Read Empire of the Worm Online

Authors: Jack Conner

Empire of the Worm (10 page)

Davril raised his eyebrows. “How
will you stop him?”

Elimhas shook himself. “We have
recently forged an alliance that will lead us from the brink of this abyss.”

“An alliance?” Something clicked in
Davril’s mind. “You said me seeing the Jewel could make no difference now in
any case . . .”

“Yes, you arrived just in time. Even
now my brothers will be on their way up here with our new benefactor.”

As if on cue, Davril heard the
echoing of many feet traveling up the stairs. He glanced nervously at the High
Priest. “What have you done, old man?”

“Done, boy? What I have done is
saved us all.” He considered Davril carefully. “I had toyed with the idea of
turning you over to them.”

“Who?”

The footsteps drew louder. Davril
tensed, one hand going to his dagger.

That seemed to decide Elimhas.
“There will be no bloodshed here.” He motioned toward the balcony doors. “Go.
Hide. I will not betray you.”

Davril looked from him to the
doorway. Hastily he shoved the dagger away, opened the balcony door and slipped
through, shutting it behind him. Putting his face to the smoky glass, he found
a spot he could see through just as dozen priests wearing golden robes swept into
the chamber and bowed to Father Elimhas. Toward the rear of the procession grouped
five figures in dark, hooded robes, four of them seeming to act as bodyguards
for the central one.
Lerumites
,
Davril thought, feeling his skin crawl.

He caught sight of the man in the
very rear of the procession, surrounded by his own guards, and Davril had to
stop himself from shouting out.

“Well, there it is,” General Hastus
said, eyes on the egg of stone. “If it isn’t my lucky day.”

“This has nothing to do with luck,”
said the darkly robed figure in the center, his voice was thick and garbled. He
drew back the cowl of his robe to reveal a slick, scaly face with large black
eyes and a gaping, tooth-lined maw.

“This has all to do with the design
I laid before you, General,” continued the fish-priest, who must be the
Lerumites’ High Priest. “All goes as I told you it would. The pieces will
continue to fall into place for you—so long as you heed our advice.”

General Hastus’s gaze fell on the
Jewel of the Sun, and fire reflected in his gray eyes. “So it’s true,” he
whispered. “Elimhas, you old devil! I always thought you a fraud. Why have you
never made this Jewel available for the public to see?”

Elimhas’s mouth twisted sourly. “It
is only for the eyes of the priests of the innermost circle—and for the
occasional Emperor. At any rate, we cannot safeguard the Temple. Not forever. Already our guards are
having to resort to greater and greater violence to keep the people out. But
when things grow still more dire that will not be possible. We will not be able
to guard the Jewel, and when your emissary kindly pointed out that it would be
better for me to
give
it to you now
than for you to have to
take
it from
me later . . .”

The High Priest of the Lerumites stepped
forward, almost seeming to glide across the floor. He was a foul, abominable
thing.

“You’ve done the right thing,” the
High Priest told Elimhas. “We’ll take . . . good care of the Jewel.”

Two of the fish-priests produced a
long, heavy, intricately-carved crate that they had brought with them. They set
it down, opened it, and with great care, using strange-looking tongs, removed
the flaming, four-foot-high ovoid stone from its pedestal and lowered it into
the crate, into which it fit snugly. That done, they replaced the lid, sealing
the smoke in with it. Davril, eyeing all the inscriptions, held no doubt that
the crate was powerfully warded.

The fish-priests took possession of
the box, and it was with the most obvious unease that the Asqrites watched them
do it.

“You do surprise me,” Elimhas told
General Hastus. “You, siding with them.”

Hastus’s eyes were cold. “I am of
the River Families, or have you forgotten?” he said. “That’s where we’re headed
now. To the new palace: my home. The old one was tainted, haunted by the shades
of Lord Davril’s brethren. I could not stand one night in that place. Farewell,
priest.”

