“I Don’t Believe in No-Win Scenarios…”

The Infinite Temple, the ever-growing masterpiece of Baruck, contained many things, including prison cells.

 

Each Pilgrims was specially restrained, before the Gnashers bolted their cell doors shut with their snake-curving keys and walked away.

Uuco, sporting a mass of bruises, has been tied with countless ropes. There were ropes binding his arms behind his back, and ropes binding his legs knee to knee. There were ropes gagging his mouth, woven around his tongue to pin it in place. There were slim ropes woven cunningly around every single finger and toe even, to keep them from flexing. There were even ropes pinning his ears, and cloth veiling his eyes.

 

V’vendy and Rintha swung by their feet from bronze chains shackled to the ceiling. V’vendy’s scalp of white feathers was muffled by a sack tied to her head. Rintha’s hands had been dipped into bowls of brick mortar and left to harden.

 

Corax had been fitted with a muzzle of leather and wire, his talons sheathed in padded linen pouches. Scented candles burned in each corner of his cell, giving him a musk that made him sway drowsily. His shackles were almost an afterthought.

 

Lady Ira, befitting her noble rank, was given comfortable, cloth-wrapped shackles chained to the floor. Her harp had been taken and smashed to kindling. Her dress’s belts and clasp had been taken away; anything that could be used to fashion a plucked string.

 

Small windows in each cells let the night air drift through, bringing with the smell of mildew, softening the clay brickwork ever so slightly.

 

Ira lifted her head, tearing her gaze away from the idle scratches she was making in the floor with her fingernails.

 

“Corax,” she whispered. “Can you hear me?”

 

Silence. A muffled, slurred voice responded.

 

“Thanks to my predator hearing, yes.”

 

“Good,” Ira whispered. She sighed. “This is quite a fix we’re in.”

 

“You could say that,” Corax snorted.

 

The two considered that for a moment.

 

“What will they do to us?” Ira asked.

 

“Ask us what we know,” Corax mused. “Forcefully. Then they may just keep us here to rot. Or they might take us to meet their master.” Chains clinked as he visibly shuddered. “I don’t know which is worse,” he said.

 

Ira nodded, jaw clenched. “Have I been a fool?” She asked.

 

“Do you think your choices were foolish?” Corax asked back. “Or wrong?”

 

“I trusted people who I should not have trusted,” Ira said. “I thought my noble rank would protect me, yet it did nothing.” She grunted. “Those were great errors on my part.”

 

“You aren’t calling yourself ‘Lady Ira’, or ‘we’,” Corax noted

 

“That’s no mistake,” Ira replied. “My rank clearly doesn’t have the importance I thought it did.”

 

She glanced back down at her toes. “As a point of fact, “ she said quietly, “I have nothing. No house, no loyal servants, no wealth or shelves of records. Years I spent making my household important in Baruck…but none of my allies know I’m here.” She shrugged, chains clinking as she did. “I doubt they’d lift a finger to help someone who walked right into the Gnasher’s grasp.”

 

“You’ve couldn’t have known they were enemies,” Corax mumbled, tongue stretching from his toothy jaw to pry at his leather muzzle. “I thought they were honest law enforcers too.”

 

“I should have known better,” Ira spat. “I want to believe that. Better than the awful truth: this city’s been corrupted to the core, and my authority was a lie.”

 

Ira fell silent. Corax chewed for a bit on his reply before spitting it out.

 

“You should understand, Ira: all authority’s a lie,” he said.

 

Ira raised her hands until their brass shackles stopped them short. “The authority binding us is real enough,” she said acidly. “Or did you not notice our helpless state?”

 

Corax snorted. “Let me start over.” He took a deep breath. “I was here when this all began,” he said. “I wove this world from a sea of mana with my friends. I taught agriculture to the first people we shaped from mud. I and the others–Kindek, Rhothgar, Syluna, Briete–dictated the laws and castes and holy commandments you follow to this day” He paused for effect. “And we had no idea what we were doing.”

 

“I’m not sure what you’re getting at,” Ira said, eyes narrowing. “

 

“We we’re divine inspired,” Corax explained. “We weren’t wise. We didn’t have infinite power–just a few ragged Godspells we stole before fleeing our world…”

 

“Fleeing your world?” Ira asked, blinking.

 

“Something for another time,” Corax said hastily. “We didn’t have the authority to rule, but we lied and said we did. Your ancestors believed us, and that was enough to make us Gods.”

 

Ira chewed on that thought. “You’re not saying anything new,” she said. “Royalty and currency are ideas in people’s minds. But if enough people believe in them, they become real–!”

 

“They aren’t,” Corax said, straining against his binding. “They’re still lies.” His wide black eye met Ira’s, fierce and glistening. “Once you see through them, they have no power.”

 

Ira sighed in disgust. “Very fascinating,” she replied curtly, leaning back against her cell wall. “Why not dispel these illusory chains, if they’re just a lie? And the illusory walls and locks? The Gnashers too?”

 

Corax hesitated. “I’m not yet that good at seeing,” he admitted.

 

“So I gathered,” Ira muttered bitterly

 

Silence settled over Ira and Corax like silken shawls. Together they listened for sounds to break this silence; their breathing, the dripping of water from cracks in the ceiling, the soft rustle of a spider spinning its web.

 

Ira looked up. Faint light streamed through the bared window behind her. Moist air had congealed into glittering beads of dew, coating the walls and ceilings as well as everyone’s chains and shackles.

 

“Morning’s coming,” Ira said softly. She raised a hand to wipe her chains clean. She froze.

 

Gleaming on the bronze links were dark beads of liquid, gleaming with a purple light.

 

“The morning mana rain’s very rich today,” she remarked to Corax.

 

Corax cracked one eye open. “Is it?” He asked.

 

“It is,” Ira said. She looked around her cell. “Our captors took many precautions,” she said, fire returning to her voice. “Escape would seem impossible.”

 

Corax let out a bellowing snort. “Is it?” He asked.

 

Ira shook her chains slowly. Gleaming mana droplets fell to the ground and congealed into little puddles.

 

“They took my harp,” Ira said. “And my harp strings. But I know how to read and write. I know a few spells that the Scribes use.”

 

She clawed at the clay bricks at her feet, softened by the morning moisture. Clay shavings peeled away, scraped by her fingertips.

 

“And I have what I need to make a spell tablet,” Ira said, a fire burning in her voice. “Pass word to the others, Corax. This isn’t over yet.”

 

%%%

 

The sun rose over the city of Baruck. Light trickled down its buildings and walls, driving the shadows away to corners, alleys and deep holes. Outside the city, wind rustled through the valleys and stirred the grass of the plains in rippling waves.

 

One person strode through the rippling grass, walking straight towards Baruck, eyes fixed on the looming Infinite Temple beyond its walls.

 

With one hand, the man gripped a decapitated lion head by the ruff. With the other hand, he reached up and adjusted the straps to his copper mask.

 

“Friends,” he whispered. “I come!”

 

 

 

 

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