I woke with the first rays of our dying red sun, and used its light to guide me to the ancient city, that throng of spires & bridges, that place of legend.
By horse I rode across snow-smothered fields, through villages littered with little broken shacks. Botanic specimens poked up through ridges of snow, dead or naked and no longer able to offer anything to the world, no culinary or medicinal benefit. How my old brethren would have abhorred such a sight. Bones of animals lay strewn about without dignity along dirt tracks, stripped of all the value they had been deemed to possess. Abandoned.
I could not ascertain the age of any buildings out here. They were perhaps hundreds, maybe thousands of years old, or perchance they had crumbled very recently from small-scale conflicts or were disabled by the weather. They were snow-tipped and crippled and devoid of life. This dying earth showed no remorse.
Villages and towns were settlements directly from hell. There existed – though barely – some very desperate people. Forgotten men and women scraped together a way of life from this noble land; and they came to me in groups, hoping I could help. For the most part all I had were guiding words, ones crafted from the very form of Bohr Himself (if I still believed in them), and I prayed that such utterances could offer solace.
In one village I was able, with caution, to utilize the book I carried and disaggregated the ice from a local lake. They intended to fish there, though I was not confident they would find much, but I left them with the hope – because without hope they would most certainly perish quickly.
Many of the people in rural areas seemed vacant inside – I saw it in their eyes, though they were different from the dead who, kept mobile by some fake cultist trickery, drifted between shadows; a presence that tormented the locals.
But some have sunk to terrible depths. On one dark night, through a village I do not wish to name, I witnessed people feasting on the flesh of other humans. I could barely meet the whites of their eyes, focusing instead on the morbid morsels within their fingers and the kin-blood that dripped onto the frozen ground. It did not take second sight to know these moral turpitudes were not few and far between. Skeletons were hanging from trees, bones rattled against bark in the wind – my instincts suggested some kind of local law was in operation out here, away from Imperial soldiers which, I noted, were in short supply, and I knew better than to question the presence of these execrable totems.
Of true humanity, I noted very little present.
I progressed further, as the echoes of the past came to my mind yet again.
I saw the burning buildings and heard the screams, which still ricocheted around my skull. Those things really happened. I saw the hired militias hauling supporters and protectors into the street and their heads being severed before their families. Women being taken to one side as payment, and raped repeatedly. Those things really happened.
And my secret shame was that all I could do was watch; watch as civilization began to crumble on a far-off island. I watched lives disappear or be ruined. And their sins? Simply protecting me, protecting the truth, protecting my path to Villjamur. Because of what I knew, because I was betrayed, because I put my faith in those close to me.
Those things really happened.
In the distance I could see it, finally, the capital of this Empire. The oldest city we had on these islands, though it did not always go by this name. In written history – for what that was worth – Vilhallan was how she was born, eleven thousand years ago, before the so-called Treaty of Science, where the cultists allied themselves with a society crafted by King Hallan Hynur. An ice age destroyed much of that, though I suspect that was a natural phenomenon. Not like this . . . How few people knew these facts of the city in which they lived?
I saw the giant walls and the dark mass of people banking up against them, and leading in that direction was the smeared, well-trodden mud-road that pulled the landscape open like a wound. There were plumes of smoke drifting above like devil-wraiths. The city needed spiritual attention. Garudas circled the city, weaving between those bridges which span almost from cloud to cloud – paths one could believe the gods may tread. The spires went ever upwards, beyond comprehension, and from many of those buildings were banners rippling in the onshore breeze.
It was exactly how I remembered, and it had been so for millennia. It was the home of many of our ancestors, of heritage and culture, and being so it was my last hope. Perhaps it was to be the hope of every one of us left alive.
If only you knew of the magic you were hiding . . .