 
 
 
 
 
 

Chapter
8

 

“How can you do this?” Davril asked Father Elimhas minutes
later. “It was you that warned me
against
the Lerumites.”

Elimhas regarded him sadly. “That
was before your actions weakened the Patron and his Circle. As I told you, it’s
too late now. Because of you, the time of the Worm has come. I merely position
the Order to be at His side rather than in his way.”

They resumed looking through the
spyglasses fetched for them by Elimhas’s junior priests; on the docks in the
distance General Hastus and the fish-priests awaited something, while on the
horizon the storm rolled in, lightning crackling from it. Wind blew Davril’s hair,
even on this terrace high above the surface of the sea, and the taste of salt
was heavy on his tongue.

“What are they waiting for?” he asked,
but of course Elimhas couldn’t know.

The docks of Sedremere were
endless, jumbled and labyrinthine. Hastus and the others occupied one of its
nicer sections, where great rocking galleys were moored, ships of the general’s
private fleet. As the head of an old River Family, he commanded many a merchant
ship, and it was one of these ships they were waiting for, Davril had been
given to understand, though he did not know the why of it.

Something materialized from the
approaching storm: a great galley, hundreds of oars rowing. No, it wasn’t
emerging
from the storm, Davril saw, not
exactly. It was
leading
. The whole
storm was massed about that one ship, as though the vessel itself, or something
on it, had drawn the tempest to it. The galley rowed on, plowing through the
turbulent waters, and the storm kept pace. At last the black clouds blotted out
the gray sky overhead, and rain beat down on Davril’s face.

The galley rowed closer, and he
felt a strange presence—a coldness, a darkness—drawing nearer.

The galley pulled abreast the docks
and its sailors tied it down, grunting and swearing. They were hard, grizzled
men, but their faces were pale for ones who had just spent so much time under
the sun, and they looked sickly and tense.

Then Davril saw it. A heavy ramp
was lain down to the dock and painstakingly buttressed, as though something
immensely heavy would be moved off-ship. The High Priest of the Lerumites stood
straighter, and gave off an aura of contentment as something draped in packing
sheets was shoved and rolled to the galley’s edge, then maneuvered down the
buttressed ramp until it scraped to a stop on the docks. Rollers had been laid
under that spot, and it was instantly rolled up the docks toward the shore. The
General’s party led the way, the High Priest of the Lerumites striding proudly.
Hastus moved with his usual confidence, but there was something shaken in his
eyes.

Davril tried to get a look at what
they were transporting. From time to time the wind flapped a sheet away, and he
was able to see what lay under before the sheet was roped down again—a great
stone block, completely black, glistening with moisture, and octagonal in
shape. It was this that gave off that feeling of inhuman malignance, this that
had drawn the storm. Looking back, Davril could see the sailors that had
transported it make signs of their gods as they watched it go. They looked
unbearably grateful to have it gone.

A massive block of stone, dozens of
feet wide, taken from far out at sea . . .

A
volcano, raising from the deeps
. That was why the Lerumites had commenced
their rituals a month after the Asragotians had vanished. Something rose from
the sea, something holy to the Lerumites. Had it been from this place that the
slab of stone had been taken?

The great slab, dozens of feet in
diameter, was rolled to one of the General’s pleasure barges. A crane maneuvered
into position, then another, and they painstakingly lifted the slab onto the
vessel.

“What
is
that?” Davril said.

“It can only be one thing,” Father
Elimhas said. “The Black Altar of Uulos, taken from the sunken remains of
Nagradin.”

“Dear gods.” Davril had suspected
the same thing, but he hadn’t let himself put a name to his fears.

“It will be his window into our
world,” Elimhas said. “His gateway—when he is ready.”

