Shadows of War (Tsatse Intro Pt.1)

Sand cut through the air as the storm continued, a vicious thing of coarse glassy dust that tore against the Ar-Rub’al-Khali. It was one of those things that made this region one of the harshest on Earth, and ironically, also one of the safest. Even with all the world in his grasp, even Luthor seemed to recognize that the desert was no place for the sane to continually inhabit, and not worth the investment in long term occupation. It’s why even she only spent the smallest amount of time she could, travelling as the neighboring inhabitants had for thousands of years. As she had several times before.

The camels though didn’t seem to mind much, and she was well covered head to toe. Once upon a time, she would have had to stop and wait it out, or risk being lost to the Khali. The GPS in her hand circumvented that.

Not much further now.

Hidden in the storm was her destination, a small outcropping of sandstone with a cave entrance that wound deep beneath the sand dunes, its walls shaped by blown sand and silica glass over thousands of years, wide enough for drawn carts, camels, and small cars even to travel through. Just one of the many secret entrances to ‘Eth-Alth'eban, the serpent’s nest. As she closed in, the GPS became less and less useful, until she finally could navigate just by the intensity of the magic that warded it.

She walked the camels through, and spared her newfound moment of peace from the storm to drink and breathe. The cave was dark, a problem solved by a flashlight, but she knew it wouldn’t stay that way for long. On clear days, these walls were awash with colors, beautiful and ever slowly changing sandstone that told an ancient story of Earth, marine fossils scattered throughout the tunnels.

It was, needless to say, a true thing of beauty.

The beauty easily made up for the tunnel's length, and she was in no particular rush. Twice she paused in open natural caverns, carved by groundwater and reinforced by ancient pillars of stone. Her camels appreciated the clean water, a rare resource in the world these days. A part of her considered swapping the flashlight for a more classy torch, with its warm glow and rich exposure of the walls, but she plugged on, leaving it for whoever else may someday frequent these caverns. It would be a long time till then, she imagined.

She carried on as she was, stowing her flashlight only once the warm light of a new sun outperformed her. It wasn't a true sun, but it shone and radiated heat like the real thing, sustained by ancient magic embedded in the ceiling of the underground oasis lain before her. Groundwater reservoirs emptied themselves in crashing waterfalls, feeding rivers that snaked through the landscape of tall reeds and grains, interspersed by groves of palm, acacia, and fig. Structures befitting antiquity were carved into the walls, exposed windows dark and empty.

It was hard to think how, almost eight years ago, this place of beauty had been ransacked by Luthor and his army, led by that monster Doomsday.

As she moved through the cavern, its scars became more and more common, with holes blown into the walls, and how the wheat and rye grew wild and unchecked rather than in carefully tended rows. Small structures remained smashed entirely, and craters filled in by groundwater formed random pools where there had once been walkways, now overrun by reeds.

The birds were still here, colorful parrots that lived between the trees, while sand cats and lizards scattered into the brush.

The people though, they had all gone from this place. All except one.

Tsatse knew that one was stalking her. Her attire made herself unrecognizable, as it would anyone, and the presence of any unwelcome guest had to be met with violence, swift and efficient, otherwise news of this place's recovery could escape, and the drums of war would echo through her lonely cavern once more.

She drew the protective veil back and shook out her auburn hair, streaked with gold in the front where she drew it across by running her fingers through. “It’s rude not to greet your guests at the door, Talia,” she announced, turning about on her heels.

Behind her the tip of a sword threatened to pierce up through her jaw, held confidently by a darker skinned young woman, black hair worn free and loose, framing her dark eyes and sharp look.

Talia glared, meeting her eyes that, now exposed, glowed red as fire. “Did you bring it?”

Tsatse smiled, raising an hand for her to watch carefully. She slowly reached into the lead camel's saddlebag, and retrieved a dark bottle of champagne. “Direct from France, aged almost as long as you’ve been.”

