Read Empire of the Worm Online

Authors: Jack Conner

Empire of the Worm (4 page)

“I—” A strange look came into her
eyes.

He realized it then, too.

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “That’s
madness.”


It’s the only way.
No one knows what happens on the Great Journey,
and all know that sometimes the Journeyers don’t return. No one will question
you.”

“No!”


Yes
. You went, and for all they know, everything went as normal—save
this time only one returned. The only surviving male member of the Royal Family.”
In a lower voice she added,
“The Emperor.”

Davril felt tears burn his eyes.

She took pity on him, running her
fingers through his hair. “My love,” she said. “I’m so sorry. You’ve lost
everything.” With a sigh, she added, “Everything but your duty.” She knelt
before him and kissed his hand. “All hail the Emperor! All hail Lord Husan!”

 

    

 

The grand ceremony of the Crowning took place in

Sraltar Square
, the
massive courtyard in the very center of Sedremere, and it was quite a show. It
had been here in ages past that the Avestines, the original builders and
occupants of the city, had conducted their human sacrifices, and a great
flat-topped pyramid stood in the center of the square for the purpose. Of
course that had been thousands of years ago, before Davril’s race, the Niardans,
had swept down from the north and sacked the city. Now the Avestines were
confined to their Quarter, and the practice of human sacrifice had been abolished.
Or so Davril had thought.

He stood atop the pyramid with the
sun beating down on him, Alyssa just behind him to his left, Sareth behind him
to his right, and the three high priests of the three most prominent sects of
the Flame before him—center among them Father Elimhas, the High Priest of
Asqrit. Davril stared out over the gathering of a half a million Sedremerans—all
that would fit in the space—and forced himself to smile. Lines of elephants
marched down the aisle with performers leaping from back to back, juggling rods
of fire, with the band playing in the background and fountains jetting scented
green water two hundred feet in the air . . .

It was magical, and he hated every
second of it. Already the doom the Patron’s wrath had implied was beginning. Shadows
were rising in the streets at night, red mists boiling up from the caves,
townspeople going missing, and sometimes the earth would shake, just slightly,
as if promising worse to come.

Davril accepted the Crown when it
was presented to him by the combined priests of Behara, Asqrit and Illyria, the gods of sky, sun and stars, but at that
exact moment thunder cracked, and a furious rain began to fall, unnaturally
warm and heavy.

And sticky.

“Dear gods!” said Sareth, Davril’s
sister.
“It’s raining blood . . .”

Davril shared a look with Alyssa,
whom he had married the week before, but she, after a startled gasp, looked
away. Blood trickled down the side of her face and stained her gorgeous gown.

Below, the people screamed and
scattered. Elimhas, High Priest of Asqrit, led the other priests in prayer.
“May the Jewel of the Sun protect us,” he said.

Spitting blood, Davril said, “I’m
afraid this is just the beginning.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Chapter
3

 

“Tell me,” Davril said.

Below him gladiators fought on the
sand floor of the Arena. Sunlight flashed on ringing blades, and the crowd
screamed in response. Vendors marched up and down the aisles, selling candies
and sesame-covered roast mutton. The air smelled of food, dust and blood. Davril
perched in his special balcony at the head of the Arena, and the imperial flag
waved behind him; against a golden background, a great bird, the ever-burning
phoenix, clutched a writhing snake in its talons.

Qasan Ulesme, a senator and
Davril’s friend since boyhood, reclined next to him. Far fewer people had
attended the events in the Arena than normal, and the empty seats cut at Davril
like a knife, glaring reminders of the difficult times that had befallen the
city.

He tried to ignore the strange
warbling of the Lerumites; the fish-priests were about their rituals, and they
could be heard even over the clash of blades and shouts of the combatants.

“The night mists are still rising in
my quarter, my lord,” said Qasan, who was tall and lean, with black, curly hair
and lively hazel eyes. Sareth had always had a certain fondness for him, Davril
knew, and he had lately wondered if it might turn into more than that.
She
was ready. Qasan was clearly not. Though
a few years Davril’s senior, he hadn’t had his fill of sampling the opposite
sex, and Davril didn’t know if he ever would. Sareth would be miserable if she
wedded him now. “They strike at unpredictable spots,” he went on, “and when men
become surrounded by the mists, they go mad and set upon each other. Some
change
. Change and disappear into the
mists.”

“Then it’s the same,” Davril said.
“What of the curfew?”

“It seems to have helped. Fewer
people have gone missing since they aren’t out on the streets to be taken. But
I fear the mist is learning.”


Learning
?”

“Well, whatever power has set it on
us is learning, rather. The mist has started to come earlier, during daylight,
when there are still people to be taken. It doesn’t stay for long, though, as
if the sun burns it away.”

“It still comes from the caves?
Then I see no choice but to seal them up.”

“But, Davril—”

“I know. Many homeless live in
then. But it can’t be helped. See to it in your quarter. I’ll spread word among
the other senators for similar actions to be taken.”

