Prince Raoden of Arelon awoke early that morning, completely unaware that he had been damned for all eternity. Still drowsy, Raoden sat up, blinking in the soft morning light. Just outside his open balcony windows he could see the enormous city of Elantris in the distance, its stark walls casting a deep shadow over the smaller city of Kae, where Raoden lived. Elantris’s walls were incredibly high, but Raoden could see the tops of black towers rising behind them, their broken spires a clue to the fallen majesty hidden within.
The abandoned city seemed darker than usual. Raoden stared at it for a moment, then glanced away. The huge Elantrian walls were impossible to ignore, but people of Kae tried very hard to do just that. It was painful to remember the city’s beauty, to wonder how ten years ago the blessing of the Shaod had become a curse instead. . . .
Raoden shook his head, climbing out of bed. It was unusually warm for such an early hour—he didn’t feel even a bit chilly as he threw on his robe, then pulled the servant’s cord beside his bed, indicating that he wanted breakfast.
That was another odd thing. He was hungry—very hungry. Almost ravenous. He had never liked large breakfasts, but this morning he found himself waiting impatiently for his meal to arrive. Finally, he decided to send someone to see what was taking so long.
“Ien?” he called in the unlit chambers.
There was no response. Raoden frowned slightly at the Seon’s absence. Where could Ien be?
Raoden stood, and as he did, his eyes fell on Elantris again. Resting in the great City’s shadow, Kae seemed like an insignificant village by comparison. Elantris. An enormous, ebony block—not really a city anymore, just the corpse of one. Raoden shivered slightly.
A knock came at his door.
“Finally,” Raoden said, walking over to pull open the door. Old Elao stood outside with a tray of fruit and warm bread.
The tray dropped to the ground with a crash, slipping from the stunned maid’s fingers even as Raoden reached out to accept it. Raoden froze, the tray’s metallic ring echoing through the silent morning hallway.
“Merciful Domi!” Elao whispered, her eyes horrified and her hand trembling as she reached up to grab the Korathi pendant at her neck.
Raoden reached out, but the maid took a quivering step away, stumbling on a small melon in her haste to escape.
“What?” Raoden asked. Then he saw his hand. Illuminated by the hallway’s flickering lantern, Raoden could see what had been hidden in the shadows of his darkened room.
Raoden turned, throwing furniture out of his way as he stumbled to the tall mirror at the side of his chambers. The dawn’s light had grown just strong enough for him to see the reflection that stared back at him. A stranger’s reflection.
His brown eyes were the same, though they were wide with terror. His hair, however, had changed from sandy blonde to limp gray. The skin was the worst. The mirrored face was covered with sickly black patches, like dark bruises. The splotches could only mean one thing.
The Shaod had come upon him.
The Elantris city gate boomed shut behind him with a shocking sound of finality. Raoden slumped against it, thoughts numbed by the day’s events.
It was as if his memories belonged to another person. His father, King Iadon, hadn’t met Raoden’s gaze as he ordered the priests to prepare his son and throw him into Elantris. It had been done swiftly and quietly; Iadon couldn’t afford to let it be known that the crown prince was an Elantrian. Ten years ago, the Shaod would have made Raoden a god. Now, instead of making people into silver-skinned deities, it changed them into sickly monstrosities.
Raoden shook his head in disbelief. The Shaod was a thing that happened to other people—distant people. People who deserved to be cursed. Not the crown prince of Arelon. Not Raoden.
The city of Elantris stretched out before him. Its high walls were lined with guardhouses and soldiers—men intended not to keep enemies out of the city, but to keep its inhabitants from escaping. Since the Reod, every person taken by the Shaod had been thrown into Elantris to rot—the fallen city had become an expansive tomb for those whose bodies had forgotten how to die.
Raoden could remember standing on those walls, looking down on Elantris’s dread inhabitants, just as the guards now regarded him. The city had seemed far away then, even though he had been standing just outside of it. He had wondered, philosophically, what it would be like to walk those blackened streets.
Now he was going to find out.
Raoden pushed against the gate for a moment, as if to force his body through, to cleanse his flesh of its taint. He lowered his head, releasing a quiet moan. He felt like curling into a ball on the grimy stones and waiting until he woke from this dream. Except, he knew he would never awaken. The priests said this nightmare would never end.
