The Umbral Jihad
-Thiry-Four Years After Arrival-
Lances of graviton beams pierced through the shields of a nearby cruiser, scything through the ablative plating with ease. The vessel began to collide inward as graviton particles permeated throughout the interior of the warship. Metal crunched, snapped, and twisted until an explosion ultimately declared the death of thousands. Those starfaring vessels that watched their comrade suffer catastrophe turned away in a retreat. To the surprise of the attackers, those ships were swift in their withdrawal despite the impressive size of the defenders. Several bastions of metal, wide enough to fit on a continent and long enough to cover an ocean, successfully ran away with their engines burning at maximum capacity. The silvery-green rays of malevolent energy failed to reach their targets, falling short of their intended targets. Resigned to a slow slaughter, the carriers of such weapons followed after in sluggish pursuit.
A behemoth of immeasurable proportion hunted the fleeing prey through the void. The being was incomparable in shape to those of its class with long stretches of reinforced metal, swathes of weapon mounts, and a spear-shaped battering ram on the prow. Six great antennas extended on the bottom and top of the warship, reaching out into the abyss to grasp star streams with elongated talons. Thirteen voidsails dotted both sides of the vessel’s edge, emphasizing the size and boosting engine capacity for maximum speed. Despite the irrelevance of fabric in space, innumerable amounts of banners with the Pandjoran symbol of a sword and dusken sun whipped across the titan’s hull. The prow of the vessel, although fitted with a fearsome spear, dragged downwards into the darkness like a scythe into fresh meat. Disgustingly, both sides of the ‘scythe’ were sharpened to monomolecular edges.
Within the gargantuan holds of this behemoth, the Pandjoran clans scrambled with every absence of oneness in their minds. Telemetry data was secured, transferred, and forwarded to the correct stations. Munitions platforms were refueled with synthetic graviton-density capsules. Legions of duskborn warriors and their lesser non-Pandjoran mamluk readied their weapons with malevolent intent. Hafiz ambled through the corridors with their censers high and their litanies loud. Menials chaotically dashed with secular purposes, wandering the vast halls of the warship to fulfill obscure duties. The chaos on this vessel was only a fraction of the discord felt throughout the Umbral Armada. It was felt more thoroughly on the command bridge of the titan as voidsman coordinated concise instructions out to an expansive fleet.
A singular being of supreme purpose observed from the command throne. They wore the continuously evolving Pandjoran-pattern powered armor with a magnificent serpent silk hood drawn over their head. Talon-tipped gauntlets frustratingly tapped against the arms of the throne. Glaring, orange eyes with serpentine pupils stared out at every soul on the bridge from within their cowl. Beneath the shroud, the deity’s expression was difficult to read, yet it radiated an aura of distaste. The bickerings of the bridge ground to a halt as the voxmaster slowly approached the being. The ever-observing orbs focused entirely on the mortal as it awaited recognition.
“Malik Zaphariel, Umbral King of Pandjoras, the request for a response from the Krakkarin System Alliance has been approved after their last attempted assault. They refused to submit a subject, noting it was only for the ‘commander of the invading empire’.” The voxmaster, a Bahamutian voidsman, bowed their heavily augmented head towards the Malik of Pandjoras. His orange eyes momentarily disappeared into the darkness, closed to seemingly meditate on the issue. In truth, he had grown tired of this mess. Wordlessly, he waved one of his talon-tipped gauntlets towards the voxmaster, submitting to the communications with Krakkarins.
Seconds passed before the hololithic table at the center of the ornate bridge burst to life with an ethereal display. Several humans appeared in digitalized format, obscured by the capabilities of a short-range transmission on a holographic projector. All of them wore bulky armor with hefty pauldrons, long tabards, and militarized respirators over their jaws. A slurry of augmentations dotted their complexions from mechanical eyes to temple-implanted datafeeders. Each aspired to machine supremacy in one way or another, yet every member of their transmission appeared old and stubborn. A consistent wheezing in the background confirmed their overwhelming reliance on millennia-old augmentations to support their ailing bodies. The first one began to speak, an elder man with a brand of a cross burnt into his forehead flesh.
“You seem to have won out in our last engagement, but we refuse to back down and submit to the likes of the Star Sultanate! Your original messenger affirmed our fears, spared us the dance of feigned diplomacy, and awakened our battle song! We will not negotiate terms with the duskborn, unless it is in regards to a full surrender and subsequent retreat from our systems!” His voice was heavily synthesized between age, augmentation, and general garbled communications over vox. Despite that fact, he displayed a fierce stance of ferocious pride and stubbornness. Every passing second the man made an aggressive swing of the arm or a deepening of his furrowed brows to emphasize a point.
“We’ve already discussed this, Governor-Commander Alexos. The actions of Emir Saladin Gallos were delinquent. Our Star Sultanate has no wish to stomp out your culture nor does it wish to override the millennia-old traditions of your worlds. You know the reason I am calling is for a ceasefire on both sides of the conflict. Without fear of retaliation from both sides, we can settle our differences on neutral ground without-” Zaphariel ibn Varranis began to speak in a calm tone, gently explaining the situation to the Governor-Commander as he had before. He locked eyes with the hologram, ensuring that his intentions were displayed with confidence. Alexos, however, had different plans and abruptly interrupted the Malik of Pandjoras.
“It is futile, Malik! We will not be treated as more minor lifeforms in your rigorous class system! We won’t be pawns in a play for supremacy during the birth of a young stellar empire! We have survived for millennia without aid, supremacy, and atrocity! Your vassal revealed the darkest truths of the Illuminated Star Sultanate of Pandjoras and we have found it wanting. Let this be the last communication between us, belligerent cur.” Governor-Commander Alexos spat every word with the fury of a thousand and one ancients. If his mouth had been free of a respirator, then Zaphariel rationalized that spittle would be flying across the screen. A slam of a nearby terminal on the other side of the transmission was the knife in the heart of their negotiations. The connection ended as abruptly as it had begun. A long sigh escaped the lips of the dusken deity.
The bridge of the Umbral Armada’s flagship, the Dawn of Pandjoras, was deathly silent. Each voidsman had turned away from their meticulous work to either listen or watch the response from their prophet-king with a vested interest. Some held a silent fury for the insults delivered, while others gleefully awaited the given orders to march upon the System Alliance’s worlds. The voxmaster swiveled from the hololithic table’s cogitator to the seated form of their supreme ruler. They only found saddened, frustrated eyes in the darkness of the serpent silk hood.
“Two-hundred worlds brought into the fold through peaceful integration, accepting circumstances, and limitless aid. Not a single world has rebelled against Sultanate rule in the history of our birth. Nearly a thousand warships patrol every corner of our governed space. All nearly forsaken for the ambitions of a single man.” The Malik of Pandjoras stated aloud. He knew well that Saladin Gallos had been an absurdly ambitious individual. To what extent did he think he’d gain from such an underhanded ploy such as this? The thoughts rattled around in his mind for longer than he would’ve liked. He turned to address Shipmaster Sahir, who patiently stood beside him with his hands royally clasped behind. “Did he think I wouldn’t notice? Is he a fool? Over a million souls have pledged their service to me and I have not betrayed their expectations once. Hundreds of thousands of hassan, scattered to the edges of known space and he tried to venture out past our journey?”
The disbelief was evident on the thirty-year-old ruler’s face, twisted only by minor disgust and mental exhaustion. Sahir had watched for the past fourteen years as Zaphariel grew into a proper padishah, yet even he was surprised at the sudden breach of confidence. Something toiled from within him as the gargantuan deity struggled to handle obvious betrayal. He carefully selected the next words as he spoke them. “It was betrayal, my Malik, simple and clean. Ambitious fools are surprisingly common on our planet, yet you managed to weed out the majority of them. Only one more remains. There is no question about the punishment that he should face. If fate is fortunate, then he will perish in the conflict with Governor-Commander Alexos.” Sahir responded with a neutral tone just as he had previously on separate occasions. It earned a simple nod from the Malik of Pandjoras, supplemented by a raised talon in the air.
