a cruel twist of fate this must happen."

"I thank you for agreeing to do this, Captain. I will dwell no more on this macabre matter. The paperwork has been already processed. All that remains is to do the deed itself, as distasteful as it is."

"Thank you for your time, Captain," Ku said, taking a bow long enough to bury himself in his voluminous robes. "And I wish you luck on your journals, young Sergeant. You serve under an honorable mentor."

"Thank you," Hira said, bowing quickly.

"Thank you again, Magistrate," Arfon said, bowing deeper than before. He took Hira, and gestured that they leave the room. Closing the door carefully, they walked on the now-emptied hall. Arfon turned to her, speaking in a half-whisper.

"The Magistrate is a perfect example of why you should not judge by appearance alone," he said. "I know he looked bizarre to you, but he's out here because he's got a weak stomach."

"Captain, I mean no offense, but his stomach did not seem-"

"Figure of speech, Sergeant. Ku can't stand the torture and the cruel punishments they do back east. During a torturer's demonstration at court, he threw up and caused his family a great deal of embarrassment. They sent him out here, and where he sates his appetites for pastries instead of blood. A preferable option in my book."

Hira nodded. From the way they interacted, she presumed Arfon had dealt with Ku before. The Captain had many apprentices before her time, and their Chronicles were still being compiled. She wondered if many of them still lived, or if Arfon scarcely talked of them for other reasons. Theirs was a dangerous trade, but each of them would live on in the Venture Sentinel's own Chronicles. Such immortality was a pale imitation of the baleful necromancies her father told her of in those bedtime stories. The Venture Sentinels endured three dynasties, and periods of prosperity and persecution. They were respected by noble and commoner alike, and well-funded by merchants for their efforts keeping the roads free of bandits and beasts. Her parents' golden words were more efficient than any of the mercenary recruiters that competed for her attention.

Hira followed Arfon into a different wing of the building with a more martial, somber air. The walls were buttressed with stone pillars. Bunk beds and narrow cots were pressed against the opposite wall, half occupied by slumbering soldiers too fatigued to pay them heed. Spears, armor, and shields were placed on the wall closest to the street. Only small murder-holes allowed insufficient light into the room, further lending to the dour atmosphere. On the opposite wall was a locked door with a small, barred window. Two bored constables opened the door, and allowed them into a prison with a dozen cells little larger than the Magistrate's office. The smell of urine and feces caused her to tighten her nose.

Hira followed Arfon the last cell in the room's left corner. An old man presented his head to the executioner's block with a wry grin. While clad in rags, he nevertheless carried himself with the quiet, confident dignity of a soldier facing certain death. Captain Arfon retrieved a heavy, thick broadsword from a rack on the wall. She immediately identified the unwieldy weapon as an executioner's blade. Captain Arfon gave it a few careful, practice swings, and he handed it to her. She quizzically accepted the heavy weapon, and the expected implication.

Hira sighed, as she recalled the story the Captain told her during their voyage. The General's troops deserted for lack of pay, and they robbed merchant caravans with care to avoid bloodshed. After a botched raid resulted in a rich merchant's death, the bounty on his head was increased. As the Captain reminded her on several occasions, the Venture Sentinels originated as a guild of caravan guards with high professional standards. Their particular chapter, the Order of the Wheel, was founded to clear the roads for merchant caravans. As the General's actions fell under their purview, the Magistrate requested they deliver justice.

Hira understood the cynical lodge of the Magistrate's request, and the reasons Captain Arfon accepted it. The Imperial Executioners would make a grisly, agonizing example of General Rask. The Magistrate hoped they'd give Rask, a man he obviously respected, a more merciful end. As she looked at the General's quiet grin, she speculated on his motives. By surrendering, he gave his troops time, whether to scatter or regroup. As she hoisted the sword high above her head, she hesitated. The Captain nodded her hesitation, and extended his hands for the sword. For a moment, she wondered if she should stand down, and let the Captain absolve her conscience from the unexpected hesitation. She identified the sullen look in Arfon's eyes, as he wore the Magistrate's request like a heavy burden. It was not an easy thing to execute a former comrade.

Hira instead turned her back to the Captain, and she brought the blade down on Rask's neck. His head tumbled to the floor below, the confident grin still on his face. His head rolled a bit more, until it came to a stop, face-down on the floor. She turned to see the Captain sighing in relief. She felt no major difference than before, save the sensation some heavy load had been lifted from the Captain's back. His posture was far more relaxed, and he wiped the blade before setting it back on the wall.

