Link to part the ninth if you missed it last week:
Author’s note: This serialization is an abridged rough draft of THE IPPOS KING, therefore expect to find numerous errors. The final, edited version will reflect corrections and revisions as noted by my editor and proofreader. THE IPPOS KING is currently available for preorder on Amazon, B&N, Apple Books and Kobo (order links provided at the bottom of the post).
My goal is to update once a week, but there may be a couple of weeks where I’ll update twice in a week or miss a week and double up the following week. Such is the case this time.
As we move through an unpredictable summer, I hope this serialized version offers some entertainment for you. Stay well. Stay safe.
On with the show.
Demons danced in the maelstrom of Serovek’s nightmare. He stood in a whirling darkness, hemmed in by a miasma of smoke that shrieked and gibbered. If evil had a voice, it sounded like this. An icy spill of horror flowed over him. He knew that sound. It had filled his ears as he, a monk, a chieftain’s son, an exiled nobleman, and a Kai king battled their way through the ruined streets of Haradis to reach the chamber welping galla like a diseased womb. This wasn’t the chamber from which they spilled; it was the womb itself.
Something slithered against his shoulder while something else flitted along the edges of his fingertips—thin, sharp, like the edge of a razor. He recoiled, jerking to one side even as he pulled away from whatever touched his fingers. A mad giggle buffeted his ear, and the smoke spun and whipped around him, tattered veils caught in a hard wind. Within the gloom, he spotted pinpoints of crimson and cerulean light that flickered and darted to and fro. Eyes, he thought. They were eyes, and they watched him with the predatory stare of the ravenous.
Laughter rebounded off invisible walls, echoing back and back until one peal faded only to be replaced by another. Serovek gasped at the unearthly, inhuman scream above the mad cacophany. An awful, agonized shriek of despair, it built and built until he thought its resonance might shatter his skull into a thousand pieces.
Instead of running from the ghastly clamor, he raced toward it, desperation roiling in his gut to reach whatever suffered so much and try to save it. He batted away unseen hands tipped in claws as pointed as any Kai’s and wrenched free of sinuous tethers that wrapped around his legs and grasped his arms as he hurtled in the direction of the ungodly screaming. The feral eyes hovering followed, watching him with a hunger so palpable Serovek fancied he could walk on it.
He plowed through shield walls of shadow thick as the morning mists that purled over High Salure before the sun burned them way. The sun didn’t reach this unclean place to immolate its disease and never would. Mantle after mantle of convulsing darkness tore beneath his hands as he struggled to reach the voice of penultimate suffering. He stumbled, almost falling, when something firmer than shadow glanced off his side, leaving a burning sensation along the ladder of his ribs.
The tortured voice was louder now, closer, and where he’d heard only guttural screaming before, Serovek now made out words along with sobbing. Pleas for mercy, for surcease from the pain. Prayers not to many gods, but to one. Another tide of horror cascaded over him. He recognized the god’s name and the voice of the man whose beseeching cries fell on a deity’s deaf or uncaring ears.
“Megiddo!” he bellowed into the heavy gloom, and the gloom spasmed at the name before taking up the call in a venomous chant.
“Megiddo! Megiddo! Megiddo!”
The screaming halted just as Serovek burst through a drape of darkness into a pallid twilight. What greeted made him want to shriek as well. Megiddo hung before him, impaled at numerous points on a scaffolding of short spikes, a corona of blue light shimmering around him. He didn’t bleed, but his skin bore the look of earth trapped in drought, fractured and fissured to reveal more of the cerulean luminsence.
Shadows spiraled around him, fluid and quick, revealing monstrous visages with gaping maws and glowing eyes that glittered with a twisted kind of glee. They capered through and around the scaffolding, a construction of polished blackness that reminded Serovek of obsidian and reflected the light spilling from Megiddo’s eidolon. The shadows wrenched the structure one way and then the other, creating a torsion that wracked the captive monk’s body in every direction until the snap of bone echoed amidst the victorious squalls of cavorting galla. The monk groaned, the sound animalistic in its torture.
Serovek lunged for him, sprinting toward the scaffolding in an effort to rescue Megiddo. His efforts were in vain. For every step he took, the distance between them tripled. And the galla laughed and laughed. He reached for his sword, enchanted by ancient Kai sorcery to hack through the foul creatures, but there was nothing at his hip to unsheathe and wield.
The galla didn’t stop with their entertainment. Unsatisfied with breaking bones, they turned their attention on the fissures marking Megiddo’s body. Serovek cursed them all, bellowing his rage and his torment as they peeled the monk like a grape, consuming his suffering as if it were a pleasure elixir. His wails filled the gloaming, and the blue light pouring from his exposed insides corruscated in a column that pulsed around him.
