Budrian Mythology
A compilation of beliefs and legends of the different cultures that inhabit Budria.
Rokaraloma Anamaka
Ryan Z. Dawson
Buddy Wagner

Rokaraloma Anamaka
by Ryan Z. Dawson, based on characters and concepts by Buddy Wagner and Terron Hebert

The council met in the dim of morning. Malekado was there with his master, Nykodo, and several Rokaryn he knew only by name. He watched them arrive in their lacquered lamellar, their beards twisting to forks from their sunken chins. Ibarano followed in a high-frilled helmet, the tallest of the group at five feet and six inches. The woman with him was Barena, rounder and heavier of frame than many of the naturally stocky males. She had painted her face lightly with flat white and thin pencil, drawing her cheekbones in under narrow shadow. Malekado had served these two many times in his master’s drawing room and on the veranda in the summer, where they drank hot beer from the richest casks in the city. The council members greeted each other, but they passed Malekado by without looking at him.

They stood in the long doorstep shadow while clouds piled tumid across the sky, and no one said anything for a long time. Dawn sulked, wet and weak, its eastern points just visible above the crown of the mountain. It would cast no further rays to light the gray.

"Pregnant with a storm," said Ibarano, pulling his fur coat up around his chin.

The others nodded, their cold-bitten faces dark with the practiced understanding that was expected of them. They were all so false and empty; it made Malekado sick in his heart to see them pretending.

"But without her hot breath," he muttered, "or her knuckles gnarled over the bar. Yes?"

The council nodded again. It was the next line in the poem Seranulo’s Petition Against Death, but they didn’t know that. Not even Ibarano knew. To them, it was just words, and they didn’t care that Malekado remembered them.

"We could adjourn until it breaks," Barena suggested. "It looks like a fierce one. Look at the trees bowing already. The mine could flood."

Ibarano said nothing now. He only looked up at the cloudwall. Rain was spitting down in fat drops, promising fury by noon.

Nykodo answered. He stroked his beard as if drawing his thoughts from its black tangle. "We have to act now. We can’t reschedule until high winter. The mines won’t flood. They have sluices dug in to redirect even strong torrents. I say we proceed."

The others moved in silence, moons orbiting Nykodo, drawn inexorably into the well of his authority. Nykodo Taiko was the last of the hardest Taikos in his noble house. He’d gotten his murdered father’s mad, violet eyes and his mother’s cruel political savvy. He was cut from war and cold, and many were afraid of him. He hated the softness of the new world, and that hate poured from every word he spoke. As far as Nykodo was concerned, hope and art were castrating the younger generation.

"Yes," Ibarano said at last, a mimicking parrot. Malekado could almost see him puffing up his feathers. "If it’s to be done, we have to act now. Risela, would you read the protocols, please?"

The meeting proceeded quietly. Ibarano’s servant went over the papers from the last meeting, and she would not meet Malekado’s gaze. Malekado looked around at the gathered royals and tried to appear interested in what they were saying. The council members were drawn tight, and they frowned false seriousness whenever something was said that they didn’t understand. He could see their wealth stretched across their faces like masks. Desperation cornered their mouths, strictures holding smiles prisoner. There was something about nobility that he detested – he could not deny that – but there was also a kind of desperation to the superior class that he had always pitied. It was as if they lived their whole lives knowing that everything could be taken away from them all at once for little or no reason. He understood this fear. It made them seem as if they were Rokaryn still, like him, though he had never had the luxury of it himself. The storm grew in the sky, and by the time the council had finished deciding how to proceed, it was swollen purple with anger.

The meeting ended with a growl of thunder from the east. The council reaffirmed their decision to search the mine and see for themselves the wonder in the pits of the deep.

"We’re on the brink of making history," said a flat-faced noble with a bell and ribbon bobbing from his topknot. "Or at least of rewriting it."

"Which is, perhaps, why it is we who are descending into the mine and not the laborers who properly belong there." Ibarano snorted his disapproval.

"It’s imperative that we maintain control of the truth," Nykodo said. "Might it not be prudent to leave the lessers here to guard the entrance?"

Now Risela looked at Malekado. There was a fire burning in her eyes that startled him. She looked out of breath, and she was sweating.

"If we didn’t need them to test the passages, I’d agree," said Barena. Then she turned to Malekado and scowled. "Come."

Uki Kaniro was a new tunnel under the mountain of Anaira. It descended sharply to meet the Four Chambers, and then it fell even further. It had partially collapsed on the descent, and the miners had found a wonder in the pits that opened beneath it.

Now, Nykodo turned to motion Malekado into the mine before him. Risela followed, fidgeting. When she passed Malekado, he thought he heard her whispering to herself. Barena followed Ibarano in, holding the hem of her embroidered train in a bunch at her waist so as not to get soot on it. She cinched it up with a gold-braided tie, and then she turned to help the next council member. But then she was falling, blown backward, and the mine was roaring from the lowest tunnels.

