We whooped them good, in the end, out there on the snow-spattered plateau. The five Auger legions were heeling and toeing it toward the southeastern horizon, so intent on their goal that they could not see the danger bearing down upon them. They put out no scouts and established no rearguard. They did not expect us, so they never saw us coming.
As I said, a delight in their own potency. I will go to my grave wondering how the most significant technological find of the new Auger age did not rate, from their point of view, five thousand riding machines, while a battle to keep a city they had held for the last ten years devoured every available resource. Was Jerem Cozak so piquant? Did the jewel city Kasora contain treasures unimagined, but also unemployed? Or did they simply believe they had time enough to accomplish all these things? If the Augers had sent valkyries, they would have climbed the Road to the Sun while I was still napping on the beach.
Instead they died midmorning upon an empty, wind-driven plain as flat as any tabletop. They were perhaps a watch’s march from the road’s beginning. The howling of the heavens buried the sound of our advent. The horizontal snow, just thick enough to obscure the distance, concealed our approach. My own scouts had reported five irregular columns, trailing long tails on the march, like ants across improbably white sand. I spread us out in an inverted crescent, ordered the charge from pretty much dead west, broadside. I swear they were still marching when our front line hit. They folded up like paper dolls. It wasn’t until I was mostly through the center column that the ranks tightened up and turned to face us – and then they were miserably equipped. Heatwhips do poorly from the ground against a charging valkyrie.
We left none alive. The formation was intended to scoop up as many of the scattered as was possible. The men carried with them the frustration of the Stair. My mood was little better, for Ki. They’d damned near cut her leg off. I’d had to leave her at the Stair, along with the artillery and five thousand men to keep it.
“In case it matters,” I’d said, charging her with their defense. “Don’t let them do unto us.”
She had nodded, and known it for the gesture that it was. But five hundred pieces of artillery would make our pursuit no faster, and there had been no other logical place to leave them, or her and others while they healed. And after the Augers revealed that they could see through our chameleon, I didn’t want any more surprises.
Hence my maneuver on the eighty-ninth day. We could have, simply, ridden around them. They would not have been likely to catch up. But it’s always poor form to have an enemy on your tail. So except for one or two who actually broke and ran away in the gloom, no doubt to die lost in the frigid waste, we let none surrender or escape. After, we cracked the three relics they’d been carrying. We lost fifty-four valkyries and riders in the battle. That day, we were not nice people.
I thought about it through the afternoon. The Road to the Sun turned out to be more or less exactly what Nogilian said it was. A long ribbon of silver, broad enough for ten valkyries to pass, that began exactly in the middle of nowhere and went all the way to the horizon, bearing not a fleck of snow or ice upon it. I dismounted and put a hand down to confirm: warm to the touch. Profusionist metal, then, acting in a special way.
One wondered. The holy roads of the Shuni pleateau, Nogilian had told me, were altogether strange. Some joined cities. Some went to holy sites like the Cup of Gods. Some both began and ended no place in particular. The Historians of the world had been unable to explain their presence.
We followed this one anyway. We reached the base of the mountains at just about noon. There were evergreen trees among the foothills. We slowed to a speed just faster than a man can run. The road wound upwards, using both switchbacks and natural courses to maintain its preternaturally even ascent. It cut across boulderfields, and I wondered what by what process it kept itself clear of those. It switched sides across several valleys, and simply let the streams flow over it. It climbed always. The day remained calm. The trees diminished.
By dusk we approached an area of cliffs and crevasses as the Road to the Sun edged its way along several glaciers. I looked up at the jagged silhouettes of the Spine of the World, still high overhead, and declared encampment for the night. I hated stopping, but would lose no more men to this endeavor. We cut and burned the valley’s dwarf pines for fuel. Nogilian had said the Cup of the Gods would not be far, a half day’s ride away.
“Correct me if my geography’s wrong,” I told Nogilian. “But we’re not far from Kasora.”
Across the fire, he nodded. “The Cup of Gods sits in a pass on the other side of which is the snowfield that births the cascade above the city. The Shuni believed that the Road to the Sun once connected the jewel city to those of the plateau. But this makes no sense. There is no road on the other side, only precipice.”
I shook my head, chuckling. “You Thaeronians,” I said. “Even when you see it, you don’t see it.”
His eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”
I took a breath. “On Earth, we live in vast cities, the size of mountains, that contain millions of people on each level. There are only seven of them, probably only seven in the whole universe. And the top level is always the head honchos, the prince or dictator or oligarchs or whatever other damned system the city happens to have in power at the time. But on the level just below them is always the district of the military, a city unto itself, complete with facilities for training soldiers and their officers.
And it’s all together, right? You finish up your time with the quicksword, you cross the quad to learn what we call the bolter or lightgun, depending how you use it. Different areas, but it’s all made to work together, specialties cooperating in defensive force. So I look at Thaeron and I see: valkyrie, heatwhip, quicksword, each housed in terrain best suitable for its operation. This cannot be coincidence. Thaeron was a training world for the military of the entire Profusion, and it was made to work as one.”
