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THE CROWN OF THE BLOOD, BY GAV THORPE
The stones echoed to the sound of a gong. Lakhyri opened gold-veined eyes that reflected the glow of a guttering candle. The high priest’s face was the texture of ancient parchment, etched and tattooed with swirling designs. As he rose up from the low slab that served as his bed, the dim light revealed his naked body; a tracery of scars covered him from scalp to foot, shoulder to fingertip, faded and barely visible against his dark skin. Astrological symbols decorated his body, from a zodiac first recorded thousands of years before his birth. Alchemical sigils for elements not yet identified by man ornamented his weathered flesh. All were linked together by intersecting lines scarred into his half-rotted meat, enveloping Lakhyri in a life-sustaining web.
He walked to the slit of a window, through which crept a sickly yellow light. All about the great temple was dead. An expanse of rock and dust stretched to the horizon, pale and lifeless. Cracks had been ripped into the fabric of the desolation in ages past, like welts upon the surface of a petrified corpse. Gasses issued from these crevasses, heavy with the taint of rotted flesh and sulphur. Even the skies felt the temple’s taint; no insect buzzed and no bird flew. No breeze stirred the air and fumes choked the plain.
Though nothing lived, there was movement. Flickers of fire danced across the ground; glimmers of purple and blue and green that swayed and veered of their own accord. The witching lights merged to create hues not found in rainbows but in diseased bowels and plague-ridden cysts. They twirled about each other and evaporated into the skies, adding to the haze.
The temple rose up on seven colonnaded levels, built from white stone hewn from quarries long since eradicated by the wear of millennia. Black smoke drifted in oily wisps from chimneys at the temple’s heart, staining the stones with streaks of soot.
The temple had no name; none that was remembered save by those ghastly creatures that dwelt within, clasped to the world through magic though long devoid of physical form or rational thought. Spectres of limbo, they hid in the dark and whispered to each other of the day when they would again rise to rule all other creatures.
Within the temple’s dreary confines, murmur of prayers echoed about labyrinthine halls and passages as naked worshippers shuffled single-file towards the central shrine. Lakhyri left his room and took his place at the head of the line. For an age he had ruled, eking out his withered life with the most ancient sorceries he could glean from the mad utterances of his masters; a wraith-like figure whose body was nothing more than a skeleton wrapped tight with desiccating skin. Lakhryri nonetheless strode with head high, eyes alert in their shrunken sockets.
The chief worshipper was perturbed. The sorceries that perpetuated his half-existence and his masters were failing. The temple no longer drew in the life force needed for the eulanui and their followers. All creation within range had been sucked dry of its essence; the parasitic-yet-sustaining miasma was thinning.
Lakhyri had called together the faithful to consult with the ancient masters on this vital issue. About the shrine they gathered, in concentric circles of twelve hundred worshippers, each cut to a greater or lesser extent with prehistoric runes. The newest acolytes stood at the back, only one or two sigils carved upon their young bodies. Each ring corresponded to another step in enlightenment, the worshippers within each successive circle ever more decrepit and scarred. They prayed and chanted in a tongue they could barely pronounce, much less understand. By rote they hissed the praises and names of the almighty eulanui.
Lakhyri stood at their centre, before an altar stone fused from black volcanic rock and primordial bones.
Kneeling before the shrine, Lakhyri laid his hands upon its ridged surface, his fingertips tracing the lines of ribs and femurs, joints and vertebrae. He did not feel the shiver of exultation that usually electrified him at the altar’s touch, for none of its magic passed to him.
“Magnificent, immortal masters, I beseech thee to speak with us.” The high priest’s voice was a whisper as dry and cracked as his skin, barely audible above the wheezing of the worshippers around him.
A stench of decay filled the shrine room and the air moved with formless energy. A tenebrous presence coalesced upon the altar stone, indistinct yet indescribably powerful. The stone melted, slewing away from the skeleton melded into the block. Bones reorganised themselves, sliding into place with each other while black rock slicked over them, forming pitch-like flesh.
Many-limbed, crooked and gangling, the Last Corpse took form, infused by the spirit of one of the eulanui. From many centuries of experience, Lakhyri recognised immediately the particular stance and disposition of the creature and knew it to be the huoyakuitaka, second most powerful of the masters. That such a senior figure had addressed his call demonstrated that the eulanui were well aware of the growing problem with the temple’s sorceries.
The voice came not as sound but as thought, entering Lakhyri’s mind not with language but as pure concept. No creature apart from another of the masters could communicate in a physical fashion with an eulanui, though sometimes their words could be heard on the edges of sleep; a bass throbbing that shivered through Lakhyri’s bones and resounded within his shrivelled guts.
“The temple strains to maintain your presence,” the high priest said.
“How can we increase the power of the shrine?”
DISTANT. SACRIFICE. SEEK.
“Seek whom? Seek what?”
KING. CHILD. RESTORE.
“How might we find this king? Which land does he rule?”
STRONGEST. TERRIBLE. COMING. SEEK. FAST.
The body of the huoyakuitaka dissolved, flowing back into the shape of the bone-clad altar stone. It had been a short exchange; shorter than any Lakhyri could remember, and his memory stretched back far indeed. The masters were struggling to maintain their grip upon this world, and had little power to spare to animate a body with which to converse with an underling.
