by J Falconer
Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle etc belong to MCA/Universal and Ren Pics, and anyone else who has an interest in Xena Warrior Princess, not me.
Copyright ã 2000: The characters in here belong to me. All rights reserved. No part or whole of this work may be copied or used in any shape, form, or manner whatsoever without the author's express written consent. If you want to use them, all you have to do is ask Ö nicely.
Violence disclaimer: This story depicts scenes of violence and/or their aftermath. Nothing too graphic (enter, stranger, at your riske Ė here there be icky bits), but readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this type of depiction may wish to read something other than this story.
Love/Sex warning: This story depicts a love/sexual relationship between two consenting adult women. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal in the state or country in which you live - move along, move along, nothing for you here ...
If you like it, let me know. All comments except for nasty ones are welcome!
Major vote of thanks to my ever patient beta readers Foreva Xena and Tragic Prose for taking valuable time out to read this. Without their feedback I would be totally stuffed.
Once upon a time, there was a little Kingdom almost hidden from the outside world by the lush green forest surrounding it. The people in it were generally of good cheer and kind to their neighbors, but hid their goodness behind a sour facade. The King and Queen were cowardly, selfish and miserly, taxing the community almost beyond tolerance, punishing acts of goodwill with brutality or imprisonment. They had a beautiful daughter, Princess Rani, with deep red hair and vibrant green eyes; a shapely girl who turned heads and had all who saw her entranced by her shapely body and great beauty. However, the palace servants and royal guard, kind people, knew her as a whiny, selfish brat, utterly obnoxious and spoilt rotten by her parents. They over indulged her, and centered their lives around seeing to the needs of their one, precious daughter.
One day, the King and Queen were sitting happily on the battlements of their castle, enjoying a sunny spring day, when suddenly there was a loud explosion, a puff of sulphurous smoke, and a heavily armored man riding an enormous shimmering black dragon appeared in front of them. There was a slumped figure draped over the dragonís neck in front of him, and he threw it off with contemptuous ease. It landed in the dust with a dull thumping sound, thin trickles of blood pooling around it. The hungry dragon turned to stare avidly at the King and Queen, drool forming at the corner of itís mouth, fiery red eyes savagely boring into them.
"Your Highnesses," he began mockingly, as he was converged on by palace guards, careful to keep a distance between themselves and his snorting dragon. "I am Lord Starhawk of the Northern Reaches, and I have your daughter. I will return her to you unharmed for a thousand pieces of gold and the return of what was stolen."
He paused for a moment and began mumbling under his breath. He held out his large, black gauntletted hand, and a shimmering globe of green light appeared, which flattened out to a map. He pointed to a spot on it.
"You are to bring the ransom to my domain, and I may let her go," he said in his cold, cruel voice. "You have one month."
With those words, he pulled back on the reins of his Dragon, which took off with a loud trumpet and snort of flame, engulfing a poor, hapless lady in waiting, charring her before she had a chance to scream.
The King and Queen had not said a word, frozen as they were with fear and shock. The guards rushed to the King and Queen, while the Lieutenant of Palace Guard stopped to inspect the figure.
Finally the Queen found her voice. "Oh, our precious Rani! This is awful! What are we to do? We must pay the ransom to get our sweet, wonderful Rani back!"
The King nodded in agreement, eyes blazing with rage now that Lord Starhawk was gone. "I quite agree. Captain Raven is an incompetent oaf! Kill her! No hold that thought. I can think of no better person to go to that evil manís domain than her. Throw her in the dungeon, and send her on her way when she wakes up!"
"But Sire sheís injured - " began the Lieutenant, and stopped abruptly when he saw the murderous look on the Kingís face. "Yes, Sire, at once." He turned and waved to a couple of guards, and they grabbed the still unconscious, bleeding figure of Raven and dragged her into the castle.
Behind them, the court magician, Silverblade, heard them and said nothing. He did not want to call attention to himself, often being ridiculed and the equally often unwilling subject of countless attempts at royal humor. He felt sorry for the hapless Captain Raven, knowing she was a noble and courageous soldier, kind, and the highly reluctant object of Raniís undying love. He quietly slipped into the shadows and made his way past the still moaning royals, surrounded by castle guards trying their hardest to look busy and feel sorry for them.
He returned to his small comfortable chamber, deep in the bowels of the castle. It was comfortably furnished, desk overflowing with volumes and scrolls related to magic and history. He casually extended a finger of flame and lit his stump of a candle and cold fireplace. Mumbling and rummaging on his table, he found the book he was looking for and settled down in his comfortable, overstuffed chair by the fire and began to read.
He remained engrossed in his work for quite some time, starting violently when he felt a tap on his shoulder.
"What, oh my goodness Mac, you startled me," he said to the young teenage girl in front of him. "What are you doing here?" He had first met Mac when she was a very young girl, around five years of age, and had picked her up out of a scuffle with an older girl. He had taught her to read and write, and discovered that the girl had a passion for stories and history that matched his own. As she could not be apprenticed to the castle scribe, and the castle magician was disgraced by the magic hating royals, she had gone to the kitchens to indulge her other passion - food. Despite this preoccupation with culinary arts, Mac was not a large girl - she had turned out to be a willowy blonde girl with gentle, green eyes, very shapely, and very popular with the boys.
"Silverblade," said the young girl. She settled into the comfortable chair in front of him. "We missed you at dinner, so Cook had me bring you a plate."
"Tell your mistress thankyou," he said, spotting the tray balanced precariously on the edge of his desk. He grabbed it and lifted one of the coverings, and sighed in pleasure at the contents. He began to dig in, while Mac watched him in interest.
"So, Silverblade," she began casually, almost too casually, and Silverblade felt faint alarm bells start to go off. "I take it youíre going to go with Raven to deliver the ransom."
"She doesnít know it yet," he said cautiously. "But yes, I am."
"Good, because I want to go with you." Silverblade knew it was coming, but he still managed to make soup come out of his nose as he spluttered and coughed in shock.
"No Mac, you canít come with me," he said patiently, when he had managed to regain control of himself.
"Why not?" she asked.
"Because you are too young," he said.
"No Iím not," said the blonde, green eyed girl. "Iím almost nineteen, and a cook."
"You finished your apprenticeship!" he said with pleasure, despite himself. "Well done! But donít try and distract me - youíre not coming."
"Whoís going to help you do your research and watch your back?" she asked. "I know you can use my help."
Mac took quite a chance. She had never met Raven, only enjoyed her from a distance. The prospect of the danger and excitement with both of them was quite a drawcard in her dull, uneventful world.
"And how would you know that?" asked Silverblade, Mac inwardly sighing. Well that wasnít going to work, time to try another tack.
"Iím a very good student and a fast learner. Besides, now that my apprentice is finished, Iím ready to travel out into the world. They donít need me here," she said enticingly.
Silverblade sighed. He knew Mac wasnít going to give up, and he knew he would enjoy the company. Besides, she would follow him and get herself into trouble. The captain of the guard was known to be a woman of few words, and quite frankly, he enjoyed the gentle, spirited Macís company so Ö
"Alright," said Silverblade. "You can come with me when I go with Raven. But you must promise me to do whatever I ask you to do."
Mac sighed, knowing she had gotten off relatively easy. She shared the magicianís great love of stories and history, so she happily agreed.
It was done.
They shook hands and went off to the cellars to go and find Captain Raven.
Raven woke up in her cell with a vicious headache. Her vision was blurry, and almost every muscle in her body was aching. She struggled to open her eyes, for a second thinking she was blinded, then realising that she was in a dark room. She started to roll over, but quickly crashed face first into a damp stone wall. Taking this in with a wince, and the fact that she was lying on something hard, her feet hanging over the edge of a plank, arms thickly encased in manacles Ö
"What the hell am I doing in the castle dungeons?" she demanded, sitting upright, regretting having done it so quickly, since her head felt as thought it were being shook about in a most unnatural manner. More cautiously, she got to her feet and shuffled through the clean straw on the floor of her cell to the bars, and began banging on them, trying to get attention.
"Sergeant!" she called. "Sergeant!"
She tried this for several minutes, and found herself being ignored. She gritted her teeth, eyes flashing blue fire, and began running her manacles along the prison bars, trying to annoy the Sergeant in charge into coming in to see her.
All that did was annoy the other prisoners.
"For the love of - "
"Shut up will ya, there are people trying to get some sleep here!"
"If you donít shut up Iíll shut you up!"
"Just what in Hades are you trying to do, get us all hung?!?"
"Look," she thundered back. "Iím the Captain of the Guard. When I find out who stuck me in here, heads will roll - and I can assure you they wonít be yours."
"Well Excuuuse me Captain!"
"You idiot youíre in disgrace as well."
This last comment didnít come from one of the prisoners, it came from the Lieutenant of the Guard, her second in command, who had just walked through the door to the Guardís room into the prison to see his commanding officer. He eyed her uncertainly, a very tall woman with penetrating ice blue eyes, and a flood of long, lustrous, thick black hair, hence the name Raven.
"Lieutenant, first of all, keep a civil tongue in your head," she began. "Iím still your commanding officer. Second, why the blue blazes am I in here?"
"Sorry Sir," he said, standing to attention. "Princess Rani was kidnapped by a Lord Starhawk during your ride - "
"Thankyou," said Raven coolly. "I know what happened, what am I doing in here?"
The man gulped. "Lord Starhawk presented His Highness with a ransom demand. You were branded as a traitor, and are to carry the ransom to the Northern Reaches. You will retrieve the Princess and return here for your execution."
"I beg your pardon?" said Raven, half amused, half outraged. She had spent the entire afternoon trying to fend off Raniís moist, unwelcome caresses and soppy declarations of love, and her patience was sorely taxed. "I donít think so."
"Oh yes," said the Lieutenant. "It took a lot of persuasion on our parts not to allow you to be killed outright for carelessness."
The Lieutenant felt sorry for her. He loved her - the entire guard corps did. She was the best officer they had ever had, and they all rallied behind her in her time of need. He was also happy she was the object of Raniís love, not him, as he couldnít abide the sight of the Princess.
"Thankyou, Lieutenant," said Raven courteously. She liked the man and thought he was a good officer, and was glad that she didnít have to deal with the King and Queen anymore, as she hated them almost as much as she hated Princess Rani. "When am I to start out?"
"Immediately," said the Lieutenant. "We think it best to get you out of the castle before His Highness starts screaming for your head. Her Highness is having fits. But we think you need some company. Silverblade, come forward."
Out of the shadows, a bent old man came. He was once tall, but was now stooped with age, with bushy white eyebrows and a long white beard. His robes were a deep blue, old and patched but clean. He clutched his staff with a huge white crystal in one end, using it as a walking stick, and slung over the other shoulder was a sack. Behind him trailed a young girl, Raven vaguely recognised as from the Castle kitchens. Normally she was dressed in the long, low necked dress of a serving wench (the King had a wandering eye, much to the Queenís displeasure), but she had exchanged her usual revealing clothing for a pair of breeches, a shirt and high boots.
"Silverblade," said Raven respectfully, ignoring the girl, as her full attention was turned on the magician. She liked the man - he had been like a father to her. "What are you doing here? You canít possibly come with me - this could turn very nasty."
"It already is. You will need my services. You know the attacker was on a Dragon, yes? The domain of Northern Reaches rang a bell. I looked it up and it seems that itís the stronghold of the Dragon Wizards. Lord Starhawk is the most vicious of them all. You will need the assistance of my magic if you are to rescue the Princess."
Raven backed back to her bench blindly and sat down, manacles clanging, shocked to her core. She had learnt the stories of the Dragon Wizards from Silverblade himself, and realised that the King was sending her on a suicide mission.
"Alright," she said. "Suppose I agree to take you. Then who is your friend? Why should I take her, as I assume you already told her she could come?"
"This is Maclaine, Mac, from the castle kitchens," broke in the Magician hurriedly, before the outraged Mac could get a word in edgewise. "She is my assistant."
Ravenís black eyebrow shot up. "Really?" she asked.
"Yes," said Silverblade hurriedly, as Mac opened her mouth to upbraid Raven for rudeness.
"Okay," said Raven. "But sheís your problem. Iím going to get the Princess, not to babysit children. Get me out of here Lieutenant."
