All The Woes Of A World - Part 18
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Brielga watched him go and exhaled slowly, allowing all the air in his body to escape into the chilling morn. He felt drained, but strangely uplifted for he knew, quite apart from that which told him Daldareth would perform his task, he was free and could die in peace should his world turn against him. More than this, he could see the end now, the end of his journey, the end of his term of responsibility.
He followed Daldareth's footsteps, and on arriving at the preface point, greeted as pleasantly as he could, the young lady assigned as his Carried. He looked at her, as if for the first time: although in the past hours he had seen her many times. As he approached his eyes ran over her in order to check visually that her carrier-harness was being worn correctly.
"Have you been a Carried before?" he asked as his hands checked the tension of the harness as well as the condition of the clips.
"No," she replied, both with excitement and nervousness.
He smiled reassuringly. "You must learn to relax. There is very little for you to do." A sudden rush of air caught their ears. It told Brielga that Daldareth and his charge had Prefaced and was gone. "Where-de-go!" he cried, making a play of being amazed. His reward was an expression of horror on the girl's face as her hands flew up to stifle the scream. Pleased with the result of his practical joke he gave her a huge grin and raised his arms to protect himself from the approaching slap.
"You're not supposed to do that!" she said accusingly.
"I couldn't resist. Forgive me?" he begged, still smiling.
"Bloody fool. Why did you do that?"
"Because you were too scared to Preface," replied Brielga, quietly. "When we do, you'll be thinking of anything but the Crossing."
"Rubbish!" she snapped. "I'll think of nothing else."
He was behind her now, clipping his harness to hers. "What name have you?"
"You're beyond belief. I'm not sure I want to do this."
"Your name?" he demanded gently. This, for him, was routine. Take the nervous Groundling and confuse him...her beyond the point of panic.
"Rhea. I'm called Rhea. Wait a moment!"
Brielga manoeuvred her to the cliff's edge. She didn't resist such was her confusion.
"When I tell you, leap forward as if you are diving into the sea. That's all..."
"No! Wait...I can't just...you have to...!"
"No. NO! I can't. I need to...!"
Rhea jumped untidily into space. Later, much later, she would come to ask herself if Brielga had pushed her into the preface. Somehow, she managed to achieve the head-down position the Winged required. The harness wrenched at her body and told Brielga had prefaced also. In terror she felt the rushing of the wind and saw not the rocky beach. Instead, she saw the maelstrom of the sea, its white-capped waves flooding what shore there had once been and carrying the promise of a watery landing if Brielga didn't get them away from this...
He corrected his line in the swoop and changed the angle of his wings. As soon as he was level he again adjusted his wings and put all his energies into their beats. He felt the full weight of Rhea and increased the number of wing-beats accordingly. His hands pulled on the hanging straps of the harness, moving Rhea slightly to increase the amount of control he had over the effect she had on his balance. He caught the wind at precisely the right angle. It gave him the lift he needed just as he started to gain altitude. He looked down at Rhea but couldn't see her face. No matter.
"Hook your hands into the harness!" he called.
Rhea heard and did as he commanded. They were airborne and so she must have done something right, she considered. The wind on her face was bitter, but she could do nothing about it and tried to ignore it, concentrating instead on the view birds and Winged alike must have had for millennia. Then he was calling her again, something about...
"I said, we have to reconfigure...I mean, we have to change the way we fly. You have to do something for me."
"All right!" she answered. "What do I have to do?"
Brielga checked his course, gauged his height, made the adjustment. It seemed strange that he could still judge his position against that of the sun, despite its diminished size. He looked down at Rhea again.
"Hanging from my legs is a loop of hide. I need you to rest your legs in the loop. You'll be more comfortable and we'll be a good deal swifter in flight. Can you do that for us?"
He hoped to make her realise it was not just for his benefit, which was true enough, although some Carried didn't find it easy or just couldn't manage it. Some Winged, like Daldareth, had arrangements, or straps, that a Carried wore before the Preface. Rhea was in an almost vertical position, their forward momentum tilting her body somewhat, streamlining their drag, but not by any significant amount. She made the mistake of looking down at her feet in her search for the loop. It took a few seconds for her to realise what Brielga meant and turned her head to look over her shoulder until she could see the Winged's legs. Brielga moved his legs until the hanging loop was as close as possible to Rhea's feet. She struggled to move one leg up and back until her foot passed over the hide and her ankle rested on it. Now of course she could gauge the amount of movement needed to bring her other leg into the same position. This time she had to lean her shoulder into the wind in order not to entangle her ankle or put her foot in the wrong place.
The Winged adroitly flicked the loop under Rhea's free leg. The woman now had both ankles resting in the loop allowing Brielga to manoeuvre it until it was supporting her at the knees. With the hide in the most ideal position, Brielga drew back his legs and put tension on the loop, lifting Rhea's legs and with them the rest of her body, until she had attained a horizontal position. In this way, Brielga was able to increase their speed without unnecessary effort thanks to the now considerably reduced drag coefficient or wind resistance.