But, somewhere, something within urged him forward. He knew he had to keep moving—for if he stopped, he feared he’d simply give up. The Shaod had taken his body. He couldn’t let it take his mind as well.
So, using his pride like a shield against despair, dejection and—most importantly—self-pity, Raoden raised his head to stare damnation in the eyes.
Before, when Raoden had stood on the walls of Elantris to look down—both literally and figuratively—on its inhabitants, he had seen the filth that covered the city. Now he stood in it.
Every surface—from the walls of the buildings to the numerous cracks in the cobblestones—was coated with a patina of grime. The slick, oily substance had an equalizing effect on Elantris’s colors, blending them all into a single depressing hue—a color that mixed the pessimism of black with the polluted greens and browns of sewage.
Before, Raoden had been able to see a few of the city’s inhabitants. Now he could hear them as well. A dozen or so Elantrians lay scattered across the courtyard’s fetid cobblestones. Many sat uncaringly, or unknowingly, in pools of dark water; the remains of the night’s rainstorm. And they were moaning. Most of them were quiet about it, mumbling to themselves or whimpering with some unseen pain. One woman at the far end of the courtyard, however, screamed with a sound of raw anguish. She fell silent after a moment, her breath or her strength giving out.
Most of them wore what looked like rags—dark loose-fitting garments that were as soiled as the streets. Looking closely, however, Raoden recognized the clothing. He glanced down at his own white burial cloths. They were long and flowing, like ribbons sewn together into a loose robe. The linen on his arms and legs was already stained with grime from brushing up against the city gate and stone pillars. Raoden suspected they would soon be indistinguishable from the other Elantrians’ garb.
This is what I will become, Raoden thought. It has already begun. In a few weeks I will be nothing more than a dejected body, a corpse whimpering in the corner.
A slight motion on the other side of the courtyard brought Raoden out of his self pity. Some Elantrians were crouching in a shadowed doorway across from him. He couldn’t make out much from their silhouetted forms, but they seemed to be waiting for something. He could feel their eyes on him.
Raoden raised an arm to shade his eyes, and only then did he remember the small thatch basket in his hands. It held the ritual Korathi sacrifice sent with the dead into the next life—or, in this case, into Elantris. The basket contained a loaf of bread, a few thin vegetables, a handful of grain, and a small flask of wine. Normal death sacrifices were far more extensive, but even a victim of the Shaod had to be given something.
Raoden glanced up at the figures in the doorway, his mind flashing to rumors he’d heard on the outside—stories of Elantrian brutality. The shadowed figures had yet to move, but their study of him was unnerving.
Taking a deep breath, Raoden took a step to the side, moving along the city wall toward the east side of the courtyard. The forms still seemed to be watching him, but they didn’t follow. In a moment he could no longer see through the doorway, and a second later he had safely passed into one of the side streets.
Raoden released his breath, feeling that he had escaped something, though he didn’t know what. After a few moments, he was certain no one followed, and he began to feel foolish for his alarm. So far, he had yet to see anything that corroborated the rumors about Elantris. Raoden shook his head and continued moving.
The stench was almost overwhelming. The omnipresent sludge had a musty, rotten scent, like that of dying fungus. Raoden was so bothered by the smell that he nearly stepped directly on the gnarled form of an old man huddled next to a building’s wall. The man moaned piteously, reaching up with a thin arm. Raoden looked down, and felt a sudden chill. The “old man” was no more than sixteen years old. The creature’s soot-covered skin was dark and spotted, but its face was that of a child, not a man. Raoden took an involuntary step backward.
The boy, as if realizing his chance would soon pass, stretched his arm forward with the sudden strength of desperation. “Food?” he mumbled through a mouth only half-full of teeth. “Please?”
Then the arm fell, its endurance expended, and the body slumped back against the cold stone wall. His eyes, however, continued to watch Raoden. Sorrowful, pained eyes. Raoden had seen beggars before in the Outer Cites, and he had probably been fooled by charlatans a number of times. This boy, however, was not faking.
Raoden reached up and pulled the loaf of bread from his sacrificial offerings, then handed it to the boy. The look of disbelief that ran across the boy’s face was somehow more disturbing than the despair it had replaced. This creature had given up hope long ago—he probably begged out of habit rather than expectation.
