Saturday, June 29, 2013

Page a Day: Sixty

            “Make what strategy you will," I said. "I’m only interested in killing as many as I can.”
            “Then go to the Temple and cull the beginnings of your army.”
            I looked at him. I waited again.
            “The White Swarm which protects you also changes them. The Augers are opposition only. Your enemy is not on this world.”
            I raised my eyebrows. I told him what I’d learned before my escape, about the enemy fleet that was heading toward the Earth, but was coming here to resupply. I did some mental math and added the part about what would now be one hundred days. Not being satisfied with simple disillusionment, I concluded by telling him about scorching entire worlds by the simple employment of interstellar drives.  Let ‘em feel despair, I thought. It keeps the politicians humble.
            He nodded again. “Just so,” he said. “When you reach the land once called Sepira, you will have come to the southern shore of this continent. Follow the coast west, and you’ll reach the place where these mountains run into the sea. There will be a harbor, with broad beaches all around. In sixty days I will bring to that place the greatships we need to cross the ocean between the continents.”
            There was a pause. “A question,” I said. “Did you want to know a name?”
            He looked at me.
            “We have the name of the person who started this invasion, who sent this fleet, who means to conquer this whole portion of the galaxy and infect it with the nightwind.”
            He nodded his head, once. “They never told us anything.”

            “Priest Malakan of Kalnar. He sent Earth a recorded message before he attacked. We don’t know his world, though you can bet the docs on Earth are spending a hell of a lot of time trying to locate it.”

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Page a Day: Fifty-Nine

            He frowned, too. “After the end of the Profusion came the wars between the cities, a period of tyranny, slavery, and madness. And in those wars a man arose, a great captain fighting for one of the tyrant-kings. But he became so sickened by his conquests that he left his army and wandered alone in the mountains. He lost himself there, forgetting his own name.
            He wandered until he found a valley, where there lived herds of mastodons like that used in fighting, but here wars had never come. He would have remained alone in that place, but dreamed of a white city, untouched by the wars of machines and men. He knew then that he had been delivered for a purpose, and left that valley. Wandering again, he was gored by a smilodon, so that he nearly died.   
            Yet there opened to him in that place a Well of Healing, one of the last of its kind. After three days and nights lying within it, he stood, as well as he had ever been. He looked out from a plateau across a broad valley. And when he saw its white stone, he decided that he would build his city here, and name it Ariel. He left then to make war on the tyrants themselves, and free the people of every city. And when he formed his army they named him Faith, for they trusted him. But standing before them he vowed that no Profusionist weapon or machine would ever enter Ariel. His city would heal, and only heal.”
            I waited. He sat on another one of the casks and clasped his hands.
            “I have never liked that story,” he finally said. “It contains evasions. I woke a spikeship, for example, beneath the city Temple.” My eyes widened. “The one I sent to you on Earth,” he added quickly. “None other was ever found.”
            “I’ve always been a non-fiction girl myself,” I said. “Communication was my function as an officer.”

            He nodded again. “You have an army and no weaponry. You will find none in Ariel. But to the south lie all the fields of battle of the war that claimed this world, and all the equipment you will ever need. But it is defended by those you call the Augers.” 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Page a Day: Fifty-Eight

           And after one day, I left. At least I think it was a day. It had been morning when I went there. I remained active long enough to pee three times and watch the cache machines whisk it away. Then I was nearing a full night’s sleep when someone fell through to the floor. Maybe none of us ever enters these places properly? Well, regardless, there came a thud. I sat up, hand ineffectually going to where my dagger used to be. The person unfurled and came to stand beside me. It was the politician. Bald and ascetic-looking as ever. The first time I saw him I’d known he was a clerk. I sat up.
            “Why are you waiting?” he asked. “That is not your nature.”
            “I can’t go anywhere,” I said. “The nightwind’s all over.”
            “Do I wear a shroud? Do I look like an enemy to you?”
            I stood and faced him. “They never do. That’s the problem. I thought you’d know that.”
            A corner of his mouth turned upward. I supposed it was a smile. “I have awaited your return. Let your mind be transformed.  You are not on Earth. You have allies, and you need not fear. Draw breath, and the nightwind has no power over you.”
            So I could walk out, if I believed him, any time I chose. “Did you come to bring me back my dagger?”
            He shook his head. “That blade is needed by another. Go instead to the Temple and you will have an army. In three days the first will be gathered there.”
            “And these people, whoever they are, they’ll obey me?”
            He looked like I’d suggested water might flow downhill. “In the ruins of the cities of the swamps to the south waits a soldier fallen in white armor. Wake him, and he will tell you how to find the rest.”

            I frowned. “I see.” I didn’t. I sat on a case of dried fruit. “And what am I supposed to do with my core cadre?”  

