Chapter 1: The Palace of Rashwenath
The tale is told of a time when Hakem Rafi the accursed, the thief, the blackhearted, when this nefarious infidel violated the Temple of the Faith in the fabled city of Ravan and stole the golden jeweled urn of Aeshma from before the Bahram fire itself. The tale recounts how he escaped from the Holy City disguised as a soldier in Prince Ahmad’s own wedding procession, only to be trapped in the ambush of the treacherous King Basir—and how, to save his own life, he smashed the urn and released Aeshma upon the unsuspecting world of Parsina once again.
Aeshma, the king of the daevas. Aeshma, satrap of the Pits of Torment. Aeshma, the personification of Rimahn upon the face of the earth. The power of pure evil had been bottled up for so many centuries within the Holy City—and now, in one earthshaking minute, this force exploded back into the world with devastating consequences for all who came near it, for all whose lives were touched by it. And the Cycles of the world ground on in their inevitable course, as one Cycle lay dying while another screamed in its birth contractions.
It was after receiving a hurried pledge of servitude, and with great fear in his heart, that Hakem Rafi the thief watched the release of Aeshma from his golden urn. Never one for bravery, only the certainty of his death at the hands of the brigands gave him the desperation that apes courage and allowed him to smash the holy urn. From his ancient prison Aeshma burst forth as an enormous black whirlwind. The king of the daevas spat out lightning that, at Hakem Rafi’s command, destroyed the brigands who’d attacked Prince Ahmad’s procession.
With that task completed, the whirlwind that was Aeshma transformed itself into the semblance of a rukh, a huge bird with sharp, curved bill and wings so powerful the wind from their beating could knock over a strong man. The rukh surveyed the scene with eyes of blue flame and reached down one massive claw, capable of clutching an elephant the way a hawk would clutch a field mouse. Picking up the startled Hakem Rafi in its ferocious talon, the rukh beat its wings and flew off into the sky, away from the forest where the ambush had occured.
Hakem Rafi was a small man in his forty-second year, wiry and quick. He had a swarthy face with a coarse black beard and mustache, and the nervous disposition of a mouse invading a granary, constantly alert for the local cats. Since he was far smaller than an elephant there was plenty of room for him to rest comfortably within the rukh’s grasp—but Hakem Rafi was far from comfortable.
The thief was now terrified he’d unleashed more power than he could possibly control. Aeshma had sworn in the name of his master Rimahn, the god of evil, that he would not harm Hakem Rafi—but when faced with the immensity of the being he’d released from captivity, Hakem Rafi wondered whether a few well-chosen words, spoken in haste, would be sufficient to bind this daeva to his service. With one tiny contraction of his monstrous scaly claw, Aeshma could rip the thief apart and be forever free of his obligations to the puny human he’d promised to obey. It would be typical, too, Hakem Rafi thought. Everyone betrayed him. It just wasn’t fair.
But Aeshma did not kill him. The rukh flew on, covering in fifteen minutes almost that many parasangs. With each passing minute, Hakem Rafi’s terror eased a little more. Surely if the daeva wished to kill him, he would have done so by now. The old tales must be true, then, that a daeva who swears in his master’s name is bound by the oath to fulfill his promises. Aeshma would be his slave, after all. Hakem Rafi began to relax and enjoy his flight.
Once he learned to accept it, the flight was actually pleasant. Their path took them southwest, past the city of Ravan—though the rukh skirted widely around it to avoid passing over its charmed walls—and onward in that direction. They crossed the Zaind River and flew over fields, mountains, and deserts. They passed the city of Durkhash and continued southwest, into the vast desert south of Sudarr. Hakem Rafi derived a particular enjoyment from peering down at the landscape beneath him and seeing how vast lands and important people all seemed tiny and insignificant from this altitude. Hakem Rafi had never had much chance in his life to look down on others, though he always felt he should, and he relished the opportunity now that it was his.
He flew for hours, it seemed, in the claw of this bird before he began to wonder where Aeshma was taking him. The only order he’d given was to get him safely away from the scene of the battle, and Aeshma was obviously interpreting that order liberally. Since Aeshma was bound by oath not to harm him, Hakem Rafi did not worry that they might be going someplace dangerous—but at the same time, he didn’t want to travel to the ends of the world, away from all other human contact.
“Where are we going?” he finally asked the rukh.
Aeshma’s voice rumbled back to him in tones like distant thunder. “With your permission, O master, I am taking you to the palace of Rashwenath.”
There was a time when the name Rashwenath would have set such a man as Hakem Rafi quaking in his boots, for Rashwenath was the mightiest king ever to dwell upon the earth. His empire spanned half the vast continent of Fricaz, and his subjects numbered tens of millions. Ten thousand slaves had he merely to serve him in his palace, and tens of thousands more would do his bidding throughout his vast empire. If his enormous army could ever have been assembled in one place, it could have marched past his parade post in double file for three days and three nights without its end being seen, and the stomping of the soldiers’ feet would have set the ground trembling for parasangs around. King Rashwenath ruled an empire greater than Parsina had ever seen before or since—greater by far than the meager lands governed by King Shahriyan, the great hero who defeated Aeshma and founded the holy city of Ravan.
