Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Behold the Jade City: Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Seventeen
On the eightieth day,
            at noon, we left the fortresses of Nesechia behind, setting out to sea again. The weather was high and fine, and from the bay I saw the beauty of the land unmarred by threat of death. Yellow sun fell first on the smooth gray granite of the mountains overhead, then on the bands and swaths of amber Nogilian grasses, then on trees pricking the sides of the peninsulas with their orange and red and golden leaves as they swept down from the heights, lower still on the palms and fern fronds lapping at the water’s edge and at last upon the azure bay itself, a mirror of the sky. 

            I stood on the deck of the ship commanded by Jerem Cozak and wept. We were waiting for the rest of all our forces to load, some one hundred and twenty thousand men. I stood with a bundle of two dozen lightspears at my feet and the gaping shock of grief engraved upon my heart. After Julius’s death, the first fortress had fallen quickly, and turned out to be connected to the higher city by a staircase we soon commanded.

            Marcus took sole command of the entirety of the Neverborn, and claimed that citadel almost independently. In any other man I would have suspected revenge. With Marcus, I knew it solely for maximally effective execution. He went because our army was still reorganizing, not expected to attack, and still a distraction by virtue of its movements.

            By midnight of the first day of our occupation of Nesechia, three of its one hundred citadels were ours, their armories emptied to the last speck of sentient dust. We took our breakfast on the march. With the rest of the Neverborn, Marcus oversaw the realignment of our army into forces of twenty thousand men tasked with overtaking citadels. Each received an equal complement of artillery and mastodons for support.

            I remained, of course, with the matriarch and Jerem Cozak, and so saw four more citadels besieged before we engaged our own, far to the south, just before dusk on the second day. The bombardment woke me up.

            Of the following days, I remember very little. Of great Profusionist walls slumping, the stench of burning metal, the bone-shaking cold when a wind came up after the rain. A bitter taste in my mouth, again and again, and again. The relentless crunch of the armored boots of thousands of men upon the march. An afternoon so hot and humid I fell from my mastodon, dizzy and exhausted. Jerem Cozak brought me water, and for the next battle I was better. A night so clear and calm I imagined I could hear the radiation of the stars crackling overhead. The sea of dread with its rising and falling tides. The foggy morning when we charged an Auger army caught in the open grass. Once, we broke a citadel at the foot of a glacier, wind shrieking against our armor. Another time, the ocean surf broke against the legs of the mastodons as we protected the artillery. The clear clean smell of that, washing away the sweat and blood, always the stench of blood.

            Then even the mastodons became too injured to go on, and we spearmen marched behind the Neverborn, Jerem Cozak commanding. I do not know how many lightspears I exhausted. Always there were more waiting in the armories, or cradled by the dead. Men fell behind me, beside me. Marcus was shot through the arm, and for the rest of the campaign wielded his sword one-handed. His skill was such and the chameleon of the Swarm so effective that it did not matter. Our injuries were to massed and random fire. Most of our five divisions took five or six fortresses a day. No one stopped to sleep, only to eat and re-equip. I was never hurt, though thrice I was blinded by artillery strikes that landed too close.

            And by the end I did not, as I had hoped, remember less of the Auger who spitted me in Wesing. The victories did not count that way. Instead, I remembered more: the hard line of his mouth through the open crack of his helmet, the set of his shoulders as he came. Each time I remembered it I turned slower, and the strike became more inevitable. Sometimes, I remembered he was Julius, others that he was Marcus or Jerem Cozak. When the wall of the last citadel fell, I did not even march inside. Instead I sat upon the broken ground and shook, my legs rattling the gravel there. If other men said things to me in passing, I surely did not hear them. After that, the White Swarm put everyone to sleep.

            When we woke it was dawn again, and I struggled to my feet. The mastodons had come up to us in the night, and I joined the others in walking them down to the shore, where our fleet of greatships waited. Jerem Cozak must have commanded them to come. My division was first to board, and I slept again on the deck, for I had gained that ability of soldiers to sleep under any condition.  

            When I woke the sun was very high and the day was very fine and I stood and wept. I do not know entirely why I wept: because of Julius, surely, but also because of the Auger who speared me with his blade and because I was not a mastodon and because my legs shivered the stones on the ground outside the last city we had taken. I did not cover my face or even wipe away the tears and when I was done not a thing had changed, except that now this ship and all the ships were moving, headed out to sea.