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Page a Day: Fifty-Seven

            After that, I was just going to kill as many Augers as I could before they finally got me. Now the poet and the politician were gone. And I couldn’t kill anyone, because if I stepped out onto the street the nightwind was going to get me instead. My shell was dead until I exposed it to full sunlight for a day. And I didn’t even have a knife.
            The stopping didn’t last long. I wasn’t a clerk, and this wasn’t the only cache I’d been to. Directly overhead was the cache whose original function I could not discern, but which had been repurposed as someone’s emergency larder. There was food there. I knew I’d seen water or wine.
            So up I went, hand over hand, the silver Profousionist metal flowing and refirming as it ought, despite that damned silver hue. (We who hail from Cibolla, the great golden city, will never see anything so beautiful again). But the other cache opened and I saw the food and wine again, stored in casks and sacks and barrels. At least I would not starve today. I rummaged until I had myself a fine meal. The wine particularly was excellent.
            After that, I waited. If you’d asked me what I was waiting for, I couldn’t particularly have told you. But, soldier’s ancient prerogative, I was keeping myself alive. It’s the only way opportunities can happen. So I waited, in the sense that every plan I thought of wouldn’t work. I tried to wake the cache’s sentience but got no response. My brain felt a presence through its machines, but that was faint and sluggish. Come to think of it, the lights in the cache were getting pretty dim. Power-saving mode. That might be trouble eventually. Caches have to churn the air when there’s people inside. 

            But my more immediate problem was staying alert and focused. I counted out the food and beverages as rations. I did pushups and situps and ran tiny laps around the room. I flowed through the usual unarmed combat exercises and wondered where my knife had gone. I tried to figure out how to stay sane for as long as thirty-five days, because that was how far the rations went. 

Monday, June 24, 2013

Page a Day: Fifty-Six

Part Two
            Did I resurrect two men? They seemed gone pretty damned far to me. Their faces dry and drawn as they lay together inside that coffin, inside that tomb. They were covered with some chalk-like stuff that I supposed was a preservative. They didn’t wake. They didn’t breathe. I checked for that, though I knew the answer before I leaned forward. What kind of a people buries two men together anyway? They lay entwined like lovers. That practice is rarely venerated. 
            You don’t care, of course. You may be dead yourself. You may be imprisoned. You may be taken by the nightwind. But you’ve certainly had questions of your own. Why did I abandon you? Why did I leave my whole home planet to its fate? And why place you, particularly, to face off alone against the megalomaniac who runs our city, to stand against wave after wave of attacks by our beloved Augers?
            But I don’t have those answers. I only have questions your questions can’t anticipate. They may not apply directly to you. Ship wants me writing these letters nonetheless. Ship used to have me write a journal, to help me regain my memory and figure out why I ended up alone in the middle of an asteroid field. Now that the answers are so close, and memories are coming so fast I cannot keep up with them, Ship asks me to write to the person I most want to speak to, so that I can say the things I need to say. Even if you’re not here. Even if you never read them.

            An odd notion, I know, but I’ve learned to trust Ship, despite his machine strangeness. That’s why we’re not in the asteroid field anymore, but screaming together toward the Earth. Ship has said this means significant progress on my part. I know it marks distance away from my dead husband, whose corpse, even if it was there tumbling around the rocks, we were never going to find. So I needed to stop looking for it. I needed to come to you. And then I’m going to need you to act. So I say I left you in command for the same reason I write you now: because you can take it.  

Friday, June 21, 2013

Page a Day: Fifty-Five

             When I woke again the Well was silent. Only Jerem Cozak stood above me, in white armor. All the Never-born had gone.
             “Marcus,” I said, my voice breaking. I remembered Cratyus and Meno, and the mauled man in the caldera, and all the dead we’d left behind. My blood on the floor had become a lake in which all the Well would drown.
            He made no expression. “Marcus accomplished the task that was given him.” He nodded and said, “The Never-born are claiming the Wells of Artillery, so that none will need to do your trick again. But the White Swarm thanks you. I thank you. We could not have succeeded in any other way.”
            The world slid once more into blackness. When I woke again, the Well was empty but for the still and silent bodies flung across its bloody floor. It sentience did not answer me. The diffuse light within was fading. Jerem Cozak had gone.
            He had left me alone to die.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Page a Day: Fifty-Four

            I gasped, was gasping. I fell backward, into Marcus’s arms. I screamed when I saw the enemy’s arm, bloody to the elbow. His fist had gone entirely through me. Marcus had used my body to trap him, and my dagger to strike him down.
            I stared open-mouthed as Marcus dragged me over toward the wall of the Well, out of the way. More Never-born appeared through the ceiling, four or five at once. The armored man’s accomplice had been killed, then. The Well was open. They all would be. Marcus walked away. I closed my eyes for a moment.
            When I opened them again, Marcus appeared before me clad in silver armor, and I saw how this was done. For behind him, three Never-born stepped into the three creches across the Well from me, and the suits poured over them, coming from apertures the walls concealed. It was done in a moment. The three Never-born turned to climb the walls.
            My vision swam. Marcus stooped to pick up my dagger from the floor. This surprised me, and I tried to flex my hand to prove I still held the blade. Nothing moved. I looked down to see that I had folded my arms around my stomach, cradling a mass of something shiny and slick and red. Blood covered all my body below my chest.  
            “You never would have been any good with this,” Marcus said. I looked up again. Never had one of the Never-born seemed so giant. He slid the dagger into some hidden sheath within his armor.  
            “I argued to his face,” he said. I blinked.  