“An intentional mistake, my friend, for I knew his daughter would reel in his ambitious tendencies. I was mistaken to think that Saladin cared for his daughter. Upon the apex of Pandjoras’ greatest achievement, I battled with myself for thirteen days and thirteen nights about Saladin Gallos’ fate. Ultimately, I chose a bloodless option to allow Miska a life with her father. Now, we pay the price for a decision I should’ve made two decades ago.” Zaphariel explained with a hint of mortal compassion playing on his lips. The thought of Miska brought a coolness to his frustration, easing the temper that threatened to flair were it not for his oneness. A spark of fury, however, wormed through his speech. “His demise, however, is correct. I will feed his skull to Falak and let his body nurture a hibernaculum for her offspring in the bowels of this warship.”
Shipmaster Sahir felt his throat tighten in fear. The Malik of Pandjoras never feigned punishments throughout the Sultanate. In this instance, the man that was known as Saladin Gallos ceased to exist. He shared a look with the voxmaster, who replied with a simple nod and began to relay fresh orders to different conduits. Some of the voidsman had turned away in fear at the thought of their bodies being used as void serpent fertilizer. Others cracked small, sadistic smiles for the fate of a betrayer in their stellar empire. The former ashen raider, however, dismissed any notion of persuading Zaphariel from his actions. Instead, Sahir turned to the next discussion with a direction transition from the original.
“Understood, Malik Zaphariel, your will shall be done. There is another matter besides the fate of Saladin Gallos. We are now in open war with the Krakkarin System Alliance. They’ve chosen to fight a war of attrition from their fifteen worlds spread across three sectors. As you know, we’ve stationed blockades at every orbital dock, Empyrean lane, and sector edge. The hassan have exercised restraint in bringing each world to their knees, awaiting your final order to execute their clade orders.” Sahir pointedly spoke with a dataslate in one hand and the other behind his back. He glared over the specific information meticulously scrubbed, translated, and presented through the Umbral Armada. It was widely known, even to the Malik, that the Pandjoran legions were prepared to fight an overt war if necessary. Only a simple matter of execution was required to begin the process. He didn’t wait long for a reply from the dusken deity. It appeared that Zaphariel had already decided before their conversation began.
“Execute the leadership on every world, every fleet and every army save for their homeworld. No matter the fact that it was our failure that resulted in this war, Pandjoran blood has been shed for a misunderstanding on a minute level. We have no use for an obstinate culture to survive in the Sultanate. Unleash the legions upon Krakkaris Prime, dismiss Sultan Tassassar of the First Conclave, and ready a vox-wide transmission to the planet. If we can avoid a complete genocide, then I would rather gamble the chance to force an old dog to prostrate instead. If the populace refuses,” The Malik of Pandjoras stated without a hint of remorse, aware of the orders that he had issued. He watched voidsman scurry to transmit fresh communications on top of the previous ones. Zaphariel noticed a glint of anticipation in some of their eyes as if a fire had been lit in the duskenborn. His next words felt like the fanning of a flame as he spoke them. “Then cull them into compliance. It is time to announce the Umbral Jihad.”
As if promethium had been ignited, a thousand and one different actions took place in seconds. An umbral jihad had been announced across the Sultanate. The young stellar empire had never waged war on a supreme scale as the old world wars of the cataclysm. Now that one had been announced, the thousand and one skirmishes with xenos raiders and minor rebellions were coming to fruition. Posts, largely ceremonial in value, were activated in the Armada and prepared for large-scale conflict planet-side. Vehicles of war, fashioned from Bahamutian tech and reversed-engineered machines from vassals, were brought out of stagnation to fight. The Lessons of Hassan, ceremoniously sung by the skull-masked hafiz, switched to the Lessons of Dusk and anointed fresh recruits with the Tears of Pandjoras. Overt war was a rare thing in their culture, yet the Pandjorans were ready to deliver death if necessary.
Malik Zaphariel watched the command bridge become a blur of activity for a moment longer before standing. Shipmaster Sahir bowed his head in respect, then supplanted the place where his master had sat seconds before. There was no ceremonious call to attention, nor were instruments played as the Malik of Pandjoras departed. The heavy cloak of a grave burden clung to the dusken deity’s shoulders as he entered into the ship-wide maglev. As the doors closed, locking away his view from the command bridge, the prophet-king allowed himself a tiny, devious smile. Saladin Gallos had been a thorn in his side for twenty years and the Sultanate hadn’t participated in any great wars. His orchestration of fate had been perfect. All it took was a slight push from one of his many agents to rile the Nazim into action. He felt the want to laugh in celebration of the fruits of his labor, but he stifled his expressions for a mask of grim neutrality. Everything had gone just as planned, the same as it had before and after every single event.
Krakkarin Prime. A wasteland of a planet that spun around a pair of stars slowly combining in a death spiral. Poisonously green lakes dotted the surface in sporadic patches, while huge clumps of civilization blotted the sky with black clouds. A choking, orange landscape poked out from wherever the Krakkarin populace was least established. Devoid of verdant life, Krakkarin remained a testament to mankind’s willpower to harness the harsh mistress known as nature. Several space stations with a plethora of miniature dry docks orbited around the black-orange sphere in slow circles. Warships of small to medium caliber docked with these, refitting their bombardment cannons and point defense silos in a rush to meet the oncoming invaders. A trio of moons lingered around the world, each covered in a mess of dotted civilizations and surface-to-space defense weapons. They had been prepared for war from the start of their existence as if the universe plotted against them.
The outriders of the Sultanate fleet emerged from the Empyrean with tendrils of lilac licking off their scarred plating. Daunting frigates with scythe-like prows ventured into firing proximity of Krakkarin. Ballistic salvos from the Krakkarin fleet, the point-defense stations, and the horrendously armed moons bellowed death into the void. Pointed slugs the size of armored vehicles raced across the abyss in a race to welcome annihilation. The Pandjoran warships met the attack with reinforced shields, boosted by the psionics of Urahlian seers and Bahamutian repulsor-barriers. Farflung fighter-sized bullets bit into the protective shells, each threatening to buckle under the sheer amount of firepower absorbed. One of the Pandjoran frigates’ lost its shielding, buckling under the intense wave of the preliminary attacks. Piercing ammunition punctured hull-plating to such effect that the frigate began to crumple, resulting in a short explosion of cataclysmic energy. Krakkarins cheered over the general vox as they scored first blood against the invading forces of the Star Sultanate.
Until the arriving frigates returned fire with the malevolent force of a newborn god. Prow-mounted gravitic lances erupted in short, controlled bursts that pierced the shields of an archaic civilization. Outlying defense stations, corvettes, and lesser frigates were promptly destroyed in the counterattack. Each graviton lance delivered mayhem on every successful target, forcing hull plates and bulwarks to crunch in upon themselves in twisted death. On the upper platings of the Pandjoran frigates, ballistic hatches slid open to launch a plethora of devastating missiles screaming into space. As slow and lumbering as torpedoes, each payload would’ve been destroyed if launched at the beginning of combat; however, the Krakkarin fleet was now wounded by the initial graviton lances. To the surprise of the defenders, those screaming projectiles smashed into unshielded defenses. Moon-based turrets, military space stations, and blockading vessels disappeared in blossoms of eerily green-tinged plumes. Despite the initial victory against the Pandjorans, the System Alliance suddenly realized their folly.
