Avitus, her beautiful Avitus. She didn't want to kill him. She wouldn't. Would not. A lifetime of sweet prayers, veneration poured lovingly into her idols, adoration, love, aching prone abasement. A nation flowing with worship, yet his was finest.
He could turn the tide. From lieutenant to slave, the army venerated him. First among the Praetorians, her High Son. They admired his valor, his power, his faith.
Treasure groaned as she clenched a filigreed fist.
How dare they lose faith. Mortals. Breeding, defecating vermin.
How. Dare. They.
The betrayal, the sheer audacious horror of it, filled her mouth, and for a moment it strained the limits of her control to keep the desert below peaceful. She forced herself to breathe; not that it was a necessary action, anymore. But the mechanics of it calmed her.
Her torso flexed, creating a space... Air filtered in. Hissed slowly out, leaking around the edges of her mask, warming her face.
Avitus approached. With every step his feet sank deep into the grinding ebony sand, weighed down by flaking bloody armor.
It had been gleaming, just last year. Burnished plates of pride, overlaying fur the pure white of winter. Browned now by fatigue, the stubborn stains of gore and war. Not just stains- she suppressed a groan of disappointment, seeing his left ear clipped short. She had always approved the perpendicular appeal of his symmetry, strong canine muzzle balanced by attentive ears, mirroring a perfect posture... The aesthetics were ruined, now.
Several spans back his mount lay sprawled on the terrain like a harlot's dress. Serapis reached out, listening to the echoes in the sand, the murmurs in the stone- it was dead.
It had been with him since childhood- and, in the short distance from the camp to here, had expired. One more defeat, in a year of defeats.
She had promised them infallibility, that faith would reward them with victory. Stupidity! She should have known, should have seen the possibility for something like this. Future generations must believe... What? Faith- the reward couldn't be based on circumstance, externals. It had to be intangible, but still compelling-
"My goddess, my Queen, Watcher of Fates, Mover of worlds." Avitus bowed heavily before the first stone step, face pressed to the earth, tail limp.
Dark dunes hid them from the army on one side, and from Serapeum on the other. Nobody would see this.
Motionless, she coaxed the bedrock below to her will. A ledge of stone crept from the sand, lifting Avitus like a pup in the jaws of its mother. He came to rest in a sitting position on the newly formed granite armchair. From a deep vein, she summoned cold crystal water to well up within a cup of rock.
As the glimmering water danced before him Serapis saw his expression go slack, broken between relief and despair. Like the face of one who has been struggling to climb a peak for years, only to be plucked up and placed upon the summit, bereft of achievement, left with an incurable awareness of his own impotence. Even the blue of his eyes had changed- the color itself now signified something foreign, some dislocation below the surface.
She should never have sent them on that campaign.
"Drink, my High Son. You are at the end of a long journey," she said, using the earth below to lend her voice harmonic resonance. "Tell me- were the negotiations successful?"
"The Negotiations..." Avitus blinked in the sun, seeming to have difficulty with the golden glare from atop the throne.
"The Andurunans," she prodded. "I sense them, even now. They flee our lands. You bested them."
With that, Avitus seemed to rouse himself, ears pivoting back along his skull. "Mother- no... Yes, the negotiations are concluded. They believe they have won, and that we have agreed to... But..." He trailed off in uncertainty.
Serapis watched a stray vulture drift across the expanse of blue above.
"Avitus. Am I not she who has received your prayers? You can say anything to me, Avitus. My beloved."
"Mother, the others- please forgive them. They say that you did not grant us victory- because you cannot grant us victory. But, Serapis, I know they are wrong. I know it!" Avitus staggered to his feet. "You test us to refine us, you have given us a worthy foe that we might demonstrate our commitment, and now, I will pursue them to prove- to one and all! That there are none who can defy your will and prevail. That the power of Serapis is inexorable. And that, with our blood, our sacrifice, our death, we are rewarded."
One more battle with the Andurunans and her army would be vanquished, a wet stain on the desert. And worse- it would be seen. By the Andurunans. By her own people. By everyone.
