Thursday, May 07, 2009


(First, Last.)

The army that followed us in the last leg of our hunt was no grand coalition. The Lonchё assembled it quickly, with whichever men and supplies were handy; perhaps no more than a thousand men, in all, though all of them mounted. (Speed, in this matter, was of the essence.) Their goal was, first and foremost, to track the riders to their lair, and therein annihilate them; secondarily, they intended to rescue the riders' captives, if possible. My own priorities, of course, were quite the opposite; but until and unless we caught the riders, this was of no account.

The lands north of the Ark of Tears were wild and alien. No reliable maps existed of the place; few explorers had ever ventured there, and fewer yet returned. We expected monsters and demons; we found a few, scattered tribes of wild-men. We parlayed with those we could, though this became difficult as we grew farther from civilized lands; their tongues degenerated into queer, feral things, and we had much difficulty in communicating. Still, they provided invaluable guidance in relaying to us the direction in which the riders had passed.

Other tribes were not so civil; they attacked us on sight or by ambush, screaming "Hackapell! Hackapell!" Their weapons were crude and their tactics cruder; the trained knights of the Lonchё, with myself among them, drove them back with few losses. Still the attacks wore at our spirits.

After six weeks and three days travelling in this matter, the column's forward scouts caught sight of something unusual: distinct columns of smoke rising in the distance. It was a sign of civilization, and by the number and thickness of the smoke-columns, of something far more advanced than the rude tribesmen we had encountered this far. The Lonchё's Knight-Commander gave the order to form up for battle; and I snuck off. If this was not the camp of the Undying - the destination of the riders, the end to our long hunt - then I could make apologies, excuses. If it was... then Ysa would need me far more than the thousand-man-strong Lonchё would.

It was the Undying camp.

Though camp was the wrong name; say rather city. From a jagged and barren valley, tall spikes of metal rose, buildings wrought from iron or something stranger. Large machines were placed all around them; some were elegant, seeming like something stolen from the Ark, but most were uglier, clunkier. It was these that exuded the vast clouds of smoke we had seen from afar; but they were being shut down as I watched, their operators (visible as no more than dots from the distance at which I stood) rushing about in a great hurry. Presumably, then, they had spotted the Lonchё's approach. I worried about them - Petra especially - but I had priorities. I had to find Ysa.

So I entered the city of the Undying. I saw none of them; my gambit of circling around the base before entering, so as to come from the other side as the Lonchё, seemed a success. But neither did I see any likely place where the Undying might have placed their captives. I grew worried - avoided, as best I could, the thought of human sacrifice (ah! Not so well as all that, I suppose) - and grew more careless in my hunt for Ysa.

And then I saw it - in the centre of the Undying city - a great glass dome, filled with greenery. Crops, flowers, stranger things. "Here!" I thought. "Surely, if Ysa is anywhere, it would be here."

I paused a moment. "Unless, of course, she hates farmland so much from her youth that she would do anything to stay away from it."

Having no better alternative, I pressed on.

The trickiest part was finding an entrance into the dome - they were subtle, demarked by a strange discolouration of the glass. Once found, though, a mere press of a finger was enough to melt away a circle, allowing me entry. (I didn't realize this - swung a fist at it in an attempt to break through! My knuckles stung for several minutes afterwards.) I wandered through plots of alien foliage - some of it bearing cursory resemblances to crops and plants I knew - increasingly, as time passed, considering crying out in an attempt to find Ysa. "Perhaps there won't be any guards about to hear!" I thought. And then I saw her.

She was not exactly as I had seen her last. She had grown, filled out, lost the leanness of the peasant - her captors had fed her well. Her hair seemed dry, stiff - the climate? - and much shorter than before. But her profile - for I saw her from the side - was clearly Ysa's. And the expression on her face - just for the moment, before she saw me - oh! Infinite wisdom, infinite knowledge - looking at her, just then, it seemed there was nothing she did not know!

And then she turned; and I saw what they had done to her.

Metal. Her right arm was laced with metal tendrils; her legs sheathed in metal plates; her right eye, replaced, seeming to glow dimly, even in full sunlight. They had mutilated her.

But I did not draw back; for I knew it was still her. I cried out her name and rushed to her, and she cried out mine, her expression one of mixed shock and joy.

We embraced, the steel in her arm digging in to my side. I ignored it. "What are you doing here?" she asked, astonished. "I have not seen you since I left the village - how did you come all this way? Surely you have not been following me?"

