It was a land of death. Mud parched by a slow merciless sun bore testament to the passage of every creature to walk that land. It was empty, the only fresh tracks those of the solitaire striding vehemently across the desert, feet parting flakes of dry earth before him, heavy leather duster caked in the filth and dust of a man whose life was that of the road.
No place could he call home, though he was an agent of the Korachani empire; working for a capital he had never seen outside of his thoughts and prayers. Her sprawling edifices and cathedrals, at the heart of which was the monolithic palace of the Archpotentate, leader of all the empire.
The man is my leader, my deity, everything. Yet I have never seen him. It makes his strength all the more palpable that he exerts so much influence on our lives. He is great, our all and everything. He defeated an entire nation single-handedly and brought its people into our fold. He is god. Makes me wonder why the bastard cannot think to make this forsaken place easier on the senses...
Slaven spat, the glob clinging to ruptured earth, teasing it with the promise of rains that would never come. He strode over it without thought, his eyes fixed on the twisted girders that grew from the ancient plain, their skins long since decayed, leaving instead moribund skeletons of rust that echoed dimly a time when life existed in the blasted desert. A time not so distant, if the damp riverbed he had passed had anything to reveal.
Across the cracked pan of land he saw another relic; a sun-bleached skeleton, rags of skin stretched across it as though modesty compelled it to maintain a semblance of clothing, no matter how morbid. Vacant eyes observed the grey clouds above on their lazy voyage of the heavens.
He took shelter beneath one of the girders. Finger-sized flakes of rust covered its base, staining the earth orange. Normally he would have set up traps for crawlers of the shallow earth - food for the road ahead. Though the land was not as giving here as he had hoped it to be.
Another fruitful night. He spat a prayer to the Undying Machine and the Archpotentate and slept
The village of Tanz was a wretched affair filled with half-starved bodies, ailing industries and a xenophobic morality that was seemingly its only saving grace. No different to any other settlement across the plains of the northern territories, then.
He approached it from the south, following the dead river’s bed; its source no doubt destroyed by the spasms of a dying world. A monument to the decay of the empire, he desecrated it with his steps, each leaving its mark in the compact silt-dust that remained. It seemed as though his were not the first feet to travel the path in recent memory. In fact, if the ambulant tracks and rampant trampled footprints were anything to go by, the river’s death had not come as a tragedy at all. For in its death it appeared as though the river had become the main thoroughfare into the village, its hewn banks linking it almost imperceptibly to the expanse of open land that dominated the village’s mouth; site of its weekly market, tightly packed away.
Packed away because it was night, the light of the Blood Moon strong in the heavens, its influence uninvited.
Slaven laughed. Even under the depravities of the Imperial barraters and their ever-increasing taxes, and a natural world that turns against them, they still find time to fear things like a red moon.
He turned to the skies, allowing his eyes to linger upon Arakhamé’s light. In his solitude it was easy to see how ignorant men made the mistake of calling it the Blood Moon, thinking that it influenced the acts of creatures caught beneath its light. But he was a student of the technarcane world and knew more than to trust the whispering of mystics and their extinct ways. Magic was a dying practice, superseded in civilised lands by the immeasurably superior technarcana; something to which he owed his very life.
Tanz had no wall and the shoddy patchwork of girders and rusty plates that served as a look-out tower seemed empty but for the bloody light that flooded it. Slaven gave it a cursory glance, figuring that if anyone were present they would either fire on him unsuccessfully or raise the alarm, which would save him the hassle of having to call upon the local barrater.
Neither alarm nor gunshot heralded his entry into what with proximity showed to be little more than a shanty - sheets of corrugated iron, girders and other scrap salvaged from the desert all hammered together into a lose echo of buildings. One of the structures--a large, low thing that probably served as a communal hall—-appeared to have been salvaged from the upturned belly of a wrecked hulk, probably pulled all the way up the riverbed from what was once the coast. Everything else seemed a projection of the design aesthetic that pervaded the structure. In other words, little-to-no eye towards detail or aesthetic qualities.
“You dregs have no idea what art is, do you?” said Slaven. Not that I really do, either, he smiled.
The tower was empty, the retractable ladder glaringly lowered, making it unlikely that anyone was in the nest above. Slaven gave it one last glance as he passed it, eyeing the blood-soaked village, allowing his legs to draw him onwards along the widest street, if street it could be called–-for an unpaved dirt-track was undeserving of the name.
There was little about the place to deserve anything resembling respect, and he was beginning to wonder if the dactylid scholar he’d employed had had anything of use to say. He had been wrong about everything else so far, failing to warn him about the grotesque caverns farther south and the old tin citadel and the catacombs beneath. There was a consistency in the scholar’s misinformation that jarred with the anticipatory uselessness he could sense in this place.
One day and night, is all they’ll see of me, he thought as he walked. If there was a flophouse around, it would be along the main road. But if that were true, wouldn’t he hear the sounds of life drifting through the otherwise moribund place? At least the orange flicker of bottled light from within a common-room somewhere.
But he saw nothing. Was there no electricity in this place? No discharger in its heard granting life to its machines, light and power to its people? Not all settlements were lucky to have dischargers, but he was in Azazem, near the Korachani border. Near the empire’s capital, by the Throne. If there was no electricity here, then he’d be damned if oghurs still haunted the deserts.
He brushed the silly notion aside and continued, allowing the conspicuous lack of activity to fuel his weary legs and the promise of a nearby bed steeling his will. If he could find no flophouse, he’d make do with any of the other rooms he was passing.
