Chapter 19: FYRE MEISTER
From the balcony of his chambers in the Cynnabar Pyrus, Lord Ka looked out to the east over the steaming dark waters of Loch Drac, washed blood red by the dawn sun. Irritated, sensing that he was no longer alone, Ka turned and walked back into the room. Passing the large ornate wall mirror, he caught sight of his reflection. The image unnerved him.
The eyes that gazed back at him were as he remembered, but their setting, that grotesque mask of a face reflected in the mirror, was that of a stranger. Since the assimilation, he wore the features of a djinn, the image of Fyre Meister Phlegon.
Ka had been expecting Phlegon’s attack. Indeed, he had been counting on it to use his reverse assimilation charm. This was how he was able to take the place of his enemy. However, he had not anticipated the charms mutilating effect. Now, trapped for eternity in this hideous reptilian body, he would have to maintain this charade until he replaced every one of the djinn’s prime circle with his Ophite followers. Only then would he have the power to control the Afreet army, not as Meister Phlegon, but as Lord Ka-ek-tal the one true ruler of the Afterlands.
He forced a lipless smile in greeting to the female djinn. She moved beside him to gaze at their reflections in the mirror. As his face contorted, his red-scaled skin twitched, pulling tight over his new reptilian features. Two spindle-shaped breathing holes at the centre of his face flared open as he inhaled deeply before spinning round to confront the Fyre Miester’s consort.
Having Shevanna around disturbed him. She, like all djinn was hot blooded, a volcano of emotion primed to explode without a moments notice. She was unpredictable, and that made her dangerous. When she was around, he was almost constantly on edge. He would have to do something about her, and rapidly.
Everything else gone well. Progress had been rapid and without incident. Most of the prime circle had been assimilated and replaced by his Ophite ascendants. Almost Phlegon’s entire inner circle, like he, appeared on the outside to be a djinn, but their bodies were merely vessels for the consciousness of his followers.
Shevanna, however, had repeatedly resisted his attempts to persuade her to assimilate any of the remaining imprisoned Ophites. Therefore, Ka had been unable to replace her. Consequently, Shevanna continued to be a significant threat.
Ka sensed her mistrust in him. She suspected that something was not right, he was convinced of it. This thought plagued him now, if he was right, then why had she not acted against him. Maybe she doubted her instincts? Shevanna would not risk challenging Phlegon if she were not certain. Until she was replaced, he would have to convince her every day, that beneath this altered shell of a body resided the essence of Fyre Meister Phlegon and that he remained in full control. All of his plans and all of their lives depended on it.
“Sheeva,” Ka used Phlegon’s pet name for her.
Taking her face in his hands, he planted a kiss lightly on her forehead as she bowed her head briefly in deference to his status.
“I see that you have discovered Aurum lace... it is most becoming my dear.”
Kissing her filled him with revulsion. Her reptilian skin disgusted him, as did that wide lipless mouth and those cold serpentine eyes. The skin of female djinn released powerful pheromones, their sulphurous stench made him gag. He drew back from her on the pretext of admiring her robe. She struck a pose for him. The long, tightly fitting ivory gown barely covered her voluptuous red-scaled body. A slit ran from the top of the skirt, down one shapely thigh to her ankle. Shevanna’s long black hair flowed loosely around her shoulders.
“I am pleased that you approve, Meister,” she said, dipping her chin demurely to one side and allowing the strap of her gown to slide seductively down one shoulder. “I had hoped to tempt you out of your solitude my liege, for it seems that since we left our realm, your passion for me had cooled along with the climate. You needed no such incentives in Erebus... Fyre Meister.”
Her mood appeared playful and teasing as she moved towards him. Reaching out, she rested her hands lightly his shoulders, sliding them slowly down onto his chest.
Doubting that this advance was as spontaneous as she would have it appear, Ka decided that it was yet another one of her tests. He had been subjected to a few them over the past few days. They were designed to stir the hot-blooded Djinn into action or, conversely, to uncover the cold-blooded imposter holding hostage to his body.
Blood ascendants were celibate, passionless beings and as such, Ka was indifferent to her advances. If Shevanna was attempting to discover whether it was Phlegon or him, who had completed the assimilation process, then this was an ingenious way to distinguish between them. If he did not take great care, his deception would be uncovered.
Moving her body closer, she traced the contours of his waist with her fingertips, allowing them to slip downwards and linger provocatively over his hips. Ka’s body tensed. However, unnervingly, he sensed his body stirring. He gasped, as his limbs began to react, seemingly autonomously his arms reached down, lifting Shevanna effortlessly, holding her tight against his chest.
