Beast I am, young one. Your eyes see these writhing tentacles, floating through the empty curtain. But are your eyes open? This cold and darkness are my companions. This world is my own. I swim its currents, fly through this ancient, dry air. Can you hear my rumble, SunRider? Can you hear my call? I am here, in the black. My dreams are full with your face and deeds. Your footsteps change my currents. Your scent lingers with the promise of wars to come. Hero is written in your blood—or monster. Awaken Metal-Wrist. Come to me, and we shall trade words. Come within my twisting grasp so we may bring end to what must be. Find me, SunRider, and let me tell you the truth of your bracer. Prepare yourself, for I shall extinguish your flame.
CHAPTER ONE: The Rot Within —Fear overwhelmed them, and the Gods pushed themselves to fabricate. Energy was molded in ways unfamiliar to the universe. The mold: a method. Methods to kill other Gods. They would not find themselves attacked in their sleep, vulnerable like unto Abealon. No, they would guard their backs and lash at any attempt to destroy them. Thus, paranoia set, a virus spreading from God to God. Creations were abandoned, leaving the heavens in darkness. As this occurred, Miza-Tirith sat upon his throne and laughed, watching the fratricide commence.-- -Domolov, the Three-Fingered Cleric’s Historic Book of Speculative Deity Theology, page 43,901
Wahala shrieked in the necromantic language, forcing physical energy to manifest through the power of her words. “Spita muî-mudah!” Six soldiers—their armor the color of twilight—howled as their leg bones splintered and folded like hinges. Wahala gasped, falling against a pillar the width of a wagon.
A slap to the cheek sent Wahala sprawling, her jaw going numb. Mal’Bal, in all his golden-bodied splendor, loomed over her, sweat coating his head, the only organic part to his titanic body. His large feet fractured the dainty blue tiles decorating the floor. He scowled, using his arm to block broadsword attacks from three men. He kicked them back and flicked his wrist, launching a scythe down the corridor. It buried itself into the chest of a tall officer who’d been sending wave-after-wave of soldiers against the cult’s pressing attack. With quick practiced word, Mal’Bal liquefied his left arm. Gold lines, like calligraphy trails in the air, snapped forward and forced their way into the mouths, ears, and noses of the three recovering soldiers. With a flick of his arm, their heads burst like melons, staining the pillars. His arm returned to normal.
Panian soldiers littered the long corridor like fallen leaves in an Autumn forest. Theirs were not the only bodies. Dark-robed cult members sprawled in their own blood, like mutilated crows with clipped wings. Mal’Bal’s advanced force, which had pushed through Pania’s defenses to enter the city’s most sacred chamber, lay wasted with not a single survivor. Only Mal’Bal, Booxa, and Wahala herself still lived to continue the fight in the heart of the citadel. In the far distance, past many chambers and walls, the faint echo of war rumbled like an earthquake.
“YOU DO NOT USE YOUR NECROMANCY WITHOUT CONSENT!” Mal’Bal roared into Wahala’s face, his eyes pinpricks of uncontrolled fury. The madness clouding his mind since he’d first donned the All-Face mask at the beginning of his campaign had given way to the clarity of battle-rage. Before Wahala could respond, Booxa’s slimy voice cried from behind a pillar on the other side of the corridor. “The lead general, my Lord!” The rat-like Booxa crouched low to the ground, cowering in his robes. The black garments, far too big for him, made him look like a child; although Wahala guessed him to be in his forties. The only gold on his body were his toes and fingers, simple digit replacements, nothing large or extravagant. He was a coward, unwilling to ritualize anything of significance. What a terrible choice, Wahala thought. Of all cult members loyal to Mal’Bal, he’d chosen the most annoying and aggravating to be his second-in-command. Wahala had a feeling Mal’Bal had made the decision purely to anger her.
At the end of the corridor, twilight-colored soldiers amassed into ranks, forming walls of armor. They shuffled and bounced on their heels as dogs did, pulling on leashes before a great hunt. Behind them, a red-suited man with a beard to his chest brandished a sword and shouted commands. The dozens of soldiers synonymously raised loaded crossbows, aiming them at Wahala and Mal’Bal. Booxa yelped and crouched lower behind his pillar, arms over his head. Wahala dove for cover. Mal’Bal scowled and pushed next to her at the last second. A volley of hissing bolts clattered throughout the hallway, sticking to every surface.
