Mortal Judgement: Episode 1
by Ian Taylor
There was a crack of thunder, and suddenly the sun was gone.
It didn’t take long for Hierakon to descend into panic. The port city was the Anubian capital, with all the pride that came with such a title, but it was still full of Anubians and they were a panicky bunch.
The city docks were no different. Kambatet waved her hand in a dismissive, yet reassuring way at the small crowd that sought her out for answers. The wizened Portmaster of Hierakon had seen many years go by, and was used to people panicking in the face of the unknown. Especially when the unknown was thrust upon them.
Kambatet Who Calms The Sea was what the people called her. They said that she had control over storms. That the gods listened to her prayers more than almost anyone else. But Kambatet knew the Gods of Eucos didn’t answer her. They merely provided clues, and she paid attention to them.
Thus, she was unfazed when the sun went dark in the middle of the day. She did not know why it happened, but there certainly was a reason.
“Aut,” she snapped. “This is no time for weeping.” Aut Who Dances in Moonlight was one of several Dock Captains who had fallen to the ground and commenced the kind of wailing and howling that helped nobody.
Kambatet looked towards the Great Pyramid that dominated the Anubian capital. The seat of Pharaoh Nexeu the Unscarred. Now illuminated in the light of a thousand torches. Only a Pharaoh could demand day when the gods had given them night.
It was by this torchlight that Kambatet saw the dragon. It was definitely a dragon. The dragon had definitely landed in Market Square at the foot of the pyramid. And the people in Market Square were not reacting well.
Kambatet was still pondering this new development when she heard a thunderclap. A few seconds later, the dragon took off from Market Square and swiftly flew off into the newly-darkened sky.
The Portmaster of Hierakon gazed at the horizon. Was this dragon a clue from the gods? If so, she had no idea how to interpret any of it. Unsure of how to proceed, she knelt beside Aut, her joints popping, and comforted him as best she could.
“What is this place?”
Neferu did not know. When the gods were chained, the sun became hidden from sight. It seemed to be a permanent eclipse. The world in darkness. It felt right and good. Neferu had heard the whispers of her people. She had felt their fear.
Neferu had landed her dragon at the base of the Great Pyramid of Hierakon, but she was no longer there. No pyramid. No dragon. No darkness. This was the sunlight from a crisp, clear day. The sunlight that defined Anubia, a land scarred by light. She could hear birds singing. Happy birds. The annoying kind.
She stood and looked around. They were in a lush and well-kept garden on the side of a very tall mountain, with pristine paths winding in between trellises that displayed flowers from all over Eucos. What was this place? Neferu had no answer for Takhat, but she was determined to find out.
“I’m sorry,” said a familiar voice behind her. “This is my doing.”
Neferu’s eyes immediately narrowed as she turned to see the Champion of Light, his body framed by the surrounding flowers. She thought grimly of the people whom Lysander’s ancestors had undoubtedly seized this beautiful landscape from.
“Why am I here?” she demanded. “What is this place?”
“The Divine Coronet,” said Lysander. “A place between Poracos and Eucos. Thaeriel would bring me here when he wanted to talk and needed my full attention. I suppose this is a power I inherited.”
“You have my full attention, Lysander.” Neferu held up her khopesh in a vaguely threatening manner. “You can start by explaining why I shouldn’t just kill you.”
“I have no wish to fight you, Neferu.”
“If it’s any consolation, you wouldn’t be doing much fighting.”
Lysander sighed. “I want you to reconsider what you’re about to do. Your armies will slaughter thousands of innocents.”
“Correct,” said Neferu. “May I go now?”
“You want to retake those ancient cities. I understand. But you can do so without bloodshed. No doubt you are strong. Use that strength to negotiate a peaceful solution.”
“I’m going to try something,” said Takhat. “Show this golden boy he’s not the one in control.”
“No,” said Neferu. “The Olympians did not negotiate when they crossed our border and stole our land. They held us at spearpoint and took what they wanted. They did not ask.”
“The people that did that are long dead,” said Lysander.
“So are the Anubians whose blood they walked through.”
“You don’t have to make the same mistakes.”
