Twin Ipirian moons, so named Sin-Dar and Sin-Mut, gleamed bright in the sky above the blessed island of Vangral. Sacred illumination poured through swirling Harvest clouds, washing over the true children of Ipir and appearing like glowing eyes observing the execution unfolding below.
Harvest that year carried extra victory for the natives, since blood from a fallen hero would pour and replenish the thirsty roots of their great tree El-Akalut. About time too for a change in their luck. Sinum, the one true sect of the holy faith of Isten Dar, long waited for this day.
Labat the Lioness, a native woman crowned Queen of Sinum, watched soldiers march a battered man to an ancient sacrificial circle carved before the royal temple. She listened to the cheers and howls from hundreds of thousands of followers amassed beneath the master's stage.
The man the soldiers dragged along was familiar to her, someone she knew from a lifetime ago. Admiral John Pendergast, newly elected leader of the Union Galactic Alliance, was the top representative for a wretched colony of humans currently squatting on Ipir. Humans hailing from some far-off planet called 'Earth'.
John remained a symbol of violence to Labat, a totem of the pain she'd suffered at human hands decades ago while he refused to raise arms against his own. More concerned with political alliances than with justice, Labat remembered John and all he hadn't done to help her. She reached down from her gilded throne, scratching her savage wolf Nasar's ears, and gazed in quiet at what was left of her enemy.
A surplus of free-flowing ether emanated from the mouths of ritual springs nearby, filtering around and through them, incensing them with elevated energy. Labat steadied the heavy ceremonial horned crown on her head and raised her nose to inhale, running her tongue along burning sensations in her mouth. Electricity jolted through the sharp incisors that protruded from the flesh of her gums.
She wanted to bite John—to drain him of his life in a personal way and drink away the spark that kept him fighting—but that honor wasn't meant for her. Not for Master, either, or even for the elders that oversaw them all. John's end belonged to Mother Ipir, and to Mother Ipir alone.
B'al Akil, King of Sinum and Master of the Sect, met Labat's gaze with a simmering black stare from within the sacrificial circle. He stepped forward, raising powerful arms to the swarming crowds below, and deafening cheers echoed holy chants back to him. Their followers called for Akil to seal their triumph, to grant them their long-awaited satisfaction that Harvest day.
A sharp scent trailed to Labat from a distance. John's leaking blood released a jumble of anguish, triggering her native senses. The admiral brimmed with worry for his people—for his family and for the men that served in his company. Anticipation tickled the corners of her lips as she relished his weakness.
Everyone he cared for would die.
Akil hushed the swarms with a hissed command and waited for complete 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. Sudden fury flooded her.
"What?" she snapped.
She glared at the figure in the chair beside her own, at foolish and simple eyes that gazed up at her from under mussed hair and a youthful face. A stupid boy without a name that she'd decided to call Zib, since he was as rambunctious as the native beast of the same title. Zib, a simpleton, was another unfortunate soul who'd been held as a slave by the same men that imprisoned her. He received his immortal gift directly from her during their captivity and was 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 that 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," 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 those unknown faces but not their disapproval. The powerful weren't all in accordance with Akil's choice of first wife and if the majority decided that she was unfit she'd face her own end much like John's, regardless of Akil's favor.
The sight of those elders, even without visible reaction to her show of excitement, quieted her irritation and set her back in her chair. Labat softened as she tidied Zib's dirt-streaked appearance and patted his head, acknowledging his warning. Zib smiled at her, his pupils fully dilated and blackening his gaze, as he bared sharp incisors that he could never quite learn to conceal. She smiled back before returning her focus to Akil, whose words punctured the air like gunfire.
"Dear, detested Admiral," boomed Akil in looping, hissing speak. His dense black mane and sun-dark, rune-marked muscled form glistened under the light of the moons. "No...you no longer wear that title," he goaded. "Now you're Union General. You're the most powerful man in all of the alliance. That's what your news feeds say, though it seems your power's lacking at the 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 you slowly drove a blade into our backs. To this moment you refuse to recognize your crimes. Your treachery. You refuse to accept it was your human diseases destroyed our paradise and you refuse to beg, though I assure you your kind will be utterly defeated."
A thunderous roar followed and Akil paused, absorbing the elation of the Sinum sect. He circled around John's hunched, kneeling form, continuing his address to the fallen admiral.
"You call us ill. Claim we're the ones who are diseased. 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 because of it. We natives embrace the pull of Mother Ipir 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. Labat found her own pupils dilating in frenzy, her dead heart quivering with movement she'd long forgotten. She could see with sight beyond sight 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," continued Akil. "Your eternal spirit's forever cursed. You're prohibited from finding peace within El-Akalut's gardens and you'll wander within the mazes for eternity, lost in darkness. 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 and John fell forward, his face hitting the stone ground with a hard splat. He hovered on the threshold between life and death. 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. They built the rhythm of Sinum's somber death march as Akil accepted a polished scimitar from his favored acolyte. Labat bit her bottom lip with her fangs, watching him brandish the weapon, and tasted her own sour, malignant blood when she punctured her flesh.
Akil raised the scimitar high. The sect continued chanting. Their voices matched the tempo of the drummers' rhythms and Zib clapped along as if they were playing a child's game. Labat drifted unconsciously up from her throne once again, overcome by the fury of the moment. It was...time.
It was time.
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 once more. The scimitar's sharp edge pressed against John's throat and Labat found she was standing fully now. She ignored Zib's repeated pleas for control and stepped closer, her fangs sinking deeper and pooling black-red fluid onto her tongue. She was holding her breath—a 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 no sound from Pendergast. No final cry for release, no pleas for his loved ones—no tears for his children to be spared. She wanted evidence of John's pain but he held that from them. No matter. No denying the pain that would come in a moment.
