Read Empire of the Worm Online

Authors: Jack Conner

Empire of the Worm

 
 
 
 

EMPIRE OF THE WORM

 
 

by Jack Conner

 
 

Copyright
2013

 
 

Cover
image used with permission

 
 
 
 

PART ONE:

 
 

RISE

 
 
 
 

Chapter
1

 

Sunlight glittered on the golden pyramid, and all around her
Elin heard her neighbors whispering, “She’s coming! The day has come at last!”

They had waited for so long.

Sweat trickled down Elin’s scalp
and ran between her shoulder blades, paradoxically raising gooseflesh on her
arms. In front of her, moisture glistened on the thousands of bent backs that
curved toward the Pyramid. Prayers, laughter and weeping rose up all around her.
The gathering knelt on the flagstones of the Grand Courtyard, from the center
of which rose the Pyramid, shimmering redly in the light of the rising sun,
almost hurting Elin’s eyes to look at, but she couldn’t pull her gaze away.

The air thrummed with expectation. Hope
and excitement lit the faces of the people like candles burning from within.

“At last,” they said. “She comes at
last . . .”

Elin tried to contain herself. Beside
her Sam smiled. “I can’t believe it,” he said. “That
we
should be the ones to live to see it.”

Elin patted her husband’s arm. “Soon.”

For thousands of years their people
had waited. The trappings of a mighty civilization, with tall buildings and
awesome sculptures, loomed in all directions. The great city-state of Asragot
stood steeped in the mythos of ages, and it had all begun with this pyramid.
The
Pyramid. It had stood here when
grass covered this land, and sand the beach to the west. Now all the years of
waiting would end.

The Dreamer was waking.

It was a strange time for such an
event. Even then the city was under siege from one of the lords of Qazradan, a
not-uncommon occurrence. Asragot was a proud city and did not accept the yoke
of empire lightly. Often their conquerors were forced to such extremes to extract
tithes. If Erin strained her ears, she could
just dimly hear the shield-banging that the enemy soldiers used (ineffectively)
to demoralize the Asragotians. She smiled, thinking of them on their hill, watching
the gathering bellow; they wouldn’t know what to think.

It happened.

The sunlight turned the Pyramid
into a great burning thorn of gold, and from the very center something flashed.

“The Door opens!”

All around Elin people bent their
heads with new vigor.

Sam gasped. Then, as if gripped in
a dream, he reached over and gently massaged Elin’s swollen belly, feeling the
new life there.

“You’ll be born in Paradise,” he said, a soft smile on his face.

The great stone door that had
sealed the inner workings of the Pyramid for millennia swung open with a groan.
Darkness yawned, a black pit in the center of all that crimson gold. Thousands
of faces that had been pressed to the flagstones of the courtyard looked up. Elin’s
own breath caught in her throat.

“Now!” she heard herself say.

For a long moment nothing happened.
The blackness simply hung there, a hungry void of dashed hopes.

Something stirred.

A slender white figure slipped from
the Door, the rising sun casting fire on her golden armbands and anklets. Her
thin white gown glowed with an unearthly sheen, hinting at the curves beneath. She
stretched as one might stretch who had slept for ages, and the crowd gasped at
her exquisiteness. She was voluptuous, yet supple as a cat. Black hair cascaded
over white shoulders and framed a face of such delicate beauty that it could
only have been that of a goddess. Elin felt no jealousy, only love.

The Dreamer’s vibrant green eyes,
twin explosions of jade, swept the assembly, and a smile played over her lips.

“My children!” she cried. “I have
come!”

Elin shouted, wordlessly, all her
love and worship pouring out, and around her the crowd roared similarly. The
sound boomed louder than the breaking waves along the coast, louder than
thunder, louder than an earthquake. It seemed to sweep Elin away, seemed to
bear her up to the clouds. Such was their love, their devotion. For hundreds of
generations they had waited for the Awakening, for the Dreamer’s slumber to end
so that she may lead them all to the promised Paradise.

