Fear surged through Ayanna Dorosan’s veins as she stood before the king in his castle throne room. This wasn’t going to work, she kept telling herself. It was a clever plan, but the king was a clever man; he was sure to see through their deception. She glanced over at her mother. The hateful woman stood but a few feet away, casting her a caustic glare, warning her, telling her to keep it together; they couldn’t afford to make a mistake now. The penalty for lying to the king was death.
Ayanna swallowed the lump in her throat and turned back to the king. “Yes, your grace, that is correct. I can take straw—any straw—and spin it into gold.”
King Eldan Ducay the Second stirred in his throne. His long graying hair and thick gray beard made him look much older than his forty-two years. He wore the finest silks and a cloak bearing the colors of the royal house—blue and silver. His arctic-blue eyes appraised her coolly. “These are trying times, girl. Are you aware of our predicament?”
Ayanna’s eyes strayed to the tall stone sculpture behind the throne. Poseidon, god of the seas, stood watch over the throne room, trident in hand. It was said that there was once a time when Poseidon looked after their kingdom, causing the sea to overflow with all manner of fish, the rivers to run yellow with gold, but in all of her seventeen years of life she could not remember such a time. These days the sea was empty of life, and poverty swept the land like a hideous black plague. “Yes, your grace,” she answered.
“Our kingdom hovers on the brink of financial ruin,” he said. “Our debt is high; our income barely existent. We cannot afford to pay our armies, so they grow smaller each day as men desert. The heathen warlord to the west is aware of our troubles, and threatens to invade. If war comes to these lands, it is a war we shall lose. These are dark times indeed, but if what you say is true, this magic of yours may be the key to saving our kingdom.”
Ayanna felt her heart skip a beat, her spirit suddenly lifted. Maybe her mother was right after all; maybe the plan could yet work.
“But I cannot simply take your word for it,” he said. “You must first be put to the test. You will be placed in a room with a spinning wheel and a large supply of straw. You will be given three days to spin all of the straw into gold. If you succeed, you will be married to the prince and made queen of the kingdom.”
Ayanna struggled to repress a smile. Her eyes turned toward the young Prince Eldan Ducay, seated next to his father, and felt her heart flutter. He was everything a girl could ever want in a prince. Long, silky black hair framed the most handsome face Ayanna had ever laid eyes on. His silk clothing was every bit as elegant as his father’s—perhaps even more so—and he had an air of grace and charm about him. She watched as his eyes traveled up the length of her, taking her in.
Ayanna was suddenly glad she had listened to her mother’s demanding rants for once. She had been certain they stood no chance of gaining an audience with the king, yet she had followed her mother’s orders, putting on the dress her mother had picked out for her—a beautiful blue and silver dress, one that revealed so much cleavage that her large, milky-white breasts were practically bursting out of it—and then put on her makeup and washed and styled her golden blonde hair in the most elegant of braids. She saw the prince’s eyes linger on her exposed cleavage and felt a warm stirring in her loins.
“Thank you, your grace,” her mother said, stepping forward with a little bow. “You are too kind. We will return home immediately and prepare the girl’s room for the test.”
“Do you take me for a fool?” the king roared, slamming his fist down on the arm of his throne. “The girl will not be returning home. We will prepare a room for her here, in one of the highest towers of the castle. She will be locked away; guards will be posted outside her door. No one will enter her chamber without a signed notice from me.”
“But, your grace,” her mother protested. “We would never seek to deceive—”
“Three days!” the king shouted. “Three days is what she will have to spin all of the straw into gold.” He leaned forward. “And if she fails, she will be stripped naked and hung over the Pool of the Old God, where her flesh will be stripped from her bones by the creatures within!” He leaned back slowly, his eyes ablaze. “Such is the punishment for trying to deceive the king.”
