THE DAY THE WORLD STOPPED
My name is Dae Zea Loris, a simple actress of the lowest classes of the city of Asylum, last refuge of the Romolore nation, and my story begins on the day the world ended for us all.
It began with a slow rumbling sound, a deep rolling vibration that every man and woman seemed to feel deep within their chests. Everyone stopped in their tracks, nobles and beggars, warriors and thieves, servants and workers, all paused in their work to stare upwards. A crack appeared in the vast dome that was our sky, a fracture that crept and widened and forked, crawling and multiplying in every direction, as we watched in horror.
There was a sharp shattering noise, the sound of stone and metal rending, and a section of the dome fell free, tumbling slowly in the air, momentarily beautiful, before smashing into the city below, crushing buildings, obliterating hundreds. A column of dust rose where it fell. From all over the city, came a keening of grief and loss.
For the first time, I glimpsed the true sky, a barren harsh emptiness, howling through the gap, a hollow colourless void that sucked at our eyes and mind. Strange flying objects, were entering flying through fracture in our world and darting about. Even from this distance, it seemed to me that they must be of considerable size.
From the edges of the hole, more fragments fell, to their own thunderous explosions. From all over the inner skin of the dome, shards of all sizes began to fall, shattering on impact.
I ran screaming, of course, like everyone else. I raced down the boulevard, tears running down my face, shrieking, fleeing the end of all things. In front of me, a small fragment of the dome crashed, barely the size of a house, obliterating a family in front of my eyes. Blood and gore spattered me, but the fragment did not shatter on impact to shred my flesh. I turned and ran screaming back the way I came.
Inside the dome, inside the city, more explosions came, the roar of gigantic engines, the staccato popping and booming sounds of what I would learn were artillery and gunfire. I fell to my knees, terrified, as a shadow covered me. But instead of being crushed, I looked up, and saw the passing length of what what I realized was a purely artificial, but impossible thing, a ship that flew through the sky.
It is impossible to describe the horrors of that day, of the monsters both human and inhuman that descended to infest our city of ten thousand years of peace. I can only remember images, everywhere disaster, towers falling and monuments shattering, death falling randomly from the sky. Terrified weeping refugees throwing themselves to their deaths from high balconies as buildings burned or collapsed. The beautiful buildings, the palaces and parthenons, the temples and theatres, all in flames. As counterpoint to it all, a constant terrified chorus of screaming that rose and fell, punctuated by the discharge of alien weapons and the drones of the sky ships.
I remember stumbling across a street full of corpses, every man and woman dead, dragging a weeping child behind me, terrified that I might be running towards doom rather than from it. Then hours later, the two of us torn apart as a fleeing mob caught us up, tossing us like flotsam in its blind panic. I remember the sacred fountain, its crystal waters rising to fifteen man-heights, now crimson, its basin choked with corpses, the stench of blood and gore wafting from it. I remember scrounging among ruins for scraps of food. Drinking filthy water from a broken basin.
I remember the City Guard, the our warriors, fine and resplendent in their martial gear, things of beauty in their plumes and shakos, their bows and arrows at the ready, riding forward to be shot down. As they died, the air filled with smoke and screaming of man and beast. Our defenders had prepared for a hundred generations for battle, and now they were being swept aside like children.
The very geography of the city changed. Streets and boulevards now ended abruptly in piles of rubble, dangerous and twisting new routes opened with the collapse or shatter of buildings. I remember standing gaping at a shell fragment of dome, standing on end, embedded in the street and standing a hundred feet tall, its surface smooth and featureless. At the edge of it, there were a child’s legs poking out, as if there was some scamp hiding concealed. But when I pulled, there were only the legs.
Time lost all meaning. I remember sleeping concealed in wreckage, I remember fleeing, and hiding from marching soldiers, I remember fear and panic, blood and burning. How long was it all? A day? Perhaps more. No more than that for a city of ten thousand years to fall.
All but insensate with terror, I finally made my way to the Undercity, to the rehearsal pavilions of the guild of Entertainers. I had nowhere left to go. Yes, if truth be told, this is what I was, a mere actress. A player in stories, a singer of songs, a dancer. In the city of Asylum, we were the lowest of the low. Royalty and nobles, warriors and scientists, merchants, engineers and artisans, even the lowly street sweepers stood above us. And even among actresses, my own status was little enough, my career modest and unremarkable. Except now, I thought bitterly, the end of the world had made us all equal
A Monster appeared out of the tunnel, a looming figure whose head scraped the ceiling. Eyes on stalks glowered at me. A ferocious fanged mouth roared. It shook a massive ax in warning, to bar my progress.
