Thursday, May 22, 2014

Behold the Jade City: Chapter Twenty One

Chapter Twenty One
            The River Kasora begins in a snowfield hanging far above the jade city from whence it draws its name. If you’ve climbed the Road to the Sun to reach it, the snowfield marks a significant event. It’s the first time that the mountains have given up their otherwise relentless attempt to try and kill you. The pass opens unto a broad and gentle field blanketed by snow eternally trickling down from both the mountains and the sky. The field starts out nearly as flat as the bottom of the caldera and forms a stretched-out horseshoe more than three kilometers broad and just about as thick at its middle. It becomes the very top rim of the valley below. Then it starts to drop. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the land tilts both down and toward its own center. It bows to a gravity it alone can feel.

            The curve of the snowfield steepens as it descends, looking more and more like some mad confectioner’s funnel. Here and there plumes of steam poke holes in the blanket. The steam is caused by water bubbling up from the heart of the Spine of the World. The springs form a network of tiny braiding streams. The courses meet each other, first as little more than seeps, then as rivulets that flick around the rocks and pebbles the heated waters have themselves exposed. While the brooks follow the snowfield down, they come together, tumbling ever faster.

            By the time you hear, in the distance, a sound that is somewhere between a moan and a roar, the streams have formed a creek. It runs through a channel down the center of the snowfield, now in an undeniable descent. The creek grows. By the time it forms its first waterfall, it’s too broad to jump across. By the time the slope overall has steepened enough to imperil anyone’s footing, the creek has perhaps hit an underground lake and become something that might arguably be called a river.

            The moan, you understand, is growing louder now because you are nearing the end of the protected area, and because it is the wind. The snowfield starts to drop away, fast. The river churns white, a constant torrent. You could not throw a stone across it. A vast something impends. The roar you’ve heard is water falling. The slope becomes such that no sane man would stand upon it.     

            The immanence, you find, is overwhelming absence. Someone’s torn a hole in terra firma. End of the line. Because suddenly, even though it’s been building all along, the world drops away over a precipice more than four thousand meters down. Below, an emerald valley cradles the cerulean resurrection of the river and an entire city the color of jade, seen through the tattered mists of the water being blown apart beneath your feet. The city Kasora, once home to more than a million souls, sits above cliffs on the river’s right-hand side, a long finger of jade Profusionist metal. Across the river, a broad and gentle slope that could be the calmer child of the snowfield. The valley, tearing away into the west, is almost too beautiful to be believed. 

            Or it should have been. The emerald meadow, viewed through oculars, was streaked black with the mud of what were clearly trenches, the first bend of the river was pocked by artillery impacts, and the pristine river beyond a certain point had turned the colors of shit and blood. The crossing had been contested. Seen through my oculars, tiny golden orbs arched from just across the river toward the city’s north end, and its only crumbling gate. The army of Jerem Cozak, working the last part of what looked like a brutal siege.

            “Nogilian,” I said. He grunted. “Nogilian!”

            “I know,” he said. 

            I put the oculars down. “They aren’t going to make it.”

            The city was packed. I had no idea where they all had come from. Not a million Augers, to be sure. But more than fifty thousand, definitely. They were everywhere: rooftops, alleys, plazas, and I hated to think of how many spearmen might be waiting inside the windows of those buildings. Worse, in the heart of the city squatted a citaI atop its own walls and surrounded by open courtyards. In military parlance, we call them killing fields. One did not have to wonder how the Historians of this world had kept their High Temple intact.

            “Seriously, Nogilian. They’re gonna die.”

            Our friends were modestly outnumbered. That does not go the way of the attackers. There’s just too much going against you. The avenue for success in that endeavor is a ratio of ten to one supporting. And yet Jerem Cozak would not retreat. Never. Even if he did know.

            “There is no descent, our Guardian. We have looked.” 

            We had. That was why we had not just turned around in the caldera and gone to await our deaths upon the Shuni stair. I had thought that perhaps whatever had opened up the pass would have also trailed on down into the valley, that we could ride in as saviors upon a gentle road.

            No such luck. That pass marked the end of the cut, not its beginning. The highlight of the last watch or so had been Nogilian asking me questions about the ship that I refused to answer, and me damn near losing control of my valkyrie on the snowy slope. We both had had to dismount long before approaching the scenic edge.

