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Introduction:

Just a long-ass battle.
Chapter Fifty-Eight

CERTIOK

The city was in chaos. People ran to and froe, shouting and screaming. No longer did the wide boulevards of Alkandra feel like a beast utopia, but like the walls of a cage. Windows were frantically boarded, men and women sprinted toward the castle in various stages of undress, watchmen handed out spears and swords without a care for who grabbed them. Everyone was a soldier now, and no one was.

“Go to you posts!” I yelled, and began thrusting my finger toward the docks, “Remember which group you belong to! Group A goes with Commander Faltia, Group B goes with Magistrate Furia, Group C goes with Director Eva, Group D goes with Scribe Soraya, Group E goes with Liaison Kiera, Group F goes with Director Brianna, and Group G goes with the queen!”

“Which fucking queen?!” an old Ardeni orc yelled at me.

“What do you mean which queen? Queen Yav—” I stopped myself, and looked toward the dock. Yavara was supposed to command five-thousand swords, but who would follow her now? Then again, seasoned battle commanders were in short supply, and Yavara was at least that. Leveria probably hadn’t even been in a fistfight her whole life.

“Certiok?” the orc asked.

“Uh… Group G goes with Yavara! Wait, scratch that!” I fumbled through my clipboard for a second, cursing Yavara with every breath for putting me in charge of this shit. Goddamn it we could use you right about now, Adrianna, I thought with gritted teeth as I paged through list after list of census data Brianna had compiled. “OK, Group G is now under my direct command. All members of my battlegroup marshal before the castle!”

The Ardeni orc nodded, and raced up the castle steps.

“You, boy!” I snapped at a passing incubus child, “Find the queen—I mean Yavara—and tell her that her battlegroup has been reassigned. Tell her that she will now act as independent support as she sees fit.”

“Oi, you think a wee shit like me is gonna get anywhere near royalty?”

“Just get close enough to yell it to her, now go!”

I rounded up dozens of orcs at a time and sent them racing toward their respective groups. Faltia was the most seasoned tactical commander, so she would be the general of the battle; not Leveria, Yavara nor Zander could supersede her. The two-thousand members of the city watch were the only paramilitary group available, and so Faltia put them at the center of the dock’s walls, ready to take on the brunt of the Lowland navy, and man the ballistae. She ***********ed ten-thousand more of the best available fighters to fill in the tiered walls that loomed over the docks, as well as the courtyards preceding the castle. These were the male orcs of fighting age—mostly Ardeni construction workers—as well as the trolls, centaurs and ogres. Furia and Eva commanded the battlegroups at Faltia’s flanks. Eva’s nine-thousand melee troops were primarily composed of young tribal she-orcs, and would hold the beach to Faltia’s left, while Furia and her one-thousand missile troops—mostly goblins—held the cliffs to Faltia’s right, just above the docks.

After the first three battlegroups had been filled, teenagers were the best available fighters, and they made up Soraya’s force of seven-thousand. They would be stationed at the city’s perimeter on the southern side in case the Lowlanders opted for a beach landing. Kiera’s battlegroup consisted of those not yet too old to be geriatric. The three-thousand wizened men and women would be positioned throughout the city to fortify chokepoints when the inevitable fallback occurred. Brianna’s battlegroup consisted of four-thousand non-tribal women, mostly Ardeni immigrants. They would hold the central rendezvous point—the arena—and reinforce any battlegroup that fell back to that position. There were several independent subgroups that would act as support for battlegroups A through F; these were the succubi, the incubi, and the vampires, who would be more effective hunting alone than fighting in ranks. The last battlegroup, Battlegroup G, consisted of the five-thousand citizens who were disabled or elderly. They would be the last line of defense in case of an all-out retreat into the castle, where ten-thousand children were currently housed. It was terribly callous, but someone had to hold the enemy off for long enough to bar the doors and lift the drawbridge, and the members of Group G were expendable. And I was their commander. Holy shit, where had I gone wrong to end up here?

“Hey!” I shouted at a passing centaur, “Hey, Group A is that way!”

“I’m supposed to be in Group D!” He shouted back.

“Centaurs go with Faltia!”

“Males between the ages of fifty and sixty-five go with Kiera!”

“Wait!” I growled, and rifled through the pages on my clipboard, “I thought race superseded age… or is it… hmmm…”

I didn’t notice the change right away. It was subtle. The city faded sonically, dimming as though I were walking away from it. The frantic squeaking of carts and the patter of feet had ceased. The shouts and calls of the criers had all dwindled. The bells rang cleanly from their towers, clanging off the canyons of stone and wood that made up the many boroughs of Alkandra, now all deathly silent. I turned around.

A great cloud of fog obscured the bay. It consumed the bay’s mouth, and moved steadily closer, devouring the buoys and islands that speckled the waters. I couldn’t make out any shapes in the mass of grey, but the breadth of it foretold the greatness of the foe it concealed. The sun dimmed. The shadows grew dull. The bells in the city clanged out, but the sound was somehow muted. A chill crawled slowly up my spine, and carried its cold terror into my skull.

“Certiok?” the centaur asked, his voice hushed as though fearing the enemy would hear him.

“Group A.” I muttered, and wondered if I’d just condemned him to die. Likely, all I’d done was hastened the inevitable.

