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.
Blunt stood under a low dim sky. This was not a world. But its reaches were red and choked with dust Blunt tasted in his mouth, fiery with the foul-smelling flakes he breathed. The air throbbed with an eerie sussuration. Blunt heard strange whispering winds, as if a million ghostly voices grumbled and ranted just beneath the threshold of awareness.
Blunt looked down. Rust-red, dry, hot soil under his boots. Rocks lay half-submerged around him, like eternally becalmed ships. The boulders were the same oxidized iron red. Blunt saw no life through the dust. No motion, except for the burning ashes drifting down, slow and gentle as snowflakes. One tiny spark struck his sleeve, and pain scored his arm. Blunt beat out the smoldering cloth with his hat and swore.
“That’s my last clean shirt!”
He put his hat back on and turned in a circle. One direction seemed as futile as another. But was that a shadow, a darkness hinting at a structure? How far away was it? A mile, perhaps? Less? A direction for him, at least.
He walked and walked. How did one measure time here? His chronograph had stopped. It would read the same, perhaps, eternally.
The shadow he fixed on slipped stealthily away when he paused. It seemed to stand on a hidden moving surface. Only by a supreme effort of will did Blunt gain on the fugitive shape. But step by tedious step, the shadowy shape grew in size, while the voices he could not quite distinguish rustled in the false wind.
His boot kicked an object in the soil. Blunt stirred it with his boot. With a chill he recognized the fire-scorched skeleton of an arm. The limb of a long-dead Asp, by its three spidery digits, and the great claw whose poison puffed dry and powdery.
But as he watched, the rope-like ligaments convulsed, and the claw, fossilized with age, scrabbled feebly. Some remnant of horrible life animated it. Was it actually trying to reach him? Blunt wet dry lips, and circled wide.
Later he came on a smooth-backed, mottled rock that on inspection proved to be the hard shell of some turtle-like, boat-sized creature. Whether it was alive or dead, he could not tell. But when the faint stir of his passage touched it, it crumbled into powder, and left him choking acrid dust.
Soon afterwards, Blunt spied another form prone on the dusty soil. Its robes were tattered and scorched, more hole than cloth; its dull green scales pitted and eroded. A serpentine head turned its dry eyes toward him. The Asp hissed in a leathery throat, and heaved feebly on its fleshless elbows. Ghostly spite flickered in the blind hollows of its gaunt face.
But there was no strength left in it, and it, too, fell behind as he walked on.
Blunt saw now his goal was an enormous red rock, larger than any other on the endless rust plain. But its ravines and ridges promised shelter from the stinging flakes of fire; a wall to put his back against, at least. He had no place else to go.
Still the closer he drew to the rock, the swifter it moved away from him. Blunt pressed on, afraid to blink, sweating with effort. At last its long shadow fell on him. Blunt rested, breathing hoarsely, against the rock’s solid, no longer fleeing bulk.
“You have strength of will, whoever you are, stranger,” whispered a dry voice in the sibilant Aspian tongue. “Many never reach the Great Rock.”
Blunt stiffened. “Who’s there?”
An extraordinarily tall Asp, limbs thin as a spider’s, loomed out of the red dust. If it had once owned a robe, the clothing had burned away. Now the creature wore only a ragged leather belt about its waist, hung with various objects. Its once royal red-gold scales were pitted and stained. In one hand it carried a spear. Blunt saw, with a chill, the short spear was a sharpened femur.
“Do not fear,” the Asp continued in the dry snake-speech of its kind, divining the direction of his glance. It tucked its bone weapon into its belt and raised hands to show him narrow palms. “I have eaten recently. I am only curious now. You are safe from me. For a while. You should know, stranger, if you do not already, no one is safe here. We have only each other to eat and to drink. Nothing else.”
The man shuddered. But he rested his shoulders against the rock, and watched his companion with unblinking, measuring stare. “I don’t plan to be your dinner.”
The Asp whistled in laughter. It crouched on its heels, letting its hands rest easily on bony knees.
“None of them planned to be my dinner. Yet they are dead, and I, Lladro the Tormented, am alive. Though why I bother to exist, I forget. Still, I remain curious. I have never seen your kind. What sort of being are you? What is your name? How came you to this fearful punishment?”
