Chapter 44 – Shade of the Empress
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Chapter 44 - Shade of the Empress

 

Antrandis slowly turned over the thick golden coin with its slightly conical centre and rounded edges. The etched sigil of the Rakshasa Empress sat in its centre, glyphs running in tight bands around it, right up to the polished edge. The sharp light it had emitted when he snatched it out of the air had receded except for the glow that continued to shine from the etchings. He raised an eyebrow and looked past it to Ja’Sessh and the look of shock on his features before he bowed his head. After a short moment the Rakshasa raised his head, but kept his eyes averted.

“Kahn’Draneth, Keeper of the Wilds I recognise you as the Ruler of Meliandra, and the,” Ja’Sessh paused then bowed slowly and touched his forehead to the floor, “Equal to Empress Ja’Ekavira of the Ke’Shasan.”

Antrandis shared a quick glance with Winter then Sian before he looked at the prone Ja’Sessh, “It is an honour to meet you, Ja’Sessh of The DeKaalenstaad, ambassador to the Empress Ja’Ekavira. You may rise.”

Ja’Sessh slowly returned to a kneel, leaving his large hands on his thighs. He moved to speak and Antrandis quickly held up a hand, silencing him.

“I will overlook what has taken place within these halls. But I can not vouch for Winter’s anger.”

“Then it is as I said.” commented Ja’Sessh.

“What is said and what is truth are oft different things.” Antrandis said as he slowly exposed the gold coin, “I understand that this is a message from your Empress, Ja’Ekavira?”

Ja’Sessh nodded, “I was to...”

“Are your people ready to rejoin the Eld? I assume that this is the,” Antrandis interrupted, glancing at the coin and frowning slightly, “The message I requested Ekavira send when she felt the time was right.”

“You have never...met.”

Antrandis looked at Ja’Sessh, “Then it is as I said, is it not?” he said without faltering, glancing at Silvast’s stony expression, “I am sure there is plenty you do not know about Vira and those she makes counsel with both now and in the past.”

He looked directly into Ja’Sessh’s eyes without wavering, “Remember, I have overlooked your actions in following us the last few days, attempting to set an ambush and injuring both of my children. I do not believe Vira would want me to see your actions as a provocation.”

Ja’Sessh stared at him, “As her consort, I am well aware that she has never left the…” he said with an incredulous tone.

“I am sure she views you as such.” Antrandis said, cutting him off and opening his palm, exposing the coin, “From my impression she is an incredible woman with sharp intellect, fearless in the pursuit of what she wants.”

“You have never…”

Antrandis inspected its golden surface, “Do not overstep your bounds Rakshasa. The only reason you are not dead is because of Sian’s memory of you, here in this place as a Conservator of Escorath and Winter’s knowledge of your past. Your insults and ignorance demonstrate your intelligence and lack thereof.” he said calmly, “Do not misunderstand my patience as a lack of agency, or my appearance of being merely an elf as below your expectations. Your Empress did send this message to me, after all. And as the ally you are unwittingly trying to undermine, I will hear what she has to say rather than the misguided barks of her lesser.”

Ja’Sessh’s ears slicked back as he bowed his head slightly with a wince, “It was to be delivered to you alone. Not among others.”

Antrandis smiled knowingly, “That is not your concern, messenger.”

Ja’Sessh moved to protest, but stopped as he felt a slender hand on his shoulder and the unmistakable scent of Winter’s power at his side. Before the rakshasa could protest further, a faint golden shimmer descended on the room. Every edge appeared gilt-limned and the ambient light took on a similar hue.

Sian felt Silvast’s hand on her upper arm and her breath in her ear, “This is one of mine. I hope Vira remembered how to use this, or Ja’Sessh here might be in for a rude awakening.”

“What do you mean?” Sian whispered, feeling Silvast shift to her other side.

“Watch, it will almost be like she is here. Her thoughts at the moment she made it. It is not a message; it is her from a few weeks ago.” Sian felt Silvast’s chuckle in her ear, “Everything she was thinking while the spell was active.”

Sian frowned, “Everything?”

“Yes! Everything. Antrandis will ask questions and hopefully she will answer.”

Sian turned and looked at Silvast, “Let’s hope she had a clear mind.” she said, stopping as Silvast glanced past her with a nod.

On the far side of the bed a golden shadow of a woman sat. She had her hand opened and cocked, holding the gold disk that now lay gleaming in Antrandis’s grasp. The shade became more tangible before standing, the sharper lines of the room visible through her as she shifted. Every movement was exaggerated while she turned and walked through the bed toward him, her tail swinging almost hypnotically in balance. Her head and facial features of a sleek tigress and a woman’s body clothed in revealing filmy cloth that accentuated her already undeniably sensual figure. Antrandis stepped back to give more room and the shade of Ja’Ekavira stood before him, her large luminous eyes meeting his.

