Sparse grasses studded the white sand dunes of southwestern Sepira, those soft hills curled like mastodons against the wind. And mastodons indeed there were, more than I had ever seen, herded by the thousands. Some were organized into columns and separated here and there by lines of men in silver Profusionist armor, encouraging them along. There too, the machines of the white swarm were spread along above the ground, a haze thicker than the sand and rising even to the knees of the great beasts. And far to the east, at the limit of what even the oculars could see, more mastodons plodded up the ramps of a further dozen Profusionist greatships.
But whoever rode the skiff, when I finally found it, his face was still too indistinct to see, and I put the oculars down.
“It seems like forever,” I said, “since I first awoke and thought that I was laying in a sarcophagus with a bunch of white Sepiran sand. Congratulations on a victory. It is a triumph that we are here.”
He started, turning – and frowned. “I win nothing until everything is finished. But you will behold the Jade City, just as you once promised me. I have not forgotten that. But you have recovered yourself. I would never have had you injured. Too many were, and not all of them have healed.”
I shifted the oculars in my hand, asking, “Are we even human anymore? No one survives the wound I got.”
He smiled, facing the shore. “You include others in questions you ask about yourself. Do you fear death?”
I shivered, thinking of my beloved and the enemy coming at me along the head of the mastodon. “Julius said you would show us the meaning of war. I believe that is it: that we are always terrified. That there is no blade that cannot reach us, that our friends cannot always help us, that at any moment we may fail or die outright.”
He nodded. “They say that one’s life becomes clear only when it is ended. But I tell you that life is its own ending, and it is we ourselves who are clear or unclear.”