“…and the world was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” -The Doctrines of Tyris
“Well, of all the unexpected visitors…” The voice chuckled.
Corvus groaned, raising his head and peering into the utter blackness which swarmed before him.
“…to be certain I am unsure how best to greet you, godling.” The voice continued, echoing from all around him.
“Show yourself!” Corvus demanded, looking this way and that as he floated in the formless black.
“Oh… but of course…” the voice purred, and Corvus recoiled as two massive carmine eyes opened before him. A titanic maw spread in a reptilian grin, the fel glow of hellfire playing behind massive, bladelike teeth.
“Dragon!” Corvus gasped in disbelief.
“A puny name, given by small-minded beings crawling antlike on a speck of dust in an insignificant galaxy.” The Dragon retorted, hellfire dripping from its maw, falling down and down into the infinitesimal abyss below.
“It can’t be! I killed you! In all possibilities, I saw you die!” Corvus cried, his own voice loud in his ears against the utter silence of the void.
“Yes! You clever little god-thing, you killed me and yet… Here I Am…” The Dragon laughed, “…Even now you fail to understand Me. Did I not tell you, when that THING pinned my form to the surface of your world that I was beyond your ken?”
“Where Am I?” Corvus demanded.
The God rolled his eyes, still hanging in the blackness before the Dragon’s colossal head. “When Am I then?”
“Speak plainly!” Corvus exclaimed “You have me here; I’m clearly not going anywhere… What ARE you?”
“Nothing” The Dragon laughed, the massive head disintegrating into the blackness, swirling sparks coalescing again into the winged, smoky form of an Arch-Fiend, yet somewhere in those brutish, acromegalic features, Corvus spotted something familiar.
The winged figure laughed. “I am so many, and so many are in me… You are familiar, Godling, with the provincial law of your reality? ‘Matter may not be created nor destroyed?”
“Of course,” Corvus snorted, “…is this your game? Irritate me into madness with triviality?”
“You will find, it is a law I take such distinct pleasure in breaking.” The figure swirled again, becoming a darkly beautiful angel, the deep, harsh voice of the Dragon discordant from her plump lips. “It takes millennia to properly subsume a God… and you will find the process quite agonizing, I assure you. A fitting end for the irritation of you denying me my foothold in your reality.”
Corvus felt the blackness… picking at him. Felt the very SUBSTANCE of his Divine Form, stretching back and throughout time and space into the unknowableness of the All-Encompassing under assault. Pain… true pain… he felt it crawl up nerves which had long forgotten the sensation.
“Do you see?” The figure became a one-eyed old man, twin ravens upon his shoulders.
“Do you see?” Now a hawk-headed figure, muscular and powerful, a torc of polished metal about his neck.
“Do you see?” A bearded man, all the care of the world in his eyes, a crown of woven thorns jammed cruelly upon his brow. Slender, wirily muscled arms splayed out, displaying cruel wounds upon his wrists which dripped precious blood into the void below.
Corvus screamed into the blackness, accompanied only by the echoes of Entropy’s mocking laughter.
Enoch rapped politely on the heavy oaken door, waiting for a response.
“Come.” A smooth, even voice ordered with the easy presumption of authority.
“You summoned me, Majesty?” Enoch answered, swinging the door open.
“Ah, yes. Come in, Chancellor.” The man gestured, not turning from where he gazed from the large, terraced window which stood behind a massive, mahogany desk, piled high with the myriad cares which beset any ruler. Enoch studied the Emperor, the man’s broad shoulders clad in a heavy ermine cloak, his once-thick coal-black hair now frosted with grey and thinning. As if sensing the Archmage’s study, the Emperor turned, his features more craggy than careworn, deep lines accentuating a thin, unsmiling mouth, his steel-grey eyes dispassionately studious.
“Was there something, Chancellor?”
Ah. So His Majesty was feeling playful. So be it. “You summoned ME, Majesty.” Enoch answered without hesitation. After so many years with the man he had learned the limits of familiarity that the Emperor would accept… Of course that had never stopped him in the past, but, appearances such as they were should be maintained.
“So We did…” The Emperor mused, turning back to the window “…Our Westerlands. Lush, plentiful, peaceful… And completely undefended.”
“Your Majesty is aware of the size of the Imperial Legions, not counting reserves, I trust?” Enoch rejoined, though he could see the Emperor’s counterpoint a mile away.
“Ah yes, the indomitable Legions. Fat and bored, having had nothing resembling a real war to fight in centuries. They make remarkable carpenters and stonemasons though, we are told. The Trades Guilds have lamented this fact in my court for nearly three hundred years, if the succession of scribes which has served our family is in any way accurate.”
“I can assure your Majesty, such has been my experience.” Enoch replied, hoping the Emperor would see his way to getting to the point sooner rather than later.
“Indeed…” The Emperor mused, tapping a finger against his chin in thought. “…your longevity is approaching legend in Caladon, Enoch.”
“Comes from keeping busy, Majesty.” Enoch drawled with a grin.
“Which is also part of the problem.”
Enoch started as if stung. “Problem?”
The Emperor turned, pacing the outskirts of the palatial study the two men found themselves in. “We have been approached by representatives of the Court of Hamunapt… The new one, you understand…”
“And you fear invasion, Majesty? I can assure you, both the Caretakers of Duat and the Hidden Circle stand ready to bolster your legio…”
“No Enoch, you miss the point.” The Emperor interjected. “We mean to treat with them.”
Enoch recoiled as if he had been physically struck. “Julius! You can’t be serious! Apophis cast down The Raven!”
“All the better reason to treat.”
“This is Heresy, Majesty!” Enoch babbled in shock “The very Laws of the Doctrines of Tyris…”
“Ah… The Law of The God.” The Emperor chuckled. “A law which grows ever more supplanted with every passing year. A law for a time long past, a treaty long since lost of relevance. We would think you of all people would understand this… Archmage.”
“Understand?!” Enoch growled, umbrage rising in his breast. “I am the Son of the Morning Star. I owe my very LIFE to Holy Tyris!”
“Do you really?” Emperor Julius pondered, still not looking at the mage. “We have read the recounts of the War of the Angels… In the darkest hour, it was Resonant, not God, who saved the Hosts of the High Heavens… When your father and his people needed Him most. Tyris forsook them.”