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 Sinum's enemies. 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. The smell permeated Labat's senses as her lids dropped low and her fingers brushed against her lips, almost tasting the copper from afar.
She drank it in, Pendergast's final release of terror and grief—the last spark of John's power. The energy streamed through her veins and imbued itself within her system, emanating through the invisible tendrils of ether surrounding them. Volume escalated as the sect's voices built into a high frenzy.
Akil jerked the half-torn neck backwards, expelling gushes of red onto the rune markings of the sacrificial circle. Labat shut her eyes and drifted into the black void between death and sleep while another rush sparked inside of her, this one from John's life sputtering to a close.
The admiral's body spasmed in Akil's grasp and the drumming climbed to a crescendo. Akil shook the corpse like a broken doll and John's head, still half-attached to his neck, spilled fluid onto the ground. Akil held up a hand for silence and waited until all was still before turning, pointing the scimitar in Labat's direction. His pitless gaze brimmed with fire and singed 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 as beaded jewels strung from the rim swayed to and fro. She glided down the stone steps to the sacrificial circle while a multitude of eyes observed, approaching Akil with Nasar's faithful paws padding close behind. Her beast of a husband 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 favored bride. An animal that rends our enemies with savage jaws for the pleasure of our holy prophet—for our raijim—at my word. Praise to Heaven."
Akil's blood-stained fist adjusted its positioning on the scimitar and he presented the blade to Labat. His unblinking stare surveyed her pulling 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 as he released the sacrifice. John's weight plummeted into her hold but she refused to falter.
Silence swept the jungle. Not even pleasant trilling from winged griladaes was present to serenade the calm. The drummers stopped their pounding to watch the fated moment.
Labat dropped John to the ground onto the etchings of the circle and braced against his back, pushing his half-broken head down with one hand. She cut with ease, anchoring the blade to chop through with fluidity, and when the blade hit bone and she increased effort, her fangs nicking deeper into the flesh of her mouth. Immortal energy spurred through the ether helped power her actions and a snap of success followed as John's head fell into her hands. She hurried to grab hold of the prize.
Pendergast's fluid-soaked scalp was cropped close, which made it difficult to grasp, and she dropped the blade to wield the mass with both hands, red spilling down her arms and onto her ceremonial dress. She approached Akil holding the head high, extending it toward him as she dropped to a reverent knee. Nasar settled onto his haunches at her side, bowing as if also showing honor.
Her gaze trailed along the path of red soaking the rune etchings below and she remained still until a heavy hand rested on her head between the horns of her crown. Akil's deep, resonant voice beckoned her once more.
"Stand," he ordered.
Labat arched to survey the master's massive form, 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 on her with John's blood. A low chant filled the dark expanses of the jungle, this time praising her as Sinum's beloved queen.
HIBTI LABAT HIBTI LABAT
A whole miserable existence serving humans. In an instant her marriage to Akil 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.
The sect's calls of admiration layered into the din around the stage. Akil's other women, the lesser wives of his harem, bowed their heads in subservience when Labat faced them. After brandishing the head of the admiral for the whole of the sect to admire Akil handed the prize to his favored acolyte, ordering the native to drive it onto a spike for display in their gardens.
King and Queen left after the deed was completed and continued praise followed them as they returned to their palace. Another human from Pendergast's unfortunate landing party remained alive inside of Akil's bed-chambers, still holding on after weeks of brutal captivity. The woman was too weak from damage and repeated blood-draining to muster any more sobs of defeat and her nude, broken form was slick with her own red. A Union diplomat, she'd announced herself as—some idiot, like John, who was once so confident she could offer Sinum human deals that would actually matter to Isten Dar's elite.
Akil noticed the the battered diplomat stir and moved over to snap her neck, though he paused when Labat touched his arm, flashing him a sharp smile.
"No," she said with a low growl, stroking him lazily. "Let the woman suffer. That would satisfy me most. I like to hear her cries for mercy."
The master drank from the dying woman another time, dumping the sack of flesh back to the ground before seizing Labat to fling her onto the bed with animal force. The taste of the woman's anguish in his mouth incensed Labat and something inside of her pattered as they joined. Akil braced her against him, moving her to his liking as he claimed her, and bit her too, drinking from her just as he'd done when he'd activated her immortal gifts the first time.
Elevated ether spurred them both to greater wildness and 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, faint, her body radiating with heat and vigor. She felt her pupils dilating to encompass the whites of her eyes 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, sniffing Akil's scent as it merged with the smell of blood pooling from the diplomat. "Mother Ipir showed me traces of the pathways. I'll ascend once more to the highest of planes."
"Good," grunted Akil. He shifted her aside after a moment and pushed himself up to stand, his bare and imposing figure glistening in the light of the Harvest moons. "Flesh is a prison. It's a curse of this material world. We shouldn't be forced to endure such weakness with our heritage. Have no fear of pain, of what lies beyond. We'll be freed as eternal spirits and blessed with limitless power at the height of our journey."
"I'm not afraid," she replied. "I'm beyond the flesh. Beyond this world. I'm ready for more. I...want to be a goddess."
"With traces of that vile humanity within you, that remains 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 sputtered, finally reaching her end 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 anyone who could stand to listen. An idealistic type determined to save a planet full of savages from themselves.
Labat would've blessed the woman with lesser immortality, adding her to Akil's harem for her own tormenting enjoyment if the decision was hers. However, Akil was disinterested in keeping any of John's accomplices alive—and preferred pure-blood natives like himself to carry his seed. Something even Labat was not and could never provide.
Akil walked toward the door leading out of their private quarters, cracking the woman's neck anyway. Labat glanced at the diplomat, pulling on her robe, and hurried after the master who'd already disappeared.
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