The Aterland Chronicles

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Chapter 9: Phlegon

It was almost an hour since Che and Tu-nek-ta had cautiously assisted Lord Ka from the cubicula. His strength now recovered, Ka stood before them, dressed in the long black robes of a Blood ascendant, and regarded them with an emergence of satisfaction and respect.

El-on-ah bowed her head reverently as she presented him with the potens ring and Ouroboros pin, which were taken from the ruins of the Hydrargyrum ascension basilica in Cynnabar at the end of the Dragon War. Since that time, they had been kept hidden by the Ophites, in readiness for this day. Ka slipped the ring onto his finger as El-on-ah awkwardly attached the pin to his robe.

“El-on-ah?” He said, leaning into her and attempting to catch her scent. He seemed a little confused. “I assume it is you... You look somewhat different from how I remember though it’s remarkable that I can remember anything after being incarcerated in stone for years. You will, of course, have no memory of me... You must have ascended a few times since our last meeting I imagine. How many years has it been?”

She stepped back from him, aware of his eyes on her as they overtly inspected her long slim frame. A feeling of creeping unease seeped through her body.

“Over a thousand years My Lord,” she said.

He raised two thin eyebrows.

“That long?” He caught his breath.

His eyebrows converged into a surprised frown as he pondered on this information. Studying her intently, he chewed on the inside of his cheek then, pursing his lips, his eyes narrowed.

“When Lord Eldwyn perfected his petrification spell,” he said, appearing almost nostalgic. “I knew that the war was lost and that if I were to survive I would have to somehow find a remedy for its effects. As you know, I had some success in contriving a rudimentary sublimation charm, though I had no time to finalise or test it. That was why, as a precaution to the event of my demise in this manner, I left a message for you with the native Ophites. It was to be passed down to you El-on-ah, generation by generation, each time your vapour ascended until one of your incarnations was successful in casting the charm and bringing me back. I chose you because you were the only ascendant that I was confident had the motivation, as well as the ability, to complete and cast the charm. I had, however, expected you to accomplish this much sooner.”

His voice had hardened. El-on-ah felt the hairs on the back of her neck prickle. He paused and seeming to sense her unease, he smiled, though his eyes remained cold. She saw that his teeth were crooked and stained.

“Evidently,” he said, with an unexpectedly approving lift in his voice. “You did eventually manage to obtain the mercurium and successfully cast the charm, or I would remain trapped in my magnificently statuesque, but rather more impotent form.”

El-on-ah nodded a faint and uncertain smile of triumph on her lips.

“Very, impressive my dear El-on-ah,” he said. “It takes a great Alchemist to create and cast a charm such as this, so successfully. However, I am curious as to how you managed to solve, what was my greatest conundrum. How in the name of Phlegon did you manage to acquire the mercurium you needed, without unleashing the Djinn?”

El-on-ah’s smile vanished, her gaze falling to the floor.

“I am afraid my Lord, that despite our precautions, we were unable to contain...”

“What!” The cold blast of his voice turned her blood to ice. “You surely cannot have been so stupid as to release the Djinn?”

Ka spun around, his hand striking her across the face with a blow so powerful that it knocked her off her feet. Tu-nek-ta grabbed hold of Che, who, with a face like thunder, had leapt forward to go to her aid.

Ka glared down at her, a look of incredulity and fury etched on his face.

“Do you have any comprehension of the consequences of what you have done?” he said, spitting out his words like venom. “Djinn cannot be reasoned with. Djinn care only about taking what is not theirs to take; our lands, our bodies and our powers. How can you have been so stupid?”

El-on-ah held a shaking hand to her reddening face.

“I am sorry my Lord. I understand your anger, but the error was unintentional.” Hesitantly she added, “I know that this was not how you had planned it but was it not your ultimate intention to free the Djinn eventually?”

“You imbecile girl” he roared.

The fury in his voice made her flinch.