“Jaram Nee,” I swore, “this is no time for games. The world is burning.”
With that, he pulled off his own head, exposing the rotund face beneath the mask, and laid his axe against the wall. The monster was no more than an elaborate costume, used in the Performance of the Heroes Toiletry. The axe was light wood, ancient and cracked, its metallic paint chipped.
“Dae Zea,” he replied. “I thought perhaps I could scare away whatever was coming. It has at least protected us for now.”
“Don’t try,” I warned him, “the streets up there, run with blood and our warriors are slaughtered where they stand. If the Guard can do nothing, then…”
“Still, this is all I can think to do. If I had a real weapon, I’d be up there fighting.”
“It’s the end of the world, Dae Zea,” he said sadly. “We’ll all be dying.”
“We yet live,” I said, to try and cheer him. I felt no optimism at all, I’d already seen too much.
“For now. Pass, Dae Zea,” he said, “some of us have gathered to toast the end of the world.”
As I strode past him down the dim tunnel, I looked back at him, putting on his monster head and taking up his wooden axe to stand his vigil. He had been our clown, a round man of awkward beauty, always ready with cheer. Full of the good humour sometimes forced upon men, given no other choice. But in that moment, he was full of a futile and magnificent nobility.
That was the last time I ever saw him.
Soon enough, I found my companions, gathered around in a costume room, dressed in the fineries of the ages, a handful of men and women I had spent my life with.
“Is the world still ending up there, Dae Zea?” asked Jhay Mekils, the dissolute leading man who had lead so many performances of our troupe. He was dressed as the Proud Admiral Torus Torhan, from the Epic of the Princes. It was always his best role.
I shrugged. “It’s ending everywhere.”
“Then drink with us, and dress,” Jhan Jeryn, offered, dressed as the Goddess of Temptation, “if it’s time to die, then we may as well go looking good. If we must depart this world, let us depart in the guise of kings and queens, and not as filthy common muck.”
“The Princess Asutra,” Jhay Mekils shouted with false cheer to a chorus of agreement. “I remember your soliloquy before the rug merchants’ ball. You really looked the part. Wear it for us one last time.”
The end of our world was to be a dress up party? I shrugged. After all the madness, I had struggled through, it seemed almost a relief. Somewhere up there, our city was burning and madness ruled. So why not?
“But I’m filthy,” I said, “I’m covered with dust and blood. I need to bathe.”
Jhay Me Gils nodded. “Bathe then, the water still runs. Take your costume, and be quick. We’ll set out a glass of wine for you.”
Swiftly I gathered up the elements of the costume, the silks, the fake jewels, the thin plates and buckles that represented ceremonial armour, the tin headpiece plated with gold paint and adorned with feathers and fake flowers, and retreated to an antechamber to wash. The warm water felt good, as I stripped away the grime and let the tension ease. When I was ready, applied the stylized classical make up of the Royalty of the Ninetieth Dynasty and carefully arranged my costume.
How many times had I performed as the Princess Asutra, stamped my feet in mock outrage, vented soliloquies? Sparred with wooden swords? All over now. But putting on the costume one last time gave me comfort.
“Though you have my city,” I recited, “you shall never have my honour. I am yet the Princess Asutra, and it is you who will kneel in the end!”
Immortal words, spoken to her executioner. In the plays, she was indomitable throughout. I wished I had that courage..
I stood to make my entrance.
“I am,” I whispered, “I am yet the Princess Asutra.”
But when I returned to the gathering, all was silent. For long moments, I stared at my friends and companions, Jhay Mekils, Lhand Alvace, Am Boryn, and others, now all still and in repose. I suppose I hoped that they were playing a game. But they were not. A cup of wine in a chalice of false gold waited for me. The other cups were empty, some set down, others fallen. They were all dead.
Weeping, I fled yet again, running down the empty corridors without regard to where I was going.
Which, I suppose, is why they captured me so easily.