As the frigates pressed forward with their annihilation, another wave from the Umbral Armada emerged in close proximity around the planet. Each came as a devastating cluster of warships primed for annihilation. Where one set would come from the system’s southward position, the next would come from the northward, and then the eastward, and so on until the arrival of the Sultanate’s most prestigious vessel. The Dawn of Pandjoras cut through the Empyrean like a leviathan being born from the myths of ages past. Aided by a trio of heavy cruisers, the dreadnought lumbered from the southward position with its myriad weapons of destruction ready to devastate. The Krakkarin war fleet, however, had been decimated by the outriders of the Sultanate. Proud warships that had seen the birth of their civilization drifted into the void as crumbled wrecks or burnt husks. Pandjoran voidships patrolled nearby, adhering to the will of the Malik and refraining from orbital bombardments. The heavier vessels drifted closer on perpetual motion, adjusting with maneuverable thrusters to deliver a thousand and one transports unto Krakkarin. The first part of the invasion had begun as fat-bellied dropships, heavy haulers, and titanic transports descended upon the black-orange regions of the wasteland planet.
The vox-channels of the System Alliance were flooded with panic as the first Pandjorans landed in their wastelands. Strings of encrypted messages rapidly reached every Krakkarin commander who could listen. Orders were rushed, defenses were mustered, and the disparate cities were ready to combat the invaders. Nothing had prepared them for what came next as the vox-channels were decyphered, broken, and opened for the Sultanate to speak into. The warm, soothing tone of the Malik of Pandjoras pierced through the divided channels.
+’I am the Malik of Pandjoras, Zaphariel ibn Varranis, and I have come to your world to right the wrongs of your leaders. We did not want to fight a war and usher in chaos across the System Alliance, but your leaders have forsaken you. Many Karrakin will die for the sake of stubbornness; however, the Sultanate will show clemency to those who are willing to live. For thirteen days and thirteen nights, the duskborn will not invade your cities or descend upon your armies. You may come to us and we will welcome you with open arms as friends, allies, and comrades seeking a greater future together. Join us in our pursuit of destiny! Glory unto Pandjoras!’+ His voice was the most solemn it had ever been, filled with duty and grief. Each word was spoken with the weight of a king’s promise, emphasizing the righteousness and compassion of the Sultanate’s actions. The vox-channels exploded in a flurry of activity as the message reached all edges of Krakkarin Prime. A thousand and one different opinions were hurled between laypeople, governors, and persons of order. Encrypted transmissions saw the most diversity as many commanders dangerously lingered on the verge of desertion. Worst of all was the grave violation of rights executed by Governor-Commander Alexos, who silenced all transmissions with a final grim order.
+’Kill every single member of the Sultanate that you greet. If you wish to join their side, then strap a bomb to your body and run into their camps. We will not surrender, we will not withdraw, and we will not bow to the Pandjorans. Should any of the populace show signs of resistance, then execute as you see fit.’+ The words were as morally draining as they were disappointing. Crisp silence blanked the vox-channels in an oppressive film.
For thirteen days and thirteen nights, not a single soul escaped from the entrenched cities of the Krakkarin System Alliance.
Zaphariel observed the affair from a nearby cluster of rocks far from the citadel-city of Karthos. He had watched the city that Governor-Commander Alexo commanded the entirety of the System Alliance from for fourteen cycles. Shrieks and shouts of rebellion filled the silence of the passing days as Krakkarins rose in defiance of their ineffective leaders. Their insurrections were short-lived as Krakkarin ballistics were turned on the people they swore to protect. The Malik of Pandjoras could taste the fear of the Alliance commanders as they hid within the safety of their metallic castle. None had dared to confront his legions of duskborn in the time they had given, yet the same was true that no one had managed to reach the safety of the Sultanate forces to escape the carnage. He briefly considered on the tenth day to send the hassan to finish the task, yet Zaphariel was firm in his conviction to allow his enemies their grace period.
A period of time that had passed. The Malik of Pandjoras turned away from the burgeoning, triple-layer walls of Karthos and towards the legions of warriors that hailed from the dusken world. Thousands of duskborn awaited his words, clad in the powered armor of their homeworld and armed with the weapons that could slaughter void serpents. Harvester dropships, heavily altered to fulfill new roles in the Sultanate, hovered nearby with macro-graviton pulsars and wing-mounted missile racks. Bulky, armored vehicles on low-intensity gravity shunts waited far behind the walls of infantry with insidiously large gravitic cannons. Immortals, warriors in enormous juggernaut warsuits, lumbered over the regular infantry with heavy monomolecular lances and body-sized claws with graviton-spraying talons. Noble hafiz with skull-shaped masks in midnight blue robes walked through the formations with censers spilling Pandjoran incense in one hand and serpent tooth scimitars in the other. Urahalian warseers quietly mediated amongst their number in dusken shrouds, each gripping runes in their talon-tipped gauntlets. At the edges of their legion, the serpent-tamers calmed their vicious ophidians with soothing songs of the penumbral planet. Finally, the most fearsome of all, the great serpent Falak coiled nearby with her eyes lingering on Zaphariel.
One of the duskborn approached him. A warrior in Pandjoran-powered armor, serpent silk shroud, and a half-skull helmet. As the distance was closed, the soldier offered a respectful salaam and a bowing of their head. A monomolecular blade swung from a sheathe on his left waist and a graviton pistol hung from a holster on his right side. Zaphariel returned the gesture with his own, dipping his head forward to receive the genuflection. The warrior rose once more, straightening his posture in the presence of his liege.
“Malik Zaphariel, the First Conclave is prepared to fight when you are ready. The rest of the legions have confirmed their readiness across Krakkarin. If we should need it, then the Umbral Armada has loaded a thousand and one shells to fight should you request it. The Conclaves will not fail you, my Umbral King.” The man’s voice was rough and solemn, leaving little room for pleasantry outside of his dialogue with Zaphariel. The dusken deity felt a commanding aura from the warrior, born from a lifetime of war and doctrine. He smiled beneath the hood of his dusken shroud, forcing some discomfort from the warrior-leader.
“You’ve grown up well, Tassassar, I can smell the fragrance of Neu Maccos in your blood. Emir Tayyeb has raised a strong son to lead in the Umbral Armada. No doubt, you feel you’re on the verge of greatness here,” Zaphariel responded in a soothing tone, each word laced with dripping honey. The reverberations spilled out of his tongue, echoing the sentence several times over. Tassassar appeared to visibly relax and hungrily await each word spoken by the Malik. He cursed his inability to completely control his serpent’s song. Nevertheless, he pressed on. “However, you will have to forgive me for stealing away that glory to lead our people. One day, I will compensate you for the fables told today. You and your sister both will receive what is rightfully yours.”
A moment passed as Tassassar processed the words, awkwardly adjusting his stance to deal with the sudden influx of emotion. Zaphariel was certain that he had been mesmerized before the Tuturian properly replied to him. “There… is no issue with this, my Malik. The honor of my sister joining hands with House Varranis as your wife is more than enough. You would continue to honor me by watching over her. Now, shall we drown them in dusk?” Tassassar managed to finally respond, bowing his head to the overwhelming form of the Umbral King. As he moved out of his genuflection, Zaphariel nodded his head in affirmation. Wordlessly, the half-skull helmet of the Sultan turned towards a group of kneeling duskborn behind him. He raised his talon-tipped gauntlet into the sky and swung it downwards in a chopping motion.
The war began in earnest after that singular gesture from the Sultan of the First Conclave. A thousand and one voices speaking the harsh language of the dusken world rallied Zaphariel’s legion into a controlled frenzy. Louder than ever before, the hafiz began to guide the warriors of Pandjoras in a fervent song of the Void Valley. The mamluk responded in crude Pandjoran, clearly inexperienced with the tongue of the umbral planet. Harvester dropships lifted high into the air, retaining a moderate altitude to defend the advancing Conclave from arcing artillery. Hovering tanks in the far back began to anchor themselves with a mixture of gravity tethers and serpent-hunting hooks. Graviton cannons were pointed to the sky charging with a thousand and one particle-cells. The serpent-tamers whispered an incoherent dialect of Pandjoran mixed with ophidian hisses, coaxing them into a hunting mania. The duskborn warriors clumped together in tight squads stalking behind the larger packs of mamluk.