“It will be done.” Qasan looked
sideways at Davril, and there were questions in his eyes that could not be
asked. Gingerly, he said, “People are saying this is a plague visited upon us
by the gods.”

“Oh? Which gods?"

“I don’t know, but it hasn’t gone
unremarked that it started ten months ago, just after the Journey. Some say . .
.”

“Yes? What do they say?”

Qasan let out a breath. “They say
the gods do not favor you.”

“Good. The people aren’t fools.”

“Pardon?”

“Never mind.” Half to himself,
Davril said, “Is there no cure?”

“It’s of no human cause, my lord,
whatever cause that is. There can be no human cure.”

“What of the priests? There are a
thousand cults that promise the intervention of divinity. Can not one of them
help us?” Still the horrid warbling of the fish-priests washed over the city,
and Davril would be glad when they finished their ceremony. “Even them,” he
added.

“We’re working on that, my lord.”

“I’ve asked the General to look
into it, too.” General Hastus was of the River Families, and the Families were
ancient allies of the Lerumites. Davril did not want to deal with the fish-priests,
but any fish is salmon when you’re hungry.

The crowd roared, and Davril saw
that the bout between the gladiators had come to an end. The victor stood with
his foot on the chest of his foe, who lay face-up, breathing heavily. Blood
from a blade-cut seeped from his arm. The winner had his sword to the loser’s
throat, and had turned to Davril for further instructions. This was largely
ceremonial, of course, for no Emperor in living memory had ordered a fallen
gladiator slain. The gladiators were free men, after all. This was their
profession, and they were veritable gods of the city, adored by all the
citizens, man and woman alike. To order one of their deaths would have only
incited the anger of the people.

Davril rose and called out,
“Mercy!” When the sword had been sheathed, he added, “Well fought, men! Go in
peace.”

The gladiators bowed to each other,
retrieved their weapons, and departed. Horns blew, and a gaggle of prisoners
were herded out into the sun-lit Arena, blinking their eyes at the brightness. The
crowd booed and threw refuse at them. They were mainly convicted rapists and everyday
murderers who had elected to “take the sword” in return for a reduced sentence
if they lived. In the case of the murderers, the reduction usually meant a life
sentence instead of death. In the case of the multiple rapists, it meant a
rescinding of the order of castration.

Mixed in among the normal criminals
were several Avestines, Davril saw, and was not surprised. A group of them—the
race of people that originally founded Sedremere—had attacked and killed a high
Qazradan official last week, butchering not just him but his entire family on
their way to the market. Though normally confined to their Quarter, the
Avestines—who as a race tended toward extremism—had somehow slipped out (
Their tunnels
, Davril thought—his father
had often talked about them—
They must
have slipped out through their secret tunnels
) and carried out what they
considered a retaliation against the treatment of their people. Justified or
not, the murders had been brutal, the head of the official’s smallest boy—well.
Davril would should no tears for these men.

The Last Gate was swung open to
much trumpeting and horn- blowing, and out of it marched a great, black, wooly
elephant, his tusks adorned with gold, diamond-studded earrings in his large,
flapping ears, even glittering rings about his immense trunk. From a litter on
its back, one driver and one gladiator stood. The gladiator wore golden armor
and his helmet was topped with a high plume of horse hair; he had a bundle of
spears with him, as well as his bow and quiver of arrows. As always, his curly
beard was as immaculately combed.

The crowd roared their approval,
while the prisoners cringed and huddled fearfully. Weapons were tossed to them,
but the swords and spears looked pitifully inadequate when compared to the
vastness of the elephant.

Davril shouted out for the games to
begin. The gladiator said something to the driver, and the driver tugged on the
reins. The elephant lowered its head and charged the prisoners, who scattered
like rats before it. The crowd cheered. Davril laughed as one rapist was ground
beneath the great bull’s foot. A servant girl served Davril honey-covered
dates, and for a moment the direness of recent events faded.

The goal of the game was for the
prisoners to remove five colorful flags from their holders along one wall and reposition
them in the correct holders along the opposite wall. When this was done, the
game would be over, and their lives and genitals saved. Few usually survived
that long, but the chance of success was deemed better than the alternative. It
was a fantastic spectacle, watching the massive wooly elephant with its
gladiator slaughter the prisoners one by one, grinding them to paste, crushing
them in that long black tentacle-like trunk, or skewered by the gladiator’s
arrows and spears. The prisoners hurled their own missiles at him, but the
gladiator merely raised his golden shield and they bounced away.

“He does make a fantastic gladiator,”
Qasan Ulesme commented, as he sipped wine from a goblet held by a serving girl.

“So he does,” Davril agreed.

General Hastus laughed and roared
atop his great black mount even as he hurled a javelin that skewered a fleeing
Avestine through the lower back. Writhing and bleeding, the man collapsed to
the sand. He did not struggle for long, as the elephant stomped on him even as
it chased down a scarred old rapist with one eye. The trunk curled around the
man and reeled him in, up to the General. Grinning, the General drew his sword
and hacked open the man’s throat. Blood sprayed him. The crowd cheered, loving
it. The elephant tossed the corpse away.
Behold
my father-in-law,
Davril thought ruefully.

