Read Empire of the Worm Online

Authors: Jack Conner

Empire of the Worm (8 page)

The General’s men lowered their
weapons and looked up in alarm.

“Run!” one said.

They ran.

“No!” Davril shouted after them, as
spots danced in his vision. “You cravens! Come back and finish it!” He leveled
his furious gaze at the approaching priests. “Fools! What have you done? They
were going to give me peace!
Peace
!”

The world faded. Sareth slipped
from his fingers, and he fell back and away, vanishing into nothingness.

 
 
 
 
 
 

Chapter
7

 

He woke on a narrow bed. Sunlight streamed in through a
long, oval window. Pain blossomed in his head, and he rubbed it, moaning. Slowly,
he sat up. He was in a small, simple room of white clay bricks. A pair of
priests sat next to him, their eyes closed in meditation, their legs crossed on
the floor.

He was in the Temple, he realized. The Temple of Behara.
Atop the Tower.

“What . . .?” His mind reeled
drunkenly, then began to crystallize. Sareth. Hariban. Something stabbed him in
the chest, and for a moment he could not draw breath. Tears formed behind his
eyes. Using all his will, he held them in. If he began crying now, he might
never stop.

The priests opened their own eyes. “Lord
Davril. Welcome to the Temple
of—”

“How goes the war?”

They glanced at each other
nervously. “We have washed you, cleaned your wounds, prepared your sister for
proper entombment—”

“How
goes the war?”

The shorter one cleared his throat.
“Not well, Your Majesty. The Aesinis have whelmed the North Wall and seized the
Gate of Winter. Now their hordes pour in unchecked. The White Quarter has been
abandoned.”

“And General Hastus?”

“As far as we know, he lives. He
has assumed rule of the city—and the realm, we suppose. Though of course no one
outside the City will recognize it.”

Davril took a deep breath. Let it
out. He tried to tell himself everything would work out, but somehow he’d lost
his taste for lying. In a low voice, he said, “You should’ve let me die.”

“We could not, in good conscience,”
came a new voice, and Davril glanced up to see a beautiful woman of perhaps
forty years, with high cheekbones and long black hair just beginning to show
traces of silver. She was dressed in swatches of blue silk and she smelled of
honey.

“Lady,” he said, bowing his head as
was custom, even for an emperor. The last time he had seen the Lady of the
Tower had been at his crowning ceremony.

“Emperor.” She bowed back, smiling,
seeming to mock these niceties. As well she should. He was no longer emperor. Perhaps
he had never been.

“Why couldn’t you let me die?” he
asked. “I have no purpose, no reason to be. Everyone I loved is dead.”
Except one.
His voice sounded calm,
cold. But suddenly heat coursed through him. “The only thing I have left to
live for is vengeance.” He clenched a fist, and it trembled. “I swear to all
the gods of earth and fire that I will kill General Hastus and his whore of a
daughter, if I take my last breath in the doing.”

“Now now,” the Lady said, stepping
forward. The priests scuttled out of her way as she sat beside Davril, laying a
soft-skinned hand on his bare shoulder. She smelled not just of honey, but lavender
and lilacs, and her calm, gentle eyes looked deeply into his. “Vengeance will
get you nowhere, not against the General. Besides, he only did what he thought
right.”


He slew my sister. My infant son!
He’s a bastard, and I will kill
him, as slowly as I can devise.”

She didn’t answer, and for a while
he just lay there and seethed.

When at last his mind calmed, he
said, “You said he did what he thought right. Does that mean that you think
otherwise?” He dared not let himself feel hope.

“We would not have saved you had we
thought otherwise.”

Instead of relief, bitterness rose
in him. “Then why couldn’t you have saved Sareth? Or perhaps only her? That
would have been a blessing.”

The Lady lowered her eyes, which
were a clear, dark shade of blue. “We wanted to. We wanted to, very much. We
gathered at the Baths, hoping for a chance. But the General’s men were too
many, and the crowd would have stopped us. So we waited, thinking that at the
least we could bear witness to your deaths and prepare your bodies afterward in
the way of your faith. Then the alarms came, and we saw that we had a chance. We
took it. I wish it had come in time to save your sister, but, alas . . .” She
looked back up. “I am sorry, my lord.”

