Twin Ipirian moons, so named Sin-Dar and Sin-Mut, gleamed bright in the skies above the blessed island of Vangral, bearing down beams of light within the swirling Harvest clouds. The moons appeared like glowing eyes observing the execution unfolding below, their sacred light pouring over the true children of Ipir. Misty rain brewed to usher forth another cycle of fertility and that particular Harvest holiday carried extra victory for the natives. The blood of a fallen hero would soon pour, and that offering would replenish the thirsty roots of the great tree El-Akalut.
About time, too. They’d all waited for the day.
Labat, the Lioness and Queen of Sinum, watched as soldiers of the sect marched a battered man to the sacrificial circle. She listened to the cheers and howls of the hundreds of thousands that had amassed below the master’s elevated temple stage, recognizing the figure that the soldiers dragged along from a lifetime ago. He was Admiral John Pendergast, the newly elected leader for the Union Galactic Alliance, representing the wretched humans hailing from some far-off world called Earth. John was also a symbol of the violence she’d suffered at humanity’s hands, a reminder of brutalities she’d survived while he watched without action, remaining motionless for too long to raise arms against his own. She reached down from her gilded throne to scratch the savage wolf Nasar behind the ears, gazing in quiet satisfaction at what was left of the feckless admiral.
Free-flowing ether from the ritual springs filtered around and through the Ipirians, incensing them with elevated energy. Labat rested her hands on the heavy jeweled, horned crown on her head to keep it steady as she raised her nose to inhale the ethereal vapors, running her tongue along the burning sensations in her mouth, ones that sent electrifying jolts down her sharp incisors. She longed to bite the admiral—to drain him of his life in a more personal way—however that honor wasn’t meant for her. Not for the master, either. Not even for the divine elders. John’s end belonged to Mother Ipir, and to Ipir, alone.
B’al Akil, Master of Sinum, met her gaze with his simmering black stare for a moment before stepping forward, raising his powerful arms to the swarming crowds below. Deafening applause and cheers and shouts followed Akil’s motions, echoing chants in endless repetition, calling for a seal to their triumph on that Harvest Day. A sharp smell trailed to Labat through the air from John’s leaking blood from a distance away, a jumbled complexity of the anguish he felt as he twisted with worry for his people—his family—and for the men in his company. Anticipation tickled the corners of Labat’s lips in quiet delight. Good.
Everyone he cared for…would die.
Akil hushed the swarms with a hissed command, waiting for complete quiet and stillness before launching his address in immortal tongue. Labat found herself drifting up from her seat as she listened to the master, caught in his spell and the pleasing baritone of his voice, until a hand clamped down over hers and gave her arm a sharp tug. She jerked her attention away from the event, ticked with sudden fury, and glared at the figure seated in a gilded chair beside her own. Foolish, simple eyes gazed up at her and mussed hair scattered over a youthful face—the stupid boy was Zib, a simpleton also held as a slave by the men who’d imprisoned her, someone she’d personally bestowed with the immortal gift in a rare show of mercy.
“Sit, Sa-ee-ha.” Zib’s words were slow and dreamlike, his voice low. Only the boy could address her with that mortal name. “Chair. You. Down.”
Labat snatched her arm away in a huff, glaring, her hand keeping the heavy sacrificial crown balanced on her head. “I am the lioness,” she snapped at him. “You are nothing. Don’t dare tell me what to do, child.”
“Elder watch,” he continued peacefully. “No good. Sa-ee-ha sit. Sit.”
Her gaze darted over to figures in dark robes standing to the rear behind the royal thrones, those mysterious shadows that operated with power and authority above even that of the Sinum master—with ancient forces fabled to be from the days of the prophet, days of the birth of their planet. The sight of the elders, even without visible reaction to her show of unabashed excitement, quieted her irritation at Zib and set her back in her chair. Hoods concealed their unknown faces but she could tell that they surveyed her with disapproval. Not all were in accordance with Akil’s choice for first wife of the royal harem—and if the majority decided that she was unfit then she would face her own end much like John’s, regardless of Akil’s favor.
Softening her temper, she tidied Zib’s dirt-streaked appearance yet another time and patted him on the head, acknowledging his warning. The elders cared little for her prior service to Akil’s army, informing her that anyone could learn the art of warfare with the time afforded by an immortal existence. Zib smiled at her, his pupils fully dilated to blacken his gaze as he bared his sharp incisors—ones that he could never quite learn how to conceal. She smiled at him as well before returning her attention to the Akil, whose words punctured the air like gunfire.
“Dear, detested Admiral,” boomed Akil in native speak, dense black mane and chiseled rune-marked form glistening under the light of the moons. “No…no more of that title, Admiral,” he goaded. “Right? Now you are…Union General. The most powerful man in all of the alliance though…your power seems to be lacking at this moment.”
He laughed, and the sect followed his humor in kind with a sweeping raucous.
