By John R. Fultz
from Black Gate 13, copyright © 2009 by New Epoch Press. All rights Reserved.
It began an hour before dusk, when shades of red and purple filled the sky, and the first of the evening stars glittered above the towers. The Glimmer Faire entered through the North Gate, three vivid wagons preceded by the marching orchestra of inhuman musicians. Laborers heading home from a long day’s work, beggars gearing up for night shifts, merchants closing down their stalls for the evening, harlots opening their windows, all found themselves drawn to the hypnotic music that heralded the troupe’s arrival. Children rushed from doorways and alleys to ogle the musical creatures as they passed. Even soldiers on their way to take up shift at the gates paused, enthralled by the wonder of the lilting melody and the train of colorful performers. Only the black-garbed Vizarchs remained unaffected, making their evening rounds in voiceless squads, heedless to the enticements of the living. The Glimmer Faire rolled onward, into the heart of the city, and a crowd of awed onlookers followed.
Artifice stood atop the lead wagon, garbed in the yellow robes of a Showman, his arms spread in greeting, beckoning everyone within earshot to come and see the Great Show. The music continued to draw larger crowds from every quarter of the city, high and low. The twisting alleys echoed like canyons flooded with harmonies, and the setting sun bathed the procession in a golden radiance. By the time the wagons rolled into sight of the amphitheatre’s walls, thousands of intrigued citizens trailed along, some dancing, some laughing at the clever little musicians as they pranced and played, most walking in silence, full of expectant fascination.
The wagons entered the domain of the amphitheatre by the Performer’s Way, while the crowd filed in through a dozen doorways, pouring into the bowl-shaped edifice like water into an ancient chalice. Here was the antique stadium where the last King of Narr addressed his people over one hundred years ago, as his fathers had done before him for three thousand years. In the earliest centuries, the blood of gladiators flowed in this arena for the amusement of a less enlightened populace. These days the structure served only as vacant landmark, a lingering reminder of a bygone age. Until now.
The Glimmer Faire rolled into the central oval and set up their stage, converting their wagons to a single platform and raising painted backdrops like the flags of lost empires. In less time than it took for the sun to fall below the lip of the distant sea, the amphitheatre was filled by a mass of Narrians, people of all ages, classes, professions and status. The music of the weirdlings continued, its volume magnified by the clever acoustics of the amphitheatre, while the human Players sat up their stage and donned their costumes.
Grimsort watched the spectacle from a wide dais of marble perched midway up the interior of the great bowl, the spot reserved in ancient times for kings and their queens. Two dozen living guards surrounded the dais, their bodies sheathed in gold-chased armor, their spears flying the crimson pennons of the Divine Council. Behind the necromancer’s extravagant chair a black tapestry hid the Conjurors Three from view as they prepared the oils, unguents, runes and implements that their Great Summoning required. Grimsort was attended by a trio of slaves, while a pair of Vizarchs stood inconspicuously nearby. He felt every inch the king at this moment, ensconced among his people and about to unveil a grand entertainment. Was the music intoxicating him, adding to his sense of self-important grandeur? He believed it was possible. He checked the sky beyond the amphitheatre’s rim. The last of the sun’s glow was nearly gone.
“Will your demon be powerful enough,” he had asked Myndrod, “to overcome any sorcery the Quill has obtained?”
“Demon-Lord, Grimsort,” Myndrod had reminded him. “Ruler of the Nethermost Pits, whose thousand claws rend the very fabric of reality. Worry not, necromancer. ‘Twill suffice.”
“I ask only because this Quill has previously eluded your summonings,” Grimsort said.
“Never one such as Ishtryaal,” said Myndrod, offended.
“Good,” said Grimsort. “We cannot afford to fail in front of our subjects.”
“We will not,” Myndrod said. He walked back to his black curtain, but turned to add: “When Ishtryaal comes, he will require a substantial sacrifice. You must be prepared to witness this, or you must leave.”
Grimsort swallowed. He much preferred the company of the undead to that of demon-kind. Conjuration was nasty, dangerous business. “Sacrifice?”
“Yes – human,” said Myndrod. “Fortunately for us, this amphitheatre will be crowded with living bodies.”
“How many?” Grimsort asked.
Myndrod paused, feigning a mental calculation. “One for each claw should do it.”
Grimsort surveyed now the anxious crowd filling the amphitheatre. There must be at least fifty thousand souls gathered here. More crowds milled about the streets outside, those who didn’t enter in time to get seats. A squad of guardsmen monitored each entrance now, preventing the exterior mobs from rushing in and overtaxing the ancient structure. He scanned the sea of excited faces that filled the great bowl.
At least a thousand of these people would die horribly when the Conjurors’ infernal beast manifested. A pity, Grimsort told himself. But Narr’s population did need some thinning. The demon-lord’s first victims would be Artifice and his Players. He took a deep breath and congratulated himself that the man responsible for the loss of Veronique would soon be caught in the talons of justice. If not for the Quill’s book she would have stayed, and he might have finally convinced her to be his wife.
A gleaming in the corner of his eye caught his attention. A faint presence next to him on the dais. A pair of lucid emeralds stared at him from the shadows beneath his silken canopy.
“Santha?” he whispered, and there she was, floating toward him like a wisp of delicate fog. He caught his breath at her beauty. The ghost-girl had followed him up from the tombs! Surely she must feel something for him…
“Good evening, my love,” she said in a voice only he could hear. “I wish to observe the play. I hope that I’ve not overstepped my bounds.”
“Not at all, Sweetest,” Grimsort replied, reaching out to touch her transparent shoulder. “Your presence brings me untold delight. Stay! Stay and enjoy the spectacle with me.”
She smiled at him then, in the coquettish manor of a young girl in love. He wanted to take her right then. To sing the spell that would bring him into a wraith-like state so he might ravish her with kisses and make sweet, ethereal love to her. But her eyes turned suddenly toward the stage as the fantastic music stopped. Grimsort’s own eyes followed.
It was showtime.
The complete version of “Return of the Quill” appears in Black Gate 13.