Ash crossed the timber-framed hall in a lazy descent. The grey residue symbolized the last thirty years of Ironwood’s history, a by-product of the industrial boom that transformed the city, both through its skyline of belching chimneys and foundries, and the political makeup of a rising middle class of wealthy peasants.
Gervius Poltim, the Patriarcht of Ironwood Proper, founder of the twelve hundred year old city, watched the ash settle on his right hand. The intolerable stink of nearby factories wafted through the draughty hall. Incessant hammering tolled forth from close by refineries and added to Poltim’s mixed mood of anger and exhaustion. Ancient hands twisted around the hand rests of the iron throne like an oak root. If he had the strength he would have reached out and brushed the ash away, as if it were the city itself that he could reach and erase. But such actions evaded his ancient limbs. He watched with a still face, seething inside, as a carer wiped away the stain.
Once worshipped as a god, Poltim was now considered by most in Ironwood to be nothing more than an archaic symbol of the city’s past.
The Patriarcht’s sole source of financial outlay now came from the small group of wealthy followers tied to the Cult of the Patriacht, a secretive sect that the Church of Ea-Manati had tried to weed out
The church and nobles tolerated his presence in the absence of an alternative method of removing him. Prophets had long seen visions of the city’s destruction with his death. Such as he was the founder of Ironwood, so would he be responsible for its end. Poltim had done much to spread such premonitions early in his reign.
A blade slashed out. Poltim’s features portrayed no emotion as he watched the flow and ebb of the girl’s life dry up, her blood splashing at the hem of his robes.
Poltim only knew one thing – Loathing, a disgust at his own inability to feel anything else. Twelve hundred years of existence had desensitized him to human expression so much that he could not even feign remorse or excitement at a child’s death. And he loathed it.
Poltim looked to the man holding the dagger, sporting a blue vest over a mail shirt. The expectations of his highest agents were harsh. In order to reach the highest rank in the Patriarcht’s house one had to sever all ties with immediate family for good. So it was that the Patriarcht looked to his newest right hand man, Killan Vehgrant, standing over the body of his wife and child, a solemn look in his eye. The man had joined Poltim’s service twelve years prior, proving to be both dedicated and ruthless in his ascent to the Patriarcht’s side. Poltim had long stopped wondering at the lines man would cross for power.
“Come,” he whispered through taut lips, hard as fossilized stone.
Killan stepped over the body of his daughter and knelt in her pooled blood, kissing the bloody robe of the Patriarcht.
“Here marks a man of the Order,” rattled the Patriarcht. “Under the mantle of the gods, old and new alike, I raise him to the rank of right-hand.” A final pronounced rattle ordered Killan to stand.
Killan rose and moved to the right side of his lord. Slaves dragged away the corpses.
The Patriarcht watched two boys appear carrying buckets and a mop. The sight of the cleaning boys filled him with more disgust at the city he had founded. Cleaning in the temple was a full time job. Ash from the smokestacks and factories blew night and day, serving to choke the entire city with a poisonous layer of soot.
The doors at the far end of the hall opened, stirring the Patriarcht from his dozing mood. His eyes cracked open as he realised the face of the approaching man. Kaiser Tell, haggard from years of mining profitless stone in the Notorious Clefts, strode towards him with a triumphant gaze.
The Patriarcht shuddered, a rare sense of excitement causing the clots in his veins to stir. In two hands Kaiser carried a small oak chest, held out towards Poltim’s greedy eyes in offering.
At reaching the throne, Kaiser knelt before his lord, placing the chest on the sticky stones.
“Rise,” Poltim ordered.
“My lord, I bring you that which you have longed for.” Kaiser’s voice was rough, croaky from a straining journey through the mountains.
“The Plague of Jer Gakt.” The mention of it brought lost memories to the ancient’s mind.
“It is as you said. Within the Cleft I fond a cavern, buried deep below the Earth.”
“Tell me what you saw,” Poltim demanded.
“From foot to ceiling there were eggs, protected in resin, humming even at my entry. Some had been disturbed where we had blasted through the walls, I am sure I breathed in the spores upon entering.”
“Yes,” the Patriarcht agreed. “Even now I can feel my body responding to you, as if I am waking from a coma. What of the workers?”
“I had the miners poisoned,” Kaiser remarked. “My servant has stayed behind to dispose of the bodies and wait for our return.”
“Thus you have done well, Kaiser.”
“I found this in the cavern too,” Kaiser continued, opening the chest.
Inside sat a large opaque egg, shimmering under the surface of a resin coat. Poltim drew in a tight breathe. Below the protective coat he could just make out the fibrous tendrils connected in the centre by a round head, the size of a fingernail. The creature inside pulsed, growing excited in the light of the hall.
“A queen,” Poltim marveled.
For the first time in centuries the Patriarcht felt alive.