Apophis was the Lord of Hell. Unfortunately, he was currently one of seven different gods who could lay at least a partially legitimate claim to that title at the moment. The six month long bloody gauntlet of would be lords of hell had reduced the number of potential Lords of Hell from thirty, one by one.
The eighth individual who might have once been able to claim that title sat chained upon the ground before Apophis, broken and bloodied. He was bound so tightly that he could barely breathe, let alone move, and the gag shoved in his mouth just barely quelled the terrified screams. The "god" of water and rivers knew what was coming.
Apophis kicked the "god" before him, breaking his nose with the iron capped toe of his black armor. "Potrimpo you have never been a god of any particular standing. You were born too late to have ever tasted true power in anything but borrowed memories of your progenitor. You think in mortal terms and fight by mortal rules."
He reached down to grab the "god," lifting him by the front of his brocaded vest. The Potrimpo's eyes bulged, the rippling motion beneath his neck a sign of how desperately the symbiote was trying to flee the host body. Apophis grinned, knowing what Potrimpos did not – escape was impossible. Apophis was only a shadow of his former self, but he could force the gods to remain within the limits of their flesh. He was a god of endlings and chaos, the doom of those who strayed from the Rules of the Pantheon of Apep.
Keeping his prey in place till the end came was a privilege for which even Winter would not rob him. "You would presume to rule over one who once spoke to the Queens of Sun and Snow as their Equal? I who remember the names of the Nameless and Discarded who would not live by the terms and were banished beyond the Gates – beyond Duat to the Great Nightmare?"
Apophis raised his blade, willing it to shimmer with the arcane light of chaos – particles of matter turning to energy and energy turning to motes of matter in a coruscating pattern that tore through the veil of mortality. No spell or enchantment could withstand such a blade, it would render the flesh of moral and immortal alike. The lesser god's eyes bulged with horror as he watched the light flickering along the blade – knowing what was to come.
Apophis' eyes flashed greedily, casting light into flickering darkness of the Throne Room of the Necropolis. "I do not play with the toys of those who came before me, I forged the Empire whose moldering bones you pick through – thinking yourself a king."
He cut off the lesser god's right leg with a clean sweep of his blade, leaning in to whisper in the thrashing god's ear. "You are going to die here today."
He sliced off the left leg, still holding the thrashing godling in his vice-like grip. "You are going to die because you are pathetic, and weak."
He sliced the god's bindings, dropping the bleeding paraplegic upon the ground. He struggled to flee Apophis, dragging his bleeding stump away from the God of Serpents. The water god left long rivers of blood behind him as he hefted his carcass along the cold, stone floor.
Apophis followed behind him, flensing his back inch by inch, near giddy with joy at the screams that even the gag in Potrimpo's mouth could not muffle. "You are not going to be one of my Lieutenants – you are not worthy of licking my boots, let alone joining my pantheon."
Apophis cut off the water god's right arm, forcing the man to limply flail across the floor with his remaining appendage. He kicked the severed arm ahead of Potrimpo and into a flaming brazier to sizzle with a sickeningly delicious odor of roasting pork, cackling in amusement. "You can't even run away properly."
Potrimpo raised his arm in a vain gesture of warding as Apophis drove his blade through the man's remaining arm and into his skull, taking care to cut deep enough to kill the host but not to cut down far enough to strike the symbiotic wrapped around the man's spine. He released the spell binding the symbiote to the host, freeing the panicked and agonized serpent.
The pitiable, mewling, little worm wriggled out from the host's spit skull, thrusting out from the broken bits of brain matter and slapping on the blood-soaked stone. Near-blind and panicked, it tried to flee only to have Apophis grasp it in his lighting quick gauntleted fingers. He held up aloft the serpent, the hooked barbs along his kara-kesh keeping the writhing snake trapped against the glowing foci as he mentally willed the built in pain-giver to life.
