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Volume 3172c
Princess of Az-Lium
by Den Valdron

CHAPTER FORTY-EIGHT
NIGHT OF THE DEAD
A guard screamed under my thoat as we rode him down.  Was he one of the ones I'd met.  Irrationally, I hoped not, but I knew it made no difference.

Then we were through.  Japh Leah was shouting orders to hold the gate.  Best to leave tactics to my murderers.  Some of the men hand abandoned thoats to a single rider, forming into squads and rushing to engage and hold the gate mechanism, at least until our forces were inside.

I tried to recall the layouts I'd seen.  Officers quarters, map rooms.  We had nets to take prisoners.  Where were they.  I tried to look around.  Already we were beginning to mill about inside the courtyards.  Where were the squad leaders?  I signaled.

The gates shut, my forces were inside.   Thoats clustered around me.  Japh Leah grinned at me from a Thoat.

“So far so good, Princess,” he said.   I hated his cheerful murderousness.

I didn't feel his optimism.  We swept forward, bruising our way past defenders on foot.  How many armed men were here facing us?  Our best estimates were far too many.  We had to focus on objectives.   Our thoats rampaged back and forth through open areas, attacking and setting fire where we could.  It was important to cause as much confusion as possible.

I headed for the administration offices, leading several squads.  That would be where the charts were, the orders, the deployments.   Thoats with armed men pulled ahead of me.  Good.  Better them than me.

We made it there without incident, but then it was too narrow.  We were forced to dismount.  I stumbled along at the center of a group of armed men, feeling useless at this point.  Why was I here?  Would I recognize what we were looking for?  I didn't think so.  I had to rely upon the men around me, hope that they understood the mission, that they could find and recognize what we needed.  That we could drag it back with us and make sense of it.

There were angry shouts, a sudden clash of steel.  There was a sense of electric fury, the sudden stink of frightened men, sweat hot upon their bodies.   The airmen of Diome had rallied.  We were under attack.  I drew a sword, and clutched it helplessly.  I had no wish and no ability to engage with anyone.  These people were out to murder each other.  I didn't want to be anywhere near that, I could get hurt.

We pushed forward.  The enemy scattered.  I found myself stumbling over bodies.  Some of them were my countrymen.

Up against a wall, a younger red man sat, his face pale with shock.  His sword lay clutched in his hand, a few feet from him.  He stared at his stump.  I knelt beside him.  He looked at me forlornly.

“I was going to have lunch,” he said inanely.

“I know,” I told him sympathetically, careful of sudden movements.  “Lieutenant?”

“Captain.”

I pressed a bandage against his stump.

“A prisoner,” I called, “someone see to him.”

Men took him away from me, carting him off.   Irrationally, I hoped that he would be all right, for no other reason than that he'd been about to have lunch.  But more, I needed him alive because we had questions, we needed information.

We bulled our way into another building, ransacking it.  I glanced at papers and blueprints.  Engineering?   Architecture?  What do they call ship construction?   I threw it away.

“This isn't it,” I said, “burn it, keep moving.”

There was too much confusion.  Everything was in motion.  People rushing backwards and forwards.  Would we recognize what we were searching for even if we found it.

There was a brutal stand in front of a set of buildings, as we fought more of the enemy converged.  We retreated, fighting all the way.   I seethed with frustration, watching the target building recede.

“Soldiers,” I screamed, “to me.”  I shouted till I was hoarse.  Finally a squad of thoats came to our rescue.  But the defenders had pikes and we took harsh losses.  More rebels joined us.  I glanced around wildly.  How many familiar faces were gone, the men I had been with fallen, joined by others.

We broke into a huge room, at the center of which was a model of the landscapes around Diome.  I recognized the jagged lands, Az-Lium.  Other cities were depicted, they must be Shiaze, Bukrah, and places I did not know.  Clustered about were small counters.  Did they represent ships?  Military forces?   I stared at it, gnawing my lip.  It was all here, but not here.  I couldn't carry this landscape back.  I could not make sense of the symbols and counters scattered about it.
Useless.   At best, perhaps a prisoner could explain it.  But there was no time.

Outside a window, a nearby building began to billow smoke.  I looked around.

“Not ours,” a soldier said, one of my messengers, “they're firing the buildings to deny us.”

“So they've figured out our purpose?”  I asked.

He shrugged.

“Time is short,” I said to my soldiers.  “Take anything that looks useful.  Maps, papers, orders.  There must be summaries and strategies, reports.   Take prisoners.”

As we stormed from the building, a messenger ran to me.

“Vadak Eth is lost,” he told me, “Markath Khan's forces besiege the gates.”

Vadak Eth gone?  My heart fell into my stomach.   One of my murderers was fallen.  Somehow, I'd come to think of them as immortal.  It was awful, I felt sick.

“How many,” I forced myself to ask.

“Not many,” he replied.  “Looks like reserves.  They seem unsure.”

More would come, I thought.  But Markath Khan is still organizing a response, still diverted by Aspar Aguus.   How much time did we have left?  How much time could we buy?  We still needed to make sure of our escape.

“Are our forces sufficient?”  I asked.

He nodded.

“Open the gate,” I said, “let them in and kill them.  Then let us prepare to depart.  Take whatever we can.”

Bundles of documents were pushed in front of me.  I could make nothing of them.  I simply sent them on their way.

Screaming prisoners were dragged before me.  The wounded I spared.  Defiant men cursed me, and I ordered their deaths, there was no time to regret it or enjoy it, their curses were meaningless.  Their deaths were simple necessity.  They were of no use, so they were disposed of.

I watched a throat cut and blood spill fountaining out, the defiance replaced by a look of shock and horror as a man realized he was not after all immortal.  In his eyes, suddenly, a desperate look, as if he suddenly wished he could do it all again, take back his curses, promise mildness.  And then the light was gone from his eyes, and they dropped him limp and lifeless on his face.  I felt nothing then, it was merely expedient.  Would it haunt me later?

Was this what it was like to be Markath Khan?  Was this what Markath Khan felt like all the time?

A man spat in my face, startling me.  I stared.  Beneath the rage and bluster he seemed so scared.

“Don't kill him,” I said.  “Break both his legs.”

Tractable prisoners, perhaps even sympathetic.  I mumbled something, made short speeches to them, begged their aid as they stared, eyes wild with confusion.  Slipped into hoods, bound, taken away.

More fighting.  Buildings burning.  The smell of smoke and blood thick in the air.  All around me, the clash of steel, cries of pain.

For a second, I found myself standing alone, staring all around me at men fighting.  I had a moment of strange alienation, as if I had been suddenly transported somewhere else, watching the proceedings from afar.

An armed man was coming towards me, rushing, his face taut with urgency and desperation.  Who was he?   A naval man.  A guard or soldier of Diome.  What was his life?  What brought him to this moment?  Blood dripped from his sword.

Then the spell broke.

I realized that he was coming straight for me.  That I was undefended, my soldiers occupied, and suddenly that I was alone and vulnerable.  Fear shot through me like lightning from a cloudless sky.

I screamed and turned to run.

There was another one, brutal and bloody, almost on top of me, right in front of me.

I screamed again.


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