"Thank you for showing the General that last mercy," he said. "He deserved far better than the hand dwelt to him, but he shall look out upon a better world."

She said nothing.

"Hira, you've got a lot of potential. More than you realize. I know you'll make the General proud. Even in death, he'll be part of your battle standard."

"I fear his troops won't accept death as willingly as he is, Captain."

"I am confident we can weather the consequences, Sergeant."

Hira nodded. Her armor would soon be adorned by the faces of the two lives she ended. The General was a stranger to her, but she wondered what sights his empty face would behold. She bore their sins, and it was every Sentinel's duty to bear their consequences. She only hoped she would have the fortune to endure them.

The Plaguebearer

Doctor Oris Vandori never expected to wake again, much less under the care of a compassionate stranger. From the cast of his face, disfigurements of the Scarlet Pox, sordidly storied scars, and sun-kissed skin from a life at sea, he thought himself ostracized enough from his own crew. He scarcely interacted with the crew, save when necessity brought them to his quarters. His time aboard the Farsight vanished from his mind, as he realized the absence of the vessel's swaying beneath him. As he observed his surroundings, his body involuntarily heaved and spasmed like a fish flopping on deck.

Oris coughed, and he reached his good hand to the ceiling. Light trickled in from a lace curtain surrounded by wooden shutters. The creaking ceiling above him loomed like a wooden press. The walls were rough-hewn earthen bricks, and the floor was covered with thin, worn tiles. All he saw of the outside world were an overcast sky, and the pattering of soft rain. For a moment, he thought of his home's frequent rainstorms. He wondered if it was the weakened remnants of the last storm that sank the Farsight. He wondered if he would last much longer than his old home.

Oris collapsed back to the bedroll he laid on, and he pulled the heavy fur blanket on top of him. He heard the distant roll of thunder over the horizon, and he found himself back before he awoke. He remembered the Farsight docked at Heron's Beak, the peninsula that jutted out into the bay where the ocean met the Grand River. His caravel sailed across the eastern sea to their homeport in the Shatterlands, the Republic of Roa. After two months at sea, the crew were eager to sate their carnal appetites before departure. He preferred to visit local libraries and sages, and retreat to his study during the night.

It was due to this that Oris saw the boarding attempt by a dockside gang. While most of the crew spent shore leave at bars and bordellos, he saw a mass of armed, desperate locals charging towards the gangplank. The sentry on duty pulled the plank away, but the distance between the pier and the hull was close enough to leap. He did not know if they were drunk, desperate locals seeking to loot the now-emptied cargo, or if they'd been stirred on by some local demagogue. From their brandishing of pitchforks, knives, and rusted swords, the implications of capture were clear enough. From the ship, the angry mob congealed into a single faceless, formless entity.

As the amorphous army threw itself at the ship, Oris drew his most trusted weapon. He'd scarcely had to use it in his tenure aboard ship, but he nevertheless practiced his surgical dexterity with its operation. It was a long-barreled pistol that accepted a flute-like magazine of lead ball and black powder, with a brass handle that terminated in a metal endcap. Its lower caliber made it easier to use with a single hand. Like his surgical tools, it was built to an exacting standard. The weapon clearing the holster drew a pang of nausea.

As Oris laid helpless in bed, he saw his unloaded pistol hung above his head. His prosthetic leg and metal fingers were set directly beneath it, just out of reach. His arms and legs were tied to metal bars well out of reach. He remembered the circumstances which typically accompanied its bedside use, when all he could provide for a patient was a quick euthanasia. He remembered the first time he'd learned that lesson, when he was an apprentice surgeon during the Battle of Highwater Gulf. The Roan and Itan battle-lines collapsed into a mad melee of boarding actions, and he'd heard the former First Mate screaming after barely surviving a blast of grapeshot to the side. Given the missing leg and perforated chest, all he could provide was a merciful termination with a pistol. The scarcity of supplies at sea necessitated he perform the procedure at more frequently than he'd hoped. He wondered if his unknown benefactor was now weighing his own life in a similarly karmic fashion. He involuntarily shuddered as he mused over the implications of the empty pistol kept nearby.

