Sunset in Yaskatha
The stranger came to Yaskatha at sunset.
The city had taken on the color of blood, a mound of rubies stacked beside the blue-green mirror of the sea. Shadows glided through streets and gardens. In the royal orchards weary harvesters carried bushels of lemons and pomegranates. Along the wharves a flock of trading vessels folded their sails for the night. Mariners prowled the taverns in search of red wine and the red lips of women.
In the airy palace of King Trimesqua the Feast of Ascension began with a legion of musicians, a flourish of dancers, and a quartet of fire-eaters. Before the throne sat a long table piled high with delicacies. Prince D’zan sat at the head of the board, looking far more regal than his sixteen years would suggest. Behind him, as always, stood Olthacus the Stone. The solemn warrior wore a massive blade on his back. It had served him well in three wars, but he seldom drew the sword from its jeweled sheath. A glance of the Stone’s gray eyes sent fear fluttering into the hearts of brave warriors. To D’zan, laughing at the antics of a fool who juggled flaming brands, his fearsome bodyguard was little more than a stiff-lipped uncle. Yet no man could have been safer at court than the young Prince. Not even the King himself.
In the midst of the revels, as the sun poured the last of its lifeblood into the sea, a stranger appeared before the throne of Trimesqua. No one saw him enter the palace gates or move between the ranks of armored guards. He flowed like a shadow across the motley crowd and stood before the King. When first he spoke, the music overpowered his words so that only the King could hear him.
Trimesqua set down his golden goblet, raised a hand heavy with rings, and commanded silence. All eyes fell upon the stranger. He was a tall man, gaunt, and as pale as the jungle dwellers of Khyrei. His hair fell long and gray down his back, and his robes were black as pitch. An arc of rubies hung across his chest like drops of frozen blood, mimicking the cold moon with a red smile. The nails of his fingers were long and sharp, making claws of his hands. Shadows rimmed his eyes.
“Who is this mad vagabond?” Trimesqua asked a nearby courtier.
“I am Elhathym,” said the stranger. His voice was deep and cold. “I knew this city when it was called by another name . . . but I have lingered a great while in distant lands. Tonight is my homecoming.”
“Say again, Elhathym, what you said to me when first you caught my eye,” said the King. “If you dare.”
Elhathym nodded. “I said that your reign has come to an end, Trimesqua.” He glanced about the crowded hall. “Step down from your marble seat. This city belongs to me.”
A flood of gasps and muttered curses filled the hall. Prince D’zan stood up from his feasting chair and stared at the stranger. His guardian, the Stone, did not move or even blink an eye. A moment of silence fell across the assemblage.
The exquisite tension was broken by the King’s laughter, which spread like bubbling water throughout the courtesans, nobles, entertainers, and servants. The stranger stood mute and grinning as the laughter surrounded him. Guards along the walls drew their curved blades and moved closer to the throne, but the King raised his glittering hand again, halting them.
“Surely you are one of the fools sent to amuse me?” said the King, regaining his composure. He quaffed red wine and chuckled again. “A rare jest!”
“I assure you,” said Elhathym, “I am no fool, and this is no jest. This land is mine by ancient right. I could bring your city to its knees with sorcery and shed the blood of all these beautiful soldiers, but I am not a cruel man. Therefore I give you this chance to surrender the throne without any deaths on your conscience but your own. I will make your execution quick. You will feel no pain. Deny me . . . and all will suffer.”
Now the King did not laugh. Nor did anyone in the hall. A deathly silence hung between the pillars with the smoke of feasting, broken only by the crackling of torch flames. D’zan drew the long dagger that he always wore and moved toward his father, but his silent bodyguard placed a hand on his shoulder. Despite the nervous twitching in his stomach, the Prince stilled himself.
The King stood up and tossed his wine cup down the steps of the dais, turning white marble to crimson. Guards rushed forward, but a third time Trimesqua raised his hand, and they halted. “My father, and his father, and all their fathers before them ruled Yaskatha from this high seat,” said Trimesqua. “Neither men, wizards, demons, or tidal waves shook them from this throne. Here is what I think of your threat, Elhathym the Sorcerer.”
