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Volume 3161
Princess Art by Paul Privitera
Princess of Az-Lium
by Den Valdron

CHAPTER ONE 
THE DAY THE WORLD STOPPED
Princess Art by Paul Privitera
My name is Tay See Lors, of the lowest classes of the city of Az-Lium, last refuge of the Orovar nation, and my story begins on the day the world ended for us all.

It began with a slow rumbling sound, a deep rolling vibration that every man and woman seemed to feel deep within their chests.    Everyone stopped in their tracks, nobles and beggars, warriors and thieves, servants and workers, all paused in their work to stare upwards.   A crack appeared in the vast dome that was our sky, a fracture that crept and widened and forked.

There was a sharp shattering noise, the sound of stone and metal rending, and a section of the dome fell free, tumbling slowly in the air, momentarily beautiful, before smashing into the city below, crushing buildings, obliterating hundreds.  A column of dust rose where it fell.   From all over the city, came a keening of grief and loss.

For the first time, I glimpsed the true sky, a barren harsh pink emptiness, howling through the gap, a void that sucked at our eyes and mind.   Objects, craft were entering, flying through fracture in our world, darting about.  Even from this distance, it seemed to me that they must be of considerable size.

From the edges of the hole, more fragments fell, to their own thunderous explosions.  From all over the inner skin of the dome, shards of all sizes began to fall, shattering on impact.

I ran screaming, of course, like everyone else.  I raced down the boulevard, tears running down my face, shrieking, fleeing the end of all things.   In front of me, a small fragment of the dome crashed, barely the size of a house, obliterating a family in front of my eyes.  Blood and gore spattered me, but the fragment did not shatter on impact to shred my flesh.  I turned and ran screaming back the way I came.

Inside the dome, inside the city, more explosions came, the roar of motors, the sounds of what I would learn were artillery and gunfire.   I fell to my knees, terrified, as a shadow covered me.  But instead of being crushed, I looked up, and saw the passing length of what I would discover was an airship.

It is impossible to describe the horrors of that day, of the monsters both human and inhuman that descended to infest our city of  ten thousand years of peace.   I can only remember images, everywhere disaster, towers falling and buildings shattering, death falling randomly from the sky.  Terrified weeping refugees throwing themselves to their deaths.   The beautiful buildings, the palaces and parthenons, the temples and theatres in flames.  The constant terrified screaming that rose and fell.

I remember stumbling across a street full of corpses, every man and woman dead, dragging a weeping child behind me, terrified that I might be running towards doom rather than from it.  I remember the sacred fountain, its crystal waters rising to fifteen man heights, now crimson, its basin choked with corpses, the stench of carrion wafting from it.

I remember the City Guard, the Warriors, fine and resplendent in their martial gear, things of beauty in their plumes and shakoes, their bows and arrows at the ready, riding forward to be shot down, as the air filled with smoke and screaming of man and beast.   Our defenders had prepared for a hundred generations for this battle, and now they were being swept aside like children.

The very geography of the city changed, streets and boulevards now ending abruptly in piles of rubble, dangerous and twisting new routes opened with the collapse or shatter of buildings.  I remember standing gaping at a shell fragment of dome, standing on end, embedded in the street and standing a hundred feet tall, its surface smooth and featureless.  At the edge of it, there were a child's legs poking out, as if there was some scamp hiding concealed.  But when I pulled, there were only the legs.

All but insensate with terror, I finally made my way to the undercity, to the rehearsal pavilions of the guild of entertainers.   Yes, if truth be told, this is what I was, a mere actress.  A player in stories, a singer of songs, a dancer.   In the city of Az-Lium, I was but the lowest of the low.  Royalty and nobles, warriors and scientists, merchants, engineers and artisans, even the lowly street sweepers stood above us.   And even among actresses, my own status was little enough, my career modest and unremarkable.   Except now, I thought bitterly, the end of the world had made us all equal.

 A monster appeared out of the tunnel, a looming figure whose head scraped the ceiling.  Eyes on stalks glowered at me.  A ferocious fanged mouth roared.   It shook a massive axe in warning, to bar my progress.

"Jar Ham Nee," I swore, "this is no time for games."

With that, he pulled off his own head, exposing the rotund face beneath the mask, and laid his axe against the wall.  The monster was no more than an elaborate costume, used in the Performance of the Heroes Toiletry.   The axe was light wood, ancient and cracked, its metal painting chipped.

"Kaor, Tay See," he replied.  "I thought perhaps I could scare away whatever was coming.  It has at least protected us for now."

"Don't try," I warned him, "the streets up there run with blood and our warriors are slaughtered where they stand.  If the Guard can do nothing, then..."

He nodded.

"Still, this is all I can think to do.  If I had a real weapon, I'd be up there fighting."

"And dying."

"It's the end of the world, Tay See," he said sadly.  "We'll all be dying."

"We yet live."

"For now.   Pass, Tay See," he said, "some of us have gathered to toast the end of the world."

As I strode past him down the dim tunnel, I looked back at him, putting on his monster head, taking up his wooden axe to stand his vigil.   He had been our clown, a round man of awkward beauty, always ready with cheer.  But in that moment, he was full of a futile and magnificent nobility.   That was the last time I ever saw him.

Soon enough, I found my companions, gathered around in a costume room, dressed in the fineries of the ages, a handful of men and women I had spent my life with.

"Is the world still ending up there, Tay See?"   asked Jhay Me Gils, the dissolute leading man who had led so many performances of our troupe.   He was dressed as the Proud Admiral Torus Torhan, from the Epic of the Princes.   It was always his best role.

I shrugged.   "It's ending everywhere."

"Then drink with us, and dress," Jhan Jer Lyn, offered, dressed as the Goddess of Temptation,  "if it's time to die, then we may as well go looking good.  If we must depart this world, let us depart in the guise of kings and queens, and not as filthy common muck."

"The Princess Asutra," Jhay Me shouted with false cheer to a chorus of agreement.  "I remember your Soliloquy before the merchants ball.  You really looked the part.  Wear it for us one last time."

The end of our world was to be a dress up party?   I shrugged.  Why not?   After all the madness, I had struggled through, it seemed almost a relief.

"But I'm filthy," I said, "I'm covered with dust and blood.  I need to bathe."

Jhay Me Gils nodded.  "Bathe then, the water still runs.  Take your costume, and be quick.  We'll set out a glass of wine for you."

Swiftly I gathered up the elements of the costume, the silks, the fake jewels, the tin headpiece plated with gold paint, and retreated to an antechamber to wash.  I stared in the mirror, as I stripped away the grime and applied the classical make-ups of the Royalty of the Ninetieth Dynasty.   How many times had I performed as the Princess Asutra, stamped my feet in mock outrage, vented soliloquies, sparred with wooden swords.   All over now.  But putting on the costume one last time gave me comfort.

"Though you have my city," I recited, "you shall never have my honour.  I am yet the Princess Asutra, and it is  you will kneel."

Immortal words, spoken to her executioner, indomitable to the end.

I stood to make my entrance.   "I am," I whispered, "yet the Princess Asutra."

But when I returned to the gathering, all was silent.   For long moments, I stared at my friends and companions, Jhay Me Gils, Lhand Alu Vace, Am Bor Lyn, and others, now all still and in repose.  I suppose I hoped that they were playing a game.  But they were not.  A cup of wine in a chalice of false gold waited for me.   The other cups were empty, some set down, others fallen.  They were all dead.

Weeping, I fled yet again, running down the empty corridors without regard to where I was going.

Which, I suppose, is why they captured me so easily.


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