Talia held her stare a moment longer, before breaking into a grin and laughing. “Ah, its good to have you back Lera!” she said, returning her blade before pulling her in to a firm embrace.

“Well what can I say,” Tsatse replied, “This is the only place I frequent.” She drew back, then caught a strand of hair. “Whoa, is this white I see?”

She swatted it aside, smirking as she took the lead for one of her camels.

“You’re not getting old on me now, are you?”

“The only reason I don’t strike you now is because I know you’re hiding chocolate in here,” she replied.

Tsatse laughed, she most certainly was, brought thousands of miles all the way from Sweden and carefully safeguarded against the desert sun. They led the camels down the main road, where old panels that once displayed lights and holograms were now cracked and empty, brass and copper doors worn by the lack of care and tending. Tropical birds crossed above as they made small talk, gently moving through subjects from music and movies to ongoing resistances in the usual places, the only real political talk worthwhile, and sharing memories of the once magnificent, populous city.

“It’s still so strange, seeing it empty like this.”

Talia nodded. “It’s not entirely empty at least. The cows and sheep tend to roam freely, and I think the cats have all agreed to live close to me, though they still refuse to be social.”

“Obviously. They’re cats after all.”

She smiled. “There are others, too. People who’ve evaded Luthor and his forces, old Ghuls that were abroad when he…”

They came to a stop, under the watchful gaze of a bronze statue twenty feet tall and perfectly proportional to a powerful looking man, an effigy of Ra's al Ghul himself. Reeds had sprung up around the base, slightly sunken and damp, with the bronze having weathered over the years.

“It’s not often,” she continued, “but they visit, more and more now. I’m hoping someday they all come home so we can rebuild.” She gazed up at the effigy of her father, tall and defiant, even as the cavern's personal climate wore away at him. “He had an eye for things of beauty. A dream, one that could have improved the world… if he hadn’t let his pride stand in the way.”

She sighed, her shoulders slumping beside her. “I still remember the day you came through here.”

“Mmm, you mean the day you tried to kill me?” Tsatse replied.

Talia smiled, “Yeah. To be fair, I didn’t try that hard, else you’d be dead.”

“And then who'd bring you the finer things in life?”

Tsatse knew what was coming, and was trying to keep the conversation light-hearted. Eight years ago, Luthor turned on Ra's after consolidating power and set his sights on eliminating the competition. Ra's had wanted a world that lived in harmony with the natural, but one that he had to lead, and was willing to fight and die to recognize that desire. Luthor was more pragmatic, and the moment he had the numbers and was free from chasing the last national armies, he put ‘Eth-Alth'eban under siege, breaking through and killing everyone caught in the crossfire within eight months. Tsatse had been in Georgia, the Russian-influenced Georgia, when she heard of it, and dared to venture out to the site.

Like Gotham, the site of the Justice League's last battle, the city had been ruined. Unlike Gotham, it had also been cleared out, with a massive percentage of people Luthor perceived as competition exterminated in the process. Rumor had it that Luthor's pet, Doomsday, had been unleashed a second time just for this, and it had been him that had killed the Demon's Head himself. Few if any present had survived.

Talia had returned shortly after, just before Tsatse in fact, and had her at sword point when they first met. She’d been betrayed, as should have been expected, by Luthor, and Tsatse… she had roots with this place that ran back to its inception, and its sack meant she was potentially at risk as well. Risk for being discovered for what she was, something she explained in depth to Talia, the last at the time of the League, and had over the years developed into a friendship.

The damage however was done, and it couldn’t be undone by any power that would try to do so. Tsatse wound up taking the lead, and they found their way through the inner city to the temple, which doubled long ago as the domicile of Ra's and his most loyal. Now, it was Talia's, and it was the only grounds that had been restored to its former glory. Even the tapestries depicting the League's history had been repaired, which they ate and shared champagne beneath.

< Prev : Nabu's Greed Next > : Shadows of War (Tsatse Intro Pt.2!)