Read Empire of the Worm Online

Authors: Jack Conner

Empire of the Worm (20 page)

Davril’s group neared a certain
amphitheater, where Davril’s men wrestled the Jewel into a series of underground
tunnels that connected with the Avestines’ territory. Davril’s priests and his
most trusted men went with it.

As for himself, he led the
procession on, hopefully drawing any pursuers away from the Jewel. At the
prearranged place, he abandoned the carriages and led his men through a series
of alleys and finally into the gutters. The entrances here were too small for
the Jewel, but not too small for men.

Here, at last, surrounded by the
stink and the slime, Davril felt safe.

 
 
 
 
 
 

Chapter
15

 

General Hastus hunted them relentlessly in the coming days. His
troops scoured Sedremere and the surrounding countryside. He searched every
nook, every shadow. At one point he even discovered a portion of the Avestines’
tunnels, though the section he broke into was far away from the Avestines’ Quarter.
Still, Davril consulted with Jeselri and several tunnels were collapsed between
here and there. The General’s searchers were stymied.

Not to be deterred, Hastus interrogated
citizens of the city, torturing them for information about the rebels. As an
example, he hung the ragged remains up from lamp-posts throughout various
cities, often with a placard about their necks reading
TRAITOR
, whether they had been one or not. These tactics worked
against him, though; many Sedremerans, fearing the Generals’ persecution,
sought refuge with the rebellion, and Davril was strained to accommodate them
all. Their ability to find him both gratified and unnerved him; if they could
locate his halls, then it wouldn’t be long before Hastus could, too.

The influx had another effect. The
droves of Sedremerans that sought refuge with the Avestines and rebels brought
with them their religions, and Davril was bemused to see many vacant halls and
rooms converted to chapels to their countless gods—and the people had much to pray
for.

Even Davril’s friend Qasan Ulesme
was not immune to the temptations of faith. Qasan was one of a number of like
people, adrift on the currents of the times, that gravitated to a little-known
new cult: that of Octhus, God of the Night. “It’s wise to worship such a god,”
Qasan told him over drinks one day. “For Night comes upon us all.” Just the
same, it was better than seeing Qasan depressed.

Tense days passed, and Davril
dispatched his agents to infiltrate various organizations, and while he gathered
intelligence he also coordinated with the priests. They worked constantly with
the Jewel of the Sun, fashioning weapons and trying to commune with the god
that may or may not slumber within it. They tried various sorceries, trying to
quicken Its birth, or hatching, but nothing worked. Just as Davril had feared,
the Lerumites’ arts had weakened it, perhaps permanently. Father Trisdan turned
to his ancient books to see what could be done and spent many hours studying
them; he even recruited the likes of the Lady and Elimhas to aid him, though
Elimhas did so only grudgingly. Davril eagerly awaited any results. Like the
priests, he had become convinced that the Jewel was the only way to destroy Uulos.

“It can’t be done, I fear,” Trisdan
confided to Davril one day. “We are missing key passages.”

“Would those be in the books the
Asqrites took at the same time they stole the Jewel from your order?”

“You know about that?”

“The Lady told me.”

“Among my order we refer to them as
the Lost Books, and it’s been our dream for hundreds of years to recover both
them and the Jewel.”

Davril nodded. “When I recruited
Father Elimhas, I asked him to steal the books from their secret library in the
House of Light.”

“Dear Tiat-sumat! Did he . . . ?”

“Sadly, no. I believe he was seen
conferring with me, or perhaps his absence was noted. In any event, they were
waiting for him. He barely got out with is life.”

“The poor man. I never would have
imagined.”

“Now the Light-House is more
heavily guarded than ever. It won’t be long till the Lerumites destroy it.”

Trisdan’s face tightened. “Then we
don’t have long to recover the books.”

Davril’s spies reported to him
later that day, informing him of the ever greater numbers of prisoners that the
Lerumites were gathering. Soon they would have enough to bring Uulos over.

 

    

 

“Amazing.”

Davril cast a sidewise glance at
her as he escorted Alyssa through his new suite. She still did not seem
comfortable in his presence after what had passed between them last time, and
she seemed unsure of his motives in asking her to join him today.

“Yes,” he said. “Isn’t it?”