A wave of terror crashed over Ayanna’s body. She brought her hand up to her mouth to silence the whimpering sound emanating from within. This couldn’t be happening. It wasn’t part of the plan! They had already prepared her bedroom for the test they knew was inevitable. A trap-door in her floor would allow them to remove the straw using the narrow crawlspace beneath and bring in the gold—the king’s own gold, stolen from one of his carriages on its way to the castle by her mother’s boyfriend and his band of thieves. It was a perfect plan, but one that would only work in their carefully prepared environment. Isolated high atop the castle tower, the plan was doomed to failure.
Ayanna turned her eyes to her mother’s, desperately pleading for help. She didn’t want to die in the Pool. She had seen it happen, and it was cruel and agonizing death. Once a place of sacrifice to the Old God, it was now used only as a place of execution for those foolish enough to displease the king.
Her mother lowered her eyes in defeat. “Yes, your grace.”
Ayanna couldn’t believe it! Her mother was just going to abandon her! Her eyes burned angry holes into the woman’s body, but she said nothing. Better to hold her tongue now and hope for escape, than to reveal their deception and be sent to her death immediately.
“Guards!” the king called. “Take our guest up to the east tower and prepare a room for her. And see to it that her mother is escorted from the castle, and barred entry until the test is over.”
Ayanna glared at her mother as the guards escorted her from the throne room. The woman refused to look at her. It was just as well, she thought. She was glad to be done with the woman after all of her terrible schemes. The next time they saw each other would be the last—her execution day!
Ayanna sat in her tower bedroom staring at the old, wooden spinning wheel and the mountain of straw next to it. The last three days had been the longest of her life. She had spent them alternating between cursing her mother’s name, crying hysterically, and praying fervently to the gods—any gods, old or new, whatever gods would hear her pleas. But still no answer came.
How could it have come to this? She was a smart girl; how could she have become involved in yet another of her mother’s awful scams? The woman was so full of trickery, so deceitful. And all the men she surrounded herself with were ten times worse! She had made Ayanna do so many awful things: lies and slander, whoring and pick-pocketing. But Ayanna wanted desperately to believe that everything her mother did was out of love, that she did it for her. So they both could climb from their lowly pit of poverty, and find some source of happiness in their lives. Instead, all of her plans ended in disaster. And this one would end in her death.
Ayanna stood from the bed and made her way across the large stone room to the window, pushing open the shutter, and sticking her head out into the cool night air. The light of the full moon cast eerie shadows across the sleeping city of Koralith below. The ships were all docked for the evening, their sails furled. The usual hustle and bustle of the port now lay as silent as the dead. The sea beyond was an endless expanse of inky black water. Once the source of all their livelihoods, it was now only the source of anger and endless frustration.
She wondered what this city had been like in the times before King Hazak the Conqueror had arrived to drive the Torgoukin people from these lands. People in town spoke of its former inhabitants only in hushed voices, as if their ghosts were still here, listening and plotting their revenge. They were said to have been a strange and superstitious folk, worshipers of a dark god of the sea. It was said that the Pool was once used to sacrifice people to this dark god, in an effort to avoid his wrath and ensure a plentiful bounty of fish in the sea. Now that god was gone, driven from these lands by a mighty king, and in the long years since the creatures of these waters seemed to have followed.
Of course, these were only stories. Ayanna truly knew nothing of the Torgoukin people or their dark god. Nothing except that terrible thing they had left behind: the Pool. It was a hideous contraption, situated in the main courtyard of the castle. A wooden stage and strange crane-like device overlooked a large stone well, filled with water that seemed to reach deep down into the sea itself. She could already see herself strapped naked and shivering into that cold metal device, suspended above that horrible, frothing pool of water. The nightmarish creatures below would swarm anxiously, awaiting the taste of her blood. The crane would lower her in slowly, bit by bit, allowing the terrible things below the time to savor her flesh, tearing into her, ripping her apart piece by piece. The water would turn red. And she would scream.
And scream and scream and scream.
After some time they would raise her up out of the water, still alive and in unimaginable pain. They would let her hang there, allowing the gathered onlookers a chance to see the bloody strips of meat dangling from her tattered body, allowing them to see what it means to defy a king…allowing her to suffer.