“Sometimes I think he missed his
true calling,” he said aloud.

At last the game ended, and flowers
and coins were tossed to the General as he bowed from atop the elephant’s
litter. He left the Arena to much applause, and clowns amused the audience
while the corpses were hauled away. Only two of the prisoners had survived, and
they submitted to the city guard gladly.

Still flushed from battle, his face
wiped but his body still reeking of sweat and blood, General Hastus joined
Davril and Qasan in their balcony. Smiling, Davril greeted him, and the serving
women offered the General refreshments.

“Quite a sport,” Hastus said,
drinking his wine.

“Yes,” Davril said. “Qasan and I
were just saying that perhaps you should retire from the military and take up
the Arena full time.”

Hastus chuckled. “I would, but Qazradan
needs me. A pastime it must remain.”

The earth rumbled suddenly, and the
floor under Davril’s feet shook. The audience cried out in fear.

“Dark times,” the General said,
when the earth had calmed.

“Davril and I were discussing that,
as well,” Qasan said.

In the Arena, another pair of
gladiators emerged, and a new duel began.

“Tell me about the disappearances in
the Palace,” Davril said.

The General, Davril’s
second-in-command, nodded. “Aye, my lord. Servants who maintain the tombs in
the deepest levels of the catacombs report loud grinding noises in the lowest
level, as of a great door sliding open, but as no one save Your Grace is
allowed down there no one can corroborate this. Rumors have begun circulating
that the Great Tomb is opening of its own accord, and shadowy things have been
seen lurking in the catacombs. The vanished servants are attributed to them.”

“You fear it will continue?”

“What do
you
think, my lord?”

Davril ran a hand through his hair.
“Scour the catacombs,” he said.

“Yes, my lord. Though I do not
think that will help.” Hastus paused. “My lord, my I ask—it is past time I did
so: deadly mists, earthquakes, dark shadows in the Palace—what the hell has
happened
?”

Davril looked away. “Just do your
job, General.”

General Hastus frowned. “You know,
you are my son now. I would help you, if I could.”

“I know. There’s nothing to be done
about it.” In his heart, though, Davril was unsure.
No
, he thought.
I won’t
appease the thing. No matter what reprisals It visits against us, I won’t bow
to It. I’ll starve It of sacrifices and It will wither, and Qazradan will be
free.

When the games ended, Davril
departed with his train. The shadow of the Emperor’s Tower was once more
stretching toward the Jade Ziggurats. A cool breeze blew through the buildings,
and the hackles on the back of his neck stood on end. His procession thundered
down the streets, and many citizens turned to look. Wearing his slim golden
crown, on his golden chariot drawn by two beautiful white stallions, Davril knew
he looked his part. Sure enough, some Sedremerans bowed or nodded from the
courtyards and terraces and sidewalks—but most did not. Most just stared,
hollowly or sullenly. Some even made obscene gestures, but Davril did not send
his soldiers to rebuke them. Dark times had come, and it was his fault, not
theirs.

As they passed the Flying Gardens
of Ibrum, screams erupted from the mounted soldiers at the front of the
procession. It had grown so dark that Davril couldn’t see what the problem was,
and when more screams sounded out, he called, “Hold! Draw up, men! Draw up!”

His soldiers drew rein. The screams
continued, growing louder, sounding like they came from many mouths. Then Davril
smelled it: the stench of sulfur, gusting on the breeze.

“The mists!” he cried. “They’ve
come!”

A dark, billowing cloud flooded up
the street from a nearby alley, overcoming the men in the front of his
procession, who were instantly obscured from sight. The black cloud approached,
so near that the street-lamps illuminated it, all swirls and eddies and
malevolence. When Davril’s men burst from the mist, they set on Davril’s
unchanged soldiers, ripping at them and feasting on their flesh with bare hands
and teeth.

“Gods!” said General Hastus.

Fighting the maddened men would
only delay the sane men, Davril saw, giving the red mists time to overwhelm
them, too.

“Back!” Davril called. “Fall back!”

He wheeled his chariot about and
led the retreat, but even as he did misshapen wretches seized his chariot and
the cart spilled, falling on his right leg. Fire filled him, and he screamed.
His men took him under the arms and carried him away, at the same time
performing a rearguard action to fight off the changed men.

Davril’s leg was shattered, he discovered
when they arrived back at the Palace. Broken in too many places to mend. He
would never walk normally again.

It
will be worth it
, he told himself—it had become a mantra—even through the
agony of setting the splints.
When the
Patron is withered, and Qazradan is free, it will be worth it.

 

    

 

The General found Davril in the Palace Baths. “Another courtier’s
gone missing, my lord.”

Davril cursed in the steaming air. “First
servants, now courtiers—what’s the cause this time? Is there any indication?”

Other books

Strongheart by Don Bendell
Tiranosaurio by Douglas Preston
Prince Charming by Julie Garwood
Veiled by Silvina Niccum
Double Shot by Christine D'Abo
Saving Margaret by Krystal Shannan