Monday, February 18, 2019

The Shalafae Archives - Insurrection

He stumbled along on unsteady legs, clutching his dressing gown closed. Two guards slithered behind him, naga in armor carrying barbed halberds. When he'd summoned his servants to bear his palanquin to the audience chamber, the naga guards had gutted them, telling him that he could use his own legs. Neither of them seemed to care that nobles simply did not walk anywhere.

So he began the long journey to the audience chamber, grumbling under his breath about all the injustices he, Justicar Ralen, was being forced to suffer, and making note of who would be the ones to repay him.

Ralen was breathless by the time he reached the golden doors of the audience chamber. An elf stood guard, his hair braided back from his face, bedecked in black leather, nearly bristling with blades. The nagas spoke with the elf in their sibilant tongue as the justicar worked on regaining his composure. When his heart had calmed, he glared at his captors. The elf returned Ralen's gaze with a small smile.

"What's the wait? Why am I not being presented to his lordship?" Ralen's voice dripped with disdain, and he attempted to glare down his nose at his captor. The elf towered over the justicar, making his indignation a joke.

"You're to wait until everything's cleaned up." The elf winked at the naga, and one of the snakemen hissed with laughter.

Ralen sniffed, catching a faint metallic odor. "What's going on here? What is that smell?"

The naga laughed again, slithering to the door. He pressed it open, and tortured voices echoed out into the hall. The elf stepped closer, taking Ralen's arm. "That's blood." Blanching, the justicar's heart raced as he was led into the audience chamber.

The amphitheater was completely different from the last time he'd seen it. It was normally brightly lit with sunlight streaming through detailed stain glass windows. Colorful tapestries adorned the wall, and crystal candelabra held oil lamps. The walls were of rose marble, with arched and vaulted ceilings, delicate gold veins in the bright rock.

Now it looked like the antechamber of hell. The windows were busted out, and the smoky night air came wafting in. Instead of tapestries, bodies and body parts hung from the hooks, dripping slowly onto the marble floor. The candelabras were strained with drying blood, lighting the room with a pinkish light.

Seated on the Grand Adjudicator's throne was the albino despot. Lord Shalafae, self-styled emperor and Chaos lord, was dressed all in black silks, heavily embroidered robes accentuating his lithe frame and milky skin. His long hair was held back by a moonsilver circlet, and his crimson eyes gleamed with joy.

The target of his joy was being dandled on his knee. She looked young, hardly past five, and she was smiling broadly as Lord Shalafae's hands encircled her waist, tossing her black braids as she shook her head back and forth. Blood drops stained one pale cheek, and her eyes squinted closed with her laughter.

"Who is that?" Ralen whispered in shock. He could not look away from the child. She was still soft with baby fat, yet there was something remarkably adult in her movements and expressions. The lord lifted his hands from her waist, and lovingly smoothed the girl's hair. The justicar noted the miniature leather armor she wore, and the small sword on her hip.

"That's Morrigana," the elf said. Ralen turned, disbelief riding his features, and the elf continued. "Lord Shalafae's arstia. His wife and daughter," he translated when Ralen's frown deepened.

"I had heard she was an adult, a great warrior." The justicar watched confusedly as the black-haired girl tossed her head back, peals of laughter ringing as her supposed father tickled her. It struck Ralen as bizarre that anyone could be so joyously happy amidst so much slaughter. "No one said she was a child."

"Morrigana will always be my child," Lord Shalafae said, meeting Ralen's eyes. The girl was still giggling, laying against her father's chest, silver eyes sparkling as she stared at Ralen as well. The justicar found her gaze disconcerting, and lifted his gaze to Lord Shalafae's piercing red eyes. He suddenly didn't know which was worse.

Ralen saved himself from having to decide by bowing his head. "Many pardons, Your Lordship." The elf moved away, leaving Ralen alone in the middle of the petitioner's floor. Ralen heard pained moans from the far side of the room, and glanced over to see one of the smaller galleries shrouded in the remains of the tapestries. He didn't want to find out what was beneath them.

"Do you know why we're here?" The lord's voice was terse, devoid of all the laughter he'd had for his arstia.

Ralen's jaw tightened, and he kept his head down. He'd met Alzair Shalafae once before, when the emperor had first claimed this planet as part of his personal empire. The justicar had sworn fealty with everyone else, and he'd greeted the albino during the banquet, and then never dealt with Alzair again. There would only be one thing the emperor would want. "No, Your Grace, I do not."

"You're awfully quick with titles for a dissident." Morrigana's voice was in a childish range, but the weight behind them was all experience. No one could mistake her for a kid once she spoke. "Why don't you use the same adjectives you do in your missives?"

