Lord Escaren, Steward of the Black Flame, ruler of Khaldun, lay dying.
He knew it was coming, he could feel it, creeping over him like a pervasive chill on a damp winter night. Outside, he could hear the temple bells, ringing out to the Goddess of the Black Flame, calling her to come and collect his soul. In his imagination, he could hear his advisors, trusted blood-loyals, high priests, and generals in the great hall, arguing and perhaps even killing over who would be the new Lord of Khaldun, just had Escaren had done when his predecessor, Voltner, had died.
Escaren had killed a handful of men to become Lord of Khaldun; he would have killed a hundred more if needed. He had been the best choice for the role, and everyone had known it. He had rich family connections, he had military genius, and he had an instinctive understanding for the ruthless world of international politics. He knew what had to be done, and did it, with no regrets. Under his rule, Khaldun had prospered. He had joined forces with Syrethia to force Iskedium to back down on its strangulation of sea trade. He had forced Kithria to fortify its borders, thus ensuring that the trade roads were patrolled — at someone else’s expense. He had even arranged for the building a temple to the Goddess of the Black Flame in Rastur, much to the consternation of Bastamishi.
Escaren had been a great ruler, one worthy of Khaldun, and now his life was slowly and inexorably slipping away. Part of him resented it; part of him was just glad it was over.
He became aware of a draft, suddenly, which caused the gauze around his bed to flutter. He heard the scrape of stone on stone, and realized that someone had entered the room through the hidden passage. As far as Escaren knew, only three living beings knew about that passage, and he was one of them.
“Edros? Sarnha?” he called out, weakly.
“No,” said a dry, cracking voice. “Not Edros. Not Sarnha.”
Escaren blinked; it was a voice he recognized instantly, even though it was distorted and weak, as if the words were spoken by someone who could barely breathe. It was Voltner, his predecessor, the former Lord of Khaldun. Escaren’s movement was limited, but he was able to jerk his head around enough to see the mummified thing that lurched up out of the secret passage.
“Voltner?” Escaren whispered, bleary eyes wide. “Returned from the dead?”
“Not returned,” said Voltner. The skeletal form seemed to be impossibly weighed down in an exquisite set of polished, blue-painted scale armor; a chain hood was on its head, and a thin gold and silver crown sat upon the hood. Cold white light burned in Voltner’s eye sockets as the dead lord came forward to loom over Escaren. “Your time to join us comes soon. Be prepared.”
“Join you?” said Escaren.
“Join us, yes, the Lords of Khaldun.” Voltner gestured to the secret passage, where more figures where coming up out of the darkness. Like Voltner, they wore the finery of kings … and like Voltner, they were all quite obviously dead. “You have spent your life in service of Khaldun, and you have ruled well. You are too valuable to be lost to death. Your knowledge, experience, strategy … all of these things, Khaldun cannot afford to lose. And it will not, for you will join us.”
Another figure stepped forward, its skeletal form wrapped in ancient leather. It spoke in a voice like dust hitting a windowpane. “We operate in secret,” it said. “We stay hidden from the eyes of the living. But as we served Khaldun in life, so we do in death. Did you really believe that so many of your great moments were entirely your own doing? The strange figure that caused Touros of Kithria to be flung from his horse? That was one of us. The voices in the night that drove Chancellor Parun mad when he opposed your alliance with Syrethia? That was our work.”
A cold worse than he had already felt crept into Escaren. “But … how…?”
“Sorcery,” said Voltner. “Necromancy. Black magic. It has been this way since the birth of Khaldun. We take only the most worthy into our numbers, those who serve Khaldun and the Black Flame best. We have watched you long and carefully, and decided that you would join us.”
“No,” said Escaren. “I have given my life — my whole life to Khaldun. Surely it can ask no more of me. My soul needs rest!”
“Soul?” said Voltner, with a dry coughing sound that may have been a cackle. “You traded your soul for lordship long ago! As did we all. Khaldun was all, to us, and to you as well. Put away such foolish notions. You are about to become the ultimate expression of loyalty to your land and your goddess. Don’t you see what an honor this is? Don’t you see the greatness you’ve achieved? You should be eager for this chance!”
“It’s horrific!” Escaren cried out.
“You will adjust to it, in time,” said Voltner, as the other shapes began to shuffle back into the secret passage. “We all do.”
“No,” said Escaren, as firmly as his weakened body could manage. “I have given Khaldun everything, but I will not give it this.”
“Your time is coming,” said Voltner. “I can feel your life draining away. You will be taken to the great temple, and interred there for a brief time, as we all were. But have no fear; soon you will walk again.”
“Have no fear?” Escaren groaned at the retreating mummified form. “What could I possibly fear more?”
©2002 by John Robey, all rights reserved