On the docks, General Hastus led
the way onto the rocking ship, followed by his men, and Lerumites hauling the
crate that contained the Jewel of the Sun came last. Sailors untied the
pleasure barge, and it was shoved off. For a moment Davril wondered why the
slab had merely been moved to a different ship, but then he saw where they were
going. The General shouted for the oarsmen to row them toward the River, and so
it was; soon they made their way upstream, through the heart of the city. Only
the barges had shallow enough hulls to be able to make their way up the River.

Still peering through his spyglass,
Davril was shocked to see that people lined the shores of the river, staring
forlornly at the barge, some making the signs of their many gods. Many dropped to
their knees and prayed. Others ran. Apparently they too could feel the presence
of the black slab.

“Where are they taking it?” Davril
asked. “The Lerumites?”

“They must be taking it to their
House,” Elimhas said, meaning the great Lerumite
Temple that stood astride the mouth of
the Lerum River in the middle of Sedremere.

“And the Jewel, too?”

“I suppose.”

Davril swore. Everything seemed to
be slipping away from him. “I can’t believe Hastus is an ally of the
fish-priests,” he said miserably.

“At first I couldn’t either, but it
makes sense.”

“Yeah? How?”

“What do you actually
know
about the River Families, Davril?”

The question took Davril by
surprise. “Well,” he started, “I know their power comes from the River.”

“Keep going.”

Davril wasn’t in the mood to recite
history, but at the moment he could think of nothing better to occupy himself
with. “Before the Niardans came, the families along the Lerum sent their boats
down the channel to the sea to fish—the coast was too rocky to build docks
along back then. Over time they worked out how to do it, but by then the River
Families were already quite wealthy, and it was them who built and owned most
of the new docks.”

“I’m not asking about how they make
their
money
, Davril. Where does their
real power come from?”

Davril shifted uncomfortably. “I
only know what legend and rumor say.”’

“What do they say?”

“Back when Sedremere was still
ruled by the Avestines, the River Families were visited by the Myr.” These were
the mysterious beings that dwelled in the ocean, and who worshipped their own
otherworldly god. The people of Sedremere knew little of them. “It was the
custom of the Myr to swim up the River from the sea and, on certain nights,
enjoy a, ah,
liaison
with members of
the River Families.” He glanced at Elimhas to see if the priest would stop him,
but Elimhas motioned for him to continue. “On these nights, an unnatural fog
would rise from the River, and darkness would fall on the city. One member each
from the River Families would wait at the docks of the River until one of the
Myr would rise from the water, and the Myr would take the waiting Family member
into a private cabin built for the purpose and—well.”

“And afterward?”

“The Myr would slip away into the
River and vanish. If the Myr had been female, they might be with child, but no
human knew. However, if the Myr had been a male, and the Family member female,
and that female was gotten with child, then the woman would carry the child to
term. She was looked on with respect and shown every luxury unto the end of her
days.”

“And the baby?”

“The priests of Lerum would come
for it. Take it with them inside the walls of their compound. They would raise
the child as one of their own. That’s how all of them were raised. The child would
become a Lerumite. The mother would never see it again, or if she did she would
not know it.”

Elimhas nodded. “So you should
understand. The Lerumites and the River Families have always enjoyed close
ties. In fact, the prosperity of the Families’ fishing enterprises was often
attributed to the Lerumites.”

“Yes, but now I know that the god
of the Lerumites is
Uulos
. The
General must know that, too. How can he serve them? And what do they want with
the Jewel of the Sun? It’s a weapon
against
Uulos.”

“There’s no way to find out, I’m
afraid,” Elimhas said. “Not now.”

Davril stared after the barge
working its way along the river for a moment, then lowered the spyglass.

“No,” he said. “There is a way.”

 

    

 

The twisted purple spires of the Temple of Lerum
stabbed into the thunderous night, and lightning blasted all about them. The
storm had followed the Altar here. Davril was close enough to see the detailing
on the sinuous purple walls that undulated like a snake’s back around the
temple. Wispy fog rose from the brackish water that surrounded the island the Temple and its grounds
perched on.