Blunt raised a brow. “You’ve never seen a human?”
“Hu-man.” The Asp tasted the alien word. “No, I have not. Nor heard of. But then, I have been here many centuries; that much I know. The last told me so, before I ate him.”
Blunt drew his weapon and sighted along its barrel. “I should shoot you,” he muttered. “You’re a cannibal. A stinking cannibal!”
The Asp’s golden eyes smiled.
“So will you be, if you wish to live. You cannot truly die here. But it is not pleasant to be bodiless. Have you not heard the wind? You hear the sore lamentations of those who no longer inhabit flesh but whose unhappy souls are bound forever to this plane.”
Blunt’s lips pressed. He holstered his weapon. At last he nodded curtly. “My name’s Jim Blunt. I’m looking for an Asp named Vilth. He shouldn’t be here in this Tower. Nor should I, for that matter. I’m here to get him out.”
The naked Asp considered as it scratched its thin forearm with its claw. “No,” it answered finally. “I have met no one of that name. All come to this rock if they reach this plane, unless they are too weak-willed to reach it at all. There is no other place to go. Perhaps your Vilth is on another plane of this Tower. What deed was he condemned for?”
Blunt shook his head. “Told you. He wasn’t supposed to be here. So I don’t know where he might be.”
“Here are blasphemers, heretics, and deniers,” the Asp said. “I, Lladro, once a prince, was condemned as such. The Tower reaches up, and it reaches down, perhaps to infinity in either direction. Yet it is possible to ascend or descend. Perhaps you must look elsewhere.”
The man studied his companion. “Up?” he queried. “Or down? How?”
“Ah,” said the Asp. A strange paroxysm of emotion passed fleetingly across its face. “It is not easy to ascend to a better plane. I know only one who succeeded.”
It lifted a finger and pointed. “My master sat on that rock. Do you see that distant flat stub? He sat on that rock and meditated. As the centuries passed, his flesh wasted away. Fire scored him hourly. Yet he never ceased his mediations, nor made complaint.
“I brought him flesh killed for him, and blood cupped in my own palms for him to drink. I begged him to eat. But he would not. I fashioned shades of skins to shelter him, and a bower of bones for his comfort. But he would not eat, and he would not drink, and century by century — we do not age here, stranger — he wasted.
“At last he was as thin as a charred stick, and I prepared to take my final leave of his flesh. Do you believe these dry eyes wept?” The Asp paused. “I gave up hope for him. But then! As his soul gave up his body, a single ray ascended from his corpse. A pure, bright light! And my master was gone.”
It bowed its head to its knees. “I was not able to follow,” it whispered. “Though I hoped. For so many years, I hoped.”
The captain wet his cracking lips. “Guess that’s out for me too,” he owned at last. “I’m no saint.”
The Asp raised its head. A disturbing glitter now entered its regard. The captain rested his hand on his gun, and shifted, and frowned.
“But it is possible to go down. That is not difficult. Whatever hell you find yourself in, be certain there remains worse. Whatever evil you commit, always a greater is yet to be done. Perhaps your Vilth sank to a plane below. Do you dare search for him there?”
Blunt met the Asp’s mocking gaze. “If he’s not here, I’ll have to look elsewhere.”
“You are no coward, human. Surely this Vilth must name you friend!” The Asp rose. It was taller than Blunt by two heads. “There is one sure means to a greater hell than this. Take your own life. Whatever torment we blasphemers earn, those who despise their own soul earn greater still. Or so I am told.”
The captain’s face whitened. “No! That’s an elevator I’d rather not ride.”
The Asp fingered the bone spear in its belt. “You will not truly die,” it countered, as it played with the bone in its belt. “I told you, such a release is not possible here. I have souls inside me, human souls that no longer have the bodies I devoured. The soul of a suicide will sink. To what plane, I do not know. I see no other option for you.” It grinned as it whipped out its bone spear. “Well? Have you the courage to find out, human?”
Blunt drew his gun. “Stand back,” he warned, setting his shoulders against the rock. “Stand back, or I’ll shoot!”
But with a wild scream, the creature leapt toward him, flailing the bone spear above its head. Old Eliminator roared and spewed a blazing inferno. The Asp exploded. Its grinning face twisted toward him as its bodiless head tumbled to the ground.
