Sheets of gold lay flat beneath the glass floor made of cut limestone from the purest white sand off the western shorelines of the Old World. The rich glow prominently illuminated the hundreds of thousands of assorted tile that formed colorful mosaics of ancient lords crowned and garbed in royal fashion; monstrous beasts of fire and water ushering great destruction; and stalwart gods, hairless and pale with pink undertones, hiding among the onyx clouds.
Two arcades of marble columns paralleled both sides of the barrel vaulted throne room from the portal to the ambulatory where beneath the crystal chandelier lay the gilded cathedra carved from the strongest whistling thorn shrubs of the Emerald Forests long before a years-long drought seized the land and a foul wind uprooted them. Engraved in the capital bells of these columns was a circle of twelve stars that enclosed a thirteenth central star, and indecipherable runes of the dead language of the vampires ran alongside the arches.
In the shadows of the transepts were halls filled with decaying icons of fierce warriors armed with sword and shield, penitent monks of humble dispositions, and even young virgins covered in prayer shawls; but nothing could escape the darkness except for when the priests would light the candelabras and place vigil lamps in all the sconces.
Wine-colored drapes majestically fell between the tapestries hung on the eastern wall where three doors once stood before the ancient kings sealed off the chapels after strangers occupied them during the wars of the Old World to claim sanctuary and pray to their heathen gods; such desecration led the holy men to ceremonially cut off those chambers now poisoned with wicked spirits in an effort to confine them. Except for only a few preternatural happenings, such as a woman having gone mad after witnessing the alleged menstruation of the great goddess statues, no omens ever came from these imprisoned specters.
Two burning candles and a chalice filled with strong drink sat on either edge of the cream, silk lace draped over the altar stone erected at the base of the throne steps; and down those same steps came a graceful woman in a pair of crystal shoes with leather straps snuggly spiraled up her firm, olive tone legs. Her luscious body hid behind a billowing, linen, high-neck dress handspun from the flax of the Old World and ornamented with dazzling beads that webbed passed the soft leather ivory belt hung loosely on her hips to the fringes that brushed against her fleshy thighs.
Nothing covered her slender arms but a pair of thin, silver bracelets dangling at her wrists and reflecting her wide, shimmering earrings. A circlet of fine silver, forming two wolves that met with a center ruby gemstone, wrapped around her long, ebony hair, dyed with henna, that fell to her waist in long, cascading locks; all of which complemented the dark kohl that accentuated her almond-shaped eyes and deep pupils and the red ochre that stained her full lips and high cheeks. She had even glossed her nails, but her fingers remained nude except for a silver signet ring on her left hand.
Five, strapping young men fully covered in hoods and double-breasted, raven-colored, moiré cassocks cinctured with full-grain leather belts bearing a wolf insignia marched proudly out of the vestibule and through the nave, one of whom carrying a silver platter with a polished, dome top. None of the glabrescent and castrated novitiates dared to approach the altar and incur the great wraths of which the ecclesiastics had warned them should they offer strange worship to the gods, so they halted at the crossing and waited for the bewitching matriarch to invite them. The echoes of her gentle stride amplified her dark presence so that the subordinates prostrated themselves until she stood before them, the echoes ceased, and she ordered them to rise and remove their dusky moccasins embroidered with an X of two arrows on the vamp.
“That is the royal crest of the House of Sagittae, not the house of my fathers,” she said with contempt, as they kicked off their soft-soled shoes clotted with dirt. “You will not ever defile this sanctuary again with those vile rags lest I use your blood to purge the walls. Have you understood your queen, Gentlemen?”
All of them bowed penitently and swore vows to uphold the house and throne of their empress till world’s end. Then the leader genuflected on one knee with his head hung low and his arms held high and offered the polished serving dish as an oblation. “We have found your prince, my queen,” he reverently whispered, as she gingerly reached for the oval finial and removed the domical top to expose a severed head, bruised and scarred with long strands of blood-soaked, deep-brown hair and coroneted with an olive wreath. She handed the lid to one of the partisans without drawing away her lustful gaze from the abhorrent visage and lifted the head off the plate to more closely inspect all the minutiae and nuances.
