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THE FIRELIT night swallowed him, the droplets of bright torches of the soldiers stalking up and down the canal in search of Normalas the Healer drifting away, away … gone. Ahead was an almost uniform wall of fiendish orange-yellow, illuminating the sky above it with a sinister and fathomless red; below it roiled a layer of total blackness, darker than the surrounding night, as though Puowbalpom’s ashes, heaped high upon the bones of its massacred citizens, burned still, burned without flame, feeding a ferocious vengeance long awaited and now realized. The conflagration reflected off the swirling waters. He was again floating with corpses—dozens, perhaps hundreds of them. He perceived them as misshapen unanchored islands, the flames bleaching their clothes of all color. Sometimes a face would come with an island, its vacant eyes open in horror, staring forever upward, its attached island-body twisting slowly in the current as though on a macabre carnival ride.
The water flowed around another bend, and he was in the city. The bodies were thicker here, so thick that the canal at points was choked with them. He crawled over the corpses, stroked between them, kicking and splashing, until he could get to open water again. He did these things very carefully; there were bridges over the canal, and without exception they were manned by Gyssians, their soldierly silhouettes backlit by the inferno raging beyond. But the bridges themselves were more often than not concealed by smoke; and crawling like a water rodent over the human logs, he had to fake being one of them several times when a bridge suddenly appeared out of the turbid gloom, the armored men on it peering intently downward. Once again the mass destruction came to his aid: the hot wind would shift and smoke would drift over the bridge like sea fog, thick enough to cover the soldiers for a few seconds, and he would creep hastily on while he could. The corpses were waterlogged and soft, the stench of death like a suffocating, moldering blanket. He did not think about what he was doing; he did not think at all. He instinctively understood that if he meditated on any of this, about what he was witnessing, the sights, the sounds, the smells, the … the feel of what his hand was grasping now—he would not survive the night. It would paralyze him with terror and vacant hopelessness. The bodies sank slightly as he slithered over them, the water so bloody it didn’t feel like water anymore, but oil.
Under the bridge, then on to the other side. The darkness under the masonry was total at times. He hurried forward, gulping back the fear that there was no escape. More crawling, more feeling forward. When the current pressed against him—when it was strong enough—he’d dive under after a huge breath, coming up seconds later very cautiously, just his face appearing at the surface. Above flickered the light of ruination: time to float again. The bodies, he noticed as he went on, almost always clogged up against the bridges, or close to them. It was what seemed to most concern the Gyssian soldiers peering over them.
He spied no winged monsters, no seagulls, nothing. There was nothing in flight here. Just smoke, endless smoke.
At the eighth or ninth bridge he tasted something other than the omnipresent nickel tinge of blood. A chemical taste, distinctly bitter, with a very familiar sweet, soft odor. Slick. It was actual oil. He floated on, the smell of it, its taste—and now the burning in his eyes from it—increasing with each bridge. Finally it became too much. He had to leave the canal—his only possible route to freedom.
But where could he do that without being spotted? And how could he get to Bossool with Gyssians everywhere? In what direction from here did it lie? He swam to the rocky bank, grasped a boulder, pulled himself very cautiously onto it. The smoke here was particularly thick and black and hot, churning and spinning overhead like an infernal tornado. And then with a start it came to him. The Gyssians had poured oil into the canal, and had, downstream, set it afire. That was how they chose to solve the problem of clogging bodies. Already he could see the flames licking through the smoke as it raced towards his position. If it got to him he’d burn, too.
He scampered up the rocky embankment as low as he could, as quickly as he could. The gray rock beneath him scraped his flesh through his shirt, his trousers. At the lip of the canal he peered over. Visibility up here was almost nil, the smoke billowing past like fog in a hurricane, thick and noxious. He took in a lungful of broiling air and managed to suppress the cough that jerked up his neck just long enough to get his hands over his mouth.
