Twin Ipirian moons, so named Sin-Dar and Sin-Mut by the great Raijim Isten, gleamed bright in the sky above the blessed island of Vangral. Sacred illumination poured through swirling Harvest clouds and washed over the true children of Ipir, appearing like a pair of glowing eyes observing an execution unfolding below. Harvest that year carried extra victory for the natives and blood from a fallen hero would pour, replenishing the thirsty roots of their great tree El-Akalut. About time too, Labat the Lioness, Queen of Sinum, celebrated with private humor. A change in their luck. Sinum, the one true sect of the holy faith of Isten Dar, had long waited for the day.
Labat watched sect soldiers march a battered man to an ancient sacrificial circle carved before their sprawling royal temple, the alloted space elevated on a rocky platform overlooking hundreds of thousands of followers amassing beneath the master's stage. The doomed man dragged along was familiar to her, someone she knew from a lifetime ago. Admiral John Pendergast was his name and at the time of his present execution he’d become the newly elected leader of the Union Galactic Alliance, a top representative for a wretched colony of humans currently squatting on Ipir. Humans that hailed from some far-off planet called 'Earth'.
The mere sight of John, even in his weakened state as he was carried, incensed Labat with flickers of rage. She looked at him and saw only violence, a totem symbolizing the pain she'd suffered at human hands—paid he’d taken too long to correct while refusing to raise arms against his own. Politics and alliances mattered more to him than with justice, that’s the meaning she’d gleaned from the inaction. Well, politics and alliances would become his downfall just as it had been the cause of hers, although it was her own machinations that worked to ruin him. She reached down from her gilded throne to scratch her savage wolf Nasar's ears, gazing in quiet at what was left of her enemy.
A surplus of free-flowing ether emanated from the mouths of ritual springs nearby. The native element, their natural food, filtered around and through them, alighting them with elevated energy. Labat steadied the heavy ceremonial horned crown that she wore atop on her head and raised her nose to inhale the vapors, running her tongue along escalating burning sensations in her mouth. Electricity jolted through the sharp incisors protruding from the flesh of her gums and she wanted to bite John—to drain him of his life in a personal way. Drink away the spark that kept him fighting. However, that honor wasn't meant for her and it wasn’t meant for the Master of Sinum, either. Not even for the great elders that oversaw them all. John's end belonged to Mother Ipir, and to Mother Ipir alone.
B'al Akil, her husband, King of Sinum and Master of the Sect, met her gaze with a simmering black stare from within the circle. He stepped forward, raising powerful arms to the swarming crowds below, and welcomed the deafening cheers that echoed holy chants back to him. They were calling for Akil to seal their triumph, and to grant them long-awaited satisfaction on that Harvest day.
A sharp scent trailed to Labat from a distance, something primal and carnal that settled below mortal senses. John was leaking and that spilling blood had released raw anguish, triggering her native senses. The admiral, he brimmed with worry for his people—worry for his family and worry for the many men that served in his company. Anticipation tickled the corners of Labat’s lips. She relished the weakness.
Everyone he cared for would die.
Akil hushed the swarms with a hissed command and waited for quiet. He launched his address in immortal tongue as Labat drifted up from her seat to listen. A hand clamped down over hers, tugging her arm, and jerked her attention away from the proceedings. Sudden fury flooded her.
"What?" she snapped.
She glared at the figure in the chair beside hers, at the foolish and simple eyes that gazed up at her from under mussed hair with a youthful face. He was a stupid boy who didn’t have a name until she'd decided to call him Zib, titling him as the small vulture he was since he’d proven to act as rambunctious as the native beast itself. Zib, a simpleton, another unfortunate soul who'd been held as a slave by the men that imprisoned her, received his immortal gift directly from her during their captivity. One of the few Labat bestowed with rare shows of mercy.
"Sit, Sa-ee-ha," said Zib, slow and dreamlike, his voice low. Only he and their master could address her by her mortal name, Saiha. "Chair. You. Down."
Labat snatched her arm away from him in a huff and glared, keeping the heavy sacrificial crown balanced on her head. "I am the Lioness," she snapped. "Queen of this tribe. Divine ruler and most treasured servant to our Master. You are nothing. Don't dare tell me what to do, child."
