Chapter 45: Queen of Fyre
Ka paced the floor as he waited in the Atrium. He kicked the side of the impluvium as, once more, his eyes darted to the arch leading to the walled garden and accommodation block. Where are they?
The gold veined marble walls glistened in the sunlight streaming in through the open ceiling above the pool. Ka felt the warmth of the sun through his scaled skin. Despite his frustration, it seemed to sooth him, and he breathed in deeply, filling his lungs with the heady aromas of bergamot, sandalwood and lemon balm. Ka let his eyes drift towards the ornately carved marble thrones at the rear of the chamber. It was a fitting place to create a queen.
Guiltily, Ka’s mind returned to the previous evening when he had taken Shevanna with a ferocity befitting Meister Phlegon himself. He wondered why he had so willingly surrendered his body to the urges of the Fyre Meister. It bothered him now, as he recalled how his body burned as he pressed it deep into the mounds and crevices of the reptilian female writhing beneath him.
It had been a strategy at first, a mere ploy to engender her agreement, and it had proved a success. Shevanna had finally agreed to assimilate Lady Hazel.
Nevertheless, Ka wondered if he had made a mistake in relinquishing his control even for this limited time because whenever he let the fyre in his blood run free, he felt his power over Phlegon slipping more and more.
Shevanna jolted him out of his thoughts. She entered the room with the slow, mesmerising, grace of a snake, each limb moving fluidly and in perfect synchronicity as she glided over the amber flagstone floor.
She had dressed for the occasion, donning the red lace gown that she imagined was his favourite. In reality, he thought it made her look like a harlot. One of those Twocast women, who offered themselves to any Blood, Mud, or Gold with a single piece of Rhodium silver to spare.
He forced the tight scaly skin of his face into something resembling a smile.
“Sheeva, you look beautiful,” he said.
The woman beamed.
It was so easy to manipulate a woman - a Djinn woman anyway. Ka’s mind strayed to consider Lady Hazel, he wondered if an Ascendant female would be as pliable. There I go again… damn you Phlegon - get out of my head…
“Soon, I will have even more to offer you my liege,” she purred, “before nightfall, I’ll not only hold the knowledge of an Ascendant Memorix, but I’ll have captured something of the woman’s allure. That way I will appear even more beautiful sitting beside you as your Queen.”
Their conversation was interrupted by the hollow sound of marching feet as two Afreet guards ushered Lady Hazel into the room, urging her forward with their fyre spears.
Dismissing the guards, Ka waited for them to depart before turning to Shevanna.
“Whenever you are ready my queen.” Ka spoke the words softly.
Taking in the rigidity of Hazel’s body, Ka glanced down at the woman’s hands. The rim of her potens ring was hidden by her left hand clasped tightly around her right fist, which held fast to the small glass phial Ka had slipped her earlier. Ka smiled as Hazel’s whole body trembled. She looks like a frightened colt.
Hazel dipped her eyes silently to the ground, and Ka felt relief flood over him. Maybe Ascendents are not so different to Djinn after all… Soon I’ll be free to focus on ruling these lands, on my destiny, and on the imminent destruction of Rose of the Whyte.
Shevanna glided confidently towards the Mud Ascendant, her thin lips wearing the smug smile of privilege and power. She reached out a hand and grasped a loose tuft of Hazel’s auburn hair as it curled around her forehead. Shevanna twisted it around her fingers, releasing the resulting ringlet and then arranging it carefully around the ascendants face.
Ka found the action disgusted him. It’s like watching a spoiled child dressing the hair of a doll.
Shevanna traced the lines of Hazels elegant features with the sharp nail of her forefinger, moving from the prominent hollowed angles of Hazel’s cheekbone, along the curve of her lips and finally, down to the tip of her beautifully defined chin.
“I understand why my liege is so captivated by your appearance. You truly are a beautiful specimen,” said Shevanna, standing back to inspect Hazel’s figure. “A little skinny perhaps, but I think I can make some improvements in that area. ”
Hazel clasped her arms about her body shivering as if she were feeling a chill, though the air was warm.
“I see you are nervous,” Shevanna grasped Hazel’s shoulders, pulling her closer, “there is no need. True, there will be much pain, but it will be over quickly, and then you will feel… nothing.”
Shevanna’s body spun around, exploding into a crucible of fyre that rapidly enveloped Hazel, whose face contorted with pain as Shevanna’s fiery form forced itself within her, their two bodies melding together like a python swallowing a rat.