“You’ve accepted awards and honors for the genocide of our kind while acting as a friend,” Akil said, shaking his head in disappointment. “All the while you slowly drove a blade into our backs. To this moment you refuse to recognize your crimes and treachery, refuse to accept that your human diseases destroyed the paradise you still attempt to colonize. You refuse to…beg, although I assure you that your kind will soon be defeated.”
A thundering roar followed. Akil paused, absorbing the heated elation of his followers before circling around the admiral’s hunched, kneeling form. “You call us ill,” he continued darkly. “Say that we are the ones diseased—that we’re damned. Meanwhile, your people happily profit off of our talents and endeavors while you insult us. Humans continue to fight the nature of this heaving planet, expiring like dogs, while we embrace the pull of Mother Ipir to ascend the realms as gods. As the divine. As your…masters.”
The coven chanted behind Akil’s words with reverence—FOR THE GLORY FOR THE GLORY FOR THE GLORY. Labat found her pupil’s dilating further at the frenzy despite herself, her dead heart quivering with movement she’d long forgotten. She could almost see with sight beyond sight all the ripples of pure forces crackling through the people and below and through the jungle, along the ground and up into the trees to burst into the sky.
“For your crimes, Admiral, your eternal spirit is forever cursed. You’re prohibited from finding peace within the paths of the gardens of El-Akalut. May nothing except the pain you suffer today be mirrored one thousand times over in the void between worlds. Galusu ina bet giru. Suffer in hell forever.” Akil’s message pierced the cacophony of jeers and cries. “No God can help you then.”
The soldiers supporting the weakened admiral released their hold and the bound man fell forward, his face hitting the stone ground before him with a hard splat of flesh. John hovered close to the threshold between life and death at that moment. Labat sensed that if the sect didn’t proceed with haste then they would lose him before the sacrifice was complete.
Drummers lining either side of the ritual circle beat heavy mallets against stretched human-hide instruments, building the somber rhythm of Sinum’s death march. Akil accepted a polished scimitar blade from an acolyte standing at his side and Labat bit into the flesh of her bottom lip, watching the master brandish the weapon as she tasted her own sour, malignant blood. He raised the scimitar high as the sect continued chanting praises, matching the sonorous percussion of the drumming rhythms. Zib clapped his hands and recited along with the chants as if they were playing a game. Labat’s form drifted unconsciously up from her throne once again. It was time.
Akil grabbed John by the back of his blood-soaked shirt, jabbing a heel into the admiral’s back to force the man to kneel. The scimitar’s sharpened edge pressed against the admiral’s mottled throat and Labat found she was standing completely now, although she ignored Zib’s insistent pleas for control this time around. Her fangs sank deeper into her mouth, pooling black-red fluid within, and she found she was holding her breath—although she didn’t need that breath anymore, and hadn’t for a long time.
Wait for it, her mind murmured to her. Death was imminent, her thoughts calmed. And yet…there was still no sound from Pendergast. No final cries for release or pleas for his loved ones—his children. She wanted his pain, but he was holding it from them all. Well…no matter. There was no denying the pain that would come for him within moments.
She wanted him dead. She wanted John gone.
She wanted—needed—his pain.
And so…that was what she received.
Akil’s motion was quick. A single, beautiful stroke, the cut of a butcher long perfected after centuries of hunting the enemies of Sinum’s master.
A delicious, strangled noise escaped the admiral, a noise wet with fluid and tinged with finality. Red sprayed out with force from the wound, spraying life fluid outward and skyward like grim fireworks. That smell permeated her senses, and Labat’s lids dropped low at the influx of hot, heady scents. Her fingers brushed against her lips as she could almost taste the copper from afar, drinking it all in—Pendergast’s final release of terror and grief. The last spark of the admiral’s power streamed through her veins, imbuing itself within her system via the tendrils of ether surrounding them all.
The volume of voices escalated, building with further frenzy. Akil slammed a boot down hard into the admiral’s back and jerked the man’s half-torn neck backwards, forcing gushes of red onto the rune markings carved along the sacrificial circle, which were absorbed with ease. Labat closed her eyes completely into the black voids that lingered in the spaces beyond death and sleep. Another rush began as John’s life sputtered to a close.
The admiral’s body spasmed in Akil’s grasp. Drums rumbled to a crescendo. Akil shook the corpse like a broken doll and Pendergast’s head, still half-attached to the neck, spilled bright fluid onto the ground. He held up a hand to silence the sect and waited for the jungle to quiet. When all was still he turned to Labat and pointed the scimitar in her direction. She gazed at him as his pitless gaze brimmed with simmering fire, singeing holes right through her.
He called to her in tongue. She trembled at his address.
“My wife. My queen. Come.”
Labat clasped her hands together, a multitude of eyes observing her every move. Steadying the heavy horned crown on her head once more, the beaded jewels swaying to and fro with her movements, she glided forward and down the stone steps leading to the sacrificial circle to approach her beast of a husband. Nasar’s faithful paws padded close behind as she proceeded and she craned her neck in order to see Akil’s face above his towering form.
“Brothers and sisters,” he boomed, addressing the people of the sect. “Your newest queen will demonstrate how she won her place at my side—and why she is my lioness. An animal that rends our enemies with her savage jaws for the pleasure of our holy prophet—our raijim. Praises to Heaven.”