He rose from his bed, impatient and
irritated. The sheets fell away, revealing his nakedness. He didn’t care. He
limped away from the Lady, from the priests, through a whitewashed archway and
onto a terrace overlooking the city. From here one could see the Palace rising
from its mountain to the east, all red and orange, a fiery confusion of towers
and walls and bulwarks. Off to the west, the sea glittering blue and vast. And
to the north, the black columns of smoke as fire devoured the White Quarter,
also known as the Ice Quarter. The people that lived there were called the
Wintermen. Now the barbarians had it—the Aesinis. And that would only be the
beginning.

The Lady moved to stand behind him.

“We’re lost, aren’t we?” he said.

“All we can do is pray,” she said.

“Prayers! Gods! You can have them. My
family satisfied
our
god for long
enough. No more. I refuse to play their games.” The anger drained out of him. He
thought of Subn-ongath and the other Masters, as his father had called them—the
other creatures that comprised the traitorous Circle of Uulos—and shuddered. He
may hate them, but he would play their games, he admitted to himself, if only
they would let him.

“The god of your family is Asqrit,
is it not?” she asked. “The Great Phoenix, God of the Sun, he who dies every
day at sunset but bursts into new life every day at dawn.”

“That’s what I thought,” he said,
turning to her. “That’s the lie my family maintained—for a thousand and more
years, they maintained it. But no more. The truth is out. My family worshipped
a dark thing, a god, I don’t know. A thing called Subn-ongath.” At this
revelation, she gasped. “And it was but one of an order of like creatures that
had once been a circle of devotees to none other than the Worm himself.”

“Impossible!”

“It’s the truth. They betrayed Him
and imprisoned him. But now, because of my rashness, they’ve moved on from this
world, and without them to stop him He’s returning. This war we’re seeing—it’s
only the merest tip of the iceberg that rises to greet us. When
He
arrives, I have it on good authority
the world as we know it will end.”

She braced herself on the railing. For
a long time, she just stood there, wearing a contemplative look. The wind
hissed and sighed. Davril stared out over the city, watching flames scorch it.

At last the Lady said, “Yes. There
have been portents, omens of disaster. We of the Order of Behara have been
discussing it for the past two years. Two-headed lions being born, and a
sickness that can blacken a person’s insides,
burn them from the inside out
, and sinister clouds and fiery stars,
not to mention the red mists and tremors and . . . well. Those high in our
order have certain gifts. Those gifts are blocked now, as if something powerful
obscures them. So yes, some of our order have maintained that the prophesied
time of Uulos’s return was at hand, but I had not thought—I mean to say, there
are always those that preach the Apocalypse.” She shook her head. “There must
be something that can be done.”

He regarded her seriously. “Is
there truly such a thing as Behara? I’ve come to believe in gods. Some of them,
anyway. Perhaps He can help.”

She smiled sadly. “He is gone, far
from this world. He weaves new skies for new worlds now. He has left us His
wisdom, His Light, but that is all. That is why I’m here, to await His Return,
should He ever do so. I keep this sanctuary ready for Him. I keep it clean, I
prepare Him meals, I warm His bed.”

And
that of the priests, if the rumors are true
, Davril thought. “His Light?”
he echoed. His father had called Uulos the god of all darkness.

“What is it?” she asked.

“I don’t know. But . . . perhaps .
. . no, it doesn’t matter.” He shook his head. It was all too big for him, too
hard for him to believe. Even if there was truly such a being as Uulos, how
could one mortal hope to combat It? The very concept was madness. With a sigh,
he looked out over the city again, at the flames, the smoke, and imagined the
screams as Aesinis raped his women, tortured his men. The Aesinis were said to
delight in torture. They took pieces of their victims for trophies and painted
their bodies in their victims’ blood. They were savage, blood-mad dogs. And
they were only the beginning.

“Tell me of Uulos,” he said. “All I
know of Him is that he was a great, dark thing—a god, according to Father
Elimhas—that ruled the world when the earth was dark and molten. I know He
ruled from his great city of Sagrahab
until some calamity befell Him—now I know it was the betrayal of His Circle—and
He was forced to relocate, to establish the great island nation of Nagradin. It
was powerful and mighty, but at last it sank beneath the waves. Maybe if I know
more I can stop Him.”

“Almost all religions make note of
him,” the Lady said, “by one name or another. Even you Asqrites. Asqrit is the
God of the Sun, and his Adversary is the God of Night. Yferl. He who slays
Asqrit every dusk but is defeated every dawn.”

“You’re saying that Yferl is
another name for Uulos? But that means . . . that means Uulos is already free! If
he can war with Asqrit every day . . .”

