Authors: John F. O' Sullivan
John F O’Sullivan
By John F O’Sullivan
Copyright © 2015 by John F O’Sullivan
Cover design © Carolina Fiandri, Circecorp Design.
Map © Sebastian Sanchez, Dibujos De Sebastian
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His last steps dragged behind him, each one a struggle, each a last hope.
He wanted a smoke, he was dying for one. One last puff of Cynthia’s tobacco, one last stay in her bed; he would pass his hand through her hair, he would brush her lips with his, run his hand slowly down to the small of her back, drop his head to the comfort of her bosom, listen to her sweet voice. A voice that understood and cared and empathised. He imagined her arms wide, running into them, embracing, caring, knowing, tears soft along her cheeks, his arms enfolding her, hers dropping close, wrapping around him, ephemeral, translucent, dust, air.
She was dead. An anguished growl escaped through his parted lips, its source deep within him, deeper than flesh.
He leaned forward, crumpling into himself, stumbling on. He walked upon dead flesh. He trod, step by step, on his companions. His legs dragged, the toes of his feet catching loose limbs and dropping into puddles of red, kicking and digging into heads of men he had once known, disturbing the flies from their lunch. The sky was cloudy overhead, a mix of dark and white, occasional bursts of blue dispensing yellow rays onto the nightmare feast below.
His ears rang, but not enough to drown out the cawing of crows, the thirsty cries of vultures and ravens, the flapping of their wings as they burst in great flocks into the air, fighting and pecking at one another for the prime morsels, even though there was more than they could ever eat. Horses neighed, calling out in pain or need, dying, like him, somehow still breathing, somehow still a part of this world, not released or allowed into sleep and slumber, into final rest, into final ending.
His foot caught and he fell lazily onto one knee and a hand. The smell was thick and fresh, and all too familiar. He stopped, head hanging, and groaned into the stained ground, spittle flapping from his lips. He blinked his eyes, a tear dangled and fell from his eyelash; no one to see it, no one to hear it fall. It sank into the earth, mixed with blood and dirt. He clasped the palm of a dead man and rose once more.
Blood trailed down his right side, holding to an established path, a thick, miniature river across the dry plains of his skin. It meandered to the tip of his middle finger, where it grew in weight, building, budding, until it dropped its seed upon the earth. Every step, another drop, nurturing the soil.
His nose was blocked, bloodied and dirty and hung limply with snot. He breathed through his mouth, but he could still
the foulness in the air, the fetid breath of the dead.
His eyes were white. He saw through a hazy, greyed mist; blurred depictions of blood, death and hideous waste. His head was a ball of pain. It bounced on his neck and swung round, looking down at each face below him as he climbed over corpses of animal, man and beast.
The religions had lied, the priests had lied; it had all been a lie. A race descended from the gods? In God’s own image? Made above all others? They were not above others. He knew that now. Mankind knew that now. They had learned. They had paid for their failures, for their weaknesses. But they were not diminished as a result, not in his eyes, not ever. Never were they more deserving, never had there been more pain.
There was a superior race, but despite this, man still survived. Despite all, they persevered. There was one man who had led them to salvation. One man above all others. He had ridden at his side that day, but had disappeared in battle.
It was this man he now looked for in the ruins of the battle. It was his face that he searched for and could not find. He could not be dead. There could never be death for such a man, if he was a man at all. Had Connia any faith in the divine left within him, it would be in this man, as though he had been sent to save them. What cruel treatment by the gods if so, for he had suffered as much as everyone. He had carried humanity precariously on his shoulders.
He heard the bestial growl that still sent shivers down his spine. But not for much longer. They had made it this far. The final charge of mankind. He turned to face the beast, the superior animal. It was a hundred yards from him, its claws deep within one of his friends, feasting on the spoils of their genocidal war. Connia laughed suddenly, sending pain through his crippled chest.
