by Den Valdron
JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE WORLD
There is apparently an animal called a Thoat by these Red Men, which is commonly ridden. The Thoat, I am told, has eight legs, great intelligence, endless patience, a deep affection for riders and burden and a supremely pleasant and tractable disposition. I should like to meet a Thoat some day, I have heard such wonderful things of them.
Unfortunately, the range of the Thoat is defined by the range of the ochre moss upon which it feeds which covers the dead sea bottoms. The Thoats pleasantly endure richer fare, but seldom venture into areas so barren that even the red moss cannot thrive.
Unfortunately, we weren't riding Thoats.
For these stark and lifeless areas, the beast of burden is the Slidar, a six-limbed creature of remarkable endurance, no particular intelligence, and a sort of indifferent fatalism that allows it to sustain privations of all sorts in the hopes of dying soon and being out of its misery. While not so charming and well mannered as the Thoat, the Slidar is nevertheless a tolerable companion in hardship.
Unfortunately, we weren't riding Slidars.
We were riding Rodals.
What is a Rodal?
I will put it plainly.
A Rodal is disgusting.
A bit more? Well, it was like the giant, two-legged, walking birds that the Orgaz normally rode, except half the size, with a gait designed to reduce a rider's spine to rubble, and with a considerably more unpleasant disposition. Apparently some reptile crawled into the mix, leaving an ugly head lined with fangs and feathers hardened to scales. Its temper is short, its disposition unpleasant, and its contempt for a rider is boundless. There is apparently a lively debate over whether it is better to ride a Rodal or merely to be kicked to death by one.
It is said, that a Rodal has a sort of loyalty in that it will never ever leave a rider behind... because it hasn't finished making them suffer.
As for learning to ride one? The first lesson taken to heart, is to walk whenever an opportunity presents itself.
Unfortunately, this did not seem to be an occasion, and so I suffered to be lurched about as the creature picked its way through broken and uneven rock. The bald man, Vadak Eth accompanied me.
“I have discovered,” I told him, “quite a lot of difference between a route laid out on a map, and actually trying to find a path.”
“Just so,” Vadak Eth, replied. “You look at a map, and it is simplicity itself. Here is Az-Lium, there is Tazor, and this wavering line connects them. It is short, you cover the span with a finger. No obvious obstacles present themselves. Maps are the most dishonest of documents, they make extravagant promises “You are here, you can go there,” but neglect to mention the sheer torture of the journey.
He grimaced. I, at least sat lightly upon my beast. His heavier weight allowed him no such luxury. I felt a moment's sympathy.
“It's all just rock,” I complained. “Big rocks, jagged rocks, rocks heaved at strange angles or twisted in shapes, but they all look alike. One canyon is much like another.”
“Did the maps indicate signposts?” He asked. “Was the path marked?”
“Not the maps,” I said. I tried to think. There was a line of performances, the ‘Prospector Plays’ which took place in the Jagged Lands, and so made reference to the paths and landmarks. “I doubt that the paths would have been marked, they wouldn't have wanted to mark the road to Az-Lium. But there should be.... I remember hearing of the great forked rock, the singing canyon, the long U slope.
“Great forked rock?” he said. “Something like that?”
Yes, there it was, as depicted in a hundred generations of clumsy stage paintings and occasional works of art. I examined it critically. The colour was off, and the proportions weren't quite right. And properly, it should be lit from the other side. But...
“Yes,” I replied, critically. “It will do.”
We rode along, though the better term would be lurched, keeping it in view.
“Do you trust the Orgus?” Vadak Eth asked carefully.
“More than any of you,” I replied. “No offense.”
“None taken. The Jeds of the Orgus are famously loyal to their Master. You realize that if he accompanies you on this journey, then he does so on orders from the Temple of Skulls.”
“I don't think so,” I said.
I described a carefully edited version of my journey out to these lands, and of my finding him bound, fighting the Sadok and enlisting him to my fictional cause. Whatever else Aspar Aguus was in this, he was not acting on orders.
“Interesting,” he said. “So he is acting on his own, either for his own ambitions or for their king.”
“Or simply honouring a debt to me,” I pointed out.
He chuckled. Of course, I thought, I had not swayed Aspar Aguus from returning to the Temple until I had said they were Jewels of Power. But the degree of power and the nature of that power, had not been invented until we were captives. Now that I thought about it, I wondered how this new information might affect his thinking. It was one thing to seek an important Orovar trinket as part of a debt of honour, another to pursue a super-weapon.
Perhaps, I decided, my alien companion would bear closer watch. We would not find it, of course, it was imaginary. But he might be rather more intent on the search than might be good for my health.
“What do you think of the rest of your new companions?” he asked. “Apart from not trusting us.”
“Well, not trusting you most of all,” I smiled. I recognized the gambit. He was asking me, not to hear my views... I knew them so little, there wasn't much to say. Rather, he was seeking an opening to tell me about them... or what he wanted me to think of them.
“Ton Sabat is by far the strangest,” I said. “Where did he come from?”
Vadak Eth considered the matter gravely. We both glanced at the strange youth who rode behind us, he was smiling brainlessly at big rock. He noticed us and waved.
“If I may be so indelicate...” he said, “during your intimacy with Ton Sabat, did...”
“Why is he disguised as a red man?”
“You know, Princess, that the Orovars are extinct in this outer world?”
I nodded. I didn't actually know that. So the human race was done with? Replaced by a succession of monstrosities, beginning with these red counterfeits and growing steadily more alien. Oh cruel dead world, I thought.