“You mean to treat with the Pretender… Forsake Millennia of tradition… because you’re having a fucking crisis of faith?!”
“WE are Emperor, Enoch!” Julius bellowed, slamming a hand against the mahogany desk. “Not you! And the necessity of pretending We do not see the cuckoldry you force upon Our throne sticks in Our craw.”
“Your Consorts are not to my taste, Majesty…” Enoch retorted venomously.
“Don’t pretend you don’t know what We are talking about.” The Emperor shot back. “When the Caretakers of Duat have concern, it is not OUR court they kneel in… it is a covert meeting within the walls of your chamber. You… Chancellor of Caladon. What other Sovereign is forced to defer to some Manchesterian Abbey-Born in an imperial seat?”
Enoch ground his teeth, forcing down the rage which built within him, holding at bay the magic which yelled in his blood for release. “I may have grown up in the Angel Isles, Majesty. But my soul, my blood, and my loyalty will forever be Caladon’s.”
“Caladon’s!” Julius declared, gesturing expansively. “Not the Westerlands! Not OURS!”
Enoch lowered his eyes. “If Your Majesty finds my service to be lacking, I will resign. I will name no heir. But please. In the Name of Tyris, and of Maou, and of the Dread Queen Ammit… Do not treat with this… Outlander. Let the Circle anoint a Hero. Let us anoint a Battalion! Swearing Loyalty only to you…”
“And have us surrender our throne as King Carl Knot-Tongue did in Gratitude? Be the foreword to another legend of blessed bloodline?”
“Michael was his SON, Majesty!” Enoch declared in exasperation.
“But not his heir…” Julius hissed. “…Do you think Our eyes blinded by the false subservience of the hidden hands in this world? You have never acknowledged the line of Seti’s Ward as true Sovereign. Admit it. Speak now for truth.”
“Seti and His Line are the True Sovereigns…” Enoch grunted reluctantly. “…A fact of which I believe your Majesty is keenly aware.”
“And what did that grant the Westerlands?” Julius roared, pointing to the rolling paddocks below the window “Empress Jessica. The ditzy COW which took Caladon from global pre-eminence to near ruin!”
“The Will of the Gods…” Enoch began desperately.
“…Ah. Religion. The last bastion of the fool.” Julius chortled mockingly “Do you know why Seti chose our forefather as his Ward?”
“Don’t, Majesty…” Enoch pleaded.
“Because he feared the result if the people were to learn that our forefather was of the line of the TRUE King of the Westerlands! King Jer…”
“His name is UNSPOKEN!” Enoch bellowed in outrage, arcane energy crackling down his arms.
“Do you threaten Our Royal Person, Archmage?” Julius purred, a mirthless smirk on his face. Soft, high sound of a shard rifle, glowing sparks bursting from the floor where the projectile shattered against the stone.
“Your marksmen need work.” Enoch grated.
“Do they? Or was that simply a warning?” Julius rejoined, that smug smirk not leaving the Emperor’s face. “We had hoped you would see reason, the necessity of Our actions… You have served long, and We suppose faithfully, in your own way…”
“Fool! If you could grasp even a fraction of what I have given in service to this Empire…” Enoch hissed through clenched teeth.
“And when your Emperor asks you to stand with this Empire, you forswear yourself.” Julius quipped dismissively.
“Have you been coupling with Mindflayers, Julius? We’re talking about the Word of TYRIS here!”
“Ah yes, Holy Tyris, The God in His Heaven… Apophis sits in Hamunapt, Enoch. We wonder if you can tell which one’s wrath concerns us more.”
“It will mean war, Julius. The Holy Mother Church may not rule the world any longer, but the Faith Militant are as potent as they ever were. They won’t just burn you for this heresy, they’ll crucify and impale you first.”
“We shall see. We accept your resignation, and for the sake of your service we will grant you a full fortnight in amnesty. If any member of the Hidden Circle remains afterwards, however… I believe ‘Impalement, Crucifixion, and Immolation’ stand as appropriate punishment for Treason as well as Heresy, correct?”
Enoch recoiled as if the man had physically struck him. “You can’t be serious! These aren’t some dignitaries you can turf from your court! These are citizens! Freemen! Tyris be Glorified, even Landholders and Nobles! The Sovereign Council will never accept…”
“Magisterium was forced to bend the knee to the Westerlands once, it can be made to do so again.” Julius interjected. “That will be all, Archmage.”
Enoch deliberately gave the Emperor his back. The cretin! The Landholdings were sure to be fit to riot once Horus was informed about this…
“Oh, and Enoch. We know you’re about to scurry off and tattle to Horus, whoever he is… Tell him we will look Graciously upon the Caretakers of Duat if he will bend the knee. If not? Well… There are a lot of trees in Caladon, aren’t there?”
Enoch paused, biting off the words of a spell, swarming arcane sigils obscuring his form as he vanished from existence.
The Emperor gasped, gripping the edge of his desk.
“You did so well, Mighty Lord…” A honey-smooth voice congratulated him as a figure… skittered down the wall, genuflecting before the Emperor.
“Keep your praise.” The Emperor growled, wiping sweat from his brow. “Next time it shall not be US to taunt an Archmage to reckless fury. Do you know how easily he could have turned us to ash?”
The Scorpion-woman smiled, folding her human hands girlishly before her, her clawed palps playing before her bare, dusky-skinned midriff. “But your Imperial Majesty was SO VERY regal in doing so… I am sure Apophis will be positively thrilled to hear how masterfully you played the irritant.”
“Do you think so?” The Emperor preened, straightening slightly and puffing with ego. “We certainly hope that She recognises the seriousness with which we are taking these… Negotiations.”
“Oh. I’m sure She will…” The Scorpion-woman agreed with an ingratiating giggle. “…But if your Majesty will excuse me, I have a trap to spring.”
“Of course. You have our leave.” The Emperor declared imperiously, waving his hand and turning to his study of the window again. He did not see the barbed tail arch threateningly behind him, lashing at the air, nor the scorpion’s girlish smile turn to mirthless sneer as she turned to clamber into the shadowy rafters once more.