            I watched Nesechia crawl alongside the ships and finally scuttle over the edge of the horizon sometime just before the dusk. When darkness fell I saw that someone had again made a bonfire upon the deck. I approached Jerem Cozak not knowing what I would say. So for a while I said nothing, but only sat and watched him pass his hands through the flames time and time again. Whenever he did, small streams of white dust fell away from his hands.

            “You’re teaching them,” I said at last, “though I know not what.”

            He nodded, passing his hands between the flame again. “When we climbed into the mountains outside of Ariel, we passed above the nightwind because we climbed into the cold. It is hard to inure fine machinery against extremes of temperature. The White Swarm learned quickly because the Neverborn carried machines created just for that purpose.”

            I blinked. “Soldiers,” I said. “The Profusion would have spanned worlds colder than this one.”

            “Just so,” he said. “But none ever walked worlds engulfed by flame. Many machines are vulnerable to that. On Earth, Cassan Vala destroyed the nightwind by placing captured relics in pits of fire, which lured the machines to their own demise. She cleared whole areas in this fashion.”

            “Ingenious,” I replied. “I wish we would have thought of that.” 

            Jerem Cozak shrugged. “There would have been no time. The Augers advanced too quickly here. But Earth had warning.”

            I waited. He did not elaborate. “Will we be?” I asked. “Engulfed in flame?”

            He smiled. “We will be taking the strongest citadel in the world, the greatest city-fortress Thaeron has ever known. And at any time, I would rather be resistant to fire than not.”

            I had to laugh at that. “Just so,” I said. “Perhaps we will not have succeeded in any other way.”

            His eyes found mine in the darkness. “Now you begin to understand.”  We watched the flames for a while. He passed the Swarm through the flames again. If there were fewer casualties falling from his hand, I could not quite see it.

            “I no longer feel as I once did,” I said at last. “Ever since we took the Profuse Hand whenever we rode into battle the world turned beautiful and we ride or march as one. But now in Nesechia we have fought together more than ever, and I only feel the other way. There is a great weight inside my chest that threatens to tear it open. I feel it more and more, though the danger is behind me. But I should not, because it is the feeling that men call dread, which only fears the future.”

            Jerem Cozak nodded. “The ones who come are dread themselves, and they are nearly here. We will always be in danger until they and all their kind are gone.”

            “But who?” I said. “Who are these creatures? What do they want? Are they pets of the Augers or what?”

            He smiled and pulled a brand from the fire. The end smoked, but had not yet caught. “This is Being,” he said. “Everything that is has this property. Being claims space and time for itself. Rocks, plants, and objects each have this property. Beneath it there is nothing.”

            He waved the branch. “This is Doing, or Motion. Everything which moves has this property. Acting causes and effects. Wind, water and energies all have this property. Without it nothing happens.”

            He held the branch still. “This once was Living. It grew in complexity, harmony and size and would have been fruitful had I not had men destroy it. Plants, animals and many other things have this property. Without life, there is no abundance.”

             He put the tip of the branch in flame. “This is Melding, also called Using. All humans have this capacity, to take something and employ it with other Beings or through Motion. Cooking, building, and manufacturing all exemplify this ability. Without it there is no society, no Profusion, no discovery.

            He dropped the limb and sat back. “Changing I cannot show you, for humans cannot do it. If that branch were to rust, or hang suspended without cause, or to begin to speak or behave in any way contrary even to its Being, then that would be a Changing.

            There are Changelings in this universe. There are those who break the bounds of being and of motion and of life. They are creatures of light and they are creatures of darkness. The ones who Change in darkness are near, and the ones who Change in light are nearly spent. The ones who come bear dread and every other evil that would unmake us. You know their name, though you dare not speak it.

            But we hope, for there is ability even those who Change do not have. There are those who Make, and they will not have their works undone, for they Make the universe and it is theirs. They are far from here and hidden. Men would say that they are very shy. But their tools and their powers are in play until all is accomplished. Those who oppose them have already been Undone. That is another name for them. They simply do not know it yet.”

