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6. The Empress's Wager

Erisey laid dead in her cell. Her body had been on the cold floor for

so long, the two had reached an equilibrium of temperature, and her skin had felt as one with the chilling stones long before death had taken her. For a while, she was barely kept alive on water and scrambles of bread. Her choice of whether to consume the stale slices oscillated between defiant abstinens to invoke the rest of death, and accepting the sustenance with the hope of still finding a path towards vengeance. Eventually, she had given in to the hope-crushing despair.

It was late afternoon, and the light of day showed the last signs of its reddish tones of farewell. Quiet footsteps made their way to her, light and with a slow pace. Aziel found her as he’d expected. He entered the cell and made a lifting motion with his entire left arm towards the empress's body. It slowly started to levitate, hovering at the height of the vizier's hip. He resumed his slow-paced walk out of the prison and brought the levitating corpse with him to a ceremonial ground with decorated pillars and lighted candles. The area faced a mountain valley, and between the mountain peaks, the moon had nearly completed its eclipse of the sun, bringing an eerie darkness on all of the visible land.

He motioned towards the centre of the ceremonial grounds with his left arm, and the cold body hovered well above the candles' flames towards its destination. Aziel placed wooden carvings of despicable figures around her; beings with unrecognisable dimensions, seemingly both in motion and completely still at the same time, like matter flowing in place.

As he placed the last one, they all started glowing red and he began chanting quietly as if speaking only to the air before his mouth, the words barely escaping his lips. Black smoke crept from the surface of each figurine, so dense it amassed around Erisey and put out the candles one by one, encapsulating her body inside pu

re blackness. A few moments later, coughs emanated from the smoke as it vanished, exposing the empress alive once again. Her life was completely restored to its healthiest point of her imprisonment, and she felt a surge of power that life had not offered since long before she drew her last breath. However, one thing was missing.

Although largely composed, the vizier had to forcibly hide a smile of satisfied glee. With a short incantation and a wave of his hand, the empress started to gag and gasp for air while still lying on the ground as her tongue quickly grew back to its original form. The guttural, agonous sounds echoed far into the valley. A dysmorphic sensation filled her mouth now that the place where her mind had superimposed the illusion of a tongue was occupied anew. A sensory dissonance, where phantom and flesh inhabited the same space. She stood on her knees, feeling her cheek from the outside with one hand and with her tongue from the inside, like she tended to the crater of a freshly lost tooth.

“What do you want?” she managed to sneer while clearly in pain, though she knew the answer to her question

“As you may have assumed from the resumed beating of your heart and,” he crouched to touch the ground, “recent fleeting warmth of yo

ur body, I have brought you back for a reason. You were not wrong when you claimed that your divine right as the ruler of the people would be a hindrance to me.” Their gazes met. “But there are ways around that. You will assist me in my final inauguration in front of the empire and waiver your position of sovereignty, whether willingly or not.”

His speech was firm and calm. Erisey kept quiet.

“I take your silence as an expression of your acceptance and… consensual participation,” he half asked.

"I never dared to truly believe you would go this far. The magic you just used was never meant for mortals," she said in disbelief. "You should fear for your soul


"I knew I ran the risk of you acting out the way you did so I had to prepare for the occasion," he answered like an arrogant host proud he had foreseen he would run out of refreshments for his dinner party. "As it turns out, I was right in my anticipation of your foolishness. Now that you have been brought back to life, you will find that such methods as you used before will not work in the future. You have been changed, empress. Your soul has been shattered, and your mortality has subsided so you can no longer use it against me." Once again, his satisfaction of success almost overwhelmed him, and his humanity nearly leaked out unwillingly from the curve of his lips.

Erisey could hold it no longer, her burning question, which he had avoided thus far.

“Who are these gods you serve?” Frustration started to leak into the tone of her voice, and coupled with the difficulty of speaking after her long, tongueless isolation, she had to speak slowly.

“Why do you trust them?”

“Our new masters revealed themselves to me," he said matter-of-factly. "The powers I now possess are a favour of their greatness and a symbol of their promises. I need no more than their proven might as reason for my allegiance to them.”

“You naíve fool,” she said with disgust, trying in vain to collect enough spit for a wet gesture of disdain, but her newly restored mouth had yet to produce such excesses. "You said it yourself: if our gods wouldn't admit to being subservient to higher lords of the heavens, why would those higher lords let mortals partake in their power? Your thirst for power clouds your judgement!"

The vizier looked down with a smirk of confidence, then back at the empress one last time and turned to leave. With his back to her, he answered with

a raised voice, "Until you have felt such pure power as I have in answering to these gods," he now turned to her once again, "you have no business trying to undermine my claim to it!" He then left the scene; with no way to give in to death anymore and with nothing to sustain her undead flesh, the empress's trembling body kept her planted at the place of her resurrection.

She was filled with ambiguous dread. For one, her undeath came with sensations not meant for mortal minds, and the dichotomous mind-body illusion felt stronger than ever. Her body gave off a faint stench of decay like sun-baked meat ready for a maggot feast.

"I did what I could," she thought. "One last act of true agency to try and save my people from whatever awaits them. They have suffered so much already, some of them not even aware of it nor able to sense the dangers in sight. I am not even sure myself of what to expect… Or fear. My last hope lies with

his folly. His powers must come at a price; nothing else makes sense. And if there is no price for what yo

u've been given, then you are what they're after. You are the price."

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