Interlude - Rat and Snake

The head of the prophet was inconsolable. It moaned and wailed long after the boy had gone.

At first, Sybil ignored it. She put on a record—Count Basie, one of her favorites. The cries of the prophet's head bawled across the trumpet blasts, a jarring dissonance that spoiled the music. Sybil pulled the head out of its box and shouted for it to be silent. She threw it against the wall. She considered crushing it in her coils. Finally, she placed it back in its box, put it in a corner of her library and buried it in ancient tapestries.

At last, it was silent. She returned to her reception hall, slithered serpentine around its bright columns and closed her eyes. The stillness of the deep places returned. She slowed her breath and focused on the hush of vast caverns beyond her rooms. The immensity of that space whispered with the echoes of eons passed stretching out for infinity. Deep breath. Draw it in.

The past. The delicious nevermore when she had been a queen, a goddess reigning over mortal minions who served her every whim. Sybil. Majesty. High Empress of Terror. For a moment, she forgot her prison and gloried in memory.

They had sentenced her to an eternity in this hell hole—those peasants with their primitive magics and their mercenary wizards. She'd been able to quash whole armies single-handedly in past rebellions, but the peasants learned from their mistakes. They gathered a force of magic so large and harmonized it so perfectly, she didn't see it coming. They couldn't kill her of course, but they'd harnessed ancient spells so powerful, they cast her down into the depths of the earth, moving a tiny corner of her palace to serve as prison and set the pale warriors to guard her for eternity. Now she slithered in this pit, left with nothing but her memories.

But those days would return if the boy kept his promise. Sybil gazed down the forbidden corridor and smiled. The boy had taken the curse.

The pale warriors kept Sybil trapped, but they did not watch her every move. Sybil had not been idle in her captivity. Over the lonely eons, the lamia had constructed a masterpiece of devilish magic—a spell so intricate and beautiful, it had taken generations to construct, to test, to perfect. It was her curse, her hope, her revenge, wrapped up in the guise of a simple river rock. And it was out there now.

As Sybil wondered where the boy was and how long it would be before he'd carry out his instructions, a sharp clash of swords cut off her reverie. She stiffened. Outside, her guards shouted and grunted, their swords roaring through the air like bullwhips.

She slithered closer to the door and peaked through the curtain. Had the boy done it already? Was this a rescue? Or perhaps the boy had come back. Did he lose the curse? She saw only shadows of movement through the curtain at the end of the corridor. She moved a few inches into the hall.

Pale Warrior

A sword appeared at her neck. She stiffened and turned to face her guard. A pale warrior—one of the army prepared to apparate should she attempt to flee—frowned and shook his head. "This corridor is forbidden, mistress," he warned.

"You idiot," she snarled. "There's a fight outside. I'm only curious."

"An intruder has come. We will deal with it."

"It's not the boy, is it? You mustn't hurt the boy."

"It is a beast, likely something from the deep. It..."

The noise of conflict outside ceased. It happened suddenly, the shouts of her guards cut off mid cry. The warrior with his blade at Sybil's throat turned, startled. "What was—"

And then he disappeared. The pale warriors usually faded in and out over a second or two, but this one blipped out of existence.

They were gone. All of them were gone.

Sybil was free.

At first, she only gazed at the curtain. She'd stared longingly down this passage for centuries now. Twice in that time, she'd summoned the courage to ignore her guards and race for the exit. Both times, they cut her down, leaving her writhing in pain for decades after.

Now they were gone.

She glided tentatively towards the outer curtain. This was not the work of her curse. How—

A clawed hand pulled the curtain aside. Sybil froze.

The Rat Man

The creature was not like any she'd seen before—tall but hunched, its incisors as long as her fist was wide, its eyes beady violets, its head covered in a mop of brown hair. It stepped into the corridor, walking upright like a man, an open vestment hung over its shoulders, but it had the face of a rodent. It stopped in the doorway and faced Sybil. She sensed fear in this man-creature.

"Who are you?" Sybil demanded. "And what have you done to my servants?"

The rat man scratched its muzzle, confused. "Servants? I thought they were your guards?"

Sybil huffed. "Answer me."

"I—I'm here to deliver a message."

"I didn't ask why you were here."

"But that's who I am. I am the messenger. And I did nothing to your guards. That was my master."

A chill ran up Sybil's arms.

"Who is your master? Is he here?"

