Out of the shattered glory of PameMorturas, came Wolfram Morringun the mennisinger, his Nothing Box filled with the tortured sounds of that splendidly ruined city. Across the Silent Plains and Fading Forests he came, his step and mood both light.
The delights he had uncovered in Morturas had surprised even him: ancient agonies that had left their aural imprint upon the stones, the weeping of mothers and the keening of children five thousand years dead, the dull thwack of steel upon flesh and the screams of dying men. The raw ingredients, then, for a fine puresong – perhaps the finest he had yet composed.
But even so.
Wolfram’s mouth twisted in a sardonic line and his hitherto positive frame of mind abruptly dropped from him. A short week from now, the mennisingers of the Shining Cities would gather in PameFilias to compete for the patronage of Earl Veduc. The Earl, paterfamilias of House Harkess, had let it be known that he required a funeral hymn for his wife, Countess Alexa, who was sanctioned to appear before the United Inquisition to account for her many blasphemies and infidelities.
No one doubted that she would be found guilty and handed over to the Morder Zunft—the assassins’ cartel of PameFilias – and, naturally, the death of so noble a woman would require an appropriately mournful melody. The benefaction of the Earl was greatly to be desired, particularly for an impoverished mennisinger such as Wolfram Morringun, but would the echoes of a long-dead city be enough to secure it?
At sunset, which he judged a favorable time, Wolfram made his camp in the lee of a gnarled bristlecone pine. The tree was dead to all intents and purposes—as were most other things in the world now – with only the merest flicker of life remaining, but its shelter was more than adequate. He lit a fire, then unfurled his blue cloak, revealing the patched doublet and cracked leather breeches he wore. Like so many things about Wolfram Morringun, his clothes had been bright and fashionable once, but circumstance and his own occasionally volatile temper had cost him the patronage of many a noble until now he was little better than a common troubadour.
Still, his skill with the Nothing Box kept him in coin—albeit often from hand to mouth—and his dark good looks and silver tongue ensured that he rarely slept alone.
As the Moribund Sun sank to its rest—the rest that, one day in the not too distant future, would be a permanent one—he took the Nothing Box from the bag at his side and ran his long fingers across the keys, nodules and switches.
Unlike its owner, the Box remained in pristine condition, its surface meticulously cleaned and the small battery which powered it kept to maximum strength, more often than not fed with his own blood when no other power source was available.
To the casual observer it would appear as little more than a dull rectangle of metal with small lights and switches scattered at random across all four faces, but as Wolfram’s fingers played across its surface, the box slowly began to release its secrets.
The voice of a sobbing woman, modulated from a major to minor key, blended with the rhythmic counterpoint of a cavalry charge along cobbled highways, then segued into a sharp, almost pizzicato, flurry of arrows. The fall of PameMorturas rendered into an elaborate soundscape, reduced to melody and harmony.
There were few in the world who fully understood the workings of the Nothing Box—the instrument was a mixture of antique science and bright sorcery—but the music it produced from stolen sound could soften the heart of even the stoniest of men.
And in the hands of an artist such as Wolfram Morringun it could make the gods themselves weep. The music drifted through the darkened forest, a sweet yet mournful tune, a fitting eulogy for a murdered Countess.
But even so.
“You play well, Meister.”
The music ceased abruptly, so abruptly that even the echoes of it vanished. Wolfram’s hand went to the hilt of his long dagger as he turned to the source of the voice.
“I am hardly a Meister,” he said pleasantly, “but I thank you for your compliment.”
“So much modesty in one so young.” A figure emerged from the darkness and at its appearance Wolfram bit off an involuntary oath.
He had heard tales of the goilems before—what man or woman who walked the plains and forests had not—but had never fully believed them. In a world where truth, lies, myth and tradition were often inseparable from one another, who could know what was fact and what imagined? The wise man trusted the evidence of his own senses, but sometimes that evidence revealed impossible things, such as the creature standing before him now.
It was human in its shape, but fully ten feet tall. It wore no clothing, and its massive frame, with broad shoulders and tiny, cinched waist, was both hairless and sexless, the loins as smooth as a gelding’s. The creature’s skin was a lustrous blue, tattered here and there to reveal the stark white of the skeleton beneath. It stared at him with bright eyes like chips of quartz. Its features were surprisingly delicate and its expression fixed and unreadable.
“The night is cold,” it said. “Your fire and music are inviting. May I join you?”
“Both are yours if you wish them,” Wolfram replied. The mennisinger guilds refused no one their company, a custom so ingrained that its bounds stretched even to the inhuman denizens of the waning Earth.
The creature came towards the fire, its movements lithe and silent despite its bulk.