Then he saw it, a flaking sign with barely-noticeable paint hanging above a small door. Two tiny windows, low and flush with the ground flanked the door, with the dull flicker of bottled light emanating from within. He was soon before it, the door as small as he had feared, the metal hinges straining against their own scabrous skin as he pushed against it.
Inside, it was the same sight that greeted him wherever he went, the stunned silence, the fearful eyes, the flitting gazes probably wondering if he was alone or if a regiment would follow him in. It was probably too late in the night, the patrons too tired, for outright admonishment against his presence; something to which he was infinitely grateful.
He was so used to the reaction that he barely paused to think about the sight he must have presented. The people of the empire were not the largest, nor were they the strongest or hardiest, or longest-lived of humans. He was everything they were not, everything they feared about the heathen.
He had fought men from without the empire on various occasion–-east in Ahrishen and far north, in Kolchis--and they were larger than the five-foot nothing wretches that coughed and limped their way through imperial streets. Tales shared over camps during the borderwars spoke of the heathens living lives of four or five decades or more. The people of Korachan were lucky to see three. Censors and propagandists blamed witches and otherworldly pacts for their physical condition, though Slaven had seen enough of the world to know that the empire itself was responsible for its own shortcomings.
Cities so filthy, their air so matted by smoke and dust that they never saw direct sunlight. Work conditions that crippled people before other nations even thought of calling them adults. The irrevocable consequences of working with the Atramenta done worse things; raping the land they lived in.
He looked at the wretches, seeing their defects–-so-called gifts of the Shadow-–some granted by birth, others bestowed by life, and turned to himself. Giant; dream amongst nightmares. Where they sported twisted limbs, cleft features and psoriatic skin, he sported instead skin of palest perfection (said to be possessed by the Archpotentate himself) and a symmetry of form that few of natural birth possessed in those lands. He was a reminder of all that was wretched about their lives; their bitterness made incarnate in fair form. He was a monster and immediately they disliked him.
Beyond the sea of glares, the fortress of dejection erected swiftly against him, he could see a public house of small size. Irregular tables were scattered throughout the room, stools and chairs of haphazard manufacture tethering people around them. Along one wall were shelves of bottles: glass, clay, tin, Throne-knew what else and beneath them large barrels resting sideways with piping linking them to taps strung up on the wall. A solitary man, his body large for a man of the empire, sat on a stool nearby running a whetstone over a piece of salvaged metal.
The only man not looking at him was the only one Slaven was interested in seeing.
He stepped down through the door (a feat in itself, considering its small size and the semi-subterranean nature of the building) and waded through the room until he came to the solitary man, his form blocking the bottled light that hung overhead.
The man looked up, eyes betraying a knowledge the others seemed lacking. A cursory flit of Slaven’s eyes across his body--his size, large arms, the scar on his cheek, the rough scarred knuckles, broken teeth and heavy eyes–-all merged into the image of a mercenary, now retired from service. A likely justification for the lack of awe he had shown Slaven. Instead was a vague sense of interest as the time of caring for odd occurrences were long since past, replaced by the jaded apathy of a man who had seen his fair share of oddness.
He looked up, though made no effort to speak or acknowledge the giant’s arrival in any way.
Slaven mined a few half-bits out of his duster pocket and tossed them to man. “Glass of rozelin.”
A feigned guffaw.
“Something funny, ‘gunfodder?” A test. Would the man respond to the military insult, give some of his past away?
Silence. And not only from the man, but the whole room seemed to quieten down as though awaiting the man’s’ response to the challenge.
“Do I look like a man who stocks rozelin?” he said, his voice instinctively clear, rising above the murmurs of his patrons.
“Do I look like a man who drinks it?”
A hint of a smile crossed the man’s lips, betraying a thinly-masked confidence. “All the more reason not to be asking for it then.” The man stood awkwardly, rising to what would have been an enviable height were Slaven not present. Instead he looked like a child beside his father, head no higher than his chin. Those looking at him seemed stupefied by the discovery – with something to measure him against, the newcomer must have looked even larger. Eyes flitted across the room to one another silently, asking what none of them dared voice out loud.
An amused snort escaped Slavens’ mouth and his lip curved upward on one side. Thinks he can still fight. Wants me to prove it, I think. Should I prove him wrong?
No, thought Slaven. He had nothing to gain by proving everyone there right. No one there doubted his size, his physical strength. What they doubted was that he was a good man. Give them a reason to believe that, he thought. Or at least make them ponder my intentions a while longer. The grin changed to a smile and he tossed two bits over to the man. “cup?”
The man checked the bits as he reached over and dragged an upturned tin cup towards himself and handed it to the stranger. “Help yourself.”
A vague nod preceded a short perusal of the goods on offer. It was a dismal selection, if Throne forced him to voice it, though after a week of stagnant water and two days of nothing it was ambrosia. He released the flow on one of the taps and allowed a thick blue-green liquid to trickle down. Bran: an aloe distillate.
He grabbed a stool from nearby and sat down. The thing was almost comically small beneath him. He drank the bran, sitting wordlessly for a while, feigning disinterest as he observed the man who had served him. Clearly he had been a military man at some point in his life. That or perhaps a manual labourer, perhaps in the dross farms or quarries that dotted the regions’ bowels. But details seemed to indicate the former. The man sat upright (a possible remnant of harsh conscript training), had skin darker than the norm for the empire (perhaps from days campaigning under foreign suns) and managed to veil his distrust of the new arrival (if there was one thing the conscripts were taught it was to keep their thoughts to themselves).
