Chapter 44: Strange Bedfellows
Baroque and Lady Hazel were ushered hurriedly into Ka’s council chamber by two Afreet officers. Ka was deep in conversation with three Ophite Ascendents, each of their faces bearing the contorted snake-like features of assimilation.
Beside him sat his consort Shevanna. Recently Ka had discovered that, despite his initial reticence, he rather enjoyed these newly-discovered pleasures of the flesh. Ka let his hands play on the woman’s skin, openly caressing the top of her thigh.
“Baroque? My memory is far from perfect,” He said, with mock amusement, his red-scaled skin straining to form a smile, “but I do not recall asking that you deliver me a Mud ascendant, even one with such obvious charms. I trust this gift is not made in consolation for the failure of the task I did set you? Because if that is the case then…”
“No, My Lor… err… Fyre Meister Phlegon,” Baroque stumbled over his words, “I assure you that the quest you charged me with is quite complete. I return with everything you requested, it is all here.”
Baroque dropped the strap of his occultus from his shoulder and approached Lord Ka, holding the small satchel in his hands. An Afreet officer barred his way, taking the bag from him and passing it to the Fyre Meister.
“I confess, I am rather confused. If you did manage to meet with Lady El-on-ah, then why did she not return with you?” Ka’s eyes roamed eagerly over Hazel’s curvaceous, yet delicately slender frame and sensed his body’s familiar stirrings. Maybe it’s time I tasted a different flavour of fruit… “and who is this?”
“I apologise for my lack of manners, Fyre Meister,” Baroque bowed.
He gestured towards Lady Hazel who was clasping her arms about herself in a somewhat unsuccessful attempt to stem her nervous trembling, as she so obviously fought the urge to avert her eyes from the hideously deformed beings seated before her.
“May I present Lady Hazel, Mud Ascendant, Memorix and former member of the Glynesfarne High Council. Lady Hazel has returned with me to propose a diplomatic solution to the impending hostilities. As for Lady El-on-ah, well, it appears El-on-ah’s infatuation with a Native servant resulted in a shift in her allegiance. Consequently, she chose to remain at Isingwilde with Lord Dux and Rose of the Whyte. Therefore, I fear Lady El-on-ah must now be considered a traitor to our cause.”
“That is merely a minor frustration,” Ka said, a brief expression of annoyance crossing his face. “Provided you have the items I require.”
Ka found his eyes drawn once more to the features and form of the woman standing before him. Phlegon’s lecherous spirit rose within him, and he found himself unable to stem the feeling of pleasure engulfing his senses.
“I find the replacement you brought to be more than acceptable.” The words spilled from his lips without conscious thought. An icy hand gripped his heart as, once again, Ka pushed the terrifying thought out of his mind. Phlegon is taking over. Even my words are no longer my own…
Hazel squirmed under his gaze.
Shevanna pushed his hand from her thigh with a look of barely concealed fury.
Her jealousy is reassuring, he thought, at least the suspicion is gone. On the other hand…
Ka replaced his hand, moving it further up her thigh. She scowled pushing him away.
“I am bemused as to why you seem so taken with this female, my Liege.” The legs of Shevanna’s chair screeched as she rose from her seat and approached Lady Hazel.
Taking hold of Hazel’s chin between her fingers, she pulled the Ascendant’s face towards her and glared into Hazel’s emerald green eyes.
“She has the skin of a featherless chicken and the body of a stick insect,” Shevanna sneered, “long, thin and without a single womanly curve. It is such a delicate form… so effortlessly broken.”
Ka stretched out in his chair, a taught smile pulling at his lipless mouth. Sheeva is worried about being replaced… For me, this could be good, this could provide me with just the opportunity I need…
“Do I detect a vein of jealousy my dear?” He mocked.
Shevanna scowled - to Ka’s further amusement. He turned his attention back to Baroque, who was watching their exchange like a rabbit viewing a standoff between two foxes.
“Thank you Lord Baroque, you have done well.” Ka clicked his fingers ushering an Afreet guard to his side. “Escort Lord Baroque to his quarters and see that he is well fed.”
Baroque bowed, casting an anxious glance towards Lady Hazel as he left with two guards in escort.
