Starless Imperium

Morgan Argor Strange, Science Fiction Horror Author

The Jester of Arathos

Sepulcher of Strange Illustration by artist Kristian Argor Strange for author Morgan Argor Strange's story The Prince of Murk and Rot

The Jester of Arathos

By Morgan Argor Strange

Bones illustration by Kristian Strange

By the time I came of age, most of Demiurge Marduk’s spawn had fled back to the infinite night: Only ten of them remained, haunting the boundless, vacant white citadels of Arathos, which would later become the Ever-Forbidden City of Raizalarian legend. They called themselves the Agamyr in those days, though men would later know them as the Black Gods when they faded into the annals of history.

But when Myra’s nightmare tendrils softened into the visage of a beautiful young redhead for the very first time, I was there to wipe the slime off her pale rosy cheeks and tie up her gown. And long before Hermestra’s golden curls were braided tightly with the tendrils of a thousand undead armies, I was bathing her feet every night in a marble basin brimming with the finest herbs a worm like me could gather.

They created me with the tenderness of their own flesh and bone—or so they whispered to guilt me when I took too long to fetch their wine casks. Still, I was but a lowly half-breed, neither man nor god, and my entire existence was nothing but a finite, crumbling morsel between razor-sharp claws they constantly forced me to file and polish. I was cursed with the “honor” of dwelling in their forbidden city as their humble servant until the streams of time ran dry, with all the hopeless longing that immortality brought, but none of the revelry. A wraith drowning in eternal banality in the shadow of their glory, tasked with sweeping the dust off the marble at their never-ending grand macabre dance.

Naturally, like all servants, I spent most of my days imagining what it would feel like to rest upon those elegant leaf-clad golden thrones rather than to scrub them.

They called me a Syndragorean, the byproduct of the blood of Agamyr smeared through the swamp pits outside the city’s walls, and that’s why my skin was pallid and grey instead of brimming with infernal radiance like theirs. But my face was forever painted ghastly white, with gaping black triangles swallowing up my eyes. In the far future, my style would be known by the Grim Kings as the corpse paint of the court jester. But in those days, the Agamyr forced those colors upon me to help me seamlessly disappear into their sprawling marble bedchambers and checkered ballroom floors.

But as much as desperately as they tried to stop me from standing out, they could never snuff the fire of my flowing auburn hair, like a nebula cutting through the blackness of their sick and broken kingdom: A blazing beacon of defiance in their black-and-white world where empty laughter rang forever over those soulless white monoliths. It was how they always found me, whenever I perched atop those broken-fanged towers on the rare chance I got a moment to myself.

Oh, that sprawling citadel of intertwining black archways woven past decadent, bleeding fountains of gold: It reminded me of something I could not place, something far beyond the bounds of memory, older than the sweet reprieve of death or the constricting tendrils of time.

Why should I have to carry this burden, while everyone else in all of Arathos drinks, and sings, and fucks each other into raw oblivion in a night of debauchery that never ends? I wondered with wistful, violent longing, staring off into the nothingness of the void far above—this was in the time before stars, after all—and wishing I could slip back into it forever. Why was I the only one?

Even though I was pathetically, amusingly young by Agamyrian standards, it seemed the weight of the ages bore down on my heart even more relentlessly than that thick and dripping blackness far above. If I was their spawn, and they were the children of the Starless Demiurge himself, did that make me his son by extension? Would my wild, free night at the infernal ball ever come?

I pondered it all until my head began to swim with the unmistakable, primal panic of hunger. I remembered the berries I’d stashed away, which I’d foraged earlier that evening from the vines woven between the sprawling gates of Arathos. They stained my fingers purple as I freed them from my pocket, greedily shoving them past my painted black lips, the closest thing I’d ever taste to wine.

I hurried because they’d whip me if they caught me eating the purple ones. It was the color of impurity and sickness, they said: The imprint of rot and pain on the realm of the gods, a stain from a dimension far worse than here. But despite the fearmongering lies their silver tongues wove, I savored my treat as if it was the last one in all reality.

I felt better when I ate them, stronger. It was almost as if the freedom of the Outer Worlds bled into them since they’d prospered and grown at the city gates for so long, and by eating them, I absorbed all their power. It felt sublime, almost euphoric, and for the glorious eternity of a moment I tasted what it would feel like if there were stars in the sky instead of that clawing, infinite hollowness.

