Oof, this was a long one.
The chambers of the Upper Deliberative were raucous, heated conversations flying even before it was officially called to order. Here and there, empty seats stood in silent testimony to the brutal attack of a few days earlier, but to the untrained eye, it appeared to be business as usual.
Fokuf could see otherwise. From his vantage point, safely ensconced in the Regentâ€™s chair, he could glance over and see his allies in this mad endeavor, each of them waiting for the moment to take action. Mnemonâ€™s revelations had changed the rules, but not the goals. In some ways, Fokuf supposed, it made things easier.
â€œHonoured delegates, thank you for your time.â€ After some debate, it had been agreed that Vâ€™Neef, and not Mnemon, would bear the news to the Deliberative. There were still those that would see any claims by Mnemon as lies, and that could undermine the second stage of their plan. Vâ€™Neef thus took the stand, her gaze quieting the chamber in moments as everyone turned their attention on her. She did not smile, but kept her expression stern. â€œIâ€™m afraid that I remain the bearer of grave news, and I thank you for letting me begin this session with it.â€ Her gaze swept the room, and a moment later her hand, invisible to most of the room, subtly came to rest pointing towards one corner, near the doors. Following her gaze, Fokuf nodded almost imperceptibly. The assemblage, focused on her words, didnâ€™t notice.
â€œIâ€™m sure that many rumours have spread already about the terrible attacks that occurred two days ago. Independent investigations have confirmed that all attacks were the work of Iselsi assassins. Though the house was disbanded centuries ago, their leadership survived, and turned to the worship of the Yozi in search of revenge. This attack was the first strike by the Yozi against the Dynasty. The second strike is coming soon.â€ She paused a moment, letting the hushed murmurs subside. â€œLadies and gentlemen, in our interrogations of the assassins that we captured, we have learned the location of the Scarlet Empress.â€
The room erupted into chaos. Every senator and onlooker had something to say, and they all wanted to say it at once. Fokuf sighed quietly, and nodded to Arada, who was sitting across the way. The old warrior smiled grimly, stood, and bellowed at the top of his lungs. â€œORDER! Everyone SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP!â€
His words echoed through the sudden silence. Every eye turned to him. Trying to suppress his amusement, he bowed to Vâ€™Neef. â€œYour floor, milady.â€
â€œThank you, Lord Arada.â€ Vâ€™Neef nodded solemnly, looking down. â€œFive years ago, the Scarlet Empress vanished. Many theories have been advanced about what happened to her, but the truthâ€¦â€ She broke off, dabbing at her eyes. Fokuf carefully concealed laughter at the theatricality of it, covering it with a sorrowful expression of his own. â€œIn her quest to protect the Realm, the Empress discovered that there was a gateway to the hells of Malfeas deep within the Imperial Manse. The protections on it had faded, and she walked into it to renew them. But it was a trapped, and she was pulled into Hell.â€ Not strictly true, of course. From what Mnemon had learned, it was a desire for immortality that had drawn the Empress into the Ebon Dragonâ€™s trap. But there was no sense confusing the issue. Vâ€™Neefâ€™s hands clenched the podium at which she stood. â€œMy motherâ€™s strength and determination were without rival. Though the Yozi subjected her to horrors, she resisted them with her last breath. For five long years, she fought against himâ€¦ and, in the end, she fell.â€ Her voice rose over the shocked whispers. â€œMy mother is dead, her soul gone on to Lethe. The Ebon Dragon controls her body, and has filled it with his own infernal Essence.â€ Again, a half-truth that had been decided on. Better than admitting that her soul was in the grasp of ancient darkness, after all.