The flames of the canal were advancing very swiftly towards him. The heat was already unbearable; in moments it would be deadly. He pulled his shirt off as quickly as he could, shocked by its new color—pinkish-red—and wrapped it over his head, his mouth, leaving just a slit for his eyes. He rolled over the canal lip as he fished desperately for the Infinitum in his right trousers pocket, pulled it out. He came to his knees just as the canal roared to life, illuminating the fog-smoke with flames five or six times his height. The heat made him scamper away on his hands and knees as fast as he could. The ground here was barren, baked, lifeless, covered in a thin, crunchy layer of coal-colored ash which poofed up around him, got through the eye slit, burned his eyes.
An idea. Without considering its merits, he stuffed the Infinitum back into his pocket and immediately started rolling over the ash, covering himself in it. He scooped it into his hands and rubbed it on his bare chest and back, then on the shirt covering his skull, repeating the procedure several times before stopping. He looked down on his person. He was now black as the smoke: just a few small pink patches of skin showed through. It would be difficult to see him unless one was right on top of him.
He crawled on, ignoring the sudden and horrible thought that the ash falling everywhere and smeared over his person likely wasn't just the remains of buildings and trees.
He’d gone just a little way when he stopped cold. Just ahead was a pike, stuck in the earth. At its top was impaled a severed human head.
It was a woman’s head. Her face was soot-covered and screwed up in agony, what must have been the last thing she ever felt, the spear point of the pike bursting like a ghastly crown out the top of her skull. Her long gray hair whipped aimlessly in the hot wind.
There were other pikes, spaced evenly in a row, all with severed heads, like a horrible fence guarding the very border of Hell itself. The wind blew the smoke away for a moment, and in the fiery darkness he shrank into himself. For an entire field of evenly spaced pikes stood here before him, so large that its ends were lost in the smoldering distance. All with heads.
He stood. The pikes were roughly his height, the skulls on their ends making it seem like he had interrupted a parade of the damned. He doubled his grip on the Infinitum and made his way into the field of death, in the same general direction that the canal was flowing when he crawled from the blood-and-oil-befouled water, praying that it didn’t turn somewhere in the city and empty misons away from his present position. Perhaps if he kept in this direction he’d get to Bossool without too much extra searching. Perhaps.
The heads gaped at him as he passed, flat, fat tongues wagging from open mouths in the oily heat. Dead eyes pinned him to the moment, as though he, living being, was invading upon their orderly procession to the underworld. Deeper and deeper into the field he went, always scanning about for soldiers and demons, always ready to run at the slightest hint of trouble. Several times the smoke got too thick and he’d have to crawl again, hot ash falling over him, burning his bare back and arms, his hands, getting into his eyes. The flames from the canal pushed him on. Not too far in front of him, behind grimy smoke, more flames raged and crackled and snapped. He came to his feet again. The sweat pouring out of him mixed with the ash and stung his entire person.
He looked around. He guessed that he was moving away diagonally with respect to the canal: the flames behind and the ones in front determined his path. The parade of the decapitated damned went on and on, heedless of the scorching air, thousands of them, as though the entire city’s population had submitted to mass beheading.
The heads ended suddenly at a cobblestone street. He had taken two steps onto it when he realized what it was and quickly pulled back. He prayed a silent prayer of thanks: soldiers appeared just then to his left, marching in two columns directly towards him. He retreated, dropped to his belly just as they filed past. There were perhaps a hundred of them. The smoke and heat did not seem to affect them; they marched straight through both as though they didn’t exist, disappearing into a white fog bank of anonymous destruction a minute later.
When he thought it safe he came to his hands and knees and crawled back to the cobblestones. The view was limited to just a few pike-heads in any direction. At any moment another column of smoke-and-heat-unaffected soldiers could appear, with no warning at all, no time for him to react. He wouldn’t be able to hear them: the ubiquitous roar of flame made that impossible. Did whatever agency that made the smoke and heat negligible to them also make it possible for them to see through both? In that case, he was as good as dead. It was only a matter of time.
“Optimism is a survival skill,” he coughed, thinking of Normalas’ gentle reproach. Optimism: the soldiers could not see through the smoke and heat any better than he could. He pulled the Infinitum out of his pocket, took a deep breath, counted to three, and then bolted as fast as he could across the road. There were buildings over there, black ones, nightmarish from here, that appeared in the occasional breaks in the smoke. Feeling hugely exposed, he put enough distance between himself and the street before crouching down, looking around.
