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 over the true children of Ipir, appearing like glowing eyes observing the execution unfolding below.
Harvest that year carried extra victory for the Ipirians, since blood from a fallen hero would pour to replenish the thirsty roots of their great tree El-Akalut. About time too for a change in their luck to arrive. Sinum, the 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 cheers and howls from hundreds of thousands of followers amassed beneath the master's stage.
The man dragged along by the soldiers was familiar to her, someone she knew from a lifetime ago. He was Admiral John Pendergast, the newly elected leader of the Union Galactic Alliance, top representative for the wretched humans currently colonizing Ipir. Humans hailing from some far-off planet they called 'Earth'.
John was a symbol of violence for Labat, of pain she'd suffered at human hands while he refused to raise arms against his own. She remembered John and all he hadn't done to help her fate while she reached down from her gilded throne, scratching 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, filtering around and through the natives to incense them with elevated energy. Labat steadied the heavy ceremonial horned crown on her head and raised her nose to inhale, running her tongue along the burning sensations in her mouth. Electricity jolted through the sharpened incisors that protruded from her flesh.
She wanted to bite John—to drain him of his life in a personal way. 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 circle. He stepped forward, raising powerful arms to the swarming crowds below, and deafening cheers echoed holy chants back to him in endless repetition. The sect called for Akil to seal their triumph, to grant them long-awaited satisfaction on that Harvest day.
A sharp scent trailed to Labat from a distance as John's leaking blood released a jumble of anguish, triggering her native senses. He 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 at her from under mussed hair and a youthful face. A stupid boy without a name that she'd called Zib. He, a simpleton, another who'd 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 Labat bestowed with her rare shows of mercy.
"Sit, Sa-ee-ha," said Zib, slow and dreamlike, his voice low. Only her master and the boy could address her by 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," 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 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 those unknown faces but not their disapproval. Not all of them were in accordance with Akil's choice of first wife. If the majority decided that Labat was unfit she'd face her own end, and much like John's, regardless of Akil's favor.
Softening, she tidied Zib's dirt-streaked appearance and patted his head, acknowledging the warning. Zib smiled, his pupils fully dilating to blacken his gaze, and 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 or treachery. You refuse to accept it was your human diseases destroyed our paradise and refuse to beg, though I assure you that 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," he said. "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 to live as gods. To become divine. Become 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 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," said 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 the pain you suffer today 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 and Labat sensed that if they didn't proceed they'd 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 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 when she punctured her flesh.
Akil raised the scimitar high and the sect continued chanting, matching the tempo of the drummers' rhythms. Zib clapped along with his hands as if they were playing a child's game. Labat drifted unconsciously up from her throne once again. 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 to force the man to kneel once more. The scimitar's sharp edge pressed against his throat and Labat found she was standing fully now. She ignored Zib's insistent 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. 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 gift 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 defeat.
And so...it 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 permeating Labat's senses as her lids dropped low. 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 closed her eyes, drifting into the black void between death and sleep, as another rush sparked inside of her when John's life sputtered 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 Pendergast'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. He turned, pointing the scimitar in Labat's direction, and 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 clasped her hands together with a multitude of eyes observing her. She steadied the heavy horned crown on her head, beaded jewels strung from the rim swaying to and fro with her movements, and glided down the stone steps to the sacrificial circle. She approached 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 the pleasant trilling from winged griladaes were 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 cut 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 to help 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. She dropped the blade to wield the mass with both hands, red spilling down her arms and onto her ceremonial dress, and 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 and bowed as if also showing honor to Akil.
Labat's 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 again 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 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 and in an instant her marriage to Akil bestowed her with the greatest of honors. Ascended by his bite and 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 and she was now far above them 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 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 and display it in their gardens.
King and Queen left the ceremony 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 a brutal captivity. The woman was too weak from damage and repeated blood-draining to muster any further sobs of defeat. She was a Union diplomat—some idiot, like John, who'd once been so confident she could offer Sinum human deals that would actually matter to an elite clan of Isten Dar.
Akil noticed the the battered diplomat stir and moved over to snap her neck. 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 cry."
The master drank from the dying woman another time, dumping the sack of flesh back to the ground before seizing Labat and flinging her onto the bed with animal force. The taste of the woman's anguish in his mouth incensed Labat as he claimed her. Something inside of her pattered as they joined. Akil braced her against him, moving her to his liking, and bit her as well, drinking from her 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 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 fresh blood pooling from the diplomat. "Mother Ipir showed me traces of the pathways. I'll ascend once more."
"Good," grunted Akil. He shifted her aside after a moment and pushed himself up to stand. "Flesh is a prison. It's a curse of this material world that we shouldn't be forced to endure with our heritage. Have no fear of pain, of what lies beyond. We'll be freed as eternal spirits and blessed with limitless power."
"I'm not afraid," she replied. "I'm beyond the flesh. I'm ready for more. I want to be a goddess."
"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 of savages from themselves.
Labat would've blessed the woman with 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—he 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 as she pulled on her gown and hurried after the master, who'd already disappeared.
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