original fiction by Darrell Schweitzer • “She was waiting for him, tall and slender in her dusty shroud. He knew her even before she spoke, before the caked dirt on her face cracked and fell away like a poorly wrought mask.”
* * *
ON THE LAST NIGHT OF THE FESTIVAL OF THE DEAD
by Darrell Schweitzer
copyright © 1998, 2008 / May not be reproduced without permission
* * *
“. . . then all things which have been begun shall be finished.”
― The Litanies of Silence.
On the first night of the Festival of the Dead, they were laughing.
All the capital rang with mirth; fantastic banners and kites festooned the towers and roofs of the City of the Delta. The streets swarmed with masked harlequins bearing copper lanterns shaped like grotesque faces which sang through some trick of flame and metal. That was a kind of laughter too.
On the first night, Death was denied. Children crouched by the canals and floated away paper mummies in toy funeral boats. Black-costumed skeletons ran from house to house, pounding on doors, waving torches, shouting for the living to emerge and mingle with the dead. Revellers swirled in their shrouds, their death-masks revealing their ancestors, not as they had looked at the close of life, but with rotten features hideously, hilariously distorted.
That was the joke of it, that everyone was masked and no one knew who anyone else was. All gossip and insult and roguery might be done with impunity. Nothing mattered. Death itself was a jest. Surat-Hemad, the crocodile-headed Devourer, god of the Underworld, could be mocked.
But it was nervous laughter. Inevitably, even on the first night of the festival, some of the restless dead actually returned from their abode in Tashe, that shadowy country which lies beyond the reach of the deepest dreams. So the possibility was always there, however remote, that the person behind the mask, either speaking or spoken to, might actually be a corpse.
If not something far stranger.
* * *
“Is this the house of the great Lord Kuthomes?” the person who had knocked at the door said, holding out a small package wrapped in palm fronds.
That was all the two servants who answered could remember: the soft voice, the diminutive messenger with long, dark hair; probably a child, gender uncertain. The mask like a barking dog, or grinning jackal, or maybe a bat. Plain, scruffy clothing, maybe loose trousers or just a robe; probably barefoot. They’d merely accepted the package and the messenger ran away. Their exasperated master took it from them and ordered them beaten.
Lord Kuthomes tore the fronds away and held in his hands a small wooden box, cheaply made of scrap materials, without any attempt at ornamentation.
The box vibrated slightly, as if something inside it were alive, or perhaps clockwork. Thoughtful, ever on guard against the trick of some enemy ― for he was a great lord of the Delta and he had many enemies ― he carried it to his chamber. As he entered, living golden hands on his nightstand lifted a two-paneled mirror, holding it open like a book.
Kuthomes sat on a stool, a candle in one hand, the parcel in the other, gazing at the reflections of both in the black glass. The hands shifted the mirror, showing the image in one panel, then the other.
As he had so many times before, Kuthomes searched for some hidden clue which might reveal treachery or useful secrets. He was a magician of sorts, though not a true sorcerer, wholly transformed, reeking of poisonous enchantment. His art sufficed to unravel such lethal puzzles as one Deltan lord might design for another. In this mirror, he had often learned the weakness of some rival. Once he had even reached through the glass and torn out a sleeping man’s heart.
He hefted the box. It weighed perhaps two ounces. But he had an instinct about such things. He sensed strangeness, and in strangeness, danger.
But when he held the box up to the mirror, even with the candle positioned to shine through the delicate wood, he saw only his hands, the box, and the candle’s flame. The depths remained inscrutable; they did not even reflect Lord Kuthomes’s silver-bearded face.
The box stirred, humming like one of those metal lanterns the harlequins carried. For an instant, Kuthomes was furious. A festival night joke? He would have crushed the thing in his hand and hurled it away. But that same caution which had made him a great lord of the Delta again prevailed.
He placed the object down on the night stand, took a delicate calligrapher’s knife, and, by candlelight, began to chip away at the thin wood. There were no envenomed needles, no springs, no magic seals waiting to be broken. The fragments fell away easily.
Inside was a sculpture about two inches high, of a laughing corpse-face, its head thrown back, gap-toothed mouth stretched wide. Inside the mouth, a tiny silver bell rang of its own accord. Kuthomes touched the bell with the tip of his knife and the ringing stopped.
