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The nights passed in toil and heat. Every now and then, architects came by and berated the overseer of the Kiln for the missing tablets. They never suspected the Golem in the room; for without a name, and death on her forehead, she was nothing.

However, one night the overseer of the kiln came down to check on the coals. His shadowy form paused on the stairs that led down into the dark chamber. What was that noise?

Continuing cautiously onward and intensely curious, he became more and more alarmed. Someone was whispering. Drawing his wicked weapon, he readied for battle, but only found the Golem mumbling to herself as she stoked the blue coals; “Maharal, Maharal, Maharal.” The sound was getting louder and louder, as though something muffling it had been removed.

Laughing, for he was not afraid, the overseer sheathed his weapon and stepped into the room. Shocked, the Golem woman jumped to her feet, covering the mouth that had just split open in her face. The overseer only laughed some more at her embarrassment. “You fool. I could unmake you for this. Instead, I will allow you to live, and only teach you how the Kiln-Born are meant to be. Cross the bridge and enter The Depths!”

Trembling, Maharal approached the edge of the abyss. There was a bridge, but it was invisible, hidden by devious creatures that whispered and flitted through the dark. Holding herself, she did as instructed, looking down into the endless darkness. She became all fear and servile obedience, as the overseer laughed musically and clapped at her clumsiness. Movement, magic, and gloom: these are the things the Depths is made of, a being whose desires are dark as the bottomless depths of a soul.

Into this darkness Maharal went, recovering her bravery as she passed through the gate. Behind her, the overseer shook with delight inside his cloud of obscuring mist. With the mysterious magic of the Speakers of Lies, he summoned a strange smoke. As Maharal watched, the smoke grew and grew, shedding a weird light all its own. The greenish light reflected back off glittering points from all directions. It illuminated a strange chamber that was lined with broken glass. The light splintered and refracted in a thousand colors, but Maharal gasped in shock as she looked down. A bloody trail lay behind her where her great feet had trod, yet she had felt nothing.

A crashing noise erupted all around her and the wickedly sharp glass shards shook. She realized that the noise was the laughter of The Depths.

The overseer, unharmed as he floated over the bloody glass, hummed a happy song. Weeping, Maharal attempted to find a safe place to stand, but the overseer stopped her with a tendril of shadow. “Breathe this,” he demanded, and held out a handful of ashes.

Maharal choked, smelling the vile stuff that filled her nostrils as she watched her feet bleeding into the clear shards of glass. She began to see shapes in the greenish smoke the overseer had summoned. She saw figures and forms of horror, all mutilated faces of herself. Only these were older and younger versions of her, visions that had never existed and never could exist, for the Speakers of Lies built their slaves as fully grown beings.

“Yes, that’s it. Hold that ash in your lungs now, Kiln-Born. I am going to instruct you about yourself. First, know why your mouth was taken from you.”

The images shifted, becoming denser and darker, until a scene of bloody horror was revealed. She was no longer in the glass room, with the overseer wafting the smoke at her face. She stood at a bloody battlefield on a frozen mountaintop, strewn with bodies. The untouched snow was startlingly white; a purity that made the crimson splash across it all the more vivid. Flesh splashed with blood lay about in chunks, twisted and torn apart. The air stank of raw meat and rot. There were massive bite marks, bubbling blood. The red droplets, freezing slowly, gleamed like polished jewels. A woman struggled for breath nearby; she was missing an arm and a leg, bloody stumps still trickling. It looked as though something enormous had chewed and torn her apart.

Smoke curled at the edges of Maharal’s sight; crinkles and folds appeared in her vision; from a great distance, she heard the voice of the overseer, growing harsher. The music in his voice was gone, as though the glass room had drained the color from him. “And now you will learn why we must make the Kiln-Born now, why you cannot be allowed to bear children.”

Staring at the great white-and-red expanse shimmering before her, Maharal blinked away tears.

When she opened her eyes, she saw a room whose walls were made of metal pipes pumping and thrusting at each other. Splayed on racks shaped like five-pointed stars lay men and women writhing. Unable to look away, Maharal shuddered as a huge round-shouldered figure ambled into view, chuckling. The Golem was fitted with glittering metal, and his slick connections wept fluid like foul orifices of mechanical origin.

The Golem’s voice was husky, yet smooth. “Aren’t you excited? It is time for your progeny to serve.” He reached down and plunged his massive arm into an open, rubbery tube sticking out of the floor. With a heave and a suction noise, he plucked out an infant, which immediately started wailing. “Ah, yes, fresh blood. Delicious.”