He scowled. My words were not incidental. If he was who I thought he was, the notion of unity would not be lost on him.
“It may be as you say,” he said. “I do not see what obtains from this.”
I frowned. “Let me ask you another question. These famous Arks of Kasora, these closed during the time you call the Wars Between the Cities. Anything else go quiet about that time?”
He shrugged. “Many weapons and resources were exhausted. In Nogilia, whole cities were destroyed.”
“And in Ariel, the Well that healed the first Faith, that went quiet not long after he had found it, yes? And he was the one who ended the wars.”
He nodded, squinting, clearly puzzled.
“What I mean is, was there once a Healing Well in Kasora as well? One that would have ceased working about that time?”
“The legends say there once was, yes. But what are you driving at, woman?”
I shrugged. “I can’t say, exactly. But your whole damned world runs by machines. Wouldn’t it make sense if many of them worked together, like the machines that came to help us from the deep?”
He shrugged. Right. The basic incuriosity of this world. “It does not matter, Cassan Vala. You sounds like a Historian. Either we will find these ships tomorrow and save this world and Jerem Cozak or we will not. There is no time for anything else.”
He looked at me strangely and stood, then shambled off into the darkness toward his tent.
I kept on staring into the flames. I don’t know exactly when Suriel showed, but then I never do. One moment I sitting there staring at a nice patch of nothing, my eyes beginning to droop, and he was there, between blinks. Exactly where Nogilian had been. With the way the Niskivim thought, that was probably supposed to mean something.
Suriel did not seem entirely himself, though. I could see Nogilian’s tent through his chest, which meant that he was more transparent than normal. And he had lost much luster, not shining as he should have been.
“You must/ go/ down,” he said, bowing forward. Long moments passed.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I replied. “I already did that. It was pretty spectacular. It got us all the way here. Tomorrow, we climb this pass and see what we can see.” Apparently, I was still in something of a mood.
“You must/ go/ down,” he repeated. I tried another round of the waiting game.
“Look,” I said. “I understand if you’re confused about time and causality and all that. Sounds like that might not be all that clear cut for you. But I can tell you: it’s done. We’ve all moved on. Bigger and better things, and I have to say I didn’t exactly appreciate the vagueness of the instruction. You’d think super-intelligence would find a better way.”
He replied with the same damned injunction. Nothing further seemed forthcoming.
“Right, ” I said. “Okay, message clear. I must absolutely go down. I’ll get right on it. Uhm. Is there anything else you’d like to add? Operating instructions, timetables, reports on the disposition of Jerem Cozak? No? Alright, then. I need to grab some shuteye. Big day, tomorrow.”
His eyes found mine over the flames. “We/have been/deceived,” he said. “We will/not come/ in time.”
And disappeared, in the next blink. If I’d wanted to learn more, I clearly wasn’t going to. I stood up, stretched, and laid myself out. Nogilian shook me in the half-light of dawn.
“It’s time,” he said. He’d let me sleep late because there would be no morning meal. No one had any rations left.
“Yeah,” I said. “I suppose so.” I looked up and shivered. Not a cloud in the sky. The temperature had dropped astoundingly overnight. Calm down here in the valley, though you could hear the wind ripping among the peaks and see the tatters of snow whipped aloft. That kind of day, then.
We mounted up and went. The Road zigged and zagged through the land of cliffs, somehow always higher than where its most recent maneuver began. A mad cartographer couldn’t have figured it out. And never a fleck of snow or ice upon it, not even here. What would have been drifts just skipped across it.
I contemplated Kasora. What was happening there? Ninetieth day, and Jerem Cozak knew as well as I that we had less time than that. He would have to be giving them hell right now. Kasora hadn’t sounded like the kind of place that would just roll over. Speaking of which, forget the Augers, why did he want Kasora? Even our initial conference, sketchy as it had been, had left no doubt that he would end up there, whether or not I did.
Why? What was so damned important about that place? The wind we rode up into held no answers. I steadied my valkyrie, and moved on.
The Road turned its last corner just as I realized I was finding it difficult to breathe. Even the White Swarm can only help so much. And we were well above the altitude of many living things, as the rocks and snow and ice around us told. The land of canyons topped out in a horseshoe-shaped snowfield that ringed the top of the watershed. In nicer climes, I could have imagined it filled with flowers. The Road straightened out and crossed it, climbing right for that caldera that the Shuni called the Cup of Gods.
Which wasn’t much to look at, really. Just a depression within a broken-into circle of cliffs that marked the base of the even-higher pair of peaks that came together there.
Well, not a circle, exactly. “Hey, Nogilian,” I said. “I thought –”
“Yes,” came the affirmation beside me. “It is not as it should be. It is not as it was.”
We rode closer. A caldera, Elmy, is the ragged circle torn in the earth by volcanic eruption. It usually tops mountains, though they can form in other places. It may have a gap on the downhill side, as this one did, where lava once flowed out. It should not have a sharper, clearer, tapered cut on the uphill side where there is no water to carve it. Ever.