In the blink of an eye Trimesqua, who was seasoned in the same wars as Olthacus the Stone, drew his silver sword and swept it down upon the stranger’s head. Elhathym’s skull split with a meaty crack that rang the length of the hall. He fell backward in a shower of gore, staining the fine carpet at the King’s feet.
“Remove this trash!” commanded the King. He tossed his soiled blade to lie upon the chest of the dead man. Guards rushed forward and dragged the body away; one of them would clean and anoint the sword before returning it to him. Servants exchanged the ruined carpet for fresh one, and the Festival of Ascension resumed. Music and wine flowed through the heart of the palace like blood through a living man’s body, and the corpse of Elhathym was thrown into a deep furnace. Later, his charred bones were tossed into the midnight sea.
That night Prince D’zan fell asleep after exhausting his passion with a comely courtesan. Instead of the sweet oblivion born of drink and exertion, his rest was plagued by nightmares. He found himself wandering through the ancestral burial vaults deep below the palace, where lay the bones of his grandfather, his greatgrandfather, and all the generations of his family going back a thousand years. He was cold and without garments as he wandered those lightless, musty catacombs, and the eye sockets of decaying skulls glared at him from the shadows.
Somewhere among the vaults he knew his mother lay, for she had died when he was an infant, and he did not remember her face. Still, she must be here in this realm of chill darkness and creeping grave mold. Royal families throughout the centuries filled the numberless rows of niches, and sometimes favored servants and war heroes earned the honor of burial in the royal crypts. In terror, D’zan wandered this mansion of the dead, calling the name of his father into the dark. Only echoes answered him.
He called, too, the name of Olthacus, his bodyguard. Not even the Stone came to help him navigate those dark depths, and he could not find his way out. He found only chamber after chamber of mummified ancestors, the population of the city’s long history, and the crumbling, engraved sarcophagi in which they lay. Here was a city of death that slept beneath the living city, and at last he gave up looking for the exit and lay down in the dust near a pile of bones. It seemed to him then that he heard a faint laughter ringing through the tombs.
He woke to a sweltering bedchamber, lying next to the senseless girl who shared his bed. He could not sleep again so he walked along the open balcony of his room and let the ocean breezes dry his sweat. The girl joined him on the balcony and soon lured him back to bed.
The following day was like any other in Yaskatha’s thriving capital. D’zan arose early and walked the palace garden with his fair-haired cousin Lysinda. He spoke to her of his nightmares and she comforted him like a mother with gentle kisses on his forehead and cheek.
“I’ve dreamed of my mother before,” D’zan told his cousin. “But never of the place where she lies.”
“There is nothing to fear,” said Lysinda, taking one of his hands in her own. “Dreams are only passing fancies. They cannot hurt us.”
“Do you truly believe that?” he asked.
“Of course,” she said.
“But . . . this dream seemed so real. It was . . . a warning of some kind. I know it.”
“Don’t be silly,” said Lysinda, ruffling his hair. “Look about you: the sun is shining, the sea is laughing, the blooms of the garden rejoice. The stranger is dead and forgotten.”
“I’m afraid,” he whispered. She cradled his head in her lap awhile. She did not have to tell him that Princes of the royal house were not supposed to speak of fear or weakness. He knew that well enough.
D’zan forsook his studies for the day, and the two cousins went riding along the pounding surf. They rode twin mares the color of honeyed milk, and Olthacus the Stone rode some distance behind on his black charger, a single shadow for them both.
When sunset fell on Yaskatha once again, the King sat on his throne listening to reports of trading galleons from Mumbaza, Murala, Shar Dni, and the kingdoms of distant continents. D’zan reclined nearby on a lesser throne; his father was grooming him in the ways of statecraft. Behind D’zan stood the vigilant Stone, his eyes hidden beneath the hood of a heavy cloak. Olthacus scanned the throne room for potential threats among the comings and goings of the court.
Despite his keen sense for danger, not even the Stone saw the stranger’s second arrival. As before, the dark-robed Elhathym simply appeared before the King’s throne without any warning. His hoarse voice interrupted and overpowered the voice of the King’s viceroy, who read a cargo list from an unfurled scroll.