            When I opened my eyes again he was gone. Other Never-born stood inside the creches as armor poured over them. Smoothly and silently, others dropped through the ceiling. They rolled when they hit the floor, just as I had. I moaned, but they ignored me. They ignored all the dead. I wanted to yell. But I was too tired now. Blood pooled all around me on the floor. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Page a Day: Fifty-Three

           Marcus, who had come to stand beside me, had the Never-born fan out, and I saw that he hoped to distract the man so that one of them could reach the creches and armor himself. But the enemy would not be fooled, and struck first. He strode forward and to his left as quick as any deer and struck with one fist too fast to see. The head of the farthest Never-born shot back, and I felt a sharp pain in my face and skull. He crumpled, dead. Marcus shouted again, and the rest of the Never-born surged forward, meaning to bring the man down.
            “Your knife!” Marcus hissed, and followed them.       
            For once, I did not fumble between my sword and the Profusionist blade. The dagger leapt into my hand, and I ran forward. The Never-born had thrown themselves on the armored man, but he shook them off as though they had been fleas. Thrown, they tumbled to the corners of the room, but landed on their feet. Just as they drew themselves up to try again, I asked the Well to admit more Never-born, and it replied that it could not, so long as we fought within its interior. We spread out to surround our enemy again. 
            Then the armored man kicked, which I did not expect, toward the farthest Never-born. He drew his foot back before I knew anything had happened, but I felt the pain in my chest as his target doubled over, ribs shattered. The rest of us surged forward, I with my dagger raised high. The armored man saw that, of course, and turned to strike me with his fist.
            And Marcus, who had been on my left, stepped behind me fluidly and pushed me forward. The enemy’s fist tore into my mid-section. I had thought the smilodon had hit me hard; nothing natural could have struck as hard as this. The world exploded. Steel bent. There came a sharp sucking sound. All the breath went out of me. I felt impaled by some great spear.  

            Someone, it had to have been Marcus, grabbed my right arm and pushed it forward, faster and much harder than I could have struck with the dagger on my own. When my vision cleared I saw my hand holding the Profusionist blade. Marcus has pushed my dagger through the enemy’s armor and upward through his neck. He fell away with a slick sickening sound. A million shards of fire from my gut tore through all the rest of me. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Page a Day: Fifty-Two

            “Dismount!” he called. “Off the beasts! Dismount! First squads to the armories!” When he was done he turned and nodded to me, and I let myself drop down along the rope that every mastodon carries along its side.  I did not know where the Well of Armor was or what to do, so I stood there shocked as a whole wave of unarmed men and women ran into us from our east flank. They must have outnumbered the Never-born three to one.
            Marcus reached me just as the first of them pushed past the Never-born. “Stop standing there,” he said. “The Well is beneath your feet. You already woke it.” And I saw that it was so, for two of the enemy then went through. I stood for a moment horrified. “Now!” he growled, and grabbed my shoulder, and pushed down. “Or it’ll be too late!” There came yet another moment when I panicked, for I had never let a Well admit so many men before. But it sentience opened to me, and Marcus and I and half a dozen of the nearest Never-born went through.
            As I fell, I asked the Well to admit then only those like myself, who did not carry the machines called nightwind. It replied that it had not been until we came, when the battle had confused it. Then I fell freely through the air and hit the floor of the Well rolling and saw that we were all indeed too late.  

            It must take only a moment to don a suit of Profusionist armor, for the two who’d entered the Well first had already done so. They were covered head to toe in silver metal made of the same machines that made the city walls, or the walls of this round Well itself. One turned to face Marcus and the first of the Never-born as they drew up beside me. The other went to the wall behind him and began climbing out. But the one who remained stood with his feet apart and his fists before his face, a classic fighter’s stance. Equipped in that machinery, he was more deadly than any human being, and stood between us  and the creches in the wall where the suits were stored. The Well itself, being ten paces in diameter, would never allow us the space to push past him . 

