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The Dead Kings

(translated by David Bowles)

“The first time I saw my parents cry in silence, I knew that I was now an adult.

“They didn’t see me, of course. They hid in order to weep. But when you’re six years old, you tend to discover everything your parents try to keep from you.

“They had built a beautiful life for me out of fantasies and true happiness, but it was impossible to hide the bones scattered in the streets and the smell of rot curdling in the alleys.

“They could not protect me from my schoolmates, who boasted of their writs of safe-conduct (although in reality they were lying or only had provisional permits of such a low category that they meant nothing to the specters that hunted the young with impunity).

“They could not protect me from the green centipedes that crossed the cobblestones with their eyeless riders, skittering silently and killing silently.

“They could much less protect me from my nightmares, which arrived inexorably each night, though I tried to stay awake by reading as long as possible, hidden under the sheets with a lamp. As if the light of an oil lamp could stave off those living shadows!

“Every midnight those shadows randomly entered some of my neighbors’ houses to twist their foundations, their walls, even their furniture and their residents, and leave everything turned in on itself, like horrifying and hypnotic statues, nothing more than columns of spiraled flesh, brick and wood.

“Had not seen, with my own eyes, night turn into day? The black clouds covering the sun? The lightning that thundered, dark and ungleaming, until the ground itself trembled?

“And the terrified people. More terrified than I had never seen my parents, who had never looked away from the passage of the centipedes or from the curving monoliths left by the shadows or from the threat of the flying specters.

“Until that day, when I saw them weep in silence.

“Their crime, like that of all who had been branded, was simply thinking differently (was it ever not so?).

“My mother was born a ‘witch,’ according to the Codex of Kings, or ‘intuitor,’ as the peasants reverently called her kind. And she was wise, very wise.

“My father, well, he was simply a brave man in a world of cowards.

“That day they had burned the old grimoires in secret, as well as the dangerous papers, those that spoke of alchemy, or of other kingdoms with living kings or even without kings. Then they had buried the ashes at the four corners of the farm, almost as if the power released from those old spells could protect our family more than the very disappearance of the forbidden texts.

“If caught with those texts in our possession, we could have been sent to the other side, without trial or possibility of any defense.

“And sooner or later, someone would have reported us.

“Our town was small, but with metropolitan ambitions. That meant too much fear and too much mediocrity gathered in a single enclave. We called it The Column, a place where swords were forged and chickens raised. A minor milestone along the Wide Road, neither very close to nor very far from the powerful and great city of Aer, seat of government for Argyros.

“In Aer dwelled the Dead Kings; but it was said that they were not confined to the Mansion of Roses, where the three sat on a single abused and putrid couch. Word had it that what remained of their minds—a viscous substance corroded by hatred—saw everything, heard everything, judged everything.

“As a result, the good people of The Column spoke very quietly, almost in whispers, always ate under a black cloth, and fornicated with the lights off and only during the new moon.

“The Dead Kings ruled in triumvirate, surrounded by the smell of roses that burst forth dead from the huge branches of thorns that twined around their throne, the mansion, the church, the treasure room, and the square crowned by the mockery of a statue symbolizing freedom.

“And each time one of them died anew, the three grew stronger and stronger.

“That’s why they would kill each other. Or maybe it was an expression of the pure hatred that moved them, because they had never known how to do anything but destroy. But the truth is that with each death they became more powerful.

“The green centipedes and their blind riders provided them with a solid supply of delinquents, defilers, and heretics. That is, a good number of people who opposed them, who thought differently or who simply had been in the wrong place when the riders had passed.

“The great birds of the Mistaken God, whose silver feathers could kill just by falling near a human being, spent day and night hurling as offerings those poor condemned souls—men and women, young and old—into the mouth of the River of Clay.

“In the midst of that slow and stormy river, churning like thick honey, rumor claimed there was an Endless Appetite, a Nameless Thing that swallowed heretics, apostates and criminals to take them to the mythical other side, where they simply disappeared.

“A much crueler fate, however, awaited the children. They were raised by the families of the Dead Kings, by their acolytes and members of their court: beings covered in mold and fungus, deformed and parasitic, their existence solely sustained by extracting life from the truly alive. In those cold homes, redolent of dampness and frozen history, the children grew up, starving and ignorant, until they too became moldy or grew old enough to try to flee into the arms of those who still searched for them.

“When I was six years old, I began to pray to the god of the ash tree that stood at the edge of our farm, and to the god of the cross that hung on the walls, and to the god of the stars that cover everything. I was too young to protect my parents. But it was obvious that they were as helpless as I was.