"Elder watch," Zib continued peacefully. "No good. Elder no like. Sit, Sa-ee-ha. Sit."
Labat's gaze darted over to the figures in dark robes beside the royal thrones, mysterious shadows who operated with power and authority above even Akil—ancient ones with ancient power fabled from the days of the prophet. Days as old as the birth of their planet. Hoods concealed their unknown faces but not their disapproval. Akil's choice of her as his first wife wasn’t completely popular and if the majority decided that she was unfit, that she was weak, she'd face her own end much like John's regardless of any favor.
Even without visible reaction to her show of excitement Labat quieted her irritation at Zib and settled her back in her chair, softening her demeanor as she tidied his dirt-streaked appearance. She patted his head, acknowledging his warning, and Zib smiled at her in return, his pupils fully dilated and blackening his gaze. He bared his sharp incisors, ones he could never quite learn to conceal, and she smiled back before returning focus to Akil. The master’s words punctured the air like gunfire.
"Dear, detested Admiral," boomed Akil in looping, hissing native speak. His dense black mane and sun-dark, rune-marked and muscled form glistened under the light of the twin moons. "No...not Admiral. You no longer wear that title.” He goaded the human with glee. "You're Union General now. The most powerful man in all of the human alliance. That's what your news feeds say, at least, though it seems your power's lacking at this precise moment."
Akil laughed. The sect followed his humor, bellowing with laughter.
"You've accepted awards and honors for the genocide of our kind," said the master, shaking his head. "Acted as our friend while slowly driving a blade into our backs through private dealings. To this moment you refuse to recognize your shadowed crimes. Your treachery against us. You refuse to accept that it was your human diseases that’s destroying our paradise and you refuse to beg for the insult, although I assure you your kind will be utterly defeated."
A thunderous roar from the masses followed. Akil paused, absorbing the elation of the sect as he circled John's hunched, kneeling form. After a return of quiet he continued his address to the fallen admiral.
"You call us ill,” boomed Akil gravely. “Claim we're the ones who are diseased instead. That we're damned. Meanwhile, your people profit off our talents and endeavors without shame. Humanity fights the nature of this heaving planet and expires like dogs as a result. We, natives to our own world, embrace the pull of Mother and ascend as gods. We become divine. We are your…masters."
FOR THE GLORY FOR THE GLORY FOR THE GLORY
The coven chanted with reverence in tongue. Labat found her own pupils dilating in similar frenzy, her dead heart quivering with a movement she'd long forgotten could happen with elations of emotion. She could see with sight beyond sight ripples of pure force crackling throughout the Vangrali jungle. Energy surged through the ground and into the trees, bursting to the sky.
"For your crimes," continued Akil. "Your eternal spirit's forever cursed. You're prohibited from finding peace within El-Akalut's gardens, You'll wander within the mazes for eternity, lost in darkness, and nothing but pain shall be mirrored one thousand times over in the void between worlds. Galusu ina bet giru. Burn in hell forever." Akil's message pierced the cacophony of jeers and cries. "No God can help you now."
The soldiers supporting the weakened admiral released their hold. John fell forward and his face hit the stone ground with a hard splat. He hovered on a threshold between life and death and Labat sensed that if they didn't proceed, they'd lose him before the sacrifice was complete.
Drummers on either side of the ritual circle beat heavy mallets against stretched human-hide instruments, building the rhythm of Sinum's somber death march. Akil accepted a polished scimitar from his favored acolyte and Labat bit her bottom lip with her fangs, watching him brandish the weapon. She tasted her own sour, malignant blood as her bite punctured her flesh.
Akil raised the sword high and the sect continued chanting, their voices matching the tempo of the drumming rhythm. Zib clapped along as if they were playing a child's game and Labat drifted unconsciously up from her throne a second time, so overcome by the fury of the moment. It was time.
It would happen now.
The master grabbed John by the back of a blood-soaked shirt and jabbed a heel into the admiral's legs to force the man to kneel. The scimitar's sharp edge pressed against John's throat as Labat found she was standing fully now. She ignored Zib's pleas for control and stepped closer to the stair leading to the circle, her fangs sinking deeper and pooling black-red life fluid onto her tongue. She was holding her breath, an effect she didn't need anymore after accepting immortality and hadn't for a long time.