“Trimesqua,” interrupted the sorcerer, his sallow face looking even more skull-like than yesterday. “You have spurned my offer of mercy. As you can see, my death is beyond your power to grant. I give you one more chance to abdicate your throne. Since you refused my first offer, now it falls upon your people to suffer if you refuse a second time. Everyone inside this palace will die if you deny me again. Blood will flow through your streets and orchards. The shadows of your own past will tear you from your throne. What say you?”
Olthacus the Stone drew forth his great two-handed blade, and D’zan rose from his own chair to unsheathe his ceremonial scimitar. He felt again the terror of his dream . . . For a moment he was lost in the lightless crypts. Then he was staring at the broad back of the Stone, and guards rushed forward to encircle Elhathym in a thicket of bronze spear points and shining blades.
King Trimesqua did not rise from his throne this time, but his wrath was great.
“Charlatan! Chicanery will gain you nothing! Your fatal mistake was in returning to the scene of your previous treason. Now your death will be slow and agonizing. You will scream and beg forgiveness on the rack! Take him!” Spittle flew from the King’s lips to fleck his dark beard.
The palace guards swept over the sorcerer, a vast wave of silver and gold drowning a single black pebble. Olthacus the Stone did not move, but kept his place shielding D’zan in case the sorcerer unleashed some dreadful magic in his direction. But Elhathym did nothing as soldiers loaded his limbs with heavy chains and dragged him from the throne room. He did not even scream as they dragged him down below the living levels of the palace and into the sulfurous glow of the torture chamber. Here, among the half-dead relics of political prisoners, murderers, rapists, and traitors, he endured the worst of torments the torturers could envision. For hours the hooded ones plied their trade, but not once did Elhathym scream. Instead, he laughed. As if all the processes of his own bodily pain and dismemberment offered some private delight.
In the throne room far above, the condemned man’s laughter drifted like a fetid smoke. D’zan, sitting at the arm of his father, shivered in his cushioned chair. He recognized that hollow sound from his dream of the tombs, and a nameless terror swelled in his heart. He could not speak to his father of his true feelings. He must be as brave and valiant as his sire, as grim and unfazed as the Stone. So he hid his quietly growing horror, and stuffed his ears with pieces of silk to drown out the faint laughter of the tortured man.
That night D’zan dreamed himself into the tombs again. He wandered, naked and alone as before, looking for the sarcophagus of his mother. In the living world he had visited her grave a thousand times, and such a familiar landmark might give him some hope of egress from the nightmare maze. But he could not find his dead mother, only legions of those who had died before his birth, a necropolis of winding corridors leading nowhere. At last, he saw a pale light and ran toward it. It seemed to draw away from him in the ever-lengthening distance that only occurs in the midst of dreams. Finally, he came close enough to realize the glow came from a single face, gleaming in worm-pale moonlight. It was the face of the sorcerer Elhathym, and it smiled at him in the darkness, floating wraith-like before him, bodiless. The face laughed, and the flesh sloughed away like that of a leper, leaving only a cackling skull that hovered in the endless dark.
D’zan woke screaming, and seconds later the Stone came into his bedchamber.
“It’s all right, Olthacus . . . I’m fine.” D’zan waved his guardian away, but the big man would not leave the room. He stood in the corner while servants dressed D’zan. The Prince called for a cup of morning wine, but could eat no breakfast. He spent the day in the library, poring over ancient texts from Khyrei detailing legends of sorcerers and necromancers who had haunted the Old World. In one of these tomes, after hours of meandering through moldy pages, he discovered mention of a wizard bearing the same name as the one who’d come to plague his nightmares. “The Tyrant Elhathym,” said the Book of Disgraced Savants, “ruled a southern kingdom before the Age of Serpents.” Nothing more than that brief passage.
Such texts were widely discredited by Yaskathan sages, because there were no civilizations that existed before Giants out of the northlands drove the race of fire-breathing reptiles from the earth. According to D’zan’s history tutors, the Giants then claimed the north for themselves, forcing the Four Tribes of humans to flee southward to ultimately form the five kingdoms: Yaskatha, Khyrei, Uurz, Mumbaza, and Shar Dni. How could there be a southern empire before any of this happened? Unless history was wrong . . . a lie invented to cover up horrible truths. And why would this present-day sorcerer take the name of a tyrant from an age of mystery?