The Lieutenant hurried to obey his commanding officer, almost tearing the cell door open, fumbling to under her manacles as fast as he could. Mac once again opened her mouth to vent her anger. Silverblade frantically nudged her to keep her mouth shut.
Without a backward glance at them, she strode out of the cell and headed towards the stable, idly rubbing her wrists, black leather armor only slightly stained from her encounter with the castle dungeon. She did not notice that her headache was gone; Silverblade had quietly healed her wounds as they trailed behind the striding officer.
When they were almost at the stable, a guard barreled into the Lieutenant.
"Sir," he gasped, trying to control his ragged breathing. "His Highness has decreed that Captain Raven is to be executed in the morning!"
"Has he now?" said Raven, arching an eyebrow, and the man gulped when he saw her.
"Nothing personal sir," gulped the guard.
"Yes, I know, itís only business," muttered the Captain.
"Tell His Highness that we could do it, but the Captain has already left for the Northern Reaches," cut the Lieutenant in smoothly.
The man gave a broad grin. "Yes sir," he said, saluted and ran off.
The Lieutenant grinned at Raven. "Weíll just screw up the search he orders for you sir," he said.
"Thankyou Lieutenant," said Raven and grinned back. Silverblade and Mac hovered around her in anxious silence.
They entered the stable, to find two horses saddled. One was the Captainís huge black warhorse, the other was Silverbladeís older and quieter mare.
In one smooth motion, Raven mounted, Silvertblade following with considerably less grace on his mount. Mac and Silverblade fumbled around trying to get her onto the back of his horse.
The Lieutenant stepped up to the Captainís prancing charger. "The ransom of a thousand gold coins is in the saddlebags," he patted the one close to Ravenís left leg. "Good luck sir. May good fortune favor you."
Raven smiled and nodded. Her smile changed to a frown when she noticed the commotion going on behind her. Quietly she backed her horse to the magicianís, and silently held out her arm to assist Mac in mounting behind her. Mac stared at her arm like it was a snake for a second, then took it. A very strong arm pulled her up behind the large Captain. Hesitantly, Mac put her arms around Ravenís waist, and they rode out of the stable, Silverblade smirking the whole way.
The Lieutenant caught his eye and winked.
They rode for several hours through dark forest. Raven declined the road, as she did not want to tease her guards too much. Silverblade led the way, fireball peacefully floating in front of him, lighting their way. Raven only called direction changes to him occasionally, deep in thought. No conversation was exchanged, and Mac was almost lulled to sleep by the even gait of the charger. Ravenís back was warm against the nightís chill, even if it was very muscular and therefore a little hard.
Finally Raven called a halt. "We may as well call it a night and get a couple of hoursí sleep," she said to Silverblade, who nodded. "We can start off again at first light."
Mac nodded drowsily, not really hearing her. Raven had felt the full load of the girlís weight for some time, and gave an amused grin as she reigned in her horse at a black clearing. She gently tapped the girlís thigh. "You still with us?" she asked softly.
"What? Oh yes, of course, letís go," mumbled Mac, and settled herself more comfortably into her human blanket. Raven sighed, and gave a rueful grin. Quickly she threw a leg over her horseís neck, and leapt catlike to the ground, in time to catch her dozing passenger as she neatly tumbled over the side. Mac awoke with a start, to find herself cradled in the strong arms of the soldier. Thankful the fireballís light hid her deep blush, she patted Ravenís arm.
"Thankyou Captain," she said. "You can put me down now."
Raven smirked. "Of course. Please, call me Raven. Iím not really a captain anymore." She gently and smoothly put Mac onto her feet.
They set up camp by the light of Silverbladeís fireball, to the sounds of the night. When they were comfortably settled in their bedrolls, Silverblade extinguished the fireball, and the blackness came tumbling down around them. The only one who slept soundly that night was Mac. The other two were deep in thought about the Northern Reaches and the Dragon Wizards.
Dawnís gray light found them on their way again. They had not stopped for breakfast; Silverblade and Raven were too wound up, and Mac was struggling to keep her eyes open - she hadnít woken up yet. They rode in silence for several hours, Mac comfortably napping on Ravenís back. She had attempted to get on the back of Silverbladeís horse and failed miserably again, and found herself sitting behind the gently smiling Raven again. When the sun was high above the trees, light filtering through the forest canopy, Mac spoke.
"Silverblade," she began.
"Yes Mac?" he said, after a pause.
"Could you please tell me more about the Northern Reaches?"
"The Northern Reaches are the homelands of the Dragon Wizards. It is a place rumored to be unsurpassed in beauty, despite itís evil inhabitants."
"Why are the inhabitants considered to be evil?" she asked, curiosity aroused.
"A long time ago, there were a race of magicians, who were powerful in their arts. Their purpose in life was simple - to be the guardians of the earth, to save the people if ever it were required again."
"What do you mean Ďagainí?" interrupted Mac.
Silverblade sighed in irritation at the interruption, and Raven broke in. "A thousand years ago, the land was invaded by a people no one had ever seen before, certainly were not native to the land. They swooped in and began to destroy the peoples of the land one by one, trolls, gnomes, dwarfs, elves, men. They had nearly annihilated us when a group arose from the survivors. They had been searching for a way to drive out the invaders, and had stumbled across the secrets of the Old magic. They became strong in this art, learning to control it and bend it to their will. They forged a magical race of beings, Dragons, to assist them in their fight against the invaders, and became known as Dragon Wizards, from the mighty Dragons they rode into battle. The people rallied around the Dragon invaders, and killed them all. The Dragon Wizards were hailed as the new protectors of the land, to rise again if ever there was need to do so."
"Thatís right," said Silverblade. "They continued in their role as protectors for quite a long time, but as peace continued and their combative natures began to become restless, they sought to rule over all the other survivors of the Invaderís attacks. Of course, the races had built up numbers by then, and the Invader wars had been almost forgotten, and the people began to fight back against the Dragon Wizards. The war was bloody, the fighting terrible when the people launched themselves against their former protectors. Finally, after years of fighting and terrible bloodshed, the people began to gain the upper hand, and drove the Dragon Wizards back to their home seat of the Northern Reaches."
He paused, and Mac digested this, rapt.
"Yes," agreed Raven. "The truce the people and the Dragon Wizards hammered out stated that the Dragon Wizards were to keep to the Northern Reaches, in exchange for not killing them down to the very last man - the people had found ways to defeat them by the end of the Dragon Wars. The Dragon Wizards promised to leave the people in peace, but swore that they would return to revisit their claim when the time was right."
Silverblade nodded. "The only other thing is that they have a legend that a mighty Dragon Wizard, a being encompassing the entire history of the Dragon Wizards, will be born who would lead them to victory and subjugate all the people of the land in another mighty Dragon war."
"Why return now?" asked Mac.
"Well," broke in Raven. "They have come out of hiding, which means that they are ready to start another war. It also means that they think their legend has come true and the mightiest of the Dragon Wizards has been born - or is going to be born."
"You donít think Princess Rani - " began Mac.
"Itís possible," said Raven solemnly, though she could not fathom why such a seemingly proud race of evil magicians could possibly want to impregnate such a stuck up, spoilt brat like Rani.
"And why ransom Princess Rani?"
"Another good question," said Silverblade, nodding gravely. "There is one more question that really bothers me. What did our King and Queen take from them that they now want back?"
"I shudder to think what those two Pratt's could possibly have done," said Raven. "By the way they carry on, one would think they had never seen the outside world. Quite frankly, theyíre a pair of idiots."
Mac glanced at Ravenís broad back in surprise. "Hang on a moment, I thought you were the Captain of the Guard, and the most loyal of the Kingdomís subjects."
"Itís a roof over my head and food in my stomach, nothing more."
"They why are you doing this? You could easily just take off and leave them to their own sorry devices."
"My integrity is at stake here. I will be damned if a nasty bitch and her useless relatives are going to get the better of me!" said Raven hotly.
Silverblade and Mac lapsed into uncomfortable silence.
"Err," began Silverblade. "There is one more stop we need to make."
Raven turned to him and pinned him with a penetrating blue stare. She raised an eyebrow. "And what stop would that be, Silverblade?"
"I think weíll need to collect my brother, Silverax," he said hesitantly.
"Why?" demanded Raven.
"He knows more than anyone living about the Dragon Wizards," he said in a rush, raising a hand to forestall any further objections by Raven. "Heís even on the way."
"I didnít know you had a brother," said Mac, interrupting Raven before she could speak. "Tell me more about him."
"Heís my older brother, and he went to the Academy ahead of me. He was the one who persuaded me to become a magician Ö" he quietly beamed and he and Mac began an animated conversation about his family, origins, and passion for magic. Raven opened and closed her mouth with a snap, unable to get a word in edgewise between the two chatterboxes. So she quietly shrugged and allowed Silverblade to lead the way, and returned to her depressed thoughts of Dragon Wizards, Rani and her impending execution at the hands of the King and Queen.
Finally, late in the afternoon, they reached a clearing in which a peaceful cottage was set, surrounded by a cheerful white picket fence. Clean white smoke pouring out of the crooked chimney. As they got closer to the house, Raven eyed the garden curiously. Instead of the usual plants growing in the garden (though there were a few of those too), it was a mess of plants growing old boots and pointed hats and various other goods, interspersed with whispering and giggling flowers, cheerfully gossiping amongst themselves. Trees grew close to the front doors, and began barking when they saw the visitors, while the grass surrounding the cottage quickly ran and hid when the ruckus started. An old thorn bush near the front gate quickly stood to attention and yelled "Halt! Who goes there?", as the even white pickets of the fence began complaining bitterly when itís thorns stuck them.
Silverblade beamed at the commotion. "Looks like heís getting things working then," he muttered. Then he addressed the military thorn bush. "It is I, Silverblade, and my two friends, Raven and Maclaine."
"Oh my God," muttered Raven, looking around her with a disgusted expression, feeling Mac nodding into her back.
A figure rushed out of the house, waving bony arms around its head. "SHUT UP!" a grumpy old manís voice yelled. The garden quieted, in fits and starts. The figure, dressed almost identically to Silverblade, except his robes were green while Silverbladeís were deep blue, glared all around, casting a watery old eye at the growth, daring it to complain further.
"NOW THEN," he roared. "WHAT DO YOU WANT?"
"Itís me, Silverblade!" yelled Silverblade.
"WHAT?" asked the figure, cupping an ear.
"ITíS ME, SILVERBLADE," screamed Silverblade, spittle flying from his lips, as Mac began to giggle, and Ravenís black eyebrow shot skyward.
"SILVERBLADE! SILVERBLADE, WHO IS SILVERBLADE?" thundered the figure.
"YOUR BROTHER, SILVERBLADE! REMEMBER ME?"
"I DONíT HAVE A BROTHER CALLED Ö WAIT Ö YES I DO. SILVERBLADE! HOW ARE YOU?"
"I AM WELL SILVERAX. PLEASE, CAST YOUR SPELL OF HEARING AND SIGHT. WE WANT TO TALK TO YOU!"
"HEARING! SIGHT!" Silverblade screamed at the top of his lungs, beads of sweat appearing on his forehead from the effort. Raven and Mac exchanged a glance, Mac giggling helplessly, not really knowing what to say, since it probably wouldnít be heard, anyway.
"NO NEED TO YELL YOUNGSTER, IíM NOT DEAF," yelled back Silverax, outraged that his fine hearing and sight could possibly be the object of criticism.
"Never mind," mumbled Silverblade, sighing.
"JUST FOR YOUR AMUSEMENT YOUNGSTER, I WILL DO THAT TRICK FOR OLD TIMEíS SAKE," yelled Silverax, casting one last glare at the blurry intruders, to satisfy himself that they were suitably chastised. The flowers began whispering amongst themselves, and giggled at their master. He closed his eyes imperiously and began muttering, passing his bony hands around his head several times.
"Good grief, Silverblade," he said in a normal tone of voice. "What on earth are you standing out there for?
Come in, come in!".
"Err, yes," said Silverblade, and pointed vaguely towards the thorn bush, who showed no signs of allowing them to pass.