Raoden left the boy behind, turning to continue down the small street. He had hoped that the city would grow less gruesome as he left the main courtyard—thinking, perhaps, that the dirt was a result of the area’s relatively frequent use. He had been wrong; the alley was covered with just as much filth as the courtyard, if not more.
A muffled thump sounded from behind. Raoden turned with surprise. A group of dark forms stood near the mouth of the side-street, huddled around an object on the ground. The beggar. Raoden watched with a shiver as five men devoured his loaf of bread, fighting among themselves and ignoring the boy’s despairing cries. Eventually one of the newcomers—obviously annoyed—brought a makeshift club down on the boy’s head with a crunch that resounded through the small alley.
The men finished the bread, then turned to regard Raoden. He took an apprehensive step backward—it appeared that he had been hasty in assuming he hadn’t been followed. The five men stalked forward slowly, and Raoden spun, taking off at a run.
Sounds of pursuit came from behind. Raoden scrambled away in fear—something, as a prince, he had never needed to do before. He ran madly, expecting his breath to run short and a pain to stab him in the side, as usually happened when he overextended himself. Neither occurred. Instead he simply began to feel horribly tired, weak to the point that he knew he would soon collapse. It was a harrowing feeling, as if his life were slowly seeping away.
Desperate, Raoden tossed the sacrificial basket over his head. The awkward motion threw him off-balance, and an unseen schism in the cobblestones sent him into a maladroit skip that didn’t end until he collided with a rotting mass of wood. The wood—which might once have been a pile of crates—squished, breaking his fall.
Raoden sat up quickly, the motion tossing shreds of wood pulp across the damp alleyway. His assailants, however, were no longer concerned with him. The five men crouched in the street’s muck, picking scattered vegetables and grain off the cobblestones and out of the dark pools. Raoden felt his stomach churn as one of the men slid his finger down a crack—scraping up a dark handful that was more sludge than corn—then rammed the entire mass between eager lips. Brackish spittle dribbled down the man’s chin, dropping from a mouth that resembled a mud-filled pot boiling on the stove.
One man saw Raoden watching. The creature growled, reaching down to grab the almost-forgotten cudgel at his side. Raoden searched frantically for a weapon, finding a length of wood that was slightly less rotten than the rest. He held the weapon in uncertain hands, trying to project an air of danger.
The thug paused. A second later, a cry of joy from behind drew his attention—one of the others had located the tiny skin of wine. The struggle that ensued apparently drove all thoughts of Raoden from the men’s minds, and the five were soon gone—four chasing after the one who had been fortunate, or foolish, enough to escape with the precious liquor.
Raoden sat in the debris, overwhelmed. This is what you will become. . . .
“Looks like they forgot about you, sule,” a voice observed.
Raoden jumped, looking toward the sound of the voice. A man, his smooth bald head reflecting the morning light, reclined lazily on a set of steps a short distance away. He was definitely an Elantrian, but before the transformation he must have been of a different race—not from Arelon, like Raoden. The man’s skin bore the tell-tail black splotches of the Shaod, but the unaffected patches weren’t pale, but a deep brown instead.
Raoden tensed against possible danger, but this man showed no signs of the primal wildness or the decrepit weakness Raoden had seen in the others. Tall and firm-framed, the man had wide hands and keen eyes set in a dark-skinned face. He studied Raoden with a thoughtful attitude.
Raoden breathed a sigh of relief. “Whoever you are, I’m glad to see you. I was beginning to think everyone in here was either dying or insane.”
“We can’t be dying,” the man responded with a snort. “We’re already dead. Kolo?”
Kolo. The foreign word was vaguely familiar, as was the man’s strong accent. “You’re not from Arelon?”
The man shook his head. “I’m Galladon, from the sovereign realm of Duladel. I’m most recently from Elantris, land of sludge, insanity, and eternal perdition. Nice to meet you.”
“Duladel?” Raoden said. “But the Shaod only affects people from Arelon.” He picked himself up, brushing away pieces of wood in various stages of decomposition, grimacing at the pain in his stubbed toe. He was covered with slime—the raw stench of Elantris now rose from him as well.
“Duladel is of mixed blood, sule. Arelish, Fjordell, Teoish—you’ll find them all. I—”
Raoden cursed quietly, interrupting the man.