“I choose,” it gasped. “I chose to die, human. At last I have found the malice to despise my own soul. Follow Lladro the Doomed, if you have the courage. I await you in the depths!”
But it took another blast of Blunt’s gun before only ash remained and its terrible cries ceased. The captain fanned away the acrid cloud and faced the rustling wind. The whispers seemed louder. Cold sweat ran down his face. His throat burned like acid, and his tearless eyes ached in their sockets.
“That’s goodbye, snake,” he croaked. “Suicide’s not my style. If I have to sink to the lowest hell, I can think of better ballast than blowing my brains out.” He drew a deep breath and shouted. “Trickster! Trickster! Get your forked tongue and lice-eaten scales over here!”
“The invocation is not in proper form,” a basso voice replied. “But I’ll take it. This time only. Show more respect next time, or nothing doing.”
The captain looked up. Squatting on the rock above him was a devil. He — definitely a he — was a classic, as far as the captain could tell. He was large, man-shaped, scarlet-colored, goateed, and, as the captain noted with disapproval, obscenely naked.
Two gnarly goatish horns sprouted out of his forehead. His gently flapping ears were full of tufted red hairs. The wide flat mouth was full of business-like fangs, which the being displayed in a possibly well-intentioned leer. As he smiled, the devil probed his navel with a long fingernail. After accomplishing that riveting task, he idly scratched his rump with the tip of his barbed tail.
“Get some clothes,” the captain growled, averting his gaze. But not entirely: he did not dare take his eyes from his visitor. “And your tail’s too damn long.”
“You’re sure?” The devil raised a brow, shrugged. A leather belt and a barely adequate flap of cloth appeared about his muscular middle. The lashing tail shrank. “I guess you’re the experts on human devils.”
“And you’re the Trickster.” Blunt holstered his weapon. “Why the devil form?”
The creature winked a blood-shot eye. “What else would you expect to meet in Hell?”
“I was hoping for Virgil, or, short of a handy dead poet, an elderly Asp named Vilth.” Blunt hung thumbs on his belt as he surveyed his visitor with distaste. “You’re on my side? Where did I go wrong in life?”
“I’m on your side, if you’re on my side,” the devil replied. “That is the question.”
The captain’s eyes narrowed. “What other questions are on your agenda?”
“Well,” replied the devil, probing his nasal cavity with another long fingernail, “there’s the question of what you’re going to do for me. Did you think this was going to be a free deal? Of course, if you prefer, there are ways to sink to the depths besides signing a pact with a devil. Feel free to blow your brains out.”
Blunt’s tight smile showed teeth. “No. You’re definitely more my style. Seems I deal with devils every day. What’s the demonic offer this time?”
The devil licked something green from his finger. His tongue was forked. “Oh, the traditional. I’m a sucker for tradition, even if it’s human tradition. I get your soul in return for your rescue. I’ll throw in your elderly Asp for almost nothing extra.”
He lashed his tail and frowned. “I haven’t decided what use I have for a human soul. Yours will be the first I own. But I’m sure I’ll think of something. Must be valuable, or they wouldn’t get sold on the market.”
Blunt crossed his arms. “I’m on the losing end of this deal. I never volunteered to rescue an elderly Asp.”
“But you’ll gain a patron,” the Trickster leered. “Your own personal divinity. Me. I’ll allow you the supreme honor of summoning me by name. The name’s Tikilimezoan. Accent on the on proper syllables, remember, or I’ll be testy.”
He probed his armpit as he grinned to show fangs. “Own up, Blunt. That blustering Kavi’s not your style. You and I have much more in common. And of course, you get your life thrown into this deal.”
“You sure know how to persuade a man.” Blunt pressed his lips as he averted his gaze from the hairy pit exposed to view. “I’ll go for it.”
“A being after my own heart,” smiled the Trickster. “Done!” It sprang down from its perch. With vast reluctance, Blunt met the proffered hand. The Trickster’s grip was, not surprisingly, hot. It was also, as Blunt attempted to withdraw his fingers, powerfully strong.
