Read Empire of the Worm Online

Authors: Jack Conner

Empire of the Worm (7 page)

Davril knelt beside her and put her
head in his lap. “There,” he said, sweeping her hair away from her face. One of
her eyes was red and beginning to swell, but from the other he saw a clear
sliver of blue, much like his own. Her cracked lips tried to smile, but they trembled
too badly.

“Hush,” he said. “It’s all right. You
don’t need to say anything. Let me do the talking. I’m so sorry, Sari. So, so
sorry. I should have expected this, should have made sure you were away.”

Her bloody lips parted, and she
moaned a single word: “Hariban.”

A knot seized in his throat. Wordlessly,
he nodded, aware of tears spilling over his cheeks. Silently he stroked her
hair.

“I heard Alyssa’s screaming while
they were at me,” she said. “She found the baby . . .”

For a long time, he just sat there in
the darkness, comforting her, saying that everything would be all right, that
this was all a misunderstanding, she would see, help would arrive and things
would go back to the way they were before the dark times. She smiled and nodded
and pretended to believe him.

Suddenly, a soldier screamed. Then
another. Long, pain-filled wails rent the air.

Sareth sat up with a start.

Davril moved toward the bars—recoiled.

Tall, dark figures floated toward
him. Only their faces caught the light of torches set in the walls—pale,
ghostly faces, their mouths rimmed with fresh blood. Their bodies, emanating
shadow, seemed bloated and full. They were his brothers, all four of them. And
his father, taking up the center, eyes round and hungry.

The dead emperor’s bloody mouth
opened, and a rasping voice issued: “Son. Daughter. It is time for you to join
us.”

Sareth huddled close to Davril.
“Father?”

“Join you?” Davril said.

“The Dark One comes,” his father
said. “The Enemy.” In a fear-filled voice, he added, “Uulos. The Worm, god of
all darkness. He will make of the world a horror. He will summon those that
served him long ago, that now slumber beneath the earth. Only we can stop him,
we slaves of the Great Ones. The Masters.”

Something bright appeared in his
grasp, and he pressed the ceremonial dagger once more into Davril’s hands.

“Take this. It is a thing of some
power. It was the avenue of many souls, the boulevard by which they passed into
the Lord Subn-ongath. Blessed by Him, it will be a bane to the Worm. Feed it
blood to bolster it.”

Boot-falls echoed down the halls.

“Quickly! There is no time. They
come for you, Davril, come to drag you forth and butcher you, and Sareth as
well. Become one of us. Accept the embrace of the night. Only fire and steel
will harm you. Come!”

The cell door slid open with a
clang. Sareth cried out.

Lord Baerad Husan IV stepped toward
Davril, who felt the coldness he radiated, saw the blood tangled in his beard,
and smelled the stench of death on him.

Davril realized it. “It was you,
wasn’t it?” he asked, stumbling back. “It was you—all of you—you who’ve been
stealing people from the Palace.
Feeding
off them.”

His father came on, slowly, full
and bloated from his gorging, the very specter of death. “We are dead men,
Davril. We have no life of our own, so we must steal it from others. The Great Subn-ongath
gave us this gift, but now it is time for us to extend it to you and Sareth.”


No
,” Sareth said.

“You will not touch her!” Davril
said.

His father came on, and Davril
danced back, pressing his shoulders against the cold, slimy stone wall.

Baerad Husan IV advanced, arms
outstretched, face pale, eyes intense.

The shouts of General Hastus and
his men erupted. Davril’s brothers shrieked in rage. Men screamed. The clash of
steel echoed down the halls.

Baerad lunged at Davril. Davril
slipped away, but his lame leg betrayed him, and he fell, striking the cold
floor.

Baerad flew at him. Davril rolled.

“There is no time for this!” his
father hissed. “Join us!”

“Never!”

He slashed his dagger at the
blood-soaked fiend, but this time the dagger passed right through it. Cold
talons wrapped around his neck. His father’s face loomed palely before him.

“Take my blood,” Baerad said.

The shrieks of Davril’s brothers
turned to wails of fear. “Fire, Father!” they shouted. “They have fire!”

Davril felt something cold come
over his mind.

“Join us or die,” his father said. “You
have no other option.”

For a moment, Davril wavered. He
knew his father told the truth, that if he refused General Hastus would kill
him, and Sareth too, just as he had already slain Hariban. But if he accepted
his father’s gift, he would be damned, his soul fouled for all eternity. And
Sareth’s, too. Besides, and perhaps more to the point, he could see little good
being undead would do; his father and brothers had occupied this state for many
months and it had utterly failed to help them achieve their ends.