Galladon raised an eyebrow. “What is it, sule? Get a splinter in the wrong place? There aren’t many right places for that, I suppose.”
“It’s my toe!” Raoden said, limping across the slippery cobblestones. “There’s something wrong with it—I stubbed it when I fell, but the pain isn’t going away.”
Galladon shook his head ruefully. “Welcome to Elantris, Sule. You’re dead—your body won’t repair itself like it should.”
“What?” Raoden flopped to the ground next to Galladon’s steps. His toe continued to hurt with a pain as sharp as the moment he stubbed it.
“Every pain, sule,” Galladon whispered. “Every cut, every nick, every bruise, and every ache—they will stay with you until you go mad from the suffering. As I said, welcome to Elantris.”
“How do you stand it?” Raoden asked, massaging his toe, an action that didn’t help. It was such a silly little injury, but he had to fight to keep the pained tears from his eyes.
“We don’t. We’re either very careful, or we end up like those rulos you saw in the courtyard.”
“In the courtyard . . . Idos Domi!” Raoden pulled himself to his feet and hobbled toward the courtyard. He found the beggar boy in the same location, near the mouth of the alley. He was still alive . . . in a way.
The boy’s eyes stared blankly into the air, the pupils quivering. His lips worked silently, no sound escaping. The boy’s neck had been completely crushed, and there was a massive gash in its side, exposing the vertebrae and throat. The boy tried without success to breathe through the mess.
Suddenly Raoden’s toe didn’t seem so bad. “Idos Domi . . .” Raoden whispered, turning his head as his stomach lurched. He reached out and grabbed the side of a building to steady himself, his head bowed, as he tried to keep from adding to the sludge on the cobblestones.
“There isn’t much left for this one,” Galladon said with a matter-of-fact tone, crouching down next to the beggar.
“How . . . ?” Raoden began, then stopped as his stomach threatened him again. He sat down in the slime with a plop and, after a few deep breaths, continued. “How long will he live like that?”
“You still don’t understand, sule,” Galladon said, his accented voice sorrowful. “He isn’t alive—none of us are. That’s why we’re here. Kolo? The boy will stay like this forever. That is, after all, the typical length of eternal damnation.”
“Is there nothing we can do?”
Galladon shrugged. “We could try burning him, assuming we could make a fire. Elantrian bodies seem to burn better than those of regular people, and some think that’s a fitting death for our kind.”
“And . . .” Raoden said, still unable to look at the boy. “And if we do that, what happens to him—his soul?”
“He doesn’t have a soul,” Galladon said. “Or so the priests tell us. Korathi, Derethi, Jesker—they all say the same thing. We’re damned.”
“That doesn’t answer my question. Will the pain stop if he is burned?”
Galladon looked down at the boy. Then, eventually, he just shrugged. “Some say that if you burn us, or cut off our head, or do anything that completely destroys the body, we’ll just stop existing. Others, they say the pain goes on—that we become pain. They think we’d float thoughtlessly, unable to feel anything but agony. I don’t like either option, so I just try to keep myself in one piece. Kolo?”
“Yes,” Raoden whispered. “I kolo.” He turned, finally getting the courage to look back at the wounded boy. The enormous gash stared back at him. Blood seeped slowly from the wound—as if the liquid were just sitting in the veins, like stagnant water in a pool.
With a sudden chill Raoden reached up and felt his chest. “I don’t have a heartbeat,” he realized for the first time.
Galladon looked at Raoden as if he had made an utterly idiotic statement. “Sule, you’redead. Kolo?”
They didn’t burn the boy. Not only did they lack the proper implements to make fire, but Galladon forbade it. “We can’t make a decision like that. What if he really has no soul? What if he stopped existing when we burned his body? To many, an existence of agony is better than no existence at all.”
So, they left the boy where he had fallen—Galladon doing so without a second thought, Raoden following because he couldn’t think of anything else to do, though he felt the pain of guilt more sharply than even the pain in his toe.
Galladon obviously didn’t care whether Raoden followed him, went in another direction, or stood staring at an interesting spot of grime on the wall. The large, dark-skinned man walked back the way they had come, passing the occasional moaning body in a gutter, his back turned toward Raoden with a posture of complete indifference.
