Kalil cal Ohra sat on her cathedra, straight and still, hands clasped over the raven-shaped rests. The ruling hall was dim. Light from a few torches flickered and clawed at the curves of the room, like a drowning man trying to find purchase on flotsam. Ten or more bodies lie upon the floor, or leaned up against a pillar here, a tapestry there. Each was mostly bones and dried, rotted flesh, encased in silvered metal with the rearing horse of Ohra upon the breast. Sometimes a puddle of brown or black liquid stained the floor, but hardly enough to account for such death. Kalil’s face, though still as her body, transmogrified in the quivering gloom, serene one moment, scowling rage the next. Only her eyes moved, following the approach of the three for whom she had called, now striding in from the far doorway and down the long gilded carpet, its purple dulled from age. Jeddah, Kemuel, and Othniel studied their surroundings with wary apprehension. Their own gazes lingering on corpses they passed.
“Hold.” Kalil spoke, just above a whisper. The three men, if they had still been men, came to a stop a stag’s leap from the dais and clasped a fist over their unbeating hearts.
“Emira, Lady Kalil cal Ohra,” Kemuel spoke for them first, the highest ranked among them as the keepers of the herd. He was handsome, the paleness of the second life complimenting his shaggy black mane well. The Khinasi nose and cheeks gave him a regal look befitting his station. “We came as soon as we received your summons. What has happened? Are you harmed?”
“Our retainers wait in the courtyard, Emira! Command us!” Jeddah had always been a pleaser, even in life. He made sure to lower his eyes when he spoke, out of excessive courtly manners. Only Othniel seemed distracted, panning his head surreptitiously towards the side entrances, the high steepled ceiling, the erratic shadows of the columns.
Kalil leaned forward in her seat just an inch to address her vassals, to enter ever so subtly into their confidence. “I called you here because I am betrayed, my friends. As we speak, my trust is broken, my most sacred of covenants spited. And long has this festered under my watch.”
“Surely none would dare,” Jeddah said, his voice rising. His scowling face tightened in anger along with the corded muscles of his short frame. “Lady cal Ohra, I can hardly believe such words!”
“If it is so,” said Kemuel, nodding, “the one that commanded these jackals,” he gestured to the bodies upon the floor, “could not have gotten far. Know they will be brought to their fitting punishment.”
Only Othniel did not speak, though he had ceased his wandering view. He wore no armor, and had continued to wear spectacles despite certainly no longer needing them. With his fair hair and eyes he looked more the philosopher than a fief lord. A troubled philosopher indeed, tongue darting across his lips.
“I do not know,” Kalil said, “perhaps my resolve grows weak, but what is a fair punishment? Perhaps I have made some error as liege lord of these lands. Perhaps there was some comeuppance in this turn of the knife. What do you counsel, lords?”
This seemed to take them aback for a moment, almost aghast at her benevolence. Kemuel found his conviction first. “Perish the thought, Emira. These trespassers, whomever they might be, must be made an example. We will hunt them to the ends of Abyrnis, and burn your gift from them with the agony of fire.”
“Pardon me, Milady,” Jeddah said, “but if I might be so bold, you speak foolishness. Should a rider of the tribe betray their chief they are cut open at the belly at best; crucified for the birds to pluck if lucky. Even if you will not do so – out of some misplaced mercy – allow us to seek justice in your stead!”
“And you, Othniel,” Kalil cut in, turning her head only slightly to the right to address the wan lord. “You have been silent on the matter.” The other two looked at Othniel, scowling, as if to urge him to speech.
“Of course, they should be punished. Gravely. Yes. I agree.” He said.
“I see,” Kalil began again in languid tones, relaxing into her chair and crossing her legs. Her grip remained tight on the carved rests. “What if I told you these traitors had turned from Tuana? That they had defied not only me, but HER, in perverse reverence of the Great Ifrits? I’m afraid it wearies me to even consider how to pay an equivalent punishment for such a crime. Can I entrust such creativity to you?”
Jeddah smirked, looking between Kemuel and Othniel as if to create a pact. “Of course, Emira. We can feed them to rats from the inside out. Perhaps bleed them, until they are willing to drink the blood of a fire salamander?”
“Whatever we conceive, rest assured the pain will be a thousand-fold any they have caused. Have you a notion of where the damned swine hides?” Kemuel asked.
“Not far from here, surely,” Kalil said. “In fact, I have someone who may help us find them.”
“Oh?” Othniel gave a little cough.