He’d taken over the abandoned
chambers of the former High Priest of the Avestines, and the labyrinthine suite
shone with gold as Davril and Alyssa passed a grand (golden) bas-relief of a
massive serpent clutching hundreds of enemies in its shimmering coils. The
enemies writhed, and fire played at the serpent’s maw. A cunningly-crafted
sheet of water constantly trickled over the bas-relief, and the water had been
tinged with dye to appear red. Thus it seemed that a curtain of blood
constantly flowed over the bas-relief. It was only one of the many marvels of
the High Priest’s chambers.

“Ah,” he said, “and here are the
bedchambers ahead.”

She stopped. “Davril . . .”

He smiled down at her. “Alyssa,” he
sighed. Hesitantly, he traced her cheek with his thumb.

She started to flinch away, then
stopped.

“Yes,” he said.

She turned away.

“No,” she said.

“But why?”

She looked up at him, her eyes full
of pain. “Hariban is between us. You put him there, not I. And Sareth, too.”

He ground his teeth. “Damn you.”

She narrowed her blue-green eyes,
and tears spilled over her cheeks. Only then did he realize she was shaking. “Damn
you
,” she said. She spun away again,
her shoulders hitching.

For a moment, he just stood there. He
took a deep breath and gently, very gently, placed his hands on her delicate
shoulders, massaging them, then lowered his lips to kiss the top of her head.

Instantly, she wheeled about and
flung herself against him. The change startled him. Laughing, he almost fell
over. She steadied him, and he stroked her back and pressed her to him. She
felt so small, so light, so breakable. How could he have been so cruel to her?

“I’m sorry,” he said.

Shaking, she looked up at him. “Does
this mean you’ve forgiven me?”

Instead of answering, he kissed
her.

For a moment, she was rigid. Then she
melted against him.

The truth was that he hadn’t
forgiven her. He knew he never could. Yet he could not go on
hating
her, either. She had meant well,
that was clear, and she was still Alyssa, the girl he’d grown up with and
fallen in love with long ago, back when he had been pulling her hair and teasing
her. Her body felt very good against him.

“I’ve missed you,” he said when
they parted.

She sobbed, and her hands clutched
at him, squeezing his arms as if to reassure her that he truly existed. “Oh, Davril
. . .”

For a while, he held her. When he
could, he led on. They passed a large arched doorway that had been bricked up;
the mortar-work was still damp.

“What’s this?” she asked.

“The High Priest’s Inner Sanctum. Trust
me, you don’t want to see what was in there. I’ve sealed it off so no one has
to, so that hopefully we can begin to forget.”

They passed a statue that towered
high overhead. Made of black stone, it glistened sickly. Davril stared up at
it, marveling at the serpent that seemed to thrust through the floor of the
chamber and up . . . and it did not even end at the mouth. The maw was agape
and tongues of fire shot out, a grand inferno made of reddish stone that
sparkled with hints of quartz. In the center of the fire the tongues of flame
took on the shapes of towers, and above these were walls and domes and
minarets.

“Amazing,” Alyssa said, and Davril smiled
at the wonder in her eyes. She was like a child suddenly.

“Yes,” he said. “The Palace of a
Hundred Venoms. It’s supposed to be the afterlife of the Serpent’s followers. The
Palace has a hundred towers, each reserved for a different group. The High
Priests get the highest, central towers, their immediate subordinates the next,
and so on, until we get to the betrayers of the faith, who are roasted over the
furnaces or dangled off the sides of the wall in iron cages to roast in the
Serpent’s fires forever. Either way, it gets you a toasty spot, and you don’t
have to worry about being cold for the rest of eternity.”

She stared at him cryptically, and
he laughed.

“I’ve gotten to know a thing or two
about the Avestines lately. Jeselri has been giving me an education. Now come,
you must see the bedchambers.”

After a moment, she followed.

They passed down a high, narrow
hall, through a curtain of amber beads, then into the palatial bedchambers of
the former High Priest.

Alyssa gasped. “Dear gods.”

“Yes, but which ones?”

Together, they stared up at the
high ceiling and the elaborately carved walls, then down to the centerpiece of
the room: the bed.
Bed
seemed an
inadequate description for that massive affair of golden cushions and pillows,
a vast sea of silk on which two hundred people could easily lay. Not that much
sleeping had gone on on that bed, Davril thought. The High Priest had liked his
orgies, that was plain. The Bed had been meant as his little paradise on earth,
before he arose to those central towers. And in the very middle of the great,
circular bed was
another
bed, a
loftier one that rose over all like a little dais.

