Chapter 18: Dreamless Sleep
Diego’s eyes flashed open, bulging and wet. He writhed on the ground, screaming, wailing like a child. His mind was blank, confused, but excited. He did not know where he was, nor who he was. There were no thoughts, only a gripping terror that receded as his consciousness began to reassemble.
“Diego!” a voice called to him.
That name. That was his name, wasn’t it? That triggered something in him. He noticed the walls for the first time. They were black and smooth. This was not his first time seeing them, was it?
Something grabbed him, and in a fit of panic, he lurched away, stumbling to his feet before falling over again. A man looked back at him. Gaunt and pale with oily black hair, much like the stone that formed their surroundings. He knew that man, didn’t he? Yes, he did.
“Thief,” Diego said through quivering lips. So many of his words were absent, but each word he remembered brought with it a slew of others. He wondered where they went. He wondered about so many things. He saw his bloody sword on the ground. “Oh God! Oh God! I’m dead!”
“No,” Benito said. He helped up the hysterical boy. “You’re not! Somehow you’re still alive.”
Diego shook his head violently, threatening to snap his neck. “I remember! The blood! The cold! I’m dead! We’re dead!” The swordsmith fell to his knees again and let out a long moan.
“You fool!” Benito barked, losing his patience. “By the miracle of some god or another, you live, and so do I, for now.” Benito cut the bindings on Diego’s wrists. So collect yourself and lets flee while we can!”
The young man slowed his breathing, staring at his hands, flexing his fingers. He was not dead, but he remembered dying. He rubbed his throat, expecting to feel that gash, but it was not there. One image came to the forefront of his thoughts; an image of a beautiful Abyssinian woman, laying her hands over his body. Nekayah. Every blurry memory started to sharpen into focus.
His eyes, however, began to flood with tears. “Benito…when I was dead, I…didn’t…there was no—”
“I don’t want to hear it,” Benito said, quickly. “We need to focus.”
Diego nodded. He picked up his sword, gripping the handle tight. “Yes. Focus.”
The rumblings of battle reverberated over their heads, making dust sift down from between the cracks. Benito led the way, again, heading back up to the surface. They ventured the halls of the alcazar unrestrained, as not a single bandit remained to guard the halls. Many of the servants had taken advantage of the opportunity, scampering every which way, searching for a safe exit.
Without hesitation Diego made his way straight for the sound of war.
“Where are you going?” Benito asked.
“Where do you think?” Diego asked.
“Back to the death from whence you just came! Don’t be a complete idiot!” He pointed at the ragged servants running past them. “They have the right idea. Let’s use this chaos as our distraction and escape for good!”
“I need to find—”
“Nekayah. I know. But listen, did you ever think it’s about time you give the girl up? She’s trouble. Anyone can see that. No pretty face is worth dying over…repeatedly. Don’t be a complete idiot!”
The swordsmith laughed. “No, my dear thief, you have me all wrong. I need to find that witch who slit my throat. I want nothing more now than to return the favor.”
Benito looked at the young man dumbfounded. “Well that’s much more understandable, but still very, very stupid.”
“Will you not come with me? I’ve grown accustomed to having you by my side. You’ve been something of a guardian angel.”
“Ha!” The thief couldn’t help but laugh. “You mistake me for a fool. You’re quite the man, I’ll give you that, swordsmith, but my freedom lies in the opposite direction.”
Diego nodded. He couldn’t blame the man. It wasn’t his fight. “I suppose your guild is missing you, eh?”
“That’s exactly right. Now, if you’ll excuse me.”
“Very well, Señor Benito. God speed to you.”
“I’ll be praying for you.” Benito started down the hall, but stopped and looked back the young man. “And if, by yet another miracle, you survive today, feel free to find me in Madrid. We could use an idiot like you.”
Diego and Benito started down the hall, each in their own direction. The gaping sandstone corridors reflected the raging orange aura of battle outside, and more than once did the entire ruin shake at the impact of catapult’s bombardment. The closer he got the courtyard, the louder the bedlam grew.
