Nikki sat in the gardens of the palace of Valens, focusing on Queen Theora, who was wrapped securely by vines and the branches of a massive willow tree, the oldest tree in the gardens, around which the very palace itself had been built. The tree was sacred to the royal family, and as such, Nikki had thought it well suited to her purposes. The vines and roots withdrew, and Theora emerged naked from their embrace. As she dressed, Nikki examined her with that special sight given only to her kind.
“How do you feel, Majesty?” she asked.
“Very well, thank you, Faer One,” Theora responded, belting her sword about her waist. “I feel stronger than I have in the better part of a year, and I can’t remember the last time I had this much energy.”
Theora shook her head. “None, which is another novelty.”
“Does this mean..?” Theora asked hopefully.
Nikki shook her head. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ve managed to halt the disease for now, and blunt the worst of its effects, but I’m afraid this is the best I can do.”
“A year, at best,” Nikki said. “Then it will return, and you’ll be as you were, if not worse.”
Theora sighed, and Nikki came to her.
“I’m so sorry, Theora...”
Theora shook her head and forced a smile. “No,” she said. “You’ve given me more than I had.” She took Nikki’s hands in her own. “A year is no small thing. It is time for me to put my affairs in order, see to the succession, and spend time with my family.” She reached out and hugged Nikki tight. “I will never be able to thank you enough.”
Nikki said nothing, unable to speak.
Later, as they made their way through the garden, back into the palace, Theora said, “I imagine now you would like to return to Pash, to be with your daughter.”
“I would,” Nikki said, smiling and nodding. “I’ve had no word from her these past couple of weeks, and with all we’ve seen...”
Stories of the crazed mobs of commoners roaming the countryside, slaughtering any with any connection to the royal families, were widespread. The palace had escaped the worst of the riots as it sat nestled between two cliffs, and was difficult to approach. Any mobs who’d tried had been successfully repelled by the guards. The stories of mob violence had diminished of late, but there had been no word from Pash at all since it began.
Theora nodded. “I can put our fastest carriage at your disposal, if you wish, though I know you’ve other means of travel.”
Nikki smiled. “Yes, yet I thank you for it. If it please your Majesty, I’ll be leaving just as soon as I’ve had the chance to say goodbye to your family.”
Theora smiled. “Of course, though I know the girls will miss you terribly.” It was true. Nikki had spent hours with young Mella and her little sister Andora, telling them tales of her adventures -those appropriate for young ears, at least- and sharing the wonders of nature with them.
“Oh, I’ll miss them as well,” Nikki said, smiling. “They’ve put me in mind of Barda when she was a wee child. Proud as I am of the young woman she’s growing into, there are times... well...”
Theora nodded. “I imagine, grown as she is, young Barda still misses her mother. Both of them.”
The mention of Jax brought a sigh from Nikki.
“I know,” Theora said. “I’d expected word of the battle by now.”
Nikki sniffed, fighting back tears. “I’d prefer we not... discuss that now. I’d like to leave the children with a smile.”
Nikki had just finished saying goodbye to the children, complete with promises to visit very soon, when a guard rushed out of the palace, sword above his head and a wild gleam in his eyes. The two royal bodyguards were cut down before they could raise their swords. Theora drew her gun and put a bullet into the mad guard’s head.
“The madness has infected the guards now?” Rathas asked, desperately trying to keep his voice steady.
Theora drew her sword and put herself between her family and the garden path. They could all hear the crazed shouts of more guards approaching. “Nikki?”
“Yes, Majesty,” Nikki answered. She had an arm around each of the girls.
“Can you take Rathas and the girls with you?”
Nikki shook her head, though the queen could not see her. “I don’t know that I could take all three of them. I--”
“I’m staying here,” Rathas said.
“Beloved...” Theora tried to argue with him while still guarding the path. The shouting was getting much closer.
“No time to argue,” he said. “If you are to die here today, you won’t do it alone. Besides, the girls are more important.”
Mella was staring at her parents. “Daddy?” she asked, her voice shaking. “Mummy?”
Rathas knelt before his daughters, wrapping them both in a big hug. “Mummy and I love you very much, my darlings, but we need you to go with Nikki to Pash.” He looked up at Nikki, a silent question in his eyes.