“No,” he said. “I won’t do it.”

Blood gushed up from between his
father’s lips. The dead emperor vomited it toward Davril’s mouth, but Davril snapped
his jaws shut. Twisted his head away. He knew that if he tasted that vile
stuff, he would become like his father.

He slashed his dagger at the
fiend’s hands. His father could make himself incorporeal when he wanted, but he
could make himself corporeal, as well. And if Davril could feel those cold,
lifeless talons about his throat, that meant his blade could bite them.

His father howled and drew away.

The shouts of the General and his
men grew louder.

“Flee, Father!” Milast cried. “We
must flee!”

Baerad bit out a curse, then joined
his sons, who waited outside. To Davril, he said, “You have made your choice. Now
suffer the consequences.”

He melted into the shadows down the
hall, and his sons followed.

“They’re gone,” Sareth breathed. Her
eyes were wide and she was panting.

“Did I do right?” Davril asked. “Should
I have—?”

She shook her head, unable to
answer out loud.

General Hastus and his men arrived
at the cell door, breathless and fearful; they’d just been fighting ghosts. The
General stared at Davril with worry, and respect.

“It’s time,” he said. “Time for your
family’s curse to be broken.”

 
 
 
 
 

Chapter
6

 

The day was humid, and flies and mosquitoes buzzed all about.

Davril wanted to swat at them, but
his hands were tied before him so that he could use his cane—they’d taken his
golden one and given him only this pitiful stick as a replacement—and if he let
go he would fall. All around, the people of Sedremere screamed at him, cursing
him and his family. Some threw rotten vegetables or offal. Some threw stones. Davril
felt a sting on his cheek, and hot blood poured over his face. A soldier
grunted, a citizen cried out, and no one threw stones for a space.

Sareth walked before him, hands
tied behind her back. She was mostly naked now, the soldiers having torn off her
garments to embarrass to incite the crowd into a further frenzy. A sergeant
constantly walked up and down the procession, and when he passed the royal pair
he would raise his whip over his head and bring it down with a sharp crack. The
crowd howled, seeing these mighty ones brought low, and Davril ground his teeth
each time the whip parted the flesh of his back, spilling blood down his back.
He tried not to scream.
I won’t give them
the pleasure!

How could his people do this to
him, to Sareth, to Hariban? He thought his own family had been evil, but now he
wondered if the corruption of the emperors had tainted the empire as a whole. But
no. The people were simply desperate and confused. They had convinced
themselves that a curse lay on the royal family and that the royals were
responsible for all their troubles, and they hated Davril and Sareth because of
it. They didn’t know the truth. How could they? Davril himself had not known
the full extent of it till yesterday.

He hung his head and endured the dung
and stones and whips, hobbling along on the stick the General had given him. From
time to time a soldier would knock it out from under him and he would topple to
the ground, where he would be kicked and beaten until he rose back up. The
people laughed.

From time to time Davril passed a
particularly wondrous monument and would try to focus on it rather than his
present circumstances, or he would near a marketplace and sniff the mix of
spices. No meat, though. The city had been under siege for so long the people
were eating rats and leather. Rumor had spread that some had begun eating the
dead.
Perhaps I’ll be someone’s dinner
.

He passed the inner wall that
encircled the area where the nobles lived, then through the Arch of the
Heavenly Stars down the broad, tree-lined Boulevard of the Arts. Here he beheld
the great University
of Gahenid, founded in
the days of Kamos the Builder, and walked over the Canal of the Three Hearts,
where gondolas would ply the waters in happier times. They passed the Amber
Ziggurat, then the Golden Ziggurat, and passed under the Arch of Splendor and
through the Flying
Gardens of Ibrum. The
smells of a thousand flowers washed Davril’s senses, and he tried to lose
himself in their glory.

Ahead loomed the great Tower of Behara, that splendid structure that was
actually taller than the Palace, though not as high, for it did not rise from a
mountain but stood on a low hill. Round and massive, the tiered, pillared levels
of the Tower rose up and up, a splendid, hulking monument to the greatness of
Behara, God of the Sky, Wisdom and Light. Its golden bricks gleamed invitingly.

