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Pasion Pasiva

The Usurper

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Dollya as Irene Gabriela DuGrace

She watched as the dim, yellow light from the dungeon hall beyond the threshold of her door grew into a thin line, and eventually disappeared as the passageway was closed and locked. There she lay, just as he had left her, with her eyes ever fixed upon the door. In truth, she didn’t know what to expect -- a legion of soldiers come to prove Raphael a liar? Or the gaggle of maidens who would take her away and transform her once more into a real person via the magic of water, perfumes, and silken garments? Which would it be, she wondered, as her turquoise eyes remained steady on the crack of light that shone through the foot of the door.

 

It took perhaps an hour or so for her questions to be answered. Gentle footfalls came and danced just beyond the door to her dungeon cell. She heard soft voices -- women’s voices. She had not heard another female, save the echoes of her screams or whimpers, in what felt like an eternity but was really only a year or so. 

 

They came for her in a group half a dozen strong. They were all shapes and sizes, these maidens, and all of them dressed in the same uniform of blood-red silk and lace. Carefully and quietly, they pulled her off of the slick, filth drenched floor, the very spot where she had been left by the Lord Father. They made no faces about her appearance or comments about the smell. They treated her as if she really were the person she was supposed to become.

 

“Empress, this way -- we will assist you.”

 

“I don’t need assistance,” she told them, though the sound of her voice shocked her internally. It was clear and commanding -- and powerful, though she had been stripped of any semblance of such a thing for months now. But it came back naturally, for the sake of her life and his pleasure. 

 

He wanted Dollya to be her. 

 

Hate, revulsion, anger, sadness… she didn’t feel any of these things. She focused on her weariness, on the relief that came with knowing the torture would end, and the hope that she might never again see the inside of her jailcell, a place she had once imagined would be her tomb. So she let them fuss over her as they helped her straighten, she stretched out her arms as they dressed her naked and wounded body in a robe of thin, red silk and she made no complaints as they wrapped a sash around her waist and bound it, securing her modesty. 

 

Modesty -- the word tasted like bile on her tongue. 

 

“This way, Empress… we’ve drawn a bath,” said one woman -- a human.

 

They were all human.

 

“We’ve set out clothes,” chirped another. 

 

“We will take care of you, Empress,” added a third.

“Show me the way,” she replied to them all.

 

“One last thing,” said one of the maidens who had not yet spoken. She presented a head-dress, a simple hairband of a matching red color with a curious lace-trimmed veil hanging over it’s edge. She held it up so that Dollya could examine it.

 

“We must shield your eyes,” the woman lifted her chocolate brown gaze to her sisters -- she appeared concerned, as if Dollya might resist. She was looking to her companions for support.

 

“Yes, Empress -- your eyes will not adjust to the light so quickly. This will secure your comfort.”

 

“Yes,” she repeated, “my comfort…”

 

She was crowned with the hairband, which was carefully tucked behind her ears through layers of matted, tangled, filthy hair. Then the veil was pulled over her face. The lace trim brushed along cupid's bow. 

 

And then they were off. They walk past the jailor, whose greedy eyes were glued to the ‘Empress’ as she walked along. He wanted a glimpse of her eyes, just a passing hue of that magnificent tropical, ocean-blue. He went so far as to stop them. 

 

“Can’t I have one last look at you?” he asked, his voice woeful. 

 

“One of you, go to the Lord Father and inform him of this man’s transgression. Tell my husband that he dared ask for what he has no right to even dream of. Tell my husband that I wish for the man’s head as retribution for the offense.”

 

His eyes widened in confusion first and then in horror. 

 

“Pri...Empress… please, no…” his weak knees trembled and he fell down upon one of them.

 

Dollya never turned to regard him, and once one of her crimson maidens flew off to deliver her message, she continued her walk forward. No further comment was made on the matter. And in less time that she expected, she was delivered into the warmly colored and lit room that housed her bath. She could have wept at the smell, at the warm steam that almost immediately found and clung to her sore and aching limbs. But she didn’t. She moved forward and undressed herself, tossing aside the robes before descending into the awaiting pool of hot water.

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Redrick Mancel had been a jailor of the emperor’s employ for nearly five years. He’d lived a humble and obscure life for most his years, marrying well-within his class to a woman that gave him three daughters and two sons, and wanted for nothing, for his was an honest living that paid quite well. While there was no abundance of crime in the Red City or its intermediate domain, there were those that believed themselves above the table, and it fell to Redrick and his ilk to remind them of their folly. He’d never become a master of punishment like some of the other jailors, as he found no pleasure in his duties-- it was a simple matter of retribution, and so he strived to maintain a swift, efficient, and principle execution of his tasks.

It was this single-minded dedication that caught the emperor’s eye, for he needed a man that could remain focused on his task no matter how difficult it became, no matter how tempting it might be to stray from the path. Who better than a man that, before then, had resisted the dark temptation of power? Who better to guard the disgraced princess, to see her for what she truly was (whatever the emperor desired her to be in that moment), than a man that could stay his hand of unnecessary bloodshed? That level of focus, the emperor wished many of his soldiers possessed.

Redrick, of course, took the position without question. And for the many weeks she’d been held captive, he did well to remember what she was-- an object, devoid of thought and meaning. She was to be used in every way imaginable, punished in the cruelest of ways, and for a time, Redrick did well in his task. But then, as the weeks became months, and those months became a year and more, he saw her less as an object and more as his own. His, to use and punish as he saw fit-- not the emperor’s. It was at that moment his life had been forfeit, though he wasn’t aware.

It was the wish of the empress, but the will of the emperor, that saw the imperial guard dragging Redrick into the grand throne room by his arms. He’d resisted initially, but they’d beat him savagely, and now he hung limp and soundless, barely clinging to life, between their armored bodies. They threw him at the base of the mighty dais upon which the emperor’s throne was placed, and Rafael, unsurprised and unmoved, sat in silent expectation. The jailor would beg for his life just as they all did, speak of his family and question how they would provide for themselves without his income. Redrick was not the first servant to be put to the sword, nor would he be the last, but Rafael had become somewhat fond of the exchanges he shared with the condemned.

“Lord Father—”

“After all you’ve done to her, you should have known she would jump at the chance to have her revenge.” The emperor’s fondness for the game of cat and mouse did not show in the flatness of his tone, cold and unchanging as tempered steel. “No matter what she was, she is your empress now. You’ve brought this on yourself, dear Redrick.”

“But my family!” He cried out.

Rafael dismissed his worry with a lazy flip of the wrist. “They will be taken care of. I’ve ensured that a considerable sum of the profit you turned peddling her flesh will be deposited into your family coffers. Recompense for your… unfortunate accident while in my employ. Now,” he said, looking to the guard on the jailor’s left, “hurry on then. Best not to keep the empress waiting.”

“Lord Father,” Redrick yelped. “Please, I ask that it be quick.”

Rafael grazed the man’s pathetic expression with empty, indifferent eyes. “You offended your empress, dear Redrick. It will be slow and agonizing.” Then he lifted his chin, nodding to the guard.

There was a long slither, and great cluster of light as the knight drew his sword. He took Redrick’s head slowly, sawing from the side, working it deeper with each passing. The jailor screamed a deep, visceral scream of pure agony until his vocal chords had been severed, and then, with a wet plop, his head fell from his shoulders and splashed in a deep puddle of blood. 

“See that it is delivered to the empress on a platter.” The knight knelt and plucked the head from the floor by the its grayed hair. “Take out the eyes, before you do.”