WHEN A KILLER CALLS
“You there,” a warrior’s harsh voice bellowed, “Halt!”
I turned a corner in my blind flight, and ran straight into the monsters. There were a full half dozen of them. We both froze.
They were men, sort of. At first, I wasn’t sure. This was the first time I’d seen them up close. Their heads were those of savage reptiles and insects, but within a moment, I realized that these were helmets and headpieces, with real faces beneath, albeit strangely shaped. They bore strange weapons and armour, yet beneath and between that I could easily see the shapes and proportions of men, the glimpses of human skin at the edges of costumes. I could see in the light that their skins were marked with stripes of different patterns and proportions.
Now that I saw them up close, a lifetime of experience in the theatre revealed the dozen telltales and clues that distinguished costume and artifice. They pointed weapons at me. I had seen these from a distance, but could not recognize their shape. Whatever these weapons were, however they worked, they were not props of stage artifice. Streets full of corpses offered mute testament to that fact.
“Who in blazes is this?” One of them asked.
By his commanding tone, I took him to be the leader. Perhaps a Sargent, older, experienced, but leading only a small crew. I found later he was named Beyer Jha. A practical man, as sergeants in a hundred plays and productions were wont to be. Mentally, I found myself casting them in ensemble roles in a one-act play about soldiers on a mission.
They spoke my language, strangely, with odd accents, but I could recognize it easily.
“Probably just some straggler hiding out,” one of the soldiers said.
Sargent Jha grumped. “One unimportant straggler is hardly worth our while. Just shoot her, and let’s move on. We have business down there.”
“Do we have to shoot her right away?” a soldier leered. I had no doubts as to what was in his mind.
“Well…” the Sargent grunted, in the manner of a keeper willing to let his animals run a little off the leash, to keep them more tractable.
Panic gripped my heart. I wanted to turn and flee, but there was no place to run. I wanted to fall to my knees and beg for my life, but I knew it would do no good. My mind raced, but I could see no way to save my life from these villains. I had no weapons, no escape, just this stupid costume, a pretend Princess.
What, I asked myself desperately, would Princess Asutra do?
I took a stance, one leg forward, shoulders back in the classic oratorical pose. I looked them straight in the eye, with every ounce of conviction I could muster. My voice rang out.
“Worms,” I cried, “you may kill me, but such as you may never touch me. For I am the Princess Asutra!
“Though you have my city,” I recited, “you shall never have my honour. I am yet the Princess Asutra, and in the end, it will be you will kneel.”
I took a breath, waiting for the end, intent of facing death with all the apparent bravery I could muster.
They stared, dumbfounded.
What was next? I wasn’t sure. Usually, we moved onto the next scene. I folded my arms, imperiously, and glared at them, as if they were understudies who had forgotten their lines. I waited.
I certainly wasn’t going to help them out with a prompt.
One by one, they lowered their weapons, looking at each other.
“A Princess?” the Sargent said carefully. “Stand down. We have standing orders to capture the royalty of this city.”
“There’s got to be bonuses for bringing in a Princess,” one of the soldiers said. This lead to a quiet, hastily mumbled discussion. They quickly reached a conclusion.
“Well Princess,” Sargent Jha addressed me with a mockery of courtesy, “we are honoured to make your acquaintance. We’d be pleased if you accompany us and offer no resistance… otherwise, it may be that we will lay hands upon you.”
This was enough like the fourth act of the Tragedy of the Noble Hat, that I knew how to respond – With the slightest curt nod, and step forward, indicating submission but not surrender.
Deep inside, I felt myself tremble.
I would not die this moment!
Of course, within a short time, they would learn that Asutra was a character in a 10,000 year old drama, and that I no more connection to the royal house than a garbage mole.
But for now, I lived….
I allowed them to place me in chains, heavy iron links, crudely forged and with an implicit brutality. I had been in chains many times before, wooden chains for theatrical performances. Silver or golden links for more private commissioned performances. But never did my heart sink, as when I felt the finality of crude iron and the clumsily wrought settle on my body.
Tears rolled down my cheeks, and suddenly, I wished that I had drunk the wine with my friends. Had they waited, surely, I would have joined them. I just hadn’t had the courage to follow them alone. Now, I wished I could go back there.