"I've come to rescue you, Ysa," I told her. "And the Lonchё has come along with me. Come - let us away, swiftly, before the guards return. We will have much to catch up on, I expect - "

But she was looking at me, her eyes rapidly filling with sad compassion. "Rescue? Guards?" she repeated. "We do have much to catch up on, don't we."

And so she spoke to me, while the Lonchё battled for their lives against the Undying.

It was eight months ago, now, that the Undying had come to her. They spoke to her in the night: her family was all around, sleeping, but it seemed that only Ysa could hear the voices of the Undying. They asked her this: one, simple question. "Would you like to become a god?"

And she said yes.

So they took her; her and the other girls, all across the lands of Men, back to the city of the Undying. They worked them and improved them, placing within them the finest devices that the Undying were yet able to manufacture; and at the end, the girls were made Undying themselves. More powerful than humans; faster, stronger, smarter. Ysa was still recovering from the procedure; otherwise, she told me, she would be out there, fighting against "those who would persecute us because they fear us!"

Smarter? I believed it, looking at her; remembering the look in her eyes. I wondered at what might have been lost, in the transformation. I wondered at my quest; and I wondered about my loyalties.

This last would be tested, presently.

For suddenly Ysa's eyes refocused behind me - her artificial one, rather audibly - and pointed. "There!" she cried, and broke into a sprint. Recuperating she might have been, but I was hard pressed to keep up; it was only moments before I stood before the source of Ysa's surprise. Petra - her back to a hedge wall, sword in her hand, tensely posed - Ysa staring at her grimly. "Lonchё!" she spat, and seemed ready to attack at any moment - this was not the Ysa I remembered! (Or was it - what would the old Ysa have done, were she confronted with one of the hillmen that drove her family into exile?) Petra was in deadly danger, in the heart of the city of the enemy; but, as always, there was a wry smile on her face.

"Dear student," she said to me, ignoring Ysa, "Your friend is rude. Introduce us."

This was an awkward moment. "Ysa," I said, "This is Petra, my companion for the last seven months - ah, travelling companion, that is - and mentor. Petra, this is Ysa, the friend I told you about."

Ysa seemed unreassured. (And gave me quite the look at my mention of the word 'companion'.) "She is a Lonchё knight," she said flatly.

I was forced to agree. "And she is my friend," I further clarified.

"If we allow her to leave, she will bring word of all our secrets to the Ark," Ysa said. "They will muster a great army - far greater than the one they have brought today - great enough to destroy us, to kill us all. She will kill us!"

"Well, I suppose you'll just have to conquer the Ark first, eh?" I suggested.

The joke was ineffective at defusing the tension; though, after a moment, Petra gave a small chuckle. I think she may have just been trying to make me feel better.

"There are no more than two hundred Undying in the world," Ysa said grimly. "We could easily be driven extinct - and that is another secret with which the Lonchё knight cannot be allowed to leave!"

I looked at her.

Belatedly, I remembered that Ysa never really had much of a sense of humour.

"Choose," Petra suggested. "The Arks? Or the girl? You decide."

If I so chose, I could draw my blade and end this - one way or the other. Petra - my travelling companion, my mentor, the one who taught me literacy and languages and the sword itself - dead, bleeding, on the earth. Or Ysa - for whom I had undergone all this - betrayed - maybe injured - maybe -

"Remember me," Petra suggested.

Ysa stared at me. I stared at Ysa. My hand was frozen in place, inches away from the scabbard. What should I do? What could I do?

I hesitated - and then my eyes flicked to the side, and I realized that the choice was mine no longer. While I had deliberated, and Ysa had watched me, Petra, like the cat that was her namesake, had crept away.

Afterwards, I walked outside, examining the battleground. The Lonchё army was entirely destroyed - a thousand people, good men and women, dead. "To think," I said to myself, "All these, dead because of me." For had I not left the village when I did, met Petra when I did, pursued the Undying riders so long, the Lonchё would never have been able to track the Undying to their base, or to die there...

"Think how many more will die because you did nothing!" Ysa snapped at me - though I think that she worried rather more about the Undying that might die in the battle to come than the humans that would die killing them.

"Will you forgive me?" I asked.

"How can I?" she asked in reply.

"Are we not friends?" I asked.

"Now, let us consider the plans for the evacuation..."

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