On the first day of my captivity, Essen showed me the rows of the dead. Laid head to toe and draped in white muslin, flies buzzing drowsily in the cold air around them, there had to be fifty of them. All very thin, but all different lengths. Some very short indeed.
I steeled myself into expressionlessness so the hitch in my chest could not be seen. The Brothers of the Sun were the ones with the dragons. If they chose to wage war against the Empire--
Essen left me in the cold room with the buzzing flies and the silent rows. That was the first day.
On the second day, Essen brought me hot soup.
"This was our home," he said simply. His eyes were softer than one would expect from a villain of such reknown. Brown and wounded in his sun-scarred face.
"I came to observe," I told him in the doorway. "I'm not part of this."
He looked past me at the bodies, and shook his head sadly. "You are part of this."
He left. And that was the second day.
On the third day, the Brotherhood brought seven more bodies, wrapped in white muslin. They shifted the corpses to make room, knelt in prayer. When they were done, Essen followed them in.
"Come with me," he said. I followed him. Watching everything, taking notes in my head. If I was released--*when* I was released--I would dine on this story for years. I needed to remember everything.
He limped his way upward through the winding maze of tunnels, holding a lamp in his hand. I wondered, if I could somehow overpower Essen, if I could find my way out.
The walls around us were natural stone, slick with water and barely worked. The handiwork of people with no eye for craft. They were digging for their lives. Still, the Brotherhood had brought the Empire's wrath upon themselves.
"You know people," Essen said as we slipped beneath a low outcropping into a brighter area acrid with the stench of dragon fewmets. "You can tell them about us. You can help turn the people to our cause."
"I can tell them that you are traitors," I said. "I can tell them why you are traitors, if you choose to tell me your reasons. But I cannot make people stop despising your treachery."
Essen's lip curled. "How can you betray what you have never believed in?"
He led me through a narrow crack in the rock through which blue light glittered and twisted like sunlight on water.
"The Brotherhood," I said when I had room to breathe, "are subjects of His Holiness the God-Emperor. I do not understand the question."
"Truly?" Essen barked a laugh. "If that is your honest belief, you are a madman and there is no reaching you."
"What other belief is there?" I asked, honestly dumbfounded. "His Holiness is the God made flesh."
"If he were the God," Essen said, "who could possibly resist him?"
We pushed through the last turn in the crack, and I saw what had been making the light dance.
Dragons. A score of them, metallic-blue winged serpents as long as a dozen tall men stretched end to end, their tails curled around as if they were cats, and eddies of smoke drifting from their nostrils. Blue-skinned men and women worked among them.
"I'll leave you here," Essen said.
I watched the blue-skins work among the dragons. One dragon had a shattered foreclaw, and a blue-skin held the claw on his lap, chanting words in a language I had never heard before.
I watched, trying to remember.
And that was the third day.
On the fourth day Essen brought me soup again. His mood was grim.
Before dawn the dragons had flown, even the one with the wounded claw. Men strapped to their back, flame screaming into the sky, the dragons had flown.
"Come with me," he said, and led me limping past the sleeping blue-skins to the checkpoint at the cave mouth. Far below, the countryside spread. Some was green, and brown. More--most--was black.
"Let us talk," he said. He waved his hand to dismiss the guards behind us, and lowered himself painfully to the ground with his feet dangling hundreds of feet in the air. I could have pushed him, then. If they recovered the body, there wouldn't have been enough of him to fill a muslin sack.
I sat down next to him, and looked at my hands rather than at the wasteland below.
"If a single bee stung you," he asked, "would it be wise to eradicate the hive that produces your honey?"
"Of course not," I said, horrified.
"If a small band of men accosted you, and stole everything you owned, would it be wise to destroy their entire nation?"
I paused at that. "No," I said, at last.
"If the same small band only irritated you -- if they called you names, and stole your shoes. Would you destroy their families?"
I shook my head.
"And you are only a man to have such wisdom," Essen said. "What greater wisdom must a God have? When his powers are so mighty?"