The goilem sat opposite him and reached out its hands to the flames, although Wolfram believed that the creature felt neither warmth nor cold. “I am that which is called A. Ruah,” it said in a bland, measured voice.
“Wolfram Morringun at your service.”
The goilem’s gaze moved to the Nothing Box. “A minnesinger? Yes?” It pronounced the word strangely, but the inversion of the vowels seemed somehow correct.
“That is so.”
“A noble profession for such ignoble times.” A. Ruah’s lips contorted and, for a moment, Wolfram believed he could hear a faint whirring as the creature tried to smile. “Forgive me,” it said. “Despite much practice I find myself unable to master even simple facial expressions.”
“Much like myself,” Wolfram replied.
The goilem did not try to smile again. Evidently it had not mastered irony, either. “Wither from?” it asked, the question polite and formal as befitted two strangers in the wilderness.
“The ruins of PameMorturas.”
“To PameFilias and the House Harkess.”
A. Ruah stared at him for a long moment and, once again, Wolfram believed he could hear weak mechanical sounds as the creature paused for thought.
“May I tell you a tale, Wolfram Morringun the Minnesinger?” It said at last.
“Of course,” Wolfram replied. “All I ask is that it is well told.” He settled himself more comfortably, wrapping his cloak around his thin frame against the night’s chill, then took some dried meat from the pouch at his belt and bit off a piece with his strong, white teeth. But his hand never strayed far from the dagger at his side. “Pray proceed.”
“I am that which is called A. Ruah,” the goilem repeated. “Like the others of my kind I was created to serve. I am a creature of ceramic and metal, of omniderm and xenograft, and I have walked the earth for many years. I helped to lay the foundations of the first Shining City, and with these strong hands of mine I built the walls and towers of Morturas.”
“You built PameMorturas?” Wolfram said. He tried to keep the disbelief from his voice—Morturas had lain in ruins for five thousand years, perhaps longer, and it was inconceivable that this creature had seen the city’s birth, let alone been its midwife.
“I and hundred of thousands like me. We built it upon the stones of the past. It was to be the greatest city of the Latter Days, a storehouse for the world’s knowledge, a beacon in the coming darkness. And for a while that beacon shone brightly.” The creature stared into the flickering flames, as if it sought remembrance within them.
“But men will always desire that which they do not possess, and the envy of the other cities was strong. They made war upon Morturas, shattered her walls and razed her towers. They slew the Curators, the Mystics, the Preservationists, and took their knowledge for their own.” A. Ruah’s voice was still bland, all but emotionless, but the goilem’s anguish was made plain by the feeble contortions of its features.
“And when they had destroyed the glory of PameMorturas, they turned their swords upon its poor servants. My kind were hunted to the brink of extinction, driven into the wastes and forests, consigned to the realm of legend. Golems!” It said the word bitterly and, once again, the strange pronunciation seemed correct.
“They were cruel, the men of the Pames—the Shining Cities of the Latter Days—but of them all the cruelest were the men of PameFilias. They destroyed my Hive Companion, that which we called A. Manus, lashed to the harnesses of four warhorses and torn to pieces in Benedict’s Square. But even so the spark of life burned long in A. Manus, so very long that with its passing I learned that which had been hitherto unknown to my kind. I learned to grieve and I learned to hate.” The creature lapsed into silence once more.
“A fine story,” Wolfram said. “And well told.” Despite the dismal chill of the night a thin sheen of sweat covered his brow.
“I needs must ask you a question,” the goilem said.
“And that question would be?”
“Are you a man of PameFilias?” It lifted its head to stare directly at him.
“No,” he told it. “I serve no city.”
“Then I regret what must be done. But done it must be.” The goilem rose to its feet in a single movement. “Know that I bear you no malice, Wolfram Morringun who serves no city, but my cells require protoplasm in order to function, and this forest is poor fare at best.” Again that tortured, feeble, grinding that passed for a smile. Or an expression of grief, perhaps.
“You would kill me despite my hospitality?” Wolfram asked.
“Reluctantly, yes. My needs are great.”
It leapt through the flames towards him, hands extended, and he barely had time to roll out of its path and into the sheltering darkness.
An almighty crack resounded through the night as the pine splintered at the goilem’s misjudged attack.
Wolfram ran, clutching the Nothing Box to his chest while the long, iron-hard branches of petrified trees clutched at his clothes and scraped his skin. Behind him, with long, measured steps that closed the ground between them without effort, came the creature that called itself A. Ruah.
“Please, Meister,” the creature called in its bland voice, “this chase affords us no dignity.”
Wolfram glanced behind him. The goilem had drawn closer now, its bulk silhouetted in the brittle moonlight. A moment more and it would be upon him.