And then they would lower her in again.
Ayanna turned abruptly from the window, away from that awful image of her future. There were only a few hours left until morning, and with it, the day of her execution. The straw still sat untouched, never to be turned into gold. It was hopeless. As angry as she had been at her mother, she wished she was here now. Ayanna slid down the wall to sit on the cold stone floor, put her face into her hands, and began to cry.
“Surely it is not as terrible as all that.”
Ayanna’s head flew up at the sound of the voice, shock pulsing through her body. A man stood in her room. He was frightening to look at. He wore a long, black robe that swept the floor as he walked toward her. A series of strange necklaces hung down to his chest, made of a peculiar metal that she had never seen before, and covered with arcane symbols and odd hieroglyphics depicting various sea-creatures—some of which were familiar and others disturbingly not. His face was the most appalling of all. He had a narrow head and a wide, flat nose. His large, bulging eyes seemed to have no eyelids, and were constantly staring. His skin was a sickly grayish color, and held an almost scaly texture. The stench of the sea clung to him.
“Who are you?” she said, jumping to her feet. “What are you doing here? No one is allowed here without the king’s permission.”
“The king does not tell me where to go,” the man snapped. He glanced over at the spinning wheel and that ridiculously huge mound of straw. “I go where I am needed…and I answer the prayers of those who call.”
Ayanna gasped. Could it be possible? Could her prayers have really been answered? “Are you…a god?”
“I am,” he said. “An old and forgotten god. But it seems that you have not forgotten me. I heard your prayers, and have come to aid you in your hour of need.”
Hope began to blossom in her mind. She glanced anxiously at the straw. “Then you can help me? You can turn all this straw into gold?”
The man shook his head sadly. “I’m afraid that would do you no good. The king does not merely desire a stack of gold. He wants a queen for his son who has the power to create as much gold as their kingdom could ever need. He wants the power to rebuild his kingdom, strengthen his army, and bring prosperity back to this land. He wants magic unlike any the world has ever seen…and I will give you this power. You will spin straw into gold. You will become queen. And with the prince, you will rule this land for the rest of your lives.”
She couldn’t believe it! Her prayers had truly been answered! But then a sudden, overwhelming suspicion overtook her. “And what is it you ask in return?”
His wide lips slid into a devious grin. “You are a bright girl, indeed. Power like this does not come free, it does not come cheap. But worry not; you need give me nothing today. You will spin your gold. You will marry the prince, redeem this land, and live a long, happy life. But somewhere down the road, you will choose to have children, and if by chance you happen to bear a son…you will give him to me.”
Ayanna felt her blood turn to ice. “Please,” she said. “You can’t mean this…my firstborn son…it is too great a price to pay.”
“All power has its price, sweet girl. You will have many happy years before you have to pay this one. Or you can refuse, and your life can end in mere hours. The choice is yours.”
Ayanna knew it was never a choice at all. She could either take the deal and live a wonderful, happy life for a time, or refuse and suffer the most horrible of deaths imaginable when the sun came up.
She took the deal.
She spent the remaining hours until sunrise at the wheel, spinning all of the straw into gold. She wed the prince in the most beautiful of ceremonies. The former king stepped down, allowing them to become king and queen of the kingdom, and with her new power Ayanna brought prosperity back to the kingdom.
As the years went by, Ayanna forgot all about those three dark days in the castle tower, and the mysterious god who had visited her there. But then one terrifying day she discovered she was pregnant, and nine months later Prince Eldan Ducay IV was born.
Since the baby had been born Ayanna could hardly sleep nights. Her servants were more than capable of attending the baby, yet still she would toss and turn, waking frequently, getting out of bed to check on the young prince, to make sure that he was safe, that no monster had come like a thief in the night and stolen him away. She had already decided that if—no, when—he came, she would refuse. The baby was hers and she would not give him up. The wicked, nameless god would have to find some other form of payment.