“Why do you hide?” Wahala asked, hoping her words wouldn’t aggravate her master—she still had to maintain her role of humbled servant. If the slightest stench of treachery emanated from her, she would be tortured as she had before. “Will you not activate your bracer to protect your face?”
Mal’Bal grunted, eyes narrowed in concentration, mind elsewhere. From the edge of her perception, Wahala could hear Pania’s general commanding the bowmen to reload. It was the wrong time for her to focus on anything else but the immediate conflict, yet Wahala couldn’t help her obsessive nature over her master’s state of being. She hated him, and her hate drove her to seek any chance of weakness she could find. Too bad the Lord of the Cult of the Depraved was near infallible. Yet now: a glimmer of chance. Wahala knew why he hid beside her, instead of facing the crossbow bolts head-on. The Lich-Lord had battled non-stop for four days without break nor sleep. His energy—along with Wahala’s—ran low—too low to activate his bracer. At least he had enough to maintain his golems. Truly, could one still call him mortal? He’d gone to a place Wahala nor any other could follow. He was a creator, the closest to being classified a God. And by the replacement of his body, Mal’Bal had re-created himself, denouncing the organic existence granted to him. Wahala knew they both would soon have nothing left to give. Their limbs shook and a hollowness not from hunger, but exhaustion clawed their stomachs. And standing in their way to controlling Pania: a final wave of soldiers. The ones outside, fighting in the courtyards and beyond—they could be left for the crows. The decisive battle determining control of the city was here.
The difficulty with Pania was the Lenovan city was a target far different from any others they’d attacked. Heavily fortified. Outer walls thirty-meters thick and many times taller. An uncrackable stone in a flat world. Whomever had created such a structure must have disassembled an entire mountain to obtain enough material to stack the walls.
Beyond Pania’s circular wall, a hive-shaped dome rose like a gargantuan stone egg deposited by the planet itself. Its peak exposed the upper-half of an embedded, enormous sphere, rotating like an eye gazing skywards. Pania’s strange architecture reflected its uniqueness. It was Lenova’s prime city of invention, engineering, and science. In addition, it was the home of one of the most important Lenovan Houses: House Regilus. Wahala had seen the banners, tattered and burned, torn from the walls and trod upon. It depicted a wild dog, head split open to reveal a book. Wisdom is Might was the motto. Yet wisdom had not granted Pania enough strength to stop Mal’Bal.
With the city so valuable, Lenova’s king had finally reacted to the cult’s campaign. A royal army drew closer, pinching them from the rear, doing all it could to merge with Pania’s already powerful defenses and corner them against stone walls. If Mal’Bal did not take the city, he would lose all he had worked for. The royal army was desperate. Too much knowledge could be stolen if Pania fell. And if it did, Mal’Bal’s line of destruction would stretch closer to Lenova’s capital of Lyria.
Mal’Bal jumped from beside Wahala and crossed to the other side of the corridor, hiding behind the pillar ahead of Booxa. Another wave of bolts trailed behind him, two striking his golden body and one grazing his organic ear. Wahala’s heart jumped in excitement. Almost. Her master had almost died. And if he had? What would she do? She had an answer, of course. She would play the terrified woman, surrendering to Pania’s forces. She would be interrogated, imprisoned, beat—but she could handle it. She would show them her scars, her mutilated body. Blame it all on the Lich. She would find a way to escape and take what remained of the cult into retreat, perhaps bargaining with Lenova’s king. She frowned, her gaze finding Booxa’s thin form. He’d have to die for the fact the sniveling ingrate groveled at Mal’Bal’s feet every chance he got.
Pania’s general called for concentric waves of bolts to be fired, leaving Mal’Bal with no way to dash away from his pillar, trapping him. The air was heavy-laden with the smell of iron and salt, still and hot. It thrummed with the promise of imminent death. It made it hard for Wahala to breathe. She chanced a quick peek around her pillar and ducked back. A split-second longer and a dozen bolts would have impaled her eye. With their last arrows spent, the soldiers dropped their crossbows.
“Come forth, Lenovans!” Mal’Bal roared. “Do you fear what my hands shall do to you? Face me up close!”