Still smiling,
she
descended the smooth stairs to the long low golden slab of the
Altar, where she ran smooth white hands across the rough stone, pausing at a
rust-colored stain. There the stone was chipped, scored by countless thrustings
of the ceremonial dagger as it plunged through soft virgin breasts to get at
the heart. How many thousands had died upon that altar to sate the hunger of
the Dreamer? Only she knew for certain. She smiled, caressing the slab as one
might caress a lover.

Then, to Elin’s surprise, tears
sprang from the Dreamer’s eyes and leaked over the rust-colored spot, and for a
moment the stain turned to blood once more.

“Thank you,” she said to the slab,
or the ghosts that lingered there, and even though she spoke softly those in
the gathering could hear it. “Thank you all.”

The moment passed. The goddess
swept past the Altar and down the glittering stairs. The gathered thousands
gasped as she drew near. Elin felt as if she stood in a storm, with sparks of
lightning dancing all around. Her hair nearly stood on end.

“My children!” the Dreamer cried,
and Elin imagined that her voice carried to every ear. “My children, you’ve
looked after me well, and you have raised a fine civilization around me. Even
as I dreamed, I bent my thought to you, and I was with you through many long
years. I know how you suffered, how you prospered, how you strived. And I know
how you have waited. That, most of all.
Now
that time is over!

She paused, and Elin glanced up,
soaking in the sight of her, standing there so resplendently.

“I shall lead you to Paradise!” the Dreamer said, raising her arms above her
head. “Follow me, my children, and I shall lead you to the Great One, He Who
Waits Below, and there we shall serve Him as His highest disciples, and He will
make for us a Paradise. Yes, my children,
come! Follow me!”

The crowd gave way before her,
parting like a flower unfolding, but
she
was the flower: tall, beautiful, shining. Her smell, the culmination of all
roses, tugged at Elin, at everyone. It drew them to her, yet she walked
unimpeded down the aisle.

“Praise you!” they shouted as she
walked past. The luckiest of them received a smile from her, or a look in the
eye, or, greatest of all, a pat on the head or caress on the cheek. Elin and Sam
struggled through the press to reach her, but they could not get close enough.

The Dreamer strode out of the
courtyard, crying over her shoulder, “Come with me!”

Elin and Sam shared an excited
glance. He reached out his hand to hers, and, trembling, she took it. She
almost laughed when she realized he was trembling, too. Together they turned
and followed.

A great mass of humanity,
thousands, hundreds of thousands strong, they surged after the Dreamer. They
flowed through the streets, around massive buildings and monuments, and at times
Elin lost sight of the Dreamer, but always Elin
felt
her, was drawn on by her.

The Dreamer led them through the
great city and down to the sea. The waves crashed upon the beach, and gulls
screeched warning. The people followed unheeding.

The Dreamer smiled gloriously as
her gaze fell on the heaving darkness of the sea, its black depths coated with
a layer of blood as the sun sank on the horizon. She didn’t pause when cold
waves blasted her ankles, her knees, her thighs. She continued walking at that
same inexorable pace.

“Come!” she cried over her
shoulder. “I’ll keep you from harm!”

Her people followed.

The Dreamer marched into the surf,
and shortly even her glorious head vanished from sight. Still her people
followed, likewise vanishing into the water, a thousand at a time. The young
and the old, the sick and the lame, mothers clutching babies, everyone, the
whole population, followed her into the deep blue sea, and one by one the water
closed over their heads.

Elin felt a tremor of fear as the
cold water sent shivers up and down her spine, as the waves nearly knocked her
off her feet, but she kept walking. Beside her Sam was singing a hymn, his eyes
closed, his face serene.

Elin took a deep breath and
submerged. Coldness enveloped her. She walked on, under the sea, staring about
her at all her friends and neighbors as they made their way, adjusting to the
different pull of gravity. At last fire filled her lungs and she could take it
no longer. She opened her mouth and sucked in a great lung-full of water. For a
moment she supposed that this would be her doom, that she would drown here,
surrounded by her friends, but, to her shock, she realized that the water . . .
was
breathable
. Somehow the Dreamer
must have changed it. Or them.

Elin smiled and turned to look at Sam,
who had just come to the same realization. He gripped her hand tighter. Together
they strode off into the darkness.

The Great One was waiting.

