by Den Valdron
AIR LINE DISASTER
But we did not crash, not right away. At the last moment, Japh Leah regained control of the craft, pulling it from its death spiral, and up into the sky once again.
There was a moment of stability, and then another wind caught the airship making it lurch and bob nauseatingly.
“Brace yourselves,” Japh Leah called out. As if any of us needed the advice.
“Is this flying?” I asked. These red men were insane.
“Do you remember the oversized stabilizers and the extra engines on the big ships,” Vadak Eth called. “This is why. The Jagged Lands are impassable by air for ordinary ships like this.”
“How did an ordinary ship get to Az-Lium, I demanded.”
“Probably brought in the bays of the big slave ships,” Vadak Eth replied.
The aircraft seemed to spin around twice and take another dive.
“Why couldn’t we get a big ship,” I screamed.
“Too well guarded.”
The Archivist flew by me screaming. I did not so much catch him as the two of us grappled, and he wrapped himself around me. I maintained my grip on the deck ladder, hoping that it was solid enough for the two of us.
“It wasn’t like this when we were passing through on foot,” I complained.
Aspar Aguus seemed to shrug, his monster strength anchoring him in a corner of the deck. He began to laugh.
“Do you not remember the dust devils, the sudden winds, the canyon storms.”
Mostly, I remembered waiting them out. But they hadn’t been a fraction of this bad.
“Up here, Princess, there’s nothing to shield the wind’s fury, and no footing for us to resist it.”
We were coursing along now, far too close to the rocks for my tastes.
“Idiots,” I swore, “you call this a plan? Next time, steal a better ship.”
“We’ll keep that in mind, Princess,” Aguus said merrily, over the Archivists screaming.
There was a great scraping crunch, and a section of the deck erupted. That didn’t look good. I decided. Had we crashed? No, we’d just hit something. Was that actually different from crashing?
“Bouyancy rupture!” Vadak Eth screamed.
“I know,” Japh Leah called. “I’m trying to compensate.”
Compensation appeared to consist of flying so low we kept bouncing off walls and cliff sides. As the ship lurched and shook, we were flung about the cabin, desperately trying to hang onto each other and to some solid handhold.
I don’t know how long it went on. More tanks ruptured. A side of the ship was peeled almost completely away. An engine fell off. The craft shook and jumped like some crazed blind thing. Struggling and falling again and again. It felt like the bones were being shaken from our flesh. I felt myself biting my tongue and spat blood.
Finally, with something that was almost a sigh, one bouyancy tank too many ruptured and the craft keeled over on its side. We were all piled together, the archivist hoarse from screaming. Somewhere beneath me, I felt Vadak Eth.
A section of the ship simply creaked and fell off, spilling light into the cabin. Aspar Aguus laughed.
One by one, we made our way out into the rough hewn canyon, staring about us in wonder at the sheer rock faces. Mostly, we were astonished that we were not rough smears on the side of canyon walls.
“I’m never ever going to fly again,” I announced.
This wasn’t good though. One trip through the Jagged lands had taught me the importance of provisions. As I marked it, we had no pack animals and little enough in the way of supplies. The ship had been laden with gold and jewels, but it seemed that provisions hadn’t been much of a priority. Disgusting as they were, I found myself missing Rodals. I wondered where they were? Probably chortling at our fate.
Much had been lost in the battering the airship had taken. We took what we could of the ship, salvaging ropes and planks to make rough sleds. We had a few captured swords and firearms, and Ton Sabat insisted on prying out the one ship’s gun that had seemed intact. It was too heavy for an ordinary man, but he carried it like a toy. We found an emergency locker on board, with some odds and ends, bandages, medical supplies, some torchlights, emergency rations and other bits of useful material. Scraps of metal, pieces of the ship’s structure were pulled out for crude tools. I was appalled to see that each man chose to carry a weight of jewels and gold, along with the scant useful provisions.
I hoped that we would find our way to somewhere where those treasures of gold and jewels might buy us a meal, however expensive.
Otherwise, it would make poor eating.
Night fell. We had little to say to each other.
Dawn came, and by unspoken agreement, we began to walk down the canyon.
“Any idea where we might be?” Japh Leah asked.
“Jagged Lands,” I said sourly.
“We had a full day's flight, sort of,” Vadak Etht said, “and at full speed, the winds often came from behind. We must have travelled a good distance. We may be right at the edge of the Jagged Lands.”
One could only hope, I thought. It didn’t look like the edge of anything. No matter where you were in the Jagged Lands, I thought... It just looked like rocks and canyons and cliffs. During the night, we huddled together, and I listened to the mournful clickings of the spiderlings somewhere out in the rocks.
We’d heard them coming in. But they hadn’t come near our expedition. But then, there had been more of us, mounted with weapons and supplies. Now, I wondered how bold they might become.
The next day, we didn’t reach the end of the Jagged Lands. We just walked steadily, tracing the course of the canyon.
“A river must have run here,” said the Archivist, staring at smooth canyon walls, and rounded stones.
“What difference does it make?” Japh Leah asked.