FALTIA

The battleplan was rather simple. The docks were a heavily-fortified tiered-wall system that stood only a hundred yards before the base of the castle. It was the shortest path to victory for the enemy, and so they would hit us here the hardest. The docks were lined with a hundred ballistae aimed toward the sea, each of which were capable of punching a hole in any vessel’s hull. I expected that the famed Lowland mages would have something to mitigate that. Still, just one of our missiles could do more damage to them than scores of theirs could do to us, so I expected the enemy wouldn’t dally too long exchanging salvos. They would blast us with a rapid succession of missiles and catapults, shock us into inaction, then hit us with the invasion underneath the cover of the siege. Our goal was to hold them at the docks, rain on them with our skirmishes on the cliffs, force them back into their boats, and make them try their luck at the beaches. If all went well (which it wouldn’t), the Lowlanders would have a disorganized landing on the beach, and Eva’s battlegroup would massacre the assault. It was far more likely that Battlegroup A would be forced backward toward the castle, and Eva’s group would have to attempt a haphazard flanking maneuver to keep the enemy bogged down. Worst case scenario for us would be if the Lowlanders didn’t attempt an amphibious assault at all, and simply dropped anchor out of range of our missiles and waited until the superior Highland army arrived. If they did that, we were doomed, however there was no reason to think the Lowlanders yet knew of the Highlanders. The Jonian spire had been destroyed, and though the Lowland mages possessed great vision, it was mostly limited to the sea and coast, and not too far inland. Still, by now they would know that the horde had not arrived, and if they looked closely, they might notice that the Dark Queen looked just a little different. I hoped they didn’t look too closely. Fear was our greatest weapon now.

I never felt fear before a battle. I didn’t feel any thrill at all, actually. A strange calm always preceded the terror for me. The terror would come, it always did, but it would not consume me with panic. Now, as I watched the fog filter toward me in the bay, I only felt a heightened sense of awareness.

“Ten clicks.” I said to the ballistae commander, and the order was telephoned down the line. The great iron crossbows that lined the tiered walls above the docks all ticked back as their gears were cranked. I eyed the grey mass, judging its distance by the markers set out in the water. How far ahead would the concealing spell precede the actual enemy? We wouldn’t get a proper range until we saw the silhouettes.

“Eleven clicks.” I ordered, and a single resounding note responded from the mechanical symphony. Could I hear the sound of water against wooden hulls, or was that simply the waves crashing upon the shoreline? The bells in the city clanged and droned, creating an ambient echo that died in the muted grey before me.

“Fifteen clicks.” I said.

“Ma’am?” the ballistae commander asked.

“The strings will hold.” I answered, “Fifteen clicks.”

She gave the order, and five more clicks were added to the great bows, maxing the tension. I could hear the groans of the iron bolts grinding in their places, and the dangerous whine of the strings stretching to their limit.

I narrowed my eyes at the fog, and muttered, “Ballista One, loose.”

The ballistae commander looked back at me, then nodded to her personal crew. The men at the levers stepped to the side, and the commander kicked the release. The wrought iron bolt shot into the fog with such speed that its only movement was discernable by a line that bisected the world on either side of it. The fog swallowed the bolt with a puff, and then… nothing. Not the sounds of wood cracking, nor screams of alarm, nor the thud of a mast. There wasn’t even the sound of a splash.

The ballistae commander looked back at me. “Commander?” She asked, her voice high and tight in her throat. And then, she was gone. Or rather, she was everywhere. I was misted by pink and red, and staring at the wrought-iron eleven-foot shaft of a ballista bolt that had been returned to its sender. It quivered with energy into the wood it was planted in, and shined with the gore it was now fertilized with. Panic rippled through the line, but I silenced it with a raise of my hand.

“Hold.” I said, and stepped atop the wall, “Hold!”

The fog moved ponderously towards us, inch by inch, foot by foot. It swallowed the last of my markers, then the last of the buoys. It swallowed the rocks before the docks, the ropes floating in the surf, and the planks riding the tide. Then it swallowed me. The world was grey and opaque. I could only see the silhouettes of the soldiers at my sides, but not their features. The world was muted and dull. The clang of weapons was stifled, the toll of the buoys was silenced, and the pervading chatter of fear was snuffed out. Soon, there was only the faint whistle of wind, and the distant sound of the waves that crashed right before me. Though I peered with my keen elven eyes, I could see nothing in the vast grey. It was a monochromatic matte painting, a wash of intimate blank nothing. And then, there was something. A single line painted a different shade of grey than the rest. It was so subtle that I wondered if it was there, but it became darker with every passing second until it formed the shape of a masthead. Then, there were dozens. Scores. Hundreds. The fog disappeared, and the full breadth of the Lowland navy was revealed.

One hundred man-o-wars towered over the approaching invasion force, their masts reaching seventy feet, their hulls stretching three-hundred feet from bow to stern. The three lower decks of the great ships were festooned with ballistae, and the main decks were lined with catapults. They were facing us with a full broadside.

“Take cover!” I screamed, and the entire weight of the Lowland fleet was launched at once. Thousands of ballistae missiles lined the air as hundreds of blazing boulders were sent arcing above. I was only allowed a moment to marvel at the shear magnificence of the destruction barreling toward me before it was there. The iron missiles thudded into the wall, pierced through a foot of rock, and blasted out the other side. The bars twisted and contorted violently with the impact, spinning like iron cords to smash through barriers, armor and bone. A thousand successive impacts cratered the front wall, sending debris blasting backward, filling the air with dust. I was hurled into the wall, my helm smacked the stones, and a concussive bell rang through my skull. The dust cleared enough just in time for me to see the blazing boulders rain down on us. They exploded atop the wall, punched great holes in the lines, and sprayed blazing pitch like splashing water. Sparks flew into the air, great red gouts of flame enveloped trenches of men, and smoke billowed out from behind the walls. When the last great booms of the salvo had ended, the front wall was nothing but rubble. Wrought-iron poles stuck from the stone like rebar in cement, mortared by the blood and awful of my screaming soldiers. Limbs were torn cleanly from the bodies, great puncture wounds were shaped jaggedly through the flesh, and pink entrails and brains were splattered across red pools.