The knight nodded. “And the rest?”

“Feed it to the hounds.”

“Your will,” the two knights said in unison.

It was less than a half-hour later that the doors to the empress' bathing chambers rattled with rapping of an armored hand upon its face. They waited until their presence was acknowledged, and dared not enter until Dollya had beckoned them to. It was the knight who had served as Redrick's executioner, and in his hands he carried an ornate platter of fine silver. Atop the blanket of leafy greens that garnished its boundaries sat the man's head just as she'd requested, mouth agape in a muted scream, the pained expression of Redrick's demise frozen in time. There were but two bloodied sockets where earthy brown eyes had once been, now settled on the side of his head, faced away from the empress.

"A gift," the knight intoned as he lowered to one knee at the edge of her bath. "The jailor's death was neither swift nor pleasant, for his transgression against the empress. The Lord Father hopes that you will see this act as a token of his sincerity, empress, in what he wishes from you." Though he'd been instructed in the specifics of what to say, the emptiness of the knight's voice alluded to his ignorance of their Lord Father's meaning. "How shall I reply, empress?" 

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“A gift… The jailer's death was neither swift nor pleasant, for his transgression against the empress. The Lord Father hopes that you will see this act as a token of his sincerity, empress, in what he wishes from you.”

 

Dollya, now fully submerged in the steaming waters of her bath, watched as the knight entered into this most private and sacred space. She watched, with her turquoise eyes, as he set the fine, silver plate down near the edge of her pool. Her expression did not change much, though her head tilted in much the same way a bird might when observing something of interest. And then she was moving, cutting across the water and leaving a subtle V formation behind her in the form of small rippling waves. To the edge of the bath, to lean against the cool stone with her elbows resting on the brim while her body leaned forward and closer to the gruesome display of violence she had herself requested. 

 

“How shall I reply, empress?”

 

The knight shifted slightly on his feet, and called forth her attention from the severed head back up to his unsettled form. 

 

“Tell my Lord and Husband that I find his gift acceptable and pleasing. However, it saddens me to think of this poor wretch suffering alone without a single friend, without a dear friend, to keep him company. In life,” she explained softly, while her eyes drifted back down to the bloodied face, frozen in an expression of agony, “ -- in life he was rather popular. They came from all parts to buy the goods that he sold, things that never belonged to him. It seems, therefore, unjust that he should be alone in his punishment.”

 

Shifting, the battered and bruised beauty stood up fully revealing that the water only reached about halfway up her ribs. Whether or not the Knight could resist the urge to gaze upon the bounty of his empress’ fair breasts, was not her concern -- she knew him to be one of the many who had paid to participate in her torment. 

 

A pretty pale hand extended and a gentle little head-pat was given onto the jailor’s dead cheek. Then, slowly, almost as if she were thinking things through as she wove her fingers to do her bidding, she plucked one of the man’s eyeballs, which had been neatly tucked besides the head. The eyeball was half coated in blood and still had the optic nerve attached to the back. Without further consideration, beyond what little time she had taken to think about how disgusting, traumatic, and horrific her next set of actions would be -- she popped the eyeball into her mouth and made a display of squeezing the orb between her teeth while her lips were peeled back. She wanted the knight to see, wanted him to hear the pop and see the gel-like fluid spill past her lips and down her chin.

 

She laughed then, as she chewed the flesh of the eyeball. The back of her dainty hand was up, wiping away the grisly mess she had made. 

 

“Take my beloved jailer away -- make sure to preserve his head properly with whatever chemicals or magics you might need before setting him on a spike in my garden. And when you are done, go back to the Lord Father and tell him that the jailer needs company.”

 

She smiled at him and wondered if he knew -- if he realized -- that she had just sent him to announce his own execution. And so the carnage would continue, until she was satisfied. But neither Dollya nor Raspberry had ever been satisfied. They were empty vessels by nature. Hungry vacuums that would suck the world dry of anything that was good and lovely, or dark and wicked…

 

The knight, seeming somewhat more unsettled, bent down to pick up the head.

 

“Oh, hold on…” Dollya purred before reaching out and plucking the other eyeball off the platter. “Alright, all done… I am sorry, I am just so famished.”

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Rafael sat waiting on his throne for the knight’s return, unworried, unburdened, and confident that his little impostor had, at the very least, gathered some idea of the manners her lord expected of her. This delicious treatment she basked in, including the power she’d taken to wielding so violently and without thought, it was but a glimpse of the emperor’s generosity. She had taken to becoming that which he desired, and for that, he’d gifted her these things and more than she knew. But Rafael’s bounty was an impossibly thin blade, as likely to cut its wielder as it was one’s enemy, and Dollya knew better than most the bottomless depths of his depraved cruelty, which lie just on the other end of its edge. She would enjoy the luxurious of being his empress so long as she behaved as such—and the moment she thought herself more, or behaved any less, she would find herself shouldering the fullest weight of his displeasure.

The knight returned, the platter still in his armored hands, Redrick’s head atop it, though Rafael noted the eyes he’d so carefully posed were missing. At the young man’s explanation, the emperor could not help the low, dark chuckle that slid from his lips. It reminded him of the young woman he’d met that day in the rain as he stood in the sepulcher, mourning the death of his cousin who, unsurprisingly, was very much alive. Dollya had proven herself fond of the dramatic, as he closed his eyes, he could picture her, with perfect clarity, crushing each eye with her perfect teeth, letting the goo splash down her chin, her neck; hear it as she chewed and swallowed. It must have been a sight, if his imagination was even a fraction of what the knight had witnessed.

“The empress wishes to have the jailor’s head preserved, my lord,” the knight explained, a tremble to his voice. He’d realized, only just before entering the throne room, what the woman’s intention had been. Had it been his scent, his voice? True, he’d paid several times to deal in the pleasure of punishing her, but he was but one of many—a legion, if rumors were true. How could she have remembered his face, of all the ones she’d seen? “She would see it put on a spike in her garden. This, she says, would please her greatly.” The tremble grew in his voice, irritating his emperor as it interrupted his typically smooth, pleasing baritone.

“And?”

The knight swallowed.

“You would make me repeat myself?”

The knight shook his bowing head, terror gripping him. “She says that it saddens her to think of him suffering alone. It is her desire that he accompanied by his friends—the good men that bought his product; product that was never his to sell.”

Rafael frowned, lightly scratching his beard. “I see. Being one yourself, I trust you know many of the others that gave their coin to merchant there?” The knight nodded. “And just how many of the palace guards purchased his wares?”

“At least a dozen,” the knight replied shakily. “Perhaps two? Red—the jailor was quite specific about which guards he would or wouldn’t allow.”

“Oh?”

“He grew worried of your displeasure, my lord.” The knight dared look upon his emperor, surprised to find him lounging, unmoved by his confession. “There are many in your guard that would take offense to such a proposition. They might have killed him. She is yours, after all.”

Good men, Rafael thought. Loyal, obedient.

Shifting on his throne, Rafael leaned forward, eying the knight. “Two dozen, you say?”

“Yes, my Lord.”

“An acceptable loss.”

#

There came another rapping on the bathing chamber door sometime later, this one softer, more timid than the heavy gauntlet that had asked entry earlier. The voice was as feminine as it was exotic, revealed to be one of her red-dressed maidens. The woman was young in age, perhaps only just entering her second decade, with large, ocean blue eyes, rich blond hair, and full red lips. The crimson silk and lace agreed with her beauty and small stature, hugged her body tightly and yet did not inhibit her movements, which were refined and graceful. It was clear she had practiced for many years, perhaps all her life, to be of use to the empress.