“By the grace of some power I do not understand, perhaps the spirits of friends who had gone to the other side and returned as protective angels, we endured many years of famine, fear, pain, and gnashing of teeth. We came through unharmed. My one solace were the few hidden books that we had kept and that taught me there were other kingdoms, other skies, roses that bloomed alive and even without thorns.

“When I was old enough to fight, I tried to learn the arcane arts, heedless of the ban. For years I hid among the remains of the ancient monsters, immense caves filled with the petrified bones of old dragons and other astonishing creatures. I ate whatever I could trap with my hands or could exchange for my pitiable labor, and I took my meager meals under the shadow of those colossal bones, with their huge tails and tiny arms, their horns and their defensive plates, my powerful but impotent allies.

“At night, I could hear the sounds of starving animals roaming the labyrinthine forest, creatures as hungry and debased as their human victims.

“Years later, I managed to hide within a vast library buried in the very heart of Aer. There dwelled innumerable ghosts that, in exchange for a little blood, would reveal their secrets like Tiresias or Odysseus.

“Then, one day, I finally came out into the light and began to forge the worlds that you now see held within these spheres. They are universes born of my will. As you already know, you can enter them as often as you like, but I warn you that you will never emerge from one without having first changed profoundly.”

I took the colored sphere Grandfather was handing me.

He wasn’t actually my grandfather, but that’s what I’d called him for as long as I could remember.

He loved to tell scary stories of witches and the like. This tale, however, had seemed especially fantastic and overly violent compared to his accustomed narratives.

I said nothing to him, of course. I would never have offended him with such a banal observation. I nodded, my pipe still in my mouth, and then exhaled the copper smoke of tobacco and anise.

Very fanciful, I remember thinking.

What a fool I was!

Of course there had never been any forests or castles surrounded by thorn bushes with dead roses here in Aer. There weren’t even any peasants. It was a modern, vital place, if too hot in summer for my taste and too rainy in winter.

The only centipedes I knew of were the harmless articulated buses so nicknamed, and there had never been a monarchy, just the typical corporate oligarchy of the modern era.

And the burst of light that tore me from my reverie, well it was sunlight reflected off a skyscraper!

I wrapped this new sphere with my black raincoat, taking care to leave the company brand in sight (come, you’re nobody if your clothes don’t show off the logo of the corporation that makes them!).

I really didn’t want water to spoil that remnant of other times: a “hand-woven” story, written in glass and vapor by a human, and not by a machine. I would rather get my LCU™ angora pullover soaked or ruin my BAC™ cashmere jacket made with M-BAC™ transgenic Tibetan goat wool.

I paid for my CU™ double coffee—black and sugar-free—and also the . . . something cognac . . . what was it . . . oh, how I hate forgetting brands! Such a clear sign of inelegance! Ah, well, the cognac that Grandfather had been sipping. Actually, I paid for two, so he could drink the other after I had left.

I kissed Grandfather’s hand (I truly admire him), waved to the now well-known waiter of the Borzoi Café, and ran out in the rain that slickened the greenish bronze tiles of the sidewalks.

My building was just a few blocks away, and I crossed them at a run, trying futilely to avoid slipping. I told myself the urgency was just a reaction to the rain, an obvious desire not to get soaked. But in truth there was something else behind that childish running. I was afraid

It was an irrational fear, without object and almost without subject. A kind of tremor like the one you feel when drums rumble or an electric battery hums; something primitive, something alien to me, but nestling within me all the same.

By the time I climbed the three flights of marble stairs and opened my old walnut door, I was drenched in sweat. I leaned against the door, relieved, and locked it without turning around.

With the lights off, I crossed the room and went straight to the kitchen. I sat on a barstool and took out the sphere. Something wasn’t right. The other spheres I’d bought from Grandfather, displayed on the mantel of my gas fireplace, swirled with bright colors or patterns of milky white and asphalt black. Some were completely transparent, though, and one was gilded. But this sphere glowed with a sickly, fungus-green hue, like the moss that grows on the stones of some long-forgotten path.

I set it carefully on a square of cotton cloth and walked away without giving it the initial scrutiny with which I typically honored every new story that entered my apartment and my life.

I headed for the bathroom, desperately wanting a shower, but as soon as I turned my back on the sphere, my fear returned.

I entered the bathroom, grabbed a standard UCC™ towel, and threw it over the sphere, hiding it.

More than anything, the thing reminded me of the crystal ball of some old crone who attempts to read an uncertain future.

