Read Empire of the Worm Online

Authors: Jack Conner

Empire of the Worm (9 page)

“The Avestines won’t recognize
you,” she said.

“They’d better not,” he said.

The Avestines hated the Husans, whom
they considered to be their oppressors for untold generations. Still, was he so
far removed from his old self that they wouldn’t even know him if he rode right
past them? He sat straighter in the camel’s saddle.

“I suppose they’ll be leaving their
quarter soon,” the Lady was saying. “Now that order is breaking down in the
City, there won’t be soldiers enough to man the gates.”

“They don’t need gates,” Davril
said. The Lady looked at him quizzically, but he didn’t expand. Only a few in
the highest levels of government knew about the miles of tunnels the Avestines
had carved under their quarter—and some said beyond—during the hundreds of
years of their confinement.

Davril fingered the dagger stuck
through the back of his waistband. The Lady had retrieved it for him, and he
was grateful. It was his only link to his father, to his past. And, according
to the dead emperor, it might prove a help against the Worm.

They passed a harem mansion where
mounted soldiers were trying to break up a riot of red-faced men. The men,
fearing the end had come, had evidently decided to storm the harem and take the
women before the invaders put them to the sword, but now the soldiers were
doing that for them. The gathered men screamed and fought back, several pulling
down an armored soldier and beating him with stones.

Davril rode up and knocked the men
away, cracking several on their heads. Cursing him, they converged on his
camel, perhaps meaning to pull him down, too. The Lady and her fellow priest Wesrai
rode up and scattered them. The soldier, bloody but alive, rose from the dusty
cobblestones and thanked Davril, then remounted his horse and rejoined his
brother-in-arms. Up above, the harem girls, clad in colorful swatches of silk
if clad at all, watched the fight fearfully from the mansion’s terraces.

Davril passed through the Arch of
Midnight, skirted the Ziggurat of Niard, was engulfed by the Plaza of Dreams
with its topiaries and elaborately-sculpted hedges, and finally the golden
towers of the Temple
of the Sun materialized ahead, rising from beyond the shop fronts and
residential apartments where drying clothes, strung from one terrace to another,
fluttered in the wind. The Light-House rose highest and proudest of all, right
from the center of the Asqrit compound. A more ancient structure, grim and dark
and hulking, it did not match the gilded domes and towers of the Asqrites. From
here Davril could smell the sea and just vaguely hear the pound of the surf.

The Arch of the Sun stopped him. It
was the only entrance to the grounds surrounding the compound of the Temple of the Sun. High
above, in the top chamber of the Light-House, a bright red-orange glow shone
out from the highest chamber. Just what
the Jewel of the Sun?

Doors sealed the Gate. Soldiers,
mercenaries employed by the Asqrit priesthood, the Brotherhood of the Golden
Plumage, thronged the walls surrounding the temple grounds, and their golden
armor flashed brilliantly as the Gatekeeper, on the wall near the gate, shouted
down, “Who goes there?”

“The better question is why the
gates are closed,” Davril shouted back. “Aren’t they supposed to be open—always?
So that any may worship at any time?”

“These are not normal times. The
priesthood has ordered the Temple
sealed to prevent looting and despoiling. Now be off. We’ve disbursed several
crowds already and will not shrink from disbursing you.” The soldiers near him raised
their javelins meaningfully.

Davril glanced down at the
cobblestones and saw fresh blood stains. Flies buzzed about, and there came an
acrid odor, even over the salty stench. The pounding of waves against the shore
broke louder in the background.

Davril hesitated. If he revealed
his identity, the soldiers might slay him. On the other hand, they were not
loyal to General Hastus but to the priesthood, and the priesthood had very
close ties to the imperial family. It was the emperors that had made the
worship of Asqrit the most popular faith in the Empire, after all, and the emperor
and the High Priest of Asqrit historically had many private dealings. What’s
more, Davril really had very little choice.

“I am Lord Davril Husan,” he
declared, using his most lordly voice, “Emperor of Qazradan! And you
obey me!”

“Don’t try my patience,” the
Gatekeeper said.

Davril rode forward so that he was
directly beneath the Gatekeeper. “I
Davril Husan,” he said. “If you disbelieve me, and I can understand if you do,
then summon Father Elimhas. He will recognize me.”