“My Empress,” the woman said, bowing her golden head deeply. “I bring word from the Lord Father. He would have you know that your dear jailor will spend his time in the garden surrounded by many of his friends from the palace guard; twenty four, sent by the emperor’s own hand.” It was not beyond the girl, the message she delivered, but violence was as much a part of the vampyric court as diplomacy. These men, they had wronged the empress some way or another (and not being a child anymore, she had a strong inclination as to how), and thus had earned their fate. “They are being prepared now, and should be ready for your viewing by nightfall.”

The young maiden waited a beat, then added. “It is also the emperor’s desire that you retire to the imperial bedchambers when you’ve finished with your bath. He will be waiting for you.”

Still bowed, the maiden slid back out the room and closed the door, leaving the great usurper alone with her bath, her power, and the taste of Redrick's eyes on her lips.

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Dollya DuGrace

It took her some time to get ready. He might even suspect that she was doing it on purpose -- being rebellious or spiteful. But when the doors to the Imperial Bedchamber opened it would be revealed that it had been well worth the wait. Unlike her predecessors, both the modest-dressing Gabriela and the whorish human, Rou, who had claimed for a time, the Emperor’s interest, she refused to follow in their paths. Her garments would be her power, a sign of who she was now and who she would never again be. Every one of her gowns would be cut from golden fabric, sewn with golden thread, decorated with golden beads and golden crystals, pearls, and lace. She would be the radiant sun to Gabriela’s pale moonlight. Others would bask in her glow, unaware of her potential and willingness to burn them to a crisp. 

 

She entered the chamber and gone was the stink of imprisonment, the rank odor of piss and other unmentionable bodily fluids. She had her pale flesh dusted in gold to give her a more appropriate appearance, one matching of the wondrous gown she wore.

 

“Lord Husband,” she called, stopping in the center of the sitting chamber awaiting his arrival, standing posed with one hand upon her slender waist and another set on her thigh. She did not quite have the womanly shape of the woman she usurped, or the more curved shape of the Gaian thief, but she exuded something neither woman ever could. In her small frame, her age forever frozen at seventeen, she was youthful, soft, and innocent -- although they both knew she would never again be the latter. 

 

And when he appeared, at long last, she would turn more fully to him. Her hair was clean, brushed neatly, and dried naturally to allow for the slight undulation in its length to settle freely around her petite frame. And as he approached, she would step to him and reach out to take his hands in her own. 

 

He was a monster of a man -- both in size and in conviction, and none knew it better than she. He had promised her freedom if only she played the part correctly, but she wasn’t sure if she ever wanted to be apart from him, or if she wanted to be the one to sink a stake straight through his chest, clear to the other side. She wanted his heart, for him to love her truly as he did her mother, but also to hold it beating in her hands as she bent to take a bite out of it.

 

These were conflicting feelings. 

 

“I present myself to you -- do you find me satisfactory? A fitting usurper for my mother? My eyes do not match, but you have only to ask and I will pluck them out myself so that you may replace them with a mockery of her golden hues.”

 

She squeezed his hands.

 

She loved him.

 

She loathed him. 

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“That is how very grateful I am for your gift, my beloved.”

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Posted (edited)

Dressed in stark contrast to his lovely treasure, Rafael wore yet another suit of Lagrimosan make, one of his favorites from the few he’d come to own in his time as emperor. The pants were of a deep silk, blacker than night, and shimmered in the dimly lit room, offset by the moon-white shirt. The collar was undone, as were several of its uppermost buttons in a rare display of casual dress, revealing the sculpted crest of his haired chest. Standing there in their bedchamber, he looked tired, as if the slaughtering of those guards had been difficult work. Perhaps it was? Not in the execution, but simply the will of it. Rafael hadn’t enjoyed the ordeal—having long since lost his appetite for the thrill of slaughter—but he hadn’t shied away from it, either. It had been a necessary step in ensuring his usurper’s obedience, but also, demonstrating the power she now commanded.

But these games he played—the scheming, the plotting. He’d found he was beginning to lose his taste for those, as well. Fatima had planted the desire for something else in him, beyond power, control, and unending worship. For the first time in his life, Rafael craved simplicity.

Existence, and nothing more.

Lord Husband.” The usurper’s words stole his attention, and with it, all hopes of something else—something less than this world he’d made for himself. He made his way to her, back to where he belonged, and she took his hand in firm reminder of this. Dollya’s touch was praise made manifest, firm and unrelenting, yet soft, as though his hand were the most precious thing in her life. Perhaps it was? “I present myself to you—do you find my satisfactory? A fitting usurper for my mother? My eyes do not match, but you have only to ask and I will pluck them out myself so that you may replace them with a mockery of her golden hues.

Rafael looked the doppelganger over slowly, taking a long, quiet moment to assess his latest acquisition from the Umbral pits beneath his keep. She’d cleaned up rather nicely, there was no denying that, and while she lacked the refinement of her mother and the voluptuous allure of the bandit, she did well to bring something far more valuable to their “union”: gratitude. It was as spiteful as it was benevolent, as polluted as it was pure, but it was gratitude nonetheless. Try as she might to be herself, to be whole without him, Rafael had taken something from her that she would never again be able to possess beyond his company. When he was gone, she would long for him—for his love, his touch, just as deeply as she now longed to attempt regicide. It was this gratitude for her lord husband, her emperor, her master, that softened Rafael’s gaze as his eyes drank in her beauty.

“Gold suits you well, empress,” came his murmured reply, a low, mellowed tone that conveyed neither pleasure nor disappointment. “It is good to see you fully enjoying all the liberties afforded by your position.” Irene had been too modest, too plain and humble in many regards, to properly shoulder the mantle of empress. She was a woman of the people in all things, and spent many of her years trying to be the people she represented. So long as they weren’t vampyric, of course. He pulled the usurper closer by the hand he held, then reached with his other and cook her face in his palm. It was a soft touch, careful not to ruin the artistry of her makeup, yet as binding as any shackle. Closer, closer—until their lips teasingly grazed each other.

“Your eyes are a matter that we will take care of shortly. It will be painful, but the acquisition of power often is.” The fingers arresting her mouth eased her jaw down, parting her lips further until he could peer inside at her teeth and the soft, pink tongue they protected. Rafael looked inside, as thoughtful land discerning as a curator inspecting a priceless artifact soon to be added to a museum’s collection. Then he released her, and instead turned her away from him, guiding her by the hand he still kept hostage in his grasp. “As for the rest of you, there is little we can do to progress that.” Rafael’s free hand found its way to her backside, squeezing it, testing its roundness in the crescent of his palm. He reached around and did the same to her breasts, one after the other, as if weighing them. “You will simply grow into it.”

Burying his nose in her hair, he breathed deep of the sweet, floral aroma—and yet long for the richness of the orange blossoms her mother wore. They would need to change that. But her tresses were fine as silk, soft and heavy, and he ran his fingers through them with a slow, reverent gait. First with only a single hand, then with both, taking greedy handfuls at her roots and pulling, tilting her head back against his broad chest. “But yes, my sweet empress, make no mistake that you are satisfactory.” Releasing her, he crossed the room to a cabinet tucked away in a far corner and revealed a gloriously vast array of vintage bloods. One for every age, every race, sweetened or spiced. Hidden behind the more appealing ports were those he’d had cultivated for her mother—bear, stag, and other unsavory sorts. They harrowed his gaze, more appreciative just moments before, and he looked away.