The soldiers adjusted in place. Mal’Bal spoke truth. Some looked to their general. “You leave me no choice, lich!” the bearded Panian leader called. “You have finally done it. You have pushed me to use her. May the Gods have mercy on us all. Witness to what lengths a Lenovan shall go to defend his home!” The general rushed to an inconspicuous tapestry, ripping the cloth from the wall and tearing old bits of mortar in the process. Beyond was a barred door. A hidden passage. What were Pania’s forces doing?
“Your resolve is weak.” Mal’Bal taunted, attempting to goad them to him. Up close he knew he could win any fight. “You sense your doom, cornered in your inner sanctum!” He peeked from around his pillar.
The general took a set of keys from under his metal collar. Sweat poured from the man’s face. Wahala’s gut told her to run. “No lich. It is us who have guided you here. You… you will see.” With a jangle, the door was unlocked, revealing a wet, dark, circular tunnel. The soldiers moved away from the passage. Wahala gripped at her pillar, holding her breath. The Panians had planned to lure her and her master here?
The general pulled loose an old cowbell from a satchel at his waist. It was red with rust and cracked. He shook the instrument vigorously and the sharp clang of the clapper echoed, the sound pouring into the hole. A summon. A sigh of wind responded back, blowing into the hallway and carrying with it a hollow groan. The general visibly gulped. “It has been some time… Fell Professor of Sciences.”
Wahala frowned. The words spoken held fearful reverence. A professor? Why summon a man of the scroll into the battle? She looked to Mal’Bal. Her master also frowned. The soldiers hunched closer together. The hallway quieted. Ominous.
It came from a distance: a wet clicking from deep within the walls, a strange beastly sound, half-gurgle, half chuckle. A sliding thump. Clicking once more. Kli-kli-kli-kli-kli-kli-kli. Swoop-thump. Kli-kli-kli-kli. A chill danced along Wahala’s spine. What sort of unearthly beast made such a noise? The general and his men scattered, running behind the thick pillars at the opposite end of the hall.
It pushed through from the hole in the wall, like a jelly from a mold. Wahala froze in horror. A four-meter-tall leech arched into a standing position. The creature was thick, its bulbous pink and yellow body bulging at twice the width and height of a man. Sores, scabs, and large pustules the size of an extended human hand covered its slime-coated skin. Ribboned shreds of clothing hung across the body and to where two extremely long and skinny arms came forward and back, dragging the monstrosity across the hallway. Hands far too large in comparison to the scrawny limbs they were attached to flexed powerful tendons. Long-nailed digits clawed furrows into the stone floor. Hundreds of purple veins, twisted and complicated like tree roots, extended from its sides, resembling frills or antennae. They waved in the air, tasting the odor of battle. Yet the worst feature by far, forcing an uncontrollable tremor through Wahala, was the woman’s face, stretched over a skull-shaped head at the top of the beast. The facial skin was pierced by dozens of hooks tied to strings, pulled back tightly, distorting the woman’s features. The mouth was a gaping oval cut, full of broken misshapen teeth, the nose a split open nub, and the eyes—bleeding pus-filled sockets. The general and his soldiers were silent.
“Kli-kli-kli-kli.” The Professor of Sciences gurgled, unknown liquids pouring from its strained mouth. It went still, pausing in the middle of the hallway, trying to decide which direction to go. Making up its mind, it turned—heading to Wahala and Mal’Bal. Terror saturated Wahala’s form, leaving her feeling drunken. Moving forward the beast hesitated in front of the many mounds of dead bodies, casualties of the hallway battle. One of its arms shot out at a frightening speed and plucked a cult member. The form wiggled and shrieked in horror, lifted into the air. The man had been pretending to be dead. A strange, sweet smell emanated from the leech body; a predatory, excited smell. Taking the cult member’s head between its hands, the creature compressed its palms. With an explosion of blood and bone, it dropped the corpse and dragged itself forward again.
Wahala shook in place, unable to tear her gaze away. She had seen many monsters in the Kingdom of Rot, some unique, some hardly recognizable. The thought of Lenova—a land of green and sunlight—holding such…abominations unbalanced her. Booxa lay pressed against his pillar, a choking cough coming from his opened mouth. He looked both ready to cry and pass out. Mal’Bal though, Mal’Bal actually smiled. The leader of the cult stepped from behind his pillar, grabbing a scythe from near his foot. Wahala looked at him with awe and a begrudging level of respect.