Long had this been one of Davril’s
favorite places in all Sedremere—all Qazradan. The Tower’s thousand vaulted
chambers were home to discussion and intelligent discourse, a place where people
could go and simply talk, exchange ideas of high philosophy or rude jests. Different
rooms enjoyed different themes. On the lowest floor were the steaming Baths,
which Davril had loved most of all. Many times over the years he and his
brothers had gone there, in disguise, where they’d reveled in the freedom and
anonymity. Davril had loved the girls, the lofty discussions, and the marvelous
views from the high reaches of the Tower. At the very top sat the Temple to Behara, a simple
affair with a high ceiling covered in murals and a few rooms where the priests
lived. And always there was the Lady of the Tower, she who had been selected by
the priests to wait for Behara’s return. She had been one of the three
representatives of the Flame who had crowned Davril. The Beharans would
sacrifice goats and lambs to him several times a year when there was a great
celebration by the people, and there was much singing and dancing. It was a
fabulous, fabled place, one of the wonders of the world, and now it would be the
place of Davril’s and Sareth’s demise.

Several times Davril’s hands
strayed to the dagger stuck in his waistband, pressed against the flat of his
back, but always he controlled himself. The General’s men, having searched him
once, had not thought to search him again after his confinement. Still, he
could think of no way to use the weapon for his and Sareth’s benefit.

Finally the procession passed
through the Gates of the Sky and entered the grounds surrounding the Tower. Just
as the General had promised, thousands of people had gathered to see Davril’s
execution, and more thronged the walls, some even sitting on each others’
shoulders. It was a gathering of tens of thousands, and Davril understood why General
Hastus had chosen this spot. It was a beloved place, a place of renewal and
life, and so Davril’s death would be seen as a boon—and of course it could be
viewed by many people.

The Tower reared over them, broad and
high, gleaming of burnished gold from the fired bricks that formed it, each
brick stamped with the mark of the Emperor who had been alive during its
construction. It had taken the reigns of four to complete it, and it had been
abandoned several times.

The General led them through the
roaring, angry crowd, up the broad, two-hundred-foot-long-wide steps that led
up to the first landing, where he stopped, the soldiers forming a ring around
their captives. The crowd roared louder below.

General Hastus forced Sareth to her
knees, and the crowd responded enthusiastically. He then tore Davril’s walking
stick away, tied his hands behind his back, and forced him to his knees as well.
The crowd roared like maddened lions.

Davril’s fingers scrabbled at the
dagger hidden beneath the shreds of his tunic, pinned in his waistband, but it
was awkward with his hands tied. He worked at the hempen bonds, loosening them,
even tried to rub them against the blade, but it was hidden in his pants, only
the handle sticking out. He couldn’t brace it.
And what if I could?

At his side, Sareth wept. He longed
to comfort her, but he could think of nothing to say.

The sun rose hot and angry. It
poured down heat and warmth, drenching Davril in sweat, and every golden
headpiece and armband of the soldiers and the crowd flashed painfully in his
eyes. The bricks beneath his legs warmed him, then burned him. The roar of the
crowd washed him, and Davril swayed.

Focus
,
he told himself.
Don’t pass out now. There
may be a way —

The General grabbed Sareth up by
the hair. “The princess first!” he shouted, and the crowd called out for her
death.

Sareth’s tears had dried. Beautiful,
all but naked, her slim, girlish body covered in blood and sweat and tears, she
stood defiantly before them, clear blue eyes narrowed.

“Kill me if you will!” she shouted,
though Davril doubted few heard her over the general babble. “You have already
taken everything from me, it does not matter. I will
embrace
oblivion. It is enough for me that I won’t have to look
into your faces anymore, you filth. To think I dreamed of serving you! Of being
your princess, bettering your lot in life! I renounce it.
I renounce you.”
She coughed up some spittle from the back of her
throat and spat at them. Their eyes bulged. Several threw stones, and she
weathered the barrage as best she could. Never did Davril love her more.

A stone block was shoved into place
before her, and the General forced her to her knees and mashed her face down
onto to the block.

Davril worked furiously at his
ropes. They were beginning to give.

Two soldiers gripped Sareth’s
shoulders and pinned her. She thrashed and spat at them.

“Dogs!” she snarled. “Pigs!”

Someone handed Hastus an axe. It
was huge, sparkling in the light of the noontime sun, and the crowd fell silent,
respectful of death if nothing else.

Davril worked his ropes with vigor,
so fast his wrists bled. While he did, he remembered a time when he and Sareth
had both been little and had stuffed a dead rat in Father’s date-and-almond pie.
When Father had taken a bite, he’d blanched. Davril, only six, could not help
laughing. That had doomed him, for his father had known right away he was
responsible. Just as Davril had been taking his whipping, though, Sareth had
stepped in and confessed that it had been her idea. Father had gone easier on
Davril for that, but he had gone hard on her.