“You have to appreciate life before you want to preserve it, and it’s those who survive the trauma of conflict who maintain the most poignant hold upon the beauty present within all living things.” -The Doctrines of Maou (Apocryphal)
“Oh goddess Ammit, who concealest that which is within thee, but raisest up forms, like Chepera, grant that I may come forth and see the Halls of Forever, and walk forth in the presence of thee, Dread Queen, who is Shu and abideth for eternity.” Jelena intoned, her horned head bowed, slender arms clad with white linen where she held a ewer of water above her head.
“I travel on high, I tread upon the firmament, I raise a flame with the daylight which mine eye hath made, and I fly forward towards the splendours of the Glorified daily.” The masked form of Horus intoned in reply, a burning wax taper in his hand.
“Oh thou who leapest forth, conductor of the Shades and Glorified ones from the Earth, let the fair path to the Duat be granted to me, which is made in behalf of those who are in faint condition and for the restoration of those who are in pain.” Jelena recited beseechingly. Her arms quivered under the effort of holding the ewer aloft. She would do this… She would be DAMNED before she let a jar of water stymie her! Not after she had come so far!
“Who art thou, who beseecheth before Ammit?”
“I am she who presideth in Restau. ‘She who entereth in her humility, to pour out blessing upon the weary’.”
Horus lowered the wax taper, the flame smoking as it ate up the length. Jelena closed her eyes, letting the hot wax fall upon her forehead. She pursed her lips, feeling it drip and coagulate upon her skin, the sting of its burning insistent upon her brow.
“Yet the hand which heals can be made to harm. The sword which kills shall also free. The Flame which warms shall also destroy.” Hathor intoned from beside her priest-husband. “In the Balance of Ma’at shall all things be weighed. Speak now. Heal, and Destroy. Free, and Enslave. Enlighten, and Extinguish.”
Jelena focused her will, letting the pain in her arms and forehead steel her resolve. Five years she had slaved at seemingly meaningless tasks, memorized ancient prayers and spells. Not once had her mother or father shown her the slightest leniency or favour. She slept in the rude cells within the subterranean temple with the other handmaiden acolytes. Ate gruel and drank water, soaked her meagre bedding with tears of loneliness and frustration. Then… she heard the voice.
“Come to me.”
As if in a dream, she walked the tunnels of the hive-come-temple, coming to the candlelit sanctuary, its sandstone altar immovable and eternal. And standing before it, as if they had been waiting all along, Horus and Hathor… Her Mother and Father.
“Wer Netjer! A’nekh djet!” Jelena cried out, the sound of her own voice bringing her sharply back to the present. Sound of splintering pottery as the jar above her head ruptured, the water falling around her, mingling with the fire of the taper, shards of pottery clanking unmusically as a sourceless wind blew like a tempest around her.
“By Fire and Earth I accept thee. By Air and Water I anoint thee.” A voice intoned from the air around them. “Priestess. Handmaiden. Speak My name and know that thou art Mine forevermore.”
“Dread Ammit!” Jelena cried in adoration and fear, pressing her wax-coated forehead to the floor.
For a moment, all was silence, then Jelena felt her mother’s soft hands upon her shoulders, raising her up.
“My daughter! Today you are my child twice-born.” Hathor declared, her voice choked with love and pride as she held Jelena to her.
“Mommy…” Jelena sobbed, clinging desperately to her mother, as if she were once again a child.
“I pray to the Holy Triune that The Ancient One has chosen well…” An unexpected voice rang from the rear of the chamber. Horus and Hathor made noises of surprise, and Jelena spun, half-shocked, half-incensed to see who had intruded upon this most intimate of rites.
The platinum-haired form of the Archmage Enoch stepped into the light of the candles, weariness belying his centuries weighing heavily in his face.
“…for to be certain, Handmaiden, you will soon have your work cut out for you.”
“He dares?!” Horus fumed “Ammit as my witness, I will call judgement upon him before his own court!”
“Ammit has given you great power, Horus.” Enoch admitted “But hasn’t the last twenty years shown you that Apophis has not been slow in ingratiating her own agents throughout the sovereignties? Much good it will do you to have a blade jammed in your throat mid-denunciation.”
Horus peered at the Archmage. “I’ve never known you to be a defeatist, Enoch.”
“A realist, holy one.” Enoch snickered, but there was no mirth to the sound. “Truth be told we have been in a silent war these past two decades.”
“The Caretakers of Duat could have assisted the Circle, Enoch…” Horus grumbled in displeasure, his temples now streaked with grey.
“Not when Apophis keeps changing the rules of engagement.” Enoch retorted, frustration clouding his voice “She’s playing the fact that she straddles two realities masterfully, I’ll give the bitch grudging credit for that at least. What makes this all the more bitter is that you and Hathor have kept the Westerlands so WELL protected that Julius doesn’t understand the danger.”
“He was an inattentive student, even as a boy.”
“You would know, old friend…” Enoch grinned in spite of himself “…Did you and him ever patch things up, considering…” He trails off, his eyes trailing towards Hathor’s ample form, her hazel eyes meeting his from beneath sleek, bovine horns, her tail lashing the air absently behind her.
“He never understood.” Hathor sighed regretfully “He simply could not grasp that my soul has been intertwined with my beloved’s throughout all of time. In every incarnation, even in the horrors of the time of God-Before-Tyris, we find each other. He thought status, flattery and wealth could overcome that.”
“That and I’m prettier than he is.” Horus rumbled with a deep bass chuckle. Hathor bites off a surprised laugh, leaning over to kiss her priest-husband warmly.
“So what will we do?” Enoch asked finally.
“They won’t know.” A clear, girlish voice interjected, and Enoch made a noise of surprise, made double by the fact that he had just placed terrifyingly lethal wards upon the entrance to the chamber in which the three of them sat.
“Reitia!” Enoch exclaimed, recognising the winged, blue-haired form of Hathor and Horus’s ward immediately. “How did you…”
“Hello uncle Enoch.” Reitia replied, ignoring the question and leaning up to kiss him daintily on the cheek. “I had the dream again, Uncle Horus.”
“Dear girl, don’t torture yourself with this. We will find your father. I swear on the name of Ammit…”
“Yes.” Reitia agreed, though her tone was regretful. Enoch paused to study the girl. Gone were all traces of the childish innocence with which she had moved through life, the coltish gangliness of adolescence now a distant memory to the slender, almost alien beauty before him.
