Sunday, June 1, 2014

Behold the Jade City: Chapter Twenty Two

Chapter Twenty Two
On that day, 

            I woke in a room as white as an unblemished scroll, on a slab I would have thought made of alabaster stone. I looked down past my chin and was surprised to see I had no armor. I felt as though I’d borne Profusionist armor for a very long time. It was gone now, and in its place I wore a fine silk tunic and trousers, as green as a city whose name I could not quite remember. My old clothes, the coarse brown linen I’d worn so long against my skin, had been cleaned and folded beneath my head as a pillow. I felt that, whatever the cause, I had slept entirely too long, so that I was refreshed but forgetting something important. I sat up, my head spinning.

            “Del Tanich of Ariel,” said a voice I knew very well. “It seems that this time I was the one to awaken first. It has been three days.”

             I started and looked to my left, the source of the voice. And could not quite credit what I saw. Beside my bed sat a great broad chair, of the same hard white substance as my bed and the walls and ceiling of the room. And in that chair sat a cloud. But I could not quite make out what made up its pall. Once, it seemed to be a white mist, like a fog. Then it shifted, and I thought it a swarm of small soft moths, or the white butterflies one is said to find in meadows at high altitudes.

            Then it shifted again, and I saw in its parting flesh like my own, and the curve of a bare shoulder, then a face I instantly recognized. Then the White Swarm shifted a final time, and I saw running through Jerem Cozak’s chest and midsection a system of metal plates and wires and circuitry which was, I knew immediately, also composed of the same sentient white machines that made up the cloud and the moths and the furniture and the room. And they made at least half of the human form I saw through the stirring cloud of moths and mist. Indeed, I could not separate them.

            “And it seems the White Swarm is not yet done with me,” the warlord said. “This was the only way they could keep me alive. They say it requires a great deal of energy, because my body cannot support itself.”

            “You fell in battle,” I said, remembering Kasora and its siege.

            “The master of the nightwind is also kept alive by his machines. He was injured, I suppose, very long ago. More and more, we become each other’s counterpart.”

            I had no answer to that. “But I fell,” I said, remembering. “My mastodon was killed, you were twice cut in half, and I watched Marcus fall as I did. Then one of the Augers put a foot across my chest, and was going to impale me with his weapon. The city was on fire.”

            “You remember nothing more?”

            I shook my head. “I think he did it. Impaled me, I mean. I remember great pain in my chest, and then I could not breathe enough, and everything was dark and cold. But I am not certain.”

            He nodded again. “You may remember soon.”

            “Where is Marcus?” I felt that he and I had travelled far together. “I would like to see him, at least.”

            Jerem Cozak shook his head. “The khrall cleaved his skull in two. From that injury, there is no return.” He frowned.

            I thought for a moment. “Then how will the Neverborn fight on? He was a center of their consciousness. Were they also destroyed?”

            He smiled, then, easier and more fully than I remembered him doing. “They are all quite well. Nearly all of them survived the battle and the fire. And they will soon find another center.”

            “Can I see them, then? We marched all the way from Ariel together.”

            “I’m afraid you have missed everyone. They have all gone on ahead.”

            “Everyone?” I asked. “Gone ahead where?”

            He laughed, then, a rich melodious sound. It occurred to me I had not heard him laugh in a very long time, since the hidden valley of the mastodons. “I finally understand. All this time I have been trying to solve the riddle of you, too. You ask the right questions, but simply ask them in the wrong order.” He stood, and the cloud, the bright white heart of the Swarm now, shifted around him and through him.

            “What do you mean?”

            He looked down at me and smiled. “The right question now is: why was there a fire? Our ally is no longer with us to explain. Will you come outside with me?”

            I answered that of course I would. I would always go anywhere with him. He reached out and waved his hand, and part of the building slid away, like sand blowing in the wind. When it had gone, a doorway remained. I gasped a little, astonished, but then followed him through it into the warm light of a very fine day. The sun shone golden in the azure and turquoise sky above.

            And then I gasped again, for I saw something I had never seen before: high overhead and to the east where the River Kasora fell in its great cascade, against the grey backdrop of the mountain shone a rainbow. But it bore a pallet not witnessed in nature: gold and green and blue, all braided together, the colors moving as though they themselves were a cascade.

            But I marveled also at the city, which had been entirely transformed. Gone were the jade buildings crawling with nightwind that I had watched for the seven days of the siege. In their place were facades and streets of purer white even than the famed stones of Ariel, and I saw at once that these, too, were made of the White Swarm. And where the buildings of jade had been cut square or to sharp angles, these buildings were smooth and curved, flowing into one another like the waves of the ocean. And if the buildings were like the waves, the White Swarm was like the spray of the sea spitting and swirling between them.

            “Tomorrow,” said Jerem Cozak, “they may decide to build the city differently, or I may instruct them to.” Then, when he caught me looking at the strange rainbow again: “Yes, that is them, too, though I think it may be too much. But they say they are paying tribute. They will not say to what, though I think our ally might have learned.”

            It seemed strange to me that there was anything the White Swarm would not tell him. “It is all so beautiful,” I said.   

