Chapter Five – The Phtullerian
Dervish hurried along the corridor as the Pantheon gathered.
The Citadel was ancient and steeped in gleefully violent history. Its tall columned hallways and enormous auditoriums were lined with living statues of old Pantheon heroes; the true legends of the old times like Kasumnan, Malnas, and Rose.
It was huge and shaped like a diamond, the size of a small country, and it hung in the centre of a storm system that raged out around it in a sea of grey clouds and lightning. Once you passed through the storms and approached one of the docks in the lower spire, it greeted you with a warm red glow, as if it was casting blood around itself in swathes. Even the storms closest to it would glow, and the approach was unsettling as the clouds turned from dim grey to vibrant, urgent red.
The Pantheon held counsel here. Dervish hadn’t visited in about a decade, he was too busy fighting the war to bother himself with silly background politics.
He had a difficult relationship with the Aertia. Admittedly, they did an admirable job and he would struggle to single out any decision he didn’t agree with, but most of them were untested in a real fight. They made wide-reaching decisions that changed the shape of the war and they made them like children playing with toy soldiers on a painted map. They had no idea what it was really like out there.
Then there was Vox. Just his name enraged Dervish. He was the voice of the Pantheon. Supposed to be, anyway. He smiled at that thought. That could be about to change.
He strode confidently into the Pthullerian. It was the seat of power across the entire Pantheon empire and Dervish felt an electric chill as he entered.
It was a long and spacious hall and holographic screens were everywhere, showing various key points of contention in the war. A lot of them flicked off automatically when he came in. Soon, he thought. Soon there would be no secrets kept from him.
There was a table made from a strange metal – in all his years visiting thousands of universes, Dervish had never seen anything like it – which stretched the length of the hallway. It looked like the broken shard of a black mirror.
At first glance it would’ve looked almost entirely normal, it was strangely reflective and so dark that it seemed to eat light, but nothing too special. But on approaching it, the perspective on the surface would change and instead of a reflection it dropped into a dark, starry section of space, as if someone had carved out a section of the universe and stuffed it into the metal.
Dervish glared down into it. The stars were streaked as if you were moving past them at high speed, but it never felt like the image moved, and no matter where you stood in the hall the image was like a painting whose eyes followed you wherever you moved. Sitting down at the table for the first time always brought a wave of motion-sickness, and the sensation that you were plummeting down the throat of the abyss never really left you.
On the far side of the room there were two exits; one led to a private temple with a guest list so exclusive Dervish wasn’t sure who exactly was allowed inside, and the other opened out to the Garden Of Ockrah. It had taken years to fully bloom, as it was an immensely complicated process that Malnas had set up like a spring-loaded machine, to slowly unveil its intricate brilliance over centuries. Some people said the All-Mother occasionally took a stroll through the garden but he wouldn’t believe that until he saw it.
Dervish stopped and bowed to Rose. She was tall and broad, with tentacles like hair. It was almost as if she was standing there for real, alive and well, but she’d been taller than that in real life and she’d died centuries before.
He had a soft spot for her. She’d been vicious, smart, capable. She’d done whatever it took to win, and victory in single combat with a Nephilim was no small win. It had secured her a place in history and here she was immortalised with her fellow legends, holding her blade, the Thorn, victoriously in the air. He hoped to join her up there some day.
He smiled secretly to himself. Maybe today would be the day.
He took his seat and waited for the others to arrive. First to arrive after him was Priya, leader of Kasumnan’s Fist. Next were the regents of the Thorns, Celeste and Dante. They gave Dervish a nod as they sat down, Celeste more so than Dante.
He’d wanted to be crowned king of Thorns when he first joined the Pantheon but it wasn’t to be. He had asked to be transferred and used to practice some of their moves in his first station with an empty ammunition tube. The refusal had crushed him, it had broken something deep inside him that he wasn’t able to fix, like a little thorn was stuck in there, he liked to joke with himself. But that didn’t matter now. Why settle for second place when first was right there and ready for the taking?
Next was a member of the Aertia. It sat directly to the right of the head of the table. There was always one present at council meetings to report back to the rest. It had antlers and a long dark beard. Its mask was old and worn and slightly yellowed with time.