“Commander!” a she-orc yelled, and hauled me to my feet. She was missing her arm below the elbow, but she did an admirable job of pretending otherwise. “Commander, what are the orders?”

“What do you mean, what are the orders? Return salvo!”

“With what?!” She screamed, and motioned behind her with her stumped arm. I hadn’t even noticed the ballistae. I guess that was because there wasn’t much to notice. Our entire arsenal had been turned into twisted metal and splinted wood.

“Do we fall back?” She yelled.

“And give them the docks?! Our only chance of stopping their landing is to stop it here!” I pushed past her, and ran down the line, “Hold your positions!” I roared to the tiers above, “Hold your positions, and take cover! Get as low as you can! The enemy will try to break us here!”

I tripped over a man holding his intestines in, and stumbled into a man who had failed to do so. My hand squished into his guts, and he shrieked. I jolted myself upright, and continued racing down the line. “Hold!” I yelled, “Hold and take cover! The next salvo is—”

FURIA

A line of debris exploded from one end of the docks, to the other as the missiles smashed into the stone, and the flaming boulders cascaded downward. In all my life, I’d never seen so much mass move so quickly. The ballistae missiles were so numerous and so fast that they seemed to form a momentary plane between the ships and the docks, and the arcing boulders created an infernal rainbow. I watched the fire splash all along the docks. I watched the smoke billow from the craters, and the dust rise overhead. The sea-winds propelled the toxic cloud inland and into the city, revealing the full destruction they’d left in their wake. There were no docks anymore. The tiered walls were so pocked with puncture holes that they were nothing but jagged columns holding up crumbling battlements. Where there wasn’t rubble, there were bodies. Hundreds of them were splayed out and mangled, and hundreds more were writhing. Even from so high up, I could see the red. My eyes searched the ruined docks for Faltia’s black helm. I scanned the waterline five times before I finally found it. Thankfully, it was still atop her head, and better yet, her head was still attached.

She raced down the line, helping the wounded and ordering soldiers into position, constantly reinforcing the many gaps in the wall. The front wall had taken the brunt of the assault, and the thousands of orcs in the secondary and tertiary complexes were mostly alive. And though almost all of our ballistae had been destroyed in the first salvo, the enemy couldn’t see the damage they’d caused, for Zander Fredeon stood just behind the last wall, weaving his perception spells to show towering trebuchets and catapults were there were none, enticing the enemy’s amphibious assault.

Hundreds of boats were rowing toward the docks, each of them filled to the brim with the silver and sapphire helms of the Lowland marines. An Ardeni mage could be seen at the stern of each boat, robed and ominous. All the swords, spears and axes on those boats were just window dressing for the real threat that sat broodingly in the back.

“Aim for the mages,” I said to my troops, and drew back my bow, “shoot high and to the south; the wind will carry it.”

The sound of a thousand bows being pulled taut carried down my line. I set my eye on my target, exhaled through my nose, and waited for the space between heartbeats. I loosed. The arrow gleamed for a moment in the dull sunlight, then disappeared to a dot. It reached the peak of its arc, and became a descending line that moved down, down, down toward its target seventy yards away. It was a perfect shot, and it bounced off the mage’s arcane shield like I’d merely thrown a pebble.

“Shit!” I growled, “Just fucking kill the others then!”

A great whoosh sounded from our line, and the sky was filled with lethal hafts. For a moment, it almost looked like an elven skirmishing salvo, but the continuity fell to pieces at the precipice of the arc, and arrows rained into the bay without any sense of aim. Some lucky shots struck the boats, and even fewer struck flesh, but the vast majority splashed uselessly into the water.

“Hold!” I yelled, flinging up my hand, “Wait until they begin to land! Concentrate on those in front! Make them trip over their own dead!”

Another salvo from the man-o-wars was loosed. Another plane of pure velocity formed between the ships and the docks, and another explosion of dust and rubble came from the front lines. Another great shower of meteors was sent from the decks of the ships to bombard the defenders, and this time, the tiers above were not spared. Massive holes were punched into the packed-in divisions of orcs, sending limbs and heads toppling backward into the streets below. Great bursts of flame engulfed whole sections of the wall, turning the defenders there into crisped silhouettes. Their screams carried from the walls in a discordant chorus, and their black figures flailed and danced in their infernal prisons, unable to escape the scalding heat. I watched them drop one by one, not yet dead, just unable to carry on, doomed to spend their last minutes in helpless blind agony.

I tore my gaze away from the burning men, and searched for Faltia once more. She was easy to spot now; she was one of the few people on the front wall who still moved. She collected the remaining defenders as fast as she could, and positioned them into clustered squads behind what little cover still remained. Then she shouted orders to the commanders on the upper walls, and the orders were carried down the lines. A disordered surge of soldiers pressed themselves to the battlements, and began loading their crossbows. The boats were nearly here.

“Get ready!” I yelled down my line, “Aim higher than you think you should! On my command…” I watched the first wave of boats approach the docks, only twenty yards from landing, “ready…” the first boats smacked into the dock, and the men inside grappled onto wooden structures, “…nock…” twenty boats docked, then thirty, then forty. They lashed themselves in, and the first men jumped to shore, “loose!” I roared, and a great twang of release shot from my line. This time, our salvo was not wasted. The arrows descended in a straight path to the docks below, and laid waste to the invaders. Scores of men fell at once, spinning and splashing into the water, screaming and writhing on the docks. I aimed quickly, and put one arrow through a man’s eye, sending him careening into the bay. The defenders on the walls below aimed their hundreds of crossbows over the battlements, and loosed at once. The humans were shot backward in droves, not even getting a chance to get out of their boats before they were sent tumbling back into them.

