Sucking air through the new, dry filters is not early on a problem, he walks confidently through the gate, leaving the carpetbag with the guard, strides out onto the road. For several hundred feet the air remains clear, the only discernable change is the darkening sky deeper under the over arching pall of smoke, but of a sudden the macadamized pebbles quickly disappear under ten centimeters of floury grey ash that puffs into cloud as Valeska walks. Seemingly, every quarter hour the layer deepens inches more, making walking increasingly tiring. Still the heat increases and the day seems as dark as a storm; indeed, the sky was not visible through a pale cloud of filthy fog, nor will the new moon that night make it glow. It was a simple exercise of logic for him to decide getting caught in this place after sunset this day is likely to be fatal to all bipeds. A hot draft of air begins streaming from the southeast.
Now the filters begin to clog, and fatigue and caution slow him, the heat making him breath more for less distance. He has to stop and rest when the powder levels mid-shin so he stands gasping and cleaning the lenses of his goggles and knocking loose powder off the outside of his filters. When he starts again he probes the dust with his walking stick to search for tripping obstacles. His vision grows hazy with swirling dirt . Out through the unfocused air he can see artillery tubes on shattered limbers, mummified horse carcasses with bleached bones gleaming through the torn hide or the ends of missing extremities; splintered stumps of trees sticking up like bones themselves on this grisly ground.
Glaubrius stands shuddering in the gloom, the horizon a thin, dirty orange slash of color; he runs his gaze over the ruined earth. The only plants that grow are some kind of succulent, appearing blue green, squat and fat, covered with spines and, we are told by those experienced, omitting a foul, fetid odor which seems to attract every species of beetle and flying insect that manage here, he imagines an ammonia-like smell spilled through his filters.
Walking steadily the next half-hour the elderly gentleman’s chronic disease begins to manifest itself, and the landscape is like a midnight walk. He notices that the horizon in front of him is getting closer quicker, and confirms by way of the extra effort to advance along this sunken road that he is going uphill. Gout burning, he limps forward, relying on his walking stick; stops just short of the ridge to catch his breath again, sucking hard on the filters to get air. He waits, gasping. Minutes pass, his heart slows, his feet cool. Ten more steps and he crests the ridge and can see the pathetic vista.
The slope drops nearly four meters in as many forward, the path steep and treacherous in the dim light. On the plane below, miles in every direction, lies the Ruined Earth, the Blasted Fields, the Germans call it the Blutslacht – the Blood Battle. A charred surface littered everywhere with broken weapons of all sizes; regular, engineered cuts sliced in the ground are trenches dug by the thousands of soldiers. The craters and pockmarks are obvious, but the long scars, the gouts in the land with ragged rubbled edges wisped with ligaments of wood root and shattered trunk , are from the impact of shells, missiles and crashing aerocraft.
And all across the devastation are the dull gray spots that seem to glow slightly in the reflecting muddy light . They are the bones of animals, men, dogs and horses. Not distributed randomly the bone piles have a larger shape and a greater pattern, they tell the story of what happened; they are piled in rows where they fought together and in piles where they were being defeated, pushed back, killed one by one. Yet there are lonely ones in between the information, men whose fates can only be guessed. Were they running away or running forward, confused and wandering, blown there or dropped there or drug there?
Valeska closes his eyes. This was not even the center of the battle, but one of the far flanks. No one goes to the center. There is nothing there to see. There is nothing there to take. But his eyes closed his mind recovers, and he remembers something he does want to take away from this place. Something that could be very valuable indeed, almost worth the visit.