“Antrandis Kahn’Draneth Darkfall, a pleasure.” came the ghost of her rich and lustrous voice as she bowed, her movements flirtatious even as a thought.

“The pleasure is mine, Vira.” he said, watching the play of her drawing back before moving in almost uncomfortably close, her eyes on him expectantly.

“My Empress? How is she here? What is this?” said Ja’Sessh, his eyes wide watching the shade sidle closer to Antrandis.

The shade continued to look up into Antrandis’s eyes, her voice soft, “Talk to me, Antrandis.” she purred, her large eyes looking up into his, “I wish I could come to you in person, just to see you again. But, we are in the midst of preparations. The least I could do is this; do you like what I wore for you?”

The shadow of Ja’Ekavira stepped back and turned, looking over her shoulder playfully, her large eyes simmering, “I had it made especially.”

Antrandis raised an eyebrow slightly, “I am honoured, Empress of the Ke’Shasan.”

She turned, disappointment on her face, her ears flicking, “Formalities?” the shade paced, her posture sharpening, almost agitated as if searching for the right words, “The reason for this communicate?”

“A number of events, both inside and beyond the borders of The DeKaalenstaad. Rumours and a few concerns.” she turned, her eyes quickly finding his as her dress floated enticingly around her.

“Firstly, I must apologise if Ja’Sessh has proven difficult, I gave him this task to grant him an education, please do not be too harsh on him, in many ways he is still much like a child and he has few uses apart from playing warrior and being bull-headed. Do ignore his false claims of being my consort; it is a necessary foil to grant me a measure of privacy. He is just protecting his elder sister, nothing more.” Ja’Ekavira said with a small smile.

“I know you well enough to understand that you would like to get to the bottom of the matter at hand. I am sure Sessh has opened his mouth more than a few times by now in defiance. He probably can’t see past that façade of yours.” she chuckled, “Being contained for such a time has not worn well on him. Time moves differently here, but it doesn’t change the simple fact that we are secretive hermits living in an isolated kingdom cut off from the Eld.”

She glanced at him again, “Once again, my words come freely with you. My thoughts are loose and unguarded.” she said, her hand trailing through the top of Neci’s bed, “It is just too easy.”

Antrandis smiled slightly, “Vira, what has been troubling you?”

“I am worried, Antrandis. Dreams have been plaguing me, pushing me into action.” she said, turning her gaze back on him, “Recently I sent out some of my shadows to check on the nearby Dagnetheln. They reported back that the once Spears of the Host have taken up residence in its halls and guard its borders. The Sanctum has had life breathed back into it. I know things are afoot, and one known to the both of us has assured me that I need not be concerned.” her expression grew serious, “Though, I will defer to and trust your judgement on this issue, I need to hear your word.”

Ja’Sessh’s head snapped up, “What, how could this? Trust this man’s judgement, How - He is just an elf. The Host is controlling this, I can feel it.” he rumbled, “I have had enough of this.” he said, moving to stand, but stopping as Winter’s hand clenched into his shoulder silencing him.

Silvast frowned, her eyes glued on the movement of Ja’Ekavira’s shade, “Antrandis?”

He glanced at her quickly as she stepped over and followed Ja’Ekavira closely, “Sil, keep watching, tell me what you see.”

“Silvast?” chuckled the shade, coming closer, her tail flicking and passing thought Silvast as she followed.

“Please relay my regards to the Stormarrow. I know she is close, even if she happens to be no longer at your side. If she is not, then I,” Ja’Ekavira said, her voice suddenly flustered, raising her face to his, “I would be honoured to be reacquainted with your company and to finish what I started back then. I could be yours and only yours. All you need is ask. The heat that burns within me has only grown more fierce at being denied my prize.”

She stopped, her face so close to his that they were almost touching, “And as much as my love burns almost as strong for another who is forever out of my reach, intangibility does not satisfy the mortal coil or the needs of the flesh that only you could grant.” she purred.

“Has not changed one bit, has she?” Silvast muttered, glancing over at Sian’s bemused expression then Winter’s murderous one.

She gestured to Antrandis before stepping back, “Earring.”

He nodded, catching its glint, “Vira, is it time?”

Ja’Ekavira tilted her head slightly, “Time?”

“Your people, the Ke’Shasan. The reason I gave you this.” he prompted.

“The reason. Antrandis, our time to rejoin the Eld draws close. I would be honoured if our peoples could be allied. The Lady of Shadows has foretold the day when the dragons reawaken, we must be prepared before then. She told me that she has foreseen the Ke’Shasan bearing arms alongside the Valkyrie, the Elves and Dwarves upon the mountain. We are finally prepared to fight and to earn our place in the realms. It is time to leave the Ebony and Alabaster’s den and sanctuary and find our place.” she shifted position and postured her hands, “My people are ready to feel the true dawn and to bask in the soft dusk once more. We follow and seek guidance from the Absent god, Toth, the Lord of Twilight. I ask for you and your people’s friendship and guidance in a world that we no longer know.”