The high-pitched squeals of the serpent echoed through the shadowy expanse of the throne room, tinny little screeches of abject horror as the device forced agony into every fiber of the Goa'uld's body. It was a horrific device from Sokar's private collection of ritual artefacts, a Kara'kesh made with the specific intention of wounding both body and soul irreparably.
Shimmering lights flashed from along the shadowed recesses of the Throne room, the eyes of his budding pantheon unable to conceal their horror and excitement at what they were watching as Apophis lifted his would-be rival's neck up to his lips and bit down, tearing through the flesh and bone as Potrimpo howled.
There was a moment of utter silence except for the sounds of wet chewing as Apophis devoured every scrap of his rival. Under the normal rules of warfare, Apophis would have likely tortured Potrimpo into submission – forcing him to become a subordinate in his pantheon and eventually giving Potrimpo the chance for wealth and holding in exchange for service. But these were not normal times, and Apophis could not rely upon the old customs to hold sway. He had to quell any dissent within his ranks until he could be more confident of his long term stability as ruler of Delmak.
Delmak had devolved into total civil war in the days following Sokar's demise. With no clear recipient of Sokar's mantle to control the ancient spells and protections placed upon his deep places, there was no way to tell if the sudden release of horrors from the great undercity below the necropolis was intentional or a byproduct of a total loss of control in the millennia of carefully laid rituals and devices to keep them beneath.
When the traitorous bastard Rostam destroyed the great Southern Fortress from orbit, he had done so with the scrupulous intention of destroying the planetary warding structure protecting the denizens of the Delmak's surface by rupturing one of Sokar's largest artificially created leylines. Netu had just been one prison in Sokar's empire, and the prison hidden deep beneath Delmak's earth and stone incarcerated beasts more dangerous than Netu could ever have hoped to contain.
Prismatic storms of energy were still ravaging the southern continent, but that was a concern infinitely subordinate to the sudden influx of angry and hungering beasts. Monsters from before the Folly of Thoth preyed upon what parts of the population weren't active participants in the ongoing war for dominance, making Delmak into a greater hell than Netu had ever been able to match. Apophis had been forced to wet his blade with the blood of ancient enemies taken as prisoners of war battles for the first world by Sokar, vampires and demons Apophis believed relics of a past long forgotten.
He'd slain three Mayan Elders with tattoos and Bones marking them as ancient enough to perhaps have been among the first gifted with the red thirst by their Omeyocan allies. A pox on Coatlicue and her entire pantheon for having been monsters of such abhorrent violence that their people were willing to inflict the "gifts" of the Omeyocan upon themselves – the entire twice cursed brood had deserved worse than the doom the combined might of the Pantheons and Furlings had done to them as part of their banishment after the death of Coyolxauhqui and the discovery of their treachery in the early days of Thoth's Folly.
Apophis might have been able to stage a clean coup if he'd reached the Imperial Palace of Delmak's Necropolis immediately after the destruction of Netu. The Lord of the Flames, his primary rival for the throne, was physically imposing but frankly a bit of an idiot. The Gatekeeper of the Necropolis relied upon his physical stature and skill in combat to overwhelm any opponent that might challenge him, but he was too myopic to have any degree of skill for deception.
If he was going to kill Apophis following the immediate death of his "father," he would have come at the head of a great army and challenged him to single combat – it was the way of him. He wanted to dominate his foes in public, earn the love of his Jaffa. As though grappling like some mortal slave made him more of a proper god, it was pathetic.
If he actually fought Apophis in single combat, Apophis was entirely certain that he would loose to the more physically and magically adept warrior. What of his power remained could not be directed to an immediate conflict – Ra had been sure to impose that upon him when he subordinated Apophis' role within the pantheon as part of Heka's terms. The abilities to empower ritual objects, bless his followers, and bewitch the will of mortal heretics, would prove to be of little use in combat.
Which, of course, is why he had no intention of fighting Aziel in the event that the Lord of the Flames issued a challenge to single combat. Orbital bombardment of the appointed meeting ground would be more than sufficient to scourge any remnant of Aziel large enough to resurrect via sarcophagus. Apophis could hardly be faulted for choosing a weapon more effective than that of his opponent. Anyone foolish enough to do so would find themselves suffering a similar fate. When one's detractors were all dead, one hardly needed to worry about their opinions.