Ka watched, like some twisted, masochistic, voyeur. His breath catching for a second, in his throat, as Hazel struggled to raise her right hand before finally uncurling it to reveal the phial containing the potion. Release the stopper… now, release it now…
Hazel’s scream filled the auditorium as she attempted to free the cork from the potion bottle with hands that were now barely hers to control. Finally dipping her head, she gripped the stopper between her teeth, pulling it off. Spitting out the cork, Hazel yelled the incantation.
“Vic…isim aute..m assim…ilatio.”
The potens ring on Hazel’s forefinger burst forth a luminous shower of pulsating energy, which rapidly expanded around Shevanna’s crucible fyre. The vermillion hued potion swirled, lifted by the flames, sparking as it formed a glowing red vapour cloud.
Hazel’s body had altered, their two writhing forms now forged into one being. The flames faded from red to orange, yellow, and then a flickering blue, before they finally ebbed away to reveal a single twisted form where once there had been two.
Standing before Ka was a red-scaled woman, not Shevanna or Hazel, but a bizarre amalgamation of the two of them. Shevanna’s long black hair was now streaked with amber, and though her red-scaled skin remained intact, the features that lay beneath bore the beautiful, elegant bone structure of Lady Hazel. It was as if Hazel had crawled beneath the skin of the Djinn, pulling it on like a skin-tight snakeskin robe to form a perfect amalgamation of the two beings. Hazel’s elegant fine-boned exquisiteness now enhanced by Shevanna’s voluptuous sensuality.
Ka waited, examining each new feature of this, his new consort, and finding the resulting combination of the two female forms incredibly alluring. The question is… which of you won control?
The woman turned her snake-like eyes to meet his, they glinted emerald green as her lips twisted into a mocking smile.
“Do not look so worried my Liege,” Hazel mocked as, with bizarre fascination, she examined the red scaled skin now covering her hands. “You’ve got exactly what you wanted - an Ascendant Queen who will pass for a Djinn. Your consort will no longer be the one to question your pedigree. However, if your aim was the complete annihilation of Shevanna you have failed. I sense her still, I can discern such fury in here,” Hazel placed a clenched fist over her heart, “it is a wrath greater than I ever thought possible. She hates you with all of her being… Luckily for us both, her life force is weak. I will have little trouble in subduing Shevanna. You must not concern yourself about this female anymore. From this moment I am your Queen, I will sit by your side, and we will rule this land together, but first, we need to dispose of Rose of the Whyte.”
“Indeed,” Ka felt a surge of admiration for Hazel. He offered her his hand. Perhaps, having a queen will not be such a bad thing… “If you would accompany me to the Alchemy room, with you, I will share my greatest creation.”
“I would find it truly fascinating to see a master Alchemist at work, My Lord,” Hazel took his hand in hers, “Lead on.”
As Ka had ordered, the central bench in the Alchemy room had been set up for brewing potion. A large, gold-embossed, leather-bound copy of the Grimoire lay open beside a small cauldron. Phials, jars and dishes had been carefully arranged beside the rest of the equipment, which included a small mortar and pestle. Besides these, rested the collection of ingredients that El-on-ah had secreted, and Baroque had later discovered at the Frozen Falls.
Ka worked rapidly. His expert hands preparing the ingredients, mixing the venoms from two serpents with that of the Vermilion tree frog. He ground the chalky minerals into a powder and added them to the flask of blue liquid taken from the Frozen Falls.
“One more step,” Ka swirled the purple-hued liquid in the air with pride, relishing the attention his new consort was paying to him. “I have only to add a little heat now…”
Ka placed the distilling flask over the flaming tarstone and watched as the thick, bubbling mixture condensed, forming into a clear, rose-coloured liquid. It had been over a thousand years, and yet instantly Ka recalled its scent. The irony of it still amused him - the potion smelled of Roses.
Hesitating for a second, he recalled the last time he had breathed in the scent of the fractionation venom.
In his mind’s eye, he saw himself on the summit of a snow covered mountain, looking out over the ice-covered tundra of Rhodium as he smashed the phial of poison on the rocks below. The liquid immediately reacting with the ice and forming the lethal gas. He recalled how he cast the Confractio charm and watched as the gas ignited, ripping apart the bodies of the Whytes as a storm of fyre swept across the land, melting away the faces of his enemies as effortlessly as its heat had turned snow to steam.
Ka remembered the rush he’d felt, that great feeling of invincibility. He was unstoppable - a true God. Yet, so focussed had he been on the battle ahead of him, he had failed to consider the possibility that Lord Eldwyn would dare attack him alone, and from the South. I will not make that same mistake again.