“You sure that’s enough,” one of the men joked, as the iron collar and manacles were fastened around my wrist and neck. “Or do you figure she’s planning to ambush us all when our back is turned.”
“Standard procedure,” said the Sargent, his hands making free upon my body. I suffered these indignities in silence. These men, if men they were, were not moved by sight of tears, they would not be moved by the sound of weeping. “And I’m tired of carrying the chain, let her carry it. Even a Princess from here should get used to it.”
“Should we take her straight to Command?” one of the men asked.
“No,” said Sargent Jha, “She’s just one prisoner, albeit a Princess. She can wait, we have a sweep to perform, it won’t take long, and we can bring her with us. I hope that you don’t mind, Princess.”
I said nothing, but inwardly, my heart leaped a little. To go before the overseers of these brutes would mean my eventual exposure and death. I did not mind a little more life, and perhaps some better chance.
“Besides,” the Sargent grinned, “the Princess isn’t bad looking, and I think we’d all relish the chance to get to know her better.”
The Sargent’s hand again moved freely, sliding beneath my Princess costume. The sound I chose to make was between a squeal and sigh. The men laughed with practiced cruelty.
The next few hours were a nightmare. The Sargent and his squad moved through my city, slaughtering any wounded or injured they found, killing and looting as the moment took them. There was a sort of random mindless cruelty to their actions. They laughed, they joked, they ambled about engaging in casual banter, pointing out sights to each other like tourists. But as casually as I turned my head, they gutted a begging merchant to see his intestines spill out, and cut the throats of the daughters he’d offered them. There was an unblinking quality to these creatures that resembled men. The most horrific sights or acts were no more than passing things, small pleasures, if that, to be engaged and forgotten a minute later.
They marked buildings with chalked symbols and made notes in a ledger. At times, they paused to torture shell shocked refugees with brutal interrogations. Around them marched enemy soldiers of every sort. More of the strange striped people; but also fierce reptilian warriors with insect mandibles and jagged scalps, whose flesh seemed half armour; and tall yellow manlike with four arms and bulbous eyes, and even stranger creatures, some known to legends, some wholly unique, all working together under some evil discipline. Here and there were pockets of resistance, but each time, these were swiftly dealt with in volleys from, what I learned were called, pistols and rifles. These were men, but men without compassion, without honour. There was a strange looseness to them, a kind of wandering predatory quality, that lacked the rigid discipline I’d always associated with the guard. They had more the casual quality that productions depicted of Mercenaries or Pirates? Usually, those characters were hung in the third act, but I didn’t think that would happen here.
Only the Sargent seemed focused, driven by direction, with the discipline of a classical soldier. The others followed readily enough, sharing the purpose, but more open to stray.
At some point, they called a halt, entering a home and looting its kitchen to make their repast. At first, the men wanted me to cook for them. But the Sargent, concluding that this would be beyond the skill of a pampered Princess, assigned one of his men.
Instead, I knelt in a corner, chained like an animal.
One of the soldiers came and squatted next to me. I shivered, and looked away. Was it time to rape me? Would they slit my throat after?
“I’ve been wondering…” he began. I experienced a flush of relief. He was merely asking questions. “How you came to be in that section of the city? It’s far from the Royal Palaces.”
Was he suspicious? All day, I’d been trying to think of a plausible ruse to get away from them, or at least to avoid their Commanders.
“I was trying to reach my private refuge,” I said quietly, “just outside the city.”
It was an easy thing to say. A dream of safety, away from them. Far away.
“Outside the city? I thought no one ever left your city,” another said, looking up from a bowl of stew.
He believed me.
“That’s just for commoners,” I added a dismissive shrug. “To keep them from looking.”
“And what need for a sanctuary? No one’s attacked this lost place in ten thousand years,” another asked.
I shrugged again carefully, picking up the idea.
“There are always insurrections, assassinations. Each member of the Royal family has a private sanctuary outside the city, where they keep their wealth and treasure, and where they can escape to if need be, and return when its safe.”
I didn’t know if that was true or not, but it was the premise of a bedroom comedy I had starred in several times called ‘The Hidden Generals.’
I hadn’t exactly starred. But I was fifth billed, so it had been the same thing, really.
I shrugged again.
“The way was blocked. I was looking for another path.”
“Wait a moment,” one of them said, growing interested, “how much treasure?”