He stood, came forward cautiously. He ran to the buildings.
He managed to stop before running headlong into the demon. The monster stood still as a statue, twice his height, a tremendous shield in its grasp, one whose point pierced the swirling ash at its enormous clawed feet. It was part of a solid line of them, ultimate number unknown, all standing shoulder to shoulder as though at attention, all with great shields held out before them. The broadsword thrust down through a flaming ring confronted him, left to right, cast in brass, the orange flames of destruction reflecting dully from it again and again.
He didn’t think. He thrust the Infinitum out, blurted something like “GAH!” The lens-shaped object flashed green from between his fingers just as he pulled his fist down and tore back towards the street at a full breathless sprint, then across it without looking for soldiers and into the field of severed heads. He didn’t stop until he was sure he wasn’t being followed. He fell to his belly, still in the field, a fierce stitch in his side, his heart racing wildly, sweat dripping like rain into his eyes. He listened for the tell-tale signs of screeching, or the bass rasp of rage and hunger. Nothing.
It finally came to him that the demons hadn’t seen him. They couldn’t have. As he replayed the scene again and again in his mind’s eye, he realized that the demons had been standing at attention with their eyes closed. He was sure this was so: the yellow cat’s eyes, the vertical pupils, of the demon that ate Lesa was the one standout feature of these monsters aside from their enormous size he knew he’d never forget, if he forgot them at all. And it was the one feature missing in that heart-stopping second as he had stood there, gawking up at them, and just before the Infinitum came to life.
What were they doing? Were they sleeping?
The Infinitum had flashed, but he was certain he hadn't actually said anything useful, or even thought anything coherent that moment. What wish had the Infinitum then granted? He crawled forward for a long distance, his bare belly burning with the ash and scrapes he’d acquired crawling up the canal’s rocky bank. He came to his feet only after his bare hands, arms, and back, long exposed to flying ash, scorching heat, and the hard ground, began to blister. At the street he stopped, looked down. There were tracks under freshly fallen ash. His tracks. He’d managed to return to the exact same spot he’d come to the first time.
Desperation washed through him. He’d purposely tried to alter his course, to move far away from his last position, but the heat to either side had constricted him far more than he’d realized. If he was to proceed, he’d somehow have to get by the demons.
Not buildings, he told himself as the blackness peeked occasionally through the roiling smoke across the road. That was a solid blockade of enormous killer demons running in both directions for Satelemark only knew how far. Just standing there, waiting.
He could wait for them to move, he reasoned. But he vetoed that thought immediately. Morning was coming. The light of the new day would surely expose him. No, he’d not only have to be on the Arilyceum but out of the bay altogether. The longer he dithered here, the less likely he’d ever leave the shores of Theseus.
He wasn’t aware that he was whimpering until minutes after it had started. His grip on the Infinitum was manic. He couldn’t seem to relax his fist. After another troop of soldiers filed past, this time from the opposite direction, he crawled back to the curb, said a short prayer and set his jaw; and then he bolted across the street, stopping just a few steps past it, shaking from head to toe, before advancing into the white veil of smoke separating him from the monsters Normalas had called Mephastophians.
They were just ahead. He stood there, faint from not breathing, blank with terror. He’d have to get through them. There was no other way.
Soldiers! The omnipresent roar of flames wasn't so loud after all: he could hear them coming! He was in easy sight from the road; if he didn’t move right now, they’d spot him.
He raised the Infinitum, his entire arm shaking like a weak vine in a strong gale, and stepped forward.
Here stood the demons.
Shoulder to shoulder, shields before them, silent as death, huge and terrible in their might. All with eyes closed.
Green light. It came from his fist. It flowed from the Infinitum like liquid smoke, out of his death-grip, wrapping round his hand like a glove, deepening, gathering, sparkling oddly. All without his consciously willing it. It felt like the Infinitum was waiting for him, anticipating him. He focused on the two demons just in front of him and, his voice quavering and weak, croaked out, “Let me through—”
The liquid smoke deepened to an emerald hue and then struck out in two bright beams that missiled into the heads of the two demons directly in front of him.
