by Den Valdron
We all stood at the mountain pass, the Rodals shuffling beneath us, staring at the great sprawling dome of Az-Lium. I had mixed feelings. The journey was over, I wasn't sure what came next and was a little afraid to find out. On the other hand, no more bruising fencing practice.
“It looks almost natural,” Japh Leah said finally. In fact it did. Whether from millennia of windblown dust, or from original construction, its colour and facets were the same as that of the surrounding cliffs and chasms. It's round arcs, looked like nothing so much as a volcanic blister, merged seamlessly with the surrounding countryside, including a mountain slope that rose fell against and seemed to rise up against one side of the dome. Folds and curtains of stone obscured its shape, these I recognized as the passages for sunlight.
What did not look natural were the holes battered in its form, looking immense but a small fraction of the dome's total area. Flyers of all sorts entered and departed the tears in the dome's surface.
“Is it dark beneath the dome,” Ton Sabat asked.
I shrugged. I wondered why he'd think such a thing.
“No, of course not,” I replied, “we have the light of day and darkness of night, just like outside.”
“But it's opaque,” Japh Leah said.
“Yes,” I replied. It was, now that I looked at it from the outside. It looked just like the rest of the surrounding grey rock.
“So, how does light get through?” Leah asked.
I had no idea.
“It's technical,” I said airily, “you wouldn't understand.”
He glanced at me. I stared placidly back.
“They're probably docking all their ships inside the dome,” Japh said. “Out of the way of the wind currents.”
“They can't fly,” Ton Sabat repeated. “The wings are too small and the propellers are backwards.”
“Wings?” Japh said, “does he think they're birds?”
“He's talking about the stabilizers,” Vadak Eth explained.
“There is movement around the base,” Aspar Aguus pointed out, “down there.”
“Yes,” Vadak Etht said, “I see it.”
“Before the Dome, before the seas vanished, when the world was alive, Az-Lium was a shipping point. Mines, outposts, depots and refineries all were fed from Az-Lium and all shipped their wares to Az-Lium, from there shipped overland to Tazor Ylan in great caravans. The city had a dozen great gates, the largest big enough for a hundred men to walk to side by side, and countless lesser gates,” I said.
“What happened to them?” Vadak Eth asked.
“They were all sealed, even the greatest. Only a few small ports remained.”
“What were they for?” Aagus asked.
I shrugged. “Exiling prisoners to their deaths, I suppose, once in a while. Atmosphere testing. I'm not sure.”
“It looks like Diome has blown several of the gates,” Japh said. “I wonder why? Most of their traffic seems to be by air.”
“Maybe they're preparing for caravans,” Vadak Eth said. “It would take a long time to loot this city with only a trickle of flyers.”
“The Orgus,” Aspar Aguus said, “have found a path to the city through the Jagged Lands. There's much money to be made leading Caravans now.”
I glared at him.
“The gates are probably guarded,” Aagus said, “but likely not well, the Orovars did not put up much of a fight. And likely not expecting trouble from the outside.”
“Should we go back?” Japh Leah wondered. “Clearly, we've overshot the Jewels of Power. Should we retrace our steps to try and find them?”
“Assuming that they are there to be found at all,” Vadak Eth said thoughtfully. “We don't know where or when the Jewels were lost. If the first expedition had time, they may well have been hidden beyond our ability to find them unaided.”
He glanced at Ton Sabat. He did not notice, calmly watching the dome with moronic detachment. I glanced at him myself. Was he ignoring us. Sometimes, I had the feeling that he understood more than he let on. Despite his apparent absence of thought, I was beginning to suspect that there was a cunning mind behind that placid smile.
“More importantly, our supplies are near exhausted,” Vadak Eth said, “We have a few more days at most, and then we start eating the Rodals. I would rather not, they taste awful.”
Vadak Eth had actually liked the dried Sadok meat we'd brought. It was appalling to think that Rodals might be as disgusting to eat as they were to ride.
“It is decided then,” Aspar Aguus, “we go in.”
I was a little annoyed. No one had asked my opinion. But then, I wasn't sure I had one. I felt no great desire to wander the wastes until we starved.
