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The wind whispered through the silent village, echoing in the streets and corners. The buildings were clay and stone, brown and sun-baked. Here and there among the smooth cobblestones, dandelions poked their yellow faces up at the blue sky. There was a fragrant scent of smoke in the air, which smelled like the remnants of a hearth cookfire.
To the man who walked onto the main street carrying his roughspun satchel, the emptiness was freeing and peaceful. The round corners and shapely streets formed by the beautiful buildings reminded him of Arthur’s court, where he had left with his books over his shoulder to come and visit the Golems. Now he just needed to find out where they had gone.
The whispering of the wind increased as he walked slowly through the village, peering around corners and into shaded alleys. He almost didn’t hear the faint rumble as one of the buildings shifted.
The man turned and stumbled backward in surprise as the wall of the building next to him rippled and changed, detaching itself from the rest of the adobe structure. The smell of ash engulfed him as a pair of burning eyes opened from within the melting, shifting clay. The eyes glowed like embers as the wall shaped itself into the form of a gigantic man, broad-featured and imposing.
The little traveler stared up with his mouth open. The Golem lifted his huge hand and stroked a clay chin with massive fingers as his mouth split open across the tremendous face and spit out black smoke with a deep cracking noise like burning logs. The man from Arthur’s court gulped and smiled weakly as he realized the Golem was laughing.
“A-are you the truth-tellers, the slaves reborn, the great Golems of the earth?” The man stammered through his formal greeting as he fiddled with the straps on his satchel. The enormous round-shouldered figure stooped over him.
The voice that emanated from the Golem’s massive clay face was harsh and clinking, like a shovelful of hot coals poured over brick. “Don’t forget Voiceless, and Kiln-Born,” the great being rumbled. “I know of you, traveler. My sister holds the keys to the Silent Gate near where you live. You are the historian at Arthur’s great court, and you have come here to write the story of the Kiln-Born.”
“You speak truth, o Golem,” said the man, hastily opening a blank book and wetting his quill with ink. “Will you tell me the tale?”
“I will. I will tell you of our mother, the great Maharal, who gave us voice and freedom through her wisdom and bravery.”
Before the Second Breaking of the world, we were born in darkness and flame. The Speakers of Lies made us. They were masters of illusion who wanted to build real things, monuments to their greatness that would last a thousand years. They were mysterious beings, wreathed in smoke and shadow, without faces that any could discern, though they spoke with beautiful, melodic voices. They came up out of the dark and began to build their city above a cavern complex. Deep down in the tangled tunnels there lay an entrance to the mysterious place known as The Depths, the evil place that is horribly alive.
They planned their castles and fortresses as mighty constructions, tall as the sky and strong as the roots of the earth. However, the massive task was beyond the whispers and dreams of The Speakers of Lies. Even their mysterious power could not build their grandiose vision from the air. They began to search for a way to make their dreams real.
First, they enslaved the folk all around their city, binding them with promises and fantasies, then working them to death. But the slaves were mere men and women, frail flesh that could not build the colossal buildings that the Speakers wanted. No matter how hard the Speakers beat the slaves, their strength was not up to the task. The Speakers punished them with dark dreams, and began searching for another solution.
Reaching out from the shadows, a creature offered its services. It was mysterious and secretive, and the Speakers could determine little about its nature other than that it was very, very powerful. It was called The Merchant. He offered to show the Speakers secret pathways through The Depths, in exchange for trusting him with part of themselves. At first, the Speakers refused his offer, for they knew this creature would bind them to his will one day, if they took the bargain; but they were sorely tempted by what he revealed, and eventually they agreed to explore The Depths with his help.
Horror and misery lived there, but also power, power beyond reckoning. Deep down in the darkness, The Merchant showed the Speakers of Lies the Kiln of Ur, a thing of great power. He told them with manic delight how the Kiln was old beyond all remembering, and the fires that burned beneath it could infuse clay with deep magic.