“Life in the Legions treat you well?” asked Slaven, any pretence eschewed in favour of directness. If he could get any answers now it would mean leaving a good nights’ rest behind. But he favoured that outcome.
“What makes you think the ‘gangers got to me?” said the man, his eyes failing to meet Slaven’s.
“You look like a military man.” Slaven gestured to the patrons. “Bit of a difference from heathens and witches, don’t you think?”
“Wouldn’t know what you’re talking about.”
Slaven grabbed the man’s arm and lifted his sleeve, revealing a blurred tattoo of little significance or aesthetic value to anyone outside the regimentalists and unit-drivers of the Steel Legion. “queer ink to have on your arm.”
The man removed himself from Slaven’s touch, shaking the sleeve back down. His eyes flitted across the room. “What do you want with me?”
“Nothing. Just passing the time.
“What I do want is a feel for the region, maybe a map or a guide or decent directions.”
“The region? There’s nothing out here but ruins and death.”
“Sounds like something to me.”
“Trust me. There’s nothing.”
“There’s always something. Where did you fight? Borderlands, the insurgencies or closer to home.”
“I never said I fought.”
“Trying to hide something? I know the drivers don’t take kindly to deserters. Ever seen a deserter’s feast? Quite the sight; all those gibbets, cages dripping with charnel, scavengers fighting for what manages to fall to the ground.”
The man sighed. “It was a campaign. The drivers came east from Laaskha, stopping by every settlement taking those who could fight. We trained as we moved, prisoners as much as soldiers. We went east into Korachan--”
“Korachan. Home of the Archpotentate. Did he bless your column or bestow upon it gifts of the Atramenta?”
The man gave him a confused look. “No. We were far north of the Steel Bastion.”
“Just as well,” said Slaven, offering no further insight. “There’s two things can explain your being here rather than the conscript ranks. Your regiment was disbanded or you deserted.”
“Or I was discharged.”
A small laugh. “Only those distinguished by acts of bravery and with luck enough to injure themselves get that privilege.”
The man lifted the hem of his kaftan, revealing a pair of coarse orthoses; the spluttering oily sort a conscript discharged from the legions due to his injuries might afford on his meagre allowance.
Slaven lifted an eyebrow. The man was likely disillusioned with the whole military institution. The Legion had stolen him from his home and thrown him before an enemy he had likely never even heard of. He had given his legs to fight that enemy and the Legion had repaid him with abandonment, not even enough bits to purchase his legs back again.
The man probably hated the empire as much as Slaven.
“Where did you fight?”
“Rhaecha, fighting dvergai.”
Mountain-combat, that’s tough. The dvergai were tenacious things and guarded their burrow-gates fiercely. What they lacked in size they more than made up for in technical expertise and the use of monstrous maavanda slaves as shock-troops. Slaven had seen one of the maavanda before. That had not been a nice day.
“Not an easy theatre.”
“Who are you to know?” Asked the man, the hint of titillation on his face.
“We each have our secrets,” said Slaven, sensing the conversation veering to unwanted territories. “Now, about my request. Think I can get any help here? Anyone know the region well enough to help me?”
“Who the Throne are you, anyway, coming in here unnamed, throwing accusations as though they were air?”
Slaven was silent for a while, thoughts bubbling, simmering at recollection of the man’s past, his enslavement at the hands of an unappreciative empire. He could not be blamed for his ignorance. Indeed, he was brave (or, more likely, foolish) enough to challenge a man twice his size who had full use of his legs.
He had better things to do than give birth to new problems. Brushing the comment aside, he asked again. “A guide?”
Despite his somewhat crude orthoses, Tamerlan was steady-enough on his feet and his knowledge of the surrounding lands gave Slaven reason to commend his acquisition of the man’s services.
The man was a sullen type of few words and many wistful glances to distant hills or the ruins of extinct manufactories half-buried in the wastes. When he did speak, it was only to point out features of the area-–the bleached bones of a massive ladon protruding from the dust, the charred ruins of a tower from the days of Elnath, the Andoth knoll and the dark history that surrounded it-–each had its memories, its history, and Tamerlan seemed to know them all.
He would stop from time-to-time to inspect his orthoses, running deft fingers along ailing pistons and struggling belts, checking the shadow feeds and dischargers, making sure they were in working condition. To Slaven they seemed shoddy, as though collected from a scrap-heap and sold on the secondary market. He wondered where they had been made, where the procedure had taken place – Tanz was too small, too rickety a town, to have the resources needed for such procedures.
Before Slaven had a chance to ask himself further questions, his guide raised an arm and pointed to the north. There, like a mirage in the grey evening sky was the body of an enormous structure; low, incredibly wide, with fractured chimney stacks forming a jagged silhouette against the skyline. Rows of pipes emerged from the structure, heading west as far as the failing light cared to show them. The pipes were broken in various places – seemingly, not one of them was intact.
“Dross Manufactory,” said Tamerlan. “It’s nought but a shell, been there since before my fathers’ days.”
Slaven saw the barely noticeable details in the failing light: the warped girders, the caved in roof, the piles of rubble flanking its base. It looked far older than a few generations; perhaps even as much as a century, if not more. “Do you know the house, who ran it?”
