This is the story of how our world ended.
It had ended before, our legends tell us, and the evidence of that cataclysm was everywhere. So we know that there is some truth to those tales. It is said it took many thousands of years to rebuild a semblance of civilisation from the ashes. This time, who is left to rebuild?
For those of us who were there to see the end; the wars, the famines, the plagues, the great visions in the sky; we did not see it coming. We had seen wars before, we had seen plagues, and if this was worse, well, we told ourselves it would surely get better soon.
But it didn’t.
For myself, I have pieced the tale of this second cataclysm together from many sources. I was there, and met many of those most closely involved, though I was not myself present at most of the events that I relate. I believe the information I received was accurate though.
It is true that I have imagined much of what I am about to write, to dress the facts with colour and flavour. But I have researched carefully on all matters of import. And my knowledge of the hearts of men and women has always been my greatest gift. So my story should not be wildly off mark.
But who will read this tale? Who is left to care for stories now?
*** *** ***
It began, if it can be called a beginning, in the far north. It was a valley, rocky and uninhabited, too harsh an environment even for the natives of that shattered land to settle. It was a place no one would go if they did not have to. And in that valley were a group of people who had no choice.
What possessed that group to choose this valley, to choose such a wall at which to set their backs and wait for the threat to pass or find them? It would have been safer to keep moving, to keep ahead of the pack. But it is rare that a running man keeps running long. After a short pursuit most will stop, and look around, and attempt to convince themselves the danger is no more. I have seen it myself.
They rested, in a cave hidden within a rocky overhang, high up on a difficult path that could be watched from a vantage point even higher above. The plan was that anyone approaching would be easily spotted before they could get close.
The overhang sheltered an opening, which ran along a corridor, a cleft in the rock. It followed down and round a corner, narrowing, and lowering. By this means it reached a large cavern, hollowed from the rock. It was large enough for a hundred men to hide in, and there was no other entrance.
At the back of the cavern, thirty men and women sat about a fire. The wood had long gone, but they did not need fuel, these people. Fire was easy for them, though it expended their own energy to keep it going. Perhaps it would have safer to conserve their strength, and sit in the dark. But none of them wished to suggest such a plan, the light of the flame was too comforting.
The silence stretched out. It was not, I suppose, that they had nothing to say. But that they had too much. About them a crowd of thirty or forty other men and women crouched in the darkness, their faces to the floor. Occasionally one of the seated figures would gesture, seemingly to no one. And the crowd in the darkness would stir, and one would detach themselves from the shadows to attend the seated figure in the firelight, to bring food, or drink, or an object from their baggage by the wall. Then, their task complete, the figure would slip back into the silent darkness to join their huddled fellows.
“How long have they been out there?” one asked.
Another, seated close by stirred, sighed, “You know they’ve still got hours left. Stop asking.”
“I was thinking I might join them, get a bit of air.”
Another, seated across from the speaker, lifted her head. “No. We watch in shifts. That’s agreed.”
“We’ve been here what, a week, almost two now. They’re not coming. We’re safe to get some air.”
“We’re not safe yet.”
“How much longer do we wait?”
“As long as needed.” The woman fixed the speaker with an implacable eye.
There was silence, again. It drew out.
“We need to discuss this.” Another figure spoke. The woman who had answered the first speaker fixed him with her gaze.
“We have discussed this.” She said. Her hair was cowled with a red hood, which seemed to shimmer in the firelight.
“Weeks ago. The situation’s changed. We weren’t followed here. We need to move on, make our next move.”
“We have no next move yet. We wait.”
“We wait, how long? We always wait. If it was up to you we’d still be back in Ylesh, waiting.”
The red-cowled woman straightened, her voice taking on a cold edge, “Yes we would be. And we would be unnoticed, and ready to act when the time was right.”
“We agreed the action was necessary.”
“Against my advice. We were precipitous. It brought disaster, or near enough. I will not allow precipitous action again.”
“Allow.” A man’s voice was added to the conversation. “Who are you to allow anything Ty’llasha?”
The woman’s eyes darted across to the man, sitting cross-legged slightly aback from the fire so he was in shadow. He had not seemed to be paying attention to the conversation. “My apologies Sy’khar. I did not presume…”
“You did. You do. You are not our master, to allow or disallow.”