But then my ears suddenly twitched at the sound of footsteps ascending the throat of the tower at my back, and the illusion of liberty slipped away as quickly as the last drop of juice down the bottom of my throat when I realized who it was: Hermestra the Reaper, Thorned Hand of Mercy—as curt, and distant, and stuffy as always.  

“Morg, what are you doing all the way up here again?” She demanded, her golden curls cascading down past her sublimely thin neck. “Valystis, he’s been searching for you since moonrise.” It was a figure of speech, of course. In Arathos, it was always twilight. 

What is it this time? I felt like snapping, but instead I simply purred in that singsong jester’s whisper: “Why?”

“His masks haven’t been polished in aeons, he said: And Myra’s gala of seven faces is mere hours away!” 

“Ah,” I somehow managed to choke out peacefully, although hate was frothing up at the bottom of my throat, boiling seamlessly into an acrid hunger that the berries could never even begin to quench.

Ah, hunger—like servitude, it was another one of the countless gifts the Agamyr had bestowed upon me when they carved me from the planet’s filth-bogged swamps. While they themselves had no need for sustenance beyond wine and pain, I myself craved a very different type of nourishment: One that the berries and fruits I foraged from the city’s numerous gardens and courtyards could never touch.

One that I longed for every time one of the Agamyr commanded me to lick their boots or scrub their floors.

“Morg?” Hermestra asked again, far less patience echoing off her multi-dimensional hiss of a voice this time.

“I’ll . . . See to it right away, Mercy,” I finally answered, wondering who would polish my masks when my hour of redemption finally came—imagining her broken and splayed open, kneeling at my feet as a living footrest, pleading for a reprieve that would never come.

To the slobbering masses of the far future, he was remembered as Valystis the Torturer, Piercer of Dimensions: But in Old Arathos, the only thing he ever truly pierced was my sanity when he called upon me for these mindless, menial tasks—night, after night, after night . . .

We stood alone in his chamber of white marble veined with gold-kissed black, flooded with swooping canopy beds and gently-trickling black pools running down from the heart of the mountain. The ceiling was as empty and vacuous as the sky outside, and the head of the chamber’s master.

Oh, what I wouldn’t give to go back to that darkness again, not as a servant, but as a king, as they were . . . As I always should have been.

But on that night, of course, I was but a humble jester, and I had no idea what was in store for myself and the Torturer both. I focused diligently on polishing a black and white mask with triangular slabs where eyes should have been, which uncannily mirrored the makeup I wore for so long that it melted seamlessly into my own face.

I was so tired of it . . . I wanted to go back so badly that it always felt like I was dreaming, even when I was awake: But back to where? I wondered, staring out the window at the white bricks stacked wrongly, forming obelisks that seemed to both pierce the sky and inject their strangeness all the way down into the heart of the world all at once.

“Morg?” Valystis’s static drawl stabbed directly into the heart of my dark subconscious, chasing my solace to the realms of distant memory. “You seem . . . distracted. Not all there, if I daresay.”

“I never have been,” I shrugged back, stoic as a sad clown should always be. My hands trembled violently as I regretfully continued to polish the flawless ceramic surface of my overlord’s false face, lovingly caressing every contour, re-learning every crevice as if I hadn’t already traced each one a thousand times.

I didn’t dare raise the relic to my face, but still, I couldn’t help but long to know what it would feel like to try it on. To try him on.

His intoxicating scent, like the ripest, bloodiest berries mixed with fog on a cold summer’s day, was slowly making me wonder how his soft black locks would feel cascading down over my own shoulders . . . How electrifying the embrace of his night-black cloak would be, caressing my own neck rather than licking my face as I crawled in its coattails . . . I needed to know how it would feel to drink, and fuck, and revel night after night after night, until the streams of time ran dry.

“I wonder if it would be like the berries . . .” I murmured, clutching the mask so viciously that my knuckles went even more ghastly white than usual. A vile and relentless ringing was now tearing through my ears, and the entire world seemed to warp and shiver, as if it were crackling down to its most basic particles and assimilating into my own blood.