 

    

 

Davril laughed when he heard the news. He looked up from his
game of dice to regard General Hastus, who looked grave.

“What do you mean,
into the sea
?”

“Just that, my lord. At first I
thought it was part of their ritual, some sort of mass baptism, but when they
waded
farther out
. . .” He shook his
head.

Davril looked around at the
officers with whom he’d been playing dice. They looked as incredulous as he
felt. He hated to leave the game—he’d been winning for once—but if what the
General said was true . . .

“Show me,” he said.

General Hastus walked with him
through the camp, past men sparring or grooming horses, some haggling with the
camp-followers—or after a successful negotiation leading the young women into
their tents—past charioteers practicing maneuvers, and everywhere Davril saw
his men exchanging hushed, awe-inspired words. He and his army had besieged
Asragot for two weeks, meaning to force the Asragotians to pay their annual
tribute to the empire of Qazradan, to which they reluctantly belonged. Just
yesterday Davril had ordered the aqueduct blocked. It was his first campaign,
and he’d looked forward to bringing the tribute home to Sedremere amidst much
fanfare, but now —

“I see no movement,” he said,
gazing at the city from an open area. “None at all.”

“I told you,” Hastus said.

Davril shook his head. “I won’t
believe it till I see it myself. I’m going into the city.”

His men had already taken the
encircling wall of Asragot and opened the gate, which had been their obstacle
for weeks. Now, his hairs standing up on the back of his neck, Davril simply
walked through the archway and into Asragot. Just as the General had said, it
was empty. Utterly. Davril stared over the domes and towers, expecting movement,
some small twinge—it was a trap, it had to be—but the wind blew, and the trees
in rooftop gardens waved, and the shadows grew long as the sun sank burning to
the west. That was it.

No movement, no sound. Not a child
crying, not a wife chiding.

They
must think I’m a fool
, Davril thought.

“Send the men in,” he said. “Go
door to door. Search every house. Secure every block. They want us to go in
heedless first, headless second.”

“Such was my thinking, my lord.” It
was still odd to hear grizzled old Hastus refer to him—Davril, who had only
recently turned fifteen—as
my lord
,
and the young man had to resist a smile every time he heard it. “Of course, the
Asragotians are not like us. Human sacrifice, strange gods . . .”

“That was us a thousand years ago,
General.”

“Less, some say.”

Davril’s men combed the city with
its gleaming buildings of white stone, arches, corners and balustrades trimmed
in turquoise-and-burnished-gold. From his position in the hills overlooking the
city, he could see the waves breaking against the shore to the west, and he
found himself staring at the water. Had it really just swallowed the whole
population of Asragot? Was it his imagination, or did it seem darker than
usual? How could they have done this? How could they have all slain themselves—a
tragedy on an unthinkable scale? It was madness.

He shook his head again when, two
hours later, General Hastus returned to him with the report. The Asragotians
were gone. Not even the prisoners in the prison tower remained. All that was
left were a few dogs and birds.

“Madness,” was all Davril could
say.

He descended again into the city,
through its narrow, twisting streets, with the sinuous lines of buildings all
around him. The buildings were not square, nor circular, but swayed and curved
to imitate the sea. He passed open courtyards, walked under the turquoise
archways, all the time marveling at the abandoned buildings all around him. Just
that morning it had been a bustling metropolis. To see the streets deserted
made his blood run cold.

He took himself to the square
before the great Pyramid. He felt the heat beneath his sandals as he marched up
its stairs, previously trod only by the Asragotian priests and their
sacrifices. Davril and his people, and all the rest of Qazradan for that
matter, had considered the Asragotians barbaric for their practice of human
sacrifice, but to think they had leapt from that to mass suicide was quite a
jump.

Davril paused before the dark hole
leading into the Pyramid. The Door, he was surprised to see, was open. Here’s
where she had slept, according to the legends. The fabled Lady of Asragot. Could
she be real, and if so what did it mean that the portal was open? When Davril’s
spies had reported to him of the mass pre-dawn gathering in the square, he’d
shrugged it off. Likely they had been petitioning their slumbering goddess for
aid against Davril and his army. How could he have been so wrong?

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