“You have little, if any, knowledge of my plans.” He said, “I had intended to conquer Hydrargyrum and Aurum. Then from a position of strength I could have negotiated the release of the Djinn in exchange for the services of their Army. I could have offered them something they had always craved, a Kingdom above ground. I had planned to give them Rhodium. Now we have nothing to bargain with. They will merely take it all. You have doomed every one of us to a life of eternal slavery, ruled by the Djinn.”

El-on-ah’s body shook as his tall frame towered threateningly over her. Ka’s demeanour, which she had once thought to be magnificently noble and rebellious, now seemed merely wicked and menacing. His long blood red hair pulled into a tail by her dragons claw clasp, fell almost to his waist, and his eyes, two jet black coals, burned red with fury.

Then, as he looked down at her, his expression changed, his pale, angular features softened and his eyes glinted. A thought seemed to flicker in his mind, lighting his face like a single candle in an abyss of darkness. He offered her his hand. Cautiously, she took it.

“All may not yet be lost El-on-ah,” he said, smiling disconcertingly as he pulled her to her feet. “I may have a solution, but for it to work, we will have much to do. You will need to gather some minerals. There should be ample opportunity for you to do this on our journey. We are to leave for Cynnabar immediately.”

No one challenged Ka’s instructions, though they had not slept for almost two days. They made their way down to the horses in subdued silence. Che hurried to El-on-ah’s side.

“Are you alright My Lady?” he asked as they tended to their mounts.

El-on-ah nodded uneasily.

“I’m fine,” she said, tightening the girth on her horse.

Che lowered his voice.

“This is madness,” he said. “If we go to Cynnabar the Djinn will kill us all.”

El-on-ah dropped the saddle flap and adjusted her stirrups.

“Right,” she said, arching her brows. “Are you going to tell him... or should I?”

Silently they finished packing their belongings, mounted up and reluctantly began their journey along the main roadway back towards the Hydra Pass and the Hydrargyrum capital. El-on-ah knew that the three of them were thinking the same thing that this was going to be a disastrous and suicidal mistake, but no one dared to question Ka.

A few hours after they crossed the border into Hydrargyrum they began riding south towards the capital city of Cynnabar. The terrain changed dramatically, from the ice and snow of Rhodium to the barren, volcanic terrain of Hydrargyrum. There was little to ease the monotony of the landscape, which was broken only by the flaming rivers of lava that periodically intersected the miles of featureless, steaming brimstone.

Small rocks floated and burned in the lava flow, some of them emitted a blue coloured flame as they melted into a blood red liquid. The acrid fumes burned El-on-ah’s throat as she swallowed and the air reeked like putrid eggs.

El-on-ah and the two natives wrapped their cloaks high around their faces. Ka, who did not appear to be bothered by the stench, rode with his head high and his eyes fixed, like a hawk on the distant horizon.

After riding almost without a break for two days, they and their horses were weak and tired. Lord Ka had taken Che’s mount, which meant that Che had to ride with Tu-nek-ta, and although they were both slim framed, the horse was beginning to struggle with the extra weight. Che cursed that they had not thought to bring another and then realised, with sudden clarity that none of them had really expected to need it.

They entered a clearing in between some steaming rocks and a river of slowly flowing lava. Lord Ka pulled up his horse and dismounted. Towards the north of the clearing, there were jagged dark holes in the cliff face; the entrances to a number of large caverns.

“We are about five miles south east of the mines of Treymaneor this will be a good place to gather what we need,” said Ka, pointing at a cluster of rocks. “I’ll need some brimstone, also some rock salt, which you should find in those caverns and some stibnite from which I can extract the antimony. When you have bought these to me, you may rest while I mix up a potion.”

Ka was good to his word, the minerals were as he had indicated, relatively easy to find. Within a few minutes, they had completed their task. Deciding to make use of the shelter of the caves, Tu-nek-ta and Che quickly settled down to rest, in an alcove lined with soft moss.

“Che,” said Tu-nek-ta, pointing anxiously at some jagged shards that looked like the remainder of a nest of large eggs. “Are they what I think they are?”