A blood-stained fist adjusted its positioning to present Labat with the hilt of the scimitar blade. His unblinking stare surveyed her as she took the weapon without hesitation and pulled the heavy weapon into her own grip as if it were no burden at all. She snatched hold of John Pendergast before Akil could present her with the body, returning the master’s unwavering attention. Akil released the sacrifice and another weight plummeted into her hold that she refused to falter with.
Silence swept the sect. Not even the pleasant trill of winged griladaes nestled deep within the jungle serenaded the moment. The drummers themselves stopped their pounding to watch the fated moment.
Labat dropped the body to the ground onto the etchings of the circle and braced against the man’s back with her knee, pushing his half-broken head down with one hand. She sawed into his neck using the scimitar with ease, anchoring the blade into flesh and cutting through with fluidity. The blade hit bone and she increased her effort, her fangs nicking deeper into the flesh of her mouth. A surge of immortal energy, spurred from the circling ether, powered her action to a satisfying snap of success and the entire head released, falling into her hands.
Pendergast’s fluid-soaked scalp was cropped close, making the prize difficult to grab with secure hold. Labat dropped the scimitar to wield the mass with both hands instead, red spilling down her arms and onto her ceremonial dress. She approached Akil with arms raised, extending the admiral’s head toward the Sinum master, and dropped to a knee. Nasar settled onto his haunches at her side, the wolf’s furry snout bowing in apparent honor as well
Her gaze trailed the path of red that soaked the rune etchings below. She remained, bowing, until she felt a heavy hand rest on top of her hair between the horns of her crown. Akil’s deep, resonant voice beckoned.
“Stand,” he ordered.
Labat arched her neck again to survey the master’s massive figure, tall in height and imposing in stature—a wraith of a warrior. Rough fingers traced over her face, marking new runes of spiritual power over her flesh. A low chant filled the dark expanses of the jungle, this time praising her as queen of the sect.
HIBTI LABAT HIBTI LABAT
After a whole miserable existence serving humans…her marriage to Akil bestowed her with the greatest of honors. Ascended by his bite, she’d accepted the immortal mark from a true descendant of the prophet so her past of weakness no longer mattered.
The sect’s excitement grew as calls of admiration layered into the din around the temple stage. Akil’s other women, the lesser wives of his harem, bowed their heads when she faced them, displaying honor to her as their queen as well. After brandishing the head of the admiral for the sect to admire Akil handed the prize to a soldier standing at his side, ordering the man to drive it onto a spike and display it in his temple garden for the Harvest holiday.
Another from Pendergast’s unfortunate landing party remained alive in Akil’s bedchambers after weeks of captivity, too weak from damage and blood-draining to muster any remaining sobs of defeat. She was a Union diplomat—some idiot that, like John, was once so confident that human words and deals truly mattered to the master. Noticing the diplomat’s stirrings, Akil moved to snap her neck, pausing as he grasped her head when Labat touched his arm with a sharp smile bared.
“No,” said the Queen of Sinum in a low growl. “Let the woman suffer during our mate. It will satisfy me.”
Akil drank from the dying woman before seizing Labat, flinging her to the bed of the chamber to complete their mating with animalistic force. The taste of the woman’s anguish incensed Labat and something inside of her pattered as Akil braced her against him, moving her to his liking. He bit her then as well, as he’d done when he turned her the first time, as ether spurred them both to wildness. For that moment, Labat thought she felt something like alive again.
Her cheek hit the sheets when he released her. She remained there as her body radiated with heat and vigor, her pupils dilating to encompass the whites of her eyes as she entered the void beyond death. Rough fingers brushed her hair from her face as she spoke to him from someplace far away.
“The universe revealed more of her secrets to me today,” she murmured, Akil’s scent merging with the fresh blood pooling from the diplomat. “Mother Ipir showed me traces of the pathways.”
“Good,” grunted Akil, shifting her aside as he pushed himself back up to stand. “This flesh is a prison. Have no fear of pain. Of what lies beyond.”
“I’m not afraid,” she replied.
“That’s yet to be seen.”
The energy in the room shifted in a subtle way, a depression of someone’s mood. Labat’s gaze streaked over to the woman on the floor who lay sputtering, finally reaching her ending point. The diplomat was a pretty thing at one point—a full human, near one hundred percent in purity as the pathetic thing likely boasted to everyone who could stand to listen within Union. An idealistic type determined to save a planet of savages from themselves. Maybe Labat would have blessed the woman with immortality to become part of Akil’s harem if it were her decision, however Akil was disinterested in keeping any of John Pendergast’s accomplices alive to tell the tale—and he preferred a pure-blooded native like himself to carry on his seed. Something Labat was not.
Akil walked toward the door leading out of their private quarters and cracked the woman’s neck anyway, dropping the limp pile of limbs back onto the stone floor. Labat glanced at her once before pulling her gown back on again and hurrying after the master, who’d already disappeared within the palace.
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