Karthos did not wait for the First Conclave to close the distance. As if the citadel-city had awoken from a deep slumber, the rigid thumping of artillery and the harsh snap of ballistics echoed throughout the wastelands of Krakkarin. Enormous, blocky vehicles with two sets of wings emerged from within the city. Racks of missiles, heavy cannons, and quad-barrel turrets turned their attention to the Sultanate’s invading forces. Heavy machines on fat treads sallied out of the gates with their topside cannons aimed at the duskborn. A plethora of men in dense, slow-moving armor lumbered in tandem with the machines. Multibarreled weapons were carried by these warriors, their armor bolstering their height and strength several times over. The blast of a horn blared across Karthos as the first battle began.
Zaphariel observed the arcing shells flying through the sky from unseen artillery. He smiled as the harvester dropships unleashed a responsive payload from their missile racks to intercept. The missiles collided with the artillery, cascading plumes of explosives across the sky in wide swathes. His serpentine eyes turned towards the battle on the ground as the mamluk and duskborn evaded salvos of ballistic death. A crew of lumbering Krakkarin’s sprinted towards the exposed flank of a wandering squad. They were quickly intercepted by duskborn in similarly large powered armor, torn to shreds by monomolecular claws and spears of enormous proportions. The first of the System Alliance’s tanks exploded in a gout of flames as a gravitic cannon pierced through the primitive hull with ease. Void serpents hunted through rock, stone, and metal on ethereal leashes, diving into tanks and bunkers alike to feast. The Malik of Pandjoras could see the tides of war churn ever in their favor as the System Alliance’s soldiers began to retreat, withdraw, or surrender. He clicked his tongue in disappointment. His eyes turned away from the battle to rest upon the leviathan form of Falak.
“Go and hunt. Return to me when you are finished feasting.” He stated with a commanding voice, walking forward to place a talon-tipped gauntlet on Falak’s head. Even now, he could see his bodily proportions changing as a single fist was as large as the elder serpent’s eye. Her scales pulsated beneath his touch, reacting in an unfathomable form. The great serpent of the void pulled away from his touch, diving through the soil of Krakkarin to hunt. Her form disappeared, lost beneath a thousand and one grains of blasted dirt. To his surprise, Falak reemerged at the edge of the city to bite into one of the heavy hovercraft of the System Alliance. The behemoth machine was pulled into the far-off wasteland, exploding into a great, nuclear plume. Unphased by the actions of his pet monstrosity, the Malik of Pandjoras ambled down towards the quickly falling city of Karthos.
Duskborn unleashed waves of gravitic bullets into the Sultanate’s enemies, reinforced by the enhanced stubbers of the mamluk and the overwhelming defense of the Pandjoran juggernauts. Overhead, the harvester dropships vented fury into densely packed artillery formations with macro pulsars. The gravity tanks, satisfied with their initial engine kills, had begun to drift forward to acquire a new firing position. As a stalemate began to fester at the eastward gates, Zaphariel emerged from the seams of reality with tendrils of dark lilac lightning coursing off of his dusken shroud. Each step of the dusken deity was as light as a grain of black sand and launched him several meters closer. The malevolent guns of the Krakkarin’s attempted to target the dusken deity to no avail. He danced across the wastelands with each hypnotizing lunge, clawing through flesh and metal in microseconds during the macabre caper. Monomolecular talons pierced the tank hull, ripping apart tread as easily as he tore through sinew. The First Conclave watched in awe as their Malik murdered his way through Karthos’ defenses with inhuman ease, despite wearing the powered armor of Pandjoras. The phantom form of the prophet-king settled by the closed gates of the citadel-city. Their Umbral King breathed in once, gathering the wisps of unreality around him.
The gate crumpled as the words of reality began to fester through the ethereal veil. Metal as thick as an elder serpent's body was long began to crunch within itself. The threads of the world answered his call in ways unfathomable. The destruction of the crumbling portal halted as the bolts began to crack and warp. Zaphariel closed his eyes in disappointment, hiding the planet from his view for a solitary moment. Oneness surrounded him in a silent web of concentration. As he opened his serpentine eyes, the Malik of Pandjoras pulled a strange blade from a scabbard dangling off his right side. A beautiful, curved blade with a monomolecular edge hummed with power at the press of a Pandjoran rune. The dusken deity raised the blade and swiped downwards in a slow, curving arc. The barrier shattered into several blocks with the precise, inhuman strikes of the prophet-king. A thousand and one cheers in the Pandjoran tongue echoed behind him as they rushed forward. Despite the victory, he felt despondent regarding his abilities. Never working when mustered, but always performing against his will. He ambled forward into Karthos as the blade was sheathed once more.
Although he had broken apart their gate like the crashing waves of an umbral tide, Zaphariel knew that victory was still a short way off. Duskborn poured into the city with their mamluk allies at the forefront. Warriors ranging from different worlds across the Sultanate, like the long-eared Idratharians, bestial-faced Monolokians, or the lizard-people Zteklokians. They fought with the fiery and fire of one hailing from Pandjoras and more. The Malik of Pandjoras grinned at the surprising efforts of the mamluk and began to reconsider their role in Pandjoran culture. An unnerving stomp drew his attention away from the flooding duskborn. The duskclad juggernauts walked in a half-circle before him, each bearing their weapon in a defensive pose to shield him. Their impressive size was a boon to the Sultanate, but they were easily dwarfed by his inhuman height.
The Malik of Pandjoras softly laughed, forcing their lumbering forms to regard him with inquisitive looks beneath the plating. Zaphariel raised a hand to halt their oncoming question as he adjusted himself. “I apologize, good friends! You honor me with your endurance, but I do not require protection. Go, protect your less armored brothers and sisters. Your Malik of Pandjoras will be fine.” His voice was surprisingly energetic, regardless of the self-imposed defeat from moments ago. He could feel them strain the warsuits to kneel in an attempt to honor him, yet the Umbral King laid a hand on one of their pauldrons. A single look from beneath his shroud was enough to invigorate their leviathan physiques. The one that he had touched raised the monomolecular lance into the air, ushering in a fresh charge through Karthos.
As the last of the first wave passed into the citadel-city, Zaphariel turned his attention to the tallest structure around. The Malik rationalized that Karthos wasn’t a hive city, yet understood the universal importance of a spire. A great, jagged shape that cut the clouds and loomed over everything that it deemed ‘lesser’. One such building existed within these walls, yet it paled in comparison to the towering heights of Idrathar III or Pandjoras’ gravity palaces. A stout, flat-roofed tower made of staunch-white concrete rose like a finger over Karthos. Weapon emplacements belched torrents of bullets from heavy weapons off parapet-balconies. The dusken deity narrowed his eyes to hone in on a motionless transport at the top of the tower, clearly used in the most dire of circumstances. Defensible, utilitarian, and as ugly as the badlands that it lorded over. He knew without a second thought that the Governor-Commander hid at the peak of it.
A plethora of shadows ducked and weaved in sparse groups around him. Zaphariel could keenly feel the presence of the hassan even as they spread out to slaughter. One squad remained in proximity to his form, protecting against anything that could harm him. Regardless of the frustration, the Malik of Pandjoras felt a sense of pride that every duskborn would so valiantly rally to his side. He flashed a toothy grin in their direction, unnerving those bound to the shadows of Krakkarin. Perhaps, after having been easily noticed, the hassan disappeared to execute a different mission. The thoughts left him as the sounds of battle reignited once more. New firefights had cropped up as the First Conclave pushed through Karthos’ concrete labyrinth. The dusken deity leaped from his position, eschewing the observative stance he had taken to view the battlefield.