Wait for it, her mind murmured to her with caution. Death was imminent. No need to rush. Her thoughts calmed but yet there was no sound from Pendergast. No final cry for release and no pleas fir them to spare his loved ones—no tears for his children. She wanted physical evidence of John's pain but he held that from them in a show of final bravado. No matter. No denying the pain that would come in a moment to end his existence.
She wanted him dead. She wanted him gone. Burning forever in hell, just as Akil said. She craved—needed—John's end.
And so, that was what happened.
Akil's stroke was quick, a single cut from a seasoned butcher long perfected over centuries of hunting enemies of the sect. A delicious, strangled noise escaped John and the noise was wet with fluid, tinged with naked finality. Red sprayed, outward and skyward like grim fireworks, and the smell permeated Labat's senses from afar as her lids dropped low, Her fingers brushed against her lips, almost tasting the copper on her tongue.
She drank the sensations in, absorbed Pendergast's final release of terror and grief and the last spark of John's power. The energy streamed through her, imbuing itself within her system and emanating through the invisible ether surrounding them. Volume escalated as the sect's voices built into a high chaos.
Akil jerked John’s half-torn neck backwards and expelled gushes of red onto the rune markings of the sacrificial circle. Labat shut her eyes, drifting into the black void between death and sleep, as a different rush sparked inside of her, this one from John's life sputtering to a close.
The admiral's body spasmed and the drumming tempo climbed to a crescendo, pounding through the trees. Akil shook John’s corpse like a broken doll and John's head, still half-attached to the neck, spilled fluid onto the ground. Akil held up a hand for silence and waited for all to remain still before turning, pointing the scimitar in Labat's direction. His pitless gaze brimmed with fire, singeing holes right through her.
"Hiba," he said.
He called to her in tongue. She trembled at his address.
"My wife. My queen. Come."
Labat steadied the heavy horned crown on her head, the beaded jewels strung from the rim swaying to and fro. She glided down the stone steps to the sacrificial circle and a multitude of eyes observed her approach Akil, Nasar's faithful paws padding close behind. Her beast of a husband towered over her and forced her to crane her neck in order to see his face.
"Brothers and sisters," he boomed, addressing the people of the sect. "Your new queen will demonstrate how she won her place at my side as first wife. Why she's my lioness and my favored bride, an animal that rends our enemies with her savage jaws for the pleasure of our holy prophet raijim at my word. Praise to Heaven."
Akil's blood-stained fist adjusted its positioning on the scimitar. He presented the blade to Labat and his unblinking stare surveyed her pull the heavy blade into her grip as if it were no burden at all. She snatched hold of John before Akil could present her with the body, returning the master's unwavering attention. He released the sacrifice and John's weight plummeted into her hold, although she refused to falter.
Silence swept the jungle. Not even pleasant trills from winged griladaes were present to serenade the calm. The drummers stopped their pounding, all activity ceasing in order to watch the fated moment.
Labat dropped John to the ground onto the etchings of the circle. She braced against his back, pushing his half-broken head down with one hand, and cut with ease, anchoring the blade to chop through with fluidity. The blade hit bone and she increased effort, her fangs nicking deeper into the flesh of her mouth as immortal energy spurred through the ether to help power her actions. A snap of success followed as John's head fell into her hands and she hurried to grab hold of the prize, finding that Pendergast's fluid-soaked scalp was cropped close, making it difficult to grasp.
She dropped the blade to wield the mass with both hands. Red spilled down her arms and onto her trailing ceremonial dress as she approached Akil, holding the head high to extend it to him. She dropped to a reverent knee before him and Nasar settled onto his haunches beside her, bowing as if also showing the master honor.
Her gaze trailed along the path of red soaking the rune etchings below. She remained still until a heavy hand rested on her head between the horns of the crown. Akil's deep, resonant voice beckoned to her once more with immortal inflection.
"Stand," he ordered.
Labat arched to survey the master's massive form, finding him tall and imposing in stature—a wraith of a warrior from somewhere beyond. His rough fingers traced over her face to mark runes of spiritual power with John's blood as a low chant filled the dark expanses of the jungle. This time all were praising her, honoring her as Sinum's beloved queen.
