The image of the man in the ancient mirror flickered and wavered but the tone of terror in his voice was clear enough.
‘My lord, forgive me I beg you. I tried to recapture the princess but whoever killed Alarr and Morius had taken her and vanished into the darkness like a ghost. I could find no trail to follow.’
Demos listened to his servant’s words with mounting fury.
‘You fool! You have failed me and you know I do not tolerate failure.’
‘My lord, be merciful. I will do better.’
But it was too late, Demos’ eyes glared at the image in the mirror and he slowly raised his hand. Upon his thin finger a ring, set with a strange red stone, began to glow and pulsate with increasing strength. Then a bright beam of energy sprang forth and was engulfed by the glass. Many miles away, in far off Torr, the hapless acolyte was suddenly enveloped in a glowing nimbus of red light. His flesh began to smoulder and blacken and he voiced a shrill, inhuman shriek of agony. Louder and louder his screams became until at last his image in the ancient mirror vanished in a grisly explosion of flesh and blood.
In the sudden silence of his chamber the only sound was the harsh breathing of Demos. The glow of the ring faded away until once again it appeared to be only a brilliant yet ordinary gemstone set in a circle of gold. Demos spat angrily at the glass then began to pace up and down the chamber. His eye fell upon the gleaming steel and crystal rods of his creation and he cursed viciously. There lay the result of long years of occult study and labour, a weapon of such destructive power that it would give him mastery of the entire world. Yet there it lay, useless for want of a source of power.
He knew that a fabulous gem called The Heart of Ra would complete his device giving him power to rival that of the ancient warlords who had lived before the Great Destruction but there was a problem. The Heart of Ra lay hidden and only the high priestess of the Torran sun god knew where it was.
He had sent his minions to kidnap her and bring her to him. He knew that once she was in his power he could use his dark magic to control her mind and force her to reveal the gem’s location but they had failed him and they had payed the price for their failure. Now it was time for more direct methods.
He turned away from his hellish creation and swept out of the chamber. He did not bother to secure the door behind him; he knew that none of the superstitious fools in the palace would dare to enter. They held him in too much fear. He grinned at the thought, they did not yet know the meaning of fear but he would teach them.
As he stalked along the palace corridors towards the throne room his mind went back to his youth in his far off, demon haunted homeland of Siltha. There, deep in their underground fortress, he had sat at the feet of the adepts of the Black Path; men whose souls were steeped in evil and who were, in truth, no longer fully human.
He had learned all that these mages could teach him. He had learned of the world as it had been before the destruction; learned of the terrible powers that the men of those ancient times had controlled. As his knowledge grew, so too did his ambitions. The mages’ of the Black Path were content to rule their own land but this was not enough for him, he wanted to rule the world. In pursuit of his goal he studied long and hard and as his store of dark knowledge grew and his power increased, he grew ever more arrogant and impatient to take his rightful place as master of the world. It was his destiny, he was sure of that and nothing would be allowed to stand in the way of it, nothing.
Finally, his masters’ realised just how powerful he had become and in their arrogance and pride they had thought they could still control him. They had paid for that mistake with their lives and now only he, Demos of Siltha, knew the ancient, dark secrets of power. Once he was able to secure the Heart of Ra he would be invincible.
Ahead of him he saw the massive bronze doors beyond which lay the throne room of King Trannos of Akon. A cruel smile touched his thin lips as he strode, unopposed by the frightened guards, into the huge room. A nervous silence fell upon those gathered there as they beheld him. He sensed their fear of him and he relished it. Soon now they would fear him even more.
In the uncomfortable silence only his soft footfalls and the swish of his long black robe of Kossian silk could be heard as he approached the throne. His shaven head gleamed in the light of the many torches that lit the room and his eyes burned with unholy lights as he contemplated what was to come.
Seeing his face, people hurried to get out of his way as he drew near, even the tough, hard-bitten men of the kings guard. Men, who had stood firm in the face of advancing enemy armies, flinched and drew back a step as he passed by. He basked in their fear and drew strength from it. A tingle of anticipation ran up his spine. At last he felt he was ready for that which was to come.
Finally he reached the foot of the raised platform where lay King Trannos amid piles of cushions. Trannos was a cruel man, a despotic tyrant and a fit ruler for his equally cruel people. He was held in fear by all, all that is, except Demos who sneered openly and remained standing instead of prostrating himself in front of the king as was the usual custom. His sneer grew even broader as he gazed coldly down upon the king.
The man was a mountain of unhealthy flesh. Long years of soft living, of indulgence in every vice, had taken their toll upon him. His fine robes were stained with food and wine, his eyes, almost buried in folds of flabby flesh, were bloodshot and bore more than a hint of insanity.
Demos could have killed him there and then but he wanted all here to witness and appreciate the power he held. He held his peace and waited, his time was almost upon him now. He cleared his mind in preparation and stood silently, smiling coldly.