As always, there was more than a twinge of pity in the Black God’s tone as he demanded, “What in Black Eternity are you muttering about this time, Morg?” He feigned civility, to be sure, but from the way he flexed his blackened gauntlet as if ready to lash out at any second, I knew he had no patience for a creature like me—none of them did, save for Myra, and I suspect it was only because in her temptress form, she too knew the pain of wearing a crown of red in a world of black and white.

What did I have to lose? I drank in his infernal glory, sizing him up, wondering if I could take him. He was twice my height at the very least, and his Terrorkinetic prowess was known and feared all the way to the bleeding edges of the Outer Worlds and back again. My chances of success were slim to none, but if I failed, what would I miss but a bed of stones at the feet of those who spent their days dreaming up new ways to crush me? I had the gift of life, to be sure, and unlike the Agamyr, my heart pounded wildly with raw excitement, and I was capable of shedding tears and dripping real blood upon the dead black marble—but what was a life spent in gilded chains without a little excitement?

They may have had everything I ever wanted, but there was one thing that clung to the inside of my chest that the Agamyr would never know—both a plague and a blessing, a nightmare and the Demiurge’s desolate embrace all in one—hunger.

“Eating you.” I finished curtly. “The berries made me stronger, so I wonder if you will too.”

At long last, I snapped the mask in two with my trembling fingers and shoving its jagged, gleaming edge straight into the Agamyr’s belly, ruthlessly raking it upward, tearing through the nothingness where his organs should have been until he fell to his knees, and my makeshift blade shattered his collarbone and rested at the base of his throat. Then I punched the broken mask with wild ferocity through his crumpled neck, refusing to back down no matter how pathetically he kicked—not retracting my weapon from the gushing wound no matter how raw and desperate the betrayal from his shock-drowned eyes quickly grew.

I was going to drink the wellspring of his blood as if from a fountain of most resplendent wine, but by some strange instinct, I bought my shivering hands to the wound of his throat instead. An ethereal, pulsing web of light was radiating weirdly between my fingertips, a light that I would someday come to know as both the single sweetest thing in all of existence, and the most painful torment a living being could possibly feel in any universe.

But there, in the Torturer’s cavernous chambers, all alone with the dying god, it was so much more than any of that:

It was the unquestionable severance of my eternal servitude, and the freedom I’d longed for since the hour I drew my first breath in the heart of the Forbidden City of old Raizalarian legend.

I almost hesitated, knowing I could never go back: But I remembered one last time what it felt like to kneel while everyone else was standing, and the mysterious light between my fingers burned brighter by the second, until its sick crimson ferocity drew the Torturer’s own immortal soul out through the void in his neck and I pinched it greedily between my long black claws.

I would never be able to perch atop the lonely white towers and dream of flinging myself off again, I realized as the essence of all Valystis ever was and ever could have been shivered in the palm of my hand, caged beneath fingers that ran with the blood of the Starless Demiurge—metal-boned instruments of torture far more resilient than any of them had ever known. I wasn’t sure if he was fighting me, or desperately seeking the comfort of another living creature’s flesh as his soul writhed helplessly in my grasp, while his husk bled out uselessly on the floor behind us.

Are you sure, brother? That’s a sin that could follow you for countless lifetimes, maybe even longer.

Myra’s singsong whisper was soon choked out by the static frenzy of the Torturer’s fear as I raised his soul to my painted black lips slowly, curiously, and caressed him with my long, forked tongue. It wasn’t the first time she’d invaded my thoughts, and up until that moment I’d always passed it off as little more than a tragic delusion—but there was something too curious, too comforting, too real about the way her words shredded through the silence of my mind as I shoved the Black God’s soul into my mouth as if it were little more than a grape plucked from a vine crawling down the city walls.   

As a disembodied soul he could not scream, but I felt a thousand tendrils of pure, white hot torment scraping the back of my throat in protest as I swallowed him down: And even though for a moment he choked all but the most fleeting wisps of my own breath, the necrotic symphony of the ages bled wild and raw from both my ears, and the once-black sky of the Torturer’s ceiling—no, of the entire forbidden city—was now alight with the fires of excitement and freedom that up until that moment I never thought I’d know.