Heka, or more appropriately whatever sub-lieutenant finally got the better of Heka and assumed his throne, had demolished any chance at immediate supremacy over Sokar's realm Apophis might have hoped to achieve. In a display of physical prowess that more or less entirely precluded the man from potentially being Apophis' brother, the self-appointed "Lord Warden" had bested Aziel's personal army, defeated the Lord of Flames in single-combat, and escaped in a display so public that no degree of propaganda could quell the truth of it.
He'd then had the audacity to free the Pantheon Sokar had been attempting to build. Liberating them from Delmak's surface without forcing them to pledge loyalty or military aide to any of the factions warring for Delmak, freeing a substantial portion of the planet's civilian population, and stealing several entire fleets previously in service to Sokar. It would have been impressive, even amusing, were it not so totally at odds with Apophis' own goals for the immediate future.
It was especially infuriating given that the Lord Warden was presumably of Apep's direct line, like Ra and Apophis had been. He couldn't imagine Ammit tolerating subordinating herself anyone external to the family for any substantial length of time – not after spending millennia stranded on the First World after she was betrayed when the Egyptian gate fell.
Yes, family indeed.
The man was doubtless from Heka's direct gene pool given how much blood magic would be necessary to maintain control over even a fraction of Nekheb's wards. To be so entirely outmaneuvered by his nephew was infuriating, though not so infuriating as the possibility that Heka managed to secure a Queen willing to tolerate him long enough to breed. His distasteful attitude to women, especially chattel, had been unfitting of Apep's true bloodline.
It was nice to have a rival who at least had the common decency to be of correct breeding. Ra and Apophis had hated each other for most of creation, but they'd both understood each other. They shared the same genetic memories upon which they'd formed their own kingdoms. They didn't need to like each other to achieve their mutual goals and roles in the ancient Pantheon's war against the Great Enemy. To match one's wits against an equal in battle was a glory second to none.
But it was a glory he would not experience in the immediate. While Apophis did control the central parts of Delmak's capitol and a majority of the fleets formerly controlled by Sokar thanks to the work of his Serpent Guard, he lacked sufficient military leverage to assert total dominance. Aziel, wary of a second defeat and disgrace, had elected not to challenge Apophis to single combat but was instead waging and infuriatingly effective military campaign for control of Sokar's holdings.
Which would have been bad enough in and of itself, but Aziel was not the only Goa'uld of Sokar's pantheon with aspirations of conquest. The other System Lords from the Hellenic and Titan Pantheons, had, as of yet, made limited seizures of Sokar's former outlying holdings – Chronos was too busy warring upon the Lord Warden to make any serious effort to invade and the Hellenic gods lacked sufficient fleets to wage an offensive war so far from the homeland. But it was only a matter of time before they turned their aspirations towards the Great Lands of the Necropolis.
Apophis had no proof of it, but he was convinced that somehow the Tau'ri were responsible for this. How they would have managed quite so intricate a web of catastrophes upon him while languishing upon the surface of Netu was beyond even his divine providence, but Apophis was more convinced of O'Neill's hand in this chaos than he'd ever been of anything in his entire life. He swallowed the last wriggling bit of the sybiote, biting through the creature's brain and finally putting it out of his misery as he smacked his lips, snapping his fingers to summon his new first prime.
The Jaffa warrior, a necropolis guard who normally had a proper stomach for violence, seemed a bit green in the gills as he approached Apophis with his head bowed in deference. "My Lord Apophis."
"Have you located Nekheb yet?" Apophis rumbled, the fury in his voice tempered by the glow of his recent victory. He licked the metal tipped fingers of his Kara'kesh gauntlet, making sure to get every bit of flavor from his defeated foe.