“Something has happened here,” Nogilian said. “The Guardian Vah Yonise once brought me to this place. The pass could not be reached then. These cliffs have changed.”
I hesitated to voice my thoughts. It seemed too incredible. We crossed the broad snowfield.
“The fire of a Black Orchid’s interstellar drive,” I said as we went, “Cuts straight through rock even from high orbit.”
I glanced over to see Nogilian’s eyes seeking my own. “There were such ships battling around Thaeron,” he said. “Ten years ago, while my world was falling. Some fled in haste.”
A visitation of my previous sins. A drive turned upon the southern continent in panic, thankfully far from any habitation. Screaming away from an engagement foolishly joined, and even more carelessly abandoned.
“No,” I said. “It must have been something else. The Augers had ten years to do this.”
Nogilian frowned. “The caldera, too, has been opened.” We had reached the lip of the Cup of Gods. He was right. The same finger that had gouged the gap in the western cliffs had furrowed the glacier that sat in the bottom of the bowl. The wound had not healed.
The Road to the Sun ended at the caldera’s rim, but thankfully so did the wind. The cliffs and peaks around silenced all. The path down onto the glacier was a slim trickle of snow. Nogilian got everyone sorted into fifth file, which was all the wider the trench down the middle looked to be.
We rode on down, the two of us on point. The ice piled high on either side, first one story, then two, then three. I stated to get the feeling that there was something wrong. It did not lessen when there appeared human-shaped humps lying on the trail ahead, covered by new snow and ice. The cleft was filling up again, would have been ever since its creation.
“Our Guardian,” said Nogilian.
“Yeah.” There was the issue of what had happened to the original Auger searching party. The lone survivor who returned had been nearly incoherent. When he’d started talking about the terror of the Void, I had assumed an avalanche or long fall.
Neither of which had happened here. And the bodies were lying helter-skelter, as though killed in fleeing panic. There must have been a thousand of them. I slowed everyone to a stop. That’s when I happened to turn and look into the ice, on my right.
And saw a golden corkscrew spire, nearly as high as the glacier itself. It wasn’t more than a hand’s breadth within the ice, or I never would have seen it. I reached out toward it.
“Guardian,” said Nogilian.
“Yeah,” I said again. In response to my motion, the spire flared with lines of blue and green light. They shot up the spire like veins, flashing through the ice for one long moment.
Roads that went nowhere. A caldera worshipped and called the Cup of Gods. This corkscrew in all-too familiar tones. One wondered what exactly one stood upon. I started forward at a crawl.
“Guardian!” hissed Nogilian.
I put out my hand. “It’s okay,” I said. “I think I know what happened here.”
I turned a jagged corner of ice in the path. It was filling in that way, too. “Hold everyone back,” I said.
Before me, spirits danced. I know no other way to describe it. The cleft filled and swirled with waves of golden incandescence like twisted glass, fluttering in a wind entirely their own. Shafts of green and blue shot through the pattern, mirroring the scheme of the corkscrew in the ice.
I rode nearer. The Cup of Gods, I thought. The faith of this world had held that all deities were gone.
And saw, of course, that not all the spires were in the ice. Just where the lightshow began, half of one emerged from the glacier on the right. Beyond it, another protruded on the left, canting at an angle which suggested wreckage. Obviously, those were the ones making the display. On an impulse, I looked into the ice on my right again.
And beheld a sweeping arc, again blue and green and golden, that twisted around itself like a shell one finds by the sea. It was the kind of thing you could have easily fit a dozen people in, if none of them had spines. It very definitely joined a larger shape at the bottom, though in a way so gentle that there was no seam.
We’ve found them, I’d told Nogilian. The Augers found the ships that go faster than light.
Yeah. I rode on. As I neared, the golden lights shifted uneasily, as if aware of my presence. I could almost touch them. Something tingled through me that was hot and cold at once. The electric spirits hissed, like sleet driven in the wind. I thought I heard, for a moment, something of a musicality. I certainly felt a will.
Then the waves of light parted like a curtain, and I passed between them. Their domain was only as thick as the space between the spires, a few lengths of my machine. There were no dead Augers on the path ahead of me. I stopped just where it started climbing gently out of the caldera again.
O Suriel, I thought. All the things you have not told me.
Nogilian approached. Behind him, the first of long string of valkyries was reaching the gate of golden lights between the spires.
“Our Guardian,” he said. “It will take days to free these ships. We must begin.”
I wept. I swear I cried, standing there at the bottom of a pass between ten thousand meter peaks, for a tragedy undergone long ago by persons incomprehensible to me. I wiped everything away.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “I was wrong. The Augers were wrong. They didn’t find any lightships here. Not that we could ever pilot, anyway. See that design? That look like any Profusionist machine you have ever seen? It’s just wreckage, Nogilian. A broken ship buried in the ice, and it’s not even human. That’s why they worshipped it. So, you’re right. There is no time for anything else. It’s over. There’s no place left to go. We’ve come to the wrong place.”