Oris found his macabre musings interrupted by a gentle wrapping on the door. He asked who was there, hoping someone spoke his language. Given the position of his prosthetics and pistol, he immediately knew resistance would not be an option. He clutched his aching head, cursing to himself. He silenced his grumbling as a local woman walked in, a lean and willowy figure clad in a white apron. She had dark hair, high cheekbones, skin with a tune between the verdigris of greening bronze and molten chocolate, and a pair of gloved hands that covered spindly fingers. The plethora of pockets on her garment were filled with tools of alarming similarity to his own. To his terrified mind, he wondered if she was sent to heal him or torture him. The probability of both being true crept into his mind as he beheld the downcast eyes and upturned lips.

"What is the last thing you remember?" she asked in flawless Roan.

Oris forced his muddled mind to recall the pandemonium from the prior night. He remembered expending the entirety of his ammunition, taking measured shots from behind the cover of wooden shutters. He remembered the crew raking the boarders with the swivel guns, the mad mob vanishing in a whiff of grapeshot. Like the symptoms of a retreating fever, the crowd fell back from the docks. Captain Zur came around to check who remained, and instructed them to make ready for immediate departure. All unlucky enough to return beyond their allotted time would be left behind.

Oris scarcely remembered the sudden swell that overtook them the following day. One moment, the sea looked as clear and delicate as a crystalline mirror. The next, gray clouds snuffed out the sunlight as white-capped waves rose higher. Captain Zur ordered them to batten down all hatches, and he retreated to his study. He heard the cracking of wood and rushing of water, but then his vision went black. He wondered where he was in the Empire, or what fate the locals intended for him.

"I remember a riot, a rapid departure, and a storm," he said, selecting every word as deliberately as be placed his shots. "But nothing afterwards."

"Then I will be more than happy to elucidate what transpired," she asked. "In the wake of the riots, the city succumbed to a disease unknown in these lands. The garrison commander believes you spread this epidemic as vengeance, before you cowardly flew away like a startled gull."

Oris felt himself mumbling involuntarily. He'd been to Heron's Beak twice before, but he'd never witnessed hostility like that desperate boarding attempt. So long as foreigners did not wander outside the port district, the locals rarely bothered them. As best he understood, the remainder of the city simply ignored them. Given the strategic value of the city, the possibility of deliberate instigation of the riots was one that crossed his mind. He clammed up, trying to consider what his interrogator hoped to get from him. He'd heard of the Empire's infamous torturers, and he wondered if this woman was part of some inscrutable game intended to break him. He responded with a guileless honesty he'd hope would satisfy them.

"Madam, I do not know anything about this outbreak, but I will do all in my power to help stop it," he said. "I am Doctor Oris Vandori, surgeon of the Farsight. The oath I swore as a physician is to alleviate suffering to the best of my ability. Please, tell me of this disease, and I will gladly lend my expertise to yours. I trust you are a fellow physician? If so, I am honored to meet your acquittance. I am sure we have much to learn from one another."

"Doctor Vandori," the woman said disdainfully. "Those pitiful pirate cities that your crew hail from were raised from barbarism by explorers from this land four centuries ago. Your equipment has not even changed since then."

The woman pulled up his box of medical supplies and personal possessions, a buoyant wooden crate with the same initials as his belt and pistol.

"We found your things in this floating box," she said. "Another invention you've stolen from here. Your things are all derivative of ours. Have you contributed nothing original to this world?"

Oris said nothing in response, trying to keep his composure together. She pulled out his surgical tools, handling a metal sawblade missing a handful of teeth.

"These tools are obsolete, even by the standards of the ancient Kirn Dynasty. Your country's surgeons resemble our butchers."

Oris said nothing, as she understood she was attempting to anger him. She moved towards his prosthetic leg. She picked it up, stared at it, and dropped it in front of him.

"Ah, a spring-pattern leg prosthetic. Made of a similar alloy as an ancient crossbow, and you've failed to improve your metallurgy since. A piece of junk only fit for the scrapheap."

Oris flinched as he heard it clattered to the ground, as it reminded him of the times he'd tripped on his trusty artificial limb.

She raised the emptied pistol, before dropping it to the floor behind her. "Your pistol is a crude, foreign copy of a Kirn-patterned sparklock repeating pistol. Perhaps you'd be better served by throwing stones."

Oris did not care for the weapon, but the carelessness she displayed with his things was irking him. A small tide of anger rose within him.

She held up the plague mask he wore when working with contagious patients, a green fabric sack with opaque glass goggles and a metal filter containing herbs and charcoal. He recalled how much he looked like an insectile demon when wearing it. "And this, another Kirn rip-off, worn by those expecting to deal with bodily fluids and infected material. Perhaps you had other reasons for bringing this?"

