by Den Valdron
30,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE CITY
This time, I didn’t scream. I was proud of that. I listened to the horrified gasps of the Archivist, the astonished swearing of Aspar Aguus, the dumbfounded silence of the other men, and I was mildly pleased at my own composure.
“Well,” Vadak Eth said. Then words failed him and he fell silent again.
“This is... unanticipated,” said Aspar Aguus softly.
Very deliberately, I shrugged.
“Hmm. It appears they’re all dead.” I said nonchalantly.
Take that, I thought.
But my calm was only on the surface. I was as shocked as my companions. The sheer number of mummified heads before us ... it was inconceivable. Even with all I had seen, all I had endured, this sight defied comprehension. It was beyond horrible. It was simply beyond imagination, beyond conception.
Aguus bent and picked up a head near him. Perhaps it was age, or perhaps proximity to the drafts of the doorway had weakened it. It simply crumbled to pieces in his hands, leaving a small litter of rubble at his feet. The floor was covered in such rubble.
Astonishing as it was, there was nothing to say. Despite the withered flesh clinging to them, these remains were far older than the bones of Az-Lium’s exiles. They could not threaten us, and we could do nothing for them. We needed to find water, if there was any to be found, and they were simply along the way.
Wordlessly, we entered the well tower, and began to descend to the levels of the complex. My knowledge of well towers was limited to a couple of shopworn settings in some period dramas. I tried to remember some of the details. There were details in the script annotations of course, but who reads annotations? Well, apart from obsessive neurotics.
The Gravity Well, was an immensely tall spire protruding from the surface. Somehow, this was necessary for subtle physical forces to draw water from the depths. The vast bulk of the well, however, was hidden beneath the surface. A series of immense shafts of differing sizes, only some of which carried water, others of which were filled with air for the operation of the well, ran down the center. Around the well was a great spiraling stairway, wide enough for two dozen men to walk in side by side without touching, tall enough that the surface was a bare curve above our heads. Beneath the stair, were service tunnels and pockets. Lining the stair were antechambers of all sizes. In Az-Lium, whole generations of hereditary engineers lived in the spiral stairs around the wells, and never stepped outside.
“The gravity well,” I recited, “is one of the surpassing wonders of Orovar science and engineering. With no moving parts, save the water it draws from the depths of the world, it utilizes the basic principles of physics applied with elegant simplicity, to accomplish this miracle.”
Written for Hath the Tragic Engineer, a male part, but I thought I’d performed it well. I felt a small warm blog of satisfaction.
“Hmm,” said Japh Leah, “so how does it work exactly?”
No one ever put Hath on the spot like that in the play! I hated Japh Leah! If I was a real Princess, I’d have him dangling upside down over a pit of hungry spiderlings! Not that I’d let them hurt him, of course. But still....
“It’s complicated,” I said airily.
“But you said it was elegantly simple,” he persisted.
I hated him even more!
“It is,” I replied.
“But,” I cut him off, “it’s rather involved and would be distracting to explain. We must keep our wits about us. These stairs may be treacherous.”
“They’re excellent stairs,” Aspar Aguus said.
I wished, once more, he’d stop helping me.
He glanced around at the the wide stone slabs that served as stairs, spiralling down outside the well’s central shafts. “The engineering is astonishing. How deep does it go?”
Ah, this was a question I could answer.
“Miles. All the way down to subterranean water which has not seen the surface in a billion years. But,” I amended quickly. “We don’t have to go down that far. If the well is functioning, no more than a thousand feet, perhaps two, to the pump junctures. If there’s any water at all, it will be there.”
“But if there was water, why was this place abandoned?” Japh Leah insisted.
I shrugged. Mentally, I was having him bent over stocks so that a Spiderling King could have its carnal way with him.
Unlettered barbarians, he’d probably enjoy that.
“You’re welcome to go looking for water up on the surface,” I said.
That shut him up.
But less than a hundred yards below the surface, we found something other than water.
At first, I did not recognize them for what they were. Headless, sometimes dismembered and strewn about, sometimes intact. The littered the great steps. We paused, regarding them.
“Well,” Japh Leah said, “at least we know where the heads came from.”
I wanted to hiss at him. What a perfectly obvious idiotic thing to say. I despised the man.
Also, I was going to say it, and he’d said it first.
What kind of uncouth lout steps on a woman’s lines?
“But if that’s the case, then we may expect to see many more than this as we descend.”
I was going to say that too. But clever Vadak Eth, had seen it as well.
I smiled at him.
We inspected the bodies briefly, but there was little to be learned.
“Ancient,” Aspar Aguus said, shaking his head, “very ancient. Thousands of years, preserved.”
Vadak Eth bent to inspect one of the corpses.
“This one has been chewed,” he said. “Do you think your exiled friends made it here, Princess.”
I shrugged. I thought it likely. Anyone here would need water, and this would be the only place they could go to find it. Had they found it?
“Flesh withered a thousand years,” Aguus said reflectively. “It would be inedible. Better to eat your own leather harnesses. Better to eat rocks and wood.”
“They cared deeply for their dead,” Vadak Eth said. “Look at the workmanship on the markers. The careful inscriptions, the elaborately carved and designs.”
He was right. In this area of the great stair, the burial chambers carved into the walls had been covered with stone plates. Most were shattered, many unrecognizably, only a few were intact enough to make out strange, yet beautiful, patterns of images and shapes.
“That one,” I said, “it looks vaguely like a King and his followers... Or perhaps a god and worshippers... Or a healer and supplicants.”