The mouth of Uki Kaniro exploded inward. Malekado dove to protect his master as stone fell and grit billowed into the dark in heavy clouds. The royal who had been halfway through the entrance was crushed beneath the rockfall, as it appeared Risela had been when the council finally gathered its wits to inspect the damage. Malekado tried to smear styptic paste on a cut above Nykodo’s chin, but his master pushed him away.

"Black powder," he coughed. "A small cap of it would do this. I can smell the sulfur."

"Is everyone all right?" Ibarano asked, helping Barena up. "Risela! The bandages!"

Nykodo was following a dark line across the new wall. He sniffed the air and tasted his fingertip, his eyes narrowing. Malekado saw the new limp he was trying to mask.

"Think yourself lucky your servant is dead under the rubble," Nykodo said to Ibarano. "It was she who set this trap. I can think of no other explanation. This was a blasting cap, and she triggered it hoping to cause a cave in."

"She used too little," Malekado opined, and he immediately regretted speaking. The others turned to him at last, but it was not respect on their faces. Nykodo seemed angriest of all.

"She was a recommendation," Ibarano moaned.

"Traitors all, the lessers," Nykodo said. "Likely your network is crawling with murderous worms. Best to tear it all down when we get out."

"I have a man in Forulai," Barena said. "As trustworthy as any low-caste can be – which is not – but fearful for his life since his last brush with the law. He’ll help you find Risela’s co-conspirators."

Malekado folded his arms over his chest. He sucked in slow and shallow breaths, trying to keep from choking on pulverized rock. His ribs ached where he had fallen on Nykodo. There was a sliver of light bickering in from outside, and he could hear the shouts of the other council members as they clawed at the pile. While they pettifogged and pulled futilely at the fallen debris, Malekado wrapped his middle with bandages from Risela’s kit. She’d left it right where he’d been standing before she’d triggered the blast.

The mine dropped into the wet dark not far beyond its mouth. There were covered lanterns on every tenth beam under the ceiling’s arch, and the space along the walls was crowded with full sacks of tools and equipment.

A track running down the sloping throat represented a leap forward in mining technology for which the council remained quite proud. The cart crouched on the rails, deep and stout with a lamp at its nose. It would clack down into the mine on iron wheels, throwing sparks while they worked the handbrake. It would rock around turns, creaking its complaints as the vastness opened around them, but it would only sit in the middle of the entryway until the council could decide whether it was safe to use.

The immediate peril of their predicament slowed the council’s deliberations. For a long time, Malekado worked at their behest, trying to clear the entrance of rubble. To the dismay of all, this proved to be a waste of time. Not even the tools from the bags availed them in making much progress. Anaira held the Rokaryn in that dark forechamber, and they felt the weight and the might of her jealousy above them. Even Nykodo began to worry.

"Risela has trapped us nicely," Nykodo said. He was pacing slowly with his hands clasped behind his back.

"She may have sabotaged the supports last night," Barena suggested. "In that case, she had help."

Her words hung on the hook of fear. None of the three council members wanted to mention the possibility of a sea change that might see them ousted, but they didn’t need to. It was in the air, blowing with black dust and fine gravel as the tunnel sucked air from down below. Malekado felt it against his ear like a whispered promise.

The council members outside assured them that a team was coming. They had sent away for a team of contractors from Rimwall whose discretion would come at a high price, but Nykodo disallowed it.

"Everything is an opportunity," he said. "We can only gain from Risela’s loss." He spat the conspirator’s name onto the ground like poison. "And we still have our resolution. We can close all the shafts in this quarry now because of the cave in. We’ll be able to search the new cavern below without fear of interference."

There was some grumbling from above, and Ibarano cleared his throat as if he was about to protest, but the idea stuck.

"Go around the mountain to the northeast," Nykodo told the others outside. "We’ll try and reach the surface through one of the connecting tunnels."

"Does this not feel like madness to anyone else?" Barena whispered as Malekado helped each council member into the iron cart.

"You voted in favor of this expedition," Ibarano replied. It was clear that he didn’t necessarily disagree. He left his huge-frilled helmet sitting in the dirt and sat staring at it while Malekado worked on getting the cart moving.

"After what is appearing to have been an insufficient period of discovery, councilman," Barena sighed back. She bunched her great train in her lap and sniffed, trying to blow dust from her sinus.

"Where is your spirit of adventure?" Nykodo laughed. It was an awful, cold sound. "Weren’t you young and foolish once, councilwoman?"

Barena frowned at Nykodo. Her cheeks sagged soft around her mouth.

"No," she said. "Never."

The cart trundled down the first hill toward a series of rolling bridges. The single lamp burned at its front, where Malekado was forced to sit with his hand on the brake. The floor of the cavern fell away slowly until it dropped into a glittering lake. The roof of the cave opened through a thousand acid dimples, and the light of the rising sun slipped each to strike the water’s surface gem-bright. Here there was an island lit with a lamp above an arched-roofed hut. And there the wall was running with rivulets around the knuckles of tree roots clawing down from above. This was the cistern that watered the deep farms, which Malekado had never seen.

