art by Prince Satyrn
A generous old Satrap, hundredth in line to the throne of Prague, resentful of his wife and children, had granted Ari the keys to Fulcanelli. The young commander there fought, of course; he begged and wept and vowed revenge. But the local inhabitants in Artephius became restless and he had to follow the call to arms, and he died under a glistening forest canopy.
She was content, the Other. Planetary power was a new thing to her and she rode the high for a while, thinking that a few million subjects would be enough for her; that she could settle for the respect of a few, even as she served and dwelt in the shadow of Prague.
Until she met Him and right then and there, none of it was enough. Not the planet, nor its moons; not the respect and terror of its people. He wanted All, the Other knew this and his desire stoked the fires in her before she'd even seen Him work his strange sorcery. Before the near-god had even first transmuted sunlight into wine for her pleasure, she had wanted Him; before she'd seen Him set an entire armed platoon of Her Majesty's Cataphracts with a wave of his hands, she knew she had to have Him.
For Him, the Other rallied Fulcanelli to the cause and roused the chieftains and the Satraps of three planets. His seal may have been on the banners (the flame, consuming Creation) but she was the one holding it aloft. Her workings rallied the natives to his side, turned the guns of Artephius against the Empire's patrols. She directed the traitorous lords in their desperate battles, even as Prague threw everything it had at them and reduced entire cities to dust, even as the Juggernauts of the Empire were let loose to kill their people by the thousands, just so they could nip his outrageous religion at the bud.
On the second year of the rebellion, the Other found herself ambushed with Him behind the failing electro-dome, trapped in the doomed city of Athena. Of the prodigal worlds, only Agathodaimon remained, its surface covered in stretches of slag, peppered by constant orbital bombardment. Their army, what was left of it, was planet-bound, all but exterminated and the Other armed the children of Athena for Him and prepped them to hold that final line.
"It's done," He said and the Other felt the cold horror of it crawl up her spine, felt the last of her strength leave her as his eyes watched the flicker of the dome. "I must go."
And with this, he left; flickered, wavered and was gone, leaving nothing behind but a pair of footprints in the dust of a backroom in the commandeered Senate that had become their headquarters. She could feel Him, his form discombobulated into the aether, moving through her, gliding through matter, up through the dome and into the Heavens, far and way past the Orbital Battery of the Empire.
Right on cue, the electro-dome came down, its field fizzling out of existence, leaving nothing behind but a useless lattice of reinforced wire. The Other ran for cover, but the phlogiston salvo was already on its way and it hammered at unprotected Athena like the fist of Bielebog: white-hot and apocalyptic.
It ate away at the walls and the streets. The useless guns stood at attention as it swept across the sky. Too late the child-soldiers and the weathered veterans realized their fate. By sheer chance, the section of wall she'd been nestled behind held, and she careened through the air, the shattering bricks and mortar propelling her on a wave of scalding hot wind. Her ribs broke like match-sticks all at once and the impact of the landing broke her shinbones into splinters. She screamed and the rush of air burned her throat raw and yet, it did not hurt anywhere near as much as that look in his eyes, the one he gave her just before he abandoned her. That final sight of Him, looking down at her with hunger in his gaze as he realized that she was just human after all.
Ari let that memory remain in the Other's mind. His gaze lingering, even as he disappeared out into nowhere, leaving her there forever, broken and burnt, left to listen to the sound of her enemies drawing ever closer, even as she thrashed, uselessly, against the hot earth. The remembrance bit into the Other like a knife and Ari twisted once, twice, three times, until finally the Other gave, wallowing in despair. It loosened the Other's grip on her body and Ari felt the thing spring into action once again, the muscles and tendons driven by a renewed energy.
And in the back of her mind, Ari could feel the Other ebb and weave across the ache of her own misery and love for Him. Of the entire cascade of emotion that passed through her, the woman could feel regret looming above all else.
Regret for being caught, for failing to maintain the rebellion. For having her ragtag formation of doomed fools outgunned by the apocalyptic might of the Imperial Fleet. Regret for not taking the System for his sake, not landing with Him on Earth and taking Prague all by herself and tearing down walls and beating back hounds, even as he stepped across the dead and she brought Him the head of the Hapsburgs on a platter.
The Other wailed to herself for her own weakness, her mortality. She wept and beat at her chest and exhausted herself, then finally was quiet, drunk off the blue-black wine that was her own misery. For the first time in an entire year, Ari leaned back against the soft cushions of the booth and let the gentle creaking of the leather slowly take her as she shut her eyes and dreamt a long, dreamless sleep in the booth, unfettered by the constant thrashing of the Other.
She was lulled to sleep by the steady trickle of nonsense words from the mouthpiece of the Turk, her eyelids growing heavy halfway through the memoirs of her quarry. She let the hissing sound of the needle tapping across the surface of the smooth cylinder carry her into darkness.
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