HIBTI LABAT HIBTI LABAT
A whole miserable existence serving humans and in an instant her marriage to Akil had bestowed her with the greatest of honors. Ascended by his bite, freed from bondage, she'd accepted his immortal mark, a divine gift from a true descendant of the prophet. Her past of weakness no longer mattered. She was now far above them all and the evidence played before her in her moment of great honor.
The sect's admiration layered into a din around the stage from the depths below. Akil's other women, the lesser wives of his harem, bowed their heads in subservience when Labat turned to face them observing from the elevated platform. After brandishing John’s head for the sect to admire Akil handed the prize to his favored acolyte, ordering the native to drive it onto a spike as a centerpiece display in their temple garden.
King and Queen left after the deed was completed. Continued praise followed them as they returned to their sweeping palace, where another human from Pendergast's unfortunate landing party remained alive inside of Akil's personal bed-chambers. The woman was still holding on after weeks of brutal captivity in service to Akil, although she was too weak from her damage and Akil’s repeated blood-draining to muster any more sobs of defeat. Her nude, broken form lay slick in stains of her own red and it would’ve been tough for anyone who knew her to imagine her as a Union diplomat. She was some idiot, someone like John who’d once been so confident that she could offer Sinum deals that would actually matter to the Isten Dar elite.
Akil noticed the battered diplomat stir and moved to snap her neck. He paused when Labat touched his arm, flashing him a sharp smile instead.
"No," she said with a low growl, stroking him lazily. "Let the woman suffer. That would satisfy me. I like to hear her cry."
The master drank from the dying woman another time and dumped the sack of flesh back to the ground before seizing Labat, flinging her onto their bed with animal force. The taste of the woman's anguish fresh in his mouth excited Labat and something inside of her pattered when they joined. Akil braced her against him, moving her to his liking, and claimed her as he bit her too, drinking from her lustily just as he'd done when he'd activated her immortal gifts.
Elevated ether levels present on the island spurred them both to greater wildness. For that moment, and those kinds of moments alone, Labat felt something like alive.
Her cheek hit the sheets when Akil released her and she remained there, faint, body radiating with heat and vigor. She felt her pupils dilating to encompass the whites of her eyes with the black void as rough fingers brushed her hair from her face. When she spoke to Akil she was someplace far away.
"The universe revealed secrets to me," she murmured, sniffing Akil's scent as it merged with the smell of blood pooling from the diplomat. "Mother showed me traces of the pathways. I'll ascend once more to the highest of planes with focus."
"Good," grunted Akil. He shifted her aside after a moment and pushed himself up to stand, his bare and imposing figure glistening under the light of the Harvest moons. "Flesh is a prison, a curse of this material world. We shouldn't be forced to endure this kind of weakness with our heritage. Have no fear of pain or of what lies beyond, as we'll be freed to become eternal spirits, blessed with limitless power as we ascend our journey."
"I'm not afraid," replied Labat. "I'm beyond the flesh and beyond this world. I'm ready for more. I…I want to be a goddess."
"With traces of that vile humanity within you, that remains to be seen. I doubt that would ever happen. But we’ll see what greater use there is for you."
The energy in the room shifted in a subtle way, reflecting a depression of someone's mood. Labat's gaze streaked over to the woman on the floor, who sputtered while finally reaching her end point without assistance. The diplomat, a pretty thing at one point, blonde-haired and cupid-mouthed, tasted near one hundred percent human in purity. The pathetic thing likely boasted about that trait to anyone who could stand to listen to her. A true idealistic type from Union determined to save a planet full of savages from themselves.
Labat would've blessed the woman with a lesser immortality, adding her to Akil's harem as a familiar for her own tormenting enjoyment if the decision could be hers. However, Akil was disinterested in keeping any of John's accomplices alive, and preferred pure-bloods like himself to carry his seed. Something that even Labat was not and could never provide even if she was a favorite.
Akil walked toward the door leading out of their private quarters, cracking the woman's neck anyway although there was no need. Labat glanced at the diplomat as she pulled on her silken robe and hurried after the master, who'd already disappeared.
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