Witch Queen – a sci-fi/fantasy

This story is a throw back to the old Golden Age of Sci-fi with Frank Frazetta art on the cover.  It was back in the day when anything went.  Barbarians fighting space lizards?  Sure.  Curvy princess being held captive by giant serpents?  Why not. This story is an attempt to bring that free imagination from the Golden Age to a more modern readership.

So, here is “Witch Queen” and I hope you enjoy.

Witch Queen

Chapter 1

Krana stood by and slowly sipped her glass of wine as the machine servants hurried to set up her telescope.  The telescope was larger than she was and even if it wasn’t, there was no way she was going to do her own manual labor.  Her two twin servant girls stood off to the side wearing matching black dresses that showed more flesh than they covered.

Krana’s knee-length black hair blew in the breeze and sometimes got in her face, but she tried to ignore it.  On the horizon was a storm, visible in the night only by the periodic flashes of distant lightning.  It would take at least two hours to arrive but she was already starting to feel the wind pick up.

“Faster,” she called out to the simple minded automatons.  It wasn’t just urgency in schedule that made her impatient.  Her curiosity was at its peek as well.

“Mistress, didn’t you do your weekly astronomical studies yesterday?”  Lesha asked in that soft, sweet voice of hers.  They both had delicately angled, elfin faces and long blonde hair.  They did their best to look alike, but she could tell the difference.  They also wore identical, silver circlets around their heads with the round decorated disk in the middle of their foreheads to cover their old slaver tattoos.

Krana didn’t turn to face her servant.  She kept her eyes on the telescope.

“I did Lesha, but I want to check on something.  Last night I thought I saw something that didn’t belong.  A new star just west of the third planet.”

“A new star?  How?”

“My studies haven’t told me how stars are made, but I don’t know if this is really a star or a wandering star.”

“You mean…satlights?  The ancient wanderers?” Lada asked.

“Satellites.  No, this isn’t a satellite.  It’s too far away and doesn’t move.  A comet perhaps.”

She did her best to give Lesha and Lada real educations.  She didn’t want them to be mindless servants.  She already had enough of those.  There was so much knowledge stored away in the ancient tomes, but nobody except a few dusty scholars bothered to learn it.  Most people, even ‘educated’ ones, didn’t have a notion of anything before 1,000 years ago.  Beyond that, history turned into legend for them.  They couldn’t conceive of men capable of building flying machines that traveled among the stars.  They couldn’t conceive of a civilization that spanned many worlds.  All they thought of was their own, small minded feudal kingdoms.

As soon as the skeletal machines were finished with her brass telescope, she pushed one aside and looked into the eye piece.  It took her a moment to find the exact location, just one degree west of the third planet, Prima.

There it was.  She hadn’t been mistaken.  The dot of light was still there.  It hadn’t moved position, but it did look brighter.  Krana took a moment to adjust the focus and make the image larger.  When she did she learned why the light looked brighter.  It wasn’t one large light, but a cluster of small ones.  The most likely way they could look bigger was if they were growing closer.

Krana looked up at the light with her naked eyes.  There it was; a small point of white light.  She squinted at it while she thought it over.

“Something wrong, mistress?”  Lada asked.

“I don’t know.”

Nothing in her books had mentioned anything like this.  Did its appearance beside Prima have any significance?  The histories said prima once had civilization like Molon did.  Contact was lost over a thousand years ago when everything fell apart.  Most scholars believe that Prima was destroyed in the final death throws of the last War of Heaven.  Krana couldn’t imagine a weapon that could destroy entire cities, but all she had to do was look out over the mountains at the wastelands that covered half the continent.  The legends say the war almost destroyed their world and the wastelands are the scars.

Ever since then her world had been living off the scraps of what was left.  There were still a few wonders left from that ancient age that people took for granted.  Machine servants, electricity, plumbing, tractors, medical centers were all as common as horses and swords, but people still didn’t believe in the old legends.  All the ancient technology were relegated to the realm of “magic” and so people didn’t bother to try to learn how it all worked.

She hadn’t thought this in a long time, but this was beyond her level of expertise.  She’d needed to contact other scholars.  Perhaps one of them had an answer to this.

Krana ordered the automatons to put away her telescope and then ordered Lada and Lesha to follow her.  She needed to think and she thought best while relaxing.  She took a long bath while the twins washed her.  Then she had them give her a deep massage.  There were two parts of her that the twins didn’t need to work over.  The fortress she had discovered and brought back to life had a fully equipped medical center.  Because of that she now had machine arms that worked so much better than the originals.

Even her home here was a relic of the past.  Her home was a forgotten fortress hidden in the mountains on the boarders of the badlands.  There was much of it she still had to understand.

“Lada, fetch my comm stone,” Krana said.

“Yes, mistress.”   Lada then hurried off.

“Lesha, move further down.”

Lesha began massaging the small of her back and it felt good.  It was like all the tension in her body was released at once.  Lesha was always a bit more aggressive with the massages and Krana liked that.

“Excellent, Lesha.  Go fetch my clothes.”

Lada came in as Lesha was leaving and handed Krana the small, oval communication stone.  It wasn’t stone at all, but a very complex machine.  It looked like a smooth river stone though.  She activated it and the panel of light appeared above it.  The language was the tongue of the ancients but she could read it with no difficulty.  She decided to send a brief verbal message to all the scholars on her list.  She explained about her discovery and asked for their opinions. Then she set up a time for them to all talk together.

Her first response came a few minutes later.  Within the hour she had most of them ready to talk.  She dressed in her finest black armor and put on her skull mask with the two sets of horns.  One set came straight out, twisted and bent upwards.  The second set curled downward and then forward.

There were two calculated reasons for her appearance.  One, she had to hide the slaver mark on her forehead.  Two, she had to look as scary as possible.  She was the only woman scholar and if she looked like any normal person, they wouldn’t take her seriously.  No one would.  She had to look frightening in order to get any respect from them.  If they were terrified of her, they weren’t worrying about what sex she was.  It didn’t matter if the woman was the smartest person in the room, men wouldn’t listen.

All men cared about was power.  They wanted power over women, other men, and everything else.  She understood their desire to lord over people all too well.  As a slave she had known what it was like to be powerless.  She would never be without power again.

At the appointed time she activated her comm unit to “conferencing” and watched as the full sized images of the other scholars appeared.  Most of them were old men, the rest were yuoung.  Some had white beards.  Others were clean shaven.  They wore different robes or coats depending on what kingdom they were from.  She did have to give these men credit though; at least they were able to put aside their petty political differences in the name of knowledge.

“Lady Krana, we are all here.  Now tell us why you have requested this meeting,” Elesmus said.  The thin scarecrow of a man was so old he was bent over and his beard almost touched the floor.  He was also one of the sharpest minds she had ever met.

“I assume you’ve all listened to my message.  I’ve discovered a light in the sky that wasn’t there last week.  I saw it last night and again tonight.  Tonight it was a little brighter and I was able to see it with my naked eyes.  Through the telescope I found that it was not one light, but a group of smaller ones.  They don’t shift position, but only grow brighter,” Krana said.

“I can’t see it due to clouds, but couldn’t this be a comet?”  One of the other scholars asked.  He had dark skin and bald head.

“I think not.  Another concern I have is if there is any relevance to its proximity to Prima,” Krana said.

They all thought for a minute, scratching their chins or toying with their beards.  These here were probably the only men in the world that she respected.  The youngest of them was forty.  Every time one of them died more knowledge was lost to the world.  Knowledge was the only thing to bring this sad, miserable world out of the dark age that it was too ignorant to realize it was in.  She wouldn’t count any of them as friends, but she did respect them.

She didn’t want friends.  Friends were a weakness that she didn’t need.  She didn’t want someone to know her secrets.  She didn’t want someone to be a crutch.  If she was going to be strong, she was going to do it alone.  It was much better for them to fear her than like her.

“The only thing I can think of Lady Krana, is that perhaps the world of Prima didn’t die in the War of Heaven.  This could be some sort of signal,” Jamica said.  Despite being bald on top, he had long white hair and brightly colored robes.

“Signal?  Perhaps.  What if this…” Elesmus started to say.

“If you have a thought, say it,” Krana said, letting her frustration show.

“What if these lights are the void ships the legends speak of,” Elesmus said.

“Nonsense!  If they ever existed, they were all destroyed in the War of Heaven,” Dranas said.

“Void ship?  If they have them, why haven’t they used them before now?”  Krana asked.

“Unknown.  I was just thinking out loud,” Elesmus said.

“We don’t know what it is!”  Dranas said.  “Without further evidence, anything we say will be speculation.”

She didn’t like the idea of the lights being void ships from Prima.  The last contact with them was over 1,500 years ago and they had been at war.  The ancient books never said what the war was fought over or how it started.  It assumed the reader was already familiar with that.

Molon was not unfamiliar with war.  A year never went by without some of the small city-states warring with other kingdoms.  It was all pointless slaughter, but perhaps it could prove useful if it meant they were prepared for an external threat.  Only three of them had any connection to their governments.  She was in the lands of the Disath Kingdom, but she seldom bothered with them.  They left her alone and she left them alone.  Mostly, they were afraid of her.  They called her the ‘Witch Queen’ and told caravans to not come too close.  They knew she had lost technology and a small army of her own.

However, the one rumor about her that was the most ridiculous was also the most true.  They whispered that she had magic abilities.  Seeing as how the Old Men didn’t have an answer for her, she’d have to try to use those abilities.

After the conference she went to her room.  Lesha and Lada were there waiting with an unopened bottle of wine and cheese and meat on a platter.

“How did it go, Mistress?”  Lada asked.

“Not well.  They had no answers, only guesses.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Mistress.  Would you like a snack before you turn in?”

“No thank you.  You two may have that bottle yourselves.  Go enjoy it.”

“Thank you Mistress!”  The twins said in unison.  Then they left her room, whispering and giggling as they did.  They did their best to hide their intelligence, but Krana knew better.  She rescued them from slavers and had given them a home for the past five years.  They were servants but she treated them with respect.  The thought of keeping slaves sickened her.  She knew the horrors that slaves suffered.  When she saw Lada and Lesha in that wooden pen, she knew they were something special.  They were given shelter, food, money and an education.  They were also free to leave any time but they knew as well as she did that there simply wasn’t anywhere else to go.

As soon as the door was closed she sat herself in her favorite reading chair, relaxed her body and began to concentrate.  People believed she was a witch.  For once, they were right.  Even as a child she knew she was different.  She felt things before they happened.  She caught glimpses inside people’s minds.  More importantly right now, she could see far off places.

She grabbed her drawing pad and ink pen and focused on the points of lights.  She willed her vision to go there.  If the Old Men didn’t know what it was, she’d find out herself.

It took a long time.  Whatever the lights were, they were far away.  Time seemed to loose most of its meaning while she went into her trance, but even then, she knew hours were passing.  She had never had this difficulty in finding something before.

Finally, her mind grabbed hold of an image.  At first she didn’t know what she was looking at.  It was dark and the things were covered in lights, like a city at night.  She also got the distinct impression that they were large.  They were the shape of flattened, stretched out eggs.  They were dark gray and the three largest ones looked to be nothing more than carriers for smaller ships that filled their insides.

Krana saw the source of the bright lights.  Great furnaces in the front of the ships were burning brightly.  The engines in front were for slowing the great ships down.

It was exhausting and her mind couldn’t hold on to the vision for very long and too soon her mind snapped back to the present.  She was back in her room and outside her bedroom window, the rain was beating down onto her balcony.

Chapter 2

Veris leaned out of his window and looked out at the ocean and the busy port below.  He could smell the sharp salt of the ocean and feel the cool breeze on his face.  The purple moon Lavasha hadn’t set from its night time trek and still hung, large and pale in the sky.  It was a beautiful morning.  The fishing ships were moving out into the ocean and cargo ships were plodding, slowly out of the port.  The faint sound of their giant engines filled the air like numerous conversations at one of his father’s many parties.  It was a constant, vague sound that one wouldn’t notice unless it was gone.

The angled, armored forms of war ships were patrolling about the ocean, ready to repel any attack from a treacherous neighbor or bold enemy.  Three years ago he set out on one of those warships to go off to war.  Their sound wasn’t nearly as pleasant up close.

