“An interesting theory Nicandros,” Poz said through the Songstone. Nicandros glared at the stone, trying to figure out how in the Shadow this was happening. “However, I think you have much bigger problems to worry about. See, you are correct about a number of factors, although you underestimate my injury.” That was a lie.
“Damnit, Nicandros, where’s that smithy?” Ashliel said.
“North of my position,” Nicandros said, but his words were cut off by Poz’s voice.
“He can’t speak. I’ve hijacked his song. Apologies, Nicandros, but I can’t have you speaking. Do you remember earlier, Ashliel, when Nicandros warned you there was a risk of a popular uprising incurring in Edgeminster?”
“I have nothing to say to you,” Ashliel began to fly towards Nicandros, and he waved to try to get her attention. Unfortunately, Poz’s voice was continuing in his taunting. As fast as Ashliel was, speech was faster.
“So you do recall. Well, then, did you know that the Alohym’s Songstones link perfectly up to the city-wide song network? Do you know that the Alohym’s Songstones link perfectly up to the city-wide song network? Of course you do, the Resistance used the same thing to broadcast Tythel’s message to the rest of this corner of the empire. But I don’t think that was the best use of that technology. I think it is far more interesting for the people to hear what the Alohym think of them.”
Ashliel crushed her Songstone in her fist, a childish display of frustration. “What does that mean, Nicandros? What is he doing?”
Nicandros looked at the Songstone in growing horror. “Ashliel…these things. Do they listen at all times, in cast they are activated?”
Ashliel nodded. “Of course, why wouldn’t they…oh. Oh no.”
Before they could even begin to react, Ashliel’s voice came through Nicandros’s Songstone. Not just his, either. As Poz had promised, Nicandros could hear Ashliel’s words echoed a dozen times over.
“I’m not interested in questions of morality. These people are disposable. Our soldiers are slightly less disposable. The only three beings that matter, in this entire city, are myself, you, and the underfolk. There are millions to replace even the thousands that might die here. This isn’t a police action to protect the citizens, and I swear by my Father’s Holy name, if I must burn every living being in this city to ash to achieve victory, I’ll do so with a smile and a laugh.”
All around them, troops were beginning to slow down. People were staring up at the speakers in growing horror.
“These people are disposable. Our soldiers are slightly less disposable.”
“No, no no no,” Ashliel started to moan the words and took the air on buzzing wings. Shouts began to come from the ground as people spotted her rise into the air.
Nicandros slunk away from where she’d taken off.
“”If I must burn every living being in this city to ash, I’ll do so with a smile and a laugh.”
Somehow Poz was cutting parts out of the conversation as they had happened. Nothing changed the core meaning, however, and people were coming to realize that the flying thing above the city was the source of the words. People were pointing at her, shouting. Soldiers started to move towards the people, but Poz played another segment. Or maybe he had predicted what parts he’d need to play when, for maximum impact.
“Our soldiers are slightly less disposable. The only three beings that matter are myself, you, and the underfolk.”
The soldiers of the Alohym began to hesitate. The crowd began to mutter angrily. Someone shouted. Nicandros couldn’t make out what the shout was, it was too far away, but it began to grow. More people were gathering. Fury was building.
“We deserve to live!”
“She’ll kill us all!” Officers began to bark orders, telling their soldiers to disperse the crowd, shouting at the citizens to go home, adding more chaos to the clamor. Ashliel was circling overhead, and the crowd was pointing at her, their screams getting louder. Nicandros wanted to tell her to leave, to get out before the situation erupted, but she had destroyed her Songstone in a fit of pique and was too high to hear anything.
“Look at her!”
“Burn us to ash?”
Arcwands were levelled at the crowd, and Nicandros’s heart began to pound. No. Not this. Please not this.
The motion only incited more anger from the crowd.
“They don’t care about you either!”
“You’re nothing to them!”
“You think you’re less disposable?”
“Who’s the other one?”
“I think it’s him! He was with her!”
A finger was pointed in Nicandros’s direction, and the crowd began to surge. Soldiers pulled out unlight shields and tried to move to intercept the crowd.
Then everything fell silent again, as Poz’s voice once again came over the Songstone, and now Nicandros knew he was listening in, monitoring the situation, and deliberately pushing things over the edge.
“What was it you said when you were brought before my father? ‘Burn the resistance, burn the princess, burn my very soul to ash if you have to. I know you offered that bitch her father if she served you. Give me back my son, and I’ll be your creature until my last breath.’”
Nicandros took a step back, but there was nowhere to run. The crowd surged again, their screams turning to pure fury, their taunts now aimed at him as well as Ashliel.
