Read Empire of the Worm Online

Authors: Jack Conner

Empire of the Worm (14 page)

“That’s a risk I’m willing to take.
Now will you help me?”

Father Elimhas looked hard at
Davril, then glanced around nervously at the other people in the café. It was
entirely possible that agents of the Enemy were watching them even then. Davril
waited.

Father Elimhas leaned back, and his
face fell into shadow once more. “It depends,” he said. “What would you ask me
to do?”

 

    

 

Wesrai looked up nervously when Davril returned.

“Let us hurry home,” the priest
said, face tight. “The sun’s almost down, and it’s not good to be out at night.”
That was when the Old One was strongest, and the Lerumites roamed the streets
in droves.”

Davril swung himself awkwardly
astride his camel, then ordered it to stand, but he did not set off.

Pained, Wesrai said, “What is it,
sir?”

Davril turned his gaze on the red
riot of spires and domes that was the Palace, looming over all, a constant
reminder of the power and glory of the Empire, though now it was dark and
empty.

Almost.

Wesrai stared at Davril in
confusion. Then comprehension dawned. “No, master,” he whispered. “Do not think
it! That place is haunted. I’ve heard tales . . .”

Curious, Davril asked, “What have
you heard?”

“Many have gone there over the last
month. To loot, to steal, some to live, but they did not return.” He stared
hard into Davril’s eyes. “
None of them
.
People say . . . people say there is something evil there, something horrible. It
was there before the armies came, before the Old One came. It fed on servants,
then courtiers, now it feeds on looters and squatters—and it is always hungry.”

“I suppose it is.”

Wesrai waited for him to tell more,
but Davril did not feel like sharing. Still, it was good to know that his
father and brothers had not vanished with the retreat of their Masters. The
dreams had not left Davril. It had started out with one or two a week, but now
it was almost every night, sometimes more than once. He dreamt of the strange
city beyond the Altar, of colors and songs . . .

“My lord?”

Most of all, the songs . . .

“My lord?”

Davril shook himself. “I’m sorry,
Wesrai. There are answers I must have.”

“Y-you cannot mean to go to the
Palace—at night! It’s madness!”

“Then I am mad.”
“Sir!”

Davril clapped Wesrai on the
shoulder. “Return to the homestead. Inform everyone I’ll be back shortly.”

Wesrai gazed at him with wide eyes.
For a long moment, he seemed on the point of nodding eagerly and bolting, then
he summoned strength. His chin firmed and he straightened his back.

“I go where you go, sir.”

With a sigh, Davril set off toward
the Palace. Night fell black and heavy, and somewhere off in the distance came
the screeches and warblings from one of the rituals of the Lerumites. Davril
passed through the city, noting the order that Uulos had brought to it and hating
what it represented: the growing domination of the Worm. Worse, he was aware
that many in Sedremere were actually grateful to Uulos and his thralls. As if
he had done them a service.
Davril reached the mountain the Palace was set atop and rode up the spiraling
roads, past the walls and mansions. This had been the home of much of Sedremere’s
aristocracy, but now, with the dark terrors that dwelt in the Palace, most had
fled their homes, no matter how grand or beautiful. And what squatters had come
to occupy them had perished or been driven out, or driven mad. Not even guards
were left to man the series of walls that safeguarded the Palace. All was
deserted, and a hushed, fearful shadow lay over all.

“The Mountain of Shadows, they’re
calling it,” Wesrai informed him as they passed under an archway.

“I can see why. I suppose it’s only
a matter of time before Uulos orders the Palace burnt.”

On the other hand, Davril wondered
if Uulos feared the presence of the Deep Ones. Surely he could feel their
echoes lingering here. And they had all but destroyed the Worm once. Perhaps
some of that old fear remained.

Davril entered the courtyard before
the Palace. Here the fountain rose, and in normal times water would be
cascading over the long string of metal fish, which would shimmer in the sun
and look like they were actually swimming, all in a great gleaming school, and
one could imagine the water rippling, the play of light in the depths . . .

No water ran. The fountain looked
strange and sad, the string of fish arcing pitifully into the air, dry and
awkward, covered in bird offal.

