The imperial court of law, the traditional seat of power where assembled the great offices of the empire, was one of the most majestic of architectural feats, built out of the finest limestone buffed and polished to a sheen. There were two sprawling wings with towers that thrust so high as to seem precarious, and looming above the broad stairway were vast balconies from which, in the distant past, legal proclamations had been made and great speeches given to gathered throngs.
The great temple, having been rebuilt and extended upon in numerous styles, stood some distance behind the court building. There once had been a large open space of lawn and gardens between the two institutions of authority, but now even the remnants of it were buried and overgrown. In approaching the main entrance of the court building, the temple was entirely obscured, as if it weren’t there at all. Standing before the court building, the awe of the edifice, covered in intricate stonework, crowded about with statues and gargoyles, entirely dwarfed the individual’s view. The impression it gave imperial subjects was that law and order had always been and always would be.
But not all was as it appeared. A secret underground tunnel connected the two buildings of the establishment, a passageway that had only ever been known and used by the highest powers of the land. It was a dimly-lit tunnel with water leaking between the settling and crumbling bricks overlaid upon rough-hewn stones, allowing a black mold to cover the walls that glistened in the flickering light. Among the keepers of archaic knowledge, it was believed that the tunnel was older than any other structure, the names of its early builders and their original purpose lost to memory.
It was so well hidden that, over time, fewer and fewer of the respective elites of court and temple realized it was there at all, each realm of power having become publicly treated as separate; if there lingered vague rumors of conspiracies that, of course, were never uttered out in the open among respectable company. Some of the ancient patriarchs, long ago having harnessed the magic of longevity, were the only ones remaining who held the knowledge of how to find and open the concealed doorways deep down in the underground labyrinth of corridors.
Though long-lived, one by one, almost all of the last old nobility died off. Those who survived were the most conniving and dangerous. Yet power had shifted across the centuries, and the old ones receded further into the shadows. The two buildings, facing in separate directions, had become almost entirely isolated in their spheres of activity. Gradually over the generations, the area between them had grown unruly with vegetation and was overtaken by a thick woods. Neither building could any longer be seen from the other, as if they existed in their separate worlds. Yet some of the ancient ones still traversed the passageway, holding their secret close because the fewer who knew about it the greater the power for those few.
What had changed within the imperial bureaucracy was an incoming coalition of young wealth and aspiring reformers, with little concern for entrenched customs. This new governing class knew nothing about the history of the institution they had inherited. Nor did they know the true identity of the old guard. The old ones, having in the past been accepted as aristocracy, increasingly came to hide behind other identities. Few realized how old they were, as living memory no longer reached beyond the buzz of events that occupied the public arena. It wasn’t only that these figures of the establishment were well up in age. The spells of long life had altered them. They were no longer human.
This was the darkest of secrets, around which the wildest of rumors couldn’t imagine. These powerholders hadn’t merely devolved to apes but further back to the reptilian ancestor of all mammals. It took all their guile, sorcery, and enchantment to disguise their true forms. This required so much of their strength and energy that they had little left over for other purposes. Even so, as long as they remained hidden at the heart of power, they could wield their dark magic. And the greatest spells they cast were the laws of the land, not mere codes and rules but words of power.
Without their legislative witchcraft, their masks of human appearance would dissolve and fall away. They didn’t impose laws to control the population but to control themselves, to maintain their false appearance. The most important of these laws, as symbolic incantations, involved animals for that is what they had become, subhuman. There were rules, restrictions, and regulations on which animals could be kept and how, the conditions of raising and slaughtering animals, in the preparation of food and what could or could not be eaten. But more than anything else, the linchpin of their magical order was the anti-bestiality laws, for the beastly lust of the old ones was barely suppressed. The greater control they had, the more they needed a system of control; for they had no control of themselves.
For this reason, though the true believers worshipped at the temple in the respectable formality of traditional rituals, the mainspring of theomorphic power had always been in the court, a place of concealed wizardry where the old gods, forgotten to all others, were still worshipped. The eroding command and authority among these licentious lawmakers was a threat to their very existence. If their dark nature was revealed, their whole charade would end and they would forever fade from the human world, never to again regain their position of dominance. They used every machination they had devised over the eons. But most of all, word magic, underlying the sway of legislative governance, was the ultimate source of their rule.
They did not so much oversee the governing bodies of the empire as they mastered the human mind. If thoughts and identity could be molded and shaped, then those under such influence could be pulled this way and that like puppets. The incantation of words, not only in law books but also in the voices of town criers and decrees etched on stone pillars, was what put the spell on the public mind. They couldn’t actually alter or even hide their scaly skins, their unblinking lizard eyes, the stench they exuded. But they could cause the people to not perceive them as they were, and to not see is to not know. The enforcement of laws in the world was less significant than the imposing of the laws on the human psyche. Appearance was everything. And so they invested nearly all their wealth in spectacles of power.
All of that was to obscure what happened behind closed doors, far uglier than any corrupt dealings and crony machinations. If it was ever discovered the wild abandon of beastly orgies they committed in the bowels of the court building, the last vestige of deception would be undone. What was seen could never be unseen, what became public knowledge could not be undone. Yet their facade of respectability had long ago begun to peel away, had already revealed glimpses of what lay underneath, but only the briefest of peeks and only for those who were looking. Even then, not many could quite believe it for the ruse of word magic was quickly again invoked in comforting stories, even if it left a spreading sense of unease — it could not be true, it was too horrifying to even allow into consciousness.
This put the lizard people in a state of precarity, for eventually the pretense of denying the undeniable would fracture and with it the foundation of their world. In their terror, they pushed ever harder the lever of legalistic power, constantly layering spell upon spell such that it barely held together. It was all they had left. Their sneers of narcissistic confidence belied a fight for survival and, in desperation, their actions became ever more extreme, their word magic ever more obscene. The suspicions that had already floated in whispers were then being spoken out loud, if at first only outside the halls of power. They still held key leadership positions, in having maintained their grip over the court, so as to invoke their public glamor. But for how long could that last?