“What won’t we know, lovely one?” Hathor mused gently.
“What to do.” Reitia replied, moving to embrace Hathor, looking even more diminutive against Hathor’s ample figure. “You might think you do, but you’d be wrong.”
“My Girl, I am the High Priestess of Ammit. I think I can make a few educated suggestions.” Hathor chuckled indulgently.
“Would one of those be to send Jelena away? Further than any have walked before?”
Hathor made a noise of surprise, “Have you and your sister been fighting again? Ammit as my witness if you two don’t…”
“I will be going with her.” Reitia interrupted. “And we’ll take…” she pondered for a moment. “Uncle Enoch, is Kevin at liberty?”
“As much as any of us…” Enoch admitted “…Assuming I indulge this little game of yours, Rei, how long will you need him?”
“How far… How long… why do people keep harping on things that don’t matter?” Reitia answered enigmatically.
Enoch chuckled in spite of himself “You really are The Raven’s daughter… We’ll discuss it in the morning, Rei.”
“I know.” Reitia agreed, leaning up to kiss Hathor on the cheek, before releasing the Taurean and kissing Horus upon the brow where he sat. “You three have a war to start.”
“War…” Horus echoed “…I suppose it has come to that. The Westerlands are Hers, after all. Seti’s line may have been spent, but that fact has never changed.
“If Jelena asks…” Reitia added as she walked carefree through Enochs arcane wards, “…This was your idea… or Ammit’s… She’ll never accept it coming from me.”
“If I needed any further motivation…” Enoch murmured as his eyes followed her out “…She would be it.”
“She’s unique in the world, and so terribly alone.” Hathor sighed pityingly “Apophis hurt her more than any of us. At least Corvus had the blessing of ignorance. She’s always… somehow… known exactly who and what she is.”
Horus stood, murmuring a prayer beneath his breath. Eldritch blue light played upon the floor and cold mist began to seep from the walls. With a deep, groaning sigh which seemed to come from the very depths of the earth, A lich materialized in a burst of magical energy, her grey-skinned form hidden by a fur cloak which hung from the leaden torque about her neck. She gazed at Horus with luminous, violet eyes, her ageless features unreadable. At her side stood a figure, cloaked in a similar fashion, his features obscured behind a grinning steel skull-mask.
“Lady Megara” Horus murmured respectfuly.
“The Blessings of The Eternal One be upon you, Magistrate.” The lich responded in an echoing voice.
“May Justice ever be your Guide.” Horus replied, turning to the figure at Megara’s side. “Iconoclast, Ammit’s blessings upon you as well.”
“I have told you before, Horus.” The figure whispered in a chilling voice, reaching up with gloved hand to remove his mask. His eyes were the clouded grey of a corpse, his features pale beyond the pallor of death, so as to be almost translucent. “Call me Damien.”
“I’m not him.” Horus insisted.
“No. Charles is dead. We speak frequently. But you share the spirit which has been the gift of your Bloodline since time-before-time. It is… Welcoming.”
“Husband, don’t bully the living.” The Lich chides gently, yet there is the faintest ghost of amusement in her echoing voice.
“You’re looking lovely as always, dear friends.” Hathor offered warmly, smiling without the slightest hint of consternation.
“Holiness…” Melina echoes, bowing respectfully to the Taurean. “…Why have you called to us?”
“There’s no easy way around it, so I’m just going to come right out and say it. Julius has committed the Westerlands to Heresy against Ammit, Maou, and Tyris. As High Magistrate of Ammit I charge you to call forth the endless legions…” Horus sighed resignedly.
“…The Dead march to war.”
“But why wouldn’t they tell ME?!” Jelena demanded, stamping a digitigrade hoof against the ground.
“Do you know what Necromancy entails, Jel?” Kevin enquires evenly
“I am a Handmaiden of Hathor, my duty is to the Living, not the dead.” Jelena snorts mockingly.
“Then trust me when I say that your parents are doing you a favour leaving you out of it. You don’t want to see what happens in the crypts… Trust me… NOBODY needs to see that.” Kevin insisted with a slight shudder.
“It can’t be that bad…” The young Taurean insists.
“Ever walk in on your parent’s coupling?”
“What’s that got to do with… Oh… OH! Really?”
Kevin nods seriously.
“H-how lewd…” Jelena mumbles, blushing, her bovine tail lashing behind her.
“But that’s by the by.” The mage waved dismissively, turning to Reitia, her blue-furred, lupine ears twitching absently “You’re SURE that was all there was?”
“Consult with the Seer of the Nordenlandsreich. Doesn’t seem to be that complex an instruction.” Reitia replied calmly.
“Ordinarily I’d agree with you Rei, but you know that with the Emperor essentially committing the Westerlands to civil war by treating with Apophis, the ‘How’ of it is going to be a bit more tricky than that, especially depending on how quickly the dead are roused to anger. Tyris be Merciful, Depending on how irritated the Keepers are, we could see corpses rising this very night.”
Jelena suppressed a shudder, her bovine ears twitching nervously. Though largely isolationist and slow to anger, the undead and their labyrinthine necropolitan heirarchy still unsettled her to her very core. “You don’t think they’ll raise…” Her voice lowered “…Necrophages?”
“Ghouls make lousy soldiers.” A new voice intruded, and the trio turned to see a red-haired young man wearing an odd garment seemingly comprised of raw hides and plates of some kind of secreted resin. A sharp, sweet smell seemed to permeate the air around him, causing Jelena to wrinkle her nose slightly as he passed. “There is no force in this world short of Saint Bruce the Vigilant which has ever convinced a ghoul to leave a fresh corpse alone. You’d have them bloated beyond the ability to move after your first skirmish.”
“Dexter, you made it. Praise Tyris.” Kevin gushed, grasping the man’s shoulders with a warm grin.
“Barely. The Hobs’ve gone over to the pretender” Dexter replied, pulling off his gloves and running a hand through his messy red hair. “Evening Jel, Rei…” He grinned in greeting to the Taurean and her blue-haired ‘sister’.
“Dex!” Jelena exclaimed in pleased surprise, hugging the man warmly before holding him at arm’s length and looking up at him, his lean, gangly frame now a full head taller than her. “You got big!”