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Page a Day: Fifty-One

            “Make for the center of the city!” bellowed Jerem Cozak, in a voice of sheer command. “Mastodons defend the armory! Infantry to the Well of Armor! Hold, hold the center once we reach it! Victory! We will succeed today!”
            The mastodons broke into a trot. Then, at three hundred paces out, we ran. I caught my breath; mastodons must indeed be the fastest animals on earth. We consumed the distance at an astounding pace. No orbs of light burst around us, though we had entered artillery range. For a breath, nothing changed at all. Then, when it seemed as though the mastodons would run headfirst into the wall’s solidity, it thinned. For a moment it seemed a cloud, then one hundred paces of it suddenly dropped away. The tusks of our  wedge of mastodons passed through a barrier as thin as gauze, but their rear pads tramped on what seemed like gray sand being blown away by the wind. We rode on into the fortress city.
            Jerem Cozak called out frantically, and every other mastodon fell back – just as we had practiced, thrice daily, on the march. We crossed glaciers then, but needed now to fit within a broad urban avenue. He called out again, and the mastodons closed the gaps between them, and fifteen rather than thirty now trotted down the street abreast. The citadel was silent, and I remembered the ruin of my city Ariel. But no young men confronted us. Only the black mist swirled around us and between the buildings, and I realized that I had not seen the nightwind since I left my own city.  
            That was the only thought I had time to have. For the city was built as most Profusionist citadels were built, square, one thousand paces on a side, and the avenue led us straight to its center. As we drew up to the central plaza, from the south men of the enemy also raced toward it. They were making for the Well of Armor also. Jerem Cozak called out again, and our formation turned. The whole wedge pivoted, and charged. We rode down the men, and I did not see what happened to them, but felt the brute satisfaction of another mastodon’s tusks piercing one’s man chest straight through, as though he were a smilodon.

            Someone else called out, and Jerem Cozak turned as he rode.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Page a Day: Fifty

            With that, he turned, and I knew he would say no more. I donned my heavy armor, smooth and practiced as any of the Never-born, and added the Profusionist blade in a slot next to my ordinary sword, hanging in its scabbard. Perhaps I would use both of them today. Perhaps I would succeed. Suiting up with the rest of the Never-born, mounting my mastodon when they were brought forward, I felt one with all of them. Before, I knew what each of the mastodons felt; now I knew the hearts of the Never-born. Not each of them, for not all of the Never-born possessed a consciousness with that nature which men call personality. But all of them knew a single-minded purpose overlaying the memories of lives ended long ago. They dreaded battle, and they welcomed it. The world was beautiful for them now, too. For them the mud we squelched was sacred. The sun turned the sky to blood and gold behind us.
            We went forward slowly at first, lest the mastodons leave the infantry behind. I knew the formation we were in, though I could not see all of it: the vanguard, the wedge of mastodons that configured a standard charge, thirty beasts side by side, led by Jerem Cozak and my own mastodon; the column of half of the other mastodons coming in blocks behind them, spread far enough apart to pivot or follow up in battle; the infantry, led by Marcus, double-trotting in two broad columns so as not to lag; and finally the rear, the other half of the mastodons spread in line formation, led by Julius as reserve, ready to guard against any move to flank. Glancing back I knew why Jerem Cozak had chosen this hour to attack: the setting sun blinded everyone looking toward the western horizon, possibly the oldest tactic known to humankind.

            But the fortress-city of Kiss soon stood before us as daunting and unbroken as it had been at night. The thousand paces of wall did not slump in ruin. The towers had not toppled. No army had come ahead of us to breach it. I had not known the cold dark wave of dread could wash over the beauty of the world, but it now did. I chilled to the core. We would not turn back. We had no other place to go. Jerem Cozak would not retreat. All the mastodons could die, I could fall broken to the ground, and still we would not turn aside. I realized then that war devours all who fight in it, that I was still untrained, untested and unsuited, and that I was probably about to die.  

Friday, June 14, 2013

Page a Day: Forty-Nine

            “It is done?” asked one, and I nodded. “Then we return, so that our watch can be complete.”
            They turned and ran and for the first time I kept pace with them, each of our feet hitting the ground at once. In all our weeks afield, I had never been able to accomplish this. Now it came so easily I was almost afraid it would simply stop happening, like a tune whose time has just run out. But we soon left Kiss, the southmost city of the Profuse Hand, far behind. When I saw the camp hidden in a tiny vale, my heart sang with exaltation. When I reached my tent I stopped, gathering my breath and watching the sunrise bloom over the ocean. I wept.  
            When the exhilaration of my survival finally faded, I knew a fatigue I never had before. I lay down inside my tent just as the rest of the Never-born were standing up outside of theirs. I laughed when I felt my mastodon lie down, too; it knew I had returned. Julius would later come with the noonday meal to tell me that it alone had stood sentry the whole time I was gone.  But for now the deep voices of the Never-born drove me to sleep, and I did not dream. In the late afternoon I woke again, and stepped outside to see the Never-born about the task of donning heavy armor.  
            Jerem Cozak approached me. “I made them let you sleep as long as you were able,” he said.
            I nodded. “I was more tired than I knew.”
            He closed his eyes. “That is often the result of danger. But toward death you will go again. You  ride behind me, second in the line. But wait for Marcus before you go down into the armories of the Wells of the Profusion. Do not go alone.”
            I nodded again, then stopped. “You talk as though our entry to the city were assured. But nothing I did made any difference to the wall. What do you think the White Swarm will do?”