“How are you finding your maidens?” he asked without looking at her, instead studying the decanter he’d picked. It was special to him, filled by Zenahriel from his own wrist. Few things in this world compared to the blood of a god, after all. “I trust they’ve done well to tend to your needs, yes? They are enough in their numbers, or do you find yourself needing several more?” At nearly a dozen already, some might think it impossible for the empress to request more to wait on her hand and foot—but Rafael would lavish her will all this and more, so long as she obeyed.

So long as she played her part.

Edited by King

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“Gold suits you well, empress.”

 

Dollya smiled with true pleasure spreading across her face. If there was one secret that Dollya had managed to keep it was the fact that she was very vain. It was born, of course, out of a desire to be a seperate entity than the woman after whom she had been molded. The creature, made of water and clay, yearned to be known and complimented on the value of her own merits -- a thing that was utterly impossible when her very existence had been based off of the existence of another. But for some reason she found the tired words of the Emperor to be sincere. Gabriela had her black, and as far as she knew, white while in Raphael’s company. So then surely he meant it -- that gold suited her well, and perhaps, no one else. 

 

She clung to that. Held on to it like a mistreated child who had never heard a kind word.

 

Giddy with power, delightfully drunk off of violence, and now properly complimented, Dollya beamed up at the Emperor and tilted her head in that demure fashion that only a woman, warming to her feelings, could accomplish. 

 

Perhaps he found her glee a tantalizing seduction tactic, or perhaps he could not stand the sight of her happy rather than weeping in misery. Whatever the reason, he pulled her close and held near. Her face cupped, she felt a pang of that same old misery return now that he bent low and brushed his lips across hers. 

 

There was hate and love inside of her -- but also feelings of fear, of panic, and of course, of so much violence. 

 

“Your eyes are a matter that we will take care of shortly. It will be painful, but the acquisition of power often is.”

 

"We both know, pain isn't a concern."

 

Under the golden paint on her cheeks, Dollya grew pale and numb. He pulled her mouth open and peered in, and she was reminded of her place. Dungeon or throne-room, she was not the empress, she was not his love, not his daughter, not even his friend -- she was bitch slave he’d tossed at his men as a form of recompense for their betrayal of the Black Queen. A chance to fuck something that looked just like the woman they had once-upon-a-time sworn to protect, back when her father was king. And they took out all of their sadistic pleasure, anger, and hatred out on her when she was not at all deserving of the fact. 

 

He turned her around and she peered at something in the distance and allowed her mind to disengage from the moment. He cupped her bottom, squeezed her ass-cheeks, then reached around and tested the weight of her breasts. She should have felt humiliated or hurt, but she simply disappeared into herself or perhaps the distant horizon. 

 

I am not here.

 

This isn’t me.

 

This doesn’t matter. 

 

He spoke about her flaws and noted, rather crassly, that nothing could be done. She would grow into more womanly assets. This caused her to react -- to arch a brow in question, but she didn’t say a word. How could she grow into anything? Her life -- her appearance -- was a glacial thing, frozen solid on the surface as well as below. 

 

His nose was in her hair. She felt him sucking in breath after breath through the lush waves of her dark mane. Her hair had been washed, dried, and the awful knots brushed out. Sweet oil had been added to soften the already soft material, and now he got to enjoy all the rewards of that hard work. Fistfuls of hair pulled her back by the scalp. She groaned, the way she knew he liked, and closed her eyes to the warm spread of his breath over her shoulder. 

 

And then he was gone, crossing the room to search through a cabinet that had never been noticed.

 

“How are you finding your maidens? I trust they’ve done well to tend to your needs, yes? They are enough in their numbers, or do you find yourself needing several more?”

 

“Needing?” she asked passively as she turned to watch what he was doing… her arms crossed under her breasts, “No… I am not needing any more, but I do want more. I heard that Redrick had a wife and children.”

 

She waited to see Raphael look at her -- she wanted his eyes on hers.

 

“I want them. I want his wife to peddle her children to the soldiers or watch them be tortured -- not killed, just tortured, for as long as their little light burns. I want her fruitful business run out of my chambers so that I can stop by to check on the merchandise and enquirer as to the needs of the customers. I want to fully support this little family-run business.” 

 

She remained there, arms crossed, eyes narrowed and set on the emperor. 

 

Had he ever known a crueler soul? Perhaps she was more Isabella’s daughter than Gabriela had ever been.

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Rafael pulled two cups from the upper shelf, setting them down on the lower one as he began filling them with high lord. Zenahriel’s blood was thicker than most mortal’s, ripe and syrupy with his godly power, and it showed in the vibrant color—a bright, beautiful red that seemed to glow. Its fragrance told the same tale, an inviting boutique of aromas as plentiful as the seasons; fresh as the spring rains; hot as a cloudless summer day; spiced as the fall; and yet cool as first winds of winter. It was, by far, one of Rafael’s favorite ports, second only to Dollya’s mothers.

It was not that Irene’s blood was black and sweet (almost sickeningly) that had captured Rafael’s favor so easily. Rather, it was the taste of home, of memories he found himself struggling to remember these days. He’d grown up sipping sustenance from her fingertip when she was but a child, and she, repaying the intimate gesture to him. It was his place as her betrothed, to relish in her blood, and hers as well. Such was the beginning of their bond, or at least the strengthening of that which had already been founded by their blood relation, and it was those memories – of the good times – that Rafael could not bring himself to banish.

Irene had always been so much more to him than just the continuation of their species, the hard-won prize, or the destiny Tenebre, himself, had spoken to him when he was but a boy. But as he stared into the bottomless depths of the High Lord’s lifeblood, he began to wonder if he’d ever truly shown her that. No matter.

“It seems your time below the keep did not break you so much that you’ve forgotten to hold a grudge,” Rafael replied, breaking their mutual gaze as he turned. He was smiling. Though he felt it too soon to show how deeply she pleased him, Rafael adored his empress’ cruelty. It was something he could never enjoy with Irene, for she was too soft of heart, too sentimental, and the Bartolome blood coursing through his veins bemoaned such tenderness. Dollya was different. Whatever part of Irene’s soul she had inherited in her creation, it was dark and twisted, teeming with malice and hatred that burned cold as true ice. “I suppose it is only right. I will see to it that the wife and her children are brought to you for inspection within the week.”

He returned to her a moment later bearing cups in his hand, and extended one to her. “Having this in your system will help with what is to come this night.” Dollya was not unaccustomed to pain, but what they sought to do defied logic and reason – strained the very fabrics of magic, itself. “Wait—” He raised a hand, pressing a fingertip the lip of her glass just before she tilted it to drink. Pricking his thumb with a tapered fingernail, Rafael bled himself into the woman’s drink for additional potency. When the wound healed, he gestured for her to continue. “All of it. Lick the glass, if you must.” Despite her newly acquired station, there was no call for propriety to here. They were alone, secluded in their private chambers. Rafael had seen Dollya at her worst, when she was less than the dirt crunching beneath his heels. A little blood on her lips would not diminish her now.