Without opening their eyes, the two demons grumbled. Kaza felt the grumbles in his feet. He forced his legs to stay planted where they were and not turn and run—run straight into the soldiers, who surely must be close enough to see him—! The demons grumbled again, and then moved, turning in place, eyes still closed, their shields opening to admit him through. Holding the Infinitum up, he bolted through the breach. The two demons closed ranks just as the soldiers filed past, the emerald beams dissolving away.
Another cobblestone street. He didn’t stop to look for soldiers; he was in full flight now, running for all he was worth, a black blur through murky malicious shade, running until the stitch in his side returned and then on, ignoring it, running until his lungs burned and his eyes watered, running until his heart threatened to seize. He finally stopped, gagging and coughing, beneath trees, all burned, appearing like tremendous black skeletons under a dimly lighted infernal dome. He didn’t wait to catch his breath, but zig-zagged between them at a hard jog, crossed another street, coughing and hacking, and stopped under the thin twisting stump of another torched tree. He bent over and let the polluted air at his knees fill his desiccated lungs, spitting out the bitter ash that had accumulated through his shirt.
Presently he straightened, looked around to get his bearings. He stood before actual buildings this time. Like the trees, like everything else, they were all burned and burned out, their tops lost in fiery smoke. He thought of the canal. It would be left of his present position by an unknown distance. He glanced warily around, ready to bolt again should soldiers or demons appear, and walked hurriedly in that direction. The smoke lightened as he advanced, the fire and heat falling behind him. The occasional cool breeze wafted by; he was sure he could smell sea brine in it. The coolness was so welcome he couldn’t suppress the groan of relief between more coughs.
He must be close to the bay. The notion pushed him on, the darkened buildings passing by on his right, the vacant street on his left. It wasn’t long before buildings appeared on that side as well. They, too, had been burned out. There were skeletons here, the remains of people who’d burned with them. They littered the cobblestones in random patches, curled about themselves, piled gruesomely on one another.
This city was once beautiful, with artful buildings and tall, radiant towers and many trees and pleasant parks. Its nickname, “The Jewel of the Senecum Quarternia,” was well deserved. It had built itself up over two thousand years into a teeming capital port city, one of the largest in the entire Quarternia, a city of trade known for its friendly people and warm climate. Nearly half a million people had called Puowbalpom home.
Were they all dead?
Kaza had no doubt. Yes, they were. Dead. All of them. All but him.
Why would anyone do this? What did the Gyssians have against Theseus? Normalas had assured him that the invasion was total: all of Aquanus was being invaded. What did the Gyssians have against—the whole world? Normalas had referred to the one ultimately responsible as a “nightmare.” What did that “nightmare” look like? Was he a normal-looking person, with hair and skin and teeth and arms and legs? Did he smile? Did he laugh? Did he have friends and family? Did he have a wife? Why would he do such a thing as … as this? Power? Riches? What excuse could possibly justify doing this to attain either?
Metallic noises. Kaza glued himself to a wall next to stone stairs that led up into a three- or four-story structure, listening intently. Even now he could tell by the orderly clank and grind that they were soldiers. There was no way they’d miss him, ashen camouflage or not. He peered left, right. Nothing. He gazed across the street, spied an alley just to his left and two or three buildings away, and tore out for it. He ran into its dark mouth and struck something solid and fell backwards. He struggled to remain conscious amid the pain, like a candle flame fighting to stay alive in high wind. Somehow he was back on his feet in an instant, stars blinding him, the Infinitum thrust out stiffly. He was certain he had been discovered. But nothing grabbed him, nothing roared in demonic anger. Staggering, he plastered himself against the left wall just as the soldiers marched into view.
He waited until they were out of sight, waited until the nausea from the pain of his swimming head had abated enough to move on, then glanced over his shoulder at what he had hit, his eyes adjusting to the darkness. He had to force himself to stay where he was as he stared, so strong was the urge to run and run and run.
The bodies were stacked like cordwood, blocking the alley entirely, rising at least three stories high. These were unburned, likely put here after the buildings surrounding them had been torched.