            “Before, I told you that the power of the Swarm was to overwrite the minds of other machines. This you have seen them accomplish. Today you will also see their purpose, which normally I hold them from. But those machines I put upon your dagger I have released.”

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Page a Day: Forty-Eight

                       I realized that the scouts were motioning to me. One of them mimed the sort of approach I should make, and I hunched forward so that my head was barely above the grass. He seemed satisfied, and the other waved me forward. I went, nearly at a run, while they themselves lay down so that they vanished behind me. I was soon lonelier than I had ever been. It had been anguish to leave my mastodon, and I then despaired to leave the ranks of the Never-born, and now the last of them left me alone and defenseless on the ridge. The wall of the city rose ahead of me, and I swore I could feel the gaze of the sentinels bear into me. I imagined their silent signals sending others around to cut off my retreat.  
            By the time I got close enough to mark the wall, my hands shook so badly I couldn’t make the cut. And not only my hands shook. My whole body shivered and I stopped. My bladder voided, and I knew the shame of those who panicked and froze in battle.  I would fail, was failing even now. I would be shot as I retreated, or hacked to pieces before I brought the Profusionist knife to bear. I would be charred as artillery commanders found the ranges of their ordinance. I would drop the knife as Ursus charged, as the ape-men attacked. I would jamb the blade in the wall, and in my terror shout the whole city of the enemy awake. I would be flanked by the one enemy remaining, and then skewered by his sword.
            Instead I reached out my hand and, with a breath, drew the tip of the knife lightly across the wall. The blade sang, and my arm hummed with its small vibrations. I realized I had never actually used it before, this Profusionist machine that could cut entirely through a tree if I desired it. Slowly I walked forward, feeling like one of the youths in my city that made nonsense marks along its alleys. But here it would not be the city guard that chased me. I walked slowly along the wall, careful not to trip and trap the blade, and swear I  could have counted the beats of my own heart, so fast was my mind racing. 
            When a hundred paces were done I turned and ran, willing the knife to sleep. As I went, the world turned beautiful. Behind me sprang the colors of the dawn. The last stars shone palely overhead. The gray light broken on the horizon of the mountains to the west was stern and forbidding in its serenity. My own body became a strong and flowing thing, the rough grasses of the ridge precious beneath my boots. The chill brought blood singing to my face. My breath streamed from my nose and mouth in sweet exhalations. When the faces of the scouts rose up from hiding to greet me, I loved them with all the fellowship due to men. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Page a Day: Forty-Seven

            “I had not known that,” he said when I was done. “I will talk to him while you are gone. But you must go tonight. It will only work it darkness.” He motioned, and two men came forward from the picket line beyond the fires. He spoke to them in a voice just too soft for me to hear, but I marveled at the cadence of his speech. He had, I reminded myself, once been a capable politician.
            When it became apparent that there would be no skirmish tonight, I went to spend the idle hours lying beside my mastodon. Time passed quickly in the safe-feeling of the slumbering herd, and I wondered if I would be one of those who spent whole nights in this fashion.  
            When the moon rose, the two scouts approached and beckoned to me, and I came. They set off in a trot, and I followed as well as I was able. With each tramp the earth sucked at my feet, for spring had caught up to us again, and the ground was thawing. The night slid around us, cool and dark and treeless, for we had come to that part of the world where mostly grasses grow, even though we were only an hour’s march above the sea. But a few shrubs sighed in the wind and hissed along the leathers of my armor, for we wear that lighter gear on the march, and Marcus had not let me take it off beside the fire. We followed the ridge down toward the ocean, whose breath now even I could smell and taste.

            But when the scouts stopped short and ducked down into the shadows of the grass, I tasted another thing entirely. For before us in the darkness stood a fortress-city of the Profusion, and cold dark dread swelled within my chest and poured more bitterness in my mouth. The walls of it stood as high as ten men and spanned the ridge on which we paused, three hundred paces across. Those walls would be made, as all Profusionist cities are made, by the tiny machines that make Profusionist metal. Atop the walls stood the towers, six men high again, that would house sentinels and mounted oculars far more powerful than the ones Jerem and Marcus and Julius each carried. If we were unlucky, behind those walls waited artillery disks, which discharged enough light and energy to blind and terrify a mastodon. We would not know this until we attacked.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Page a Day: Forty-six