Departing her side once again, Rafael maneuvered himself to the bed, a grand structure of imposing height and vast breadth. Its posts were well-made, as was its heavy headboard and footboard, fashioned from a rich, dark wood of great density, polished to a shine. The blankets were plush, the sheets silk, and the pillows downy and enormous. It was a bed meant to endure the supernatural fiends that slept upon it. “When you’re finished, take off the dress and come lie on the bed. It’s best we set this thing into motion immediately.” Rafael sniffed, testing the air. “A storm is coming. A small one, but I’d rather not risk its interference in the ritual.”

Setting his glass down on the bedside table, Rafael began the slow, meticulous process of unbuttoning his cuffs and rolling up his sleeves. “I told you that I would make you real, little empress, and that is what I intend to do. Suspend your disbelief,” he intercepted her gawking without paying her a glance, “for I have already done so with your sister. I will give you life, true life, to spend at my side as empress. And when that role has come to an end, you will be free to do as you wish with what I have given you.” He cut her a sharp glance, his expression severe, but not displeased. Rafael was focused, and the red of his eyes, growing darker, more harrowing, said he was harnessing his power. “Come now. Do not make me wait.”

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“Come now. Do not make me wait.”

 

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” came her sultry reply.

 

There was electricity in the air -- and magic, and power, and blood. He said it was the storm brewing in the distance, but she knew better. Although he had only ever been a monster to her, she had become the dumb-beast he wanted to turn her into. She was cut of the same cloth as his dearly beloved, she was of the same black blood, and the same sweet earth. She knew what he was, she felt to some extent the same love that Gabriela harbored for him, even when her mother refused to acknowledge the sentiment. Gabriela and Raphael’s bond was ancient, but only a shard of the Black Queen’s soul could ever truly reflect the depth of that connection. Although Dollya would never be Gabriela, she was indeed a part of Gabriela, just as Raspberry was. 

 

Perhaps that’s where Raphael’s anger stemmed from. Little Raspberry represented a fond memory, the few short years that Raphael was able to enjoy with his betrothed before she ran away from home. And Gabriela herself was the accumulation of all those years, the adult lover that he was promised -- the woman he could still have, a future that may still be attainable. But Dollya… Dollya was the delicious adolescence he was deprived of enjoying. He loved and hated her equally for it. And she understood why, even though he was the minister of all of her horrors.

 

Unwilling to think too deeply on the matter, for fear of wasting any more precious time as a creature of clay and water -- Dollya took up the task at hand. She lifted the chalice of blood to her lips and then drank deeply of the High Lords blood. It was a wonder to be had, of course -- all the things that Raphael saw, felt, heard, and tasted. But it was not her master’s blood. And every taste bud upon her tongue sang only in response to the trace amount of blood of his that he had spilled, that single, cruel droplet that was more a tease than a fulfillment to her appetites.

 

All of it. Lick the glass, if you must.

 

That’s what he said, and that’s what she intended to do. The chalice went higher, and she gulped down the thick, red syrup-like liquid within. And when it was readily gone, she used her long, slender finger to reach in and scrape off the remaining substance that clung to the inside of the glass. Blood ran from her finger, down her knuckle and across the back of her hand in ribbons of vivid crimson. Once she was done she tossed the glass aside, uncaring of its fate. She made an absolute spectacle of licking her hand clean...From her wrist, all the way up the back of her hand, she let her small, cold tongue run across her flesh collecting the candy-apple red substance. Then she lapped at her blood-covered finger, until all that there was left to do was suck what remained off the tip of her middle finger.

 

“Doesn’t taste nearly as good as what you use to feed me down in the dungeon...” she said, licking her lips clean as she began to undress. Yes, perhaps she was not meant to keep him waiting, but she certainly wanted to give him a show. She hadn’t gone through all the trouble of dressing up, just so he could see her gown in a wrinkled mess on the floor.

 

“It was practically impossible to slip into this dress -- I was sown into it. You’ll have to help me. You’ll have to tear it right off my body...like this,” she pressed that same bloodied finger to the space between her breasts, where the very fine but very flimsy lace and silk came together. With her diamond-like fingernail she tore into the dress and tugged down with the weight of her hand until a patch of perfect white flesh was revealed. 

 

“Come now. Do not make me wait.”

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“No, I suppose it wouldn’t, but it will serve its purpose all the same.” Rafael watched her make a spectacle of the deed, erotically licking her hand and finger clean, and for a brief moment he contemplated postponing their ritual. She had endured hundreds of years of pretend existence before this moment already, so what harm could there be in making her wait another night?  Licking his lips, suddenly feeling parched, Rafael reined in the lust and passion that only she—wearing his wife’s face and young body—could awaken in him. Though very much the place, it was far removed from the time to indulge himself so frivolously. There was work to be done, and they would both be better off the sooner they saw to its completion.

You’ll have to tear it right off my body,” she teased. “Like this.” The usurper set to removing the fabric from her body, just a cut, doing well to once again make a spectacle of the thing. She was very from her mother in this regard, more feral, for Irene was rather conservative in all aspects of her life. Dollya, however, had been more with an impulse that cracked like lightning, and her time in the dungeons had only exemplified that. The essence of the Bartolomes flowed heavily through her, as though she was only that, and Rafael liked that most about her. “Come now. Do not make me wait.

Her words set his lips in a thin crease of a frown behind his salted beard, but Rafael did as he was commanded, crossing once again to take his place before her. Irene would have never spoken to him in such a way—no, she was too proper for that. Oh, she spoke wickedly of his love, of his policies, habits, and views on life, but she would never demand he do anything. But Dollya was a different beast all together, a different cut of the darkness that had born them, and she craved power, status, and control in equal measure—same as he. Yet, she possessed the same appetite as her sister, bottomless voids that knew no filling. This middle child was, in his eyes, the most dangerous of the three.

With his left hand, Rafael took her by the throat, the diamond-like nail of his thumb pressed against the underside of her jaw; with the right, he took hold of the tear of fabric, hanging low to expose the swell of her pale breast. He tilted her head back, pressing his nail to her skin to encourage the moment, forcing their eyes to meet. A grim expression met her there, rife with displeasure and irritation—one she’d often seen when he visited her in the dungeons. She’d been his vent back then, the vessel for which he poured his rage and hatred and disgust and abuse. Then, this look meant that she would be pushed to the brink of death – and worse – only to be revitalized by her own cursed existence.

But then it was gone, and Rafael’s hand moved, hooking that thumb into her mouth. “Things are different now,” he said down to her, voice low, rich. “I’ve proven that already. Even if it just a role for you to play, Dollya, you prove your loyalty to me by doing such. And loyalty is something I reward generously.” He punctuated the claim with a firm pull of his hand, effortlessly tearing away an entire strip of the flimsy fabric covering her. The tear streaked down her body like lightning across the sky. “What happened to you down there, it will never happen again, even should you choose to… misbehave.” Rafael tore away another piece, then another. He turned her away from him, hand once again taking her by the throat, soft but firm, as he tore cloth away from her back. “Punishing you in any capacity is my right now, and my right alone.”

When Rafael was finished, the usurper stood before him utterly nude, a sea of shredded gold pooled at their feet. He ran his fingers over her softly, reverently, from shoulder to fingers to hips. She possessed the body he’d never come to know some intimately, for it was a time when Irene was gone from him – off living her life on some other world, all but having forgotten the life she’d abandoned for such freedom. He didn’t hide his excitement, pressing his crotch against her bottom, nor his want as he fondled her small breasts and kissed her neck. He wanted her fiercely, and she deserved to know it – all so that she might better understand his restraint as he pulled away, taking her by the hand and leading her to the bedside.