Outside, the mob laughed and roared. Drums beat faintly, muffled, far away.
He laid the knife down on the table top, and the ringing resumed. It wasn’t a matter of a breeze or a draught. He placed the whole object under a glass bowl and the bell still shivered. He knew, then, that this was no thing of the living world, but a deathbell, manufactured in Tashe itself by dead hands, then borne up, like a bubble rising from a deep, muddy pool, through the dreamlands of Leshe, until it was present, very substantially, at the doorstep of Lord Kuthomes of the Delta. It was a token, a summons from the dead.
“Whoever has sent this,” he said aloud, “know that I shall find you out and wrest your secrets from you, though you be already dead. You shall learn why Kuthomes is feared.”
He rose and prepared himself, performing the four consecrations, forehead, eyelids, ears, and mouth touched with the Sorcerer’s Balm, to shield him from illusion. His midnight-black sorcerer’s robe came to life as it closed around him, its delicately glowing embroideries depicting a night sky never seen over the City of the Delta; the stars of Death, the sky of Tashe.
He regarded his reflection in the mirrors, only the robe visible in the darkness, like some headless specter. The original owner of that robe, he recalled, had been headless toward the end, but well before he died, before others carried the remains away and finished the unpleasant, perilous business. He knew that to kill a sorcerer is to become one. The contagion flows from the slain to the slayer. Therefore a sorcerer must be disposed of carefully, by experts, not such dilettantes as he, who might occasionally require that the serpentine motif on a jade carving come to life on cue, or a sip of wine paralyze the will, or the face of a one man be temporarily transformed into that of the other. These were stock-in-trade for any lord of the Delta, to be applied as deftly as a surgeon’s knife.
But no, he was not a sorcerer.
Therefore he also carried a curious sword in a scabbard underneath his robe, its strong steel blade inlaid with intricate, ultimately mystifying silver designs. It was the weapon of a Knight Inquisitor, one of those fanatic warriors from the barbarian lands across the sea, a sworn enemy of all gods but the Righteous Nine and especially of the Shadow Titans, who breathe sorcery like a miasma into the world. The sword was proof against all the magical darkness.
But Kuthomes, merely a man, had strangled the Knight Inquisitor with a cord, years ago, when he was younger and had the strength for such things.
He put on the jeweled, brimless cap of his rank and took up the deathbell in his hand, then passed silently through the halls of his own house in vigorous, graceful strides. He crossed the central courtyard. Up above, someone hastily closed a shutter. Even on such a merry night, it was ill luck to look on Lord Kuthomes in his sorcerer’s aspect.
A single lamp flickered in the atrium. There were still palm fronds on the floor, and a stain where the servants had been beaten. That would be cleaned up on his return, or made larger. He slipped out into the street.
* * *
By now the night was almost over. Stars still shone overhead, but the sky was purpling in the East. He found himself in an utterly dark street, without a single lantern hanging from a doorway, a channel of featureless exterior walls. Higher up, the balconies were empty, the shutters invariably locked. He stretched out his palm and held the death-bell up level with his face. It laughed at him, but slowly now, the faint tinkling interspersed with silence.
Several streets away, someone shouted. A horn blew a long, trailing blast that began as music and ended in flatulence. Something fell and broke, probably crockery. Then silence again. He walked confidently along that dark street until he stumbled, cursing, over what looked like an enormous, longlegged bird left broken and sprawling.
But Kuthomes did not fall. He regained his footing, crushing the death-bell in his hand. The thing felt like a live wasp, scraping to get free. Hastily, he opened his hand, then stood still, gasping.
Gradually he made out an inert reveller in some absurd costume: trailing cloth wings, tatters and streamers, a crushed and shapeless mask. There must have been stilts somewhere, or else a crowd had carried the fool aloft.
In his younger days, Kuthomes might have given the fellow a kick to the ribs, but now he merely spat, then continued on his way.
He tried to follow the delicate voice of the bell, turning where it seemed to ring louder or more frequently. But his ear could not actually tell. He wandered through the maze of streets, once or twice passing others, who hurried to get out of his way.