King Trannos. Unaware of Demos’ approach, was giggling obscenely as his thick fingers explored the firm contours of the writhing slave girl in his lap. She was young and wore nothing save a silver collar about her slim throat and a hands breadth of gossamer thin silk about her shapely hips. Trannos, no longer virile, had turned to other sources for his gratification. He could still inflict pain and degradation and he took intense pleasure in doing so.
The girl’s eyes were full of shame and despair as she writhed beneath her master’s cruel hands. Each time she moaned under his probing, pinching fingers, he giggled again and renewed his assault upon her soft flesh.
Seeking succour she looked desperately around her at the faces of the Akonite nobles. She saw no pity in their eyes, only bland indifference or cruel lust. Then her eyes met those of Demos and she gasped.
His gaze held hers and as she felt herself being drawn into his eyes she forgot her torment. Her hand flew to her mouth and her lovely eyes opened wide as she felt her very soul being pulled down into those black, inhuman orbs; down into a shadowy world of nightmare and horror where only his will existed.
In her young life she had known much cruelty from men but here, in this dark place, she sensed a black diabolism that dwarfed the evil of ordinary men. She tried to scream but her voice caught in a throat constricted by terror and she could only whimper. Demos sneered at her and she shuddered at the evil she saw in his face. Others saw it too and made the sign of the horns to ward off evil. Tiring of his sport Demos released her gaze from his and she gasped and fell back in a swoon.
The king cursed vilely as she slumped to the floor. He pushed her roughly away and snatching up a golden, jewel encrusted, goblet of wine he drained it at a gulp and threw threw the empty vessel with vicious force at the unconscious girl. Only then did he notice Demos standing quietly watching him. His sweat streaked face creased with anger and he snapped,
‘What are you doing here wizard? You were not summoned to my presence.’
Then he too stared into Demos’ eyes and felt a thrill of unease ripple through his flesh. There was something different about the mage. An unholy sense of purpose emanated from the man and King Trannos, used only to servile obedience from his subjects, felt his unease grow. He licked suddenly dry lips and moved away from the tall, dark, man in front of him. Demos bowed mockingly and said,
‘Lord King, I pray you forgive the intrusion of your humble servant. I have come to you with news of great importance,’
Trannos scowled at the wizard’s impertinence.
‘Well! What is this news wizard? Speak swiftly before I have you whipped.’
Demos bowed once again, insolently, and the king’s face flushed red with anger but something warned him to keep his peace. Demos said,
‘Lord King, all here are aware that for many years now you have dreamed of forming a great Akonite empire. Your ambitions however have been brought to nothing by your enemies in the land of Torr. No matter how many men you throw against them they are always triumphant over you.’
Furious at being reminded of the Torran thorn in his flesh the king snarled,
‘Aye, their damned garrisons are too firmly ensconced in their mountain fortresses for my troops to dislodge them. We all know this wizard, what is this news you speak of? Have you found a way for my armies to defeat them? Speak now, your master commands you.’
Demos glared at the king, his eyes flashing with sparks of red hellfire as he gazed upon the fat fool. All in the throne room were silent as they watched and the only sound came from the gently tumbling waterfalls in the gardens outside. Finally Demos spoke.
‘Aye lord King; I have found a way to defeat them. Here upon my finger, is a ring of great magical power. The stone is said to have fallen to Earth in the time of the great destruction, a fragment of one of the mighty weapons the ancient gods used to punish the mortals who dared defy them. With the power of this gem I shall be able to smash open the sturdy gates of their fortresses and allow our troops to enter in.’
Trannos glared at the ring and growled,
‘I have seen that ring upon your finger many times wizard. If it has the power you claim then why have you not used it in the service of your king ere now?’
Demos laughed and said,
‘Because I did not choose to do so, fool.’
The king’s eyes went wide with outrage and a loud murmur arose. Demos turned his back on the king, an unpardonable breach of court etiquette, and called out.
‘Hear me men of Akon. To invoke the power of the ring a sacrifice must be made to Balzar, dread lord of the Pit. Only thus will his aid be granted. Acknowledge me as your ruler and with Balzar’s aid I will lead you to victory over Torr and all the lands that lie beyond. It is your destiny to be lords of the Earth. Acclaim me king and with Balzar’s blessing, that destiny shall be fulfilled. Acclaim me now!’
A roar of approval arose from the cruel and ambitious Akonites who sensed in Demos a means of achieving their ambitions, Demos laughed and turned back to face the outraged king.
‘But before I become King, there must be a sacrifice,’ he cried. ‘Behold the power of mighty Balzar!’
King Trannos, wild eyed with rage, lumbered clumsily to his feet and drew his ornate sword.
‘You insolent dog!’ he screamed. ‘You dare to lay claim to my throne. Die!’