It did not matter, he told himself. The sorcerer was finally dead now, tortured to death last night by order of King Trimesqua.
Or was he?
As the sun slipped once more into the sea, D’zan closed the musty volume and walked with urgency into the lowest level of the palace proper. Behind him, a second shadow, came the imposing figure of the Stone. The Prince hated the reek of the torture chamber, a blend of feces, sweat, blood, and fear. Even more he despised the terrible sounds that resounded among the boiling furnaces and intricate devices of torment. He usually avoided this part of the palace. But the sorcerer’s laughing had finally stopped, and he had to be sure that Elhathym was dead.
The smells of scorched flesh and decay drowned all others as D’zan entered the chamber. There was no sign of the sorcerer. Only the bodies of the three hooded torturers lying across the floor, blood pooling about their split bodies, their limbs askew in impossible angles. All the racks, cages, and shackles were empty, even those that had encased rotting corpses to terrify victims.
The sound of screaming came from somewhere above. D’zan raced back up the steps and ran toward the throne room, the Stone pounding at his heels. Courtesans, servants, and soldiers fled the great hall, mouths agape, eyes wide with terror. A cacophony of shrieking filled the arched corridors, and the odor of ancient decay was everywhere. The stench from D’zan’s dreams . . . the acrid reek of the tomb.
D’zan raced into the throne room to see his father the King surrounded by a trio of grasping mummies. The smell of long-rotten flesh filled the chamber like a fog, and two of the mummies grasped the King by his arms, holding him immobile while the third decomposing corpse raked its claws across his flesh, spilling royal blood across the dais. D’zan heard his father scream, and his legs were frozen; he could not move forward or backward, but only stood staring at the tableau of impossible slaughter.
On the King’s throne sat black-robed Elhathym, a grim smile on his lips, his skull nearly visible through the tight, pallid flesh of his face. He bore no marks of torture on his person; not even his black robes were disturbed, and his necklace of blood-drop rubies hung gracefully upon his emaciated chest.
A legion of the dead swarmed the hall. Already several guards lay bleeding on the flagstones, their throats ripped out by fleshless fingers and the teeth of withered skulls. Swords and spears clove into dry breastbones with little effect. The mummies of previous dynasties were now ravening ghouls, splashing gouts of blood across fine tapestries as they tore the palace guards to bits. D’zan recognized the tattered raiment of the ghouls, and saw on the head of more than one a royal diadem or crown out of Yaskathan history. These were the inhabitants of the royal necropolis crawled up from the underworld beneath the palace.
The shadows of your own past will tear you from your throne.
More lurching corpses poured into the hall; the screams of women and children rang from the walls in every wing of the palace. A grinning mummy rounded the corner and reached for D’zan’s throat, but the Stone’s blade took off its moldy head. Olthacus’ booted foot crushed the corpse against the floor; as he tamped its ribcage into dust, its fleshless arms kept grasping at his legs, tearing through his leathern leggings and drawing blood. D’zan backed away, inspired by the Stone’s bravery to draw his own weapon; a reeking cadaver grabbed him from behind, pressing its rotted skull against his ear. Its jaws snapped like those of a turtle, and he dropped his sword clattering to the floor as horror suffocated him.
The Stone tore the mummy from D’zan’s back and pulverized it with blade and boot. His big hand slapped D’zan across the face, ending his paralysis. “Come, Prince!” growled the Stone. “I know a secret way.”
“No!” shouted D’zan. “We can’t abandon my father!”
“Your father is dead, boy!” said the Stone, pointing his blade at the cluster of ghouls who tore at a mess of scattered flesh upon the royal dais. Above the horrid feast sat Elhathym, the bloodstained crown on his head now, smiling at the devouring of Trimesqua. Still the ranks of blood-hungry dead things continued filling the chamber, the last of the guards falling before their voiceless assault.
The Stone grabbed D’zan’s arm and they ran through milling clouds of grave dust. They never stopped running, all through the winding corridors of the servants’ wing, the Stone’s great blade demolishing one desiccated corpse after another. Everywhere the dead feasted upon the living. None in the palace were spared the bottomless hunger of the corpses; royal and servant alike died under the raking of bony claws. So Elhathym had promised, and he had delivered on his ultimate threat.