“Keep shooting! Don’t stop until your quivers are empty!” I shouted, and a spirited cheer rose up from our ranks. A constant stream of arrows were shot from the cliffside, raining ceaselessly upon the breaching marines. When the Lowlanders began putting their shields up, the crossbows on the wall shot beneath them, sticking the poor bastards in a quagmire of death from every angle. Half of them were killed before they got off their boats, and of the half that did survive, only one in five made it across the docks. The long piers offered no cover at all, and so they died in rows, falling like crashing waves until only a trickle made it to the wall. There, they met their ends. The battered and vengeful troops atop the front wall poured hot tar onto the shiny bastards below, prompting pure shrieks of agony. All the while, the mages remained on the boats, watching their comrades die by the hundreds, hiding behind their arcane shields, not daring to get up. By the time the last boat emptied onto the docks, the piers were surfaced with more bodies than wood. The second invasion wave stalled in the surf, and then the boats turned around. The lone mages in their boats unlashed the ropes on the docks, and magically propelled their vessels back out to sea, leaving their dying and wounded to writhe upon the docks.

A cheer swelled from the ranks of beasts, and I cheered with them.

“Run, you fuckers!” I laughed, and shot a defiant arrow at the retreating boats. The mage didn’t have his shield up. It struck him between the shoulders, and his arms flailed outward comically. We all laughed as he fell off the side of his boat, and we cheered when his unmanned vessel steered itself into another retreating boat, cause them to splinter like cordwood. The mage in the other boat leapt off the side, and began to frantically swim towards his navy. Everyone was laughing, except Faltia. Faltia was running down the ranks of soldiers, screaming and gesticulating like a madwoman. My laughter faltered. I looked from her, to what she was pointing at. It took me a moment to see it. There were rows upon rows of dead bodies on the docks, but one row was fading. Twenty corpses became as transparent as silk, then disappeared. I looked out at the mage swimming towards his navy, then back at the empty space where the bodies had been. But there had never been any bodies. There had never been any soldiers at all. There had only been empty boats piloted by mages. The only casualty the Lowlands had suffered was the poor fool who I’d shot in the back. Even as the realization dawned on me, all the other bodies began to disappear. One by one, the retreating mages disengaged their perception spells, and our great victory at the docks literally vanished into smoke, leaving only thousands of spent arrows and bolts.

I looked down at Faltia. Faltia looked up at me. We turned our gazes south toward the beach, where the fog had never cleared.

EVA

I’d chewed my nails down to the pink watching the assault on the docks. Salvo after salvo battered the walls with deadly accuracy, destroying most of our ballistae turrets in one fell swoop. I could hardly see anything through the fog that blanketed the beach, but half a mile across the peninsula, I could make out the shapes of hundreds of boats being rowed under the cover of the siege. It was then that I ordered my entire force into a flanking position. We ran out from cover, and charged across the beach toward the docks. Our journey was bogged down by the snow and sand, making every step excruciatingly long. There was no way we’d make it in time. Faltia’s defense would shatter, the castle would be taken, and all would be lost. We were only halfway there when the boats arrived at the docks. A hundred steps later, and the assault was already over. It was a massacre. Despite having the full weight of the Lowland navy behind them, the marines decided to charge the wall without the cover of a salvo. I couldn’t believe our luck. All the intellectual and magical might of the Lowland academy was here, and the invasion had been defeated by mistiming and stupidity.

As the boats retreated from the docks, a great cheer rose up from the battered defenders, and our voice joined them on the beach.

“Goodbye, you dumb fuckers!” I yelled gleefully, waving at the retreating boats, “It was a real fun time! Next time let’s do this at your place, m’kay?”

“Commander!” one of my generals yelled.

I looked back at her with a smile on my face. “Wha… oh.”

From across the expanse of water, the low groan of a hundred thousand tons of timber being moved reached my ears. The man-o-wars pivoted on their anchors, and turned ten degrees southward. I blinked. The full broadside of the Lowland navy was staring right at me, and I was in the middle of a fucking beach.

“RUN!” I screamed, and the thousands of ballistae loosed at once. For a moment, a line of iron was drawn horizontally across the world. Then it arrived. Fffft! That was the sound it made when a missile shot past me. Fffft! The woman next to me was blown in half. Fffft! The ogre beside me had his front blown out of his back. Fffft! The dawn-elf to my right was kabobbed to three orcs behind her. Fffft! My general was split cleanly in two. Fffft! An orc’s head was shot right off. Fffft! A teenage girl exploded into mist. Fffft! I blasted backward.

The air was ripped from my chest, I was sent spinning into the air, and I crashed into the wet snow. A moment later, someone’s severed left arm landed next to my face. My severed left arm. The bone below the shoulder was blown to splinters, the bicep and triceps had been ruptured, and the sinew hung in strings. Strangely, I didn’t feel the pain; only a dull ache, and a numbness where there should’ve been feeling. I was succumbing to shock. Realizing that, I dumbly picked up my arm, and began crawling up the beach. I had to keep moving. Lying still meant death.