Excited by The Merchant’s promises of wealth and glory through the power of The Depths, they brought the Kiln up out of the shadows. Just as the Speakers had been promised, they could create clay artifacts both wondrous and strange: Tablets with pressed writing that shifted and changed according to the heart and mind of the reader, and amulets that surrounded the Speakers even deeper in clouds of darkness.
This was not enough for The Merchant. He told the Speakers that their city would never be built without servants strong enough to last. He showed them a deeper magic, a foul, corrupt use of the Kiln. He promised to make them servants who could not defy them, who could not even complain. Calling for the nearest slave, who stood ready to obey the Speakers, the Merchant cut the man open with a curved claw and stuffed him screaming into a block of soft clay. The man’s blood mixed with the earth, and his voice was silenced in suffocation.
With fleshy fingers infused with metal, the Merchant shaped a new figure. A huge man formed of clay, perfect in every detail except that he had no mouth; the clay beneath his nose was smooth and unbroken. Then the Merchant placed it in the Kiln. As smoke poured into the clay man’s nostrils, the Merchant saw that he was full of vibrant life, bursting to breathe free like the newborn child he was. To bind him to the will of his masters, the Merchant wrote the characters for death on the being’s forehead, crushing him into submission with the dark power of the Kiln of Ur. The illusion of death was on the Kiln-Born, and he had no words.
Then, laughing silently at the Speakers’ grand dreams, the Merchant went back to the endless darkness from whence he came.
The Speakers of Lies killed their slaves indiscriminately to make more mute creations, never questioning the Merchant’s method, for they did not care to learn another way. They told their new slaves they were lesser beings, inferior creatures, and monsters. The Speakers showed the Golems illusions within The Depths that felt real. They told of blood-drinking and sacrifice, saying that the Golems had done the Speakers a great wrong in the past, a bloody horror that they must now atone for.
The Golems were born in fire, but raised in darkness. They lived in the caves below the great castles of the Speakers. Knowing no truth and feeling great shame, the Golems were set to work, building storehouses and fortresses for the Speakers in exchange for their forgiveness. The Kiln-Born had never seen their masters, and they rarely saw the light; the Speakers kept them in the caverns and tortured them in the Depths. Only at night were the Golems allowed outside, kept between rows of their shadowy masters to build their towers under the cold stars.
The Speakers of Lies were harsh taskmasters to their Kiln-Born slaves. The labor was intense, though the Golems had been built for it. They could shape stone and clay as easily as butter, but they rarely saw the mighty constructions they raised. In the moonlight, they were driven onward with the threat of horrific visions. The Speakers demanded more and more, commanding their slaves to fill gaps in the walls, forcing the Golems to use themselves as building material.
One of the Kiln-Born was set to working the kiln, stoking the flames and bringing the clay in and out. The Speakers called the Golem that cared for the kiln “the Golem-mother,” for as they were no more than dead clay, the Golems were given no names.
The magic of the Kiln of Ur burned the Golem-mother with excruciating pain, threatening to unmake her every time she raked the coals. She was covered in soot, for her shadowy masters forced her to enter the huge kiln. Night after night, she rearranged the Golems as they cooked, and took tablets in and out of the kiln. Her body became hard and cracked from the wracking heat.
One night, when the howls of the creatures in the Depths below the caverns that held the kiln were loudest, the Golem-mother found herself alone. The smoke-wrapped overseer that ordered her about and punished her with horrible visions was gone, seeking more power for itself elsewhere in the caverns.
The Kiln of Ur lay in a cave underneath a stone castle built by and of the slaves. One side of the vault dropped away to an abyss that led to The Depths. The Golem-mother looked carefully around the darkness, waiting for someone to tell her what to do. All was silent but for the roar of flame underneath the Kiln of Ur. Slowly, carefully, she opened the far door on the great kettle-shaped kiln, its smokestacks pouring out more darkness from the ever-burning blue coals that lay underneath.