Having withstood the other barbs, Oris simmered in rage. He wanted to launch a tirade as to how his homeland was not as affluent as the Empire, or how they were helpless against this unknown disease. His attempt at an angry rant came out instead as a series of frantic, sobbing pleas.

"Please! Enough! I apologize if I have offended you," he said. "I know my fate is completely in your hands. Just tell me about this plague, and I will try to identify it."

"So, you admit spreading it?"

"No! I would never spread a disease!" he raised his hands, revealing the blisters on his left hand, his elbow, and the side of his neck. "These are the scars of the Scarlet Pox. Having suffered through its agonies, I would naught wish them on even my greatest enemies!"

The woman craned her head inwards. Her scornful tone evaporated as though it was a puddle in the sun. Her tense shoulders lowered, and she spoke with an analytic tone befitting her posture. She became the model of a professional, detached clinician that he'd aspired to, but never quite reached.

"Doctor Vandori, could you please describe the Scarlet Pox?"

Oris found his rage vanish quickly, replaced by a sense of confusion. He blinked, and he muttered to himself for two minutes. He tried to make sense of what he'd beheld, of the humiliating show he'd been subjected to. He saw her eyes watching him with great interest, as though confident of achieving some inscrutable goal. Well past the point of caring of his own survival, he spoke without reservation or pause. If this woman wanted to her about it, she would drown in his words.

"A disease common in the Shatterlands, where most of us have a less virulent form of it as young children. Those that contract it once never do so again. I was unlucky enough to catch a more potent form of it as a young adult, and it nearly killed me," he said. "I suffered bloody sores across the body, which hosted secondary infections resistant even to blue mold elixirs. Each sore is highly infectious."

She nodded, her eyes moving like a student taking notes. She bowed her head. "I must apologize for the earlier actions, but I had to ensure you were not lying."

"What? I would have told you everything if you'd been honest. Your Roan is flawless!"

"I learned from a foreign woman, kept in my mistress' manor as part of her entourage."

"Wait, what? Are we still in the city?"

"No. My mistress is a rural noblewoman that took an interest in you after a fisherman found you and your things washed ashore. You were out for a week."

"Then why the binding? Why the act?"

"I have to deal with liars all the time, and I wanted to ensure you weren't lying," she said, smiling warmly. "I'm confident in in my initial assessment of you as a doctor, but I had to prepare for the worst."

"About what?"

"It wasn't a chance I was willing to take. The constables wanted to torture a confession out of you."

Oris stopped. "Why?"

"Because the fisherman that saved you was the first reported patient. He was taken to the city for treatment, and the quarantine came soon afterwards."

Oris screamed, not caring if his captor's words were truthful or not.

From Rust and Rubble

Kham Ingea never witnessed the disaster for which she'd later be singlehandedly blamed, but her description of it was unnervingly accurate. She saw all the warning signs during her trip to the Empire's ancient capital, the Highwater Citadel of Sehun. She was accompanied by her instructor and three of her student peers, all of whom were male. While she was used to being treated as a piece of meat, stared at like a butcher's prized steak, she nevertheless found the trip to be unpleasant on many levels.

Ingea stepped off the river-barge before the others, so eager for a solid foundation beneath her feet. She saw the dockworkers stare at her, perhaps trying to determine if the body of man or woman was beneath her robes. She wore the orange tunic of an engineer, but had it fitted for a body slightly bigger than hers. She took care of her grooming and hygiene with the minimal pragmatism she governed all aspects of her life with. She recalled the biting of lice and ticks, and witnessed ornate care foisted upon by hairstyles by the vain, resulting in her shaving in a depilation thorough enough to remove her eyebrows and long lashes. She wore no cosmetics, and she wore a protective helmet and vest of her own design. Having seen the injuries present in corvee workers, she saw no need to eschew the professional protection for the sake of appearance. Much to her dismay, it was insufficient to deter the most persistent threat.

"We will wait for our guide together," grumbled her instructor, Master Architect Gen. He was a spindly man with a rat-like countenance, holding his nose above his students and commoners alike. He dressed in an engineer's tunic with all the embellishments and awards he could afford. On his chest read a timetable of his most celebrated projects, from the widening of the Southron Canal to the fortress restoration along the Western Frontier. She noticed he was saving a blank spot on his chest, presumably for the award that would follow the current project's completion. She stepped to the other side of the pier from him, despite him beckoning her over.