“It has been some time since I’ve fought something other than a man.” the Lich-Lord spoke. He spun his scythe over one hand, switched to the other, and crouched. “It seems the fastest way to finish this battle is to go through you.” The Professor of Sciences clacked her broken teeth and the sweet smell filling the air grew stronger. It knuckle-dragged itself forward. “Scriiiiiiiiiiiiii!”
“FOR DEATH!” Mal’Bal roared back, charging. Rolling beneath a long, extended arm, Mal’Bal swept into the center of the leech body: a bad move. He’d intended to cut open the Professor’s belly, but before he could do so the beast flopped on top of him, its weight shaking the hallway. It writhed and bounced, trying to squash Mal’Bal. It’s body-fell upon him over and over, but Mal’Bal wouldn’t flatten. His gold form held strong against the weight of the beast. Confused, the Professor relented and slid back, gurgling. Mal’Bal—laughing—pushed himself up. He opened his mouth to speak but was backhanded by one of the long arms. The creature howled in pain. Mal’Bal tore through the air, breaking through a pillar and crashing against a wall. The arm the Professor had used hung in two, like a broken twig. Pus and blood leaked over the light-blue floor tiles. Mal’Bal’s incredible weight was an unexpected factor the creature hadn’t anticipated.
Standing, Mal’Bal spit blood from his cut lip. He walked forward, moving considerably slower.
“Meniarra was a wondrous teacher.” the general’s wavering voice called from far away. “A real savant in the study of life and the anatomy of the strange and bizarre. They say she was one of the greatest professors employed by the College of Pania. Beautiful too, so they say. Many a man had asked her hand in marriage.”
Wahala could see a few of the Panians peering from around their hiding places. They perspired and shook with fear. A wild look filmed their eyes. They themselves were unsure of what they had unleashed. The beast shrieked, the stretched face crying toward the ceiling in agony. The call was either from injury or because a part of her remembered the past. Mal’Bal picked his dropped scythe and readied himself.
“They say she’d dabbled in strange sciences too complex for others to understand. They say she ran experiments on animals and on herself. Not too long after, she went missing. Years went by without a clue to her disappearance. One day a map-maker exploring forgotten rooms came across a secret passage, a connection point to a network of tunnels running between the walls and sublevels of the city. They led to many forgotten places, chambers shut away for centuries. Under command to explore the passages, I was first to come across her. We were only able to identify Meniarra by the bits of clothing still stuck to her form. It was either her, or the beast that had killed her. She tore apart over two score of my men before we barred the secret passages, locking her away in her dark confinement. The civilians don’t know of her. Only the governor, myself, my men—and the ones she has killed. So, Lich, I recommend you pray for a swift end.”
Meniarra charged her target, her body a battering ram of force. Mal’Bal danced away, his body sliding to the side. The monster broke through a pillar, showering rubble across the room. Her thick tail lashed out, hitting a falling rock. The chunk struck Mal’Bal’s shoulder, sending him twisting back. Wahala was astounded. For all the effort she had put in trying to kill her master, would this monstrosity do the job for her?
The Professor twisted over a column, its body surging and sucking against the solid surface. It pushed away, launching itself at Mal’Bal. With a roar, Mal’Bal cut a line across the air with his scythe, lashing through a thick layer of pustules on Meniarra’s stomach. Pus and white acidic liquids splashed the walls. The beast howled, bringing a fist down onto Mal’Bal’s chest. The fist, large as Mal’Bal’s torso, pistoned once more, denting his side. Mal’Bal swore in rage and kicked up, his powerful legs striking Meniarra’s cut belly. More blood and gore ruptured. She reared back, shrieking.
Sliding backward, Meniarra’s good arm rubbed at her tortured, spread face. Her blue and purple fingers, each the thickness of a man’s arm, pulled at the hooks piercing her skin. What almost sounded like an inhuman sob escaped her. Halfway to crying, the noise transitioned into a macabre chuckle and her arm came down, pounding against the floor tiles.
The creature swept its one good limb through the bodies on the ground, scattering them. Picking a soldier’s corpse, the root-like veins spread like frills from its sides washing over the dead skin, finding purchase and piercing into flesh. The veins swelled, drinking greedily from the body, which shriveled before their eyes. Meniarra tossed the husk aside and a groan of pleasure escaped her throat. Without warning, she hurtled toward Mal’Bal.