With desperate haste, he flicked at the switches on the Nothing Box. He could not hope to slay the creature with a simple dagger but perhaps the undiluted sounds of lost Morturas might give the goilem pause and afford him the opportunity of escape. It was a forlorn hope, but his only hope for all that.
Long fingers brushed at the collar of his doublet as he spun to face A. Ruah. His hands moved frantically across the surface of the box, and with the fall of the last switch a stream of agonized sound poured from the instrument.
Five thousand years of anguish and torment shook the Fading Forest to its very roots as the phantoms of PameMorturas found the voices which had been denied to them for so very long.
And within it, echoed and reborn, was the scream of A. Ruah as it watched the city burn, saw the accumulated knowledge of lost mankind splinter and fragment, and felt once more the terrible agony of loss and expulsion. Under that onslaught, what mind—human or inhuman—would not break, save those of the mennisinger guilds, trained since birth to withstand even the deepest of horrors?
The goilem fell to its knees, its lips writhing, cheeks twitching, howling its grief into the night. Then, with a faint whirr—obscenely loud in the sudden stillness—it crashed to the ground.
“I bear you no malice either, A. Ruah of PameMorturas,” Wolfram Morringun told it. “But my need to live is as great as yours.”
Then, with the heaviest rock he could lift, he smashed the goilem’s delicate features and ceramic skull to flinders.
The next day he continued his journey to PameFilias, taking with him those pieces of A. Ruah which he judged most valuable—the quartz eyes, a handful of gold and silver cogs from the abdomen and, finest of all, its final scream, rescued from the ether and stored away in the Nothing Box. The rest he left to the forest scavengers in the certain knowledge that nothing would be wasted.
By late afternoon he had reached the Chalybs Way – that splendid yet desolate road that linked the Shining Cities of Glorias, Murias, Filias and Valdas—and in the evening paid for his night’s lodgings at a modest inn with a smattering of pillaged silver.
He slept well that night on a goose down bed, and if his dreams were disturbed with visions of inhuman faces, they were soon forgotten in the warm embrace of the innkeeper’s daughter who lay beside him.
Another day’s travel brought him to PameFilias, City of the Axe.
Not so darkly grand as Valdas, nor as ornate in its architecture as Glorias or, indeed, as awe-inspiring as Murias, PameFilias nonetheless dominated the land around it. Set upon a series of rolling hills, the city’s looming towers and granite walls stood starkly against the slate-grey sky.
He entered through one of the minor gates, the guards barely deigning to check his credentials. “Another damned minstrel,” one of them said when he saw the Nothing Box that Wolfram carried. “Come to pick over the bones of the Countess Alexa.” He was a tall man dressed in green livery, his cheeks decorated with ritual scars.
“A mennisinger, if you please,” Wolfram corrected. “Here at the behest of Earl Veduc.”
“You and a hundred like you. A pox on every one.” The guard spat carefully at Wolfram’s feet, just missing the toes of his boots.
Wolfram gave him a small, half-mocking bow in return. “May the Gods remember your name, friend,” he said.
“And the Devils remember yours.”
As he made his way towards the center of the city and the Citadella Harkess atop Varega Hill, a familiar voice called his name: “Morringun, you jackanape, have you grown so high and mighty that you refuse to acknowledge old friends?”
There, outside a tavern, sat a fat man resplendent in purple velvet. A man he had not seen in years. “Trinculo?”
“The very same! Come seeking the Earl’s patronage, have you?”
“What other reason could there be?”
“To see my pretty face, perhaps?”
“You are many things, Trinculo Grasso, but pretty is not one of them.”
The two men embraced. Then Trinculo ordered wine and they sat together, watching the citizens of PameFilias pass by them.
“So you have come to play a puresong for the Countess?” Trinculo said, after the first glass.
“Aye, and you?”
The fat man smiled. “What other reason would there be for leaving PameGlorias?”
“And your employment with House Carnelian, what of that?”
Trinculo Grasso placed his glass on the tabletop and wiped his mouth with a lace kerchief before replying: “I am sad to say that my employment with that noble family has been terminated... there was a minor scandal which involved my name and the name of the Baron’s younger brother.” He shrugged delicately. “It necessitated a change of pace and scenery, shall we say.”
“So we are rivals for the Earl’s favor then?”
The corpulent mennisinger shook his head. “Tomorrow we will be rivals, but tonight you shall stay here as my friend and good companion.”
“Until tomorrow, then,” Wolfram said, raising his glass in salute.
Morning brought the taste of stale wine and the realization that his purse had become substantially lighter than before. He had matched Trinculo Grasso glass for glass as they had talked long into the night, trading stories of their days in the Mennisinger’s Blue Carnation Collegium, of individual glories and shared failure. They had parted as friends, and for that he was glad.
He dressed and made his way through the straight, broad streets of PameFilias to the center of the city and the Citadella Harkess.