Davril gestured to it. “That’s
where I sleep.”

Alyssa stared from it to Davril,
then shook her head. “You haven’t changed, have you? You’re still a Husan.”

“Now more than ever. I’m the only
living one, remember. I have a tradition of opulence to carry on.”

He stepped closer to the Bed, past
a statue of yet another serpent. The Bed was encircled by a hundred serpents,
each one with its mouth jutting outward, its tail to the bed, its body undulating.
Its mouth gaped wide open, and old bloodstains could still be made out on them
and the floor below.

“During his orgies, the High Priest
would have various sacrifices’ heads shoved into these statues, and the victims
would writhe about, dying, stuck, while the High Priest enjoyed himself. If any
of his bed partners refused a certain act, they would go to join the
sacrifices.”

Alyssa blanched. “How horrible . .
.”

Davril took her hand and led her
past the statue, then onto the bed. Shuddering, she seemed to force herself to
look away from the statues. Once on the bed, he made a grand gesture, sweeping
his arm at the golden room with its shining chandeliers and massive bas-reliefs
of serpents and orgies and battles, its rearing braziers in the shapes of
serpents’ heads that would make the serpents’ mouths glow with fire when lit,
and he said, “Fit for a king, is it not?”

She turned to look up at him, and
he read disapproval in her eyes. She stared at him for a long time, and he let
his frivolity wither away. She relaxed. Laying her head against his chest, she
said, “Oh, Davril. How I’ve missed you . . .”

He wrapped his arms about her. Again
he marveled that she felt so small and fragile. Her golden hair smelled of
roses.

“I’ve missed you, too,” he said.

She tilted her face up, and her
eyes glistened. “Davril, I—I’m so sorry, about everything.”

“Don’t. What’s happened has
happened. We must look toward tomorrow. I’ll destroy Uulos and retake Qazradan,
it’s the only way, and that’s all I need to worry about.” He held her tighter.

“And if you can’t destroy Him?”

“Then the world will belong to the
Worm, and the light will fade from the universe forever. But that won’t
happen.”

“How can you be sure?”

With more confidence than he felt,
he said, “Because I’m a Husan! I was born to be an emperor, and I will not let
some
thing
take that away from me.”

He kissed her.

For a moment, she fought him. Her resistance
faded, and she softened in his arms. He hefted her up and carried her to that
high bed in the center of the greater bed, and there he lay her down.

 

    

 

Several days later found Davril and Alyssa walking through
one of the Avestines’ splendid gardens. The Avestines used systems of mirrors
to light many of their warrens, and this case the sunlight was so bright as to
be overwhelming. Davril had to squint as he passed the rows of flowering
bushes, over the bridge that spanned a deep gorge and past a stone wall covered
in flowering vines.

“Oh, it’s so beautiful,” she said.

Before he could agree, he heard coughing
behind him and turned to find Wesrai looking chastened.

Instantly Davril felt alarm. “What
goes on?”

Wesrai took a breath. “It’s Uulos,”
he said. “His priests are moving the Black Altar.”


Moving
it?” said Alyssa.

“Where?” said Davril.

“A great host of them marches from
the Temple to Sraltar Square,” Wesrai told him. “They pull it on rollers and
sacrifice prisoners to it with every step, greasing the way before it.”

“Gods.”

Wesrai looked very pale. “It’s a
terrible sight, my lord. I saw it myself. The priests haul the Altar down the
avenues, with their new High Priest standing atop it, singing and conducting
sacrifices as they toss them up to him, and the other Lerumites sing with him,
and the people gather on the terraces and slash themselves with knives and
fling their blood down to the slab. After he sacrifices the victims they’re
tossed before the rollers to be ground into paste . . .” He mashed his eyes
shut. “It should arrive in the Square within an hour. Then the ceremony will
begin.”

Davril turned once, kissed Alyssa
on the lip, and left the gardens. He followed Wesrai through the halls until he
met up with the various high priests and generals in one of his conference
rooms.

“This is it,” Elimhas said, his
voice sharp as ever. “They’re bringing Uulos over tonight.”

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