Mal’Bal tried to dodge back, but Meniarra reached him far too quickly. Her one good arm grabbed his leg. She whipped the ground with his body, hitting him against the floor over and over. Mal’Bal clawed at her hand, trying to pull himself free. Using all his might, he unclasped the thumb. He fell, back striking the tiles, and dove for his dropped scythe. Meniarra surged above him, her veins jabbing at his body. Not recognizing what Mal’Bal was made of, she continued to try and find purchase, but the barbed tips of her veins only ricocheted against gold. Little pings rang out each time she struck. Mal’Bal shouted in triumph, standing and punching her body with vigor, taking advantage of their proximity. He must have done some damage, for Wahala could hear what sounded like rib-bones breaking. The Professor roared and swiped with its arm, its unsupported body falling forward. The Lich-Lord ducked, swinging the scythe over his head to cut the appendage. The blade bit deep into the wrist, splitting tendon and bone. Meniarra howled and smashed her head against Mal’Bal’s, sending them both staggering away from each other. Mal’Bal hissed and spun away, blood flowing from his face. He fell to the ground, dazed. The Professor’s body writhed wildly, both its mutilated arms flapping uselessly. “Kli! Kli! Kli!”
Dark blood—almost black—sprayed the hallway. The beast twisted on the floor. The soldiers and the general shouted, panicking. Mal’Bal laughed, sitting with his hands on his knees, mouth and nose bleeding profusely. “IS THAT IT? ARE YOU DONE?” He shouted the words at the monster, no ounce of fear to him.
With a twisting roll, the Professor pulled itself upright. It tried grabbing at its perforated belly and its caved-in chest, but with both arms useless, couldn’t. It moaned in agony, no longer attempting to attack. It was too hurt to continue, perhaps dying. With gurgling groans, it dragged itself back toward the hole in the wall, it’s ruined limbs barely able to function. It left a thick sodden trail of blood on the tiles.
“No!” the general shouted, jumping from behind his pillar. “No! No! No! Kill this bastard now!”
Meniarra squeezed through the tight passage in the wall and was gone, leaving behind her sweet stench. Soldiers lined up, forming rows, drawing blades. The general, red-faced, shouted orders, his voice hoarse with strain. Mal’Bal looked exhausted. For all his bravado, he had nothing left to give. Wahala had no time to process what she had witnessed. The battle against the Panians was about to resume. Forgetting the reprimand for using necromancy, she parted her lips to say a new spell, her mind leaning toward one which would dislocate knuckles. Her words would be jarred together awkwardly, her vocabulary in the ancient tongue limited. If she spoke one phrase incorrectly, chances were high she could annunciate a command severing her own tendons or bring a pillar on top of her. Yet before the first word left her lips, she sagged, her lungs overworking. She had no energy. If she continued with the dark magic, forcing it, it would kill her. She could do nothing, no fight remained in her weakened body.
The silver stripes—scars from Mal’Bal’s torture after finding she had ritualized her heart—glinted in the light thrown by the white panel-shaped gems on the curved ceiling. How had the Panians created such light? Pania’s technological achievements were advances in science beyond Wahala’s comprehension. A wave of bolts whizzed by, snapping and clattering against the walls and the ground. The soldiers had fired the few bolts of ammunition they’d dared reach forward and scavenge. Booxa, still cream-white from fear of the Professor, peered around his pillar to watch. A bolt cut his cheek. With a cry, he fell back and huddled, cursing Lenova. The soldiers formed a wall of spears and swords, standing so close they made a solid mass. They marched in unison. This is it, Wahala thought. They would be slaughtered by the Panians.
The Lich laid down, back touching the floor and his head resting against a pillar. Sweat poured from his organic head and his cheeks flushed red. His mouth moved but Wahala couldn’t make out the necromantic words he used.
