Twin Ipirian moons, so named Sin-Dar and Sin-Mut, gleamed bright in the skies above the blessed island of Vangral. The moons bore beams of light through the swirling Harvest clouds, appearing like glowing eyes above to observe the execution unfolding below. They poured sacred illumination over the true children of Ipir as misty rain brewed, ushering forth another cycle of fertility. That particular Harvest holiday carried extra victory for the natives, since blood from a fallen hero would soon pour, replenishing the thirsty roots of the great tree El-Akalut.
About time, too. Sinum had waited long for the day.
Labat, Lioness and Queen of Sinum, watched soldiers of the sect march a battered man to the royal sacrificial circle. She listened to cheers and howls from the hundreds of thousands that had amassed underneath the master’s temple stage. The figure dragged along by the soldiers was a familiar one from a lifetime ago. Labat knew him as Admiral John Pendergast, the newly elected leader of the Union Galactic Alliance, a representative of the wretched humans colonized on Ipir that hailed from some far-off planet called Earth. John, besides that, was a symbol of the violence Labat had suffered at humanity’s hands. A reminder of brutalities she’d survived while the admiral watched without action, remaining motionless for too long to raise arms against his own. Labat 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 man.
A surplus of free-flowing ether from the ritual springs filtered around and through the Ipirians, incensing them with elevated energy. Labat lay her hands on the heavy, jeweled, horned crown on her head to keep it steady and raised her nose to inhale the 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 John of his life in a more personal way — however, that honor wasn’t meant for her. Not for their 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 Labat's gaze with his own simmering black stare. He stepped forward, raising powerful arms to the swarming crowds below. Deafening applause and cheers and shouts followed, echoing chants in endless repetition. They called for Akil to seal their triumph that Harvest.
A sharp scent trailed to Labat through the air from John’s leaking blood, a jumbled complexity of anguish as he twisted with worry for his people—for his family—and for the men in his company. Anticipation tickled the corners of Labat’s lips in quiet delight. Good.
Everyone John cared for…would die.
Akil hushed the swarms with a hissed command, waiting for complete quiet, and launched his address to them in immortal tongue. Labat drifted up from her seat as she listened, caught in the spell and the pleasing baritone of Akil's voice. A hand clamped down over hersand tugged her arm, jerking her attention away from the event with sudden fury. Labat glared at the figure in a gilded chair beside her own, at the foolish, simple eyes that gazed up at her, with mussed hair scattered over a youthful face—the stupid boy called Zib was the one who interrupted her. He, a simpleton who'd also been held as a slave by the same men that imprisoned her, received his Ipirian immortal gift directly from her and was always 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, glaring, keeping the heavy sacrificial crown balanced on her head. “I am the Lioness,” she snapped. “You are nothing. Don’t dare tell me what to do, child.”
“Elder watch,” Zib continued peacefully. “No good. Sa-ee-ha sit. Sit.”
Labat's gaze darted over to the figures in dark robes standing behind the royal thrones, mysterious shadows that operated with power and authority above even that of 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 were in accordance with Akil’s 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 the warning. Zib smiled, his pupils fully dilated and blackening his gaze, and bared his sharp incisors, ones that he could never quite learn to conceal. She smiled back before returning focus to Akil, whose words continued to puncture the air like gunfire.
“Dear detested Admiral,” boomed Akil in native speak. A dense black mane and a bare, chiseled rune-marked form glistened under the light of the moons. “No more of that title, Admiral,” he goaded. “Right? Now you're…Union General. The most powerful man in all of the alliance. Though, it seems, your power is lacking at the moment.”
He laughed, and the sect followed his humor in kind.
“You’ve accepted awards and honors for the genocide of our kind, acting as our friend,” said Akil, shaking his head. “All the while you slowly drove a blade into our backs and to this moment you refuse to recognize your crimes. our treachThe level of your treachery. You refuse to accept it was your human diseases that destroyed a paradise that your kind still attempt to colonize. You refuse to…beg for mercy, though I assure you that your kind will be defeated.”
A thundering roar followed. Akil paused, absorbing the elation of the Sinum followers. He circled around the admiral’s hunched, kneeling form, continuing his address to the fallen John.
“You call us ill,” continued Akil. “Say that we're the ones who are diseased—that we’re damned. Meanwhile, your people profit off our talents and endeavors. You humans fight the nature of this heaving planet, expiring like dogs, and 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 movement she’d long forgotten. She could almost see with sight beyond sight all the ripples of pure force crackling through the people and 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 the gardens of El-Akalut. Nothing except 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.”
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 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 beat heavy mallets against stretched human-hide instruments, building the somber rhythm for Sinum’s death march. Akil accepted a polished scimitar from a favored acolyte standing at his side and Labat bit into the flesh of her bottom lip, watching him brandish the weapon. She tasted her own sour, malignant blood as Akil raised the scimitar high and the sect continued chanting praises, matching the percussion of drumming rhythms. Zib clapped his hands and sang along with the chants like they were playing a game as Labat drifted unconsciously up from her throne once again because...it was time.