Carefully Ka decanted the fractionation venom into a paper-thin Rhodium glass phial, securing it with a small cork stopper.
He raised the flask up until it caught the light, now streaming in through the room’s single round window. The liquid glistened, splitting the sunlight like a prism. Dappled rainbows of colour danced over the walls.
“Is that it?” Hazel words were spoken breathlessly, as if in awe, “It looks so innocuous…”
“And yet,” Ka slipped the delicate glass phial into a small, leather pouch, securing it around his neck, “in unskilled hands it has the power to wipe out every living being. We are almost ready, my Queen. Will you accompany me to address our people?”
“I would be honoured,” Hazel took his arm.
The crowds had been gathering all morning. Ka lived for the adulation of his people, it fed the dragon in his soul, pushing him ever onward towards his ultimate goal. Proudly Ka led Hazel out onto the balcony overlooking the courtyard. Below, thousands of Ascendant and native Ophites and tens of thousand Afreet were lining the courtyard and spilling out into the main streets of the city and beyond.
Gradually, as they became aware of Ka’s presence, the crowd quietened. Ka thought that he was prepared for their response, as his Ophite followers caught sight of his changed appearance, but their gasps of horror unnerved him. He sensed their uncertainty and their suspicion. They expected the old Lord Ka, the one whose image had been displayed on the cover of The Unification for centuries. Instead, they got this. Ka winced as he imagined how he must appear to them. It had taken him weeks to adjust to his new facade. Ka recalled the day of his assimilation and his own horror at the first sight of his reflection in the mirror. How can I convince them of my true identity?
Ka lifted his right arm high above his head, his fingers forming the closed fist of the Ophite Salute.
Slowly one by one, the crowd began to reciprocate, though many were hesitant and the muffled sound of their questioning murmurs grew.
Turning to the crowd of Afreet soldiers and members of his newly assimilated High Council Ka again raised his fist.
The response from the Afreet soldiers was instantaneous. Ten thousand fists pounded on breastplates, rattling the air like a thunderclap and shaking the walls of the city around them. Then, those same fists were thrust skyward in perfect synchronicity, as the shrill cry of the Afreet pierced the ears of all who heard it.
“Ave, Phlegon, Ave ignis Meister.”
Ka felt again the rush of power he craved. The Djinn are mine. Now to win back the hearts and minds of my people…
Stepping forward, Ka lifted both arms, signalling that he was about to speak. Accordingly, the crowd silenced.
“My people, I sense and understand your unease.” Ka moved to the edge of the balcony, resting his hands on the hand-carved, golden, balustrade.
“We, the citizens of the Afterlands; Ascendant, Native or Djinn, should embrace the changes to which you now bear witness. Our peoples have joined together, voluntarily and selflessly, so that we may meet our greatest challenge - to rebuild our world and restore freedom and prosperity for all.”
Ka paused as the crowd tentatively began to cheer and applaud.
“Things are changing,” he continued, “we, our classes and casts are changing. My Queen and I are amongst the first of a new dominant race, half Ascendant, half Djinn. No longer will our value be judged by the colour of our hair, or the manner of our arrival to these lands. Together, we have the power to determine the course of our world. I offer you a new and exciting opportunity, to travel with us, in a new direction. One that is in line with the teachings of the Unification, which is an ideology I know we all hold so close to our hearts. Significant challenges remain, we have battles to fight and a war to win. We will confront these hardships together, and we will triumph. Today I give the power back to you, the people.”
A gold robed figure crept out from the archway of the balcony. Baroque joined Lady Hazel, to stand a few feet behind Lord Ka. His eyes widening as he looked on the enormous, assembled crowd.
“Is he as invincible as he seems?,” Baroque’s voice was hushed, he paused, perhaps sensing Hazel’s hostility, though strangely, it appeared to spur him on. “Worryingly, I am not convinced that the Ophites have the palette to actually swallow that which Lord Ka has, so skilfully, prepared for them. I suspect the same applies to you, Lady Hazel. Tell me, how does it feel to inhabit the body of a freak and be half the person that you once were?”
“Indeed, you are mistaken Lord Baroque,” Hazel’s jaw tightened, “I am twice the being I was, and Ka and I together are invincible. We rule these lands as one, and I advise you to remember that, and if you have any doubt about the loyalty of the Ophites, I suggest you listen to that.”
The crowd roared as Ka went on, his words of unification, victory and hope flooding the piazza.