"Oh! Sorry," said Silverax. "Let them through! By the way, youíll have to leave your horses outside. It frightens the grass." He pointed towards the terrified grass, peering anxiously from behind the house.
Raven rolled her eyes, helping Mac to get down, then dismounting herself. They tended to their horses, under the watchful and beaming eyes of Silverax.
They slowly went through the gate, thorn bush clearly holding back from whipping itís thorns at them, up the pathway, each stone bitterly complaining about their weight, up past the trees who wagged their branches furiously. "Come now," Silverax ushered them past the roiling green foliage. "They wonít bite, theyíre harmless."
Raven looked at him dubiously, then bent her tall head, trying to escape the whipping branches. She only partially succeeded, a long leaf dragging up her face as the tree licked her.
She wiped her face, grimacing, and followed the other two inside the house.
After a good meal (prepared by Mac, Raven finding herself grateful that sheíd agreed to allow the girl to come), they sat down by the cheerfully burning fire, and began to talk, as the kitchen took care of the dishes.
"Now then, Silverblade, what brings you to my humble home?" asked Silverax, peering at him through bright, though watery brown eyes.
"Well, Silverax," began Silverblade, "itís like this Ö" He proceeded to tell Silverax everything heíd seen on the castle roof, right down to what they had discussed during the day. He spoke for a while, Raven quiet and reflective, booted feet resting comfortably before the fire, Mac alternating between rapt at the narrative, and trying not to stare at the disgraced soldier.
"This is not that hard to guess. I think youíre right - they want Princess Rani for their own black purposes. The other is not so hard to guess either. They want the Dragon Crystal you have on the end of your staff."
"My what?!?" said Silverblade, shocked to his core, as Raven and Mac suddenly sat more upright. "What do you mean the Dragon Crystal at the end of my staff?!?"
"Oh that," said Silverax distractedly. "Itís a Dragon Crystal. They use them to assist in the creation of Dragons, to control them, and draw on them for their magical arts. You know Dragons are sterile - they have to be created. Dragons live a very long time, true, but when one dies you need a Dragon Crystal to create another. Iíd call it more like a Dragon Egg than anything else."
"How did the King and Queen get it?" broke in Raven for the first time. Her eyes flashed blue fire.
"Oh, they didnít get a Dragon Crystal. At least the present King didnít. The old Queen was married twice. Her second husband took it from her and hid it."
"Hold on a moment, Ďmarried twiceí?"
"Yes," said Silverax, nodding sagely. "To Lord Starhawk."
"A match made in hell," mumbled Raven, trying to digest the information that was so casually presented to them.
"Yes," said Silverax. "All of this was long before any of you were born. The Queen was a young girl and was kidnapped by the Dragon Wizards of the Northern Reaches. She stayed with them for a time, since she had fallen in love with her kidnapper, Lord Starhawk, and married him. But she became sickened of her husbandís cruelty toward her and bloodthirsty ways, and vowed to escape. She did exactly that, leaving with their young child and her dragon orb, held reverently by them as the most powerful of all. Starhawk believed that the old blood flowed through her veins, as she could control the dragons without a crystal, kidnapped her and impregnated her. When she left, she took her child and the Dragon Crystal, hoping to keep both from her furious husband. She made it back to the land, settled down and remarried. Starhawk tracked her down and killed her, believing that the child had been killed during her escape as her quivering new husband told him. He must have discovered the duplicity and quietly kept an eye on the second daughter, growing to womanhood, and has kidnapped his grandchild, as she also appears to be able to control Dragons."
"How do you know she can control Dragons?"
"When she was a young child she was kidnapped, and they tested her. You would have been too young to remember."
Raven tried to remember, but drew a blank.
Silverblade frowned. "I donít recall that at all."
"You were at the Academy. Silvermace was killed during the attack, and the Dragon Wizards cast a spell of forgetfulness over the entire Kingdom so no one would have any clue as to what happened. When they were done, they removed all trace of their activities. Slivermace had only a single journal entry of two words, ĎDragon Wizardí so I did some investigation, and thatís what Iíve guessed. There are no records or memories of the time."
"I donít understand," broke in Silverblade slowly. "Why didnít he just keep his granddaughter?"
"I have no idea," said Silverax, shaking his head. "I wasnít there either, and we are only guessing at the events of the time. No one knows except for the Dragon Wizards."
"Oh good grief - Iíve unleashed the terror of the North by not protecting her," said Raven sinking her head into her hands, head aching. She felt a gentle touch on her shoulder, and opened her eyes to stare into the gentle emerald green of Macís eyes.
"Donít worry," said Mac. "We will find a way to help you, and stop the Northern Reaches."
Raven refused to let herself be comforted, though unconsciously she was glad of the gentle presence of Silverbladeís pupil.
"Why did they give Rani back?" asked Silverblade.
"I have no idea," said Silverax.
"So what are we going to do?" asked Mac.
"Why that also seems obvious," said Silverax. "Weíve got to go and get the princess, and defeat the Dragon Wizards."
Raven raised an eyebrow at him. "Oh yes," she said. "And what would you like me to do with the other hand?"
"Do we at least have a plan?" asked Mac, though she enjoyed the Captainís sense of humor.
"We know theyíre going to kill the person holding the ransom," said Raven. "We also know that they only way Rani is going to cooperate with them is if I am still alive." She paused for a second, musing. "The easiest way to do this is for me to go and deliver the ransom, while the rest of you sneak in and get the Princess."
"What about you?" asked Mac, feeling some concern, as she was beginning to like the quiet soldier.
"Donít worry about me," said Raven mildly. "I can take care of myself."
Silverblade grimaced. "Too risky," he said, holding up a hand to forestall her objections. "Iíll go with you and act as a body servant."
"I canít let the two of you go in there by yourselves," said Mac. "Thatís suicide. Youíll need someone guarding your back, Iíll come with you."
"Hang on a sec," said Raven. "You canít - "
"Enough," said Silverax in a commanding tone, pointy hat sliding down to the bridge of his nose. Impatiently he pushed it up again, and held up his hand, as the argument subsided. "Raven youíre right - you have to go in there, but you arenít going alone. Mac is going to go with you as your body servant. Silverblade, you canít go in there, theyíll smell you a mile away with your magical abilities. Besides, now that you have the Dragon Crystal, you have to keep it out of their hands. I canít go either because of my magical abilities. Weíre going to have to wait outside and try and keep the captain and her companion safe from there."
Silverblade opened and closed his mouth with a snap. This was not going as he planned.
"Silverax - " he began.
"No Silverblade, thatís the way itís going to be," responded the old man with some asperity, and the others found themselves listening and agreeing. Silverblade dimly guessed he was using a spell of compulsion on them, but it was too late to fend off itís effects. He sighed.
"Alright," he said. "Weíll do it your way."
It was a glum crew that turned in for the night. For the first time, Raven found herself oddly comforted by the fact that she had company, and was confident in her abilities to deal with whatever situations arose. Mac slept soundly, despite her trepidation, as she had been awake far earlier than normal and hadnít gotten much sleep during the previous night. The two wizards continued to talk until well into the night, discussing various strategies to deal with the situation, and only went to bed as they knew they required their rest.
They set out the next morning, Silverax sternly admonishing his house and garden to take care of itself , as they ducked to avoid the wagging branches from both barking trees. Silverax rode with Silverblade, and both brothers engaged in animated conversation, arguing back and forth about Dragon Crystals, Dragon Wizards, the nature of magic and other lofty philosophical battles that Raven and Mac quickly lost interest in, forcing them to talk to one another. Mac was naturally talkative, and tried to engage the taciturn captain in conversation. Gradually, as the weeks wore on, Raven warmed, and the two became fast friends.
One day, as they rode along a long disused road in the lush forest, Silverax called a halt to their journey.
The chaotic, dense forest they had been travelling through for weeks had abruptly ended. Now they stood at the edge of the forest and neatly manicured grass, which stretched forward as far as the eye could see over rolling hills. Every now and again, there were small pockets of trees, and as Raven scanned them she realised that they formed neat patterns on both sides of a well maintained road. It stretched off into the distance to the horizon with riots of flowers and fernery at even intervals on both sides of it.
Silverax turned to face the two women. "This is as far as we can go," he said quietly. "If we go any further, we will be detected."
"If we require your assistance, how can we contact you?" asked Mac.
"We will monitor you," said Silverblade.
Neither Mac or Raven asked how they were going to do this. In truth, neither one wanted to know.
"Wish us luck," said Raven.
"Good luck," chimed both brothers dutifully, then immediately began arguing, Raven sighing as she tuned out, Mac grinning.
Raven steered her black charger onto the clean, well kept road. The second the horse had set a hoof down on it, she felt a tingling shock course through her system.
"Raven," said Mac cautiously. "Did you feel that?"
"Yes, I did," said Raven quietly, then lapsed into silence. In truth, neither one felt like talking. Ravenís keenly tuned senses were honing in on all sounds around them, and after a while the feeling of being put on edge all the time began to give her a headache.
By the time they stopped to make camp for the evening, Ravenís headache had grown to full blown pain.
When they had setup camp and Mac had fed them, she leaned forward and looked at Raven uncertainly. "Raven, are you okay? You look kind of tense," she said softly.
Raven stared at her with her penetrating blue eyes, expression softening a little. "On the whole Iím fine I guess. I just have an absolutely shocking headache."
"Maybe I can help with that," said Mack, and crossed over to the other side of the campfire and sat beside Raven. "Lie down, and Iíll give you a back rub."
Raven stared at her, startled, then figured why not? "Okay," she said, undoing her armor, and Mac blushed, grateful that Raven wasnít looking at her. Mac plunged right on in, and sat comfortably on the soldierís behind, and began to knead her tense muscles, the captain groaning softly as she worked out each knot.
"Are you really okay with all this?" asked Mac after a while.
"I donít really have a choice. Why?"asked Raven, shifting slightly, so she was looking at the blonde in the flickering light.
"Iím not reallyÖ Well I donít know, but I donít Ö" Macís voice trailed off in dejection.
Raven waited for Mac to continue, but she didnít. Mac wrestled with her emotions, knowing she had a soft spot for the soldier that was only getting softer as the days drifted on. She didnít want to damage their now close friendship by telling her that she cared far too much for Ravenís welfare than was healthy for her.
"Mac, is there something else bothering you? I know you donít want to do this, but I have to. Itís part of my job guarding these miserable royals."
Mac nodded sadly, heart aching.
"I wonít let them hurt you, you know that, right?" asked Raven softly, blue eyes capturing green.
"I know, but I donít want to see you get hurt either," Mac said, relieved she could finally get something off her chest, lost in the kind blue sea.
"Iíll be fine. I can take care of myself. Besides, youíre watching my back," said Raven, attempting humor, trying to shake her young friend from her obvious upset.
"I know." Mac had changed a lot during the course of her journey. She knew she couldnít settle back down at the castle with Raven married to the Princess. "I donítí want to go back home when this is finished."
"Neither do I," said Raven. Suddenly she sat up and swung around to face the young cook, dislodging her from her perch. She barely remembered in time to pull her shirt back over her head. Mac struggled to stay focussed. "In fact, Iím not going back when this is over. I refuse to get stuck in a marriage with that obnoxious child, so Iím going to leave. Do you want to come?"
Mac remembered her parents and her home. She looked at the gorgeous soldier. It was no contest. "Iím with you," she said slowly. "But we have to go back occasionally to say hello to my family."
Raven grinned. "Why not?" she said. "That, of course, is providing they donít have a price on my head, and that we make it out of here alive."
Abruptly their conversation was halted as they heard the sound of whooshing wings, hair whipping back by the force of the passage of air. A loud trumpeting filled the air as a Dragon came in to land outside their campsite. The dragon shot flame, and both Mac and Raven dived out of the way. The heavily armored rider tilted itís head and snorted cold laughter.
"Who are you?" asked Raven, putting on her best commanding officer tone.
"I am Flamestrike of the Northern Reaches," came the haughty reply from the female rider. "And who are you to trespass on our lands?"
"I am Captain Raven, and this is my servant Mac," responded Raven confidently. "I come bearing the ransom for Princess Rani."
"Ah, yes," said Flamestrike, nodding. "My master was expecting you. Come with me!"
