Tower of Sighs
by Danielle L. Parker
James Blunt, captain of the Pig’s Eye and a rogue trader on the edge of Human space, receives a summons to meet with Kzirth, one of the dread Asp. Blunt’s mission — which he cannot refuse — is to rescue an uncle of Kzirth who is trapped in the Tower of Sighs, a prison that exists outside of time and space.
“Of course,” Kzirth said. “I wear the claw for sentimental reasons. Tzek was my sibling. We came from the same womb.” He — or she, Blunt thought sourly — licked a poison claw carelessly with flickering tongue. That mannerism was still slyly purposeful, like the dry shake of a rattlesnake’s tail. “One should always remind others of one’s victories. Do you not agree, Captain?”
The claw in question, mate to the one that had frightened David Mortimer out of his debonair wits, gleamed on Kzirth’s muscular chest at the end of a long chain. The Aspian seemed none the worse for the fearful duel that had ended in its half-brother’s limb-from-limb dismemberment.
Through the silken tissue of Kzirth’s gossamer robe Blunt glimpsed the fine gleaming scales of a sinuous body, bright as riveted gold and edged with livid green. Blunt could not resist allowing his gaze to wander lower, but, as he had suspected, he found no enlightenment. The mysterious Aspian dual-purpose organs were not on display. The robe became opaque at the waist.
“Barbarism,” he replied brusquely. “We gave up collecting scalps and posting heads on castle walls a long time ago.”
“Sscalpss.” The Asp considered the unfamiliar word. But Kzirth’s English, though afflicted with a sibilance unavoidable for an Asp, was excellent. “Ah. You consider this a barbaric custom, then?” It whistled in loud amusement. “Do you remember the battle of Dupre? One of our ships orbits that world’s star. Our ship was destroyed by those two frigates you call Egalité and Alabama. Yet our ship Ozzath is still there: dead, derelict; a tomb for many floating corpses. Would you not call that a scalp, Captain?”
Captain Blunt rubbed his chin. “All right,” he allowed reluctantly. “It’s a trophy. Probably making the local Tourist Office a lot of money. They never returned the corpses? That’s kind of gross.”
“You are a sly and savage race,” Kzirth commented, rising to its feet.
Blunt could not view this action with equanimity in the cramped quarters of the reception room. He shifted uneasily. They had not asked him for his gun. Aspians, armed by nature with a poison deadlier and swifter than terrestrial cobra venom, were fairly indifferent to guns, at least at close range. They had little need for them.
“And you, Captain Blunt,” Kzirth continued, pouring fresh drinks, “are one of the most villainous, greedy, resourceful and savage of your kind. I have need of such once more.”
Blunt raised his glass in a grim salute. “Charmed to see you, too. What now?”
“Nothing as easy as thwarting an Elder God,” Kzirth said. “I am afraid, Captain Blunt, you will soon violate one of our most sacred laws. Which law is not important at the moment. But for this crime, whatever it may be, you will be sentenced by my patrons, the Sacred Twins, to serve the remainder of your existence in prison. A prison known as The Tower of Sighs.”
Blunt put down his glass with commendable steadiness. He felt a cold sweat break out on his brow. “I hope there’s more to this particular story. A happy ending, perhaps.”
“Ah, yes. At least I hope so too. Let me tell you of the Tower of Sighs first. This tower is no ordinary prison. Through time immemorial it has been the fate of only the most desperate or the most exalted. It holds ill-fated kings and priests, as well as beings of unspeakable evil. It exists outside of time. It is found in no particular place. It falls on its victims wherever they flee, and seizes them without mercy.
“It has its own supernatural guardians. These guardians, like their Tower, exist outside natural time. Ebalazavek, the chief of those guardians, is older than you or I could comprehend. Do you find my story intriguing so far, my fat-tongued friend?”
Captain Blunt wet his lips. “I’m fascinated.”
“Allow me to pour you a fresh drink.” Kzirth topped up his glass. “Yet, through time immemorial, this Tower has served the Duality, whose rule, I assure you, is more ancient than humanity’s squalling birth. Never has the Tower consumed one who was not condemned. Until now, that is.”
Blunt took a swig from his newly filled glass. Nothing tasted as vile as rzilovath. Still, the liquor had a certain effect, once one overcame a natural desire to spit. Right now, he was badly in need of its help. His stomach felt hollow. “Who’s the unlucky soul, then?”
“Vilth is his name.” Kzirth tapped a poison thumb. “Suffice it to say Vilth is my uncle, my mother’s full brood-brother. Vilth is also the father of one who sits on the Twin Throne, who is, of course, my cousin. Your feeble language does not encompass the subtleties of our kin relationships, but I presume these are straightforward enough for even an Earthman.”