At that moment, maddened guards burst into the garden, howling and brandishing weapons. Theora emptied her gun into them, dropping the leaders. “Nikki!” she shouted, not looking back, “Take them! Now!” She slashed at one of her attackers, and stabbed another. “Mummy loves you, girls, always remember that!” She took out a third of the crazed guards before a fourth stabbed her through the belly.
“Mummy!” Mella screamed, as Andora began crying.
Rathas had just enough time to stand and turn before an axe took his head.
Roots snaked up out of the ground around Nikki and her young charges. Seconds later they were swallowed up by the ground.
Jax sat crosslegged on the floor of her carriage, sending her awareness out from her body, to see what she could see of the land around them. It was difficult, and potentially dangerous, as it required her to maintain a tenuous connection between body and spirit, which could be broken in the wrong circumstances. She was also brushing up against the greater magics, which would put a strain on her system, though hopefully not a life-threatening one, unless her body went into distress while her spirit was out. For that reason, as a precaution, a medic had been assigned to sit with her, despite her protests.
It was vital she did this, for all the risk involved. It had been three days since the army had entered the Kingdom of Yad Haddom, and as many days since they’d seen another living person beside themselves. Initially, they hadn’t been too worried. Towns and villages near the border would have evacuated back to the more densely populated center of the kingdom, leaving their lands empty. The problem was, they were now approaching that populated center, which was proving just as vacant as the hinterlands. There should have been twice, even three times, the number of people those lands normally held. Yet the scouts, upon their return from various central villages and towns, reported vacant houses and shops, along with empty streets. Aside from a few mangy and half-starved animals, Yad Haddom seemed devoid of life.
Jax let her awareness float out and expand, taking in the entirety of the camp. She saw and felt the soldiers at their fires and in their tents, the sentries on duty, the old sergeant sneaking a drop of whisky while he cleaned his gun, the kings in their own carriage... she was aware of all of them simultaneously, and still she opened herself further, searching for any sign of intelligent life beyond their small camp. She was encompassing the entirety of the kingdom now, and still there was nothing. Even to the south, where Jennix had recently annexed the Kingdoms of Otham and Byzan, there were not as many people as Jax would have thought. In desperation, she began to widen her search further, to the north, to her wife and daughter... suddenly there was darkness, and a voice that filled her mind.
“No no no, magician,” the voice taunted. “That would be peeking.” And then she was thrust back down into her body, the shock causing a stab of pain in her chest, that traveled the length of her arm, and was a vise around her heart. It was like the time on the train, after the Messenger, only so much worse. She cried out and collapsed. The medic rushed to her side as the world turned grey at the edges and a throbbing noise filled her ears. Jax tried to speak, to warn him, to tell him of the horror that she experienced, but she felt the prick of a needle in her arm, a rush of euphoria, and then everything went black.
“A heart attack,” Athos said, in answer to Jax’s query, once she was awake and lucid. “You likely would have died, had young Methos not been there.”
Jax grit her teeth. Her body was a mass of aches, and her chest still felt like she’d been kicked by a horse. And she was tired, so very tired, down to her bones, in a way she knew no amount of sleep would cure.
“You are not to do that again,” Athos said, “nor any such magic.”
“But there is something out there,” Jax said. “I think it may have been one of the Harbingers, or perhaps even...”
Both Athos and Tyron made a sign of benediction, one sacred to Aael, meant to ward off evil. “All the more reason for you to avoid trying that again,” Tyron said from his seat at the foot of her bed. “If Azel has set himself against you, or even his Harbingers...” he shook his head.
“But,” Jax said, a ghost of her old grin playing across her lips, “I’m the Sorceress Royale. How am I to earn this fancy carriage you’ve given me if I don’t do magic?”
“First,” Athos said, his face a stern mask, “wipe that smirk off your face. This is no joking matter. You nearly died, Jax!”
Her grin faded, and she looked down.
Tyron lay a gentle hand on her leg, over the covers. “Jax,” he said, “you may be our Sorceress Royale, but you’re also one of our dearest friends.”