In a market square, he faced the East. Dawn’s first light sufficed to reveal the solitary figure standing there: very short, clad in shapeless white, arms akimbo, bare feet spread apart, face hidden behind some cheap animal mask.
“You there!” Kuthomes dropped the insistent bell into his pocket and stepped forward, but the other turned and ran. For an instant he thought it was a dwarf, but the motion was too agile. A child then. He couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl.
He pursued until his breath came in painful gasps and it seemed his chest would burst. Again and again he saw his quarry, near at hand but out of reach, vanishing around a corner at the end of an alley, on the other side of a courtyard, or gazing down on him from a balcony or from a bridge over a canal. “Do not dare to trifle with me!”
Bare feet padded on cobblestones. Hard boots clattered after.
But in the morning twilight Kuthomes could go no further. He had to sit down on a stone bench and lean back against a wall, gazing out over the central forum of the city. All around him the temples of the major gods faced one another. The rising sun made the rooftops and the many statues gleam. Divinities, kings, and heroes lining those rooftops and perched on pillars and ledges seemed momentarily alive, gazing down benevolently or wrathfully, each according to their nature. Yawning peddlers opened their stalls. A flock of pigeons stirred, murmuring on the steps of the temple of Bel-Hemad, the god of new life, of springtime, and forgiveness. But the house of Surat-Hemad, the lord of Death, was still a mass of shadows and black stone, the eyes of the carven crocodile head over the doorway aglow like faint coals with some mysterious light of their own.
Kuthomes half-dozed, exhausted, enraged that he had been the object of a joke on the first night of the Festival of the Dead. He set the death-bell in his lap, and still it rang, a far more serious matter than anybody’s joke. He laid the sword of the Knight Inquisitor across his knees, and the ringing stopped. When he put the sword away, it resumed.
He couldn’t think clearly just then, weary and angry as he was, but he was certain that he was proof against illusion, and that there was an answer here somewhere, in the haze and dust and fading shadows. If he concentrated hard enough, he would have it, and his revenge, later. Was he not Lord Kuthomes, feared and respected by all?
Eventually he fell asleep on the bench and dreamed, strangely, that he, the feared and respected Lord Kuthomes, had ventured alone into the city at night, and that the city was empty. All the revellers, soldiers, courtiers, even the Great King himself had fled before him, and Lord Kuthomes’s heavy footsteps echoed in the empty palace, even in the vast Presence Hall where he mounted the throne with the double crown of the Delta and Riverland on his head.
He sat still and silent in his dream, the crown on his head, crocodile-headed scepter in his hand, gazing into the empty darkness, until he heard the sound of the tiny death-bell approaching.
Someone shuffled and emerged from behind a column. Kuthomes stiffened and beheld a tall, cloaked figure approach the throne slowly, tottering like a very old man; no, swaying side-to-side like a crocodile reared up, imitating a human walk.
The thing opened clawed hands when it stood at the foot of the throne. The face beneath the hood was indeed that of a crocodile. In the open hands, nothing at all.
Here was one of the evatim, the messengers of Surat-Hemad, whose summons may never be resisted or denied. Kuthomes shrank back in his stolen throne, knowing that all his magic and even the silver sword were useless.
But the other tore off a crocodile mask, uncovering a laughing corpse face identical to that which held the death-bell, head back in a paroxysm of hilarity or terror, mouth agape. In the unimaginable depths of its throat, a tiny bell rang insistently.
Then the apparition breathed laughter, neither harsh nor exactly gentle, impatient, with a touch of petulance, and at last a voice spoke from those same black depths, soft, definitely feminine, a young woman’s voice, maddeningly familiar. In his dream, it was too much effort to recall. He almost recognized the voice, but not quite.
“Do you not know me?” the other said.
“No,” he replied.
“Ah, but you did once, long ago.”
“How long ago was that?”
She only laughed for a brief instant. Then the laughter was gone and the bell rang.
Lord Kuthomes shook himself out of his dream and found himself on the bench at the edge of the dusty forum, in the blazing midday sun. The bell, in his lap, still rang. No one had dared to disturb him, of course. Those who gaped in wonder suddenly turned their faces away, pretending not to have seen.
