A great gong was sounded. The atonal, metallic wave seemed to fill the odeon, thickening the shimmering air, stirring golden waves through the still pool of lava. Mar-tu had risen from his great healing pool like a kraken stirring from the deep, his bare muscle still exposed in some places, great broad torso weeping blood. He had dragged me here rapidly with one hand. At times, he carried me like an errant hound-pup. He seemed to be hastening.
From the dark places of the Menagerie emerged centaurs large and small, until the numbers equalled those gathered for the ceremony I had witnessed with Hamazi. Anshan stood before this grim assembly, his outsized hand tight around the back of my neck.
“Brothers! I have triumphed once again! I have forced my will upon the spirits of the Great Fire, and against the will of the Winds, freed myself from the Basalt Cage! My supremacy, never in doubt, is for all to see. Even now, skinless by the will of Hashut, I could slay every one of you.”
At this, the centaurs seemed jubilant. At first I wondered at their savage ways, but in hindsight I see that it is so often the way of things, even in the Empire.
“But I come before you now not to threaten you with death. I come before you to show my latest prize! We will consign the Prophet’s most precious manling slave to the flames as a sacrifice, to repay the favour of the Great Bull!”
A roar rose from the assembly. It seemed that either they assumed Enmerkar had given me over for this purpose, or else they held him in contempt.
Anshan began to beat his chest with one vast fist, and the other centaurs pounded their hooves on the great basalt floor of the odeon in response. Within me, however, silence descended. A grim darkness fell about the corners of the room, as though the colours of the world were being bled from my eyes. Eventually, the sound of hooves was as if far away, or heard from underwater, and in their place I felt a susurration of whispers surrounding me.
I was barely conscious as Mar-tu lifted me by the back of the neck and solemnly processed towards the lava pool. Again, the great gong sounded, and though I scarcely heard it I felt the vibrations in my innards.
I thought that the voice that haunted my mind was going to speak again, and I strained to hear something intelligible among the frantic whispers with what little focus I could bring. The chamber felt airless. I could barely feel my impending death, and the lava beneath me - as Anshan held me above it - seemed icy cold, as though when he dropped me into it, I would tumble into a cold void. The sound of other whispers rose from it, but I felt the voice in my head at last whispering in.
Speak and be heard.
Cutting through the dim, darkening sound came the unmistakable crack of black powder. A handgun rung out from the same stairway entrance through which I had originally come.
The centaurs ceased their rhythm. The sound of the gong seemed to freeze in the air. Anshan’s hand froze, and the shadows that had clouded my sight seemed to recede. I suddenly felt the oppressive heat of the lava, burning pain in my legs. I began to kick and thrash, to no avail. I strained to turn and see, and in the silence I heard steely boots. Dozens of them.
Spreading out from the doorway were a line of dark-helmed Dawi, flowing black beards protruding out across burnished steel and brass breastplates. In their hands were large, broad-bored handguns, each one ornate and unique, each one sprouting an enormous bayonet and multiple other sharp edges. They seemed to move as one, steadily taking up the positions of a disciplined gun-line, two ranks deep. There were perhaps sixteen, perhaps twenty of them. The front rank took a knee and knocked their helms to their sights. Behind them, the standing second rank did the same. They didn’t seem to take specific aim, but had they touched triggers, Anshan and the procession of centaurs behind him would all have been hit.
Before them stood the unmistakable form of Hamazi, holding aloft a great flute-ended pistol which he must have discharged into the ceiling.
“The Sorcerer-Prophet commands the immediate return of his property,” he said cooly, calling across the acoustic of the odeon. “Unhand it.” He did not lower the pistol, but dipped his head to the side a little. “Intact.”
The beast swung around to face the intruders, his eyes wide with anger. He swung me out from above the lava, at least for now, but did not unhand me. His grip, if anything, tightened. I began to feel shallow of breath, but at least the scorching pain subsided. The flesh was clearly burnt, but a wave of adrenalin restored my senses. I had to think quickly. There was a way out of this.
“And what are you, little dawi, to question the will of the Great Bull’s Chosen? You will burn next, I think. While you abide in this place, your fate belongs to me. Name yourself.”
“Hamazi,” replied the dwarf. “Castellan of the Prophet’s Infernal Guard. Now drop the slave.”
“So, another failed beardling rises to replace Jushur? A waste. Tell me of your deeds, beardling. Who has heard your shameful name?”
Silence hung in the heat-shimmering air. It was now or never.
I hacked a cough and strained to speak, my voice loud enough only for the centaur to hear. His retainers, my would-be saviour, the armoured dawi - would all hear little, if anything at all.
“But… mighty one, who among my people does not know the name, Hamazi Fleshburner?”
Mar-tu eyed me as though looking at me for the first time.
“…Flesh burner?” He enunciated the syllables separately, as though tasting them. There was incredulity and hesitancy in equal measure.
“Great lord,” I started, nodding my head in deference as best his grip allowed. “The Fleshburner’s deeds are known throughout the lands of my birth. Why, in the clash that led to my capture, he single-handedly slew two of my prize demigryphs, along with half my guard. He is a savant with twin blades, striking more heads that day than all those taken by his two dozen grobi warslaves put together.”
The enormous centaur placed me gingerly on the ground. I knelt, averting my eyes, but addressing him directly. I tried to speak as loud as my battered throat would allow, and the acoustics of the odeon helped me.
“Once I was brought to this place, less than a day passed before word came down that he had retrieved for his master the Lost Idol of Shubur. Hamazi Fleshburner wielded the magics that bind me to the Lord of Mourngard,” I said, pulling my ragged shirt open to show the seared symbol on my heart, “and cursed my soul to be bound up with that of my enemies. The men of my lands spit his name in hatred, to mask the fear that rises in their chests when it is heard.”
The taur’ruk exhaled heavily, shaking out his beard, nostrils flaring in contemplation of this new information.
“So… the Prophet sends a renowned killer of beasts to the Menagerie with only the manling as his herald. He sends a flesh-burner to me when he knows I am unfleshed!” The centaur cackled, and looked around at his herd, who laughed heartily in reply. “Ah… he is a wily one. Perhaps the Prophet anticipated we could be tricked into a premature confrontation, beardling… or perhaps he hoped your name would precede you. Either way, he will have no satisfaction from me. Take your manling. Be wary to turn your back upon this one, Flesh-burner,” said the centaur. “The daemons know his name.”
I felt the air around me run deathly cold for a brief moment. Somewhere in the distance - perhaps the heights of the cavern, perhaps the depths of my soul - hissing chitters rattled in response.
The beast’s hoof pushed me sharply from the ground and I scurried off, up the stone steps to the gun-line.
“I will send for you when Hashut has healed me, little Castellan,” said the Taur-ruk, turning away as though the matter were nought. “We will spar to the blood. You will show me how a dawi in a metal shell can slay two demigryphs at once. I look forward to seeing your twin blades… savant.”
Though there was menace in his voice, and he fixed a hateful eye on Hamazi, he was gone almost at once. The Castellan cuffed me with a mailed gauntlet, and barked to his guard, who wheeled about in a show of iron discipline and began the long, stifling trudge back up the stone steps to the surface.