Around cautious turns, the cart leaned over its braking mechanism and Malekado thought about the wetgrass and groves of caveapples blooming in the dark. The council members watched over the cart’s high sides as the passages narrowed into blind descents into chambers lit blue with strange mushrooms. They were nearing the lower deeps and the shattered floor, and they could hear a wind moaning up from somewhere below. Malekado’s heartbeat fell into rhythm with the clacking of the cart’s wheels. When the track wore out, he eased onto the brake, and his heart seemed to go still for a moment.

They were through the Four Chambers, the heart of Anaira, and on the opposite side of the furthest was a slick-walled sink. The floor was open like a great maw into a throat choked with glowing fungus and pitweed. The slide down would be tricky, but there was no turning back now. Nykodo glared into the dark, his face drawn taut in deep frown lines by the light on the cart’s nose.

"Into the breach," he said, more to himself than to anyone else.

"It’s beautiful," sighed Ibarano. Then he drew his sword, and it rang like a bell in the dark.

The slip into the old caves dropped over shale precipices into a darkness so immense that Malekado’s lamp could scarcely pierce it. He went down first, lest there be poison built up in those catacombs; he held his breath until he reached level ground. The shale calved away behind him, rattling in a breathing expanse. Malekado held up his light, and the walls were nowhere near him. The ceiling soared away, deceptively high compared to the length of the slide from above. It was as if he’d ridden the sheets of rock down into another dimension. The darkness closed in on his light, and silence fell around him like a shroud.

"Is it safe?" Malekado heard Barena call.

For a moment, he could not answer. He was afraid to shout into the black. He stood still and watched it moving around him. He felt the air eddying at the shorn nape of his neck.

"Kado?" Nykodo shouted.

Now Malekado answered, but he wasn’t sure what he was telling them even as he was speaking. They came sliding down. Ibarano had brought another light, and the silence took hold of one of them after the other as the group reassembled in the pit.

Barena was the first to speak. "All the mountain’s above us," she said. "And it’s an oracle’s guess what’s below."

"Smells like fresh-dug graves," said Nykodo. Malekado couldn’t see him. He was hanging back in the shadow.

Where he belongs, Malekado thought, and then he swung his lamp to see his master smiling.

"Or mold like the kind that got our barley crop last year," Ibarano sniffed. "The dark kind with the white flecks that ate away the sheaf and left the heads to wither. Do you remember that, Kado?"

Malekado went stiff for an instant. He turned his lamp to see Ibarano looking sickly pale.

"I heard about it, sir," he replied with a bow.

"He wasn’t privy to the smell," Nykodo said. "Housework spared him. He’s spoiled, like all his family has been." He turned a grin to his servant that shone of hate. Malekado could only bow again. At least Nykodo was honest. "Whole fields of black wilt – an entire crop sweating to death from the poison. It chilled the refined heart to its core."

Malekado was tempted to meet Nykodo’s gaze, but he knew it was a trap. He would use the dark as an excuse to look away. The mold sowing had been well-planned. Had the secret gotten out? The answer might have been in Nykodo’s eyes, but Malekado refused to search them for it.

The group marched on, Malekado in front. He held the light in one hand and his spike-knobbed fobatu in the other. The darkness lifted slowly into a dust-blown haze, grayed away by some unseen source of light. On their left, the cavern deepened toward a broad depression. Beyond its carven rim, a road descended toward the shattered earthwork and post-hole remains of a palisade. A keep stood above that, looking down across a broken bailey where it ran perpendicular to the road. The city opened from there, as magnificent as they had hoped and more, beautiful even in its utter ruin.

"By the stars," Ibarano whispered. "It’s greater than anything we’ve ever conceived."

"What has been lost to the ages?" Barena said. "What are we still losing?"

Malekado looked out over slants of ostentatious roofs still dark with ancient lacquer and pit houses dug beneath fine arcades from which cedar timbers had long since rotted away. Lantern trees of subtle design hung over lanes where planters sat bristling with the wild remains of plant matter. The strange light appeared to be coming from the east corner, where the city rose into a tiered necropolis.

"Freedom," Nykodo said at last. "Our rights as the greater houses. The lessers claw at our power in ways that would have seemed barbaric when this was built. It was not the hands of the entitled that made this place – it was the brute slave, pushed to the lengths he was made to endure. We fear the lessers now. We give them undue dignity, and they squander their purpose. We can only suffer for it. This is all the proof we need."

Malekado wondered if Nykodo thought that Risela had squandered herself in planning her trap.

"We’ll need a month to search the whole place," Barena said.

"We need only make our way to the manse superior," replied Ibarano. "There, we can secure anything that might be better left unfound by a larger team."

"Yes," said Nykodo, "but not ‘we’." He looked at Malekado, who was honor-bound to avert his gaze. "Give me the lamp, Kado. We’re going on. Stay here and watch the way in."

