by Den Valdron
I headed up into the hills away from the temple, choosing the narrowest paths. Hopefully, the huge splay-footed birds who were the Orguz mounts would not be able to negotiate these. They'd be forced to either follow me on foot, or find alternate paths.
There was nothing but naked rock, endless boulders and sand. Except for tufts of twigs, dry branches which broke apart at my touch, there was no trace of vegetation. So this was Barsoom beyond Az-Lium.
Ten thousand years ago, the world had been dying, the air growing thin, the oceans receding year by year. Far from our enemies, we had built the great dome of Az-Lium against the fear of a vanishing atmosphere, against the void's theft of our water, and taken shelter, confident that we were the last living city in the world, and that beyond lay only a dead and barren world.
I had performed in plays whose setting was beyond the Dome, but these endless jagged wastes were far different from the simple confines of a theatrical stage. The largest were but a hundred paces to the familiar world of backstage. Here, it stretched on forever, an endless succession of rocks and sand.
I nursed my water skin carefully. In the scripts, of course, there was always a lucky spring or pool, some hidden source of water, a convenient vine or root that would sustain the dramatists. There was nothing here.
As I made my way over the jagged lifeless hills, it seemed to me that truly, this was a dead world.
But then, where had the invaders come from? Their craft, their weapons, their numbers put the lie to our belief in a barren, empty world.
The Orgus I could make nothing of. That strange temple on an empty plain, the numbers of them, their beasts... How did they survive? What did they eat? How did they live? I could not fathom it. In the end, I could only consider that they were not human, and thus beyond rational consideration.
And what of the strange red men? The Orgus leader had mentioned a name, Diome. Its ruler, Markath Kahn. Was there another city that had somehow survived? That had to be it. But after all these millennia, why attack us now?
If there were two cities, could there be more? No, that was simply mad. There had to be a second city, given the obvious fact that their armies had slaughtered my people. But so firmly set were my peoples beliefs that I simply could not conceive that there might be more.
I wandered aimlessly. Where was there to go on a dead world? I grew hungry, but there was nothing to eat. The sun rose high above me, and then descended slowly. Shadows grew long.
A piercing scream rent the air, I froze as shock and terror pierced me. It was my first clue that I was not alone in this waste. What had made that sound? All I knew was that I did not want to meet it. I stood still for long minutes, as shadows lengthened around me, listening for it again, but it did not come.
Shelter, I thought. I must seek shelter. Frantically, I stumbled, searching the shadows for some sign of a safe place. Finally, I chose to wedge myself between two slabs of rock overhang. I gathered a few handfuls of stones for throwing, and curled around my water skin, sleeping fitfully.
Dawn came, I woke stiff and uncomfortable. That strange scream still disturbed me. Longingly, I thought of the knives and swords of my captors, those dangerous evil lengths of metal. I wished I had somehow been able purloin one of them. A weapon in these empty places would be a comfort.
But then, for the first time in days, I laughed out loud at my foolishness. Certainly a weapon! And while I was at it, wish for a sumptuous drink! And food, a feast, a banquet! Clothes! My laughter boiled and roared within me, I could not contain it. A retinue of soldiers! A gilded palanquin to carry me. I fell to my knees, laughing hysterically, frightened at my own mirth. Tears rolled down my face, and still I howled.
At length, the fit passed, leaving a strange empty feeling. Was I going mad, I wondered? Was this what it felt like. I felt listless. Why not simply lie here and watch the day pass into night. Where was there to go in this dead world, now that Az-Lium was fallen. No matter where I went, it would be merely stones and sand.
My strange tranquility, It occurred to me that whatever strange thing was out there, it might have heard my outburst. It might be on its way here.
I sat bolt upright.
I didn't want to be waiting when it arrived. I had to start moving again. There might be no hope and no where to go, I decided. But I was not yet finished with life. I might contemplate lying in the sand and rocks and dying of despair. But being eaten by something horrible lacked all dignity.
The boots of the Princess Asutra costume were surprisingly well made. I trudged steadily among the rocks. At some point, I came across a sharp stone, and began carrying it with me. Later, I salvaged some of the leather straps from the costume to fashion a crude sling.
I was practicing with my sling when I found the man.
At first sight, at least, I thought it was a man, and a dead one at that. He lay spread eagled upon a rock in the center of a small clearing near a the top of a sloping hill. I froze for a moment, studying the figure. It was one of the Orgaz. His wrists and ankles appeared to be bound, holding him immobile.
