All The Woes Of A World - Part 21
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The path had brought the Walkers to the summit of yet another cliff. To continue down its Northern slopes they had only to keep walking. And yet it was only on reaching this position that they realised that this was the last cliff for they could see with what little light there was the lowland and sloping beach ahead. This they knew was the easy part for low lying land was all that existed between them and Neptune's Gate.
Thirty minutes was all it took for Mimas to lead them to the first of a series of once cultivated fields, yet he was loth to call them to rest. It was easier now, he considered. They should take advantage of the undemanding terrain. The weather, though bitingly cold, was at least calm. They should keep going or suffer more from the chill. Mimas, still leading the Walkers, was the first to step onto the frosted grass of the fields. He turned to watch them follow his footsteps, a long line of tired Groundlings, many of whom he could not see for they had yet to conquer the previous summit. Halfway back up the path a Groundling lost her footing. As she slipped she collided with another who, taken by surprise, stumbled also and fell to lie prone on the muddy grass at the side of the trail. The air around them filled with indirect curses as they tried to stand up. Others moved to help them. Mimas too, seeing the confusion, considered going to their aid. But then he slipped also, and fell stupidly to land on his hands and knees. He struggled to find his footing but something refused to let him regain his balance and his dignity as if the very ground itself was moving against him.....and then he heard the sound, the noise, the terrifying rumble. The ground beneath him, the ground all around him was moving, up, down, from side to side, in a weird kind of oscillation that was accompanied by an intense vibration that set his teeth on edge and rang his eardrums. His eyes refused to focus as his body bounced around in sympathy with the groundshake.
More of the Walkers fell, some rolling almost comically down the slope. As the shake increased in strength almost none could stand and had to be content to ride the undulating land until peace returned.
The vibration liquefied parts of the soil; that is, to loosen it to the point where it had the stability, the consistency, of quicksand and would support nothing but itself. Cracks and fissures appeared in the cliff on its seaward side releasing huge pieces of rock and chalk that crashed noisily into the risen tide. The cracks spread inland also, wide enough to trap arms and legs and yet too narrow to engulf whole bodies. In this way, Walkers became ensnared and beyond help for the shake was too violent to allow coordinated movement by any in any direction.
The cries of the caught and the injured rang loudly and above the deafening movement of the shake. Mimas hugged the ground as if he might still some of its movement by his strength and his will. But then the violence grew and a fissure opened and the land swallowed him whole and closed its maw and allowed not even his final screams to be heard, nor any part of him to remain to remind any of his existence.
And then it faded, and after long moments left no sign other than the damage done to show it had ever been. If it were to be remembered it would be likened to the movement of some huge beast that had bored into the soil deep beneath the Walkers and, having reached them, was gone to bring destruction to other places upon the world.
Those who stood upon the newly returned solidity of a land that had always been taken for granted and had now betrayed them. Those who despaired not through injury or exhaustion or futility would soon despair for other reasons not least of which was that after all this time their destination was not yet in sight. The strongest, not burdened with freeing the trapped nor giving succour to the injured, took up the path and continued to head North. Determination drew them as if some primaeval sense indicated that one or perhaps two days and nights was all that lay between them and Neptune's Gate. Before them, the coast ran gently, naturally, interrupted not by steep cliffs: indeed, the path dipped almost to the sea, actually joined the beach close enough to be indistinguishable from it. In looking North they looked not behind them. Their time was at hand, their survivability severely endangered. That they still lived was more than could be attributed to good fortune. They had to continue, and if that meant leaving others to their doom so be it!
These decisions they made without words. None looked to each other for guidance. To do so would have been to consider the plight of those they were leaving behind. Morality would not help them. They would argue their reasoning in good time and before God and for the time being they would learn to live with their decision.
The tidal wave could no longer be regarded as such, although no one had witnessed its transformation. 'Tidal Wave' was simply too inadequate a phrase to describe the phenomena. The white-topped mountain range of ocean ripped across the divide between itself and the coast of Almasia-Nor, reducing the distance at more than five hundred miles an hour. Before it went the wind, a chilling, freezing howl of compressing air that sent sea birds screaming with alarm. Beneath the sound of the howl, lower in resonance than the motion of the wind, could be heard and felt the rumble of the sea, loud enough now to resemble the descending mass of an avalanche. Avalanches halt, stop, grind to a standstill, as gravity regains its hold. However, the avalanche that was a significant portion of Almasia Water had no intention of allowing such a petty thing as gravity to affect it one bit. Indeed, with every passing moment the gargantuan wave increased its momentum, and its mass. There was more snow on the mountain now; that is, more broiling foam capping the wave. The water itself was a shade or so lighter than absolute black, for the phosphorescent foam gave some of its light to its creator and, in a surrounding of cloud-worried sky and almost dark, allowed itself to be seen.
