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“For the moment we are confined to this wasteland,” he said. “We must be, until we have finally disposed of the … StarSon.”
The Enemy Reborn.
It had rattled all of the Demons more than they were prepared to admit out loud each to the other. The damned, damned Enemy Reborn.
They thought they had been chasing the shadows cast by the fleet of the Ark, but instead the shadow had been chasing them.
“Once the StarSon is dead — once and for all — then the eating will be beyond compare,” Raspu whispered. He was standing with Mot and Barzula behind the stone tomb that sat in the centre of the mausoleum. The three Demons were leaning with their elbows on the stone’s flat surface and their chins resting in their hands, staring at Qeteb as he paced to and fro.
Behind them, almost lost in the gloom of the columned recesses of the mausoleum, lay the Niah-woman, limbs akimbo, blank-eyed head propped up at an uncomfortable yet unheeded angle against a cold marble wall. Her white skin was blemished with small lesions. Qeteb had amused himself well with her. His new body had needs to be sated, and her soulless one was useful only for the services it could provide — but his black metal armour had not provided the kindest of caresses.
No-one among them cared, least of all Qeteb. As far as he was concerned, the Niah-body needed to last only as long as it could provide a new flesh and blood form for Rox’s lost soul. Qeteb was more than irritated with Rox’s foolhardy attempt to brave the bridge at Sigholt, and had considered leaving him to float disembodied for eternity … but this was a land and a time of resurrection, and Rox would be more useful in bodily form than useless spirit.
They would need to meet the StarSon united. This time, Qeteb would let nothing stand in the way of a total victory over the Enemy.
“What do you mean?” StarLaughter said, moving forward. “I thought you rammed your sword through the StarSon in the Maze. What’s this hold-up?”
Qeteb’s impatience for power was nothing compared to StarLaughter’s.
Qeteb turned slowly to look at the woman. He would have liked to destroy her, but at the moment he was loath to kill anything that might provide information, or might prove useful. If there was anything Qeteb had learned over the past hundred thousand years of imprisonment, it was a modicum of prudence.
“He was a false StarSon only,” he said, allowing his voice to flow through his closed visor like honeyed chocolate.
It had its effect. StarLaughter visibly relaxed.
“A decoy,” Qeteb continued. “The false StarSon bought the true StarSon time … for what I am not yet sure.”
“Time,” Sheol said, “to build a hidey-hole for the majority of souls of this land. He even took the insects with him!”
A soul was a soul was a soul, and each soul fed the Demons as much as the next one. The millions of insects that Drago’s witches had squirreled away into Sanctuary had cost the Demons as dearly as the vast numbers of people who’d managed to escape the final ravagement.
Qeteb nodded slowly, letting his gaze drift away from StarLaughter and around the mausoleum. This dark place was all very well, but Qeteb had had enough of confinement. Soon would be the time to go exploring.
“We will find his hiding place,” the Midday Demon said, “and we will destroy it. We will feed on all it has to offer. And then we — I — will meet this StarSon, and teach him that which he refuses to learn.”
Underneath his visor Qeteb’s lips stretched in a humourless smile. The StarSon might be the Enemy Reborn, but he had been reborn with all the Enemy’s mistakes tucked into whatever magic he thought he commanded. But he, Qeteb, had spent his millennia of confinement learning … and learning from the Enemy’s errors. The Enemy Reborn, this uselessly tinselled StarSon, was bred to make the same mistakes as his forebears … but this time Qeteb was ready, and this time the Enemy Reborn’s mistakes would kill him.
Qeteb felt a sensual thrill course through his being. He had waited a hundred thousand years for rebirth, while the Enemy had waited a hundred thousand years for death.
This time he would triumph. Qeteb knew it for truth.
“And what of that?” Barzula said, indicating the wooden bowl that lay at the foot of the tomb. “It is magic … but what kind? And is it dangerous?”
Qeteb walked over and picked up the bowl, stroking the wood. “StarLaughter?”
She sighed, and joined him. She rested her hand on the wood. “It is of Avar craftsmanship. Pointless beauty.”
“I disagree,” Qeteb said, and brushed her hand aside. “But then, I do not blame you for it, for you are merely woman, and a mortal who has survived on the back of my brothers’ and sister’s power and their tolerance.”
