Chapter 1: The First Moment
"You wished to see me, Sire?"
Rattlewing set down his chisel. "Yes lad," he answered creakily. "Have a seat."
Dirge glanced around. Most surfaces in the Crypt Master's workshop were covered in tools, notebooks, and bits of statuary, mostly broken. A cracked head stared sightlessly from the room's only chair. Rattlewing, seeming to have just noticed this, scooped it up and set it on a shelf. "There," he said, dusting his palms.
"I prefer standing," Dirge replied. It seemed disrespectful to sit while a more senior cleric stood, even if said cleric was Rattlewing. Dirge's classmates had joked about this meeting when the word had gotten out. Oh, he's going to see old Rattlewing! one had chortled, provoking general guffaws. Rattlewing had been Crypt Master so long that the phrase "gone to see Rattlewing" was synonymous with "dead."
"You have done well in your training so far," Rattlewing remarked.
Dirge inclined his head. "Thank you."
"You've attained what, Practicus level?"
The old mech's optics lit. "Excellent! Have you given thought to a specialty?"
"Aye. I wish to become an Evocator."
"A noble, if well-trodden path," Rattlewing said dismissively. "I hope you'll consider an alternative."
Rattlewing pulled a datapad from the shelf and set it on the table. "This," he said, tapping the cover with a wizened digit. "Everything I know about the care and honor of the dead is in here." When Dirge stared blankly, Rattlewing shoved the volume toward him. "I want to make you my apprentice."
"Your mentors agree you'd be well suited. Your Sigma enables you to help those in mourning."
Dirge flinched. "I see." His Sigma was a sore point, and it stung to know his mentors thought it made him a candidate for… this. "This is a most… unexpected opportunity," he said carefully. "I shall give it scrupulous consideration."
Rattlewing's optics narrowed. "Like slag you will! You think you're too good for this, don't you? I know what they say about me. Let me ask you this." He stepped forward, wings high, and jabbed a finger at Dirge. "How many Seeker clerics attain Master rank? Can you name one, besides me? The prejudice is alive, even here in Uraya. I'm giving you a chance to rise higher than you otherwise could."
"I thank you, Sire," Dirge said, glancing at the door. "For now, I must—"
A hand seized his arm. "Wait, please. I must find and train my successor before I…" Rattlewing trailed off. "What is it, lad? You look as if you'd seen a ghost."
Dirge didn't believe in ghosts, but had he seen one, he couldn't imagine it being worse than the icy numbness that gripped his spark. It was like being sucked into an abyss, as if Rattlewing's touch contained the very essence of Death. He jerked his arm free. "I must go," he said, and strode from the room without looking back. It would be the last time he—or anyone—saw the Crypt Master alive.
Chapter 2: Music to My Audials
Unwilling to become Uraya's next Crypt Master, Dirge is ready to leave town - until fate offers him a whole new reason to stay.
"You're leaving?" Zephyr asked, dismayed. "Going where? Back to Protihex?"
Dirge sank down on the step beside him. "I haven't decided. Much as I dread the thought of returning to my clan as a failed priest-candidate..."
"Apprenticing to replace the old Crypt Master seems worse?"
Dirge nodded. "It would confirm what everyone already believes about me."
Zephyr frowned. Shouts drew their attention to the courtyard below where a group of younglings, including a Trine from Zephyr's clan, were decorating for the Festival of Rebirth. It was traditional for Uraya's younger generation to be in charge of decorating for the festivities, and two of Zephyr's young kinsmechs were arguing over how best to string a lightweb between the crystalline terraces. Zephyr rose, poised to intervene, but Dirge put a hand on his arm.
"Don't interfere. Let them work it out."
The third member of the Trine swooped to intercede, and Zephyr relaxed. Dirge hadn't moved his hand. He withdrew it with a huff, faceplates heating, and Zephyr smiled. "Come," he said, scooping his sainu onto his shoulder. "Let's walk."