By far the tallest structure in the city, the Citadella stood at least three hundred feet tall. Like many constructions of the Latter Days, it presented a strange conglomeration of tastes and styles—the western sections elaborate and baroque, the eastern stark and simplistic—ringed by a high, spiked wall. The House Harkess valued its privacy, it appeared, even if it was prepared to parade its indiscretions in public.
A steady stream of men and women—all mennisingers—made their way to the Citadella gates. Some wore gaudy costumes, their faces painted or, in some cases, concealed behind elaborate masks; others wore drab motley, others still simple black. All carried their precious Nothing Boxes with suitable reverence.
Few spoke, the camaraderie of their guild abandoned for the present, for all there were anxious to win the favor of the Earl. They waited patiently in the huge courtyard under the brittle light of the Moribund Sun, their attention fixed on the large dais at one end.
It was close to noon by the time the Earl Veduc and his entourage made their appearance. A dozen heralds announced their arrival, sounding shrill notes from silver trumpets. Twice that number of the Earl’s household guards, resplendent in bronze Armour and emerald cloaks, ringed the dais. And behind them, conspicuous in their red masks and conical hoods, stood a small cadre of the Morder Zunft, immobile and impassive.
The Earl was a tall, slender man, dressed entirely in white, with a long sable cloak draped across his shoulders. His long blonde hair framed a sharply-featured face. His wife stood by his side.
She was beautiful, the Countess Alexa. As tall as her husband but dark where he was pale, the yellow gown she wore emphasizing the luster of her copper skin. And haughty, too: Wolfram could see it in her eyes, in the cool indifference with which she regarded the assembled crowd.
Here is a woman who will not go to her death lightly, he thought, nor will she allow her passing to go unremarked.
“The House Harkess welcomes you,” the Earl said. His voice was soft but carried easily. He turned to his wife. “Whom would you have play first, Alexa?”
“It makes no difference,” she replied. “Choose any one you wish.”
He nodded to a man in the front row of the crowd.
“You,” he said. “Play.”
The mennisinger—one of those clad in black that Wolfram had noted earlier—unslung his Nothing Box and ran his fingers across its surface, his face furrowed with concentration.
The music was sweet and mournful. The Earl held up his hand to stop it after a few passages.
“No,” he said. He pointed to another man. “You. Play.”
His music was no less accomplished, the sounds no less somber, and bright tears filled his eyes as he played.
“No,” the Earl said again.
And so it continued throughout the long afternoon and into the encroaching chill of evening. Time and again he discarded both players and music with a curt word or, on occasion, with a slight shake of his head. The crowd thinned as the rejected players left.
At last it was Wolfram Morringun’s turn to play.
And what music he created. His sculpted notes and cascading chords—ripped from the heart of grieving PameMorturas—were sweet and somber, furious and mournful, filled with the longing of unfulfilled lives and stolen years. They spoke of things that once were and now could never be again, of the selfishness and jealousy of those who had destroyed Morturas and the destruction they had wreaked not only upon that poor city but on the future of mankind itself.
When he had done, a profound silence fell across the courtyard, and only the wind—a light breeze that gently lifted the hems of emerald green cloaks or blood-red robes—disturbed the reverence of the moment.
The Countess looked down at Wolfram and their eyes met. He saw, for the first time, the melancholy in her face, the thin, grim lines around her mouth and eyes that spoke of a spirit too proud to be shattered.
“No,” the Earl said. He motioned towards Trinculo Grasso. “You. Play.”
The fat mennisinger stepped forward and made a courtly bow towards the Earl and his wife. Despite his bulk, Grasso moved with a light grace and every gesture delicate and well timed. Today he wore blue velvet, his face elaborately painted; powder and rouge as painstakingly and expertly applied as any of the Golden Courtesans of PameGlorias.
Where others had been somber, his hymn was light and bright, his fingers moving deftly across the surface of the Box in an increasingly complex pattern. The notes spoke of days long since past, when the earth itself was verdant and green, before the sun had begun its long slow descent towards death.
Then the music changed, minor chords creeping into the jovial melody lines until it became no longer a song of joy no longer but an obscene paean to the pleasures of pain and death.
The Earl did not hesitate this time.
“Yes,” he said. “You will play for the death of Countess Alexa.”
The Earl and his entourage turned with a single motion and returned to the Citadella. None of them looked back.
And as Wolfram stared at the Earl’s retreating form, he felt the first stirrings of fury rise within him—a smoldering, bone-deep anger that threatened to rob him of reason. To be slighted thus! He forced his anger down, determined to retain his usual calm demeanor, but his fingers twitched by his side, their movement all-but involuntary, as if they sought to crush the throat of the Earl Veduc.
With a single whispered blasphemy he swept out of the courtyard.