“And the woman who bore our son,” Athos said. Jax could see his jaw clenching and unclenching, which she knew was a sign of Athos trying to control his temper. She also knew he only got really angry when he was frightened.
She looked up at them and they blurred as tears filled her eyes. She tried to speak, producing only a choked sob. Tyron slid forward and gathered her in his arms, and she let her head rest on his shoulder, still trying to stem the flow of tears. It was when she felt Athos’ arms go around them both that she began to weep. The two kings held their friend for many long moments, until finally her sobs turned to hitched breaths and a few sniffles. She looked up, and the kings backed away. Tyron reached into a pocket and produced a handkerchief, which Jax used to wipe her eyes and blow her nose.
“Feel better?” Athos asked, smiling. It was slightly forced, as he was still frightened.
“A little,” Jax said. “I’ve been holding that in for a while.”
Athos and Tyron said nothing, indicating that she could continue.
She sighed. “I just...” She looked away. In a very quiet voice, she said, “I’m so old.”
“No,” she said. “I know I have years left to me, that I’m not so old as all that, I know. I mean, I feel old, or, at least, I don’t feel young any more, but it’s not really that.” She shook her head. “It’s... Nikki and Barda...” she sighed and wiped her eyes, which were beginning to tear up again. “I have, what, maybe a few decades with them? At most?” She began to twist the handkerchief in her hands. “Nikki will live forever, and Barda... well, she’ll have hundreds, if not thousands of years ahead of her. Sooner or later, after that much time...” She looked down at her hands. “They’ll just forget me.”
“Jax Edison,” Athos said, scolding, “that is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. Nikki and Barda will never forget you, no matter how long they live.” He laughed, shaking his head. “No one is ever going to forget you, Jax.”
She scowled, not believing him.
Athos came over to stand next to the bed and he looked down at Jax, who was staring at the twisted cloth in her hands. “I’ve known many people in my life, Jax,” he said, “and believe me when I say,” he hooked his finger under her chin, making her look up at him, “that you,” he smiled, “are unforgettable.”
Before anyone could say more, there was a knock at the door of the carriage. They’d been moving the entire time Jax had been out, and throughout her conversation with the kings, yet none had noticed when the carriage stopped. Another knock was followed by a boy calling for the Sorceress Royale.
“The Sorceress Royale is indisposed!” Athos yelled back.
“Majesty,” the boy continued, clearly surprised by the presence of his liege inside the carriage, “forgive me, but we’ve found something... something the Sorceress Royale should see.”
Athos was about to yell something back, but Jax rose from the bed. “No,” she said. “No, I’ll go look.” She put on a fresh shirt and her long coat, moving slowly and stiffly. “I’ll be out in a moment!” she yelled. “Just let me put some damn clothes on!”
“Are you sure?” Tyron asked.
She smiled. “I need to get out of this carriage,” she said, “and I definitely need to get out of this bed, comfortable though it is. Besides, the fresh air will do me good.” She stood up from putting on her boots, pushing at the small of her back and groaning.
“Should we find you a cane?” Athos asked, grinning. His voice was teasing, and he was trying to lighten the mood.
Jax decided to help, and scowled over at him, though it was mostly smirk. “Gods, but I hate you sometimes,” she said.
Athos laughed, put an arm around her shoulder, and kissed her head. “I love you too.” As he moved away, Jax caught his hand and held it tight.
“Thank you,” she said softly. “I really do love you, both of you,” she smiled at Tyron, “so much.”
The kings wrapped her in another hug. “And we you, Jax,” Tyron said, “always.”
Later, as Jax and the Kings exited her carriage, she found herself wishing for the cane Athos had teased her about. As it was, she forced herself to walk across the muddy field with purpose and strength. They were just outside the walls of Queen Jennix’s palace, and she could see what had sent the boy running for her. Xana the Royal Vizier and General Romana had both been crucified, their eyes gouged out and, it appeared at first glance, their tongues removed. A large group of soldiers and camp staff had gathered around, murmuring. As she approached, she heard the murmurs turn to sighs of relief, with more than one seemingly certain that “the Sorceress Royale will sort this out”.