Ibarano looked at Barena, who smoothed a lock of her dark hair back toward her loosening bun. The white paint on her face was smearing in lines down from her nose.

"Go on alone?" She tried, and Nykodo frowned at her. Malekado saw her shrink.

"I think it’s obvious what we’ve found," Ibarano said. "But we can’t make a proper assessment without exploring a little bit. We’ll need him ahead of us if there are yet more traps or other dangers here. Yes?"

Nykodo tipped his chin toward his chest. He twisted his thin goatee as if in thought. The picture of nobility, he seemed unfazed by their long journey underground. Even in the dark at the heart of the mountain, with Barena sweating her face to streaks and Ibarano kneading his tired calves, Nykodo remained statuesque. Malekado watched him tempering his anger and felt a chill pump into his blood. No one had ever burned a fire like Nykodo Taiko’s – not even Rokara himself.

"I will say what has been left unsaid," Nykodo began, "perhaps out of fear or superstition. This is myth made real. The Undercapital, the greatest of our stories, lies now before us, unseen in an age. It may hold dangers, but that cannot stop us here in the softness of our cursed day. Look at all we have forgotten. Buried here lay the secrets of our rise as well as our decline. Rokaraloma Anamaka." He spoke the name with his teeth clenched as if in religious reverie. "The ancestral place. The cradle of our civilization. It is no place for lesser Rokaryn. We must agree on that."

But Ibarano and Barena did not agree. Malekado could see it in their faces. They moved toward each other, as if siding against Nykodo, and the decision was made in silence to proceed without his blessing. This was not a council meeting. Nykodo wasn’t the only one who felt the power of the city below them.

Malekado waited while Ibarano and Barena began their careful descent toward southern gate. Nykodo stood quietly for a moment, and he bunched his fists against his hip guards. He was unaccustomed to being thwarted.

It was a minor coup, but Malekado didn’t quite see the shift in tone he had expected. His master remained fully and implacably in power, even as the others made as if to abandon him.

"Come," Nykodo finally said. "And touch nothing."

There had been questions when this pit had opened. Reports had rolled in on hot whispers, haunted certainties about what had been unearthed. The council had maintained its incredulity, but the fervor had found a foothold among them as well. The rumors were seductive, but they could not have been true: Rokaraloma Anamaka discovered – a dream in a legend brought from ancient dust into the limits of the real world. Yet here it was in splendor, the dreamed of place, sprawling larger than any council’s authority.

But the streets were not flowing with warm gold. There were no crystal fountains or windows of fine-cut ruby. This was not a living place. Instead, Malekado thought, it was worse.

He followed Nykodo through the south gate and into an open tomb. The streets were littered with skeletons in crumbling armor. Here, a jacket rotted from the bones of a long-fallen dandy, its ruffles gone or crushed black beneath a millennium’s soot. And there was an adult and a child together on what must once have been a well-treed lawn. A crown leaned over the small forehead to wink in the strange glow from the cemetery. Whatever beauty it retained now, Rokaraloma Anamaka was a ruin, and there was a cold blowing through it that seemed to have a life of its own. If it did, it was the only life still clinging to this place.

Malekado could not cower. He couldn’t impose upon his master, nor did he imagine that Nykodo would turn to comfort him if he revealed his fear. He moved on with the lamp high, and he tried not to watch the darkness moving beyond its circle of light. The graveyard cast long shadows that lay green across every path like guardians. As they neared the first of the nearest city squares, Malekado thought he could feel the grave shadows plotting.

"And there is the source of the light, Kado," Nykodo said. They had cleared a rise, and the necropolis was now well within their view. "By the rains on the fields…there is life here yet."

Malekado looked northeast across the great lawn as they followed the road around it, and he saw that there were huge figures moving through the graveyard light. They were monstrous, but they were far away, and they appeared to be disinterested in the return of the Rokaryn to their ancestral city.

They were at once like trees and sea things. They moved about on pillared legs that twined down from thick trunks as if made of vines or tentacles. Where their heads might have been, the great things flattened out so that they appeared to be wearing broad, conical hats. But these structures were parts of their bodies, like toadstools’ caps, and as he and Nykodo drew nearer Malekado could see that there were lights moving subtly across them.

"Luta boni. Another legend brought to life. They tend gardens among the crypts," Nykodo said, marveling. "Or nurseries of their own kind. Surely, they grow in the soil as plants do. What terrible things to have taken up here where our ancestors died."

Ibarano and Barena were stopped on the road, watching the luta boni wade through great fields of glowing flora.

"The smell," Ibarano said. He didn’t finish this thought. It seemed to catch in his mind and die, leaving his mouth moving and his fashionable beard wagging.

Malekado was holding his nose. The strange odor was coming from those vast, strange forests. It was something from the luta boni, the growers under the ground, and breathing it for too long planted whispers in his mind.

"Onward," Nykodo said. "I hope such shall not be our living fate."