As his armored feet landed on top of a concrete building, he stared into it with his eyes narrowing. Serpentine pupils adjusted to see radiant heat signatures within. Unsurprisingly, he only saw the dim warmth of dead bodies filled with plentiful wounds. He had known that the quest to liberate Karthos was altogether vanity, yet the dusken deity had hoped to achieve some form of forgiveness for his actions. Zaphariel released the razor-sharp focus of his orange eyes and turned to the closest alcove below him. Duskborn warriors fiercely battled the grey-armored Krakkarin militants. Pandjoran monomolecular weapons ferociously tore into human flesh, easily piercing through the System Alliance carapace. Bursts of gravitic bullets warped the wounds inflicted on the Krakkarin’s, forcing them to their knees or crumpling their body from within. It was a scene that was playing across the entirety of Karthos as the war waged on. Artillery no longer filled their ears with shrieking shells, nor did their hovering behemoths harass the Pandjoran assailants. The Malik of Pandjoras wondered if there was even a point to his intervention as he deftly leaped to the next building. Each step brought him closer to the ugly Krakkarin spire.
Governor-Commander Alexos worriedly observed the battlefield from the uppermost balcony hanging over the spire. The Krakkarin military spat death onto a tide of black-orange warriors from the Sultanate, each Pandjoran corpse quickly replaced with another in an unending torrent. Other abhumans mingled into the mess of their enemies, such as disgusting beastmen and inhumanly tall individuals with gangly limbs. His eyes scanned the city in a desperate attempt to locate the rest of the System Alliance forces. It was a vain effort as the Sultanate was swiftly sweeping through the defenses they had prepared during the grace period. He hadn’t expected their frontal gate, the very symbol of their ingenious defenses, to crumple at the hands of the Malik. Sweat beaded down his forehead as the situation appeared grim.
Alexos slammed his fists against the parapet, threatening to crack the stone beneath his powered gauntlets. Anger burned in him as a festering wound in a dying body. Everything was displeasing to him, even the people who had lived in Karthos were disappointing. He turned away from the despairing sight of the siege towards the gaggle of officers surrounding a hololithic table. An image of Krakkarin rose as a digital entity in real space. His ears picked up their discussion as he approached.
“... And Mundas Ire has already fallen to the Sultanate. Commander Yavros was reported as deceased at the time of their assault. No doubt it was the work of the legendary Pandjoran hassans. Seventy-five percent of Karthos’ zones have already been lost to their advance as well. We need to start looking at an exit stra-” One of the officers, a tall man with a thin beard and slicked black hair, had been speaking at a rapid pace to the rest of the group. As the final words left his mouth, Alexos closed the distance and delivered a fierce punch to the officer’s face. The man fell backward onto his back, clutching the wound on his face from the strength-enhanced punch of the Governor-Commander. His place at the table was quickly replaced by the assailant.
“There will be no retreat or exit strategy. We cannot lose to an empire of sandborn savages from the furthest reaches of space. The System Alliance has prevailed for five thousand years even when the void storms began to darken our nights. We are the last bastion of humanity left in the universe. Falling here would mean the demise of humankind as it was.” Alexos’ face was bright red, darkened with furious emotions emphasized by the brooding tone in his voice. The officers listened with a mixture of awe and fear as their leader silenced the dissenter. The Governor-Commander straightened himself out and pointed toward the bottom of the spire on the hololithic map. “It is time we unleashed the witches of the wastelands upon the invaders. If they cannot win out against the Sultanate, then we will resort to the nuclear payload from our ancestors.”
Each of the officers began to pale at the thought of the things that had been kept locked away since the darkest nights. Creatures of legend, monsters of folktale, and beings of malevolence were sealed in a cell of impossible creation below the spire. The men and women in the room cautiously looked at each other with desperate eyes. Alexos, of them all, held the darkest expression as he rationalized the release of cataclysmic beings upon Krakkarin. He knew it was the price for victory, yet he wasn’t certain how it would ultimately turn out.
An explosion rocked the core of the spire, turning their attention away from the discussion and toward the source of destruction. Alexos hurriedly walked out onto one of the three balconies, staring down at the mass of Pandjoras below. Heavily armored warriors in impossibly large plating charged through a mess of Krakkarin infantry, pulverizing those in their way into a fine paste. As they closed the distance between themselves and the spire gates, a hot blast of volcanic hatred vented down upon their lumbering forms. The Sultanate’s heavy infantry screamed out in agony as their bodies disappeared in flashes of bright orange. A temporary retreat was sounded on the invader’s side. Black-orange dots ran away with their abhuman allies covering in vain. The Governor-Commander grew a smile on his lips as their most advanced warsuits stepped out onto the battlefield. Leviathan suits of metal on quadruple legs with a living pilot at the center bore a pair of huge armaments on either side of the cockpit. Five of them sallied out from the spire, unleashing waves of destruction into the most dense group of duskborn.
Satisfied, Alexos turned back toward the officers with a relieved look on his face. A small chuckle bubbled up from their group, easing the rising tension that had begun to spread like a virus. One by one, they all returned to the hololithic table to begin their war planning anew. A vox-shriek from a nearby console pulled their attention away. The console was interacted with by one of their guards, armed with a powered saber and holstered slugthrower. After several seconds of discussion, the sentinel turned to address the officers.
“One of the frontline commanders is coming, Commander Alexos, how would you like to proceed?” His voice was muffled by a vox-filter built into a square helmet. Crimson lenses settled on the squat, frustrated form of the Governor-Commander.
“And deprive our frontlines of a necessary officer? Hardly. Deny access to the commander and inform them to return to the battle with haste. We cannot spare any more time or resources than we are currently expending.” The response was swift, uttered in a fraction of a second after the guard had inquired. The soldier respectfully nodded before leaning back down to the console with a vox-device pressed to his throat. As he completed the request, the guard returned to sentinel duty by the ascender leading up to their conference room. “Now, as I was beginning to say about the witches in the-”
The portal into the chamber exploded outwards with both of the doors flying off of their sliding hinges. Each guard attempted to turn towards the assailant, yet lost their heads in mere seconds of the attack. Vitae gushed from their bodies as a dark shadow began to push through the room. Officers reached down to grab their holstered weapons. The first of their number was picked up with blinding speed and flung through one of the open-air balconies. The second was torn in half by a claw-like weapon that vivisected their body in milliseconds. The third and fourth scrambled to pull the hololithic table up as cover, but their assailant had kicked the furniture against them with such force that their bodies were pasted against the walls. The final officer, reeling from Alexos’ punch, struggled to pull his weapon free. A swift, precise kick to the stomach was enough to render them unconscious. All that remained was the Governor-Commander.
He raised his fists with malice, arcs of electricity dancing across the enhancing gauntlets of his warsuit. The shadowy thing began to meld out of the chaos, swathed in Pandjoran-pattern powered armor and dusken shroud alike. Talon-tipped gauntlets dripped with fresh ichor from the defeated Krakkarins, while a small grin flashed beneath a dark hood. Their size was absurd as they towered above him as a monolithic deity of old Karthos. Alexos knew without a doubt that the Malik of Pandjoras had invaded his chambers to slice open his throat. Strangely, the dusken entity waited for him to act first.
“You’re a fool, Malik! You cannot simply walk into the spire and leave with your life! Do you court death with your vain wishes for your blasted homeworld? Can you not fathom the hopelessness of your forces against the might of the Krakkarin System Alliance!?” Alexos spit out as he lunged forward with his right fist raised to strike the Malik of Pandjoras. He watched as the Pandjoran easily evaded the attack, walking past him without an ounce of fear. As the Governor-Commander turned to fight back, he realized that his right forearm was gone. Cut perfectly at the elbow, vitae bubbled up and spilled out of the wound with urgency. The Krakkarin fell to his knees as pain overwhelmed his senses. His eyes turned away from the injury to the dusken deity with eternal hatred. The prophet-king uttered a small laugh as he looked down on Alexos.