Despite all the activity down below, the city of Avandal was a dreary place.  Monolithic metal and stone architecture did nothing to liven the place up.  The palace itself was very old, dating to a time where the ancients used metal to build everything.  After that, the people had used stone to imitate the old buildings.  They were pale comparisons.  The largest buildings were also the oldest and most important.  The hospital with its mechanical wonders was in the center of town, a giant round dome that was the most obvious building from where he stood.  There was also the mech factory that made mindless automaton servants and the motor vehicles that became large haulers and tractors.  The power plant was right along the ancient land wall.  A giant, ugly, block of a building.  No one understood how it made power, but it did.  The magicians that kept it running were paid more than he was.

Veris dressed in his ceremonial armor for today’s events.  The polished armor was much lighter than battle armor and also completely useless.  Like many things in the palace, it had no practical use and was only there for appearance.  Still, as the second son of the king, he had his duty.

He forgot what the occasion was.  Some holiday or official’s birthday.  It didn’t matter.  He would show up, smile, look like the great war hero and then slink off as soon as people stopped paying attention.

War Hero they called him.  Ridiculous.  The war part was true enough.  He had seen enough war to last him a life time, but the hero part was a gross exaggeration and very undeserved.

The cold, dark halls of the castle were home but far from homey.  It wasn’t just that the place was actually cold, it just lacked any human warmth to it.  Well, there was one exception and he saw her running down the hall toward him; her long, skinny legs carrying her.

“Brother!  See my new dress?”  She called out halfway down the hall.

“Yes, Jira, I think I see it.  Is it that blue cloth you have around your body?”

“Yes!”

She threw her arms around him and smiled up at him.  Her smile was the brightest thing in the whole city.  She had a large mouth with big teeth, but he thought she was beautiful.  Her smile had an unexplainable way of warming him.  Her red hair was done up in many braids that ended in gold beads and hung all around her shoulders.  Her hair wasn’t long, but it was a thick mass, like a lions.

“You’re actually excited about all this?  What is it?  Chief of the Treasury’s wife’s birthday?”

“No!  It’s St. Theodora’s day!”

Religion wasn’t one of his strengths.  He believed and did everything he could to be good and right, but long lectures and sermons just never managed to keep his attention.

“Oh, right.  Yes.  Of course,” he said like he actually knew.

She took his hand and despite her twiggy eighteen-year-old frame was able to pull him along through the halls.  She was leading him towards the banquet hall where the celebratory breakfast was going to be held.  Joyful.

“Veris!” Came his father’s voice booming through the palace.  It wasn’t an angry bellow, but his authoritarian commanding voice.

He turned around to see his father in his black and silver armor striding up to him.  He had a way of covering great distances in only a few paces.

“Father, what can I do for you?”

“Come with me, son.  There’s urgent business to attend to?”

“More urgent than a breakfast?  I can’t imagine what it could be.”

“Please, don’t tire me with your witticisms.  Follow.”

He hated seeing the disappointment on Rika’s face.  It reminded him too much of the face she had when he sailed away to go off to war.  Veris wasn’t stupid enough to try to disobey father, even if he wanted to.  Father only cared about results and didn’t care about anything that got in his way.

He followed father to his private meeting room where the real decisions of the kingdom were made.  This was where he talked with his generals, advisors and foreign dignitaries.  Veris seldom came here.  He was the second son and wasn’t going to inherit the kingdom.  He didn’t have to learn statecraft or politics.  He had to make a living by serving as an officer in the army.

Father threw the double doors opened and Veris quickly followed him in.  Inside he was surprised to see his brother the crown prince, the Captain of the Guard, the Chief General, Chief Wizard of the Reactor, Chief Wizard of the Factory, Admiral and the Christian Patriarch with two bishops wearing white robes.  He wasn’t surprised to see any of the there except the clergy.  Matters of religion seldom were of any importance to the state.

Veris held his tongue and took his place behind everyone else.  It seemed the Patriarch was the focus of everyone’s attention.

The old, wrinkly man with large eyes and tall hat cleared his throat.

“As I was saying, this is of grave concern for us.  This prophecy has been in our books since the time of the War of Heaven.  It’s not one most people are familiar with.  However, we remembered it when the light appeared in the sky,” the Patriarch’s weak voice said.

“What does the prophecy say?”  Father asked.

“Well…”  The clergy looked at each other as if embarrassed.

“Out with it,” Father said.

“We’re not exactly sure.  We know it’s a warning of some kind, but we don’t know what the source of trouble is going to be, if it’s the light or the light is just a signal for us to be watchful.  We simply don’t know.”

“Why don’t you?  I thought this was your business to know this stuff?  What else good are you?”  Father roared.

“The prophecy is hidden in obscure language that is very hard for us to decipher.  There’s one person in the kingdom that we believe can correctly decipher it though,” the patriarch said.

“Who?”

“The Dark Witch Queen.”

“You’re kidding.”

“I’m afraid not.  She’s not to be trusted, but she is exceptionally knowledgeable in esoteric matters.”

“Sounds dangerous,” General Baman said.  “Is there really no other that can decipher this so-called prophecy?”

“There isn’t.  Not in our kingdom at least.  There are others, but they’re loyalties lie elsewhere.”

This was all ridiculous.  He couldn’t believe that they were all putting such faith on a stupid thousand year old prophecy.  Father wasn’t the religious type.  Why was he worrying about all this?

Father then turned to face him.  Immediately Veris knew why he had been brought here.  Father already knew the plan and this was all a show for his councilors.

“Veris, you are one of our strongest soldiers.  You’re the Hero of Usha.  You’re orders are to go to the Witch’s mountain fortress and speak to her.  Get her to tell us what this prophecy means.”

This was a junk assignment.  He was being sent on this stupid mission just to ease the clergy’s mind.  It was a stunt and he was just being a tool of his father’s.

“I will leave immediately,” Veris said.  He would play the obedient son.  It was always his role.  Arguing with father would do nothing but make his life more miserable.  At least he’d get out of standing around all day while the festivities went on.  Of course, it meant a two day journey on horseback to get to this mountain fortress.

“The Witch Queen will demand payment like she always does.  Her services do not come cheap.  Offer her 5,000 credos.  You’re authorized to go as high as 10,000,” father said.

This was a real pain.

They gave him a scroll with the prophecy and a map to the fortress.  As he walked back to his room he looked at the dusty scroll in his hand.  Some lunatic a thousand years ago had a dream and now he was on this silly mission to find out what it means.

Of course, there was also the problem with the Witch Queen.  By all accounts she wasn’t the most hospitable person around.  The rumors said she had a small army of ghoulish robots, not to mention whatever horrors she had within her fortress.

He began changing into his uniform and battle armor.  It felt a little better to get out of the useless ceremonial armor and into real armor.  It was heavier, but at least it had a real purpose.

When he had first put on this armor it felt more like a prison.  He would inherit nothing at his father’s death.  All he would get is what he earned and traditionally, younger sons went into the military to earn their own keep.  It felt like he was trapped in a world that he didn’t choose.

Now, however, he knew better.  Now he knew that being in the military meant more than imprisonment.  It meant that he could actually make a difference.  Other nobles only cared about themselves or what power they could gain for their family.  He could actually get outside the world of exclusive dinner parties, expensive ceremonies and squabbling over petty things.

In the army he could actually go out and help the people.  Most nobles had probably never spoken to a commoner before.  He could fix bridges, roads, destroy raiders and slavers.

One thing he had learned from his father, was that there was definite right and wrong in the world.  His interpretation of right and wrong were different, but he still understood the concept.  Father’s idea of right was whatever benefited his rule.  Veris’s idea of what was right was what helped people.

As he cinched up his armor there was a knock at the door.

“Come in!”  He called out.

Jira came in.  She wore her ‘worried’ face.  Her eyes looked big and her lips were pursed together.  She was one person who never tried to hide her feelings.

“Veris, where are you going?  They won’t tell me.”

“I’m going to go talk to somebody that can decipher this old scroll.  It’s worthless but the Christian bishops think it’s important.”

“That doesn’t make sense.  Why send you out?”

“Because it’s just a trick to make them think we care.”

“I’ll miss you.  You better came back as fast as you can…and in one piece.”

She gave him a parting hug.  She was very free with her hugs, at least to him she was.

As he went to the stable he passed Alexen.  They had survived the siege of Usha together.

“Veris!  Heading out for a hunt?”  Alexen asked.  He was removing his saddle from his horse.

“Nah, I have to go see someone about something.”

“That’s about as vague as you can get while still answering my question.”

“I thought it was straight and to the point.  Brevity.  The core of military communication.”

“I always liked how you brought up military doctrine only when it suited your purposes.”

“I assure you that I’m the strictest military man in my unit.”

Alexen laughed out loud.

“I’m sorry, but you just weren’t meant to be in the military.  You’re good at it, no doubt there, but you don’t act like any other soldier I’ve ever met.”

“Now you’ve hurt my feelings.”

“Good.”

He patted Alexen on the back and then went to where his horse was and saddled it up.  He made sure his pack had all the supplies he’d need and then went on his way.

Alexen was right; he didn’t really belong in the military.  He did what he was told, but he hated taking orders.  He also hated not sleeping in a bed and that’s what this mission was, another week of him not sleeping in his own bed.

He rode out the palace gates and into the grimy, filthy city where the commoners lived.  Pipes from the factory ran all through the town, making the whole place look like a complicated mess.  It seemed that the houses were crammed in between the mass of pipes and industrial complexes.  Half the ancient factories didn’t even work anymore.  Few know what they actually used to make.  The poor lived there now.

Veris rode out the city gates, the tall, slab-sided metal walls that had stood longer than recorded history.  The stories from the time of legends spoke of them.  He always wondered how they managed to never rust.

He rode for two days and of course the gray skies poured rain down on him for most of the time.  He passed by the few small towns that were scattered about.  Each town had its own wall to protect against raiders.  It was sad that the nobles didn’t do more to protect them.

It was sunset of the second day that he arrived in front of the black fortress.  It looked like the same dark metal that the city gates were made out of.  It’s base was a large oval with small towers all around the top edge and one truly massive tower rising above the whole thing.  One edge of the tower was perfectly vertical, the other angled away, growing smaller as it reached the top.  The base of that tower was a mass of machinery that he couldn’t begin to guess at.  The sharp, jagged, gray mountains rose up around and behind the fortress, making him feel even less invited.

The gates were large metal ones with what looked like a faintly glowing blue pane of glass where a handle should be.  Not knowing exactly what to do, he knocked.  He knocked several times and it took a good five minutes before the door opened.

A small figured blonde girl stood there wearing an all black outfit that left her neck, shoulders and stomach bare.  Long, straight blonde hair fell down to her waist like a waterfall.  She looked curiously at him with her large, brilliant blue eyes.  The girl wore a silver circlet around her head that had a circular symbol in the middle of her forehead.  She was beautiful.

“What do you want?”  The young woman asked with a sneer.

“I must speak with the mistress of this fortress, the one they call the Witch Queen.  I’m on official business from the king.”  He held up the currier bag with the official seal on it.

“Come in,” the girl said, rolling her eyes.

He came in and she closed the door behind him with a simple wave of her hand.  It was warm inside and he was soaking wet.  Fortunately they didn’t have carpet or wooden floors because he was soaking wet.

“Wait here,” she ordered.

The very attractive girl left the room and a moment later, two dull black automatons came in.  The stories were true.  They looked skeletal in appearance.  They had stylized skull heads and a rib cage design on their torsos.  They carried sharp looking halberds.

He checked to make sure the power on his V-blade still worked.  One thing the medical clinic could produce were the vibrating blades used by the medical automatons for surgery.  The edge of the blade vibrated so fast that it could cut through almost anything.  The wizards had managed to make the factory produce larger scale ones that were what the nobility used in war.

Then the blonde girl came back in.

“Follow me.”

He followed her into a large meeting hall with a raised platform on the far end.  Another blonde girl that looked just like the first, silver circlet and all was standing beside the throne that sat upon the stepped platform.

“Our mistress will be here shortly,” the one by the throne said.

The black, metal meeting hall was much taller than it needed to be and was clearly chosen for intimidation and not beauty.

A few minutes later a woman walked in.  She wore all smooth, form-fitting, black armor with flowing skirt that was open on both sides all the way up both thighs and came down in the back almost to the ground.  What struck him most was her face.  She wore a mask that looked like a skull except her real mouth was showing.  It had two sets of wicked, twisted horns.  Her skin was deathly pale and her lips were painted a glossy black.  The mask was open in the back because her long raven hair flowed out and down to her knees.

