Content Warning: This describes a ritual that led to dozens of skeletons being buried under a mountain. It includes death and violence.
In the end, Aetherist Ovanobina dragged Tekemuzh down deep into the mine, to look at the place where the miners had found the bodies and where every archeologist in the land was now busily pulling out more bodies.
“There are so many…” Tekemuzh had seen death before. It was the nature of what his did, his “parlour trick”, that he could see the strongest emotion that had touched any given thing. His work was not always admissible in court, but that did not stop him from seeing the visions. “I think…” He sat down, because he did not want to fall down. “If I put enough of the visions together, I may be able to determine what the ritual was for. But this level of ritual murder…”
“It gets worse,” Ovanobina interjected, voice solemn and sepulchure. “I’m sorry, but they found a second site.”
Tekemuzh worked around a lump in his throat. He had done so well, so far, in not disgracing himself, but if he had to look at another site — if Ovanobina was saying it got worse — then he was not sure he could keep going as he had. He bowed his head and sought peace. “One thing at a time, then?” he offered through a dry throat. “First, we finish with this site. We see if we can put together the purpose of the ritual. And then we can move on to the next site. And we can put these bodies back to rest.” He touched the brow-bone of the skeleton nearest him with careful fingers. She had been barely an adult… most of them had barely been into adulthood, although the thoughts that came through were scrambled on that matter, strange.
The bones had been down there a long time, that much Tekemuzh could tell. How long, well, that led to some interesting questions, because the numbers he was getting — the weight of centuries — told a story that his history books denied.
It wouldn’t be the first time his history books had been found to be in direct conflict with the evidence of his Tekemuzh’s senses. He ignored the question for the moment. Right now, his work was as he had said it was. “Can you get me someone in here to transcribe, Aetherist? If I have to stop and take notes, it goes much more slowly.”
“I think if I send young Kalaket in here, he likely won’t vomit too often. Uzhnar, on the other hand…” The aetherist headed out into the light, coming back a few minutes later with a scholar so young he probably should still be in an Academy somewhere. “Aetherist Tekemuzh, this is junior scholar Kalaket. Do be nice to him. Kalaket, transcribe as Aetherist Tekemuzh dictates to you, and do not waste his time with questions right now nor any of your theories. That can wait until after dinner. Play nicely, you two.”
Tekemuzh wasn’t all that young, but he was still easily young enough to be Ovanobina’s son. “Yes, ma’am.” He looked at the boy. “Get comfortable. This is going to take a while. I’m going to start with impressions, and some of what I say might make little or no sense. Write it all down anyway. We can sort it out later. Got it?”
Kalaket swallowed and nodded. “I don’t have to be near the skeletons, do I?”
“You only have to be near enough to hear everything I say without asking me to repeat it.” He thought the boy might be younger even than he looked, but perhaps if he had been in the towers of an academy his whole life, he might not be used to the darkness the world could provide.
Tekemuzh waited until Kalaket was settled, and then he put his hand on the forehead of the nearest skeleton.
What followed next was in many ways a blur. Tekemuzh knew he was speaking, and he knew he was seeing, but the images and the words flew too quickly for him to notice them other than as a stream.
“It was one at a time. They took the body and laid it against the stone — not here, on the other side of the wall, oh, the wall — and they started the death out there, so that the first blood, so many lines of blood. There’s a circle around the valley and it’s all death, all of it, a line of blood and then here, all of the caches, where they bled into the stone to enforce the seal. What a seal. So many people, slaves? Captives. They forced them against that stone and they spoke some words. I can almost hear them, A-ee-oh-ne-an, Yen-ah-lee-lee-o?” The words came awkwardly off of Tekemuzh’s Calenyen-trained tongue; he kept reaching for consonants that weren’t there.
He repeated the words; on the third try them came smoother, almost as if spoken by another. “Aheoneyan, yenalilioh, thalshailiohlioh. It was an unwilling sacrifice. ‘Pain will do,’ they told her, ‘if the spirit won’t provide.’ And… oh. Oh, the aether was already in the stone. How did they do that? They laid her against the mountain and the mountain held her there. And then, when it had drunk its fill, then she was carried down into the caves. So many caves. All around the valley…” Tekemuzh whimpered quietly. “They pinned them to the ground here, see the way her wrists are, her ankles? And they let them die. The twelve of them, alone here in the dark. And twelve more and twelve more and… twenty-four caves. So many of them.” He gasped and fell back. “Here sister was here, and her niece, and her cousin. She was still alive when they killed her lover. But…” He closed his eyes, so the remaining impressions came to him as clearly as he could.