“Hmmm, well, if what you think they are is the remnants of a clutch of dragon’s eggs, then yes...”

He grinned at the horrified look on Tu-nek-ta’s face.

“I wouldn’t worry about them,” he said, dismissively cavalier in his attitude, “they look old. There haven’t been dragons this close to the city in hundreds of years. So get some rest, I’ve a feeling that we won’t have another chance for a while.”

El-on-ah sorted through the collection of ores and minerals that had been placed on top of a large stone just inside the cave.

“Bring them in here,” said Ka, “ and bring your occultus.”

El-on-ah picked up the equipment and followed him into the adjoining cavern.

Ka had her lay out the equipment and the rest of the materials on a large flat-topped boulder in the centre of the cavern.

“What charm do you intend to brew my Lord?” said El-on-ah moving closer.

She watched him eagerly as he assembled the small cauldron and laid out the rest of the equipment. Ka was considered a master charm brewer and he was renowned for this talent amongst Alchemists throughout the Afterlands. El-on-ah’s talents were in the same area, and she had aspired to be like him since her first year as a novice.

“It is a potion for an ancient charm,” he told her, seemingly enjoying her attention. “It has only been brewed twice before, once by Lord Tollen’s junior alchemist, Lord Mateo, and then by Lord Tollen himself. Unfortunately, it was, as far as I am aware, unsuccessful on both occasions. However, I believe I know why and so I intend to modify it somewhat before I attempt its use. This is far from ideal, but unfortunately, it’s the only option we have, and our one opportunity to gain control of the Djinn before it is too late.”

He rested the cauldron on its small tripod and set a block of tar stone alight beneath it.

“What exactly does the potion do?” El-on-ah asked

Ka stiffened, his expression frozen in concentration. Immediately she sensed his reluctance to share this knowledge with her. After a while, she wondered if he had even heard her question.

Working in silence Ka used the mortar and pestle to grind the mineral ores into a fine powder. Then adding water he began to condense the mixture, until after a few minutes, a concentrated blood red liquid formed and began dripping down into a small phial below the condensing tube.

El-on-ah looked on in uncomfortable silence, watching as he pushed a stopper into the neck of the phial, before placing it into a small pocket hidden within the fold in his robe. A perverse smile etched its way across his features, but this look of self-satisfaction did not last, rapidly morphing into an exasperated grimace as he realised he had forgotten something important. Within seconds, a solution appeared to come to him. Grabbing El-on-ah’s hand, he examined her ring.

“Take it off,” he said curtly. “Take it off! ...I am going to need it.”

“But My Lord” she pleaded, “you cannot leave me without my ring. What good is an ascendant without their ring? I will be powerless…”

“TAKE IT OFF!”

His words were spoken with an expression of such malevolence that El-on-ah had to stifle a shiver. Her hand trembled as, reluctantly, she removed her potens ring and gave it to him.

Slipping off his own ring Ka placed it into his pocket together with the phial of potion. Then with some difficulty, he worked El-on-ah’s slightly smaller version onto his finger. Glancing up fleetingly at El-on-ah’s distraught face, his expression tempered.

“If things go as planned,” he said, his voice reassuring, “I will return this to you. If they do not, then you will have little need for it anyway.”

He looked down at her sullen, questioning face.

“You will have little need for it El-on-ah.” He said, pausing as he clasped her chin roughly between his fingers, “because if I do not succeed, you will be assimilated by the Djinn, ring or no ring.”

Pushing her jaw back as he relinquished his hold on her, he strode towards the opening of the other cave.

“Clear up this mess,” he said, motioning to the charred equipment and remnants of potion congealing in the flask. “Then get some rest. We leave in two hours.”

Three hours later, feeling somewhat refreshed after their short respite, the four of them were cantering at pace along the main Cynnabar road. They made fast progress in their journey towards the city, and within a few hours, they could see its imposing silhouette on the skyline.

