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Volume 3167
Princess of Az-Lium
by Den Valdron

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE
HILLSIDE CANNIBALS

 

The others looked up and glanced in the direction I’d pointed, shrugged, and went back to watching the Spiderlings.   Just bones and sealed doors.

“Ahh,” said Aspar Aguus, “our predecessors on this path.  It seems they died.”

He shrugged and turned back to the windows.

I didn’t really have anything to say to that.  I felt a little foolish for screaming.

“Well,” I said defensively, “something killed them.”

“Thirst?”  said Japh Leah.

“Hunger?”“ Vadak Eth offered.

“You don’t seem very concerned,” I said.  “I think you should take this more seriously.  There are skeletons.  People died.”

Aspar Aguus yawned.

“Just bones, so whatever happened, was quite some time ago.”

“Something terrible must have happened here,”  I said.

“Something terrible is always happening somewhere, it’s hard to keep track,” he said reasonably.

“Maybe the spiderlings found their way here.”

Aguus looked.

“Hmmm....   No, they wouldn’t have left bones.”

“I still think we should pay attention to this.”

“Very well,” Japh Leah stepped away from the window and walked over to the bones.  He studied them for a few minutes.

“Yes,” he said finally.  “They’re dead.”

Now I was being mocked.  I felt like stamping my foot in anger.

“They’re not approaching,” Vadak Eth said, referring to the Spiderlings.

“They can’t reach us.”

“Well, maybe something else can,”  I snapped.

Aspar Aguus suffered a more careful glance at the bones.  “They do seem gnawed.  And the skeletons are pulled apart.”

Finally.

“Perhaps the Spiderlings have another path here?”  Vadak Eth wondered.

Aspar Aguus shook his head.

“Princess,” he said, “given that you are so concerned, perhaps you could examine the remains.  They did not travel here naked, they must have had kit.  There may be something of value to us.”

I stood where I was.

“Please,” he amended.

“Fine,” I pouted.

It seemed that they had come naked though, since I found not the trace of harness leathers, fabric or boot, no jewels or ornaments.   I searched for footprints, but the floor of the chamber was wind swept, so the little fine dust that there was was continually stirred obscuring any path.  There were three skulls.  But it seemed that there were more bones than there should have been.

Night came on.  The spiderlings ventured no closer, the men grew tired of watching them.   We picked through our now meager provisions, settled down to a sparse meal and debated our situation.

“So this is the town of Mant, adjacent to the ancient river Saphek,” Vadak Eth asked the archivist.  “Where does that put us?”

The Archivist sketched a rough map of the Jagged lands.  “If I remember the histories, the Saphek flowed in two tributaries from the lands, out to the sea.”

“The sea?”  Japh Leah asked.  “Was that a traveled route?  Were there cities?”

“No, the rivers tributaries opened up into mud flats.  Treacherous shipping, swampy, worthless country.  There is nothing there.”

“Was nothing,” Japh corrected.

“Probably still nothing,” Vadak Eth replied, “just different nothing.”

“What about food?”  I asked.

“We’ll kill a Spiderling or two,” Aguus said.

“Are they edible?”

“They’re not tasty, but it will do.”

He’d enjoyed dried Sadok.  I shuddered at the thought of what Spiderling must be like.

“What about water?”

“There used to be wells here.  We’ll investigate.”

“What about the bodies?”

“Bones.”

“What about the bones?”

“We’ll investigate that too.”

“You people are not taking this very seriously.”

Japh Leah thought about it.

“It’s been some difficult days, Princess.  A soldier learns to sleep where he can,” he said carefully.

What nonsense, I thought.  But strangely, later, when I closed my eyes for only a moment, I opened them to daylight.

“Ah,” said Vadak Eth cheerfully, “the Princess wakes in time for breakfast.”

Breakfast?

I looked over, and they were cooking the butchered remains of a spiderling.  The flesh had almost no odour.

“They’re quiet at night,” Vadak Eth explained, grinning, “so before dawn, we went out and got one.”

There was something a little frightening about their organized competence, I thought.  Reassuring, but frightening as well.   I was safe with these men.  Until, at some point, they might begin to feel I was unnecessary.  Then, perhaps, I might not be safe at all.

I put on a brave face.

