weekly (Another Night…) – 6

He remembered watching the captive and weakened wind spirit slowly beat back the flames with a rough and blinding spray of sand and air. Anyone capable of doing so had turned out in the midst of that wild, skin-tearing tempest of shredded stone and shredding winds, to watch the living embodiment of that which had been lost.

In the dusty, choking aftermath that hung in the dead air for weeks afterward, the open sores of the scorched buildings had been bandaged with the remnants of the more fully ravaged apartments nearer to the edges, that Manadan had referred to as unsurprisingly cannibalistic.

Gupti chewed the gummy date to tiny pieces as he ruminated on this Manadan-like moment. It seemed the bitter old bee-keeper and tomb-walker was finally rubbing off on him.

There was no denying that life in the slums was unfairly hard, with the death of the wind and the end of the world coming slowly and steadily for them all, but the days before had been unarguably cruel. There honestly was no comparison.

Uprisings, plague, corruption, factional strife, and everything else the pack and press of far too many bodies in far too small a space would yield. All of it had been expected, understood, however mindless, malicious or luckless its source. There were countless precedents for each.

The Academy had revealed the repetition of history, the inevitable and unchangeable workings of the universe in the gears of the mighty and near-eternal D’nom machinery. Famine, war, and cleansing flame; monarchies, theocracies, and so-called republics; invasions, divisions, and three temporal revisions; the ring walls of Ullah Fariq Mahkisi had seen it all, and endured it all.

The D’nom had never lost, and Mahkisi had never fallen, but the memory of its enemies was painfully short. Internal and external, new and old, they constantly sought to breach the city’s defenses. Wave after wave, tide after treacherous tide, though, the outcome was always the same. All who failed to conquer, flee, hide, or negotiate found themselves, for the remainder of this life, within the grid-lined, barren simplicity of the Salah Al-Din Slums, bound to slavery and abuse and misery.

All that had been before.

Before, there had been wicked taskmasters and unfair laws. The slums had been vicious and angry and brutal, a cesspool of swollen pain, thick misery, and squashed hope. Generation after generation had broken itself against the timeless walls, the sad survivors ground to pieces in the mines and waste pits and slaughterhouses.

Before, there had been blind excess, wholesale greed, and raucous, exuberant waste. Chaos had been the only law as the rest of the city ravaged the slums and those within with a wanton abandon that left no space for the imagination of horrors.

Before had been evil. After had been life.

The discovery of doomsday had changed everything. Even as the world outside fell apart, dying a protracted and painful death of bone-sparching nothingness, the slums proved they were nothing if not resilient.

Gupti had only just been born, but his oldest surviving sister often told him about the day the sorcerors had learned the date, to the year, day, minute, and second, of the end of civilization and the world.

The elements had long been out of balance, struggling for dominance, and the city had weathered the resulting wild flux of seasons for more than a hundred years, but on that day, the elementals of fire had won, and therefore, in fifty-seven years’ time, the city and the world would be consumed by the unquenchable flames of Zhak ab Visi al-Naboul.

A child’s bedtime scare in any other age.

Naira described the mindless havoc across all areas of Mahkisi, nowhere more wildly present than here in the slums. The iron grip of the upper city had disappeared when the ever-present wardens, brutal and ruthless in their demand for absolute control in the name of Mahkisi, vanished beyond the monstrous gates of Salah Al-Din at the first news of this doomsday.

The people of the slums, once proud and vicious and vibrant races, who had long since been caged as slaves and less, were suddenly armed with this vacuum of forgotten freedom, but no one to release their unforgotten vengeance upon.

Then came the darkest days. There was far too much pain and fear and memory to be ignored, and far too small a place to forget.

So the slums had fed on themselves.

The first months were anarchy and death on an unprecedented scale, even for the Mahkisi. There was no escape and no safety. There was only survival. These were the years at the beginning of Gupti’s memory.

Dodging the prowl gangs that cackled and hunted their way through ever-changing blocks of home territories; scrabbling for bits of cast off leather to make weak cold stews because the sight or smell of a fire would draw predators out of the very walls and earth; sleeping with one ear against a door or wall to hear the vibration of footsteps; and all the while, the stench of the silent, dead air.