Japh Leah stared.
“I don’t see it.”
“Look,” I said, “it’s very stylized, but it’s there. See, here in the center, these ovals, that’s a man, the king or healer. And this line is his arm...”
Japh traced it with his fingertip, drawing through the dust. “Sort of.”
“And these lines,” I said, “supplicants. Look how they bend.”
“Each of these tablets,” I said, “was a work of art.”
“And yet,” Japh said, “”all smashed, the bodies dragged out, dismembered, beheaded. For all the love and care that they buried their dead, equal hatred and attention went to ruining it all.”
“What happened here,” the Archivist wondered.
“Invaders,” Aguus said. “I can imagine it. Invaders came, the defenders fought and were slaughtered. They retreated here, defending themselves, fighting ever deeper. The invaders despoiled the remains to humiliate the defenders and steal their courage.”
“Here?” Vadak Eth challenged. “What invaders would come here?”
“Our histories record no such invasion,” the Archivist said. “The place was abandoned.”
“Perhaps not abandoned,” Aguus insisted. “Or re-occupied, after your histories for this place ended?”
“Doubtful,” the Archivist replied. “Our histories record the fall of the Orovar nations. Mant was abandoned long before. Perhaps there were relic populations remaining, miners who chose to stay, prospectors, whoever... But surely not many. What would they eat? How would they live?”
“So what happened then?” Aguus demanded.
“They did,” Japh Leah replied. “The people that lived here once did it before they went away. The people that treasured their dead, repudiated them. No invaders pulled corpses from their coffins. They would not have cared. It was the people who buried them.”
“Why?” I asked. “Why such hatred, where love had existed?”
“Because love and hate are closer than most realize, that one can be mistaken for the other, one can become another.”
What rubbish. He reminded me of some pompous student poet, trying to seduce an actress into bed with mindless blather. Well, fool me six or seven times with such nonsense, and that was enough. I wasn’t going to fall for it.
I hated Japh Leah, and I wasn’t going to be mistaking that for love any time soon.
“Something happened,” he said, “perhaps their fortunes fell. The wells ran dry, the food stopped coming. Anything. But the living people here suffered. They began to resent the gifts and care they lavished upon their dead. When you are starving yourself, an offering to your ancestors is a cruel joke.”
“In time, as their misery grew, resentment turned to hate. They rebelled. The dead are easy to rebel against.”
“To rebel against the dead,” Aspar Aguus rumbled, “is futile. What do they have that anyone wants?”
“We of the Orovar respected our ancestors, they built a world for us, they passed their wisdom down, their victories. All that we were was built upon the bones of those who came before. How could we not?” I paused.
“How can you not?” I demanded.
“And what did this worship of your dead get you, Princess?” Japh Leah asked. “Your kind all passed away, your cities joined the dead, your nations went to history. Better if the Orovars had dwelt more upon the living, as we do.”
What utter blasphemy.
“Do your kind care nothing for the dead?” I asked. “Is all your history, all you loved and hated, in the end only rotting meat to be left behind.”
“The Red Men, Princess,” Aspar Aguus commented, “have enough trouble caring for the living.”
That, I thought sourly, was obvious.
“We care well enough for the living,” Japh Leah said hotly. “And the dead. Unlike the Orovars who propped up their corpses in parodies of life, or stored them in elaborate chambers, we believed in a journey to an afterlife, that after death was freedom from war and hatred of life.”
“The Iss cult,” Aguus laughed. “You red men, you are all ruled by superstition and fantasy. Someday, you too will join the Orovars, and the world will be left to us Orgus.”
“The Iss cult?” I asked, glad to have some change of subject. These Red men looked human, but for their colour they might pass for Orovars. Indeed, Ton Sabat was an Orovar who used dye to pass among them. But deep down, they were no more human than the Orgaz. They thought differently, this brief conversation about the dead showed that.
So the archivist and I were regaled with the strange history of the Iss Cult, a bizarre faith of rivers and trees, ruled in secret by another white skinned race called Therns. Eventually, the parade of desecrated tombs came to an end, and we walked down empty chamgers once again.
“Perhaps Ton Sabat is a Thern?” I asked. I wasn’t at all sure, any more, that he was an Orovar, despite his white skin. Certainly, he was not from Az-Lium.
“No,” Japh Leah, said casually. “The Therns are all bald. They are a hairless race. Like our friend Vadak here. But for his skin, he’d pass easily among them.”
I glanced at Vadak. He ducked his head and grinned. Something in his body language... And then I knew. How did Vadak know how to show Ton Sabat to dye his skin and pass as a red man... I glanced at Japh Leah, and then at Aspar Aguus, but they seemed oblivious.
Oho, I thought. Our friend Vadak Eth has a secret from the others. I tucked that little detail away for later. But I made a note to subtly find out all I could about the Therns.
Aspar Aguus sudden stop shocked me from my reverie.
“It seems,” he announced, holding the ship’s light high, “that there is life down here after all.”
Before us, crawling, undulating along the flat surfaces of the immense stairs, was something like a glossy carpet, the width and length of a man, but perhaps no thicker than a man’s arm. Its gelatinous, surface gleamed with alien iridiscence. It seemed to sense our presence. From its hide, protrusions bubbled, and lengthened into antenna. It seemed to ripple with indecision.
And then, abruptly, it undulated towards us. More quickly than we could react, it reached Japh Leah, and undulated creeping up his leg.
He screamed in agony.
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