No sooner had Jax arrived at the foot of the wooden structures than Xana and Romana’s bodies raised their heads, eyeless sockets filled with a purple flame. Their mouths opened and they screamed, a wordless shrieking howl that sent nearly everyone scurrying away clutching at their heads and covering their ears. Jax stood still, silently staring up at the screaming corpses, bearing their onslaught. The scream was deafening, and filled her with an icy dread. When they finished, Xana and Romana turned sightless burning eyes toward Jax and were silent.
Athos and Tyron, as well as a few senior officers, returned, looking up at Jennix’s crucified advisors.
“We need to go home,” Tyron said.
Athos nodded. “Yes, I think that’s a very good idea.” He turned to one of the officers and nodded. She saluted and spun about on her heel, shouting orders for everyone to begin preparations to return to Pash. The other officers followed suit, and soon the camp was a bustle of activity, leaving Jax and the kings alone with the bodies.
“What do we do with them?” Tyron whispered. The fact that Xana and Romana were dead, yet clearly staring at Jax, was more than unnerving.
In answer, Jax clenched her fist, her own eyes flashing with a white light. Immediately, the bodies burst into flames. They made no noise, though the light in their eye sockets died away and they slumped against the giant wooden Xs to which they were nailed. Jax grimaced, resisting the urge to massage her chest. Finally, her face glowing in the light of the fire, she forced a thin approximation of her old grin.
“You know,” she said, attempting to match her tone to the grin, “I’m starting to regret not staying in bed.”
Jaxon sat in the central hall of the village, where he, Barda, and every living villager had spent the past few days. When the sun was up, the villagers went about their business, careful to avoid the woods, but all of them made certain to be back in the lodge by sundown. The Sisters had offered the sanctuary of the temple, and many had brought their children and elder relatives there, but most chose to remain in the village with Jaxon and Barda.
It had been three days since the Nightwalkers had arrived, three days since the old chief had gone to fight them, three days since Jaxon had watched him die. Jaxon had tried to talk him out of it, but the older man had simply smiled.
“Aye,” he’d said, “it would make sense for me to stay back, but that’s not the destiny of a Chief.”
Jaxon hadn’t understood.
“It’s the way of the village, lad,” the Chief had said as he sharpened his great war axe. “Every Chief, back to the very founding, has laid down his or her life to defend this place and its people.”
Jaxon had argued that, as Prince, he could take on that role, and since he was super strong and couldn’t be hurt, then no one would have to die.
The Chief had chuckled, shaken his head, and gripped Jaxon’s shoulder. “Sorry, son,” he’d said, “but that’s not the way of it. I appreciate the offer, and I think we both know you’ll have your chance at those monsters, but I have to face them first.”
And so he’d gone to face them. He’d killed a few, but eventually he’d been overwhelmed, and found himself at the mercy of a Nightwalker’s fangs. In the end, he’d begged for death rather than becoming one of the horde of blood drinkers that had descended on the village after the mob had been turned away. Barda had put a bullet in his brain, and Jaxon had launched himself at the Nightwalkers, slaughtering them in an unstoppable fury.
But he hadn’t killed them all. Dawn came, and the survivors retreated to the woods, the bodies of the fallen igniting in the morning sun. At dusk, they emerged from the woods, at double the numbers of the previous night. Jaxon had fought them again, and again he’d held them at bay until the sun rose. They came again when the sun set, and again Jaxon had held them back.
Meanwhile, each night, within the bolted door and shuttered windows of the lodge, Barda sang to the villagers. Her song lifted their spirits, and covered the sounds of carnage, muting the hissing growls of the Nightwalkers, and the horrible noises they made when they died. When Jaxon returned each day at the break of dawn, his spirit heavy with another night of slaughter, she gathered him in her arms and sang for him alone, her songs weaving into his recent memories, blunting their horror and pain, filling him with love and the memory of joy.
Now the sun made its way once again toward the horizon, and already the young prince could hear the chittering taunts of the Nightwalkers, as they crept out from their holes and their shelters, approaching the edge of the village. Jaxon stood, walked out of the hall, and turned to Barda.
“Bar the door,” he said, as he’d done each night since the onslaughts began.
She said nothing, simply nodding, as she had each night. However, this night, unlike the others, she leaned up and kissed him, lightly, on the lips.