He lunged wildly at the wizard but Demos laughed and easily avoided the clumsy blow. The king fell heavily to the floor and his sword flew from his grasp and clattered noisily away across the tiles. He lay there; gasping after his sudden exertions and Demos stepped toward his floundering form and raised his hand whereon the ring had begun to glow.
‘Guards!’ the king screamed, ‘Kill him! Kill him!’
The king’s soldiers shuffled nervously in indecision. They bore no love for their tyrant king and they sensed a great evil in this wizard. They had no wish to lose their souls to his black arts and so they did nothing.
Demos glared down at the fallen king and cried out,
‘Watch Akonites and learn the fate of those who would defy me.’
Demos concentrated all his thoughts on producing an illusion that would terrify the gathered nobility and cow them forever. He had learned the mental disciplines necessary for this from the ancient tomes of the wizards of the black path and the learning had been long and hard but now all his efforts would be rewarded. The king was enveloped in the ghastly red radiance of the ring. At once his skin began to bubble and turn black and the stench of burning flesh filled the air. The king’s eyes were wide with horror as he began to scream.
Demos knew that the king’s horror was mirrored in the eyes of those who watched and he smiled. They were nothing but ignorant fools and when he had finished with Trannos, none of them would dare defy him.
Now it was time to let them see the visage of their new God. Beads of sweat trickled down his face as he let loose the full power of his mind. Many others echoed the screams of the king as they saw his body rise slowly into the air and begin to rotate, writhing in agony as it was devoured by that hideous red brilliance. Demos raised his voice until it rang out above the bedlam.
‘Oh mighty Balzar, ancient lord of the pit, I, Demos, offer this sacrifice to your everlasting glory. Come forth and feast!’
In answer to his cry, a faint rumbling was heard. The rumbling grew swiftly louder as if something huge and terrible were rushing down upon the throne room. Men fell to their knees, covering their ears and women screamed in terror as they saw the solid stone wall behind the throne dissolve into a cloud of roiling black smoke, shot through with flashes of red and orange flame. Then, forming out of the ebon cloud, a gigantic reptilian face appeared.
Sparks crackled from the twisted horns on its misshapen head and its flesh was covered in glittering red and silver scales. Its huge maw was lined with razor sharp fangs, each as thick around as a man’s arm and half as long. A long bifurcated tongue flickered in and out among those terrible teeth and the eyes, huge yellow orbs split by vertical black pupils, burned with a ghastly, inhuman hunger as it gazed upon the humans before it.
The terrified nobility fell groveling on their bellies before Balzar and exultation flowed through Demos as he realised just how much power he would be able to command. He knew that Balzar was merely an illusion projected by the power of his mind and the strange red stone upon his finger but to the trembling Akonites behind him, Balzar would appear to be a dark and terrible god; a god hungry for human sacrifice, a hunger that Demos would satisfy with the bodies of his enemies. Although he did not think there would be too many who would oppose him. They would never dare to rebel against him after this display of Balzar’s power. Demos caused the monster to open its mouth and emit a frightful roar. He grinned as he heard the answering cries of terror from behind him. It was time now to bring the demonstration to a satisfying conclusion.
The creature’s long tongue shot out of its gaping mouth, wrapping itself around the wriggling body of the king and slowly it began to draw him in towards those waiting fangs. Trannos, his eyes bulging and froth dripping from his lips screamed and cackled insanely as he was drawn ever closer to the monsters mouth. Then those dreadful jaws snapped shut and blood sprayed from Balzar’s lips as the king’s body was reduced to red ruin. Even then, Trannos continued to scream long after his cries should have ceased but finally, with a long, gurgling, gasp, he fell silent at last. Balzar opened his mouth and spat out the ruined body. It fell to the floor and lay there, twisted and broken, in a slowly widening pool of blood. With a last baleful glare at the cowering humans, the thing retreated slowly back into the flame shot clouds of smoke. Then the smoke itself slowly faded away until only the wall of the throne room remained.
In the horrified silence that followed, only Demos moved. He turned slowly around and held the glowing ring high above his head. He looked upon the wide-eyed, frightened nobles and he smiled a cruel smile. In a voice full of evil glee he cried out,
‘Akonites, prostrate yourselves before your new king!’
All there hastened to obey, lest they too should fall foul of the wizard’s wrath. Demos, looking down upon their prostrate forms, grinned in satisfaction as he looked upon his new subjects. They were the first but they would not be the last. The world was about to learn that it had a new master.
Alive with the thrill of power he turned and striding over to the golden throne of Akon, he seated himself upon it. He was king here now but he had grander plans. When he had conquered Torr and had wrested the heart of Ra from its hiding place he would be no mere king, he would be the master of an empire such as the world had never seen.
In a loud and imperious voice he cried out,
‘Summon my generals and counselors to the palace. For today we set out upon the road to empire!’
He laughed as they scurried to do his bidding, then he leaned back in his new won throne and began to dream ambitious dreams.