The Hydrargyrum capital city of Cynnabar appeared deserted as they approached. Plumes of smoke snaked upwards into the heavy ochre sky, thick with yellow smog from the natural volcanic gases and ash. The once beautiful city, famed for its red domed buildings, brilliant blue lapis lazuli mosaics and delicate gypsum crystal, had been virtually obliterated by fyre. Only the magnificent domed Pyrus, its banners still flying and the shops and dwellings on the east side of the city appeared to be intact.

Lord Ka pulled up his horse, manoeuvring to face the others who were following behind. They had stopped behind an outcrop of rocks at the foot of the Helios Mountains, which overlooked the city of Cynnabar.

“I will go on alone from here,” Ka said, stifling their protests with a decisive wave of his hand. “There is no value in us all putting ourselves in danger. I will take the Pukis with me. If either of us does not return by dawn, then you must assume the worst.”

The three of them looked at each other uneasily. El-on-ah turned back to Ka.

“What do you wish us to do if...” she faltered.

“If... I do not succeed” said Ka “Then you will be in imminent danger and you should leave Hydrargyrum immediately and attempt to warn the High Councils of Aurum and Ferrum. It is imperative that you impress on them their need to prepare for immediate surrender, or for a war that they cannot possibly win.”

Ka gestured to El-on-ah for her to hand over the Pukis. On noticing her morose pout, he patted her hand as he lifted Puk from her.

“I will take good care of him El-on-ah. The Djinn are not likely to harm a Pukis. They have a natural affinity with dragons, both of them being creatures of fyre.”

Wedging Puk between himself and the pommel of his saddle, he swung his horse around towards Cynnabar. The mare danced in anticipation of their departure.

“If I am successful,” said Ka, lifting his reins to steady his mount. “I will send the Pukis back with further instructions. Until then, keep out of sight and get some rest, you look tired.”

Ka drove his heels hard into his horse’s flank. It flinched momentarily before rising to an unsteady gallop along the uneven, stony road toward the capital.

Less than an hour later, Ka entered the southern gate of what remained of the city wall. Earlier he had noticed what he had assumed were Hydrargyrum standards flying from the spires of the Pyrus. Ka could see now that he had been mistaken. The standards had been replaced by gold and red banners with a flaming inverted pentacle at their centre; the banners of Erebus - ensigns of the Djinn.

He slowed his horse to a steady walk as he rode through the blackened, ruined streets of the city. Its hooves strummed out a rhythmic clatter, echoing eerily through the empty streets and announcing his arrival. Almost from the city gates, he was aware that he was being watched. For some time, Ka’s watchful eyes had been detecting movements at the margins of his vision, flickering shadows, and he had also heard the occasional ominous clatter of dislodged stones. Consequently, he was not surprised when, on turning the corner of one of the more intact streets on his approach to the Pyrus, he was confronted by an officer of the Afreet Army.

The soldier’s red scaled skin was clothed in leather and metal armour. Two enormous, bat-like wings could be seen tightly folded beneath his short red cloak. Reptilian eyes regarded him with guarded suspicion as he approached.

Responding to this, Ka raised his hands to his head in an attempt to indicate that he was unarmed. El-on-ah’s potens ring glistened threateningly as it was hit with a shard of afternoon sunlight which broke through the cloud. Balanced on the saddle in front of him, Puk turned his face from the Afreet’s penetrating gaze and buried his muzzle into the thick, black fabric of Lord Ka’s cloak.

When they were a few feet from him, the officer lunged forward, aiming an Afreet fyre spear directly at Lord Ka’s torso. When the officer spoke, his voice was a thundering guttural roar that shook the air around them.

“I am Zelron, prime officer of the Great Afreet Army of Erebus. WHO ARE YOU that dare venture, into the realm of the Djinn?”

Ka attempted to contrive his response to relay a confident air of authority and power. He spoke in a deep, steady tone.

“I am Ka, Lord Alchemist of Hydrargyrum, Blood Ascendant, and Commander of the Ophites. I am the one responsible for your freedom. Were it not for myself and the Ophites, then the seal on Tollen’s gate would remain intact and you and your kind would be rotting still, in the bowels of Erebus.”