The Palace—beautiful, crimson and golden—soared
high and proud, as majestic as ever. Seeing it, being in its shadow, Davril
felt warm. Despite himself, he smiled.
Home
.

He clicked his tongue and the camel
sank to its knees. With Wesrai’s help, Davril climbed off and hobbled up the
steps to the great doors—broken and sagging inward, but that was as he’d
expected. Many looters would have sought to rob it during the time of its
abandonment. Davril wondered how many had made it out alive.

He paused and turned back to
Wesrai. “You don’t need to come with me. It would probably be better if you
didn’t.”

Wesrai looked from Davril to the
Palace, biting his lip. “I’ve come this far,” he said. “I’ll go the rest of the
way with you, my lord.”

This time Davril didn’t correct him.
“Very well.”

Using a new cane, Davril limped
through the yawning doors he’d passed through thousands of times before and
into the high hall where sunlight should be pouring in, sparkling off all the
gold and amber and white marble. But it was dusk, and the hall was dim and
strange. Still, it was oddly comforting. A taint lay over the rest of the city,
but not here. Perhaps there was a different taint, a lesser one, Davril couldn’t
be certain, but it felt . . .
right
.

He picked his way to the grand
staircase that led down to the catacombs and began the descent. Here the public
would come in normal times to honor the fallen emperors. Some families
considered various emperors as patron saints and would light candles and say
prayers to their sarcophagi. As Davril passed these first levels, he plucked a lantern
from a wall and lit it. The surroundings grew darker and colder, and as he made
his way deeper still he could not resist a shiver. Wesrai’s breathing became more
labored behind him, and when he turned to face the priest he could see that
Wesrai was pale and trembling. Yet when Davril again asked him to go back he
refused.

Shoving the lantern forward,
driving back the gloom that surrounded him with one hand and leaning on his
cane with the other, Davril made his clicking, clattering way down into the
darkness. No longer did he feel safe and comforted. He felt frightened. The
powers that dwelt below were monstrous, alien, unknowable, and he had defied
them.

Shadows darted from column to
column around him, stealing from sarcophagus to statue, drawing tighter about
the two intruders. Wesrai must have seen them, too, for his teeth audibly
chattered.

“I’m here,” Davril called. They were
in a wide hall, with sarcophagi on either side and marble underneath, squat
pillars holding up the bowed ceiling.

“I’m here!” he repeated.

He drew his lantern in close so
that his face could be seen.

The shadows swirled tighter, merely
dark shapes against the greater darkness. Tighter—

Wesrai screamed.

Davril whirled to see the priest in
the grip of a tall, hulking shadow with a dead-white face and livid black eyes.

“Milast . . .” Davril said.

Unsmiling, Davril’s eldest brother
held Wesrai in an iron grip. Wesrai gibbered wordlessly, his face filled with
fear. Davril smelled the stench of urine.

“Let him go,” Davril commanded.

“You are emperor no longer,” said
Milast. There was a thick black scar running up from his eyebrow into his
hairline where Davril had sunk his sword. “I will not obey the likes of a
vagabond cripple.”

Another shadow stepped forward—shorter
than Milast, but broad across the shoulders and stern of face.

“Father.” Davril was tempted to go
to his knees.

The old, dead emperor looked harsh
as ever. “To converse with us you must pay a price.” His gaze flicked to Wesrai
then back. “That,” he said, as if Wesrai was not even a person.

The priest’s wordless noises rose
in volume, and he struggled violently against Milast. More shadows swirled
around and around them.
My brothers
. How
they must enjoy having Davril in their grasp.

He forced himself to stare his
father in the eye.
“No.”

“It is the way it must be,” Lord
Husan said. “We must have our blood, and we can allow no outside eyes to see
us.”

“His eyes cannot harm you, unless
you’re more fragile than you look.”

“You’re as insolent as ever, I see.
No. He may not pass. If you wish to converse, he must be given to us.”

Davril only smiled, which seemed to
infuriate his father. “Slay him and you’ll regret it.”

The lantern light picked out tiny
fires in Lord Husan’s eyes. “How?” he growled. “How can
you
affect
us
?”