            “Now your blade,” he said, and I handed the Profusionist dagger to him, and he held it in the palm that I had cut, hanging it downward. We waited together in silence while his blood ran down its blade. When it reached the tip, he handed it back to me.
            “It is loyal to you,” he said.
            “I’m an ominifex,” I replied, “though I do not know what that means.”
            He nodded. “You have been talking to the Never-born. You are one can operate any Profusionist technology. Marcus and Julius are omnifex, as I am myself. Others are soldiers only.”
             “When the Temple tested me, I couldn’t wake any machines at all.”
            “The Historians suppressed such reactions, for few of them could do the same.”
            I felt the blade warm again in my hand. “What will I do with it?” I asked. “Hack the wall apart?”
            “Slide it along the western wall, for no less than a hundred paces. Gently, or the machines of the wall will trap your blade. Return when you are done. The scouts will guide you there and back.”
            I snorted, feeling the cold dark rise within me. “What will that accomplish? Cut it a bit? The wall will heal before I leave. And why does it have to be me? Anyone could have held this dagger – or if not anyone, then Marcus or Julius at least.”
            “Those men have their tasks. You have yours. You will understand when it is accomplished.”
            “Marcus said that this is going to kill me.”
            His face darkened. “Marcus and I do not always agree. The Never-born lived in a time very different from this one.”

            I said that they had done many other things as well, and told him what Julius had said to me. 

Monday, June 10, 2013

Page a Day: Forty-Five

            Below the storm, we descended also into the land of living things, and were hunted by Ursus and smilodon all over again. The scouts spoke of wolves the size of horses and claimed that a tribe of giant white apes followed us along a narrow chasm, until we had passed from their domain. They had carried clubs, and Julius said that such animals were nearly sentient. When we fell at last into a forest of dwarf trees, a great stag came to challenge us, and two men could have lain down between his antlers. The archers acted quickly, and we had our first fresh meat in many nights. 
            That was the last full day before the war began. Jerem Cozak approached me as the Never-born were slipping inside their tents.
            “The scouts put us a few hour’s march away,” he said, kneeling. I put down my cup.
            “I know. Julius mentioned it while we were making camp.”
            He asked me to take out my dagger, and I did. “You’ll leave when the moon rises. Hold out your empty hand.”
            I obeyed. “This is it then,” I said. “We strike tomorrow. I had thought it customary to rest a marching army before a battle.”

            He shook his head. “It will take a day for all of this to function.” He gave his own dagger to me, a short steel thing heavier than my Profusionist blade. “Across my hand,” he said, holding out his palm. “Do it quickly.” With a quick flick, I drew it across his flesh, cutting as shallow as I could. He hissed, and I began to apologize, but he motioned me to silence.  

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Page a Day: Forty-Four

On the fortieth day,
            I began the war. I assailed the fortress of Kiss, southmost citadel of the Hand of the Profusion. I was not ready. The Never-born declared that the mastodons were not ready. But we all fought for Jerem Cozak regardless, because we were running out of time.   
            The cities of the Hand of the Profusion hold within them the largest armories in the world. Their Wells contain quickswords and lightspears, artillery disks and shrouds and the very excellent armor once worn by the guards of every Profusionist city. We needed all of this equipment. I had guessed it was where we were going ever since we left the valley of the mastodons, for we had turned northeast, and headed more or less constantly in that direction.
            The descending march was deadly. The Gidwinn Mountains, scything across the continent and coming up from the southwest, do not so much diminish down into the ocean so much as they slam into it. Whole ranges stretch out into the sea, their valleys being of that kind that steepens as one descends. The bottoms fill with ice and black water from the oceans. The Historians of my city taught that the Profuse Hand earned its name because, from orbit, our continent seems to claw the sea with long and granite fingers.
            We marched and rode along the very spine one of the ranges. The footing betrayed us at every opportunity. Each day, several Never-born fell to their deaths. That, too, was marked by the Never-born’s marching silence. We never sent anyone to collect the bodies, forsaking a practice held sacred by every culture of the world, and certainly shared by the Profusionists that left the Wells of the Dead behind. I wondered if the Never-born had forgotten such rites, or if they, like I, simply sacrificed everything to Jerem Cozak’s nightmarish pace.

            While we remained above the clouds, the great broad swath of the ocean grew daily on the horizon. After we fell beneath them, we stepped into a storm of snow and ice that would have killed us if we stopped. When the snow piled too deep for even the Never-born to run, we rode double upon the mastodons, clinging to our cloaks and collars against the cold. In the darkness, the mastodons followed each other by their scent. 

Friday, June 7, 2013

Page a Day: Forty-Three

            My mouth opened with another question, but he turned his back and surged forward, doubling our pace. I resigned myself to asking Julius when we got back.
            We rode through the night. Most of the time we kept the mastodons to the trot, though when the moon was very high Marcus slowed the herd. I found then that mastodons can sleep while walking, though I was too terrified of falling, and could not. I looked around, and saw that all the Never-born would not sleep either. I suspect that if the Never-born could have, the column would never stop at all. The night passed quietly. There were no avalanches. Nothing else attacked. The snow still fell behind the razor-ridge, wind moaning eternally on its other side.
            We found the army in that hour just before dawn, down in a caldera much larger than that that Ursus used, but still protected from the elements. They were still encamped, though some of the Never-born were stirring. No one skirmished, and I wondered if that was done solely for my benefit. While Marcus sorted out the herd and the disposition of our party, I dismounted and hurried to find Julius among the tents. He was at one of the first I saw, warming the morning rations for his captains.
            “What’s going on?” I asked. “Why have we stopped? Are we finally lost?”
            “No,” he said, shaking his head. “We are not lost. But confrontations often happen long after they could have served their purpose.” He looked long into the darkness, where Marcus was tending to our herd.
            “What do you mean?” I asked. “I don’t understand.”