He took up the bell again and lurched to his feet, shouting for an old woman to fetch him a litter. When she had done so, she held out her hand for a coin. He patted his pockets, found nothing, then scowled and spat, tumbling into the litter, drawing the curtain behind him. The bearers set off, the litter lurching, swaying. Kuthomes felt sick by the time he reached his house. Inside the atrium, the palm fronds and the stain on the floor were still there.
Later. There would be time for that later.
* * *
On the second night of the Festival of the Dead, they were dancing.
This was a more somber time. The streets and rooftops echoed with stately music. Paper masks from the first night floated in the canals or littered the streets. Now people wore beautifully carved and adorned wooden masks: ageless, ideal visages which did not so much hide the identity of the wearer as abstract it, like a name written in intricate, illuminated letters.
Musicians, clad in dark cerements and masked in imitation of the evatim, moved slowly from house to house, to palace and hovel alike, excepting no one, summoning the inhabitants to dance, to mingle in the wide forum before the temples of the gods. On this night the dead would truly return in great numbers, out of the dreams of Leshe and the darkness of Tashe, climbing up from the Great River and the city’s many canals to walk among the living. It was a night of portents and revelations, of sorrows and bittersweet joys, reunions, secret dooms, and frequent miracles.
Lord Kuthomes had rested and bathed. He had pored over such books of sorcery as he owned and could read, unable to find any answer to the riddle before him, but still certain some enemy had laid a trap.
He would be ready. Once more he anointed himself four times and put on his sorcerer’s robe. Once more the silver sword pressed against his thigh. This time even he wore a mask, beautifully wrought, set with gems and feathers until the features of Lord Kuthomes had been transformed into some fantastic, predatory bird.
When the revellers reached his door, he gave them such coin as custom required, then stepped out into the throng, moving along the dark and crowded streets, into the forum where moonlight shone on the roofs of the temples and the many bronze and golden statues. The gods seemed to be watching him alone, waiting for something to happen.
Even the Great King, Wenamon the Ninth, was there with all his lords and ladies, all of them masked, to do homage to Death. Kuthomes took his rightful place in the great circle of their dance. Once he held the warm hand of Queen Valshepsut, who nodded to him, and he to her, before he yielded to the King. Around and around dancers turned, as the musicians followed, pipes skirling, drums beating stately, muted time. Acolytes with lanterns or torches pursued their own paths at the periphery, the intricate revolutions imitating the cycles of the universe. In the center, priests of Death stood motionless in their crocodile masks. Or were those perhaps the true faces of the evatim?
The fancy came to Kuthomes that many of the faces around him, in the royal circle, in the crowd, were not masks at all.
In the midst of them was one who did not dance, who clearly did not belong: some scruffy urchin in a paper mask that was probably supposed to be a fox, in shapeless white trousers and shirt, bare feet spread apart, arms this time folded imperiously. He could see the figure clearly.
He broke through the dancers. “You there! Stop!”
But the boy was gone.
Then someone, whose touch was very cold and dry, whose grip was like a vise, took him by the hand and whirled him back into the dance.
He hissed, “Who dares?”
But the other merely bowed, with both arms spread wide, then straighted and stepped back, in a half-formed dance step. He discerned a slender lady in rotting funeral clothes, but that meant nothing on this night. Her mask was plain and featureless white, with mere round holes for eyes and mouth.
Now the rhythm of the dance changed. The music slowed and the circles broke apart. Dancers clung to one another, drifting off in pairs into doorways and alleys, beneath canopies, there to unmask.
The stranger led Kuthomes into the darkness beneath a broken bridge, far from the crowd, into silence. They stood on a ledge above the black water of a canal. The other lifted Kuthomes’ mask off and made to throw it away, but he snatched it back and held it tightly against his chest. She twirled her own white mask out over the water, where it splashed, then drifted like a sparkle of reflected moonlight.
“Do you not remember me?” she said, speaking not Deltan but that language universal among the dead, yet known only to sorcerers among the living and never uttered aloud. Kuthomes could make out enough: ” . . . your promise . . . long ago. Our assignation. Complete what you began.”
He cried out. He couldn’t break free of her arms. Her breath was foul. Her filthy hand pressed over his mouth.
When she let go, he managed to gasp, “Name yourself . . .”
“Remember poor Kamachina . . .”