He smiled, though it was a small, thin smile, and walked halfway between the lodge and the woods. Barriers and walls had been constructed around the lodge, so the Nightwalkers couldn’t surround it, and had to go through Jaxon to attack it. Each night they damaged the wall, and each day the villagers repaired it. Jaxon stood just beyond the wall, sword in hand, waiting, as he had each day as twilight deepened. Then, almost on a whim, he used the tip of his blade to draw a long line in the dirt directly in front of the opening in the wall. He stood just behind the line, settled into a fighting stance, and made a beckoning motion with his hand. He could hear the Nightwalkers shrieking. They hadn’t liked that. He smiled.
Then the sun was gone, and they were upon him.
The Vanguard emerged from the magical realm enveloping the Secret City, her damage repaired, and much of her enhanced. Myselle and Trav were in similar states of repair, yet the Admiral still favored her leg, had yet to adjust to her missing eye, and Trav would complain of a stiffness in his arm. For all of that, they were well, and would consider themselves content, save for one thing.
“You said Loren was safe and well,” Myselle said to Lyssandra, as they stood on the foredeck of the ship.
“He is,” the Ba’altuuri nodded. “The last I looked upon him, he and your young friend were safe and well in the Factory Republics.”
“But we can’t go to him.”
She shook her head. “I do not believe he is there any longer. My visions suggested he will come to you.”
Myselle grit her teeth. “Well, he’d best come soon. It’s long past his curfew.”
Lyssandra simply smiled and lay a comforting hand on the nervous mother’s shoulder.
Trav’s shout drew the attention of both. “Look sharp!” he called out to his crew. “Ships on approach!”
Myselle took a position at one of the ship’s telescopes, and could see that there was a small fleet headed their way. They were too far off to determine what colors they flew, but only a fool would leave their guard down without being sure.
Her husband was no fool. He had the crew on alert, weapons at the ready, and sent Lyssandra below decks to activate the mysterious magical shielding the Ba’altuuri had installed on his ship. Myselle came to stand next to him.
“Who do you think they are?” she asked.
He shook his head. “I doubt they’re ours. We’re close enough for radio, and they haven’t responded to any of our known codes. Most likely, it’s more of Indovus’ lot.”
“How many ships does he have?” Myselle wondered. “And, more importantly, how did he get them?”
“Factory Republics trade with any who can pay,” Trav said with a shrug. “You think their shipwrights were going to be exclusive to the Legion?” He shook his head. “They were more than happy to build and repair for us and others like us in the old days, despite what they may have promised the Imperium. Some might feel a sense of loyalty toward you and I, but it only takes one Lord Foreman with a hunger for coin to ruin the whole thing.”
She sighed, nodding, and said nothing further.
Soon enough, the ships were in range. There weren’t many, and they flew odd colors: a horned skull in red on black, which was a flag no one had seen before.
“Well,” Myselle said, “they don’t look terribly friendly.”
Before Trav could answer, a volley of cannon fire exploded outward from the approaching ships. If not for their new shields, the Vanguard’s hull would have shattered. As it was, the ship shook mightily, and it was hard for even seasoned sailors to keep their feet.
“Right,” Myselle said. “Let’s see if the new guns work as well.”
Trav shouted the order, and the forward guns let loose a barrage of their own. The lead enemy ship took massive damage to its hull, though it remained in the air. Other ships fired on the sole Legion vessel, and, though it still held, it shook even worse than before. It returned fire, and each of the enemy ships took damage.
“We’d best retreat,” Trav said. “At this rate, we’ll shake apart before they can blast us apart.”
Myselle nodded. Trav was about to give the order to run, when three harpoons on chains, glowing with a purple fire, lashed out from the three lead ships. They couldn’t penetrate the magical shields of the Ba’altuuri, but they were somehow able to latch onto them, and held the Vanguard fast.
“What?!” Myselle roared. “Where’s Lyssandra? Tell her to get these damn things off my--”
“Ahoy, Legion ship!” a cry came from the lead enemy ship.