The rat's eyes lit with a twinkle of reverence. "He—no, he's not here—not in body. He is The One Who Sleeps, and he is in my heart."

"What is his name?" she asked with a scoff.

"His name is Eternity. He is the One, the Master, the grand poobah of everything. He isn't the alpha, but he sure is hell is the omega."

She didn't like the radiant beam of the rat man's face. She'd seen that radiance in countless peasants, the light of the zealot. This was a true believer.

Sybil frowned. "Pretty words. Does he have a real name?"

"His true name is sacred."

"Tell me."

"Uh, no."

Sybil grew impatient. She didn't know who this creature was, but he stood in her way. She raised her palms and blasted him with a burst of red power.

A burst of red power

The rat man wailed in agony, falling to his knees. He drew his elbows up to block his face and screamed into his forearms.

Sybil moved closer and rose up, her head close to the ceiling. "Now get out of my way."

The rat man climbed shakily to his feet. "No."

She blasted him again. He threw his arms across his face and tensed against the pain, but he did not move.

Sybil threw her hands down and growled. "Get out."

"Not until I've delivered my message."

She prepared to blast him again, then stopped. Why did she attack? Why not let this creature speak his message and leave?

Because she was afraid to hear what he had to say. This realization shook her. Someone had neutralized her guards—a feat she hadn't been able to accomplish in a millennium. Whoever this Master was, he had power. In Sybil's experience, those with power did not like to share it.

"Speak your message," she said, slithering back a pace.

The rat man lowered his arms guardedly, clearly expecting another attack.

"I have passed the test," he muttered.

"That's it?"

"No, I—" He hesitated, as if he'd forgotten the message. He frowned, straightened, then spoke. "You have given the boy a curse."

Sybil frowned. How could anyone know that? The boy?

"My master does not condemn your actions. He will not stand in your way. You may make your stand, take up a throne, rule any way you wish. But be warned." He held up a clawed finger. "You must not hurt the boy."

"Excuse me?"

"The kid named Eddie. The one who carries your curse. You will not hurt him in any way. If he receives so much as a scratch from you or those in your power—"

"You'll do what?" Sybil interrupted. She folded her arms defiantly.

"I will do nothing. But my master—he'll go one-hundred percent nuclear on your ass."

"What?"

"You heard me. You screw with his plans, and you'll be a grease smear under his toes."

She held out her hands, ready to strike again. "I am a powerful immortal. I've leveled armies with a flick of my finger."

"And he's a god. To him, you're just a speck of green turd, bitch."

"That's your message?"

"Most of it."

"Well, finish it so I can kill you."

"That's not how this is going to work."

Sybil threw up her hands. "That's how it always works. You're a rat. I'm a snake. The rat never wins."

The rat took a deep breath, sighed, then stepped forward. "Don't fear the reaper," he muttered to himself.

Sybil was unprepared for his advance. She reared back and threw up her arms to strike—

Except she didn't. Her arms didn't move, her body paralyzed. She grit her teeth and tried to force her arms up. They remained fixed in place.

"The rest of my message," the rat man said as he stopped before her, "Is a demonstration." He reached up and gripped her by the throat.

The Message

Agony! It came in waves through the rat man's hand and down her body. Sybil's body shook with fiery pain so exquisite, she was certain she would die. The rat man's face filled her vision, His mouth twisted in a cruel snarl. Sybil would have collapsed from the torment, but her body remained fixed and rigid. She could do nothing but endure it, a torture far greater than anything she'd ever received or inflicted. She didn't think all the pain in the world could compare to this.

How long it lasted, she could not say. When he released her, she crumpled to the floor, the force of gravity claiming her completely. Sybil wept. She'd never shed a tear in two millennia on this earth. Not even the attack of the pale warriors had been this painful. She sobbed with all the strength left in her—sobbed to exhaustion.

The rat man stood over her, waiting. When her convulsing sobs quieted, he said "The boy must live. In a few days, the sleeper will awaken and the boy will not need protection. Until then, you will not harm him."

Sybil groaned. She pushed herself off the floor and managed a defiant glare. She wanted to speak, but she didn't have the strength. Her jaw quivered.

"I don't think you've gotten the message yet," the rat man said. He crouched before her and caught her by the jaw. The punishment began all over again, and this time, through the pain Sybil saw the face of the Master himself.

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page published 3/13/2017