CITY OF THE PLAIN
The venturers strode through the forest in peace, walking long under the daystar and sleeping deeply under the night’s wisps and pinpricks. They did not speak of their trepidation concerning what was to come – which was also kept somewhat in check by the vibrancy of their home – though they did not forget what the future could hold, and often woke – individually – in the night.
Then they crossed the Forest River and passed through the lands where Kolchin’s humans were beginning to scythe clear larger and larger areas as they increasingly expanded their cities and realms, as yet crude and small compared to the City of the Plain, and they could not now entirely keep their fear from their conversation. Then they took passage across the Transcending Sea and came to the continents of the Earth whereon an antagonist to life had gained sway.
And after they had landed on the shores of the Earth the task they were attempting increasingly preoccupied them, though it was not till they came close to the City that Thaw allowed himself to warn Ghee: “Beware as we are descending into the City; when I was here before and tried to enter, albeit a smaller and earlier construction, I was overcome with nausea.”
“I don’t doubt it – and it scares me, but I know we must enter; we can’t have travelled so far, through lands increasingly strange and unwelcoming, to turn back now. If we stick together we will get through.
“I have full trust; and I know we must be resolute, but not foolhardy, for all the reasons we’ve talked about before.”
So the venturers went together through the portal; and then saw two sky-scratching buildings made of many identical entwining threads rising far above everything else on that plain. They stood dumbfounded. About them loomed the mutilated stumps of disease and desecration. Immense in scale. Wisps of horror rose from the lumpen buildings wherein the Marquis and its cohorts planned the destruction and overwhelming of all else that lived or breathed. Not that they thought that what they planned was bad – it was good by their lights, even if their concept of development only gave a limited and questionable material improvement to a few.
As for the majority: from attics and penthouses the ever-hungry, ever-shrieking harpies screeched down upon the trinkets glistening in the illume-casts of the upwardly thrust light-sticks that brought such depths of satisfaction that they had to be frequently and endlessly replaced; from the cellars and gutters the ever-needy, desperately-seeking bloaters clawed their way up to grab what was held and wasted by those they considered their betters, be they only plain- and block- and river-dwellers, far themselves from the City’s élite.
Yet it was the City of the Plain’s unique smell that affected the interlopers most (as Thaw had suggested), it almost always being too much for any newcomer, even if raised in one of the City’s pale imitations. Around slouched the dry and alienating reeks of alcohol and tobacco, the stenches of rotting carcasses and putrid foodstuffs, fumes and acid and fuel. The cloying smells caused the friends to vomit in the gutter, their dedications mingling with the oily liquid that seeped down through the rubbish clogging the drain.
Then faint and far stirred the breeze remembered to them by the Forest King. With it came remembrances of spill and tumble, abundance and adherence, soaking through the grey and cloying atmosphere surrounding the monoliths. Subtleties and empathies pierced through the shrouded vale and edged aside the stench.
Although this enabled a clarity to return to Ghee and Thaw, they were left exhausted – after just one assault. They hauled themselves into a dull alley and lay down, seeking sleep and the refreshment therein, knowing they could go no further without them. They went off more easily than expected.
Ghee’s sleep was almost immediately assailed, by first one dream and then another, till he woke and lay shivering and alone in the pulsating twilight, unwilling to wake Thaw, but utterly discombobulated in his isolation.
The guide woke some hours later, not much more rested than Ghee. They could not tell if dawn was near. The light did not seem to change. Thaw saw that his companion was disturbed, rocking backwards and forwards. He put his arm around his shoulder. Ghee was sobbing: Thaw let him.
Only when the tears had lessened did Thaw ask what had brought about this despair.
“O my friend; it was more vile than I could have imagined, than I have experienced, even yesterday. Such a strange dream. All was terror and confusion. Confusion, confusion everywhere. All confusion, caused by an insane attempt to impose absolute order. So perverse. Then the shadowy form of a lunatic biped rose against the dim stars. It let out a call that paralysed limbs. I fell to the ground, breathing in dust, my mind numbly revolting. I lay there for an eternity … till someone came and refreshed me with water as clean as any I have tasted. But this temporary relief meant little, for I knew that dust would return and the monster would triumph. No one could resist that might.”