Tamerlan nodded. “I know the name of every atropic dynasty that has been in charge of these manufactories. The glorious house of Thalassa was bequeathed these lands–-over three hundred square miles, encompassing seven manufactories and dozens of dross farms dotted throughout and beneath the desert–-some three hundred years ago. This manufactory was ill-fated, constructed over a great hollow in the that gave way about a hundred years ago, destroying most of the plant, rendering its engines useless.” The man stopped, seemingly embarrassed by the tirade of information.
Thalassa. The name he had been following all these years. Slaven had had dealings with that same house before, in Noachis. Another life entirely, one he wished would remain in the past.
“Does house Thalassa have a strong presence here?’
The guide shook his head. “Not since this. Korachan’s need of raw dross is great. If the capital is starving she cannot wait for a manufactory to repair its pipes to get its food – it’s going to look to other pipelines. That’s what happened. House Thalassa never recovered from the loss.”
“I am looking for something, Tamerlan. Someone. He has had dealings with house Thalassa in the past. I have reason to think he may still have ties to the family. Where is the family’s closest base?”
“I wouldn’t go looking for trouble stranger, not with a patrician house. Even one down on its luck like Thalassa has its fingers in lots of puddles. Sleepers in Throne-knows how many cities, lictors waiting for their next victim, informants, agents, mercenaries. I’d hate to think what else.”
Shame it’s the what else part of it I’m looking for. “What do you care what I get up to?”
A slight pause. “I don’t.”
Slaven smirked. Honest Dreg. “How far?”
“The farther we walk, the farther it gets. It’s west. Maybe eighty miles.”
“Can you get me there?”
“What is it you want with the Thalassas?”
“Just want to pay a visit to an old friend.”
The way west was difficult. The road–-or what passed for one in the Azazemi wastes–-was a ruin; destroyed by the elements and largely hidden by drifting dunes of dust, ash and rust. For the most part the way was desolate, the rolling grey hills broken only by flat-topped mesas, their sheer duststone sides carved by unforgiving winds into top-heavy shapes. They would occasionally pass villages, each smaller and less inviting than the last.
As many ruins lay on the road as settlements, though little remained of them but jagged struts and the tell-tale shadow of foundations holding back the tide of dunes assaulting them.
Few plants lived in the region and the ones that did were giant solitary things, their blue-green leaves waxy and thick, hubs for what little fauna survived out there. The aloes were a familiar sight throughout the empire, their tough bodies well-adapted to the merciless conditions of that dying land. They were distilled into liqueur, harvested for food and water and their stringy flesh served as the foundation for crass but functional fabrics. In other places the wilderness had been deprived of such plants, leaving the rootless soil lifeless, at the mercy of wind and rain alike. Azazem was lucky. It was not heavily populated and its people survived largely on their own farms of the plants, without having to turn to nature for more.
They made shelter under the arching leaves of one such plant, Tamerlan having to stop due to a build-up of dust in the mechanisms on his feet. It was not something remedied by a few moments of tinkering, so they stopped for the day. They had traversed no more than fifteen miles; the unkind terrain and Tamerlan’s difficulties making the going slower than if Slaven were alone.
The Azazemi man sat roasting one of the leaves, collecting the spitting water in a cup for later consumption. Slaven lay on his back, eyes closed quietly whistling a tune whose origins he could not quite place.
“So, are you really one of them?” asked Tamerlan, his voice tentative, like a child testing the waters of an unknown pool with a toe before venturing further.
“One of who?” said Slaven, eyes still closed.
Slaven’s eyes opened, fixed on some distant point in the heavens. “What makes you think that?”
“No nation in this empire breeds men your size, with features so... cold.”
“Maybe I was not born within our borders.”
“No.” Tamerlan left the fire and crouched beside the outsider. “You’re seven feet tall if you’re an inch, and though you cover your body beneath those leathers and cowls, I can tell that you trace your birth to no womb. Remember, I travelled with the Steel Legion. I have seen your kind.”
“And I could have sworn you had some wits about you. If you know such things then I presume you know also about the strength of the Legionnaires.”
“How is it you are here, and not on some far campaign fighting? Do the clones not need a steady supply of shadowstuff to function? Without it their bodies cannot--”
Dreams of the Demagogue disturbed his sleep, bringing him back to the world of the living. He was covered in a thick sweat.
Slaven sat up, scratching at his skin. His fingers made contact with a receptor hole on his inner forearm, felt a different substance there. He lifted up his sleeve and saw under the waning light of the red moon a drop of an oily black substance trickling from the small metal-rimmed hole. The cripples’ words are truer than he can know, he thought, wiping the stuff away. He breathed in, savouring the smell for a short moment before rubbing dust into his fingers. He spat to the ground and tried to find rest, hoping he had time enough to buy some more life.
Slaven had always found it amusing how nature seemed to find beauty in the worst of her afflictions. Here they were in the middle of an ailing plain, a new dawn heralded by the brightening of the eastern sky. Life here was unkind; the air acrid and harsh on the throat. The soil had been raped by death long ago, leaving it barren. The sky above was thick with the smoke of a stifling industry that, though largely out of sight in Azazem, was never far from thought. Animals, where they existed, were diminished from their former glories, twisted into vagrants that rooted amongst the death in the futile hope of perpetuating a life that only begot offspring whose visages were more warped.