Rhea found herself looking straight down. To look ahead meant craning her neck, and that was difficult. The view below was not displeasing, but she did not possess Brielga's eyes or his night-vision. For her, this meant that there was little to see and she soon began to understand why so many spoke of Crossings in mysterious tones. In simple terms, Carried usually fell asleep, only to be woken just prior to Alighting. For them, the change of scene had been so vivid as to be almost magical in its appearance.
In time they caught and passed over the Groundling travellers, but they were too high to see or be seen. This pleased Brielga for it meant that from now on, there would be no course deviations or interruptions to distract his Carried. He was not sure if Rhea had relaxed enough to sleep, but he wasn't about to try to find out. He had enough to occupy his mind. Conversation he didn't need, for now was the time when he had to calculate equations of speed, altitude and endurance, and indeed all the elements needed to achieve a good Crossing. For hours to come his mind would have only the Crossing to hold his concentration. Anything else might mean the difference between Crossing and walking.
Deimos looked down from a hill to the North of Poseidon's Gate. Unlike its counterpart, the terminus stood alone, surrounded not by the homes of Fishers and their boat-sheds. The wind seemed calmer now, as did the sea, nor was there the stench they had suffered in the recent past. These things, in tandem with the wan afternoon disc of the sun, gave the vale that approached the Gate a kind of peace or reverence that lent itself not just to the land, but also to the mass of bodies that lay like fallen leaves across the ground.
The dead were not as distinct as Deimos might have expected, but he was quite sure that it was death he saw now for he had almost tripped over one of the bodies as he alighted two hundred yards from this scene. He'd made the mistake of examining the corpse. He thought of it as a corpse rather than as the body of a dead person. It had decomposed too much to be regarded as anything else. It had been female; he could tell that much from its clothing. But as to such details as age, status... He had walked away from it before such things had become apparent to him, before the sickening smell of death forced him to add the contents of his stomach to the fetid cadaver.
It was then that the real horror of Troy's Hollow manifested itself on his mind, like a child counting raindrops until it realised that it was raining. And yet this was not terror. Deimos felt none of that. Horror, yes, sickening horror, that death on this scale, death by the hands of men, as opposed to death by the forces of nature, could be brought amongst them by those who resented the Living of the Land. Not only the fact of death that in itself was horrible but the fact of death, bringing death, causing death, by using weapons! Now, there was Horror!
Terror was something else entirely. Terror was what these...people, yes, they had once been people, must have experienced as they fled the wielders of the weaponry, certain of the fact that before Angelis had the chance to terminate their lives, Poseidon would save it the trouble.
And there was something else in this that came to him as he slowly, carefully, descended into the hollow, that struck him as never before. Words, so often learnt without the joy of understanding, passed in front of eyes time after time, until finally they became attached to a view or vision of other things or other words, and had meaning. Deimos then, knew the meaning of such words, words he'd not so much learnt as remembered. He had resented knowing them for he understood them not. Now he resented them, for not only did he understand them, above all things they had meaning.
'...in their final moments shall they sacrifice everything in order to hold onto that which they perceive as important beyond all reason. They will strive to embrace a concept of which they have no understanding. It is that most vague and ill-defined notion known as Life that gives Death its power. Each has its own conception, not of death, but of after-life, and with this visualisation each endeavours to make life meaningful whereas in truth life has no meaning for there is no such thing as after-life: anymore than there is light beyond the dosing of the flame or the snuffing of a candle.
'In truth I tell you, however much you deny it, you fear in fact not the transition from life into death (for you in your vanity conceive of an After-Life) but Death itself, for whereas Life is, Death is not and you cannot and do not believe in your own non-existence.'
Deimos shook the horror from his mind and cursed the reality of death and its manifestation before him that had forced his recollection of the words of the Great Heretic 'Lord Lucifer of Styx'. The 'Damnation of Creation' was simply as he saw it anathema to life because it called into question that which no life on Angelis had the ability to understand. It was not enough for to say 'I exist', anymore than it was enough to assume that the Universe was, is, and ever shall be, had been, will be, long before, etcetera, ad nauseam'.
The truth was that he had to accept what was and what had bearing on his life (or death) and answer what questions he could, for no one had the ability to do otherwise. Lord Lucifer had been manoeuvred into accepting the fiefdom of the sub-continent Styx purely to prevent his aptitude for creating chaos spreading to Almasia and the rest of the planet. But now, Deimos was beginning to think that just a tiny part of Lord Lucifer's teachings (or ramblings, as some might put it), had been taken to heart by those of Poseidon and the results lay rotting all around him.
