All That Glitters:
A Tale of Zodom
by Stuart North
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
I returned home and collapsed in a heap on my bed. The stench of the interrogation cells was thick on my body, but I couldn’t even muster up the energy to wash. I felt mentally and physically drained. I also felt scared. Something was up that wasn’t the least bit natural.
Provided Anur was telling me the truth, Hakar had been prospecting around the old site of the Nameless City, the suspected dwelling of the lizard folk who had ruled Zodom in ages past. It wasn’t a story that was well known or trusted; in fact, I hadn’t given it any credence myself since... Well, who’d seriously believe in such a thing?
But I couldn’t deny the effect the crown had on me, the sense of aeons-lost antiquity it exuded, its alien contours and sense of deep mystery. These things act not on the conscious mind but on the soul, and the soul knew them for truth. I had to be a believer. And if I was, that meant that whatever Hakar had dug out of the stones in that unhallowed place was from the time of the lizard folk.
His words returned to me: “I doubt any man in this world has ever set eyes on this besides you and me.”
Well, Ghul had, and now he was dead. Malabek too, and he was likely dead as well. Or maybe they were something worse.
And who was left? Only me.
Anur was a clever one. He must have known Hakar would return to claim what was his.
The sixty marduks? No. My life.
* * *
I spent the rest of that afternoon composing myself for the meeting with Hakar. The sun dipped, the shadows lengthened. Somewhere out there, Anur’s men were waiting. Maybe even Anur himself. I hoped they’d be ready.
Near the hour of final prayers, I armed myself with what little charms and weapons I possessed. A Dhulmish pendant, a Lamite evil eye, three prayer rings from the lands of the Cedar Mountains, plus a Furangi short dagger that had last seen action over a hundred years ago in a borderland skirmish but was still relatively serviceable. Thus attired, I lit a candle and settled down to a carafe of vintage wine from Kidesh, and waited.
* * *
I must have drunk more than I’d realised because it was dark when I came to. The first thing I became aware of was a scratching noise like the kind rats make when they’re looking for food. Only this sounded bigger than any rat I’d ever heard. A stray jackal? It was a moment before I located it. Something was fumbling at the boards of the back door, near to the street level. A moment later it stopped.
Then the handle was slowly turned. I listened to all this in a sort of fumy daze that suddenly gave way to stark, icy fear like a draught of cold wind through my soul. There were voices outside, or what I took to be voices. Anur’s men? Why were they trying to get into my shop when they should have been waiting, and why were they hissing and groaning like that?
The candle had burned out, but a lamp still glowed in the other room. I stood up, feeling the room reel a little, then made my way towards the light. Halfway across the room I tripped on a stool and clattered to the floor. As I was getting up, I realised the sounds had stopped. Then, slowly, a raspy voice called from the other side of the door:
“Agbek, it’s me. Hakar.”
I kept silent.
“Agbek, it’s me. Open up.”
“What do you want?” I managed to croak.
“My money, Agbek. I forgot it yesterday. I’ve come to collect.”
“You’ll... you’ll have to come back tomorrow. I don’t have it.”
“Why are you lying to me, Agbek? I know you’ve got the money. You keep it in a chest in your back room. Let me in.”
A smell was filling the room, an earthen stench of graves and slimy limbless things. I clamped a handkerchief over my nose. My hair was standing on end, and my nerves were screaming for flight. I stood my ground. “You’ll have to come back tomorrow.”
“But I’ve come for it tonight.”
I remembered Anur’s men. Could I trust them to come to my aid against whatever was behind that door?
“Hakar,” I said, “I’m sorry. You’re right. I have the money.”
“Then you will let us in?”
“Yes... yes, I’ll let you in.”
The door swung open as though it had never been locked. Hakar stood standing in the gloom of the alley, a slouching sad figure with his bag still dangling in his hand. Behind him I saw other shapes, low to the ground, though it was hard to make them out in the darkness of the alley. Hakar shuffled forward.
“The money. Do you have it?”
“I do, but won’t you shut the door first?”
“I’d rather keep it open, if it’s all the same.”
“Of course. Let me get the money.”
I hurried into the other room and removed the sack of coins from the safe. When I returned Hakar was sitting at the desk. He was holding the empty bottle of wine. He looked up at me and shook it wearily. “I thought you said you never drank, Agbek.”
“I do. On occasion. I’m sorry, would you like some? I have more.”
“I’ve already partaken, thank ye.”
I patted the bag. “Here’s the money.”
“That’s excellent. Why don’t you take a seat?”
I felt compelled, as if under a spell. Hakar’s breath was strong at this distance but not as strong as the smell that lay behind it. His eyes were slits above twin pouches, his mouth a downward moue. His face looked like a mask of dead flesh, ready to fall off.
I said, “I no longer have the crown.”
He said, “I know you don’t.”
He reached into his sack and drew it out. The gem in its centre seemed to glow of its own light. I saw once again the strange shapes in the mist, likened them somehow to the shapes I thought I’d seen outside but which, now I looked, had disappeared.
Hakar put the crown on the table. “Before we proceed,” he said, “I’d like to see you put it on. It so suits you.”
“I... I’d rather not.”
“Are you sure? Such a fine piece of work. Wouldn’t it make you feel like a king of the old days?”
“I’ve never been kingly material.”
“Kings can be made from the humblest of origins. Take me for example.”
“You’re a... king?”
“Of a kind. Though my kingdom is somewhat unusual. It consists, you see, of people that are not people, and things that are neither alive nor quite dead.” Behind the folds, the eyes held the gleam of a fanatic.