As he sank down into the stygian pits of my innards, now no different than the berries his kind had left for me while they drowned themselves in wine at the grand macabre dance, I knew I was a clown no longer.

You can never go back, Myra’s voice intertwined seamlessly with my own screams as my entire form began to contort and boil, and my flesh sloughed off painstakingly, piece by piece, until an armored hide of vile, sick purple burst through and took its place—but soon, even that was ripped to shreds by unbreakable bones far sharper than my own had ever been, eclipsed in pain only by the peeling back of my scalp, and the eruption of flowing black hair so similar to the Torturer’s own: All that remained of my own crimson locks were the twinges of sticky blood that glimmered upon the curls.

“I don’t want to!” I screamed to no one in the Torturer’s interdimensional echo woven seamlessly with my own drawl, falling to my knees, then collapsing onto my back and succumbing to the vile transformation once and for all eternity.

I don’t know how long I laid there in that pool of festering rot, but when I awoke in a sea of scabs and dehydrated skin, with the Torturer’s old body half rotted at my side on the chamber floor, I knew that my dream had come true at last.

I staggered to my knees, kicking aside the withered corpse of my oppressor, and crumbled down against the side of the window, forever staining the black-and-white halls of the fallen god with my corrupted nightshade blood: A blood that matched the contents of my stomach when the Torturer became one with me, and the eerie, swirling nebulae that now reigned over the infinite abyss of night.

Staring out over the forbidden city, clad in the infernal star-forged armor carved from the bones of the one I’d eaten, my smile was unbridled by the degrading lies of that sickly clown paint for the very first time: For the stars now cast their wicked, mocking glow over all of Arathos, yet not a single light burned revelrous and free in the gutted ballrooms below. But regardless of all my infinite fortune, I never forgot where I came from, not even with the glory of a thousand newborn constellations burning nostalgia for a time I’d never known into my skin all at once. Looking back one last time at the Torturer’s rotting corpse, in the true grim poetry of the Jester, I rasped out into the stagnant air of the dead and abandoned ghost of Arathos,

“Now I have the power you crave.

While I, a worm, became a dragon,

You, my king, have died a slave.”

The Agamyr had fled back to unreality and eternal freedom, each star in the sky a single tear they shed on the night their beloved Arathos fell forever. The never-ending symphony that once poured out from the countless golden doors was now forever dead as I stalked the marble-paved streets below, lava pooling beneath my infernal greaves with every step. The insufferable cries of pleasure from the once-bustling, cloud-piercing towers were snuffed until the Streams of Time ran dry, and I was all alone, just as I always wanted to be.

Until, as if on cue with the exalted swelling of my splendorous joy, the sickest voice I’d ever heard forced everything from the ground beneath my feet to the newborn stars far above to shiver with horror-fueled reverence.

“Morg the Executioner, First and Last Jester of Arathos, and Emperor of Nothing: How does it feel to walk through the abandoned city with the stars at your back at last?”

My newly-evolved apex predator meatsuit went rigid at that disembodied voice, which was impossibly different from my own, but still somehow exactly the same—multifaceted in a million different ways, each redefining right and wrong and threatening to rend the newborn stars from the sky with each wickedly echoing syllable.

“Enjoying your new body, mutated by Consumption’s carnal sin? Pity it will crumble to rot and ruin in a measley thousand years.” When the incorporeal monsterscreamed his gut-twisting accusations, the pillar behind me split in two and crashed so hard upon the marble steps beside it that they crumbled down into the heart of the world. “Was your treacherous little snack a worthy trade for your immortality and eternal exile from the Starless Pantheon, Bastard of Marduk?”

“What?” I choked, even though deep inside my hollow, half-dead heart I somehow already knew—I’d known since before I climbed the misshapen ivory watchtower for the very first time to stare out over the city, and even long before both my sickest desires and blackest fears stirred beyond the realm of formless thought. I couldn’t put it into words back then, and to this day, even after waking in a cold sweat in the dead of night with the Starless Demiurge’s raw admissions echoing through my ears a hundred million times, I still can only articulate it in the silent sanctuary of dreams. But somehow, in that long-dreaded hour of my final judgement, I knew exactly what he meant long before he snarled:

“You were supposed to be the first . . .” His loathing resounded from the far corners of space and time itself, condemning me with such relentless fury that the silver mountain that dwarfed even the most staggering towers of Arathos began to shiver and scream. The cracks that soon blistered across its surface spewed lava as corrosive and unforgiving as my father’s rage.