"He is the God-King. His way is not ours." I was thirty summers, and I'd never believed anything else.
"Thus have the mighty always explained themselves to the weak," Essen said. "Tell me this, then. A man enters your house at night, where you are peacefully sleeping. He rapes your wife, and murders your child. Do you ask him to murder you as well?"
"I have no child." It was a frivolous objection, and we both knew it.
He smiled patiently. Warmly. Despite his own distress. "Even so."
I shook my head.
"Let us say that a God enters your home, and does these terrible things to your wife, your child. Does his godhood grant him the right?"
"He is the God," I protested. "Not a man. He has the right."
"And if," Essen said, "this God was a man who claimed to be a God. What then?"
"Because you did not recognize his divinity does not mean he does not have it," I said, proud of myself. "You could believe me to be a worm, but would I still not be a man?"
"An interesting question," Essen said, nodding. "But not the one before us. A God is wise, yes?"
I shrugged. "I suppose."
"A God is all-knowing, yes?"
He smiled. "If he is all-knowing, he must be wise, else he could not be all knowing, do you not agree?"
Sophistry or not, the point was valid. "All right."
"And we both agree it is not wise to punish the many for the deeds of the few. Apart from its inherent injustice, such punishment cannot help but foster rage within the oppressed."
"I suppose," I said again.
"And so," he said, looking out at the devastation below us, "when a man is so unwise as to lay waste to an entire kingdom because a few resist his rule, when he wreaks bloody havoc upon an ancient and powerful kingdom with so much to offer to a peaceful friend . . . how can that man be considered a God?"
I closed my eyes, but saw only corpses wrapped in muslin.
"I will leave you to think about that," he said. And rose, leaving me alone with my thoughts.
And that was the fourth day.
On the fifth day, Essen did not come. On the sixth, word came that he had been wounded in battle.
On the seventh day, a guard brought me to him. The guard was courteous enough, but I could see the pain in his eyes, hear it in his voice. A light was going out in the world for him.
Laying in a bed of pine boughs, the Brotherhood's hetman looked wan and wasted, like fabric left too long in the sun. A turn of bloody muslin wrapped his chest, the most colorful thing in his little niche. It rose only slightly when he breathed. His eyes were closed, but they fluttered open when I stepped near.
The smell of pine was almost enough to drown out the smell of his dying.
"You came," he said, as if I'd had a choice.
I smiled to show that I understood the joke.
"When I die," he said, the words coming in a short burst of obvious effort, "they will free you. What you do then. Is your choice."
"What happened?" I asked.
"It was . . . " He searched for a word. "Stupid. At the end. I could have. Fallen back. But the girl."
He winced, and coughed, and coughed some more, and finally fell back into the bedding, tears in the corners of his eyes.
"I could not," he whispered, "stand by."
Later, the guard would explain to me that Essen had taken his wound in the aftermath of their loss in the town of Kuthee, when he'd pulled away from his retreating squadmates to tear an Empire soldier off of a young girl, only seven. He'd killed the soldier, killed two of the other three waiting their turns, but the fourth had been too fast. Essen had killed him too, but not before taking the blow that would ultimately be his death.
In that moment, though, I had only his last whisper. His last whisper, and the blackened earth, and the rows of bodies wrapped in muslin.
On the seventh day, Essen died.
In the early morning hours of the eighth, a blue-skin helped me up behind a rider, and handed up a pack full of provisions. I clung to the Brother's back as the ground fell away, the dragon's wings creaking in the still morning air. We flew over unseen earth, so high and so dark that I could not see the devastation that the war had wrought. He set me down on the broad stone road to Mellian and the cities beyond, the road that led to the heart of the Empire that my family and my families' families all believed in so unswervingly.
As I put my feet on the road, as the dragon flapped into the sky in a red-gold wash of dawnlight, I wondered what I believed.
Another /r/writingprompt, in which a terrorist converts a reporter by "explaining the philosophy of morality".