Yet it wasn't the sight of this that attracted the attention of the Walkers for none had taken it upon themselves to look to seaward nor yet the movement of the air. As the remaining Walkers descended the slope and picked up the trail that ran parallel to the fields some thought they could feel the returning of the groundshake. So recently aware of the power of the shake they cried out in fear and chose to run, along the trail and to the North. It was the lower vibrations that distressed them. They feared now once more for the wrong reasons and yet for the right outcome. A groundshake would take a few more of them; the possibility that something else might take all of them didn't occur for they were limited by their recent experiences, could not imagine of anything else.
In the end, realisation had to reach them even as they ran. It was perhaps only the most minuscule glimpse of movement reaching the limit of someone's peripheral vision that announced the coming danger. Whatever was seen, it was enough to call for a second glance and then a more intensely interrogative look.
As with all their kind, something never seen was something not understood. Long seconds were needed to focus on and to study the disturbance on the horizon across the sea. Whatever it was that attracted their attention gave them information even as they tried to understand. At sea level the horizon was almost twenty miles away. From their position it was seen that the horizon was in turmoil along its entire length, and along its entire length as far North and as far South as Groundling eyes could see the horizon was lifting skywards. More than this, from the East unto the West the turmoil was coming towards them.
The Walkers all had stopped to stand, turn and stare. They shivered at first with cold and then with fear for something frightful was about to occur, was occurring, and it involved them for they were its sole witnesses. They no longer felt the vibrations; adrenalin had cut off certain parts of their awareness in order to improve other senses such as sight and sound and thought processes. Looking to each other they hoped to find the answer, but none knew, much less understood.
The air, once still, began to move. It in came off the sea, from the East, and carried with it the smell of decay and was constant, like an exhalation that had no need to be recharged. It rose in pressure from a zephyr to a breeze, from a breeze to a gentle and yet beguiling wind. It transmitted the seabird's screams and made them appear as a kind of dialogue that might if understood have told a story or perhaps a mystery whose solution was eluding even them.
Those with superior vision could see the angry foam peak atop of the rising disturbance and likened it to a white-capped wall of darkest grey being pushed on by unseen forces as if it meant to surround the land as a defence against the sea........
"The Sea! The Sea!" words shouted with dire apprehension, fearful trepidation, "It's the Sea!"
"We are all damned and dead! If you have prayers, say them now!"
No energy was wasted on movement save that needed to stand against the rising wind that now plucked at their clothes and combed through their hair, took their tears from their eyes and froze the skin on their faces. To see the water's peak they needed to look upwards and most of them did. Slack-jawed and open-mouthed, they stood in awe of Doom's creation. Ever closer, ever higher, it blotted out even the clouds and the stars in the sky. Ever nearer and ever louder, lit only by its own foaming phosphorescence. This was their world now. The span of time remaining measured only seconds and yet as if paralysed they stayed.
The compressed air before the liquid mountain popped their ears and deafened them. The weakest were blown away before it like autumnal leaves. The hurricane of sound tore their screams and their skin as if in preparation for their deaths, a softening up of their bodies that the water might not struggle to crush the life from them.
The mountain curved away from them at its victim's feet and curved over them until nought else did they see. From the beach to its peak for five hundred feet it hung and stood with the solidity of rock carved smooth with ribbed formations. The vertical surface, this inner curve, appeared not to move. Only by looking into it did they see the turmoil, the desperate violence that was to take them and lift them and envelope them and crush them. A few managed to outstretch their hands, as if they might, by will alone, invoke forces powerful enough to resist its forward motion. But this was not their reasoning. Their hands wished merely to touch the quasi-solid surface of the mountain in order to marvel at its beauty. And touch it they did, and as they touched were they lifted up and found themselves adhering to the wall before its surface tension sucked them to it and in soaking them surrounded them and swallowed them and digested them before beginning its march across the threshold of the coast of Almasia-Nor, onwards over the land, until it could wander no more.
It broke then. In touching the shore an interaction took place that caused the crest of the wave to roll over and in doing so create a cylinder, a tube that almost instantly collapsed under the weight of itself and pounded the once verdant coast, not into submission, but to death. After taking the lives of the Walkers it took the life from the land, poisoned it, striped the top soil from it, disrupted it, scarred it. Destroyed it.