She strode up to the throne like a one woman procession and sat down, daintily crossing her legs.  She wasn’t petite and elfish like the two blondes.  She had what could only be described as a curvaceous figure.  She wasn’t over weight by any means, but she had round hips that bobbed hypnotically as she moved.  Her thighs and butt all added to the terrible and beautiful phantom in front of him.

He had never seen anyone or anything quite like her.  He had to admit, the intimidation was working.

She finally leveled her gaze toward him with black, skull eyes that prevented him from seeing her real eyes.

“What message does the king have for me?”  The woman asked in a clear, strong, but slightly scratchy voice.  It also sounded slightly annoyed.

“I am Veris of Disath, the king’s son, here to deliver a very important message to you personally,” he said.

“Get to the point.  I have no patience for self aggrandizement or flattery.”  The Witch’s lips curled into a snarl as she talked.

“Very well.  The Christian clergy have found a prophecy that they say only you can decipher.”

“What prophecy?”

“It says that when a new star appears by the third planet, Prima, that a terrible threat is about to be known.”

Strangely, this actually got her attention.  He would have thought that she would just laugh it off.  The woman sat up straight.

“How old is this prophecy?”

“It dates back to the time of legends, to the War of Heaven.”

“It can’t be,” the Witch whispered in a tone that made even him shudder.

Chapter 3

Krana looked at the princely messenger in front of her.  He was standing there, soaking wet and holding a leather bag.  Her mind touched his and in a sudden flash of a mental image, she knew there was a scroll in the bag.

“Let me see the scroll,” she said.  That made Veris raise an eyebrow.  He was surprised that she knew it was a scroll.

As he pulled out the scroll land walked toward her, the vision of the void ships was strong in her mind.  It seemed impossible that all of this was coincidence.  If this fleet of void ships was important enough to be prophesized about, then it couldn’t be good.  As she took the scroll from Veris, a feeling of ominous dread kept building up in her.  She could feel that there was an image there, hidden beneath it all, but she didn’t have all the pieces, like a shattered stained glass window.

Krana opened the scroll and began reading.  It was in the ancient language, but on top of that it was also in code.  She could sense patterns and meanings.

“It will take time to decipher this.  Lada, take him to a guest room where he can dry off.  Get him some food.”

“Yes, Mistress,” Lada said.

She left with Veris in tow.  Once they were gone Lesha dropped her formal pose and crouched down beside the throne.  She had Lada and Lesha dress provocatively on purpose.  If there was one thing men understood, it was power.  By suggesting that she had sexual power over Lada and Lesha, she was suggesting to the men that she herself was powerful.  Men were simple beasts that were easily manipulated.

“What does this all mean, Mistress?”  Lesha asked.

“I honestly don’t know, but I don’t think it’s anything good.  Let’s take this to my study.”

They went up to her study where she kept her desk and all her books.  She had piles of books, collected from all over the civilized parts of Molon.  She quickly cleaned a small area of her desk off and put her helmet down on an empty space.  She was in the middle of assembling all the information she could find about the near forgotten “Cradle World” where humanity originally came from.  She was listing all the knowledge in alphabetical order.  As she discovered something new, she’d write it down in one of the lettered volumes.  Krana moved all that to the side and spread the scroll out on the desk.

“It must be important if the king sent his son to deliver this,” Lesha said.

“He’s not the crown prince.  He’s just an officer in the military.  An important one, granted.  The great Hero of Usha.”

Whatever the scroll was, it wasn’t paper or vellum.  She bent down to get a closer look and saw that the scroll was slightly shiny.

“Please fetch my magnifying glass,” Krana said.  Lesha ran over to one of the shelves and grabbed a small box.  She hurried back and opened it.  Krana took off her armored glove and grabbed the magnifier.  Under the closer view the scroll looked like it was made of cross-hatched fibers, but she couldn’t tell what kind.

“It’s not paper, but I don’t know what it is,” Krana said.  She then tried to tear a small corner but couldn’t.  Whatever it was, was also tough.

Then Lada came in.

“Our royal guest is now warming himself by the heater in his room,” Lada said.

“We’re not doing this for free, are we?” Lesha asked.

“You never do anything for free,” Lada said.

“I didn’t think about it.  This is too big to worry about small things like that.  Also, this can count as a favor.  They’ll owe us.”

She sat down and began trying to figure out the patterns in the nonsensical wording.  Outwardly the scroll stated that when a new star appeared to the west of Prima, that a great danger was coming.  There was more to it though.

Krana began applying different mathematical formulas and eventually the pattern made perfect sense.  It took most of the night and through her window she could see the sky over the horizon turning purple as the sun began to rise.  The message was short and clear.

Lesha and Lana were asleep with their heads on her desk.  They had tried to stay up with her but sometime in the night they had fallen asleep.  Krana had no idea that it was so late.

“Girls!  Wake up!  I think I have the answers here,” Krana said in a loud voice.

“Huh?  What’s gong on?”  Lana asked.

When they were both awake, she read them her translation of the scroll.

“When the new light appears in the heavens, west of the colony world of Prima, a decimation will occur.  Danger from the void.  The old will return and the royal hero will fight against the old and new.  The hero will search the dead lands for hope,” Krana read out loud.

“Decimation?”  Lesha whispered.

“What does this mean?  We’re going to die?  What about this royal hero?”  Lada asked.

Krana raised a hand to silence them.

“We don’t know for certain what this means, but it does mean we need to prepare for the worst.  I don’t know who this royal hero is, but we need to find him.  It might refer to our guest here, the Hero of Usha.”  She then turned to Lesha.  “Go fetch him and bring him here.  Lana, make sure his things are dry.”

They both hurried out of the room.  She was thankful to have such loyal servants.  She saved them from a horrible life and in return, they do what she said.  They didn’t obey because she was a demanding tyrant, but because they believed in her work and that it was important.

She put her helmet back on.

A few minutes later Veris was escorted in wearing his armor.  He looked rested and fed, two things she wasn’t

“You deciphered its meaning already?”  He asked surprised.

“Yes.  It wasn’t hard.”

Krana motioned to a chair in front of her desk.  One of the twins usually sat there, helping her sort out her mountains of information.  Veris sat down and she pushed the scroll in front of him.

“First, this scroll is made out of a material I’m unfamiliar with.  It’s tough and shiny.  It was made to survive.  Second, the scroll does indeed warn of danger.”

Krana read the scroll’s translation to him.

“Royal hero?”  He asked.

“Possibly you.”

“Me?  Why say that?”

“Veris, Hero of Usha.  Royal blood.  The prophecy was written for this kingdom at the fall of the Heaven’s Age, just after the Heaven’s War.  It could mean someone else.  This is just guessing.”

“But what about this decimation?  A disaster?”

“No, it’ll mean war.  The old is returning.  Ancient void ships are on their way here.  That new light in the sky is the void ships approaching.  I get the distinct impression that they mean us harm.”

“How do you know this?”

“I saw it in a vision.  Last night I saw them.  Then tonight you show up and tell me of this prophecy of danger.  I’m not going to pretend that I know what it all means, but I know it means danger.”

“I have to get back and warn the king,” he said.

“Of course.”

“What’s your price for your services?”

“Damn you men!  You think I care about money or gifts when we’re about to be invaded and decimated?  There are more important things at stake here!”

“Alright!  Sorry.  I just heard you…  Doesn’t matter.  I’m getting my stuff and heading out now,” he said.

“Good idea.  But before you…”

She stopped in mid sentence because an image appeared in her mind.  She saw the void ships covered in fire.  They were hurtling from the void and into the skies of Molon.  They streaked downward like comets.  There were dozens of them falling toward the ground.  They weren’t all together, but in groups heading toward different targets.

“It’s too late!”

She jumped up from her cushioned chair and ran to the balcony the study shared with her bedroom.  The others followed her out.  She ran to the balcony rails and held on as she looked up into the sky.

“What is it?”  Lana asked.

Krana looked all over for the streaking fireballs that marked the void ships’ passage.   The sky was unusually clear with a few spots of blue showing here and there.  Most of the time a thin haze covered the sky.

Then she saw them.  Far off and high up, she saw the orange glowing streaks of fire.

“There!  The void ships!”  Krana said.

“What?  They’re already here?”  Lana said.

“Look!  They’re heading towards Avandal!”  Veris said.

“They’re heading towards many different cities.  Veris, does anyone in the government have access to the communication link?”

“My father has one and the generals also.”

Krana handed Veris her small comm stone and he quickly began calling his people.

“What do you think is in those ships, Mistress?”  Lana asked.

“Men.  Men bent on war, death and destruction,” Krana said.

“If they have void ships, they’ll also have other lost technologies,” Lesha said.

“Most likely.  If they’re from Prima, then they’ve lost much ancient knowledge like we have, but apparently they’ve managed to regain some.  The War nearly destroyed our world and we thought that it had destroyed theirs.”

“Wars that can destroy worlds…I can’t imagine something so evil,” Lana said.

She looked over to Veris when he started shouting.

“I don’t care!  Mobilize everyone now!  I see them heading right for you!”

Veris paced around a little as he listened.  Krana wished that he put on the conference setting so she could hear what the other end was saying.

“Thank you,” finally said.  “I’m getting ready to head back…what?  You see them?  How far away?”

There was another long pause as he listened.  She watched as his face.

He turned toward her.

“They see the ships now.  They’re getting ready,” he said.

Krana reached over and pushed one of the symbols made of light that hovered over the comm stone.  The image of a general in armor came up like they were looking into a window.  They could see what was behind him.

“The palace guard is the first unit available.  They’re assembling in the courtyard,” the general said.

Suddenly there was a flash of light and the image disappeared.

“Wait, what just happened?”  Veris asked, almost yelling.

“I don’t know.”

“I have to get back there and find out what’s going on!”

“Hold on.  I can see it.”

She closed her eyes and focused on the city.  She had been there and that made it much easier.  She quickly felt like she was floating above the city, like a bird.  She could see everything.  The arrowhead craft were landing right into the city, smashing buildings and streets underneath them.  She couldn’t imagine the countless people being crushed to death.  The ships were larger than she had imagined and looked a bit different than she remembered.  They plowed huge troughs through the city.  As they came to a rest, the fronts of the ships opened up and armored men began pouring out.  Her mind’s eye went closer to look at the men.  Their armor looked simple and rugged and they carried weapons she recognized from the ancient drawings.  Guns.  She didn’t know what type they were, but they mad loud noises when they fired and after each shot the soldiers had to yank a handle back and then forward again.

“The ships are landing within the city and disgorging troops.  Hundreds of them.  They have superior weapons,” she said slowly.  It was hard to talk and concentrate at the same time.

“How do you do that?  I thought you being a witch was just superstition,” he said.

“Silence!”

After the troops ran out of the landing ships, large armored vehicles rumbled out.  They didn’t have wheels like the vehicles made on Molon.  They had several small wheels with a thick, flat, metal chain that encircled them.  There was a round turret on top with a stubby, thick cannon, similar to the turrets on warships.  The armored vehicles pulled themselves along, tearing the paves streets up, leaving ugly tracks.  Then there was a sound like thunder as one of the vehicles fired its giant gun.  The top floor of one of the nearby buildings exploded in splinters of wood.

She saw some combat but for the most part, whatever resistance was encountered was quickly put down.  When she related it all to Veris, he wasn’t happy.

Then the comm stone came back on and this time it wasn’t some general, but the king himself.  She had seen him before during one of her many disguised visits into the city.

“Veris!  Can you hear me?”

“I’m here father!”

“Listen to me.  The city is falling and there is nothing we can do to stop it.  They’ll be at the palace soon.  I want you to go find help.  Go to our allies.  Enlist their help.  Organize whatever resistance you can.  Understand?”

“I do.”

“I’ll help with what I can,” Krana said.  This drew looks from the twins.

“Thank you,” Veris said.

“Son, the war is now in your hands.  I must go.”  The image then disappeared.

Veris stood there, looking at the comm stone in silence.  She had never lost anything before.  She was born and grew up with nothing.  It wasn’t until she gained her own power that she had things to loose.  She didn’t have family, but she did have the twins and her home and she didn’t want to think about loosing those.  The twins were the closest things to friends that she had.  She looked over to them and saw the fear in their eyes.  They were right to be afraid.

