Madruk El Adruk pushed his lank raven black hair away from his eyes and back under the rim of his helmet. He peered at the horizon, happy for the first time in weeks as the first sign of Bayathu, the capital of the Fire Province and Vul’Car people and Madruk’s new home, was in sight at last.
At first, a barely discernible bulging of the shimmering heat waves in the distance, her famed minarets drifting lazily skyward, hoisting the great fortress city and white walls slowly from the dark sucking sands beyond them, appearing like great balloons lifting the mythical flying cities of the gods towards the heavens.
Or that is how Madruk always imagined the fabled cities could fly, in his reveries, drifting into his own thoughts as the priests droned on, perhaps dragons could have lifted the cities for a while, but even the great dragons of the stories would get tired sometimes. So, no, it had to be balloons or how else could they stay aloft forever?
Sensing the lifting mood and growing restlessness coming from the lengthy line of soldiers and camp followers strung out on the dusty highway behind him, their goal in sight at last, Madruk shook off his daydream. He increased the companies’ pace as the city’s white walls continued to grow. A great glowing beacon, even in the bright afternoon sun, standing in stark contrast to the light-absorbing desert backdrop on three sides and the warm green waters of the Gulf of Nabataean.
The sun stilled water flowed through three enormous arched sea gates, high enough for the tallest sails and broad enough for three warships at once through each gate, letting into a fortified inner port. The Bayathu port held enough docking for five hundred warships and two hundred trading ships in times of great storms or war.
The grandeur of the sight before them, as the city was revealed in full glory, had the entire battalion marching in an awed hush as they gazed at the city in wonder, far grander than they could have imagined when reading the dusty history books in the academy. By legend, Bayathu was the first and oldest city in the Asylum Worlds; built by the original survivors after fleeing the Cataclysm with aid from the Old Gods, Dragons and Giants. Madruk had always considered the story to be myth or allegory until today, now he could see no possibility of this city being built by mortals.
The wall alone was an astounding piece of defensive engineering; the ramparts a wide paved avenue around the entire inner wall top, enough for twelve men to march abreast with ease, and so long that it would take a healthy soldier a full day and night’s fast run to complete the entire loop. The circumference of the wall top was a uniform three hundred feet high, flowing with the contours of the land around it except for a constant altitude along the Eastern seawall, a knife’s edge cutting through the ocean waves.
The wall’s psychological effect on any approaching aggressor would be intimidating; fortified bastions every five hundred paces, with manned trebuchets and giant bows powered by winches atop them that could launch giant boulders or several twelve-foot-long spears at once high into the sky, and could reach more than a mile from the city walls in any direction with devastating effect on an attacking army or navy. The battlements were six feet high atop the walls, with deep crenulations every six paces for crossbows or archers; further small arrow loops cut into the battlements between them. The entire structure was plated with seamless dragon fired tiles, giving it its famed white glow, and making it impervious to all magic or projectile weapons.
It was no wonder Bayathu had never been taken by force, and this made Madruk ponder again how the Empress had convinced the Fire Cities to join the Shahmut Empire, now, after the millennia of independence and implacable resistance to any outside influence or control. They had been neighbours with Shahmut forever, sometimes enemies, occasionally allies but never friends.
His mind set the imponderables of politics aside and let his thoughts drift back to the city, as his mesmerised gaze drank in the incredible sight. His musing on the construction methods, enabling such a monolithic work of art that could house a million-person-strong population, was cut short by a deep rumbling voice from a grey-blue scaled warrior in polished green sea dragon armour to his left.
“They say all the walls and buildings were made white to reflect the sun’s heat and keep the city cool,” grunted Gorken ma Alusi, Madruk’s hulking Azidian first captain. His blunt reptilian features funnelling sweat across deep set eye sockets protected by a thin membrane; a second transparent eyelid that allowed him to withstand the sand but also see underwater and reduce the sun’s glare.
Madruk looked over at Gorken, standing about his own six feet in height but at least double his breadth and weight with heavily muscled chest and shoulders covered in scars from over sixty years of war in the Empire’s service, visible through the armoury of knives, swords, axes and other assorted sharp things that Gorken always carried. Madruk sometimes suspected Gorken slept wearing his knives and he kept them all in impeccable condition, lovingly sharpening and cleaning each piece during the evenings.
Gorken’s intimidating appearance and caustic demeanour, combined with prodigious martial skills, did make him an extremely good companion in times of trouble, and easily worth a dozen drill sergeants when it came to keep large groups of young boisterous soldiers working in harmony and limiting fights or punishable indiscretions. His perpetual glower in officer meetings also ensured that none of the other officers treated Madruk with anything but the respect due to a new acting Provincial Governor.