Then she was gone. He heard a splash. The black water rippled. He stepped out of the shadow of the bridge, into the moonlight and stood still, amazed and afraid.
The absurd thing was he didn’t know any Kamachina. It was a common female name in the Delta. There must have been hundreds of servants, daughters of minor nobility, whores, whoever. He searched his memory for a specific Kamachina. No, no one. He tried to laugh, to tell himself this was another, tastelessly misconceived joke, that even the dead could blunder.
But then he got the death-bell out of his pocket and held it on his palm. The bell still rang.
* * *
On the third and final night of the Festival of the Dead, those who had received special signs assembled in silence on the steps of the black temple of Surat-Hemad, who created the
crocodile in his own image.
The temple doors formed the Devouring God’s jaws. Bronze teeth gleamed by torchlight. Within the great hall, two red lanterns burning above the altar were the all-seeing eyes of Death. In the vaults beneath the altar, in the belly of Surat-Hemad, dead and living commingled freely, and the waters of dream, of Leshe, lapped against the shores of the living world those of the land of the dead. On this night, of all nights, the borders were freely crossed.
The doors swung wide. Twenty or so pilgrims entered. Dark-clad, bearing the death-bell and his sword, but unmasked, Lord Kuthomes filed in with the others, circling thrice around the altar and the image of the squat-bellied, crocodile-headed Surat-Hemad, then descended into the deeper darkness of the vaults. He walked among stone sarcophagi containing the mummies of great or wicked men, who might return at any time they chose to inhabit such earthly forms.
He placed his hand on the carven effigy of some lord of centuries past. The mummy within stirred and scratched. His mind was clear, though he had not rested after the second night. He had searched his books and gazed into his mirror for long hours, coming up with no revelation at all. He knew, then, that he could only confront the dead and allow them to speak. His fate, perhaps, was no longer in his own hands.
All things return to Surat-Hemad, so the prayer went.
Still he could not remember a specific Kamachina. He didn’t know who the boy was either. The child’s significance, in particular, eluded him. He did not fit.
All things ―
He had even consulted a true sorcerer, an ancient creature deformed and transformed by the magic within him, who walked in swaying jerks like a scarecrow come alive in the wind, whose head flicked constantly from side to side like a bird’s, whose noseless face was a mass of scars, whose metal eyes clicked, whose hands were living fire. The sorcerer laughed slyly in a multitude of voices, and turned away.
A priest of Bel-Hemad had merely shaken his head sadly and said, “By the end of the third night, you shall know who this lady is. I am certain of that.”
Kuthomes had offered a fantastic sum of money, enough to startle even the priest.
“What is this for?”
“Help me escape. There must be a way.”
The priest had merely shrugged, and Kuthomes stalked away from the priest’s house, muttering to himself, striking people and objects in blind rage, pacing back and forth to fill the hours until the sun set and the third night of the Festival of the Dead began. The waiting was the worst part.
Dread Surat-Hemad, may all things be completed and finished and laid to rest, the prayers went.
Lord Kuthomes did not often pray.
Now he walked among the tombs of the ancient, sorcerous dead, the carven, laughing corpse-face in his hand, the tiny bell in its throat tinkling. Like all the others, he followed the
sputtering tapers held aloft by the masked priests of Death, until all had gathered in an open space before a vast doorway. A priest touched a lever. Counterweights shifted somewhere. Stone ground against stone, and the doors slid aside. Cold, damp air blew into the musty crypt, smelling of river mud and corruption.
Here was the actual threshold of the world of the dead.
Beyond this door, he knew, down a little slope, black water lapped silently. Funeral barges waited to carry the dead ― and the living ― into Leshe, where madmen, visionaries, and sorcerers might glimpse Lord Kuthomes passing through their dreams.
Kuthomes hoped they would know and remember whom they had seen.
At the threshold, the tiny death-bell stopped ringing. Kuthomes threw it away, certain it was of no further use. He reached under his robe and drew out the silver sword.
“You won’t need that.” A warm, living hand caught his wrist.
The voice was soft, but not feminine, speaking Deltan, accented very slightly. The boy.
Kuthomes slid the sword back into the scabbard. “Who are you?”
“One who will guide you to your trysting place. Lord Kuthomes, the Lady Kamachina awaits.”
“Explain yourself, or die.”