Chapter 4

Veris didn’t know what to do.  His home was being destroyed and captured by an unknown invader and there was nothing he could do.  His father said to flee and go find help, but judging from what the Witch said, other cities were also being attacked.

The one thing he cared about most was in Avandal; Jira.  She was in danger.

“I have to go back,” he said.

“What?  You heard what the king said.  We have to find help.”

“Why do you care?  You live apart from everyone.  Stay here and do whatever it is that you do.  I’m going to go save my sister.”

Suddenly there was sharp pain and a flash of light as the Witch punched him, full force in the face.

“How dare you!  What does a rich noble like you know?  You don’t know what real life is.  You sit comfortable in you palaces, perfectly content to ignore the suffering all around you.  So, you survived a siege.  I survived much more!  There are hundreds, maybe thousands of people dying all around Molon.  You think I’d sit back and not care what happens to my world?”  She then spat as if to punctuate her rant.

“I apologize,” he said, wiping the blood from his mouth.  “But I am going to go save my sister.”

“Don’t be a fool.”  The Witch’s black lips curled open, showing clenched teeth.  “You’re the hero of the prophecy!  Don’t you see?  You’re the only person of royal blood to be able to do anything about this.”

“Then my first act as hero is the save Jira.  I’m going one way or another.  I could use your help.”

She growled clinched her fists like she was about to hit him again.

“I don’t know where this prophecy came from, but it seems to know what it’s talking about.  You have a much more important job to be doing.”

“Then help me do it by rescuing my sister.”

“Damn you spoiled, elitist noble!”  The Witch then turned to her two scantily clad servants.  “Lada, fetch my sword and emergency pack.  Meet me in the entry way.  Lesha, go get my horse ready.”

“Yes, Mistress,” they said in unison and they ran off.

“Thank you Witch Queen.”

“My name is Krana.  Let’s go and get this done with.  I’m warning you though.  If you try any self destructive heroics in the name of honor or something else equally stupid, I’m casting a spell on you that will make you do my bidding.”

She had powers, but he wondered if she could really do that.  It was also surprising that an evil witch cared about what happened to the people.

She turned and stormed off and he hurried to catch up.  As he walked behind her through her dark fortress his mind was fully taken up by what could possibly be happening in the palace.  What did these invaders want?  It was a two day ride and if they were coming to simply kill everyone, there was no chance that he would arrive in time.  He also thought about the common people of the city.  What about them?  They were now at the mercies of the invader and from what he could tell, they had little mercy.  Still, getting himself killed would not help anyone.

This ‘hero’ stuff sounded like utter crap.  Krana couldn’t prove that he was the hero and he certainly didn’t feel like a hero.

He looked up at Krana.  Like his father, she had the ability to walk completely too fast.  The swaying of her hips and but was enough to distract his mind for a few seconds.  He had no clue what was under her mask.  Her mouth and chin looked beautiful and her body was definitely attractive to a high level, enough to make him think things he shouldn’t.  But what was really underneath all of that?   He also couldn’t help but wonder why she kept two scantily clad women with her?  They seemed to be the only other living beings around.  She could be a lover of women.

When they got to the entry way one of the twins was there holding a ridiculously long, curved sword.  It seemed at least a third of it was handle.  Long, yes, but it looked balanced.  He also noticed the ‘power’ glyph on the handle.  Like his sword it could vibrate and cut through anything.

“Lana, I’m leaving you two in charge.  Let no one in.  Lock the place down and turn on all security protocols.  I’ll stay in contact.  Don’t hesitate to call me.”

“Yes, Mistress.”

He noticed the girl’s definite expression of sadness to watch her mistress leave.

Krana grabbed the sword without pausing in her stride and went out the door.  Two horses were there for them.  His and a large black one.  She slid the sword into scabbard on her saddle that sat right in front of her so she could pull it out easily.

“You know how to use that thing?”  He asked.

Her skull mask shot a look at him that he knew had to be a glare.

“Better than you can use yours.  Either one of them.”

It took him a full second to realize the sexual innuendo.  He had never heard a woman talk like that before.  He was speechless as he mounted his horse.

The outer gate closed behind them as they rode out at top speed.  They didn’t stop for lunch or to rest.  He only allowed them to stop at night because the terrain was too treacherous to continue on in the dark.

They didn’t unpack but simply laid on the ground and tried to sleep.  She removed her helmet so he couldn’t see her face and put on a similar one without horns.  She was a strange person.

“You have a plan, right?”  She asked as they laid there in the dirt.  She was clearly tired and her voice sounded even more scratchy.  Then he remembered that she hadn’t slept the night before.

“I do.  I usually don’t, but I figured this I’d try something new.  I know you think I’m a reckless fool, but I do know what I’m doing.  There is a secret entrance into the palace.”

“Why didn’t your father take it then?”

“He doesn’t know about it.  He also doesn’t believe in running away.”

“Where is it?”

“There’s the ruins of an ancient stone tower outside the walls of the city.  Behind some rubble there is a hatch that leads to a long tunnel.  It takes us into the palace’s chapel.”

“Alright.”

Within moments she was asleep.  He tried to sleep but the terrible thoughts of what was happening to his city kept him awake.  It was anger, mixed with fear and confusion.

During the siege of Usha, all he worried about was the situation at hand.  He didn’t think of himself.  Jira was back home safe and sound.  Now it was his home under attack and Jira in danger and he didn’t know if he could handle it.

When the sky began to get lighter he gently nudged Krana awake.

She sat up like lightning and looked around.

“Oh,” she muttered.

She stood up, brushed herself off and went to her saddle bag to get some dried meat.  He ate some of his hard bread and mounted back on his horse.

Soon they were back on their way, riding hard toward Avandal.

An hour before sunset they came within view of the city.  Many thick pillars of smoke were rising from the city.  The walls of the city blocked their view but he could tell that it wasn’t good.  It looked like half the city was on fire.  He could see the palace rising up on the hill, peeking out from behind the wall.  The palace looked to be intact.

He didn’t want to think about all the innocent people who were suffering or dead.  There wasn’t anything he could do.  The invaders probably had the city closed up with no way in or out.  All his adult life he tried to help them and now when they needed him most, he couldn’t do a thing.

He quickly found the old ruins and moved the rubble out of the way to reveal the metal hatch in the ground.  He went in first.  The tunnel was narrow, low and very long.  It was going to be an uncomfortable two miles.

Krana turned on her comm stone and lifted it up so they could have light.  At least they wouldn’t be stumbling in the dark the whole time.  It was a good thing she had her hornless mask.

It seemed forever before they reached the ladder that led up to the palace’s chapel.  He was tired and he was really starting to feel it.  His muscles ached as he pulled himself up the metal rungs.

The top had a trap door that could be opened from either side but it was locked.  When he was fifteen he made a key for it.  He turned the key and pulled the subdued handle and pushed the door up.

They came out into a dark storage room in the rear of the chapel.  It was full of boxes of candles, holy wafers, incense and small statues of the Virgin of Avandal.  He went to the wooden door and opened it a crack.

Outside was the chapel, full of women and children.  They were crying and praying.  He didn’t see the priest but he saw two of the nuns.  He didn’t see anyone that could be a threat.

Veris opened the door and stepped out.  Everyone looked up.  Smiles broke out and several of them surged forward.

“Prince Veris!”

“Help us!”

“What should we do?”

“Where did you come from?”

He held up his hands.

“Listen everyone!  Tell me what’s going on,” he said in a calm, hushed voice.

One of the nuns stepped forward.  She had a sharp, stern face with large brown eyes and wore thick, voluminous black robes.  He had seen her around because she was one of the few nuns that was actually kind of attractive.  She wasn’t gorgeous, but she had a certain charm.  He was probably going to go to hell for looking at a nun.

“They came from the sky in fiery ships,” the nun said.  “They landed and began killing.  They took the palace with little effort.  Then they took the men.  I don’t know where.  We were all forced into the chapel here.  We’ve been here for two days.  They bring food and water, but sometimes they come in and take people away.”

There was so much going on.  He had to clear his head and think logically.  Focus on the big picture and break it down to what needed to be done.

“Alright.  There’s a tunnel in the storage room.  Everyone go down there and get out of the city.  Head east towards the mountains.  We’ll catch up to you.  Sister, you’re in charge.”

She nodded in agreement and then began giving orders to the women and children.

“Does anybody know where princess Jira is?”  He asked out loud.  No one seemed to know.

As the people began heading towards the tunnel he waved for Krana to follow and they went to the door that opened to the palace.  It was a side door and the main doors opened up to the court yard.

He readied his sword in one hand and Krana readied her long, thin sword.  He knew there were no locks on the doors but he had to assume that there were guards out there.

When he opened the door, two guards in thick, bare metal armor holding strange weapons turned around.  Their helmets were round and featureless except for two slit eyes and vertical slits for breathing.

Without hesitating he thrust his sword into the nearest guard’s throat.  The sword barely slowed as it cut through the armor.  The second guard unslung his weapon from his shoulder, but suddenly Krana’s thin sword flashed horizontally and cut the man across the chest and arms.  Her sword dug into the wall after cutting completely through the armored man.  The man’s arms that were holding the rifle fell off and then his upper torso slid off, spraying blood all over the wall.

Krana bent over and picked up the rifle.  It was as long as a short spear and made of a long metal tube with a handle, and a trigger and wooden stock similar to a crossbow.

“It’s called a gun,” she said.  She pulled back the handle and he saw what sort of looked like short, fat crossbow bolts.  “It fires these very fast and very hard.”

He picked up the other gun and looked it over.  He didn’t know how to use it, but he was willing to learn.  After grabbing all the gun bolts, he slung the gun across he back and they continued on.

He led the way.  First place he would check was Jira’s room.  They went up one a metal staircase and had to go slow to avoid making too much sound.  There was a long, wide hallway with maroon carpet and two intersections until they got to the second set of stairs that led to the floor that had Jira’s room.

They went slowly, listening for any sounds and looking for any movement.  From somewhere in the palace he heard riotous laughter and shouting in a strange language.  The hallway passed a window and he looked out over the city.  The sun was setting and he could see the fires in the city.

Veris stopped at the intersection and peeked around the corner.  Down the right hallway he saw three invaders in the same type of armor and carrying the same type of weapons.  They were standing in a circle, laughing like they were at a party.  There was a slight chance they could hurry across without being seen, but slight wasn’t good enough.

“You got any magic for this?”  He asked.

“Hold on…”  She stood silent for a moment.  He couldn’t see her eyes because the mask had some kind of glass in the eye sockets that he couldn’t see through.  “Strange.  I can’t understand their thoughts.  They think in that language, but I can get glimpses of images and emotions.  They’re animals.  I sense revenge.  Hatred.  Torturous training.  I also see images of them…”  She didn’t finish the sentence.  When he looked down at her she gritting her teeth.

“What is it?”

“They’re worse than animals!”  She hissed.

She lowered her head and stretched out her hand.  She was doing something so he peeked around the corner.  As he watched, one of the men suddenly fell to the ground as if unconscious.  The two other soldiers bent down over him.

As the invaders were distracted Krana ran out from their hiding place and charged the three invaders.  She was almost on top of them before the looked up and saw her.  They began to bring up their long metal and wood guns but they didn’t have time.  She swung her long, curved blade.  She sliced through both of the crouching men.  Their heads rolled off and they fell to the ground.  Then she jabbed downward with her sword and impaled the unconscious man.  Afterward, she gave the dead man a good kick and then they looted the bodies for more bolts for the guns.

He understood her anger.  It was exactly how he felt.  What he didn’t understand was why she was so angry.  What did she see that set her off?  Veris didn’t want to waste time asking so the led on.

They hurried up the next stairs and onto the floor where Jira’s room was.  He didn’t even know if she was there, but at least it was a starting point.  Two days was a long time.  Anything could have happened.  He quickly cleared his mind of that.

When he got to the hallway that had her room he looked around the corner and saw a guard standing in front of the door.  This invader’s armor had some kind of yellow symbol on the shoulder, like three arrows pointing up in a line.

“Can you do that thing again?”  He asked.  She nodded and a few moments later, the man was unconscious on the floor.

He ran to the door.  The problem was, he had no idea what to expect inside.  The man was guarding the door for a reason.  Jira had to be inside.  He sheathed his sword and unslung the gun.  The mechanism was simple enough.  He pulled the lever up and back and when he pushed it forward again, it readied a bolt to fire.  All he had to do now was pull the trigger.  Krana followed his lead and readied her gun, putting the butt up to her shoulder.

