The sky itself was dying. There was one less star to be counted, and thus the call came to strive ever harder against our opponents. Our legion, Abiding, ranked facing the eternal wind and before the unmoving Sun. We cast our shadows before like spears.
And before us, the end of the latest tide of organised opposition to our dominion. The enemy called themselves “the people”, or at least that is what the word they used for themselves meant to them. To us, it was as it always was: outsider, threat, enemy, not-yet-vanquished.
They had established a peculiar symbiosis with their chattel animals, I had heard, and now I saw them mounted on these beasts first hand for the last time. They were odd creatures, strangely distorted and yet also strangely elegant variations of the human prototype. Like true people, they had four limbs arranged in pairs at either ends of compact torsos, heads bearing ears and eyes of intelligent intensity atop streaming-maned necks. Strangely, they ran not on feet, but four sturdy-nailed fingers. The name they gave them, I believe, was “horse.”
I must admit that individually, a horse was a beautiful thing, and with a rider upon its back, the pairing was in no way grotesque. It was, indeed, bold, and in action their synthesis was both powerful and elegant.
Militarily, however, they could be no match to our own powered frames that had no mediating intelligence to guess and mistake our intentions. I raised my arm in a preparatory signal, and reading directly the impulses of my nerves, my frame amplified the gesture as naturally as my own flesh.
In instants such as this, the greater the tension, the longer time is attenuated, but it ended and we charged and they charged and we came to the clash. There was no time for contemplation, but now, after, I have time and so I do insert a moment that traverses many years.
You do not know my name; one way or the other it has been erased – by time or more deliberate censorship. Allow me then to introduce myself: as you see, in that artificially stalled moment with my arm raised, I am at the head of a great legion; my rank is Agetor; my clan, Indikos; my city is no city but the one Great House of the Twilit Land – and my name, that is Chryseo Drakonhaema Phylindikos.
Perhaps you have heard of me; as recollections of the aged under the Lights, in curses or whispers in the halls of the Great House. Perhaps there has been another Adjustment in that place and I am rehabilitated, my deeper loyalty seen for what it is or was.
Returning to the field under the halted Sun, we are outside that moment of anticipation and well into the act. The nails of the horses pound the earth as if it were a drum and raise a cloud of dust that rises above the army like an array of banners. We hear the riders howl.
We ourselves are silent, disciplined, sharpened and buffered by synthetic hormones and enzymes in our blood. My earpieces relay a theme designed to manage my heartbeat at the optimal tempo and a melody to keep my moves in step with the order of our tactics. Every step is efficient and accurate and I feel something akin to rapture as I perform my bloody dance. Looking from above, as indeed our recording instruments do, you might see something like a reaction between two volatile fluids. Theirs is effervescent, unstable, surging like a wave, thick foam of anger breaking at its lead. Now look at us: something like oil in our smooth density, something like smoke the way we coil and eddy. A red mist rises from the reaction.
There is of course something artificial about this battle. We have at our disposal flying machines of many kinds, a mere few of which could butcher our opponents safely from heights they could never reach. Likewise one Kastchei-class manshonyagger could wade through them and quickly dispatch the lot with dispassionate precision. That though would not serve our longer purpose; if we stood too far above them, then they could convince themselves that they fought demons and that rightly then they should continue as the struggles against demons is proper to being-in-action. That could not be permitted. They had to see our faces and know that they were defeated by true men and thus we showed our faces and our hands to them, even enframed in metal.
And of course we saw their faces and refused to notice that we could not see any difference from ourselves in them.
The horses, though… They were different, and aroused in me peculiar emotions. Their long, bony and soft-lipped faces could not be read as naturally as a person’s, but I saw in their wide eyes, in the specks of foam flying from the bits of their bridles real rage and real terror. The reactions of lesser beasts and mechanical devices are only reactions, no more, but an intelligent creature could and must have such emotions, for they are engendered by knowledge of pain and mortality and love and loyalty.
It was not right to erase from this already famished world such beauty, but sentiment was cast as a weakness in the Great House and there could therefore be no riders, no horses ever again. If we admired them, then it was because they were powerful, and if they were powerful they were a threat. I knew a little of their diet and requirements; they were creatures of open plains and the Great House could not contain them. They could only remain outside and that was intolerable to our masters. I think perhaps that jealousy was hidden in their motives.
And as for myself, perhaps I could not bear to see such a thing corrupted either by enslavement by the abhumans I knew would master the Valley in the end and neither could I bear to see them constrained in the black metal halls of the House.
I did not think too long on that last point. Sentiment, I said, is a weakness, and worse than that, it is hypocrisy. I would not permit myself to weep as they died, as I killed them.
Continue at THE NIGHT LAND