Dragon #4: The Shrine of The Sleeping God, Prolog and C1

DRAGON

4. The Shrine of The Sleeping God

by Hans Kneifel

Magazine version published by Erich Pabel Verlag in April, 1973

Hardcover version published by Weltbild Verlag GmbH, 1999

A king dies – and a man without memories awakes

*     *     *     *     *

Since the great inferno that destroyed the island continent of Atlantis in fiery lava and earthquake, causing it to completely sink beneath the ocean waves, nearly two thousand years have passed.

For the mostly primitive and barbaric peoples who populate the other continents of the world, this is a long time. All traces of Atlantis’s existence and Atlantean civilization have long ago been wiped out – even in the minds of the people.

But this is not completely true. Legends and myths, tales of Golden Atlantis are told throughout the lands; master and slave, oppressor and oppressed, the wealthy and even armies know the tales of the “Golden Age,” in which the Gods got out of their “Sky Chariots” and walked among mortals.

There are still some concrete traces of Atlantis remaining on Earth in this prehistoric age. Near Urgor, a proud city with reinforced walls ruled by King Alac, there is a small temple in which a precious sanctuary is preserved and venerated.

This sanctuary is

THE SHRINE OF THE SLEEPING GOD

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Prologue

 It was the dream, which he had already a thousand times dreamed. In which he had a thousand times cried. The dream of fire, smoke and death.

 The dream of a world and an age dying.

 The dreamer held more desperately to the body of the enormous drakon that fell to the sea. Behind them lay the coast, a region wrapped in vapor and torn by fire, against which the sea threw its complete destructive force. The island lay hidden under a yellow-red shroud of flames and smoke.

With a numbing splash, the drakon’s heavy body dove into the raging water, then an enormous shaft of hot water rinsed over them. It snorted as the powerful tail whipped the surface of the sea. With surprising speed, it left the foaming waves of the sinking island behind.

The dreamer did not look back – he could no longer bear the sight of his dying homeland. 

After a long time, as the smoke hid the sky and the drakon’s movements became more tired, the coast of the eastern continent emerged on the horizon. The land was in turmoil; the earth had opened and spewed fire here as well. 

The dreamer spoke with the drakon, but it did not answer any longer. He saw crimson blood in the water, which had attracted carrion fish, and knew his friend would die. 

The drakon swam into a quiet, protected bay, waded from the water, and put its head on the sand…

It was the end of the road.

At the end of the road, a proverb says, there is always a drakon.

*    *     *     *     *

1.

Towards midday, Urgor became a city of the dead. A rainless quiet hung over the houses within the city walls. In the houses of joy, there was no drink given out, no noise from harps and flutes ringing out, and no sound from the many workshops. People crept about oppressed by the day’s radiance. For three months not one drop of rain had fallen. Even breathing felt hard to do. In addition, the plague had carried off some of the city’s people. The Gods seem to have laid an uncanny curse against Urgor. And in that hour when the heat and dryness were at their height, the hoof beats of a racing, galloping horse rang out.

Captain Partho raised his head, slid from the refreshing shade, and looked down between two blocks of the parapet wall onto the city. Still he could not see the rider. Then he saw him emerge between the whisks of the dusty palms. The rider hung deep in the saddle. He appeared to be badly wounded.  With the right hand, he mercilessly used the riding whip. Partho narrowed his eyes to slits. The rider was a member of the Palace Guard.

“He must have been caught in the Dark Watch’s grasp,” he murmured. His eyes alighted on a long arrow in the rider’s shoulder.

Then he saw the bloody, distorted face of the rider over the neck of the sweating horse. He held onto the saddle with his final strength. On the left thigh, Partho noticed a second, terrible wound. The rider now galloped to the gate in the lower palace wall. Partho left his place, ran with great steps down the long, broad stairs, and came into the reach of the mercilessly hot sun.

“It’s Khreon,” he said and ran toward him.

The rider drew near. He was half-blind. Blood from a head wound seeped down into his eyes. With each jump of the horse, the arrow in his back whipped. Saddle and saddle cover were equally bloody. Khreon pulled violently at the reins; the horse whinnied, rose up steeply, and threw the rider from its saddle.

Partho jumped in and caught the man. He carefully let him sink to the ground, knelt in the sand and bent over him.

The man was near death. With a quick movement, Partho pulled out the arrow.

The wounded man groaned. “Obad’s henchmen . . . were right behind me! I know everything!”

Partho signaled to his rear. With one hand, he held up the head of the man. With the other, he loosened a small flask of wine from his belt and set it to the dying man’s lips. Khreon drank from it and coughed. Frothy blood appeared at the corners of his mouth.

“What do you know?” Partho asked urgently.

“The sun . . . it will disappear. The Dark Watch wants to sacrifice a virgin and the shrine…to destroy the sleeper!”

“When?”

“The sun . . . is devoured,” the dying man said. He coughed briefly, then twitching went through his body before it slackened.

Partho let the head sink back into the sand and rose. Some of his men approached, holding the horse firmly and looked questioningly at their captain.