Antrandis’s eyes watched Ja’Ekavira’s shade, feeling Winter’s presence in his mind.

“I will eagerly await your missive and word on the matter, Antrandis.” the shade said, her large eyes watching his and waiting.

He stood quietly for a moment, his eyes picking out the design of her earring, the sigil of Toth, “Vira, do you know of Aisling?” he asked, but silence was unsurprisingly returned to him.

“How many, my love?” Winter asked.

Antrandis stood, frowning slightly as his eyes shifted from the shade to the coin in his hand. He slowly swept his thumb across its surface, watching as Ja’Ekavira’s likeness dispersed and the golden light in the room lifted. He looked to Winter, a thoughtful expression on his face.

She nodded, reading his thoughts, “Tonight.”

He glanced at Ja’Sessh, “Your numbers?”

The rakshasa stiffened, “You have no…”

“Brother to the Empress, you have heard her words. It is now time for you to help rather than hinder and demonstrate your quality. Show that you can negotiate and set a path for your people.” Antrandis interrupted with a low and patient voice, his eyes again on the coin as he thought, “Your numbers, Ja’Sessh?”

The rakshasa grimaced, once again feeling the swell of Winter’s power right beside him, he looked at Antrandis, “Between eight and nine thousand.”

Antrandis nodded, his eyes still on the coin, “Your people have been productive, Vira told me that only a few hundred had managed to flee to The DeKaalenstaad. What of fighting folk, warriors of all types?”

Ja’Sessh ground his teeth, “Three thousand females, two thousand males.”

“Dedicated casters?”

“Under a thousand, mostly women.” Ja’Sessh growled.

Antrandis glanced over to Sian to see the concerned look she was giving Winter, the deep discussion taking place without audible words. His gaze slipped back to the rakshasa, Ja’Sessh looking at the floor and still trying to make sense of his sister’s words.

“Lady of Shadows?” Silvast asked quietly as she stood beside Antrandis, “Vira is talking about Aisling, isn’t she?”

Antrandis nodded as Silvast’s eyes flashed, “The gods have fallen? Is that not what you said Sessh?” she said pointedly, “Yet, your own Empress follows and receives guidance from the Lady of Shadows and speaks of Toth?”

Ja’Sessh looked at her, “It is a belief among our people that has risen in the last few thousand years. A false god or deity that was created by the Empress. It gives the weak something to believe in, a…” he said, stalling as he noticed the strange expression on Antrandis’s face.

“She created this god, you say? Toth. Pray, tell me the form he is represented as.” Silvast said.

“Toth, a she, a black panther, or a leopard cloaked in the darkest of shadows.” Ja’Sessh rumbled.

“Vira’s words, the Lord of Twilight. Your people are worshipping Toth, the Absent god.” Silvast pressed, “Tonight, I will show you a dragon.”

“I doubt you could.” Ja’Sessh replied quickly.

Antrandis shook his head, “Ja’Sessh, tonight after you witness Escorath being uncovered, you will leave with my wife, my consort and extension of my will. It is clear that you are only a messenger and nothing more. In two days’ time you will escort her before Ja’Ekavira and she will deliver my response and negotiate on my behalf.”

Ja’Sessh’s eyes narrowed, “All the way back to The DeKaalenstaad in two days? Impossible. Two weeks, maybe.”

“She will escort you; tomorrow morning you will be Dagnetheln. The evening after you will present her to Vira.”

“Who?” Ja’Sessh asked.

“Winter.”

Ja’Sessh eyes narrowed and he turned, “I will not present the Host’s right hand to my sister, not within the…” he grunted as Winter’s hand clenched down, claws painfully on the edge of tearing.

Suddenly her form started to shift, midnight dragonesque wings materialising on her back, her body growing even more sensual and her skin paling. A snakelike tail whipped around as those slender black horns erupted from above her temples. Dark, blood red lips were whetted as her incisors lengthened until they were exposed slightly. She smiled as the Rakshasa threw himself backward, tearing out of her grasp, his blood immediately wetting his fur, shirt and her claws. He pushed himself away until his back met the wall. Darkness started gathering around her, the light being sucked out of the air as she spread her wings.

“So, Ja’Sessh. Tell me one more time that I still serve the Host, that bastard who used us up as if we were disposable. Remind me one more time that I am the Gatekeeper.”

“You are a-a succubus?” he stammered, cowering against the wall.