Elyden was a dying world in every sense of the word. Her true gods–-the Two-and-Twenty worker deities–-had long since passed from memory, their once industrious hands falling idle, leaving the world of their creation to fall into ruin. Theirs was the breath that had sustained Elyden, theirs the hands that had maintained her. Without them, her waters stopped flowing as they should, her mountains crumbled, her land broke apart. Without their aegis she was nothing; a lifeless body left to rot beneath the merciless sun: giver and despiser of life.
The slow inexorable entropy of the world was not something new to her people. Where records once spoke of fields and orchards, now stood only parched land and the corpses of trees. When once blue skies thrived, inviting mortals to build and prosper beneath them, now ruled the grey crown, its stifling portent a bleak promise of oblivion to any who dared breed life into such a world. Prosperous nations whose roots had once grown off the fruits of a generous land now lay suffering, their descendants but pale recollections of what they had once been.
Where, in such a world, could hope ever wish to dwell? In the hearts of men whose bodies echoed the disease of the world? In the thoughts of those maddened by questions unanswered? No, therein lay oblivion. The truth was many had lost hope in their world, allowed her corruption to spread to their hearts and minds. Many had given in to the decay, allowed themselves to rot alongside Elyden. But to those who cared to look for it, that glimmer existed, even if veiled beneath the putrefying pangs of wretchedness.
Slaven was looking across the Azazemi plains to the rising sun and the mantle of colours that wreathed it as it rose to vanquish another night. Clouds, tinted by the myriad impurities in the air, were clothed in what could only be described as a thing of pure beauty. There was a peace about that gentle scene that defied the entirety of what was befalling the world. And in that small scene Slaven knew what it was to be human, to defy the odds.
Only, he was not human.
He wiped the tear from his eye and returned to his things, thoughts of the Demagogue polluting his mind.
They were on the road again in no time and, their backs to the sun, they continued along their path.
Slaven had thought more than once of releasing the man from his duties. Other than the fact that the man was slowing him down, there was really little use in dragging him along. The old trade-route, though itself decaying beneath the slow march of dust, was guide enough. Tamerlan had no role to play in the unfolding drama, could not grant life to a role for there were no other roles. Just Slaven.
He had learnt the cost of introducing others into his life, and though some he had met over the years would inflect that he was without heart or care for others, he sought no desire in the useless quelling of lives, most of all those innocent of any condemnation. It was his past, his actions, that had got him in this mess and if there was something that could be said about him, it was that he was not about to allow others be cursed by the bevy of darkness that surrounded him.
He would release the man from his bondage when they next reached a decent settlement, would leave him enough money to win safe passage back to Tanz. From there Slaven would proceed alone, as it should have been.
None should have to share the burden of my past but I, he thought.
Though death had become the order of the day, there existed small hollows in the most unexpected places where life found a way to thrive. Be they secluded oases in the wilderness of badlands or engineered paradises where death was not allowed to tread foot, they were sweet with the taste of defiance.
Though the garden of Græriad was far from Saint Firdaus’s idea of paradise, it was a welcome respite from the demands of the road. It was an old sinkhole, its once-sheer sides corroded by time and wind into more gentle slopes that seemed perfectly shaped to deter the casual traveller. The place was sheltered from the worst of the duststorms prevalent in the region and was a natural tap to an underground water-source that was largely unpolluted by the empire’s presence.
The sight done little to alleviate their demeanours for as they drew closer they saw that it had been perhaps too much of a naive desire to expect such an altar of life to be unsullied by human hands. Though still, it came as an unexpected reminder of Elyden’s sardonic temperance to see the place corrupted as it was.
It seemed as though someone; an enterprising nomad or disenfranchised outcast perhaps, had saw it fit to pillage that small resource and turn what was intended to be a refuge of life into a venture of fortune. Where once the small pool stood silently, now a monster of opportunism stood – a scaffold of metal and stone housing a machine that pumped water out of the deep earth, where it collected into tanks and reservoirs. An ambulant sat beside the structure waiting for its steel belly to fill with the liquid, no doubt ready for its iron-shod tracks to crawl to the nearest settlement where it would sell the precious resource to the highest bidder.
Tamerlan found himself turning to Slaven as they crested the dune and saw that blight sprawled before them.
“Rogue industrialists. Guards, shell armour, powderguns. It is perhaps best that we skirt round them.”
“I have every faith in your knowledge of the land, though I see no reason to abandon the road to what amounts to little more than the human version of scavengers. Besides, out flasks are near-empty.”
“I am not well-travelled outsider. Though I know more than others, I daresay you are more intimate than most with the ways of this foul world, but I know enough of these people to avoid making their acquaintance unless I can avoid it. They are likely affiliated with the scav tribes, or may be sponsored by one of the Atropic houses. Either way, they are lords of this land and we are trespassers.”
“I am thirsty man. Stay here, I will negotiate.”
Tamerlan groaned and slumped down into the dirt, taking one last gulp from his flask.
Slaven took it from him and slid down the rise. He opened his duster, revealing a leather coat and a baldric on which hung a small powdergun. He checked its cylinders quickly, cocked the hammer and replaced it. There was no need of such displays unless his words could not accomplish the task first.
Feet sinking in the ash, he strode, his step painted in a confident stride; the swagger of one who feared not those who sought to impose fear upon others.
The scaffold disappeared beneath the ridge of the sinkhole, the only sign of the scav’s presence being the sounds of unseen industry below and the guard deposited by the framework-stairwell. His gauntleted hands were waving, his eyes intent on the approaching stranger.