Her startled expression seemed to trigger something within him. An urge possessed him, driving his body into a frenzied, instinctive response. He hurled Shevanna onto his bed, throwing himself upon her, pinning her down and striking her fiercely across the face. Then he ripped the flimsy gown from her body.
“Phlegon,” Shevanna’s voice was hoarse and thick with passion, “my liege, I was afraid I had lost you...”
Stifling her words with his lips, he forced open her mouth. His mind was whirling, intoxicated and as if in a dream, he surveyed the scene like a dispassionate observer.
He fought in vain to control his actions. This body was no longer his and yet he was conscious of every foreign sensation that coursed through it. He felt their familiar presence, but they were lost, like a distant memory that resisted his recall.
His heart pounded furiously as his limbs moved purposefully, without his direction as if some malevolent, omniscient puppet master directed each movement. His breath caught in his throat, Phlegon. He recognised his new vulnerability, and it filled him with terror, but his fear began to ebb as he found himself savouring these exotic sensations and sadistically revelling in their intense eroticism.
His terror now intermingled with a myriad of alien emotions as he moved rhythmically and in harmonious autonomy, with Shevanna’s body. Her limbs were now so tightly entwined with his own that he could no longer distinguish between them. Soon he could reason no longer, his senses owned him as their bodies writhed and arched together.
“No!” Ka could not stop, and what was more, he did not wish to.
A small whimper escaped him before the intensity of what he was feeling erupted, filling his mind with an electrifying buzz, drowning his thoughts and smothering his consciousness. Finally, he crumpled onto her, humiliated, reduced to nothing more than a vessel for Phlegon’s passion.
Ka awoke to the sound of light knocking on the door of his chambers. Shevanna lay sleeping beside him. Her form repulsed him though he could not put the experience of the previous evening out of his mind and as he recalled their lovemaking; his body began to stir once more. Pulling on his robe, he left the bedchamber feeling strangely conflicted, as a once stung bear presented with a hive full of honey. This cannot happen again.
“Enter,” he said, taking a seat at his breakfast table.
Afreet Commander Zelron entered the room, followed by two officers escorting a young, female Blood ascendant. Ka winced at the jarring sound of their marching feet, leather uniforms, and armour.
He was surprised to see El-on-ah though he took great care not to react. That she was here before him was an ominous sign. His mind filled with questions he could not voice. El-on-ah had proved her dedication on more than one occasion. So what has prompted her to come here and put them all in danger? His jaw tightened, as he struggled to maintain his composure.
“Commander,” said Ka with an air of mocking amusement, “I see that you have recaptured the Blood ascendant that you once so carelessly misplaced. Did you also locate the Pukis who aided her?”
“No, Fyre Meister,” Zelron motioned towards the officers, indicating that they should wait in the doorway. “The woman was alone when she approached the guards at the gates of the city. She insists that she has information regarding an imminent threat that you would wish to hear without delay.”
Casually, Ka lifted a peach from the platter of fruit on the table before him. What game is she playing?
Sniffing the fruit briefly, he took a large bite from its sweet ripe flesh. The juice seeped from the sides of his lipless mouth and trickled down his chin. It’s syrupy fragrance filled the air. Wiping the sticky juice from his face he studied El-on-ah carefully, marvelling at her apparent composure. Surely, she must realise how precarious her position was. What is she doing here?
Ka motioned the guards to bring her forward. As they did, they remained close, maintaining a firm grip on El-on-ah’s arms and the hilts of their swords.
“Speak,” Ka had little choice but to play along with whatever plan she had hatched.
In an instant, El-on-ah twisted, pulling free of the Afreet officers she lurched towards him. The officers drew their swords.
Ka raised a hand. “No, I wish to hear what the Blood has to say.”
El-on-ah’s knuckles whitened as she grasped at the edge of the table in front of him.
“Meister Phlegon,” El-on-ah addressed him with an air of calm control that Ka was sure she could not be feeling.
Her eyes betrayed little and yet he sensed her antagonism though her cool wavered only briefly as she shot a nervous glance in Zelron’s direction.
A smile tugged at the side of his mouth. She is far from composed, yet she hides it so well. The rigidity of his new orifice hid his fleeting expression of admiration from her.