“Acolytes stay, all others leave,” declared Lakhyri, turning away from the altar.
Within a short time the eldest followers had hobbled away, leaving only the youngest of the order, eighteen in all. They were naked and shaven-headed, their skin fresh and their muscles tight and fit. Lakhyri looked at them with disgust, offended by their youth.
“You,” said the high priest, pointing a skeletal finger at one of the boys. “Go now to the chamber of souls, I have a task for you.”
The acolyte nodded solemnly, his eyes fresh and eager. Lakhyri sneered at his enthusiasm. He did not yet understand the true meaning of service. A hundred more years tending to the masters and these acolytes would better know the fate that had been decreed for them.
The one he had sent away would not have time to learn the lesson.
MEKHA DESERT, Early Summer, 208th year of Askh
The behemodon bore down on Ullsaard as he lay on the hot sand, the enormous reptile’s blue-scaled flanks slicked with the gore of the commander’s warriors. Ropes of saliva drooled onto the dune from its dagger-long fangs and the stricken general could see his bearded face reflected in plate-sized black eyes. The lizard’s panting was interspersed with bass growls, punctuated by cracking bones and wet splashes as it pulped the dead and wounded beneath its clawed feet.
Atop its back red-skinned Mekhani tribesmen leered and shouted from their howdah, jabbing the air with their stone-tipped spears. Among them was one with an elaborate headdress of green and black feathers: a chieftain. The tribal leader snarled and spat at Ullsaard from his vantage point, waving a club edged with sharpened flints, furious at the Askhan general’s offer of peace.
“I’ll take that as a ‘no’, shall I?” Ullsaard said, the niceties of the pre-battle parley having been ended by the attack on his bodyguard. He had expected the Mekhani to refuse his conditions of surrender, but the barbarians had not withdrawn as was normally the custom. Ullsaard had been surprised by their sudden attack. He was angry with himself for trusting the Mekhani to conduct the parley with any kind of honour; a misjudgement that had already lost him twenty good soldiers and might yet cost him his life. He hoped he would have a chance to learn from the mistake.
The general pushed himself to his feet, fuelled by indignation. The morning sun glinted from his bronze greaves, vambraces and breastplate carved with designs reminiscent of spiralling clouds and crashing waves. Ullsaard brushed sand from his black leather kilt and adjusted his high-crested helm so that he could see properly. Snatching up the scored remnants of his shield and tightening his grip on his gilded spear, he took up a guard position.
With a coughing bark, the behemodon snapped its head forwards. Ullsaard slammed his shield upwards, smashing its rim into the creature’s lower jaw. The impact sent Ullsaard sprawling to his back again, the shield splintering in his grasp, its bronze rim catching him in the mouth as he fell. The behemodon reared back for a moment, cracked shards of fangs spilling from its bloodied mouth. Ullsaard tasted blood, but considered a cut lip a fair exchange for the behemodon’s mouthful of broken teeth.
“I gave you the chance to surrender,” the Askhan leader said as he regained his footing. “Let’s get this over with.”
The shrieking Mekhani fell quiet at the general’s defiance. Even the behemodon paused for a moment. Something in the puny human’s slate grey eyes was beginning to register in its tiny brain. Prey was supposed to flee and be hunted down, not turn and fight.
Adjusting his grip Ullsaard took one pace, eyes fixed on the behemodon, and cast his spear with an arcing arm. It punched into the beast’s left eye and erupted from the top of its skull. With snorts of pain the creature thrashed its head in an attempt to dislodge the weapon as dark blood poured from the wound.
Half-blind and in agony, the behemodon lashed out wildly, driving its head towards Ullsaard with mangled jaw gaping wide. Ullsaard bounded to his right, pulling his sword from its sheath. He spun on his heel and drove the point of the blade back-handed into the roof of the creature’s mouth. The behemodon staggered as blood and spittle foamed, wrenching Ullsaard’s sword from his sweat-slicked grip. With a rattling hiss the monster collapsed, sand billowing into a cloud beneath its gargantuan death throes. The dying behemodon’s heaving spasms snapped the ropes tying the cane howdah to its back and the structure slid sideways, spilling tribesmen to the dusty ground.
The Mekhani pulled themselves to their feet and edged uncertainly towards the unarmed warrior confronting them. They grunted at each other in their guttural tongue, urging each other to make the first move, the chieftain growling commands from behind his warriors.
Ullsaard cast the remains of his shield aside. He cracked his knuckles and smiled at the Mekhani. It was a wolf’s grin and Ullsaard fervently hoped they would not see through his bravado. His guts writhed but he kept the fear inside and stared at his foes with the expression of a man confident of victory.
As one the herald and his guards fled, their bare feet kicking up clods of sand in their haste to get away.
Ullsaard strode to the twitching corpse of the behemodon and ripped free his weapons, hands trembling for a moment at the shock of what had just happened. Taking a deep breath to steady himself, Ullsaard sheathed his sword and rested the spear jauntily over his shoulder. He turned to face his army.
Seven legions of Askhor, nearly fifty thousand men, cheered their gore-spattered general as he raised his spear in triumph. Ullsaard spat blood to one side and flicked glutinous strands of reptilian filth from his hand. He gestured over his shoulder with a thumb, indicating the seventy thousand tribesmen advancing down the ridge beyond the behemodon’s twitching body.
“What am I paying you for?” he called out.