She had considered telling her king. She would have to expose her deception, dishonor herself, and possibly still be sent to her death in that awful Pool, but it was her best chance of protecting her son, and that was all that mattered.
She found her husband in the Grand Dining Hall with several of the castle guards. The room was full of energy, the kitchen staff busily setting the long oak table with their finest dinnerware, preparing for a large dinner party tonight with all the important lords and ladies of the land. She maneuvered through the crowds of servants and hurried toward him, searching for the words she would need to reveal her betrayal as gently as possible. But as she approached she realized that something was wrong.
“Ayanna!” he called out, rushing over to her. A look of concern was etched upon his face. “Thank Poseidon you are unharmed.”
“I am fine, my lord,” she said, suddenly confused. “What is the matter?”
“There is an intruder in the castle. It is feared he may be an assassin from the west. Several of our guests have said he has the look of a dark wizard.”
Ayanna’s heart nearly stopped. “A dark wizard? Here? Are you certain?”
The king hesitated. “I do not know. I pray it is not true. Please, my love, you must return to your bedchamber immediately. I will send two of the castle guards to escort you and stand watch until the danger has passed.”
But Ayanna had already stopped hearing his words. This was no dark wizard. It was something much, much worse. She whirled around and ran from the room, not bothering to wait for her escort, not wanting to risk wasting a single moment. She hurried up the stone staircase towards her bedchamber as fast as her legs could carry her, her heart pumping red hot panic through her veins.
She slammed open the heavy wooden door to her room and burst inside. The nameless god stood there, grinning hideously over the infant’s crib, looking exactly the same as he had five years before in that dreaded tower room.
“Get away from him,” she hissed before she could stop herself, anger and fear dripping from her words.
The Nameless One looked up at her. Contempt simmered behind his big, fishy eyes. “We had a deal, my good queen—a boy for gold, a prince for a crown. And a queen always keeps her promises.” He moved away from the baby and began walking slowly towards her. “Unless you are not truly a queen at all…but merely the same tavern whore whose mother once convinced her to lie to a king.”
“Stop it!” she said. “I will hold up my end of the bargain. You will have your payment…but not the boy.” She gently closed the door behind her, and began walking toward him, unbuttoning her dress. “I offer myself as payment.” She closed her eyes as the dress fell to the floor, exposing her in all her nakedness. “Take me now, and then be gone from here forever.”
The Nameless One chuckled softly. “Ever the whore then, I see. Put your dress back on, whore. I do not want your body.”
Ayanna felt her face flush. She opened her eyes and began quickly pulling the dress back up. “Then name your price, daemon. Anything else…we have a great fleet of warships in the harbor, an enormous army, an endless supply of food. Take some of our people as slaves, if you must. What is it you will have?”
He regarded her coldly. “You know what I will have.”
Suddenly she was very angry. “Then you shall have nothing. Go from this place, daemon. And let me never see you here again.”
He crossed the rest of the way to stand before her. “As you wish, my queen. I shall leave your castle, but I shall not stay away. I shall return here with a great army. I shall raze this city, take your kingdom, and make its people my own. And then we shall spread across this land like a plague, destroying everything that offends us, anyone who would threaten to steal our great Sea Kingdom from us once more. And you, Whore Queen of this great land, you shall have your death in the Pool of the Old God, after all.”
He paused, a devilish smile spreading across his face. “But I will offer you this: if you are able to name me, to find someone who still remembers who I am, then I shall go from here and leave your kingdom in peace.”
He took a step back as his body began to quiver, his muscles undulating beneath the skin. Suddenly his body exploded, showering her and the room with an offensive spray of foul-smelling liquid. And then he was gone.
Ayanna ran to the crib, scooping out the now-crying infant and cradling him in her arms. She had done a terrible thing, she knew. She had brought the wrath of an evil god down upon their kingdom. But she loved this boy with all her heart, and would not part with him, not for the world. But now war was coming to their land. And she would have to tell her king.