For a long time Davril crouched,
shivering and wet, in the lee of a warehouse front. He was at the courtyard
that abutted the bridge spanning the marshy, reed-filled gap to the Lerumite
compound. The marsh served as more than a buffer, he realized: it was a
military clearing to establish a defensible position.

Hopefully the Lerumites were not
keeping a close lookout. He was counting on the fact that many would be with
their Lord at the moment. They would be at the Black Altar, worshipping Uulos,
or carrying out his will. If Davril was right, precious few Lerumites would
have remained to man the walls. But he was far from certain, and so he waited. When
lightning struck, he counted the number of figures upon the wall, noted their
positions and movements. He supposed he would have to brave the waters. Rumors
spoke of strange creatures in the swamp around the Temple, but he saw no other way. He could not
simply walk up the bridge and knock on the door.

Counting the Lerumite guards took
him some time, as the sentries moved around quite a bit, and sometimes they
were so still he didn’t even notice them, but in the end he had a rough count. There
were at least two hundred on the walls, more than he’d bargained for. In fact,
he wasn’t even sure how many fish-priests there
were
. No one was. No one even knew how long they lived, or if they
remained in the Temple
all their lives or perhaps at some point rejoined their fathers in the depths
of the sea.

One thing was certain, and that was
that Davril would not be able to scale the walls as he’d hoped. He’d stolen
some rope for the purpose off an abandoned cart, but he had no need for it now.

Rain flung down, drenching him. It
could be the death of him, he knew. Already he felt an aching his chest that
could be the onset of illness. Thunder throbbed in the heavens, reverberating
off the spires and domes of Sedremere.

When he listened closely enough,
Davril thought he heard the warbling chants and songs of the Lerumites. At
first he assumed it came only from the Temple.
Soon, though, he realized that some of it came from
behind
him.

And it was moving.

He crawled into a storm drain, with
water swirling all about, shoving him, crashing against him, filling his ears
with its babble and his mouth with the filth it had gathered from the streets.
He huddled there, shivering and gasping for air, and waited.

Momentarily a procession of perhaps
a hundred fish-priests marched around the corner. The streets were clear, at
least here. If any citizens nearby saw the Lerumites, they kept well away from
them; the fish-priests were respected and feared throughout the city. Their
cult was ancient, and alien, and many disappearances throughout history had
been attributed to them. Now they marched two by two up the city streets. No,
Davril saw, that wasn’t quite right. They carried poles on their shoulders, and
from these poles hung bound captives, many of them dressed in robes or other
religious attire. Some were gagged, some weren’t. These latter screamed and
thrashed, swaying to and fro on their poles like panicked swine. The fish-priests
didn’t seem to care. They continued to hum and gargle their horrid chants,
until at last they drew abreast Davril.

This was his only chance. If he
failed now, all was lost.

He waited for the procession to
pass by, then slid from his gutter. He drew his dagger, slashed it across his
forearm—his father had said it fed on blood—and advanced on the lone Lerumite
that took up the rear. This one was taller than the others and possibly
occupied some higher rank. It carried no pole, but a staff instead—a staff with
a hideous emblem at the top, something like a star with writhing tentacles for
arms instead of rays of light.
The sign
of the Worm
.

Davril did not hesitate. He gripped
his now-pulsing dagger with grim resolve as he stalked the Lerumite. Rain
plastered him, thunder cracked, but all he could feel was the hot blood burning
through him, and all he could hear was the smashing of his heart.

Closer and closer he came. The
fish-priests at the head of the procession were passing into the clearing
around the Temple.
Davril didn’t have much time.

Holding his breath, he moved closer,
dragging his left foot at his side, almost having to hop forward. The tall
shape of the staff-wielding Lerumite was so close that he could
smell
it, all seaweed and salt.

Davril coiled his arm, poised his
dagger to strike —

The Lerumite spun.

It brought its staff down, nearly
cleaving in Davril’s head. He just barely dodged aside. Thunder cracked.

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