“Yes.” She turned her head to the door, just to the left of her cathedra. “Deidre, please come here.” There was a brief pause, then an elf appeared in the open door. Her gaunt frame was too spindly for the fine silks in which she was now dressed, her steps hesitant, her posture hunched and pained. Even in the low light, ghostly scars could be seen crisscrossing her flesh at every conceivable angle, remnants of a thousand thousand bleedings for feedings and unspeakably worse. She supported herself by the door frame, clearly afraid to come forth, but Kalil insisted, imparting some mystical gaes in her command.
“Step forward Deidre. No one will harm you, on my honor.”
Deidre took a hesitant step forward, which caused the three men to take their own step back as if compelled by the presence of this frail creature. The elf woman looked upon them with terror, hatred, and revulsion.
“Deidre, would you please tell us what these three have done. Those with the highest honor of protecting the very lifeblood of the Holds? Those whom you and I trusted before ANY save the Prophet?” The torches guttered angrily as Kalil’s temper rose. Deidre’s words were whispers against that cold tempest.
“Cages, Lady. They kept us in cages. Below the keep. Blood, so much blood. My brother, they took him and did things. Terrible things, with spirits of the dead. They called to the Primarch! Defiled their souls. You did that!” She was screaming at them now, her fear forgotten in sobbing hatred, “You did that! Animals! Monsters! You-”
“That is enough, Deidre. You have done well. You may go.”
Stricken from her rage, the elf woman appeared frail and broken once more. She turned and hobbled slowly from the room, Kalil watching sadly before turning back to Kemuel, Jeddah, and Othniel. Any sympathy was dispelled absolutely from her countenance.
“Why?” She said, the word dropping like a heavy stone in the deep silence.
Kemuel stepped forward, his face the crazed mask of a zealot, chin held proud and high. “The Seven will rise and devour this world! I pledge myself to Arizarr, he will free-”
With a minute gurgle his proselytizing was cut short. A thin line appeared upon his neck, thickening slightly as sticky, dead blood welled at the cut. His head tumbled from his shoulders, and Jeddah and Othniel watched in alarm as it decayed a hundred years before it hit the ground with a squelch, joined soon after by the rest of the body. With a start they looked back to Kalil, only one of her fingers lifted from the chair’s rest to indicate her part in the grim spectacle.
“Did you think I would not find out?” She sneered, “That you would conceal such blasphemy forever? I will excise the Seven from my lands if I have to exterminate every single one of my progeny to do it.”
Jeddah stumbled forward, hands turned upward, pleading. “Please, Emira. Please, your mercy. We were misled! Were we not, Othniel?” He glanced back at his shellshocked compatriot. “Give us a chance to show our loyalty. It was not against you we plotted with such creatures but for you! For all our greater glory!”
Kalil pushed herself standing and smirked, but it was the executioner’s. “Where was your sense of mercy earlier, dear Jeddah? When you so forcefully insisted the liege to brook no treason. I found your arguments compelling, no doubt.”
Jeddah’s mouth moved for a time, but no words came out. Finally he regained himself, drawing his sword. “You did this, Kalil. You made us, you knew what we were and you let it all happen. I’ll not be judged by you!” He charged, and Othniel heard a sound like cracking crab shell as a delicate, pale hand ripped through the back of Jeddah’s armor. Jeddah began to decay and most of his flesh dissipated in a cloud of brown-black dust, a small smear of it depositing on Kalil’s cheek as she passed by the slumping corpse. Othniel held his ground, but made no move to defend himself. The Emira was terrible now, her canines elongated to razor sharpness, cheeks flushed in the rush of the hunt. He stood stock still as she stalked around him, coming up close behind his ear.
“I’m sorry,” he whimpered.
Kalil was inches away; had she breath he would have felt it on his skin. “I know you are, but it is too late for that.” He thought that would be the end of him, but she continued. Her cadence slowed by those deadly fangs, in a husky whisper that reminded him of an owl’s wings on the wind. “Fly, Othniel. Should you find even one of my kindred innocent of these crimes, I will spare you all. But if you cannot, tell them I wish a showing worthy of their lineage. It has been so long since their Emira rode on the hunt, and they shall stand sore charged at the vengeance that flies with me tonight. Now, get you hence in peace.”
Othniel was suddenly aware he was alone. He swung about drunkenly, stumbling and searching for a blow that never came, before collecting himself and running out the doors from which he entered, hollering for his entourage to flee. Kalil watched him go, and drifted into memory as she waited to commence the evening’s sport.