I stumbled over bodies and body parts, crawling through fields of shrieking wounded clutching at their opened flesh. They called for me like I could save them, reaching out with blood-stained hands, begging me with bulging eyes. A foot struck me in the back, and I was flattened. Another foot struck my wounded shoulder, and a spear of pain twisted into me. I screamed into the snow as foot after foot came down atop me and around me, the stampede of my own soldiers trying to escape the onslaught. The wounded around me were trampled, crushed into the sand and snow, their mangled bodies compacted. An iron sole smashed the bones of my severed hand. A hoof crushed my right heel. A foot landed squarely in my back, snapping two of my ribs. I coughed blood into the snow. The feet pounded around me, thundering dully, crunching through ice and bones. It was endless. It was a river of panic, and I was trapped in the undercurrent. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t see. The freezing ground pressed into my face, enveloping me in darkness, filling my mouth and nostrils with freezing sand and ice. The sounds were duller. The world was muted. There was only the impacts on my back that drove me further into the frozen earth beneath me, down, down, down, down… Fffft! Fffft! Fffft! Bodies dropped all around me. Fffft! Fffft! Fffft! Arms and legs were sent flailing to the air. Fffft! Fffft! Fffft! A hole opened in the stampede. The second salvo cut the herd down by the hundreds, giving me a path, but I couldn’t move. I stared helplessly at the city wall above me. It was only fifty yards away, but it might as well have been a million miles. I couldn’t even lift myself out of the imprint my body made in the snow.

Fffft! Fffft! Fffft! The bolts struck the ground around me, spearing through the wounded that littered the beach. A woman’s belly burst, and her awful sprayed my face. She screeched, clutching the wrought-iron haft that pinned her to the earth. With a bellow of immense agony, she ripped the haft from her exploded midsection, and threw it into the snow. She collected her intestines as best she could, and began to kick her way up the beach. Her ripped abdominal muscles flexed under the strain she put them under, and though she wailed with distress, she continued her plodding course up the beach, leaving a red trail in her wake.

I am such a fucking pussy. I thought grimly to myself, and with a grunt, I got onto my knees, and began to crawl. Fffft! Fffft! Fffft! The herd had thinned quite a bit by the third salvo, but those ballistae commanders were deadly accurate. A man was split cleanly in half as he ran off the beach. A woman was pierced in the middle of the back, and taken for a ride until she was impaled against the wall. A centaur was shot right through the rear end, and his back half ripped away like a piñata to reveal the wobbling innards within. He roared, and began to drag himself up by his front legs, spilling out his horse organs behind him. I crawled past them all, keeping myself as low as I could, gritting my teeth against the growing pain in my back. God, my fucking ribs! My arm was chopped clean off, my heel was crushed, but my goddamn ribs were giving me such hell! I buried my numb hand into the cold snow, vaguely aware of the dull ache of frostbite, and I dragged my body inch-by-inch up the gore-festooned beach.

Fffft! Fffft! Fffft! The missiles came down around me, killing less people this time. There weren’t many left to kill. The mortally wounded around me were gored, and their screams were much more dispirited this time. The dying could only suffer so much horror before it became boring, I imagined grimly, but I wasn’t there yet, and the closer I got to the wall, the keener the terror was. I was only ten feet away! Now nine, now eight, now seven, six, five—Fffft! Fffft! Fffft! The missiles punched into the wall before me, the black-iron haft singing with energy. Fffft! Fffft! Fffft! They came down all around me, pounding the earth, thudding dully into the frozen sands, blasting debris onto me. I was only four feet away. Three feet. Two feet. One! Fffft! Fffft! Fffft! The missiles pounded into the stones above my head; one, two three in a diagonal line up the side of the wall. A ladder. Serendipity. I put my severed arm into my teeth, reached up, and grabbed one of the hafts. I screamed as I pulled myself up, every torn ligament stretching with me, the sinew tugging on the rent muscles, the tendons peeling from the bones! I pulled myself up the first bar, planted my knee into the ground, and reached for the second bar. I grabbed it, bit into my arm until I drew dead blood, and hauled myself to my feet. It was then that the pain in my ribs was overtaken by the searing agony in my crushed heel. I sobbed against the excruciating pulses that wracked my leg, and reached upward. The third bar was just a few inches past my fingertips. I would have to jump. With a mouth full of blood, and eyes full of tears, I pivoted my weight on my heels, crouched, and shot upward. Fffft! Fffft! Fffft! I grabbed the bar, and let out a long breath. I let go of the bar, but I did not fall. There was a dull ache in my right thigh, my lower back, and my chest. I rested my burning head against the cold stone wall, and looked down.

I was pinned. Three rifled bars had pierced me, shot through my flesh and bones, and punctured the wall.

“Well… darn.” I whispered hoarsely to myself. Somehow, swearing didn’t seem right anymore. Fouling these last moments I had with profanity would be a shame. I tried to look up, but I no longer had the strength to lift my neck. I could only stare down. Half my vision was filled with the wall, and the other half was filled with the snow beneath me. It made an interesting symmetry of grey and white before the red blots tarnished it. My blood slowly pooled from the holes in my body, ran along the hafts that pinned me, and dripped down to the snow below. Drip, drip, drip; it was strangely fascinating to watch. That was me down there in the snow. Soon, there would be more of me in the snow than in this body.

Drip, drip, drip. I thought of my mom and dad. By now, they likely knew that I hadn’t died with the rest of the rangers; that I was in fact, one of Alkandra’s infamous hybrids. I wonder if they were surprised? I’d only joined the rangers because my parents had kicked me out for being such a slut. I smiled at the thought of them reading the newspaper one day and seeing my name in the headline. Eva Alecia: Former Ranger, Now the Sadistic Outreach Director of Alkandra! I hoped the neighbors gave them dirty looks for months. I hoped they would forgive me.

Drip, drip, drip. My mind wandered inevitably to the ones I loved. To my unborn child, who had given me hope, and to Alexa, for showing me how people could change. I would see them both very soon. Drip, drip, drip. To Faltia, for showing me how to lead. Drip, drip, drip. To Brianna, for giving me laughter. To Kiera, for giving me friendship. Drip, drip, drip. To Furia, for showing me humility when I needed it so greatly. Drip, drip, drip. To Adrianna… for… for… forgiveness… Drip… Drip… Drip… To… to Soraya, for… for… for being… the missing half of me… my love… my…

Drip, drip, drip.