Myselle looked over, and saw a woman in black standing at the very fore of the deck. Red runes glowed on her armor, and her skin was covered in glowing red tattoos. She didn’t seem to be speaking through anything, but her voice easily carried. As the Vanguard was pulled closer to the other ship, Myselle could see the crew lining the deck. They had the look of the possessed about them, but they were different somehow. Finally, she saw it. They had no eyes, only purple flames in gaping sockets. They opened their mouths and screamed.
When Myselle came to her senses, she was lying on the deck of her ship with her arms over her ears, feeling as though she’d just awoken from the worst nightmare anyone had ever had. She rose slowly to her feet, and saw that the rest of her crew were in a similar state. She also saw that the other ship was nose to nose with hers. She wondered how long she’d been out.
“Ah, hello Admiral,” a voice said behind her. “So glad you’re finally awake. I was getting bored waiting for you, and this thing isn’t as much fun to play with anymore.”
Myselle turned and saw the woman from the other ship, standing less than a foot away from her. She held a glowing crimson sword etched with black runes in one hand, and in the other...
“Oh, gods...” Myselle whispered.
Queen Jennix laughed. “No, Admiral,” she said. “They aren’t even close.” She tossed Lyssandra’s severed head onto the deck. It rolled toward Myselle’s feet, where it looked up at her with sightless eyes, the mouth open in a permanent silent scream. “Now,” the Queen continued, resting the tip of her sword against Trav’s neck, “I’m looking for your Lady Commander. If you could be so kind as to tell me where she is, I’ll be sure not to take too long killing you and your crew.”
Lord Mob led a ragged band through the former imperial lands. He had spread it around that the Legion was unhappy with the recent tithing, and planned to reinstate the old Imperium by force. Any who resisted would be killed, and their children sold into slavery. He was especially proud of this one, as it was infecting all strata of society.
He was having a bit of trouble, though. He was finding himself, and especially his proxies, not as convincing as he’d once been. In fact, he was the only one who had any luck at all lately, and he found himself succeeding less and less. What was worse, he began to lose people from his mob, as his hold over them weakened. That shouldn’t have been possible. He was a Harbinger. His power within his sphere should be absolute.
As he marched his mob across the arid plains of some protectorate or other, he found himself confronted with another obstacle. One of the fabled Legions blocked their path, and they appeared to be led by the Lady Commander herself. There was also something... odd about them. He resolved to try his best. Though his power was meager against the disciplined mind of a soldier, even at the best of times, it was still the most powerful weapon in his arsenal.
“Well, hello there,” he said, striding forward, smiling. “I’m so glad we happened upon you today. Why my friends and I have only just now heard...”
“Save it, Lord Mob,” Lady Maryza said, her voice echoing across the wide empty landscape. “You’ll find no slaves here.”
Lord Mob stepped back. She knew him! With a start, he noticed that her followers were not entirely human, and their true natures sent a chill through him. He’d no idea how this had come to pass, but now was not the time to ponder it. Now it was time to talk his way out of this.
“My Lady,” he said, bowing. He knew his words had little power, but he hoped a bit of charm and courtesy might at least give him time to think of something. “I’d no idea the Legion had begun to recruit from among the higher spheres of existence.”
Lady Maryza laughed. There was a tone in it that was familiar to him. “You mean the Celestia? Yes, most of the Legion were all too happy to open themselves up as vessels for the Divine Host.”
Lord Mob stood still and studied her. “But not you.”
She laughed again. What was it about her laugh? “No,” she said. “Not me. I’m strong enough on my own. To be honest,” she went on, the touch of a conspiratorial tone in her voice, “I’d say I’m a fair bit stronger.” She winked.
The Twins! Suddenly Lord Mob realized what was so familiar about the Lady Maryza’s laugh. But how? If she’d been in their company long enough to acquire their mannerisms, the Twins’ influence should have made her a drunken nymphomaniac by now.
“Boggles the mind, doesn’t it?” Maryza asked, horrifying Lord Mob with the idea that she’d read his thoughts. “After I absorbed them into myself...”
Maryza ignored his outburst, continuing as though uninterrupted. “...I purged their essences, leaving only their energy behind, though I guess a bit of them stayed with me.”
Lord Mob noticed that, as she’d been speaking, the Lady Commander had gotten uncomfortably close to him, and her army had spread out to surround what was left of his mob. “Uhh, well now... I, um, that is...” He was at a loss for words, which given his entire reason for being, was not a good sign.