But Rashwenath had lived many millennia ago, in the Third Cycle of the world. As great as his power had been, it was now all for naught. Rashwenath was dead and dust, his name forgotten even by the storytellers, his history recounted only in the most obscure tomes. Hakem Rafi had never heard of the name, nor had anyone of his acquaintance. So when the thief asked Aeshma who Rashwenath was, it was pointless for the daeva to recount the magnificent history of this one -time emperor. Instead, Aeshma replied, “He was a great king many years ago. His palace stands empty now, and it is there I take you. Only that magnificent structure is grand enough to suit a man of your power and importance.”
“If Rashwenath was such a great king, why does his palace stand empty?” Hakem Rafi asked suspiciously. He was not going to let Aeshma pull any tricks on him.
Aeshma could have told a story of political intrigues, of treachery, corruption, decay, and a rebellion that seethed across three continents—a rebellion in which he and his daevas played no small role—but he chose to keep the tale simple for the simple mind of a common thief. “Rashwenath died,” he answered curtly. “His sons fought over the lands, and soon the empire was torn apart by civil wars. No one could afford to maintain such a magnificent palace, so it was abandoned and the empire soon disintegrated. No one has occupied the palace for thousands of years. But soon, if you so desire it, the palace will live again, a tribute to the power and majesty of my new master, Hakem Rafi.”
Hakem Rafi had never been in even a small palace, let alone such a wonderful structure as the daeva was describing. He was intrigued by the possibilities. He reminded himself to start behaving like a man of wealth and property, for any riches he could imagine would soon be his for the asking. It was only right that he should occupy the grandest palace in the world and have an army of slaves to do his bidding. He felt he’d worked hard to steal Aeshma’s urn and spirit it out of Ravan against all odds; he’d earned the right to live in lavish splendor.
They flew at great height and speed over the barren desert below, and Hakem Rafi’s anticipation grew till he could barely wait to see this promised palace. On the horizon a chain of mountains came into view and began to grow as the two approached. The rukh descended now, making it apparent that their destination lay within those mountains.
Hakem Rafi’s sharp eyes spotted something at the base of those hills, and as they drew closer he could see it looked like a vast city stretched out along the desert floor. Then, as they came closer still, the thief’s eyes widened when he realized it was not a city he saw, but a single vast building stretching defiantly from the base of the mountains well into the desert. A single roof covered the grounds, with numerous small breaks for courtyards, gardens, and solaria; domes, towers, and minarets reached upward from its surface toward the sky. The stones of its walls were only slightly eroded after all this time, though the brightly colored facade and fabrics that had once graced its exterior had worn away. The structure was so huge that all of Yazed, Hakem Rafi’s native town, could be hidden within the building’s perimeter with yet room for a few minor country villages.
The rukh descended toward the roof of the palace. Setting Hakem Rafi down most gently, the rukh alit beside him and transformed itself once more. It became a cloud of oily black smoke, sulfurous and impenetrable, and shrank somewhat in size. As it shrank it condensed from a bird to a more vertical shape, until at last it took the features that could be called most natural for it—but for Hakem Rafi the new shape was far more frightening than the rukh.
Aeshma’s form was an enormous obscene parody of a man. He stood well over five cubits tall and his skin was black as tar. His eyes glowed like red coals in his sockets and his teeth were a sharp set of fangs, upper and lower. Coarse, stringy black hair twined down to his powerfully muscled shoulders, and his arms and legs ended in twisted claws with razor-sharp nails. He was totally naked, and his grotesque p***s was easily a cubit long with a barbed tip.
Hakem Rafi once again knew the fear that he might not be able to control this powerful being, yet even as he stood trembling the daeva made a proper salaam and said, “Welcome to your new home, O my master, if you will accept it as such.”
“I…I’ll have to look it over first.”
“Certainly. There are stairs this way.” So saying, Aeshma led the way to a staircase that descended from the roof into the center of the palace. The gigantic daeva had to stoop to avoid hitting his head on some of the entranceways, but in general the ceilings were high enough that he could walk upright with no problem. In Aeshma’s hand appeared a large lamp with five wicks that lit the way for the thief. Behind Aeshma, Hakem Rafi followed cautiously, still fearing the power of his nominal slave.
At the bottom of the stairs they reached a central hall with arched ceilings high enough for three Aeshmas to have stood, one on another’s shoulders. The open area of the floor was larger than the maidan in Ravan and corridors branched off from it in several directions. The smallest corridor could have accomodated five men walking abreast, while the largest was wider than most houses. Hakem Rafi looked down these diverging hallways and could see no end to any of them.
Through these hallways had once moved the commerce of three continents. Once the walls rang with the din of many different tongues crying in untold numbers of voices. Once ambassadors brought their legations here, and merchants their wares, and musicians their instruments. Once the air had been alive with the scent of spices and sweat, with the sound of bells and hawkers’ cries, with the tang of oranges and wine, with the sight of camels and horses, and even elephants. Once these walls had known life and excitement, the intrigues of an empire, the lusts of a king alive with power.