“For someone who thinks they are a player in the great game, I’m surprised you didn’t realize how you merely played as a pawn. Thanks to you, Alexos, you’ve given the Pandjorans an endless supply of confidence for millennia to come. Any future war that we wage will be done so with ease. Thanks to you, I can finally remove a venomless serpent from my conquest of the stars. There is much that I have to thank you for, dear enemy,” Zaphariel finally spoke, each word graced with an increasing smile that quickly grew into an unnervingly toothy grin. He stepped forward towards the kneeling form of Alexos, who tried to shuffle backward on shambling limbs. There was some part of him deep down that enjoyed watching his prey scuttle in fear. Effortlessly, he lifted the man by his armpits as he walked out onto the balcony. Now face to face, the Malik of Pandjoras could discern every disgusting feature on his imperfect edifice. “But one of the best things you could’ve for me was given plentiful justification to enact every part of this war. As we close this chapter, my friend, I will unleash your witches and cut them down before my Pandjorans. They will weep tears of gratitude and wipe your culture from the annals of history. Your people will become nothing but cosmic dust in our great quest for the Star Serpent.”
Held aloft in his arms like a child, Alexos began to hyperventilate and sob. His eyes screamed for mercy in their wet stare. Each sob caused his body to struggle in his claws, yet Alexos still managed to slip out a string of meaningless words. “S-Saladin was right! You’re a monster in human skin! You are the bane of your people! You will usher in darkness upon the galaxy for millennia to come! You are a daemon given mortal form!” The words caused something to stir inside of the Malik of Pandjoras. He had never truly considered the last words of his enemies, yet these expressions filled his soul with an indescribable emotion. For a moment, it appeared as if the Umbral King would spare the enemy that he had fought against. A small puddle of hope began to formulate inside of the Governor-Commander.
Zaphariel snapped back to him with a sad smile, both of his serpentine eyes lingering on the shivering form of the Governor-Commander.. “Indeed, dear Alexos, but with minor adjustments. I will drown the galaxy in a dusk that allows the brightest souls to illuminate it. A new dawn will rise over Pandjoras to free her from the vestiges of darkness eons after I have perished. If becoming a serpent in human skin is what it takes, then I would gladly wear umbral scales to welcome my ideal future. Destiny is within my grasp and I will mold it to my will for my people. Now, my friend, your time has come to drown in dusk.” He replied with a confidence that broke through his perpetual masquerade. Each word was spoken without alteration, allowing his foe to witness his true convictions without shame. A simple toss saw the Governor-Commander of the Krakkarin System Alliance drop from the top of the spire. His screams echoed throughout Karthos as a macabre durge. Many of the warriors fighting in the city turned towards the source with peaked interest. Those closest to the spire witnessed Alexos erupt into a pile of gore as the ground met his plummeting body. No sooner had the lord of the world been defeated did the disparate forces slowly surrender to the might of Pandjoras.
The Malik of Pandjoras breathed in deeply at the serene scene of his enemies surrendering en masse. Their war for Krakkarin was swiftly closing in with satisfactory casualties on the side of the Sultanate. For their first war in nearly a century, Zaphariel considered the quasi-experiment complete as he turned away from the balcony. One test yet remained to be completed. One final push to truly usher destiny’s vestiges into his claws. One last atrocity on Krakkarin to fully deliver the remnants of independence to the Umbral King. As he closed the distance to the hololithic table, his movements began to grow slow and hesitant. Did he truly wish to unleash those supposed witches upon the Pandjorans and Krakkarins? Was it necessary to orchestrate the great quest for destiny? What was the point of the journey if it meant betraying his people? Each thought raced through his head as the hologram of the cells beneath the spire spun before him.
“Glory,” Zaphariel ibn Varranis said with a grim frown, pressing one of the runes on the table to activate the cells. The hologram began to blink red with several activation warnings spreading across the display. A thousand and one vocal tones erupted from nearby vox-relays of their impending doom. Another statement appeared before the eyes of the Malik, demanding affirmation of his actions. Without any further hesitation, he pressed the rune once more to accept the demise of those closest to the spire. The inner workings of the spire began to rattle as the horrors of the Old Night were unleashed. He lashed out at the table with a talon, permanently enabling the unlocking procedures. One foot followed the next as Zaphariel grabbed hold of the unconscious officer. A tool that he would use as a scapegoat for his actions. He turned back to view the table as he entered the ascender, glimpsing the blinking runes in holographic tint. “Unto Pandjoras.”
The Dawn of Pandjoras was awash with celebration. Banners of freshly woven serpent silk hung from walls with new tales etched within. Instruments of the two hundred worlds blared in different sections of the ship, echoing into a beautiful orchestra of majestic nature. Men and women frolicked in Pandjoran dances, celebrating their survival and fulfilling promises of future endeavors. Duskborn warriors enjoyed the fruits of their labor on mulled serpent blood and lavish meats from across the Sultanate. The myriad mamluk abhumans mingled together with their legionnaire counterparts, happily discussing the next pivotal moments of their life outside of the First Conclave. Hafiz wandered the black sand-covered halls with delightful scents pouring from their censers, and boastful words of victory spilled from their skeleton masks. Menials that had supported the offenses reveled in the glory of new accolades, gloating about different parts of the invasion they had assisted. Even amongst these numbers, there were still more that relished the once-in-a-century accomplishments. Those officers, commanders, and higher-ranked officials who succeeded at Karthos gathered in the largest section of the warship: the Palace of the Malik.
A wide, oval-shaped chamber as wide as thirty harvester dropships and as tall as thirteen elder void serpents rested at the center of the dreadnought. Divided only by the entrances and a small alcove for a bed chamber, the Palace of the Malik was a lavish replica of a gravity palace. Everything was hued in marvelous orange, midnight blue, vibrant purple, and abyssal black. A thousand and one serpent-sculpted glow globes mounted the gravitic stone walls, while wide rugs of ornately decorated serpent silk blanketed the tiled floors. Great pillars rose to support the chamber, chiseled with every tale told on the umbral world. Marvelous murals dotted the walls, each depicting the greatest achievements of the Sultanate in superb detail. Dusken chairs, meditative pillows, and low tables in resplendent glory lined the room in sparse clumps. A graviton particle fountain, carved in a reproduction of the Valley of the Void, lingered at the near center of the room. Built around the fountain was a table beyond imagination, inscribed with the prophetic tale of the Umbral King. Slick cogitators hummed beneath it as orange holograms danced across the decorated surface. Thirteen ornate seats with effigies of the Houses surrounded the table with a final seat replaced by a gorgeous facsimile of the Varranian Throne.
Upon this throne, Zaphariel ibn Varranis happily watched the joy of his people indulge in the lavishness of victory. The great Sultans of House Tuturan and Korvaix drank with one another, pledging oaths of friendship and mending ancient grudges. Mamluk commanders marveled at the sheer size, scale, and majesty of the chamber they’d been permitted to enter. The Hakims of the Hafiz, their spiritual hierarchs and hierophants, meditated closest to the tiny graviton rivers that flowed through the Palace. The immortals, those warriors that wore juggernaut warsuits, loudly laughed with one another as they engaged in martial challenges. Envoys from recently joined cultures across the Sultanate relished the peace and joy they felt in the chamber. Many and more of the highest profiles from the empire wafted through to enjoy the extravagances of the Malik. Mingled into the mix of attendees were twelve of his wives, each dressed in a mixture of House color and Sultanate decor. To his imperceivable joy, even some of the Emir had journeyed to the expanses of space to revel. Of note, however, the dusken deity spied the grown form of Miska al-Gallos in attendance with the prestigious Emir Saladin. Their arrival heralded the beginning of many celebratory nights.
