Something was wrong… but she couldn’t place it.
The sun was high in the sky. Bitter Iron could see it through the skylight in the ceiling of the room. Perhaps that was the problem, the sun shouldn’t shine so brightly on sad days. She had spent the mornings writing letters, reading books, anything to pass the time; but it was nearly noon now. Time to ready herself.
She hadn’t bothered to get dressed this morning, so she was still in her long silk nightgown – virginal and white, made by the finest tailors that the city had to offer. She walked to her walk-in closet, past her large bay windows with a wide view of the sprawling sea. Birds chirped across the ocean. A beautiful kingfisher had perched on the railing of her patio, such was the height of her tower.
Iron’s closet was filled with all manner of clothes – all the finest make the city could offer. The colors and patterns were vibrant and energetic, as were the styles – short, breezy skirts; colorful corsets; and tops with long flowing sleeves. But, they all went ignored today. She’d already laid out today’s outfit at the back. A simple black slipover that hugged her form, but reached all the way to her ankles and covered her skin almost completely. She pulled her magical girdle, magically colored into a simple gilded gold, over the top of the slipover to complete the look, then a simple golden necklace.
“Ma’am?” came a voice at the door, along with a knock. “Miss Iron? Are you ready to depart?”
“Come in. I’ll be ready in just a moment,” Iron called out as she began to tied her hair back into a simple ponytail.
“I’ve readied your carriage, ma’am,” said the giant suit of armor as he stepped into the room. It had to duck to enter through the doorway properly. The faceless hole behind the helmet stared directly at her, but Iron could feel the Silent One’s pity for her. Pity? No, that wasn’t right. Silent Ones don’t feel pity… and were they normally this talkative? She shook her head for clarity… this wasn’t a typical Silent One after all; this was her special bonded one or something. She recognized it by the simple carving of a jackal on its chestpiece.
“There’s no need for formality. It’s not like we haven’t done this before,” Iron said.
“Of course, I’m sorry,” the Silent One said. “Are you ready to leave?”
Iron followed her Silent One out of her room and down the stairs of her tower. She noticed it occasionally looking back to check on her like he was worried she’d snap at any moment. Once they reached the bottom, the Silent One opened the door to her horseless carriage and she stepped inside – keeping her face somber and contemplative.
She could already see the ghosts gathering – no doubt wanting to commiserate with her or share their own grief, but they couldn’t possibly understand. Her vision focused in on a small family… Two parents with a girl of around ten; all of them with that ghostly translucent sheen on their waterlogged and bloated faces. The little girl – what was left her clothes was ragged and topped with the occasional barnacle – had tears in her eyes like she’d lost a personal hero, an idol of some sort. Iron didn’t want to deal with that. She had her own problems to worry about. She nodded tersely at the once-drowned child and closed the blind of the carriage, blocking herself from view.
The carriage rumbled along simply, the rhythm of the paved streets becoming the only sound. The Silent One in the front seat was mercifully quiet for a change, though his concerned looks back didn’t stop. Finally, they stopped and a second later, the Silent One opened the door and Bitter Iron stepped out into the noonday sun – the streets were once again lined with tearful and pitying ghosts, all staring at her as if they were trying to beam their feelings into her.
The building in front of her was one of the most spectacular in the city. Burials were impossible in a floating metropolis, so Iron and the rest of her Circle had created a great mausoleum in the one of the outer sectors of the city. It was a towering structure – viewed from above, it formed a perfect sun shape, round with exactly thirteen rays around the circumference, and at least a dozen stories high. The center of the structure was an open amphitheater – and now, at the perfect moment, the sun shone down the center, lighting the pews and altar on the ground floor which were normally cast over in the shadow of the massive surrounding structure.
As Iron followed her Silent One down the cleared path towards the central amphitheater, she noticed there were several spectral guards keeping the peace – keeping the common ghosts away from the more important attendees.
As she breached the outer wall of the building, she beheld the guests. Lots of ghosts – their clothes were different than the others, extravagant and expensive, bedecked in impressive jewelry; but their faces, just like the ones outside, were waterlogged and bloated. Their hair swayed and bobbed as if they were underwater and their once delicate fingers were inflated and decaying. All of their faces turned to her – their eyes filled with grief.
