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A HEAD FOR A HARLOT
The four men prostrated their heads to the floor, covered in salt, and trembled with stifled prayers as the queen stood like stone with hollow eyes and a soul burning with rage; but the beads of sweat on her forehead soon evaporated, the bulging veins in her neck relaxed, and her clenched fists loosened. Her breathing stabilized to a soft rhythm and her heart to a tender beat. She commanded the men to rise to their feet once again and to dust off themselves of the mineral compounds that clung to their robes.
“You know better than to test me,” she calmly reproached. “I want that head removed from my sanctuary and placed in one of the chapels down the west hall. Then I want you to return to the lands of our great kings and finish the assignment I gave you, or the council will seal your judgment in blood. Now bring me the head of my prince!” And she lifted up her arms, emitting a shock wave that hurled the four men and the decapitated head across the cathedral in a cyclone of rock-strewn debris from the statue of their leader broken into several chunks scattered on the floor. “Heed me!”
One of the subordinates reached for the silver platter while another grabbed the head and tentatively laid it down and covered it. The four of them scurried down the west hall and vanished into the abysmal darkness; soon the echoes of their footsteps were swallowed out of the presence of their malicious queen. Then the young woman retreated to her throne, but shortly a faint voice disrupted her thoughts, calling her name. “Nereza.” She lifted her eyes to see an elderly man of small stature, dressed in a tattered, dark auburn cassock, shuffling towards her with a walking cane made of ash wood.
“Oh Nereza, why?” he kept wheezing through his shaggy beard. “Why have you remained here so long and idle while these men hunt your enemies in a war they cannot win? You expect them to find treasures that not even you can obtain in spite of your rigorous training in the dark shamanic arts.”
“I am a queen, and you will honor me like one, Matthias,” she growled. “I have submitted to the council and have remained here since the time of the Old World. I have heeded the sages and obeyed my masters, and you stand there accusing your queen of idle hands? You required this of me!”
“Times are different now, Nereza, and a queen cannot draw back to her throne when her people are dying at the hands of this man. The prophecies of old are beginning to come to fruition in these final days, and we are the ones to usher in the new age. The time is nigh when we will fully reveal ourselves to the world and subdue it with a grand army of our king.”
“The vampires are not my people, and their king is dead.”
“But they are still allies of the Disciples, and we must respect their decision. The oracles foretold of the days when the king would return, and the council believes that those days are upon us now. If the Houses are divided, then he might not manifest.”
“The Houses do not exist anymore, Matthias! We are nothing but a disjointed band of incompetent vampires and deluded sorcerers! Is this really the grand army that the dead king foresaw, or are all these prophecies just the drivel of brainwashed hermits?”
“Nereza! Hold your tongue! You will not slander our elders!”
“And you will not challenge me in my own house!” and with a flick of her wrist she summoned a gyrating portal of caliginous smog out of which leaped a canine of black fire whose features were all hidden save its alabaster fangs and piercing, milky eyes; the salivating beast cocked its head back with a clamorous roar and then charged after Matthias as the tip of its tail left a faint path of smoke and embers in the air.
The wolfish demon opened wide its steel jaws, exhaling more smoke through its flaring nostrils and revealing a thick, salivating tongue and three rows of teeth sunk deep in its hard palate. The wicked spawn lunged at Matthias with its forepaws fully stretched and its nails protracted; but the somnolent man shifted his weight off his cane and struck the beast across the muzzle with uncanny precision and force so that the fiend tumbled across the floor, whimpered as the smoke and flames dissipated, and let out a final groan with its tongue hung loosely out of its unclamped jaws. Matthias let out a deep sigh as if short of breath and then gently eased his weight back onto the cane.
“Do not test me, Nereza,” he spoke with command. “Remember it was I who taught you the summons, and it was I who taught you never to evoke a tutelary spirit; the gods will be wroth now that I have killed one of the guardians. Never again, my queen; you will learn to restrain your powers, or I will restrain them for you.”
A gleam of fear shot across her eyes; she blinked a few times and then turned her gaze toward one of the portraits. “Leave me, Matthias,” she said with defiance. “You have exhausted your welcome in my father’s house.”
“I am your father now—“
“A surrogate father,” she interrupted.
“—and this is my house; and you will heed my words if you are to remain in my house. Just think of it—a queen without a palace, left to herself in the streets like some common beggar.”
“You would banish me to live among the wolves?”
“Once upon a time you fell in love with a wolf.”
“No! Do not speak of this, Matthias. I will not listen to this.”
“Never mind it then. There are more pressing matters at hand, and you need my help; and we need the help of the vampires as do they need ours.”
“We don’t need their help, Matthias! We amassed the greatest powers even before the Arcanite Wars, and no man or demon has ever rivaled us since.”
“You do not know the legends, Nereza! You were not there in the time of the Old World when Aria’s Wall fell and the ark was taken!” Matthias growled, as two throbbing veins crawled alongside his neck, but he soon gathered his repose. “You are both ignorant and rash, Nereza; you do not know of the storm—the pain and torment that I endured of that storm.” Tears welled in his eyes, and he sniffled a couple of times; then he softly wiped his face with his sleeve and exhaled.
“You never told me all the legends, did you, Matthias?” she asked after a long moment of silence. “What happened to my people in Aria?”
Matthias shook his head and coughed into the back of his hand. “Never mind it. We must act quickly. I know that there is unfinished business you have left to conduct with this other man, but I need you to keep focus—as a sorceress, as a queen, and as my daughter. What have you done with Sirius?”
“Sirius? He has been imprisoned for nearly ten years; you know this.”
“Good. I had hoped that nothing had changed; otherwise, I would not know where to find him. Nereza, he must be released.”
“What? But Matthias, he is a traitor.”
“That allegation is pending.”
“The council chose his fate, and he will carry out his punishment as they have decided. For what purpose and to what end would this be—freeing a mad shaman convicted of treason and murder?”
“He was wrongly convicted and he can accomplish more than you—or the council—may know. I knew Sirius from the Old World and have in private researched his case, and there are no records of any sufficient evidence to convict this man of the crimes of which the council accused him.”
“Even so, this is outside of my jurisdiction, Matthias. I cannot release him without the authority granted to me from the council.”
“I know, and I will seek out their consent; but for respect of your crown, I wanted to inquire of you first, my queen. Also, you should know that I do not trust the vampires; they share a notorious history of deceit and betrayal, and they will doubtlessly cross us before the end.”
“Then why did the sages ever agree to this alliance? We cannot advance with conspirators hiding in the shadows!”
“The vampires provide leverage, Nereza; with their powers subdued, we can commence this final war. If we appease the gods, then they will endow us with conquest; and the vampires will ultimately submit.”
“I am not fit to be queen if supreme power necessitates this risk.”
“All power does.”
“If there are traitors among us, let it be neither you nor I.”
“Granted, in my heart of hearts.”
“I trust you, Matthias.”
“And only I.”