“I would consider your dream to be the work of the Marquis,” said the guide, after consideration, “seeking to undermine your will: it perceives the threat. But the Water Master came also, to refresh you; though you feel it didn’t help, the despair you felt on wakening was but a seventh of what you would have suffered if you had continued in the dream. And we must take heart; the protection of the Water Watchers is with us, even if slight at this remove: it gives me hope. We are not alone.”
“But I dreamt again,” said Ghee. “I dreamt I stood in a canyon between the squat heights of the City. As I crawled as an aimless ant the buildings fell upon me and I was paralysed again. I lay stiff and helpless, though not so afraid as before. But light returned, a proper light, a lantern lighting the shadow, and the bearer of the lamp came towards me.
“I did not recognise the bearer, hood up and cloaked in a pale shimmering blue, like the sky on a clear morning. But the bearer came close and pulled me to my feet.”
Thaw replied: “I am again comforted. Your dream brings good tidings. Though the squat buildings were indeed the Marquis, the blue-hooded one was the light of the world, bringing hope. The portents are good for us catching and killing the vermin and casting its body down on to the Earth.”
The questers set off once more to travel through the City. As they wandered through the barren wastes there came to them the cacophony of horns and siren-calls. The weather was so warped that no hint of rain or sunshine could be discerned, just an ash-strewn, throat-damaging atmosphere. Around milled millions of people, ignoring the strangers, ignoring the bodies strewn about, walking with heads downcast but eyes flickering nervously to try and catch sight of any attack. So closely packed and so far between each and every one.
Yet while most of the milling legions remained wrapped in their own darkness, there were also those who shouted and raged, intent on inflicting their anger on others.
There were rows upon misshapen rows of blocks with multitudinous piercings, some black as spite, some balefully glaring. And many giving distorting reflections. Everything was harsh, its diversity overwhelmed by its relentless force. Flags fluttered everywhere, leaden and self-important, far removed from contemplative offerings to aid reflection. And everywhere were printed slogans masquerading as considered thought, concrete beliefs, rather than splattered expressions. Pretending to purported a coherent solution.
And at the City of the Plain’s heart, above the bottomless pit of one’s selfish desires, there reared the entangling threads of flaying hate – enshrined in the Marquis’s twisted Towers of Unyielding Vigilance, standing above the Palace of the United People at the northern end of the Marquis’s Victory Parade.
The Towers reached for the sky, attempting to climb to heaven, calling lightning and thunder down through their veins to feed the posturing that hid what the Marquis really was. Even among all that was new and strange, these were the most astonishing things the friends had seen, for towers to heaven that are monuments to creators of imposed social cohesion were not found on Kolchin.
And all the while the noises and smells never stopped, not though a second night fell, for then many lights screamed out harsh rays, casting an unquiet, etiolating pall over everything. The endless, overlapping footsteps would not stop, nor the growls and snarls of the dark alleys, yet the reluctant warrior and his guide struggled on till they needed to rest again.
And, though they did not know it, they were now close to the Square of Harmonious Imposition, at the southern end of the Victory Parade.
They slept little better that second night, exhausted though they were. Both dreamt, as one is inclined to do when unsettled, thoughts bustling through their heads, but this time it was Thaw who had the vivid dream that he remembered as such when he woke. It frightened him, with threatening images and ominous predictions, to such an extent that Thaw kept it to himself.
When Ghee woke in what passed for morning, no longer drifting in a thought-confused twilight, and looked closely at his friend, the reluctant warrior could clearly see the strain in his guide’s face.
“I heard voices in the night,” he said: “did you call me? I know I heard something – I was disturbed. I was expecting another dream, sharp and horrific, but all I got were hints that seemed not to belong to any dream of mine.
“Images soaked me – but were imprecise: it was as though the world had ended. The seas boiled and the heavens roared. Mountains fell and the depths were revealed. The air was whipped from the forests and the fires raging there died. And all else. Chaos ruled.
“Perhaps it was that the Rainbow Chasm had unleashed its power to destroy and cleanse. A power greater than that held within both Earth and Kolchin.”
“Not promising, on the face of,” said Thaw; and though his heart was doom-laded heavy from the lingering strands of his own dream, he added: “but we must not give up hope.”
“I do fear what this could mean,” said Ghee: “maybe I trusted too much in my first night’s omens. Then my hopes had risen. Do you agree?”
