The bleak, dead ground gave way to a grey-blue sea, covered by a thick layer of clouds so nearly matched that it was difficult to say where water ended and sky began. From high on the hill, the Emperor looked out at the desolation before him. He still retained that command presence of his younger days, though there were no armies for him to lead; no more battles to be fought.
Pain stabbed him in the gut and he cursed at no one in particular. He knew what the doctors would say, but he had heard it all before. He did not trust these men, who for all he knew might well be employed by his captors to poison him.
The waves crashed on the rocks below. To others it might have been beautiful, but to the Emperor, the sea was an infuriating thing—the thing that imprisoned him now, and the thing which had reduced him to this state. How he despised this foul, stinking expanse!
The sky grew darker, and he knew that the sun must be sinking fast behind the looming clouds. It was only a matter of time before someone from the house came looking for him. He who had earned the right to reign over the greatest of dominions, now reduced to being watched over like a naughty child!
He turned and pulled his cloak tightly around him. The air grew cold, and he thought of retreating to the house and soaking himself in a bath. Perhaps that would soothe the agony wracking his stomach as well.
As he walked back along the narrow path, he saw a figure approaching out of the gloom. At first, he thought it was one of the soldiers of his captors, clad in a red uniform. But as he neared, he saw the figure wore no clothing, but that its very flesh was of a deep blood-red from head to toe.
The Emperor drew sharply to a halt and stood erect. He had seen this figure before, when at the very zenith of his power, and its reappearance here, on this dead, forgotten rock, sent a wave of fear through him.
The Red Man continued his approach, his features becoming clearer even in the gloom of evening. The Emperor thought, not for the first time, that there was a subtle glow about the creature, like a hot iron in a fire.
The figure was tall and muscular, with a body that resembled an adult human male, but longer limbs and huge spindly hands. He was larger, the Emperor felt certain, than when he had seen him last.
But it was the face that frightened him, for it had a human mouth and nose, but no eyes; only folds of skin that covered the sockets. And yet—and this was the really horrible thing—the creature moved as though it could see everything before it! The Emperor had questioned it on previous meetings, and there could be no doubt that it possessed the power of sight.
“Good evening,” the creature said, in the growling, throaty baritone the Emperor so despised.
“Why have you come here?” the Emperor asked, masking his fear with anger. “Have you not finished toying with me already?”
A hideous smile curled the lips of the thing before him, and it licked its lips with that damned thin tongue.
“If you would be angry with anyone, it should be yourself,” the thing answered back. “It is you who failed to accomplish what was laid out.”
“Damn!” the Emperor barked. He wondered if this was all some fever dream, or a vision brought on by the doctors’ vile medicines. “I did not fail! Circumstances were against me—maybe arranged so by you, perhaps, with all your damned trickery!”
The creature smiled broader still. “Unwilling to accept your own failings, eh? Well, well, it’s all the same in the end. If you could not defeat the armies of men arrayed before you, how could you ever hope to hold a higher power still?”
This insult filled the Emperor with rage, and he moved forward to lash out at the apparition before him, but in an instant, it vanished, reappearing on a rocky outcropping overhead, out of the Emperor’s grasp.
“Ah,” the creature called mockingly after the fuming man before him. “As ever, success remains just beyond your reach.”
“Hang you!” the Emperor cried. “What is it you want, you wretched thing? Why do you torment me here, after all I did to appease your whims?”
The creature chuckled. “Ah, your majesty, I feed upon the sufferings of men; the floods of blood let loose when your armies clash! The horror and suffering your wars visit upon all mankind. You have played your part ably in that realm, that I’ll grant ye!”
“And now,” the red monster continued. “I shall be off. I doubt that we shall see one another again on this side of the border, but who knows? They have wars on the other side as well; mayhap I’ll see you there. But till then, fare thee well, O little Emperor!”
With that, there was a flash of lightning, and a tremendous crash of thunder, and the Emperor was thrown to the ground. He was blinded by the pure, hot white light, and time seemed to slow to a crawl, and suddenly he saw, as if through a thin fog, visions of men dead and dying on smoky fields, screaming for their mothers as scavenger birds pecked at their flesh. He saw mobs clamoring for food before being cut apart by artillery fired at the commands of those who dwelt in the distant castles. He saw an endless frozen wasteland, littered with bodies frozen in agonized silent death-cries. He saw all this, and felt sure that he must have died, and come to the heart of Hell itself.
But gradually, his sight returned, and before him he saw the dark and rocky island landscape, just as it had been before, though the Red Man was nowhere in sight.
“Your Majesty!” a voice called from the darkness. He looked towards his residence and saw his servants rushing towards him. “Your Majesty, are you injured?”
“No,” he replied, struggling to his feet, still casting about wildly for the frightful thing that had haunted him. “No, I am as well as ever a man can be upon this wretched rock.”
“Come inside, your Majesty,” the servant urged, throwing his arm around him. “It is a night of evil repute on this island, and it does not do to linger after sunset.”
“No,” the Emperor agreed, clutching at his still-writhing stomach. “No, it doesn’t.”
Heading over to the story within the story!