He quietly opened the door and crept in with Krana right behind him.   He instantly scanned the room and saw two invaders.  One was in armor but had his helmet off.  He had a shaved head and scars all over his face.  The other man was stripped of armor and lying on the bed, face down.  The helmetless man was too busy looking at the bed to notice them.

Then he saw what was happening and he almost dropped his gun.  He saw two, skinny legs with knees in the air and familiar pink stalkings sticking out on either side of the man.  He was on top of Jira and he could hear him grunting.

Veris let out a scream as he felt his heart and guts twist into painful shreds.

The helmetless man jerked back in surprise and reached for something on his belt, probably a weapon.  Veris pointed the long gun at him and pulled the trigger.

There was a loud sound like thunder and the invader’s head popped open like a dropped melon.

The man on the bed started to scramble off but Krana dropped her gun and rushed the man with her sword.  He fell off the bed and Krana ran him through the chest, pinning him to the ground.

Veris ran over to the bed and his fear was confirmed.  Jira lay on the bed, stripped naked and covered in bruises.  Her red hair was a tangled mess around her and her eyes were closed.  She didn’t seem to realize he was there.

Looking at her like that felt like a dull knife to the chest and he had to look away.  Those bastards.  Those inhuman, monstrous bastards.  They had no idea what they had done.  They had ruined the sweetest, purest, most beautiful girl he knew.  They had hurt her in a way that she, nor anyone else deserved.

“Jira, it’s me, Veris,” he said.  He managed to look at her again, lying there in pain.

She slowly opened her eyes and looked up at him.  It took a moment, but when the realization struck, her face contorted into a look of agony and she began to cry out in sobs as she hurriedly wrapped the blankets around her.

That look in her eyes was the worst thing he had ever seen.  Those bright, luminous eyes full of life looked like the eyes of a corpse.   He covered both his eyes with his hands as he tried to regain control of his emotions.  He slumped to the floor.

Chapter 5

Krana watched as the girl began to cry out in pain and shame and Veris fell to the ground, clutching his head.  She had seen in the soldier’s minds what they were doing to the women they captured.  She suspected this would be the case but she had hoped it wasn’t.

She knew all too well what the poor girl was going through.  She knew the pain and self loathing that accompanied this.  She also knew that the girl had to be strong and survive this.

“Veris, we have to go!”  She shouted.  Unfortunately they didn’t have time to deal with this.  They had to live first.  They had to keep breathing.  Survival was the only thing to think about.

She tried to tell herself that but her own memories of being abused tore through her mind like a flash flood.  Is that what she had looked like?  Battered, bruised and lifeless?

Krana would have given anything to prevent anyone from feeling like that ever again.

She ran over to the girl.

“My name’s Krana.  We’re here to get you out of here.  I need you to focus.  Get your clothes on because we have to get out of here before more bad men show up.”

“I want to die!”  The poor girl whimpered.

“I know honey.  I know.  But right now we have to get out of here.  You will survive this and you will beat this.  You are strong and you have to live so you can make them pay for what they did.  You can’t let them get away with it.  Do you want to make them pay?”

The girl nodded through her tears.

“Then you have to get up and get dressed.  Can you move?”

The girl tightened her jaw and tried to sit up but couldn’t.  Krana feared that might be the case.  She was too weak.

She ran to the closet and found a dress, boots and a coat.

“Veris!  I need your help!  Watch the hallway for trouble!”

He nodded and stumbled to the doorway.  He had to get his head right or they wouldn’t make it out of here.

Krana helped the girl sit up and she slipped the dress over her head, moving the girl’s arms for her.  Then she slipped on the boots and the coat.

“Veris!  Take your sister.  Carry her.  I’ll carry the gun.

Veris’s eyes focused and he ran over and lifted Jira up in his arms.  As the headed for the door, she stopped down and took the small guns that the two men had had on their belts.  They were small enough to be carried in one hand and it took her a second to remember that they were actually called “handguns.”  She slung her long gun and carried a handgun in each hand.  The bolts for the handgun were in the handle and by pressing a button, a metal case came out that held the bolts.  Alls he had to do was pull the rear of the gun back and that would load a bolt into the tube.  Brilliant.

She led the way out of the horrible room and down the hall toward the stairs only pausing to grab the dead guard’s rifle.  She sensed someone coming from around the corner and pointed the handgun.  As soon as the man came running into view, she pulled the trigger.  The shot struck the man’s armored chest and ricocheted off.  She quickly fired two more times and one of the shots penetrated the helmet.  She didn’t see any blood or exit wound, just a large hole above the left eye.

She quickly grabbed that man’s rifle and ammo bandolier and kept running. Three long guns slung on her back was getting cumbersome.  When they got to the chapel everyone was gone.  They hurried to the storage room and Veris handed her the key.  Krana opened the hatch.

“Can you hold on while Veris carries you down?”  Krana asked the girl.  Jira nodded.  Krana helped her climb on Veris’s back and he went down first.  As soon as they were clear, she went down and locked the hatch behind her.

This time the trip through the tunnel seemed much shorter.  She held her comm stone out for light again as the raced down the claustrophobic tunnel.  When they emerged they saw the group of women and children running eastward.  She had hoped that they had gone further than that.  The children were slowing them down.

Veris put Jira up on his horse and they led their horsed by the reigns as they ran to catch up to the group.

The nun was in the rear, herding them and telling everyone to hurry and to be strong.  When she saw them approach she clapped her hands and smiled.

“Thank the Virgin that you made it!”  The nun exclaimed.

“We have to hurry sister.  We need to be as far away as possible before morning,” Veris said.

Good, he had his military mind again.  He was thinking clearly.

They traveled all night and only stopped to rest when the sun started coming up.  It would take them five days to get back to her fortress at this rate.  She wanted to just hurry back, but she couldn’t leave them.  If an enemy patrol came along, these people would be helpless.

They were weak.  It was partially their fault for allowing themselves to be weak.  A real woman should have learned how to defend herself.  They should have all had weapons and all taken part in the fight to repeal the invaders.  If everyone in the city just had knives or cleaves, they could have pushed the invaders back into their ships.  Instead they fled like rats in front of a cat.  Pathetic.

As pathetic as they were, they didn’t deserve to suffer.

Everyone was lying around beside a stream.  Some were trying to wash their faces and others were drinking.  Veris and Jira sat under a tree a little distance away from the others.  They weren’t talking.

Then the nun approached and sat down beside her.

“Will princess Jira be all right?”  The nun asked.

“No.”

The nun looked with pity over towards Jira.

“Poor girl.  She is always so sweet and happy.”

“It will be a long time before she can begin to feel anything close to normal and even then it won’t be the same.”

The nun’s innocent eyes turned back toward her and Krana instantly realized that she had given away too much about herself.  She swore under her breath.

“I’m Sister Anna.  What’s your name?”

“They call me the Witch Queen, but my name is Krana.”

At the mention of “Witch Queen” Anna’s eyes went slightly wider, but she maintained her smile.

“Thank you for helping us, Krana.  Is there anything I can do for you?”

“You don’t have weapon that can kill all the invaders, do you?”

“Sorry,” Anna shrugged.  “I don’t usually carry that with me, but I have faith that we’ll be alright now thanks to you.”

“It’s a five day walk to my fortress.  I have a little food in my saddlebag.  You can give it out how you want.”

“Thank you again.”

Sister Anna got up and went to the saddlebag to redistribute what food there was.  She went to Jira first.

Krana noticed a little girl, no more than ten years old staring at her.  She had dirty blonde hair tied in two large braids.  Her blues eyes were just fixated on her.  Was she curious or terrified?  Krana looked away.  She didn’t have time for weak children.

Then she remembered that they had a truck at the fortress.  She had been so focused on the mission that she forgot to think.  Stupid!

She took out her comm stone and called up the twins.

“Mistress!”  Lesha said with a huge smile.

“You’re all right?”  Lada asked as her face pushed Lesha out of the way.

“Yes, I’m perfectly all right.  Listen, I have about thirty refugees with me.  Send the truck to come pick us up.  Bring food and water.”

“We’re right on it!”  Lesha said.

“Hurry.”

After turning off the comm stone she got up, her muscles stiff, and went over to Sister Anna.

“I have a truck coming to pick us up.  It should meet up with us tomorrow, but after everyone’s rested I highly suggest we keep moving.  Give them two hours and then we’re on our way again.”

Then Krana went over to check up on Veris and Jira.

“I have a truck coming.  They’ll meet us tomorrow.  Try to get some sleep.”  Then she leaned in close and whispered in Veris’s ear.  “I can use my power to suggest that Jira goes to sleep.”

Veris nodded.

Krana concentrated and pushed her way into Jira’s mind.  It was a chaotic maelstrom of anger and pain.  She saw her memories of the past two days.  For two days those monsters hurt her in every conceivable way.  She pushed her to go to sleep.  She could command people to sleep easily if the other person wasn’t paying attention, which Jira wasn’t.

Within moments she was sleeping quietly.

“Thank you,” he said.

She just nodded and went back to her spot under a tree.  She stayed awake.  Someone needed to keep watch.  As she watched everyone resting she thought about all that had happened and what it meant.  Prima was invading to get revenge for something that happened over a thousand years ago.  That just didn’t seem right.  There had to be something more to this.  How did the prophecy foresee all of this?  The legends spoke of people with powers.  Perhaps their powers were like hers.

When no one was looking she quickly switched her mask for the one with the horns.  If they came across a patrol she would want to look as scary as possible.  She also wanted to let the refugees know that she wasn’t to be trifled with.  She wasn’t their friend or pal.

Two hours later they began getting the refugees up and moving again.  The people began talking quietly among themselves.  Most of what she heard was them talking about the invasion and what had happened to loved ones.

They stopped sometime after dark.  They were on the rocky plains now and it was easy for them to see the lights of the truck.  She called the twins up and soon everyone was being loaded up into the large cargo container in the back.  It was the same chassis as every other truck, tractor and military vehicle.  It was slow, ponderous but could carry a lot of weight.  This one was a gift from wasteland nomads for helping them out with a sickness that was going around.

She got in the big, boxy cab with Lada and Lesha.  They were both smiling and looking at her like she had been gone for years.

“Let’s get moving,” Krana said.

“Glad you’re back, Mistress,” Lada said.

She slept most of the drive back.  Once they arrived she brought everyone into the main hall and gave them food, water and blankets.  They were all tired, dirty and sad.

Krana went up to Veris and Jira.

“I have guest rooms for you two.  They’re right beside each other.  They have bathrooms so Jira can…so you both can wash up.  Once you’re rested Veris, I’ll need to speak with you about what to do next.”

“Okay.”

She led them upstairs and showed Jira her room.

“Don’t leave me again!”  Jira cried.  She had been stone faced until now but now she burst out, almost hysterical.

“I won’t leave you.  I’ll be right with you,” Veris said.  He turned to Krana.  “I’ll stay in her room for now.”

“Understood.  I don’t have enough rooms for everyone so I’ll let Sister Anna decide.”

She went back to the group of refugees and found Anna.  She told her about the rooms and showers.  Sister Anna then got with the other nun who was probably her superior and they began to plan.

Krana went to the main computer room and brought up the page that let her command her automatons.  The room had a semi-circular black table with a single blue glowing panel on it.  She put her hand on it and gave the command word for it to activate.  She then ordered her machine servants to set up in defensive positions and to have roving patrols.

Then she took Lada and Lesha and went to take a long bath.

“That was very brave of you to help Veris find his sister,” Lada said as she scrubbed her back.  Lada’s bare, wet legs spread out on either side of Krana.

“I couldn’t let the great prophesized hero go off on his own and get killed,” Krana said.

When she first brought the twins to the fortress she would never have asked them to bathe her, but they had volunteered.  It was the most pleasurable part of her day.  One thing that kept it pleasurable was that they never hinted at anything sexual.  She had had enough of sex.  Being used by slavers all her young life had sapped any desire for “love making.”

“What do we do next?” Lesha asked.  She was washing Krana’s feet.  Her legs were both to Krana’s right side.

“I have no idea.  The prophecy said to go into the desert.  I have to go look at my old maps and books and see if there’s anything out there.”

“We can help with that,” Lesha said.