            He shook his head. “Yes, but I did not wait to show you something beautiful.” He led me between two buildings, one of which was like a spiral cut in half. On the other side the space opened into a simple circular plaza, on which sat nine metallic frames, shaped like long, thin seeds and black as the color of the void between the stars. Though they were very long, perhaps thirty paces, they were not much taller than a man standing.

            “So we will remember,” he said, “what awaited us here.”

            “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

            He waved a hand toward them. “These were spikeships, or needleships, as they were once called both. They come from Black Orchids, the large spheres that once besieged our world before its fall. Do you remember?”

            I nodded my head. He went on.

            “Nine ships, one for each khrall. Faster than the Orchids, they came ahead. They brought with them the shockpikes that killed your mastodon, and mine. They brought them specifically for that purpose. But these ships are how they arrived first, and why we were all deceived. Perhaps we will never know how.”

            I nodded. “The fire,” I said. “Why was there one? You never answered, though you yourself asked the question. And I did not think to ask it at the time.”

            “I did not either, for I never saw the flames. But our ally lead twenty five thousand men over the cliffs above, to their certain deaths. Their valkyries fell upon the city as a barrage, and their explosions began a conflagration that reduced all the buildings of Kasora to slag. The armed host waiting to trap us was entirely destroyed.”

            “Better, then, that we were immune to fire.” 

            He laughed again, then sobered. “Just so, though it did not save everyone.”

            “Were the khrall destroyed?”

            He shook his head. “They are harder to kill than that. But they were certainly dismayed. They needed that army to defeat us on the ground. And they realized, at the end, that that was exactly what they needed to do. But because of her they failed, and lost everything, and left.”

            “Why?” I asked. “I don’t understand. I see no one hurry, and the city is remade. But is there not a fleet of Black Orchids still coming to rain down death upon this world? And if our ally did find the lightships, when why did she sacrifice herself to save us, when she could have taken this city from above? Last, if she did not find them, as I’m guessing she did not, why are you so glad? What exactly has happened here?”

            He smiled again. “Just so! Now you ask the right questions! But they are so many I cannot answer them myself. Come, I would show you something else.”

            He turned and led me through shifting sprays of the White Swarm and curving crests of buildings toward the southwest corner of the city. As we walked, I noticed that wind tattered the edges of both his cloud and his body, as though he was not quite solid. When we arrived at a small building, just beneath the wall, he stopped before a small building, he stopped and waved his hand. A door opened. We stood together for a moment outside. Within, it was dark, but the White Swarm poured from us soon glowed gently, and showed a staircase that led down. I started when I saw that the spiraling stairs were jade.

            “Into the old city,” he said. “The fire did not burn deep. In that we were quite fortunate.”

            I waited for him, but he soon waved me forward. “This journey is for you, and you go places I will not. But greet in my name the one whom you will meet.”

            “I don’t understand,” I said, then laughed at myself. I stepped onto the staircase. When I turned, Jerem Cozak had already gone.

            I shrugged and took the stairs as quickly as I safely could. The White Swarm lit my way, pouring glowing out in my breath and following me down the stair, but never thickly enough to impair my vision. I wondered if the White Swarm would eventually overcome these machines, too, or leave them as they were. Something told me the walls would all be white someday. I went down to about the eighth level, and remembered that Kasora once held vast reserves for when it was besieged. I would later learn that many of the levels between had been empty since the war between the cities.  

            The staircase ended before a square door in the manner of the old city. It opened when I approached, swinging on metal hinges. Within stood the man who had been second in rank to Cassan Vala. He looked much as he had when I had seen him in Sepira, though he wore no armor, only a blue silk shirt and trousers like my own. He nodded when our eyes met.

            “Jerem Cozak greets you, Nogilian” I said.

            “He and all his friends are welcome here, spearman. I feel strange not wearing armor. But everyone seems to agree that I have fought enough. Neither of them will let me go on. So for me the war is over. I will keep this city when the rest of you are gone.”

            I nodded, surprised that he had answered so many questions I had not thought to ask. Perhaps I should have followed him, but then would I truly have been needed? I could sense that many men would follow him, not because he was a mystery, but because he was such an easy man to know. That way of being is far more rare and pleasing.

            “All his friends, you say. But I came down these stairs alone. He says that everyone else has gone on ahead. Is that so?”

            He nodded. “It is. He waited for you, and for the other few who had not woken yet. Will you follow me?”

            I nodded and said of course I would, wondering that he had been second in command, and someone else first. Even in the midst of the argument at Sepira I had thought him a fine leader, and a warrior great even in his sadness.

            And as I thought of that, I realized it was gone from him. I remembered how I had felt after Nesechia, and then during this siege, and understood. Valor itself can destroy a man, if it is virtue for such horrors. If such had happened to Nogilian, Jerem Cozak was right to release him.

            We walked a long way down a dim corridor. We passed no doors, and turned only once, toward what I imagined must be the very center of the city. He felt no need to say anything while we walked, and neither did I. When we stopped, it was before a simple door much like the one that had marked the bottom of the stairwell. Yet to this one Nogilian placed his hand, and the door swung wide.