“They tell me it happens with age, it’s been what? Five, six years, missy moo?” Dexter drawled cheekily, grinning at Jelena’s insulted pout, absently flicking one of her ivory horns before his face fell to seriousness again. “The black and red ants have got their dander up and are making tunnel passage VERY strenuous. Do you have any idea how difficult ‘I come in peace’ is to say to a soldier-caste who’s determined to tear you open?”
“You? I thought there’d be little trouble, considering…”
Dexter snorts. “Black ants are fucking thieves, and Red ants will ignore almost anything if they feel like a fight.”
“Tyris FUCK!” Kevin exclaims, slamming a fist on the table. “I was planning to use those tunnels to get us to Atlantea.”
“Yeah, well, neither option is recommended right now.”
Kevin raised an eyebrow, “Neither?”
“The IMFC has advised that Atlantea is undergoing ‘Administrative Review’. Port’s closed, and I mean CLOSED. Word is there’s not a number on the bribes needed to get the port authority to look the other way.”
“Mmm. You know your message was terse, even for you. Something’s going on and the hives are going to start demanding answers.”
“It’s… a little touchy.” Kevin offered delicately.
“C’mon man, my wife can’t even pronounce ‘secret’, let alone grasp the concept.” Dexter entreated. “Give me something, for Tyris’s sake.”
“Let’s just say the Hobgoblins aren’t the only people to think that it’s better to be at the right hand of the Devil than in her path.”
“Officially? Doesn’t the Hidden Circle have a remit to ‘dissuade’ that sort of thing after the incident with the Cult of Raphael?”
“A Magisterian remit… Enacting it could be considered an act of war and just cause for the Emperor to dissolve the Sovereign Council.”
Dexter made a noise of disbelief. “Since when? The Sovereign Council has always ratified the declarations of Magisterium when it came to these sorts of thing. It’s not like you’re enacting it on the Imperial Court… Why are you looking at me like that?”
Kevin’s silence hung deafeningly in the air.
“…Sweet Tyris and Maou in a bower… You’re playing with me. Please tell me you’re playing with me.” Dexter begged in a voice sick with dread.
“Brother will turn against brother, and the restless dead will walk the earth…” Reitia intoned in a small, sad voice.
“You involved the KEEPERS?!” Dexter cried disbelievingly.
“Shhhh!” Kevin hissed insistently “Apophis has agents highly placed enough to have turned the Emperor’s ear, the entirety of Caladon could be crawling with them! Emperor Julius not only exiled every mage in his court under pain of crucifixion, he threatened the Caretakers of Duat. You know what happened the last time someone did that.”
Dexter gave a snort of involuntary laughter. “Every child of five knows what happened. Seti the Great lowered his head and bullrushed the entire fucking continent, and Prince Samuel the Caladonian dropped a mountain on what was left.”
“…And Ammit told the Keepers in no uncertain terms to Call the Dead to War.”
“I suppose those who don’t learn the lessons of History… So what will you do?”
“The Archmages are united on this. The circle goes dark, and those of us known to the Sovereignties make for somewhere we won’t be recognised.”
“I hear The Australs are nice this time of year…” Dexter mused.
“Frankly Dex, I’d rather deal with the Dead.” Jelena interjected firmly.
“Also for us it’s not an option. Horus has asked me to accompany Jelena to see the Seer. We need to get to the Nordenlandsreich as quickly as possible.” Kevin added.
“I’ll be glad to help, of course.” Dexter assured without hesitation. “But we’ll have to go overland to the Hive.”
“Oh, that shouldn’t be a problem.” Jelena added with a slightly naughty smile on her plump lips. “A Handmaiden of Hathor…”
“Congratulations.” Dexter interjected.
“Thank you.” Jelena smiled graciously. “…Accompanied by her Acolyte” A pause while she directed a smug smirk at Reitia, which the slender woman only returned as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Jelena’s face darkened a little in frustration before continuing ”…and the Emperor’s representative in… Kevin, what’s your exact rank at Court?”
“Baronet, though I expect that will last only long enough for the ink to dry once Julius gets around to the rescindment.”
“Baronet? Really?” Jelena exclaimed in surprise.
“Do you think we all sat on our thumbs while you played earthworm, missy moo?” Dexter teased.
“How long did Reitia laugh at you when you asked her to the spring dance again?” Jelena replied with deceptive sweetness.
“Low blow…” Dexter complained, glancing almost guiltily at the blue-haired figure watching their jousting with an unreadable expression.
“Leave off the nickname then.”
“I wasn’t being mean.” Reitia interjected “He was going to meet his wife there. I found it funny that he’d ask me considering that.”
“To this day Rei, you STILL haven’t told me how you knew she’d be there.” Dexter added, folding his arms across his chest, the resinous plating creaking with his movement.
Reitia smiled that mysterious smile and said nothing.
“…Returning to the point, if we could?” Kevin prompted.
“Of course, sorry your lordship…” Jelena drawled in a thick rustic accent.
“Jel…” Kevin pleaded.
“…Alright…” Jelena conceded, though the smile still played on her face. “…accompanied by Lord Kevin of the Imperial Westerland Court, with an official missive to…” she paused there, tapping her digitigrade hoof softly on the floor in thought.
“…Do a stocktake on the honey, count the stripes on your average drone’s ass… Honestly by that stage any regular Legionary’s eyes will have thoroughly glazed over, and if they haven’t, we wouldn’t have gotten past them anyway.” Dexter concluded.
“Fair point.” Kevin admitted. “Horses?”
“Outside.” Reitia remarked simply.
“Obviously Rei, but where are we going to find… Tyris be merciful!” Kevin exclaimed as he opened the front door to see four saddled horses inspecting the front garden for delicacies. “…How did you…”
Reitia smiled again, but said nothing.
The Scorpion smiled as she watched the four figures gallop from the Count’s manor house. It had been so simple. She now knew not only the identity of the elusive Horus and Hathor, but also where that weird… THING the Mistress was so interested in was going, and what she was looking for when she got there. She considered going to tell that puffed up human, but quickly decided against it. The man was a pawn, and the TEMERITY of him to dare to think he could treat with the Midnight Serpent as an equal set her stinger to oozing and her palps to lashing.