Others joined the table. He recognised Cog, Lienne and Andras. Garro was translated in as a holographic form as he was far too large to fit into the hall. It was only his head that was visible, and it was a huge garden of eyes and a forest of sharp, pointed teeth.
One of the last to join was Ol-Tor. Dervish grimaced as the pale creature slithered into its seat. It returned his gaze with three toothy grins.
Dervish noticed that Ol-Tor was alone. He and Vennjar were the last two surviving members of the Triumvirate and weren’t often found without each other. Where was the other one, then?
All seats but one were filled. Dervish glanced up and down the table. There were a few nods but mostly everyone ignored him. He made a quick mental note. He already had a clear idea about who’d be going and who’d be staying and who’d be strung up and crucified, this confirmed that idea.
‘Dervish, I’ve not seen you since we destroyed Haven,’ said Celeste.
Her voice thrilled him, the hair on the back of his neck stood erect. He probably could have loved her if she had let him. Those bright eyes, her white as snow hair, the scars framing her sharp features, she was gorgeous and he hated Dante for taking another thing that was deservedly his.
Dante noticed the look Dervish had given her but said nothing. His dark hair hung low over his small black eyes which gave nothing away.
No, you’re not going to say anything, are you, coward?
‘It feels like years,’ he said. ‘I haven’t thought about Haven in a long time. Busy man.’
She smiled politely. ‘So I’ve seen.’
‘Thanks for noticing.’
He almost winked but he decided not to. Not with Dante watching him.
‘Haven was a mess in the end,’ Andras said sharply. ‘Look at what happened afterwards, the Nephilim allowed the creation of that creature.’
‘That wasn’t our fault,’ said Dervish. ‘We couldn’t have predicted what they were going to do. If anyone had expected that, we would have done things differently.’
Andras’ red eyes shrank to dots and his one good, organic eye narrowed on Dervish. He was old and greying with cropped white hair, and heavily scarred, especially around one of his four robotic eyes, where the deep lines suggested something sharp had been plunged into the socket. Both arms were metal, and one of his hands was a selection of tools and instruments, ranging from things like a small projectile launcher to a long, electric blade.
‘You didn’t expect them to fight back?’ he said.
‘Well, of course I did,’ said Dervish, smiling. ‘If it were up to me, the whole planet would have been blown to chunks. But it wasn’t up to me, was it?’ He gestured to Celeste. ‘We made our suggestions and they were ignored. As usual. That deathless abomination is not my fault.’
‘We did make our recommendations… but Vox decided on another path,’ Celeste explained.
‘Like always,’ Dervish mumbled under his breath, loud enough to be heard by the others, quiet enough not to draw reactions.
Andras said nothing else. Dervish knew he was still loyal to Vox and there would be little he could do to shake his faith. He was on the crucifixion list, but Dervish was sure the head of the Executioners would provide a challenging final fight.
There was the sound of approaching footsteps thundering from the private temple.
Dervish smiled and almost squealed with delight. He was so excited he had trouble hiding it. The others squirmed in their seats. The fear he struck in them was visceral.
The man nearing the table towered over Dervish at least once over and was built like the Citadel itself. The servants bowed as he neared them.
Vox took his seat at the head of the table, which seemed to shrink in his presence. In fact, everyone around the table seemed to shrink, too.
‘Thank you all for coming on short notice,’ he said. ‘I appreciate the news has already travelled far and wide and we need to discuss the next steps before it runs away from us entirely.’
The Optivarr have returned,’ he thundered. ‘Ikiris Outlook has been reduced to rubble, the troops stationed there have been all but erased. Our reports show an increase in Vanguard activity on all available fronts.’
With a small tip of his hand, he invited them all to speak.
‘It’s a lucky victory for them but they’ll feel confident now, if they advance too far, we can take advantage of them overreaching,’ said Celeste.
‘Not advancing,’ said Vox, smiling. ‘No, not advancing. Retreating.’
Celeste pulled a face. ‘What? They’re retreating?’
‘Everywhere except Damasceyr we’re seeing their front line retreating. We suddenly have a lot of air to breathe and a lot of empty space to fill.’
‘But why? That doesn’t make any sense,’ said Andras. ‘This is their best opportunity to draw some blood, why would they be retreating?’
‘Picking targets,’ Dervish suggested. ‘Testing our defences, striking where there’s weakness, from the safety of a backline.’