The whispers had died into a fascinated, sickened silence, as Vâ€™Neef continued. â€œTheir plan was simple. The Iselsi attacked to fragment us, to prevent us from organizing. More importantly, they wanted to remove everyone who knew the Empress personally, who had met her more than a handful of times. Then, with everyone who might recognize the switch removed, he intended to take control of the Dynasty, plunging us into evil in the name of good. If Mnemon had not survived his strike and warned many of us about the attacks that were coming, it might have succeeded.â€
A senator spoke from the front row. Fokuf didnâ€™t recognize her immediately. â€œDo you have proof of this tale? The word of demon-worshippers are not to be trusted?â€
â€œOnce we knew where to find her, we were able to scry for ehr. Mnemon located the Empressâ€™s body early this morning, in the presence of myself, Lord Arada, and Lord Nagazzer. She chose to do this with myself, because I know my mother well, and with Lords Arada and Nagazzer because they have been most opposed to her political goals. Lord Nagazzer?â€ She gestured, and Nagazzer nodded from his seat.
â€œIt is true. I saw it myself, and my Charms verified it. The Empress is an empty shell, now.â€ He paused, and took a breath. â€œAnd she is coming to the Imperial City, to name herself Empress again. She will soon come to these very chambers, not knowing that we have discovered her.â€
â€œHow soon?â€ The irate senator did not seem mollified, but Fokuf noticed that most of those in the room were looking distinctly nervous.
Nagazzer shrugged, and starting to speak, only to be cut off by Vâ€™Neef. â€œHow soon, you ask? Why, she is here already, listening to us talk! She entered with the rest, knowing something was wrong, and decided not to announce herself when we revealed the truth. Isnâ€™t that right?â€ Her hand rose, pointing openly to the corner of the room that she had indicated before. Before anyone could react, Mnemonâ€™s demons were there, as Mnemon had been preparing, leaping forwards to restrain a figure in a heavy brown cloak.
Essence flared, prismatic and pure, and the cloak blew off as the demons vanished into mist. In sudden radiance, her hair coiling around her, looking just as she had the day that she entered the Imperial Manse for the first time, the Scarlet Empress stepped forwards.
The room was transfixed by her words, as she spoke. â€œI waited only to hear the depths of your lies, Vâ€™Neef. You were always my favorite daughter, and I loved you. And you betray me thus? I am ashamed.â€ Her gaze swept the room. â€œIt is true, I was dragged into the depths of Hell, and that I have spent five years fighting to leave them. But I was not captured, or drawn into a trap. My own wards were sabotaged from without, by a traitor. I wonder, Mnemon, how much of this information comes from you?â€
Mnemon stood, her expression a granite slab. â€œIf you wonder so much, why donâ€™t we travel to the Imperial Manse together. Right now. We will see which of us can gain entry?â€
There was a stunned silence, and Mnemon continued. â€œOr did you think I hadnâ€™t learned that? The wardings laid around the Realm Defense Grid had one goal above all others â€“ no creature of the Yozi could gain entrance. If I am, as you claim, corrupt, I will be destroyed. But if I am correct, and you are my mother no longer, you will not even be able to approach it.â€
There was a long pause in the chamber, as overwhelmed senators looked from Mnemon to their missing Empress, watching the staredown. The room seemed to grow dark as the two women locked stares, the very sunlight fading.
No. Fokufâ€™s eyes widened. The sunlight really was fading. The Empressâ€™s shadow was expanding, spreading to cover the room. He held his hands nervously. If this went badlyâ€¦
â€œYou were always too wise for your own good.â€ The shadows spread faster, and everyone noticed. The Empressâ€™s face curled into a sneer, the shadows chasing away her expression. â€œAnd yet it doesnâ€™t matter. Itâ€™s already too late for you all.â€ She laughed, as Mnemonâ€™s gaze turned towards the walls, as the chambers of the Deliberative were swallowed by shadows. â€œIf you cannot be fooled, you can just as easily be coerced!â€ Her laughter rang out, and a thousand whispering shapes in the darkness answered her, as the darkness itself roared with amusement. â€œFor I am the Scarlet Empress no longer! I am the Shadow Phoenix, Conduit of the Ebon Dragon, and I did not come to you â€“ you have returned to me, in Hell!â€