“You’ll have to.  There’s too much information to look through by myself.”

“What about the Old Men?”

“I can’t risk sending them a message.  If they’ve been captured I don’t want to let the enemy know where we are or what we’re doing.  We’re on our own.”

After the bath she put on a robe and they went to her study.  She grabbed every book, map and scroll she had about the wastelands and divided them into three piles, her’s being the largest.  Then they settled down in their own chairs and began pouring through the information.

Periodically she’d send one of the twins to go check on the refugees.  One thing that worried her was the food supply.  She had enough food for everyone, but she didn’t know how long it would last.   It would last at least two months or so, but there was no way of telling how long they’d all be there.

Around dinner time there was a knock at the door.  She quickly put on her skull mask and had Lesha open the door.  It was Sister Anna.

“What is it?”  Krana asked.

“I was wondering if there was some kind of plan.  We can’t sit here forever hoping the invaders won’t find us.”

“You’re quite right, sister.  Have a seat and let me explain a few things.”

Sister Anna took the seat in front of her and Krana explained about the prophecy and then about looking through the old records for anything that might be useful in the desert.

“Well, at least let me help you look through this.  I know Ancient Enlis.  Monks, priests, and nuns are all required to learn it.”

“You’re not afraid of me, are you?”  Krana asked.

“A little, yes.  You do intimidate me, but you did help us.  I believe you are good.”

“You have no reason to fear me.”

“I appreciate that,” Anna said with a smile.

She didn’t particularly like the Christian churches.  The churches stood by and did nothing in the boarder towns she grew up in as the slavers plied their trade.  None of the religions helped.  The Muslims, the Hindus or the Jews.  They all let the slavers do whatever they wanted.  They were afraid, but fear shouldn’t prevent holy men from doing what was right.  She didn’t hate religion, but she didn’t care for it either.

“Now I can’t say the same for other people,” Krana said.

“If you were a man, it might be a different story,” Lada said.

“You don’t like men?”  Anna asked.

“Not particularly.  I’ve seen very little from them other than brutality, arrogance and violence,” Krana said.

“But some of the best people I’ve known were men.”

“Either they had you fooled or they were the exceptions.”

“I don’t believe so.”

“Look what men did to the city.  Look what they did to your princess.”

“There is evil in this world and men succumb to it easily, but women do to, only in different ways.”

“It doesn’t matter what I think.  We need to get to work,” Krana said.

They spent the rest of the day looking through old books.

“Your collection here is quite impressive,” Anna said as she stretched out and rubbed her eyes.  “Maybe a little too impressive right now.”

“There are secrets to be learned from the ancient knowledge.”

Then Krana saw something in the book she was reading.  It was about Molon before the War of Heaven.  It showed three cities in the area that was now the wasteland.  They were the only three large cities on the map.  She had seen those before, but what drew her attention was something in the middle of them, a military base.  Fort Ticonderoga.   She also saw that there were roads that led from everywhere to everywhere.  If even impressions of the roads still existed, then they could find the fort.  If that fort was anything like her own, then it had a massive and very protected subterranean area.

It seemed perfect.  This couldn’t be coincidence.  This had to by why the hero was supposed to go out into the desert.

“Something wrong, Mistress?”  Lesha asked.

“Wrong?  No.  Not at all.  I think I found something.  There’s an ancient fort in the middle of the wastelands.  It might have a protected area below ground.  If it’s still there and we can get in, then it might have ancient secrets for us to use against these invaders.”

“The wastelands?  But that’s very dangerous!”  Anna said.

“Not as dangerous as sitting around doing nothing.”

Chapter 6

Krana went to Veris’s room and knocked.  He answered the door.  The slight smirk he usually wore was gone.

“Krana, what can I do for you?”

“How’s Jira doing?”

“Not well.”

“You have to get ready to go.  I found that there’s a fortress in the wasteland that might have something we can use.  It’d deep in the wasteland and it will take some time to get there.”

She wondered if he would act like an over emotional girl and refuse to go.  Krana understood very well that Jira needed help, but there was more at stake than the welfare of one girl.

“When do we leave?”

“In the morning.”

“I’ll be ready.”

“You’re leaving?”  Jira asked from the bed.

“I have to.  We have to find a way to fight back.”

“I’m coming also,” Jira said.

“The last thing we need is a young, inexperienced girl slowing us down,” Krana whispered.

“She’s coming,” he said through clinched teeth.  He was clearly upset.

“She can’t.”

“Then I’m taking her alone.  I’m not leaving her.”

“Damn the both of you.  If she’s going she’s going to have to get prepared.  There’s a machine in the basement that can give you all costume fitted armor like I have.  It’s much stronger than the steel armor you wear.  It’s also lighter.”

“Alright.”

Krana walked in.

“Jira, get up.  You’re coming with me to get fitted for armor and equipment.”

She got up and Krana noticed the wince she made as she did so.  She was wearing a black robe that the twins found for her.

“Stay here,” Krana said to Veris as she led Jira out into the hall.

She took Jira down to the basement where all the ancient facilities were.  They were still functioning perfectly.  Judging by Jira’s stiffness and slight limp, she figured the medical bay was the first stop.

She took her into the medical area and sat her down on the table.

“What’s this?”

“The machines are going to look you over and fix you up.  You’re in a lot of pain right now and this might be able to help.”

“Thank you for helping me,” Jira said.  The poor girl was looking down at the floor.  She was a pretty little thing but she looked all messed up.  Her face showed a few bruises and scratches.  Her radiant red hair was a wild tangled mess.  Even worse was the look in her eyes; that hopeless, lifeless look.

“Jira, I know what you are going through.  I know the suffering you’re feeling now.  You can and will live through this.  You will be strong again.  They gained power over you this time because you were unprepared.  Become strong and never be caught unprepared again.”

The girl looked up with her watery blue eyes.

“You’ve…”

“Yes.  I survived and became strong.”

“I want to do that.”

“Excellent.  Now lay down.”

Krana then started the machine that looked her over completely.  Somehow it was able to look inside and projected a complete three dimensional image of Jira.  A medical automaton walked out of its little alcove.  It was smooth, shiny and white with a red cross on its forehead.

“What does she need?”  Krana asked in ancient Enlis.

“I suggest an infusion of nano-meds,” the machine said in a perfectly natural sounding male voice.

“What will that do?”

“The nano-meds will go through her blood stream an repair any damage they find.  In ten minutes she will feel perfectly healthy.”

Then she thought of another question.  Her slavers had herbs and other ways of preventing pregnancy, but she doubted the Prima men bothered with such things.

“Is she pregnant?”

“No.  She had been chemically sterilized.  There is evidence of an injection.”

She remembered when she first found this place.  At the time she didn’t understand the machine doctor but she knew it wanted to help her.  She had a mangled arm then, broken several times by abusers and never set straight.  The machine doctor pointed to pictures of several options.  When she saw the image of a metal arm, she knew she wanted that.  Metal was stronger than flesh.

“Do it,” Krana said to the machine.  “Make her feel better too  Fix what they did to her.”

The doctor approached Jira with something that looked like a handgun, but had a vial of blue liquid.

“What’s that?”  Jira asked.

“Its medicine that will help you feel much better.”

“I do have some good news for you.  You’re not pregnant.”

Jira didn’t react.

The machine put the gun to her shoulder and she watched the tiny blue vial drain away.

As Jira sat there waiting for the medicine to take effect, Kana decided to show her something.  It would be an option.  Jira was a small, young woman with skinny arms and legs.  If she were going to ever defend herself she had two options; get good with guns or get machine limbs like she had.

It was revealing a secret about herself that would give away some of her power, but the risk was worth it.  The more people knew about her the more power they had over her.  She had already told her something that she had only shared with the twins.  That was a huge sacrifice of power already.

“Jira, I want to show you something, but you must swear to keep it a secret.”

“I swear,” the sad girl said.

Krana took off her glove, unstrapped her forearm armor and pulled back the black body glove.  She then held up her metal arm for Jira to see.  The girl’s eyes went wide.

“What is that?”  She asked.

“I’ve had my arms replaced with stronger ones.  I can crush metal with them and they never get tired.  Don’t answer yet because this is something you shouldn’t rush into, but you can also have your limbs replaced.  No man will ever be able to overpower you again.”

“I will think about it,” Jira said.  Her eyes stayed locked on Krana’s metal arm.

She waited ten minutes and then waved for Jira to follow her.  When Jira slid of the table she held her arms up in front of her and looked down at herself.

“I feel better!”  Jira said.

“I knew you would.”

She then took her to the armory.  The metal corridors down here were brightly lit and every door had a blue, glowing security panel.  This place was from a very different age.

The armory had a metal cylinder with small machine arms all over it, like a very fat centipede that was standing up.

“I’m afraid you’ll have to be nude for the machine to measure you properly.”

Jira’s eyes dropped to the ground and the insides of her brows lifted up, but she nodded and began stripping.  When she was done she stepped into the cylinder a line of light moved down her body.

“What are all these machine arms for?”  Jira asked as the machine read her measurements.

“Not sure.  Something to do with different types of armor.  There’s a password to unlock it, but I haven’t been able to figure it out yet.”

Once the machine was done, Jira stepped out and a glowing panel of light appeared in the air.  The panel showed several pictures of armor, each one in a different color and pattern.

“What’s this?” Jira asked.  She put her robe back on.

“You can choose what your armor looks like.  I chose flat black, but you can chose patterns, colors, designs and even pictures.  You’ll also have to choose a style of helmet.”

“Amazing,” Jira said.

Krana showed her how to move and chance the picture with her finger, simply by touching the illusionary page.  Within minutes Jira had her armor’s look down.  It wasn’t what Krana would have chosen.  She chose a camouflage pattern of different shades of gray, but her arms going from the elbow to the hands and legs going from the knees to the feet were pink.  The helmet was a simple, rounded smooth one with pink stripes.  Krana had underestimated Jira’s femininity.

A minute later a small hatch opened up along the wall and metal arms came out holding Jira’s new suit of armor.

“Wow!”  Jira exclaimed as she ran toward the armor.  She took off robe and began putting on the body suit that was stiff in places that didn’t have to bend.  Krana had to help her get it on.  Then she showed her how to strap on the armor plates and then put on the helmet.  Once they were all done Krana stood back and looked her over.  Everything was in place and except the annoying pink color, it looked good.

“We just have to get you a travel pack, a horse and I think you’re ready to go.”

After getting all geared up and ready to go, she took her back up to Veris.

“Jira?  You look scary…in an effeminate sort of way,” Veris said.

“Thanks.”

“Now it’s your turn,” Krana said.

She took Veris down to get his own suit done.  She didn’t want to try it out, but she suspected that this armor would stop the bolts of the guns the invaders carried.  Veris chose a brown camo pattern that looked like it would match the wasteland perfectly.  He was thinking logically.

“This is amazing,” Veris said as he looked himself over in his new armor.

“Isn’t it?”

Krana went back to her room where Lesha and Lada were reading.

“I’m leaving in the morning,” Krana said.

“But, Mistress!”  Lesha said in her complaining voice.

“Don’t leave us here alone,” Lada said.

“I’m afraid I have to.  While I’m gone, I need you to watch over the fortress.  You two are in charge.  Watch over those people and defend our home.”

“We don’t want you to leave,” Lesha said.

“I have to.  There’s a chance we can find something to help us win this war.  You two have a big responsibility.  They might not be the only refugees that come here.  Raiders may come.  Enemy patrols.  Put your armor on and get your weapons ready.”

They reluctantly agreed to it.

She was genuinely surprised that they felt so close to her.  She wasn’t overly warm to them and it had to be more than the fact she saved their lives.  Gratitude never lasted that long.

She had a hot meal and slept in her own bed one last time before heading out in the morning.  The twins were up and in their armor.

“If it gets desperate, take the service tunnel out the back way and escape.  Defending this fortress is not worth your life.  Do I make myself clear?  This enemy is beyond what you can stop.  If they come to take the fortress, hold them off until they start to breech the walls, the run for it.”

“We understand,” the twins said.

Veris and Jira were in the entry room waiting for her.  They were packed and ready to go with guns slung over their shoulder.  She had left one gun and two bolts with the twins so they could put them in the machine called a Fabricator that could copy anything.  By the time she got back she should have a room full of guns and bolts.

“Ready?” She asked the two of them.

“We’re ready,” Veris said.