He called out in a coarse dialect – a regional variant of the Korachani tongue that had spread to Azazem following its induction into the empire centuries past. Slaven wasn’t intimate with it but his familiarity with the mother-tongue told him he was being warned to keep his distance unless he wanted to be fired upon. Or something to that effect. Slaven had come to realise that threats issued from such guards, regardless of province or nation, rarely differed.
Slaven’s stride broke not, nor did he make effort to acknowledge the guard’s presence. He just strode on, eyes boring into the guards’, whose cries had become more alarmed. The mans’ powdergun was levelled, trained on Slaven.
“I seek the proprietor of this establishment,” he said, his voice clear in the Korachani tongue. “Perhaps he can get me a beaker of water? I really am thirsty.”
The guard hesitated before speaking again, his voice now that of a man struggling with a tongue that was not his own. ‘This land reserved for house Thalassas and them who work for them.’
‘Their slaves you mean?’ said Slaven, even as he pondered the significance of the revelation. House Thalassa, he thought? Perhaps I am closer to my quarry than I thought.
The man frowned. “I will shoot if you--”
“Do not stop moving?” he said, lifting his hands above his head, pausing. This called for a change of tactics...
“This really is a fine weapon, clone,” came the voice from behind his cell.
“Who did you kill to get it?” the man’s laugh turned to a subdued cough, stifled by a lifetime of experience and will into nothingness. From the shadows he emerged, a figure of no particular spectacle or uniqueness. A tattered duster, perhaps a size too big concealed the colourless tatters stitched together into a timid example of clothing. Above it all were small trinkets--baubles, mummified fingers, runestones, rodent skulls, small cog-wheels, throne-idols--perhaps trophies or fetishes. The unruly carpet of stubble covering the better part of his face done nothing to conceal the filth-gorged features of a life spent under the grey skies of the empire. His head was similarly bereft of hair, which made the slave-brand on his forehead all the more obvious.
Proudest of all trophies, thought Slaven as he looked up and saw the man.
“What makes you think it is not my own?”
Another laugh, the following cough killed before it could grow to anything substantial. “We all have our pasts, clone. Your size alone marks you out as a child of the vat. The ivory skin and scars do the rest. Throne, I don’t even need to search beneath your clothes for the sockets peppering your body, do I?”
“Do you have any water?”
“Do I have... Do I have any water, he asks?” said the man, turning to unseen cronies lurking in the shadows. “I’ve never known a clone to have a sense of humour before. That is quaint.”
“Never said I was a clone.”
“Tell me, what’s a Steel Legionnaire like you doing so far from the crusades? Never thought a deserter would last long in the heartlands. Throne, I thought I had it bad with this thing on my brow... you’re a deader man than I if you go within a mile of a city.”
“I’m not really an urbanite.”
“That so?” said the man, turning away, pocketing the powdergun. It really was a fine piece of workmanship. Would fetch a lot of money in some city where it would likely spend the rest of its life on a collector’s wall gathering dust and rust. “But, all jesting aside, what is it you seek? We rarely get visitors here. Thalassa’s grasp of the region is strong. Locals know that to come here is death. Those who wander here usually find their fates altered for the worse. Slavery is a good market these days. Most able-bodied men your age would fetch a decent price. A thousand bits, probably more, given your pedigree.”
“Most able-bodied men my age. Most. What about the rest?”
“Sharp as a pike-staff, you are,” said the captor. “The rest, like yourself have something more about them. You have not been subdued by the deserts. Your will remains untarnished by the sapping qualities of this great world we live in. You will need to be broken first.”
“All this for a beaker or two of water? Remind me never to pass by here again.”
“When we’re done with you, you’ll wish you never came the first time.”
The man signalled to his followers to step forward. Two of them had him in their sights, powderguns itching to be used. The others-–three of them–-stepped forward, ready to release him from his cell. “You may eventually be valuable as a slave or pit fighter, but these men are valuable also. Do not think that if you try to escape I will hesitate from ordering them to fire. Many have made that mistake before.”
Slaven was furious. This was not the first time his rash actions had landed him in an unenviable position. But things had changed when he heard that Thalassa had a presence out here. He needed to learn more about the house, its presence in Azazem. But there were other things to worry about. Tamerlan, for one, not to mention the growing ache in his body. As his guide had said, the body of a clone needed a steady supply of Shadow-stuff to remain healthy. What little he had left had been taken by the scavs, along with his weapons. Priorities, he reminded himself.
Cursing the Archpotentate, he let his body grow limp as the three men entered the cell and prodded his bound form out.
Above, Tamerlan was also cursing. He had edged over the rim of the dune he’d been taking cover behind and was looking at the sinkhole. From his vantage-point he could see some of the courtyard within and most of the scaffold structure around it. He had seen the outsider’s gross attempt at a parlay with the gate-guard end in apprehension, where he disappeared in some room hidden beneath.
Now he sat waiting, sun beating down on his back, unsure of what to do. He had no ties to the man, no reason to wait for whatever events were unfolding below to make themselves seen. There was the matter of his pay, of course, so for him to leave now would have set him back a fair-amount of bits. But then again if leaving now meant the difference between life and death, he knew which option he’d take.
Ultimately, it was the simple matter of resources that made him remain there. There was only so much water a pair of men–-one of them hindered by crude prosthetic limbs–-could carry in the desert. And that water had run out. To leave now was sure death. To remain near the oasis at least held the promise of hope.