She smiled. “There is no Asqrit. Nor
Yferl. Yet there is a parallel to him in my own faith. Mustrug, the Worm—as Uulos
is popularly known even beyond my faith—he who dwells beneath the earth and
mocks Behara by being out of his power. Mustrug constantly tempts the people of
the land with vice, tries to lure them to their souls’ forfeiture deep in his
halls of mud and stone. But in some languages, in some of our texts, Mustrug is
not Mustrug at all. He is Uulos.”

Davril nodded slowly. He’d been
soaked in the myths of a thousand cults all his life, but he’d paid scant heed
to most of them.

“What about the Illyrians?” he
said. “Do they believe in Uulos?”

“Oh, yes. Sigmoor, the Devourer of
Stars. The Sky-Serpent.”

“But these are all so simplistic—light
and dark, good and bad.”

“We
are
known as the sects of the Light—that is, the faiths of Behara, Illyria, Asqrit and Tiat-sumat. Also known as the sects
of the Flame.”

He waved a hand dismissively. “Beliefs
to prop people up so that they don’t fall into despair, so that they don’t see
past the lies to the darkness beyond, at the end of all things. The thing I saw
below the Palace was quite real, not some symbol. Are any of these gods
real
?”

“Behara is quite real, my lord. Mine
is one of the most ancient faiths of the Light—or Flame, if you prefer.”

“One of the most? What is
the
most?”

“If you must know, the only sect of
the Light more ancient is the worship of Tiat-sumat, the Fire-Bringer.”

Davril lifted his eyebrows. “The
Fire-Bringer?”

“What? What is it?”

The smoke of the distant flames
swung toward the Tower, carried on a gust of wind, and it stung his eyes, even
as high as he was. The sun was dropping to the west, bathing the ocean in
blood. Soon night would fall.

“What?” she pressed. “Have you
thought of something?”

He laughed bitterly. “Maybe, but it
can amount to nothing. Surely . . . if this Uulos does exist . . . surely one man
can’t stop him.”

“Can I or the Brotherhood help?”

He stared toward the shore, to the
fire that burned atop the House of Light. “If indeed light or flame can hurt
the Worm, there it is,” he said. “Light itself.”

“The Jewel of the Sun . . .”

“What
is
it?”

“I’m not sure, to be honest. I do
know that the ancient Tiat-sumatians built their religion around it, and all
the sects of the Light that have come since at one point used its existence as
a cornerstone of their belief. We of Behara call it the Eye of the Sky and
believe it is our touchstone to Behara Himself, proof of his continued presence
in our world. The Asqrites believe it’s Asqrit in the flesh as it were, the
very egg of the Phoenix.”

“Well, whatever it is, I must have
it. The problem is that Father Elimhas refused to even let me look on it last
time I was there. He said the Jewel was useless against the Worm. That his
order had lost certain knowledge that could make it a weapon.”

She looked thoughtful. “According
to what I’ve been taught, the Jewel originally belonged, if that is the word—perhaps
better to say in the custody of—the Church
of Tiat-sumat. The
Asqrites, when their numbers began to swell,
stole
the Jewel from the Tiat-sumatians to increase their power.
When they did that, they also took certain holy books in which were written the
rites necessary to maintain the Jewel’s hold on this world, possibly even to
magnify its power. I don’t know if the Tiat-sumatians wrote those books or found
them when they found the Jewel—or were
given
the Jewel, according to some, by an ancient, pre-human race. Anyway, some of
those rites were written in a primeval tongue, one my own order doesn’t know,
and it’s possible the Asqrites don’t know it either.”

“But the Tiat-sumatians did?”

“They must have.”

“You think they still do?”

“I don’t know.”

“And those rites could turn the
Jewel into a weapon?”

She shook her head. “I really don’t
know, Davril. Perhaps.”

“Then I must go to the House of
Light for answers.”

“I will go with you.”

 

    

 

Chaos consumed the city with riots, looting, and desperate
religious ceremonies. The members of the thousand cults were at their devotions,
and each temple stirred with singing or shouting. Rapine, suicide and general
anarchy ruled the day. Davril, the Lady, and one of her priests made their way
through it carefully, slowing when they reached the ill-named Boulevard of
Summer. In the shadow of the wall that surrounded the Avestine Quarter, it was
located in a maze of narrow, winding streets, right in the heart of the ghettos
of Sedremere. Catching glimpses of the wall that encircled the Avestine Quarter
as he went, Davril felt uneasy. Evidently the Lady noticed.

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