“So,” I said cheerfully, “what are our plans today.”

“The spiderlings still gather at the mouth of the canyon.  They’re stubborn.”

“Anything willing to live in the Jagged lands is stubborn,” Japh Leah joked.  “Witness our Princess here.”

I threw him a dirty look, but kept a smile on it.

“We must survey this place, find the wells, and look for water.  Water is essential.”  Aspar Aguus said.

“But this place is huge,” Vadak Eth said.  “There are hundreds of buildings.  This must have once been a small city in its own right.  Where do we look for the deep wells?  Do you have any ideas, Princess?  The Archivist was no help.”

I shrugged in mild surprise.

“The tall round spires in the center,” I replied, matter of factly.  “That’s where the wells are.”

“How do you know?”

“We have the same buildings in Az-Lium,” I replied, yawning.  “They have to be tall for the gravity pumps.  I thought everyone knew that.”

“Well,” said Japh Leah, with mild surprise, “that simplifies the search.”

From my sitting position, I caught a sudden gleam.  I walked over and picked it up.

“It’s a jewel,”  I said surprised.

“Mant was founded to mine crystals and gemstones,” the Archivist said, “it was well known for it....  Eventually, the gemstones ran out, and it was abandoned, except for a handful.  Even they must have died off.  But gems would probably be common.”

He wandered over and inspected it.

“Nicely cut,” he said, “note the colour, distinctive to Mant.  They’re probably lying around all over the place.”

“It looks recent,” I said.

Japh Leah scoffed openly, “A stone, princess?  How recent could it be?  A million years?  Ten million?  How could you tell?”

I decided that I liked Vadak Eth better.

I slipped the stone into my pouch.  How recent?  Recent enough that almost no dust coated it.  I ran my finger along a broken human finger, noting the mark my touch made in the film of grime covering it.   I might not know much, but I listened and learned, and when Aspar Aguus pointed out the meaning of tracks and marks in sand, or the layers of dust covering an object, well, then I could apply those lessons for myself.

However the jewel had come to be here, it had arrived some time after the bones.   I chewed that dark little thought carefully.

There were more bones discovered as we made our way through halls and corridors towards the well towers.

Whoever the prior explorers had been, they had left trails clearly marked.  In some places, the dust of millenia underlay.  Other places, they’d walked extensively.

As we went on, deeper into the city, on sheltered walls, we began to see strange graffiti.  At first marks and notches, as if someone had tried to keep a calender.  Then letters on corners, as if they were trying to keep a map straight.

“This is the script of Az-Lium,” the Archivist offered.

Hmmph, replied Japh Leah, “I can’t make head or tales of it.  It’s sloppy, directionless and repetitive.”

“Every city on the outside,” Vadak Eth explained, “has its own writing.”

“What does it say?”  Leah asked, looking up at an elaborate and painstakingly scrawled line on a wall.

“Political slogans,” the Archivist replied.

As we went deeper, there were more traces.  A shattered skull.  Smashed thighbones, opened for the marrow.  Bits of leather from harnesses.   Something terrible had indeed happened here, and it seemed to me that though we all knew, none of us wanted to say it out loud.   The graffiti grew obscene and blasphemous.  Now no longer scratched into the rock, but painted.  I marked the word ‘Vengeance’ several times, and ‘Revenge’, obscenities of various sorts scrawled, denunciations of people I had never heard of.  Promises.

“Blood,” Japh Leah whispered, scratching a bit of it.  “Old, dried blood.”

“They stayed far too long,” Aspar Aguus said.

I noticed that the archivist was quiet.  I decided I’d have to ask him about it.

Our route was careful though, with Apar Aguus taking point.  We had our weapons out, proceeding cautiously, staring at black yawning doors and windows as we approached the central well tower.

“You know something of this?”  I asked the Archivist finally.

He remained silent for a long moments as we moved.  The attention of the others gathered to focus on him.

“Guesses only,” he said finally.  “There was a ...  crisis, I suppose, crisis is the best word for it.  In the royal court, a faction arose among the lower nobles.”

“A faction?”  I encouraged him.

“The Edgers, a vitality movement.  They believed that Az-Lium was stagnating.  They argued that we must explore the world beyond the Dome.”

