The ruined city seemed to crumble before the travelers as they made their way around the rim of the valley once filled with life and activity. Half-fallen walls looked like tombstones looming over the piles of rubble and streets of cracked pavement.
“It’s horrible,” Mills remarked. “How could they have let this happen?”
“You say let this happen as if it was a gradual process,” said Orn. “But the destruction occurred all at once, over the course of a few weeks.”
“How is that even possible?” asked Anaxis.
“The weapons Allovast and Gnirean used were so powerful that they could completely reduce a living city to dust in a flash. In the drop of a bomb. With the flip of a switch,” said Laquin.
“These poor people...” murmured Xala.
“It is true that what happened here is tragic, but Allovast was actually the first to use such weapons. And when Gnirean plead for peace, Allovast responded with more. It does not justify Gnirean completely wiping Allovast off the face of the planet, but it is important to remember that Allovast was the initial aggressor. At least, in terms of using weapons of such caliber,” said Orn. “We’ll turn here.”
“Down into the city?” Mills whined. “Can’t we walk around it?”
“We don’t have the resources,” said Orn. “Don’t worry. There’s hardly anything living down there now.”
“Hardly?” whimpered Mills.
The scree falling down the rim of the valley to the wasted city was fine and loose, and so the travelers were able to more or less ski with their boots over it down to the bottom. It made for fast, if nerve-wracking movement. Anaxis couldn’t quite get the hang of the glide, and so rode down the rocks on his bottom, which was easy, save for the holes it ripped in his pants.
“Do you need any lotion for that?” Xala asked, trying to stifle a laugh when she saw the ragged state of Anaxis’s rear end.
“No,” Anaxis said bitterly. “I’m just fine, thank you.”
The team started down one of the streets over shattered cobblestone. Metal streetlamps and rebar that had been melted in the extreme heat of the explosions that devastated the city twisted and wound about the stone waste like strakes yearning to break free, gasping for the sky. Beads of glass were scattered like seeds overtop and amidst the broken structure, and sparkled in the harsh light of the sun.
“If we were to remain here too long, we’d get sick,” said Laquin. “To this day, hundreds of years later, the site remains charged from the weapons that tore it apart.”
“It caused many mutations,” added Orn. “Interestingly, in some creatures and plants, it caused beneficial mutations.”
“Mutations?” repeated Mills.
“The charge the weapons left in the air was so strong that it changed the very makeup of the things living here, at their most basic level,” explained Orn. “Mutated them.”
“I didn’t even know that was possible,” said Mills.
“Unfortunately, it is,” said Orn. “Or, fortunately, in some cases. There’s a plant that we rely on for much of our s quotients, which, prior to the war, was a weed with hardly any nutritional value. Certain patches of it growing here were so changed that its seeds now have the largest s quotient of any known plant on the on the planet.”
“I wouldn’t want to eat it,” said Mills.
“You do all the time,” said Xala. “He’s speaking of truache. Aren’t you, Orn?”
“Yes, I am,” said Orn. “How did you know that?”
“I have a strong interest in the strange and unusual,” said Xala. “And if you’ve got the right friends, even in the middle of the desert, you can find the ancient texts and hidden knowledge of the days surrounding the War.”
“Wait,” Laquin said, holding her arm out to the others. “Listen…”
There were low, grunting noises, and the sound of crumbling gravel coming from nearby. Laquin waved the team under a fallen wall. Crouching there, the grunting noises came closer and closer.
Into sight stepped a hairy creature, looking something like a human but larger, as if parts of it were straining to break free from its skin. It had bulbous shoulders and spindly legs, and when it turned to see another of its kind come near, the travelers in hiding could see it face, which looked like it was melting. Its nostrils appeared as two gaping slits, its forehead sloped over its eyes, and its jowls hung down over its jawbone, exposing the cracked and misaligned teeth within. The creature dug at a pile of rubble and found a plant growing beneath it, which it pointed out to a second creature. The two worked to clear away the waste atop the plant, exposing it to the sunlight. When their work was done, they grunted to one another and continued on their way.
When it was clear they were gone, Orn crept out of hiding to survey the scene. After making sure it was safe, he waved the others out.
“What were they?” asked Anaxis.
“Humans, once,” said Orn. “So twisted by the charge here that they hardly resemble the same species.”
“What were they doing?” asked Mills.
“It looked like they were gardening,” sad Xala. “Clearing away the debris so their plants could grow.”
“What a horrible way to live,” said Mills.
“Is it really so horrible, though?” asked Laquin. “So different than us? Every creature strives to survive. It doesn’t seem as if they are any different.”
“They just looked so ugly,” said Mills.
“To you,” said Laquin. “Only because they’re different. So long as they can survive, and in the best of hopes, prosper, how they look is only alarming to us because we’ve never seen such things before. Because of how closely they resemble humans, while being that much different still.”
“Do you think they’re dangerous?” asked Anaxis.
“Would you kill a strange beast roaming through your village?” asked Laquin.
“Probably,” said Anaxis.
“Then they probably would do the same to us,” said Laquin. “We are the strangers here, the monsters. We should leave as quickly as possible.”
“Right,” said Orn. “Quickly now. Let’s make haste.”