Mal’Bal sagged within himself, his massive figure caving-in. His eyes closed and for a second, Wahala thought he’d passed out. In morbid fascination, she bore witness to Mal’Bal’s final gambit. Gold pooled away from Mal’Bal, forming a stretching puddle around him. His skin and inorganic muscle melted away. The Apex gems jointing the edges of his limbs clacked, hitting the ground. His entire body went from solid to liquid—metal organs turning into yellow waterfalls—revealing what was beneath: a black, rotted, and emaciated thing—a sliver of what could be the core outline of a human body. Gold roiled away from it, revealing shriveled, wrinkled meat-wrapped bones, like a mummified corpse cut into segments. There were no feet or hands. It was a putrid remnant—an idea of what a corpse should look like. Only Mal’Bal’s head resembled living human flesh, attached to a surprisingly thin spine. Lines of veins and arteries connected all the bits, pulsing with evil life. A heart, large and purple, beat and pushed blood into the body-parts. The dark sticks wiggled feebly in subconscious movement, tasting freedom from golden imprisonment.
Wahala’s mouth hung open in horror, her eyes bulging. She wanted to vomit, to study him in fascination, but most of all—she wanted to take advantage. Here was the opportunity to kill the man she hated! If Meniarra couldn’t, Wahala could.
She stood without thought and took a step forward, mesmerized. She dove backward as a spear hissed through the air to her exposed form. No! She yelled curses at the Panian soldiers. Look at him! The chance! Possibly her only moment! In desperation, she clutched her one scythe and gave a quick look at Booxa. He was bowed in fear and did not see her. She threw the weapon. By a mere hairsbreadth, it missed Mal’Bal’s head, striking the pillar above and bouncing away. She howled and beat her fists against the tiled floor.
The puddle of gold around Mal’Bal moved and Wahala froze. The atmosphere took on a dark taste. The smell of sweat and blood grew sharper, more distinguished, as if fermenting, turning alcoholic. At the other end of the hall, the red-suited general stopped giving commands, pausing his words. The soldiers stopped their march. They could all sense it.
The puddle of gold writhed to life, splitting into a spiderweb of sapient lines too numerous to count. They twisted and banded around each other, conjoining and separating like a million snakes battling for dominance. With a flurry, they shot around the pillar, along the walls, swimming across the ceiling and floor, all heading toward the defensive wall of soldiers. The men shrieked in horror and jabbed their spears at the yellow lines. Useless. Within seconds, the golden ribbons swarmed them, launching from every direction. The ends of the lines ballooned, enveloping men’s heads. Shields and weapons tumbled from loose hands. Twilight-armored soldiers ran into each other, spasmed on the ground, and clawed at their covered faces. The golden masks pulsed once, and the bodies dropped lifelessly, leaving only the general and two others to swing blades at the incoming liquid-metal. It was no use—swords could not block the attack. Within a split second, the general was alone.
The bearded man’s eyes were bloodshot with fear and he stumbled back, falling to the ground with a clatter. “No! No!” He batted away at the air. “No!” He gave one last gasp and was cocooned by gold. The yellow wrap pulsed twice. When it unfolded and pulled away, returning to Mal’Bal’s mummified corpse, it left an outpouring of blood and crushed red armor.
Wahala fell back, dizzy, and closed her eyes. She rested until her ears picked the sound of his heavy footfall. She was shocked to see his weakened state. Mal’Bal staggered drunkenly, his face sagging with want of sleep. From the end of the hall they’d come from, forms could be heard running. Fearing the worst, Wahala stood and readied herself for a final battle. But instead of more Panian soldiers, in marched four Ventri led by Portious, his head encased in a metal helm covered his cheeks and nose. Two curved ram’s horns came from either side of his helmet. He was hiding his injury again, embarrassed. None of the Ventri had their bracers in use. Like Mal’Bal and Wahala, they’d fought non-stop for four days, using all their energy.
“Lord,” Portious gasped, “we have taken the courtyard and the barracks! As we speak, our men close the gates to the city. But your golems, Lord, they fell apart! Every one of them!” Wahala’s breath caught in her throat. Mal’Bal waved him back, his posture loose. “N—needed more power.”
Wahala shook her head, understanding his words. He’d sacrificed his creations to finish off the soldiers. He’d emptied the bank—invested everything he had in the explosive necromantic feat. Mal’Bal had reached his limit. Wahala wondered of the Golden Puppet and if it had survived. She hadn’t seen the creature in over a week.
Portious continued, accepting the news. His portly body shuffled in discomfort. “The city is ours… but we’ve lost two Ventri in the process. Now we can lick our wounds and refortify ourselves. Our timing is lucky—the Royal army has appeared on the Eastern horizon. I doubt they will attack today. There are far too many wounded Panians they must attend to. But they will strike at us and we shall use Pania’s own defenses against them. I have commanded the front gate to be guarded and am at this moment dealing with the prisoners of war myself. I have enforced absolute control and obedience.”