“You want me to disturb the High
Priest at a time like this?”

In his most commanding voice,
Davril said, “Fetch him now!”

The Gatekeeper swallowed, then, as
if hardly believing himself, barked a quiet order to one of his soldiers. The
man slipped away. Minutes later an aged, portly figure mounted the stairs that
led to the top of the wall and stared down at Davril. Elimhas shaded his eyes
with a hand and looked Davril over slowly. His look of annoyance gave way to

“The Emperor! Let him in

Gears squealed, and the massive
golden doors of the Gate of the Sun swung open. Elimhas, his age-stained face
as wrinkly and cadaverous as ever, came forward and embraced Davril personally.

“I thought you were dead!” the
priest said. “There have been all sorts of rumors . . .”

Gratified by the priest’s reaction,
Davril said, “I live and breathe.”

“So I see.” The High Priest smiled,
and it was the smile of a crocodile. “The Phoenix
provides. But why have you come?”

“The Jewel of the Sun. Take me to

Father Elimhas paused, then nodded.
“Very well, my lord. I suppose it can make no difference now. I never thought
things would have gotten so bad. The Circle’s exertions against you must have
been trying for them indeed. But you must come alone.”

Davril gestured to his companions. “My


To the Lady and Wesrai, Davril
said, “I’ll meet you at the Tower.”

“Are you sure?” she asked. In a
whisper, she added, “I don’t trust the Asqrites. You shouldn’t, either.
Remember, they stole the Jewel from the Order of Tiat-sumat.”

“I’ll remember.”

She wheeled her camel about and
rode away, Wesrai following wordlessly. Davril took the reins of his own camel
in his free hand and followed Elimhas through the Gates of the Sun. The
Gatekeeper met his eyes and nodded, almost a bow. Davril nodded back. The compound
within the outer walls of the Temple
was still beautiful, siege or no siege. After a man approached and took
Davril’s camel, Elimhas led Davril over a narrow, lacy bridge that crossed an
ornamental pool where red and gold fish darted between bloom-capped lily pads,
then up the massive stairs that led up to the even more massive doors of the
Temple, only open a crack. As soon as Elimhas and Davril passed through, they
closed with a boom that echoed off the high, arched ceiling and rattled the
elaborately-worked stained-glass windows that lined the golden walls
overlooking the sea. A storm crowned the horizon, black and seething.

“It’s so empty,” Davril noted,
looking around at the temple, his eyes lingering on all the gold. In a strange
counterpoint to all the other temples he’d seen on the way here, only a few
priests ambled about the golden halls.

“Most of the clergy are in prayer,”
Father Elimhas explained as they walked along, both moving at the same slow

“You should let the people in,” Davril
said. “Not drive them away.”

“It is regrettable. I’ve told the
soldiers not to be so harsh. Yet, at the same time, we cannot let the people


They reached an inner stairway—not
the outer walkway of last time; they were really going to the Jewel, Davril
realized, trying to suppress his excitement—and Elimhas led upward. He seemed
better able to navigate the stairs than Davril, yet he didn’t leave Davril

“The people are in panic,” the High
Priest continued. “There’s raping and looting throughout the city. And there’s
much to loot here, and many priestesses to ravish. I wish there was another
way, but . . .”

“Yes,” Davril said. “I saw just
that on the way here. Tell me something. I was just speaking with the Lady of
Behara and—”

“What has that whore filled your
mind with?”

Davril frowned. “Is it true that
the Jewel of the Sun once belonged to the priests of Tiat-sumat?”

“We are the Order of the Sun. It
only makes sense that the
, the
Jewel of the Sun, belongs to
. And
only us.”

“But this Jewel—it
help against Uulos?”

“It’s as I told you before. We practice
the proper rites, but we don’t know them all. We don’t know how to unlock the
Jewel’s power—how to use against it Him. I was trained in the rituals, but those
that trained me, they lacked certain knowledge which is to this day lost. Thus
I fear we’re doomed. I can feel Him coming, Lord Husan—feel Him coming from
across the sea. He comes, and chaos goes before Him like the trumpeting of

“Who does have this lost knowledge?
The Tiat-sumatians?”