            I thought about the Niskivim. A mistake realized long ago, that their war against the khrall had damned near wiped out a galaxy of innocents. What would you do to rectify that kind of oversight? What could you do?

            Let oceans swallow you, as Jerem Cozak had said. The sentiment felt ever more appropriate. 

            “Our Guardian,” said Nogilian. “We should return. We’ll see no victory here.”

            Hardly a stranger to defeat. Lying asleep in a swamp for a decade, the boots of his enemies marching over him. He was aware of our own thousands awaiting our return. He was worried about them. I had not explained what we or they were doing.   

            It should all work together, I had told him across the campfire. This world was made to work as one. 

            You must go down, Suriel had said.

            “Our men are terrified,” Nogilian said again. “They don’t know what happened with the ship.” He meant that he didn’t either. I’d ordered them to stay put in the caldera, shimmering golden lights and all.

            What would you do? I wondered again. What could you possibly give them to atone?

            “Old friend of mine,” I said. “Enemy of our enemy. The ship doesn’t like the nightwind.”

            I watched Jerem Cozak’s assault, mind following two tracks at once.

            Suppose you had without realizing nearly destroyed a civilization. Suppose that same civilization was collapsing around a simple problem: you could talk faster than light, but never travel that way.

            The gate was collapsing. Jerem Cozak was minutes from breaking through. Then he would charge into the trap that was going to kill him.

            Was there a Healing Well in Kasora? I had asked Nogilian. Did it go shut about the same time?

            I turned and started walking back toward my valkyrie. 

            What would you gift the ones you so nearly extinguished? Would you maybe give them a bit of super-intelligent technology? Something to help them crawl back from the dark years down the road?

            I started trotting up the snowfield.

            These Arks, anything else go quiet about that time? I had asked. Jerem Cozak had always spoken, from the very first, as though he would finish in Kasora. 

            Let oceans swallow you, he’d once said to me.


            You must go down.  

            I broke into a run. Nogilian followed.

            “Cassan Vala,” he said as we reached our machines. “You have decided something.”

            I shook my head. “Boom, Nogilian,” I said. “Boom.”

            I could hear him thinking as we mounted. I did not wait for his reply. We started together toward the men. I pressed my valkyrie as fast as it would go. We tore through the pass and swooped down into the caldera and the fault, the fields of our machines swishing a skim of snow aside.

            “Our Guardian,” was all Nogilian said as we slowed, in a tone which meant he understood. The ranks of my army parted to let us pass. It occurred to me that the streamers of golden light stood exactly in the center of the caldera. A natural amphitheatre. There I stopped.

            Twenty five thousand men and women awaited my command. I drew up in their midst. I wept for what I was about to say. I dismounted. I didn’t wipe my face. I paused a moment, to breathe and to sure I had absolutely everyone’s attention. Nogilian stood at my right hand.  Silently, Ash drew up by my left.

            “My dead,” I shouted, and heard the Swarm augment my voice. “My army of the dead! I’m about to make you dead in truth. On the other side of that pass waits the jewel city Kasora. It is besieged by Jerem Cozak, our ally, who would give his life to free this world. Right now, he’s breaking the main gate. And then he’s going to die. He and all his men will die unless we do something. 

            The romances indicate that I should give you a choice. But we’re here because we know that real decisions don’t feel like choices at all. Not the ones that matter! Below, fifty thousand men are about to charge a fortress manned by Augers which considerably outnumber them. There’s only one outcome to that equation – unless we add ourselves. It’s a fair exchange. More than fair. We can hand that city to him on a platter! I tell you there won’t be one damned building left intact.

            When you clear the pass you’ll hit a snowfield. Fall out by company. Follow me north along the right-hand side. It will steepen. Accelerate. Maintain control as long as possible. When you feel your valkyrie going, or when you see me going – turn into the slide. Clear the edge of the slope and you’ll see the city we’re destroying. It will be beneath you. The goal is to get as far out from the edge of the cliff as you can. Then let go. Your valkyrie should hit Kasora moments before you do. The more of them that hit at once, the better.

            I hope you like explosions, because the world will never see anything like this again. These are my last commands.”