Mal’Bal snarled, his exhaustion stealing the edge from his menace. “You seem to find it easy to take command of my men. Do you see it fit to rule in my stead? How quick power goes to your head, Portious. It’s good there’s a means for it to escape through the hole at the top, right? A convenient hatch on the ceiling where all your thoughts of grandeur can dissipate? Tell me the scar has sealed and healed? I did not think the skin would grow back.”
Portious absently grabbed at his helmet, face fighting for control of his emotions. Wahala almost thought she spotted simmering rage. “Lord, no! I meant no disrespect. All control is yours!”
Mal’Bal chuckled and waved a hand to the other three Ventri. “Go. Care for the cult and establish order. Portious, you stay with us.” The three assigned Ventri nodded and left. Portious approached Wahala, standing at her side and shuffling awkwardly.
“Come.” Mal’Bal wheezed, hobbling to the end of the hallway. Wahala, Booxa, and Portious followed, stealing glances at one another. Mal’Bal clicked a finger to Booxa. The scrawny cult member perked up. “Yes, glorious leader!”
Mal’Bal pointed to the secret tunnel where Meniarra had retreated. “Make sure the passage gets sealed. I don’t know if the beast lives, but I will not allow it to cause havoc among the ranks. Learn more of these secret passages and report your findings directly to me.”
Booxa visibly swallowed, looking to the round tunnel, anticipating the monster to burst back out and attack him. “Y—yes lord.”
They continued to walk to the end of the hall, where the door the Panian general had so desperately defended awaited. Nearing the wooden double doors, Mal’Bal pushed through, revealing Pania’s highest chamber: the Observatorium. It was the large room at the top of the citadel which from a distance resembled a bulging eye. A perfect sphere, large enough a town square could have snuggly fit inside. They were halfway up, bombarded by the grating sounds of heavy movement. The round room rotated endlessly. Wahala staggered with vertigo. Her footing found solid ground on the black bridge extending to the floating center of the sphere. The spinning walls made her feel light-headed. Far above, a massive lens the size of a house revealed Lenova’s early morning sky. The clouds looked a lot closer—magnified. At the end of the bridge, the center of the room, was a small platform. Upon it an alabaster door contrasted an enclosed, domed chamber no larger than a coffin.
Mal’Bal crossed the expanse and Wahala followed, watching the room continue its rotation, the lens above focusing on different sections of the sky. “What is this place?” Wahala asked.
Mal’Bal hobbled onto the small central platform and approached the tiny compartment with the white door. Portious motioned to the closed chamber. “The Ventri and I forced information from a scientist. It’s the Observation Closet.” He pointed up. “It sees what the lens sees.”
Wahala studied the lens itself. It was thick, growing wider at the middle. She was taken aback. The color differed from the usual green she was familiar with, but she could feel it—an energy emanated from the lens. A titanic Apex gem. She had thought the precious stone was native to the Kingdom of Rot. Had the lens been brought from the Southern lands centuries ago? And who had brought it here, so far into Lenova?
“What’s the importance of the closet, great one?” Booxa asked, his voice holding a warble.
Mal’Bal pulled open the tiny white door and fit his body inside the small chamber. His chest heaved, and his golden limbs moved loosely. Wahala wondered if in her weakened state, she could overtake the man and kill him. But surely Portious and Booxa would defend their lord.
Mal’Bal entered the white pod. Wahala couldn’t make out anything inside the closet. All she saw was white. Mal’Bal grabbed the door to shut himself inside and looked at each of them in turn.
“Prepare the city’s defenses. Unlike the Lenovans, who let their homes fall so easily, we will show what it’s like to survive a siege. We are experienced in such matter, are we not Booxa? The undead have proven themselves a far more dangerous adversary than these Panians.” He let a tiny hint of a smile twitch his lips as he closed the door. His voice whispering, “The booth is not important. I shall see all Lenova from above, like staring at a living map. It is useful only in the now. The lens matters. The lens is worth all this.” The pale door locked shut and Wahala sat on the bridge. The room stopped its random rotations and gyrated to a focused point with the lens straight up. From within the Observation Closet, Wahala could hear Mal’Bal’s weakened voice laughing hysterically.
-End of Sample-
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