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Standing on the parapet of his winter castle, Grand Duke Davlos, a wide smile only somewhat obscured by the light reflecting off the jewels adorning his flattened fangs, surveyed his surroundings. “This is,” he exclaimed, spreading his arms, as if to engulf the scene before him, “A vast and glorious domain.”

His secretary, Rombir, and his consort, the Duchess Clarvita, nodded and mirrored his grin, but their eyes were more for each other. A few steps behind, Davlos’ favorite concubine Astrada, her eyes cast submissively towards her feet, watched from the corner of her eye, a look of amusement playing across her delicate features. The domain was vast and glorious. Despite the ever-constant light mist that never appeared to fade or to thicken, they could observe the richness of the populous land.

That it was enormous was beyond question, for unlike the countless worlds it served, the horizon stretched as far as could be seen. There was no curvature to obscure the distance, only the individual visual sharpness of the one looking. This place with its many sentient species and cultures was special. It was purgatory; the place set between the world of the living and heaven or hell.

This was where the dead waited to be escorted to their ultimate destination. In purgatory two gigantic discs, one of intense brightness providing the illusion of constant daylight and another far darker, constantly pulsing with the shadowed colors of flame, dominated the sky. These were not discs, but circular portals, portals that could be seen, unchanged and unchanging, across the eternal distances.

Here, the dead waited for what might be moments or what might be eons for the terrifying creatures from one or the other portals to gather them to their ultimate destination. Devil or angel, demon or spirit of light, those about to be taken trembled and screamed in terror. The others who could only see their horrific responses did their utmost to escape the scene, cringing as they moved away, their eyes wide and their faces pale. The trembling, pleading, and frightened screams of horror made it clear in their final anguished throes those who transported them, whether angel or demon, were hideous in their aspect.

Souls of those seeking atonement having died in their own worlds awaited their allotted time, lived healthy in reanimated versions of their former bodies. In purgatory, their existence was as real to them as the one they left behind. These made up most of purgatory’s population, countless beyond imagining.

What might be more surprising were the many living who also inhabited purgatory. These, or their ancestors, had come through the various passages existing between there and their multitudinous worlds. This occurred over the eons as worlds came and went within their particular universes. Throughout time, souls, alive and dead, from countless worlds, universes. and dimensions found their way to purgatory. Most came after living out their days in their own world, but many of the living had found their way in through a passage and many more were born and lived their entire lives there.

The Grand Duke Davlos was a living being. His ancestors had entered through a passageway along with countless others and had formed a large and powerful Duchy over which Davlos now ruled.

In protecting the borders of his domain, Davlos also preserved the distant reaches of purgatory from being overrun by those who would seek to expand their dominions. He held in check the power seekers who would cross the deserts and deep forests and enormous and impassable swamps where there were many domains ripe for conquest.

Davlos was more than satisfied to rule his domain and fight his internal wars with minimal expansion. Many nearby were already conquered by Davlos’ people or by equally warlike and allied species from more ancient and vanished worlds. Over eons under Davlos and his progenitors, a firm but fragile truce had been established and maintained.

The populous of Davlos’ dominions, both living and dead while fierce and warlike by nature, in their vast numbers respected their ruler’s truce. The beings from heaven and hell rarely came among them. Lives, especially with Davlos’ species, were long, death even longer. When the living in purgatory died through misadventure, they returned physically unchanged to a familiar location where they would begin seeking atonement.

Those experiencing their first life could on very rare occasions fall victim to illness. More often they died violently. The atoners were free from all diseases. Deaths sometimes occurred among the atoners, but always through violence. They would reanimate in a familiar location and their atonement continue.

Astrada may have been Davlos favorite concubine, but he had many. These concubines were reputed for their timeless beauty, their loving nature and their sexual prowess. Stolen as adolescent girls from several related worlds, most looking very much like earthly humans, a look quite popular among a wide variety of human and non-human species they would seize and carried off to the slave masters’ world where they were trained as courtesans and sexual slaves. Scientists there did what they needed to guarantee these girls a delicate beauty and to prepare them surgically to provide sexual pleasure for those from a score of different worlds and species. Once complete, they would categorize and sell them to the highest bidders, or to a favorite customer such as Grand Duke Davlos. They had abducted Astrada and her twin Telastra from their home world as adolescents.

The slavers often frequented purgatory with their wares. It was the choicest location to find the widest array of customers. That is where they brought Astrada, her twin Telastra, and other girls because that is where they would get the best price. Astrada and her sister exhibited a rare delicate beauty and received many bids as they stood naked on the chill stone of the slave market stand. Grand Duke Davlos was one of the biggest buyers that day. Besides the twins, he purchased twelve other girls. Some for himself and some to reward his friends or as benefits to keep those closest and most loyal to him, close and loyal.

Although none could immediately detect it in her manner, Astrada differed from the other of Davlos’ newly acquired concubines, even her twin. Davlos’ beneficiaries who received his bond and a free hand among the concubines preferred Astrada’s sister to the others. They would have sought out Astrada, but she was careful and did her best to stay out of sight when they were around. Under their gaze she would grimace, making a cold and unpleasant expression to dissuade them. Sometimes it worked.

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