“You were robbed, my friend,” Trinculo Grasso said. They sat in Trinculo’s chambers at the inn, drinking by the light of tallow candles.
Wolfram did not correct him; instead he stared into the glass of wine on the table before him, his gaze so intense that one might have thought he sought to shatter the goblet through the power of his mind alone.
Wolfram lifted his glass and drained its contents in one long swallow. “You were chosen, I was not.” He rose and made his way towards the door. “The better man won. Let that be an end to it.”
Trinculo shook his head. “We both know that is a lie, my friend. And now that it no longer matters I can speak freely.” The fat man paused for a moment.
“I always envied your talent, Wolfram,” he said. “When we were students at the Collegium I was in awe of you, your skill and your passion. The puresong you played today was magnificent, I would give ten years of my life to play such music.”
“As you say, it no longer matters.”
“What will you do now?”
“First, I will get gloriously drunk to celebrate both your good fortune and the death of a beautiful woman. Then in the morning I will leave PameFilias.”
“Wherever my feet may take me.”
“If I can assist in any way....” Trinculo Grasso allowed his voice—and offer—to trail away.
“Thank you, my friend, but that will not be necessary.” Wolfram threw him an idle salute as he left the room. Grasso did not follow.
With the few remaining pieces of silver in his possession Wolfram Morringun paid his bill then went out onto the streets.
Night had fallen, sharp and cold as a razor, but despite the bitter weather and the lateness of the hour, PameFilias did not sleep. The evening bacchanal had begun as the citizens celebrated the imminent trial and death of Countess Alexa.
Colorful as peacocks they were—masked and robed in the nocturnal fashion of the city. The business of the Countess, it seemed, had divided the city in two, and as he passed through the crowds, Wolfram Morringun heard both laughter and lamentation. Virtually all the revelers wore masks that were often superbly, but just as often crudely, fashioned in the likeness of the Countess.
As he moved towards the center of the city and the environs of the Citadella he became aware that he was being followed. The sensation was hard to place – a prickling along the nape of his neck perhaps, or an almost imperceptible itching between his shoulder blades—but impossible to ignore. He turned sharply.
And she was there.
She wore a crimson cape and hood, as if in mockery of the assassins of the Zunft, and at first it appeared that she wore no disguise. But on closer inspection he realized that she sported a facsimile of her own face, exquisitely fashioned and utterly immobile; for what better concealment could there be here?
The Countess Alexa.
It was unmistakably her. He knew the haughty set of her shoulders, the curve of her breasts and hips, her long, pale hands, and the sweep of her elegant neck.
She moved through the crowd towards him, and as she drew near he could smell the perfume she wore, provocative and intoxicating.
“You are the mennisinger,” she said. Her delicately carved lips did not move.
He bowed slightly. “Wolfram Morringun at your service, Countess.”
She placed a cool finger against his lips. “No titles, if you please.”
Alexa took his hand, as naturally as any lover, and steered him through the milling throng of people, away from the Citadella and towards a secluded little square where crystal fountains bubbled and played.
“Your music was beautiful,” she told him.
“And yet it was not chosen,” he replied, unable to keep a note of bitterness from his voice.
“It was too beautiful,” she said. “The Earl would never allow it to be played at....”
“At your funeral.” Shameful joy replaced the bitterness.
She stepped close to him, and his senses were filled once again with her heady aroma.
“No,” she said. “Never that, not while there is breath and strength still in me.” She moved closer still, their bodies touching, and he could feel the warmth of her. “I will not die. Life is too precious, too sweet. I wish to drink its wine for as long as I am able.”
“As do we all.”
Her cool hand stroked his face. “Then help me to live.”
There was glamour in her perfume—he knew magic when he was in its presence—and a soft pleading tone in her voice, but neither of them influenced his answer.
“Yes,” he said.
She took the mask from her face. Her features were exquisite, with an elegance that even the most accomplished mask-maker could not hope to replicate. Their lips met, and for a long, long moment they were lost in each other.
“Is it true what they say of you?” he asked when they broke their embrace.
“What do they say?”
“That you are a blasphemer and a heretic.”
“I neither serve or acknowledge the gods,” she told him. “And on occasion I have shattered their idols for my own amusement. Does that shock you?”
He shook his head. “The gods have rarely favored me,” he said, “and a shattered idol or two is of little account.”
“Then you do not fear their wrath?”
“Never,” he said.
She sat on the edge of a fountain and ran her fingers through the water.
“I knew you were a man of no faith the moment I looked into your eyes,” she said. “A soul so like my own. One who loves life with a fierce passion.”
“You presume much, lady,” he said. But he smiled as he said it.
“If you could procure horses,” she said, “we could be away from this place by daybreak.”