The manse superior was in sight. The city was impossibly advanced, and there was much left standing in it that had no clear purpose. There were many structures that none of the four recognized, but the manse was not among them. It stood out of time, even here, and Malekado felt dizzy looking up at it as they approached. He realized that it looked like something from the past. The whispers moved in his mind, and he saw time moving backward for an instant. Above them, all the work of many ages stretched backward from this one point in their buried future. Among the forgotten sophistication, the manse was a reminder of how far the modern Rokaryn had fallen.

It rose from the wall with towers on either side of its arched door. There had been a sliding panel at the entrance once, but the wood and paper had rotted away. Now there was only a helmet-domed frame flanked by the open holes of windows. The manse’s many floors were stacked atop each other. From the first floor landing, a single stair wound up along the central column toward the ruins of the square roof.

"Here were drafted the first of our oldest articles of government," Nykodo said, standing in the doorway for a moment while the green light of the grave forest danced across his face. "It is no place for you, Kado. Inside may remain books, and you have no use for them. Even could you read them, they are likely to contain information that is forbidden for lessers. You will stay here this time."

Malekado looked to Ibarano and Barena, who only shuffled a bit before nodding.

"I’ll stand watch," Malekado said, biting back anger. "You can count on me, sir."

Nykodo seemed amused. Ibarano and Barena had cashed all their chips; they would not defy Nykodo again. The three left Malekado standing with his back against the door, and he listened to their footsteps ascending the stairs with his heart in his throat.

The council could not see ghosts. They had no fear of death, because life was something that went on and on. It was cheap, so they ignored it. But the lessers slept with death at their doors. They lay in their beds with his face above them night after night. And they knew ghosts. Malekado held his lamp high and looked around the ruined lawn at the dead as they crept up from the green light to greet him.

Rokaraloma Anamaka had once been glorious. Now it was wasted. So many had died here, and none of the council members had thought to ask how. But Malekado knew. He could see it in the dead faces. He watched the dark for their strange scintillations – the wisps of their long-lost fires dancing across the cracked courtyard. He felt them nearby, behind him, under his feet, moving. They had been trapped.

"Trapped," said the whispers in his head. "When the mountain fell."

Malekado could endure no more. He turned from the haunted square with the weight of all Rokaraloma Anamaka’s dead on his shoulders. He had never considered himself a coward, and he had never disobeyed his master, but he would allow himself this one moment of terror in his life. He would forgive himself as fear propelled him up the stairs. It would not occur to him until later that this fear had a purpose.

Nykodo, Barena, and Ibarano were in the library on the third floor. Malekado nearly fell through the open entrance, and they turned to him with a collective gasp.

"Kado!" Nykodo approached with a scowl that Malekado had never seen before. "I can count on you, eh? Come here!"

"Wait!" Barena cried.

She stepped forward, and Malekado thought she might actually try to prevent the beating that was coming. But she stopped short of grabbing Nykodo’s wrist. Her resolve failed her, and Malekado held up his palms to deflect the first blow.

"Hands down," Nykodo demanded, standing over him with his fist raised. "To trespass here? Of all places? Put your hands down, Kado!"

"Please," Ibarano said, his voice a squeak in his throat. "We mustn’t do this here. He’s clearly afraid of something. Let him speak."

The lessers accepted their lot. They worked, they served their masters, and they submitted to beatings when they deserved them. But such violence was a thing of the past. Perhaps, if it belonged anywhere, it belonged in Rokaraloma Anamaka. Malekado dropped his hands to receive the blow, but Nykodo stopped.

"Speak," he spit, his fist still raised.

"I’m sorry," Malekado began, embarrassed at his stammering. He fought to get right to the point. Nykodo wouldn’t stand for blubbering. "I couldn’t stay down there alone with all those corpses. I tried, but I was too afraid."

Nykodo let his bunched fist fall slowly. He flattened his palm against his hip, as if wiping it clean of fury.

"I offer no forgiveness for this blasphemous intrusion," Nykodo snarled. "But you will never say that your master struck a cowering soul. Stand and leave."

"We should show him," Barena said, emboldened by Ibarano’s little victory. "Master Taiko. Don’t you think?"

Ibarano approached with a scroll in his hand. It was large, its parchment thick around elaborate rollers of gold and ivory. He held it out to Nykodo, and Nykodo turned to him as if to smack it out of his hand. But then there was a loud groan, the far wall bulged outward and cracked, and something was rushing upon them from a cloud of dust and grit. Rubble rained down upon them, and the stacks near the wall collapsed with a tremendous noise. The council members barely had time to shout in surprise before a long, furred shape knocked Barena down and fell on her, teeth bared at her throat.

Nykodo was in action immediately. He drew his thin, sword singing from its sheath and surged forward across the rubble-strewn floor. For a moment, he was caught in a shadow, and he appeared to vanish altogether. The monster rolled over Barena in fat coils, at once like a crocodile and an enormous marten. It thrashed a heavy tail and pushed itself across the marble on short legs. It was one of these legs that Nykodo struck first, and as the beast cried out Ibarano finally moved.