Davril’s smile widened. “I . . . can
. . .
leave
.”

His voice echoed loudly in the
stone halls, and he could see the anger fade in his father’s face, replaced
with . . . consternation? Davril thought so. The only thing his father could
fear now, other than Uulos, was being irrelevant, and Davril was the only one
who could make him relevant again.

Lord Husan sagged, just slightly. “Very
well.” With a curt gesture to Milast, he said, “Let him go.”

Reluctantly, Milast released the
priest, who collapsed wetly to the floor, shuddering. Breathing heavily, he
looked up at Davril, and Davril could see the gratitude there. He helped Wesrai
to his feet and patted him on the shoulder.

“See,” Davril said, “I told you you
should stay behind.”

“Next time I’ll listen.”

Davril turned back to face his
father, gazing at him sadly.

“What is it you have come to us
for?” Lord Husan said.

Davril frowned. “Dreams,” he said. “I’ve
been having strange dreams.”
Lord Husan did not look surprised. “You will have to leave your creature here,”
he said, his tone matter-of-fact. “Come.” Without another word, he spun about
and marched into the gloom, vanishing utterly from sight.

To Wesrai, Davril said, “I am
sorry, my friend, but I must ask you to stay put. Can you do that?”

Wesrai gulped. “In the dark?”

“I must see where I’m going, while
you just need to sit here, otherwise I’d give you the lantern.”

“Come!” said Lord Husan’s voice from
the darkness. Milast had vanished, as had the other shadows.

Davril squeezed Wesrai’s shoulder. “I’ll
come back for you soon.”

Without asking for permission
(though with more than a twinge of guilt), he left Wesrai and followed his
father’s voice. Shortly he found himself striding beside the man who’d sired
him, the man he’d loved and nearly worshipped for most of his life. The man was
dead now, emitting a strange chillness, an unnatural cold that reminded Davril
of Subn-ongath. The stone faces of long-dead emperors gazed down at them.

“What sort of dreams?” Lord Husan
asked as he descended a staircase.

“Dreams of a city. Voices call to
me from the temples, and people dance, and the air is strange and purple, and
the lights in the temples are red and green, and fires ripple above them, but
it is a ghostly fire and forms strange patterns, and singing, always the
singing . . . beautiful, horrible singing. I can hear it now.”

The singing seemed to hum from the
marble around him, echo off pillar and sarcophagus. They were deep underground,
in the penultimate level of the catacombs. Below was only the Great Tomb. Davril
could feel an unearthly throbbing of alien energies and powers radiating off
the stone around him, and from Lord Husan himself. His brothers’ shades swirled
and cavorted in the shadows all around, circling the two like sharks on the
hunt.
Do they want my blood?
Davril
wondered.
Or do they want my soul?

“You saw Algorad,” Lord Husan said.
“The city of the Great Ones. When we die, we will hear the bells toll from the
steeples of Algorad, summoning us home, and to there we shall go, and the might
of the Patron will renew us. We shall be reborn, and we shall rejoice, for we
will see with new eyes, and there in the lights and shadows of Algorad we will
dwell forever and ever, in glory until the end of days.”

He stopped walking and Davril
stopped with him. Confused, visions of alien cities swimming in his head,
Davril tried to slow the beating of his heart.

“Where is this city?”

Lord Husan looked at him archly. “You
do not need to ask, my son. You
know
.
Deep in your heart, in your bones, you know. It is beyond the Altar of
Subn-ongath, inside their world.”

“A world . . . ?”
“They have carved out their own place, their own reality, between the gulfs and
spheres, and it is fused with our own—fused
here
,
beneath our very feet. And, perhaps, in other places. Here the two worlds are
twisted together, and that is how we can survive, your brothers and I.”

Davril shook his head ruefully. “You’ve
sowed fear of yourselves throughout the city, you know. People are terrified of
the dark presence in the Palace.”

“As they should be. We must take
the lives of others to sustain ourselves, must take their blood to fire our veins.
Too, we must take sacrifices to our Master, to feed Him, to bolster Him. He is
weak, and . . . well.”

Davril knew his father had been on
the verge of saying something else.

“Will Subn-ongath die?” he asked.

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