            “The Vault of the Arks of Kasora,” he said, as I looked into the room. “For you, now, and for all those like you. They have awoken. The one you choose will open to your touch, and it will follow your commands. You need not speak them. The stone above will part to let you pass.”

            Within the room stood many hundreds of spheres, golden like the rainbow above the city. They were a little taller than myself, and of course the same in any dimension. Their surface was smooth, and had no fault or opening that I could see.

            I believe I began to  understood, then. I kept walking forward. “It will open for me, you say. But you could wake one of these yourself.”

            He nodded. “I have been marked now, too. All those like you have.”

            “You were very long a soldier. I have been one only a few months. Surely you have been 
marked more deeply than I.” I put out my palm when I reached the nearest one. The shell of the sphere was surprisingly warm, like living flesh.

             He shook his head. “It is not how deeply this mark cuts you. That makes no sense, and would not matter in any case. It is how often one is marked that matters. When you reach the ocean, you should understand.”

            ‘The ocean?” I asked, as I felt my mind reach out to the sphere’s sentience.

            “Where the River Kasora meets the ocean between the lands. It is where everyone has gone. They should be only awaiting you, now. You were the last to wake.”

            The surface melded to my touch, and I understood that I could walk through its side, as with a Well of the Profusion. “They’ll be waiting a while. It is three days by ship to there, and all the valkyries were destroyed. And they were always the fastest machines on land.”

            “Yes,” said Nogilian as I stepped through, “but the Arks of Kasora do not travel on the land.”

            From within, the Ark was transparent, so that I could see all around it and myself perfectly, and in every direction – though I saw from a reflection in another Ark that mine remained solid and golden from outside. After a moment, four areas glowed briefly, in the shape of hands and feet. I put mine to match, and found myself standing with my legs and arms comfortably spread. I looked up, and willed myself in that direction. I arose within the Arks at a sedate pace, until I came to the next level. I willed myself through that floor, and the next, faster, and learned that many of the vaults of Kasora had been emptied by the centuries, and not refilled.  

            Soon I burst forward into the light of day, and found that I did not remain at the height of valkyries, as many Historians had proposed. Rather, I almost immediately found myself above the city, flying past its highest spires and whitened spirals. I climbed still higher. I met no resistance anywhere. All I had to do was will myself upward, and the Ark went. I do not doubt I could have gone as high as I had wished, breaking out of Thaeron’s atmosphere to scrape the face of the Void. But terror soon caught me, and I returned to the greatest altitude from which I absurdly guessed I could conceivably fall and live.

            As I cleared the city’s new walls it occurred to me that the speed of the Ark had matched the intensity of my wish. When I was tentative, it went slowly. On a whim, I looked thousands of paces downstream, to the place where the River Kasora turned a bend and entered the canyons that took it through the Knife of the World. And pushed.

            Immediately, I was there. I swear by the lingering grace of the Profusion that my passage took no time. One instant, I was over the white ramparts of the new city – and the next, I was staring down the narrow passage between two of the great rock walls of the world, with the river’s black depths swirling beneath. The power these machines must have held.

            I  remembered, then, that the Arks of Kasora had also once been weapons, and wondered what to do. It occurred to me that if I steered by my intent, then the Ark must have some other use for my hands. I moved my left hand against the transparent metal and pushed again – and an orb of energy such as that fired by artillery seemed to flow out from it, then careened toward the water below. I remembered, then, that I had feet, too, and kicked, and a small shell of Light burst out from the Ark, and it scalded the rock of the canyon walls and made the river water boil, but did not go half as far as the Light from Kasora’s towers had.

            All this time I had been still, hanging in the air. Now I willed myself to the horizon again, and once more. I must have travelled a third of the length of the canyons in an instant, for the river there runs very straight. Then, on the fourth attempt, the Ark only accelerated, and I knew that in one thing at least it had a limit, like the starspears I had used. But it went quite swiftly, as fast as any valkyrie and more, and I knew I would reach the ocean soon. The rock walls flew by in a blur, and the peaks of the mountains overhead. If I slowed down, it was only for my own terror.

            The sun climbed. It had been early morning when I had woken in Ariel. By the time the rock walls of the canyons fell away and the river swelled to a brackish bay, not more than three watches could have passed. It was only midmorning now, and still as fine as it had been in Ariel. The banks of the river grew broad and sandy where it met the sea, and I looked up and down those beaches until I saw what I sought: hundreds of Arks like this one, sitting quiescent on the pale brown sand. With them were a number of rafts pulled up above the surf and perhaps a thousand people, standing and sitting in two distinct groups.

            I flew toward them, slowing even more as I descended. If my Ark disturbed the sand as it kissed the shore, I did not know it. A woman walked forward from the group nearest the Arks. She wore a crisp white shirt and trousers which did not look like they had been worn before. Her hair was tawny blonde and she was of average height and unremarkable build. But the flare of her hips told me who she was as she approached and I stepped out of the Ark.
            “Guardian Cassan Vala,” I said.

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