“I am inclined to listen to your proposal Lady Hazel,” pointedly, he cast his eyes around the room taking in his audience. His gaze came to rest on Shevanna, “however, I do not feel in need of advice from others at this time.”
Shevanna’s eyes narrowed. Her lips parted as if she were to offer a retort. Evidently, thinking better of it, she stomped out of the room, slamming the door behind her.
As the remainder of the assembly stood, bowing their heads, before leaving the room, Ka gestured for Lady Hazel to take a seat.
“So… Lady Hazel,” Ka lifted a plate of fresh figs and dates from the table, offering it to her. “What is it that you imagine that you can provide me with that I do not already possess?”
Nervously, Hazel declined his offer of food, with a shake of her head.
“I wish to offer my services as a mediator between Lord Dux, Lady Rose and yourself,” Said Hazel shuffling uncomfortably in her seat as he leant closer.
Sensing Hazel’s need to steel herself each time she looked at his face. Ka began to revel in the woman’s barely concealed display of terror. He paused, letting the tension between the two of them grow. Provide her with a long enough silence, and she will feel compelled to fill it…
“I... Well, working on the assumption that you’d wish to seize control of the Afterlands, with as little loss of life as possible.” Hazel’s voice had risen an octave, “I believe that a negotiated, peaceful option to this conflict would serve both sides equally, and as a relatively neutral individual, I would like to offer to play my part in that process.”
Ka’s sharp laugh made Hazel jump.
He smiled at this. Frightened women are so attractive…
“I am afraid that your journey has been for nothing,” Ka leant forward moving closer, his hand brushing her cheek. He sensed her body stiffen. “I have no intention of negotiating. I am aware of Lady Rose’s location and have the capacity to destroy her with minimal cost to myself and my army. The Djinn accept now me as Phlegon, their leader. Ophites from all corners of the Afterlands have heard of my resurrection and are converging on the city as we speak. So you see, I already have control of these lands.”
The colour drained from Hazels face as she absorbed his words.
“However…” Ka sat back in his seat. Taking a date from the platter, Ka devoured it, licking the sweet juice from his fingers as he watched Hazel squirm. “There may be something that you can do for me which would be of benefit to us both. I can see that you are a strong woman who knows her own mind. I suspect that you also harbour a lust for power and status. I have the means to offer you both.”
“In exchange for?” Hazels gaze lifted to meet his, her hands clenching into fists as they rested in her lap.
“Sheeva, as you may appreciate, is becoming somewhat of a hinderance to my cause.” Ka swallowed another date, patting his mouth with a napkin. “She is the only member of Phlegon’s inner circle remaining. The others have been assimilated by Ophite ascendants loyal to my cause.”
Hazel’s eyes opened wide.
“No!” She spoke only that one brief word, and yet the feeling of repulsion and fear it conveyed was apparent.
“You react as if you have a choice,” Ka smirked, “I will convince Sheeva to assimilate you whatever you decide. So you have two choices; you can sit at my side as a powerless slave, your consciousness trapped forever within the body of a Djinn, or you can make use of my reverse assimilation charm to bind Sheeva’s being to yourself and sit beside me as my Queen.”
Ka was entranced by Hazel’s cascade of fleeting expressions as her mind worked ceaselessly to find a solution to her predicament. Her repulsion at the thought of becoming like him was evident. He could understand that, it was not easy being part Ascendant, part Djinn - each half eternally fighting for control of mind and body. If I could turn back time… would I do it again? The thought was redundant, that dragon had already hatched and he, like Hazel, had little choice.
“How…” She stumbled over the words, “how does it feel to… Does it cause you pain? Are you the same person inside?”
“Of course.” Ka smiled relaxing back into his chair. She is actually considering this… “I find there are some remarkable benefits, which I confess, I had not anticipated.”
“In that case, if I have no other choice,” Hazel’s words were devoid of emotion, her eyes masked by the vacant haze of hopelessness, “tell me what I need to do…”
“I realise this won’t be popular, but I want everyone who isn’t directly involved sent to safety,” Rose scanned the faces of her cell, their disapproving expressions lit by the flickering glow of the firelight. “I don’t want to put anyone else’s life at risk, there is no point… it makes no sense at all. It was always meant to come down to the four of us. We ascended together, our potens, uniquely and powerfully compatible. This is our destiny, no one else’s. If we are successful, then everyone wins, but it is we four that hold the key to Ka’s defeat. If the others remain with us, then thousands could die. The children and the infirm have already been evacuated to Knucker Island, I think the rest of our people should join them. Then, if the Incantatio fails Lord Dux will have a sizeable army to bargain with. Lord Ka desires to be rid of me, but his ultimate goal is to become one of the great rulers of The Afterlands. He cannot do that if there is no one left to govern.”