At first, the king was furious. His face darkened with rage as he screamed about her deception, about the danger she had brought upon their kingdom, about the madness of it all. Her mother—now an important member of the royal court—just stood there, staring at her with her usual angry disbelief. But then it was over. Her husband took her into his arms, and said what was done was done; they need quarrel about it no longer. She was still his queen, and they would find a way to defeat this dark god together.
But then the evil was upon them.
They came from the sea. The “Deep Ones,” the people had called them, similar in appearance to their nameless god, yet without so much humanity. Their grey-green skin was slippery and shiny. They had a pronounced hunch to their backs, and seemed to have gills on their necks. Their fingers and bare toes were webbed, and they moved with a predatory quickness that none had ever seen.
They fell like a black shadow over the city of Koralith, leaving a trail of blood and destruction in their wake. People ran for the safety of the castle walls as the king’s knights battled against the Deep Ones throughout the city, fighting their own fear as much as their unnatural adversaries. But the knights were vastly outnumbered. For every Deep One who fell to a knight’s sword, two more would rise from the sea to take its place. The king’s forces retreated behind the gates, and the Deep Ones closed in to lay siege to the castle.
“This is impossible!” the king roared. “How many of them are there? It seems an entire city lies at the bottom of that wretched sea!” Weeks had passed since the conflict began, and still their situation continued to worsen. It seemed there was no end to the nightmare.
“We know not what lies at the bottom of the sea, my lord,” said Councilor Dreka. “An entire city or the gateway to some other dark world entirely.”
The king stroked his dark beard thoughtfully. “This is true. We know nothing of our enemy at present. We must find a way to know our enemy if we are to defeat them.” He turned to his wife. “What do you know of this ‘dark god,’ my love?”
Ayanna hesitated, considering the question. What did she know—really know—about him? She furrowed her brow in frustration. “I know nothing,” she said.
“Surely you must know something,” the king said sharply. “You could not possibly have made a deal with a god you know nothing about?”
She turned her eyes away, suddenly ashamed. “I’m sorry, my lord. I was afraid. I did not want to die in the Pool of the Old God.”
He sighed. “I see,” he said, his voice softened. “Then it seems we are unable to defeat him by force. You say that he has offered to leave us if we discover his name, so that is what we must do. Councilor Dreka, we must consult all of the oldest, wisest men in the kingdom, all of the scholars and historians. Surely someone must know the name of the dark god that was once worshiped here.”
And so men were sent out in search of the name, questioning all the wise ones they could find, but the name was not to be found. It seemed to have been erased from the kingdom entirely, purged from it when King Hazak had taken this land and raised Poseidon in its place.
With a heavy heart, Ayanna wandered the castle, lamenting the horrors she had brought down upon their kingdom. She soon found herself in the main courtyard again, staring up at that fiendish Pool that seemed be an ever-present sword above her neck. It seemed to be mocking her, telling her that this time there would be no escape. The metal cover was over the well, but she could still hear the awful creatures stirring within, hungry for the taste of flesh.
She was certain now that the Pool was once used to sacrifice maidens to the very same god that now laid siege to their land, and as she stood there staring at the hellish thing, something from the past popped into her head. She began wandering the courtyard, searching.
As a child, Ayanna’s mother used to bring her here during criminal executions, sending her out to pick the pockets of those gathered to watch the grisly event. Inevitably, though, she would get bored, and wander off to play with the other children. The courtyard was like a forest, the entire thing their gigantic playground, but there was one place in the courtyard they all feared to go. Tucked away in one of the back corners, long forgotten and hidden away behind years of vegetative growth, was a door. It was covered in strange markings, the grotesque images of hideous, fish-like monsters. The children said it was a doorway to hell itself.
Ayanna found the door again, and began yanking away the layers of vines and leaves that covered it. She heaved and strained and shoved at the door. It opened in a massive cloud of dust, revealing a steep, spiral staircase that descended into darkness.
She pulled a torch from the castle wall, and began making her way down into that cold, black pit. The stairs seemed to go on forever. Pieces broke off under her feet, threatening to send her plummeting to her doom. She could hear the skittering and screeching of rats inside the walls. Eventually, the staircase ended, and a brick archway opened upon a cave containing a large underground lake.