From the docks, Ingea beheld the millennia-honed grandeur of Sehun. As it was the terminus of the Grand River's navigable portion, the city was designed to impress visitors from the docks. She had visited before as a youth, but looked again upon the city with mature eyes. Much of the craft around her were keelboats, river-barges, paddle-wheel freighters, and shallow-draft vessels, but a pair of ocean-going catamarans and a strangely small caravel also occupied berths at the dock. The docks were an assemblage of warehouses, kilns, mills, and smithies that churned unceasingly like cogs in a grand machine. The clouds of soot, clangor of metal, and clacking of distant shuttles was music to her ears.

The structures perched on the cliffs above the Eastport docks were slightly less impressive to Ingea. She found the massive, statue-lined stairwell that connected the docks to the city proper to be highly inefficient for mass movement of cargo. Her contempt vanished when looked beside it. She beheld the angled metal rails on the stone ramp beside it, which lowered a wheeled cargo lift with rattling chains. She saw frantic stevedores scurrying to move crates onto the platform once it was fully lowered. Recognizing the massive wheels that moved it to be like a ship's capstan, it was a mechanism impressive in both scope and scale.

Beyond the stairwell and elevator, Ingea behold the spires of the Cliffside District, where the nobility lived. The mansions were of at least a dozen architectural styles she recognized, resulting in a chimerical district of gaudy facades. The fortifications that surrounded the cliffs on either side of the river quickly drew her attention, as their star-shaped bodies groped across the landscape like stone octopi. Their flat, gray walls were far more fascinating to behold than the tree-lined tiered gardens of the Central Palace.

The creak of more footfalls on the dock caused her to glace and see the Master's other students disembark. She saw the spindly frame of the nebbish Erac, who scarcely stared beyond the pages of a book. She saw Tey, who still reeked of alcohol from the prior night. She heard the moaning of Purt, who'd always be complaining about something. Master Gen walked down the dock, ignoring her as a red-suited official sauntered down to meet him.

"Gentlemen, and lady," Gen said, narrowing his eyes at Ingea. "This is Emissary Vergan of the Sehun Ministry of Public Works. He will be our guide for the day."

"Thank you," Vergan said, bowing towards the students. "The city of Sehun honored to host the apprentices of Master Engineer Gen. I look forward to showing you your designs being constructed before your eyes."

The students all bowed back to the Emissary. Ingea noted his eyes lingered longer on her. They started to march up the cyclopean stairwell, which was far larger than it seemed from a distance. She remained silent as she marched behind the others, allowing Tey and Purt to directly follow behind the Master. Erac hung backwards, observing the city like a gawking visitor. She followed briskly behind them, easily keeping pace as they ascended.

Upon reaching the summit, Ingea did her best to tune out the Emissary's blathering lecture on each of the local noble houses, and their complements about to the bridge's elegant design and construction. She noted the fawning comments lavished upon the Master's elegant design, and the way Gen pretended to be flattered. She narrowly resisted the urge to speak up, and instead focused once more on the surrounding city.

Past Cliffside, Ingea beheld the massive wall that surrounded the city on three sides. Each was a tremendous metal gate, encrusted with brandished rivets and almost looming as high as the palace. The westernmost one was ringed with stylized images of triumphant warriors, which she recalled was the Conqueror's Gate. The central one was embellished with eidolons of ancient rulers beside it, giving it the name of the Imperial Gate. The one closest to her was gilded along the edges, the widely-recognized the Merchant's Gate. Each seemed too large and impractical to her, build to impress rather than defend. As the city was unconquered by force for over a millennium, she wondered if her assessment was incorrect, or what were once serviceable defenses were similarly softened by greed.

Ingea wordlessly followed the others through Government Square. Monuments to long-dead Emperors and Empresses rose alongside august heroes of folk-legend and history. She saw the First Empress looming over the plaza with folded hands, her legendary cynicism enshrined in stone. She saw the Great Engineer facing out towards the manufactories and workshops of Eastport, where his artifice inspired the foundation of the Transcendent Order. The Wayward Admiral looked out over the Grand River, owing to the departure point for his expedition that discovered the Shatterlands six centuries prior. There was a more recent statue, carved in the Kirn style, but bearing the face of the current Governor. She did not bother to learn her name, given the apparent vanity of the project.