One of the women who was strapped in place struggled harder, her eyes widening. Though she seemed to recognize the cry, she could not turn her head to look, as it was held in place by the clear pipe trickling black fluid down her throat. The Golem glanced at her, and then back to the hiccuping infant. “Oh yes, number seven, this is yours. Beautiful. You will be happy to know that your spawn will serve us well, a devoted creature of The Depths!”

Dangling the tiny boy carelessly, he placed the infant in a glass pod, which slid along a metal track and into a rusty hole gaping in the wall. The Golem patted a man strapped across the aisle, who writhed and choked beneath his touch. The gigantic figure made a pious face. “So much to do, can’t stop to appreciate the momentous occasion. Well done, three and seven. It’s a healthy start to a wonderful servant. Now, we need some fluid.”

Extruding a long blade from a clay finger, the Golem made an incision on the man’s bare leg. Dark, viscous blood dripped down to the floor, which shifted pipes as if to lap it up.

Maharal struggled against the vision as she watched the Golem slowly lever the blade in deeper, licking his lips. She tried to cover her eyes, but her arms wouldn’t move. It felt like her whole body was held in a metal vise, unable to even wriggle. She smelled nothing but blood and smoke, the smell of the Kiln and of death.

“You see?” the honeyed voice of the overseer broke in on her thoughts. “Before we learned to conceal ourselves, your ancestors did such deeds to our children, an outrage that will echo down the generations in peals of horror. We create new Kiln-Born now only that they may do penance for the deeds of their fathers. You deserve your life. All of the Kiln-Born do. You know it, in the deepest part of your clay heart. You were born to do your little part, to cleanse yourself of the evil your people have done. For no one truly dies but you, Kiln-Born. And thus your sacrifice has meaning.”

Maharal kept silent, knowing that the horrifying illusions would eventually end. When the overseer finally grew tired of torturing her, he laughed and brought her back to the room of flame where she had slaved all her life. “Do your duty,” was what he left her with, as he walked back to the stairs and toward his well-appointed rooms up above.

Maharal watched him go. He had shown her a twisted truth; she could not trust her own eyes, or her own memories. She could not trust the creature she had been before. She could only trust Maharal, which she had become.

And then it struck her; the Speakers of Lies had not shared their immortality with their slaves. Forced to wear death upon her brow like a badge of doom, she was a creature who truly died, whose life had no meaning in the great span of time that all other beings shared. The Speakers of Lies had denied the Golems the most vital piece of their lives. This was the greatest betrayal of all.

Her inborn fear and shame took a long time to fade. She watched the blue shadows play across her fingers in the firelight, and whispered her name in the dark.

 

The next night did not bring the Kiln taskmaster back down the tunnel. A terrible storm was brewing, and he and all his kin were struggling to make their slave-built storehouses safe from harm. Their treasures and their magics were too delicate to be exposed to the destruction of the Veilstorm.

Listening to the thunder echo through the caverns up above, Maharal stepped closer and closer to the blue coals that were never consumed. Her mouth still full of ash, she spat out her own name and held her finger in the fire until it was black and hard. As the thunder began booming up above, she opened the blast door of the Kiln of Ur and entered once again. The heat was intense, and bits of ash billowed through the rarified air like lost souls. The heat cracked Maharal’s skin and lit her with flame. She went over to the Golems that lay sleeping, filling with a life that was twisted into slavery by the death magic written on their foreheads. Maharal reached out with her finger and called upon the magic that had entered her.

At the moment her finger touched the Golem, the Malevolence above thundered again, shaking the cavern. She had to draw on everything she had read, all the knowledge she had absorbed alone in the darkness. She had mastered the magic of words, where the Speakers had only brushed the surface, content with their slaves and the promises of The Depths. She knew she had to change the course of her life with one letter, one small shift that meant everything. Her finger gouged the clay flesh to make a new word, adding just one character to the writing on the Golem’s forehead. It spelled truth.

The Golem’s eyes flew open. They flared with the heat of the fire and the light of the truth that burned inside his mind. He knew at once that the memories the Speakers’s dark magic had implanted were mere illusions, lies to confuse and shame him. He knew the truth of his youth and his innocence, and his immense power to choose his own life.