“I got it the first time,” Blunt said. “So who stands to win from your uncle’s disappearance?”
His host shrugged. “A puzzle. I see no direct beneficiary. Vilth was respected. His influence with the Duality was great. Yet he was aged; his competence assigned to his chosen heirs; his living enemies few. His removal accomplishes no particular purpose, except to strike, by its nature, at the security of the Twin Throne.”
Blunt lowered his glass. He had underestimated his tolerance for the alien libation. He felt the onset of a seriously painful headache.
“OK.” Blunt pressed fingers to a throbbing temple. “So how’d you learn Uncle is in the Tower?”
“Another supernatural being told us my uncle is in the Tower. If, of course, we can believe this particular being. It is not known for honesty.”
Blunt pressed his temple more desperately. The headache grew rapidly intolerable. “And who might this particular snakehead idol be?”
“You have parallels in your own legends. We call him the Trickster. No lock can keep him out, so he is, I believe, the only being who may enter or leave the Tower at will. If you win his aid, you might, and Vilth might win free of the Tower.” Kzirth whistled in sardonic amusement. “Assuming he has not lied to us. Alas, who trusts the Trickster? Not I, at least.”
Captain Blunt raised his head. “What the hell was in that stinking rzilovath, Kzirth? I’ve got a hangover and I’m not even drunk. Well, whatever vintage it was, you wasted it. The short answer’s hell no. I’m not taking the job this time.”
Kzirth betrayed no perturbation at his abrupt refusal. The Asp topped Blunt’s glass once more. “I appeal to your greed, Captain,” it said affably. “There will be remuneration.”
Blunt waved away the drink. “I’d like to keep my head from exploding, thanks. Wrong piss to get drunk on. In fact, I’d like to keep my entire corpus from exploding. I’m not entering your Aspian hell, Kzirth. I am not soliciting the help of some untrustworthy snakehead idol. I am not exposing my carcass to every undying, poison-clawed felon sighing in your Tower. Not for any sum, this time.”
The Aspian rose to its feet with a nonchalant shrug. “I suspected you might be of that mind. Perhaps I should have explained first. You see, Captain, you are my tzomath.”
“Your claw?” Blunt frowned. “What the hell does that mean?”
“I am gratified you are one of the few humans to mangle our language with near competence,” Kzirth said. “Excellent, Captain! I shall explain the honor, as well as tender your reward, when, or perhaps I should say if, you return from the Tower.”
The headache was thunderous enough to stun a bull. Captain Blunt, attempting in vain to ignore it, raised an adamant finger. “My life wouldn’t be worth a rusted screw,” he snarled. “In a pig’s eye, Kzirth. That’s English for shove it up your—”
Kzirth bowed. “I understand the vernacular. Forgive me for asking, Captain. Are you well? You look ill.”
Blunt dropped his hand to his weapon. Hollow dread invaded his stomach, which, now he paid attention to it, tried to heave its contents up his throat. “I feel like road-kill,” he replied with measured coldness. “Why? Something in that drink?”
“Perhaps it would be best if you lie down now. I shall assist. Be comforted! Medical attendants stand by. I instructed them to do everything in their power to preserve your life.”
“You poisoned me,” Blunt breathed. “You bastard son of a...”
Half-fainting as he was, he never had a chance to get the gun clear. Even as his fingers tightened on the butt of Old Eliminator, Kzirth sank one bulbous, dripping claw deep into his shoulder. Its razor edge ripped the tough material of Blunt’s vest and left a bloody, smoking, bubbling score in his flesh.
“I hope you drank enough of the antidote, Captain,” murmured Kzirth, nonchalantly supporting Blunt’s sagging form with the dripping claw. “If you survive, of course, you will be immune to the venom of any ordinary Asp. My own poison is especially... virulent.”
Fire roared like a spring torrent through Captain Blunt’s veins. Bitter iron choked his shoe-dry tongue and swollen throat. His heart and lungs struggled beneath oppressive, crushing stone. His left shoulder rested on a bed of fervent coals. An unseen smith struck his flesh with a ringing anvil. His consciousness receded and faded, tinged with bloody auras, to the pulse of his unending torment.
He opened his eyes with immense effort. No smith forged his bones. He lay on a cold smooth slab. A creature out of a child’s nightmare leaned over. It had huge, lidless, crimson eyes in a scaled mockery of a human face. Below the neck, where folds of its own scaled skin lay on thin shoulders like a cowl, was a loose green smock. Blunt saw, without comprehension, this being held a hypodermic. Another hand, belonging to a second monster, held an open cup over his face.
