In the dark void of the galaxy, between stars and planets, a fleet of ten thousand ships hurled through space. The black ships hid from starlight. Darker than nights, one with the void, they carried within them hundreds of thousands of souls picked from the decay of humanity into the world of Zothique.
A black slime dripped from the walls of Dante’s cell and a putrid smell of iron and vomit filled the air. Sweat soaked him. The heat of the dark-matter engines had seeped into the ship and the fumes of human waste and tears and blood enveloped him. He wiped his forehead with his wet shirt.
“Identify yourself.” An ersatz voice commanded, echoing through the endless halls of cages. A violet sliver of light shined outside his cell, ruining his night vision, and he was unable to see the giant automaton peering into his cell.
“Dante Dituri, from planet Zezziro.” He said.
“Record not found.” The monotonous voice said.
A moment of silence passed. The violet light scanned the tiny cell from side to side. A woman cried in the distance. Dante shifted backwards, and there, in the silence and the shining light, and for the shortest of moments, he recalled the sunrise near his home.
“Alert!” The automaton erupted, its voice blaring through countless speakers in the city-sized ship. “Alert! Unknown individual in cell block 2-4-1-7!”
“Alert!” The alarm continued, repeating its message.
Dante raised to his feet, unsure of what was happening.
“Dante Dituri! Dante Dituri!” He yelled at the machine in front, thinking it hadn’t registered his words before.
An ear-piercing scream vibrated through the air and through him, and he covered his ears attempting to drown out the screeching sound. He knew what it was. It was the slaver priests screaming, coming to a decision, filling the ship with their inhuman voice. The intensity of it permeated everything. His eyes began to shake and his bones trembled. He toppled to the ground and squirmed, and his stomach emptied its contents spasmodically. His ear drums shook, and he thought they would explode. He screamed too, and when the sound-waves were about to liquefy his innards, there was silence.
His eyes watered. His mouth dripped a brown goo. A ringing in his ears echoed through his brain, and he looked up again, to the metal beast outside his cell.
“Sacrifice.” The monotonous voice said, opening the gate to his cell.
“No!” Dante wailed. “I’m a mechanic!”
The giant automaton illuminated him with its ultraviolet vision rays and grabbed his head with its metal fist.
“You are condemned to Black Mountain.”
The kilometer high gate of the Darkship creeped open as they landed on Zothique. The iron-red twilight of the planet inundated the enormous chamber where the prisoners and slaves and automatons awaited. Dante had been given a front-row seat to the spectacle of the last planet he would see. He had been chained with heavy shackles to a long row of offerings. There was an old man to his right, a blind thin boy to his left, and countless other frail men and women bound to them.
He stared out, wide-eyed, to masses upon masses of what seemed like armies, but he soon understood they were others just like him. Innumerable groups of hundreds of souls marched to the horizon. An uninterrupted stream of people moving from the Darkships to the edge of the world. Above them, in the distance, where the sky met the ground rose a mountain so tall its peak stood above the thin saffron clouds and blended with the void of space. Black Mountain. It was waiting for him.
Never had Dante seen such a sight, such imposing architecture of a world. A strange urge flooded him, and he was compelled to look. Behind him, the army of giant automatons issued orders to the slaves, the priests watched from above with dark robes and hidden faces, and the slaves obeyed and walked.
He didn’t want to die, but he didn’t want to leave. What mysteries lie upon that peak? What secrets is it keeping? For the first time Dante felt his existence reduced to the one of a speck of dust. He walked across the lands, whipped, bleeding from his back and neck, the same way a grain of sand swims in an ocean: Without will, thrashing about with the current, to an ever darker place.
It had been one month since Dante had left the Darkship that had pried him from his home. Night had descended on Zothique and he sat resting halfway up Black Mountain. The old man shackled to him had died three days before. They ate him, bones and all. The beasts can smell the dead, the slaves rumored, and each time a man dropped dead there was a feast. The priests let it happen. The automatons ignored it. The slaves enjoyed it.
There was a howling in the distance. It had been getting louder as they moved closer to the peak. Dante wondered if only he could hear it. No one seemed preoccupied by it, and the thirst and hunger made his mind a blur.
“Hey.” He whispered to the blind boy next to him. “I can’t wait to get there.”
“You’re gonna die up there, you know?” The boy said.
“Yeah… There’s no escape, anyway. I just want to know what’s up there. Can you hear that?” He paused. “Do you hear the howling? Listen, shh… listen.”
The slow wind blew. The snoring and the shuffling blended with the silence. The steps of the automatons echoed, and then, in an instant when everything was quiet, a wretched howl made its way from above the sparse clouds into their camp.
“Yes.” The boy said. “I’ve been hearing it for days.”
“What do you think it is?”
“Silence.” A giant spoke, shining its violet light upon them.
“Monstrous creatures.” The boy whispered. “The kind that snatch you in your sleep and rip your eyes out while you watch.” He pointed to his missing eyes and then he curled into a ball and slept, and in his dreams he shivered.
“I can see everything.” The blind boy said, standing at the top of Black Mountain. The ground was tinged maroon. A red and brown sludge pooled around them, and it flowed slowly into a pit a short distance away. Before the boy there was a man with a helmet made of human bones and glowing eyes, the executioner, and he recited a passage in an unknown tongue. A large sickle rested in his hands.
Dante had never experienced a view such as that. The ground seemed more distant than the stars. Vertigo took over him in waves and he breathed in to maintain balance. The wind was freezing. His nostrils cracked as his mucus became solid. He didn’t want to turn to his companion, to the blind boy about to be drained of blood. Dante thought he owed him that. He had promised to watch as they killed him the night before. But the future had taken him by surprise, and now the present made no sense. So he did not turn.
The man with the bone helmet yelled three last words into the wind, and the wind carried the words down the paths of the mountain to the myriad slaves coming from below. The sickle cut through the air with force, and then through the chest, stomach, and groin of the boy, spilling his organs, and then the howl came. Dante realized there were no monstrous beasts up there. The howling he had been hearing were the dying screams of the sacrificed, but there, at the top of Zothique the boy’s howls passed through him and his mind went blank.
“Next.” A giant automaton blared, and it took Dante by his arm, carried him like a rag-doll and placed him before the man with the sickle. The glowing eyes pierced his own, and his spine burned, and his bones locked up, and his mouth tasted of metal.
A massive cloud swirled above them. A blinding bolt of lightning struck the ground, its shockwave sending black-robed men into the air on fire. A deafening thunder roared. The screeching screams of the slaver priests echoed through the mountain, and there was chaos. Black capes moved from one place to the next, like demons escaping the eternal light. The shackled slaves pleaded for their lives and the automatons sprang to action, their ultra violet vision rays scanning their surroundings. From the heavens fell a rugged man with an immense war ax, swinging it, ripping through the atmosphere of Zothique. Dante stood stupefied at the sight of the executioner cut perfectly in half at his feet with his intestines hanging and his blood pouring.
Vathek stared at Dante, with his vixens screaming and one foot crushing the man of the sickle, and handed him an ax.
“Take your revenge. Kill them all.”