Zelron lurched towards them and jabbed the tip of his fyre spear into the centre of Ka’s chest.

“If what you say is true,” said Zelron, with a cynical sneer, “ then what do you hope to gain, from this grave error that you appear to have made?”

Ka was prevented from answering by a loud, rhythmic beating sound that boomed down from the air above them. Another sound joined the first, a piercing, high-pitched screech that froze the blood in his veins. Looking up, Ka saw four-winged Afreet. They turned like great birds in the sky, twisting in mid-air before dropping to the ground beside Zelron. Their huge red wings folded neatly into their shoulder blades as their feet hit the ground.

Ka was surrounded. Summoning all of his resolve, he focussed his eyes unwaveringly on Afreet Commander, Zelron.

“I wish to speak to the Fyre Meister of Erebus.” he said, “I have a proposition to make to him, which could be of great benefit to us both.”

“You wish to speak to Meister Phlegon?” He said incredulously, “you believe you can negotiate with him!”

Ka reeled as if he had been slapped hard in the face. He had not anticipated that Phlegon would still prevail as ruler of Erebus.

Zelron laughed as he saw Ka’s expression, it was a hideous and jarring laugh that resonated unnervingly in the street around them. Ka marvelled at how every sound the Afreet uttered seemed designed to intimidate. His mind was reeling. If Phlegon were alive and in control then, it would, without a doubt, drastically affect his plan and almost certainly reduce its chances of success.

Phlegon had been the Fyre Meister, who had been betrayed and imprisoned by Lord Tollen, an Ascendant Alchemist like himself. Ka thought it unlikely that Phlegon would wish to invest his trust in another. Then he realised with a glimmer of hope that he did not have to convince him for long, only for the smallest quantum of time, just long enough...

Zelron appeared pleased with Ka’s obvious discontent. He smiled, a wide lipless smile, as he removed the tip of the fyre spear from Ka’s chest and beckoned to the other officers.

“The Blood ascendant wishes to speak with Meister Phlegon.” Zelron mocked, “I see no reason to disappoint our guest.”

Zelron waved an arm dismissively as he turned away.

“Take him,” he said.

Obeying without question, the Afreet officers took to their wings. They lifted Ka from his mount and carried him into the air, flying off towards the Pyrus. They did not notice Puk, who, in an attempt to remain hidden, had transformed himself into a tiny green gecko and was now hanging precariously from Ka’s dragon skin belt beneath his cloak.

Within minutes, Ka was dropped unceremoniously from the air and onto the balcony of the parliament building. Two of the Afreet held him tightly by the arms. A third began a body search, but almost at once he jumped back, removing his hand from Ka’s cloak with a roar of pain. Attached to his fingers was the pukis, its tiny wings flapping frantically and his fine, needle sharp teeth buried deep into the flesh of the Afreet.

Grabbing his sword from its sheath, the officer swung it hard, in an attempt to decapitate the little pukis. They danced ridiculously around the balcony, the gruesome lumbering Afreet flailing his sword at the lightening fast Pukis, who ducked and swooped, skilfully avoiding his blows.

“Puk here, to me,” snapped Ka urgently.

The pukis flew immediately to his side as the officer sprang towards them, his eyes flaming as he raised his sword.

“Nerak!” yelled Zelron, charging between them and blocking his attack. “Have you finished searching the prisoner?”

His voice steeled, challenging his officer to rebel. Nerak’s jaw tightened. Angrily sheathing his sword, the Afreet grabbed Ka’s arm and roughly attempted to complete his search.

Ka held his breath as the Afreet’s hands brushed over the concealed pocket in his robe, but Nerak did not discover the two small items hidden within the thick material. He stepped back suddenly.

“Your ring” he demanded, holding out his hand.

Ka slowly put his ringed finger into his mouth. Moistening it with his tongue, he clasped the ring between his teeth and pulled it off his finger. With a mordant smile, he held out the ring, balanced on the tip of his forefinger, and offered it to the officer. Nerak snatched it from him, his face contorted into a revoltingly nefarious grin.