She began to follow the group, her chitinous legs silent against the loamy earth. She was in no hurry, the mage was so worked up that the mana-trail he left almost glowed in the dark. So intent she was on her pursuit that she never noticed the shadowy form which tailed her on the edge of vision, feline eyes glowing feral yellow as the figure seemed to flit in and out of existence…
“Take heed, O Sons and Daughters of Humanity, for this is truth. The wise man observeth that wealth is a tool of freedom. But the pursuit of wealth is the way to slavery. Be thou rich in mercy. Be thou wealthy in temperance. Be thou overflowing in piety. For silver and gold may not follow thee ‘pon the day of thy death.” -The Doctrines of Tyris
“There you are!” A female voice declared from above them, a drone of insectile wings humming beneath the pounding of their horses hooves.
Dexter lifted his head to greet the insectile arrival with a grin. “Hello love, miss me?”
“Desperately as always.” The Bee-Girl hummed, sideslipping without concern to kiss the redhead lingeringly. “Although I’m not a fan of the ruin you left about a mile back.”
“They were asking too many questions, love, would have made me late in getting back to you.”
The Bee seemed to ponder this, her lower set of chitinous arms resting on her hips while the upper folded across her modest bust, a hand on her delicately pointed chin.
“I’ll accept it. Will we be having guests?”
“If it’s not too much trouble. I’m sure you remember Kevin, and the two girls in the bedsheets are Jelena and Reitia.”
“Glad to meet you all, I will await you in the hive.” The bee smiled welcomingly, before flying away… in the complete opposite direction.
“Er… Dex?” Jelena ventured, turning to follow the insect’s flight.
“You’ll see…” Dexter laughed, spurring his horse onward.
They crested a hill, and nestled in the picturesque valley below sat a domed structure, lights glowing warmly from many openings in its surface. They rode in silence for a moment before Jelena realised with an intake of breath just how big the structure was. It easily dwarfed the manor home in which she and Reitia had grown up. Maou and Ammit preserve, it could even give pause to Fort Caladon!
“Home sweet Home…” Dexter sighed, reigning in and dismounting. As the others followed suit, he slapped his horse casually on the rump, walking unconcernedly towards the hive.
“Dex, we’re going to have to find him later…” Kevin mused, watching as the horse galloped back towards Caladon.
“Nah. Better idea. Come on in.” Dexter grinned, gesturing for his three companions to follow.
“C’mere you…” He drawled, grabbing the closest Bee and pulling it into a tight embrace, seeking its mouth hungrily. The Bee squealed with delight, wrapping chitinous arms about the redhead and returning his affection enthusiastically.
“Dex!” Jelena cried incensedly, mortified at the man’s easy seeming infidelity. “What would your wife say?”
“But I am his wife.” The Bee replied, glittering eyes studying Jelena with puzzlement.
“But we just…” The Taurean trailed off, pointing back towards the door.
Dexter and the Bee shared a look and a knowing chuckle. “Come on Jel, it’ll be easier to show you.”
Jelena shook her head in puzzlement, her hooves making muted drumming sounds upon the curious resin-like flooring. A whooshing of wings caught her attention and she turned, startled, to see Reitia casually flying into the heights of the structure, peering here and there, the bees avoiding her with practiced ease as she gawped, her grey-feathered wings shifting and beating as she looked into the hexagonal structures along the walls.
“Rei! What are you doing?”
“I can see that, get back here!”
“I’ll catch up.”
“Reitia! You’re being frightfully rude! How would you like it if someone just came browsing through your house?” The Taurean demanded, stomping a hoof.
“It’s alright Jel.” Dexter assured her with an easy smile. “Like I said, ‘secret’ is a concept the Hive is militantly ignorant of.”
“If you say so…” Jelena conceded. “…I can’t get over how quiet it is, apart from… you know… the buzzing.”
“The hive has no voice but mine…” A bee to her left suddenly spoke up, looking familiarly at the Taurean.
“…Its words are my words…” Another to her right.
“…Its thoughts, my thoughts.” this time above her, where an airborne Bee carried a resin-coated bundle, before spiralling up into the labyrinthine heights.
“Don’t tease, love.” Dexter chided, pinching the bee who walked ahead of them on the buttock. Five or six bees in the general area started, gripping at their backsides with a blush before returning to their work.
“Hate it when she does that…” Kevin grumbled almost inaudibly where he walked beside Jelena. The Taurean turned her horned head to regard the mage with curiosity.
“Kevin, what’s going on?” She begged.
Kevin turned to her with a wry grin, taking her hand seemingly on instinct. “Think Dexter might be right. It’s easier just to show you.”
Jelena gasped at the unexpected contact, looking down at where he held her hand. Kevin too looked down, suddenly releasing her.
“Sorry… I… Wasn’t thinking.”
“I-it’s alright…” Jelena mused demurely, feeling her face flush. My, did it suddenly get warm in here?
The group turned into a luxuriously appointed chamber, a heavily pregnant bee seated beneath an amazingly complex wax structure on an opulent looking divan. Dexter walked unceremoniously towards her, leaning down and kissing her mouth delicately.
“How are you feeling, Love?”
“Tired…” A bee to the right of the divan answered with a sigh. “…She’s been restless all day.”
“You go easy on your mother, young lady.” Dexter chided, placing a gentle hand on the Bee’s swollen abdomen before standing and turning to his companions. “I’d like to introduce my wife. Cerani, Queen of Hive Sea-of-Grasses.”
“I’m sorry for the business with my drones earlier.” The Queen said in a soft, musical voice, the same as Jelena had heard from the other bees throughout the Hive yet somehow… richer… more real. “But we all enjoy the opportunity to show off now and then, and I am rather proud of my drones.”
“You have a beautiful hive, Cerani…” Reitia declared from where she had suddenly appeared behind Jelena and Kevin, approaching the divan without hesitation and placing her slender hand atop the pregnant Queen’s belly. “…Oho… She’s so full of life!”
“Hello Reitia, it’s good to see you again.” Cerani mused, raising a hand briefly to the young Mamono’s cheek.
“Don’t strain yourself, I know how hard this time of the pregnancy is.” Reitia chided, sounding almost motherly. Jelena blinked with surprise. “And Melissae will want to come and see the world very, very soon.”