Malekado dropped the lantern. The beast had dropped Barena, who rolled away like a great pumpkin, wrapped in the shreds of her cloak. It was almost comical to see her large, round frame tossed toward the stacks. But for her bleeding face, Malekado might have been unable to stifle a laugh. He unslung his war club and barreled toward the creature, and when he was in hot, odiferous range he leveled a swing at its thick neck. It twisted away, wily as a snake, but he caught it with a glancing blow at the last moment, knocking a chunk of fur and meat from below its collarbone. The sound it made, the shriek of pain, was something he had dreamed about. It was a sound from a nightmare, and it rang in the library for a full minute while the creature regrouped.

Outside, the ghosts were gathered. Perhaps many had died in such fearsome jaws. They were watching with their hearts bleeding darkness, wracked with hate that would not die. The beast’s scream drew a sound from them in reply, but only Malekado could hear it.

Nykodo was moving again. While he sprang back to circle around, Ibarano ran to Barena’s side. Malekado caught his master’s eye, and the two shared a plan in a glance. Nykodo was hard as steel and proud of his hatred, but he and Malekado knew each other. They had been reading one another’s faces since before Malekado could walk.

Malekado and Nykodo moved in concert to push the creature back. It watched them, writhing constantly, and it lashed out as if to test their resolve. Nykodo refused to back down. He stood in the storm of aggression and let it batter him, sucking it up like a hole in the world. Everything bent around him – Malekado thought he could feel the floor shifting beneath his master’s weight. But the beast lashed out, and Nykodo was a mote in the wind. The storm defied his attempts to absorb it. He struck too slowly, too certain, and the creature swept him aside with a swing of its great head. Caught by a gnashing tooth or two, Nykodo went skidding away into the dust. Malekado could not have laughed at this, no matter how his master flailed. He had never been more afraid in his life, but fear was something he could use.

The monster reared back. Was it an aquatic thing – come squirming from the cisterns below Rokaraloma Anamaka? Was it a digging thing worm from Anaira’s ancient heart? Malekado did not know. He had never seen such a thing, and he never would again for the rest of life. He cared only that it would bleed when he broke its skull.

The beast charged. Malekado swayed away, spinning on his toes with his war club held out before him. He beat it to the floor with one blow, deflecting its lunge in just enough time to save himself the cut of its dagger teeth. Then he brought his club down in a great arch, losing his balance to the force of his swing, and struck the creature dead before it could recover.

In the ensuing silence, Malekado heard the ghosts singing. Their voices were the fall of dust from the ceiling. Ibarano was heaving panicked breaths. Barena was scraping the floor with her heels, fighting to stand. Only Nykodo and the beast lay still.

"Is it dead?" Ibarano ventured.

Malekado waited a second to answer, afraid to disturb the singing silence further. He felt a strange peace spreading through him, and he let his war club fall to the floor, where the creature’s blood was spreading.

"Kado," Ibarano said. "Is it dead?"

"Yes," Malekado finally replied. He said nothing more. He only stood and watched to see if Nykodo would stir.

After a long, tense moment, Malekado’s master tried to move. Malekado immediately went to help him, but he was surprised when Nykodo pushed him away. He had always been proud, but this was not pride. Nykodo needed help. He swore and sweated as he got to his feet, but he would not allow Malekado to help in any way. It was almost as if his gratitude wouldn’t allow it.

"You killed it single-handedly," Nykodo panted, "and with only two blows. I hardly thought you had it in you."

"It would have killed you, sir," Malekado said, bowing.

"Be quiet," Nykodo said, "before I stop myself. You’ve never shied away from serving me, and now you’ve put yourself directly in the mouth of harm to protect me even as I was about to beat you for being afraid."

Malekado didn’t remember it exactly like that, but he wasn’t about to interrupt.

"Clearly," Nykodo continued, "fear is nothing you struggle with, Malekado. Give me the scroll. I want to read something to you."

Malekado had never seen his master so white. From his usual butter-pale skin tone, he had paled nearly to chalk. The silence swirled around them then, sanctifying all, striking all bitterness from Nykodo in a single, terrifying instant. Malekado could barely watch it happen Nykodo was growing something like a heart.

Malekado brought the scroll to his master, who sat quiet with it for a long time. Nykodo stared at the dead thing, cradling the scroll against his chest.. Ibarano managed to get Barena on her feet, but she could barely walk. He propped her up as they crossed the room to stare at Nykodo and the beast. Malekado wondered for a time whether the two might be one and the same. Nykodo considered the monster as if it was his own reflection.

"What I will do," he whispered, "is perhaps where my whole life has been leading, for what it’s worth." He took another deep breath. "I looked at you, Kado, and I knew that you wanted me dead. I had shrunken you to that. I knew that you would let me die."

