Twin Ipirian moons, so named Sin-Dar and Sin-Mut, gleamed bright in the skies above the blessed island of Vangral. Beams of light bore through swirling Harvest Day clouds, appearing like glowing eyes above to observe an execution unfolding below.
Sacred illumination poured over the true children of the planet Ipir. Misty rain brewed, ushering forth the next cycle of the world’s fertility. That particular Harvest carried extra victory for the natives, since blood from a fallen hero would pour and replenish the thirsty roots of the great tree El-Akalut.
About time, too. Sinum waited long for this day.
Labat, the lioness crowned as Queen of Sinum, watched soldiers from the Sect of Sinum march a battered man to the sacrificial circle, an ancient marking of runes chiseled into stone before the royal temple. She listened to the cheers and howls from the hundreds of thousands amassed beneath the master’s stage. The destroyed man dragged along by the soldiers was a familiar one from a lifetime ago. She knew him well—Admiral John Pendergast, newly elected leader of the Union Galactic Alliance, top representative of those wretched humans who’d colonized Ipir. The humans who hailed from some far-off planet they called ‘Earth’.
John, to Labat, was a symbol of violence, of the pain she’d suffered at humanity’s hands and survived. He’d watched without action, remaining motionless for too long and refusing to raise arms against his own. Labat, now, reached down from her gilded throne and oversaw John’s end, scratching the savage wolf Nasar behind the ears as she gazed in quiet satisfaction at what was left of the admiral.
A surplus of free-flowing ether emanated from the mouths of the ritual springs and filtered around and through the Ipirian natives, incensing them with elevated energy. Labat steadied the heavy horned crown on her head and raised her nose to inhale, running her tongue along the burning sensations in her mouth. Electricity jolted through sharpened incisors that protruded from the flesh inside.
Labat wanted bite John—to drain him of his life-force in a personal way—but that honor wasn’t meant for her. Not for Master, either. Not even for the divine elders that oversaw them all, ensuring they adhered to immortal code. John’s end belonged to Mother Ipir, and to Mother Ipir, alone.
B’al Akil, Master and King of Sinum, met Labat's gaze with a simmering black stare. He stepped forward, raising powerful arms to the swarming crowds below. Deafening applause and cheers and shouts followed, echoing chants with endless repetition. They called for Akil to seal their triumph that Harvest and grant them their long-awaited satisfaction.
A sharp scent trailed to Labat through the air. John’s leaking blood released a jumbled complexity of anguish from his worry for his people—his desperate concern for his family and for the men that served his company. Anticipation tickled the corners of Labat’s lips with quiet delight as she relished his weakness. Good.
Everyone John cared for would die.
Akil hushed the swarms with a hissed command, waiting for complete quiet. He launched his address in immortal tongue and Labat drifted up from her seat as she listened, caught in the spell of the pleasing baritone of Akil's voice. A hand clamped down over hers and tugged her arm, jerking her attention away with sudden fury.
Labat glared at the figure in a gilded chair beside her own, at foolish, simple eyes that gazed up at her and mussed hair scattered over a youthful face—a stupid boy she’d named Zib. He, a simpleton, another who'd also been held as a slave by the same men that imprisoned her, received his Ipirian immortal gift directly from her. He was one of the few she bestowed her rare shows of mercy.
“Sit, Sa-ee-ha," said Zib, slow and dreamlike, his voice low. Only that boy could address her with her mortal name. “Chair. You. Down.”
Labat snatched her arm away in a huff and glared, keeping the heavy sacrificial crown balanced on her head. “I am the lioness of this tribe,” she snapped. “The queen of this sect. Divine ruler and most treasured servant of our Master. You are nothing. Don’t dare tell me what to do, child.”
“Elder watch you,” Zib continued peacefully. “No good. Elder no like. Sa-ee-ha sit. Sit.”
Labat's gaze darted over to the figures in dark robes that stood behind the royal thrones, mysterious shadows who operated with power and authority above even Akil—ancient ones with ancient forces fabled from the days of the prophet. Days from the birth of their planet. The sight of those elders, even without visible reaction to her show of excitement, quieted her irritation and set her back in her chair.
Hoods concealed their unknown faces but not their disapproval. Not all of them were in accordance with Akil’s choice of first wife of the royal harem. If the majority decided that Labat was unfit then she'd face her own end much like John’s, regardless of Akil’s favor.
Softening, Labat tidied Zib’s dirt-streaked appearance and patted his head, acknowledging his warning. Zib smiled, his pupils fully dilated and blackening his gaze, baring sharp incisors that he could never quite learn to conceal. She smiled as well, returning her focus to Akil. The master’s words punctured the air like gunfire.
“Dear, detested Admiral,” boomed Akil in looping native speak. His dense black mane and bare, sun-darkened, rune-marked muscled form glistened under the light of the moons. “No—no more of that title,” he goaded. “Now you're the Union General. Most powerful man in all of the alliance, the news feeds say. Though, it seems, your power’s lacking at the moment.”
