Salt the Slug, Sheepdog

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Removing Items from Storage

● Items are to be removed only with plurality consent of the Overseer Council.
● Items are to be removed only under the supervision of a containment specialist.
● Items are to be removed only after screening by the supervising specialist.
● Items are never to be removed during ongoing emergency conditions.

Dhole stood in a vault buried deep in the bowels of the world. There were countless more down there, all sunk under what must have been leagues of earth and stone, all locked away behind massive metal shutters. The Overseer only cared about this one though, or at least about the towering wall of safes contained within. Something faint fouled the air around them, and the yellow lights overhead flickered intermittently.

"It's been a long time since I've come down here," said Overseer-6 as she entered numbers into a keypad on the wall. "I got complacent. Built myself up. Built us all up. Then I let it all get torn down." She laughed loudly, then coughed louder. Dhole had only seen her in person a few times before, but this frailty was something new. Her body trembled, her dark skin lacked luster, and her breaths rasped. Would their contract be void if she died? Or would it simply last in perpetuity?

One of the many doors along the wall beeped and opened with a long hiss. Behind it sat a clear cylinder full of something dark and squirming. Dhole lifted it out of a metal cradle and noticed its faint warmth, not unlike a stone that spent days drinking the sun. That warmth slowly pulsated as she carried it back.

"You've served me well, these few years," said the Overseer. She pulled rings from her fingers as she spoke, alternating from brass to silver. "You and Egret."

"Save the scraps for your dog. They taste empty to me."

The Overseer grabbed Dhole's free hand and pushed the rings into it. They were heavy and cold. "I'll be locked in a cell soon. Somewhere secret and safe. And dark, certainly dark."

Dhole shifted uncomfortably, adjusting the canister in the crook of one arm. "Speak your will, then."

"Tend to my slug. Find me once it's grown. Bring it to me. Bring me my rings. I'm trusting you with this, Dhole. Don't fail me."

Such a foolish statement deserved a reply with teeth. Something about how such trust was misplaced, or how the houndmaster should have made a leash if she expected to be followed after. The world around Dhole vanished as she struggled to form cutting words, color and light dripping away. Moments later she found herself standing in the middle of a junkyard. A full moon shone over stacks of butchered cars, and beasts howled in the distance.

For the first time in years, Dhole felt well and truly alone.

She sat on the rusted hood of a car for a long time. It might have been a day, or two, or longer. She ate the emergency rations in her bag, drank bottled water, and stared at the canister perched on her lap. The darkness inside flowed like a worm twisting inward on itself. It did not speak to her, did not demand of her, but insisted itself upon the world all the same. It would grow. The sun passed from one horizon to another. It would grow. Clouds filled the sky, disgorged rain, and passed again. It would grow. It would grow.

Yes, it would grow, but Dhole couldn't sit around waiting. She had obligations now, as the contract she signed with the Overseer would attest. The only question was how to go about the search. Egret would have already formed a vile plot, but the Overseer's hound had surely breathed her last already. Dhole would not mourn the woman. Dogs deserve dogs' deaths. All the same, following after her had undeniably become customary. How had she become so hesitant? How tight had her collar grown? It would only be so long before her nature matched her canine mask, and her eventual death would shift in kind.

Dhole rolled the canister back and forth across her lap as the sun sank again. She couldn't stay there, but couldn't decide what she should do instead. Finally mourn fallen friends, maybe. She could spend the rest of her life doing that, with who had been lost. Find the money needed to finish her mission, perhaps. Except she wasn't sure she could still wring silver from stone. It had a long time since she last wore a sheep's face.

All that, but her strongest obligation was visiting her family. To show them that she persisted, in one form or another. Dhole didn't relish that obligation. Other business had to be attended to in her home city though, and she could no longer excuse herself with the Overseer's dirty work. She carefully stowed the canister of night in her satchel, alongside the remains of her meals, her old mask, and Egret's only gift to her. If she had endured the last few years, she could endure this.

The trip home was unpleasant to say the least. Spanning the gap felt like years of life compressed into a single moment of potent clarity, but one without meaning. It was to be on the cusp of realization, to grasp at the flowing strands of thought, only to fill her hands with dirt. Going the other way had been easier when she shared the discomfort with a friend.

