Queen of the Dead

Dorothy J. Heydt

The sight from the top of the ridge was as she'd feared---worse than she had feared; she could not have made this up. All the men from the Mamertine ship lay sprawled along the sand, not in drifts like drowned men washed up with the high tide, but each separately, as if each had decided separately to lie down in his tracks and die there. She examined each man as she wandered among them: none was breathing, none had a heartbeat; all were beginning to grow cold. She found Komi, barely breathing, draped like a cloak over the man whose shortsword he had just picked up. Its hilt lay across his fingertips, sturdily bound with bronze wire, across fingers slender as reeds and callused with ropes and hard work. Cynthia took off the ring---and held her breath waiting for something to happen, but nothing happened---and slipped it onto Komi's finger, but there was no change.

He had fallen, as the mercenary he'd robbed had fallen, almost on the lip of a shallow pit floored with smooth sand. The place smelled of sulfur and of rotten things, and she remembered what Komi had said: You can wander into pockets of the stuff in any little dip in the ground. Maybe, if she got him away quickly enough, he could revive ... unless she had lingered here too long herself, for the air was darkening around her and as she looked into the pit it seemed no longer shallow and floored with sand. It was as deep as a grave, as deep as the throat of Aetna, and far down below there was the uneasy movement of little flames. Cynthia felt herself poured out and swallowed down that throat as smoothly as wine.

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