He laughed. The sect followed his humor in kind, bellowing with laughter.
“You’ve accepted awards and honors for the genocide of our kind while acting as a friend,” said the master, shaking his head. “All the while, you slowly drove a blade into our backs. To this moment you refuse to recognize your crimes. The level of your treachery. You refuse to accept it was your human diseases that destroyed our paradise. You refuse to…beg for mercy, though I assure you that your kind will be defeated.”
A thunderous roar followed. Akil paused, absorbing the elation of the Sinum followers. He circled around the John’s hunched, kneeling form, continuing his address to the fallen admiral.
“You call us ill,” he continued. “Say that we're the ones who are diseased. That we’re damned. Meanwhile, your people profit off our talents and endeavors. Humanity fights the nature of this heaving planet and you expire like dogs. We natives embrace the pull of Mother Ipir, ascending to 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 own pupils dilating in the frenzy, her dead heart quivering with a movement she’d long forgotten. She could almost see with sight beyond sight all the ripples of pure force crackling through the jungle. Energy surged through the ground and up into the trees, bursting into the sky.
“For your crimes, Admiral," said Akil. "Your eternal spirit is forever cursed. You’re prohibited from finding peace within El-Akalut’s gardens. Nothing but the pain you suffer today will 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 now.”
The soldiers supporting the weakened admiral released their hold. John fell forward, his face hitting the stone ground with a hard splat of flesh. He hovered close to the threshold between life and death, and Labat sensed that if they didn’t proceed with haste they'd lose him before the sacrifice was complete.
Drummers lined on either side of the ritual circle. They beat heavy mallets against stretched human-hide instruments, building the somber rhythm of Sinum’s death march. Akil accepted a polished scimitar from a favored acolyte that stood at his side and Labat bit into the flesh of her bottom lip with her fangs, watching him brandish the weapon. She tasted her own sour, malignant blood.
Akil raised the scimitar high and the sect continued chanting praise, matching the tempo of the drumming rhythms. Zib clapped his hands and sang along with the chants, as if they were playing a funny child’s game. Labat drifted unconsciously up from her throne once again because...it was time.
The master grabbed John by the back of a blood-soaked shirt, jabbing a heel into the admiral’s legs to force the man to kneel. The scimitar’s sharp edge pressed against the admiral’s throat and Labat found she was standing fully now. She ignored Zib’s insistent new pleas for control and took a step closer, her fangs sinking deeper into her flesh, pooling black-red fluid onto her tongue. She was holding her breath—breath she didn’t need anymore, and hadn’t for a long time.
Wait for it, her mind murmured. Death was imminent. Her thoughts calmed and yet…there was still no sound from Pendergast. No final cry for release. No pleas for his loved ones—for his children—to be spared. She wanted evidence of John's pain but he held it from them. No matter. There was no denying the pain that would come in a moment.
She wanted him dead. She wanted him gone.
She craved—needed—his defeat.
And so…that was what happened. And it happened…
Akil’s motion was quick. A single stroke—the cut of a seasoned butcher. A sweep of a blade long perfected over centuries of hunting Sinum’s enemies.
A delicious, strangled noise escaped John. The noise was wet with fluid, tinged with a naked finality. Red sprayed from the wound, outward and skyward, like grim fireworks. The smell permeated Labat's senses and her lids dropped low, her fingers brushing against her lips.
She almost tasted the copper from afar and drank it in…Pendergast’s final release of terror and grief. The last spark of the admiral’s power. It streamed through her veins, imbuing itself within her system, emanating in invisible tendrils through the ether surrounding them.
Volume escalated. Voices built with higher frenzy. Akil slammed a boot down hard into the admiral’s back, jerking the half-torn neck backwards and forcing gushes of red onto the rune markings carved into the sacrificial circle. Labat closed her eyes, drifting into the black void that lingered between death and sleep. Another rush sparked while John’s life sputtered to a close.
The admiral’s body spasmed in Akil’s grasp and the drums rumbled to a crescendo. Akil shook the corpse like a broken doll and Pendergast’s head, still half-attached to the neck, spilled fluid onto the ground. Akil held up a hand to silence the sect and waited. When all was still he turned and pointed the scimitar in Labat's direction, his pitless gaze brimming with simmering fire, singeing holes right through her.
“Hiba," he said.
He called to her in tongue. She trembled at the power of his address.
“My wife. My queen. Come to me.”
Labat clasped her hands together with joy, a multitude of eyes observing her. She steadied the heavy horned crown on her head, its beaded jewels swaying to and fro with her movements, and glided down the stone steps leading to the sacrificial circle. She approached her beast of a husband, Nasar’s faithful paws padding close behind as she proceeded. Akil towered over her, forcing 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. Why she's my lioness and my first. My animal that rends our enemies with savage jaws for the pleasure of our holy prophet—our raijim—at my word. Praise to Heaven.”