“Remove Khreon!” he said softly. “Close the palace gates!”

He went quickly up the long stairs and into that part of the palace where lay the dying king. The slave Agrion, maidservant to the king, stood beside the door that led to the terrace. Her narrow hand signaled to the black-bearded captain. Partho quickened his step and stopped by Agrion. She was nearly as tall as he was.

“The king is dying,” said Agrion, fighting with tears. “I am to bring you to him.”

Partho only nodded and let her precede him. Only a few days earlier Partho had turned twenty-four years old. Four years he had served King Alac and the royal house of Urgor, the largest city along the Raxos. In that time he had joined the Palace Guard, come to lead it and with their assistance had made the area around Urgor safe from the bands of outlaws.

She led him into the cool twilight between stone walls and into the room where the king lay dying. Standing silent, she took the heavy curtain and moved it to the side. Partho felt kicked. From a window, a ray of light fell on King Alac’s hand moving jerkily upon the sheet – They were like the bones of a skeleton! Sensing Partho, he turned. The man knelt by the king’s bedside. The king opened his eyes when he heard Partho’s rough, moved voice.

“Majesty! How are you?” Partho’s dark eyes searched over the king’s sunken body.

“I feel my end near!” answered Alac. His voice trembled. “Give me the goblet – no, the other one, with the strong wine!”

Partho turned around and poured cold, red wine from a heavy clay pitcher into a goblet. He put it to the king’s lips. Alac swallowed laboriously, his bony hand clasped Partho’s wrist.

“I’m dying, Partho. I will not survive this night!” he whispered.

Partho was no stranger to death. He knew that in the next days more than just the king would die, good and bad men. Not just from the plague that held the city in its grip, but also from the inciting words of the Dark Watch. The idea of death filled the city. And this place was full of it.

“Everyone’s life ends but once,” said Partho. “Your life, king, was without blame. Don’t complain that you see its end.”

Alac signed. Partho understood and supported the frail body against a role made from covers and a black fur.

“I am not miserable because of the end,” Alac said. “I counted sixty summers before the Dark Watch poisoned me. Will you follow my orders over the next few days?”

The two men looked each other in the eyes. The thin, sharply shaved chin-beard made Partho appear to be older. He understood more about fighting and the handicraft of war than did any other man in the city. And he was as faithfully devoted to the king’s daughters as he was to Alac. Partho’s hatred for the Dark Watch was well known far beyond the walls of the palace.

“I have always obeyed you!” confirmed Partho. “And I will also obey Princess Amee and her sister.”

The king smiled weakly, but his strengthless fists balled up. Down in the old part of the city, one of the Dark Watch cried out the virtues of the vulture-like Many-Named God. Crimes would occur under the sign of this idol. The masses would be aroused until, in their hysteria, they became the willing tools of Obad and his men.

“Good!” Alac whispered. “Then bring the girls to my bedside!”

“As you command, king.”

As he walked across the high parapet on his way to the chambers of the princesses, he took a long, thoughtful look at the old city. From time to time, the silence was broken by a call or a cry. The plague had spread like rings from a stone tossed into water. Just as fast and no less deadly were the malicious rumors put out by the idol’s priests. The city, even in the Moon of the Deer a commerce center and nodal point for caravans from far countries, was dying as quietly as her inhabitants were. The columns of smoke from fire-lit stoves grew less from day to day. The cries of the sellers grew less while the long, drawn-out cries of complaint increased. Now, in the Moon of the Wildebeest, the anger of the Gods seemed to have reached its height – or so maintained Obad and the Dark Watch.

Behind the half-dry pond, where ornamental fish emerged from the water to snap at the air, beneath the whisks of the palm that rustled dryly and dustily, Partho stepped into the shade of the awnings.

He remained there and called quietly, “Princess Amee! Princess Ada!”

He stayed by the closed door made from black wood, its recesses covered with white parchment. The door opened up as Princess Ada looked at him with surprise. Then she saw his face and understood.

“Your father is awake! He wishes to see you both.”

The green eyes of Amee’s younger sister searched his face, and then Ada stepped to the side. Partho stepped into the chamber. Each time he saw Amee, he felt his body twitch. Sunbeams transformed their chestnut hair into a helmet of velvet and light as they left their room and hurried into the other wing of the palace.

A short time later, the three of them entered the magnificent room in which the king lay. Over the gold, the valuable fabrics, the weapons and armaments, the walls, there was a layer of dust – everything seemed subdued and dull. Only the eyes of the king had any life contrary to this.

“Come closer!” Alac whispered. His face seemed to sink more and more. “A little while ago, I thought I heard some noise from the city. Partho?”

Partho nodded. “The Dark Watch are inciting the people. Perhaps Obad will get them to storm the palace.”

Amee and Ada set down on either side of the king’s bed. The captain stopped by the leather-covered footstool. Behind him, Agrion leaned diagonally against the covered wall. The fragile voice of the king spoke one last time.

“Friends flee a dying person. You are the faithful ones of my final hour. I have something important to say to you.”

Amee embraced her sister but Ada called out in helpless anger, “You must not die, father!”

