“Presentation”

If I go any further down, I’m going to be going uphill on the other side of the world. Niamne’s legs ached from the downhill trek. Her fingers were sore from grabbing onto the cart through rough patches, uneven bumps, and one sharp dip that nearly broke the bird’s leg. And her head was starting to hurt from squinting into the gloom and jumping at far too many shadows.

So when the first filmy spectres appeared beside her, she was almost too tired and dull-witted to be afraid. Her heart sped up when she realized that the presence of so many dead must mean the Necromancer was nearby. A fine trembling started in her bones, shaking outward as she carefully placed her feet in the narrow space between the two columns of silent, solemn spirits. The ground leveled out and she tried not to look at her dead companions, enough of the old superstitions making her fear their truth. See a spirit, soon be a spirit.

Ridiculous. She was an acolyte of the Living Flame. A flamekeeper’s chosen. The Tithe was a simple exchange to a fellow gifted mage for services rendered. She lifted her head high, straightened her headscarf, and looked to either side of her. The arms of the dead steered her to the left. The strider bird obliged at her nudge, and she carried the shortweighted tithe through the half-collapsed arched doorway to which the spirits pointed.

The room she entered was larger than the great hall at the manor house, larger than the room of the faithful in the Flame temple. In fact, the room could easily have held most of the main temple, except for the storerooms and dormitories. Columns soared to her left and right, many tilted at odd angles, one or two collapsed. Arches stretched overhead, a few flying buttresses flew out into nothing. The walls were not rough-hewn or naturally occurring here. In fact, they bore a startling resemblance to the walls of the temple that was her home.

She remembered that she was bearing an important tithe, and not on a macabre sightseeing tour and brought her head down from the rafters–and closed her gaping mouth as well. Someone had laid out a table, not unlike the ones set in the manor’s great hall for a feast day. It seemed incongruous, this picnic-in-the-mortuary setting, until she remembered tales that the oldest of the priestesses used to tell of how their venerable ones made it an everyday practice instead of the symbolic, once a year “absent guest” festival on the eve of Hallowing.

Her instructions failed her then. She had been instructed to take the tithe into the catacombs, that the dead would make their wishes known, and that she was to deliver the tithe with grace befitting a Flame priestess, but return forthwith–another anomaly in a series of them, since the tithing priestess was usually gone for an entire week. The other acolytes snickered and whispered things having to do with cleansings and impurities and something about profanity.

Niamne could believe it would take a week to get the stink of crypt spider out of her clothing, and the dust down here was of a nature so epic that bards could sing of it, but she failed to see the humor in either the chill underground realm of the dead or its lord, and it was just as well–she didn’t believe most of what the group of tittering dimglows preached as fact.

She shrugged the unease away and straightened her shoulders. In a voice that shook too much, she called out. “Hail, Dread Lord. I bring thee fair Tithe from the grateful folk of the Blessed Lands. Stone and hide and cakes and wine–” Here she ducked her head and set the shoulder pack on the top of the loaded cart. “–and…supplies.” She was greeted with only silence. She looked around, thinking that perhaps, as this was his domain, the Necromancer need not be present to accept and to be aware of his tithe’s arrival. One of the ghosts could probably let him know.

She cleared her throat. “Um. Okay then. I’ll just…be off–“

Fair Tithe?”

The voice startled her. Not because it came from somewhere inside the room which meant that the Dread Lord was here, but because his voice was as deep as a six-foot hole in the earth, the syllables inflected with the creak of hinges of wooden burial boxes, the groaning timbers of the gallows. And yet, it flowed over her like–like a shroud, light, warming her from the inside, and clinging to her. Her own reaction frightened her more than his sudden appearance in one of the chairs at the macabre dining table, made all the more sudden by her realization that he had always been there. Her mind had just refused to see him until now.

          

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