Akil 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. Labat found she was standing now, though she ignored Zib’s insistent new pleas for control. Her fangs sank deeper into her mouth, pooling black-red fluid within. She found 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 still no sound from Pendergast. No final cries for release. No pleas for his loved ones—for his children--to be spared. She wanted John's pain, but he was holding it from them. But…it didn't matter. There was no denying the pain that would come in a moment.
She wanted John dead. She wanted John gone.
She wanted—needed—his pain.
And so…that was what came.
Akil’s motion was quick. A single stroke. The cut of a butcher, a sweep long perfected after centuries of hunting the enemies of Sinum.
A delicious, strangled noise escaped John, a noise wet with fluid and tinged with finality. Red sprayed from the wound outward and skyward like grim fireworks and the smell permeated Labat's senses, her lids dropping low as her fingers brushed 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, and emanated through the invisible tendrils of ether surrounding them.
Volume escalated, voices building 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 and singeing holes right through her.
“Hiba," he said.
He called to her in tongue. She trembled at the address.
“My wife. My queen. Come.”
Labat clasped her hands together, a multitude of eyes observing her. Steadying the heavy horned crown on her head, its beaded jewels swaying to and fro with her movements, she glided forward and down the stone steps leading to the sacrificial circle and approached 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 and 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. Why she's my lioness. An animal that rends our enemies with savage jaws for the pleasure of our holy prophet—our raijim. Praise to Heaven.”
A blood-stained fist adjusted its positioning to present Labat with the hilt of the scimitar. Akil's unblinking stare surveyed her as she took the weapon, pulling 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 as he released the sacrifice. Another weight plummeted into her hold and she refused to falter.
Silence swept. Not even the pleasant trill of winged griladaes nestled deep within the jungle serenaded the calm. The drummers 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 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. A surge of immortal energy spurred through the ether, powering her action until there was a satisfying snap of success. John's entire head released, falling into her hands.
Pendergast’s fluid-soaked scalp was cropped close, making the prize difficult to grab. Labat dropped the blade to wield the mass with both hands instead, red spilling down her arms and onto her ceremonial dress as her nails dug in deep to grab hold. She approached Akil and extended the admiral’s head toward the Sinum master, dropping to a knee. Nasar settled onto his haunches at her side, bowing its furry head as if showing honor as well
Labat's gaze trailed the path of red that soaked the rune etchings below. She remained there, 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, a tall and imposing form in height and stature—a wraith of a warrior. His rough fingers traced over her face, marking runes of spiritual power over her flesh, as a low chant filled the dark expanses of the jungle, this time praising her as Queen.
HIBTI LABAT HIBTI LABAT
A whole miserable existence serving humans…and her marriage to Akil bestowed her with the greatest of honor in an instant. Ascended by his bite, she’d accepted the immortal mark from a true descendant of the prophet. Her past of weakness no longer mattered.
The sect’s excitement grew. Calls of admiration layered into the din around the temple stage. Akil’s other women, the lesser wives of the royal harem, bowed their heads when she faced them, displaying honor to her as Queen as well. After brandishing the head of the admiral for the sect to admire, Akil handed the prize to his favored acolyte, ordering the young native to drive it onto a spike and display it in Akul's temple garden for the Harvest holiday.
Another from Pendergast’s unfortunate landing party remained alive in Akil’s bedchambers after weeks of captivity, a woman now too weak from damage and blood-draining to muster any more sobs of defeat. She was a Union diplomat—some idiot who, like John, was once so confident that words and deals with humans actually mattered to Sinum. Noticing the diplomat’s stir, Akil moved to snap her neck, pausing when Labat touched his arm with a sharp smile.
“No,” she said in a low growl. “Let the woman suffer. It'll satisfy me.”
Akil drank from the dying woman another time and seized Labat, flinging her to the bed of the chamber with animalistic force. The taste of the woman’s anguish incensed Labat and something inside of her pattered while Akil braced her against him, moving her to his liking. He bit her as well, as he’d done when he turned her the first time, and elevated ether spurred them both to greater wildness. For that moment, Labat felt something like alive again.
Her cheek hit the sheets when he released her and she remained there as her body radiated with heat and vigor, her pupils dilating to encompass the whites of her eyes. She entered again the void between death and sleep. Rough fingers brushed her hair from her face as she spoke to Akil from someplace far away.
“The universe revealed more 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. “Flesh is a prison. Have no fear of pain. Of what lies beyond.”
“I’m not afraid,” she replied.
“That’s 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 and finally reaching her ending point. The diplomat was a pretty thing at one point—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. Maybe Labat would've blessed the woman with immortality, adding her to Akil’s harem if it were her decision. However, Akil was disinterested in keeping any of John Pendergast’s accomplices alive—and Akil preferred a pure-blood native like himself to carry his seed. Something Labat was not.
Akil walked toward the door leading out of their private quarters and cracked the woman’s neck, dropping the limp pile back onto the stone floor. Labat glanced at the diplomat once more before pulling on her gown and hurrying after the master, who’d already disappeared within the palace.
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