Rather than deposit her into the ocean of sheets and comforters, Rafael posed her at the edge of the large wooden frame, lifting both her arms out to the side. From the nightstand beside them, he produced a vial of ink—a deep, blackish red in color—and a small brush with a fine tip. “Do not move. The placement and refinement of these uses is paramount to our success.” Stillness was one of the many ‘virtues’ he had instilled within her over her long tenure in the palace’s rank dungeons. And so, he set to task, his hand blurring across her body as he used her body as a canvas for his dark scripture, front to back. The ink, a mixture of his and Irene’s blood more heavily favoring the latter, filled the room with a rich, heady scent.

Finished after an hour of tedious work, Rafael pressed the vial to her lips and drained what remained of its contents. Then he set aside and looked her over, keen eyes vigilantly seeking out even the slightest error. Covered in runes and chants in the Sitraic tongue, Dollya had become a spell circle, both the focus and result, as was their way, but their success relied on the perfection of their execution. Power was never a worry. “Everything looks well,” he decided after a moment longer of rigorous inspection. “Keep your arms up. It’s still drying.” While she did that, Rafael tended to her restraints. These were not the bands of godsilk he’d used on her mother, resistant to their strength, but heavy chain links with dense cuffs, spellforged by artificers to hold beasts of might. He secured one to each of the bedposts. “For your protection, darling,” he assured her, “and perhaps mine.”

Lucia had been easy to subdue during her rage of transformation, but Dollya was bigger, older, and no stranger to her master’s blood. He’d fed her generously the days preceding her release, and knew it still swam through her veins. There was no telling what harm she might bring him, and in response, what fury he might rain down on her. Making his way back to her, Rafael hooked a finger beneath her chin, light enough to barely graze her skin. The markings here were dry, as were those that covered her face, but he wouldn’t risk it. “Do you trust your emperor, empress?” he whispered against her lips, each word a feathery kiss. “Do you trust me, Dollya?”

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She saw the doubt in his eyes -- fueled by lust. She was satisfied by what she saw, even if nothing came of it. It was a pleasure to see the Blood Emperor brought to a standstill, even if it was just for a moment, and all because of the power she had over him. Perhaps he would never admit to it, or would not see it that way, but opinion was a matter of perspective as most everything was. He saw her as a proper little whore, trained in all the disgusting fetishes that he most delighted in, but she knew better. She knew what he liked and that was power in and of itself. 

 

Desire turned to stone as he crossed the room to answer her call. He came to her and wrapped a wide hand around her slender throat while the other one of his made short work of her golden dress -- a masterpiece shred to ribbons. She reveled in the destruction of such a wealthy creation, grinning up at him as he held her tight round the neck. And from her body, gold peeled away as if to reveal something far more valuable than the summerset metal. 

 

He was grim, but that didn’t bother her.

 

She had beckoned him and he had come -- like a good boy

 

Her grin was a sultry thing, those lips of her curled into a smile that soon spread open to reveal her pearl-white teeth and those wicked little fangs. It was as if her smile displeased him, or perhaps, urged him further into depravity. His thumb hooked into the corner of her mouth, and she laughed around the large digit before closing her mouth around it and sucking. 

 

“Things are different now. I’ve proven that already. Even if it is just a role for you to play, Dollya, you prove your loyalty to me by doing such. And loyalty is something I reward generously.”

 

He tore her dress completely off.

 

“What happened--”

 

“Fuck loyalty,” she interrupted him, after she twisted her head to the side and spat out his thumb. “Fuck it. Fuck what happened down there. I am immortal. You added a little slat and pepper to a tiny smidget of the entirety of my existence. I am grateful for it, you know. I liked it -- even when I didn’t.”

 

Dollya smirked up at him.

 

“Fuck loyalty...What about love, Daddy?”

 

She bit her bottom lip -- hard.

 

“What about devotion? What about desire? You fucked me up down there, didn’t you? Made it so I would never crave another man the way I crave you...So please, let’s not be formal now. You didn’t let me out because you wanted me to be loyal. You let me out because you want to be loved.”

 

Perhaps he listened, or perhaps he was concerned only with the way her teeth and tongue played over the plush flesh of her lips -- she knew he liked that. But whatever the case, no answer came right away, and instead, he dropped his hand from around her neck and led her away. She followed, of course, without an ounce of resistance -- though she did have to tread carefully out of the remains of her gown. She was not quite as talented on break-neck stilettos as her mother. But she did sway a little, feeling the potent blood that she had just drunk sink quickly through the lining of her stomach and into the wide and beautiful spread of her veins. Power filled her, strength filled her, and so did vigor and lust. 

 

“Do not move. The placement and refinement of these uses is paramount to our success.”

 

She stood as still as stone, and watched as he began his careful work. However, at the smell of her blood in the air, she grimaced. 

 

“Why hers?” she asked the Lord Father -- all passion dying away from both her voice and expression. “Why not yours...just yours? I’d rather be all of yours than any part of hers.”

 

Maybe he would explain, or maybe he wouldn’t. It didn’t matter in the end because she didn’t rebell. She stood there and shifted only when he asked her to, or motioned for her to raise an arm, or bend a knee, or turn. And when it was all said and done and he left her standing there with both her arms lifted high above her head, and her perky breasts pointed right at him, she smirked and gave a little teasing wiggle. 

 

He hardly seemed interested.

 

He turned back to the bed and produced some monstrous looking chains with cuffs as thick as her wrists -- she burst out laughing.

 

“For your protection, darling...and perhaps mine.”

 

“What do I look like? A bloody Red Bull? That is vulgar bondage, even for you…”

 

He came to her then, and touched her chin.

 

“Do you trust your emperor, empress?”

 

A kiss, feather light and impossible to resist. She pushed forward, nearly smudging his careful work around her mouth, save that he pulled back for both of their sake.

 

“Do you trust me, Dollya?”

 

“No,” came her level reply, “--I love you.”

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Rafael smiled, though it was distant and without its usual depth. His mind wandered back to some of the young usurper’s previous comments, her crude – but not entirely incorrect – presumptions of his wants and needs for love, devotion, and loyalty. Which of the three did he desire from her? Which of the three had he been most determined to instill within her those many nights in the palace dungeons, with the horrors and atrocities he’d committed upon her flesh and soul? It was easy to underestimate her when she wore that face, so young, so innocent (when he desired it to be), and forget that she was of age and wisdom. Not nearly so great as to rival his own, but enough that she had sharpened her mind and wit with experience. That she could still surprise him, even after all their time together, was testament of this.

Clever girl, Rafael thought to himself as he took up a length of chain in his palm, squeezing it with all his unnatural strength to test its limitations. It would hold. I will need to be more careful with her than I originally anticipated. If I’m not careful, she may truly usurp Irene from her place at my side. It was a terrifying thought, for she was, he realized, not so different from him. They were both of Isabella’s ilk, their essence rooted deep in the house of Bartolome, and they would feed the worst attributes in each other until they had devoured all the empire as Isabella had nearly done to Atitlan.

“Yes, I know you do.” There was more to them than that, but she hadn’t been lying. Perhaps it was from her mother that she had inherited this latent affection for her torturer, for Irene had, before the betrayal, the hatred, the loathing, and the distrust, loved him, its purity and potency rivaling that of sunshine. Or, perhaps it was of her own accord, having developed a strange, abominable desire for her captor – her mind poisoned by the rare intimacy he showed her between the savagery and pain. “I do love you too.” Loved her for the how she reminded him of a life he’d been robbed of; loved her for how closely she resembled the light of his life; loved her for the fantasy he was soon to see become a reality.