“If you kill me, you will never know the answer, will you?”
“There are slow methods, which inspire eloquence . . .”
“But hardly worth the exertion, Lord. Come with me, and all will be made clear.”
Kuthomes hesitated. Slowly, the other pilgrims crossed the threshold. What could he do but follow? The boy was waiting.
Hand-in-hand, the two of them passed through the door and into absolute darkness, where not even the priests with their tapers dared accompany them. The only sound was the sucking of boots in the mud. The boy seemed to know where he was going. Kuthomes allowed himself to be led. They groped their way into a barge and sat still, among many other wordless pilgrims. Then they were adrift, and gradually stars appeared overhead, not those seen over the Delta on any summer night, but the stars of Deathlands, of Tashe.
He discerned crocodile-headed things in the river, thousands, floating along like a great mass of weed; but their bodies were pale and human, like naked, drowned men. These were the true messengers of Death, the evatim.
Someone in the company shrieked, stood up, and did a frantic, whirling dance, hands waving and slapping as if in an attempt to fend off invisible hornets. He fell into the river with a splash. The evatim hissed all as one, the sound like a rising wind.
Someone else began strumming a harp. A song arose from many voices, a gentle, desolate lyric in the language of the dead. From out of the air, from far beyond the barge, more voices joined in.
Many wept. Kuthomes was unmoved, impatient, tensely alert. The boy took his hand again, as if seeking or offering comfort. He couldn’t tell which.
They were deep into Dream now, and the visions began. Some of the others cried out from sudden things Kuthomes could not see; but he was able to behold vast shapes in the sky, half human, half beast, like clouds moving behind the stars, pausing in some incomprehensible journey to glance down at those in the barge below. These might have been the gods, or the Shadow Titans, from whom all sorcery flowed. Kuthomes had no idea. He did not choose to ask the masked boy beside him, who, he was certain, did know.
From Leshe, Dream, as they passed over into the realm of Death, the rest of the adventure was like a dream, inexplicable, without continuity. Once it seemed that he and the boy sat alone on the barge. The boy closed and opened his hands, and blue flames rose from his scarred palms. Kuthomes removed the boy’s shabby mask, tossing it out among the evatim. By the blue light, he could see a very ordinary face, soft, beardless, with large, dark eyes; a manchild somewhere in the middle teens, with tangled, dark hair. Part of one of the boy’s ears was missing. That struck Kuthomes as merely odd.
“Who are you?” he whispered in the language of the dead.
In that same tongue the boy replied, “A messenger.”
“One of the evatim then?”
“What do you think?”
“You seem alive.”
“Death, also, is a kind of life.”
In another part of the dream they walked on water, barefoot because the river would not hold up Kuthomes as long as he wore boots. Ripples spread on the frigid surface. They walked through a dead marsh in wintertime. Among the reeds, skeletal, translucent birds waded on impossibly delicate legs.
Later still, the sky brightened into a dull, metallic gray, without a sunrise, but with enough suffused light that Kuthomes could see clearly. He and the boy walked for hours through sumptuous dust, until they both were covered with it. A wind rose. Swirling dust filled the air. By tricks of half-light and shadow, in the shifting dust, he seemed to make out buried rooftops, part of a city wall, a tower. But all these crumbled away when he touched them, then reformed again somewhere nearby.
Sometimes he saw faces on the ground before him, or in walls or doorways. He made his way through the narrow streets of a city of dust. The boy led him by the hand.
Here was the silently screaming dustface of Lord Vormisehket, stung by a thousand scorpions; and here Adriuten Shomash with his throat still cut, sand pouring out of the nether mouth beneath his chin. Lady Nefirame and her three children confronted him. She had hurled herself into a well with the children in her arms. So many more, faces and bodies sculpted out of transitory dust, forming and reforming as Kuthomes passed, dust-arms and hands reaching out for him, crumbling, reaching again.
He saw many who had been useful to him for a time, then inconvenient: Akhada the witch; Dakhumet the poisoner, who hurled tiny, darts fashioned like birds; even the former king himself, Baalshekthose, first and only ruler of that name, whose sudden ascent and descent both Kuthomes had brought about. The boy dragged him on, pulling at his arm, completely plastered with the gray dust so that only his eyes seemed alive.