A cloud of thick, dark fog appeared behind Neferu. It seemed to be creeping over the edge of the mountain. The hair on the back of Lysander’s neck stood up as the fog moved to cover half the sky.
Neferu shook her head. “You will never convince me, Champion of Light. If you really are sincere about avoiding bloodshed, make sure those cities are evacuated and their garrisons disbanded.”
“Move to your right,” said Takhat. “Here it comes.”
“And what if they don’t listen?” said Lysander.
“Convince them,” said Neferu, stepping to the right as Takhat had ordered. “Use diplomacy.”
Lysander’s response died in his throat as a large black dragon burst through the curtain of fog. It looked similar to the one Neferu had tamed, but it was missing most of its head. Lysander stumbled back as the dragon landed, revulsion clear on his face.
“I believe the conversation is over,” said Neferu, with a finality appropriate for the Champion of Death.
The dragon turned towards Lysander and let out a loud gurgling sound. A sick parody of a roar from a headless beast kept alive by dark forces. Before it even had a chance to advance on him, Lysander’s arm moved quicker than conscious thought, and he hurled his golden spear into the rotting body of the monstrosity.
Light exploded from within as the dragon burned. It was a mercifully quick death, a clean death. The undead creature suffered and died within a fleeting moment, becoming nothing but ashes and an unnerving memory. Neferu howled in anger.
“I’m sorry,” said Lysander, even though he was not. “I could not allow you to continue abusing that creature.”
Neferu whirled to face the Champion of Light, snarling and clutching the handle of her khopesh so tightly the veins of her hand bulged outward. “That was not your decision to make!” she shouted.
“No,” said Lysander. “It was your decision, and you made the wrong decision. You are about to make the wrong decision again, and once again I will be there to correct it.”
“You can’t intimidate me, Lysander. If the Golden Garrison leaves Parthon, you open yourself up to Tartessian invasion.” She scoffed. “Even if you can marshal the occupying forces into a single unit, your army will pale in comparison to mine.”
“You will not choose peace?”
Neferu smiled, a cruel, sneering, twisted thing devoid of kindness. “There will be peace. After you have looked into the pleading eyes of your people and see that you cannot save them. The Light will abandon them, and it will abandon you, and I will walk over your shining corpse without a second thought to reclaim the land of my ancestors. When the screaming has stopped and hope is dead, only then will there be peace.”
Lysander slowly nodded. “I needed to be sure.” He turned away from Neferu, his last hope gone. The Champion of Light waved his hand and Neferu was returned to the darkness of her homeland.
Kambatet arose, her eyes still transfixed to the base of the Great Pyramid. It had only been a few moments since the dragon flew from Hierakon, but she had a strong feeling whatever was to happen next would happen in the same spot.
Aut was still crying at her feet. Kambatet told him to get up, repeatedly, each time less kinder than the last, but Aut remained on the ground.
“We are back in Hierakon,” said Takhat. “Bottom of the Pyramid. The least he could have done is put us at the top.”
“Climbing the steps is not a problem,” said Neferu. “Though I would have preferred to still have the dragon.”
Neferu observed the crowd that had moved a safe distance away when she and Takhat suddenly reappeared. She saw the faces of her people, the fear etched on their features. She heard the panicked whispers. She wanted to say something to them. To explain they need not fear her. She would save them.
But Neferu was not the Champion of Talking. They would learn by her actions. She turned towards the Great Pyramid of Hierakon. Six hundred steps to the top. She started with the first.
“What are you planning? I mean, after you kill Nexeu.”
“I’m not killing Nexeu,” said Neferu. “He will die, but not by my hand.”
“Disappointing,” said Takhat. “I’ve always wanted to be present for the death of a Pharaoh.”
“What did you do back there?” asked Neferu. “At the Divine Coronet.”
“I was exploring your new powers,” said Takhat. “You have a portion of Malissus’ strength. You can do most of the things she could do.”
“Since when does Malissus control the clouds?”
“Death is a rather boring thing. It’s so binary and final. Malissus shepherds the dead, of course, but she also controls fear. Horror. The shadows in the night.”
“The opposite of the Light,” said Neferu. “Yes I see.”