SORAYA

“Run! Run! Run!” I screamed, urging my troops forward. The teenage orcs of Alkandra charged out from the streets, and flooded the boulevard. The remnants of Eva’s battlegroup trickled over the wall from the beach. There were so few.

“Get out of the way! Get the fuck out of the way!” I shrieked, and sprinted for the wall. Someone objected and tried to grab me, but I was already scaling the stones and throwing myself over the top.

The pieces of thousands of orcs were about the strewn beach, hundreds of them still groaning with the remnants of life. No one was standing. Three-hundred yards away, the Lowland marines were marshalling on the cleared beachhead from hundreds of watercrafts, and were beginning their slow ascent toward the city. Out in the bay, the man-o-wars were lighting pitch to boulders, and loading their catapults.

“Eva!” I screamed, “Eva?! EVA?!” I twirled this way and that, heedless of the coming army, uncaring for the thousands of ballistae that might’ve been trained on me. I raced down the beach, turned over corpse after corpse, assuring myself each time that she would be beneath one of them, whole and hale. “Eva?!” I screamed. Fffft! A missile pierced the ground five feet from me, spraying blood and snow into the air. I could hear the marching footsteps of the Lowlanders; I could feel the eyes of their mages following me. “Eva?!” I stumbled over a body, and nearly fell onto a sword. I righted myself against the wall, and smacked by head against the rifled haft of a missile. Growling, I clutched my bleeding forehead and—no. No. No, no, no, no…

A woman in black armor was splayed out against the wall. Her arm was missing below the shoulder. Her platinum hair was stained red.

“Eva?” I whispered. She didn’t answer. “Eva?” I whispered again, touching her shoulder. Her flesh was so cold. The snow below her was melted and stained red. I took her gingerly by the waist, and tried to pull her backwards.

“We need to get you to Zander quickly.” I whispered, “He’ll have you patched up in no time at all. Your tattoos will be ruined, but you said you regretted some of them.” I planted my hand on her chest, and delicately slid her down the bar that pierced her lung and heart. “Hell, I might want to start mine over too; we can get them together!” Blood poured freely from the holes inside her, gushing onto the snow. “Or-or-or-or you can give me the tattoos instead! Just like you said you wanted to, right?! I’ll be your canvas!” The sound of marching became louder in my ears. “You can draw whatever you want on me!” I squeaked as I pulled back with all my might, “You can even put it on my face; I won’t mind!” I could hear the Lowlanders yelling. “Just hold on a little bit longer!” I lurched backward, and fell into the snow with Eva atop me. She was so light. Scrambling upright, I shouldered her, and scaled the bars up the wall. I slipped on her blood, and pitched forward. She fell off my shoulders, and wilted into the snow below. I saw her face. Her mouth was agape and smeared with blood, and her eyes were rolled back and vacant. I was a rational woman. I knew what I was looking at. I knew it the moment I saw her, but all the truth in the world wasn’t worth a fucking thing compared to the tiny glimmer of fool’s hope I still had in me.

“Get up, Eva.” I whispered, and reached down for her, “Please get up.”

She just lay there, blood trickling from her lips. The footsteps became louder.

“Eva, please.”

She stared into the sky, unblinking in the glaring sunlight. The soldiers were only fifty feet away.

“Eva…”

A strong hand gripped me by the hair, and pulled me over the wall.

“Soraya, we can’t defend this wall!” Yavara yelled at me, “Move your troops back; I’ll buy you time!”

I just blinked at her.

“Soraya?”

“Eva!” I screamed, my hope surging to the forefront, “Eva!” I could only point at the wall, “EVA!

She grabbed my arm. “Soraya, you need to—”

I ripped my arm away. “Eva! Eva! Eva! Eva!”

A flaming boulder crashed into our ranks, obliterated twenty souls, and blasted great chunks of molten rock in all directions. The shrapnel tore through flesh and bone like butter, sending dozens more to their ends, but I didn’t care. I just needed to communicate to this damnable woman that Eva was there, that there was still a tiny chance, and that chance was all I needed! “Eva!” I screamed, and jabbed my finger frantically over the wall. “Eva, EVA, EVA!

Realization dawned on Yavara’s face, and she leapt over the wall. Men shouted alarms, and the footsteps suddenly ceased. A second later, she leapt back over with Eva’s limp body dangled in her arms. She was now paler than the high-elf who held her. Yavara rested Eva on the ground, and held her thumb against Eva’s throat. She closed her eyes, and let out a long slow breath. Some of the color returned to Eva’s body. A flush came across her pallid cheeks. One of her feet twitched. Sweat formed on Yavara’s brow, and she trembled until her entire body was palsying. Then she stopped, and dropped her head. The color left my beloved’s body, and the flush faded from her cheeks.

“I’m sorry, Soraya,” Yavara muttered.

“Don’t tell me you’re fucking sorry! Try!”

“Trying will kill me, and it won’t save her.”

“Please!” I blubbered.

Yavara shook her head, stood up, and laid Eva in my arms.

“Take her back!” I screamed.

“She is dead!” She yelled, “If you don’t order your troops to retreat, they will all die with her!” She turned toward the breach in the wall, “Fall back to the arena. I will hold them off for as long as I can!”

YAVARA

The flaming boulders arced overhead and cascaded into the city behind me. Each deafening impact was accompanied by the crash of a leveled building, and a terrible chorus of screams. I tried to block the sound out. I’d been in numerous battles now, but I’d never felt them like this one before. Every shock resounded in my chest, every shriek cut through my mind, and every clash of steel rang in my skull. It was sensory overload, and I was nearly paralyzed by it. Still, I stepped in front of the breach in the wall, and stared out at the vast beachhead.