Dante scoffed and shook his head. ‘Ikiris was heavily defended, it’s not somewhere you’d consider weak.’
‘It’s a tactical move to test our responses,’ Dervish said, shooting a sideways glance at Dante. ‘We should call their bluff, attack when they’re not expecting it.’
Vox looked surprised by this. ‘That’s an interesting proposal. Is that how you all feel?’
There were a few quiet murmurs of agreement, but they were very non-committal. Vox leaned forward.
‘That’s how you all feel?’ he said with unexpected sharpness.
There was an uncomfortable silence. Something about the way he had said that made them all feel hunted.
‘It’s possible they’re – they’re pushing…’ Priya started.
Vox gave her a silencing look.
‘They’re baiting us,’ he said simply. ‘Pulling back so we’ll push our forces forward.’
‘They give us a show of power so we’ll feel challenged,’ Celeste said, realisation dawning. ‘We’ll feel like we have to rise to it and rush into an ambush.’
Andras scoffed. His remaining organic eye rolled around, the robotic ones narrowed coldly on Celeste. ‘Interesting theory, but it’s still a dangerous move. Retreating means they’re giving up more than they could hope to gain. Some of those fights have raged for decades, for centuries some of them, all that sacrifice to give it away overnight. Seems stupid to gamble that on the chance we’ll chase after them.’
‘They’re probably not thinking about that,’ said Dervish, chuckling grimly. ‘Hardly known for their tactical ability.’
‘Very true, Dervish,’ Dante said. ‘So it’d be embarrassing if someone here had lost to them just recently.’
Dervish flushed with rage. ‘Got something to say, Dante?’
‘I said what I said,’ he replied sharply. ‘Can’t go insulting their tactics when those tactics outwitted you. Or have you conveniently forgotten -’
‘Just stop,’ Celeste groaned.
‘Well, go on, Dante!’ Dervish was on his feet, his eyes flashed with fury. ‘What have I forgotten? Or do you just enjoy keeping track of my mistakes?’
‘That would be a full-time job, I’ve not got the time for that.’
‘Would the two of you stop the pissing contest!’ Andras hissed. ‘This is embarrassing! Dervish, sit down, you won’t be doing any killing here, give it a rest.’
Garro was laughing, Priya buried her scaly, snouted face in her claws. Dervish was fuming. He would’ve reached over the table and killed Dante but he had a bigger target in mind, so he had to let it go. Dante, matching his fury, looked like he might try to kill him, so Dervish kept a watchful eye out. He was sure the king of Thorns had his blade ready beneath the table.
Vox raised his hand.
‘Stop, now,’ he said, and there was silence. ‘We need to take action quickly. They are baiting us into an ambush, the fact they’re doing it on such an enormous scale suggests there is a greater plan at work and it all leads back to the Optivarr. They’re looking to avenge Adrian, so whatever they’re planning will be on a huge scale. We can’t underestimate them now.’
‘Well, we know it’s a bait,’ Dervish grumbled.
‘But we almost didn’t. If this were up to you, we would’ve run straight into the jaws of defeat. So they are at least capable of outmanoeuvring you. We have to respect how dangerous this could be for us, we have to respect what they’re doing.’
Dervish bit his lip to stop himself screaming. Respecting the enemy? No, you couldn’t do that. Not them. Vox had lost the plot, openly showing respect to those evil psychopaths. How could he?
‘What is the plan then?’ Priya asked.
Vox leaned back. ‘Patience. Simple as that. We’ve nothing to gain sending our forces out into an ambush, so we hold the line, we wait. Eventually, we’ll force their hand.’
‘That’s it?’ Priya hissed. ‘Waiting?’
‘We hold all the cards here. Other than Ikiris we haven’t faced any big defeats, so the benefit of time is ours. We wait for them to make their move, and we make sure we’re ready to fight it.’
‘That seems short-sighted,’ she replied. ‘According to my sources, they wiped Ikiris out in minutes, like it was nothing to them. Defences melted, the heretics walked in and slaughtered them all like they were swatting flies and now you’re telling us to wait around for the same thing to happen to us? I thought your freak pet’s plan was meant to cancel them out altogether.’
Vox put his head to one side. ‘When you say sources, you mean the official story as broadcast by the Pantheon and nothing else since I haven’t had the chance to brief you all on the finer details?’