“That is illogical,” Lee raised an eyebrow, “In life, as in chess, the fate of the king ultimately determines the outcome of the game, but it is rarely that simple. The most powerful piece on the board may be the queen, but a lone queen seldom triumphs.”
“Yes - that,” Ash hitched his lips in amusement, “but also, Rose, these people… your people, wish to fight at your side. They want to play their part. If you send them away, you disempower them. Is that really what you want?”
It wasn’t what she wanted at all. Rose sighed, wrapping her arms around her knees she rested her chin on them and gazed into the flames.
Since the day Rose located the last piece of the Incantatio, she seemed to have lost all direction, her drive and focus evaporating like a haw frost in the spring sunlight. If anything, she felt even more confused, lost and helpless than she had at the beginning of all this when she first opened her eyes inside her cubiculum.
Now, after a particularly futile meeting with El-on-ah and Lord Dux, the four of them sat on a pile of cushions in the common room, eating their supper around the hearth.
Rose stretched out her toes towards the fire and drank down the last of the Mead from her beaker, feeling its syrupy warmth spread down her throat. She had hoped that El-on-ah would furnish them with information that would inspire some sort of strategy, but the Blood provided them with little more than they knew already. The only thing they learned was the unsettling news that in all likelihood, Ka was now in possession of everything he needed to brew fractionation venom.
“I can’t abide all this waiting,” Rose stood, then, grabbing a log, she tossed it onto the fire and sent a fountain of fiery cinders curling into the air. “It’s like being stranded in the estuary, trapped, with the tide flooding in and knowing that there is no way to get back to the shore. All that’s left to do is wait for the waves to roll in and swallow you up. There must be something we can do.”
“Well, you would have a few options actually,” said Lee, “You could attempt to climb the cliff, or walk out to meet the tide, ride the waves, morph some gills and flippers, or possibly even build a boat if you have the materials. There is no need to merely sit and wait for death to arrive. You have choices, there is always something you can choose… You just have to calculate which of the plans is likely to result in the best outcome.”
“’You can always choose something…’” Ash mimicked, pushing Lee playfully and causing him to slide off the large cushion and onto the floor. “You totally missed the point that Rose was making, which is we can’t formulate a plan with any certainty because Ka is not the sea. He is not that predictable. We have no way of knowing his next move. The only thing we can be certain of is that sooner or later Ka will be coming for Rose. So why go looking for trouble when we know it’s on its way here?”
“No wait, Lee’s right, in fact, you both are.” A plan started to take shape in Rose’s mind. When she continued it was as if she were speaking the words to herself, weighing their worth, “We are going about this all wrong. Let’s focus on what Ka knows, and then we may be able to anticipate his next move. He knows where our people are, and by now he likely knows the city has been fortified. Lee is right, there is no sense in us sitting here waiting for him to attack. We have to take the initiative and take this war to him.”
“How can we do that when we’ve no idea when or how he will attack?” said Auriel. “There is no Sooth to foretell the future for us Rose, which leaves us to guess what his move will be and if we guess wrong…”
“Not guess,” Rose took a rolled parchment map from the table and laid it out on the floor beside them, pinning it flat with their four empty flagons, “but use what we know already to anticipate and predict.”
“That sounds very much like guessing to me,” said Ash.
“Not if we use logic,” Lee said, “and probability.”
“Okay, so slightly more scientific guessing,” Ash grinned, “but hey, let’s go for it, we’ve nothing to loose.”
“Let’s assume that Ka’s ultimate objective is to dispose of me,” said Rose.
“A pretty safe assumption that one,” Ash said, taking the only remaining pastry from the tray of food resting next to them on the floor.
“So let’s try and get into Ka’s mind.” Rose glanced up at Lee, “Lee, you’re a Blood, you reason like a Blood, what would you do next if you were Ka?”