Twenty-thousand Lowland marines were crunching through the snow, each company led by a robed figure. Behind them, the man-o-wars launched volley after volley of catapults, each timed perfectly so that the air was never empty of flaming boulders.

The mage leading the army raised his hand, and halted the advance. He took three steps forward, and cast a spell at me. I didn’t attempt to block it; it was only a perception incantation.

“What is this?” First Mage Robert Usich asked me, “Some trick of the flesh?”

“Don’t you trust your own magic, Robert?”

He tilted his head, then drew his gaze to Castle Alkandra, where Leveria was displayed proudly atop the castle. He drew his gaze back to me. “If you wish to explain this turn of events to the king, you must surrender yourself.”

“He and I can speak plainly through you.”

“This is no time for talk.”

“I am the rightful queen of the Highlands. If I am to surrender, a formal declaration of war against the Highlands is required to—”

And Robert Usich shot a lighting spell right at my chest. I collected the attack in my telekinetic mitts, and hurled it back at him. He blocked it with his staff, charged an infernal spell, then promptly turned around, and set fire to the men behind him. I turned the Lowland’s best mage into my personal flame-thrower, and cooked a good portion of the Lowland’s vanguard before the other mages rushed to the front, and rescued their leader from himself. The men in the vanguard rolled in the snow, screaming as they clutched at the armor that had been fused to their skin. I eased their agony with a healing spell; not one that would reverse the damage, but would take away the pain.

“Robert,” I said, “now is the perfect time to talk. We can undo everything that’s been done if we just take a moment to understand each other!”

Robert Usich pushed away his underlings, and squared his shoulders at me. “My king made his ultimatum very clear. There will be no mercy for Alkandra!”

The rest of the Lowland Academy’s five-hundred mages filtered from the ranks of the army, and stepped in a long row behind their leader. Before they could organize, I launched a telekinetic strike at their center. The mages raised their hands as one, intercepted the attack, and sent it firing back at me. I put my shield up, and braced my feet into the earth. It was stupid; I was nowhere near as powerful as I’d been. My shield exploded, and I was sent hurtling backward. I caught myself in the air, and spun behind the wall just before an immense white blast shot through the gap. The great column of energy exploded the house behind me, blasted through the barn behind it, created a perfect burning circle in the silo behind that, and streamed into the sky. The attack would’ve leveled a city block if it had been aimed properly. They’d been practicing it just for me.

“Fuck me.” I gasped. I peeked around the corner of the breach, careful not to touch the stones that were glowing white with heat. The mages were all noticeably spent, but not incapacitated. They probably had two more tries with that spell before they’d sap themselves completely. I doubted they’d miss a second time. “You’re wasting your energy, Robert,” I yelled, “I’m not even the Dark Queen anymore. If you have a problem, I suggest you take it up with Leveria!”

“Then come out and surrender! It would be a shame for the rightful queen of the Highlands to become collateral damage.”

“For my own safety, I’m afraid I must decline. Keep your men back; it would be a shame for them to become collateral damage in your crossfire… again.”

Robert might’ve sneered, though the old mage was so expressionless that it could’ve just been a twitch. “Your Highness,” he said, “King Arthur Dreus has decided to speak with you.” He opened his mouth, and Arthur Dreus’s voice came out. “Good morning, Your Highness.

“And to you, Your Highness.” I answered.

Arthur paused for a moment, assessing the situation behind Robert Usich’s eyes. “Do you remember the conversation you and I had when you were last in Ardeni Dreus?

“I certainly remember the fun we had afterwards.”

You joked about pressing your claim to the Highlands, then assured my father and I that you had no claim. As a head of state, that proclamation was formalized. The Lowlands has not recognized any monarch of the Highlands since the coronation of Queen Leveria Tiadoa, who now stands as the ruler of Alkandra. Therefore, until Alkandra is destroyed, the Highland kingdom is a vassal state of Alkandra, and an enemy to the Lowlands. Surrender yourself now.

“I can’t let your soldiers into this city, Arthur.”

Fine. Kill her, Usich.

Robert Usich’s eyes fluttered, then focused on me. The mages around him began to glow. Their luminance intensified until their auras consumed them. Robert extended his hands to his sides with his palms outturned, and received their energy. I launched an infernal attack, and it ricocheted into the sky. I shot a telekinetic blast, and it caromed into the wall, blasting a carriage-sized hole through it. I tried to penetrate his mind, but there was nothing. All the while, the mages around Robert fed him their energy until he was radiating with it. I ran away. Ducking beneath the cover of the wall, I focused all the energy of my shield against my left side, and propelled myself as fast as I could alongside the wall. There was a flash, and the world was nothing but blinding white heat. I was lifted off my feet, and then… nothing.

KIERA

The ground shook all around me, and I stared up at the floorboards above, waiting for it to stop. The Lowlanders had launched ten catapult salvos into the city, and the thunder had been continuous for minutes. Dust floated from the ceiling, dulling the lantern-lit basement, mingling with the smoke spewing from my cigarette as I enjoyed the sweet nicotine poison in my lungs. I wasn’t in the basement to protect myself from falling rocks, but to protect my flesh from the sun.

…most of the watchmen were wiped out after the first ballistae salvo, Faltia said to my vampiric mind, most of what I have now are day laborers.

They’re the best we’ve got. I answered.

I’ll rendezvous with Brianna at the arena. Zander will hold the docks by himself. Yavara’s supporting Soraya’s retreat, and Brianna’s advancing to cover yours. We’ll all meet at the arena to organize a counterattack. A street fight plays to our advantage anyway.

Where’s Leveria?

No one knows.

And Eva?

I haven’t been able to contact her. She could just be in the sunlight.

I can’t feel her connection anymore, Faltia.