But there was something else that bid he remain there. Slaven. He hated to admit it, but there was something about the man that compelled him to stay. He knew not why. He was brash and while he seemed to delight in pushing Tamerlan on his past he evidently was not so eager to have similar questions asked of himself. But, whatever his past may be, Slaven had once been a man of war, much like Tamerlan. Of course their roles in the burgeoning military establishment could not have been more different, there was still a bond there that he did not share with anyone else. All others conscripted with him had been slain in battle. He alone in his hometown bore the burden of his experiences. It was good to share them with another, no matter who the person was.
Cursing the Leaden Throne, he made his way down the slope, intent on avoiding the guards’ eyes.
Slaven was hauled from his hewn prison beneath the rim of the sinkhole and was under the grey sky of Azazem once more. The belching automated industry of the pumping station seemed to dominate all around him, its metallic roar a cry of defiance against the trapped water it was persecuting.
The light of the outside world came to him in uncertain blurs, conflicting smears of shapes that with focus returned to normalcy. Slaven knew what that meant. Too soon, he thought, knowing that his ailing sight was the first of many signs pointing to a body that would slowly begin to fail. It was the curse of all vat-born; to be of perfect form, yet to be inextricably linked with the Penumbra like few other beings of the natural world. Already he could envisage himself weakening at its absence, his very bones and flesh beginning that dull whisper, precursor to sickness and the slow failing of his dying body.
He had a week at best in which to replenish his supplies of shadow-stuff. Any longer than that, and he would begin dying, slowly, painfully. I cannot let that happen, he thought as he was brought to a platform in the middle of the clearing.
On the platform stood a solitary upright girder, its ten-foot length peppered with holes and flaking skin. Two chains hung from the pillar’s capital, hanging still in the air. Immediately, Slaven knew what was about to conspire.
“Strip him,” said the nameless leader, grin visible beneath bristled face.
The three handlers removed his clothes, bitter daggers at his throat and stomach deterring any motions Slaven may have attempted to abet his escape. He was stripped to his trousers, the sockets on his torso and arms made finally visible, their weeping maws testament to the decay even then beginning to overtake his body. Beneath the perfect physique, the alabaster skin and the myriad scars on his body, his innards were beginning to ache for that vilest of liquids, without which he could not survive. Without which he would not have been created. Though his vision seemed restored to fullness, his thoughts were now peppered with blackness, flashes of a motherly void he could not ignore.
Amid those flashes he found himself stripped, hands above his head, manacled to those chains.
The handlers stepped away, leaving the clearing free for their master’s entry. He stepped deliberately onto the platform, his every movement a step in a dance designed to tease his prisoner, to elicit respect from his followers. With great mirth he produced a whip from his belt, uncoiled it as though it were part of some greater ritual of respect aimed at some debauched patron of blood and death.
Crack! A quick assessment of the whip’s performance. Crack! A satisfied mask crossed the man’s face and he stepped back, legs braced apart, whip-arm stretched behind him. No words or display of pomp did mar his coming actions, for truly, what words could serve as adequate prologue to the pain that was to come? The leader, crude as he was, saw the beauty of simplicity when it was present and was not want to ruin it.
Slaven’s eyes flitted across the clearing, the archaic machinery struggling around him, the men – numbers, weapons, positions... vulnerabilities.
Though there was much of his past that he wished could never have been, there were parts of it that he was glad for. His years in the Legion, the endless monotonous training – training that had superseded his individuality and social maturity. Clones were not men. They were not taught to think, merely to respond and obey. They had no character for they were weapons of war; selectively bred, grown, manufactured, trained. He had once been an instrument of war and though that life had been sloughed decades ago, the memory was never distant, bubbling gently beneath the surface, awaiting the slightest disturbance to awaken.
His captors’ arm lifted back fully, whip trailing on the ground like the tail of some beast displaying pompously for mates. The scav smiled. He enjoyed his work.
The provocation had come. Slaven was a man of war once again, awaiting the moment to strike.
The whip cracked, but Slaven’s movements were a powerful shield, and he was twisted behind the girder before the pig-skin could strike him. Instead it entwined itself round the metal column. Slaven twisted his body back the other way, pulling the whip taught, drawing his captor towards him with sudden yank. The man fell to the floor at Slaven’s mercy, though mercy was not his to hand out. He kicked down hard on the prone figures’ back, his neck, his back again. The man was still.
Around him the others were whirring into action. Powderguns that had until then been at rest--shouldered to better enjoy the spectacle--suddenly found themselves lifted, aimed, ready to fire.
A shot sounded, echoing through the sinkhole, but its source came not from within but without. One of the men fell dead, his weapon clattering on the floor. His comrades turned around, confused, looked to the rim in hopes of identifying the source of the shot. They found it in a puff of rapidly dissipating smoke that drew their aims as though the motion were instinctive. The prisoner was out of their minds for the time being, his chains more than capable of keeping him contained.
How wrong they were. The body of a true clone was steel incarnate, his strength considered mythic to mere humans. Clone had in their possession gifts that no womb-born man could ever hope to acquire. Rusted chains and a pitted prison, its length weak from elemental conflict – wind, rust, rain – were of no match for a Legionnaire of the Korachani armies. And though Slaven was old, his body ailing in its deprival of that which it needed to survive, he was still the better of any mortal; a god amongst men, the bonds of captivity a trifling obstacle.
Another shot rang out, the giveaway clamour and smoke of erupting powder coming from another place now. Another guard fell. His fellows responded, taking shots at their ghostly hunter.