“The head of our once undying warrior now in the palms of my hands,” she declared triumphantly, but then the fire in her chestnut eyes burned out and turned hollow as her nefarious smile metamorphosed to a scowl full of gnashing teeth. She flushed with anger and hurled the decapitated head over the men with a trail of blood and tissue streaming out the neck followed by a succession of crimson splatter as it tumbled down the nave. “You foolish pigs! This day you have brought shame upon my house and throne twofold!”
“We have brought you the head of your prince, Goddess,” the leader retorted, sharing puzzled glances with his reticent comrades. “What do you mean by this, that we have brought shame upon your house and throne? Did we not afflict ourselves with knives to stem our lust and yield ourselves to your house and throne? And moreover here we have brought you the man adequate to stem your own lust, but you are unsatisfied. For what, Goddess?”
“The prince you have sought is not here,” she hissed with flaring nostrils and tingling nerves; her face turned a darker shade of red as her heart pounded with fury and angst. “That is not the man I sent you to fetch!”
The leader stood erect and stared boldly into the queen’s eyes. “We traveled to a dangerous place where your great kings of old were laid to rest after they suffered the trials—to a place where you said we would find your prince, and we have brought him here before you this day. That man is the man that we swore to find for you, and there is not another like him.”
“You dare defy me?” she screamed with malice. “You will not speak out of place!” She stretched forth her arm and levitated the gallant leader whose body sprawled and stiffened as the other four men prostrated themselves in fear. The chief eunuch could not even speak, as a malevolent force slowly compressed his throat; beads of sweat blurred his vision and his skin turned pale blue as he hovered several feet off the ground. “And you will not fail me again.” With a deadly frequency she telekinetically calcified his soft tissue till he was nothing more than a living statue lying in a mound of salt that cascaded off his fossilized body.
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.”
Mountainous crags stretched along the outskirts of the city of Belial; the riverbeds ran nearly dry, and only a few tributary waterfalls remained to conceal the rock shelters hollowed in the base of the cliff. The sharp outcroppings and ballistic trajectories of debris had over many years made the steep slopes almost impassable; so no man or woman ever tried to scale the mountainside to overlook the desolate canyon full of nothing but bloodthirsty thieves, ravenous wolves, and the vultures to feed on the carrion.
However, one man did endure the vertical trek and stood alone at the highest peak of the cliff, dressed in a cotton, low-collar shirt; a smoky, single-breasted waistcoat; a white linen cravat; a charcoal, double-breasted frockcoat that covered the top half of his trousers held by leather straps; and a lavender rose boutonniere pinned to his right lapel. A cool wind brushed dirt through his feathery, silver hair that reached his neckline; and mud caked his jet black, laced ankle boots.
The wool lining of his dark, sheepskin gauntlets warmly cushioned his hands—one reaching into his front waistcoat pocket to check his brass, stem-wind, hunter-case watch chained through a buttonhole and the other gripping a steel sword with only half a blade and the ricasso in which the two letters D and A were engraved. He closed the pocket watch whose cover was engraved with the name NERO, tucked it back in his waistcoat, and knelt on one knee before a small fieldstone bearing ancient runes along the edges and in the center the inscription DUKE; then he firmly shoved the broken sword up to the cross-guard into the dry soil as a funerary gift.
“I’m sorry, Duke,” Nero said softly, “but I couldn’t find the other half.” He glanced at the billowing, viridian clouds enclosing around the distant city as a light mist drizzled across the canyon, followed by a bolt of lightning and a roll of thunder. “It hasn’t been the same without you; the city hasn’t been the same without you—something about the water and the air. Already six months have passed, and so much has changed . . . and yet nothing has; and the storms are growing. This was not the future you had for me, and this was not the future I had for you. Do the gods hear our prayers? Do the angels carry them? Do the demons steal them? Do the people offer them? If your spirit has crossed that great chasm, then send down the guardians of this city. Something is coming—I can feel it, but we need more time; we need divine providence. Otherwise, I fear that this imminent disturbance might just destroy this place for good.”