“But every few thousand years in this part of the world, apparently out of nowhere, an Orovar appears wandering about. Usually, it does not end happily.”
“I can see that.”
“He was found near the far end of the Path of Fools, naked, speaking gibberish, mad and broken minded,” he told me. “He was taken in chains, but I rescued him. He had no more knowledge than a child at first, and I protected him like my own son, and helped him recover..”
“I thought it best to help him avoid... controversy, by teaching him to disguise himself as a red man. As a red man, he can travel happily the length and breadth of Barsoom, with no more than usual risk. As an Orovar? Perhaps not so much. As an Orovar with a secret....”
He paused to lick his lips.
“Where do they come from, Ton Sabat, and his precursors, wandering out into the world?” he asked rhetorically.
“It has been an obscure mystery, occasionally puzzled over by restless historians. Most conclude that it is merely some freak, some sport of nature, a throwback in some isolated community. Others have speculated that there must be a lost Orovar colony... of which you yourself are further proof. The only conclusion can be that Ton Sabat is a countryman of Az-Lium. I disguise him to protect him... and you..”
I nodded wisely. I had never heard such a guttural, broken accent in Az-Lium, and Ton Sabat was not an Az-Lium name. He was from somewhere else.
So, the Orovar were not quite extinct after all. There was another City? Or perhaps no more than a tribe? But there was someone else.
That was a secret worth keeping.
“He owes you much,” I said.
A lie occurred to me. I decided to try it out.
“He must have been part of the first expedition,” I said, “to recover the Jewels.”
“Yes,” he said, “that confirms my own thinking. His astonishing strength marks him as an elite warrior.”
“What do you think happened to them?”
“I fear he will never be whole. We may never know his story, or what happened to reduce him in this way.”
We rode along silently. I enjoyed the small pleasure of planting a confirmation of the Jewels of Power in his mind, and of protecting the secret of Ton Sabat's people. With the fall of Az-Lium, they might be the only free true humans left on this world.
“I don't trust Japh Leah,” I said.
“He is a clever man,” Vadak Eth, replied, “and clever men are not to be trusted.”
“You are a clever man.”
“And I am not to be trusted.” Of course not, I smiled at him. “He was more clever than our former leader. You noticed how he manipulated your interrogation from the side. I think he planned to replace Pul Bayl and take leadership of the band.”
I nodded. I hadn't really noticed, and it hadn't occurred to me. But thinking back to what had been said and done, I was disturbed to realize Japh Leah's subtle hand had been at work.
“To set Pul Bayl on killing the Orgus was his plan, I think. It would leave you in need of a protector, weaken Pul Bayl with the men, and give him an opportunity to take over. Now all is disordered. Mark my words, he will try again.”
“What about you?” I said, “Do you not plot to lead?”
He laughed out loud. Ton Sabat looked up and grinned. We waved at him.
“Who would follow me?” he asked, smiling. “In any event, I am a coward. Let someone else lead and risk their lives, I will follow behind where it is safer. In the end, my ambitions are small. A modest reward, a measure of safety.”
“A little palace to call your own?”
He clapped the shoulder of his mount.
“You are an educated man,” I said. “How did you end up in the company of brigands.”
“Fortune is a cruel mistress,” he replied. “It is a long and sordid tale.”
Our conversation was interrupted by a cry from behind. I looked. Orso was pointing at the sky. An airship hung in the distance, approaching slowly.
“I don't believe that they've seen us yet,” Vadak Eth shouted. Make for the shadows!
Hurriedly, we lead our Rodals into the shadow of a great cliff face, and watched the approaching flying machine. I had not seen one since the fall of Az-Lium, and stared with fascination.
It was a long black monster, long and flat. It's nose came to a point, and from there it widened to an oval. On its top side, there appeared to be a series of open decks. It's underside appeared to be plated, sloping towards the center with a great hanging protrusion.
“Look at the size of the keel,” someone said. “It's all out of proportion.”
“I've never seen stabilizers so huge. And the engines!”
It seemed almost alive, at times twisting and rolling in the air. Slowly the heavy roar of the engines became audible to us.
“It's immense,” Japh Leah said, “bigger than a normal warship. But it's barely armed for its size.”
“A slave ship,” Vadak Eth replied, “for human cargo.”
Human cargo, I thought, what an awful expression.
“A slave ship for Az-Lium,” I said. “It doesn't seem to fly very well.”
Vadak Eth nodded. “It battles treacherous winds. The Jagged Lands are famous for their fierce and treacherous air currents. Shadowed gorges produce cold spots and downdrafts, hot surfaces make updrafts, winds are channeled in and out of canyons, driven against cliff faces, divided by rock formations. The margins of the Jagged lands are known as a graveyard for airships. Doubtless how your people remained undiscovered for so long, Princess.”
“Yes,” Japh Lea, offered, “but look at it. You see the stabilizers, the keel, the placement of the engines. This isn't a normal airship. This flyer was designed and built specifically to brave the winds of the Jagged Lands.”
It was an unpleasant thought, it made the rape of my home seem more... Premeditated.
“It's battling the currents,” Orso said, “if it hasn't seen us, I don't think it will approach too close, not to the cliff shadow.”
We watched, as the ungainly construct made its way past us.
“Well,” Vadak Eth said, as it moved past our site, “at least it shows us that Az-Lium is somewhere ahead.”
“It's all wrong,” Ton Sabat said, “that's not what an aircraft looks like. It's wrong it can't fly like that.”
But of course, he was mad, so we did not pay attention.
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