Around him were the remains of a kit, weapons, another Orgaz, dead and bloody lay propped against a rock. What had happened here?
I was frightened, but I felt an irrational surge of hope. I could see a knife laying in the sand ahead of me. A knife! Perhaps there would be food, or something I could use, something that might prolong my worthless life by a few more hours or days.
Carefully, I approached, focused on the knife.
The Orgaz turned its head towards me. My heart stopped, and I stood utterly still.
But it only stared. I could see clearly now, that it was unable to move. It posed no danger to me.
“Hello?” I said.
It did not reply.
“I am the Princess Asutra,” I told it, “my men are all around. So you had best be obedient, or it will go worse for you. Who are you and what happened here?”
No reply. I guess nothing could go worse for it than being bound upon the rocks in the endless desert.
Skirting carefully around the bound body, I inspected the remains of a pack. Straps of leather, tools I could not identify. An empty water skin, its belly slit. A broken sword. There were bloodstains in the sand, the marks of many feet scuffling. Whoever these creatures were, there had been more than the two of them.
The dead one by the rocks clutched a large curved blade. I lifted it, hefting it experimentally. Then I noticed the bloodstains, and dropped it in a fit of revulsion.
There was no food, not a bit.
The bound Orgaz watched my every move. Was I looting his friend, his companion, defiling someone dear to him.? Was I robbing him? I felt vaguely guilty.
Finally, I turned to the figure.
“Who are you?” I demanded.
“How did you come to be here?” I asked again. “What was your crime?”
“My people knew ten thousand years of peace and happiness,” I told it, “but that ended when the red men and orgaz came, slaughtering everyone in their path.”
“Were you one of those?” I asked. “Was it your own blade, or merely your brothers, that took the life of my parents, of my children and my brothers and sisters?”
My parents were long passed away, but that was beside the point. It was the soliloquy of Maithnet after all. A starring role, I'd always admired the lines, and this seemed a proper occasion. The grief I felt was real. I had watched the dome fall, its fragments crushing thousands, had walked streets wet with blood, stood in a room filled with the corpses of beloved friends. I had no words of my own for the horrors that filled my mind, no answers of my own. I could only let the words of the character speak for me.
“Look at you, murderer and child of murderers, from the race of murder. Innocent blood stains your hand, and if it was not you who murdered those I loved, yet I know you were still a part of it. If it was not your hand, then you did approve the hand that did it. If it was not you there, that was chance not opportunity, for had you been in the place, you would have done the same.”
“Speak to your sins, creature,” I acclaimed, “name me cause for mercy, release me from the bonds of retribution: Speak.”
But it said nothing.
This was the moment in the play where Maithnet plunges the dagger into the heart of her enemy. I held the knife.
“You were there, weren't you?” I said quietly. “The rape of my home... All that blood.... All those bodies... You were a part of it.”
He did not speak to deny it.
Kill him, I told myself. Slit the monster's throat and watch him gurgle his life out. Let him join your friends, your loved ones, let him be one with the corpse of the little girl on the street. Let there be a tiny bit of justice for all the wrongs you have witnessed. Take this small revenge.
I could not lift the knife.
I was not a murderer.
Finally, I stepped forward and cut the bonds which held his legs. He waited patiently, not moving, merely watching me with his strange alien gaze. Encouraged, I cut a wrist free. Then moving carefully, keeping a wide berth of his head, I crossed to his left side and sawed at the final bindings, ready to spring back if he lunged.
He did not move, merely stared with his strange alien eyes.
“Remember,” I told it, “and if you wonder that you yet survive, it was Tay See Lors who gave you your life.”
The line was cribbed, of course, but I was proud of the delivery, just the right touch of regal poise. Haughtily I turned, and strode confidently away, to exit stage left. It was the sort of thing that made for great drama, and I'm sure that if there'd been an audience, I would have received an ovation.
But instead, I heard a sudden mad scramble behind me. My heart was in my throat, I knew instantly my sentimental moment had been foolish, I'd made a terrible mistake. I squealed and threw myself forward in a mad dash. But to no avail. In a dozen steps, the creature was upon me. I turned desperately, raising the knife to defend myself. But even as I did, the Orgus plucked it from my hand, and was lifting me by the throat. Choking, I stared into its pitiless eyes, seeing the end of my life.
From our left, a bestial screech. Something monstrous and hungry had arrived.
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