The Malik of Pandjoras rose from the throne with a thin smile on his lips. In the environment of his choosing, Zaphariel had long ago doffed the powered armor of war and instead donned the robes of his ascendancy. An exquisite, void-hued robe fashioned from elder serpent silk and embroidered with his prophecy in ocher colors fit his form. A midnight cloak hung from his shoulders, cascading down his body past regal gloves with talon-tipped rings and imperial balagha with metallic tips. A marigold laurel complimented a crown of eight horns split in even distances, decorated by thirteen, eye-shaped gems topped by a dusken halo lifted by a miniature gravity engine. All eyes turned to the immaculate form of the Sultanate’s Umbral King, pausing amid their conversations or activities to address the dusken deity.
“You all honor me with your attention, attendance, and time in joining our celebration against Krakkarin’s tyranny! I know many of you have traveled far from Pandjoras or further out towards the Serpent’s Tail. I hope that you have found your accommodations acceptable and your drinks filled.” Zaphariel momentarily paused as a brief chuckle erupted like a wave through the attending officials. His orange, serpentine eyes wandered over the crowd as they began to quiet themselves down once more. “As is the tradition of our dusken world, our celebration will last for thirteen days and thirteen nights. Ours is a tradition born from the lessons of the hassan, which encourage us to celebrate every occurrence in which survival is a question and not an answer. These days, we are allowed to drink deeply and express our gratitude to those who protected our lives. One of my favorite lessons that I learned growing up in the halls of Neu Alamut; however, I wish to personally honor those that made the Second Umbral Jihad as bloodless as possible.”
The immortals, who had once been indulging to their heart's delight, maneuvered away from the affairs and rose up to stand beside the throne. Each member was duskborn, donned in a dusken shroud and ornate bodysuits fit for celebratory events. One by one, the warriors claimed different boxes, chests, and storages of varying sizes and decorations. They returned to a tight-lined formation with gifts in each of their arms, outstretched for a recipient.
“What would a celebration be without gifts aplenty! I would honor those who journeyed far with boxes of jewelry, those who fought in the Sultanate with chests of trinkets, and those who claimed accolades from destiny with trunks of Pandjoras’ finest! Come forth, my beloved Pandjorans, and enjoy the fruits of your labor!” Zaphariel announced with a voice that reverberated several times over, willing reality into an uncontrollable frenzy. The attendees burst into an adorative fervor, proclaiming a thousand and one different promises of worship or oaths for the Umbral King. Each immortal stepped out into the throng of Pandjorans, delivering the gifts that their Malik had promised with determination and joy. Regardless of their joy, he observed every gift delivered with intense interest. Their emotions, their attitude, and their personalities were recorded deep within his mind for later usage. His lips curled further into a joyful smile as he reclaimed his throne once more with his head resting against one of his hands.
The gift-delivering process took the better part of the occasion as each box was a particular prize for a specific individual. Many received their physical award, offered a cheer in his name, and left after several minutes of conversation with other attendants. Others, primarily the Emir, received their present with a mixture of gratitude and confusion. They, and their attending heirs, remained behind as the guests slowly filtered out of the Palace. Slowly, as if understanding the gravity of the situation, those Emir that had arrived or their representatives began to find their seat at the great table. Of their number, the only Emir of name that arrived were Jerciho al-Nathaz, Saladin ibn Gallos, Azahar ibn Urahal, and Zarmira ibn Gallax. As the final guest was ushered out of the Palace, the immortals closed the entrances into the abode of the Malik. Zaphariel’s temperance changed as his warriors sealed away the chamber from the rest of the warship.
“It is good to see your faces. I’ve dreamt a thousand and one times of each moment we had spent together during the Unification. I will never forget what each of you has sacrificed to make our dreams a reality, nor will I forget the promises I made as a young sheik.” He spoke in a solemn tone, reminiscing on the memories of a younger Pandjoras. Zarmira warmly smiled, bowing her head in appreciation. Jericho tipped his head forward in gratitude. Azahar grinned and gestured in an archaic signaling language from Old Pandjoras. Saladin dapped his forehead with a piece of cloth, nodding his head in thanks. “It is my duty, however, to recognize those that have achieved much and more in our culture as the Malik of Pandjoras. Today, I wish to honor that duty for one who is present.”
His attention fell upon the heiress of House Gallos, Miska, who momentarily appeared stunned as the table turned towards her. To the throng of Emir and Sheiks, Miska was as ordinary as an aristocratic duskborn could be. Dusken skin with orange, serpentine eyes complimented soft and fierce facial features. Long, black braids decorated her scalp, while thin freckles darkened the minute Gallosian sigils inked across her cheeks. She donned a serpent silk robe in dawn hues, aided by a shoulder cape of umbral jakaal fur. Regardless of her status, Saladin’s heiress wore minimal jewelry other than a thin cluster of void pearls that covered the outer edge of her ears. The surprise passed as she closed her eyes, bowing her head in respect to the Malik of Pandjoras.
“Many of you are unaware of her feats and why this pertains to the Second Umbral Jihad. She has quelled a thousand and one minor houses across the Sultanate, integrated cultural aristocrats into the house system, and linked our journey through the Star Serpent at every step. Her achievements are many, but the mamluk are one of her greatest suggestions to appease the minor houses. Without her, the Umbral Armada would not be what it is today.” Zaphariel stated with a smile while reaching down to activate a Pandjoran rune on the ornate table. A hololithic display of her achievements in statistical form appeared before the gathered Houses of Pandjoras. Each entry was small, yet there was a sheer quantity to the work she had orchestrated across the Sultanate. Even Saladin, her father, gazed in awe at what his heiress had achieved. The dusken deity saw through the awe, though, and witnessed the beginnings of a bubbling rage. His smile grew ever so slightly wider.
“You honor me, dear fri- my Malik. Everything that I’ve done is in the name of the Illuminated Star Sultanate, Pandjoras, and you.” She bowed her head once more, dipping it towards the members of the table. Her voice was as soft as her face, yet each word was backed with purpose and determination. He noticed the intentional establishment of importance in her last words. Clever, he thought to himself, ever since the days you were a young child. Miska decidedly chose not to speak further, allowing the data to talk on her behalf. The Emir were pleased as they spoke amongst themselves, all except Saladin. The wobbling man fumed with frustration, clearly expressing an aura of betrayal. He wiggled out of his seat in an undignified rush of vexation, then turned towards his heiress with a raised finger.
“Traitor! You steal the glory that I had forged for our House! Do you have no shame, child of mine!? Do you feel-” Saladin ibn Gallos began to scream at the heiress of his House, each word spoken with a mixed tone of ferocity and disappointment. Miska, docile as she had been raised, lowered her head in controlled fear. She submitted to the verbal lashing from her House Emir, father, and guardian. An aura of imperceivable rage forced the man’s lips shut. He felt compelled to kneel, cower, and sing praise all at once. Whatever anger had smothered his soul was extinguished by overwhelming fear.
The source of the aura was found at the facsimile Varranian Throne. Zaphariel ibn Varranis stared with an intent to kill at the wobbling form of Saladin. Each of his orange, serpentine eyes glared unwaveringly down at his person. Every Emir, Sheikh, and Immortal in the Palace of the Malik began to uncontrollably flatten themselves into a bow or kneel. One of his claws flexed hard enough to crumble one of the arms of his throne. As the last members prostrated from his intense aura, the Malik of Pandjoras closed his eyes to enter oneness. A calmness slithered through the chamber, releasing those enthralled by the wordless spirit with gasping breaths and shaky limbs. Emir Saladin gripped the edge of the table with hazardous gasps as the dusken deity opened his eyes once more.