Curious as to how she intended to get herself out of this precarious position Ka studied her carefully. Did she intend to unmask him? If so, was not overly concerned, it was unlikely that any of the djinns would take the word of a Blood Ascendant over his and he could order her assimilation if necessary. Few Djinn would have the gall to question his authority. El-on-ah, however, had little hope of escape, she had sealed her fate the moment she entered the city. So why had she come? He felt his impatience growing.
“Meister Phlegon, you assimilated my Lord Ka and so have access to his memories,” El-on-ah paused for a second. “So you will recognise me as Lady El-on-ah, Blood Alchemist and Lord Ka’s successor as leader of the Ophites. You will also know that we Ophites have sworn an allegiance to the Djinn of Erebus and are therefore no threat to you. Indeed, we wish to become your allies.”
Ka’s tight-scaled brow creased, his black eyes shot a piercing look towards El-on-ah. She dared to challenge his leadership of the Ophites... impudent child.
“You now lead the Ophites?” His voice dripped with menace.
El-on-ah’s chin tilted, her eyes flashing.
“Indeed, I do, Fyre Meister, and there are thousands of us out there, thousands of Afterlanders who have sworn allegiance to the djinn. As their leader, I can rally them to your cause. We have shared common enemies for many centuries. Since when, millennia ago, the Whytes of Rhodium banished the djinn to Erebus for eternity. Imprisoned you in a land of darkness, but for that light provided by the sulphurous fyres burning deep beneath its barren crust. Lord Ka and we Ophites bought about the obliteration of those same Whytes, and we are responsible for your freedom today. Look within yourself Meister Phlegon, and you will know I speak the truth.”
Ka leant back in his chair. Smart girl... Ingenious.
Without speaking, he placed the sticky peach kernel at the centre of the table in front of him. He could see where she was going with this now, offering him an alliance gives him a reason not to have her killed, but why risk so much to come here? Her mission had been to dispose of the Whyte. Surely, she would not have returned if she had failed.
Ka glanced over to Commander Zelron, who despite appearances to the contrary, was paying a significant amount of attention to their conversation.
“It is true,” said Ka, warily. “I am intimately aware of the Ophites devotion to the djinn. That said, you Ophites, ascendants or otherwise, cannot offer anything that we cannot just as easily take from you. Assimilation is an exceptionally efficient method of gaining both knowledge and power, without the impediments associated with alliances and diplomacy.” His eyes flicked nervously towards Zelron as he continued, his tone measured and intentionally menacing. “Lady El-on-ah, you are either very brave or very foolish to come here expecting me to offer you anything more than I offered your dear departed leader. So, enlighten me as to why I should not assimilate you, as I did Lord Ka and every other Ophite, who has been unwise enough to cross my path. Elucidate me why don’t you?”
He felt his left eye twitch as his gaze fired a warning at El-on-ah’s challenging, almond-shaped, black pools. He squirmed in his chair, his impatience growing. He needed to know if she had succeeded. What of his Nemesis, this Rose of the Whyte? Unspoken, the words passed between them.
“I can offer you crucial information regarding a powerful common enemy of ours, together with my skills as an Alchemist to aid your efforts to defeat them.” El-on-ah’s eyes flicked nervously towards Zelron before meeting Ka’s with a look of such piercing intensity that he guessed instantly what she was about to reveal.
“I can confirm,” she said, her voice suddenly hushed, “that after more than a thousand years, a Whyte ascendant walks once more in these lands, and I have witnessed a power within her that I have not seen before in one so young. The Sooth has named her Rose, and as prophesied, she seeks Lord Eldwyn’s incantatio. She and her cell have already uncovered the first part of the incantation. I trust that you are aware of this spell. It is written that with Eldwyn’s incantatio, the Whyte will have the capability to defeat not only we Ophites but you also Meister Phlegon, and your Afreet.”
Ka’s scowl of fury was genuine. This girl has the nerve to stand here before me taunting me with the Whyte I ordered her to destroy. He lunged forward, his hand tightened around El-on-ah’s throat.
Frantically she clawed at his fingers attempting to loosen their grip as she sputtered, gasping for air.
“You saw this Whyte?” He spat out the words, almost forgetting himself as he raged. “You got that close to her, and yet you tell me she is still a threat. You offer me your help in defeating this Whyte and yet when you had the opportunity you failed to take it! Tell me why I should believe that the next time will be any different?”
Releasing his grip on her, he pushed her backwards into the clutches an Afreet guard. They steadied her, as near to collapse she gasped, coughing as air rasped through her swollen airway.