The streets were festooned with twinkling lights. Citizens hurried about, laughing and chattering with excitement, and music spilled from every doorway. Zephyr hummed along, his steps falling into the beat. Dirge watched, as he always did, admiring his friend's silvery-blue finish, his golden wingstripes, his graceful stride. Zephyr was so at home here, so much a part of the living world. Dirge, on the other hand…
"You do have a choice," Zephyr said unexpectedly. He grabbed Dirge's hand, tugging him toward an energon sweet-vendor's cart. "Your Sigma isn't your destiny. If it was, I'd be levitating blocks of plasticrete in some construction zone, not teaching music. They can't force you into the Crypt."
"No," Dirge agreed sorrowfully. "But I cannot become an Evocator. My voice is deemed… unsuitable."
Zephyr's wings shot up. "Your voice is beautiful!"
"It only depresses people," Dirge said. "I was told I cannot raise sparks towards Primus while my Sigma drags them down to the Crypt."
The Evocator's gift was to evoke emotion through sound. The reverberations of Dirge's voice and engines certainly did that, but his emotional range was… limited. At best.
"Narrow-minded fools," Zephyr snapped. "What if I taught you? Maybe your Sigma just needs training."
"I appreciate the offer, but I think it's better I leave."
"That's your decision?"
They'd reached the front of the line. The vendor gazed at them expectantly, while other customers jostled from behind. Zephyr didn't move. "You've left me no choice," he said. He grabbed Dirge's face and pulled him into a swift, thorough kiss.
Dirge was so surprised that he just froze, but once he finally thought to kiss back, a cheer rose from the waiting crowd. Mortified, he buried his face against Zephyr's shoulder.
"Any chance of this changing your mind?" Zephyr whispered.
Dirge's spark felt ready to burst. "Aye." He was too shaken to say more.
Strong arms encircled him. "Music to my audials," Zephyr hummed.
Chapter 3: Open Your Hands
Troubled by recent events, Dirge seeks counsel from a Magister of the Temple, who makes a startling revelation.
This chapter was a tough one, but I finally found my prompt in a line from the song The Humbling Riverby Puscifer:
Open your heart and hands, my son
Or you'll never make it over the river.
I had an image of Dirge consulting with an authority figure in the Temple who is able to "read" his gift by taking hold of his hands. In "Keepsake of my Starless Beloved," Dirge mentions a female cleric who had told him that his visions might be a warning, and so Prism was born, with a little help from my official name-diviner, Dark Star of Chaos.
Magister Prism, the Temple's head Archivist, was normally at her desk. Today Dirge found her by the window, a pensive frown hovering between her browridges as she watched warframes conduct training exercises outside. Uraya's small garrison was on high alert, thanks to increasingly harsh Senate crackdowns on supposed dissidents and rumors of a growing rebel faction called the Decepticons.
She smiled wanly. "Hello, Dirge. What brings you here?"
"Magister," Dirge acknowledged with a slight bow. "I seek guidance."
"I cannot assist with your choice of specialty," she warned.
"It's not that." He glanced around, making sure they were alone. "I fear I may have harmed someone."
"Harmed?" She sat on a reading bench, motioning him to do likewise.
Dirge sat stiffly, fists on his knees, and told her. First of his encounter with Rattlewing, and then of an incident the previous orn in which he'd collided with a young Zelator. The priest-candidate had been rushing, late for class, his arms laden with datapads. When Dirge had caught him to prevent him from falling, he'd felt it—again. The same, sickening blackness he'd felt with Rattlewing. Later he'd learned that the Zelator, who'd been named Ironspice, had taken his own life shortly after.
She frowned. "You believe you caused these deaths?
"I do not know. I fear it, though."
"Give me your hands."
When Dirge did so, he was relieved to feel only the smooth metal of her palms.
"Quiet your mind and spark," she instructed.
He did his best, trying not to think of Rattlewing, Ironspice, or the roar of artillery.
"I sense a rare gift in you," she said eventually, her blue gaze serious. "Not one of causing death, but of sensing when it is imminent."
"Rattlewing knew of this?"