“Have the stables of the House Harkess no mounts of their own?”
“Many,” she told him, “but if I were to take them, the Earl’s guard would know of my plans at once.”
He sat beside her. “I have no coin, lady.”
“Nor I. For the Earl’s treasury is closed to me now.”
He moved closer and stroked her hair, feeling the enchantment of her perfume crackle under his fingers.
“There may be a way,” he said. “Gather yourself and I will come to you as soon as I can.”
“This is your city, not mine.”
“The Jawbone Gate in the eastern quarter,” she said. “It is seldom used, no one will notice our departure from it.”
They kissed again and he took his leave of her, the warm, arcane smell of her strong in his nostrils.
It was not the enchantment that informed his decision, he was certain of that. The House Harkess had insulted him, and Wolfram Morringun was a man both protective and jealous of his talents. In helping her he would harm Harkess itself—her escape would humiliate the Earl, and provide Wolfram with suitable retaliation.
He found Trinculo Grasso in his chambers where he had left him. The fat mennisinger had gotten gloriously drunk, his doublet undone to reveal the straining corset beneath.
“My friend! You have returned.”
“Ten years, you said.”
Grasso frowned, making a drunken effort to understand. “Nay, Wolfram, you have not been gone so long.”
“Ten years to play like me. Did you mean those words, Trinculo?”
Grasso shook his head, not to deny his words but to clear his senses.
“Ten years and more if that was the price,” he said.
Wolfram advanced, his Nothing Box held before him. “The music is yours if you will help me. I need horses and provisions.”
Trinculo Grasso stood, swaying ponderously under his own bulk and the influence of wine. “Cannot it not wait until the morning?”
“No,” Wolfram said.
“Very well,” the fat mennisinger replied. “The Earl will be more than happy to supply—”
“The Earl must know nothing of this,” Wolfram said, and the sudden steel in his voice gave Grasso pause. “Bring them to the Jawbone Gate as soon as you are able.”
“And the music?” he said. “You would give it freely.”
Wolfram smiled, and there was more steel in his smile. “There are always new sounds to find, new music to be made.” He stroked the surface of the Nothing Box. “The sounds of Morturas, of the Silent Plains and the Fading Forests, the death scream of the last of his kind.”
“It will be mine?”
The Countess was waiting when he reached the Jawbone Gate, still clad in red, her face hidden by the deep shadows of the cowl
The streets were quiet here, although he could still hear revelry in the distance. Faint music, laughter and wailing that slipped through the narrow lanes and broad boulevards of the city, suddenly loud then reduced again as if the very stones of PameFilias contested with the joy and grief the sounds held.
She pushed the cowl back from her face and he could see the first glimmer of trepidation in her eyes.
“The horses will be here soon,” he told her as they embraced. They held each other, sharing warmth, huddled in the shadows of the Jawbone Gate.
He did not pretend to himself that it was love that he felt for the Countess—desire, certainly, but not love. Nor did he allow himself to believe that the smell of her perfume was stronger than before, or that his actions were those of a fool.
The sound of hooves on the cobbles made him turn, and he saw Trinculo Grasso at the end of the street. He sat upon a bay gelding, his bulk dwarfing the horse, and led a second horse, a chestnut, by its bridle.
As he rode closer Grasso’s smile first broadened then faltered as he recognized the Countess.
“I thought as much, my friend,” he said to Wolfram. “Though I had hoped it was not so. It had to be the Countess, didn’t it, Wolfram? No common tavern wench would be good enough for you. I cannot allow you to take her, my friend. I cannot allow you to destroy my future with the House Harkess.”
He put his hand to his mouth and blew a sharp whistle, like a hawker calling his favorite bird.
A moment later, the assassins of the Morder Zunft emerged onto the street, silent, lithe, faces hidden beneath conical hoods. There were eight of them, naked blades held in their hands.
“Damn you, Trinculo,” Wolfram snarled.
“You have damned yourself, my friend.”
They were artists, the torturers of the Morder Zunft, justifiably proud of their ability to inflict pain. They ministered to Wolfram Morringun with cool efficiency, never allowing anger to inform their choice of implement despite the fact that he had dared to challenge both them and the United Inquisition.
He received no trial, nor did the Inquisition deign to insist upon one—there could be no doubt of his guilt, and no one in PameFilias would protest his innocence. They required no confession, no denial, no recantation; so they tortured him for the joy of torture and as warning to those who would stand against their justice.
His limbs were racked, his fingers—those long, sensitive fingers with which he had created such beautiful music—were crushed and broken. His feet they pressed between the jaws of a vice; his skin they peeled, burned, and seared so that his body became one vast, weeping sore.
But his face remained unmarked, for the world would need to recognize him when, in due course, he was presented before the garrotte in Penitent Square.