“Neither are you.” The red-hooded woman added softly. “Yet here we are. At your counsel.”
“You dare to imply…” the man’s voice sharpened and rose.
“Peace, friends.” Another spoke. “Ty’llasha meant no disrespect. We are brothers in arms. Now is no time to fight among ourselves.”
“Quiet your tongue,” Ty’llasha snapped. “My words are my own. And if Sy’khar wishes to take offence, he is free to do so.” Her hand was on her hilt now. Many of the others were similarly poised. Sy’khar remained still however. His mouth, half visible in the shadows, curled up.
“I take no offence from you Ty’llasha. Not today.” The group seemed to relax perceptibly. Ty’llasha kept her hand on her sword hilt though. “Unless you wish to take offence from me?” Sy’khar added. Ty’llasha slowly removed her hand from her sword hilt.
“As the saying goes, ‘what is the advantage to fighting friends, while the enemy is still strong.’” The circle of seated figures relaxed fully. Their hands went back to their laps.
“The saying is wise Ty’llasha. For the enemy is very strong.” The voice from the entrance to the cave rang out, shockingly loud to the figures by the fire. Ty’lasha, startled, leapt up, followed closely by the others. Their hands were on their sword hilts immediately, and many half-drawing. The sight as they looked up froze them all.
A man stood at the entrance to the cave, illuminated by balls of blazing flame that hovered to the side of the entrance, warping and whorling as the flame consumed the oxygen in the air but did not go out. The man was tall, and though narrow-shouldered, he looked strong. His sword was in his hand and he was dressed in full armour, though his head was bare. Strong cheekbones, pitch-black eyes, skin gleaming in the firelight like polished ebony. His gaze was cold as he looked down at them, wearing an arrogant smile. He was flanked by two others, fully armoured, their helmets closed. To the sides of the entrance, moving quickly but silently into the cave like ghosts, two lines of soldiers, faces covered, carrying short spears, lining the walls.
“Your friends were too busy watching the path,” the tall man said. “It was a difficult climb to get above them, but not impossible.”
“Lord Prince,” Sy’khar breathed.
“Am I still your Lord Prince?” the man answered. “Even now?”
Ty’llash spoke, “Have you come to arrest us, Vynir of Qin?”
“My father did not say. I believe he left it to my judgement.”
The soldiers were now deployed along the side walls, spears levelled at the crowd in the middle of the back wall. Ty’llash guessed there were only twenty of them altogether. Her group outnumbered the soldiers two to one, ignoring the slaves, who weren’t even armed. But the soldiers had the advantage, flanking them on both sides. They had spears, and were fully armoured. Ty’llash’s eyes darted to the baggage against the wall, where her own helmet and spear lay. Too far. Much too far. Keep Vynir Qin talking, she couldn’t see an opportunity yet, but perhaps…
“What do you think Qin Ty’llash?” Vynir Qin asked. “What do you think is fit punishment for traitors to the House of Qin? Arrest? Then what, incarceration? Maybe a fine? Is that the appropriate response to the disrespect you showed my father, your Archocrat?”
“My Lord Vynir Qin, we meant no…”
“Kill them all.” The tall man said.
The soldiers by the walls moved first, their left hands raised, and twisted, a blur in the air, as their spirits interacted with the aether, and then fire and lightning ripped out, tearing the very air apart as it crashed into the crowd by the far wall. Many of the slaves threw themselves forward as the fire erupted, catching the force with their own bodies, dying instantly as they desperately tried to protect their masters. But the soldiers had anticipated such, and their first blow hadn’t been the full expulsion of their strength.
They twisted their hands a second time, pulling harder this time at the aether that warped before them, fuelling the reaction with the ka-akh they carried in their belts, and ripping great bolts of dark light out of the air. These fused across the cave faster than could be tracked by the eye, and where they struck home against armour, they burst against the dragonskins the metal was covered with, twisting and splitting the skins, buckling the steel, and making the target stagger, some falling to their knees. More often though the bolts met no armour and tore through wool and linen to strike naked flesh, and then there were screams, horrible to hear.
Upon the tails of those terrible bolts the soldiers ran forward, and the aether seemed to twist beneath their feet, the air moving in response, this time whipping up into a focused storm, throwing the soldiers forward faster than they could run. Almost flying, they shot forward, crashing into the crowd, spear-points first.