Ingea beheld the chasm beneath the bridge she designed with a blend of awe and horror. The cliffsides were sudden stone drops, hewn by the river over the passage of eons. The Grand River itself was a braided river, meandering across its bed based on the melting of winter snows. Its dark blue waters were different than the brownish murk it became as streams merged with it at the confluences near Eastport. On the opposite side was the greatest star-fort of the Kirn Dynasty, protecting the Southside of the city with its raised walls and ample artillery. Between the grim crenellations of the southern fortress and breathtaking cliffs was a travesty she immediately disowned.

Ingea saw the superficialities of the bridge she designed were all that remained of her initial design. The sweeping arches and thick supports were as majestic as she imagined, but the changes made were heaping injustices upon both her aesthetic and technical senses. Each of the five stone pillars between the arches, the struts holding the weight of the bridge rested upon cheap fill instead of the more solid, and expensive, stone. Stone statues added at regular intervals along the bridge added unnecessary, and unaccounted for in the design, weight to each span. Carved alcoves bearing the Imperial coat of arms were precariously positioned above each arches' keystone, compromising the most imperative part of the bridge.

Ingea remembered Master Gen's smug grin on that day, as he was undoubtedly responsible for the "improvements" in question. She wondered if the Master pocketed the money "saved" by his changes. He lapped up accolades from the Duchess herself, leering down at her with the overconfidence of having stolen her design, modified it, and received the credit. From his prancing, she surmised his scapegoat in the event of the bridge's failure. From the way he treated her, she planned accordingly for more than his scorn.

Ingea recalled the night they arrived back, how the pride-drunk Gen once more was brazen enough to once more demand she sleep with him. The other students offered no support, if they were even aware of it. Erac was too timid to stand up to him. Purt was too sycophantic to complain about the one thing that mattered to her. Tey was too drunk to care. Her incredulous family would once more claim she was lying, and that she was trying to besmirch the Master's reputation, despite the tremendous chance he gave her. His actions on that day confirmed what she suspected all along.

Six months later, Ingea heard the bridge collapsed from a traveling merchant. When pressed for details, her initial thoughts were correct. The rain-swelled Grand River swept away the soft soil beneath each piling, causing the central arch to collapse. At least two dozen people vanished into the raging waters beneath, including a nobleman and two families. She could barely imagine the terror and shock on their faces the bridge betrayed them when they most needed it. She felt a nausea in her stomach for many reasons, not the least of which was the pair of constables that headed towards the Master's estate.

Ingea said a quiet word of thanks to the merchant, before heading for the edge of town. She set aside some rocks beneath a small mound of rubble, revealing the wooden chest she hidden cache she'd set aside six months prior. She slipped the traveler's robe over her protective vest, and she loaded the crank-driven repeating pistol of her own design. She knew she could never return to Master Gen's, but she did not care. She was to him as the rubble that was once the Sehun Bridge, something to be used and discarded as necessary. She could not fix the bridge, but she could fix her situation. She cursed herself for not taking this course of action earlier.

The Smiling Cinder

Orbal Junis entered the Imperial City of Alew with tempered expectations, but he was nevertheless impressed. He was a neophyte provincial lawyer promoted to the Imperial Court to advance the interests of his patron, Duchess Sehun. While he was born outside the Imperial City, he spent the entirety of his childhood along the Grand River, as his parents managed a shipping concern between Sehun and Heron's Beak. Nescient of most courtly protocol, he entered Alew as a commoner or wealthy merchant would.

Junis rode the Old Coachway into Alew, a journey that took two days after sailing to the most distant station of the still-functional Imperial Branch of the coachway network. The draft animals changed from grave-birds to oxen at the previous waystation, due to an obscure, ancient Imperial decree that ossified into tradition. He wondered what the network would have been like in antiquity, when iron rails connected the Alew to the Western Frontier, and traveling the entirety of the Grand River by rail was possible.

Junis beheld the outskirts of the city from the arched causeway that held the coachway's metal rails. The first shape to appear above the marble-lined city walls was the top of the Imperial Mausoleum. It was a vaulted arch supported by a dozen pillars on either side, each as wide a rail-coach. The statues of earlier dynasties stood before each pillar, each emblematic of the era they reigned. He saw the last Emperor of the Kirn Dynasty, memorialized by an ignoble death and the civil war that followed; the First Empress, with her spindly hands; and the First Emperor of the incumbent Derg dynasty, still clad in the woolen, barbarian garb of the western wastes. From this magnificent structure, he thought it would be surrounded by monuments of similar grandeur.