Connia looked across at his leader and general. His eyes were afire, but Connia knew there was a depth of untold sadness behind that burning gaze, a depth of feeling more profound and charged than any other man he knew, like all things about Levitas; he just had more of everything than a normal man. He burned blindingly bright for all to see. He was the most inspirational and awe-inspiring man that Connia had ever come across.
He would follow him to death a thousand times over, as would the ten thousand at their backs. They rode atop the finest chargers that humanity had left to offer. He looked down at his own. Not as good as the old Tespan that he had ridden a lifetime ago, his old friend and companion and one of the finest battle horses on the Tespan continent. He was dead.
When everything had been taken from a man. His family and friends, his nation, his identity and his home. When he had been chased and tormented. When he had awoken amidst a nightmare, every day, for two years. When all he knew was aflame and destroyed. The chance of a glorious end, a final charge, where he could turn around and stop running, was all he wanted, all he needed. Finally. Finally. Finally. Those bastards would see his face, livid with righteous fury, charge them down. Although they all knew that they marched to their doom, it was, after years of torment, a very small price to pay.
Many more than ten thousand had volunteered from the bedraggled ranks of mankind’s army, but Levitas had refused to take them. Ten thousand was enough, he had said, they would need no more, and he would not entertain the notion of useless deaths. He had never been wrong before, never. He would be right once more, a final time.
His five greatest generals had been left behind. There were enough experienced men in the ten thousand to do what needed to be done. The five—Keis, Haryana, Gabbon, Illinois and Saltan Heyman—would be charged with relocating most of the population, all those who had migrated south. They would build a new unified system of governance that would, if the ten thousand were successful, lead to a peaceful and unified mankind, where they would help one another and live in peace. We have all learned the horrifying scale of our mistakes. They will never be forgotten. Levitas had left clear instructions on this as well. He said it would work, he said the new unified nation of all would be better than it had ever been before. That, eventually, when they were strong again, they could reclaim the land from the beasts. He had never been wrong.
Some whispered now that he was divine. Even Connia was starting to believe.
He wheeled his horse, looking out over the rocky fields and the army that inhabited them. The smell of horse shit, steaming mounts, sweat and piss hung thick in the air; but occasionally the breeze, blowing from the north, replaced the smell with the fresh open air, the grasslands, flowers in bloom, the bark of idle trees and green leaves.
Ten thousand men and ten thousand mounts, followed by five thousand more held in reserve by a further two thousand men or so, made a large host. They snorted and stamped, churning the ground beneath their hooves to a dense mud, over open grasslands that spread wide to both sides, gently rising and falling more slightly than could be called hills.
An immense sight, belittled by its backdrop, where the great herds of humankind had gathered to construct a wall on a scale that was never before seen. And to either side of them and above, spread out from west to east, were the great Woanaan peaks, mountains of incredible size, perhaps the largest in the world, overlapping one another, snow-capped and utterly impassable. The only way through the pass they now walled up. At the edge of his vision, to the east, he could just make out the first signs of a sea, just as he knew to the west was an ocean of prodigious size. A natural wall, a natural protection, made whole by the manmade structure in its depths. It would protect them, it would save them, and cut them off from the rest of the world.
The sound of hammering, the clangs of metal, of stone cracking, of hundreds of thousands at labour echoed, distorted and conjoined, for miles around. Work had commenced weeks before, the numbers of workers increasing day on day as more crossed the border from the Dessotta plains into the Woanaan peaks, where they might be safe. What it did not lack was manpower, though how it could be organised and made efficient, Connia did not know. Levitas had faith, so he did too. Seven days, that’s what they needed to finish the wall. That was why this march was needed.
It looked as though all humanity were at labour in front of him. He realised with a shock that they were. A wry smile spread across his face.
“Quite a sight, isn’t it, my friend?” Connia looked across at the sad smile on Levitas’ face and met the eyes that glowed red and steady.
“Yes. Yes, Lev, it is.”