Galla backed away for a moment, not in fear but in anticipation, as if they knew what would happen next. The light around Megiddo contracted, knitting itself together in delicate filaments under the hands of an unseen weaver until it bound him in a tight shroud that flashed once, twice, brilliant and bright before fading back to a dull glow, leaving the monk hanging as before but whole again, his eidolon unbroken, his skin no longer flensed away. He raised his head slowly, as if the weight of all the world rested on it and stared at Serovek with glowing blue eyes made abyssal by despair. “You shouldn’t be here,” he whispered in thready voice. “You can’t help me. Save yourself. Leave.”
As if his warning sounded an alert, the hull-galla surrounding him suddenly turned its attention on Serovek, a malevolent scrutiny comprised of a thousand baleful stares. Serovek quashed the senseless urge to run. There was nowhere to run, and he dare not turn his back on the horde. Megiddo begged him to leave, and in that moment, Serovek wanted desperately to obey, but his nightmare held him in its grip, in this gods-forsaken place with a man whose spirit he couldn’t help and whose torment clawed its way into Serovek’s own soul.
From the corner of his eye, he caught a flicker of more light, white instead of blue. A meandering seam no wider than that of a human hair but bright as the sun. And clean. An antithesis to everything in this accursed domain. He sensed it down to his bones. It drew him like a lodestone, like Anhuset’s rare and sultry laughter. The hull-galla set up a screeching to make his head throb. As one writhing, smoky mass, they surged toward the thread of brightness.
“Get out,” Megiddo commanded in a voice no longer thin but forceful, adamant. “Get out before they do!” He threw his head back against the scaffolding, driving one of the short spikes through the newly healed flesh of his neck, and roared.
The sound trumpeted above the hul-galla’s screeching, a blast that buffeted them aside and away from the shining seam. The monk howled a second time, uttering words Serovek didn’t know but that lifted him off his feet and flung him backwards, into the heart of the shadow, through it, to the edge of his nightmare where a voice waited to yank him across to the other side of consciousness.
“Wake up, margrave, before I punch you awake!”
Serovek hurtled out of sleep, Megiddo’s tortured screams still ringing in his ears. He awakened to the sight of Anhuset’s grim expression and her narrowed yellow eyes blazing brighter than a lamp. He clutched her arms, breathing as if he’d tried to outrun his horse on foot. “Megiddo,” he gasped, gaze sliding to the bier on which the monk’s soulless body rested, enveloped in a shimmering blue corona.
The light pulsed in shallow rhythm as if mimicking a racing heartbeat. Unsettled neighing from the horses in their stalls and the hard crack of hooves against wood rails filled the stables. Anhuset stared at Serovek, silent and unflinching as his fingers burrowed into her muscular arms while he tried to rid his mind of the echoes of galla laughter and Megiddo’s suffering. Cerluean luminescence played off her angular features, sculpting her high cheekbones into more pronounced relief and sharpening her jaw. A Kai under a blue sun. Beautiful. Deadly. Not human.
“A man caught between worlds strives to reach you in this one.” Her yellow eyes flared with a greenish tinge under the spectral haze. “Are you truly here with me?” At his nod, she pried his fingers off her arm, slid her hand up his forearm and pulled him to his feet. “Wake fully, Lord Pangion, and plant your spirit in the world where you now stand.”
Her command snuffed out the last of the echoes but not the memory of the monk crucified on a scaffold of iron bones. He stared at Anhuset, concentrating on her features. “Can you hear them at all? The galla? I dreamed them, but I swear it was more than a dream.”
“I believe you.” She left him to rummage through one of her packs, returning with a small hand mirror. “Take a look,” she said, handing it to him.
He held the mirror up and swallowed back a gasp as horror flooded his veins. The blue luminescence hadn’t confined itself to a corona surrounding Megiddo’s bier. Serovek stared at his reflection with eyes flooded in the same shimmering hue. His natural eye color was blue as well, but of a more natural shade. His dead wife had once likened his irises to the deep of a cold ocean. Now they glowed with the ethereal strangeness of a Wraith King’s power, like the simulacrum vuhana he’d ridden into battle against the galla. As he continued to stare, the light faded, his sclera becoming white again, even as his irises darkened, losing their definition to pupils dilated from the dimness of the stables and the last vestiges of his nightmare. “Gods,” he breathed, before thrusting the mirror at Anhuset.
Her claws scraped across the glass as she took it from him. Her eyes glowed as well as she regarded him, but from the nature of her heritage instead of sorcery. “How long has this been happening?”
Serovek shrugged. “This is the first time I’ve seen it.”
“But is it the first time you’ve looked?”
She managed to ask the one question he’d tried avoiding in his own mind. “Yes.”
This was the worst nightmare he’d had about the galla or Megiddo so far, but not the only one. Each time he’d awakened, he purposefully avoided looking at any reflective surface, afraid of what he might see beyond the shuddering aftermath that left him bathed in a cold sweat. He’d suffered through battle sickness when he was younger, less inured then to the savagery of war. This wasn’t battle sickness. No one’s eyes glowed ethereal blue when they fought their own inner demons.