"How?" asked Mac, Raven nudging her frantically for silence. The rider jumped off the snorting Dragon and strode toward the two of them, hand raised to strike Mac for insolence. She easily towered over the six foot Raven.
It took every ounce of Ravenís strength to still the taller womanís hand. Her blue eyes flashed furiously, boring into the visored face. "The only one who touches her is me," she hissed. They stared one another down, and finally Flamestrike broke and looked away.
"We ride my Dragon," said Flamestrike. "Take your ransom and mount behind me."
"What about my horse?" asked Raven.
"It will be tended to," said Flamestrike dismissively.
Raven snuck a look at Mac, and noted she was pale, and while the Dragon rider was striding back to her mount impatiently, quickly squeezed Macís fingers for comfort, the rummaged through her saddlebags for the ransom. Mac hovered around her, and Raven quickly handed her their gear so she would not appear to be anything other than the body servant she appeared to be.
She quietly put her cloak over Macís shoulders, and Mac trailed her to the Dragon.
The flight across the night sky was exhilarating, if cold. Despite herself, Raven enjoyed the absolute feeling of freedom that air travel allowed. She enjoyed the feel of the air rushing all around her, and the buoyant feeling of riding the slipstreams of air above the landscape. They rode like that for an hour or so, Mac holding onto her for grim death, eyes shut, while Raven noted with interest the black landscape below. In the distance, she could see some light. Suddenly, the Dragon dived sharply, and Mac held on with her knees as they seemingly plummeted to the earth below. Over the wind, Raven heard Macís sharp intake of breath, and she squeezed her knees tight against the Dragon. She swore she heard the Dragon giggle and comment that that tickled, but she shook her head and thought it must have been her imagination. As Macís arms tightened around her, almost painfully, she gently patted one of the tense arms, trying to give the terrified young cook comfort.
Suddenly the Dragon stopped, hovering for a split second above a brightly lit courtyard, then came down onto the stone for a featherlight landing. Flamestrike wasted no time in getting herself to solid ground, Raven following close behind, unable to remove the grin from her face. Mac followed more slowly, stumbled a few seconds, then rushed over to an unused horse trough over the side of the courtyard, and was quietly sick.
Raven arched an eyebrow at Flamestrike as she burst into cruel laughter. "Sheís not used to this," said Raven coldly, and turned on her heel to join her young friend. As Mac continued to be sick, Raven rubbed her lightly on the back, then sat down on the horse trough a small distance away.
"Are you okay?" she asked in a low voice. Mac stared at her, face gray.
"Yes, just a little woozy," she said, then leant over and threw up again.
Finally she appeared to be finished, and Raven led her over to Flamestrike, who was staring at the two of them with interest.
"You pay very close attention to a slave," said Flamestrike, flickering torchlight revealing her features. She was an extraordinarily beautiful woman, with bright red hair and cold gray eyes, almost no color due to their paleness, pupils elongated like a cat. Her face was unnaturally white, with high sculpted cheekbones, and pointed ears. She six and a half feet tall and willowy in form, unlike Raven who was more muscular.
"She isnít my slave," snarled Raven. "She is my paid servant, and she stays with me."
"Alright little manling, no need to get upset," she said lightly, eyes flashing daggers. "Iíll just take you to my Lord. If you will follow me." She bowed slightly, and led the way out of the courtyard. Despite her smooth tones and apparent manners, her body language was all hostility and fire.
She led them through a maze of passages, brightly lit with burning torches. All along the smooth stone walls were hanging tapestries lovingly depicting scenes of shocking cruelty and violence in bold colours. When they finally reached the throne room of the Northern Reaches, the found themselves in an enormous domed room, glass on the ceiling artfully arranged to capture the full moonlight and funnel it into the room, creating a thousand shards of light, illuminating every corner in shards. The rich furniture gleamed, the huge ornately carved fireplace cold, the tapestries hanging from the walls richly depicting scenes of gross violence and the most perverted depravity. The gentle night breeze which stirred the tapestries made the scenes appear to be reenacted in front of the eyes. Raven looked at one of them, a scene of gross disembowelment, causing her to pale and she looked straight ahead of her, swallowing convulsively. She could feel Mac looking rigidly in front of her eyes unseeing, trying to hold her stomach again, but she did not dare to offer even the slightest bit of comfort, in case she brought her young friend into greater danger.
She stared into the shadows of the huge, ornate golden throne at the front of the room, making out the dark silhouette of a figure comfortably seated. Abruptly the image moved smoothly to itís feet, out into the light before them. As the shadows shifted and the figure moved into the light, Raven could see it was a man, all of seven and a half feet in height, slim like Flamestrike, with pale blue eyes and slitted pupils, and totally bald head. He stood in the light, tapestries moving all around him, surrounding him with silent cries of agony and dripping cloth blood. Entrails bathed him as he stood in this uneasy mix of color and movement, and Raven had to force herself not to look away.
"Lord Starhawk I presume," she said evenly, amazed her voice was level. Mac had given up beside her, and was struggling not to collapse with the queasy visual onslaught.
"I am," he said placidly. "You must be Captain Raven, with your servant Maclaine."
"We are," said Raven smoothly, knowing her friend was unable to speak.
"Where is my ransom?" asked Starhawk, not wasting any time.
"I have it with me."
"Excellent," he said, smiling even white teeth gruesomely at odds with the despair all around him. The smile did not reach his eyes. "You will go and see your beloved now, and we will speak further in the morning."
Dismissively, he turned and walked slowly back to his throne, body moving through a chaos of blood and severed body parts, and gross sexual perversion. Flamestrike waited until he was seated again before she sauntered back over to Raven and grabbed a muscular arm in a vice-like grip. "This way," she said, and steered them out of the room. Mac was rooted to the spot, unable to move, shaking.
"Your servant seems frozen," she said with some amusement evident on the cruel features.
Raven tugged her arm free and went back to Mac. She ever so gently took her hand and led her back to Flamestrike. "Lead the way Flamestrike," she said coldly, and kept her firm grip on Macís hand as Flamestrike looked on, amused.
She led them again through twisting corridors, past garish tapestries until she finally stopped outside a heavy oaken door.
"This is Princess Raniís quarters. You are next door. I will take your servant down to her quarters," she said smiling evilly and slightly lecherously.
"No, thankyou, thatís fine," said Raven hurriedly. "My servant stays with me."
"As you will," said Flamestrike, bowing, blazing eyes never once leaving Ravenís face.
Under Flamestrikeís watchful eye, Raven knocked on Princess Raniís door, which promptly flew open, and Raven found herself being dragged in. Mac had recovered somewhat from the horrors she had just witnessed, and it took all of her considerable speed to slip in the door before it was firmly shut in her face by Rani.
"Oh Raven," said the red haired Princess, leaping on the bemused Captain of the Guard, and showering her with kisses. "I knew youíd come for me, my beloved Poopsie!"
Raven attempted to avoid the princessís lips and still her wandering hands, which were tearing off her clothes as they stumbled back and crashed onto the bed, Rani on top. Raniís attempts to remove Ravenís clothes became more insistent as she claimed her lips in one searing kiss after another.
The unfortunate captain attempted to control her bile and get her shirt closed again as her friend looked on with impotent fury.
Finally Raven managed to flip the princess onto her back and pin her hands above her head. Rani giggled, and Raven looked down, noticing her top was completely undone. Raven sighed, just one more aggravation to add to her already bad mood. She steeled herself to patience, knowing that if she let Rani go her state of undress would be infinitely worse in a matter of seconds, and she didnít want to subject Mac to any more of the Princessís flaming libido than humanly possible.
"My dear Rani," she said smoothly, arching her chest to avoid Raniís mouth latching onto a breast. "They havenít hurt you have they?"
"No Poopsie," she pouted, upset that her beloved was not more receptive to her advances. "Though that Flamestrike is quite a naughty girl."
Raven didnít want to know. "Donít call me Poopsie," she said. "If I let you up will you promise to keep your hands to yourself?"
"I donít think I can," said the princess breathlessly, trapped by the pure sky blue of Ravenís eyes. "Arenít you going to get rid of her?" she nodded towards the irate Mac, inwardly struggling not to punch her lights out.
Raven inwardly sighed again, in no mood to put up with the Princess. "No, her services are required by me this evening," she said, not wanting to let Mac out of her sight in this chamber of horrors.
"Arenít I good enough for you Raven?" said the Princess, green eyes narrowing dangerously.
"No, no," said Raven hurriedly. She did not want Mac to witness one of Raniís trademark tantrums, or to be a victim of one. "Not that. I merely meant that I was going to have her get me some food."
"Oh," came the still displeased reply. Then she giggled and batted her eyelashes. "But thatís going to be - "
"No, I meant you and I arenít going to do anything tonight," said Raven smoothly, putting on her best charming smile. It worked, and the Princess drowned in her eyes.
"Why not?" she asked, pouting again.
"Iím not in the mood and itís not a good time for me," she said wiggling her eyebrows suggestively. Mac had to will her legs to immobility, desperately wanting to slap the Princess into unconsciousness, and Raven to her senses. Raven risked a quick glance at her and saw how infuriated she was, and decided to get her out of there as quickly as humanly possible.
"Iíll see you in the morning, my dear Rani. Pleasant dreams," she said, leaping to her feet, clasping her shirt closed and dragging the seething Mac out of the room before either one could react. She bolted as fast as she could to the room that had been assigned to her, pushed Mac through the doorway and locked it securely behind her.
"Thank the Gods thatís over and done with," she said, finally noticing Macís blush. She looked down and noticed her shirt was still undone, and hurriedly pulled it closed. "Sheís ripped all the buttons off my favorite shirt," she mumbled. Then, more loudly to Mac, "Sorry."
"Thatís okay," said Mac, struggling not to look at Ravenís chest. "She is bloody awful after all."
"Oh yeah," said Raven, digging through the saddle bag perched on the roomís sole bed. Finally she found what she was looking for - a shirt with no buttons - and pulled it over her head, throwing the ruined shirt on the floor. Just at that moment the door handle rattled, and Raniís whisper floated into the room.
"Raven? Poopsie? I know you didnít mean it," she said. "Come out and play."
Raven grabbed Mac and held her fast, hand over Macís mouth, hoping against hope that Mac wasnít going to kill the Princess.
They remained like that for a good half hour while the Princess continued to rattle and cajole her reluctant lover. Finally she gave up, and they heard her dejected footsteps going back into her room. At that moment, Raven spied a connecting door, and hurried to barricade it against further attacks from the Princess.
Mac gritted her teeth and said nothing.
"We better get some sleep," said Raven awkwardly, knowing Mac was still seething. "Which would you prefer, bed or floor?"
"Raven," said Mac. "The bedís big enough for a dozen of us. Why donít we both take it? You can rest assured I can keep my hands to myself."
Raven gave a crooked smile at Macís attempt at humor. She suddenly found her jaws stretching in a huge yawn as the events of the evening overcame her, headache gnawing at the edges. She stripped to her underwear and crawled into bed sleep claiming her the instant her head hit the pillow.
It seemed as though she had closed her eyes for only a second, yet the sun was shining brightly down into the room, lighting it up so she finally noticed another one of the garish tapestries on the wall. This one was considerably more tame than the other ones hanging around in the castle, though it was depraved. Wrinkling her nose in disgust, she became aware of weight on her chest, covering half her body, and she noticed with amusement that at some point during the night, Mac had snuck over into her arms, head resting comfortably on a broad shoulder deep even breath cold through the material of the shirt she had pulled on last night.
Sleepily Macís eyes opened, and she found herself adrift in a sea of unfocussed green, which suddenly darkened as alertness seeped in and Mac blushed bright red when she realised who she was entwined with.
"Iím sorry," she mumbled, trying to extricate herself without seeming in a frantic haste to do so. "I donít know what came over me."
"Good morning," said the grinning Raven. "Thatís fine. It was pretty cold in here last night."
"Yes, it was," Mac agreed, grateful Raven wasnít going to tease her about it.
"Iíd better go in search of some breakfast," she said. "I am supposed to be your body servant after all."
She stumbled out of bed and fumbled into her clothes, trying to get away from the gentle amusement in the sky blue eyes. She headed out the door which Raven forgot to lock behind her. As soon as Mac had left, Raven sat bolt upright, wanting to lunge for the door, but it was too late. Rani wiggled into the room, wearing a very revealing robe, showing her lush body to good effect, slammed the door shut and pounced on Raven.