“No. I am Winter Kahn’Draneth Darkfall, wife and consort to both Sian and Antrandis, dark sister of Silvast Stormarrow the Silver, Handmaiden of the goddess Lumos and friend of the Alabaster, Ebony, and Copper dragons. Commander of the Spears of Darkfall, envoy and high priestess of Toth, the Absent God.”

She stalked toward him, her eyes menacing, “One more time is all it will take for me to skin you and wear you like a coat.” she said, her face now close as he flinched away from her, “I am going to check on my children as they awaken, and you are going to behave.” she finished, flicking his ear threateningly with a nail before the darkness engulfed her, bursting in wispy shadows as it dispersed, leaving silence and thin air in its wake.

 


 

Winter emerged from the shadows of the tent. Stepping into the light as smoky tendrils of night chased her. She frowned, shaking her head at the image of terror that Ja’Sessh had shown her. She could still smell his fear, the panic at seeing her true self. That which his kind feared most, it was intoxicating, that scent of domination. A smile came to her lips followed quickly by a deepening frown. The ripple of magic and the strong scent of blood was in the air, Rhyker’s. Slipping back into the shadows, time slowed while she did not. She tucked her wings and passed through the entrance to the twin’s room without even disturbing the air.

She drew in a sharp breath as she walked the perimeter. A shroud of darkness similar to her own filled the room to the knees, rippling like the gentle wash of water on the banks of a lake. Rhyker stood at the edge of the bed, his sister’s hand in his own. A tattoo of fiery power quietly pulsed beneath his skin, the veins and arteries of his body pumping with both life and the awakened power of the Aletere. This was mirrored in Kitaraiya, the white glow matching his own. Winter watched on as he slowly recovered his hand from her grasp, her body giving a quiver as she slept. She had changed, the woman she called daughter for the past eighteen years. Her transformation from imbibing the blood of the dragon significant.

Winter smiled softly, watching how Rhyker gently swept the sheet up, covering Kitaraiya’s nakedness. The pain on his face and the quiet frustrated rage in his eyes as he watched over her. Winter slipped out of the shadow realm and quietly observed the flow and current of Rhyker’s shroud as it drew close to him, robing him in darkness. She walked over to the bed and sat opposing him with Kitaraiya between them, watching as he ran a hand though his sister’s fur.

Sighing, she looked up from Kitaraiya’s gentle breaths to Rhyker, “You have not told her, have you my son?”

He looked up, meeting her eyes and shook his head, his shadows parting slightly and drifting off the surface of the bed. She watched the play of their power in the room, the wash of their elemental powers that thrived around them.

“I think you now understand the truth of your kind, what you really are.” she said at little above a whisper.

Winter barely took note of his response, instead watching the movement of her daughter. The gentle rise and fall of her chest and the rhythmic movement of her shoulders as she lay on her side in her sleep. The soft disturbance of breath on her fur. Winter shifted, leaning over Kitaraiya, noting the gentle twitch of her whiskers and the features of the wolf further softened and feminine in this new form.

“She is beautiful, tainted, but beautiful.” she said, carefully lifting the sheet and gazing on Kitaraiya’s figure, more powerful and emphasised yet not the brutal dominance of the monster that plagued her.

She smiled, her eyes picking up the changes in the flow of eldritch power that always beat in her daughter’s heart since the monster had been woken, the lurid and poisonous shades now muted and docile. She nodded, a ghost of a smile on her lips.

“A compromise, but now she has a chance.” she said replacing the sheet.

Feeling Rhyker’s eyes on her she met his blazing flames, “A better chance than before.” she said, standing.

She smiled gently, her gaze shifting back to Kitaraiya, “Hold her, my son. She needs you more than ever.” she said before slipping back into the shadow realm.

Winter slowly made her way over to a wall and rested. She had peered into the venomous barbed coils of power that had taken root in Kitaraiya’s heart to find them subtly different, though still dependant on her brother’s nearby strength. Allowing her eyes to slip, she watched the paths of inherited power in the room. Since she had seen it for the first time, it was more apparent now than ever before. Frowning, she observed both Kitariaya and Rhyker’s strength coalesce over the bed as he held her close. It had matured over the years, grown. She stared at the wash of colour, new tendrils of contrasts weaving into each other. The signature of their power now unlocked by Neci’s still-warm blood.

She frowned before leaving the room, giving a swift look back at them before slipping through the entry. She had seen it before, that tell-tale signature that was now woven into their individual threads. It screamed at her silently, begging to be heard but voiceless for now. Lost to the edge of thought, but vaguely remembered. She passed though and into hers, Sian’s and Antrandis’s rooms, allowing the shadow realm to fall away and her body to return to her elven form of the Eladar Wilderelves. She settled into a soft chair and closed her eyes. She could feel the both of them, the complacency and fear that her demonstration had won in the rakshasa as the day outside the tent marched toward the setting of the sun.

 


 

 

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