“What? Sorry. I had a difficult night. Yes, of course. We will remain steadfast and not let the dark slivers that have pierced our sleep and run us down deflect us from our quest. Our raised spirits from the knowledge that the Forest King and Water Watchers are with us must still carry us through.”
Ni-Ghee pondered a moment, seemingly ready to ask for elucidation, but then acted with resolve. In a rage at disturbed sleep and maddened by the unremitting hostility all about, he strode pass the parading light-sticks to the nearest building and, raising his spear, shattered the plate-glass window. Thaw heard him mutter I’m not having this anymore. Let’s sort this out for all being. Out floated hells of shrieks and yells, and the cloying perfume that seemed to be preferred to living scents. The noise scattered the smog around them and sent the hordes scuttling away. Lights blazed and burst. A rolling growl of thunder or warning or hunting reverberated along the street.
The Marquis was stirred.
It heard the noise far off and, in wrath, called in a voice that boomed and artificially re-boomed through the wasteland:
“Who dares, who of all the creeps that crawl as nothing on the ground, who of all the floating scum, dares to violate my rule, dares to threaten the equanimity that I have brought to my pre-eminent City?”
Then Ni-Ghee stepped out from the cacophony of screams and sirens in the side-street where the friends had hidden for the night, into the great dust-blown, acid-carven Square of Harmonious Imposition as the Marquis stepped out with further clamour into the Square of Inclusive Might at the other end of the Victory Parade. Thaw followed Ghee.
Raising his voice the reluctant warrior called: “By the life and vitality of the forest that you with all your constructions seek to obliterate; by the fire and lightning that you cast as undermining destructions, but which in truth transcends the lumpiness of your quest for immortality; by all that changes and blends, I will not flee nor bow, I will fight this man become monster. I will fight now, for death comes always; and here I have choice: here I may do good. I will fight and triumph. Or die.”
The Marquis did not answer with words, just bellowed in ire beneath racing sheets of luminous greens and pinks: its rage displayed.
But the guide pleaded with his friend, his immediate fear pushing him to say things he would not have otherwise:
“You may have lost your fear, but isn’t this behaviour just recklessness? Aren’t you simply acting with nihilistic bravado? You don’t know this monster. You don’t realise: there are a multitude of reasons to be afraid. It is not the strength of its arms, formidable though they be, but the snares and catches strewn about its form. It is never undefended: never unaccompanied. Its shadow is long and can engender despair. You have felt it. All the way across the Rainbow Chasm, the Transcending Sea, you have felt it. It paralysed you then. Between barely conjoined worlds. Why here in its eye-line are you now so fearless?”
“I’m not: I’m terrified, but not petrified. I must continue, if I do not achieve my quest now I never will – this is my moment. It must be now.”
“Go on then; by all that’s holy, go on. But I can’t. I cannot move closer. My previous experience has not hardened me enough. The world of mankind, their scope and power, has increased so much since I visited that city of mud walls so many years ago. I was entrusted to bring you to this bedevilled plain, and I have done so. I brought you in. I thought I would remain strong. That I would stay by your side to whatever end. But I cannot.”
“Then be the watcher: return with my story. There must be witness.”
“I will. I will return and tell of all that has befallen.”
“But we’ve achieved nothing yet. You cannot leave now. Please stay just that bit longer. For our friendship, for all we’ve been through; for the strength I know you have within you. The Marquis has to be faced, if not now, then soon, else its spawn shall infect across the Rainbow Chasm and there will be no forest in which to recuperate.”
The hammering knife-lights continued to blast around the foe as it started to stride hugely along the concourse, still bellowing.
“You have infused me with enough strength through all the turmoil my head has endured,” continued Ghee. “If you stay here, then our conjoined strength will give us more chance of success; but it has to occur now for there to be any hope. This is the moment.”
And Thaw could see that, in the slots of sanity in his fear-crazed mind: it had to stop now; any delay would only give rise to deeper depression after collapse after What is there left to live for? to hopeless demise. But consenting to stay was the hardest thing he had ever done; and he could not chose quickly – for all that when the decision to stay came it was as summer lightning and burst out as though no conscious thought had had time to object.
Yet it was a good thing the Victory Parade was enormous, else there would not have been time for Thaw to consent to continue to assist, and there would not have been two brave questers who faced the Marquis as it strode down from its dwelling beneath the Towers of Unyielding Vigilance.