"Captain, voila, hereís your breakfast - " Mac stopped abruptly when she saw the writhing sheets, two heads popped up, a smug Rani and a very embarrassed and angry Raven.
"No," said the Princess airily. "The Captain has already had her breakfast - " Raven flushed beetroot " - and I should have you beaten like the trash you are for storming in here. Havenít you heard of knocking? Get out!"
"Actually," cut in Raven smoothly, "I am hungry. I have been waiting for you for quite a while. The Princess was just leaving, werenít you Rani dear?"
"If you insist Poopsie," she said in her most childish voice and very deeply kissed the annoyed solder. "Iíll give you dessert later."
Raven flushed beetroot again as the Princess slowly pulled herself out of bed, stark naked and made quite a show of pulling her next to nothing robe back on again, and stalking out of the room, looking like a completely satisfied woman. On her way out, she brushed hard against Mac, causing her grip to shift on the tray, so a mug of tea tumbled over the edge of it and tipped all over the Princess. In an instant she was in a blinding fury.
"You fool!" she yelled and slapped Mac as hard as she could, leaving the imprint of her hand livid on the poor cookís face. "My robe is ruined. I will have you flogged for this."
"Now, now," said Raven, hurrying to intervene. In an instant she was out of bed and safely wrapped in a sheet. "She didnít mean it, did you Mac?"
"No," was the only word Mac could get out through her humiliation. "Iím sorry Your Highness."
"You will be," bitched the Princess.
"No Rani," said Raven evenly. "I will take care of this. You will not lay one hand on her."
Rani pulled the reluctant Captain down for another deep kiss, almost making Raven choke on the tongue thrust in her mouth. "I love it when youíre dominant."
Raven glued a false smile to her face. "Iíll see you later," she said suggestively.
"See to it that sheís beaten properly, will you?"
With that parting shot, she wiggled from the room, and Raven lost no time quickly locking it behind her.
Mac put the tray down very carefully on one sidetable, then went to sit by the cold fireplace and burst into tears. Raven immediately sat by her side and pulled her into a close embrace, Mac sinking into her arms and crying her eyes out with frustration and humiliation.
"Gods sheís such a bitch," said Mac fuzzily.
"And she has more hands than a damned octopus," added Raven.
Suddenly the tension broke and Mac burst out laughing, Raven joining her a second or so later.
"Can you believe that walk?" gulped Mac.
"And the way she has with words," said Raven. "She didnít hurt you, did she?" She put a gentle hand under Macís chin, instantly captured by a sea of bloodshot green, dragged her eyes away and looked at the hand print.
"I donít think she bruised you," she said softly.
"No Iím fine, just a little ego damage," said Mac, sniffling.
Raven pulled her in closer, and they both relished the warmth of their friendship in the cold and ugly place. After a little while, they both pulled back.
"So, whatís for breakfast?" asked Raven. "Iím starved."
Mac groaned and Raven blushed.
"Lord Starhawk," said Raven formally as they were brought back into the throne room.
"Captain Raven," the tall Dragon Wizard shot back. "I trust you are rested."
"Yes, thank you," said Raven.
"Letís get down to business. You have the ransom. Did you bring with you that which they stole from me?"
Abruptly Raven felt the strength go out of her legs, and she felt rather than saw Mac sag beside her. "What do you mean?" she asked, voice sounding unnaturally slow and slurred to her ears.
"I think you know exactly what I mean Captain," he said silkily. "The Dragon Crystal. Did you bring it with you?"
Raven knew she was being forced to tell the truth. "No," she said, feeling a vast relief at telling the truth.
"Do you know where it is?"
Her mouth betrayed her, spilling out words she had no control over. "Yes."
"And where is it?"
"Silverblade has it," she said, inwardly sobbing that the words were coming out at all.
"Who is Silverblade?"
"The court magician." Mac gasped, and her soul screamed in torment as she was forced against all her will to answer.
"Where is the court magician now?"
"I donít know," she said hazily, close to losing consciousness.
"But the Dragon Crystal was not the only thing stolen from me."
"No. My daughter was also stolen. Do you know where she is?"
Despite herself, Raven felt shock flow through her system. "No, I donít."
"Sheís telling the truth," mused Starhawk, eyes narrowing into slits of hatred. "Throw them into the dungeon and take her little friend with her."
Raven wondered why the floor had slipped up to rest beside the walls. Her stomach churned, her vision went spotty as she lost consciousness.
When she woke up again, she was aware of two things. First, it was rather dark, only lighting in the room she was in coming from a flickering brazier on which several brands rested comfortably. Second, her head throbbed unmercifully because she was hanging upside down from the ceiling, and all her blood was rushing to her temples. Finally, and this was only after a second or so of feeling a cold draft, that she was stark naked from the waist up.
Fingertips dangling a mere millimeters above the floor, she called out in her low voice, "Mac, are you there?"
A low groan greeted her words. "Mac," she called again, urgently. "Mac, are you still with me?"
"Yes, Iím here," said a small, slightly slurred voice. "Iím okay - I think. What about you? Where are you?"
"Iím hanging by my ankles from a ceiling," she said conversationally. "Where are you?"
"Iím sitting in a cell. Itís pretty dark in here. I canít see you."
Conversation was halted by the sound of scraping, limping footsteps coming up the passage. They became louder and louder as Raven stilled herself and prepared for what was to come.
"Oh my dear," came a high sing song voice as a fat man dragging a dirty injured foot behind him came into the chamber. "Itís lovely to see you awake. Iím going to ask you some questions, and youíre going to answer them." His pitch black eyes stared into her round blue ones, not a single trace of humanity present. He went over to the far wall behind her, and she heard scraping and whooshing sounds. Not wanting to look, she did her best to prepare herself.
Mac huddled in the straw of her cell and shivered. She put her hands over her ears, and struggled not to hear the screams of Raven. Tears rolled down her face until her eyes were almost swollen shut. She pulled away into a place deep inside herself, and hid.
"Mac," came a soft, weak voice. "Mac, can you hear me."
She moaned, not wanting to answer the familiar sound.
"Címon Mac, I know youíre there," came the persistent voice. "Come out and talk to me."
The pleading came for several minutes, until Mac began to respond. "Talk to who?"
"Itís me, Raven," came the soft voice.
"Ravenís dead," she stated shortly.
"Oh no Iím not, Iím very much alive," the voice continued. "Look at me."
She felt a hand on her knee. Opening her eyes and looking down, she saw a large dirty hand perched on her knee. She followed it up a strong, muscular, clearly female arm all the way to the shoulder. There the mottled bruising began, the blood began, and her eyes feasted on torn shirt and bloody, mottled flesh, cut in several places, badly bruised in others. Suddenly the sight of her dearest friend cut through her self imposed disregard and she felt herself move, crouching next to the battered figure, leaning down and pulling her into her arms.
She cried softly, cradling the injured soldier. "Oh Raven Ö"
"Believe it or not, Iím okay," said Raven softly, stroking the poor girlís arm. "I think that was designed to get Silverbladeís attention, not to really hurt me." Thatís gonna happen later, she thought.
They did not have long to wait. Raven had gently and painfully disentangled herself, dragged her shirt up, mindful of infections, showing Mac another story of vicious beating on her lean abdomen. No sooner had she finished this, then the door to the row of prison cells opened, and Flamestrike sauntered in, leading a wide eyed Rani.
When Rani saw them sitting cross legged in the cell, she gasped.
"Poopsie, this naughty woman tells me you stole something from them," she said. "Is it true?"
"Depends on your point of view," said Raven evenly, thankful she was locked in the cell and Flamestrike was on the outside. Flamestrike for her part, was playing with the silly princess magnificently. She wore a charming smile, and had the cute Princess clutching her arm, but her eyes were hooded, glittering. Raven thought she could understand how Flamestrike felt.
"What does that mean? Either you did or you didnít," said Rani, glaring at her. "Give it back at once."
"No," said Raven evenly, trying not to let the Princess grate on her frayed nerves.
"Iíll bet that nasty little servant of yours has it," said the Princess, ratty eyes narrowing in on Mac. "I told you you should have her flogged. Sheís nothing but a commoner, and they are all thieves by birth. They rely on those of us with better breeding to show them how to live in polite society. If I were - "
Mac sucked in breath to really let fly at the Princess, but Raven hurriedly spoke just before Mac had the chance.
"Your Highness, I am a commoner also," she said softly, blue eyes finally showing their true anger and loathing.
"Oh Poopsie, donít look at me like that, Iím only trying to - " abruptly her words were halted when Raven leapt to her feet, ignoring her protesting torso, stuck an arm through the bars and latched onto the Princesses throat. Flamestrike didnít move to stop her, allowing Raven to do what she wanted to for a second or two only, enough to make the Princess cough and splutter. Finally she moved to help Rani, and it was only to casually stick a fist through the bars of the cage punch Raven out of the way.
It landed squarely on Ravens already suffering abdomen, and slammed her into the brick wall at the rear of the cell. She collapsed to the ground, groaning, while Mac quickly lunged to her companion, to make sure she was alright.
"You beast," said Mac coldly to Flamestrike. "You will pay for this."
"What are you going to do?" asked Flamestrike mockingly. "Beat me up?"
"Iím not going to do anything to you," said Mac. "She is." She indicated the semi conscious Raven.
"Are you going to let her get away with making threats to you?" asked Rani, outraged that the wall had grown lips and spoken to make threats against her new beloved.
"Donít worry my dear," said Flamestrike, patting the Princesses arm, linked once again through her own. "She will pay."
"See that she does," said the Princess, abruptly turning and steering Flamestrike out of the cell block. The entire time, Mac could dimly hear Rani lecturing Flamestrike on the proper treatment of vermin. Mac sighed, trying desperately not to hate her so much, and glad that they were obviously shot of the Princess.
"What happened?" asked Raven groggily, trying to sit up, and wincing at the pain of her fresh wound.
"I think the Princess just dumped you for Flamestrike after you tried to kill her," said Mac helpfully.
"Lucky Flamestrike," mumbled Raven. "Gods that felt good. Do you have any idea how long Iíve wanted to do that to her for?"
"I can imagine," said Mac.
"You do realise what this means, donít you?" asked Raven.
"Sheís going to be more than happy to stay with the Dragon Wizards, and not come back home with us?"
"Well, yes, that, but now I also get the chance to kill her," said Raven, smiling crookedly.
Despite the dire situation they were in, Mac burst out laughing. They were still laughing hysterically when two Dragon Wizard guards approached their cell and stood at attention. Behind them trailed an officer, seven feet tall, ice cold and brutal.
"Your friends have arrived. You have been called to see Lord Starhawk," he said, voice devoid of expression or feeling. With those words, one of the guards moved forward and opened the cell door with a wave of his hand. It sprang open, and the second guard and the officer strode in. Without any ado, they grabbed the two hapless prisoners, dragging them to their feet, out of the cell and off to the throne room.
The nightmare journey through the corridors was mercifully short. Lord Starhawke obviously liked his suffering close to home, and the torture chamber was closely located to the throne room. When the entered the room, the first thing they noticed were the two magicians huddled close together in the center of the room. When they entered, Silverblade saw them, and tapped his brother on the shoulder to get his attention, as the guards hurled Raven and Mac into them.
"ARE YOU TWO UNHARMED?" yelled Silverax, while Silverblade looked on and shrugged apologetically.
Raven raised eyebrow. "YES, WEíRE FINE," she screamed back, and Mac ran to embrace Silverblade.
"I hate to break up the lovefest," Starhawkís voice floated from the deeply shadowed throne. They day had passed and it was full night again.
"WHAT?" thundered Silverax, cupping his ear and squinting toward the front of the room. "STOP MUMBLING FOR GOODNESSí SAKE!"
"I SAID, I HATE TO BREAKUP THE LOVEFEST," bellowed Starhawk.
Silverax glared into blurry ocean before him. "WHAT!?"
Starhawk looked furious as he stormed across the room and waved his hands in front of the face of the skinny old magician.