The sounds of ‘gunfire reverberated across the hollow, their echoes slowly dying out until nought remained but the groaning of the floored leader... and the breaking of chains.
The clone was upon them without warning, a whirlwind of fury unleashed as though from the workings of some heathen witch, chains flailing in a storm of rusted death. Four already were down from that torrent of blows; skin sundered by lightning-fast chains, bodies ruptured by fists of steel.
A third fell to the hidden marksman, leaving but one man standing.
He was young, the scars and harsh lines of a life lived without laws and under a merciless sun belying a naiveté that was curse as much as gift. Slaven was before him in a heartbeat, bloody chains hanging from bulging arms.
The boy looked upon the giant, and saw in his heaving chest and the tattoos of blood across his skin a creature of death. The giants’ dusty body blocked the low sun, rendering his silhouette in a corona of light. For a moment, the boy saw there something other than a creature born of the empire’s hubris and its grotesque arts. He saw an angel, vengeance incarnate, come to rid him of his wicked ways. He fell to his knees, allowed his brow to kiss the matted grass as he wept openly.
Why is he doing this, thought Slaven? He felt then a pang of revulsion overcome him. Revulsion at his own actions. Revulsion at the world he lived in – the way it stifled all that was good, drawing out instead the desperate and bestial that should have been killed off by millennia of so-called civilisation. How different things were. Here was a child, no older than fourteen, his innocence raped by the despair of those around him, corrupted into a hollow thing that knows nought but death and suffering.
“Why do you cower before me, child? I am just another soul lost on this grim world, trying to find my way.”
The boy looked up “You won’t kill me?”
“Get up. Leave this place and your life behind. Start anew. Perhaps there remains hope.”
The boy, still trembling, nodded and took off.
Tamerlan was standing beside Slaven, powdergun slung over his shoulder. “I thought you needed some help. Seemed I was right.”
“I was on top of things,” said Slaven, his face bereft of any humour. His shoulders were low, the look on his face ashen, as though a great pall had descended over him. The sardonic outsider that Tamerlan had seen walk into his taphouse was no longer there, replaced by this thing, this monster. In a heartbeat, it had slain those guards and, as Tamerlan observed their shattered bodies, the bloody halos growing around their heads, he had no difficulty at all in believing that the giant would have done the job fully alone, without his aid. He wondered if the killing was over, if he was safe.
Eyes dark, their lids heavy looked at him. For a moment, Slaven stood there, his thoughts elsewhere, mired in an age extinct, long since consigned to the annals of history, the treatises of war-scholars. He was a tool of war once again, a weapon of flesh and shadow wielded by the general-patricians of the Imperial armies. He had no name, no face, no life other than war. Yet here he was, a man freed from such enslavement through his own actions. It was a freedom hard-won and yet he was here once more, a nameless thing wading through battlefields...
This is not me, he thought.
Slaven looked up, nodded curtly to his companion. “Thank you.”
Tamerlan returned the gesture, though stayed his tongue.
“Perhaps now we can get some of that water,” said Slaven. “If you could find some. I need to ask a man some questions.”
Again, Tamerlan nodded.
He returned some time later to find the outsider sitting beside the bound body of the camps’ leader, his mouth gagged. Tamerlan tossed him a flask of water and nodded towards the prisoner. “Got what you wanted?”
A non-committal nod served as reply, the drive of thirst overcoming the need for immediate words. Finally, after emptying the flask, Slaven spoke. “I know where to find that which I seek. Almagest.”
City of Cities. Largest conurbation known to man, hugging the shores of the northern Skarosian Gulf, its sprawl home to men and other creatures by the millions. Millions. Numbers unheard of elsewhere. If Korachan was the heart of the empire, then Almagest was most surely its soul, if the empire could be said to even possess such a thing.
“Almagest is far. Across the Skarosian territories and the rust wastes. Two thousand miles, if it’s an inch.” Slaven nodded. “Thalassa’s roots lie there, and Avezra, the one I seek, will surely be close to hand. I must find him.”
“Only you know your path, outsider, but I cannot follow you on it. My life is here, and I fear already I have strayed too far.”
“I seek not to drag you away from your life. You have done far more for me than could be expected and for that, you have my gratitude. As promised, here is your payment,” said Slaven, handing a handful of bits to the man. A grin staining his features.
Tamerlan accepted the payment, cocking his head inquisitively to one side. “Why do I have a feeling those were not your bits to give?”
They smiled and took each others’ hand, nodded their farewells. The need for more words between strangers was unnecessary.
Slaven remained in the clearing as the man left, his pack filled with water and food, his back burdened by the powdergun he had taken from above. The giant sat still long after the man was gone, long after the sun had dipped beneath the western horizon and the Gulf of Skaros, unseen in the distance. It was only with the rising of the Bloody Moon and the harsh memories its birth brought that the man stood, the ache in his body reminding him of his plight.
As he had hoped, he found a store of shadow-stuff, the glass vials carefully stored between wadding of straw, the catheters and pumps needed for ingestion in working order. He applied that which he could to the receptor sockets about his body and took the rest, placing it in his recovered belongings.
It was night when he left, the waning moon guiding the way ahead. It was a still night, dry, filled with the promise of desires as-yet unfulfilled and tantalizing hopes he knew not to trust. Though he ignored reason and granted himself the pleasure of expectation, of a life returned to normal.
Soon, Avezra. Soon, he thought as he took the first of many steps on the long road to Almagest, his future.