"It was his gift," she explained. "It was the reason he hid himself in the Crypt, avoiding contact with others. I may have been his only friend." An explosion drew her gaze toward the window, and a shiver ran across her doorwings. She sighed. "The gift of prophecy is a heavy burden, one I would not wish on anyone. However, I do not believe Rattlewing knew you had it. He was considering you for apprenticeship due to your Sigma alone."
Dirge suddenly felt cold. "I must go," he said, rising.
"Wait. I have something for you. Follow me."
She led him along the passages between stacks of ancient, handwritten datascrolls to a small alcove near the back. It was dark, being far from the windows, and reeked of age. She ignited a filament lantern. "That one," she said, pointing.
Dirge flew up to retrieve the manuscript in question. "The Deathtouch," he said, reading its title. "By Crypt Master Rattlewing."
"That is what he called his gift," she said. "He wrote of it so that others might have a better understanding."
When Dirge tried to give her the document, she pushed it back into his hands. "Keep it," she said. "I believe it has been waiting here, just for you."
Chapter 4: Magickal Touch
Dirge seeks medical advice for his strange condition, and is reassured. For now.
"Why are you discussing this with me, rather than a cleric?" Patchjob asked.
"I would like a non-religious perspective."
"A medical one?"
"Well…" Patchjob turned the manuscript toward himself and gingerly flipped through it. "You truly believe there's such a thing as… what is it again, a Deathtouch?"
Dirge nodded. "The description matches what I have been experiencing."
"But you already have a confirmed Sigma. I've never heard of a Seeker with two."
"All I know is what I've experienced."
Patchjob sank back and regarded him over the tips of his steepled digits. "You first experienced this feeling in the presence of our late Crypt Master?"
"When he touched my arm, yes."
"I've seen his records, Dirge. I can assure you he'd been dying for a long time. As for the Zelator, we can't know why someone chooses to end his own life, but you certainly weren't to blame."
"There have been others."
The physician's browridges rose. "Others?"
Dirge sighed. "Yes."
Dirge stared at his hands. "There was a warrior who asked for the rite of Purification. I noticed nothing unusual until I washed his chestplate above his spark, and—" he broke off, flinching at the memory. "Then there was an oilcake vendor, a sparkling who stepped into traffic in front of me, half the members of my Flighting team, and—"
"I get the idea," Patchjob interrupted. "How many of these individuals are now dead?"
Dirge stared at him. "None. That I'm aware of."
Patchjob toyed with the manuscript again, then pushed it decisively back toward Dirge. "You're about to undergo your… ah, Portal initiations, right?"
"I am," Dirge said, surprised by the change of topic.
"And there's a chance you could fail?"
"You're also getting bonded soon."
Patchjob gave him a serious look. "Dirge, have you considered that this could be stress? Hear me out," he said, when Dirge began to protest. "Sigmas normally manifest before a Seeker fledges. Adult onset is rare; having two Sigmas is unheard of, and all but two of the people you've 'deathtouched' are still alive." He chuckled. "They can't all be doomed."
"I… suppose not," Dirge admitted.
"Look. I've checked your vitals and they're normal apart from some elevated stress indicators. I'll prescribe a calming supplement, but in the meantime you need to relax. Go flying, meditate, spend time with Zephyr; we'll see if these symptoms don't just go away on their own. Sound worth a try?"
Dirge had to agree that it did. Feeling somewhat reassured, he accepted the prescription and let himself be shown to the door. As he stepped through, his shoulder bumped Patchjob's chestplate and his mind was instantly flooded with images of fire and the stench of burning metal. He froze.
"Whoops!" Patchjob laughed, but then sobered. "Wait. You didn't… just…"
"No," Dirge said quickly. "You are likely correct. It is merely stress, and will pass on its own." Having resolved to make himself believe it, he bid Patchjob farewell and left.
Chapter 5: Home is Castle
Even as Dirge turns his home into a fortress to protect the ones he loves, he can sense the stormclouds gathering.
"If this place gets any safer, we'll have to register it as a military facility."