"I said, I hate to break up this lovefest," he said in a cold tone of voice, no trace of rage evident despite his still blazing eyes. "I have you to thank for giving us the two things we seek."
Abruptly he grabbed Silverbladeís staff and efficiently snapped the supports around the crystal. They gasped.
"There are quite a few things you donít know about this Dragon Crystal," said Starhawk, almost conversationally.
"So why donít you enlighten us?" asked Raven coldly.
"We canít detect it except by the power of the land itself. Since our borders have shrunk somewhat, we couldnít see it after it was taken from us. Did you bring that silly girl?" he asked of Flamestrike who had suddenly appeared by his side.
"Yes Lord," said Flamestrike, eyes downcast. She gestured towards the guards who had appeared in the room with the struggling Princess.
"Good," he said absently, studying the crystal, which was beginning to glow with a soft golden light. "Take her and put her with the others. They will witness the rebirth of the Dragon Wizards."
"What?!" asked Silverblade and Silverax together, all four looking thunderstruck, Rani squealing in terror in the background. Her cries were abruptly silenced as a guard slapped her into unconsciousness.
"You still donít understand, do you?" asked Starhawk in scathing tones. "That spoilt, stuck up brat was merely a ruse so that her silly parents would send the real Dragon Wizard to us."
They turned and stared at Raven, shocked.
"No," she denied hotly. "It canít be me?"
"Tell me dear Raven, how far back do you remember?" asked Starhawk in silken tones. "You donít remember your childhood, do you?"
"I remember when you kidnapped Rani when she was a youngster."
"No, you donít," said Starhawk, pale blue eyes piercing her. "Try again."
Raven searched her sluggish memory. Everything related back to when she joined the palace guard as a youngster Ö twice. "My first memory is back when I joined the Palace guard, the first time," she said, voice trailing off in dejection. Mac immediately moved over to her, and touched her arm.
A frosty smile played around the edges of the Dragon Wizardís lips. "Would you like me to fill in the gaps for you?" he asked. "Your mother married me, and gave me an heir. Thatís true. She escaped from me with you and a Dragon Crystal, thatís also true. But she wasnít from the Kingdom, never was. She hid my child and the Crystal from me, thatís true, and cast a spell of forgetfulness over the Kingdom. When I tracked her down and killed her, her new husband spoke truly - he had no idea the child was still alive, she was hidden from us both. By that time she had another child, and you were already in the palace guard. I searched, but couldnít find the orb. Silvermace had it well hidden. The child became King, and I returned to the Kingdom. It was then that I noticed you, Captain of the Guard, not a day older than when I had seen you the first time.
"I knew Iíd found my heir after I had a little conversation with Silvermace. The only thing left was the Dragon Crystal, but Silvermace died before I he told me where it was. I cast a spell of forgetfulness over the Kingdom and left, making sure that Silverax here would be led to think I was testing the young Princess as a potential Dragon Wizard. I noticed she was quite enamoured of you Raven, even at that young age. I knew those morons would send you to retrieve the Princess if I kidnapped her. I knew Silverblade and Silverax were very close to Silvermace and that one of you would have the crystal, with or without knowing it. All I had to do was wait for the right opportunity."
He reached down and grabbed Raven by the chin, Raven recoiling in revulsion.
"I will never join you," she said, not even bothering to deny any of his claims. He laughed coldly and cruelly, a spine chilling sound.
"Itís not true is it?" asked Mac, searching the familiar blue eyes, expression withdrawn deep into Ravenís consciousness.
"I think it might be," said Raven. "My back is already healed."
Mac leaned around and lifted her shirt, revealing clear, unblemished skin. "Oh no," she moaned, and shrank back to the silent magicians.
"Mac," said Raven reaching for her. "Iím still the same person."
"No," denied Mac softly, shrinking back involuntarily. She was trapped in a sea of anguished blue, heart aching through her horror.
Ravenís hands dropped slowly to her sides, head hanging, convicted. She did not protest as Starhawk grabbed her and dragged away, materializing guards roughly pushing their captives towards an antechamber behind the throne room. It was almost as big as the throne room. Large and circular, it was totally empty patterned stone floor barely seen in the dim moonlight. The domed ceiling was made of cold gray stone, single feature a large white crystal set into it, exactly at the center. It funneled the low light of the moon into a single glittering beam, highlighting the exact center of the floor, large dragon carved in relief almost obliterated by the ravages of time.
With a single flick of a contemptuous wrist, Raven was hurled into the light, shivering on the cold floor. The others were ushered in to stand at the borders of the room, Flamestrike crossing to stand close by her Master. Slowly, as though they had been called by an invisible messenger, Dragon Wizards began to file into the room, to form a single living chain around the edges of the room, silent, watching.
"Take the Crystal," said Starhawk, tossing it to her. She caught it reflexively.
The globe, which had given off a steady golden glow, now abruptly brightened, so it was almost unbearable to look directly at. Silverblade and Silverax stared, transfixed, without hope. Mac looked on, heart aching for her friend. Raven stared deep into the globe, eyes unseeing, kneeling up to cup the globe.
Raven found herself lying in a blood soaked field, her own blood joining her fellows already fallen all around her. Her eyes began to dim and she heard voices calling in the background. "I think I found one alive!" Hands lifted her and she screamed as the massive sword cut to her gut reopened, black blood welling out of itís depths as her intestines shifted uneasily. Her vision went black and she found herself floating Ö
Ö looping and swirling in the wind, crying for joy. The wind streamed through her long hair, and she shifted her weight in the saddle, holding on with her knees as her mount swooped and whirled lazily in the summer sunshine. Green of the ground below, blue and white of the sky above rapidly changed position as the kaleidoscope of colour flew in her tearing eyes. Her mount cried out with sheer pleasure as it dived straight toward the ground as a hunting falcon would, rider hanging on for all she was worth, half terrified, half exhilarated by the dizzying speed as the dragon plummeted Ö.
Ö toward the ground trumpeting in pain as a lance lay buried deep in itís mighty chest, heart already stopped by the massive trauma. With no means of escape, her terrified rider screamed all the way as the dazzling rush continued, night sky full of the sound of the clang of steel, the fire of catapults from the ground below, the hissing sizzle of burning flesh. She threw herself clear of her mount as it crashed to the ground, legs splintering, trying to drag herself away, blood flowing in a river from her body as the ground troops converged on her. When the first one reached her, he plunged a crazed, bloodsoaked sword straight through her chest. She closed her eyes slowly in death Ö
Ö and opened them to find herself sitting on the floor of the deserted chamber, cross legged, no signs of any life around her.
"What happened?" she asked, not expecting an answer.
"You witnessed the life and death of our people," came a familiar voice from the shadows. She shifted her gaze to the left, a deeply shadowed pocket of the room. A shape moved, and began to walk slowly towards her.
"Who are you?" she asked.
The figure did not answer her as it moved toward her in heavy unfamiliar armor, face still shrouded in the shadow. She watched the light glint off the brightly polished metal of broad shoulder armor, highly polished boots, heavy leg armor. It slowly moved around the circle of light, a full circuit, then stopped directly in front of her, as she slowly got to her feet.
"Who are you?" she asked again, commanding.
The figure stepped into the light, and Raven gasped. It was as tall as her, wearing dragon armor, white faced, cat pupils and pointy eared. Other than that, her own familiar blue eyes stared back at her, cruel expression foreign on her sculpted features.
"I am you," her own voice said back to her.
"Where are we?"
"We are inside your mind," said her double, amusement clear in her voice. "Itís time for me to come out and play with my people."
"I canít let you do that."
"You can and you will."
"Oh no I wonít."
"You canít stop me," said her double. "But letís talk first." The double cocked her head to one side and stared at Raven calculatingly, arms crossed, contemptuous.
"By all means. Tell me what all this is about. Who, exactly, are you?"
"Who am I? I thought weíd been through all of that. Iím you." The figure leaned forward to touch her and Raven flinched back, much to her twinís amusement.
"I will hurt you, make no mistakes about that, but I want to show you more first," she said.
But Ravenís muscles would not relax as her double leaned forward and gently touched her shoulder. Abruptly her head swam under and onslaught of image and sound. She lived and died a thousand times, a lover, a mother, a soldier, a gardener, a great magician and humble peasant. All with the Dragon Wizards, a murderer, shocking acts of cruelty and the grossest depravation part of her life. Cries and moans of pain and terror echoed through the centuries, spinning her into an uncontrollable frenzy of carnage. She killed innocents, time and time again, glorying in the river of blood and flesh flowing all around her.
Heart sick, Raven opened up the the truth about herself, and launched herself at her double. "Iím not like that now!" she kept screaming as she clawed at her doubleís face. Her double easily punched her in the gut, but she did not feel the pain as her fingernail sank into flesh. They hacked at each other with bear hands, her double laughing at her pain, glorying in the shredded skin and flesh embedding itself under her fingernails.
No Raven please no
They continued to struggle, biting, kicking, shredding.
For the love of the gods raven stop
They fought on, blood splattering the stone all around them
Raven, canít you see what youíre doing stop! Stop! STOP!
Abruptly, chest heaving, Raven held her double by the throat, choking the life out of her, blood dripping down her fingers screaming, "NO! NO! NO!" shrieks escalating in volume until her voice broke, as the protests filtered through. She looked down at the semi conscious figure in her arms, long since limp as the last shreds of life bled from the broken body Ö
Ö to see herself clutching the unconscious figure of Rani in her strong hands. Slowly the world broke into her haze, and she looked around her. All around the room were dead and dying figures, Starhawk smiling with supreme enjoyment at the spectacle. "Raven," he said warmly, greeting his offspring.
"No," she whispered, "donít come near me."
Slowly she spun around the room, seeing the mangled bodies, the river of blood. She had torn most of the people in the room limb from limb with her bare hands, which were still coated with blood. Finally she met the shocked eyes of the magicians and Mac, brought her crimson hands up, staring at them like she had never seen them before.
She slowly faced Silverhawk. "I will never join with you! Díyou hear me! NEVER!" She cried.
She screamed in pure pain and horror, Dragon Wizard half subdued, aching with what she had just done. She had never in her entire, long life ever killed outside the line of duty, it was an anathema to her. In this one case, she had single handedly destroyed a dozen innocent beings without just cause, and her spirit shattered She began to sob, a heart rending sound that none who heard (barring the Dragon Wizards) could close their hearts against. Mac felt her heart bleed, knowing her beloved Raven was still with her. As Raven collapsed on the ground, Mac found herself moving slowly towards the shivering, heartbroken woman, hesitantly slipping her arms around her, and cradling her close.
Starhawkís eyes blazed yet again. Rooted to the spot with murderous fury, he watched Mac gently try and comfort her friend. Suddenly all movement came back, and he quickly strode to the young woman and grabbed her by the shoulder hurling her backwards so she crashed into the wall and slowly slid down, broken, unconscious.
Dazed, Raven did not see the heavy boot he smashed into her ribs, breaking two of them and spinning her across the floor.
The two magicians were agonised, but chose the safer of the two targets, Mac, to go and check to see if she were still alive. The only survivor other than Starhawk in the room, Flamestrike stood rooted the the spot, unable to fathom why someone would choose to deny their noble heritage.
"Flamestrike!" snarled Starhawk. "Take them back to their cell. Iíll deal with them later."
With that, he spat at Raven contemptuously, and strode from the room, unmindful of the sticky stream of blood, kicking anything and everything in his way.
Flamestrike quickly grabbed the shattered Raven and hoisted the unconscious Mac over her shoulder. The two magicians did not protest as she towered over them and commanded, "Move! Now!"
She chased them out of the chamber, and took them back to the castle dungeons.
When they reached the cell, she did not speak a word, merely threw Raven in, tossing Mac on top of her contemptuously as the old men hurried inside to escape her wrath. She stormed away from them, seething.
Raven was humiliated, and did not know where to look. She saw the figure of poor, gentle Mac discarded in the straw, and hesitantly crawled over to her to see if she were still alive. Wiping as much of the sticky, drying blood off her hands as she could, she grimaced in self loathing and with infinite gentleness turned her over and checked for a pulse.
It was strong and steady, though Mac was still unconscious. Very gently she pulled her in close, so Mac would at least have something softer to wake up on, knowing that Mac would never want to have anything to do with her again after what she had witnessed during the night.