            “Jerem Cozak allows us rest. The scouts ahead have seen the northern ocean, and the mastodons soon will smell it. Tomorrow we descend, and our march becomes more difficult. In a few days we reach the fortress cities of the Profuse Hand, whose walls no living thing can break.”

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Page a Day: Forty-Two

            On the opposite side Marcus stopped the herd and dismounted. I rode up beside him and followed suit, and he gave me his oculars and pointed into the maze of smaller ridges below us. With the very last of the light, I saw then where the last of the lost squads had gone. It was a caldera, that sort of canyon that has only one opening, with rock walls slamming down around a craggy bowl. And there Ursus had fought the rest of the two squads of Never-born, all those it had not already killed.
            But this Ursus was not one, but three. Because two were smaller and of the same size, I guessed that the adult was their mother. But I did not want to call any of them small. The sow, standing on all fours sniffing the wind coming into the caldera as the light snow gathered on her gray pelt, would have been half has high as the matriarch of our herd.  And I could judge this because of the size of the bodies of the men fallen all around them. Crimson smeared all the snow surrounding them and spattered their necks and muzzles. Then, in horror I saw that one of the Never-born still moved. A young one gnawed on his legs, and most of the flesh of his thighs was gone. But he beat and beat against the face of the bear that held him. Horrified, I lowered the oculars. I would watch no more. 
            “A sow and two cubs,” Marcus said. He turned away and gave the orders to turn back. 
            I called out to him. “What? Aren’t we going to hunt them? One of your men still lives!”
            He looked back at me, scowling. “He is already dead. He does not know it yet. We would lose an hour. He would still be dead. But we will be gone. They will not follow.” He turned again to mount his mastodon. Seeing that he would not be swayed, I fell in with all the rest, sickened to the core. But even my own mastodon was relieved to turn around. She had not wanted to follow that scent into falling darkness, not even with all the rest of her herd. Still I rode up beside Marcus again.
            “I was ready to fight,” I said. “I felt no dread. The blade you gave has woken for me.”
            He scowled again. “Of course it did. You are omnifex.” He shook his head. “But you are no swordsman.”

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Page a Day: Forty-One

            If we trod then on the tracks of Ursus, I did not know it–though Marcus sent our own pairs of scouts fore and aft of the column. I was more concerned that when we entered the ravine, we passed out of sunlight into chilling shadow. The cold took my breath away. The Never-born behind me swore. I did not know the word, but I certainly shared the tone.
            And then the dagger warmed within my hand. I looked down and saw that it had molded itself to fit my grip. Because I had no sheathe for it, I had been carrying it all this time without truly knowing it. Profusionist metal, for all its potential density, weighs almost nothing unless commanded to. But now the handle, yes, warmed, and there came a vibration along its length. The blade had woken to my consciousness, and adapted its affinity to me. Now, if I remembered my Temple teaching correctly, so long as I was conscious and did not release it, the blade would only work for me. It would be as lifeless in the hands of any other as it once had been in my own. Yet now that it was loyal to me, I could strike into the chest of the nearest Never-born if I so chose, and none of his steel would stop me.
            In the late afternoon, we found the first blood. It was little more than a smear and drag among some rocks, but the mastodons shied regardless at the scent. It occurred to me, then, that though smilodons were not large enough to hunt mastodons, Ursus might be. My mastodon tossed her trunks and trumpeted. I quickened to quiet her, but two others soon did the same. But then with an iron will Marcus quieted the herd, and we moved on. As we passed the place of blood, I saw that the drag only went a few paces and ended abruptly. There was no carcass, so that whichever of the Never-born had died there had been picked up in his hunter’s mouth. 

            We passed two other places where there was blood, and then a mound of snow and rock that no mastodon would near. Marcus cursed and again quieted the herd, and we moved on. As darkness fell, we passed five other such mounds, and I realized that Ursus made a larder. The cold kept all, and there were no other beasts to spoil it. Soon the trail of the Never-born climbed back out of the canyon. They had finally realized they were lost. They crossed a broad snowfield, and in the open there were no more kills. We crossed it as quickly as we dared, knowing that such expanses often cover glaciers, with their great cracks that swallow men and beast alike. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Page a Day: Forty