“And I wanted to make Lysander afraid.”
Neferu snorted. “I think the dragon did that.”
“You have no sense of subtlety,” said Takhat. “That’s why I brought the dragon.”
Neferu didn’t have much more to say, since it was true. Subtlety was a tool of diplomats and scholars, and she was neither. Instead, she focused on the climb, which was more tiring than she cared to admit.
There were three sets of guards, spaced evenly up the steps. Neferu approached the first guard post. There were two of them. Young. Armor cheap, but undamaged. Their weapons drawn and glinting in the torchlight as they half-heartedly attempted to block her way. Neferu didn’t break her stride. She lashed out with her own khopesh and smacked the hand of the guard on her right, sending his weapon tumbling down the side of the pyramid. She kept walking without waiting for a response. She would have just ignored it anyway.
The second set of guards were older. Veterans. Neferu stopped.
“The Champion of Death has business with the Pharaoh,” she said.
“What business?” asked the one on the left.
“Not your concern,” said Neferu. “You have no way to stop me.”
A quick glance passed between the guards. The one on the left bowed his head. The one on the right followed his lead. Neferu continued walking.
The final guard post contained two Anubian Elite. Each wore only the finest armor, wrapped around impossibly large and rippling muscles. Their weapons were forged by the most talented smiths, and their combat training rivaled that of anyone in Eucos. At Neferu’s approach, they turned to face each other, and bowed their assent. Neferu passed between them, and they fell in behind her.
“Unexpected,” said Takhat.
“Not really,” replied Neferu. “It’s tactically prudent. I’m a threat. They’ve cut off my escape. I’m effectively surrounded.”
“I never could get the hang of tactics,” said Takhat. Neferu could almost hear her shrug.
The final step passed beneath Neferu’s sandaled feet. Four more elite guards stood in front of the throne of the Pharaoh of Anubia. They did not move aside.
“Pharaoh Nexeu,” said Neferu in a loud, clear voice. “I will speak with you.”
This sounded very much like a threat to those present. Pharaohs were, generally, accustomed to being spoken to far less disrespectfully than this. Neferu’s words just as well might have been a slap to his face.
“I wish it,” said a voice beyond the guards. The burly soldiers parted, revealing the throne, and the young Pharaoh.
Nexeu was not yet fully grown, and what muscles he had were barely noticeable on his slender frame. He looked like a boy playing dress-up.
The Pharaoh had only ascended a few seasons ago, upon the death of his father Nofre-Hotep. Only a child then, he avoided most of his duties in favor of a luxurious life. He was thought to be fair and kind, though uninspiring. The people of Anubia liked him, but they did not love or respect him.
Neferu did not like him.
“The sun is gone,” said Neferu.
“I have not decided yet to bring it back,” said Nexeu, smirking in a way he thought was charming. “At least… not yet.”
“He’s actually taking credit for that,” said Takhat. “I’m somewhat impressed.”
“This is the perfect time to take back our stolen land,” said Neferu. “And that is precisely what we will do.”
Nexeu ignored her tone. He had traditionally held no interest in such things as vengeance or war, and this was no time to break with tradition. He waved his hand. “Your request is refused. You may go.”
Neferu stayed right where she was. “It was not a request.”
The guards, six in all, drew their weapons and switched to combat-ready stances. Neferu’s hand went to the hilt of her khopesh.
“Stop,” said Nexeu. “All of you. I wish it.”
“I came here for an army,” said Neferu. “I did not come for your blessing.”
“Now, now,” said Nexeu. He moved through his guards and stood rather smugly in front of Neferu. “We are of the same people. There is no need to fight or argue. I will hear your plans in due time. Perhaps after you have calmed down.” He paused. “Because I wish it.”
Neferu’s eyes turned black. She was unimpressed with his arrogance. “I will take my army. Now.”
“Will you kill me to get it?” asked Nexeu. “Will you deprive the people of their leader?”
Neferu lifted her khopesh and pointed it directly at Nexeu’s throat. A clear threat. The circle of guards that surrounded her started to move in, not quite ready to strike her down, lest the Pharaoh come to harm.