The magicians stared at her, aware of her anguish, sympathetic.
"Raven," said Silverblade quietly. "We know you are not the same person as the Dragon Wizards have shown you."
"How can you say that?" asked Raven, tears washing down her face again. "After what youíve seen?"
"If you were a true Dragon Wizard, and the one they sought, you would not be in here with us now," said Silverax. "You would be out there with them."
"We know you donít enjoy killing," chimed in Silverblade.
"How am I going to live with myself, knowing what Iíve done?" asked Raven.
"I donít know," said Silverax, shaking his head sadly, stopping to push up his pointy hat which had slid down his forehead and was now resting on the bridge of his nose. "But I do know that Starhawk wonít give up that easily. We have to get out of here now before he does something nasty to us to push you over the edge."
"Iím going to kill him," Raven quietly swore. Softly Mac began to groan, and Raven made to push her hair out of her face, stopping when she saw the blood on her hands.
"Raven?" asked the soft voice.
"Iím here," said Raven, voice cracking.
Mac slowly opened her eyes and focussed on the sea of crystalline blue gazing down at her. They eyes were tortured.
"Starhawk didnít hurt you, did he? Physically, I meant," she added hurriedly.
"Yes, he broke my ribs, but theyíre already healed," Raven said sadly.
"I heard some of what was just said," she said softly. "You arenít the same person, Raven, you probably wonít ever be. But youíre still on our side, and thatís what counts." She threw her arms around Raven, trying to sooth the horror she felt deep inside her soul at what she had witnessed.
Raven began to sob harder into the shoulder of her friend, heart breaking.
Eventually Mac pulled back, and took Ravenís face in both her hands. "We have to get out of here and level this evil place. Can you do it?"
Raven stared deep into the gentle pools of green and saw nothing but forgiveness Ö and love. She focussed on it, and wiped the tears from her eyes.
"I think I can, but I will need the Dragon Crystal to do it. I do remember how to use my magic."
Suddenly Mac looked all around her.
"Whereís the Princess?" she asked.
"Oh dear," said Silverblade. "I forgot about her. She must still be with the others in the chamber."
"Weíre going to have to go and find her. We still have to get her back to the King and Queen," said Mac, rubbing the back of her neck.
"Well, then letís get started," said Silverax, rubbing his bony hands together. "Raven, youíll have to open the door for us."
"Hold on a moment," said Silverblade. "Whatís our plan of attack?"
"Weíre going to get the Crystal, find the Princess and level the Northern Reaches," said Raven easily, ghost of a smile playing around the corners of her mouth.
"Oh, right then, no problems," said Silverax, sighing and glaring at her.
"You have a better idea? Nowís the time."
He glared at her, opening and closing his mouth, outraged.
"No?" she asked. "I thought so. As Silverblade said, letís get out of here."
As she got to her feet, she helped Mac up with strong, gentle arms, Mac sagging slightly as dizziness crashed over her. "Are you okay?" she asked softly.
"Iíll manage," said Mac, ears still ringing slightly.
Raven looked at her doubtfully, let her go. She went to the cell door, feeling deep inside her for the Dragon Wizard power that was no longer dormant. She felt a tingling in the palm of her hand as she ran it over the door as other Dragon Wizards had done. There was a sharp snap, a crackle and a small bolt of lightning shot out of the door and into her palm. She was picked up and hurled across the cell, crashing into the wall, breaking it. She left a outline of a person in the rough stone of the cell wall. As she painfully staggered to her feet, she rubbed the back of her bruised skull and mumbled "Ouch, that smarts."
"Feedback," said Silverblade, wincing in understanding.
"I donít really want to try that again, as I suspect the same thing will happen," said Raven, "so I guess weíll just have to do this the old fashioned way."
She limped back to the cell door sizing it up calculatingly. She took a step back and closed her eyes, fingers steepled. Suddenly, her eyes flew open and she leapt at the door as hard and fast as she could. The result was a mighty crack and splintering of metal as the door was torn from itís hinges, bars torn from the wall.
"Wow," said Mac.
"My goodness," said Silverax.
"How on earth did you manage that?" asked Silverblade.
"Easy," said Raven, with a ghost of a grin. "Thanks to my Dragon Wizard heritage, Iím quite strong. The only hard bit was knowing where to punch."
"Oh," said Silverblade.
"Come on," said Raven. "Letís go."
She led the way back up the corridor, friends hiding behind her, to the guardís room, and stopped just outside the door. It was empty. She took a deep breath, and opened the door. She took a step inside the room, which suddenly became icy cold. In the upper corner of the room, a globule of magenta light hung like a spider. The second it saw them, it began to reach out feelers towards them scraping down the wall, burning all it came in contact with. As the stone hissed and sizzled, liquefying, it began to glow dull red, then fade into magenta. Rapidly the wall was becoming overrrun with magenta, throwing more and more feelers out to them. Mac started and yelped when one of the blind feelers touched her, leaving a ragged weeping burn mark across her arm.
Raven snatched her out of the way, as they frantically tried to dodge the tendrils crawling towards them. They ducked and weaved, as the room was slowly eaten up by the fierce pink glow. There were yelps of pain from all where the tendrils touched flesh. Raven stopped, and stood in the middle of the room and closed her eyes. She began to chant, and waved her arms around her, ignoring the welts and cuts as the feelers caressed her naked skin. Suddenly there was a pop, and the source of the magenta light in the top left hand corner burst, an evil smell and wisp of black smoke escaping it. As quickly as they had come out of the walls, the creepers began to collapse, hissing and sizzling plain stone again, melting it. The heat in the room was stifling, and Raven quickly led them to the door to freedom.
As they stood on the narrow stairs leading into the dungeon, they wheezed and breathed heavily, sucking cold air into their lungs.
"Not bad, youngster," said Silverax.
"Old man," said Raven solemnly, full of self loathing. "Iíve had a thousand years to practice."
It shut them up, so it was a silent group that followed her up the stairs. When they had reached the top door, fireball dancing on Ravenís fingertips leading the way, Raven carefully opened it, ready to take her chances with whatever it was they found.
Nothing. The corridor was absolutely deserted. The only thing moving were the unnatural tapestries on the walls, and they moved with a life of their own, wriggling faces in torment constantly changing expression in a most sickening manner. They tried not to look.
"Weíve been stripped of our powers, so we canít really help you," said Silverblade softly, staring up into Ravenís face. "Can you see where Rani is?"
"Iíll try and find her," said Raven. She closed her eyes, while Mac glanced around them to see if anyone was coming. She tried to control her bile as the tapestries beckoned to her.
Raven let go. She felt her mind open itís eyes and drift. She traveled all over the castle. Everywhere, servants and people carried out their assigned tasks, talking and laughing with one another. The guest rooms were mostly empty, several occupied with dragon wizards thoroughly engaged with willing mates, stables full of dragons, conversing with their riders, a flight already having taken to the skies. No sign of Rani.
She turned her attention to the throne room, seeing Lord Starhawk idly fingering the Dragon Crystal as Flamestrike entertained herself with Rani on the floor in front of him. Raven gasped. Starhawk shuddered when he felt the eye crawl over him, an icy breeze wafting across the back of his neck.
"Well," demanded Silverax, when she opened her eyes. "Did you find her?"
"Err, yes," said Raven.
When no more was forthcoming, Silverax stared at her and said, "Yes? And where is she?"
"Sheís in the throne room," said Raven.
"Is she still in there?" asked Mac.
"Yes," said Raven. "And we have to get to her quickly. Now!"
"Whatís the rush?" asked Mac.
"Flamestrike is having some fun with her."
"That poor girl," said Mac. "Weíd better get up there before Flamestrike hurts her."
"Ah, no rush," said Raven. "I think sheís enjoying herself."
"How in Hades can she be enjoying herself after all sheís seen?"
"She didnít see anything. She was unconscious for all of it, remember?"
"That shallow - "
"Come on now, thatís no way to talk about the Princess," said Raven sarcastically. "Letís just get her and get out of here."
She led the way up the corridor. As they walked slowly and carefully, a deep groaning started from all around them. It was almost subconscious to begin with, then gradually increased in volume, until everyone but Raven had their hands clasped firmly over their ears. The tapestries had stopped their slow, graceful waving and were deadly still. They stood next to a simple picture of a headsman with an ax, resting before he swung at his next victim. A basket of severed heads sat peacefully next to the sodden chopping block, ax resting on the ground next to it.
Suddenly the picture began to bulge and deform, as the headsman became three dimensional, struggling to get out of the picture. They saw bloody fingers tear the cloth in two, and a hairy arm reached through the jagged tear, muscles huge and bulging, as a sweating body followed it. The leather encased head swung up and down the corridor, searching, until it found them and locked onto Raven. The headsman bellowed and swung his ax at Ravenís head, and she ducked with only a whisker to spare, sensing strands of her thick black hair cut by his sharp blade. The blade crashed into the wall with a shower of sparks and hollow dinging sound. The others ducked and scrambled out of the way as the headsman firmly pulled the ax out of the wall and swung again for Ravenís heart. She leapt backward, trying to keep his attention from her friends. As she circled around past him, he swung again, thudding into the tapestry with a hollow sucking sound, pulling the ax loose to the accompaniment of the basket of heads toppling over and showering through the shimmering crack in reality. They rolled all over the floor and immediately began gasping and exclaiming.
The headsman had Raven cornered between two other pictures of a knight, hands pressed against the cloth of his dimensional prison, seeking escape. On the other side, a horribly burnt man leant forward with a dragon, struggling to see the outside world through boiled eyes. Raven did not want to release any more of these horrors on her defenseless friends, so she prepared to dive away when the next stroke came. However, suddenly the headsman yelped, an inhuman sound, pained. He clawed desperately at his back, spinning so Raven saw one of the severed heads biting firmly into the muscle next to his spine, rich red blood spilling through itís teeth. She glanced back at her friends, and saw them all lining up shots with the macabre missiles.
The heads shouted encouragement as they were thrown forward to meet their targets, sharp teeth tearing into flesh, shredding bone. The headsman screamed as they continued to feast on him, smacking and chewing sounds clearly audible above his screams.
With a pale face, she frantically crawled out of the way, towards her friends. They were all staring at the spectacle, trying not to listen as indescribable things happening to the hapless headsman.
"Yuck," she said. "Turn around and keep going. None of us really want to see this, do we?"
Ashen, they nodded and continued on for the throne room. As they ran past the tapestries, they all became still, began bulging, and the subjects of all the gruesome pictures came to life, breaking out of their prisons. They slowly tested creaking, long disused limbs, then began limping, flopping, scraping and sliding behind the little group from the Kingdom.
Finally they crashed through the doorway into the throne room, Flamestrike and Rani fully engaged with each other on the floor. Starhawk half rose out of his seat.
"You!" was all he had time to get out, before Raven tackled him and they crashed to the ground. Almost immediately, Flamestike looked up, moans dying in her throat. She leapt to her feet, as Silverblade dived for the Dragon Crystal.
Bleeding, suppurating, ulcer ridden bodies washed into the room and began attacking Mac and Silverax. The crisped victim of the Dragon immediately made for Silverblade, chunks of roasted flesh falling off its body, giving off the sickening smell of putrescent flesh. As Raven and Silverhawk rolled on the floor, punching and kicking at one another, the sharp blade of the Knightís ax coming down towards Macís head forced her to dive forward, slamming into a hugely muscular, sweating, hairy high priest that had recently been occupied by a roman orgy.
As the putrid flesh of the burnt man closed around Silverbladeís throat, he tossed the Dragon Crystal at Raven, who caught it, brief respite in the battle coming from the vicious uppercut sheíd just dealt Starhawk, breaking his handsome jaw.
Raven closed her eyes, and Mac felt the weight of the huge man, hands tearing at her clothes slowly dissolving as the world went black.
Flamestrike, lunging for Raven, found herself engulfed in black flesh, as the torn and bleeding victims of a village long plundered tore at her arms and legs, separating each limb from her body, slowly, as her shrieks of agony washed all over the walls.
Not done, Raven began mumbling. She was surrounded in a blue light, and she stood up, walking untouched through the carnage as figures turned on one another and tore at already tortured flesh, nothing living left to grasp.