D’zan wondered if his mother’s corpse was among the hungrydead.Would I recognize her? Would she tear out my throat with the same hands that gave me life? Stifling a bottomless scream, he drove such thoughts from his mind, closing his eyes and mumbling a prayer to the Sky God.
The Stone brushed aside a wall hanging and opened a hidden passage, leading the Prince along the dark and narrow way. D’zan, fearful of dark places now that his nightmares had come to life, closed his eyes while Olthacus dragged him along that winding route, up and down seldom-used stairwells, through crawl spaces, and finally out into the night air. Once again the screams of the dying filled D’zan’s ears. He dared to open his eyes and found that the Stone had brought him to an outer palace garden. They ran for the orchards beyond. Behind them flames danced among the towers and courtyards. The dead were heedlessly knocking over braziers and torches, spreading flame and death throughout the royal domain.
Where can we go to escape this damnation? His unconquerable father was dead and there was no safe place left in the world. The Stone grabbed his arm and pulled him onward.
Once in the deep shadows of the orchards, they seemed free of the undead plague a while, steeped in the tangy aroma of hanging citrus. But when they crossed the outer wall into the seaside quarter, they saw again the terror and panic that had claimed Trimesqua’s house. Here, too, corpses walked the streets and tore at living flesh. It seemed every graveyard and mausoleum in the capital had vomited forth its dead at the command of Elhathym. Citizens fled for the hills or locked themselves inside their houses. The Stone smashed another mummy to powder as he drew D’zan on toward the wharves, where towers of flames writhed and flickered. All across the city, walls of orange-white fire leaped toward the sky. They must be fighting the dead with fire, D’zan thought. But they will burn their own city to ash . . .
Many ships in the harbor had already launched, heading out to sea to escape the apocalypse of Elhathym’s making. Citizens jostled and fought one another for passage on one late-embarking galleon which flew the Feathered Serpent of Mumbaza among its white sails. The Stone hacked his way through the crowd, leaving a bloody trail in his wake, dragging D’zan by his elbow. The panicked Yaskathans gave way before the big warrior. Without a word the Stone gained passage from the ship’s captain at the point of his dripping blade.
The deck of the galleon was crowded, and the sailors had to beat back the mob with oars and clubs before they could cast off. D’zan collapsed on the deck, near the prow. The pitiful cries of women, children, and men – all doomed – filled his ears even when he clasped his hands over them. When he dared to look out over the railing, the capital was a flaming, screaming mass of chaos separated from him now by an expanse of dark water. The horned moon hung pale and implacable above the dying city. Towers gleamed brighter than rubies in the glow of the roaring fires.
Those who had escaped by securing passage on the galleon were weeping, or cursing, or both. A few had brought entire families with them. D’zan stood in the prow watching his inheritance burn, thinking of his father’s bloody crown sitting upon the sorcerer’s head. Hot tears burned his cheeks. Behind him, as always, stood the Stone, silent and still as the moon.
In the blood-spattered throne room, Elhathym drank wine from Trimesqua’s goblet as his army of undead Yaskathans preyed on their descendants. He smiled at the irony of using the past to remold the present in such a way. Among the entrails and filth littering the hall, a great white panther glided toward him. The beast licked at Trimesqua’s blood, and the snapping ghouls ignored it as they wandered off to find fresh victims.
The white panther came close to Elhathym’s knees and rubbed its silky fur against him. His thin hand caressed its head between the ears, and it growled.
“You see, my dear?” the sorcerer told the panther. “I told you my birthright would be easily reclaimed.”
“So you did,” said the panther. “But what of my desires?” Now the cat was a pale-skinned lady sitting at his feet, her voluptuous body draped in strings of chromatic jewels. A thick mane of hair, gleaming white as silk, fell across her shoulders. Her eyes were as dark as his own.
Elhathym, the new King of Yaskatha, smiled at his lover.
“Patience,” he whispered. And he kissed her ruby lips, which tasted of royal blood.
Read the next chapter!