The sky over Dhole's homeland loomed high and gray, unaware or uncaring of anything happening below. The Howling Pillar rose in the far distance, her home located somewhere in its shadow. Dust engulfed the path, but following it was easy all the same. Each road led to the same end no matter how many guideposts were missing.

Giant blue birds perched on railings along the path, staring with beady eyes as Dhole passed by. Each waited for her to die. Waited to feast on her flesh and her spirit. She tossed loose stones at them, but they only scattered for moments each time. Even raucous squawking would have been better than the silence they regarded her with.

Travelers passed in the opposite direction. Each had odd forms, but were uniformly sunken and haggard. Many came to witness the majesty of the Pillar and the city slowly crawling up its sides. Most left with empty purses, useless trinkets, and crushing disappointment. It had always been hard to care about the fates of tourists, especially when they treated her bookstore like a common library. She had survived her ordeal, so they could manage their own.

Dhole stopped behind an outcropping of rock at the outskirts of town to switch her mask. The moment between faces grated harshly, but nothing compared to the shame of being recognized with a dog's aspect. She was a sheep. She made money. She didn't hurt anyone. That was her nature, no matter what had happened. No matter what would happen.

The gatehouse guards stared as she approached, eyes intent behind paper masks. Once, Dhole would have never dared to enter this part of the city without an escort, but not now. She remained unconcerned even as peasants stared openly at her. Violence was apart from her nature, but she had seen enough of it to not be cowed by its possibility. Pitiful light shone from lamps above her, barely strong enough to illuminate the patchy gardens and dying bushes that lined the street. Not a pleasant part of the city, and thankfully not her destination.

She walked up through three rings of the city, each built better than the last, each clinging closer to the base of the Pillar. The edifice dominated her vision as she climbed, gray stone thrusting up to spear the sky. People stared at her along this path too, muttering under their breath to each other. Many had finer masks than her own, replete with gilded teeth and gemstone eyes. Her family's standing was such that she should have been recognized at most, worthy of a slight nod only if they were feeling respectful. Their attention was more unnerving by far, but Dhole could do little but bow and carry on toward her parents' bookstore. There would be solace in that austere place. Calm, for a time. Peace, if she deserved something like that anymore.

Dhole passed under trellises thick with red flowers and alongside long fountains that sprayed mist into the air around them. She walked by towering statues of the exarchs, each wielding the ceremonial swords of their office, and past plaques telling the ancient history of the city. A flock of the giant blue birds followed close behind, silent and staring even in flight.

She stood at the foot of her childhood home and stared blankly at the empty lot sitting in its place. Grass grew at its edges. Bits of the foundation poked through the earth. A faint memory of smoke hung in the air.

She turned toward the base of the Howling Pillar and kept walking.

It took days to climb the stairway carved into the guts of the Pillar. Days of wind screaming through narrow holes in the walls. Days of gentle, gnawing hunger. Days of fellow climbers collapsed on the stairs. Only the exarchs, replete in their arrogance, could possibly expect anyone to make such a climb for simple meetings. Step by step, one foot over another, she left the dusty earth behind. Her bag grew heavier as she ascended, but her heart remained light. Even doing such weighty business would be better than violence by far.

The climb was a familiar one, and Dhole reached upper levels without issue. Faceless attendants whisked her through a maze of cells draped in ornate tapestries and reclining magnates, stopping short of the threshold to a room full of first morning's light. She had to cross that boundary on her own. A wide window dominated the office, second only in majesty to the open chests full of naked lucre. A long, black sword balanced haphazardly against a desk piled high with coins of every sort. A tall figure waited for her in the middle of it all

The Exarch of the First District looked down at Dhole through an iron mask wrought in the shape of an impossible beast. Antlers forked upward, long ears hung straight and even, and a distended jaw exposed a nonsensical collection of teeth. The face of a god over the spirit of a slug.

"Fires are dim before you," said Dhole, bowing deeply from the waist. "The sky is low before you."

"High and bright before you," said the Exarch. His white robes billowed as he stepped closer, golden thread sparkling in the light. "High and bright indeed. The prize head of a most capable herd, sheared and shamed. Sheared, shamed, alone. Where is your brother lamb? Where are the prizes promised to me?"

Dhole picked at the bandages lining her fingers. "Dead. Gone. My apologies are unadorned."

"Useless. Well and truly useless. What of my investment? My hoard?"