“Who knows about this bolthole of yours?” a soldier asked eagerly.
They were remarkably interested. Much too interested. I found myself daring to hope. What kind of soldiers were these? Though clearly superior in murder, they lacked the discipline of the Royal Guard. Their brutality was casual and efficient, and they made no secret of greed. They seemed as much bandits as soldiers, it seemed to me. In the comedies, mercenaries were always wayward and distractable. Could they be swayed?
“No one,” I said, “each member of the Royal family has a hidden private sanctuary, to guard against assassins within the family.”
I heaved a theatrical sigh.
“If I had made it, I would have been safe.”
I stared at the floor, trying to watch them from the corners of my eyes. I sniffled loudly, and let a tear roll down my cheek.
“So ….” The soldier asked again. “No one knows about this place but you?”
“I suppose,” I said, “your Commanders will have me reveal it. Or not. I doubt if they will care. There is so much more treasure to loot. My little cache would be a pittance.”
“But you’re the only one who knows about it,” another soldier insisted. I had all their attention now.
“Yes, that is true,” I said. “Only my mother knew, and her mother before her, but they are both dead.”
“What sort of treasure,” the first soldier asked, far too casually.
I shrugged again, as if the subject was the furthest thing from my mind.
“Food and water for a long time. Precious silks and furs,” I replied, “rare spices, treasures of art…”
No interest. Uncultured louts.
“Gold and silver.”
They leaned forward.
“Large quantities of that, of course. Sometimes, we must buy our way back into Royal favour, so it’s good to have a large measure on hand.”
Ah, that had their attention.
What else might tempt them?
Not interested in that. I tried again.
“Jewels and gems, of all sorts and sized, in small chests. Jewelry of course. Rings, necklaces, codpieces, baubles, bracelets.”
Too small, and they might lose interest? Too big and they might not believe? I indicated something of medium size, something a man would have no difficulty carrying or concealing, but of substance, nevertheless.
I let them pepper me with questions, hope growing within me even as their greed showed ever more naked.
“Honourable warriors,” I cried out finally, “let me go free! Let me go free, and I swear, I shall give you the location of my treasures. This I swear!”
They laughed at this.
“Oh yes,” the Sargent said, “give us the location, and we’ll set you free to toddle off while we go and collect it.”
“I’ll give you a map,” I offered, desperately.
This set off a new round of uproarious laughter.
“A map she says!” one guffawed. “Well, that solves everything. We can always trust a map!”
“Yes,” I said eagerly. “I can draw one now!”
In truth, although I was terrified, I was a little annoyed. Maps were a perfectly good literary device. I could name two dozen plays in which maps played a key role.
Take the map, I thought, and bugger off.
The Sargent stepped forward, grabbing my hair and pulling me to my feet.
“We’ll have no more talk of maps now,” he warned me, “or of treasures. We have a job to do in your fair city, and I’ll not have my men distracted.”
“She goes to the High Command. The Admirals and Generals will know what to do with her, and if there’s treasure, it will be collected and disposed of properly,” the Sargent barked at his men.
“But no one knows,” one said. “We could keep it!”
“It’s there for the taking!”
“Enough,” the Sargent roared. “The Princess will be dealt with properly, and if any of you thinks different…. Well, any private excursions will be over my dead body. Now let’s go.”
The soldiers did not move, merely stared at Sargent Jha with calculating eyes.
The mood in the room had changed suddenly, we could all feel it. A soldier placed hand casually on a weapon.
Sargent Jha moved suddenly, seizing me and pulling me close. I yelped.
“Obey,” he roared, “or I will gut this girl now!”
“I mean it,” the Sargent snarled, “I will not have her lies of fabulous treasure tempting you. You men are well paid for this work, and easy work it is. You’ll get your bonuses.”
“While Generals and Admirals reap the wealth of Kings?” A soldier said. “Always the same, big promises always, but only crumbs trickle down to the fighting man.”
“You mercenaries make me sick,” Jha snarled. “You will honour your contracts, you’re paid well enough as it is.”
“We honour our contracts,” one of them protested. “But it’s not against the contract to pick up a little extra.”
“Forget it. Scavengers like you grow fat enough on crumbs, that should satisfy you” the Sargent snapped. “But defy me, and I’ll slit her throat and then slit yours. We’ll see how fat you grow with no belly to fill.”