“For far too long, the Golds of Aurum have reaped the rewards of governance, while our people have borne the cost. Aureus flourished, but we, the people, did not share in its wealth. The Djinn were banished to Erebus - imprisoned for thousands of years without sunlight and forced to inhale the noxious, sulphurous, air that made each breath a mechanism of torture. Ascendant High Councillors prospered, while our people were left segregated, uneducated, and controlled by laws so barbaric that it was deemed as acceptable for thousands of us to lose our lives every year. Too many of our fellow Bloods have died in the mines of Treymaneor, slaving to provide precious ores for the Aurum High Council. Our Magisters protected themselves, neglecting us, their citizens. They grew wealthy and powerful, but their wealth was never our wealth. They enjoyed the freedom to do as they pleased, yet they restricted our freedom. All of this changes today, right here and right now, because this hour is your hour, now is the time for us to take back what is ours.”
The crowd erupted in applause, and the chanting began. “Hail Ka,” “Ave, Phlegon, Ave ignis Meister Phlegon.”
Ka raised his hands to quieten them once more. Turning, he gestured for Hazel to join him. Raising a brow as he caught sight of Lord Baroque. The sight of the Senior Custos unsettled him. What is he doing here? There’s something about that man that I do not trust - and yet we would not be in such a commanding position if it were not for Baroque. Maybe I am becoming a little paranoid…
Ka jerked his head, signalling for Baroque to join him. Then, pulling them both to his side, Ka grasped each of their hands, raising them aloft triumphantly as, once again, he addressed the crowd.
“Today will be remembered as the day when we, the people, became the rulers of these lands. We, the oppressed, the banished and the forgotten people of the Afterlands will be ignored no longer.” Ka paused as he waited for another bout of cheering to subside. “Tomorrow our army will strike a blow for freedom. Tomorrow they will forge an attack on those who wish to control us. Those who want to reinstate the pain and suffering that our people have borne for centuries. You should not doubt that our Afreet army will fight for us because they have suffered with us. Your pain is their pain, your dreams are their dreams, and their success will be our success. We may appear very different, but we all share one vision, one home and one glorious destiny, and I promise you they, and I, will not let you down. From this day forward, the cry of Unification will ring out over our lands, Unification, Unification, Unification…”
The crowd quickly responded, joining the chorus. The square and surrounding area surged with a sea of frenzied, Ophite bodies, their fists thumping the air as the Afreet took to the sky, their shrill war cries echoing around the piazza.
What’s Past is Past
The Great Hall rang out with the sound of absurdly jolly Ferrish music. A massive fire crackled and spat as it burned in the hearth, and the tables overflowed with freshly prepared food. Rose and the other Ascendants sat, much to her dismay, at the largest table at the head of the room.
“I cannot fathom the logic of all this,” Lee shrugged, “why we are sitting here partying when at any second the Afreet could attack? it’s irrational… madness!”
“Lighten up will you,” Ash poured a generous measure of mead into his and Lee’s goblet, “we are saying goodbye to everyone. Lord Dux wanted one last meal together before everyone left. It’s only a slight delay, we’ll be gone by dawn.”
“Unless we are attacked tonight,” Lee said. “I’ve calculated the odds, and they are not insignificant.”
“We talked about that,” said Auriel, “and everyone agreed that the Afreet would be unlikely to attack at night. The temperature is well below zero out there, and the Djinn are not crazy about the cold.”
“Let’s try and enjoy tonight, and be thankful that we still have the opportunity,” Rose, though remaining irritated at Lord Dux’s insistence that they were seated with the Magisters, raised her glass. The faces of Arjan, Sloley, and Elder swam into her mind. “to absent friends…”
“Absent friends…” soberly, everyone at the table toasted their fallen companions.
“I still miss him you know,” Lee said, stroking the rim of his glass. “Life seems so much greyer now. I don’t think I appreciated it’s colour before Sloley brought it into my life.”
“You will again, one day,” said Auriel, “I read somewhere that our losses shape us into the people we are, much more than anything else that happens in our lives. I think losing Sloley has made you a better person.”
“I do not understand your reasoning,” said Lee, “Losing him made me feel only sadness.”
“No Lee, how you feel is not the issue,” Auriel placed her hand over his, “the important thing is that it made you FEEL.”
“Yeah,” Ash winked, “because before Sloley you would have said that experiencing any emotion was illogical or counterproductive. You saw the rest of us as irrational, hysterical, gibbering idiots - now you understand.”