Jira didn’t look ready.  She looked like she was about ready to cry.  She doubted very much that Jira’s emotional state was well enough for this, but she wasn’t about to argue with the great “Hero.”

They mounted their horses and rode out.  She had thought about taking the truck, but it was simply too.  It was also more noticeable.  With horses they could go faster and go places the truck couldn’t.

They had winding mountain passes to go through before they got to the wastelands.  The mountains had acted as some kind of shield against whatever had destroyed the center of the continent.

“If the stories are true, then you should know the Wastes pretty well,” Veris said.

“Stories?  What stories?”

“That you use raider to steal artifacts for you.  That you set one reader tribe against another.  The raiders and nomads come to you for advice, weapons, medicine and automatons to use in their wars.”

She was surprised that the stories were so mild.  Krana thought that they’d have her consorting with the devil and kidnapping babies.  Another surprise was that the stories were actually true.  Apparently the kingdom had been keeping an eye on her.

“That’s all they say?”

“That’s all I hear.”

“I like to keep myself busy.”

“So, you really do loot and steal and encourage the tribal warfare that’s going on.”

“Sometimes.”

“How could you?  They said you were a villain and for a while I didn’t believe it.”

“You mean when I helped those people?  Gave them shelter and food?  Or was it when I helped you rescue your sister?”

“Just because you don’t want to see the world burn, doesn’t mean you’re a good person, just not as bad as others.”

“And you’re an expert on good?  You, who wields military power in your government, do nothing to stop the slavers.  In the small towns around your city the slave trade is alive and well.  Children are sold because the parents can’t afford the taxes and the extortion fees from the local thugs.  You don’t participate in it, but your kingdom lets it happen.”

“We do our best to stop it.”

“When you’re not at fancy parties and self aggrandizing ceremonies or off on month long hunting trips.”

“Yes, the nobility have their problems.”

“You, nor I are perfect, but the difference is that I don’t pretend to be.”

She was glad she had her mask on because she knew he’d see how angry she was.  She didn’t want to let him know that she was that angry.

“Veris,” Jira said.  “You might have Krana misjudged a bit.  She’s a good person.”

“I’ll have to see evidence of that,” he said.

“Fine.  When we get back, I’ll throw a large party for us and not leave food for those refugees.  Then I can be like a true and honorable noble.”

“When the nobles fled Usha, they demanded that I bring my army along and go with them.  I refused and stayed with the commoners in the city.”

“Please!  No more fighting!”  Jira said.

They rode on in silence for a while.

 

Chapter 7

 

Veris rode close to Jira.  She was the only family he had left.  He had to assume, judging by the brutality of the invaders, that father was dead.  She was technically her sister-in-law, but she was the only sister he had ever known.  He was eight when father married Jira’s mother and she had been three.  For some reason they got along remarkably well and became instant best friends.

Now here he was, riding through a narrow canyon in the mountains, heading to the least pleasant place on Molon.  The Witch Queen wouldn’t be his first choice of a companion.  She was a selfish, amoral person who was used to getting everything she wanted.  She claimed some kind of link to the common person, but she was anything but.  She claimed to loathe slavery, yet she had two slaves that were obviously only hedonistic play things.  Disgusting.  What kind of deviant was this Krana?

They travelled all day and when the sun began to set they were still in the canyons.  He had never gone through the mountains and he wondered how big they could possibly be.

They set up camp while they still had light.  They didn’t bother with a fire.  Their rations didn’t need cooking and he didn’t want to announce their presence to everyone within five miles.

Krana set up her small tent and he set up Jira’s and his tent.  Jira had always been close, but she clung to him with a frightened desperation.  Jira slept up next to him, as if his proximity meant comfort.

In the middle of the night he woke up to hear her crying.  He quickly wrapped his arms around her.

“Every time I sleep I relive it all,” she whispered between sobs.

“It’s okay.  I’m here.  Don’t think about it.”

“I can’t help it.  Even if things go back to normal, no one’s going to want to marry me.  I’ve been spoiled.  Father Branish says that if we loose our virginity out of wed-lock that we’re committing a horrible sin.”

“Jira, it wasn’t your fault!  You had no say.  It can’t be a sin when you’re forced to do something.”

“Other people won’t care.  All they’ll see is someone who’s been spoiled.  Father will have to double my dowry just to get someone to marry me.”

“That’s not true.  If anything, I should be the one who’s ashamed.  I was unable to protect the person I care about most.”

“If you were there, you’d have been killed too and…and I couldn’t bare that.”

She wrapped her arms around him and he waited as her breathing grew quieter and slower.  Jira went back to sleep, but he didn’t.  He could feel her chest rise and fall as she breathed and felt the gentle tickle of her breath on his neck.

How was he supposed to save the world when he couldn’t protect Jira?  If he was the ‘hero’ then he was a very poor one.

In the morning they were off again.  He watched the dark figure of Krana as she rode slightly ahead of him.  He was beginning to think that she did that on purpose as some kind of show of importance.  Who was she anyway?  What was under that mask?

“Krana, why do you where that mask?”  He asked.

“I was told that if I wore this, nobody would be protected from the ignorance of others.  I guess it doesn’t work.”

“I have to know something about you.  If we’re going to be traveling together like this, we should at least get to trust on another.”

“I trust you to do what you’re supposed to do.  You should trust me to do the same.  Beyond that is unnecessary.”

“I disagree.”

“Objection noted.”

Then he heard something.  He listened for it again.  It was a few minutes before he heard it.  It was a slight scuffing sound, like dirt being moved and it was coming from above them.

“Ladies, I think someone is following us.  I can hear movement above us.”

“If they’re raiders, they’ll try to surround us and take us prisoner.  If they consider us valuable, they’ll sell us or ransom us.  If not then they could let us go.  Of course, I don’t plan to let them get that far.”

Suddenly ten men with swords, axes, spears and crossbows came out of seemingly nowhere.  They were dressed in long ragged robes and cloaks with bright scarves covering their faces.

He had two choices; his old reliable sword or the gun that barely knew how to even use.  They were pretty close and he could probably only get one or two shots off before they were on top of him.

Veris looked over to Krana.  Her hand was hovering by the long handle of her sword.  She had the same idea.  Then he looked at Jira who looked ready to scream in terror.

“Don’t worry, Jira.  As soon as the fighting starts, put your helmet on.  The armor will protect you.”

“Hey!  You three!  Fancy gear you have!  Looks like you can afford to donate to our cause!”  One of the raiders called out in that choppy, wastelander accent.

“Do you know who I am?”  Krana called back as she dismounted.  He also dismounted and Jira went ahead on put her helmet on.  Good girl.

“You’re the Witch.  So?”

“You’re either ignorant or stupid,” she said.

“Maybe, but I’ll be richer after this.  Boys, get them.”

Nine of the men charged forward.  He hoped Krana’s ancient armor was as good as she said it was.

He watched as Krana suddenly charged forward, holding her ridiculously long sword down, almost dragging the tip along the ground.  As she neared the first group of five that was heading for her, she slashed upward.  The raider tried to block with his sword, but her sword cut right through it and the man wielding it.  It was a diagonal slash that separated him into two halves.  It happened in less than a second.  This caught the others off guard and they hesitated.

Veris waited with his sword at the ready.  He couldn’t worry about Krana anymore.  He has his own problems.  As they came closer he charge forward, blocking a downward stroke from an axe.  In the same motion he sliced downward with his sword, cutting deep into the man’s shoulder and chest with a spray of blood.  He jumped back to dodge another man’s sword while simultaneously slashing upward.  He caught the man’s sword hand and the hand and sword went sailing into the air in a clean arc.  He fell backward clutching his pristine stump.

A man with an axe was on his right, practically on top of him.  He knew there was a man coming from behind.  He brought his straight, double edged sword up to block and felt a sudden blow in the back.  He punched the axe man with his left hand and turned to see a man with a broken spear.  He had tried to stab him and his armor proved too tough.  He slashed downward and sliced the man’s face down the middle.

Suddenly there was a gunshot and the axe man was slammed backward to the ground.  He looked back and saw Jira holding a smoking long gun.  The gun was pointing up from where the recoil had pushed it.

He smiled at her and then quickly looked towards Krana.  All five of her attackers were dead and she was holding the leader by the front of his robe.  Veris ran up to the two of them.

“Tell your people that if they attack me, they will pay!”  Krana said in her scratchy voice.

“I will!  Please don’t kill me!”  The raider said.

“Now for the payment.”

In one, swift and graceful movement she deftly slashed her long sword down with one hand and sliced the man’s left arm off.  It took him a second to realize what had happened.  He looked down and saw his arm lying on the ground and started screaming.  Krana slapped him in the face which surprisingly shut him up.  He was visibly shaking but Veris know if it was fear, shock or a mixture of the two.

“If I see you again I’ll cut off something you’ll miss a lot more,” Krana said.  She let him go and he scrambled away.

“I can’t believe you did that,” he said.

“What?  Let him live?”

“No, cut his arm off.  He was unarmed.”

“Nice choice of words.”

“Damn it!  You know what I mean.”

“Reputation counts for a lot out here.  If you’re feared, they won’t attack you and might even come to respect you.  Strength is power.”

Jira walked up with that semi-dazed look on her face.

“Who were those men?”  She asked.

“Raider trash.  Most raiders know not to bother me.”

“I can’t believe I shot him.  I raised the gun and shot him.  It hurt my shoulder.”

Veris hurried over and held her shoulder, letting her know that he was there.

“It’s okay.  You did what you had to do,” he said.

“You shot someone?  Excellent, Jira,” Krana said.

He threw a quick glare at her direction to tell her to shut up.  There was nothing ‘excellent’ about this situation.

“Well, now’s a good a time as any.  Let’s break the guns out and do some target practice.  Five rounds each should give us a good idea how to use it.  I assume you know how to use crossbows.  Should be similar.”

They broke out the guns and he aimed at a rock that was about seventy paces out.  It took him all five rounds to hit, but he thought he had the hang of it.  Of course, to truly use a weapon like this in combat, it would take a whole lot more practice with it.  When they camped for the night he’d have them run through reloading drills.

They searched the corpses and found nothing of value except some water skins that they tied to their saddles.  Then they mounted back up and continued on.

“Krana, what do you know of these invaders?”  Jira asked.

“You have to go back to the legends to know who they are.  Heard of the War of Heaven, I assume?”

“Yes.”

“It isn’t an exaggerated legend.  Mankind really did have ships that traveled between worlds.  The human empire covered a hundred worlds.  Then they had a great war.  No one knows the cause.  For some reason, the empire suddenly tore itself apart and the different worlds were left scattered and isolated.  Molon was one of the worlds as was Prima, the third planet in our system.  Prima and Molon fought against each other.  Now they’ve come back, though I don’t fully understand why.  Those ships you saw were the legendary void ships.”

“Why are they called void ships?”  Jira asked.

“Because they travel in the void between worlds.  There’s nothing.  No air, no heat, nothing.”

He had always wondered that but had never asked.  Father’s tutors weren’t as open to questions as he would have liked.

Veris had to admit, the Witch knew more about ancient history than anyone else he had ever met.

“How you doing?”  He asked Jira in a whisper.

“I’m breathing,” she said.

He wanted to ask her if she knew any more details about the attack, where the generals were, if she knew anything about father or where they took the other men.  However, she was clearly not ready to discuss any of it.  She was barely holding it together as it was.

Perhaps he needed to act more like his old self.  If he acted happier, maybe it would let her know that it was okay for her to be happy.  He knew not to expect instant results, but he had to try.

“Remember when we used to go riding horses out in the country?”  He said.

“Father’s summer villa.  Golden Sun was my horse.  What was yours?”

“Slow Foot.”

“Was that it?”

“It was.  I don’t know where that name came from because he was anything but slow.”

“You’d always race out ahead of me.  I’d yell for you to slow down and you’d just laugh at me.”

“I never did that.”

“You most certainly did.  The thing I remember most about that place was the grapes.  The royal vineyards were there.  We’d go pick grapes and go swimming.  I loved it when father went hunting because it meant we’d be there.”

“Free of tutors and palace guards.  There were still guards, but they weren’t so strict like they were in the palace.”

“Did you ever go hunting there?”

“No.  Father never took me hunting.  I wasn’t the crown prince so I didn’t matter.”

“You did matter.  You should have seen his face when he got the report of your miraculous defense of Usha.  He couldn’t have been more proud.”