“They’re not Bitrani, they’re not Calenyena. Not Arran. They’re short and pale, with hair that is white and yellow. Or orange, like the edges of a fire. They’re hairier than the Bitrani, and their clothing is strange, made out of pelts and… I don’t know what it is. She thinks of her wrap as i-ah-o-a-shee, iaoashi, but I don’t know what it means, just that it’s soaking up the blood, how will I wash that out, she thought. But she thinks of the man stabbing her as — foreigner, stranger. They’re not the same people, even though they look the same. They’re…” Tekemuzh gasped and opened his eyes. “They’re in the valley. There’s a valley there, why have we… oh.”
His throat worked and he stared at the skeleton in front of him. Whatever iaoashi was, it had long ago rotted away. She was small and broad-hipped, with a wide forehead and a large crack in her sternum. “They locked the valley,” Tekemuzh whispered. “All those bodies, all that blood. They sealed themselves in.”
He looked up at Kalaket. “Do you think they’re still there?”
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The science of psychometry was still frowned upon by many of Tekemuzh’s colleagues, he knew. They said it was folly and superstition; they said that it was a misuse of the aether if it worked at all, and certainly it wouldn’t really work. Usually, they stopped after he managed to make his “parlour tricks” reveal something about them they would have rather he hadn’t said.
He could have done without Aetherist Ovanobina calling him in to this particular task, however. Bones upon bones upon bones… and the silver vein that had led the miners to this dig.
“Tell us.” Ovanobina pulled Tekemuzh to the first in a long row of skeletons. “I want to know how they died.”
“Well,” Tekemuzh coughed, “there’s the problem, of course, that if they didn’t die with any major trauma or any surge of aeth…” He trailed off as his fingers brushed the first skeleton. “Oh. Oh by the Three.”
He sat back, trying to keep the contents of his stomach where they belonged. She had bled out, slowly and in pain, next to the still-warm corpse of her sister. She had died, bleeding aether into the very rock. “I think…” Tekemuzh swallowed and tried again. “I think it was a ritual.”
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Getting two ships close enough to converse, especially warships of very different designs, was not a quick process, and it was based in part on trust.
Captain Titrian & the garishly-dressed foreign captain relied instead on mutual curiosity and a great deal of hand-waving, while their ruler stood at the bow, smiling, accompanied by a nervous-looking attendant.
Titrian didn’t blame the attendant. He had been listing the ways this could go wrong; he was up to thirty-seven.
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Otondyoo was not pacing.
Otondyoo was not pacing, because they were close enough that they could see the foreign ship, and that meant the foreign ship could see them.
Otondyoo wanted to pace, because the foreign ship was crewed by – not Bitrani, they didn’t look quite like Bitrani, but still – by tall people with sun-chapped redness over pale skin, hair in brown and blonde and a fiery red Otondyoo had never seen. Their clothes were in blue and grey and green, cut in strange ways, the pants only to the knee, the shirts leaving their arms bare. They must be freezing.
The Emperor was smiling, and if anything, that made Otondyoo want to pace even more. It was a vicious smile, not a diplomat’s face. “Did you know, Otondyoo, that there’s a particular artifact in the imperial treasury that claims to be able to read the color of a person’s aether?”
“But people don’t have aether, sir. The scholars determined that…”
“Indeed. Of course.” The Emperor’s smile grew. He passed the telescope to Otondyoo. “Tell me, what do you think they’re feeling right now?”
Otondyoo had already looked at all of them. “I think they’re cold, sir.”
Obediently, Otondyoo looked again. “Their leader… I think their leader is worried. He keeps looking at us and then back to his first mate. And to the Calenyena-looking one they’ve got on the aft rigging.”
“Indeed. Do you think they were expecting to find someone else?”
Otondyoo dropped the spyglass down to study the armament. “If they were, sir, they might have not been expecting them to be friendly.”
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Captain Titrian and his first mate spent a few moments staring at the ship coming out of the harbor.
It was flying a flag, that much they could tell, and although it was no flag they recognized, Titrian at least had not expected it to be. Over a thousand years had passed; nobody still flew the same flags or bowed to the same kings.
It was also flying pennants in every color known to mankind; it was painted in horizontal stripes of red, blue, and green; its sails were red, blue, green, white, pink, teal, and black. It hurt Titrian’s eyes to look at, but he looked anyway. Because under all that brilliant color was a sleek, pointed ship unlike anything he’d seen before, and he could count, painted to match the stripes on the ship, at least ten cannon.
This gaudy thing was a warship, and it was coming out to meet them.
That itself was cause for alarm.