And then came the real cold. The wind that preceded the water forced a drop in temperature that froze all that had been merely chilled in the past many days. The foaming spray, thrown into the air by the angry chaos that was the flooding sea, turned to ice and fell back to the water-soaked land. But the swamped lowland and the destruction it suffered was as nothing when compared to the complete reformation of the coast south of this. All along the seaboard, cliffs, bluffs and promontories, as well as being subjected to the violence of the tidal wave, took on a whiteness normally associated with conditions prevalent only in the deepest winter North of the Ice Rim. Neptune's Gate had the snow, but the coast one hundred miles South now had temperatures of challenge.
Prevented from leaving the terminus by falling debris that had shaken loose during the shake, the Winged, Daldareth, Berion and Deimos, staggered through the near-darkness until they found the entrance to the transit-tube that led from the terminus to Neptune itself. They seemed to think that it was time to leave the shore to its fate, reject the land and attempt to reach the safety of the once-submerged city. No groundshake had ever caused this much damage. And if the truth were to be heard, then it had to be said that no groundshake and instilled this much fear.
Even as they entered the tube, allowed its sickly illumination to envelope them, they questioned whether it might not have been prudent to leave the terminus via a shattered window and preface a Crossing. Subconsciously, they agreed that fear drove them along the tube, fear and exhaustion, both mental and physical. It was difficult for them. Their flattened claws were not capable of gripping the smooth floor. Despite this, it wasn't long before they caught up with some of the Groundlings transferring to Neptune, each piled with as much as they could carry.
Their panic subsided enough to allow them to slow to a steady walk and on reaching the Groundlings, relieved them of some of their burden. Words of gratitude were waved away as they continued toward the city. As if to urge them on, the transit-tube itself moved from side to side in sympathy with its anchor, the terminus. Sounds from the shore echoed strangely about them making the tube seem hollow and empty, denying its sanctity, its path to salvation.
"Keep moving! There's nothing for us back there!" said Daldareth, perhaps predictably, to the startled Groundlings. He couldn't help glancing over his shoulder, staring angrily back along the permaplex umbilical. He was glad he did however, for he was rewarded with the sight of several Winged struggling, shouting, urgently into view. A keening whistle reached his ears and told him to chase, to hasten, not to them, but away to their would-be sanctuary, Neptune. He gasped at the meaning and haltingly translated for the Groundlings.
"Away! Away! Our peril is upon us!"
At his words the Groundlings ran as if the Guardians of Styx snapped at their heels. The Winged valiantly tried to keep up with them but were soon left behind. No matter! They were sure to make the portal.
With desperation dripping from every pore, soaking both skin and plumage despite the chill, the Winged slipped and staggered the last mile of the tube, eternally grateful for the slight gradient. Had the slope been directed upward Daldareth was in no doubt that the extra effort would have killed him. As things stood, they would make the portal in time. He could see it now. The Keepers stood within as if they were not permitted to step out into the tunnel. They urged the refugees on and as they came within reach all but dragged them into the sphere.
Berion heard claw-taps and feather rustles behind him and knew that the others had caught up. Together they passed through the portal and entered the artificial world of Neptune. There was no time to take in the beauty of the permaplex city. An almost-panic allowed them to be led to a place of safety whilst others helped to clear the transit tube. Berion realised that Daldareth was suddenly no longer with them. The huge Winged had remained at the portal to count in the rest of his kind. He had no wish to leave any behind. He heard more Calls and knew that the last had entered the city and that Daldareth was making sure no one was left in the tube. He imagined the horror he might have suffered at arriving at the door only to find that it had been closed and sealed against him. Such thoughts made him shudder and he forced himself to dismiss them and concentrated instead on his true whereabouts.
The walkway they were taking led through a maze of structures whose purposes could not be known to them. After a few minutes of travelling at something more than a forced march, an almost-run, they were ushered into what was obviously an accommodation area.
"Find yourselves a section each, secure your belongings and then yourselves." said their guide hurriedly, "Whatever happens, don't leave your sections." And then he was gone, leaving Berion and Deimos, along with six or seven other Winged to follow the guide's instructions to the letter and in silence. There was simply nothing else for them to do.
Daldareth reluctantly agreed to the sealing of the portal. He dearly wished he could know whether any were left on the shore, but he found himself under pressure from those who knew better than he that it was time to prepare for the worst. He watched impassively as the circular door slotted itself into place guided be the hands of Keepers.
And then it was done! They were cut off. Neptune was suddenly totally dependent on its own systems. Daldareth heard the thuds of the release mechanisms as they disconnected the transit tube from the sphere and felt through his claws the gentle motion that told him Neptune was truly isolated. As he turned away from the door he wondered wryly how many surface dwellers would suddenly find themselves suffering from motion sickness.
(Continued in Part 22)
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