Davril sawed his dagger against the
ropes faster. Almost there . . .
almost
. . .

The General took a heavy step forward.
Raised his axe. Sareth quit cursing and struggling. The shadow of the axe fell
over her.

Almost there . . . just a little
more . . .

The General grimaced as he stared
down at her. Genuine sadness touched his eyes. He did not like this.
Hated
this, Davril saw. And he hated the
people for making him do this. Yet it was his duty and he would see it done.
Hariban!
Davril thought.
Your own grandson! How could you?

The General sucked in a breath,
raised his axe just a bit more, gathering his strength, and then —

Davril tore the ropes free. He
bounded forward, a cry on his lips. At the same time, he reached round and
grabbed the dagger.

The General saw him. Fear crossed
his face. Only a few feet separated them.

The crowd screamed. Soldiers surged
forward. They were too far away.

Sareth laughed.

Davril coiled his arm to slash his
blade across the General’s throat, through that thick, curly beard —

His leg twisted out from under him.
He crashed to the cobblestones, cracked his skull, and felt the warmth of blood
on his face.

“No,” he gasped. He struggled, rose—saw
Sareth, the General standing over her, mouth pressed grimly —

The General’s axe flashed down. There
came a meaty
thunk
. Blood spurted,
stinging Davril’s eyes. The crowd roared their approval.

Then Davril was there, cradling his
sister in his arms. Her head had rolled down the stairs, and the crowd was
pushing forward, trying to grasp at it, fighting each other over it. Davril
closed his eyes, tried to pretend she was still whole. He felt warm wetness on
his face, but he ignored it. She was still hot beneath his fingers.

“No,” he wept. “No.” He rocked her
in his arms.

His dagger lay forgotten on the
ground. When he opened his eyes, it glinted, and he reached for it. None
stopped him. He poised it over his breast, preparing to plunge it home.

The General drew back. “So goes the
Emperor,” he said. Soldiers rushed to intervene, but he stopped them. “Let him
finish it.”

Just as Davril prepared to plunge
his blade home, the sound of trumpeting horns filled the air: ARRUUU-ARRRUUU-ARUUUM!

“For Urak’s sake!” Hastus said.
“Now?”

ARRUUUU!

The horns peeled across the city,
silencing the gathering of thousands. Davril almost didn’t hear it, so engulfed
was he in despair. But dimly he heard the horns, the cursing of the General,
and he lowered his dagger just a bit.

Suddenly, he laughed. Covered in
his sister’s blood, he threw back his head and laughed. “You were too slow!” he
shouted. “You should have killed me hours ago! No, that’s not right, is it? The
barbarians saw the people gathered here, realized we were distracted, and
launched an attack. Your own lust for power’s damned you!”

The General glowered but wasted no
more time on him. Hastus had larger fish to fry. He barked orders to his men, mounted
a horse and rode off at the head of a column, riding toward the Northern Wall,
toward the Gate of Winter, where one of the besieging armies must be assaulting
the city.

The people scattered, many rushing
to the walls to reinforce the troops. Davril watched them go, laughing, tears
running down his face, still rocking Sareth’s headless carcass in his arms. In
a matter of minutes the square around the Tower had become empty—almost. A few
stayed behind: soldiers, swords bared and gleaming. The General must have ordered
them to end Davril, audience or not. They glanced from the distant wall to the
pitiful figure of Davril up above, a headless Sareth in his arms, and anger lit
their eyes.

Slowly they mounted the stairs.

“Husan,” they muttered. “Cursed Husan
. . .”

They converged on him.

“End it,” he told them. “I’m ready.”
He held his sister tightly, not willing to let her go. Already, she was
beginning to cool.
Just a moment
, he
thought.
In just a moment I will join you.

The soldiers neared him, clutching
their bright swords, and he saw their haggard, frenzied states. They were not
the same men he’d led before the Great Journey. The dark times had changed them,
made them hard, savage. He tried to hate them for it, but could not. This was
all his fault, and he was ready to pay for it. He only wished Sareth and
Hariban had been spared.
Alyssa, how
could you?

“Come,” he said. He raised his
head, baring his neck for their blades.

They moved in —

Movement up above. Pouring down
from the Baths came a dozen priests of Behara. Dressed in muted blue, carrying
crossbows, they swept down the long stairs. Several loosed bolts at the
soldiers, and the bolts clattered off the stones at their feet. Davril felt one
whoosh by his face.

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