“I gnarled your soul into an immortal body pulsing with the curse of mortal blood, to usher in a new era of prosperity: A race of invincible monsters like you, half god and half man. You weren’t the child of the Agamyr, Jester! You were Myra’s twin and the wellspring of my own blood!”

I could have vomited the Torturer’s soul back up upon the bubbling crimson magma then and there, if I hadn’t long-since irreversibly incorporated it into my own form. Instead, I simply trembled and rammed my head against the nearest broken pillar to ensure I wasn’t dreaming.

“You could have been my successor,” the god beyond the stars added with a deep and hollow sadness before devolving into menace once more, “When I carved you from my own scars, I always knew you were different: But now, while your brothers and sisters have vacated this lesser hell for Black Splendors Without End, you’ll know no reprieve but a thousand untimely deaths! You’ll hold no spawn but the soulless, festering byproduct of this rotten world, carved in the shadow of your transgression. Filthy, loathsome little creatures, boiling up from the ground outside the city walls as we speak: I hope their company is more favorable than that of the god-kin you so loathed to serve,” he hissed, and for the fleeting eternity of a second I swore the stars themselves curled back into a broken-fanged, mocking smile.

“It was a test, you blithering fool: If you’d waited another thousand years, they would have served you.

I was silent for slow, crawling centuries, scraping the last festering shreds of my sanity off the tattered walls of my own mind and the ruins of Arathos. Somehow, although my voice was fragmented and far away, I finally managed to whisper, “Why would you curse me with a hunger that never dies, knowing I could never resist it . . . Then damn me to rot and ruin forever, all for giving into the longing that you yourself forced upon me?”

His only answer was the psychotic eruption of the mountain behind the city, boiling down over those shrines to a haunting beauty that to this day I’ve never known again, flattening the ballrooms and lavish dormitories forever, as if they were never there at all. I knew the lava couldn’t penetrate my star-forged armor, at least for a time, as I waded through the wreckage and the wall of fire closed in. I would finally be free to bide my time in exile, as long as I could somehow reach the city gates: The walls from which I’d plucked those damnable purple berries—the ones that matched the hideous hue of my own blistering, leathered skin—that started this entire mess to begin with.

“Go, Lightless Wanderer!” The voice implored, knowing as well as I that my time was running low. “Go swiftly, and never look back, and finish what you started!” In my pure black despondence, I nearly let the lava consume me, but in the final seconds before the wall of pain would have crushed even the star-forged infernal armor that I stole from Valystis, I pierced through the ivory wall with the Torturer’s former Terrorkinetic powers and found myself in a whole new world: A sticky swamp of resplendent desolation, the gateway to the Outer Worlds.

“Enjoy your demigod shell until it rots away, leaving you to embrace Black Eternity as a jilted peasant . . .” the Starless Demiurge commanded me, his voice suddenly growing withered and far away. “At least you’ll have the hunger to keep you company as you’re born again, and again, and again . . . But even though your god-form will eventually wither and rot, your sins will never leave you: So embrace the Chaos and clean up this mess you’ve made, even if it takes you a million lifetimes!”

I couldn’t tell anymore if the static screams were coming from the Demiurge beyond time, or the clawing, melting creatures bursting up from the swampy, bubbling ground, mouths contorted in horror in my own image: All I know is in that moment the night grew forever dimmer, and my world grew forever dark. “Go! Morg the Executioner, Emperor of Chaos Beyond the Crimson Sun . . . May the light turn black wherever you walk and may your stars be forever wrong.”

Across the ages, I’ve begged and cried until my eyes bled for him to come back, more times than I would ever dare to count. But the last words he ever spoke to me were:

“But all hope isn’t lost: Perhaps in another million years, when every last mortal soul is but a deconstructed echo festering in the bottom of your guts, I’ll take you back into my fold, and you can call yourself my son again: Maybe in another life, on another world, long after this one has crumbled to the dust from which I carved it at the dawn of time, you can finally get it right. Until then, Jester, never stop smiling.”

Bones illustration by Kristian Strange

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