THE GODS RETURN – Snippet 18
Baray, Emperor of Palomir and the World, stood at the entrance to the Temple of Franca. Beside him was Nivers, the high priest, with three of the girls from the harem Nivers had accumulated since the return of the Gods. The youngest of them couldn't have been more than ten, which disturbed Baray; but not as much as the scene in the courtyard twenty-seven crystal steps below, where Salmson chanted at the altar and ratmen sacrificed the latest captives.
Baray took another drink from his flask. When he was young, he'd dreamed of someday drinking the finest vintages. Now he had his choice of hundreds of wines, but he found the greatest solace in that grown on the jungle terraces of Palomir itself. Baray drank it unmixed; he hadn't found a stronger wine anywhere in the world.
"Alba thanalba thalana!" Salmson chanted. He was getting hoarse; Nivers would have to take his assistant's place soon. But not yet, not quite yet.
The woman below screamed as two ratmen forced her to bend over the altar backwards. A third rat struck with a broad-bladed dagger and ripped upward; the screams gurgled to silence. More ratmen led up the next victim, a man too stunned to struggle.
Baray drank again. The flask was empty. He flung it away and shouted, "Come!"
The servant waiting beside the storage jar at the base of the stairs came shambling up with a full flask, this one silver instead of bronze. He'd find the one Baray had flung down in disgust, wipe it if necessary, and have it refilled for the next usage.
The steps were shallow and steeply pitched, but the servant didn't lose his balance. He was a recent prisoner, and he knew better than most the fate that lay in store for him if Nivers lost patience with him.
The man on the altar had been silent until the knife went in. Now he cried, "Ak! Ak!" and then gave a bubbling groan. The ratmen holding him dragged the body away, dumping it with the rest in a pile before the Temple of Fallin on the right side of the courtyard which had Franca's temple at its head.
Rats, the ordinary vermin which had infested the ruins of Palomir for generations, swarmed over the corpses, chittering and squeaking as they gorged on warm flesh. The stench of rotting blood permeated the moist midday heat. Baray had gotten used to it, or almost used to it.
"Must we kill so . . .?" he started to say. He turned to look at Nivers and found the high priest fondling the youngest girl. Her face mimed delight, but there was terror behind her half-closed eyes.
The emperor jerked his head straight. "Nivers!" he said. "This isn't right. We want more citizens for Palomir. The city's almost empty, and instead of repopulating it we turn it into a slaughterhouse!"
"We have no choice, Baray," Nivers said in a thick voice. "You know we have -"
The girl screamed.
"Hili take you!" Nivers said, slashing at her with his open hand. The girl ducked back and collapsed against the doorpost, blubbering. The priest's blow missed; he overbalanced would've fallen down the cracked crystal steps if Baray hadn't put a hand out to steady him.
"We don't have any choice, Baray," the priest mumbled on his knees.
"Alba thanalba thalana!" Salmson chanted. The Temple of Hili faced that of Fallin across the courtyard. From its open door blew a wind with a red tinge. At each syllable that wind wrapped a rat on the pile of bodies – swelled it, molded it, and lifted it at the size of a human onto its hind legs.
For a moment, each new-made ratman squeaked in confusion. Some snapped their long incisors at whatever was closest, often their own forelimbs – now arms. After a few moments their new souls merged with their new bodies and they settled.
At the clicked and chattered orders of a sub-chief – the rats knew their leaders; Baray could tell no difference from one gray-and-dun body to the next – they moved off through the crumbling archway at the foot of the courtyard. In the colonnaded ruin that had been the city's vegetable market, the new rat warriors would be equipped with weapons looted from overrun human settlements or forged by human captives who, like the palace servants, made themselves as useful as they could to their masters.
The rats moved with springy steps, but when they halted they threw their hindquarters and stiff tails back; their heads and chests slanted forward. At rest they wobbled like birds balancing on a slender branch.
"We can't," Nivers repeated in a whisper. "You'll be leading the army when it marches on Haft, emperor. You want it to be huge, do you not? Overwhelming. I've told you how strong the Kingdom of the Isles is. Franca showed me their forces sweeping through every enemy the kingdom faced . . . and now they will face you."
"Yes," said Baray. "Yes."
He closed his eyes. His hands were trembling, so he gripped the flask with both to lift it to his lips. The harsh red wine burned his mouth, but his throat continued working until he'd emptied the flask again.
"Alba thanalba thalana!" said Salmson, but he chanted in a rasping singsong. Nivers would have to replace the man soon.
The man on the altar this time was young and strong; he lunged as the blade plunged downward. He couldn't free himself from the grip of the two ratmen, but he twisted enough that the point gouged the side of his ribcage instead if splitting his breastbone as intended.
The rat conducting the sacrifices gave an angry squeal and stabbed repeatedly. The victim shouted for almost the entire time, though his voice lost strength by the end. The hot, red wind sparkled over the corpses and lifted vermin from them to chitter and mow.
"A huge army . . . ," Baray said. "Overwhelming. An overwhelming army."
Tears were running down his cheeks. He threw the empty flask at the attendant who waited below, his back to the slaughter and his head bowed down.
"Come!" said Baray. "More wine!"
The high priest was fumbling his women again, though the youngest still crouched sobbing in the doorway. Baray rubbed his temples, waiting for the servant to climb the stairs. The wine had spilled a bright haze over his senses, but he could still hear and smell; and he could see enough.
"I must have a huge army," the emperor whispered. But despite the smothering pillow of wine, he wondered what would happen when the rat armies had conquered the whole Land. Would there be any humans left by then?
And would there be any need for humans?