            I drew back. “What of us, then? If their future has already been determined, what about ours?

            He smiled. “What if I told you that it is not we who must be free, but time itself? That in their victory not only are our futures free, but our nows and pasts as well? I tell you we will know far greater freedom than we can possibly imagine. But we will never rule the universe. Instead we will decide how much we are willing to give to it.”

            I considered that. I closed my eyes. “And you would sacrifice everything.”

            I heard him swallow beside me. “I tell you I will, because it has already been decided. But I do not always wish it. Stay with me tonight, and speak no more to me.”

            I was so surprised I said nothing; he need not have cautioned me of that. Instead I sat beside him and stared into the flames. As he passed his hands among them, he hummed a tune I did not know. A soldier brought blankets to wrap around our shoulders and left, all without saying a word. My eyelids grew heavy, and thrice I fell asleep. Once, in the hours just before the dawn, I could have sworn I heard him weeping. He debated heatedly with someone I could neither see nor hear, and I wondered if he spoke to the Swarm. I shivered and drew the blanket closer, falling into a strange sort of trance. He added more branches to the fire, as I knew he had been doing all night.

            At last he turned to me. It was gray in the east, and boots thudded behind on the deck behind us.

            “Go and be with your mastodon,” he said. “You will heal each other’s minds.”  

            Still I said nothing, but only stood and stretched and searched blearily for a hatch the led below the deck. I found one, and closed it behind me on a night I felt very strange. My mastodon was waiting, nearly healed already from its injuries, and not mindful of how it had received them, for as always I had stood between its mind and the fury of our opponents. Sometimes, I remembered that I was the mastodon whose head the Auger climbed and charged across. I asked the Swarm for dreamless sleep, and I received it. When I woke, I ate and wrote and slept again.

            I realize I have not written much of those days which all soldiers must have, even we in our rushed campaign: times when there is nothing to do but wait, as these in leaving Nogilia, or those in getting to it, or the anchorage at Sepira or the long loading at the port city Wesing. Usually, I have been injured. Often, I have filled the time with simple occupation, such as training or writing in this journal or simply working on the bond with my mastodon. Always, I have been separated from Jerem Cozak, who is never idle, but who sends me away when his tasks are either secret or merit no historical attention – though he never tells me which.

            Now I am filled with the weight of the dread occasioned by the coming battle. That is my preoccupation. Sharing with the mastodon only helped me bear it, as Jerem Cozak must have meant. But the dread increased when Marcus came to urge me to come up on the deck again.

            “There is a thing I would have you explain to me,” he said.

            The clouds were glowing orange and red and purple over the western horizon when we climbed through the hatch, and I thought for one absurd moment that the Neverborn did not understand a sunset. But then he gestured to the south, where dark shapes reared up, jagged edges and cutting peaks climbing higher and higher through the clouds until they overwhelmed all expectation.

            “The Spine of the World,” I said, “the highest mountains Thaeron has.” I shrugged. “I have always wanted to see them. There is, or was, great debate in the Temple as to their origin.”

            His eyes widened. “Not Earth nor any other world had mountains such as these. These must be twice as high. How are they traversed?”

            I shrugged, wondering if he had become more like Julius now. “They are not, or at least they are no longer. In the wars between the cities, Kasora once had great advantage because of it Arks, which could fly even over these. Now everyone travels Ostara by ship, just as we are.”

            He frowned. “These Arks,” he said. “What are they?”

            I shrugged. “Few living have seen them. Since they closed, they are sealed away in the vaults beneath Kasora, tended only by the highest-ranking Historians. But they are said to be golden spheres as high as a man standing, and that they went wherever their riders wished, and unleashed great energies.”   

            “They are closed, you say?”

            I nodded. “Sealed, and inert. It is said they stopped responding sometime before the army of the first Faith marched on Kasora to end the wars between the cities. There is no record of him fighting them, as there surely would be if he had.”

            “Hope they stay that way,” he said, and turned to face amidships, where two squads skirmished.     

            When he began yelling to them, I knew I was dismissed. I walked to the bow and watched until the mountains formed the sides of a canyon through which we passed, and I feared their weight and the depths of the night would swallow us between them. I could not see the top of the cliffs, which seemed to nearly meet overhead. Never have I felt so small as I did them. I shivered and went below and wrote in these journals, and ate and slept again. I no longer practiced with my lightspear.