She stuttered then caught herself. It was a dreadful mistake to make.
Vox nodded. His expression hadn’t changed. ‘As for Ol-Tor’s plan… Well, I’ll let him speak on that.’
Dervish grimaced as Ol-Tor pushed his chair back. He hated the freak and always had, and he wasn’t the only one. Brilliant, yes. Deranged, doubly so.
‘Thank you, Vox,’ the creature hissed. ‘May I say, Priya, how lovely – lovely, lovely, lovely – you look today my dear. Yesssss.’ The grinning mouths on his shoulders chattered noiselessly. ‘How kind of you – yes, kind! – to bring up my plan. It has taken some time to work out the logistics but Facsimile is starting to take shape. We have already procured the necessary resources, now we are ready for distribution. It shouldn’t take much longer and then you’ll all get – get, get, get – a nice big present!’ He chuckled. ‘Yes, lovely present. And Descendant is almost at full capacity. All that remains is the perfect moment to implement it.’
‘That isn’t what I asked,’ said Priya coldly.
Dervish was enjoying this too much. He didn’t even have to do anything. He would, of course, eventually, but he could just sit there and watch it all unfold if he wanted to.
‘What if they attack here? Or one of our bases? They’re after revenge and they’re after…’
She stuttered and stopped.
‘After Ol-Tor,’ said Vox, finishing it for her. ‘And then myself. I don’t remember our broadcast including that detail either, but I must be mistaken.’
Priya went silent.
Like a wedge slowly hammering in, Dervish thought. The separation was slow, gradual, but always on the move.
‘In any case, Ol-Tor’s plan is solid and it will destabilise the Optivarr, especially in light of Adrian’s death. They’re emotionally fragile, this is the perfect moment to introduce Facsimile. It will be deployed first to each of your personal bases and then distributed evenly across the rest of the army until we collate some data on the first tests to see where is best to use them.’ He gestured widely at his generals. ‘You are all my priority. Anything you need, ask. This isn’t a time to hoard resources or ignore requests, share and share alike. Put aside your pettiness and your arguments and your little vendettas and remember what we’re fighting for. Understand?’
There were nods of agreement. Priya alone didn’t agree.
That’s it, turn against him, Dervish wanted to say, wanted to scream. Fight him!
‘We all have to do this as one,’ Vox explained. ‘The Optivarr are a threat unlike anything we have faced before. We have to be in this together, as one, because our enemy will be, you can be sure of that. Sean is a clever man, a capable man. He won’t make this fight easy for us.’
That was it. The sound boomed in the empty hall as Dervish’s fist slammed down.
Let them look, let them glare. He was about to change everything they thought they knew.
‘Dervish?’ said Vox.
‘You called him by name.’ Dervish leaned against the table and eyed the Pantheon general at the head of table. ‘You called our enemy by name. You called them Optivarr. You admire their strategy, you respect their power, and you call them by name. How dare you?’
Vox remained sitting while Dervish strolled around the table, meeting eyes with each general. He would not be afraid now, not today. This was it.
‘How dare you call that thing a clever man. A capable man. Praising someone who would kill us all and destroy the All-Mother if he was given half the chance! You praise him like a friend!’
‘I respect -’
‘Will we tally the score?’ Dervish said. He made sure to meet Celeste’s gaze.
I know you’ll care about this, the Thorns and duels go hand in hand.
‘Twice they’ve beaten you. Twice! Even with the All-Mother’s power at your fingertips they beat you! Maybe your conviction has faltered? Maybe the conqueror has become the conquered?’
Dervish could feel the room swing in his favour and it spurred him on.
‘How can we trust you to lead us now? The man who has lost twice to our enemy now asks us to trust his judgement. This failed leader is meant to be in charge? To lead us to victory? No. He cannot. He is weak.’ He pointed an accusing finger. ‘Weak leadership at a time like this will doom us all. Is that what you want? We let the heretics come to us, we just sit here and wait. He is making us complacent. His weakness will infect us.’
He paused. Strode around. He couldn’t hear a thing above his own heart.
‘It is time for change,’ he said, reciting the words he’d practiced a thousand times before. ‘It is time for weak leadership to be left behind. Follow me and I will defeat them. We can – we must – do better than a leader who has already failed.’
Vox was sitting silently, not moving at all.