Some part of me objected to the mixed metaphor. But the knife pricked my throat, drawing a thin line of blood, focusing my attention.
“Tell them there’s no treasure,” he ordered, his voice harsh in my ear.
“But my refuge…”
“There’s no treasure, say it.”
The edge of the knife slid against my flesh. I panicked.
“There’s no treasure!” I squealed.
“Tell them you lied.”
“I lied!” I cried out, terrified.
“There!” And with a savage shove, the Sargent cast me to the floor, where I laid weeping real tears. My desperate strategy had failed.
“Satisfied?” he asked his men.
“Very much so,” one of the soldiers said, drawing his sword. “A clever girl might concoct a lie to save herself.”
“Just so,” said the Sargent.
Other soldiers were drawing their swords.
“And a frightened girl, might tell a lie, to save her life.”
Sargent Jha retreated a little, putting his back to a wall.
“But,” the soldier said, his eyes gleaming with feral ruthlessness, “a frightened girl… well, a frightened girl always lies badly, that’s how you know the truth.”
“She wasn’t very convincing,” another said.
Despite my terror, I was a little offended. Improv is hard, particularly with a bad director. I could have been more convincing. It wasn’t my fault.
But even as the thoughts flickered, they were rushing. I screamed and tried to wedge myself into a corner.
And suddenly, they were on the Sargent, hacking away at him. He barely had time to scream, as they cut him to pieces. I shrieked and turned away from the blood even as it spattered me. I pressed my face to the floor, trying to control myself, play dead I thought, and they might walk away.
When it was over, the lead soldier strode over to me, and grabbing my hair, pulled my face from the floor.
“My name is Kavian Por,” he said, “and you belong to us now. We’re not taking you to headquarters. We’re not taking you to the officers. We’ll go to your sanctuary, you’ll pay us, and we’ll let you go. Mind your tongue, do as you’re told, show us what we want, and you get to live.”
For a second, I couldn’t speak. I could only nod, struggling to conceal my terror. Sargent Jha’s dead eyes looked up at me.
“Alas,” one of the soldiers said, “it seems that some scoundrel hidden away in here with more courage than most of these wretched Roms surprised our be;pved Sargent, wouldn’t you say?”
“You’ve got that right, Tega Or,” one of them laughed. “You clever bastard.”
They chorused agreement.
“And having murdered our dear Sargent, he fled, and so we must pursue him,” Kavian Por said smoothly, “even when he flees outside the city.”
Por turned back to me.
“Listen to me,” he said, “we’ve committed murder for you. No directions, no maps, you will lead us to the treasure yourself. And when you’ve done so, then we’ll let you go.”
I shivered. They had committed a murder in front of me. They could not let me go, or let me live. I cursed my foolish scheming, things had gone from bad to worse, and I had only sealed my fate.
Doubly so, when they found there was no treasure. I cringed at the thought of what they might do to me when they realized that.
The next hours blurred, as they dragged me hither and thither. I lead them into the lower bowels of the city, the havens of actors and performers, places I knew well, in hopes of escaping. But they kept too tight a watch upon me.
We were challenged twice in our wanderings, but each time, Kavian Por told the false story of Jha’s murder, and after assurances that the matter was in hand, we were allowed to proceed.
Several times, I rushed eagerly towards a collapsed building, or a place covered by falling rock, only to proclaim that a secret passage had been blocked. They grew frustrated.
“This treasure,” Kavian Por said, “you know its location outside the city.”
“Well enough then, we’ll get you out, you take us to it.”
I nodded glumly.
These were murderers, true and simple. With them, my life was in danger. But being inside the city, being around other soldiers and witnesses, offered some modicum of protection. They had to conceal their crime, and thus could not do with me as they would. Once we were outside the city, the last shreds of safety would be torn away.
I trembled, imagining the tender mercies of such evil men.
Straight away, they took me to the Exile’s Gate, opened now for the first time in a generation. Romolores of all sorts waited chained outside it. Animals, soldiers, monsters milled about. Night was falling. Beyond the gate, I could see stars and darkness, an emptiness as forbidding as the hollowed sky of raw daylight.