            I woke to the bawling of mastodons and the tramp of boots throughout the hold.

            “We’re here,” a squad-captain told me in passing, and I picked up my helmet and slung my bundle of lightspears across my mastodon’s back. She, of course, was alert and eager to leave the ship. I chided her for letting me sleep later than I had wished. I rode her toward the bow, and waited for the ramp to drop. The other mastodons parted to give us room, so much respect was my beast accorded.

            When our great slab  of metal fell away, I saw only a white wall of mist in its place. When we trod the whole way down the ramp, the ground was covered with smooth stones at the river’s edge; the water smelled both warm and fresh. All around me were the great humped forms of other mastodons.

            “Even the Swarm could not have hidden our greatships alone,” said a voice ahead of me, and I rode until I saw that it was Jerem Cozak, turning toward me as he spoke. “So they have conjured this mist by heating the water. Come with me, Del Tanich of Ariel. It is time we made good your promise.”

            I thought I knew what promise he meant, but he need not have invited me. I would have followed regardless, and my mastodon would certainly have trailed the matriarch. We left the others unloading behind and rode along in silence, climbing away from the river. The ground became soft and moist, the grass like moss between our toes. A dense, loamy forest grew nearby, though I could see nothing further than Jerem Cozak in the thickness of the mist. I shivered, despite the warmth. We rode like that for most of a watch, past boulders and shrubs and copses of woods, until the hill leveled out just as it climbed above the mist and our forms and our mastodons chameleoned to match. 

            “Behold the Jade City,” said Jerem Cozak, pointing to the east. And I did.

            But it was not what I saw first. The River Kasora begins not from some seep in a swamp, or even from its lake’s overflow, but from hot springs beneath a glacier hanging high overhead, in a pass of the Spine of the World. It falls down into the Kasora valley from what must be two thousand paces, though the distance has not been measured. The sheer drop suffices to turn the torrent almost entirely into rain and mist, hundreds of meters wide, which the mountain winds drive this direction and that, so that there are rainbows whenever there is sun. The eastern wall of the valley is sheer; so is the north and the south, thus the jewel city Kasora sits in an oblong bowl of beauty surrounding a lake the color of which only glaciers make. Only the south, the side of the valley we stood upon, is gently tapered beneath its cliffs, a smooth slope thousands of paces long and deep, covered only with plush deep moss and emerald grass kept short by grazing – and now, in the winter, a thin scattered skiff of snow and ice.

            The northern side of the vale, the one across the river, does not rise so gently. Instead it shoots upwards in cliffs a hundred paces high which run nearly the whole length of the valley, thousand upon thousands of paces long, buttresses of granite upon which stand the jade walls of Kasora, the jewel city of the south. Every inch of it is the soft green hue of jade, even the towers which spike the wall and the spires and domes and arches of the temples and other buildings within, though clouds of nightwind obscured them here and there. One million people had once lived within those walls, and I saw that, whatever had happened here, the Augers had not needed much force to take it. The buildings were not true jade, but Profusionist metal, still, and not replaced by nightwind. 

            We would need force. The sole access to the plateau and the city that covered it was one great gate in the western wall, and a ramp that led up to it, fifty paces wide and sloped to allow valkyries to pass within. The walls and towers were thick enough to withstand days of bombardment by artillery, and then there would be the narrow passage at the gate. At the last, its defenders need hold nothing else.

            “We no longer have one hundred days,” I said.

            He shook his head. “No. The fleet has just entered this system, but everything has changed.”

            “How long, then?” I asked. “How much time do we have?”

            “A few days, no more – and of course minutes when the moment comes. But do you know the strength of Kasora,” he asked, “now that its Arks are closed?”

            I nodded. “Its towers are not ordinary towers, but are like those once held by the floating citadels of Redmarak, destroyed by the Augers during the fall of the world. They unleash vast energies.”

            “Three million perished to bring those cities down.”

            I shook my head. “But we do not have even one tenth of that. How, then? How will we possibly do this?”

            He smiled wryly. “Well,” he said, “much depends upon our not being seen.”

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