“Stop this at once!” The voice cut over the crowd, magnified somehow. Every head turned to look at the source. It was Ashliel, coming down to land on top of a watchtower. “Listen to yourselves! This is a cheap trick, designed to turn you against us. You think that we are the monsters here? We have given you food beyond what you had before us. Medicine that exceeds the greatest works you had. And have we been harsh? Have we been unfair? What have we done that would lead you to believe I would say such things – that I would believe these things? When we came to your world, we did not slaughter your innocent. We only fought the soldiers of the old regimes – the monarchies that forced you into serfdom. Are your lives not better under us? How could you turn on us, after everything we’ve done for you?”
Silence followed. Nicandros held his breath. That was it. That was what they needed. It would muddle the issue, confuse things. She could have sounded less indignant, could have been more conciliatory, but-
“Your resistance – apologies, your former resistance – relies heavily on support from the populace. Whenever their action results in the deaths of civilians, it reflects poorly on them. Their allies begin to withdraw. Their support begins to dry up. In the meantime, if we enforce quarantine, we are labeled as tyrants and dictators. By allowing the population to engage in normal activities, we are seen as the reasonable actors. If people die…it doesn’t make us look like the antagonistic force.” Ashliel’s voice, once again coming from the Songstones
“You put people’s lives at risk to win a popularity contest?”
It was Nicandros’s voice, and he winced, remembering what came after those words. Ashliel’s damning response.
“Yes. Revolutions aren’t won on battlefields or in back alleys. They are won in the hearts and minds of the people. And, by the same token, that’s also where they are lost.”
For a moment, it felt like time itself was holding its breath.
Nicandros would never forget that moment. That single, frozen moment, where it seemed like everything could still be salvaged.
Then someone threw a stone. It glanced off the helm of a soldier, sending him staggering. The soldier next to him, his comrade, possibly even his friend, snapped his arcwand back up.
Then he opened fire blindly into the crowd. A woman screamed.
And the crowd began to charge. More stones were throne. Soldiers screamed orders, and Arcwands began to fire again, and again, and again. The screams of rage began to mix with screams of agony of the wounded and screams of anguish from those standing near the dead.
Nicandros felt himself being lifted into the air. Ashliel had hooked her hands under his arms and was dragging him skyward. A stone flew in their direction, but she was able to block it with her carapace.
Someone threw a torch. A building caught flame.
Edgeminster began to burn, and the riot turned into a massacre.
And, Nicandros was certain, somewhere far below in the chaos, Poz was able to slip away with his prize.
It would later be called the Edgeminster Slaughter. It would be remembered as the day that seven hundred civilians were killed, and three times that many wounded, by Alohym in their attempt to catch a single individual. It would grow with each retelling as it spread from town to town like a wildfire, Ashliel’s words being twisted further and further.
By the time it reached Tythel and Eupheme, sitting at the bedside where Tellias was hooked up to machines that were his only chance of survival, Nicandros’s name was spoken of in the same tones as the foulest creatures spawned from the Shadow. Tythel hugged her friend, and together they wondered if their battle had somehow pushed the Alohym over the edge into slaughter.
By the time it reached Duke De’Monchy, they said it was seven thousand dead, and the entire city of Edgeminster burned to the ground. He knew that now, the citizens knew the Alohym were as terrible as he’d always feared, and the only window they’d ever have to fight back with a hope of winning was now. He swore a blood oath that those that died in Edgeminster would be avenged, and that tale was spread throughout the kingdom as well.
By the time it reached Poz, emerging from the cocoon in Lizardflesh, he knew he was responsible for the deaths, and wept for nearly three straight days. He too swore that the deaths would not be in vain, although his tale would not spread until far, far later.
It would not reach Armin for longer than the rest. He had the treasure horde of Grejax to deal with, using the Sylvani transporters activated by Bix to carry it where it could be moved to the resistance. By the time he heard it, rumor had been separated from fact, and the true number of dead was established at seven hundred and thirty four, with twenty thousand and ninety three wounded and thirty two soldiers dead.
It was the perfect time for him to receive the terrible news, because he could counter it with hope. With Synit and Bix’s help, he’d decoded Theognis’s ledger. He knew what the Vacuity engine was. He knew what they could do about it.
He did not yet know what to do with the two dozen golden eggs they’d taken from Grejax’s lair. He had questions about them, along with a great deal of other questions forming from what he’d learned in the lair of a long dead monster, questions that could only be answered by a woman who was now being called the Dragon’s Scion.
But that is all in the future.
For now, Edgeminster burned, and with it Nicandros saw hope turn to ash.
-END OF BOOK 2-
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