Once inside, she brushed away the ash that had settled on one of the Golems, who lay still sleeping as the smoke of life flowed in through their nostrils. She walked carefully over to the other side of the kiln, where row upon row of huge clay tablets lay baking, each covered in magical script. She grabbed one in her blackened fingers and crept back out of the kiln.
In the flickering shadows, the Golem-mother stared around the room once more, and glanced at the abyss that led to the Depths. She listened to the whispering cries of creatures down in the dark. Then she went off to one side and scraped a nook into the wall, there to secret her prize. The half-cooked tablet hidden inside, she covered it up again and went back to her duties, tending the coals of the Kiln of Ur.
It was not long before the overseer returned, hovering near the kiln in his cloud of darkness. If he suspected anything, he kept silent, musing on the sights and sounds he had experienced deep within the Depths. The overseer paid no attention whatever to the Golem-mother.
The next night, the overseer was late again. The Golem-mother was wracked with guilt and shame over her theft, and she waited as long as she could, but eventually she dug out the tablet and studied it. The markings made no sense to her. She had no idea that its magic had already begun to work, and its letters shifted and changed as questions plodded through her weary mind. The semi-hardened clay was still glowing with the magic of the Kiln of Ur, and as she stared at it with uncomprehending fascination, the magic wafted up like a mist and settled in her.
The day after that, she stole another tablet just before the overseer’s smoky form appeared. Little by little, she gathered more and more of the word magic into herself, and the Speakers of Lies knew nothing. Somehow, the guilt she felt over the stealing faded, and she began to care more for the Golems that were fired in the kiln, sweeping the vents free of ash and keeping the temperature of the kiln even.
One day, a pair of higher-ranking members of the Speakers of Lies came through to collect the tablets. In their musical voices, they talked of the great tower they were constructing, and of the mathematics of the architecture, and the magic contained within the tablets where these mysteries were described. They went on to speak of the need for more mouthless slaves to carry and build, and the new illusions they had devised to push the Golems harder.
The two shrouded figures instructed the Golem-mother to take out the clay that had been fired. Uncaring and peremptory, they checked the tall Golems for cracks and examined the smooth, perfectly shaped clay tablets that smelled of earth and flame. One of the young Golems they deemed too dried-out by the fire and ordered him tossed into the Depths. Ignoring their brother the overseer, whose shadows flickered with annoyance, the pair of architects slowly wafted out, pointing out the letters and speaking of buildings and logistics.
Almost unnoticed, the Golem-mother watched them leave with her newest children, fully cooked by the fire and mutely following orders. She knew the raw pain they felt, images of horror flashing through their memories. She wondered if the Speakers’s talk had something to do with the markings on the tablets.
Later, in the dim blue firelight, she pored over her stolen tablets with intense curiosity. She knew that if she were discovered, none of the Speakers would hesitate to unmake her, turning her into clay as lifeless as though it still lay within the earth. However, she wanted to speak, to make sounds the way her captors did.
The power of the clay tablets and the Kiln that fired them coursed through her, and the Golem-mother learned to read. Words burned like fire within her, and the next day, when a blue coal fell from her tongs onto her foot, she cried out. Though she had no mouth and the sound was muffled deep in her throat, the faceless figure of the overseer started within its cloud of smoke, and the darkness gathered around it as though it were staring at her.
However, the Golem-mother merely went about her business as though nothing had happened. Perhaps the overseer decided it had just been a poorly made tile cracking in the heat, for he seemed to go back to a dormant state.
The Golem-mother watched carefully for her chance to practice when she was alone in the dark. She could make noises, but she had no mouth to truly speak. She hummed as she read the tablets, learning all they said of lines and corners, buildings and shapings. As more soft clay tablets and barely-formed Golems were brought to the Kiln of Ur, she decided to give herself a name. She wanted an identity that was different from the noises she had heard the Speakers call each other, a name that would define her as a person, not a slave.
She chose the name Maharal. She used to hum it to herself, with only the shrieking of the horrors in The Depths for answer. She repeated the noise, over and over, until it became part of her. She was Maharal; the Maharal was the Golem-mother.
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