Kuthomes felt indignant anger more than anything else. Why should these phantoms accuse him? Such deeds were the stuff of politics. Those who wielded power must be, by the nature of that power, above the common morality.
It was only when they came to a halt by a broken bridge over a dust-choked canal that Kuthomes recognized where he was. Here, in dreams and dust and ash, was a replica, shifting and inexact but a replica nevertheless, of the City of the Delta, of a disreputable district where, many years before, he had promised to meet someone by that bridge.
In this place of dreams and death, amid the dust, the memory came back to him, clearly, like a book opening, its pages turning.
She was waiting for him, tall and slender in her dusty shroud. He knew her even before she spoke, before the caked dirt on her face cracked and fell away like a poorly wrought mask to reveal empty eye sockets and bare bones.
Her voice was gentle and sad and exactly as he remembered it. She spoke in the language of the dead.
“Kuthomes, my only love, I am your beloved, Kamachina, whom you once promised to marry and make great.”
He could not resist her embrace, or her kiss, though both revolted him.
“I never knew what happened to you,” he managed to say at last.
He had been seventeen, an upstart from outside the city, youngest of many sons, driven out of his village with few prospects, ridiculed by the great ones of the Delta, desperate for recognition, for a position of any sort. He had dallied with a girl, the daughter of a minor official. Already he was precocious in the ways of the court, though he had yet to set foot inside a palace. His lies had the desired effect, with hints of plots and of suppressed factions soon to rise again; with the implication that Kuthomes was not who he seemed at all, but perhaps a prince in disguise, whose true name would make the mighty tremble. With this and more he secured introductions, a position. In exchange for the favor of the girl Kamachina, he promised to make her family great.
Later, when she pressed her claim and became inconvenient, he put her off, all the while whispering that she and her father were both mad, obsessed with absurd plots. At the very end, there had been the assignation at the bridge. The two of them would exchange marriage vows but keep them secret until the time was right for the revelation.
“But you never came,” she said. On that final, sacred night of the Festival of the Dead, when uttered vows are binding forever, he had betrayed her, and, in her grief, she had flung herself into the canal and drowned.
“I truly loved you,” she said. “You were my every, my only hope.”
“I . . . did not know.”
“I was great with your child. Did you know that?”
“I . . . had not seen you in several months.”
“I could hardly confess such a thing in a letter.”
“Someone might have intercepted it,” he said.
She dragged him to his knees, then lay by his side in the cold dust.
At last he broke free, stood up, and brushed himself off.
“But all this was almost forty years ago. How can it matter now?”
She reached up and took him by the hand. “Among the dead, time moves much more slowly.”
He looked around for the boy and saw him crouching nearby in the dust, hands folded over his knees, watching dispassionately. “Is that your son?”
“I have no son,” said Kamachina, reaching up for Kuthomes. “My child is still within me, waiting to be born.” Once more she dragged him down into her irresistible embrace, pressing her corpse-mouth against his.
Kuthomes screamed. He fought her, drawing his silver sword, striking her again and again, slashing her head off, hacking her body to pieces.
But it was no use. She merely reconstituted herself, a thing of dust and dead bones, sculpted by some magical wind. She caught his wrist in her crushing grip and made him throw the sword away.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I did what I had to do. I didn’t know . . . If I could help you, I would, but it’s too late . . .”
“What is begun on the last night of the Festival of the Dead,” she said, embracing him once more, “is sacred, inviolate, and must always be consummated.”
* * *
So it was that Lord Kuthomes came to dwell in the country of the dead with his Lady Kamachina. He was mad with the terror of it all for a long time. It seemed that he sat on a throne, and ruled as emperor among the corpses, but slowly, subtly, they turned from him, perverting his every command, until at last he was cast down, reviled, trampled into filth. He shouted that he was a great lord, that he was alive and they mere corpses, but they only laughed at him.
Dead hands tore his entrails out of his body, lifted his bleeding heart up before his face; dead lips drank his blood and devoured him. So it seemed, in his madness, though each time he awoke, he found himself whole.
He tried to bear all this in the manner of a great lord, silently plotting his revenge, but that was absurd, and before long he too was shrieking aloud at the hilarity of the idea. “How shall I be revenged against myself?” he asked the ghosts. “How?”