“I will make it my business... My Lord” said Nerak, “to see to it that you never again have the opportunity to take advantage of this little trinket.”

He nodded to the other officers. Grabbing Ka, they dragged him through the doorway and into the hallway of main building.

The Afreet guards escorted them along corridors adorned with highly polished blue lapis and red marble mosaics depicting images of dragons, volcanoes, mines and cities of fyre.

Finally, they were ushered into the grand chamber of the Pyrus, where the Hydrargyrum parliament would ordinarily be sitting.

Ka was beginning to gain confidence, feeling sure that his ruse had been successful and that he had created his intended impression. That he was nothing more, than an arrogant, naïve and very foolish opportunist. However, a tiny flea of doubt niggled at his confidence. Ka knew well of Phlegon, and he was a formidable opponent. Phlegon was ruthless enough to wipe out anyone unwise enough to challenge him. He was powerful enough to rule Erebus for thousands of years with little chance of being freed, and yet still cunning enough to plan for the day when he would walk again in these lands.

The grand chamber was furnished with benches upholstered with red dragon leather. Afreet officers guarded curtained annexes off the main hall where gigantic crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling. As Ka entered, he could hear whimpers and cries of pain coming from the curtained off area. Beads of perspiration speckled his pasty grey forehead, like morning dew on a death cap.

The seating was arranged in a half circle surrounding a raised stage, where the ruling cabinet of Magisters would sit to debate policy.

The chamber reeked of history, musty scents of wax polished oak wood, ink and parchment, merged with the charged, dusty atmosphere of a thousand years of discourse.

The Prime Magister’s throne-like seat at the centre of the stage was occupied, but not by the Prime Magister of Hydrargyrum. Fyre Meister Phlegon sat there, surrounded by Djinn overseers and senior officers of the Afreet. He exhibited an air of blasé that expressed to all who watched that to sit here was his right, his destiny.

By his side was a female Djinn. Like the males, her tall, muscular body was encased in a red scaled skin that glowed with the faint natural phosphorescence of the creatures of Erebus. As with the females of most species, her features were softer and less angular than the males and her figure more rounded. She wore a long gown of fine red Aurum silk, and her body was adorned with a weighty amount of Hydrargyrum jewellery.

Phlegon watched Ka’s approach with barely hidden disdain. Four Afreet officers marched him forward. Zelron signalled them to stop a few feet in front of the Fyre Meister. He greeted Phlegon with a curt bow of his head.

“Ah, Zelron,” said Phlegon, taking a swill of wine from huge a jewel-encrusted goblet. “So this is the Blood ascendant that is to make me an offer that I cannot resist.” He snorted, “I admit that I am intrigued as to what that could possibly be.”

Zelron approached the Fyre Meister, bending close to him. After a few minutes of hushed conversation, he returned to stand stiffly to attention beside Ka.

Phlegon set down his goblet and rose leisurely to his feet, taking a handful of blood nuts from a dish held by the young female. As he walked towards his prisoner, he popped one into his mouth, biting down hard. The shell cracked loudly in his jaws, a trickle of blood red liquid escaped from one corner of his lips. He wiped it away with the back of his hand as he devoured the sweet, putrid flesh of the fruit.

Phlegon towered over everyone in the room and with his muscular frame and long limbs he was an intimidating, menacing giant. Continuing to crack the blood nuts with his teeth, he prowled around Ka like a wolf circling sheep.

Finally, Phlegon stood in front of him. He leaned in so close that Ka could smell the pungent aroma of the blood nuts lingering on his breath. Phlegon’s skull-like features creased into a perverse grin, not a grin of amusement, but rather the expression of an evil child, about to detach the legs from a spider.

“I’ve no doubt that you have heard of me Lord Ka?” He said, not waiting for an answer. “I am the haunting chill that burns like fyre upon your neck, the malevolent master that you will soon be bound to obey.”

His voice was coarse, like wet gravel, and its tone was little more than a whisper. He breathed his words heavily into Ka’s ear.