“A fascinating debate,”  Japh Leah commented, “in hindsight it must take on new dimensions for you.”

“It was all smoke and mirrors, everyone knew it.  Going beyond the Dome?  There was nothing out there.  The leaders of the Edgers movement knew it, it was just a ploy to change the balances of power with Az-Lium.

“So what happened?”  Japh Leah asked.

The Archivist shrugged.

“They overreached.  For a time, they were the talk of salons, they gathered crowds, dreamers, idealists, the ambitious, the foolish, the malcontents and powerless flocked to their banner.  They deluded themselves into hearing the sound of power in the cheering roar of a crowd.”

He glanced at me.  “I would have imagined you would know the story well.”

I shrugged.  “I never paid much attention to politics.”

He raised an eyebrow at that.

“As you say....  Princess.”

No one else paid attention.  I realized I’d made a small mistake.  A Princess would be expected to follow politics closely.   But then, I didn’t think he really believed I was a Princess.  For him, it was a convenient fiction.  Still, the others did believe, or at least half believed it.  I’d handed him a small weapon.

“Of course, foolish from the call of the mob, drunk on their own lies, bloated with the illusion of power, inevitably, the Edgers provoked a confrontation, a crisis with those who held real power.  They were not ready.   The high houses swatted them down, in the ensuing crisis, entire families were wiped out.”

Yes, I thought, I did remember that part.   A rapid wave of disappearances, tortures and murders that rippled through the city, as the high and the mighty played their little games against each other.  There was a reason many in the acting community stayed well clear of politics.   For the mighty, politics was a parlour game.  For the helpless, it was merely capricious misery.

“Not so different than anywhere else, I suppose,” Japh Leah said.

That was not something that endeared the outside world to me.   How was it that with all of its new horrors, the outside world had somehow managed to preserve the worst of our ancient traditions?  I thought it odd that he seemed so interested in ancient political scandals.  But then, I supposed we were walking through the outcome of one such scandal.  A moment later, the Archivist proved my guess.

“The leaders of the Edgers, their friends and followers, chose exile rather than disgrace.  They loudly proclaimed that they would themselves venture beyond the Dome to seek their destiny.  They demanded the fate that their enemies had planned for them.”

“Of course, it was all brave talk.  By ones and twos, the followers and dissidents peeled off.  There were exceptions and exemptions and recantations.  To go beyond the Dome, that was something for parlour talk, but to face the prospect of actually going?  Hundreds became dozens, dozens became a handful.  And that was it... the few Edgers who remained, those with no choice, passed beyond the dome and were lost to history.”

He kicked at a wind-polished skull.

“Until now.”   Japh Leah said.

“Until now,” he replied.   “Now we know the end of the story.   Desolation, madness, cannibalism and death.  Somewhere here, we’ll find the last survivor, I suppose, a withered, mummified, uneaten corpse, starved to death, or bled out by his own hand.”

I shivered.

“Maybe they didn’t all die,” I said hopefully.

“City nobles,” Aspar Aguus, commented, “unprepared, unskilled, ignorant of the world beyond.  They made it no further.”

“How do you know?”  I insisted.  “Maybe some of them managed to survive?”

“None of the bones are fresh, they ran out of food a long time ago.”

“Well, maybe some escaped.”

I didn’t want to think of these poor brave exiles all perishing.  I had no use for politics.  But what a horrid thing to go courageously out into the world and have it all end like this.   And there was more, of course.  If they’d all ended here, what chances did we have?

“No Princess,” Japh Leah said gently, “f there had been, they would not have descended into madness and murder.  Given what they became, it was a mercy that there was no escape.”

“Something is odd,” Vadak Eth, said.   “There are too many bones.   How many came here?”

But before the Archivist could hazard a guess, we were entering the great antechamber leading to the well tower, it was a vast hall, its roof long since fallen in, pink sky loomed above the towering walls.

Scattered everywhere, piled high in mounds, arranged in rows, hung and mounted, strewn about everywhere we looked, were severed heads.  Not skulls, no that would have been bearable.  Severed head, withered flesh clinging to them, hanks of hair, leathery skin, lips pulled back exposing whitened teeth, and sunken empty eyes staring at us from every angle.  Hundreds of them.  Thousands.


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