“Enough.” The Malik of Pandjoras stated with a solemn tone, waving a hand over the holograms to clear the table. Each piece of data revolving around Miska disappeared, replaced with numerous different strings of information relating to Saladin. Chief amongst them was a log detailing the events that led up to the Krakkarin System Alliance’s call to war. A confession from the Warlord of Carnage, the officer who had unleashed the nightmare witches, spoke volumes of their first interaction with the Gallosian Emir. Several other cases of ushering minor house revolts, stealing away commerce from different planets, and inciting publications against the lessons of the hassan were provided. The man began to grow pale in fear at the sights before him.
“I have allowed you to live despite everything you have done for twenty years, Saladin. I respected you as one of the Great House Maliks and I valued you as a shrewd merchant-king of the umbral sands. I acquiesced to your demands at the Unification thrice fold, I observed every action you took against me in the great journey, and I allowed your survival for the sake of Miska.” Zaphariel spoke once more with a sad tone, hints of frustration were evident in his voice yet it was superseded by disappointment. One of his hands brushed against his face, slicking down the groomed beard growing along his lips and chin. He cast a look at Miska, who caught his stare and grimly nodded in acceptance. Satisfied, the Malik of Pandjoras continued. “No longer. You have forsaken your allegiance to me. Before the eyes of the Thirteen Houses, as is my privilege as the Malik of Pandjoras, I cast you from your position as Emir of House Gallos and forfeit your rights to life under the dusken sky. In your place, Emir Miska al-Gallos will lead the Great House forever more until the day of her death.”
Rage blinded the senses of former Emir Saladin ibn Gallos as a flush red washed over his face. He stood up with all the willpower that he could muster, gritting his teeth in huffing anger. A finger was pointed at the seated form of Zaphariel, words beginning to spill forth from his quivering lips. “You are a monstrosity born from the dusken sands! Everything you’ve achieved can only be described as mystic and wyrd! You must’ve formed a blood pact with Falak and gained powers unimaginable to aspire to such heights! I raised you, Sheik Zaphariel, and I know you! Whatever you are, whatever you may be, will bring about the damnation of Pandjoras! I swear upon a thousand and one grains of black sand that the fruit of your great quest will spoil and rot! Nothing will-” Saladin’s intense words were suddenly halted as blade slashed across his throat at lightning speed. He stumbled forward against the table, leaning upon it with his great weight. Panicked eyes regarded Zaphariel with anger, yet found that he hadn’t moved from his throne. The Pandjoran turned to his daughter, who had slid a monomolecular dagger back into a hidden sheath. A gurgle from his throat pushed out a puddle of blood onto his person as tears flooded his eyelids. Both of his orange eyes were closed to the world, forever shut to never achieve ambitious dreams again.
The Malik of Pandjoras observed with a mixture of interest and sorrow. He had intended to decapitate the Emir of Gallos himself, yet Miska had performed the deed faster than he had. His rage that had been felt before the events on Krakkarin fled away as grains of black sand in a gravity tempest. The other Emir remained stalwart after the incident, yet some of the representatives seemed shaken by the affair. Regardless, each would have to accept the actions before them. Zaphariel turned to one of the immortals, softly gesturing for them to handle the bleeding corpse of Saladin. They were swift in their task, carrying the carcass away and wiping the table clean of Pandjoran blood. No sooner had the immortals finished their tasks did Miska take the seat of her late father. She sat proudly amongst the Thirteen with her head held high. No doubt, he thought, she was prepared to do this.
“Bring his body back to Pandjoras to rest in Neu Alepp when the celebrations have concluded, Emir Miska. Ensure that his sarcophagus is sealed with black sand and a splash of liquid from the Valley of the Void.” Zaphariel commanded, responded only with a simple nod from Miska. Falak would grow hungry tonight as he had promised her the body of Saladin, yet it was a simple thing to feed the void wyrm. The remainder of those in the Palace of the Malik awaited the next words from the dusken deity. He wouldn’t disappoint them any further than they had been with the affair. “I will not threaten you with this fate, dear friends. What has occurred here was a consequence of my mercy and I will atone for that in my own ways. The first of which is renewing the pact of allegiance with House Gallos.”
“Miska al-Gallos, Emir of House Gallos, Shah of the Minor Houses, shall become my thirteenth and final wife. She will preside over all of her ilk as the First and Last. From this moment forward, all heiress’ of House Gallos will have a claim over this position so long as I live and after her demise.” His words were as soothing as they were dominating. A ripple of fresh smiles burst through the heavy atmosphere at the elated news. The final promise of the Unification had been fulfilled with Miska taking the last spot in his harem. Emir Zarmira shook her head in defeat, clearly wishing for a different outcome. Emir Azahar laughed loudly and joyfully at the sudden change of pace. Jericho nodded in approval, silent as ever. Miska beamed with controlled delight standing from her seat and offering a heartfelt bow in acceptance. Little did the other Emir know, Zaphariel and Miska had spoken of this for years in the shadows of her activities.
“With this conclusion and the Houses once again free of reckless ambition, the Sultanate will proceed forward to claim dominion over the Star Serpent. A hundred worlds remain on the charts of Old Pandjoras with the last two at the tip of the Serpent’s Tongue. Each world will be personally sought to and integrated into Pandjoras with my presence. House Gallos will remain here to cleanly quell the tides of war from the System Alliance as a show of good faith.” The Malik of Pandjoras demanded, spreading one of his hands out once more to clear the holographic displays. New worlds orbited in dense clusters above the table, loosely tangled together in the long stretch of space known as the Star Serpent. Names appeared over each system, each was then assigned a House to govern said territory. Sensing the end of their time in the Palace of the Malik, the House Emir and their representatives stood up from the chairs. Zaphariel continued with a toothy grin growing on his lips. “Now go and enjoy time away from administration and lordship! Drink deeply, eat heartily, and bask in the gifts you’ve been given. Glory unto Pandjoras!”
“Glory unto Pandjoras!” The room quaked with the universal phrase of the Sultanate. Each of the House Emir offered their thanks, bowing and walking out of the Palace with a mixture of emotions. Emir Zarmira had to be dragged from the table by her subordinates, feigning crying for more time in the presence of Zaphariel. Emir Jericho grasped forearms with the Malik, swearing new oaths and revealing new details on upcoming projects. Emir Azahar loudly professed small prophecies of victory, glory, and conquest in the Umbral King’s name as he left. Each of their responses filled the dusken deity’s heart with fragments of joy, erasing the frustration of Krakkarin’s campaign. Only Miska al-Gallos remained behind, refusing to speak until the last person in the chamber had left. A look from the prophet-king dismissed the immortals, who quickly left after a moment of silence.
“Finally, twenty years of scheming have concluded. Will you forgive me, Zaph? Another thirteen days and thirteen nights of his life and I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. I know you intended to claim his head, but I couldn’t let you accept that burden. His life… was my duty to take.” Her words were softer than his, more frail than Zaphariel’s soothing tongue. Despite Miska’s acceptance of Saladin’s fate, tears flowed freely from his orange eyes. A hand, light as silk and as large as her back, lightly touched her shoulder. The Malik of Pandjoras’ steps had been silent as falling sand as he moved from the throne to her side. She had never realized before how inhumanly quick he was. He kneeled beside her and brought the small woman into an embrace. The newly crowned Emir felt her entire body swathed in the dusken deity’s warmth.
“I will always forgive you, wife of mine, but will you forgive me for what I must do?” Zaphariel asked as he ran a hand down her braided hair, unimaginably comforting her beyond reality’s breath. Without another word, Miska serenely nodded in his arms. There was no hesitation in her actions as she, and most Pandjorans, submitted to their prophet-king. Satisfied with her response, he looked away from her shoulder and to one of his many serpent sculptures in the Palace. The hand that had delicately stroked her hair froze as he imagined wicked, fleshy talons as replacements. He clenched his digits into a fist, accepting the illusions, and continued to speak. Raw confidence spilled through his masquerade, each word reverberating with the echoing affirmation that reality shivered. “I am the monster of Saladin’s warnings, Miska, and I am going to drown this galaxy in dusk for Pandjoras.”