“I control armies of winged fyre. I can assimilate you in an instant,” he clicked his fingers in the air, “taking all of your knowledge and power for myself... without any fear of resistance.”

He moved back in mocking astonishment, his eyes wide with amusement.

“Yet you stand here before me and offer me an alliance?”

He threw back his head and roared with a laugh so loud and resonant that Ka felt its vibrations deep in his chest. Phlegon’s eyes narrowed as he moved his face to within an inch of Ka’s. So close that they felt the heat of each other’s breath against their skin.

“Perhaps you can explain to me,” said Phlegon “what you think I might gain, from such an arrangement?”

Ka realised that this was his only chance. Unconsciously he held his breath.

“Meister Phlegon,” he said, looking calmly into Phlegon’s unyielding reptilian eyes.

“You are correct in that I am aware of your immense power. Indeed, you are somewhat of a legend to my followers and me. This is why we broke the seal on Tollen’s gate and freed you and your people. We wish for you to take your rightful place in these lands. As Ophites, we have long supported the right of the Djinn to have a kingdom above ground...”

“I am well aware of you Ophites and your absurdly pious beliefs about the Djinn.” Phlegon’s words, dripping heavily with contempt, cut viciously across Ka’s. “The Djinn do not care to be worshipped, only to be served and obeyed and we do not pretend to offer anything in return for this, but your lives.”

Phlegon spat out the remainder of the blood nut shells that he had been eating. The crimson stained gob splattered onto the tip of Ka’s shoe.

“You have nothing I want,” he said “nothing that I cannot take from you. So I ask again, what can you possibly offer me that will be more valuable to me than your assimilation?”

“ Alliance, Meister Phlegon,” Said Ka, his words carefully measured.

“I offer you a union like no other, one of self-sacrifice. It is true what you say, you can take our knowledge, you can take our potens, you can compel us to obey, but you cannot impel our loyalty. If you truly wish to control the Afterlands, then you will need the loyalty of its people or you will forever be at war with them.”

“And you can provide this how?” said Phlegon straightening.

Ka leant forward, a conspiratorial smile on his lips.

“You need a broker, Meister Phlegon,” he said “Someone to negotiate with the councils of Aurum and Ferrum on your behalf, someone that they will recognise. I offer myself for this role; I offer to become one with you. I understand that if an ascendant voluntarily enters into the assimilation process, then their consciousness and identity can remain intact within the host?”

Phlegon’s eyes sparked with fyre.

“Are you seriously asking me to assimilate you and then allow you to co-exist?” His voice exploded “You think I would permit you to parasitise my body!”

The room fell silent, and the air became rapidly charged as everyone waited for the climax of Phlegon’s reaction. Ka took a deep breath. The point of no return had long passed. He knew that he must move now if he were to be able to control the outcome.

“It would not be a parasitic relationship Meister Phlegon.” Ka’s voice did not waver, though his heart pounded in his ears.

As he continued speaking, he quietly removed his ring and the phial of potion from his pocket.

“What I am proposing would be of a more symbiotic nature.” He explained, “I can bring my followers with me. You say that you do not wish to be worshiped and yet you value loyalty in your Afreet. How much easier and more rewarding would it be, if you could rule over these lands without constant war, and with all of its riches remaining intact?”

Pausing, he watched as Phlegon appeared to consider his words. Ka could almost see his mind working. He was confused, just as Ka had intended.

“This is how I can guarantee you that loyalty.” Said Ka, “If when my people looked at you, they saw my image, and heard my voice, then they would serve you as willingly as they serve me now. You and I, we could rule this land together, unchallenged.”

In a seemingly natural gesture, Ka clasped his hands in front of himself as he slipped his potens ring onto his finger. Ka was expecting, even relying on Phlegon’s next move, but even so, the speed of his action took Ka by surprise.

“The Djinn do not share anything!” Phlegon snarled as he flew towards him.