The Azidian’s were warm blooded, despite their reptilian appearance, and mostly lived as peaceful fisher families or farmers in the steamy swamps bordering the southern coasts at the Empire’s border.
Gorken was thus born to heat and humidity, this fact did not hinder his efforts to continue putting his gripes into words “I was stationed here before, in the summer at the end of the last Empire War, when the Akrum Collective tried to disrupt the Empire Dyrerium supplies in support of the bloody Ulverto Empire. Damn spider people,” he paused to give a heartfelt growl. The Ulverto and the Azidian’s detested each other from the earliest history of the Asylum Worlds.
“It’s still a bleeding steam pit,” shaking off thought of spiders. “So, baking hot that no man nor beast can stroll the streets through the middle hours of a summer day.” Gorken continued, “When the sun is directly overhead, the reflected heat from the walls and paved roads seemingly cook you from all angles at once. Plus,” grumbled Gorken, getting to his real reason for not wanting to be stationed in Bayathu, “the folks here are absurdly enthusiastic about their Flame God’s rules, making them way too pious and judgemental for my tastes, reporting any act of “Blasphemy” whatever the fuck that means, to the fanatics in the Alum, their dreaded religious police,” he scowled, nudging his massive war horse forward to come alongside Madruk to ensure he missed nothing of his complaint.
“Everything enjoyable is forbidden, except to the priests and royal family ... all for religious reasons of course.”
Azidian’s had been part of the Empire for more than a thousand years and were overall dedicated followers of the Empress and the Empire pantheon, thus Gorken, like most of his race, was very begrudging to acknowledge any other royal or religious ranks and ceremonies. Plus, Gorken had a love of strong drink and Lifters, magic infused “medicines” that have gotten him in trouble before and the thought of five years in a “dry” city left him cold.
There were many Azidian’s in the Empire Army. Throughout history one child from each litter would grow much larger and more aggressive than their siblings, with thick plated skin and steel hard skeleton. The Azidian myths said this was a gift from Salacia, Goddess of the Sea, to allow each family group to always have defenders and let the majority live a peaceful life, but since joining the Empire these born warriors were obsolete at home, thus most of the defenders would join the Empire armies to fulfil their biological requirement for conflict.
Gorken’s long pointed incisors emerged on his lip, he grimaced as if his words caused him physical pain. “It’s almost impossible to find a proper drink, other than the sickeningly sweet melon juice they all love here. The local females are hidden away and they don’t even allow brothels staffed with foreigners. And when you do occasionally find a secret bar or store that will sell to an outsider you receive the awful local liqueur, Sid, made from the juice of the purple cactus found only here, and the amateur alchemists make Lifters with unknowable results.”
Madruk could tell Gorken was truly enjoying his complaining, so he let him continue, despite the urge to remind him of strict rules and severe punishments for use of illicit Lifters for all Servants of the Empire. Most priests or officials would not even acknowledge that magic could be used for any purpose other than as real medicine or for religious ceremonies.
“But by far the worst of this whole mess you tricked me into, is that we are barracked miles outside the city’s southern walls in the fucking desert.” Gorken’s toothy smile was starting to emerge as he warmed up to his task. “And our job is protecting the interests of fat, greedy Empire mining consortiums, as well as the Bayathu mines, from raiders deep in that endless bloody desert.” His nod indicating the surrounding barren land to the South, where the real desert started. “Twenty-three-day patrols with nothing but sand in your arse, eyes, water, food, tent and everything else you own, and not a bloody thing to look at but more bloody sand, and the second you relax for a minute the riders swoop in spraying arrows and flames then disappear into the dunes again before you’ve even drawn your sword.”
Madruk was always amused by Gorken’s response to things that should make him happy, like now arriving at their goal after weeks of hard travel; but the same thing happened in the days before a battle or a feast of any kind, or public holidays or the annual Empire games held in each Province. At each event, he would ramble on for hours with complaints about anything and everything. Madruk didn’t understand it but he knew it was Gorken’s way, so he thought it best to let it be.
"If I had known you would accept a posting in this burning shit pit, full of Fire God cultists, I would never have agreed to be your First Captain when you received word you were to be offered your own command,” he growled. “I could have seen out my last twenty years of service in the Capital or even back in Azidia, near my people with nothing to do but drink, fish and scare off the occasional Mermer incursion into the settled home swamps and fields. With my years of service and rank I could have asked for anywhere.”
Madruk laughed aloud, causing the other officers to look over at them, it felt good to relax, and he knew the boredom of either of those posts, the Capital or Azidia, would drive Gorken loopy with boredom in no time.