Anhuset put away the mirror, switching it for a flask. She pulled the stopper free with a pop and handed the container to him. “You look like you need a drink. If this doesn’t chase away the echoes, nothing will.”
Serovek ran the flask under his nose, rearing back when his eyes watered at the familiar smell. Peleta’s Kiss. He saluted Anhuset, took a healthy swig and braced for the burn as the spirit scorched a path over his tongue, down his throat, and into his stomach where it ignited with a heat to melt the last splinters of ice coursing through his veins. This time the shudder that threatened to break his joints loose had nothing to do with the nightmare and everything to do with the flask’s contents. Clear-headed, with a warm glow burning in his belly, he thanked Anhuset for her offering and returned it to her. “The spirit that cures all ills,” he said.
She nodded and tucked the flask back into the satchel where she’d stashed her mirror. “Nectar of the gods.” Her mouth curved. “For when they want their insides set on fire.” The amusement softening her features faded as she eyed him. “I’ve had bad dreams, but yours was worse than what most of us suffer I think.” She inclined her head toward Megiddo. “And him being here has something to do with it obviously. Do you wish to speak of it?”
He liked that she didn’t demand he tell her what he dreamed, though such a nightmare did the dreamer no good by holding it close. “Not really, but we both know this was more than a dream. I think it was a warning and probably something you should relate to Brishen when you return to Saggara.” Her features remained expressionless as he recounted the grotesque visions and the sounds of the galla as they tortured the Nazim monk. Only her eyes changed, their yellow brightening or darkening as he spoke of the hairline crack of light in the writhing darkness and Megiddo’s desperate command that Serovek get away.
When he finished, she turned to stare at the monk’s bier and the body lying peacefully under the blanket. The blue light had disappeared completely. “How long have you dreamed of the galla and Megiddo?”
It felt like several lifetimes. “Since a couple of months after returning home from Haradis. They’ve grown progressively worse as time passed but nothing like tonight.” He followed Anhuset’s gaze to the bier. “Then again, this is the first time I’ve been in such close proximity to him since I turned him over to his brother for safekeeping.”
His anger over Pluro keeping his brother’s ensorceled body stashed away in a rundown barn lessened at the memory of the man’s explanation for doing so. Nightmares, he’d complained. Horrific nightmares that aged you a decade in a night. If Megiddo’s nearness spread night terrors like plague to anyone sleeping nearby, he couldn’t so harshly condemn Pluro for exiling his brother away from the house.
Either his musings played across his features, or Anhuset thought as he did at that moment. “We may have rushed to judgment about your vassal’s actions. The dream you just woke from had you downing Peleta’s Kiss like water. If Pluro Cermak and his household fought such battles in their sleep more than once, he probably couldn’t get his brother out of the house fast enough or far enough. And who could blame him?”
“Good thing you were pulling the night watch or we’d have emptied the flask between us.” Serovek twitched back a corner of the concealing blanket to gaze at Megiddo’s peaceful, austere face under the transparent shell of protective sorcery. “He hung on an iron scaffolding, begging for mercy while the galla flayed the skin from his body in strips no wider than reins. And when they were done, they healed him and started over again.”
It wasn’t the sight of such gruesome cruelty that made Serovek’s hand shake when he covered Megiddo’s face again, but the memory of his voice, the hopelessness in those screams for mercy. The madness.
A sudden thought occurred to him, making him frown. “Has Brishen complained of bad dreams in which the galla and the monk play a part?”
“If he has, he’s not shared those complaints with me,” Anhuset replied, her features serene, her voice mild.
Unlike human eyes, which gave away numerous tells in the shift of a gaze or the dilation of pupils, a Kai’s eyes gave away nothing. He had discovered through years of careful observation that they actually did possess pupils, but they were the same color as the iris and the sclera: yellow upon yellow upon yellow. They moved and shifted just like a human’s eyes, but the monochrome coloration obscured such movement instead of highlighting it. Anhuset’s citrine stare didn’t reveal anything, but her studied composure did. He knew her well enough now to know she was, by nature, neither serene nor mild. She’d dodged his question with an answer that wasn’t a lie but also not quite the truth.
Serovek chose not to push. Sha-Anuset’s devotion to the herceges was absolute. He could do to her what the galla did to Megiddo until the end of time, and he’d not get a word out of her until she chose to share one. Besides, if he were honest, he prayed Brishen slept untroubled in his human wife’s arms and what Serovek dealt with now was merely a mind trying to rid itself of poisonous memory.
Pray hard, an inner voice told him.
The final version of THE IPPOS KING is currently available for preorder at all the usual retailers. See below for the links as well as a link to the second book in the Fallen Empire trilogy, DRAGON UNLEASHED (available now).