Dirge snorted. "The Senate would love that." He tacked the last of the mesh in place, sealing the gaps in the balcony wall, and glanced back at Zephyr, who was watching from the doorway with a look of tired amusement. "I'm thinking about the height," Dirge explained. "So many places a small frame could squeeze through."
"I worry too," Zephyr admitted. "I've had thoughts of putting a harness on her once she starts flying."
Zephyr smiled and placed a hand over his spark. "I think so, but I can't be certain. I'm new at this."
"Makes two of us," Dirge agreed, gathering his tools.
Seekers were designed to mate in triads, not pairs, but Zephyr's unusual spark had defied the odds. It was an undreamed-of blessing, yet all Dirge could think about were the risks. The risk of raising a sparkling in their tower apartment was just the beginning, though it was also the one factor he had some control over.
"We should think of names that could work for a femme," he added as he brought his tools inside.
"Brightspark?" Zephyr suggested, as he followed him to the galley.
Dirge shot him a stern look. "Definitely not. You are not giving our sparkling some ridiculous name. Now go sit."
Zephyr laughed and retreated to the couch, where he watched as Dirge poured energon for both of them. Dirge made Zephyr's portion larger than his own, and added a packet of the carrying supplement which Patchjob had prescribed. It wasn't enough. The Senate had imposed strict rationing in an attempt to punish city-states they suspected of harboring Decepticons. There had been energon riots already, and Dirge could only pray that the violence wouldn't reach Uraya.
"Featherlight," Zephyr said, as Dirge brought him his cube.
"Hm. Let's keep thinking."
Zephyr pouted, took a few sips, and made a face. "Blecch."
Dirge winced, knowing that the supplement was far from tasty. "You must eat."
"I know, I just have to pace myself."
"I'll try to find you some sweets."
Zephyr cocked his head to one side, studying him. "Nah," he said, "just sit." He patted the couch next to him, reached for his sainu, and set the instrument across his knees. "You've already made her future home a fortress. Now help me sing her a lullaby."
Dirge sat, and tried not to flinch when Zephyr leaned against him. It was nothing, he told himself. The cold, empty feeling that now invaded his spark whenever they touched was merely his imagination. When he could afford to, he'd start taking Patchjob's calming supplement again, and the feeling would ease. Everything would be fine.
They sang. His voice might not be beautiful, but their song eased his spark. When it ended, Zephyr curled against him and laid his head on his shoulder. "It'll be okay," he said. "I promise."
"Aye," Dirge said. He had to believe it.
Chapter 6: Dripping Claw
Seekers from every part of Cybertron had flown to defend Vos, their flagship city. Little did they imagine that the real target was closer to home.
This was tough to write. I apologize in advance to anyone who's upset by it; for what it's worth, I feel the same way.
Vos, City of the Seekers, was overshadowed. Even from as far away as he was, Dirge could see the Guardian Robots standing with their shoulders even with the tops of the towers, waiting. The gathering of Seekers, who had flown from every part of Cybertron, were waiting too. They massed at the city's edge like a great stormcloud, poised for battle.
As he flew closer, his Trine flanking him, Dirge offered prayers of dread and gratitude. Dread, because he knew the Guardians' claw-tipped hands would soon drip pink with fuel, perhaps his own, and gratitude because Zephyr had, for once, listened. He'd stayed in Uraya for their sparkling's sake, and if Dirge fell today, he could die knowing his loved ones were safe.
One of the Guardians moved, and a great shout went up. The Seekers attacked, barraging the Guardians with laserfire that simply bounced from their thick armor like rain.
"This is it," Dirge said. He gunned his engines to coax a little more speed, but the battle ended as swiftly as it had begun. The Guardians rose, transforming, and their mighty engines shook the air as they shot skyward. A moment later, they were gone.
"I don't get it," Ramjet said, breaking the silence that followed. "Why would they just leave?"
"I do not know," Dirge said, watching the sky uneasily. "It makes no sense. Unless—"
A yellow tetrajet who'd been flying near them suddenly screamed. He transformed spontaneously, as if unable to maintain his altmode, and fell. Others swooped to catch him, but then it happened to one of them, and then another.