“You would let him go? After what he did? To me? To us?”
Kalil balled her fists. The blue-orange light of the Flames of Ariya lent a glow to flesh pallored by a death deferred. If she could, she would have chosen to feel sick, a gorge in her throat to match the boundless disgust. A vertigo at the sudden shifting of her beliefs and loyalties. But she felt nothing, as always. Just the layered depths of anger that threatened to overwhelm her, to drown her every moment since…
Since Lucien. Lucien had done this. Lucien whom she trusted and for whom she had cared. And now Tuana, the Prophet, her love, her master, had let him walk away. His eternal existence was a small price to pay. Too small. Did he have to drink the blood of the living to subsist? Did he feel vitae singing to him from the necks of his friends, lulling him to sleep, only to awaken to unforgivable crimes? How quickly her relief had turned to horror in those first minutes of rebirth. The architect of which now stalked Cerillia unchecked.
“He believes you to be dead, fed to the Flames. He will trouble you no longer.” Tuana looked sad and tired. Even the flames could not repair a decade of hard fought victories and losses etched on that beautiful, worn face. But Kalil was not interested in repairing this rift. Not this time. Destruction had always been the chieftain’s art, and it was an art she now wielded well.
“You must have seen this all, Tuana. You must have known. And yet you let it all happen. Is this what you wanted?”
“I do not see all-”
“Stop. You can see what’s coming after this too, can’t you? Can’t you?” Her voice was rising. “I am a monster now, my love! Do you understand that? You should – I should throw myself into the flames while there is time.”
“You will not,” Tuana said. More certain this time, perhaps imperious, perhaps simply scared. “It is as it must be, my dearest Kalil. I am so, so sorry, you have no idea, but I know you are strong enough. You will endure.”
“Endure at what cost? And to how many?” Kalil shook her head, “You misjudge me; there is no one so implacable. It has only gotten worse: the hungers, the bloodlust. People will die of this choice you make. I can feel it now, I know it and I am no seer like you. If you will not end me, or allow me to end myself… then I will leave.”
“I know,” was all Tuana said, tears in her eyes. Even the beast viced around Kalil’s soul could not prevent her from wanting to wipe those crystal drops away and comfort her, but concurrently she hated them with a passion that blazed like Chalos.
“Some few fools will likely follow me, hopefully far from where I can do harm. And that will be on you, on me, on us both.”
“Don’t. I know you must be the Prophet before a woman, but you won’t spite me with it as I leave. Goodbye, Milady. I hope you realize what you have done.”
Kalil had turned and walked away. It was the last time she had seen the Prophet, and the last thing she had heard her say:
“I promise you, I do.”
Wulfric held Kalil’s hand between his own. The bodies of her house guard were slumped and shattered about the floor, flesh rotting to its proper age in mere seconds. Their souls had been sold – or perhaps she had fooled herself, and they never had souls to begin with after their recreation – but she still felt some small regret at the loss. They had been companions for centuries, and decades before that. Loyalty was not an emotion burned away by undeath. Nor, of course, was contempt: to think the Seven dared to tread in her demesne. That Ashkul’Ren had thought to fool her, was likely taking advantage of the Dark Flame, from which Kalil had only barely rescued her pet paladin.
Ah, Wulfric. He had chosen to stay after his recovery, had helped her rather than return to his friends. To him, his mistakes were such that they required individual atonement, away from his companions. In pursuit of which he planned to take control of the very kingdom Kalil had built and use it as a sword against impossible odds arrayed against him. He’d rush headlong into his fate as if he could bully it into submission. She had tried to tell him to defy his destiny, but he would hear none of the doctrinal arguments he had studied and she had heard firsthand. She insisted – better to stay here, with her, until his friends returned; clean out the Holds. Was he risking the very core of himself for Cerillia, his friends…her? Despite the brazen lunacy of it all, and her grave annoyance, Kalil for the first time in so very long felt almost alive.
“You can be more than your curse, Emira. You shall always have me to lean on should you need help in fighting that side of yourself. Such is my duty and oath. But I have other duties as well, that call me away for a time.”
The arguments were now over. She saw little chance of changing Wulfric’s mind, and he wouldn’t have been half the man he was were such a thing so easy. So she asked a question to which she already knew the answer.
“Are you sure you know what you are doing, Wulfric Valnir?”
“I promise you, I do.”