Standing at the helm of the ship, however, dressed in as many colors as the ship if not more, was a man who looked to be a hundred years old if he was a day, his beard and hair both white and both braided into many tiny strands. In the spy-glass, Titrian noted a crown. He also noted that the man – king, what have you – had dark brown skin and a face far more like the Ideztozhyuh than like Titrian’s own people.
“‘What happened to the lost colony?'” he muttered. It was the question everyone had been asking when this mission left. “Clearly, they were lost.”
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The Emperor’s secretary was having a hard time understanding. “Sir. Sir, if you go out onto the ship, you’re at risk.”
The Emperor shrugged into a heavily-embroidered vest. “Exactly. Otondyoo, if I don’t go out there, what kind of ruler am I?”
“An aging one, sir?” Otondyoo had not gotten to the position of Emperor’s secretary without learning how to be very very blunt with the monarch.
“But one that can still sit in a saddle with the best of them. We’ve forgotten a lot lately, in this long era of peace, but I believe we’ll never forget that.”
“…But it’s a boat, sir, not a goat.” Otondyoo tried to sound reasonable, even if the Emperor was being anything but.
“The theory still holds. I will be on the boat that greets these visitors. And if they attack us and I am killed, my heir will have sufficient diplomatic reason to kill them all and begin war on whence they came. But Otondyoo? If it comes to that, tell her to save the boat. You’re going to need it.”
The Emperor was smiling. Otondyoo had not seen that in quite a while. The Emperor’s secretary bowed deeply. Let him have his boat ride. He had been cooped up in the palace for far too long. “Of course, sir. Give me a moment to leave those notes with my assistant. I’m coming with you.”
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The miners had found the bones, and at first, nobody had thought anything of it.
They had been following a newly discovered vein of prime silver, accessible only due to new machines and techniques and so heavily loaded with aether that it seemed to vibrate. They’d cracked open a cave and found further veins of silver running down below the cave, and then their first crack at the ground had revealed bones.
It didn’t take a doctor or an anthropologist to determine that the bones were human; when they called in two of each, what they could say was that the bones were very old indeed, female, and they did not know how she’d died. They could also guess that the bones were from a full-grown adult, although she would have only reached the shoulder of most women.
A lone woman dead in a cave nobody had known about was a mystery, but not so strange as to halt digging of aether-rich silver. The miners had let the doctors and scientists take away the bones, and then they’d begun digging again.
That was when they found the second skeleton. And the third. And the fourth. And the fifth, sixth… at ten, the miners threw up their hands in frustration.
By that point, the scientists had begun the serious examination of the first set of bones.
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If pressed, the captain would never admit it, but Titrian had always been skeptical about the concept of the Lost Colony. Ships just didn’t go over the Fire Sea.If they were only now figuring out how to safely navigate north of the Fire Sea – and that only by using dirigible technology in tandem with new boat designs – there was no way that that their ancestors more than a millenium in the past had managed to work it out.
So Captain Titrian had always believed. But when the gods and the government paid your salary, there were times that you had to go against your own beliefs.
Since he’d never told anyone that he didn’t believe in the lost colonies, Titrian had nobody but himself to know his uncomfortable shame when they found themselves looking up at a fully-developed city. A garishly-colored city, he noted, with even the cliff face covered in paintings.
His first mate coughed. “That, sir, uh. It doesn’t look like a Tabersi city.”
Titrian had to agree. It didn’t look like anything he’d ever seen before. “Signal the admiral. This might be more complicated than we thought.”
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in the same era as Edally Academy
The messenger was having a hard time making himself understood.
“There’s a strange ship come into the harbor!”
The Emperor’s secretary was not impressed. “What are the shipwrights up to this year?”
“No, not like that. It’s flying strange colors.” The messenger gestured with both hands.
“Pirates?” The secretary frowned. “They’re not supposed to come this far North. They know what’ll happen if they do.”
“They’d better not be Bitrani…”
The messenger took a breath and began speaking more slowly, in carefully chosen words. “There is a ship of strange manufacture, flying a flag that is neither piratical or Bitrani and certainly not Calenyena. The people, from what we can see, do not look like us or the Bitrani, and their clothing is strange. There are foreigners coming into the harbor.”
The word foreigner was so old as to be archaic. There was no such thing. There was the empire, and that was it. To the North was ice; to the east was wind. To the south was nothingness; to the west was the great fire rift. There was nothing but the empire; since they had conquered the Bitrani, there were no foreigners to speak of.
Until, it appeared, now. The secretary coughed politely.
“I’ll let His Imperial Majesty know that he needs to see you right now.”
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