Phlegon’s body exploded instantly into a crucible of fyre which rapidly enveloped Lord Ka. His eyes tightly closed and his body contorted with pain, Ka pulled the stopper from the phial of potion, releasing it into the crucible and fighting to recite the incantation he screamed out the words.

vic...issim aute..m assim..ilatio”.

The energy field from the ring grew until it surrounded the crucible fyre. Merging with Ka’s potion it formed into a glowing red vapour cloud. Ka’s skin burned. He cried out in agony as the crucible fyre forged their two writhing bodies into one being. The pain seared through him, seconds seeming to last for an eternity. The flames turned from red to orange and then to blue before they slowly flickered and died, falling away to reveal a single twisted figure where once there had been two.

This creature was neither Phlegon nor Ka, but a grotesque chimera of the two of them. Phlegon’s long black hair was now streaked blood red. His red-scaled skin remained intact, but the features that lay beneath it had altered and now bore the imprint of the Blood Alchemist. It was as if Ka had donned the skin of the Djinn as easily as he pulled on his robe.

The female Djinn was quick to his side. Tentatively, she placed her hand on his arm.

“Meister Phlegon, what happened?” She asked, sounding confused. “You seem…..”

Her eyes searched his face, the features of which she knew intimately, but now they seemed unfamiliar. Suddenly wary, she backed away from him.

“Do not be concerned about me, Sheva,” he said.

She was somewhat reassured by the familiarity of his voice and his confident use of her pet name. Phlegon was the only one who called her Sheva. She watched him intently as, with a look of surprise, he glanced down at his altered form and let out a harsh and ironic laugh.

“It appears that the assimilation process did not go quite as I had expected Shevanna, but I can assure you that it is still I, Phlegon, who stands before you.”

His voice was relaxed and unmistakably that of Meister Phlegon. However, behind those reptilian eyes, it was Ka who looked out on the scene before him, Ka who meticulously examined each of their reactions and Ka who spoke the words. Ka now embodied the entire essence of Fyre Meister Phlegon.

Ka, this creature, was now the personification of all of Phlegon’s knowledge, all of his power and all of his foul, depraved, wickedness.

Clenching his hands into tight fists, Ka fought to control the emotions that rose up inside his chest, like fyre erupting from the bowels of a long-dead volcano. Hate, anger, loathing, narcissism, vengeance, destruction, arrogance and wrath seethed within him. Ka had become Phlegon, the essence of evil, and he was completely unprepared for the intensity of the malevolence that he now embodied.

Ka sensed the Djinn’s suspicious eyes bearing into him and felt unnervingly vulnerable as he stood before them, in such a bizarrely distorted body. As each soundless moment passed, Ka realised that he had to leave them in no doubt that it was Phlegon who stood before them, and Phlegon who maintained control. Gathering all of his resolve, he strode purposefully over to Zelron, who instinctively stood to attention as he approached. Ka leaned in towards the officer, moving his face forwards until it was within inches of the Afreet’s, and until each of them could see his own reflection in the other’s eyes.

“This Blood ascendant… Lord Ka, who now resides within me,” He said, through clenched jaws, his voice dripping with menace. “He was travelling with three others, a female ascendant and two native Bloods. When you captured him...”

Ka paused for a second, his eyes narrowing. Then his words and Phlegon’s voice boomed out of him in orchestrated fury.

“Why did you not think to check that he was alone?”

Ka found the look of guilt and consternation on Zelron’s face reassuring.

“I... err, he did not,” said Zelron, stumbling over his words. “He was not, as far as we could see, accompanied by anyone else, Fyre Meister.”

“Ah well,” said Ka sneering. “It is indeed obvious that you did not see them, but I do not need to see them to know they are there. I, of course, now know everything that Ka once knew.”

Ka took a blood nut from the bowl, threw it into his mouth and cracked it hard between his jaws.

“The three Bloods have concealed themselves at the foot of the Helios Mountains to the north of the city.” He said as he spat a gobbet of red spittle and broken shell onto the floor. “Take Nerak and his section, and bring them to me. I appear to have a hunger for assimilation today.”

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