“There was no trickery my friend” Madruk chided grinning, “You chose to be my first Captain, and if I can use your own words “a tiny pipsqueak like me wouldn’t survive three weeks without you”.”
Gorken just grinned back, ‘To be fair, I was very drunk at the time and you are only little. Anyway, things you say whilst that drunk shouldn’t count against a man.’
Madruk laughed mirthfully again, today was a good day. He continued, “To be offered any command at my age is an honour, to turn it down would be career suicide and my father would have me in the priesthood before the day ended.”
“True,” grunted Gorken, “but I have seen you with a sword and maybe you should have been a priest.”
“Should have been a priest ‘Sir’, don’t you mean captain,” he said with a mock frown on his face.
Gorken was the only of his officers, or soldiers even, that he had ever met prior to being given his command in the Capital, and the only person in the convoy he considered a friend or confidant. The remaining officers all showed a forced, condescending politeness towards him, but he could feel the resentment that he, just a “lording boy” in their eyes, was the appointed Colonel because his mother’s family had pulled some strings, and they, career soldiers, served him - a third son who should have been a priest anyway.
Not verbose by nature when sober, Gorken hadn’t said this many consecutive words in a day since they left the Capital all those weeks ago. Madruk slapped his captain on his shoulder and ordered a faster march saying with a smile, “You’d better watch your language and manners once we are in the city, particularly when we are presented to the Lugal.” Gorken just grunted wry amusement.
Madruk was hoping to have the men at barracks and settled well before the sun set, so he could present his orders to the outgoing Colonel Deanathi tonight. Deanathi was a legend in the academy; hero of the last Empire Wars now relegated to this backwater by the Empress, and no one knew why, but at sixty-eight he was finally going to his retirement. Madruk was eager to meet him.
“I think you will find a lot has changed in the forty years since you were last here Gorken,” said Madruk with a small smile, trying to continue the conversation. “The Desert Wars have ended; Bayathu and the other six Fire Cities are now part of the Empire with only the tribesmen and their flyers still causing irritation.”
When Gorken didn’t respond he added, “Malakbel has been a very transformative Lugal since he overthrew the god-crazed Lugal Tonathi and took the Flame Throne for himself. He has reached accommodation with the Empress, opened his border, his city, and most importantly for the Empire his Dyrerium mines. Or so Deanathi’s reports said anyway.”
“The Empress accepted the rights to twelve mines, four of which are Dyrerium mines, in lieu of taxes for twenty years,” Madruk stated. “You know how the priests and wizards back home value this stuff above anything; they say it amplifies their magic, lets them keep the World Gates open longer allowing more trade, which is why the Empress has declared that all Dyrerium in the Empire must be processed and audited in the Capital before being reassigned to the provinces,” Madruk informed Gorken.
“Malakbel has eased many of the old restrictions too,” he said, knowing this would get Gorken’s attention. “Much to the ire of other City Lugal’s, and increased enmity from the ever-devout desert Tribes, he extended the new freedoms only to foreigners of course; but it is still seen as sacrilegious by many of his countrymen to allow the unclean into the Fire God’s territory.”
“This means there are thousands of people here from Shahmut and many other kingdoms to work in the mines or at the many obligatory bars, restaurants and amusements, including prostitutes; all to service the miners and supporting industries built up around them.” Madruk smiled at the thought himself. It had been several weeks since he had a drink or even seen a woman who wasn’t a solider or wizard in his battalion. He looked forward to testing Bayathu’s new found freedoms himself.
“I hear the tribesmen are much more than an irritation,” replied Gorken, ignoring everything else Madruk had said, to continue with his griping. “They still hold the Holy Oasis and Obsidian Gate, plus all the desert for two or three hundred miles around them. Plus, they move and patrol through the rest of the Province, land and sea as if it were theirs. Only the seven remaining Fire Cities, the land a few miles around each, and the highways between could in any way be said to be controlled by the Empire or the Lugal’s; apart from the mines of course, the reason we are in this forsaken oven in the first place.”
Madruk had read the same reports as Gorken but was a little more optimistic. “The tribesmen numbers are small. They will never have the capability or weapons to conquer the cities; not unless the great Dragons return through the Gates and lead the attack on all the Riffak non-believers, as their holy texts and men have prophesied since the founding of the worlds.” He continued, “With our superior weaponry and greater numbers we could drive them back into the desert and crush them.”
Gorken snorted and shook his head at Madruk’s optimism and youthful naivety before going back to his own musings. “Not unless all the Lugal’s decide to help us as you want, and I cannot see them agreeing to allow outsiders to attack their most Holy Cities, let alone lead you to them, an act punishable by death under the ancient laws of the Vul’Car.”