As the coach-train drew closer, Junis saw he was greatly mistaken. The Mausoleum sat forlorn and isolated atop a hill at the center of the Necropolis District. Foul smoke assaulted his nostrils as he looked out the window. Garbage fires below the elevated coachway gave the impression he was descending into some infernal hell-pit. As the train grew closer, he saw the ornate etchings that once decorated the sign had eroded away with age. Lesser mausoleums, and the sprawling shanties around them, descended the hill like sloughing folds of corpse-tallow. The hillside facing the Toccam River was almost completely covered by ramshackle houses, likely fashioned from driftwood, scrap metal, and trash from the opposite bank.

The train passed between two complexes of tottering shanties, and Junis beheld the assemblage gathered on the tracks before them. Ahead of the train was a scurry of activity as bazaar stalls moved out of way with a well-practiced synchronicity. What was once a bustling marketplace turned into an irritated line of people standing against the adjacent buildings. He tried to meet the gazes of two separate people, but received only scornful stares for his attention. Commerce resumed immediately after the last coach passed, haggling resumed, and the Railmarket reorganized itself with a precision rivaling his own fencing.

While crossing the river, Junis beheld the liquid ribbon of garbage the Toccam River became. Pooling near the stone supports of the river were an assortment of flotsam pungent enough to stink to up to the coachway. It reminded him of the time he'd entered a warehouse of meat spoiled by floodwaters. He thought he saw a waterlogged corpse beneath an accumulation of driftwood. From the precarious rattling of the coaches on a river-borne wind, he seriously wondered if he'd join it in the drink shortly. Much to his relief, he reached the other side without plunging into those rancid, filthy waters.

The opposite bank of the Toccam was the storied, ornate realm of the Imperial elite Junis first expected. The wharves where dozens of small ferries waited were as pilgrims before a decorated shrine. The waterfront was made of ancient sandstone and marble buildings characterized by two to three floors with arched entrances. The cobblestone walk before each was clean and well-maintained, in contrast to the blighted opposite bank. It was occupied by ornately robed pedestrians, which wandered along the waterfront like forlorn phantoms in the underworld.

The Imperial Winter Palace dominated the skyline like a growing sense of apprehension gnawed in Junis' mind. The windows of its Dozen Towers were gilded with gold and silver, him to flinch from the sun's blinding reflection. The Palace two sets of walls surrounded it, the innermost one rising twice as tall as the outer one. Between each was a labyrinthine expanse of narrow alleyways and buildings partially set into the wall. Even in the height of afternoon, half of the Civic Quarter was swathed in shadow like an executioner's hood. He found his hand moving towards his dueling sword out of instinct as he imagined walking through the palatial labyrinth's uncountable blind corners.

Junis felt the train slow, and he heard the echo of the driver's commands carry through the corridor of noble villas that surrounded either side of the tracks. The train snaked around a narrow curve, and he saw the tracks vanish into a strangely spartan wooden shed that marked the next waystation. That final stretch of tracks overlooked the tree-lined Imperial Plaza, where geyser-high fountains were interspersed among copses of trees imported, undoubtedly at great expense, from each province of the empire. He saw the snake-weed of the southern jungles, the whistling thistle from the western wastes, the water-ferns of the Grand River's delta, and others he could not identify. Visitors, ranging from individuals to entire families with retinues of servants, lolled about the greenery, a world apart from the slums across the river. Across the park was a coachway surrounded by wrought-iron fences, which he presumed was the Imperial Route for the Emperor's personal train.

Junis saw the waystation's interior contrasted the exterior wooden cladding, which he now presumed was for protection during maintenance. The roof was surrounded by paintings of the Alew's half-mythic founding, with the Yuw Empress decreeing that her entourage halt before crossing the river. Struck by a divine epiphany, she decreed the capital would be moved there. The painted Empress, as he identified, was clad in anachronistic fashions popular in the later Kirn Dynasty, rather than the austere garments popular in that uncouth time.

Junis beheld the throng of people that stood by the platform. A handful were dressed in the bedraggled garments of commoners, but most dressed in the motley colors of itinerant merchants or the well-tailored robes of lesser nobility and artisans. He scanned that faceless, congealed mass with great celerity. He tried to find the red robes of a barrister in that riot of colors, only to be disoriented as the train slowed. He thought he saw someone, but realized it was not the man he sought.