Even though the earth began to shake in great shuddering waves, melting rock pouring upward in furious streams, boulders from cracking castle walls crushing and shearing people, Raven remained calm and untroubled as she floated through the castle. She melted through walls as great fissures opened in the ground, yawning pits to hell itself reaching up to grab all the evil Dragon Wizards.
When she floated through the final wall, eyes closed and still chanting, the castle walls sprayed outwards, mortar hurtling towards crying earth. Fountains of lava shot upwards towards the gray sky of the dawn as the rocks exploded. Suddenly, and only for an instant, there was an unnatural calm. Then ground, trees, grass, nature itself was sucked violently towards the ruined castle, as it imploded with a violent smashing and sucking sound. A mushroom cloud briefly bubbled over the top of where the structure had been, then was also sucked viciously downwards, and disappeared.
Raven stopped chanting. The earth was still, ground sterile and blasted by the force of the unleashed magic. She looked all around her, sickened with what she had seen, thankful that that part was over. She looked up as in the distance she could see a small group of figures hurtling towards her in the gray morning sky. She knelt and placed the crystal on the ground in front of her, and waited, until it began to blaze brighter than the sunrise.
It was a confused cluster of Dragon riders that flew towards what remained of the Northern Reaches. Instead of flying in towards the castle and dragon stables, all that remained was a smoking crater, eye watering stench, and a golden dragon, gleaming bright and clean in the early morning sky.
Immediately the wing leader knew there was a problem, and held up her hand to still the riders reaching for arms.
"Steady!"she called. "If that rider did this, youíll all get your chance - weíll kill very slowly!"
Larger and larger the great golden dragon approached, simply armored rider with black hair streaming out behind her.
"Halt!" yelled the wing leader. "What has happened here?" The question was asked at the dragon floated to a smooth halt in front of them.
"I did," responded the rider. "Youíre next on the list."
The entire flight roared with laughter that turned nasty at the lone, unarmed dragon rider. Mounts snorted, pawing the air, trumpeting and jetting smoke, eager to destroy the intruder.
"I donít think so," said the wing leader, wiping tears from her eyes. "GET HER!"
All the Dragons converged on Raven, snorting and jetting flame. She swiftly erected a barrier around herself and her dragon, who roared with pain as a tendril of fire engulfed one of itís foreclaws as it reared and bellowed defiance. Raven sweated profusely, sphere heating up as it was bathed in streaming jets of Dragon flame.
The dragons finished their flamethrowing, and through gradually clearing black sooty smoke, Raven quietly emerged, sweating profusely, but unharmed by the magical flame. The wing commander slowly lost her arrogant grin, and began muttering again.
Suddenly Raven felt herself pulled towards the sky, gravity completely displaced by the spell which warped and distorted it. Grimly she hung onto the dragon as it suddenly plunged upwards, Raven losing her stomach and violently retching beside long sinuous neck she grimly clung to. As soon as the dragon had stopped itís stomach lurching ascent, it was suddenly hurled sideways as another sucking wave hurled it sideways. Raven had no protection against the aerial antics, empty stomach still heaving under the onslaught of rapidly changing direction. Her conscious mind waved into and out of contact with reality as the dragon bucked and weaved, looking green itself as it struggled to stay in the air. An excellent horsewoman, Raven clung to the Dragon for dear life, vainly attempting to steer with her knees as a sudden gust of unexpected gravity hurled her straight through the middle of the dragon flight.
Most of the riders shot out of the way, sudden movement causing them to be sick, as one or two more unfortunate ones became entangled in the dragonís claws as it helplessly plunged through them, arms and legs tearing off in gay abandon, blood pattering down onto the shattered earth below.
The one red dragon who had been directly in the path of the Ravenís gold, felt claws sink into itís back, reared and jetted more flame. Raven lurched to one side as the wing of the golden dragon blistered and charred, screaming in pain. It only just moved itís head in time, and Raven felt the kiss of the flames as they almost engulfed her mount. The golden dragon responded by flexing itís claws and biting deep into the shoulder of the red. The red was disrupted enough to roar in pain again, and the gold sunk her teeth in further to tear out the throat of itís unfortunate victim. The red dragon heaved and sagged, losing buoyancy as rivers of blood flowed out, coating all airborne creatures in great gouts of blood. The golden dragon released itís claws, dripping more blood, stopping the sudden downward descent caused by the limp weight of the other dragon.
The remaining members of the wing were shocked into submission for a second or so, and it was enough for Raven to rally her mount and start chanting. She held on grimly with her knees, one arm outstretched as great bolts of lightning flew from her fingertips, and hit the dragon wing members. Only one or two were caught unprepared, charred corpses gracelessly plummeting towards the ruined earth. The others managed to rally defenses and cast a spell of protection so the fingers of electricity discharged harmlessly around them.
They abandoned more arcane means and began to hurl lances and swords at Raven, who ducked, dodged and weaved as they hurtled around the sky trying to dodge missiles. The wing leader hung back, closed her eyes and began chanting. Abruptly both Dragon and Raven screamed and began writhing. Raven felt her chest become heavy, arms and legs heavy. Great lances of agony tore through her body as each cell was violently shaken, waves increasing in amplitude and destructive force as each molecule struggled to separate from itís neighbors.
Unbeknownst to remaining members of the dragon wing, the golden dragon was the only one born who was both fertile and capable of magic apart from dragon flame. Now she reared, disrupting the wing leaderís spell and cast her own spell. Abruptly, all members of the dragon wing were thrown into a wild melee of screaming and dripping blood, as they felt themselves, cut, sliced, and burning. Dragons struggled to dislodge riders who were engulfed in sudden tongues of fire, slowly engulfed by the burning air as they swatted their smoldering clothes. All became screaming balls of living fire, remaining fully conscious while eyes were boiled away into nothingness, lungs were torched and flesh roasted. Nerve endings were finely tuned, reverberating with screaming agony as the entire flight of dragon were sucked together, jetting flame, streaming blood, bellowing with the pains of their own wounds, into a huge ball of living blue flame, screaming itís agony to the dead world.
The only one who escaped this fate was the wing leader who had barely managed to erect a sphere of power all over herself. Now, ashen faced and determined, she flew in towards the bruised and bleeding Raven. Raven saw her coming, but her dragon was fully engaged in controlling the ball of concentrated magic, hovering stationary, eyes closed, concentrating. The wing commander came in close, and smashed into Raven, trying to drag her off the dragon. Raven was knocked sideways out of the saddle, and fell, hands slipping down the smooth incandescent body of her mount snorting with the effort of holding the ball of uncontrolled magic at bay.
Somehow, she grabbed a hold of a huge claw on her way down, and was forced to hang on with both hands as the sword of her opponent sliced into her back to the bone. Her blood began to fall to the earth, and she felt herself losing consciousness as the wing leaderís dragon unwisely began to bite and kick the golden dragon. She was already unconscious by the time the golden dragon lost concentration for a mere second, but it was enough for the blue ball to come hurtling towards them at breakneck speed.
The ball smashed into the furiously kicking, screaming, clawing melee, engulfing them in the blue flame. For a second there was a simple ball of fire, then and absolutely massive explosion as streams of uncontrolled magic hurtled up towards the upper atmosphere and down into the earthís core, streamers and tendrils of brilliantly coloured fire washing the sky as far as the eye could see. The air was aflame with furious bolts of energy, earth itself retching with the furious backlash of magic that displaced it and caused the ground to heave as one violent earthquake after another rocked entire land of the Northern Reaches, destroying it utterly.
"What happened?" asked Mac as she sat up, groaning. The magicians both looked sick to their stomachs. Mac looked all around her, noticing the huge tall trees and lush undergrowth of the forest, and black, blasted ruins of what had once been the Northern Reaches.
"She teleported us to the forest," said Silverblade. "After that, who knows - did you see the streamers of fire?"
"Oh yes," said Silverax, wincing in pain. "Sheís certainly destroyed the Northern Reaches." He pointed and they stared at the smoking, weeping earth, suppurating just beyond the forest.
"I wonder where she is," said Mac, dread for Ravenís welfare crashing through her. She felt tears forming, knowing Raven could not have survived whatever it was that sheíd done.
"Ahem," said Rani. "You there. Help me up." This imperious declaration was pointed towards Mac.
Silently, tears threatening to fall, the dazed and heartsore Mac held out her arm to the naked Princess. "This is all your fault," Rani began, when a flash of movement in the blazing sky caught her eye. Ignoring the fuming Princess, she turned to face it more fully. She shielded her eyes against the morning sun, speck increasing in size as a huge shimmering golden dragon flew into view.
Mac felt her heart freeze in her chest, a single wheeze escaping it as the magicians eyed the sky in alarm and went gray at the sight of the Dragon.
They froze, hearts hammering in their chests, instinctive dragon fear overcoming them, Princess noisily throwing a huge temper tantrum behind them. The Dragon got larger, the grinning figure of Raven easily identifiable as the rider.
Relief flowed through Mac, bringing the tears from her eyes, as the Dragon landed easily, just on the grass at the edge of the forest.
Blindly, she ran to towards Raven, heart aching. She was tripped up by the naked Princess, who flew at Raven and wrapped herself around the soldier like a living octopus.
Raven ignored her kisses, eyes boring into Mac, love shining clearly through as the rest of the world faded away for them. Mac slowly got to her feet, and stumbled towards Raven.
With almost contemptuous ease, Raven tossed the Princess off her, shirt in tatters. "For goodness sake Rani, get some clothes on," she said coldly. "And get off me, Iím your aunt for crying out loud!" Raniís mouth opened and shut as she gaped like a landed fish.
Mac threw herself into Ravenís arms, squeezing her tight, love she held for Raven too strong to hold back. Raven gently released her, then leaned down for a deep and passionate kiss, as the others found interesting things to look at on the forest floor.
"I love you Raven," said Mac softly when they came back up for air.
"I love you too Mac," said Raven. "I donít know whatís going to happen to me now, but I know I canít stay at the castle. Will you come with me?"
"You know I will," said Mac. "I canít live without you."
She paused for a second, enjoying the feel of her brave warrior in her arms. "What happened? How did you escape?"
"It was a big ball of magic that got out of hand before my dragon could get rid of it. Iím only here because sheís a very strong lady, and took us very far away from there for a while until the magic dispersed. She healed us both and here we are."
"Oh," said Mac, skin crawling at the thought of close she had come to losing Raven.
She leaned up for another kiss as the furious Princess launched herself at the lovers, still not quite taking the hint.
"Poopsie," she said petulantly. "Weíre to be married. Have you forgotten that?"
Raven opened her mouth to speak, but Mac stopped her. She loosened her hold on Raven, putting herself between her love and the Princess, Ravenís strong arms easily encircling her waist. "For starters," said Mac quietly, "donít call her Poopsie again, unless you want to find yourself hanging out of the castle windows in several pieces. Second, sheís mine, and if you lay another finger on her, Iíll kill you."
Raven chuckled gently as the Princess turned beetroot with rage, unable to speak, then stormed away, Silverblade frantically trying to catch her and throw some clothes on her.
Mac turned around again to Raven, and kissed her soundly. "Letís go drop these guys off and get going."
Raven took them back to the castle on the obliging Dragon. When they landed in the courtyard, the King and Queen rushed out the greet them, and Rani lost no time in telling them ignorant and untrue tales of Ravenís conduct while in the Northern Reaches. When they attempted to have her arrested, Silverblade and Silverax spoke up and revealed Ravenís royal birth. The castle guard promptly sprang up in revolt and hurled the royals into the dungeons, proclaiming Raven and Mac as the new King and Queen. Raven and Mac discussed the situation, and decided to stay on in the Kingdom to attempt to repair some of the savage wrongs that had been done by the previous rulers. Raven and Mac were married amid huge fanfare and well wishing by the palace staff, former King, Queen and Princess Rani looking on in disgust. When Rani launched herself at Raven at the wedding, Macís first decree was the have the annoying royals exiled from the land never to return. Silverax stayed for the wedding, then returned home to his lunatic house in the forest, while Silverblade stayed on as the castle magician, happy to live with rulers who respected him and his abilities.
And they all all lived happily ever after.
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