Malekado squinted against a sudden pain behind his eyes. How wrong had he been for so long?

"That was who you were. It was who we were to each other," Nykodo went on. "If I had been you, I knew for an instant, I would have let my master die. I had built you up upon that block, but that block moved. It is still affecting me…your act of bravery. Why you would give of yourself, what depth of fealty you contained within yourself, I do not know and I did not know. I shall not know, it seems. Because you have surpassed me. My illusion fell, and I must at least tell you what is in this ledger now."

"You owe me nothing," Malekado tried to say. "Sacrifice is my duty."

"But I have believed you incapable of understanding duty," Nykodo replied. "A heart is a hard thing to change, but I have been thunderstruck. Now you will not sway me again. This is an epiphany, Kado. Be quiet and listen."

Nykodo unrolled the scroll, searching for a particular page. Malekado was panting hard, his lungs and throat burning, but his curiosity overwhelmed his exhaustion. He chanced a look at the page Nykodo had found and was surprised to see it covered in vivid illustrations. Time had not touched the colors. The ink shone as if it had just been dipped out.

"There was a high clan here," Nykodo began. "They were at war with another house, and a kind of marital truce was proposed."

As he continued, Nykodo’s eyes grew wide. His voice quavered, faltering high as he cleared his throat repeatedly. Ibarano watched with Barena fighting not to sag at his side; eventually, the two sat down on the cold floor to listen as Nykodo read through revelations that clearly shocked even him.

It seemed that, from their ancestors’ first breaths, the Rokaryn had been a separating force in the world. The divisions of the old families were exceedingly baroque, their blood running with money to draw complex house lines. In an early past, two houses saw prodigious ascension, and a feud between them erupted in Rokaraloma Anamaka that cast the whole of that great city in shame and shadow. A marital truce was arranged, but there were many for whom the family wars were profitable. Money usurped blood at last, and the great union was soured.

All this, Nykodo appeared to have known. What followed left him stuttering horribly. Malekado thought there might have been a tear in his eye at one point, but he could not be sure. It was nothing he wanted to admit was possible.

"A son of the lesser house was to wed the high heiress of the greater," Nykodo stammered. "A relative of Rokara – a noble daughter of the highest line."

Nykodo let the scroll droop in his lap for a moment while he considered this. The dead thing lay behind them, its eyes glassy, as it would lie forever in this tomb of wisdom. Malekado suspected that Nykodo would leave something of himself here as well, lying with it – his cruelty perhaps, or his bigotry. Both were fiercer by far than the creature had been, and would make suitable companions for it in death.

"Go on," Barena said. Ibarano had bandaged her wounds, and she was leaning on him. She nursed a bottle of cure-all, its mouth on her bloodied lips, and swallowed carefully with her hand on her bosom. "Who was the heiress, Taiko?"

But her name was lost in the texts, a smudge of old symbols that Nykodo could not make out. In the unusual clarity of that old text, the heiress vanished into what must have been deliberate vandalism – her name had been stricken from that record, and it was nowhere written why. Her child’s name had been Doronaido, and in many places, it appeared with flourishes and strange diacritics. It some, it was written in bright colors.

"Doronaido is of my line," Nykodo said. "And of Rokara’s."

"Unbelievable," Ibarano whispered.

"Is it really?" Nykodo grinned. Something of his old fire returned at last, and Malekado’s heart lifted. His master had not gone insane after all. "But you haven’t heard the last of him. He is Kado’s blood as well. Our lines mixed…in those old days when blood was thick. But his ancestor’s father arose to extort the high house, and Doronaido was taken into hiding."

"By the sky," Barena slurred. "Malekado is superior."

Malekado looked around at the others. It was not in him to speak out – even now – but they seemed to eye him waiting to see what he would say. He would say nothing for the moment, as he had been trained to do. Nykodo continued, looking ashen again.

The marriage that should have brought the two houses together failed when the heiress became pregnant. A lowborn stud of the lesser house, whose great uncle would have been the groom, had been paid a good sum to seed her, and she had consented under the influence of well-bought lies. Their son was Doronaido, the heir to both houses and to the favor of Rokara, but the entire pregnancy was disguised. Shame emerged, and in its mouth was the lowborn stud, who threatened to defame the heiress if she would not double his payment. Here, there was a long list of conspirators in the texts, and each name was accompanied by a description of the role he or she had played in the grand deception that unfolded. It was a twisted tale, and it roamed well out of context with itself, but Nykodo distilled from it the coldest cores of truth there were to find.

"The low-born father was suppressed in prison here for the rest of his life," he summarized, "for fear that he had told someone about the child. The child moved through the fringes of society, oblivious to his lineage. Here…he vanishes at last. But he is remembered fondly for his beauty and his grace. The deeds surrounding him are impossibly dark. At the last, both houses are swept away in war, leaving only vestiges from which Kado and I ascend. The truth is shocking as it lies open…because I had been told a lie. Lies are packaged easily – tight and self-contained. Here is a labyrinth of such complexity that I cannot imagine my forefathers fabricating it. I have believed for so long that I was right – that the Taikos were right – to push Kado’s line down as betrayers…your line, Malekado. And here is the hardest stone to lift: I am sorry for what has been done. I am sorry for my part in it. You cannot but now take your rightful place."