“He never showed or told me.”

Veris wondered if she was making it up or if she was just mistaken.  He had never seen Father even somewhat proud of him.

“It’s true.  He said that you took after grandfather and you know how much he respected grandfather.”

“He said that?”

“He did.  You doubt yourself too much, Veris.”

“I have reason to doubt.”

“I believe in you.  At least trust me on that.”

Then he heard Krana groan.

“Enough already.  I can hear you.  I’m going to move further ahead so I don’t have to listen to this.”

Krana’s horse sped up.

“She’s strong.  I want to be strong,” Jira said.

“Yes, but you don’t want to be like her.”

“Why not?  She wouldn’t let herself be rapped.  I don’t ever want to be so useless again.  For two days, Veris!  Two days!”

Instead of breaking down, he saw a look on her face that he had never seen before.  Rage.  Her face was contorted into a look of barely contained anger.

“Jira.  You can’t become something you don’t want to be.”

“I’m going to kill them, Veris.  I’m going to kill every one of them.”

Chapter 8

Krana didn’t like taking Veris’s suggestion of running reloading drills with the guns.  He was assuming leadership and she couldn’t loose any power.  It made perfect sense and it was a great idea, but she wasn’t going to do it because that would give him power.

“I’m tired.  I’m going to bed,” she said.

“Shouldn’t you at least try it a few times?”  He said.

“Later.”

She crawled into her tent and laid out her sleeping roll.  It was dumb of her to ignore his advice and she fully knew it, but she just couldn’t do it.  She’d wake up early and do it then.

Krana hated sleeping in anything other than her bed.  She enjoyed her well earned comforts.  She worked hard for her luxuries and she planned to live her life in comfort.

She could really use one of Lesha’s and Lada’s massages right now.

Veris clearly didn’t like her influence on Jira, but being angry was better than being self loathing.  It was better that Jira have something to work for than wander in confusion and frustration.  Maybe it wasn’t the best, but it was better than nothing.

She took her mask off and tried to get comfortable.

Why were Veris and Jira so dependent on each other?  It made them weaker.  It was complete foolishness, but for some reason she felt jealous.  She wanted someone to feel that way about her.  She wanted to be needed, not on a physical level, but an emotional one.

What was wrong with her?  There were plenty of things wrong with her but she didn’t want to think about it.  She rolled over and went to sleep.

The next day around noon, they exited the canyons and the whole wasteland spread out before them.  It was a flat expanse of grayish brown.  There were some hardy weeds and bushes for the horses to eat and there was the occasional stream, but none of it was good for human consumption.  The sky was gray with dark clouds on the horizon indicating a far off dust storm.  She hated this place.

“I’ve never seen the wastelands before,” Jira said.

“I told you that you weren’t missing anything,” Veris said.

“Stark, isn’t it?”  Krana said with a false smile.  “Watch your water supply.  If we get half way down, we have turn back or we might not make it back.”

“How far away is this place?”  Veris asked.

“Assuming we can find it and we travel with haste, three weeks.”

Veris rolled his eyes and Jira looked uncomfortable.

“The wasteland is very big.  I can’t help that,” Krana said.

“Can’t you use your powers to…I don’t know…get us there quicker?”  Veris asked.

“It doesn’t work like that.”

“What powers?”  Jira asked.

“She has visions.  She can see things that are happening far away.  When we were in the palace, she could make people go unconscious,” Veris said.

“Really?  I thought all that Witch talk was like your mask, just an image to frighten people,” Jira said.

“I’ve always had special talents.  As a child I knew what people were feeling,” Krana said.

“Where did you grow up?”  He asked.

“Within the boarders of the kingdom.”

“More specifically?”

“No.  You don’t need to know about my childhood.  None of that matters.  Dwell on the past too much and you’ll become trapped by it.”

“But if you forget it, you’re doomed to repeat it.”

“Don’t worry.  There’s no chance I’ll forget.”

She noticed that Jira cast a quick, sad glance at her.  Krana was glad she wore the mask.  She didn’t need or want sympathy.  Jira had a small glimpse at her past, but she didn’t know the whole story.  Jira didn’t know that Krana didn’t know freedom until she was sixteen.  Before that she was traded around by the slavers.  When one slaver got tired of her, they’d trader her for a few goats or a mule.  Each master was worse than the last.

It didn’t take long for her to stop fighting back.  She’d simply lay there while her savage owners did whatever they wanted with her.  Veris was right, she did use raiders as sources of information.  She wanted to track down every owner she ever had.  Two she had found already.  It took them days to die.  A third had died before she got to him.  Even one of her owner’s wives was going to die if she found her.  The world would be a better place without them.  Some, like Veris, would argue that killing them wasn’t the right thing to do.  Fools.  The world would certainly be a better place without them.

They entered the wasteland and sped their horses up.  The ground was flat and lifeless; nothing to trip up a horse.  The dry wind whipped about them sending gritty sand into her mouth.  Every morning she put the cream on her face that prevented the sun from affecting her skin.  She didn’t want her skin being pale except for around her mouth.  As they continued the wind go so bad that she had to wrap a scarf around her face.  Veris and Jira had to put their helmets on just to breathe comfortably.

For the next three days they didn’t see another living soul.  Veris and Jira talked using their helmets.  Somehow they were able to talk to each other like they were standing next to them no matter the distance.  At night they couldn’t put up their tents because of the wind, so they did they best they could.

Veris and Jira talked on and on about things in their past, speaking in half understood sentences and inside jokes she didn’t understand.  So, she decided to try something.  She put on her helmet, skull-like with horns, and tried to call up Lesha and Lada.  To her relief it worked.

“Mistress!”  Lesha said.  Her elfin face appeared in a small window in her helmet’s vision.  Somehow the helmet gave her complete freedom of vision as if she weren’t wearing a helmet.

“How is everything?”  Krana asked.

“Great.  No sign of enemies and the refugees are no trouble.”

Then Lada’s face came into view.

“Hello, Mistress!  How are you?”

Why were they so happy to hear from her?

“We’re in the middle of the wastes.  Still haven’t found a sign of the road but we should be near it.  It’s windy, dusty and miserable.  I don’t know how people live here.”

“Oh!  Mistress!  We found something we think might help you,” Lesha said.

“Tell me.”

“The road passed just north of what was once a tall metal tower.  If you see something like that, the road should be nearby.”

“What did this tower look like?”  Krana asked.

“The old drawing makes it look like it was just a skeleton of a tower, covered in a lot of thin spines and what look like dinner plates.”

“Alright.  We haven’t seen anything like that but I’ll keep my eyes open.”

“Can’t you use your powers to find it?”

Damn it!  Why was she so stupid?  She could seek the road out with her mind.  Lesha and Lada were more useful than they realized.

“I will try that.  Good idea.”

“We’re glad you’re okay,” Lada said.

“I’m glad you’re okay.”

Why did she say that?  It just came out without thinking.  She didn’t want to show affection.  Her small words brought large smiles to the twins.

“Thank you Mistress!”  They said in unison.

“Tell me instantly if anything changes.”

“Will do!”

“I’ll talk later.”

After she cut the signal she stopped her horse and turned back towards the other two.

“I need to stop for a while.  I’m going to try to find this road using my power.”

They stopped and she began to concentrate.  She didn’t have a clear idea what the road looked like or where it was, so she focused on the tower instead.  It took a few minutes before she began to get images of a twisted pile of metal that looked like it could have been the skeletal tower.  She also saw the shape of what could have been one of the “dinner dishes” that were on the tower.  From there she let her mind go south and in a few moments she found it.  She was relieved that parts of the road were still showing.  It should be easy to follow.

“I know where to go!”  She said.  “Follow me.”

She turned slightly south and within the hour she they were riding along a flat, slightly broken surface that stood out from the surrounding nothingness.  That night they camped beside the wreckage of the tower because it offered some protection from the wind.

“Krana, you have to have some interesting stories.  Tell us one,” Jira said as they huddled under the metal ruins.

Her mind instantly went to the night she escaped from her slavers.  She had used her powers to open the lock.  It took weeks of trying before she could actually do it.  Then she had to sense where people were in order to avoid them.  She snuck through the camp and ran into the nearby town.  The caravan had stopped to do some trading and she knew she’d be one of the items up for trade.  She hid until morning and snuck in the cart of another caravan that was leaving town.

That wasn’t a story to tell for entertainment so she settled on one where raiders came to trade with her.  They stole a comm stone and she had to chase them down along with some of her automatons.  She took all their belongings, but left most of them alive to warn others not to do the same.

Veris didn’t find the story as amusing as she did.

“Very well, Veris.  You don’t like my stories, so tell us one of yours.”

He told one of his war stories about some minor campaign against the raiders and how they were low on food, water, but they still hunted down the raiders.  She didn’t try to hid the fact that she was yawning.

Krana awoke in the middle of the night to hear quiet crying.  She rolled over and saw that Jira was the source.  Veris was still asleep.  She moved closer and shook her shoulder.

“Jira, don’t cry.  You’re all right.”

“I’m not alright.”

“We won’t let anyone hurt you.  You’re safe.  You have Veris and we will make them pay.  Look forward to that.”

“How do you do it?  How do you even act like you’re alright?”

“Practice, determination and goals.  What do you want out of life?”

“I want to free my city and make them all pay.”

“That’s what we’re trying to do.  Focus on that.  Clear all fear out of your mind.”

“Do you fear nothing?”

“I’m still human, Jira.”

“What do you fear?”

She feared her lose of freedom again.  She feared being subject to cruel men.

“It doesn’t matter what I fear because I put it in the back of my mind.  I don’t let it affect who I am.”

“You had it worse than I did, didn’t you?”

“I did.”  That was all she was going to say about that.

“If you did it, I can to.”

In the morning they started off again.  In the distance they saw a nomad caravan, but the caravan was moving away from them.  She watched their brown silhouettes shrink in the distance and wondered where they were going and why.

Later that day she noticed more shapes in the distance.  They were riders and they were galloping towards them.  As they go closer she saw that they had weapons in their hands.  There were about fifteen of them.

“Veris, heads up,” she said.

They both unslung their long guns and readied themselves.  The wind was making it hard to aim the guns steady but thankfully they were traveling in a tight pack.  They weren’t used to fighting against range attacks.  In close combat staying close to your team was a good idea.  Covering ground while being shot at, close proximity was a bad thing.

As soon as they got close enough she fired and quickly yanked the handle back and forth to load another bolt.  It was hard because of the recoil to see where she hit, but she was pleased to see one of the riders falling off his horse.  It wasn’t the one she had aimed at, but she took what she could get.  She took aim through the metal post sights and fired again.  Another rider was knocked off his horse.  Veris fired and she saw one of the riders arms jerk back, but the rider stayed on, though slumped forward.

The riders halted in their charge and quickly began to turn around.  She debated firing again.  She could let them go and conserve what ammo she had or she could do more damage and maybe prevent them from attacking others.

She loaded two bolts back into the internal magazine and slung the gun back over her shoulder.

Then someone else shot and she saw one of the riders knocked forward off his horse.  She looked back to see Jira pointing her gun.  Either Jira was a natural shot or she got really lucky.

“Impressive shooting,” Krana said.

“Thank you,” Jira said with a detectable degree of pleasure in her voice.  She couldn’t tell through her helmet, but she imagined that Jira was smiling a little.

Veris didn’t say anything.

They didn’t see anything for twelve days after that.  Every night they stopped she called up to check on her fortress.  The twins had taken some initiative and sent some automatons out to check on what was happening in Avandal.  They also had the machines making more automatons.  This required pulling some off guard duty to work in the mines for the ore but it was a good move on their part.  She didn’t tell them, but she was proud of them.   She also reminded them to keep up with their studies.

In the morning she didn’t want to get up.  Her body hurt and she just wanted a hot bath, good food and her own bed.  When she checked her water she found that she was almost half way through it.  If they didn’t find this place soon they’d have to turn back.

Veris and Jira were quietly talking and laughing like normal people.  That’s something she’d never have.  She was far from normal.  Jira still had a chance at a normal life.  Krana had never known what a normal life was.

For a moment she wanted a normal life.  She wanted to know what it was like to trust someone completely.  But then she remembered that no one did anything without wanting something in return.  Honest love and charity didn’t exist.

“Come on.  We have to get moving,” she said with a sneer that the two normal people couldn’t see behind her helmet.


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