He didn't bother trying to count them. The light was too dim for that. Instead, he unclipped his weapon and disengaged its safety device. Perhaps he should have done this sooner, he considered, but then, who was to tell him otherwise? None of them were warriors. If time permitted then perhaps Poseidon and Warrior would come to mean the same thing. It time permitted...
The 'whooshing' sound caused him to turn but did not alarm him. A Winged Alighting was impossible to mistake. It was a sound learnt almost at birth. Berion alighted heavily, weapon in hand, wings folding back almost before his feet scoured the grass. As a matter of course he glanced quickly around him, as if he needed to ensure that he was not in danger.
For him, this was not a consequence of his arrival into what might have been described as a dangerous area, rather something he had learnt through a natural suspicion he seemed to have that alighting might lead him into danger and that the Heights were the only element in which he could feel entirely safe. He certainly felt no comfort here. He even seemed suspicious of Deimos also, as if somehow Deimos had become the bait of a trap set to harm him by those of Poseidon.
"Did you count them?" he asked, seeking a reason for Deimos' long period of inactivity.
"You must be joking. There's far too many for that."
"No matter," Berion looked eastwards, towards the terminus. "There are no lights," he announced, mystified.
Deimos seemed unconcerned. "They've all gone home for supper."
"How do you know...?" Berion found himself caught. Deimos was apparently in a sarcastic frame of mind. "Your mother was un-married," he said half seriously, still surveying the land. "There must be dozens." This quietly, almost in awe.
"Be thankful we do not have to bury them."
"Are you sure that's not what we're here for?" challenged Berion, intimating that apparent pointlessness of their presence.
"No," said Deimos decidedly. "I think we ought to inspect the terminus. I don't suppose you noticed that Poseidon doesn't seem to be out there."
Berion raised his line of sight until he viewed the ocean beyond the terminal building. Miles out at sea, the city of Poseidon, if accounts had been correct, should have been clearly visible, even if, like the terminus, its lights had been extinguished.
"It's gone," he declared.
"Oh, I wish I had eyesight like yours," said Deimos wistfully.
"Why don't you go and mate with something?" snapped Berion.
Deimos smiled wickedly. "What did you have in mind?" he said, blowing Berion a kiss.
Berion's foot scraped the leg of a corpse. "One of these shouldn't give you too much trouble."
Deimos bowed to Berion's quicker wit and began to walk down the gentle slope that would take him directly to the austere looking terminus. The dead lay thinner here, in the approaches to the stone-built Gate, as if they had been given time to flee before being cut-down by whatever it was Poseidon used for weapons. This idea caused Deimos to halt a few yards from the main entrance and turn to view Troy's Hollow from its lowest point. He saw what he was looking for immediately.
"They were killed from here," he said, certain of what he was saying.
"They saw what was coming and fanned out as they ran," agreed Berion.
"Yes. Whatever did this didn't take more than a few dozen steps from the Gate," Berion added, "was accurate and had a very long range."
"...for a small weapon," Deimos noted.
"Why small?" queried Berion.
"Not much damage to the bodies. Enough to kill, not enough to destroy."
Deimos shook his head. "Not necessarily. Something we haven't seen before, maybe."
He returned his attention to the terminus. It didn't seem important somehow, but someone might need to know. The fact that Poseidon had again submerged should have told him they were in no danger from that quarter. To justify this he considered that the terminus was unlit and therefore shut-down. He rejected these things however, turning instead to the evidence they had already seen. Dead bodies meant danger. Dead bodies meant that the down on the back of his neck, just above the mantle, itched in concert with the nagging high pitched whistle he often heard inside his head when that indefinite 'something' was trying to tell him that going home to bed was a very good idea.
Although the available light was not enough for the Winged to pick out the finer detail, the gross detail of the terminal building and its immediate surroundings gave the impression of tidiness, structural well-being. Windows seemed reasonably clean, their frames well-maintained, as were those surrounding the large double doors, one of which stood ajar as if in welcome. Had normal daylight conditions prevailed or night-time illumination shown from within, Berion was sure he would have had no hesitation in entering the structure. The Dead had put away such foolish thoughts as firmly as if in life they had stood and shouted warnings of terrible danger. If as a child he had been afraid of the dark, before him was the kind of situation that might have compounded those fears.
Deimos was only three or four paces ahead of his companion, his weapon still in-hand, determination still in mind. He felt touched by the silence that allowed him to monitor Berion's movements behind him. These sounds, he told himself, were safe to ignore. Movements ahead within the boundaries of the terminal were what he set his alarms for.
Although Berion had no knowledge of combat or warrior techniques he thought it prudent to remain both behind and to the side of his companion, reasoning that if something slew Deimos he would not be taken by the same or even the next weapon strike.
