Chapter 1: DANTER
Never for an instant had Si Cwan thought he would find himself helpless before Lodec, the senate speaker of Danter. The powerfully built Thallonian stood a head taller than Lodec, and was younger, in far better shape, and one of the most fearsome and deadly fighters ever bred in the history of Thallonian royalty.
So it was that he had been astounded to discover himself in Lodec's palatial estate being held high up, up off his feet, dangling in the air, as the much shorter Lodec held him there. Unable to draw in air, Si Cwan could only gag. His hands clamped around Lodec's arm, trying to twist it free, but he felt corded muscle beneath Lodec's sleeve that had not been there only a few days earlier.
Kalinda let out an infuriated cry and tried to come to his aid, but the other senators intervened and held her back with no effort.
Lodec's smile was affixed upon his face, spreading wider as he drank in Si Cwan's helplessness. "In case you have not yet figured it out, Lord Cwan...we were willing to present ourselves as test cases for the ambrosia. And we are able to give firsthand testimony as to its effectiveness...as I'm sure you now can, as well. Oh...and here is our benefactor now."
A shadow fell upon Si Cwan as he saw a monstrous creature coming toward him. Kalinda had described the being to Cwan as eight feet tall, skin like ebony, face like some sort of vicious jackal's. Evocative of one of the Dogs of War, but far more terrifying. She had not exaggerated in her estimation; he was just as Kalinda had described him, and his eyes burned with fiery scorn as he gazed upon Si Cwan.
Si Cwan fought desperately to break loose, but the inability to breathe hampered him severely. He dangled there from Lodec's grip, helpless as a babe, and the world seemed to be growing dark around him.
"I know, I know," Lodec was saying. "This prospect of 'worship' and such...it seems absurd. But Anubis explained to us their specific desires, and we've discussed it, and we felt, truly: What is the harm? The problem was, we suspected that your pride would make it impossible for you to accept, which was why we had to keep you excluded from many of these meetings...and it turns out we were correct in our assumptions. But I say again: What is the harm of a bit of worship? We tell them what they want to hear. We have prayer meetings and such...and in the meantime they provide us and our allies with this remarkable substance."
Anubis moved closer in toward Si Cwan, an unobstructed path to Si Cwan's face, and his jaws opened wide, and the warm, fetid breath washed over him. And as blackness closed upon Si Cwan, the last thing he heard was Lodec's gently mocking voice inquiring, "Come now, Lord Cwan, honestly...would it harm us...to gather a few laurel leaves?"
And then Si Cwan was jolted back to awareness when he hit the floor. He had no idea what had caused it to happen. All he knew was that one moment he was firmly in Lodec's grasp, and the next he was on the ground, gasping, the world swimming before his blurred vision.
There was a roaring in his ears from the blood deep within, and then it started to fade, only to be replaced by screaming. It was Lodec's voice doing the screaming, which couldn't have suited Si Cwan more.
What Si Cwan could not comprehend, though, was why Lodec's hand was still squeezing his throat. Then his vision began to clear and he instantly understood. Lodec's hand was no longer attached to his arm.
The senate speaker of the Danteri was clutching the stub of his right arm, staring in horror at the blood which was fountaining from the end of it. His face was becoming a paler shade of bronze, and his eyes looked like they were glassing over. The fingers were still clutching spasmodically on Si Cwan's throat, and the Thallonian quickly pried the hand away and tossed it, still quivering, on the ground nearby.
The other senators had a collectively stunned expression on their faces, but Cwan was also struck by what they no longer had: specifically, Kalinda in their grasp. The Thallonian princess was standing several feet away, and she was holding a golden, shimmering, curved cutting tool. The cutting edge was dripping with a thick liquid that was the same color as the blood pouring out of Lodec's stump, and Si Cwan did not require a map to be drawn for him to figure out what had just happened.
Whereas earlier Kalinda had been tentative and even daunted by the prospect of facing down the difficult Danteri senators in Lodec's home grounds, there was now no trace of fear in her at all. The contemplation of difficulty, it seemed, had been far more problematic for her than being faced with the actual difficulty itself. Now that the danger was thrust upon them, she was completely focused on finding a way out of it, and whatever concerns for herself she might have had been shunted aside.
Si Cwan felt a swell of pride in his sister, even as he wondered where in the world she had gotten the cutting implement from.
The answer was not long in coming as the feral-faced creature called Anubis took a step forward. Kalinda swiveled in place, keeping a distance between the two of them, holding the blade level so that any attempt to come in at her quickly would result in the same sort of dismemberment that Lodec had experienced. Lodec, for his part, had sunk to his knees, his screams reduced to faint whimpers. The other senators made a motion toward her, but a quick flick of the instrument in their direction froze them where they stood. "I'd stay where I was if I were you, Senators," Kalinda said in frozen tones, "lest you lose other, more valuable parts."
Anubis likewise ceased any forward motion, but unlike the others, he did not seem particularly intimidated. Indeed, his red eyes burned again, but this time with what seemed a sort of vague amusement. He spoke, his voice low and gravelly, and his long, pointed teeth clicking together slightly. "That is my scythe," he informed her.
"I know," Kalinda said matter-of-factly. Si Cwan truly admired her icy demeanor, for when she had spoken earlier of merely seeing Anubis in passing, she had had such dread in her voice as Cwan had never known. He suspected it was taking all the self-control she possessed to keep herself together in the face of this...this whatever it was. "It was hanging from just behind your hip."
A weapon. He'd had a weapon on him, and Cwan hadn't seen it, else he might have tried to grab it himself. Then again, considering he was being choked at the time, it was probably understandable that he'd missed it considering it was dangling out of immediate sight behind him. But not, obviously, out of Kalinda's sight.
"So you shook free from your captors and grabbed it from me. Very resourceful," said Anubis. He was studying her with such intensity that it seemed as if his gaze were dissecting her. "There is more to you than meets the eye, I suspect."
"And less to you, I'd say," shot back Kalinda. Si Cwan had detected some slight trembling in her hands earlier as she held the scythe, but now it was rock steady.
She abruptly took a step toward Anubis, thrusting the scythe forward. The jackal-headed god did not flinch, but his eyes narrowed in what now seemed annoyance. It appeared that Kalinda's amusement value to him was wearing thin.
"You have potential, child. But not as much as you think." Then Lodec's whimpering from nearby distracted him, and Anubis turned his attention to the injured Danteri with poorly disguised annoyance. "Cease your carrying-on. Pick up the hand. Hold it against your wrist."
Lodec did as he was instructed. He did so very tentatively, however, apparently appalled by the notion of touching his own severed hand. Anubis, seeming for all the world as if he'd forgotten that Kalinda was standing there -- or perhaps he simply no longer cared -- strode over toward the fallen Lodec and produced a small vial from the belt of his kilt. A thick, viscous green liquid was within, and he upended it so that it poured down upon the separation between hand and arm. Lodec let out another scream then, and this one made the earlier seem a mild squeak in comparison. There was a loud sizzling, like meat being cooked up, and the aroma almost triggered Cwan's gag reflex. He was relieved he was able to squelch it in time; vomiting before one's enemies was never a good idea.
"Stop your yowling," commanded Anubis, and Lodec did the best he could. He sank his teeth into his lower lip and once again confined his pain to whimpering noises. As he did so, however, he was staring fixedl...