There were no Jewels of Power to recover. Ultimately, all we would find were miserable deaths. On the other hand, going down into the city might be a miserable death considerably faster. Truthfully, I was all out of ideas, I could only go along.
The mountain trail down to the Dome was time consuming and tortuous. As we approached, the Dome grew larger and larger, becoming immense.
We smelled the gate before we approached it. At first, it was sickly sweet. Slowly it became stronger, like old vegetables boiled for too long. It seemed to have a body of sorts, it felt like it clung.
“What's that smell?” I asked.
I caught quick glances among the men. That wasn't good, I thought.
“Perhaps just a trick of winds,” Vadak Eth replied finally, “it may pass. Let us hope so, Princess.”
But it did not, my measures it grew thicker and more cloying. It seemed to cling to us, taking on a repulsive aspect. Finally, as we turned a corner, I learned what the smell was.
We stopped, staring at a pile of human bodies stacked one atop the other. The dead stared at us. For a minute, I did not recognize the corpses as human. It was as if someone had piled up a group of stage dummies. There was nothing of human posture or symmetry in them, they lay limp. The faces were slack, there was no personality, no identity to them. I stared.
“Those are people,” I said finally.
“They're dead, Princess,” Japh said finally, he took the reins of my Rodal and led me onward, “we can do nothing for them.”
But it got worse. There were more piles and stacks of dead bodies, long rows of them, mounds piled atop mounds until they overtopped our heads. The rank odour of decay was overpowering. Dead faces stared, their mute emptiness pleading.
Blood from hundreds of corpses oozed down, staining the ground, in some places making pools of rancid muck that the Rodals were forced to step lightly through. Severed limbs, displaced heads, ropes of intestines garlanded our way. The piles grew higher, casting shadows as we took the winding paths between them.
“Children,” Aspar Aguus said finally. “Children, elders, women, the lame and infirm, wounded.”
He pointed, at a corpse with crude bandages.
“There, those are war injuries, he survived his fight. They killed him where he lay. They are culling the useless.”
“It's monstrous,” I whispered.
“Nobles,” Jaff Leah commented, “many of the bodies are expensively dressed.”
“Note the rings, the bracelets,” Vadak Eth said, “expensive. Even the fabrics. But the bodies are not looted. Imagine the loot, the wealth that must lay within the city, if they're not even bothering to strip the bodies. Do you remember the sacking of Farad? Practically the whole of the city population killed, the bodies stripped naked, even their harnesses looted. The wealth that must lay within...”
“How many bodies?” I asked.
“Two thousand,” Japh Leah said, “more... much more ... twelve....”
“The end of the world,” I whispered.
“For them,” Aspar Aguus replied.
“The end of the world,” I repeated, “for them, for me, for my world.”
“It is war,” Japh Leah said, “it is tragic, but this is the way of war, warriors die.”
I rounded on him.
“These are not warriors,” I snapped. “These are women and children, these are cripples and merchants, nobles, and elders. These did not take up arms, these did not go to war. War came to them. Warriors came to them.”
“Look at you all,” I spat. “You are warriors, you talk of warriors code and warriors honour. You take up arms as if it were something noble. Lies, all lies, this is what your war truly is. The murder of innocents.”
“We did not do this, Princess,” Japh Leah replied, “this is the work of the tyrant of Diome.”
“And who did his bidding,” I asked sarcastically. “Men of war, soldiers and mercenaries. They took his coin and worked his will. Shouldn't they be held responsible?”
I pointed at the small headless body of a child.
“Was it an accident that took that child's head? Perhaps he tripped while running and fell upon a panthan's sword? Or was it self inflicted?”
“Here,” I said, barely restraining myself from shouting, “here is the nobility of war. Here is the honour and courage of warriors. How many cut down by hand? How many simply in the way? How many crushed by war machines? Killed by the drop of a bomb by murderers who never saw their victim? Who was in the path of a bullet? There is no honour, no nobility, no decency, this is all simply murder. Your warriors code is just lies you tell yourself to pretend you are not monsters.”
“Indeed,” said Aguus quietly.
“We did not do this,” Japh replied. “Contain yourself.”
“No,” I snapped. “Japh Leah the mercenary did not kill anyone here. Japh Leah the mercenary was too slow to sign up for this campaign, he did not take those particular coins to do those particular deeds. How many have you killed, Japh Leah? How many corpses have you left behind? How many were women and children?”