There was little time for stunned silences. The scroll unrolled in Nykodo’s hand as if of its own volition. He continued reading, his voice like a hammer with its head beaten flat. It was as if something else was speaking through him, pouring out the last of the sordid tale with its fingers in Nykodo’s will. That dead voice was droning on and on even as a series of heavy blasts began above them and the cavern began to groan with the weight of the mountain.

"That Doronaido’s heir shall strike down our towers," Nykodo intoned, "and pierce us to our hearts at last, as we must be pierced."

Ibarano was helping Barena up. He sent a scowl toward Malekado that was laced with pain.

"They’re using explosives," Ibarano growled. "Come on! We’ll be buried like the rest of them."

"Prophesies from dead mouths," Nykodo said. He looked away, distracted. For a moment, he was stuck and broken. "From dead minds."

"Prophecy won’t save us," Malekado said, emboldened. He put his hand on Nykodo’s shoulder. A shiver went up his arm to settle at the top of his spine. He was forbidden to touch his master, but he had no master now. He had felt the shift of power.

Nykodo returned to himself diminished. He stood, and Malekado lead the group away from Rokaraloma Anamaka along the rubble-strewn road. They waded through swarms of watching ghosts, with the luta boni gliding huge through their luminous fields. There was another roar from above as they reached the top of the road, but none further disturbed their ascent toward the cart on its winding tracks. Their climb was wild and perilous, the dark close with their worry, and they slid many times down the precipitous slope into the lower chambers. Nevertheless, they gained the upper deep, and then they were moving along the track with the cart’s wheels groaning, and there began a sound from behind them that was like a funeral wail. A great, bestial dirge rose up from dead Rokaraloma Anamaka, and it followed the group through the caverns and over the water.

"The city itself screaming," Nykodo opined, still starry-eyed.

"Or the luta boni," Ibarano replied. "But we can’t know what horrors remain down there. We’d best seal it off for good. Nothing can come of exploring it further."

Malekado shook his head. "We’ll go deeper in," he said. "We owe it to ourselves and to them."

In his heart, he still felt the presence of the wakeful dead. He still heard their whispers. Nykodo seemed to be listening to them, too, while he rocked in cart, clutching the scroll.

The cart rose to the mouth of the tunnel, which now stood wide open with blue twilight visible beyond. The stars were just emerging. The sky was like the dome of a cavern, and Malekado felt menaced beneath it even as he breathed the fresh air into his writhing lungs.

"Couldn’t keep it quiet," Barena said. Ibarano helped her out of the cart, but she collapsed on the tracks with her bandages soaking.

A team of Rokaryn rushed in from outside, lesser to the last dressed in work leathers and oversized gloves. Ponytails bobbed from otherwise shorn heads as the doctors swarmed over Barena, offering water and fanning her.

The rest of the council was standing well outside the cave mouth, shaded under lessers’ umbrellas and looking at one another sheepishly. Malekado approached them, Nykodo behind him in his persistent half-stupor. He felt miles high inside. Their looks of disdain would have stricken him low before, but now he was above them.

"Taiko," said the nearest councilman, peeking out from behind his servant. "We feared the worst. Thank the fates you’ve returned unharmed."

"We blasted you out," said another council member. "There was no other way. Tunnels are collapsing all along this side of the mountain."

"We have much to report," Malekado said. He took the scroll from Nykodo, who bowed a little and seemed to react. He would be full himself again in a few days time, but in that time he would be fallen from his place.

"We do not allow lessers to report," the nearest councilman said. "Stand aside and make way for your master."

Malekado handed the scroll to the councilman.

"There are no masters anymore," he pronounced. "We’re our own masters now."

Malekado rose to power on a wave of support from the lower houses. In the months to come, many would stand to oppose him. Among the superiors, the scroll was almost universally decried as a forgery, but Ibarano and Barena vouched for its legitimacy after every challenge. Divisions formed, as they always do, and for a while, there was chaos in the upper houses. Great lords fell, mad with envy, or were murdered in their mansions by their servants. When Nykodo rose again into the public eye, voting to support Malekado’s ascendance, the fires finally died down. The council reformed around a new rule – a call for equality – and the pangs of this rebirth would last until Malekado’s son succeeded him.

Many mines collapsed, and many veins and farms were lost. But Rokaraloma Anamaka remained open. Searchers probed its graves, its haunted streets, and the bloodied halls of ancient war. The secrets they found revived the Rokaryn society, ushering it into a new age. Malekado lived long into the renaissance, and he remembered the warnings of the fall Nykodo had read. He heard the whispers of the dead every night in his sleep – until he joined them, and his peoples’ newfound glory finally began to fade.

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