The explosion shook the fortress and hurled Dasha to the floor. The Jukan warriors around her toppled in a clatter of armor and spears. She regained her bearings and glanced about the room. The stone walls had cracked. The floor shifted. The fortress verged on collapse.
Master Adranath’s ritual had begun. The demise of the Juka and Meer was at hand, unless Dasha and Kabur acted quickly.
She rose to her knees and barked, “Exodus! Do something to give us time, sorcerer!” From her fingertips leapt a spell that illuminated the shadowy alcove, but the Juka’s mysterious lord was not there. He had left behind a curious altar or pedestal, studded with flickering gemstones and inset with silver, geometric patterns. She muttered, “Where is your revered master, Kabur, in the face of danger?”
The warlord growled, “The Juka do not hide behind wizards. We fight with our own hands!” Then he charged through a doorway. Dasha followed him. They emerged atop the high wall at the front of the massive fortress. From this vantage they saw the Jukan city spread around them, devastated by the earthquakes of the morning’s battle. Chaotic melee poured blood through the streets. And a new terror began to engulf the wide valley. Several dozen Meer elders formed a ring around the fortress, shining fiercely in the thick of a magic spell. The northern point of the circle was occupied by Master Adranath himself. At his gesture great rings of fire rippled out from the elders, blazing through the city in a brilliant conflagration. Dasha threw up an arm to block the heat from her face. The fortress rocked at the hammer impact of the flames, which sprayed and tossed like a hellish ocean wave. Then black smoke swallowed everything and Dasha pulled away from the edge.
Her heart slammed painfully. Exodus had been right. Adranath was conducting the slaughter of everyone in the valley, both Juka and Meer. The holocaust pounded the city in relentless surges. So terrible was the heat that her fur began to singe. She knew it was already too late to save the countless thousands trapped on the ground. Her head swam in despair. Ancestors, do not forsake us! We do not deserve this end!
From out of the smoke reached a powerful hand. It plucked her into the air and held her there. She saw Warlord Kabur’s green face, twisted with a terrible rage. “My people!” he screamed. “What have you done? By the Great Mother, you have killed us all!”
She saw Kabur’s face, the face of the man who had organized the destruction of the Meers’ home forest. He was a hapless pawn of Exodus, perhaps, but he was guilty nonetheless. His naivete had initiated this war. He owned responsibility as much as Adranath. Her horror turned into a blast of anger and she howled as she kicked him in the chest. He let go of her, then tumbled off the wall.
She peered over the edge. He had not dropped into the inferno, but had landed on a narrow, stone bridge that connected the fortress to a freestanding tower. He sprang to his feet and hurled his spear. She leapt aside with a margin of inches. But when her feet touched down again, the wall vibrated at the crash of Adranath’s spell. Large blocks of stone fell free. Dasha careened through the air and landed beside Kabur. The warlord unsheathed a heavy sword and lunged at her.
Blind fury drove her now. To her perception Kabur’s blade moved like molasses. She dodged it and smashed blow after blow on his injured body. The warlord staggered but she did not stop. With each strike the fortress shook, the flames roared, the smoke clogged her aching lungs. Then Kabur’s sword found a gap in her defense. The point shoved into her belly. But the pain meant nothing to her. To his smoky form she bellowed, “Your gullibility has ruined us! Is this how the Juka face eternity?”
Warlord Kabur knew his own part in this nightmare. She could see the mad anguish in his reptilian eyes. With a scream he pushed the sword deeper inside Dasha’s abdomen. For an instant her body faltered. Her eyesight flickered. Then the blade was gone from inside her.
The miasma of pain and fire and smoke made time drag slowly. She saw the stone bridge crumble under the Juka’s feet. He flailed his arms for balance as he dropped into the flaming air.
A voice in her mind said, Is this how the Meer face eternity?
With strange detachment she watched her hand reach for Kabur. She grabbed his wrist and he gripped hers. His great weight almost jerked her off the bridge, but she pulled him up from the hungry flames as her own strength faded. Then she collapsed in a whorl of heat. She felt the warlord hoist her in his arms and run to the tower at the end of the bridge. There they knelt behind a fallen stone.
“The Juka live with honor,” he growled.
“Let’s make sure that we live at all.” Her fingertips were bloody. In the dust and soot of the tower roof she inscribed a blink rune. With a prayer to the ancestors she activated the spell. Light blanketed them, pale and cool.
They appeared in heavy darkness. Sounds echoed from the hard walls of a cavern. Dasha lit a magic glow to reveal the same cave in which they had conducted their duel several nights earlier. A single glance was enough to agree them. Quickly she healed the worst of their wounds, then they ran for the distant mouth of the cave. On a high slope they emerged to see what damage Master Adranath had done.
The valley was a bowl of flame that slopped over the mountainous edges. Smoke rose from beyond the ridgeline where the inferno was proceeding across the landscape.
No one had survived in the city or on the mountainsides. So proudly had each race mustered its forces that few Juke or Meer remained alive in other places. In the best of circumstances, survival would have been difficult now. And the deadly frosts of winter lurked weeks or days away.
In silence they watched the column of smoke billow from the valley, like a giant monument on an unthinkable grave.
Inside the cave they found the huge predator that had nearly eaten Dasha. It was close to death from its wounds, weak from blood loss. Together they killed it. The meat would sustain them until the fires diminished.
Two days later they left the cavern again. Side by side they gazed down at the black valley. Little remained now but piles of stone that had once been the walls of the great Jukan fortress. Already the humans had begun to pick through the rubble. Scavenger gargoyles circled the cold, greying sky. Dasha did not want to think what they might do with the charred remains of two fallen races.
Warlord Kabur’s frown was heavy. He lifted his chin with defiant pride. “Though the flesh passes, honor is eternal. The Juka carved their place in history.”
Dasha said nothing, but her thoughts would not rest. Master Adranath had once told her, Wisdom accepts the inevitability of change. But even now she refused to believe him. The Meer had founded their spiritual beliefs on the truth of reincarnation. Dasha knew her people would appear again. Their form might be strange but their spirit would not die. They would always look ahead, but they must never fear what lies behind them.
That, she suspected, was the real essence of wisdom. The lesson had come at a horrible price, but perhaps the ancestors themselves were a party to this fate. Hers was not to judge their motives. She would simply look ahead and never fear again.
Time tramples greatness to rubble and dust, but glory is never forgotten. Elder winds sing of the past to those calm enough to listen.
From the Britannia News Network - The Journal of Ultima Online, January 2nd, 2002.