StarLaughter’s entire body went rigid, and her eyes hard.
Qeteb either did not notice or did not care. “This bowl has a secret,” he said. “A very big and probably very important secret.”
His hand tightened about the bowl, and a tiny crack ran halfway along the rim.
“I do not like objects that are secretive!” Qeteb said, and his hand tightened fractionally more.
The crack widened.
“Ah!” Qeteb loosened his grip. He hefted the bowl lightly, and then in a smooth action threw the bowl spinning into the darkness of the domed ceiling.
“The one thing I like about secrets,” Qeteb observed, his visored face once more looking at StarLaughter, “is that they keep indefinitely. The bowl is mine, and eventually its secret will be mine.”
StarLaughter held the Demon’s stare, difficult as that was with no observable eyes to be found behind the latticed metalwork of the visor. “Your brothers and sister,” she said evenly, “promised me power in return for all my aid.”
To one side Sheol sniggered.
“Your aid,” Qeteb said. “How amusing that you think you provided —”
“I provided you with life!” StarLaughter yelled, balling her fists at her side and taking a step closer to Qeteb.
Barzula and Mot glanced at each other, then back to StarLaughter, and then they smiled slowly.
You did not provide me with life!
The thought boomed about the mausoleum, and although no spoken word sounded, all heard Qeteb’s words.
“You are my son!” StarLaughter screamed, unthinking anger giving her voice unusual strength. “I provided you with life, I bore you through adversity, I gave birth to you while I drifted among the stars. I loved and nurtured you through three thousand —”
“You provided the scrap of flesh which I chose to inhabit!” Qeteb stepped forward, and StarLaughter finally had the sense to retreat slightly. “My existence needs no ‘mother’. You were merely the cow that delivered the meat for my needs. You are the one who should be grateful… and yet you have the stupidity to demand it of me! I do not know,” he continued, growling now, and stepping forward once more, “why you still live or why your mind is still your own.”
StarLaughter paled, although her eyes remained bright with fury. “Because no-one else in this gloomy tower knows their way around this land and its secrets like I do!” she said.“You deserve another hundred thousand years trapped in some Enemy’s gaol if now you destroy the one Tencendorian remaining at your side, and with a reasonably intact mind!”
“You would be better crawling mad at my feet!”
“You wouldn’t dare!” StarLaughter countered, squaring her shoulders in defiance.
Qeteb stared at her, then raised a fist and struck StarLaughter across her face so hard he flung her sprawling several paces away across the floor.
“Bitch-sow,” he said, his voice tight with frustration. “One day I will dare, and I will leave just enough of your mind intact to know exactly what I will do to you.”
StarLaughter raised herself on an elbow and stared at him. Her left cheek was livid, blood running freely down her chin and neck. “If there is one being in existence you should never alienate,” she whispered, “it is your mother.”
Qeteb took one heavy step towards her. He laughed, whispery and harsh. “When I inhabited this flesh, StarLaughter, I also gained its memories. Do you want to know what I can remember of your son, StarLaughter? Do you? I remember that he despised you —”
“No! My son adored —”
“— he regarded you with contempt, as he knew all the Icarii in Talon Spike felt nothing but contempt towards you —”
“You silly, vacuous woman. You thought you were the most powerful Icarii in the land, didn’t you? You thought that all power could be yours, didn’t you? And yet you were nothing but an embarrassment to the Icarii nation, someone to be greeted with silent sneers at every entrance into a room, and with laughter at your departure. The Icarii loathed you, your husband was revolted by you, and your son could not wait to escape your body. He hated you, StarLaughter. He was sickened by you, and he escaped into death rather than spend an eternity amid the stars with you.”
StarLaughter remained silent, rigid with shock. She stared at Qeteb.
Qeteb laughed again. “Queen of Heaven?” he said. “Never!” Then he spat a glob of phlegm through his metal visor into her face.
She gasped, recoiling.
“That was from your son, bitch, not from me.” And Qeteb turned and strode away.
StarLaughter lay on the cold, cold floor of the mausoleum.
Lies! Lies! He spoke lies! Her son had adored her, loved her.
From the moment he had come to awareness in her womb, her son had been the only one who had understood her power, and who had understood that she was destined for greatness and was justified in choosing whatever path she had to in order to grasp her destiny.
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