“I still believe emotion is illogical,” said Lee, “to crave the presence of a deceased friend is pointless, creating only pain… except… when I remember Sloley, It is not only pain I feel…”
“I know what you mean,” said Ash, picking up a loganberry and gazing at it thoughtfully, “he was a loveable little critter wasn’t he. Remember how he used to…”
The room quietened as El-on-ah entered, accompanied by Puk, who hovered in the air just above her left shoulder. She attempted to take a seat at one of the tables populated mainly by Twocast Natives.
“These seats are taken,” a large Twocast male stood, barring her way.
A similar thing happened at the next table, and the next.
Rose shook her head. Have these people learned nothing?
Standing, Rose gestured towards the Blood Ascendant.
“El-on-ah, you may join us here, if you wish,” Rose ignored the resulting mutters of disapproval from both Natives and Ascendants alike, “move along will you Ro-eh-na, there is plenty of room next to you.”
“You are mistaken, Lady Rose,” Ro-eh-na shot her a look that left a path of ice in its wake, “Commander Linden will be joining us shortly.”
“Commander Linden will understand,” Rose gestured for her to move along.
“He may well,” Ro-eh-na scowled, “however, I do not.”
“Commander Linden will not be joining us because he is not accompanying us tomorrow,” said Rose, “Linden is to take Command of the evacuation process and will be travelling to Knucker Island with the others. I wished to go alone, but Lord Dux would not agree to that. However, my aim is to take only a few key people with me. I am happy to have you join us Ro-eh-na if that is your wish. However, where Commander Linden is concerned I agree with Lord Dux, he is not yet fit enough to fight a war.”
Ro-eh-na sprang to her feet, her hands grasping her hips, “So this table is reserved for your…”
“This table is for those who will shortly come face to face with an army of Afreet.” Rose’s tone was measured. “Again, the seating arrangements were not entirely to my satisfaction, but Lord Dux insisted.”
“So, that must mean that El-on-ah is to accompany you… are you quite mad?” Ro-eh-na’s eyes widened, “you are going into battle with an Ophite Ascendant who has tried to murder you twice? Rose, you are crazy to put your trust in her, surely you must have learned that by now!”
“Trust is a strange thing,” said Rose, “it has to be tested before it can be earned. However, I have little choice in the matter, the Afreet are creatures of fyre, and fyre can be fought in two ways; with Fyre or with Ice. There are but three Blood Ascendants here with the power to cast fyre; you, Lee and El-on-ah.”
“And ice?” Said Ro-eh-na, “Who here can cast ice?”
“There is only me,” said Rose, “a parting gift from Elder…”
“Then why take Ash and Auriel?”
Rose pondered for a second, Ro-eh-na posed a fitting question. She had, briefly, considered leaving both of them behind but the voices of the four quickly murmured their displeasure, they were adamant - Ash and Auriel must accompany her.
“Ash and Auriel belong with me, they are of my cell. The words of the Sooth were clear - we four should strive together as one,”
Rose’s mouth felt uncomfortably parched. She took a sip of her mead, enjoying it’s honey flavoured sweetness as it warmed and moistened her throat, “I struggled for a long time with the decision whether to include Ash and Auriel. In the end, it was Lord Dux who convinced me. He said it is their destiny to be by my side, as much as facing this battle is mine. They are meant to be with me. When they are with me, I am stronger. Arjan knew that from the very start, he thought that together we would be invincible. I hope with all my heart that he was right.”
Ro-eh-na’s face had softened as she listened to Rose, though she lifted her gaze to glare defiantly at El-on-ah as she approached their table.
Rose smiled as the two women did battle with their eyes. They looked so alike, they could have been sisters, each with identical translucent, pale skin and fiery red hair falling in unruly ringlets around their faces.
“I do not blame you for being suspicious of my motives.” El-on-ah’s eyes locked on to Ro-eh-na’s hostile gaze. “You want to know why I am here? Well, I’ll tell you, I am here because of you Ro-eh-na. You made me see the truth. You forced me to acknowledge the fact that my Leader, the man that I believed in all these years and who I had worshipped like a God, was a fraud. Now I see him for what he is - a man whose beliefs and ideals serve only himself. His words like the Unification told us merely what we wished to hear. To him they were a means to an end. In reality, he believes in nothing but himself. I know now that if Ka is not stopped he will destroy our world and I want to help you halt him.”
Ro-eh-na held her gaze for what seemed an age, then she stood back, pulled out a chair and motioned for El-on-ah to take a seat.