"No my Lord Apophis," The Jaffa bowed deeper. "We have sent fleets through the spaces where your divine guidance suggested Nekheb might have been relocated after the Warden stole it from the stars. There were several populated worlds and one world rich for mining, but no signs of the Warden's stronghold. Though they wage war against him, our spies in the kingdoms of Chronos and Moloch have yielded little insight. Please forgive me, my Lord. The Lord Warden has enacted some great devilry beyond the ability of a mere Jaffa."
Apophis' eyes flared with anger, but not at the Jaffa. It was the situation that angered him – The Lord Warden had not moved the star system. Apophis was certain of that. The confluence of events required for even a god unburdened by the Heka's terms to move that many moving objects within that great of an area would have been impossible to conceal – it would have required ripping a sizable rip in the very fabric of reality.
Assuming that it didn't just consume the system as it imploded into that tear, it would leave a number of exotic particles that could be tracked and mapped to find where the matter had been moved. But as there wasn't a horrific wound in the fabric of existence and the radiation permeating the emptiness where Nekheb out to have been, Apophis was left to conclude that someone had taken the system elsewhere without moving it through realspace.
Given the Lord Warden's overt and declared allegiance with the Furlings, it seemed likely that the Queens of Sun and Snow were responsible for this irregularity. Moving an entire star system to where it ought not be was precisely the sort of prank that overjoyed the Furlings.
He would not be bested by them – not again. And, no matter how tempting it might have been, he was not going to murder his newly minted First Prime for having failed to out-think the Furlings. Pelops most certainly hadn't bred them for their capacity for critical thinking or creative problem solving. It was a poor carpenter who blamed the hammer for not being a saw.
While troops sent by the Stargate provided no reasonable marker by which one could measure distance, there was a limit to how far and how fast a ship could travel via hyperdrive. This was especially true when one was trying to establish lines of defense and supply. Armies needed to be able to fall back and advance forward incrementally, providing flexibility to one's structure but creating an unavoidable degree of predictability of movement.
Given the location of the battle lines between Chronos, Moloch, and the Warden, there was a limited supply of potential empty regions of space for the system to have been placed. Several thousand but still fewer than the width and breadth of an entire galaxy as the Jaffa seemed to fear."Continue to search the locations provided. One of them will be Nekheb."
"Yes, my Lord. I will do as you command." Replied the Jaffa, bowing and departing the throne room backwards, his voice marked by a clear tone of panic beyond his ability to suppress.
Apophis pinched at the bridge of his nose, counting back from ten as his eye twitched. He reminded himself how impossible his search had to seem to the Jaffa, how much of a drain on Apophis' battle plans the exploratory fleet truly was. His First Prime would have been insane not to have doubts, not while their position of power was so precarious.
Apophis conceded that having the three fleets back at Delmak would greatly secure his claim to the system. But he couldn't afford to let Heka's murderer disappear into the woodwork. The Lord Warden had a claim to the Throne of Hell – unless he subordinated himself to Apophis and revoked his claim Apophis would eventually have no choice but to take it by force as there would always be elements within the Necropolis Guard and the Cult of Sokar who would be sympathetic to the Warden.
Many would pray to their "true" god rather than to Apophis. How many, he could not say but Apophis was not a divisive figure in Delmak's current Patheon. The Warden, in spite of the best efforts of Apophis' clergy to stymie the spread of the Warden's cancerous gospel, was much beloved even by those who cursed his name. By the time Apophis realized the Warden's stories were in the ears of his people, the Warden's gospels had already reached a unique narrative niche of lovable antagonist that was impossible to discard.
The Mad God of Magic who carried his naughtiest thoughts in his own disembodied skull, pulled out of his head by the evil Queen of Winter so that he might have someone of equal madness to talk with. It could be told as a heroic epic, a tale of warning, a parable of danger, and a thousand other things that made simply forbidding the population from retelling it next to impossible short of genocide. Given the wartime population adjustment, genocide seemed an ineffective solution in any timeframe capable of meeting Apophis' needs.
The Warden was conquering the people's hearts without ever stepping foot upon Delmak. Apophis would not live in another man's kingdom.