"My son, it is time for your reward now. You have proven yourself. Pleasures await- comfort, feasts, love, renown- I will make you the brightest jewel of my kingdom, Avitus."
A stray droplet darkened the sand at his feet- blood? A tear?
He stepped forward, trembling. "Tempt me not. I crave the one true reward for faith- victory. Victory. And I will bring it to you, Mother. I will bring you victory. You sent us to conquer. By your power, I will conquer."
"I need you to lead my army. Lead them home to me."
"In defeat? You wish us to come home, defeated, by those with no faith, lower than slaves, Unseen? Those who mocked your image, who defiled your name?"
But even as she spoke, Serapis could see. Strong, his faith was strong- but brittle. It would never bend, deform, weaken: But instead shatter like a glass bone.
Hundreds of miles of campaigning, the long siege, retreat, the burning villages, the lost friends and rotting husks strewn along the trail-
If all of that loss was revealed to be final, futile... It would be over. He would turn against himself. And, eventually, her.
Everything. The entire city- it would taint everything.
Serapis looked down upon her perfect subject, resisting the compulsion to scream, to rail against the injustice of it all. Grains of sand began to jitter and hum, the world below vibrating in contained fury. Thank the Maker for the mask.
Calm, always calm.
She turned, assuring herself that her army was entirely out of sight from Serapeum. Even one straggler...
"Avitus, kneel. You have prevailed in the face of untold pain. Resisted the temptations of pleasure. And remained true in your convictions. You will hereafter be known as the Faithful One. The Fist of Serapis. The Victor. Take my army and destroy the Andurunans. Every one of them."
"Yes, my goddess. But. What strategy should-"
"Avitus, there is no longer any need for such things. My will is enough. Go now."
She watched his back as he crested the dune, returning to the soldiers below. She could feel their footsteps through the sand as they began to mill about, gathering. Less than twelve thousand of them, now. Possible- it was possible, but she had to be fast. Very fast- so their powers wouldn't have a chance to activate. Reaching to the earth below, she concentrated.
It seemed so solid, the earth. So firm and reliable. That was a lie, of course. Nothing was solid. Fractures, cracks, slag, the entire mass was a wasteland of broken imperfection.
And, in the blink of an eye, it opened below the feet of the Serapean army.
Even across the dune, she could hear screams wafting through the air, not quite lost beneath the cataclysmic bellow of shifting stone and the viper hiss of misplaced sand.
One, two seconds-
She clapped her hands in front of her, and heard the explosive detonation from across the hill, sand billowing from the crest as wind fled from the scene.
In the desert, there were no echoes. The rising cloud of dust was soon torn apart in the merciless open air.
Alone in the hollow, Serapis felt a penetrating lance of loss.
Avitus- she would never feel his worship again. He was gone. He had loved her, truly loved her- and now he was dead.
Subtle motion called itself to her attention- a survivor, trapped in rock, squirming deep below.
It was him. She knew it, the certainty radiated from her core like a cruel star. He must have activated his halo at the last moment- he had always been the most powerful. None could best him in single combat, not within the organized tournament rules, and certainly not on the open battlefield. Gorgeous, blazing power, second to none, yet suffused with humility and fidelity-
The dying thing below made another pathetic contortion.
Serapis held her hands before her, palms together, and began to squeeze. She should never have allowed herself to become entangled... Why, she wondered, wasn't she crying? It seemed as though there ought to be tears.
She felt the tiny pocket of resistance in the stone vanish, like popping the shell of a beetle.
Power- true power, the power of a goddess- she could see now it entailed isolation.
No more motion.
It was a mercy, really.
She would tour the outlying villages soon, and erase any who had witnessed the retreating army. Her city, her trove of worshipers, would be safe from contamination.
She could understand, just a little, why Nabonidus had turned against her, all those centuries ago... True power is uncontested. Focused. Singular.
Of course, he could have recognized that and still made the correct choice- to fall down and worship, to be first among her servants.
Because there can only be one God.
And it was her.