Chapter 15: Flight of the Dragons
Needless to say, the Prester returned to his yurt and said an earnest prayer. Little it mattered he was a devout Nestorian, not exactly amenable to the Pope or even the Eastern Patriarch (who, himself, was on the Pope’s Shit List); but so be it! A Nestorian he was, just one of many in a world full of heretics.
The important thing was saying the prayer. Prester John rose from his knees realizing sleep would be impossible. After all, he had schwirped through bubbling crude and spoken to an archangel in a hovering yurt. Not your average eve. He shuffled in a tight circle, rolling events in his mind, not terribly sure he was totally sane. All around him were stacked a multitude of wooden chests, hardly enough room for him to repose; and the only clear area was around the yurt’s central hearth. Yet each chest held curious objects of more or less worth, a little of this-or-that and what-not-else. I need more room, a bigger yurt. No! A combination laboratory and command tent. What a gift! A seeping pond of crude naphtha.
His mind kept racing as sparks of knowledge danced to a tune of erudition. In one of the chests reposed the The Secret Book of Rustam—the Great Book of Shazams as written by his noble ancestor, the court Magus of King Shapur. Simple formulae were nothing more than sulphurs and nitrates tossed to flames with a dramatic gesture while proclaiming, “Shazam!” Yet Rustam’s alchemy had devised compound mixtures containing exotic additions: petered salts, brimstone, pine pitch, naphtha, and mercurium fulminates—the ingredients of liquid fire and self-detonating explosives of unknown power.
Prester John stood amazed and trembling. All needed materials lay close before him, right here at the northern edge of the Asian steppes.
· * * * *
Meanwhile just to the north, the night held quiet on Aktobe’s crest. Only the distant howl of a wolf deep in the forest. When the wind freshened from the north, Daemon could hear it; yet when the breezed dropped, the wolf’s lament was too far off. The clouds above him, once clustered, now tightened into a singular mass; and slowly, one by one, the stars received their blanket. He and the Blue Bitch strode before a double line of one-eyed men, eighty Alphas turned off and dormant. “In the morning we will flip the ‘Big Switch,’ sort of speaking,” claimed Daemon glibly, “And you will lead them down the hill to Aktobe. At your rear, Kriegor will command a million Level One Drones, an overstatement, not many professionals but a nice round number.”
“What is the enemy’s strength? Five thousand?” she quizzed.
He glanced to her, somewhat impressed, “A very good estimate. Yes, about that. This battle is a crusher. Somewhere out on the steppes the Magyars have thousands more. If they consolidate their numbers—especially if joined by other tribes—the eventual war could last for months, a scenario we must prevent.”
“Then time is of essence,” she perceived.
“We strike prematurely. Our Level One force has arrived from the forest, but the Second Level drones are still enroute. We’re fighting without an experienced general, about five days before he and the Third Level Minions arrive Topside, plus training and a couple of days to acclimate to sunshine. At least a week from now, unfortunate yet unavoidable.” He surveyed the heavens and turned to her, “I’m counting on superior intelligence and strength. That means you. Rout these barbarians, and you’ll find an extremely congenial position in the New Order, perhaps an executive position in the boutique department.”
· * * * *
The moon haloed; and a cloud, thick and dark, slid beneath it. A sprinkle of rain spattered upon one-eyed men, their forms unmoving as if a line of statues in an imperial garden. Valeriana glanced back to the iron wagon, knowing that Damon and Kriegor sat within it. Upon the hill’s crest beyond the machines, two sentries held watch. What they could possibly see was a moot point, far too dark to view anything. And chances the Magyars would launch an attack were minimal. They would be fighting nearly blind and running into an unknown force.
She rolled her sword in both hands, studying it. The weapon seemed the best of several she had used during her practice sessions. It had weight and a three foot blade, with a grip long enough for two hands. She knew where the sword came from. It had been forged in the fires of Hell, at the deepest level, tempered in a pit of magma that bubbled up from the center of the Earth. She swung it to a circle, twirling it in her hand. Who could ever imagine that a librarian and nun would ever swing it?
The sprinkle turned to rain, as she paced to the first sentry. He turned at her approach, and she simply reached up, grasped his neck, and crushed his wind-pipe. Knowledge of anatomy had its uses. She took three paces; and with a wave of a hand, she summoned the other sentry. He came running, as she whispered, “Something is wrong with that man.” When he leaned to the fallen drone, she swung the sword with enough force to take his head. It bounced to the ground before his body toppled. She walked twenty paces down the hill, yet the rain increased and she couldn’t view the fires on the Old Mound’s crest.