            I turned and got on my valkyrie. There was no applause. No rousing cheer. No fanfare led us through the rocky gates. No one threw flowers beneath the fields of my machine. But my dead parted again to let me pass, and I could feel them falling in again behind me, every last one. Ash rode on my one side, Nogilian silently upon the other. Ash would love the heroism. But I wondered if Nogilian would feel relieved. Whatever burden he’d carried across these continents, he could finally put it down here. He could put it all down.

            But I could not stop thinking as we rode through the pass. Ash coughed beside me.

            You must go down, Suriel had said.  

             What would you do, what would you sacrifice, to atone for almost genocide? What gift would make that up? Something to help them along the way?

            Then let go, I had told my men.

            We hit the snowfield. Falling out by company meant a column fifty wide, in loose formation. We’d cover about half the slope. The whole upper half. Ash and Nogilian rode in unison beside me. The world turned beautiful, as it had not done for me since Academy.

            Let oceans swallow you, Jerem Cozak had said. You must go down, spake Suriel.

            Did Kasora have a Healing Well? I had asked Nogilian. Did other machines close about this time?   
            I sped up. The snow blurred beneath my feet. It was blinding white in the noonday sun. My heart ached with the clear grandeur of it. The northern limb of the snowfield was about a kilometer long, just about enough. Nogilian’s white armor shone.

            Everything should work together, I’d told him. This world was made to work as one. Like the machines –

            You must go down. Let oceans swallow you.

            Let go, I’d told my men.

            I accelerated more. The armor did not shield me from the roaring of the wind as I flew forward. The streams blurred away beneath me and my machine. Now, behind me, my army of the dead began to yell, to scream, a primal triumph sound. Ash laughed beside me. Joy suffused my being.

            My allies, I’d said. The enemy of my enemy. They don’t like nightwind.

            You must go down. Let oceans swallow you.

            This world was made to work together. Like the machines –

            My field’s hold slipped a bit. The valkyrie’s nose slid south. I slewed into the turn. The southern peaks across the valley surged forward. The line of the mountains could have been crystal, serrated and glinting in the sun. I wept gladly for every moment of my life. I was never going to reach those peaks. The immanence neared, sucked in.

            What would you give them? 

            Did Kasora have a Healing Well?

            Let go, I’d said to them.  

            These Arks, did other things close about this time?

            My valkyrie shot over the rim of the cliffs above Kasora. Cleared it by a good ten paces. I released my legs, kicked myself forward, spread my arms. For all the difference it would make. My valkyrie fell away into the abyss. Then, so did I.

            Let oceans swallow you.

            What would you give?

            Made to work as one!

            You must go down.

            These Arks, let go.  

            Like the machines beneath—

            Oh. Oho.

            I sent a series of images to Jerem Cozak. It was how the White Swarm communicated, after all. I had no doubt they’d survive the fall, at least. I could feel them thickening around me, clinging, trying to slow my plummet.

            It wasn’t going to work. It’s okay, I told them. Today, I’ve done enough.

            A line of valkyries joined mine, more and more tumbling over the cliff’s sheer edge, flipping end over end over end. Some riders threw themselves clear, spreading out beside me. Most did not. Panicked, I supposed, in the end. The wind blew us south as we fell. Was there, amidst the Swarm, also a golden form beneath, with arms like wings spread wide, to try to save us still?

            Let go, I’d told my dead. I finally understand. It’s okay. It’s going to be okay.

            The valley, I decided, was delightful after all. Streaked, smeared, fractured, earth torn black by the wars of men, each detail an anguish mirroring our own. Yet the remaining grass was emerald, the river cerulean to match the sky, the jewel city still jade before our valkyries hit.

            Let go, I’d said. It’s okay. You can lay it all down.

            Astounding detail. The river rushing up, dapples glinting golden in the sun. The city walls upon  tiny cliffs clawing up toward me. The first few blasts blooming up like orange and red and yellow flowers beneath my feet. Jerem Cozak would understand. The wind blew me southward, toward the river.

             Let go. I understand.

            The explosions built into a wall of flame roaring up if I looked back, an inferno barreling through the northern part of town. Forward, pebbles in the river grew to rocks then boulders to crash into. Everything got bigger. I’d hit just before the ford. The men marching like ants toward the city, then like silver toys toward their doom.

            But they were free. I’d set everyone free. Nogilian was free, falling somewhere beside me. He could finally put it down. We could all put it down.

            Let – 

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