“Dear sweet girl, how could you possibly know?” Cerani declared in amazement.
Reitia, once again, gave no answer but that mysterious smile.
“Come on you lot, stop haranguing the wife, let’s go get our bellies filled.” Dexter chuckled, leading them from the chamber and back into the main hive.
“This. Is. Amazing.” Reitia mumbled from around a mouthful of the decadently glazed ham which steamed on her plate.
“I’ve never understood that.” Jelena muttered to herself.
“S’the matter Jel?” Kevin ventured, raising an eyebrow at the Taurean.
“My dear sister.” Jelena grumbled, gesturing to where Reitia was throwing food into her mouth with reckless abandon. “She eats like she’s got a hollow leg, and does she get one extra pound on her? Meanwhile if my butt gets much bigger I’m going to have to walk sideways through doors!”
“Don’t be silly, it looks fine.” Kevin assured her, before realizing what had just come out of his mouth. “Not that I was looking! I mean.. um…” He stammered, blushing to the roots of his hair.
“Do you ever go a day without putting a foot in your mouth, Kev?” Dexter chortled in glee, raising a tankard of rich, golden mead to his lips.
Kevin glowered at the redhead for a moment, before drinking deeply from his own tankard.
“Speaking of feet in mouths…” Jelena interjected, desperate to change the subject (Why was her heart beating so fast?) “…What exactly did you do to that patrol?”
“How do you mean?”
“Well they seemed to be trying very hard to stop something that… well… wasn’t there.”
“Just an illusion.” Kevin replied dismissively.
“I didn’t see anything.”
“Of course not, if everyone could see it, it wouldn’t be an illusion, it’d be real, and I don’t presume upon the territory of the divines by aspiring to creation.” Kevin replied, a slightly puzzled expression on his face.
“It must really be something, being able to use magic…” Jelena mused somewhat regretfully. “…I’ve always been so… well… ordinary.”
“You were never ordinary Jel.” Kevin once again spoke without thinking, blushing again and trying to cover the slip with his tankard “…What I mean, is you’re a Handmaiden of Hathor… You’ve spoken to Ammit!”
“Oh…” Jelena replied, surprised at the dejection in her own voice. “…Still, that’s not the same, I mean it’s nothing coming from ME. It’s all prayer, ritual, ancient Words of Power, Maou’s ample bosom… SO much rote memorization… It must be amazing to just DO something.”
Kevin’s mouth turns upwards at the corners in a shy, genuine smile. “It is… It’s like… I imagine what a bird feels like on the first day it realizes it can fly, and suddenly the world becomes so much bigger.”
“Listen to the bard over here!” Dexter chuckles.
“Hush, Dexter.” Reitia demands primly, wiping her mouth with a napkin.
“Sweet Tyris…” Dexter groaned as he leaned back in the resin tub filled with hot, steaming water. A naked drone leaned over him, scrubbing at his chest gently with a rough sponge. Dexter reached out, cupping the drone’s curiously nipple-less breast. From across the room, he heard his wife’s intake of breath.
“I know that this IS you in a way I’ll never really understand, love…” Dexter mused, gently fondling the soft flesh “…but it’s not the same.”
“I know, darling…” The drone admitted in his wife’s voice “…But it’s too close to the time. We don’t want to take unnecessary risks.”
“I suppose not…” Dexter conceded. “…still.”
“Oh hush.” The drone insisted as it clambered into the tub, soon joined by a second… and a third. “…This way… I can do this…” One of the drones ducked its head underwater, taking his rapidly hardening member in its mouth. “…And this…” A second straddled his chest, lolling her smooth breasts in his face while the third kneaded the tension from his shoulders.
“You are too good to me…” Dexter moaned, feeling himself rapidly approaching climax under the combined attention of the drones.
“I know…” The drone behind him breathed in his ear as he erupted into the gullet of the drone between his legs. Dexter let out a deep, sighing groan of sheer release, surrounded literally as well as figuratively by the encompassing love of his Hive-Queen.
“Where’s m’sister?” Jelena demanded with a slight slur.
“Said she was going outside for a little while. Couple drones went with her. S’fine…” Kevin mumbled reassuringly, wobbling slightly as he took off his shoes. “…I think that mead was a bit stronger than I ‘spected.”
“Are you drunk?” Jelena giggled.
“YOU’RE Drunk!” Kevin retorted.
Jelena opened her mouth to object, and then hiccuped. “Maybe a bit.” She admitted with another giggle, wriggling under the amazingly soft covers of the amber-framed bed
Kevin took a thick jacket from his pack, laying it out on the resin floor, punching the canvas bag a few times before lying on his side, head on his pack.
Jelena pursed her lips, staring at the mage. “…Kevin.”
“What are you doing?”
“Why are you sleeping on th’floor, for Ammit’s sake?”
“S’fine, you and Rei can have th’bed.”
“She’s not here, and plus, we’ve known each other since we were kids. There’s plenty of room, come on.”
“YOU were kids.”
“Oh wow, so you’re six years older than me, big deal.” Jelena droned drily “Stop being such a fucking martyr and c’mere.”
“Language’s not very becoming of a priestess…” Kevin chided, yet rolled over and clambered over to the bed, lying next to the Taurean.
“You swear all the time.”
“Mages aren’t supposed to be classy.”
“Fuck that.” Jelena declared, snuggling herself under his arm. “Now. Isn’t this better?”
“Heh… Yeah…” Kevin admitted, and they lay in silence for a while.
“Hey Kev…” Jelena began, feeling heat rise again in her face.
“Why didn’t you ever ask me?”
A long, pregnant pause. “You were with Rick, Ammit shred th’cunt… and then you were in the temple…”
“But before that… You know I only even spoke to him because you were standing with the others… The Human Priestesses were selecting for the Sowing of the Chancel… I wanted… I wanted you to notice me so badly.”
Rick shifted slightly, “It was Continuance… Four Hundred years and we still haven’t shaken the need for it. We’re just… not breeding that fast.”
“I know the reason for it now.” Jelena admitted “I just… You’ve always been there. Through everything. Hell’s Throne… You SAVED me!”
“Was m’duty. Promised th’Count. Your father, I mean. He had his Horus hat on n’everything.”