“You mean, if I were a Blood Ascendant intent on world domination, who was recently resurrected after being encased in stone for over a thousand years, and whose mind and body is now melded to the most powerful Djinn that Erebus has ever spawned.” Lee raised a brow, “What would I do?”
“Okay, I get that you are not exactly identical twins,” Rose conceded, “so maybe you will not make a perfect model for his behaviour, but you are the nearest we are going to get. So, Lee, what would you do?”
Lee’s gaze fell on the map of the Afterlands stretched out before them.
“Lee, think back to what you learned in Cognito, think about Ka’s history,” said Auriel. “Now imagine you are Lord Ka and tell us what you would remember.”
Lee closed his eyes as his hand traced a path on the map of the Afterlands, his fingers travelling over the Hydra pass, along the Great Ice Wall and coming to rest in the city of Enisfrae.
“I would remember the last time I ventured into the land of Rhodium… I would remember that final great battle at Enisfrae and Lord Eldwyn… and I’d vow never to make the same mistake again.” Lee turned to Rose, his eyes unusually animated, “you know what he is going to do don’t you Rose, that is why you wanted to send everyone away.”
“You see it too?” Rose knew he did.
She had watched Lee’s intent expression as he examined the map and witnessed his sudden deathly pallor as realisation dawned.
“Well if you do ‘see it’,” Ash said, “then I’d appreciate it if someone would explain it to me, because you two may as well be speaking in tongues.”
“Cognito - History of the Afterlands class was never your forte was it Ash?” said Auriel, “What they ‘see’ is that last time Ka cast the Confractio spell, he was being attacked on three fronts. To the East were the Whytes of Enisfrae commanded by Lord Ruzha, in the North was the great Army of Dynesgwyn, lead by Lady Sevti and from the west came the people of Isingwilde who followed Lord Ogin. Ka was so preoccupied with them that he forgot about the oldest of the four - Lord Eldwyn. He never expected an attack from the south, and it cost Lord Ka the war.”
“So… you think because of that,” Ash hesitated, “Lord Ka will try to dispose of the majority of us first by having his Afreet attack Isingwilde, wiping the majority of us out before attempting to take Rose on with the Confractio charm?”
“It does seem logical,” said Lee.
“Then we’d better make sure we are ready for them when they get here,” Ash smiled, “throw them a little party…”
“No, that’s not a good idea and not what I was planning at all,” Rose frowned, thinking her point had been made. “You still don’t agree with my plan to evacuate?”
Ash shook his head. “If we evacuate, the Afreet will remain intact, they’ll just return to fight another day…”
Rose saw where he was going, but she could not agree.
“If we fight the Afreet here, no matter how well prepared we are, they will retain the advantage,” said Rose. “They could just keep on bombarding us with wave after wave of attacks, and we will lose hundreds, maybe thousands of our people. But if we set off alone, and were able to ambush them, then it would be Ka’s army who would be depleted.”
“I see how we could take the battle to them…” said Ash, “but how can we defeat a whole army Rose, we have no magic capable…”
“You are entirely correct Ash. As Ascendants we have no magic capable of destroying an army of Djinn.” The solution came to her like a flash of de-ja-vu, as if she had known it long before, but the memory was new and did not belong to Rose. “Elder possessed a power unlike any we Ascendants possess - the ability to control forces of nature. Remember in Ferrum, when we reached the Winter Forest she covered our tracks with snow? Elder had the capacity to summon natural elements, to create mist, rain, snow and ice. With the potens of the four, I can harness that power to cast vast storms of ice - and with ice, I can stifle fyre.”
“So by surrendering her life,” said Auriel, “Elder provided us with the means to destroy the Afreet?”
“Eldwyn strikes again,” Ash shrugged, “You’ve got to give it to the guy, he’s a better prophet than the Aurum Sooth.”
“I would say that the probability is greater,” said Lee, “that Lord Eldwyn had help. It is the simplest explanation.”
“I thought that the Sooth was supposed to be impartial,” said Auriel, “you actually believe that the Sooth aided Lord Eldwyn?”
“Maybe impartiality is in the eye of the beholder,” said Rose, “like truth, loyalty and honour.”