::Kaon's under attack!:: a voice shouted over comm.
::Protihex too!:: someone else added.
The flock milled in confusion, small groups flying off toward the cities mentioned while others continued to fall from the sky.
"What's goin' on?" Thrust asked, sounding young and bewildered.
"They lured us here," Dirge said in horrified understanding. "They let us believe that Vos would be attacked so our warriors would fly to defend it. In doing so, we left behind our young, our elders, those who are ill… or carrying."
That awful realization brought him into a sharp turn, his Trine struggling to keep up with him as he rocketed back toward Uraya.
::Zephyr! Wake up!::
It was night in Uraya, the perfect time for an attack. A sleepy voice came over the line. ::Dirge? What's—::
::Go to the window.::
There were sounds of movement, then a gasp. ::Oh Primus.::
::Get out, now!::
There were scuffling noises, followed by a crash and then a terrible, wrenching sound as if the city was being ripped from its foundations. Dirge heard what might have been a scream.
No answer. He reached along their bond and felt, for just one moment, the familiar pulse of his mate's presence, and that of their sparkling. They're all right, he told himself. Then a great black claw punctured him through his spark. His frame convulsed; he heard himself scream, and then he was falling.
Chapter 7: Eternal
In the end Dirge returns to the Crypt, where his journey began.
As Dirge entered the Crypt, he was struck by how peaceful it was. The Temple above had become a triage center, its halls packed with the wounded and bereaved. All looked to the priests for guidance, but Dirge had none to offer. Down here, there were only the dead. They lay in the corridors unburied, and Dirge recited rote prayers as he stepped over and past them to reach Rattlewing's workshop. Once inside, he carried his small burden to a table.
It was one of Zephyr's young kinsmechs. Dirge had found him in the ruins, huddled in the gap between two shattered beams. Apart from his gray appearance, he looked as if he might be sleeping. It was only on close inspection that the hole in his helm became noticeable.
"Poor mite," a voice said.
Dirge spun toward it. "Who's there?" He'd thought himself alone, but as his optics adjusted, he made out a familiar, bent form among the shadows. "Rattlewing?"
"None other." The old Crypt Master hobbled closer, his pedes soundless on the stone floor. "I suppose you've come to bury him."
Dirge tried to remind himself that he didn't believe in ghosts yet he found himself replying automatically, as if this were a perfectly normal conversation. "Aye. As next of kin, the duty falls to me."
"That it does," Rattlewing agreed. "But have you the skills, lad? Have you ever even touched a body?"
"Then how are you planning to do this thing?"
"The datapad. The one containing your knowledge—"
"Destroyed," Rattlewing growled. "Thrown out, when they cleaned this place."
Dirge glanced around. "I will have to improvise. I know the prayers, at least, and—"
"You don't know scrap! But you're in luck. I'm willing to teach you, on one condition."
"Condition?" Whatever it was, Dirge suspected he wasn't going to like it.
"Them." Rattlewing jerked his thumb toward the corridor. "Those without kin. You must bury them, too."
"I cannot. I must fly to Darkmount and join the rebellion."
"Fool!" The ghost spat. "You're that eager to join your mate?"
"You know... of Zephyr?"
"If there's one thing I know, lad, it's the dead. Your Zephyr would not want you volunteering as cannon fodder."
"No. But I must do what I can to ensure the future of Seeker-kind."
"Then use the gifts Primus gave you. Many will fall and need care for their mortal frames. Many will grieve, and need the healing your voice provides. Honoring the dead is a necessary part of victory. Because of you, future generations will remember those who liberated them."
"Zephyr wants that?" Dirge asked. He wondered when he'd begun to tremble.
"Eternity wants it, lad," Rattlewing said. His gaunt features softened. "Your mate tells me he'll guard little Lacewing until the next time you meet."
"Lacewing," Dirge echoed. The name didn't seem quite as ridiculous now. He turned back to the still form on the table and folded its small hand in his. "Very well," he said. "Then teach me."