The justicar fell to his knees, hands out and clasped like a supplicant. "I know not of what My Lady speaks."

Two little clicks, then a patter of feet. Ralen dared to look up, and saw Lady Shalafae approaching him, scowling fiercely. The justicar glanced to the male Shalafae, and saw only patient curiosity on the man's face. There would be no appealing to the emperor.

"You don't recall all the plotting and creeping and innuendos?" The girl stopped a few paces away from him, and cocked one hip, arms crossed at her waist. There was something surreal about all the adult movements on a child's body.

He began trembling then. "Where is the Grand Adjudicator? By surrender treaty, she is to be present at all interrogations." He knew it was petty, but he needed something to buy some time. He quivered, and a line of sweat began to bead along his spine. Ralen attempted to plot a way out of here.

Morrigana's face lit up, and she arched a brow. "Oh, you want your Adjudicator? Right now? Well, let's see what she says." The young-looking woman stomped toward the shrouded gallery. The moans rose as she approached, and Ralen swallowed hard, dreading what she was about to show him.

Time froze, and the justicar became painfully aware of everything. Lord Shalafae was smiling softly, lounging on the throne, eyes locked on his daughter. The elf was braced against a column, cleaning his nails with a dirk, ready to pounce if Ralen tried to flee. The naga were near the door, undulating slightly as they watched the proceedings. There was no one else in sight, no guards of the Adjudicator, no other people from the Shalafae entourage. This was a private audience, staged to drive home a point.

The little empress grabbed one edge of the tapestries, and yanked them from their makeshift hangers. Heavy cloth crumpled to the floor with what sounded like a cacophony to the justicar. Morrigana stood amidst the piles of cloth, smiling wickedly, eyes locked on Ralen as he stared awkwardly at the sight revealed to him.

He didn't know what to call it, other than a contraption. The Grand Adjudicator, who'd given up her name and personal identity when she took the title, hung amidst leather straps and metal lines, all suspended from a rusty metal rig. Blood was caught in bright pans and funneled off somewhere out of sight. And there were copious amounts of blood. It was nigh impossible for him to believe the moaning figure had once been the chief ruler of their kind.

Someone had removed her hair, but by fire, not with a knife. Her eyes were swollen shut, one of them leaking a milky fluid. Bruises lined her arms and shoulders, with several prominent bite marks at the joints. She dangled from a harness, the leather straps constricting her chest. Hooks were tearing at her stomach, pulling skin from muscle, all guided by metal lines somehow attached to the harness.

Ralen couldn't fathom how the death machine functioned, only that it was meant to kill. He was stunned, sickened, and tears flowed down his cheeks. "What have you done to her?"

Morrigana giggled. The sound was so much like the peals of a little girl that Ralen looked up. Her hands were over her mouth, her cheeks flushed, her eyes sparkling, and she continued to giggle. Ralen began to frown, and the lady let her laughter die. "I questioned her. She tried to protect you so much, and refused to answer us, no matter how much evidence we showed her." Lord Shalafae shifted, touching a pile of papers on the stand beside him.

"You tortured her for denying false accusations?" Ralen's voice was shocked, his gorge rising.

The girl stiffened, reaching for her little sword. Alzair raised a tapered hand, stopping her even though she couldn't see it. Ralen met the man's stunning red eyes, and his heart froze. "Don't bother lying. We had the proof even before your Adjudicator admitted it. This is more of a-" The emperor paused. "Technicality," he finally finished.

Ralen jumped to his feet, anger flaring. "This is exactly why I have been working to undermine you and your horrid little bitch. You think to impose your Chaos upon us, to make us bend to your laws, and accept you as our leader. I will never submit!" He spat on the floor, bristling with anger.

Morrigana charged forward, drawing her sword. "Stop!" her father roared, rising swiftly to his feet. The young empress slid to a halt, face curled into a snarl, hair wild around her face. Her breath hissed passed her sharp teeth, but she waited for his next command.

"Now, Justicar Ralen, my daughter is quite protective of my rule. It is, after all, her first empire." The emperor strode close, laying a loving hand upon her head. "So when her spies uncovered your little plot, she wanted to do something about it."

"And you indulged her?" Ralen trembled, coming to grips with the fact that he was not going to live through this. "Fiends, both of you."

"Yes, thank you." Alzair maintained a restraining hand on his daughter. "But we are fiends who gained control of your planet. Your leader bowed to us, and bound you all to our cause. You broke your own laws by conspiring against us." He smiled, ruffling the girl's hair. Her fierceness faded, and she beamed up at her father. "And it's your own laws that condemn you. Too easy." The couple smiled, and Ralen's heart plunged.

Striving to protect his people, he would be punished by them.

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