They could not answer him.
All the while Kamachina was with him, touching him gently, whispering of her love. She alone did not mock him, nor injure him in any way, but her love was the worst torment of all.
In his madness his mind opened up. The speech of gods and of the Titans poured into him. There were many revelations, passed through Kuthomes into the dreams of men who awoke in the living world.
Gradually his pain and his madness lessened, and it seemed he had merely backtracked along a path he had once taken, then set out on another. His old life became the dream, the fading memory. Now he came to see himself dwelling, not in dust, but in an austere palace of massive pillars and black stone, there waited upon by ghosts, while his wife’s belly swelled with his child.
“Is it not the duty of a lord,” she said, “to provide for the comfort of those beneath him?”
He supposed it was. He didn’t know anymore.
He sat with her in her garden of leafless trees and brittle stalks, listening as she spoke or sang softly in the language of the dead. He learned to play a strange harp made of bones as delicate as strands of silk. He came to behold the growing life in that dead garden, the nearly invisible leaves and blossoms like sculpted smoke, and he ate of the fruits of the trees, which tasted like empty air, and was sustained by them. After a while, he could recall no other taste.
She was delivered there, in the garden. The mysterious boy appeared once more, to assist the birthing.
“Who are you?” Kuthomes asked. “Can you not tell me at last?”
“I am the sorcerer Sekenre,” the boy said.
“But, but, one so young ―”
“For sorcerers too, as for the dead, time moves differently. I was fifteen when my father caused me to slay him, filling me with his spirit, and the spirits of all his victims, and the victims of his victims, all united in one, who must sometimes struggle to remember that he was once a boy called Sekenre. My voices are like a flock of birds. We are many. But for three hundred years and more, my body has not aged. I have learned and forgotten many things, as you, Kuthomes, have learned and forgotten.”
“I too have a hard time remembering who I am sometimes,” said Kuthomes. “We are alike.”
“You are the loving father of this child.” The boy Sekenre reached into Lady Kamachina’s dead womb and lifted an infant girl out in his hands. Kuthomes thought his daughter looked more like a delicate carving than a child: skin translucently white, eyes open and unblinking, the expression severe.
Sekenre passed the baby to Kuthomes, who rested it in his lap.
“The world shall fear this one,” Sekenre said, “but not for any evil in her. She is a mirror of the evil in others. In a hundred years’ time I shall need her as my ally, against an enemy yet unborn.”
“Therefore you have directed all these things, my entire life, to your own purposes.”
“Yes, I have,” said Sekenre.
Kuthomes shrugged. “I suppose one has to do such things.” He felt, vaguely, that he should be angry, but there was no passion left in him.
Kamachina smiled and took the child from him.
Ghosts gathered around them, whispering like a faint wind.
* * *
On the last night of the Festival of the Dead, Lord Kuthomes emerged from the vaults beneath the temple of Surat-Hemad in the City of the Delta. He had grown very old. His once tall, vigorous figure was bent, his silver beard now purest white. No one knew him, or the bonepale girl he led into the world.
His daughter clung to his arm, her eyes dazzled even by the gloom of the inside of the temple; amazed at everything she saw, whispering to him, for comfort, then out of excitement, chattering softly in the language of the dead. The grave-wrappings she wore had partially fallen away, revealing almost transparent skin. She seemed more to float on the air than to walk.
Outside, she had to cover her face from the starlight. Kuthomes found a discarded mask for her.
They walked through streets he remembered now only from his dreams. She had so many questions he could not answer. He took her tiny hand in his and led her to a place he had dreamed, where a certain magician was waiting. This man would nurture her for five years before an enemy killed him, bore her off, and came to regret the prize.
But these things were Sekenre’s business.
Kuthomes departed without even bidding his daughter farewell, then hurried back to the temple of Surat-Hemad, and descended into the vaults, so that what had been begun on the last night of the Festival of the Dead could at last be finished.
* * *
DARRELL SCHWEITZER is senior contributing editor to Weird Tales and H.P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror. This story, originally published in Weird Tales’ summer 1998 issue, is collected in Sekenre: The Book of the Sorcerer, a companion to the author’s novel Mask of the Sorcerer.