by Den Valdron
PASSED THE DOOR OF DARKNESS
Unfortunately, having established myself as a Princess, they seemed to have some idea that I was supposed to rescue them.
I thought that was completely unfair, and an unpalatable reversal of standard theatrical roles. Princesses should be rescued from danger, not obliged to risk their lives for hopeless wretches.
Even so, I had no real idea how to go about it. I settled for looking proud and confident.
The prisoners numbered forty-six, of whom seven were so badly injured that there was little hope for them. That left thirty-nine either intact or bearing wounds or injuries that they could function with and recover from. As far as I could see, they were fractious, demanding and had little in common except that the invaders had selected or stumbled upon or captured them and decided to have them taken out and killed. I didn’t like any of them.
“You’re free!” I told them.
“Well,” one of them said, “what good does that do?”
I thought it over.
“But you’re free!” I repeated.
“I think that this is a key to the gate,” Japh Leah said, handing me a large long crystal. I held it, uncertainly, grateful for the interruption. This hadn’t been going well at all. In stagecraft, we would cover these awkward moments with a scene change.
“Yes,” another of the ungrateful said, “it’s the key. I saw them use it to open the gate.”
“It is the key,” I said confidently.
Japh turned to the man who had spoken.
“Did he do anything with it? Were there passwords or incantations?”
“No, he just waved it and then placed it in the slot that opened.”
“Interesting,” Japh said. “Is it guarded on the other side?”
Japh thought it over carefully.
“So we could simply open the gate and walk right in?”
I didn’t like the sound of that. Well, I did and I didn’t. On the one hand, I was sick and tired of climbing up and down rocks, trudging along with the Rodals. I was all for a civilized place, running water, a hot bath, and edible food. And the truth was, we were all but out of supplies. So there really wasn’t any choice.
On the other hand, I was a bit discomfitted. On the other side of that gate lay darkness, horrible things had been done, horrible things were being done. I didn’t want to see that, didn’t want to see streets I had walked now full of corpses, places I had loved now smoking ruins. The home that I knew was raped and burning, and the people, the monsters who were doing it, were still running wild. It wasn’t safe.
“How many soldiers are there?” Aspar Aguus and Vadak Etht, even Ton Sabat were drawing closer.
“I don’t know. Lots.” This brought a chorus from the prisoners, arguments, claims, guesses, of all sorts. Japh seemed to roll up his mental sleeves and go to work, taking comments, asking questions, directing a discussion that seemed as aimless as the wind, perpetually darting in new directions. Aspar Aguus and Vadak Eth joined in, even Ton Sabat surprised us with remarkably subtle probing on military matters.
I understood little of it. But the gist that I gathered was that large areas of the city were remarkably untouched. The invaders were, compared to the population, a small number, bolstered by their airships and firearms. They had exterminated the royal family, decapitated several noble houses, and destroyed the Guard. In the panic, they had seized key points, the great wells, gates, and bridges, the granaries and farmyards, fortified buildings and palaces. The Arenas and the great open spaces had been reserved as dockyards for the airships. From there, they raided, slaved and looted at will, their airships ceaselessly moving to destroy organized resistance.
A handful of captured nobles, merchants and criminals had been elevated by the invaders to form a ruling Committee to govern the city and bureaucracy. But their strength came from the invaders, they took orders and gave them to us. In turn, they pleaded on our behalf. Mostly, it seemed that it was about giving an orderliness to slaving and looting expeditions, and staving off complete collapse.
The slums and warrens were crowded, many had fled to the underground tunnels and chambers. Hunger and thirst were widespread. But amazingly, life went on, many of the markets continued to do business. Everyone went about as if in a dream, the world had turned inside out.
In short order, it was established that we would all return through the gate. That was safe enough. The invaders it seemed were thin on the ground and widely scattered. Crowds would draw the invaders and their terrible airships, so they needed to scatter and hide.
“Spread the word,” Aspar Aguus thundered. “Spread it wide and far, the Princess has returned. The liberation has begun.”
That had them all cheering, and looking to me.
I kept wishing he’d shut up. He had this awful knack for saying the absolutely worst thing at the worst time.
A few of the brightest and most well behaved we kept with us to act as guides and informants. I wasn’t quite thrilled with that. I knew the city well enough, and it seemed to me that made me valuable to these bandits. Having others to show them around made me more... Disposable. Of course, there had been changes since I’d fled.
Of course, they’d pledged themselves to me, and just now they’d pledged to liberate the city, but somehow, I didn’t trust Red Men. They looked human, but for their colour, but they weren’t really. Human beings could not do the things I had witnessed.
With some experimentation, Japh Leah managed to open the gate. A thirty foot section of the Dome’s wall slid away. The first sight within near broke my heart. It was Az-Lium, my beautiful, golden city, the comforting golden shade of the dome stretching out, the towers and buildings of the metropolis spread out before us. For a second, it seemed this whole ordeal had been but an awful dream and my home was intact.
And then, through the distance, my eye picked out towers fallen and great statues toppled, thin plumes of smoke, the great fracture in the dome’s surface, tiny airships in the distance. My heart fell, and my stomach soured. Great Az-Lium, in the clutches of its tormentors.
Together, with my people, both those of my race, and those of my journey, we stepped through.
The great danger, it seemed, were the airships. The invaders were few, and most of their strength seemed to be in their fleet. Ceaselessly the airships patrolled, crowds or gatherings of people, signs of organized resistance of any sort, drew their attention and their guns. Without targets, they merely cruised around randomly, occasionally firing at buildings or statues. The open spaces were most dangerous.
We entered into an area of barracks and warehouses. I realized now why these buildings had concentrated here. Once upon a time, the gates had been open, there must have been trade. So here’s where the barracks and warehouses, the working places had been built. These areas had been long deserted, frequented by squatters and dubious enterprises before the invasion. Now entirely abandoned. I watched as the people we’d rescued broke and scuttered off in ones and twos. So much for gratitude.
The smell of smoke was in the air, there was a whiff of rotting flesh on the breeze now and then. I was disturbed that I now recognized the odour. I stared at the distant airships. Were any of them coming this way? How long before the soldiers would be missed?
“Where to, Princess?” Japh Leah asked.
Damn him, I thought, for asking me a question like that. I had no idea. What I needed was someone strong and confident who could tell me what to do and assure me that everything would turn out all right.
“Obviously,” I replied, “we will have to scout. But with a group like ours, we cannot hide among the Orovars ...”
Curse my luck, I thought.
“Nor can we go near the invaders.”
I thought about it a little.
“The libraries and colleges perhaps,” I said, “they are mostly abandoned since the invasion, we were told. Or the warehouses.”
He nodded. I felt proud at being able to organize a coherent reply, as if I knew what I was doing.
“Well spoken, Princess,” he replied.
I smiled inside.
“So how do you propose our small group liberate this city without the Jewels of Power?”
Mentally, I was having him boiled in oil.
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