I took a deep breath. “What did you find there, Hakar, in the dark under the earth?”
His eyes widened. “Oh, such things as you could never guess. Unseen wonders. A whole subterranean world of light and mist. Of vast forests of fungus and yeasty pools and an unseen sun that billowed up from a crack in the centre of creation.
“And they were there. The old ones, the wise ones. The ones who came before. They welcomed us, they who we shied away from at first, Ghul and I. We entered their presence, saw them crowd up around us, those sinuous things. They’ve remained there all these millennia. Trapped. Exiled. Waiting.
“They could have killed us as easily as a tongue dart, but they didn’t. They accepted us, gave us the crown of their king.” He scowled. “But they chose the wrong man. They chose Ghul instead of me. He was to be their emissary to the surface world, not I.
“I could not accept that. I killed him and took the crown for myself.” His eyes misted and turned inwards as he recalled the murder, and his voice had taken on the drone of a mantra. I tried to inch away, but his eyes snapped back into focus and he grinned. “Not that I could wear it, Agbek. Oh no. That was for others. They need a human to enact their plan, to walk among men and collect new vessels for their return.
“Ghul was the first, a poor one, since I’d slashed him so badly in my wrath. But they heal quickly, the old ones, though their presence in our flesh results in certain... mutations. It is to better acclimate themselves to these bodies, of course. They’re not like us. They cannot proceed on two legs but must crawl on four, as is their wont.”
“How many do you have?”
He smiled. “I’m sure you’ve worked it out. Ghul of course, Himmel, Malabek, Talman now. He couldn’t resist the lure.”
“And how many do you need?”
“Just one for now. More later. I wonder, Agbek, would you like to join us?”
He darted forward before I could draw back and held my wrist in a vice. I cried out. As I did I heard a hissing from the doorway, and three misshapen things crawled in, followed by a fourth, which was writhing. They were human, or had been. That much I could see.
Their whole look was wrong, though; their faces were hideously elongated, their arms shortened and thickened. Things like scales peeked from behind their ragged flesh, which flaked and sloughed from them like the skins of snakes. Their hands clacked on the boards, made gouges in the wood.
Hakar was holding the crown above my head, ready to bring it down on my head like a noose.
“Please,” I said. “Please, no.”
“It’s nothing to be afraid of, Agbek. A moment’s dislocation then freedom.” He laughed in pure glee.
I reached down with my free hand, grabbed the dagger and stabbed him in the mouth.
He jerked back, writhing and screaming. Behind him, the creatures rose up, crying out in voices that split and gurgled. I kicked myself backwards, rolled to my feet and fled into the front room.
The door burst open.
I cried out and shielded my face. Bodies brushed past me. I heard raised voices, human voices, a cry of horror, more cries, the sound of steel plunging into flesh, a hideous squealing, and then silence.
* * *
When I came to a second time, I was looking up into the face of a city guard. He slapped my cheek and said, “He’s awake, Captain.”
Anur regarded me from a place by the back door. His sword was in his hand, and something green and noisome was dripping from it. For the first time in my life, I swear the Captain of the Zodomite Watch looked shaken. He was hiding it well, though.
Anur cleared his throat. “Glad you could rejoin us, Agbek.”
“Where am I?”
“In your shop. Where else?”
I sat up. The room was the same as before, save for a dark patch on the wood near the table and several others near the door that gave off vague tendrils of smoke. The crown lay in a corner, a black smoking hollow where the green gemstone had been. The metal was already mottling with rust.
“What happened?” I said.
Anur shook himself down. “A whole lot of things. More than I care to recount at this point. Drop by my station sometime, and I’ll tell you all about it.”
“I’d rather not, if it’s all the same to you. Where’s Hakar?”
“Dead. You killed him, don’t you remember?”
“I... ah... Things are sort of hazy at the moment.”
He laughed. A genuine one this time, born of a human soul. “Don’t sweat it, Agbek. You’re off the hook as far as the thing is concerned.”
“And the others?”
“There were no others.”
“But I thought—”
“Whatever you thought was wrong. There was only Hakar, and now he’s dead.”
I saw the look coming back into his eyes and I stayed silent.
After a moment he said, “That Emoshite amulet. You still have it?”
“I haven’t sold it thus far. Yes, I still have it.”
“What do you mean?”
“As a charm. A warding. A thing against evil.”
“The Emoshites believed so.”
“Care to sell it to me?”
“Of course, Captain.”
He reached into his belt pouch and tossed me a coin. It was a ten-marduk piece, the highest denomination in Zodom.
I said, “This is rather a lot, Captain. It’s only worth about two.”
“After tonight, I’m not sure you can ever put a price on anything.”
“I... suppose you’re right. Let me get it for you.”
I returned with the amulet, which gleamed but, thankfully, did not glow. Anur took it from me and tied it about his neck. It looked ridiculous but somehow complemented the rugged captain. He seemed at ease, at peace. May we all feel so secure, by Shem.
He clicked his fingers, and the guard followed him out. At the doorway Anur turned. “We’ll be back in the morning with a priest to dispose of that thing.” He indicated the crown. “In the meantime, probably best to leave it where it is. I hope you have a good night, Agbek.”
“And you, Captain.”
He opened his mouth and seemed about to say something more. Something profound maybe. Then the better, baser aspects of his nature took hold of him, and he turned and strode wordlessly into the night.
Copyright © 2017 by Stuart North