“You will always be all of mine, Dollya. You have been since that day on the sepulcher, don’t you remember?” He took her hand closed one of the heavy cuffs around it, inspecting the runes beneath. None had smeared. “From that moment, until your last, you have belonged to me. I am a greedy, terrible man. I am not prone to releasing things back into the wild once they’ve become mine.” Lifting his free hand, Rafael’s will reached out and grasped the fresh blood coursing through her veins, weaving itself into her as if becoming one with the tapestry of her very existence. Flicking his fingers up, he lifted her from the floor and glided her back, and then lowering them, deposited her at the heart of the bed, facing up.

“As for her blood, well, I told you that we would take care of your eyes, did I not?” Rafael shackled her ankles while he spoke, then her other arm. It was not the first time she’d found herself in such a position at his behest, bound and exposed as she was. As he sat on the bed beside her, sinking the mattress with his weight, he lowered a hand between her thighs, tracing his long, glassy talons in the empty spaces between runes. “My blood is only present to add the resemblance your mother naturally shares. If you are to take her place, you must look the part as best we can make possible.” Those same fingernails teased their way over her skin, over and over again, light the brush of a feather. “Tenebre himself gave you this life—this shell you call a body. And now, I will give you another one. A better one, my darling Dollya. I promise.”

After a moment longer of silent appraisal, Rafael rose from beside her and made his way to the foot of the bed. Despite his success with Lucia, his slow-beating her quickened, just enough for him to notice the change in its sustained tempo. He felt the hairs along the back of his neck rising, stimulated by thickening of the magic in the air, but his own terror and excitement, as well. How long had it been since magic thrilled him in such a way—since he felt adrenaline in his veins? There was risk here, a long-forgotten component to his many mastered crafts, and he only remembered how deeply he craved when he was lost in the moment; when everything was on the line.

There was no warning, no song or incantation.

Rafael stood still, the ritual unfolding in his mind as he filled the room with his essence. The full extent of the man they called blood god flooded out from his vessel, and it weighed down upon all in the room like the crushing weight of the deepest ocean. The furniture did not rattle or shake, the sky did not weep tears, and the palace did not tremble. Everything was perfectly, inhumanly still. Even the air itself had been brought to kneel, pressed down flat against the floor below them. It was the calm before the storm, the order than would give birth to an awful and terrifying chaos. And then, with a mere adjustment of thought, it all came crashing inside her—wave after endless wave.

The room erupted in a maelstrom of reaction as the pressure suddenly escaped. Furniture exploded into splinters or breaking itself against the hard, stone walls as it followed the retreating torrents. The windows shattered, and the wind shredded fabric and tore chunks from wooden furnishings. The flames in the hearth blinked out of existence, and columns of smoke whipped and lashed in the violent gales circling the room. Still, Rafael stood motionless, silent. The runes he’d etched upon Dollya’s body came alive, glowing brightly, angry, as they burned into her flesh—as they sunk inside her, though muscle and sinew, welding themselves to her bones. The light continued to escape the intricate tunnels they’d carved through her body, which did not heal, as though the sun itself had took root within her.

She was a hideous, eyeless, writhing mass of agony and burning flesh.

Still, Rafael did not move.

He gorged the spell on his power until it was sickeningly fat with strength, and he, himself, felt drained. The light scorching her insides grew more intense as the ritual reached the crescendo, the chaos of the room matching its origin, and then detonated in a release of force that shook the entirety of Umbra. It carried Rafael from his feet and crushed him against the wall, shaping the dense stone in a concave of his back. Debris rained down on him as he slumped down to one knee, slicing through his clothes, leaving jagged, angry gashes along his back, arms, and sides.

 The howling quieted, and silence reigned.

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She lay there, at peace with the future that loomed in the horizon. It was an uncertain future with the possibility for life and death keeping a delicate balance down the tight-rope of her imagination. There she lay, at the center of that massive bed, as he cuffed her wrists and then her ankles, securing her in a spread-eagle position. Much was on her mind, not least of which was the concept of her own mortality. Again, she found herself edging toward a deep chasm of fear and doubt. Where did manufactured souls, such as her own, flee to when life ceased to be able to encase them? Would she go to heaven for all that she had suffered through? Would she go to hell for all that she had done to others? Or maybe there was just nothing -- absolutely nothing.

 

Turquoise eyes -- exquisite in their color -- stared up at the ceiling of the canopy bed. It was fine fabric, of a dark hue, gathered at the center above her head. She saw the deep panels created in the creases of the material, and followed one of them as far back as her head could go. In the meanwhile, the Blood Emperor toyed with her. He stroked between her thighs, slipping a warm, razor sharp nail between the folds of the most sensitive and delicate flesh on her body. 

 

She didn’t move, didn’t sigh, didn’t falter in the least.

 

Fear, like love, were things she could turn on and off for him. This was based on a forced relationship bound in makeshift trust. During her time in the dungeon he had taught her, and very well, when to expect pain and when to expect his kinder and softer side. She knew that he did not desire her agony, at least, not for the sake of pleasure -- at this particular moment. Whatever was to come, it was for the sake of his great design. He was being uncharacteristically tender with her, and she took this as a warning that she needed to strengthen her resolve. 

 

And then he was gone and she was alone in her doubt and hope. 

 

The density in the room grew intense, from one moment to the next. Suddenly, she felt a great weight pushing down on her chest, on her belly, and forcing her arms and knees down flat against the bed. It was so great and so heavy that she felt herself sink deeper into the mattress and the plush coverings that covered it. It seemed a rather unpretentious way to start the ritual. She had expected him to sing, to chant, to dance around like a bloody indian calling for the rain-gods to accept his child-sacrifice. Instead, there was just silence and heaviness. But soon, even this became too much for her to bear. It was too much weight, and when her jaw fell and her mouth opened for her to cry out, she found that the air was too still to carry the sound of her panic.

 

When the pressure escaped, and when perhaps, he expected to see the carefully drawn runes on her body come to life with light -- a very different thing happened. Like the rest of the room, like every piece of shattering furniture, like the flame blowing out of existence -- like everything that suddenly couldn’t exist, Dollya imploded. Everything, save for the flesh upon which the runes had been written fell away. Her skin, her flesh, the muscle and tendons, and everything else, it all came collapsing down against her bones, which also threatened to shatter like brittle sandstone, save for the runes that shone through the remaining flesh and bled into the denser material. 

 

To say she was a hideous sight was a tragedy of an understatement. 

 

She was a glowing skeleton with ribbons of flesh hanging from nearly every inch. At long last, she made a sound, a disgustingly awful sound. It was wet and painful, but it was also ragged and incomplete, coming in and out of existence as she wailed. The screaming came, but it blinked in and out of existence, in and out of silence. 

 

Somewhere, she still existed through the pain -- no, it was more than pain. Somewhere, through all of it, she felt it, saw it, and knew her own mind through all of it. Unfortunately, she was not unattached from it. She did not float above her body watching what was happening. Instead, she was tethered to her body, bound by every glowing rune that forced her soul to remain in place as her body changed from mere earth and water into true flesh and blood.

 

How long did this agony go on for? For how long did she endure… At one point, she felt the need to flee. She thought of staying, but the pain and suffering was too great. It was better to go into the unknown than remain here, going through anymore of the anguish. But something gave her strength and sharpened her resolve, her very soul. 