He couldn’t stop staring. The sight was as horrific as watching soldiers drown children, or a demon eating Lesa. A malignant, perverse fascination gripped him. No “nightmare” responsible for this could be worse than the nightmare facing him right now, the nightmare of his desperate trek through this burning city—could he be? Who in their right mind could think to stack bodies three stories high in an alley between burned-out buildings? To what purpose would doing so serve? The massacre of tens of thousands of Theseans, his own people, had been, like these bodies, well organized, systematic, purposeful. There was probably some bureaucrat somewhere indifferently tallying the death toll, keeping track of the mass destruction as one would keep track of the building of a barn, or log the days and weather after planting a field. Did the “nightmare” responsible for this feel a sense of accomplishment through his actions? Did the soldiers feel justified somehow in killing innocent people? He recalled the children at the ditch. The soldiers seemed utterly unfazed by their task, undisturbed, untroubled by their cries, their begging and pleading as they waited in line for their turn. How was it possible that those soldiers were even the same species as him? How could any human being calling himself such do such a thing?
He came out his dark reverie only by means of the Infinitum in his fist, whose coldness seemed to call to him to move on, and quickly. He stuffed it back into his pocket as he edged to the alley’s entrance, looking left, right. Again the smell of sea brine greeted his nose, the coolness wafting against his blistering ash-covered chest. He did one more check up the street, then ran right. The sea breeze seemed to be coming from that direction.
The buildings ended at a wide circular plaza—deserted. To his right were high gates—unmanned. The gates into Bossool. The very gates he had stood at years ago with his father. He edged his way quickly along the plaza’s circumference, then through them.
The opulent remains of Bossool rose before him in the shifting smokelight like marble shards in a volcano. He made his way very cautiously up the main street littered with great chunks of shattered stone and scattered earth. The street curved charmingly to and fro as it wound up the hill.
The stately homes here hadn’t just been burned. Lonely columns and regal entrances with nothing behind them stood sentinel at the edges of deep craters. The mansions of those who had governed Theseus had been bombed utterly out of existence. The road itself had been shelled in places; he had to negotiate several large holes in the middle of it.
There were no soldiers here, nothing flying overhead. Something else, too. Something that bothered him deeply. There were no bodies, no corpses stacked like firewood, no heads atop pikes, no burnt skeletons lying curled about themselves in random grisly islands. He thought he might actually be relieved if he spotted a body somewhere in this exclusive enclave; he saw not a single one. Their absence was even creepier than their presence. He wondered: Were those heads atop pikes the leaders of the government, the former residents of Bossool?
The hill summited suddenly. He stopped under the burnt husk of a tree, looked out over the bay.
The breeze off the ocean had pushed the smoke landward. Stars shined over the bay against a great skying wall of burning white-orange-yellow just behind him; Satelemark’s children shone in an incomplete arc far to the east; north, in the direction he was looking, the banded light of unseen King Ammalinaeus cast a ghostly glow on the needlelike tops of two Sisters along what had to be Ae Infinitus over a thousand misons away. The Vanerrincourtian navy was out there, way, way out there, in the very shadow of those Sisters. He had to get there—somehow.
But these sights and thoughts had only just glanced his consciousness. He had taken only the slightest notice of them. He was looking down into the bay proper, his breath trapped behind an iron cage of disbelief.
There were ships out there, a mison out in the water, the biggest ships he had ever seen, so large they didn’t seem real, didn’t seem possible. Great black Gyssian warships. Between them were many smaller ones: these were probably larger still than the largest Thesean battleship.
How could he get out of the bay with those ships in the way? Hopeless! It was hopeless!
He looked down the hill and saw them: Bossool’s docks.
They were perhaps a quarter mison away. Absurdly, they hadn’t been bombed or burned or molested in any way. But as he stood there watching, soldiers at both ends busily poured liquid from large barrels over them. There were all manner of small boats in the slips, floating placidly, waiting for their masters, who would never again board them and raise their sails. Kaza counted over—fourth dock, third slip—and spotted the Arilyceum: one of the bigger singleships there.But it didn’t matter. He had come all this way—and wasn’t going to make it. Because the soldiers at either end dropped torches onto the oil, and the dockwood went up in flames, left and right, racing to meet in the middle, racing to consume the ships, his escape, and his future.
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