He’d laid the groundwork, he’d undermined Vox, he had the generals hanging on his every word. Now it was time for the coup de grace.
‘You are an embarrassment, a joke!’ he shouted. ‘Not worthy of a footnote in the Arngham. You have failed us with every breath, every poorly planned decision, every strategic mistake. You are the reason the Optivarr have returned in force and why they threaten us like never before. You were beaten by them, not just once but twice! You had Lilith’s power coursing in you and still you were beaten, knocked down like a paper soldier and now here you are begging at our feet as if grovelling for our support would earn it. We deserve better than some old, tired has-been. You have failed us. You have failed the Pantheon, you have failed our troops. The All-Mother most of all. It is time for change, and that change begins with me.’
He threw his arms wide, begging for a challenge that never came. He knew it wouldn’t come. No one would dare challenge him now. After all this time and after everything he’d been through, to finally be here, to claim the seat… the relief washed over him in electric waves.
There was thunderous applause and he relished it. It was everything he had dreamed of and more. They were nodding their heads, casting cruel glances at the head of the table. Vox looked defeated, broken. He felt a stab of guilt but it passed quickly. He couldn’t feel guilty about it; he’d done the right thing for the good of the cause, the right thing for the All-Mother. Just because Vox would be cast out and forgotten wasn’t reason enough to not do all of this.
He looked around the table and he was confused. Their hands weren’t clapping. The looks on their faces weren’t relief or joy or pride, it was confusion and anger and disbelief. Dante looked interested but shocked. Celeste looked paralysed with fear.
It wasn’t thunderous applause; it was thundering silence. Then it was the sound of the seat at the head of the table grinding across the cold floor and heavy footsteps coming towards him.
He could have tried to run but it didn’t cross his mind at the time. He was too busy trying not to piss himself.
The shadow that fell over him grew and grew and grew. Vox looked down at the little man, his expression unreadable. If he was angry, he didn’t show it. Then poor Dervish’s head came off his neck with a sharp twist, and Vox slammed it into the middle of table, where it began to leak over the starry background.
Vox sat with his hands palm-down.
‘If you are suffering in the delusion that I am weak or unfit to lead,’ he said, ‘please say now and I will correct you.’
There were a few sideways glances across the table as the generals figured out what to say. They decided to stay quiet.
‘When I say I respect my enemy it’s because I’m not stupid,’ he said. ‘If I raised a gun to your head you would respect the gun, you would respect that fear, and the Optivarr are no different. Respect what they could do, because if you’re not afraid then you do not deserve to be at this table.’
He leaned back in careful thought. Dervish’s blood ran over the edge of the table.
‘Ol-Tor’s plan will continue as planned. Return to your bases and await further instructions.’
They all nodded in unison and knelt as they left. A couple of servants hurried forward and retrieved Dervish’s remains and took them away to be incinerated. The seats melted into the floor like water running down a drain but the table remained.
The hall emptied until it was only Vox, Ol-Tor and the Aertia left.
‘Priya will be an issue – an issssue,’ Ol-Tor hissed and twitched.
‘She knows better.’
‘I don’t have your confidence.’
‘I only need mine.’ Vox tapped the table. ‘Priya will do as she’s told, like the rest of them. If you’re going to worry about anything, be worried about Sean. The Vanguard have never been this organised or focused as long as I can remember, and that girl is something else, something we’ve not fought before.’
‘She can rip holes into universes, they can go anywhere she can see.’
‘What was she like to fight?’
Ol-Tor got defensive. ‘It… It was difficult. I’ve not been hit like that in a long, long, long time. Time, time, time! I can do some digging…’
Vox nodded. ‘We need an angle with her. There must be something we can bring to the fight to slow her down. Something we can use with Facsimile would be best.’
‘I’ll see what I can do.’
Vox considered his options.
‘Tell Harvester to withdraw from Damasceyr,’ he said heavily.
Ol-Tor clapped his hands excitedly. ‘Yes! Yes! Right away.’
Vox and the Aertia watched the glowing red storm outside. Malnas’ garden came gradually to life. Flower pods burst and popped and vines like bones and petals dark as night grew seemingly out of nothing. They snaked and knotted together, creating a thick, fleshy barrier that seemed to breathe. The figure that appeared out of the glow came like a morning mist. They bowed to it as a bright light spread and lit up the world like fire.