At times, the nobility of PameFilias would come to his dungeon. Gold would change hands and they would be allowed to witness his torture while they sipped chilled wines and nibbled on sweetmeats, remarking now and then upon the musicality of his screams. Once, through pain that was so exquisite that it was almost joyous, Wolfram saw the face of the Earl Veduc, his features set in a neutral cast, his eyes no more expressive than those of a basilisk.
Of the Countess Alexa he heard nothing. Until Trinculo Grasso came to see him.
It may have been midday or midnight. Time had no relevance in the dungeons of the Zunft, measured as it was in terms of pain and greater pain.
The door to Wolfram’s cell opened, and the weak yellow light from the corridor blinded him as it cut through the all but absolute darkness.
“What have they done to you, my friend,” a familiar bass voice said.
Grasso wore muted colors today, grey and dull silver, with only the merest trace of powder on his cheeks and a hit of kohl around his eyes. “My dear Wolfram, my dear, dear Wolfram.”
Wolfram raised himself from the straw pallet where he lay and stared at Trinculo. Where once he had been handsome, he now was haggard, his skin sallow and stretched tightly across his cheekbones. Despite the coldness of the cell, a thin sheen of sweat covered his face and an agonized light glittered in his eyes.
“They have destroyed me, Trinculo,” he said and held up his hands. They were twisted, ruined things now, with as much articulation as a dead twig.
“I am truly sorry, Wolfram,” Grasso told him. “But what other choice did I have but to betray you?” He hunkered down, grunting as he did so. “She enchanted you, you know.”
“I know,” Wolfram said. “Though I chose to believe that my actions were my own.”
“You were ever a fool for beautiful women,” Grasso said. “She dies tomorrow. And you are to die with her. And when you die your music will die with you, all those fabulous sounds lost forever unless....”
Grasso leaned closer and, even through his pain, Wolfram could see the need, the jealousy, the longing in his face.
“Unless you bequeath them to me as your own memorial.”
“And why should I do that?”
“For our past friendship, perhaps?”
Wolfram began to laugh—a wild, untamed sound that verged dangerously close to madness.
“For your own sake then,” Grasso said angrily. “I can save you the pain of the garrotte.”
The laughter ceased abruptly. “And what would you know of pain, Trinculo Grasso?”
“I know that it will take you hours to die. Days, if the Zunft wish it, grinding the bolt fraction by fraction into your neck. You think that you know pain, my friend, but the Morder Zunft will show you the true meaning of agony. I can spare you that.” He took a phial from inside his tunic and held it up to the dim light, it glowed with a subtle red hue. “This will bring instant death, instant release from your suffering.”
“I do not want your kindness, Trinculo.”
“You may change your mind on the morrow.”
“Then bring my Nothing Box to Penitent’s Square and we shall see.” Wolfram Morringun smiled as best as he was able; a rictus grin that was dreadful to behold.
“You are a fool, Wolfram.”
He left without another word, and blackness took the cell once more.
In darkness and in pain, Wolfram’s mind turned to the past, to the triumphs and tragedies of his life. He did not fear death, but rather he mourned the extinction of his life and its joys. One more death in a dying world would make little or no difference, after all. But the fact that he would make no more music, no more love, cut him more deeply than even the white hot blades of the Morder Zunft.
Nor did he curse the Countess Alexa—for his desire had fuelled her enchantment—but he continued to curse the Earl Veduc and House Harkess for their rejection of his finest work.
There in the darkness, with rats scampering across his burned and twisted limbs, he sought a way to revenge himself upon them, even as the moments of his life ebbed away.
And at last – as the guards of the Zunft came into his cell to dress him in white robes and lead him to Penitent’s Square – he found it.
Slow and solemn, the procession made its way toward the Square. Two riders of the Zunft led it, mounted upon white mares, holding the red banners of their order proudly aloft. Behind them four drummers beat out a somber tattoo. Flanked between a brace of red-clad guards and dragged on an ebony cart, Wolfram Morringun sat with his head bowed. Behind him, two more riders, two more banners.
Dawn, cold and pallid, broke as they entered Penitent Square. The Moribund Sun had come to greet him, together with the great and the good of PameFilias.
On the far side of the Square a dais had been raised, draped with the blue and white banner of House Harkess. The Earl was there, dressed in white, as austere as an alabaster carving, and among his entourage stood Trinculo Grasso, his Nothing Box in his hands and another slung across his shoulder. To the left of the dais, slightly lower, stood another, draped in black, green, and grey, containing the representatives of the Sonnilion Temple, The Last Day Rising Church, and the Silver Branch Cathedral, robed and hooded. All around the edges of the Square stood the citizens of the Pame, come to pay their last respects or to gloat, as was their wont. Their reverent whispers, amplified by a thousand throats, were a sibilant roar.