“None,” he replied steadily. “I would not fight for Markath Khan.”
“You call this fighting?” I asked. “All these bodies, they looked like fighters to you?”
He bit his lip.
“Ah, you're different. You only ever killed other fighting men,” I said. “And what of your companions in war, what of the soldiers you fought beside, the generals who ordered you, the nobles who paid you, did they only ever kill other fighting men, are you so sure? You held your nose, did everyone else do the same? Did you only ever fight clean wars? Or were there atrocities... And how are you not a part of allowing, enabling these atrocities? How do you say you were innocent?”
“We are none of us innocent, Princess,” Vadak Eth said.
“Not even the headless child?” I asked him. “Did he earn his fate? What was his crime, except to be in the path of someone like you, Vadak Eth? What else was he guilty of?”
“I was there,” Aguus rumbled, “for the fall of Az-Lium. I fought warriors, and killed them because my weapons were greater than their courage. I killed no children by choice. But if children died trampled, from those fleeing me, then that is what happened. I committed no acts of atrocity myself, but because I fought, because we fought, these acts were committed by others who fought along side. I accept this responsibility, it is war.”
“Harsh things occur in war,” Vadak Eth replied.
“I should respect this? I should respect you, any of you for this? You did not cut these children down, but that was luck and chance and circumstance. Are the ones who did this really so different from you? That if circumstance traded places, you would not have done the same? Look at me,” I swore, “and tell me different.”
None of them looked at me. Abruptly, I came to myself, realized I was reciting lines from “The Trial of Pacifists,” a radical play. I stopped, feeling my heart pounding in my chest.
I looked around, staring wildly at the corpses. Suddenly, one came into focus. I recognized it.
“There,” I pointed, “his name was Win Zar Hus.”
I walked the Rodal over to the body, stacked on a waist high pile.
“He was a musician,” I said, “a composer, a man of many talents. Always ready with a joke and a kind word. Endlessly in pursuit of some infatuation or other, always a lover in his bed, and another just around the corner. Now, all that is gone. They all had names and lives.”
I reached down from the Rodal, and closed his eyes. It was the smallest thing I could do for him, the only thing.
“All gone now.”
I tried to think.
“I suppose we must see to your treasure,” I said softly, bitterly. “That is what you are here for. Well enough.”
“Princess,” Ton Sabat descended from his mount and came to stand before me. I supposed he should kneel, but that bit of stagecraft was beyond him. “Maybe we came for treasure, but I swear to you, I will help you take vengeance for this.”
His face was like a mask, full of empty earnestness. The poor sweet simpleton, he made me smile sadly. I reached down and tousled his black hair.
“Vengeance?” I said, “no, my child. Fight for freedom, or justice, if you want to fight make a better cause than vengeance.”
“I too so swear, Princess,” Aspar Aguus, spurred his mount forward.
One by one, the men pledged their loyalty in this forest of the dead, even albeit reluctantly, Vadak Eth and Japh Leah. I accepted these oaths with regal dignity and grave misgivings.
At least, I thought, they no longer showed inclination to start stripping the corpses. Something all too evident in Vadak Eth's demeanor.
On the other hand, I felt like kicking myself. A passionate speech was one thing, and the Pacificist’s Trial was well known to stir emotions. But on the whole, it seemed to me that my chances were better with treasure seekers interested in filling their pockets and getting out, than with freedom fighters committed to overthrowing Diome's rule.
I had no illusions. I was one frail girl, in company of an alien monster, a simpleton and a handful of brigands. That was no force to challenge a Tyrant with full armies at his command. If the Jewels of Power really existed, then perhaps. But my beloved Az-Lium was lost, and nothing I could do could save it. And yet, Win Zar Hus's face haunted me, and I did not think I could ever forget it. Though I was powerless, it seemed to make demands of me.
I was trying to think of what to say, when there was a sound, and suddenly, there appeared a squadron of soldiers, in the harnesses of Diome, riding on wagons of corpses. For a few minutes, the two groups stared at each other in mute astonishment.
Then, Aguus pointed and roared, “Kill them all!”
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