Watching the Dula go, Raoden tried to gather his thoughts. He had been trained for a life in politics; years of preparation had conditioned him to make quick decisions. He made one just then—he decided to trust Galladon.
There was something innately likable about the Dula, something Raoden found indefinably appealing, even if it was covered by a grime of pessimism as thick as the slime on the ground. It was more than Galladon’s lucidity, more than just his leisurely attitude. Raoden had seen the man’s eyes when he regarded the suffering child. Galladon claimed to accept the inevitable, but he felt sad that he had to do so.
The Dula found his former perch on the steps and settled back down. Taking a determined breath, Raoden walked over and stood expectantly in front of the man.
Galladon glanced up. “What?”
“I need your help, Galladon,” Raoden said, squatting on the ground in front of the steps.
Galladon snorted. “This is Elantris, sule. There’s no such thing as help. Pain, insanity, and a whole lot of slime are the only things you’ll find here.”
“You almost sound like you believe that.”
“You are asking in the wrong place, sule.”
“You’re the only non-comatose person I’ve met in here who hasn’t attacked me,” Raoden said. “Your actions speak much more convincingly than your words.”
“Perhaps I simply haven’t tried to hurt you because I know you don’t have anything to take.”
“I don’t believe that.”
Galladon shrugged an “I don’t care what you believe” shrug and turned away, leaning back against the side of the building and closing his eyes.
“Are you hungry, Galladon?” Raoden asked quietly.
The man’s eyes snapped open.
“I used to wonder when King Iadon fed the Elantrians,” Raoden mused. “I never heard of any supplies entering the city, but I always assumed that they were sent. After all, I thought, the Elantrians stay alive. I never understood. If the people of this city can exist without heartbeats, then they can probably exist without food. Of course, that doesn’t mean the hunger goes away. I was ravenous when I awoke this morning, and I still am. From the looks in the eyes of those men who attacked me, I’d guess the hunger only gets worse.”
Raoden reached under his grime-stained sacrificial robe, pulling out a thin object and holding it up for Galladon to see. A piece of dried meat. Galladon’s eyes opened all the way, his face changing from bored to interested. There was a glint in his eyes—a bit of the same wildness that Raoden had seen in the savage men earlier. It was more controlled, but it was there. For the first time Raoden realized just how much he was gambling on his first impression of the Dula.
“Where did that come from?” Galladon asked slowly.
“It fell out of my basket when the priests were leading me here, so I stuffed it under my sash. Do you want it or not?”
Galladon didn’t answer for a moment. “What makes you think I won’t simply attack you and take it?” The words were not hypothetical—Raoden could tell that a part of Galladon was actually considering such an action. How large a part was still indeterminable.
“You called me ‘sule,’ Galladon. How could you kill one you’ve dubbed a friend?”
Galladon sat, transfixed by the tiny piece of meat. A thin drop of spittle ran unnoticed from the side of his mouth. He looked up at Raoden, who was growing increasingly anxious. When their eyes met, something sparked in Galladon, and the tension snapped. The Dula suddenly bellowed a deep, resounding laugh. “You speak Duladen, sule?”
“Only a few words,” Raoden said modestly.
“An educated man? Rich offerings for Elantris today! All right, you conniving rulo, what do you want?”
“Thirty days,” Raoden said. “For thirty days you will show me around and tell me what you know.”
“Thirty days? Sule, you’re kayana.”
“The way I see it,” Raoden said, moving to tuck the meat back in his sash, “the only food that ever enters this place arrives with the newcomers. One must get pretty hungry with so few offerings and so many mouths to feed. One would think the hunger would be almost maddening.”
“Twenty days,” Galladon said, a hint of his former intensity showing again.
“Thirty, Galladon. If you won’t help me, someone else will.”
Galladon ground his teeth for a moment. “Rulo,” he muttered, then held out his hand. “Thirty days. Fortunately, I wasn’t planning any extended trips during the next month.”
Raoden tossed him the meat with a laugh.
Galladon snatched the meat. Then, though his hand jerked reflexively toward his mouth, he stopped. With a careful motion he tucked the meat into a pocket and stood up. “So, what should I call you?”
Raoden paused. Probably best if people don’t know I’m royalty, for now. “Sule works just fine for me.”
Galladon chuckled. “The private type, I see. Well, let’s go then. It’s time for you to get the grand tour.”