“Yes, I’m certain,” Maryza said. “However, I don’t really have time to chat. I have much more important things to occupy me, but you’re a loose end I wanted to tie off before I got too involved elsewhere.”
“Now, just-just... hold on...”
She reached out, digging her hand deep into his chest. He screamed. He had never felt pain before, and had not actually believed he was capable of it, but he was pretty sure this was what it felt like. When she removed her hand, she was holding a glowing orb of purple fire.
“How... how...” he sank to his knees. “What...”
“You see,” Maryza said, looking upon the orb in her hand with no small amount of longing, “when I absorbed the Twins, I took all the magic that made them what they were - their energy and their data. Unfortunately, the data was a bit much for my human mind to process, and I had to find a way to purge it from myself before I went mad.” She looked around, then grinned down at him. “I don’t really have the time for that sort of thing now, so it occurred to me that I might be able to separate your energy from your data before I absorbed you.” She held out the orb for him to see. “And look,” she said, “I was right. I took the energy that powered you, but left behind the data that informed you. Of course,” she explained, “the energy was a big part of what provided your form,” she shrugged, “so I used just a small part of it and made a human body to house the data.”
He looked down at himself. “You mean, I’m...”
“A human man,” she said. “Yes. Well, more or less. As I said, I’m pressed for time, and it was a bit of a rush job. But don’t worry,” she told him, “I doubt you’ll be burdened with it for long.” She looked over at his mob. Without his infernal will driving them, they were beginning to regain their faculties. “You can kill him,” she said, smiling, “if you like.”
They were on him in seconds. He didn’t even have time to scream. When they’d finished, one of them looked up, drenched in Lord Mob’s blood.
“Lady Commander,” he said, “what is to become of us? We’ve been walking in thrall to this creature for so long, we...”
“Yes, yes,” Maryza waved her hand impatiently. “I’ll get to you in a moment. But, if you don’t mind, I’ve been waiting quite some time for this.” She took the ball of energy and slowly, so very slowly, as though savoring it, absorbed it into herself. Her head rolled back on her shoulders and she sighed, moaning in an almost sexual ecstasy. “Oh, yes,” she said. “Oh, that’s good. Oh, by all the gods... YES!”
She unleashed a massive burst of energy at that point, which staggered the Celestial Host, and had the unfortunate consequence of vaporizing the recently liberated mob.
Gloriel stepped forward. “Maryza!” she scolded. “You have to be more careful!”
Maryza stumbled slightly, dizzied with the rush of power flowing through her. She grinned at the Celestial who wore her old friend’s face. “Calm down, Huxley,” she said with a laugh. “’s fine. I’m fine.”
“But, those people...”
Maryza made a dismissive gesture. “I said it’s fine, don’t worry about it! Did you see them? They were malnourished, filthy, probably diseased. I did them a favor.” She strutted around, laughing. “Oh, yes! This is just the thing!” She turned back to Gloriel. “We have to find another one!”
Gloriel frowned. “I think that was plenty,” she said. “I think you already have more power than is good for you. At the very least, I’d say it’s enough.”
Maryza glared at her, then smirked, sauntering over with an exaggerated gait. “Oh, would you?” she asked, mocking. “Enough, you say?” She scowled. “Well, I say there’s no such thing as enough. I say that I’m going to find every Harbinger I can and drain them dry, and I say...” she grabbed Gloriel by the throat, and the Celestial was horrified to discover that she couldn’t break free, “I say if you don’t like it, well...” she grinned, licking her lips. “I know what you’re made of, Celestial.” She released her grip. “But come now,” she said, suddenly friendly, “this all serves the greater purpose.” She turned to the gathered Host. “Who wants to join me in ridding this world of all the creatures of the Thrice-Damned One?!”
A rousing cheer was her answer.
She turned to Gloriel again and patted her cheek, just hard enough so she wasn’t quite slapping her. “See, Gloriel? They’re willing to help me. And I’ve decided something,” she grabbed the Celestial by her breastplate and pulled her forward, so their faces were nearly touching.
“You’re either helping me out, or you’re in my way.”