 

And then it stopped. The sound of her howling screams echoed in her mind like a distant memory. Hearing -- the sound, the prospect of it, all of it -- felt different.  She lay there in the bed, bound by chains, and her eyes opened to stare up at the gathered canopy above her head of dark fabric. She saw -- but seeing was different as well.

 

“Am I alive or am I dead?”

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Rafael rolled his shoulders, discarding the bits of debris that had taken residence on him to the floor. He’d seen her thrashing in her chains as she became an abomination of pain and gore, heard her shrill wailing as she’d nearly succumbed to it all, but he hadn’t moved. Unleashing power of this magnitude was no frivolous thing, and far from a common occurrence, and it left him without the strength in his legs to stand—less still to assist her in the ritual’s passing through her body. So he knelt there, breathing deeply, slowly, as Dollya was left to endure the transformation alone. Why had it needed so much? Could it have been her size, or perhaps the additional changes he’d sought to implement? Lucia’s change had been taxing of course, but not nearly on this level. His mind wandered for a moment longer, but it was Dollya’s voice that arrested his attention and planted it firmly back in the moment.

Am I alive or am I dead?

Taking a deep breath to brace himself, Rafael staggered to his feet. “Quite alive, darling.” He waited a moment, concerned over the integrity of his leg’s, but stepped forward when they did not shake and he did not fall. His pace was slow, weighted with caution and concern as opposed to his naturally grace, predatory gait. Tides of gratitude and relief took turns washing over his face as he sat along the edge of the bed, his strength returning, slowly but surely. He looked at her, the tired lines etched into his face slowly disappearing, the light returning to his ocean blue eyes, and the grayness of his skin receding from the moonlight pale shores of his cheeks. “It would seem you’re quite alive.”

The runes he’d written on her flesh in queensblood were gone now, their magic having been absorbed and disseminated through her new body, beginning the first of its life-sustaining processes. Rafael placed a hand upon her thigh, still soft, tender, but with substance to it. He could feel the blood coursing through her, black as night, sweet as the richest autumnal honey, and knew his work had been a success. The hand ran its course up her body, past her navel, over her breasts – fuller now than the barely passable handful she’d had before – stopped over her hear. “Listen,” he whispered to her. It was slow, as all their hearts were, but it sang all the same – a chord of deep bass that would beat eternally.

Rafael’s hand continued on its journey, gently cupping her face in its palm, turning her head aside to face him. He wanted—needed—to see her eyes, for if they’d failed, this would have all been for naught. But his concerns proved unnecessary, for Irene’s eyes stared back at him, molten gold, almost glowing in the dim light of their chamber. He hadn’t been able to age Dollya, not perfectly, to match her mother’s physique but had accomplished enough that anyone – perhaps even the devil himself – might be fooled from several arms away. And how many could say they were gifted with the empress’ presence in their life? The usurper would fulfill her purpose quite nicely, he realized—perhaps even better  than he’d anticipated.

“You’re perfect,” he whispered down to her, kissing her forehead and then both eyelids as he was prone to do when she’d pleased him. He reached over her and unshackled her arm, but paused when he motioned to release the other. Gently clasping her wrist, he lifted it for her to see. She’d snapped the shackle clean from its chain in her struggles. “You see now what I mean? Who knows what you might have done had you gotten completely free.” Her ankles came next.

“Your sister was absolutely famished after her change,” Rafael said off-handedly, glancing back toward their chamber door. “I took the liberty of having a meal prepared for you, just in case.” A double clap of his hands beckoned the doors to their chamber open, pouring in a neatly filed line of subjects. There were a dozen in total of various age and sex, the oldest in their thirtieth year, the youngest barely in their thirteenth, all impeccably groomed and maintained and dressed in white togas and stolas. Lucia had learned an important lesson that day about feeding, so used to the empty, bottomless pit that she’d once been—and it was, of course, now this new Irene’s turn. “Have whichever, and however many, you’d like. They are here to serve their empress.”

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She viewed this new world with her new eyes and found that there was nothing astoundingly different. There was no sentiment in her in regards to what was lost or what was gained. She remained extraordinarily passive about what had just transpired as she lay there, in what had been her nest of agony. In truth, it was probably due to the huge amount of trauma she had just suffered. Just a fraction of the pain she had been through would be more than enough to break the most resilient of men or monsters alike.

 

“Quite alive, darling. It would seem you’re quite alive.”

 

She did not know what trials he had suffered, nor did she seem particularly interested. There was a profound tiredness she felt, which felt more tortuous than the burning of her very flesh off her bones. Her eyes ached to close, and her mind all but screamed inside of the silent prison that was her skull. 

 

Sleep, sleep, sleep… was the chant of all of her senses, all of them new. 

 

Birth was after all a highly traumatic event. 

 

He touched her, and she felt it, but it did little to stir any desire or feelings within her. The blood running through her veins was black as ink now, and it ran just as cold as her mothers. It was a defense mechanism in so many ways, but especially now. So raw and aching, she made herself numb to the feather light caresses with which he explored her new body. Even those feelings -- those savage, base, and violent feelings of love and lust -- they felt dim and distant. 

 

“Listen,” whispered the Blood God.

 

She had been listening to the sound of her heart even before he sought to bring her attention to it. It was the lulling call to sleep that she now struggled against. It was slow, with a rhythm that although Tenebre had tried, he had not been able to replicate. Her heart now beat like hers, just like her blood ran black and cold like hers, and even her body had been enhanced to be more like hers. She felt the new curves, the swelling flesh, the elongated figure.

 

Warm fingers closed around her chin and forced her head to turn. She didn’t much resist, but she did require some pulling. The muscles in her neck felt oddly strained. Besides, she knew what he wanted and there was a part of her that loathed her for the truth in that small matter. He wanted to see her eyes, wanted to make sure they were like hers. He had to see if all traces of who she had been were physically destroyed. Dollya had some semblance of dignity left, some twisted and ugly version of it. So of course this was an affront to her sense of self, but nothing she would outwardly express. This was a silent wound she would forever carry. 

 

She saw the pleasure of satisfaction cross his face. 

 

“You’re perfect…”

 

“I am perfect now,” she stated passively as he freed one of her wrists, and turned her to see what she had done to the other shackle. It was a marvel, she thought as she examined the broken links of the chain. 

 

“Your sister was absolutely famished after her change. I took the liberty of having a meal prepared for you, just in case.”

 

The parade started then, just as she sat up. Her body felt alien -- like foreign lands needing to be explored before she made any attempt to make use of it. So she watched, with half-lidded eyes, as the humans came in. But she was not Lucia. She was not that bottomless pit of nothing that needed nothing more or less than to be gorged on blood. Her emptiness was manifest in the hunger between her thighs, which even now felt strange whereas it had been a comfort before. 

 

“Have whichever, and however many, you’d like. They are here to serve their empress.”

 

“I am not hungry. I want to sleep. Can I please just sleep?” she glanced at him, those eerily familiar eyes warm and radiant as they gazed up in supplication. How many times had he wished for that sweet expression on Gabriela? She knew it. She knew it the moment she saw his eyes warm, as if he were seeing someone else and not the dirty little slave he had tortured for months on the hard, wet, and piss-stained floors of his dungeon. 

 

“Please, just rest with me for a while…”

 

She held out a small hand for him to take -- an invitation for him to lie with her, another wish fulfilled.

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