“Hang on. I said I’d get you out of here. If I can. This is the Tower, after all, and there’s that tiresome Ebal-what’s-his-name to watch out for...”
They sank. The red plain faded. Out of a swirling smoke a thousand million ghostly, gaunt Asps rushed toward Blunt. An uncountable number of misty fingers struggled to grasp him. The whispering voices rose to deafening howls. “Fool!” each and every one screamed at him. “You fool! Have nothing to do with this evil creature!” But none could hold him back.
The ground was strangely rubbery. The darkness around Blunt was lit only by the cinders blown from his companion’s nostrils and the glow of his red eyes. But something else breathed. Something immeasurably vast rested close in the darkness, its lungs working as rhythmically as tides.
“Where are we?” he whispered.
“We are but fleas on the body of a long-forgotten god. Wake not the sleeper.”
“Where’s Vilth?” The captain squinted into the darkness.
“No more than a mote beneath its fingernail.” The light of the Trickster’s eyes brightened. By the lurid glare, it pointed out a dim shape. “There. See?”
Someone huddled against the pearlescent surface of a curving wall. Blunt saw an excessively thin Asp, its knees drawn up almost to its sharp chin. Slowly, the figure unfolded and rose to an aristocratic height. Golden scales tipped with indigo blue reflected the red glow. A baleful glare fixed on Blunt’s companion.
“Demon,” it hissed. “Do you return to torment me once more, bringing a human minion this time? Come within reach of my claw, and my poison will shrivel your foul body!”
The Trickster squatted on his haunches and raised placating hands. “Come, now. That’s no way to greet the rescue team. Is that gratitude?”
Blunt touched the brim of his battered hat. “I’m Jim Blunt. Your nephew Kzirth sent me to rescue you, if you’re Vilth.”
“You are the tzomath? Why company with this contemptible Trickster, then? Pah! The air reeks of its vileness. Even a human should not stoop so low!”
“I like the smell of brimstone in the morning,” Blunt said.
“Enough of this banter,” yawned the Trickster. “Begone, old one. You’ve served your purpose. Go home!” He pointed a languid finger. The Asp vanished from sight. “Now,” the devil smiled, “There’s the bargain, and I’ll take that soul you promised, if you don’t mind.”
“It’s not yours yet,” the captain replied, unmoved. “Get me out of here first. That was the deal.”
“It will be done!” The devil tucked the captain under his arm and flew upward at terrific speed. The universe whirled before the captain’s eyes; burning stars and suns flew past like speeding comets. The demon set him on his feet. “It is done!”
Blunt looked around. He recognized the cabin of his ship. The demon sat nonchalantly in the captain’s chair. His red eyes spat cinders, and his breath smoked. The devil licked his lips. He looked avid.
The captain nodded, and felt in his vest pocket for a cigarette. “Done,” he agreed. “Mind if I have a smoke first? And forgive me if I ask, while I’m lighting this, whether Ebalazavek knows you were the one who kidnapped Vilth. Does Ebalazavek know you caused all the trouble in the first place?”
“Don’t say that name!” the Trickster hissed. Blunt, looking at his companion from the corner of his eye, glimpsed an entirely different shape. He saw a tall, gawky, bird-like creature, whose gaudy head-quills quivered now in alarm.
“I wondered if Ebalazavek knows you were the one who busted into his Tower. Enjoy trouble, do you? Like to liven things up now and then? Get bored without making mischief?”
“Don’t say that name!” the Trickster shrieked. “Do you want him to hear? Do you know what you invoke?”
“What name? Ebalazavek? Did I pronounce it correctly?”
“He’s coming. I’m running! But first, that soul!” The demon leapt out of his seat and fell on the unresisting captain like a storm. A spectral hand groped inside Blunt’s chest. Then came a sudden frown. The demon examined his empty palm with doubt and suspicion.
“I’ve done this the proper way,” he grumbled. “Why can’t I take your soul? You owe me! It’s mine!”
Blunt drew on his cigarette and smiled. It was not a nice smile. “Sure enough. I owe you. One of these days, maybe, I might have to pay up. But you shouldn’t buy souls without checking out prior claims. Never heard of second mortgages, have you? Too bad.”
Copyright © 2011 by Danielle L. Parker
“Death King” begins in issue 401.