We actually made it through without incident, but were halted just beyond the gate by an officer with his own troop of soldiers. These soldiers seemed far more disciplined than the ragged mercenaries who had me. I realized that the men I was with must be little more than bandits, soldiers for hire.
“Whose are you?” The officer demanded.
“Beyer Jha’s men,” Kavian Por replied. “Here to escort a prisoner.”
“Escort a prisoner? Where?” The officer demanded skeptically. “I know Beyer Jha, he’s a Sargent on mop up duty on the circuits.”
“That is true sir,” Kavian Por replied, “but he detached us to take the prisoner.”
“Captain Ullett, beyond the gate.”
“Ullett is within the city. Where are your orders?”
“No written orders sir. Just instructions.”
The officer turned to one of his aides.
“Check to see if Beyer Jha has reported, perhaps he can confirm this.”
“Begging your pardon sir,” the Kavian Por. “I assumed it was Captain Ullett. What the Sargent said, is ‘take this prisoner to the Captain guarding the outer road, with my compliments.’”
The officer looked doubtful.
“This is highly irregular,” he said, “I’m not in favour of procuring…”
“Begging your pardon, Sir,” Kavian Por said, leering more openly, “I believe the Sargent said he was returning a favour.”
The officer bit his lip, thinking it over. I decided I did not want to be out in the darkness with these men. There were things worse than death.
“Oh, well….” the officer said, seeming to concede.
“He murdered Sargent Soja,” I shrieked, pointing dramatically. “He cut him down from behind. Soja’s blood is on me. He’s trying to flee!”
My heart stopped, I looked horrified. I’d blown my line! I’d gotten the name wrong.
But it didn’t matter. The mercenaries and officers froze alike. Then Tega Or snarled and drew his sword upon me.
“You should have kept your mouth shut,” Kavian Por swore, drawing his own sword.
I squealed and threw myself to the ground.
This was as good as a confession for the Officer and his squad. They began to draw their swords, but the mercenaries were faster. In a flash, the officer was down, his guts spilling out. His men roared to the attack. In an instant, the night was alive with the sound of ringing swords. No matter who won though, I knew my fate was sealed.
I had only one choice. No one was paying attention to me. I fled into the night.
If any pursued me, I do not know. Whether the mercenaries of the Officer’s men won the battle of the gate that night, I have no idea. All I knew was a sickening, blinding terror, that had me stumbling across the rocks, my chains dragging behind me.
A dozen times my chains were caught upon rocks, leaving my heart racing wildly in terror that imagined pursuers had finally caught me, but each time, I worked my way free, and stumbled onwards, falling, crawling.
Finally, I could go no further and lay where I had fallen, letting darkness overtake me.
The dawn woke me, bruised and aching. I thirsted, my throat raw, my body craving liquid. I’d played this scene many times, but it was a lot less engaging in real life. I opened one eye, and saw a leather clad boot in front of me.
I opened wider. Two boots. A manlike figure loomed over me.
Above me stood one of the reptilian creatures who had accompanied the soldiers and mercenaries in the rape of my home. I had glimpsed his kind again and again, but in all the stories and tales, I had never heard of such a creature.
In some ways, he resembled the cloistermen from the Ninth Cataclysm. These were only known to us from ancient history texts. In the ancient days, they’d inhabited the remote deadlands, building massive hives, we had presumed them extinct, like everything else..
But this creature was no hive dweller, he had only two arms, not four, and his head was crowned with a dozen short horns. He was barely larger than a romolore, not nine or ten feet tall, and he lacked the sticklike build of those cloister creatures. He was dressed in quilted armor, but his exposed arms and legs showed yellow leathery flesh, partly covered with chitinous plates. In one hand, he held a great curving sword, in another, a kind of cudgel. He stared down at me, his alien face unreadable.
“Hello,” I said, my voice dry and cracking.
He did not respond, merely continued to stare. What was he? A mercenary? A tribesman? A barbarian creature? I wracked my brain, trying to think of something to say to buy my life, or at least buy a few more minutes.
“My name is Dae Zea Loris,” I offered.
Again, no answer. What could such an alien creature want of me. I shivered with terror at the thought of unnatural possibilities. Yet, what could I offer him.
“I am a Princess,” I told him, “my family will reward you, if….”
At that point, the strange alien raised his cudgel, and as he brought it down, I knew no more.