The shower, my canned dinner heated in the nanowave, and a few hours of holovision (the usual: the news channel that owned all vegetable foods, public transport and 5% of the government; a game show produced by the corporation that managed healthcare, pharmaceuticals, hamburger chains and 0.3% of the world government; and finally, a romantic movie based on the book written by the AI that also designed military drones and recyclable waste bags, owner of 11% of the local government), all calmed me down.

I finally went to sleep, but something would not let me rest, not even with an extra tablet of the most fashionable sleep drug.

I could not stop thinking about the images that had coalesced in my head as Grandfather had sold me his story. If what he called a brief “back-cover” description (whatever that means) had gotten me so agitated, what could I expect from the story itself?

I got up in the middle of the night, pulled the sphere out from under the towel, and took it to the bedroom.

For some reason it seemed appropriate to crawl under the sheets with it. Of course, I would not need a flashlight to read it.

I placed, as usual, both hands on its smooth surface. Yet this time I felt something pricking me, like a roughness hidden under the glass.

The texture had barely registered with me when the light shifted towards that sort of fluorescent or neon green, typical of a liquid reagent, which has always hurt my eyes.

Then suddenly I was there, in The Column, enduring the ridicule of my classmates and the injustices of some ignorant teachers. I was also in the forest, wounded, hungry, sensing the roar or slow ululation of some unknown beast that stalked me as I ran in desperation. I could even feel the oozing presence of the Dead Kings every time I entered a village. An unstoppable need to flee from their reach pushed me toward the plains or the caves or any place that lay far from civilization.

The story was long, at times horrifying, like when I saw a man merge with the metal truss he was leaning against, and with his dog as well, while the living shadows danced around him and twisted him more and more and more. Then, as I approached, I could see the man’s eye, detached, embedded in the iron, still alive, still moving and seeing me, and I heard the suffering of a broken dog whimpering from the bleeding gaps in the man’s spine, twisted down below, as if it formed the base of an iron pilaster.

The story finally ended, and I came out of it with the sensation of thorns digging into my flesh and the nauseating smell of dead roses blooming on my face.

I yanked the sheets aside with frantic movements. For a moment I imagined I was still in that nightmare realm, wrapped in some sort of giant spider web, in front of a jeering crowd that threw jewels and chocolates at me while my hands and feet froze to the point of falling off.

I ran away from the bed. Far from the sphere. Out of the nightmare.

What had happened to Grandfather? Why had he written something like that?

I shivered remembering his words: “I warn you that you will never emerge from one without having first changed profoundly.”

God, I did not want this thing I had read to change me! What I did want with all my strength was to forget it. Forget the story completely. Bury it far from my mind and my memories. Get rid of it forever.

Like a sleepwalker I went to the living room. I grabbed a glass and filled it with an unwise quantity of Vodka UCM™.

Or was it CU™?

What was happening to me? How could I forget something like that? How could I forget the truly important things, like the corporation that made my favorite vodka, because of a stupid story?

Air. I needed fresh air!

I went to the balcony, took a deep breath to clear my mind, and then lit my pipe.

The rain had stopped and the street gleamed black, like uncut diamonds under the streetlamps, while the bronze paths glinted here and there despite the verdigris. I remembered that bluish green covering a dome, atop a white marble building that did not exist. It was not in the story, I could’ve sworn, but nonetheless I remembered it.

“CON-gress,” I mumbled. I had no idea what the word meant, but it seemed important.

I rubbed a hand over my face while holding my pipe with the other. Something scratched my skin, akin to what I had felt when I started reading Grandfather’s sphere.

I looked at my palm. There now was a mark, as if a fiery brand had been pressed into my hand. It was a circle, and within that circle, another, and within it, another. If I hadn’t known that such a thing was impossible, I might have sworn that the circles were infinite. Eternal repetitions of the same figure, one inside the other.

For some reason I was terrified of that mark, that . . . brand.

A brand, I thought. But a brand of what?

I set my pipe aside and leaned against the cold black iron railing of the balcony. It was darkest night, the very witching hour.

God, why did I keep thinking such absurdities?

I thanked Heaven when an articulated bus came up the street. Yes, I needed that bit of normality.

But then my whole world fell apart.

I looked at my pipe. No, I wasn’t drugged.

Little by little the reddish bus was altering its color, becoming something like a caterpillar, a huge green caterpillar. The tires flattened, and the black rubber split into thousands of cilia. Feet.