“I... did take it, I cast… a descent spell,” she said, “but I my attempt was thwarted. They showed that they are willing to sacrifice their lives for her. Her followers are growing; I believe… she intends to form an allegiance with the Elder Witch and the Twocasts of the Ebony forest.”
Ka had no knowledge of the Elder Witch though he knew of the Twocasts, exiled crossbreds who had little power and were certainly no threat to the djinn.
“...and I need you now because?” Ka snorted. Surely she had a better plan than this?
He could not help her if she did not help herself. Folding his arms, he forced a smile, which was filled with such malevolence that El-on-ah’s eyes clouded instantly. She was afraid; maybe this was what he needed to reassure Zelron and his Afreet of his identity. Meister Phlegon would not hesitate to take pleasure in toying with the girl before ultimately destroying her. He had to be prepared to do the same. He was determined to maintain his façade, whatever it took.
“Well?” he said.
There was mischief in his eyes as he watched El-on-ah’s uncertainty and alarm rapidly transform into an unbridled panic. He had always enjoyed torturing his subjects; it made them so much more malleable.
“You need me Meister Phlegon,” El-on-ah’s voice was hoarse, “because though you may have Lord Ka’s knowledge, you do not have the ability to channel his potens. If we are to believe the prophecy, then Rose the Whyte can only be defeated through magic. It is the one thing that can counter Eldwyn’s incantatio and for that, Meister Phlegon, you need me.”
“Maybe...” he said, sardonically, “but then again, maybe not...”
He felt a sudden twinge of pride in his protégé. She had put forward the only argument that would enable him to keep her alive without raising the suspicions of the Djinn. Though Ka still had access to his potens, Phlegon would not have. He could not use his magic without revealing his true identity. Still, magic may not be the only way to deal with Rose the Whyte.
He swung around to face his Afreet Commander.
“Zelron, ready a battalion of Afreet,” he shot a look at El-on-ah, his lips twisting into a sadistic leer, “in a battle between fyre and a forest Lady El-on-ah, on which would you place your bet?”
“No!” El-on-ah, struggled against her restraints as Zelron turned to leave. “My servants, Che and Tu-nek-ta, are Rose’s prisoners, and the Twocasts have young children with them, we don’t have to...”
“What a terrible shame my dear,” Ka drew his brows together in a mockingly pained expression, “but your servants are almost certainly already dead and the children, well… collateral damage I’m afraid my dear, casualties of war.”
“Lock her up until I have decided whether she can be of further use,” He glanced up at one of the Afreet officers at her side, “and I’ll need her ring. It would not do for her to escape again would it?”
Ka clamped his hand over El-on-ah lips as she attempted to protest. His eyes held her, their communication, subtle - Hold your tongue, or else.
“I think that I have listened to your voice enough for one day my dear,” Ka saw his own grotesque features reflected in El-on-ah’s beautiful, black, reproachful eyes.
He had felt sure that she had been about to expose him. It was, after all, he who had facilitated her previous escape, but maybe his performance as Phlegon had been a little too good.
The guard pulled on El-on-ah’s arm and offered her right hand to Ka. Without taking his eyes from hers, Ka pulled the potens ring from her finger. As he did so, he moved the tip of his forefinger along the centre palm, tracing the outline of the Ouroboros symbol. Her hand had tensed before she attempted to pull it away, but he gripped it tightly, his claw-like fingers digging deep into her flesh. El-on-ah’s eyes narrowed accusingly, and then she lifted her head and spat in his face.
His reaction was instinctive. The full force of his fist hitting her square in the face. The power of the blow wrenched her from the Djinn’s grip and propelled her body into the wall.
A dull thud echoed around the room as her skull smashed into the polished marble. El-on-ah’s body teetered for a second with her stunned, accusatory expression still frozen on her face, then her eyes rolled backwards, and she crumpled to the floor.
Ka’s troubled gaze shifted quickly from El-on-ah’s broken body to his fist, clenched tightly and throbbing painfully before him. Puzzled, he turned his wrist, examining his hand, stretching out his fingers, clenching, and then opening them once again. He had not intended to be that brutal. What is happening to me?
His bewildered eyes fell on El-on-ah’s body, twisted and unmoving at his feet, her red hair soaked and matted with blood. The sickly, metallic odour filled his nostrils.
The horrific realisation hit him like a series of waves, each revelation more powerful and terrifying than the last. He recalled the previous night, their two naked forms writhing in erotic pleasure. His body had betrayed him then, and now, once more it had reacted against his will. I may have control of my mind, but it is Meister Phlegon who possesses this body, and I must find a way to take it back.