Valeriana slammed her sword upright to the soil. And removing her helmet, she knelt to one knee, calling upon the Alfa and Omega, the One Great Master of all that is. She projected thoughts only the Deus could hear. Who knows what she said? For all the scribes who wrote herewith could not pen it. She stood upright—taller than she ever was—and she waited. Clouds swept overhead blotting the stars, to choke the moon as the sky darkened to a hard rain. And lightning slammed against itself, creating fresh roars of spring-tide. From all the lakes and river Ural came dragons in a great flight, for who could recall one better? They arose higher, bayed their thunder, and the sounds clashed between themselves. Rain pelted so hard it washed the soil beneath her feet!
Rivulets ran down her face, dripped from the blueness of her armor; and with deft hands she brushed back her hair, soaked to the color of a hidden moon. She was shivering, cold to the bone. Yet she refitted her helmet, turning back to creatures dead. They had vanished, ash to mud. And with a hard grasp she plucked her sword and strode down the hillside.
· * * * *
With the sound of thunder, the Horsebreaker awoke to sit upright. The hearth held a glow of ashes, the only source of light in the yurt. He arose, knelt to place a couple of sticks upon the coals, and returned to his blanket. Thunder clapped again, almost overhead. The change of season, the flight of the dragons. Such a welcomed portent. Green shoots would poke through the soil, burying the flat grass, as sprouting blossoms hailed new life. Once again the steppe would wave in the wind, caressed by impending warmth.
Less than a half hour passed, and without warning the door-flap swung ajar. A Magyar leaned in, his clothes dripping, “I’m one of the sentries. Since the king is not here, we are waking you warriors and Prester John, for we know not who holds rank.”
“The Prester rules in Czaba’s absence,” mumbled Galen, crawling from his blanket, “What’s the matter? Someone drowning?”
“I think you should see for yourself,” and the Magyar dropped the flap and disappeared.
He slipped on his boots and coat, grabbing his sword-belt and hating the idea of doing anything in a thunder storm. Outside, he stumbled his way through the wall of wagons to find the other Grail warriors at the northern edge of the Mound, all hunching short-necked like turtles. It hardly seemed to matter. In the short space traveled, he was soaking wet. He sidled up to a woman, realizing she was Ekhida. Walking around her and his uncle, Galen nudged Vishpala, “What’s going on?”
“There’s something out there,” she pointed, “Down on the steppe between us and Aktobe. With the next bolt of lightning you’ll see it.”
And thus they waited. Too much time passed, yet lightning flashed again, followed by thunder’s hammer. Yes, they could see it—a singular figure, momentarily flashing blue. “What is it? One of their machine-men?” puzzled Galen.
“Wrong color,” claimed the Prester, “Even lightning would show grayish steel.”
Vishpala excitedly shook Galen’s arm, “It’s like the avatar of Vishnu!—the Blue God.”
“An avatar?” questioned Ekhida.
“When a god assumes human form, it becomes an avatar,” explained Vishpala as another bolt of lightning illuminated the plain, “Yes. Shining blue. See it moving down the flat? This is a sign, very auspicious.”
In momentary light, Galen had seen it walking, not gliding like a spirit, “It’s coming our way. And whatever it is—man, god, or machine—it’s not attacking.”
Vishpala released his arm and paced down the Mound. Galen followed, glancing back to the others, “The rest of you stay with Prester John. I have a weapon, just in case.”
After he caught up with her, Vishpala smiled, “Just in case of what?”
“I don’t know,” he shrugged, “In case it’s an evil spirit, or a crazed demon. All that shines blue may not be Vishnu.” And so they paced down the Mound to pass through the circle of stones. Some of the liths were human-shaped; and when lightening snapped, the stones cast eerie shadows. Beyond the great circle, they reached no-man’s-land between hills, both drenched to the bone and slogging through increasing mud. The distance closed; the figure approaching them became more and more visible. It’s a machine! his thoughts screamed. Well, I’ll be damned. It’s blued armor. Another ten strides and he still couldn’t tell what it was, for it was unlike anything he’d seen before. Galen assumed Vishpala thought likewise. She was quiet, totally mute. They finally faced it close-up, five paces apart on the low ground. It was neither an avatar nor a machine, appearing nearly human yet totally covered in female armor; its limbs and breasts appeared sculpted like a Greek statue. In fact perfectly Greek, not a cheap-assed Roman copy. How odd. The elbow joints are cogged. Whomever or whatever it was, the statuesque woman—half machine—had real guts to walk through a lightning storm in a steel outfit.
No-one knew what to say!—Nice night for a stroll? Evidently thinking of an impressive opener, the armored woman slammed her sword deep to muddy soil. She buried two thirds of the blade! More than a little bit of strength there. Galen eyed Vishpala as she did likewise. Hard to tell what to make of it! Yet the gesture was a universal form of communication. The sword had a wide hilt, perfectly straight across; and anyone with an ounce of acuity knew what it symbolized. A Christian cross.
Then the machine-woman removed her helmet, demanding, “Take me to your leader.”