On its back now sat a driver, dressed in armor, wielding a pike. He had no helmet, just an enormous face . . . without eyes.

I backed up and hid behind the curtains, but it was too late. The rider had noticed me and turned his eyeless face in my direction.

I stumbled into my apartment. The shadows cast by the furniture in the light of the streetlamps seemed to move by themselves. Suddenly the sofa twisted like a corkscrew in front of my eyes.

From the labels of my pajamas a viscous liquid began to drip, oozing murmurs into the air, obscure words that tried to touch my mind, read it, enter it.

I ripped off all my clothes until I stood there naked.

Soon the sludge was oozing from all my garments’ trademark labels.

With a deafening roar, the spheres on the mantel shattered as the false fireplace twisted, taking with it part of the wall, a rug, and the neighbor’s yowling cat, which slept against that same wall in the adjacent apartment.

I opened the door and ran down the stairs.

I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know where to go. I was conscious of being naked in the middle of the street, but the fear of this transfigured world made that fact unimportant.

Then a fatal idea occurred to me: transfigured or unmasked?

I thought I saw Grandfather’s eyes peering out from behind a dumpster just inside the alley. I ran to him, screaming for help.

Would they think I was crazy? I didn’t care. I wanted someone to get me out of there, even the police if necessary. I would explain things later. Right now I had to escape.

Escape. That was my one and only goal.

A light fell on me from above. It was clear and blinding. I felt the blades of a small transport drone swirling the air. I calmed myself and started waving. The police drone would get me out of there. Of course, it would take me to station, where they would process me and put me in a cell, but at least I would be safe. Then I could explain my case to the judge. Or they could send me to a psychiatrist to cure me, if all this was just a bout of insanity.

But as the light descended, the noise of the blades became more uniform and sharper, until finally it resolved into a screech.

A screech like that of a bird of prey.

When I attempted to flee, I felt the claws of a colossal silver bird clutch at my shoulders and lift me upward. Every few moments, a discharge of electricity would surge through my body, making me shake and convulse in the air. I quickly lost control of my bowels and vomit covered my chest. Naked, humiliated, tortured, I was carried slowly over the main avenue of Aer by the bird. Nobody seemed to see me.

As we approached the Corporate Pavilion, on Mayeo Square, I began to perceive a trio of voices in my head: they wanted me to confess something. To tell them who Grandfather was. To renounce what I had seen.

The smell of putrid roses made me dizzier than the pain itself.

Suddenly I saw them: three dead kings upon a single throne.

They wore no purple cloaks or mink stoles, but suits and ties. They were easy to spot. They faced the largest and most opulent window of the huge glass skyscraper.

They weren’t even that high up. Any pedestrian should have made them out.

Their crown, just one for all three, was completely rusted or perhaps covered with dried blood.

How was it that nobody ever noticed them? Why had I never seen them before?

The bird carried me, with its electric shocks, circling the building several times. But I did not answer the voices. Not because I was brave, but because I had nothing to say.

Because I had never had anything to say.

Then the bird changed its route. It flew over an elegant neighborhood full of moldy people. It flew over a wooded area, half burned, inhabited by sickly folk with hoes and cars, chicken coops and cell phones.

And then I understood.

The three Dead Kings were real. They had never left. They would never truly leave. They would always rule in a place where death and dead things were worshipped more than life.

I knew immediately where the bird was taking me.

I knew, and suddenly I was no longer afraid.

The brown river below us was moving slower and slower, as if its viscosity increased as we moved away from the coast. Gradually that fierce but sluggish current began to weave itself into a vortex.

The vortex was huge, black, and seemed to have no end.

A hungry mouth, forever unsatisfied.

Seeing it from that height, suspended over its very center, was like seeing nothing. The most absolute nothing. Neither death nor life. Nothing.

I would vanish here. And I was certain that no one, no one, would remember me.

Maybe Grandfather would. Yes, perhaps he would. That was a consolation.

Finally, the claws released me. And the only thing I could think of as I fell toward the inexorable swirl was that somewhere, in some forgotten cemetery, a simple cenotaph upon an empty grave would preserve my name, along with an epitaph that terrified me more than my destiny in the depths of that nameless abyss:

“He must have done something.”

Originally published in Spanish as “Los Reyes Muertos” in Dark Fantasies, edited by Mariano Villarreal.

About the Author

South American author Teresa P. Mira de Echeverría’s short stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Axxón, and other magazines. “The Dead Kings” is a highly-symbolic, surrealist story inspired by the dictatorship in 1970s Argentina.