“Well,” the Archivist said, “all the old rivers were mapped.”
“Too bad we don’t have those old maps,” Vadak Etht groused.
“Or any idea which river this was.” Japh Leah commented.
“Or where we were along the river bed,” Aspar Aguus laughed.
I felt a little bad for the Archivist. He was an old frail man, not suited to these rigours. He often needed Ton Sabat to help him along. We were all depressed and snappish, myself not least among them.
“What river do you think this is?” I prompted him, hoping to make him feel better.
“The Saphet perhaps. See how steep the canyon walls are. The Saphet ran fastest. But perhaps the Kho, or maybe the Uset.”
“I can’t imagine that this place ever had rivers,” Japh Leah groused.
“Be polite,” I snapped. To the Archivist, I asked more gently, “tell us more.”
“There were a few, occasional ones, more like flash floods. The wind would drive clouds up into the jagged lands, the rains would fall, and the waters would find their way along the rock, rushing out down the beds as quickly as they fell from the clouds.”
“A man might walk down this river bed, his feet touching rock that had been dry for years, only to turn and look upon a hundred foot wall of water bearing down on him.”
I shuddered. We all glanced up at erosion marks far far above our heads, cliff walls worn by torrents. A hundred feet, I thought. By the height of the smoothness, that was only a little flood.
“Some rivers were steadier, fed by frozen glaciers, or deep pockets of shadowed ice. But the watercourses were always unpredictable.”
“Is that where Az-Lium got its water?” Aspar Aguus asked.
“No, our water is deep underground. There were vast aquifers, underground lakes and rivers, all over the place, deep beneath the Jagged lands. Over time, they were well mapped, and tapped for mines and settlements. Az-Lium was not the only community in the Jagged Lands, you know.”
“Indeed,” Japh Leah said more politely. “What happened.”
“Too much water taken in many places,” he said. “The deep wells went dry. In other places, the mines played out. The settlements were abandoned for one reason or another. Only Az-Lium survived.”
“So,” I said, “the settlements were not dependent upon the rivers?”
“Well,” said the Archivist, “not for water, certainly. But the Jagged Lands were inaccessible, and the river beds were often the easiest routes. Most of the settlements were to be found near the rivers.”
“Then, there might be settlements, lost places, even along this river?”
“Not if it’s the Kho, there was nothing of note built.”
“And the Saphek?”
“A few. Vush, Usha, Mant, some others.”
“And the Uset?”
“A great mining complex, Toranth, but destroyed by a great earthquake in the Dynasty of the Crimson Throne. Never rebuilt.”
I glanced at Ton Sabat, but he failed to respond to any names. But surely, this meant hope. If Az-Lium could survive the ages, perhaps some of the other settlements. Ton Sabat had to come from somewhere? Perhaps we could find it on this path. Or at least, perhaps find an abandoned settlement, with some trace of water in its deep wells.
I shared these thoughts with my companions, and was annoyed to be roundly mocked. But despite it, I thought I detected a bit more cheer, a bit more optimism, a slighter steadiness and perserverance in their steps.
We’d grown morose, I thought. I resolved to try and be better company, and to help their mood if I could.
After all, I depended upon them.
That night, as we camped, Aspar Aguus shared a revelation.
“I wonder who it was,” he said, “that camped here before us?”
“What do you mean?” Ton Sabat asked.
“Someone came this way before,” Aguus said, “have you city bred red-men have no eyes at all. We’ve been walking past their sign for two days now. Why, they camped at this very spot.”
“Not at all,” he said. “Look there, you see how those rocks are piled to break the wind? And there, that one dragged to make a stool. Note the sand piled against the cliffs has been spread for bedding. Over there, a pit dug for refuse. Obvious.”
Vadak Etht jumped to his feet. “Who was it, who could it have been?”
Aguus shrugged. “I cannot say. I can tell you that there were a dozen at this spot. Earlier, there were two more. One died and was crudely buried. The other, I know not. Perhaps a rock slide took him.”
“This is extraordinary,” Vadak Etht said. “You can tell all this from clumps of sand and rocks dragged here and there? Why haven’t you mentioned it before?”
“I thought you would see it for yourself. I’ve wondered why no one was discussing it.”
“When did they pass by?” Japh Leah asked.
Again, Aguus shrugged.
“The signs are fresh, no more than thirty years. Twenty. Perhaps less.”
“Thirty years?” I said.
“Very fresh for the jagged lands,” he said.
We digested this. The idea that someone had been down this path recently was heartening. They had come from somewhere, obviously, and they had been going somewhere. It seemed that at either end of their journey, there must be life and safety, food and water. But was that true? Why had they travelled this empty path in the first place? Had they fled enemies? A desolate home? Had they a true destination? Or did their bones litter the river bed somewhere behind or ahead of us.
We debated the matter through the night without coming to any sort of conclusion.
As the dawn rose, we had a fearsome visitor. Shapes moved in the distance, and a great hulking body, held up on eight long crouching legs approached. It’s red eyes gleamed with menace.
“Spiderlings!” Aspar Aguus shouted, drawing his sword.
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