A man she couldn’t place stood as she approached and nodded at her. His face seemed blurred and unformed, though Iron felt an unexplained spike of envy at his beautiful features. “Iron,” he said in a surprisingly feminine tone, acknowledging her presence. Iron simply smiled sadly in response.
Jingham sat in the next row, regal in his attire – he’d chosen his more subdued crown for the occasion, but it still glittered magnificently in the sunlight. He rose as well and they embraced briefly, kissing each other on both cheeks. “If there’s anything we can do, my dear,” he said. Iron again simply smiled at him.
At the center, near the small altar and the large curtained platform behind it were four Silent Ones, imposing and large, though each subtly different in their demeanor. Iron’s Silent One took one last look back at her before approaching the others of its kind and speaking quietly to them. They quickly dispersed and found their seats. They were so identical to each other, Iron would have struggled to keep track of each of them if it weren’t for the engravings on their chests – a whale, a mouse, an owl, an ape…
She took her place at the front of the room. She stood as everyone sat and fell silent. She heard heavy footsteps behind her, then Gharian was next to her, towering over her form as he always did – his great barbarian beard meeting with the great plate of the dawn that he wore to all of these more formal occasions. Sarnai was there too, escorting him – she reached out and squeezed Iron’s hand affectionately before taking her own seat.
“Are you alright?” said Gharian’s deep voice. His rough coarse hand interlaced its fingers with hers.
“Yeah,” replied Iron. “Some things are inevitable.” Neither of them looked at each other, just straight ahead at the altar and the curtained platform.
“Doesn’t mean they aren’t sad.”
“True,” Iron ceded. “What about you?”
“Worse than I expected,” he admitted. “The twins were special.”
“Yes. They were.”
The curtains withdrew – drawn by two hooded men that made Iron feel uneasy. One was so hooded that his face was invisible; the other was tall and lean and heavily armed. Iron and Gharian approached the platform as they retreated – their hands unlocked as they walked to different sides of the plinth.
Two women lay there; their faces calm and serene, their hands intertwined like Iron and Gharian’s were just moments ago. Near Gharian’s side was a petite woman, with long perfectly-white hair, in her spare hand lay a tome of magicks emblazoned with the symbol of the untempered sun. Her twin, who lay closer to Iron, was young and blonde, decked in the clothes of the Immaculate Order and grasping the holy symbol of their church.
The voice of the priest called out, thick and silky sweet as honey. “We are gathered here today to return Salina and Ana to the Eternal Cycle,” she said aloud. Across from her, Gharian laid his hand on Salina’s shoulder and began to quietly weep. Iron looked back to the crowd – every eye was on her, every eye was slick with tears. They began to quietly hum – a traditional funerary song, she thought, that grew louder with every second until her ears began to hum with the rhythm of it. The sun began to move on – slowly casting a shadow across the proceedings.
The priest stood behind the altar – she stared directly at Iron with eyes full of malice. She was beautiful, far more beautiful than one would have expected, in an outfit that was far from priestly – that revealed an awful lot of milky white flesh and what fabric there was seemed to flow like gently trickling water.
“Are you ready to commit them to Oblivion?” the priest said again. Her words were daggers.
The amphitheater was darkening… The guests were fading to nothing as the shadow passed over them; only their dreary song remained and it continued to grow louder. Her Circle passed under the shower and disappeared into the black – the nameless one, Jingham and Sarnai – their eyes glowed bright as stars before they vanished. The Silent Ones too were consumed by the dark – the engravings on their chest sparked with silver before they too were turned to nothing.
Then, Gharian and his weeping faded too and the funeral song continued to build to a deafening roar. Only the Priest remained, flanked by her hooded attendants who knelt before her and kissed her hands and feet…
“Are you ready to commit them to Oblivion?” she repeated – somehow audible over the blistering noise of the funerary song that echoed around in the dark.
Iron looked down at her twin girls. “Yes,” she whispered.
Then, the dark moved in again… and the girls were gone… and the attendants… then the priest faded from view, leaving behind a glistening, sinister smile for a second longer than the rest of her form…
Finally, mercifully, Iron was alone. The way it was supposed to be. There was no one, no thing…
Just her and the never-ending dirge. From now… until the end of everything.