Before them all, rendered in stark splintered wood, stood the garrotte scaffold. It contained a single straight-backed chair bound in iron, already occupied by the Countess Alexa, shackled into position, staring straight towards her husband.
As the cart drew level, Wolfram could see her face. The torturers of the Zunft had been no less gentle with her than they had been with him, but their work had been directed toward a different end. Her pride had been flayed from her, her arrogance scorched away, her wild spirit torn apart by their expert ministrations. An empty shell of a creature, who waited patiently and penitently for death.
Yet the sight of her still stirred him, or perhaps it was merely the last vestiges of her perfume carried on the same sharp breeze that rattled and snapped the banners of the Zunft.
He forgave her then – for her only crime had been to love life – but as he stared upwards, into the impassive face of the Earl, his hatred flared, bright and sharp.
Trinculo caught his gaze and the flames that blazed there. He leaned across to Veduc and whispered something in his ear. The Earl nodded curtly in reply. With a bow, Trinculo broke away from the House Harkess, making his way down the dais step and towards Wolfram.
As he approached, he brought a kerchief from his sleeve and pressed it to his nose.
“You smell of death, my friend,” he said.
“My Nothing Box, did you bring it?”
Trinculo laid a hand on the Box slung over his shoulder. “Here. As you asked.” He offered his other hand to Wolfram, a red-hued phial rested in his palm.
“A swift death, Trinculo. That is what you promised.”
“A swift death.” His fingers closed again. “In exchange for this.” He tapped the Nothing Box.
“Gladly,” Wolfram told him.
“Quickly then. Time is short.”
“For us all.”
Trinculo took the Nothing Box from his back and thumbed its switches: apart from a brief scatter of light nothing indicated that the machine was anything other than an inert piece of metal.
Above them, on the garrotte scaffold, the black-garbed official of the Inquisition had begun to intone a litany of Alexa’s crimes.
“Slander against the Sonnilion Temple.
“The use of forbidden magic.
“Criticism of the Last Day Rising.
“Immoral and scandalous behavior.
“Consorting with demonic forces.
“Betrayal of the United Faith.
“Destruction of Silver Branch idols.
His sonorous voice boomed out, clear and loud, even against the noise of the throng.
“Hurry, Wolfram,” Trinculo hissed. “She has only moments to live. And when she dies, you will take her place on the scaffold.”
Wolfram gestured with twisted and crippled hands, speaking softly, directing Trinculo’s fingers as they moved across the surface of the Box. He had both talent and skill, Trinculo Grasso, honed to a fine edge by years of training, but Wolfram Morringun had no equal among the mennisingers of the Shining Cities, and Grasso was hard pressed to follow his instructions.
“And the sentence is death,” the Inquisitor said.
The executioner stepped onto the scaffold.
Grasso worked feverishly, moving through a complex sequence of back and forth, left and right, unlocking the deep secrets of Wolfram Morringun’s Nothing Box. But Wolfram’s eyes were not upon him; rather they were upon the face of Earl Veduc.
Austere, impassive, the Earl betrayed no emotion, even as the executioner placed his hands upon the garrotte collar, even as the crowd roared like a storm crashing against the shore.
“Faster, Trinculo,” Wolfram hissed. “Faster, or my secrets will never be yours.”
The switches fell into place.
The garrotte turned, choking Alexa’s final attempt at a scream.
The Earl nodded. Once.
The mercy spike punched through the back of the Countess’ neck. She died without another sound.
But something screamed for her.
Unleashed in all its glory, the death shriek of the creature called A. Ruah erupted from the Nothing Box. Amplified and expanded, at its core was a howl of raw hatred: for PameFilias and the men who had destroyed all that the goilem had held dear. The soul-deep anguish of a soulless creature, a murderous wall of sound that swept across Penitent’s Square and beyond.
It echoed from the towers and spires of PameFilias, through her streets and alleys, her petrified orchards and fossilized gardens. None of those who heard it were left untouched.
Save Wolfram Morringun and Trinculo Grasso.
Out of the shattered glory of PameFilias came Wolfram Morringun the mennisinger, his Nothing Box held in his ruined hands.
Behind him he left a swathe of destruction unseen in the world for five thousand years. But they had dared to spurn him and thus deserved no less.
He took with him the memory of Trinculo Grasso, his face white with shock at the death and destruction the scream had unleashed; the moment when the goilem’s scream had shattered Earl Veduc’s sternum; the sight of the cardinals of Sonnilion, Last Day, and Silver Branch torn to pieces; the survivors in the city, faces blank, ears bleeding.
He took with him and the echo of the fatal cone of sound as it wove its way into the very stones of the city.
And other such delights.