            Yet when I went to mount my beast I found that though I wanted to believe Jerem Cozak, Marcus was undoubtedly correct about my martial aptitude. For if I hadn’t felt my mastodon’s joy to be reunited with me,  I would not have even known my own squad while it stood amongst the others, though we were only four squads of eight men each. All looked the same to me. 
            I mounted, and Marcus called out again, and we trotted away. The mastodons protested leaving the larger herd, but soon calmed to be returned to their close kin. For these, of course, were the first group we had encountered, minus the matriarch who now led our army. Just as we approached a small descent, I turned and saw Julius, rising to hear the reports of another pair of messengers as though he had not just fallen to exhaustion.  
            I wondered how long it would be until each of us was spent. Cutting grass and foraging, I had healed in the valley of the mastodons. I had realized that weeks on the march had hardened my muscles and toughened my resolve. Seeing my reflection in the lake, I did not yet look like the Never-born, but I no longer resembled a merchant. And I had thought that with the help of the White Swarm, I now could physically do anything. Then, climbing out of the valley, Jerem Cozak had doubled and then tripled our pace, and all my will had broken. Once again, I went forward like one of the dead.   
            Now we rode as quickly as we dared. In the wake of the column, the snow had begun filling in behind the ridge again. Though its depth did not bother the mastodons, such powder could conceal ice and cause any beast to fall. It occurred to me, for the first time, that perhaps another route may have been available. Did Jerem Cozak argue with Marcus about these things, too? Or the scouts? Training with the Never-born, I was seldom by his side. But for now I could leave such thoughts behind, and lose myself in the senses of the herd, following the beast before me, heart and body full of the task of going ahead. 

            I lost track of intervening time. But it was mid-morning when we left, and mid-day when we neared  the base of the ridge and turned abruptly left, down a small ravine which must have, in the strange light of early dawn, seemed like an already broken path to weary Never-born.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Page a Day: Thirty-Nine

            I knew then that he held out to me a blade of the Profusion, that kind of weapon that will not be forged in this universe again. Machines within the blade animated it so that it sang with vibrations. To it, our thickest steel would only be as paper. The only substance it could not easily cut through was Profusionist metal like itself – and that, of course, it could do if skillfully forced.
            “You honor me too much,” I said. “We have no other.”
            Marcus shook his head. “He gives it to you. But I watch you skirmish. Stay out of any fighting.”
            I promised that I would. He was correct about the combat. For it is not enough that we must suffer running up mountains for half of every day. In the hours after dark, and in the hours before dawn, and in all those times when the column stops for any reason, we drill, we wrestle and we skirmish.
            And in the night, standing on glaciers, on snowfields, on wind-swept plateaus, I fumble with my sword. And the Never-born cut me in the arms and legs and neck, though we wrap the blades to protect us from this outcome. I fall out of line and out of formation. I often fall outright. Thirteen times I have been flanked by only one opponent, as I turn too slowly while my sword is drawn. This fact, Marcus has said, will mean my death, if I do not do something dumber first.  
            “I know,” I said, taking the blade, “that I get no better.” It weighed awkward and lifeless in my hand.
            “False. But whoever wants is going to kill you.”
            “You argued about me,” I said. “Back there, you fought about Julius, but I have been the cause of your dispute. You don’t believe I’ll ever become what he wants me to be.”
            He turned and spat in the snow. “Don’t lose the knife,” he said. “Get in your armor.”

            Turning away, he called out more commands, and I hastened to don my steel. Practiced daily, this at least I could finally do without assistance, as the city guard’s armor had been designed.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Page a Day: Thirty-Eight

            He tilted his head back, looking up into the sky. I gazed along with him, and caught the glimmer of some few stars, even at the height of day. “I taught small children,” he said. “I oversaw a laboratory. I worked in a hospital. People paid to talk to me, which I remember but do not understand. I performed in front of crowds. I was every kind of army officer. I cooked for a great house. These things are not distinct.”
            I nodded, thinking of my earliest memories. “And if I ask you tomorrow?”
            “Perhaps I will have been a nurse as well.”
            “Yet you remember each of these things.”
            He shook his head, once. “Not all of each of them, and not each of all of them. Tomorrow, I might forget the children.”
            This seemed to me unlikely. But I remembered, then, what Jerem Cozak had said of centers of consciousness and memory. “Yet no one else will have been all of them,” I said, “except perhaps for Marcus.”
            Julius scowled. “Marcus is different,” he said. “He—”
            “Del Tanich,” said a gruff voice behind me. “Take this blade.”
            I turned to see that Marcus had finished gathering the mastodons and equipping the squads, who sheathed extra swords but dropped provisions. Yet there was no guarantee that we would not become lost ourselves. The falling snow still shortened our horizon to a dozen human strides. But Marcus stood still, having stopped Julius in mid-reply. He held out to me a dagger whose likeness I had never seen before.
            The blade, curved as the long teeth of a smilodon, shone gold in the midday sun and would match my palm in length. The handle was white and molded and looked as though it might be soft.

            “From our ally,” he said. “She carried it from Earth.”