“The land needs a Pharaoh,” said Nexeu, hoarsely. “You need a Pharaoh.”
“I have a Pharaoh,” she said, coldly. Neferu tilted her head slightly, and opened her mouth impossibly wide. All of Hierakon heard the scream that came forth. A piercing sound of bitter sorrow. A wind from Morcos, the land of the dead. Nexeu’s face tightened in sheer terror and he stumbled back behind his circle of guards. The six warriors started to charge in, now that their Pharaoh was safely behind them.
The first of the elite guards approached from behind Neferu and swung a terrible blade in a wide arc that would have split anybody in two from shoulder to waist, but a spectral arm lashed out and deflected the blade to the side. The guards stared as a ghostly figure seemed to step from Neferu’s darkened frame.
The two figures stood in the middle of the stunned guards. One was still Neferu, khopesh in hand, her body swarmed in darkness like ribbons of night. Her face was mostly hidden, but her smile was unmistakable.
The other figure was shining white. Female. Dressed like a Pharaoh. Armed with a large sceptre in one hand and a shorter bladed sword in the other. Weapons of a time long past, wielded by one similarly forgotten.
Knowing nothing more than their extensive training, the elite guards attacked the pair. Neferu and Takhat whirled around each other, striking with their weapons, moving fluidly as though they were still one. The elite guards died well in service of their Pharaoh, but they died quickly all the same. Nexeu had no time to run. He hadn’t even gotten to his feet.
Nexeu stared at the khopesh that Neferu now held under his chin. He could not look her in the face. “Are you going to kill me?”
“No,” said Neferu.
“No?” said Takhat.
Neferu lowered her blade. “You’re going to die by your own hand. Nexeu the Unscarred will finally get his scar.”
Nexeu swallowed. “How?”
“I will leave you a hundred troops. You will lead those troops into battle immediately.”
“March across the Thanakris towards Olympia,” said Neferu. “You will lead an attack on Parthon.”
“Parthon?” Nexeu shook his head. “If their Golden Garrison defends the city, I cannot possibly win with such a paltry handful of troops!”
“I don’t expect you to win,” said Neferu. “I expect you to die. But this is your chance to die a noble death and be memorialized for it. Your attack will keep the Golden Garrison stationed in Parthon. They will not leave the city undefended so soon after an assault, no matter how pathetic your numbers.”
“You are fortunate, Nexeu the Unscarred.” Takhat leaned in until her white face was uncomfortably close to that of the terrified monarch. “Not everyone is remembered.”
“Go and die well,” said Neferu. “I wish it.”
Nexeu scrambled away as Neferu turned and walked back towards the steps. Takhat followed.
“Do you think he will do as you say?”
“No question,” said Neferu. “Did you enjoy my little trick?”
Takhat smiled. “An ethereal body with just enough substance to kill. Yes, I rather enjoyed it.”
“Not a permanent arrangement you understand,” said Neferu. “The people are scared of me, but they will be terrified of you, and I need them on my side.”
“What else can you do?”
Behind them, the bodies of the guards started to twitch. A low moan floated through the air, like the sound air makes when it leaves a fresh corpse. Each of the slain guards stood, obeying an order given but not heard. An order they were not permitted to disobey.
Neferu looked back and smiled. “Where they once obeyed the call of Malissus, they now obey the call of Neferu. Soon we will have the biggest army ever seen in Eucos.”
The two figures stood atop the Great Pyramid of Hierakon and looked upon the city. The streets and buildings were bright and vibrant. Every torch was lit. The people had a purpose. Anubia had a purpose.
Kambatet, Portmaster of Hierakon, was already barking orders to open the canal locks and move out the merchant vessels. Dock workers tripped over themselves to do her bidding. In her haste, she accidentally kicked a figure lying prone, who cried out in pain.
She sighed. “Get up, Aut.”
Aut did so, finally. His tears had long since run out, but his fear remained. He needed her guidance to get through this.
“Wise Kambatet, do you know what is happening?” asked Aut.
“No,” said Kambatet. “Nobody has answers, and the city is in chaos. There is only one logical course of action.”
“Prepare for war.”
To be continued in Mortal Judgement Episode 2: The Lie of the Land.