Hot sun; dust in your mouth; the tang of blood in the air, the streets, the rivers, running through every crack and crevice in the land. There is no escaping it, not here, not now.
Flies blanket the streets in dark waves; their noise is a constant companion, even from this high up. The city is paved in stone, but only the barest evidence of this can be seen through the gore. You know that if you were to venture into the streets, you would be coated in it too. You still feel the grime and decay from the march up here, sinking into your skin like ink. You know that your enemies view tattoos as punishment, their only purpose to identify criminals and slaves; it seems fitting that they give you one, too. An irreversible mark of your eternal shame. It’s imagined, you know it’s nothing but memory and phantom grit, but by the gods, it’s heavy, heavier than anyone could believe, darker than they could imagine. In time its weight will anchor you to this earthly plane, damn you to wander here forever, curse you by never letting you walk onwards to the blessed land of Mot. Mot, where your people await. Mot, where your family rests. Mot, the realm of the dead, whose placid paths you will never tread.
If you close your eyes, you can almost imagine that you’re already there. The once-thriving city beyond these walls is deadly quiet, the palace you stand in hushed. You have never heard it sound so empty, so removed from its purpose. Years ago, it had been designed to make its inhabitants feel like gods. There are glorious statues and sculpted fountains and peaceful gardens, marble and rare stones covering every surface, a library with more tomes than your city had citizens. Grand reliefs depicting the stories of your predecessors, their actions right, or merciful, or wonderfully cruel, tales that had enchanted you in your youth. (You idly wonder if there will be a relief carved by your enemies depicting your own defeat, if their descendants will stare at it with wonder in their eyes and pride in their hearts; if those defeated by your own ancestors wondered the same thing). There is no darkness in this palace, no place for sorrow. Every curve, every corner, every curlicue is an ode to light and glory and power. There is no forgetting, in a place like this, that the gods and the kings are the ones who rule the world, worshipped by meek and feeble servants. Never before had you needed a reminder; never before had you disbelieved. You had been a god, and the fly-smothered, bloated bodies littered through the streets below – they were your loyal subjects. But all of it – every damn column, every cursed carving – is now for nought; there is no one left to impress, no gods remaining in this forsaken place. When you die – and you will die – there will be no one left even to remember its name.
There is a bench, carved from pure white stone, that faces a balcony with a view over the ravaged city. You walk towards it, nothing else to do but coolly examine the destruction. Worn leather and linen scrape your battered skin when you sit, your clothes stiff with sweat. Bruises flash at you, wounds weeping red and yellow from your arms, your thighs, all down your legs. You barely remember how they were received, when, where. Were they self-inflicted, from the hours you’d paced these walls in frustration before your surrender, from the previous night as you’d screamed and moaned and thrown yourself against the walls in despair? Were they from your terrified subjects, hurling themselves at you and scraping you with their nails, begging you to save them? Were they from the cold, unyielding battle-gear of the invading army as they pushed you back through the streets, uncaring as you stumbled over corpses and rubble? Or were they from the bodies themselves, candlesticks and eating utensils clutched in frozen fingers in a desperate bid for defence, swords thrust through guts and shoulders and limbs, cutting you as you fall? The memories ache, but you don’t feel the wounds. There is nothing to feel except the hot sun; the dust in your mouth; the tang of blood in the air; the stone beneath your feet and the grime sinking into your skin.
You can do nothing now but sit and stare. The red flags that have snapped on the roofs and walls of the palace and the city your entire life, the red flags that used to symbolise hope and home, have been ripped down, thrown into the streets and burned. The fires still ripple now, enveloping the buildings and the bodies and the flies and leaving nothing but char and ash behind. The scent surrounds you, and you feel your skin crawl as your belly rumbles. No more is there the smell of spices and herbs from the markets or the sweet incense that wafts from the temples; the city will never again smell of anything but decay and dust.
The city. Not yours, not anymore. When all your men had been marched off to die in the desert plains that stretch from your walls to eternity, you had been lifted into sovereignty. The lives of thousands of people had been placed in your hands, and you had vowed to protect and serve them. You had failed. The wrath of the gods had rained down in wave after wave after wave, and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it. They’d breached the walls in the early hours of the morning; it had taken until the evening to convince your personal guards to abandon their posts and avenge their families. By that time it was evident you had lost, that there was nothing to be done but surrender or die. The very walls that protected from invasion prevented any escape. In a last, desperate bid for salvation, you had marched down amid the destruction (men and women battling until their bones were cleaved from their flesh, then fighting on; children screaming as their parents were cut down in front of them; blood and death and wailing in every corner), offering your head, your surrender, if your people were spared.
But they were not merciful men. They were cruel and hateful, and they did not slit your throat when you had begged them to. They did not spare your people, either. They had dragged you through the streets, through the bodies and the blood and the grime, and then up to the palace. Condemned you to die there, wasted and ruined, gazing haunted at the aftermath of their rage. No companions but the hot sun; the dust in your mouth; the tang of blood in the air; the stone beneath your feet and the grime sinking into your skin.
The ground is covered in bodies, and you are the only living person for a thousand miles. The flies buzz while you sit and wait for the end to come.