Junis waited for the attendant to unlock the door before stepping out of the coach and retrieving his bag. He saw the guards sitting atop the coaches dismount and the oxen team unleashed, so they could be replaced by fresh ones so the train could continue. Sighing in relief in reaching the terminus of his own journey, he pushed through the throng to reach daylight. He felt a muscular hand squeeze his shoulder, and he turned around with his free hand reaching for his sword. He would have drawn it with an alacrity exceeding even a trained soldier, if not for the unexpected hand that trapped it.

"Careful, Junis," said a gravelly voice behind him. "Here, you'll need to keep your wit sharper than your sword."

Junis turned to see the smiling face of the man he'd been unable to find early. Time left tracks across his face, leaving wrinkles that lent him a gravitas expected of an elder. His high cheekbones and receding hairline gave the impression his face was larger than Junis remembered it. His torso had grown wider, but it was still was the same barrel shape Junis remembered. His once-tan skin had grown pale, but his saber still hung from his side. Barrister Wex bowed to Junis before embracing him.

"Barrister Wex, it's a pleasure to see you after a decade," Junis said, bowing his head in deference of his elder. "And an honor to serve with your side in Alew."

"Oh, serving in this city is no honor," Barrister Wex said, rapidly pacing away from the crowd. "More of a stain upon my conscience."

"What do you mean? That's always part of our job."

"Being a barrister in this town is more than shouting rhetoric in court, dealing with Magistrates, and partaking in ritual duels," Wex said, his tone dropping to barely audible. "Especially because Sehun must compete with far vaster interests."

"Such as?"

Barrister Wex turned his head towards the Imperial Plaza. Junis saw a man in ornate stone-coat armor, surrounded by a virtual phalanx of soldiers as he talked to a subordinate. He could not make out the details, but he saw the officer's reddened face.

"Take General Sennu there. He believes, with good reason, we need to send an expedition to quell the bandits raiders along the Western Frontier," Barrister Wex explained. "His nature inhibits his success, for he is cursed to play politics with a soldier's professionalism and an honorable conscience."

"Why wouldn't they have already sent an army? I heard another frontier colony was razed."

"Because the Emperor's attentions are fickle, and his time finite," Barrister Wex answered, placing his hand on Junis' shoulder. "And other crises demand more time, which we must use to our advantage."

Wex directed Junis' attention to a woman with curly brown hair. She was dressed conservatively in a Barrister's robes, and she leisurely sauntered underneath the spray from a nearby fountain.

"That's Barrister Rhea from Heron's Point, relaxing after a long session about the quarantine on her city," Wex said. "She's been here a few years, but learns fast. Pray you don't anger her."

"What does the Emperor spend most of his time on?" Junis asked. "Defending the realm? The plague? I've heard many rumors, but I want to know."

Wex led Junis under a stone archway, which led into the byzantine passages of the Civic Quarter. Light drained from his vision, as though it was some malady purged through laxatives. Wex grasped a lantern from a nearby stand, which spat out bright embers before the duo. Those that escaped the candle's metal cage died on the stone ground, like the ignoble deaths of a bandit pack. Wex checked behind him and before him for others. Finding none, he turned back to Junis.

"Neither," Wex said. "He listens to the insatiable wolves from the Financiers Guild and beholding demonstrations of diabolical new toys from the Torturers Guild."

Before he could respond, Junis felt the explosion reverberate through him. He staggered back, while Wex braced himself against a nearby wall. Junis smelt the acrid tang of distant gunpowder before he heard the distant screams. Above him, he saw a dark cloud of roiling, distant smoke that rose like the conflagration of a desiccated forest. He covered his ears, but it did not stop the ringing. He saw cinders and ash rising alongside the column of smoke, wafting through the air like doomed fireflies. Wex, seemingly unaffected to the extent Junis was, ushered him into an alleyway.

Junis noticed the sight grin on Wex's face. "It appears our job has gotten a little easier," he said. "Although I fear your arrival may spark more than I'd hoped."

Junis struggled to stand back up, as he eyed people running outside the alley's entrance. Wex turned to him, with a sly grin. "Oh, and by the way, never trust a smile in this city."

Still reeling like a punch-drunk boxer, Junis nervously grinned back. He did not hear the sly chortle that escaped Wex's lips before a second blast sent him toppling over.