Suddenly, a man came into view, bloody, panicked, running down the hall. A lone deserter fleeing for his life. Under the splattered gore he saw the face of a scared man.
“The Devil!” he shrieked. “The Devil!”
Diego let the man pass, as he was unarmed and posed no threat. In truth, the madman barely seemed to notice the Morisco standing in his path. Diego watched the bandit race down the hall, arms flailing, for just a moment longer. It was a curious sight.
At the very least, he was kind enough to leave a trail of bloody footprints straight to the rampart stairs and onto the ramparts themselves. But what Diego saw when he stood atop the walls of the alcazar, nearly made him turn tail and join that terrified man.
Massive serpentine arms, corded like the bodies of gigantic earthworms, stretched into a blackened sky. Fire bloomed everywhere, white and red, roasting fresh corpses, fueling its rage. For a moment, Diego wondered if he truly had come back to life or if he was in Hell.
It wasn’t until he saw a flicker of blonde, and with it, the massive silhouette of a giant, standing above the main gate, did Diego confirm he was still actually alive.
He gripped his sword tight. He had a second chance.
Swiftly and quietly, Diego made his way towards his target, weaving his way through the chaos. Anyone would who did catch sight of him received a quick strike to the neck.
“Do you see, my dear?” Luciana said, gazing over the nightmare that was unfolding before them on the battlefield. “Ia! Shub Niggurath!”
The Bull King stared at the monstrosity bursting from the ground in utter silence, forming the sign of the cross over himself.
“You look scared, my King.” Luciana reached out her lover’s arm, but he pulled away.
“I’ve made a deal with devil…my men die in droves. I can’t control this thing, and neither can you!”
The ghastly appendages swept the ground, flattening any souls in its path, whether they were bandits or royal soldiers, smearing the battlefield with their glistening red viscera. The monster played no sides. All death was equal.
Luciana shrugged at the slaughter. “It is a minor price to pay. After this, we’ll take the fight to the queen, herself! Castile will be ours, Spain will be ours, then, dare I say, the world!”
“Ours or hers?”
Luciana stretched a thin smile from ear to ear, pressing her lips thin, as though the joy in her words would explode if not restrained. “Hers.”
The Bull King’s eyes bulged from his head, his face growing red with anger. “And what does that make me? A servant of your demon!”
“We are all motes of dust in our mother’s mighty shadow!”
“This was not my vision!”
Luciana gave Pedro a discomforting smile. “But it was mine.”
The Bull King grabbed Luciana, and shook her hard. “You knew this would happen? Unleashing a devil upon the world? For what?! What’s the purpose of a power you cannot control? It’s ruin! It’s death!”
Luciana could only laugh in response. She was helpless as her head whipped back and forth; her neck on the verge of snapping, but she did not care. This moment was nothing short of ambrosia. “Ia! Shub Niggurath! Ia! Shub Niggurath! Ia! Shub Niggurath! Ia! Ia!”
Her babbling nonsense only inflamed the giant’s rage. “Damn you woman!”
Luciana’s laughter was suddenly cut short. The blonde witch looked down and saw a blood soaked blade sticking through her chest. She turned her head as far as she could and saw Diego standing behind her, withdrawing his Toledo steel with a welt squelch.
Luciana’s eyes went wide, then her head slumped down, lifeless, but even in death she continued smiling.
The Bull King looked at the woman in his arms for just a moment longer, before throwing her body over the wall. He stared at the body until it hit the ground. After that, he stared a moment longer before letting out a deep, long sigh. Then he looked at Diego.
“Are you some punishment sent from God? A ghost fiend sent to haunt me?”
“Your soul must weigh heavy for you to think such a thing.” Deigo whipped his sword, flicking the blood from its blade. “But maybe I am. The Lord works in mysterious ways.”
The Bull King reached behind him, pulling forth the man-sized ax, brandishing it boldly before him. “I turned my back to God, that’s true, but only after he turned his back on me. If he thinks I give a damn about his retribution, he’s not so all-knowing as I thought.” The giant gave a hollow, disparaging laugh. “You’ll will have the privilege of dying twice today.”