As they charged, the people in the crowd tried to fight back, pulling at the aether themselves, ripping lightning and fire from the darkness, or pulling storms up between them and the soldiers, to disrupt their movement, throwing them off balance. The lightning scattered harmlessly off the soldier’s dragonscale-covered armour. The fire splashed and burned out, singing only. No blast was powerful enough to knock the soldiers back. Most of the crowd didn’t even try to pull at the aether, but readied their swords, and tried to defend themselves as best they could against the longer, faster reach of the soldier’s spears.
The tall man remained at the entrance to the cave, flanked by his two companions. They watched the battle beneath them. The desperate struggle of the traitors surrounded by the soldiers. Five of the traitors were already dead, others wounded, and forced back. The fight was one-sided.
“A shame,” Vynir Qin Valir said. His voice showing little emotion. “Ty’llasha especially. A promising student when she was younger. My father had great hopes for her, when she grew up.”
“She was over-ambitious,” his companion to his right answered. Valir looked at him, a half-smile on his face. “You are right Qin Ky’dakh,” he replied. “She was.” Ky’dakh had fought beside Valir for years. He was a superb officer, and the soldiers in his command loved him. They had grown up together. The Prince and the soldier. Ky’dakh had even saved his life once or twice.
“I am more sorry myself for those they pulled down with them,” the man to his left replied. “Forty of our best soldiers and officers. Gone in a stroke. Not that I wish to question your judgement, Lord Prince, but how will you answer your father when he asks if none could be redeemed?”
Valir glanced at the man who’d spoken. Another loyal officer, Ry’khat. He had not known him for quite so many years as Ky’dakh, but they were no less close for that.
“I have my reasons.” Valir’s sword was already in Ky’dakh’s visor before he’d finished speaking, twisting into the thin eye slit and piercing through flesh and bone. His friend barely had time to scream and raise his hands to his face before he was dead.
With his other hand, Valir was already pulling at the aether, the air whipping up into a storm so powerful and localised that the air between them was sucked into a vacuum. A great boom crashed even through the noise of battle below them as Ry’khat, his sword already raised, was hurled away, flying over the struggling soldiers below, to crash against the far wall like a rag doll. His drawn sword did not help him stop Valir, for he had fallen in the midst of battle and could do nothing but struggle to defend himself from those about him fighting for their lives.
Some of the soldiers noticed, but they didn’t know what to do. They were all engrossed in the desperate battle. No one peeled away to engage Valir. None of them could have defeated the Prince by themselves, and without their officers, there was no one to organise a group. There were cries and people struggled to free themselves from combat. But it was slow. So slow. And Valir was already raising his sword to the cave ceiling and his eyes were closed in concentration. The air above him was alive, and as it twisted, the aether that infused the cavern roof twisted as well.
The rock groaned, the great mass of the mountain above them weighed down upon that cave, and sweat poured from Valir’s brow. His sword, his hand, seemed to shift out of the world in part, and he connected his ka-akh, opening it up, pouring its stored energy into the ceiling. A terrible sound tore across the fray, freezing everyone in their place. And their eyes were fixed, with terrible realisation, on the deep crack that now split the cavern from the entrance to the far wall.
And then, Valir took a deep, shuddering breath, and let it out with a deep cry from the bottom of his stomach, and for a second time, poured everything he had into the rock.
The mountain fell.
*** *** ***
So, with death the story begins. There were no survivors. Or none that made it back to Ylesh to lay witness.
Did Valir’s Lord Father suspect his son’s plot, after hearing that he and all those with him, had disappeared? It is unlikely he did not consider it. For in Ylesh, the strongest must rule. And it is rare for a father to die of old age. Valir’s father watched his borders, and sent out his agents. But they did not find his son. Not then.
But perhaps this story began earlier than that moment under the mountain, when Valir first hatched his plan, and laid the groundwork for the death of Kingdoms. Or perhaps it truly begins a thousand years before, when the Ylessian hordes poured through their mountain passes for the first time, to enslave a continent as a cover for their true quest.
Or perhaps, with such little known about where Valir went next, the story should really start some months later. When, coincidentally, I entered the story myself.
This is how it happened. This is how a world killed itself.