The Golem leaped up roaring, and Maharal smiled through cracked lips as she bent over another Kiln-Born and wrote truth upon its forehead. He too leapt up, dancing in the fire to see his mother.

When they had all been given new life, free and clear of death magic, Maharal was baked to a crisp, cracked and smooth all over. They helped her out carefully, and then grasped the Kiln of Ur in their mighty arms and pushed it over, toppling the artifact and rolling it into the abyss, where it disappeared in a flash of blue fire. As they left the caverns that were their prison, the Voiceless began to sing through the ash that filled their mouths.

The storm raged on, spilling water and liquid magic down the stairs that led to the room of fire while the Golems marched upward, still carrying their mother. When they emerged into the clouded light, they found the Speakers of Lies in chaos. The clouds of shadow ran hither and thither, struggling to protect their gaudy treasures from the storm, even as it tore at their buildings and its magic threatened their minds. Some were turned into abominations on the spot, becoming great bloated things with long arms and eyes in their hands.

The rain steamed off of the fire-hot Golems, sizzling and hissing. They set about awakening their fellows, pulling them out of the walls and archways to write truth upon them and into them. Their mouths opened for the first time, releasing a united cry. Even in the storm, the buildings caught fire from the furnace that burned in each Golem, and the flames spread as they awakened more and more.

The Speakers saw that the slaves who had given their bodies to form the walls of treasure-houses were getting up and walking away. Abandoning the scramble to get their belongings out of the storm, the shadowy figures gathered together into a battle line. Blades and whips appeared from the clouds of darkness, who whispered threats in their melodic voices.

The fires roared higher, tall towers collapsing as the Golems gathered into a loose group and started to look around. In the bright fires, they could see the winding mountain road that led out, away from the city of lies.

The line of dark opponents stood across their path, spitting curses at the slaves. For a long moment, the clay giants hesitated, looking at one another in the flickering red light and the spouts of steam. Far above, lightning crackled with magic and the dark clouds billowed in a hot wind.

The moment shattered as one newly-awakened Golem stepped forward. With a cry that matched the thunder, he hurled a massive chunk of stone into the massed ranks of darkness. There was a scream, and then the Golems all rushed forward as one. They crashed into the Speakers with tremendous force, but their overlords wielded vicious weapons. Blood and ashes burst into the air as the Golems struggled to reach the mountain road.

After a few moments, Maharal broke free through a gap in the line, careless of the deep wounds in her legs, which leaked steaming blood and smoke into the air. She led the Golems at a hobbling run, taking the steep path without slowing.

A few Golems lay still on the ground, spilling hot coals. A few shadows quivered here and there, crushed by the giants’ desperate charge. Behind them, the former Overseer of the Kiln of Ur lay crushed and broken. Unable to hold onto this reality any longer, the Speaker of Lies melted into thick smoke and disappeared through cracks in the earth, returning to The Depths, which demanded its share of the old bargain and reclaimed him as its own.

Running up the path out of the dissipating storm, the Golems found themselves in daylight for the first time. It was a gentle, warm light, so unlike the fires and moons that had lit their work for all their lives. They were outside the city, which lay smoking behind them in crumbled ruins. Some magic still struggled to show the castles still standing, an army massing below on the plain that would ride out and recapture the slaves. However, the Golems saw through these illusions easily. Falsity and shadows melted from their eyes like the smoke that they blew from their mouths. The Kiln-Born set off to find a new life.

Maharal, who walked with difficulty but no end of dignity, eventually came to the front of the camp and blew a spout of smoke into the air. Following her signal, the Golems trod onward, over the mountains and crags.

 

When the Golem finished speaking, he simply stopped. There was silence as he stood there, waiting for the historian to finish writing. His eyes still burned with an inner fire, but they were like soft embers, remembering.

The soft scritch-scratch of the historian’s pen finally stopped, and he plucked up a piece of crinkling paper to wipe away the excess ink. He glanced up with a faraway look. “A beautiful story, friend. But how does it end? How did you come here, to Arthur’s Realm? What is your name, and the name of your beautiful but empty village?”

The sharp laughter of the massive Golem spat sparks as he turned and waved at the village. In response, the walls and buildings all around melted, collapsing into mounds that rose again as ashy clay giants, smiling and blowing curls of smoke into the air. “The village is not empty, friend. It was merely our afternoon rest. Before I tell you the next part of the story, join my family for a meal; I am called Yosef.”

Read more in part 3

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