“I cannot change it,” said Alac after a pause. “I go to my end. I have no proof, but Obad and the Dark Watch poisoned me. Two months ago, when I asked for rain, they gave me a cup filled with ceremonial wine. In this wine was a slow poison that brings death. Only the herbs and potions of Iwa, your wet nurse, have kept me alive.”

Alac, exhausted, took a break. Amee took the wine goblet and held it to the cracked lips of her father.

“However, you must act now! The Dark Watch will rouse the people for a while yet, until they storm the palace. As for you and your men, Partho, there are enough rebels. You must flee! Take the fastest horses. Amee and Ada must ride with you, faithful Partho. Do it in secrecy. Lose no time.”

Alac’s hand crept onto the hand of his older daughter. Amee and Ada were very similar to each other. Ada, though still a child, eagerly did everything her older sister did. But now, thought the king bitterly, they were both nothing more than unprotected children. He could no longer help them – even more so since Obad had announced that the sun would be eaten by the Daemon, because it no longer agreed with King Alac’s rule.

“You can rely on me,” said Partho quietly and with confidence.

“Hurry!” whispered the king. “You will have to ride many days. Ride first to Brother Damos and go with him to the castle at the mountain pass. They will provide for you. There you will be safe. In the palace, you will die.”

Amee and Partho exchanged a brief glance. Partho nodded silently.

Agrion had held herself in the background so far. She stood near the low table with the cups, perfumes, and mirror. Now she brushed the long dark brown hair from her forehead and came to Alac’s bedside.

“Master!” she whispered. “My king!”

Partho felt a kinship with Agrion, as he did for all humans who saw only slavery or death before them. A wave of hatred for the idol worshippers surged up in him.

“Sire! Your maid will also be in danger, if she stays here,” he said roughly.

An expectant quiet filled the room filled with the smell of peppered wine and the herbs of old Iwa. And the perfume which drove out the flies. The eyes of the dying man closed. The sounds of a cry, of weapons clashing, and of people murmuring were all heard here. Alac opened his eyes, directed them toward Agrion, and instructed:

“Take her with you! Protect her as well, Partho! Now, leave me alone. Take the jewels and gold with you – and sufficient provisions!”

His voice faded to an indistinct murmur.

Partho was not a friend of long words. Quick action was his strength. He bowed and left the room. He ran through the cool passageway, reached the broad strip behind the wall, and approached the place where his men had gathered. In the old city, someone blew a luthr. The roaring sound could probably be heard all the way to the Shrine of the Sleeping God. The bright blue skies stretched from the mountains to the loop of the Raxos River. Not a single cloud appeared in the firmament. A hot, dry wind, which cracked the lips and palate of the mouth, stirred up sand eddies at the bottom of the plain.

Partho took the hammer and struck three times on the drum-shaped gong made of hammered copper. The sounds awoke myriad, thunderous echoes. The men of the Palace Guard ran together and formed a circle. Partho only counted fifty men . . . out of nearly two hundred! He suppressed a curse. They each carried a short, ochre-colored weapons kilt. Their breastplates gleamed in the sun. For four years, there had been this troop, and the men who encircled Partho had always been the most reliable of the Guard. One of the men called out to him:

“We couldn’t keep the others from leaving. There are still ten men on the parapets, the rest have fled into the city and will probably follow Obad. They are afraid of the Many-Named God’s anger.”

Partho took him hard by the shoulder. “What about the scouts in the city? Have they also run off?”

“They returned but a few moments before you did. The Dark Watch says that the sun will be devoured. They stir up anger against King Alac.”

“He will not last the night!” Partho said harshly. “We are to defend the palace for a little while, and then take the princesses to the mountains. Ram shut all the other gates and bring the horses to the mountain gate.”

“I understand. Where do you think the main attack will take place?”

“At the main gate, there’s plenty of open space. Obad is a coward – he will hide himself behind the people.”

Partho thought of Amee as he went to his chambers to begin preparations for the escape . . . he loved her, but she loved a phantom. The one they called the “Sleeping God.” He put on his weapons, threw the bow and the full quiver over his shoulder, stuck two long, flamed-shaped, curved daggers into his bootlegs, and took his shield and cloak.

He went back to his men slowly. Amee, Ada, and Agrion would pack the necessary items.

Down in the city with its scarcely thirty thousand inhabitants, rumors moved like poisonous snakes. The drought and the hunger, the dry heat and the outbreak of plague – this was not yet enough punishment for the people’s sins, said the men of the high priest. Only a great sacrifice would calm the idol and bring them rain. A sacrifice, and in the process, the God’s shrine would be destroyed. A sacrifice brought during the hour in which the Daemon devoured the sun. A virgin of royal blood had to bleed upon the destroyed shrine. And the one Obad had in his eye was – Ada!

Only this sacrifice would appease the idol. Partho looked at the sky. In five hours, the sun would disappear. He did not believe that a Daemon would ‘devour’ the sun in the middle of the day. Since his birth, it had come up each morning, moved across the sky each day and sunk below the horizon each evening. Why would a Daemon eat the sun now?

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