The cup lowered, and as Blunt struggled for breath, the sweet clean taste of oxygen filled his mouth. He did not remember more.
He was aware, and his own body still hosted him. That much Jim Blunt knew. In his flesh he felt that indescribable lassitude and soreness that indicates long unmoving confinement. A curious point of cold pain throbbed in his shoulder, as if an unnaturally sharp icicle had been plunged there like a knife. But he was alive.
Blunt opened his eyes. He lay on the tilted slab. He saw now this room was a medical ward, though its many gleaming accoutrements were unfamiliar. The red-eyed Asp straightening from his examination was a doctor. Standing on the other side of the slab, his unnaturally thin, tall form garbed in a plain straight robe as common Aspian travelers wore, was Kzirth.
“I rejoice to see you alive, my friend,” the Aspian said. “Kavi blesses you with Her Venomous Breath. Surely not one human in ten thousand could have survived!”
“You treacherous snake,” Blunt gasped.
His visitor seemed unperturbed. “I hope you remain conscious, Captain,” Kzirth replied. “You have been granted a signal honor. No human has ever profaned the holy abode of Aztot the Fertile Obscenity. Your unworthy eyes shall behold the Throne of the Twins and the Presence itself. This is a marvelous and noteworthy crime! I chose it for you myself.”
Blunt made a valiant effort. To his fury, he found his arms bound at his sides by unyielding bands. His torso and knees were similarly confined. “How about condemning me for murder,” he snarled. “I’d rather die for something worthwhile. Let me get my hands on your neck, Kzirth!”
His companion signaled with a small controlling device. The tilted slab rose smoothly in the air. “We may explore the intriguing possibilities of necking some other time, Captain. Although you are not, forgive me, to my usual taste. I hope you are not offended by this lack of partiality. But never fear, you will soon have your mettle tested. Save your strength!”
Indeed that was prudent advice. Captain Blunt, his pulse thundering with impotent rage, fell back fainting. Through shreds of dissolving consciousness, he saw his bearing platform follow Kzirth’s arrogantly erect back like a faithful dog. A long tedious time ensued, while he passed, immobile and helpless as a swaddled babe, through a confusing succession of airlocks, shuttles, and various unrecognizable conveyances, lobbies, checkpoints, guards and armored doors.
Then they entered a long, dimly lit hall, as his platform dutifully followed the echo of Kzirth’s sharp-striding heels. Above, whenever his fading consciousness cleared, Blunt saw a shadowy arc of rosy stone. Down that sloping hall or tunnel they passed for a lengthy time. The air around them grew humid and rich with a peculiar scent. That smell was faintly musky and faintly sweet. Blunt did not like that smell. It smelled like a body.
His guide’s heels became not a sharp click but a soft slap, as if the surface Kzirth traversed had grown rubbery. The musky, sensual odor grew stronger and stronger, until Blunt choked on it. The pinkish walls and ceiling became soft and pulsing and hideously alive. Then Blunt saw, to his shuddering comprehension, the shadow of a bluish vein, thick as his own muscular arm, through the glowing skin of the enclosure. The pulse of some unseen and distant heart throbbed in its flood.
At that point, he fainted. When he opened his eyes once more, he was on his knees. Kzirth’s merciless grip upheld his helpless body by the collar of his vest. All around them was a strange, dim, sourceless light, pinkish and golden. Cold claws grasped his swaying head and pulled back by the hair. Unwillingly, Blunt saw.
He was in a cavern. Great indeed was that cavern. Its walls were the ramparts of an inconceivably enormous body. Blood rushed through arteries like cables, and gleaming organs throbbed and whispered in mysterious biochemical labors. Somewhere a great unseen heart pumped to a relentless rhythm, and breathed in his ears with the power of a tidal bore.
And on a strange inner eruption of flesh, some pleated, inconceivable organ, sat two golden Aspians clad in transparent golden robes. They were much like Kzirth, but even more like each other. Blunt saw these two were twins. But the one on his right was decidedly male, and the figure on the left, though as tall, muscular, sinewy, and breastless as her counterpart, female.
As one they rose. In hissing sibilance and echoing voices they pronounced the ancient words of doom, while Kzirth’s implacable grip held Blunt’s swooning self on its knees. Then, pausing as if they steeled themselves, they spoke, at the end, a Name.
The Name rent his mind. Behind the tear its deadly edge made in the world, Blunt’s inner vision glimpsed a monstrous scene. A great Tower fell on him, the dust-mote beneath its endless height. Smoke and ashes poured from millions of hopeless windows. The groans of untold supplicating voices roared unanswered and scorned from the stained stones of that Tower.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2011 by Danielle L. Parker