For some reason, Diego felt no fear standing before the giant. He dashed in immediately, closing the distance. This caught warlord off guard, and he tried to parry the thrust with the pole of his ax. A swift knee, he thought, would put the boy back in his place, but as he struck him in the gut, Pedro saw no look of pain or surprise on the boy’s face. He stared right back at him, eyes cold and dead.
Some of the other soldiers, who up until now had been too preoccupied with their own life and death struggles, finally took notice of the drama unfolding right beside them. Many men immediately lunged at Diego, but each was cut down in a blur of glinting steel and blood.
“Stand down, men!” Pedro barked. He took off his horned helm and tossed it aside. Embers danced in the air between the two men, like infernal flower petals on a summer breeze. “We will finish this ourselves.”
Diego bent low into a fighting stance, pointing his narrow espada right at the giant’s heart. “Whenever your ready.”
Growling, the Bull King raised his ax and brought it down. His strike was fast, faster than when he fought that old knight in the forest. Still, Diego saw it coming, and moved to the side. Now there was an opening, and he went for it.
The Bull King roared as Diego punctured his side, but it was a cry of fury, not pain. He jammed the butt of his ax into the swordsman’s face, making his head cock back hard, but Diego did not stagger like he’d expected.
“What sort of monster are you?” Pedro asked.
They felt the ramparts shudder beneath their feet. Both Pedro and Diego looked over the wall, but the front gate was still intact. Then, behind them, they heard the heaving of sundering stone. Another tentacle, larger than any other, burst out from alcazar, spraying everyone with bits of rock and dust. It wrapped it’s leviathan-like body around the tallest spire, and like a python, it constricted the structure until it snapped like a twig.
Pedro, bleeding and strained, was still able to muster the strength to yell at the obliteration of his mighty fortress. He yelled until the veins jutted from his neck. Diego could almost see the tears in his eyes.
The hulking man swung his battleax with wanton abandon at the nimble swordsmith. He swept his blade across every direction, forcing Diego to back up. There was little to fear from being hit, since he attacked without aim, but there was no way to fight back against a storm of heavy metal.
He continued to back up until he couldn’t any further. He’d reached the edge of the wall and his back was against the parapet. There was no way to escape to either side. He was trapped.
The Bull King saw the young man’s folly and prepared for one final swing that would cleave his chest from his legs.
A ridiculous and desperate thought streaked through Diego’s mind. There was no time to contemplate it. Instinct took over and he leaped over the parapet, dodging the strike and disappeared off the wall.
Pedro almost laughed with astonishment, figuring that he’d finally frightened him off. A quick fall must have been preferable to being slain by his ax, but then his eye caught sight of the tawny hand still gripping the lip of the parapet. Curious, he came over to the edge and looked down at the young man dangling over a forest of pikes and swords.
“Too afraid to go through with it?” he jeered.
“Not at all.” Diego thrust his sword straight up into the Bull King’s face.
The man wretched back so hard that he pulled the sword from Diego’s hand, and this time he did shout in pain, but only for a brief moment. The other bandits nearby stopped and turned. The bandit king now lay dead with a sword through his eye-socket.
Diego pulled himself back up over the wall, walked to the corpse of the fallen giant, and pulled his sword free. He stared at the blade, examining the viscera, the white sliver of eye still clinging to the edge. He wanted to feel happy. He wanted to feel triumphant. Where was his joy? Then he realized he was surrounded by armed men. The bandits, mouths agape and eyes wide, stood in stunned silence.
“Your king is dead,” Diego said, looking the bandits around him, “and with it, whatever future you thought you had with him. Now, run.”
One by one, a bandit would back away and turn for the stairs. Before long, the men retreated in droves. Diego stood alone, victorious, watching his enemies scatter into the wind. He was amazed by how little he had felt during the fight. No fear, no pain, but why? What happened to him? He finally realized that his resurrection had not left him the same man. Parts were missing. What was he now?
“Nekayah!” he screamed. “Nekayah!”