“Curse them! They will rot in the
deepest hells before I allow them access to the Jewel.”

“Not good enough, Father.”

They wound up through the interior
of the Light-House, past the grand library and the quarters of the Order of the
Golden Plumage. There was much of gold and jewels in their halls and chambers—more,
Davril thought, than there ought to be. Then again, why should priests live in

He gasped for breath by the time
they reached the top of the tower. A short, stone-lined hallway stretched from
the stairs to a squat, arched doorway, where flickering red light flooded out,
and the sound of crackling flames and the stench of smoke filled the tight
space. Davril had a moment of apprehension.

Elimhas laughed. “Not what you
expected, eh?”

Davril had come to a stop, but he
began limping toward that fiery light. He’d expected some white, healthy glow,
something anathema to the darkness of Subn-ongath and his Circle. Instead he
felt like he was walking toward the doors of hell. Sweat began to bead his
pores and dampen his hair. It trickled down his back, paradoxically causing him
to shiver. Sound echoed strangely here, the tap of his cane thumping and
clacking off the ancient stone walls. How old was this lighthouse, anyway? Had
it always been a lighthouse, or something else, long ago? Surely it predated
the invasion of the Niardans. Perhaps the Avestines had conducted ancient,
forbidden rites here.

He passed through the squat archway
and beheld, to his amazement, the Jewel of the Sun. He recoiled.

Father Elimhas caught him, as though
afraid he would fall. The thing before Davril was stranger, more alien than
anything he’d ever seen save Subn-ongath. And it had about it the same aura of
. It was no thing of man.

At first all Davril saw were the
flames. Bright and crackling, fire consumed it, wreathed up from it, pouring
smoke across a ceiling that had long since turned black. But what
it? Davril squinted, trying to peer
through the fire. He thought it was some large rock or boulder, possibly one of
those from the beach. But no. It was dark, and hard, and ovoid, about four feet
high. The material was different, harder, and encrusted like old iron. And
there was something else, something within it, within the stone. The fire began
the rock. If he looked hard
enough, he could see through the stone, to the bright, burning core . . .

,” he said in wonderment.

Elimhas nodded. “The Phoenix Himself.”

Davril spared a look at him. “You’re
could it possibly be?”

An ancient, flaming egg of stone . . . For a moment longer Davril
stared at it, sitting on a block, perhaps in altar, in the middle of a stained,
bowed floor of gray stone. Lenses and mirrors crowded against the ceiling’s
edges, draped by cloths to save them from the soot. It all reeked of smoke and
fire, and sheets of sweat rolled off him. The priests must vent the smoke at
night to conceal it from the populace. He coughed it out of his face and
lurched to a window. From here he could see Sedremere below to the right and
the blue sea to the left. Actually, it was blue no longer. The great storm that
had crowned the horizon was swiftly converging on the city. There was something
unnatural about it . . .

Davril returned his attention to
the Jewel.

“I need it,” he said. “Whatever it
is. I need it to fight the Worm.”

Elimhas looked at him as though he
were a fool. “I told you not to go against the Patron. Now there’s no hope. We
don’t have the correct books, and the ones we have we can’t read. You would be
wiser to spend your energies elsewhere. Besides, if the besieging armies break
through, there won’t be enough left of us for the Worm to devour.”

“I apologize for my rashness
regarding Subn-ongath. At the time it seemed warranted. But that is past,
Father. We need the Jewel.”

“Pah. You know nothing about it,
boy, save what lies that witch has told you.”

“Why do you hate her?”

“To hate is a sin in the eyes of
the Phoenix.”

“Yes, but

Elimhas’s eyes narrowed. Then, to
Davril’s surprise, he let out a short, sharp bark of laughter. “Yes,” Elimhas
said. “I truly do. Those Beharans claim to be from an older, truer faith than
we of the Golden Plumage. And even worse are those beggars and vagabonds who
worship Tiat-sumat. Why can’t they just admit that Asqrit is the One True God
and has been since the beginning of time when He laid the Golden Egg that begat
the world? Fools! Yferl has led them astray, I’m afraid, tempted them away from
the Light. He plots to weaken my Lord. But he will not succeed!”

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