“Who would have thought this would be it? Do you remember being a boy, my friend?”
“Not really, sire.”
Levitas grunted. “Well, I doubt this would have been in your dreams for the future anyway.” He laughed suddenly. “It truly is a wonder.” Connia looked at the man. He was unbreakable.
“Yes it is, my lord, yes it is. We have come a long way.”
“Yes, so come now, no more with the titles. I am a man, just as you are. We are men here together, of a one. Let us talk as man to man, in these final moments of ours. You are a brave man, Connia.”
“And you, Lev.”
“Yes, I am. I have never been afraid to admit to what I am. It has always seemed too short and fragile a life to me, to behave with false modesty, to live by lies, fears or embarrassments. We are an odd mix, us humans. We behave as though uncertain about our demise. But we are certain now, aren’t we, Connia?”
“Yes, Lev, we are.”
“So tell me now, without our usual stupidities, what kind of man you are, Connia.”
Connia hesitated for a moment, then he realised the wisdom in Levitas’ words. Yes, he thought, yes, finally, let it all fall away.
“Yes, I am a sad man, Lev. I am broken, I have loved and lost. Things have been taken from me, I feel … overwhelmed by the tragedy of this life and, in truth, as a result, I think that I am now able to embrace death in a way that I never thought I would have. It no longer fears me. The continuation of this life is what fears me. I am a good man, Lev. Like all I have made mistakes but through good intentions or else inner frailties. I am brave. I have always been so. I am strong, I have withstood, and I shall until my death. I threw everything I had at life, every waking moment. I tried my best. It kicked me down, again and again. Fuck it. Fuck life.”
“We march, knowing ourselves. We march with admiration and respect for who we are.” His eyes burned bright with fervour, wide, staring into Connia’s. Connia did not look away. “We march with love for our species and love for ourselves, with anger at those that have taken a peaceful life from us and with relief that it will end. At least that is how I will march to my death, Connia.”
Connia nodded firmly. “Yes, my lord, yes, me too.”
He turned to the assembled men behind him. The snorting and beating of hooves of ten thousand horses echoed throughout the clearing. There were far too many and the noise far too loud for the great general to be heard. He knew this, but he had prepared a speech for this day. It had been copied down to a hundred different parchments and would be read out, line after line, by the leaders of the hundred hundreds after Levitas spoke it. He had talked to each and every one of them about this. None were to break the seal until he gave the signal and were only to read each line after he had spoken them. He would pause between each.
“Listen to me, Connia. Listen to my words!”
He galloped from the hill. He reined in before the mass of stamping cavalry, still on a slight rise above the majority of them, still visible to most. He raised his hand, and the hundred officers opened the sealed speech. He started slowly, sitting his horse deathly still, as though impeaching all in front of him to be equally silent. There was a shuffling to attention as riders reined in their mounts, trying to follow their leader’s example, show respect while he spoke.
His voice echoed over the clearing, the noise clear, the words indistinct. Those few at the front felt privileged to hear it straight from his mouth. He paused after each rousing sentence and his words were repeated a hundred times, chanted almost in unison. The effect was immense, somehow solemn and holy. There was quiet over the clearing.
“We said we would give them a week. That is what we have promised and that is what we will give. We will give our kinsmen, we will give our species, this one week. They know what to do. Do you know what you do, this day and tomorrow and for the remainder of this week? Do you know? Today you save mankind, today you become the greatest heroes to our species that there will ever be. We have been threatened. We have been attacked and harried, but we will not give in. HUMANITY will not give in! We fight for HUMANITY!”
“We were once many, but now we are one. The beasts thought to separate us, drive a wedge between us, but instead they unified us! They tried to commit genocide, but today they fail! Tomorrow, they fail! For every day, from now until the end of days, they will fail! Through our terror! Through our suffering! We have created a new world of man! We have become unified! We will never separate ourselves from one another again!”