Jelena reached up, turning the man’s face towards her. “Do you mean that? Was it just duty?”
Kevin’s heart hammered in his breast. “…No.” he breathed, so softly as to be almost inaudible.
“Why aren’t you kissing me right now?”
As if released from bonds the mage didn’t even know he was ensnared in, he hungrily pressed his lips to the Taurean’s lush mouth, her arms eagerly going around his head, murmurs of passion in her throat where she desperately kissed him.
“For Maou’s sake, put your hands on me!” Jelena near-begged.
Kevin mumbled affirmation, hands greedy as they opened her white linen robes, eager upon the soft flesh beneath.
“Ohhhh Maou…” Jelena moaned, grinding her thick thighs together where the HEAT in her nethers was growing almost too much to bear. “…Please… I need you.” Her hand dropped to his trousers, feeling the hardness beneath straining at the stout fabric. Stroking there enticingly, biting his lip, her gaze smouldering with unrestrained lust.
Kevin almost reluctantly ceased his fondling, unbuckling his pants and sliding them off rapidly, his rampant member pulsing with his heartbeat. Jelena licked her lips, she didn’t think she had seen anything that looked quite so delicious in her life. But the NEED was demanding… She spread her legs, pulling him to her, feeling herself be penetrated, felt the exquisite agony as her maidenhead stretched and finally ruptured… And then he was in her, filling her in a way she never dreamed possible, penetrating her to her very soul.
“Aaaaaahhhhnnnn!” She cried, clinging to him, panting and sobbing.
“Are you alright?” Kevin murmured, cupping her face, his own a mask of concern.
“Yes…” She replied, showering his mouth with kisses “…More… Please… More…”
Kevin began moving in her… sweet Goddess of Hell… She felt as if she would lose her mind from the sensation. She locked her digitigrade legs around his waist, his solid body glistening with sweat as the steps of that most ancient of dances became more urgent and frenzied. Jelena felt the waves of pleasure crashing against her psyche… higher… higher… higher…
“Oh Maou…” She Groaned “…Oh Ammit… Kevin… I think I’m…”
The last was lost in a long, drawn out cry which seemed to rip from her lungs as her entire body shuddered in the throes of orgasm, feeling herself clamp down around the white-hot length within her, heard Kevin’s breathing become ragged, a low moan at his lips as he thrust himself forward one final time, pulsing, shooting inside her, filling every part of her with an indescribable warmth. This was it! This was Love, This was Life! She felt the power circulating within the core of her being, filling her even as his issue filled her.
Both of them stared desperately into the other’s faces, panting, their breathing and heartbeats slowing, until Kevin crumpled to her side with a groan, his member sliding from her, leaving her body lamenting its absence.
“Jel…” Kevin breathed.
“If I could move…” Jelena hummed, basking in the afterglow “…I would hit you for not doing that to me six years ago.”
“Yeah well… if you find the top of my head anywhere, do let me know, I think you blew it clean off.” The mage retorted, smiling warmly and planting a lingering kiss on her mouth.
“I think I love you, Kevin…” Jelena heard herself blurt, her heart suddenly in her throat.
“I hope so Jel…” Kevin mused, affection brimming in his eyes “…Tyris knows I’ve loved you for years.
“If we deny the need for thought, as our predecessors did, we lose the powers of reflection; we cannot define what our senses report. If we deny the flesh, we hamstring the mount which bears us. But if we deny emotion, we lose all touch with our internal universe.” –The Doctrines of Maou (Apocryphal)
“It’s getting cold out here, Reitia.” The drone chided in Cerani’s voice. The pair were sitting atop the dome of the hive, the sea of stars above them bright and sparkling like diamonds beyond counting, the bow of the hunter moon painted the grasslands beneath them with silver, a soft breeze setting it to swaying as if to shame the stars above.
“I know… It shouldn’t be much longer…” Reitia acknowledged, studying the sky.
“Your sister and Kevin have… quite finished.” Cerani offered delicately
“Oh? Well… It took them long enough.” Reitia quipped, smiling softly. That business with the Demon and those broken Humans had left something of a wound within her sister’s soul, and even from here, Reitia could feel Kevin’s love filling that wound, binding it and healing it so as to have never existed. She was so happy for her, Love was like sweet mountain air, it refreshed, invigorated. She so wanted more of it in the world…
“So shall we return?” Cerani prompted. Reitia shook her head.
“Not yet. The Keepers have begun their rites… which means… There!”
Reitia pointed to a blue glow low in the sky, where a smoky mist seemed to be pouring from nothingness. As the mist approached, Cerani saw that it was a spectral host, vast beyond counting. The drone which held the Hive-Queen’s awareness recoiled in shock. At her side, Reitia stood, spreading her wings before launching herself, unafraid towards the vast river of souls.
“Reitia!” Cerani called, twin pairs of chitin-coated hands reaching beseechingly after her, but the Mamono did not pause nor turn, flying along the length of the river, searching… searching… Suddenly, she stopped, beating her wings and hovering in the air. A serpentine spirit seemed to detach from the host, moving to float before her.
“Hello Mother…” Reitia murmured with a soft, shy smile. The ghost reached out her hands to the girl, brushing her cheek oh-so gently, her eyes filled with wordless love. Then, as if unable to resist the pull of the river any further, the Snake-woman’s ghost fell back into that teeming river of souls.
Reitia’s return to the dome of the hive was slower, almost regretful. “I had to see her.” Reitia explained as she landed next to the drone, “E-even if only j-just this once…”
Reitia’s voice cracked and her eyes filled with tears. Wordlessly, Cerani held the drones arms out to her, and with a wail, Reitia fell into their embrace, sobbing without abandon as the host of the dead drifted inexorably onward.
The Crystalline hall of the Grand Lodge of the Resonant was silent as a tomb, the crystal’s glittering facets muted by the dust of two decades of abandonment. How many of their number still remained was known only to the Gods. Immobile atop a mosaic in the middle of the floor, a man and a woman embraced, their forms coated in dust. A shudder seemed to pass through reality itself.
“Did you feel that?” The man’s voice croaked harshly.
“Yes.” Came the metallic whisper from the woman.
“Has it begun, Mnemosyne?”
“Yes V3R1T4S. Can you continue?”