Ayanna entered the cave and walked to the edge of the water, holding out her torch. Rising out of the middle of that foul, black water was an enormous white monolith. It was covered in the same loathsome hieroglyphs—fish, eels and octopus of the normal and nightmarish varieties, as well as the same abhorrent sea-monsters that now plagued their city—as the door at the top of the stairs and the necklaces worn by the dark god himself. It looked like something that was made to be worshiped.
And carved into the top of the monolith was a name.
Ayanna smiled. “Can you hear me, Nameless One?” she called out, her voice echoing off the cave walls. “I know you can. I know you are always listening. Well, I have found what you have asked for, what you thought I could never find. And now you are nameless no longer, for I name thee Dagon, Dark God of the Seas.”
At first there was only silence. And then her answer came in the form of haunting laughter that seemed to be coming from everywhere at once. Her eyes searched every shadow, but found nothing.
“And so you did, Whore Queen. And I suppose you now expect me to leave your land, taking my warriors with me.”
“Yes!” she shouted into the darkness. “That was our agreement and you must honor it.”
“What do you know about honor?” This time the voice came from directly behind her. She spun around to find Dagon standing behind her, a sardonic grin on his hideous grey face. “You’re a whore, a thief, and a liar. You refused to honor your original agreement with me, why should I honor mine with you?”
“Because every action has a consequence,” a familiar voice called out. Ayanna turned to see her husband coming down the stairs with several of his knights close behind. Someone must have seen her pass through the door in the courtyard and went to find him. “And my wife has fulfilled her part of the bargain.”
Dagon scoffed at the comment. “I gave your queen great power—the power to turn straw into gold, the power to save your kingdom—and she offers me nothing in return but a name.”
“There is great power in a name,” the king said. “The power to strike fear into the heart of one’s enemy, the power to slander a man, to steal his identity…the power to become immortal. But that’s what you were after all along, wasn’t it? This was never about a baby or a war—you wanted us to find your name, to be remembered, to live forever in the hearts and minds of the people.”
A sly smile slid across Dagon’s thick, grey lips. “A god cannot continue to live if forgotten. He must be remembered, worshiped.”
“You used me!” Ayanna shouted.
“We used each other, Whore Queen.”
Anger flashed across the king’s face. “You have what you came for, monster. Now it’s time for you to leave.” He drew his sword, his knights quickly following suit. “For a god to break his word would render him mortal. And then your life would end by my blade.”
The dark god hissed at him, showing two rows of jagged, shark-like teeth. “You dare draw steel on me, mortal?” His eyes lingered on the blades, assessing them silently, and then he quickly regained his composure. “Very well,” he said. “I will keep my word, and we will leave your kingdom. Now that this land knows my name once more it is only a matter of time before the people begin to worship me, before the well above runs red in my name. As long as even one man knows my name, I can never die.” With a final smirk, his body dissolved into a pool of putrid water, and retreated back into the lake.
And so the war ended, and the Deep Ones returned to the sea. Ayanna’s power to spin straw into gold was gone, but with the stockpile they had amassed, the kingdom would continue to survive. Ayanna never again saw the dark god, Dagon. But it wasn’t long before she began to hear rumors, whispers of late night rituals, eerie chanting coming from town on the darkest of evenings. The fish began to return to the sea.
And every so often Ayanna would enter the courtyard at first light to find the cover missing from that horrible Pool of the Old God…and blood in the water.
David A. Anthony was born and raised in southwest Michigan but now resides in the Pacific Northwest with his wife. Having been a fan of dark fiction all his life, he now writes horror, sci-fi, and fantasy of the darker varieties. He is an avid reader, movie fan, and frequent traveler. His short stories can be found in several anthologies and magazines, and he is currently at work on his first novel. Find out more about him and his work at: davidaanthony.wordpress.com.
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Story illustration by Peter Szmer.