Deimos stepped through the doorway, his weapon raised, its safety off. The dark cloaked him making it almost impossible for Berion to distinguish him from anything over the threshold. Not wishing to move further into the terminus, he side-stepped and allowed Berion to enter also. Together they waited for their eyes to adjust to the almost total darkness. After several minutes it became obvious that there was simply insufficient light in the world and no amount of waiting would enable their eyes to see.
"Receiver-light," suggested Deimos. "We should have brought a couple."
"This is stupid! If there is power there should be light. All we need is a switch."
Berion stepped forward, searching the black and in his mind's eye for the most likely site of a switch's location. He felt his leg brush against an obstruction. It didn't seem solid, gave as he moved inadvertently against it.
The world seemed to explode with light, instant, white, powerful. Their eyes watered as retinas were over-loaded. Caught at maximum aperture, their irises rebelled, demanded the closure of eyelids to help protect delicate optical components.
It should have happened then. An ambush could have been perfectly executed. Blind, they staggered in pain, desperately massaging their eye sockets with hands still encumbered with weapons. If they were to be killed now they were in no position to do anything to defend themselves.
But death was not forthcoming for death had been and had departed. Their eyes grew to accept the illumination or rather their irises shrank to reduce the amount of illumination attempting to burn out their retinas. In later moments, when coherent thought returned, the two Winged would wish that their eyes had not been able to focus on the terminal's reception area. Retrospective wishes never come true, of this they were sure, but at no time had wishes been more fervently desired. They would not forget the expression of horror each portrayed, nor the curses each voiced, nor the reason for such reactions.
The terminus had been built as a functional necessity to allow the procedure of entering the transit tube to Poseidon to be carried out in a warm, dry and clean environment, uncluttered with objects of a purely aesthetic nature. The supporting walls to the building's left and right were pierced with large windows, equally spaced, four to each wall, each window separated from its neighbour by an expanse of stonework. The wall nearest to the sea and containing the tube entrance itself had windows also of the same simple design and equal spacing. In normal daylight the innards of the structure, with its occasional layout of bureaucratic work areas, desks and counters, would have appeared pleasantly light and airy despite its austere decor.
Berion and Deimos moved slowly, mouths agape, eyes wide open. Despite the light, their skin faded in pallor to grey-white while their stomachs churned in preparation for their brain's command to vomit. Such actions were only to be expected, for the light had made visible what no Winged had ever envisaged nor wished to see. Between each window, attached in the most gruesome fashion to the stone walls, hung a Winged, a dead Winged, a murdered Winged. Each had been slayed in the same manner. This was easily determined, for each had had his internal organs torn out and laid at his feet in pools of his own blood and bodily fluids. Toes and leg bones had been viciously broken, arms dislocated and shattered as if by a hammer. Fingers had been splayed until they had either come away from their hands or split down their webs to their wrists, eyes popped from their sockets, teeth removed from jaws dropped from mouths slit at corners back to ears torn from heads devoid of hair and down...
Berion gagged and bent double. Deimos continued to mentally catalogue the appalling injuries. Information like this had to be taken back. Suffering on this scale would be engraved in the history books, even entered into the Arc Angel's Covenant. This had to be told.
He forced himself to continue his observations, his eyes moving on only when he was sure he had recorded the views accurately. Steel spikes entered the dead Winged through each shoulder securing each to the walls. Wings had been spread and nailed into position. Quills, feathers, primaries, secondaries and down, all had been burned away. With them had gone most of the flesh, skin and muscle tissue. Deimos wondered why he had not smelt any of this and at the same time found himself becoming dispassionate, separate from this reality, this charnel house.
It occurred to him, as he observed Berion's vomiting form, that those who had undertaken these works had been equally dispassionate, mindless exponents of the art of butchery. Those who had ordered this undertaking were far from mindless however. This was more than just a warning to what Winged remained in the world, more than revenge even. This was intended to put Poseidon's attitude to those who resided on the land not least the Winged firmly in place forever more. Yet to Deimos' mind, this unadulterated barbarity said more than these things. To him it said that Poseidon did not believe that Angelis was doomed, only that Helios was diminished now and that Land Dwellers could expect no sympathy from those of the ocean's floor.
To confirm this, Deimos approached the entrance of the transit tube. There was no transit bubble awaiting the next group of passengers. Anyone wishing to use the tube would have to walk. He found what he was looking for and quickly. The tiny spirit-level was secured to the right side of the permaplex wall of the tube. It acted not as a spirit-level in the true sense of the term but he knew that to be its common name. It was in effect a repeater for a more sophisticated instrument at the city's end of the tube. The level indicated the angle at which the other end the final section rested in relation to the horizontal. However, this was not a measurement of degrees. The bubble indicator's position throughout its range of movement coincided with words, not numbers. As Deimos inspected it the appropriate words read: Submerged - Anchored. In simple terms, Poseidon rested on the ocean-floor and intended to remain there forever.
(Continued in Part 19)
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