"Lost. Gone as well." She picked harder. Dark blood welled at the edge of one bandage, running down her finger and dripping to the floor.

"Useless three times over!"

The Exarch stared at her through glassy eyes. Dhole stared back. The man's presence was a scourge on her. Revolting, to see him care more for what money could have bought than the money itself. To hear him whine over its loss. He had never been less worthy of her family's supplications. One of the birds that followed her up the tower landed on the windowsill and chirped in an eerily familiar fashion.

"Does my family remain in your favor's shadow?" she finally asked, when the silence became too oppressive.

"How could they, when their lamb disgraced them so? I do not shelter contract breakers."

"They would never!"

"Did you not?"

Dhole ground her teeth viciously. Late, she may be, but only under extenuating circumstances. Failed, she might have, but only due to freak chance. The bird chirped louder, each high-pitched noise sounding more like a word than the last.

"What has become of them?"

"Does the lion mind the rats? They are vanished one way or another. Our agreement remains, however, and its violation is severe."

He kept on talking, but Dhole struggled to listen. She struggled to breathe easily, to not ball her hands into fists. Violence was not in her nature, she repeated to herself again and again. If she owed money, she would produce money. As simple as that. As pure as that.

The bird on the windowsill chirped louder still, seemingly unnoticed by the lecturing exarch. The sound grew rounder and more fluid, flowing and forming into sensible words. Is that really your way though? came a familiar voice.

"You're dead," hissed Dhole.

You shouldn't let him talk like this. Take it from me.

"–and twenty more years mining salt," the Exarch concluded firmly. "Five hundred years of service and your debt will be paid in full."

An expected conclusion. Promises had not been kept. Obligations must be met. The persistence of other obligations gave her pause though. Some things would not wait that long, especially not the insistent canister in her bag.

"Might I be allowed to order my affairs first?"

Not like that!

"Why should you be, when mine have been set to disarray?"

Asshole! Tell him he's an asshole!

"Other contracts are just as binding."


"Others are not present to wring out your debt."

The bird flapped silently into the room, alighting weightlessly onto Dhole's shoulder. She could not feel its talons digging into her skin, and the Exarch did not so much as flinch away from it. The Overseer's a better boss, isn't she? She never treated you like this, did she? Tell him you found someone else to follow. Tell him he's nothing!

"I will not break another contract," she said evenly. Payment would come, but it could wait a while longer. Payment would come when she could stomach toiling for the sake of a slug.

"The choice isn't yours," he said, placing a heavy hand on the shoulder opposite to the bird's perch. It felt vile. Just as vile as Egret had ever been. "Nor should that face be yours after the fortune you lost me."

Dhole wrenched back as the Exarch reached for her mask. He stumbled forward, but did not relinquish his grip. The room filled with a flock of flapping birds, each screaming at her. Do it! Do it! Do it do it She clawed inside her bag for the thing Egret had left her do it do it do it do it shoved the Exarch back doitdoitdoit brought the muzzle level with his chest Do it! and pulled the trigger. The gunshot filled the tiny room.

Dhole pushed him back again, taking grim satisfaction in his grip's sudden weakness. She turned away just long enough to swap masks again. The comfort provided by the dog's face disgusted her, but she would bear it. The birds were gone by the time she finished.

"You have the right of it," she said, walking after her victim as he tried to crawl away. "I don't deserve this." The sheep mask clattered loudly against the floor. "In this trial, I find you just as undeserving." She leaned down to pry the iron mask from his head. The man behind it was just as plain as she always expected. The feeling of emptiness swelled up inside as she shot him again, and again, and again, until the trigger clicked impotently.

That's not enough, is it? chirped a voice inside Dhole's own head. Her own? Egret's? She agreed regardless. The sword leaning against the desk was heavy in her hands. It had the weight of generations inside it, a terrible symbol of a worse past. She lifted it as high as she could before driving it into the Exarch's chest.

You need my help, the voice continued as she stalked out of the office, bloody sword dragging behind her across the stone floor. Just listen to what I say and we can save the Overseer. Do what I say and the blood won't even be on your hands. Trust me, Dhole.

The laughter coming from inside her mask was harsh and barking. Of course her hands were clean. Nothing could be her fault when people pushed her like this. Nothing would be when the world kept on shoving.

The darkness inside her bag squirmed appreciatively.

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