His blood-stained fist adjusted its positioning to present Labat with the hilt of the scimitar. Akil's unblinking stare surveyed as she took the weapon, pulling the heavy blade 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 as he released the sacrifice. John’s weight plummeted into her hold but she refused to falter.
Silence swept. Not even the pleasant trill of winged griladaes nestled deep within the jungle were present to serenade the calm. The drummers stopped their pounding, watching the fated moment.
Labat dropped John to the ground onto the etchings of the circle and braced against his back with her knee, pushing his half-broken head down with one hand. She sawed with ease, anchoring the blade and cutting through with fluidity. The blade hit bone and she increased effort, her fangs nicking deeper into the flesh of her mouth. Immortal energy spurred through the ether and surged into her, powering her action until there was a satisfying snap of success. John's entire head released, falling into her hands, and she hurried to grab hold.
Pendergast’s fluid-soaked scalp was cropped close, making the prize difficult to grasp. Labat dropped the blade to wield the mass with both hands, red spilling down her arms and onto her ceremonial dress as her nails dug in deep to grab hold. She approached Akil holding John’s head high and extended it toward the master, dropping to a reverent knee. Nasar settled onto his haunches at her side, bowing his furry head as if showing honor to Akil as well
Labat's gaze trailed the path of red that soaked the rune etchings below. She remained there, bowed, until a heavy hand rested on top of her hair between the horns of her crown. Akil’s deep, resonant voice beckoned to her.
“Stand,” he ordered.
She arched her neck again to survey the master’s massive form, tall and imposing in height and stature—a wraith of a warrior from somewhere beyond. His rough fingers traced over her face to mark runes of spiritual power onto her flesh. A low chant filled the dark expanses of the jungle, this time praising her as a beloved queen.
HIBTI LABAT HIBTI LABAT
A whole miserable existence serving humans…and her marriage to Akil bestowed her with the greatest of honors in an instant. Ascended by his bite, she’d accepted an immortal mark from a true descendant of the prophet. Her past of weakness no longer mattered. She was far above it all.
The sect’s excitement grew and calls of admiration layered into the din around the stage. Akil’s other women, the lesser wives of his royal harem, bowed their heads when Labat faced them, displaying honor to her as their Queen. After brandishing the head of the admiral for the whole of the sect to admire, Akil handed the prize to his favored acolyte and ordered the young native to drive it onto a spike as a display in their gardens.
King and Queen left the ceremony first, continued praise following them as they returned to their palace. Another from Pendergast’s unfortunate landing party remained alive in Akil’s private bed-chambers after weeks of captivity, a woman too weak from damage and repeated blood-draining to muster any more sobs of defeat. She was a Union diplomat—some idiot who, like John, was once so confident that she could make human deals that would actually matter to Sinum.
Noticing the battered diplomat stir, Akil moved over to her to snap her neck but paused when Labat touched his arm, flashing him a sharp smile.
“No,” she said with a low growl, stroking him. “Let the woman suffer. That would satisfy me most.”
Akil drank from the dying woman another time before seizing Labat, flinging her onto the bed with animalistic force. The taste of the woman’s anguish in his mouth incensed Labat. Something inside of her pattered as they joined. Akil braced her against him, moving her to his liking, and he bit her as well, just as he’d done when he turned her the first time. Elevated ether spurred them both to greater wildness. For that moment, and those kinds of moments alone, Labat felt something like alive again.
Her cheek hit the sheets when he released her from his fury and she remained there, her body radiating with heat and vigor. She felt her pupils dilating and encompassing the whites of her eyes with a slip of the void. She entered the space between death and sleep as rough fingers brushed her hair from her face. When she spoke to Akil, she was someplace far away.
“The universe revealed more secrets to me,” she murmured. Akil’s scent merged with the smell of fresh blood pooling from the diplomat. “Mother Ipir showed me traces of the pathways.”
“Good,” grunted Akil. He shifted her aside after a moment and pushed himself back up to stand. “Flesh is a prison. Have no fear of pain. Of what lies beyond. That’s not our way.”
“I’m not afraid,” she replied. “I’m beyond this flesh. I’m ready for more. I’m ready for it all.”
“That remains to be seen.”
The energy in the room shifted in a subtle way. It was 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 on her own. The diplomat was a pretty thing at one point—tasted near one hundred percent human in purity, as the pathetic thing likely boasted to everyone who could stand to listen. An idealistic type determined to save a planet of savages from themselves.
Labat would've blessed the woman with immortality, adding her to Akil’s harem for her own enjoyment to torment if the decision was hers. However, Akil was disinterested in keeping any of John Pendergast’s accomplices alive—and Akil preferred pure-blood natives like himself to carry his seed anyway. Something even Labat was not.
Akil walked toward the door leading out of their private quarters, cracking the woman’s neck and dropping the limp pile back to the stone floor. Labat glanced at the diplomat once more and pulled on her gown, hurrying after the master who’d already disappeared within the palace.
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