That doesn’t mean anything. The Lowland mages are likely blocking telepathic communication within their range.

Did you see what happened?

She got caught in the open.

How bad was it?

Not good.

How bad, Faltia?

There was a pregnant pause, then Faltia said, She’s a survivor, Kiera. She made it out. The Lowlanders landing was uncontested. It looks like twenty-thousand marines are headed your way.

Yay for me.

You’re a survivor too, remember that. Now’s not the time for stupid self-sacrifice.

Not yet.

I mean it. I’ve got to go now. I’ll see you at the arena.

See you there, Captain.

I transformed back into my elven body, and walked up the stairs, and into the pandemonium above. Flaming boulders fell like meteors into the city, their booming impacts sounding in cadence with the clanging of the bells. Distant screams cut through the air, shouted orders came from every direction, and from the south, an ominous silence was brooding. As the last of Soraya’s battlegroup raced past my checkpoint, I reached into my pouch, pulled out a vial of cocaine, and did a bump off my finger. How anyone went into battle without being hyped out of their fucking minds was a mystery to me. If there was ever a time for dangerous overuse of stimulants, it was now.

A flaming boulder cratered the shop across the street, expelling a mushroom-shaped gout of smoke and dust into the cold air. Five of my troops were shredded by the shrapnel, and I caught a searing ember to the hip.

“Ow.” I muttered, and brushed away the fire that had started on my armor.

“You alright, Commander?” the orc beside me asked nervously.

“Good as I’ll ever be, Oriok.” I said, and glanced down the street. The river of retreating orcs was thinning, and I reckoned it wouldn’t be much longer before the torrent of Lowlanders came rushing after. My battlegroup held a series of six lines along the ten main boulevards that led to the heart of Alkandra. Each line was divided into ten checkpoints for each boulevard; fifty men per checkpoint made five-hundred men per line. Five-hundred soldiers guarded checkpoints one through ten, which constituted the first line. Five-hundred more troops guarded the second line, which were fallback positions of this line, and these checkpoints were labeled eleven through twenty. Five-hundred more troops guarded the third line, which were the fallback positions of the second line, and these checkpoints were labeled twenty-one through thirty. There were three more lines and thirty more checkpoints, each one being the fallback position of the checkpoints preceding it until we got to the rendezvous point, which was the arena. The entire purpose of my battlegroup was to buy time for the other battlegroups to marshal and launch a counteroffensive. In other words, the entire point of my battlegroup was to be regimentally ass-fucked for six city blocks.

As I pondered my eminent ass-fucking, the sky to the south suddenly illuminated. For a moment, it was like a second sun had appeared on earth, and then it vanished just as quickly.

“What in the blue fuck was that?” Oriok gasped.

I took another bump up my nose. “Yavara’s having a chat with the Lowland mages.”

“Did she do that, or did they?”

“Yavara can’t do anything like that anymore.” I muttered, and carefully shook out another bump of booger sugar. A second great illumination lit up the horizon, then disappeared. I held the dollop of coke against my nostril, waiting for an excruciatingly long time for something else to happen. When nothing did, I just shrugged, and snorted.

“Welp, she’s dead.”

“Shit.” Oriok muttered.

“If I wasn’t so fucked up right now, I imagine I’d feel bad.” I blinked rapidly as the narcotic mule kicked me right in the cerebellum, “Holy shit, I can’t even feel my face.”

Another flaming boulder crashed near us, exploding through my third-favorite strip-club, showering the men around it with debris. As they screamed and struggled on the ground, the last of Soraya’s battle group ran past us. Of Soraya herself, there was no sign. I muttered a silent prayer for both her and Eva, and watched the streets ahead. For a moment, there was nothing. The wide boulevards were empty, and the cacophony of the siege had shifted to the north. Looking upwards, I could see the contrails of smoke from where the boulders had arced overhead, but now they only fell behind us. The thunder was distant and dull, but the screams still carried. I looked back at my company. It had started out as fifty men, but the boulders had thinned it to thirty-one. Assuming an even distribution of attackers among the ten boulevards, we’d be facing around two-thousand men.

“Drop the load, Oriok.” I said. The orc drove his axe onto a piece of rope, and the pile of rubble it had been holding was set free. Urban debris flooded the street before us, piled up ten feet high at the center and rising to the buildings on either side. I put my fingers into my mouth and blew a sharp whistle, and was answered in kind. Nine more ropes were cut, and nine more loads were released into the street, forming a barricade all across the first line.

“Crossbows and slings, and stay low.” I muttered, unshouldering my bow, “Once they start climbing, we fucking run. If anyone wants to start a meth habit, I’ll be your enabler.”

“You holding?” a woman behind me whispered fearfully.

“Did you need to ask?” I chuckled, and threw her a bag, “Pass it down the line, now, don’t be greedy. I brought enough for everyone.”

As the bag was passed around, I turned my gaze back to the street, and waited. The low rumble of the falling boulders resonated behind me, but in front of me, I different kind of thunder was slowly growing louder. The regimented boom of twenty-thousand marching feet echoed along the corridors of shops and houses, and grew louder with every passing second. My soldiers sniffed around me, trying to get as much powdered insanity into their sinuses as possible before their courage fractured.

“Get ready, boys and girls.” I grinned back at them, and nocked an arrow, “The fun’s about to start.”

I watched the top edge of the street keenly. There was only the dusty brown of the cobblestones. Then, there was a line of silver. The tops of their helms showed first, then their armored shoulders, breastplates, leathered skirts and steel chaps. Even their hands were gauntleted, leaving no piece of flesh exposed. Armor usually reserved for knights was given to the lowest of infantrymen. This was an expensive army, but I supposed the Lowlands could afford the best.

“How are we supposed to get through that?!” Oriok hissed at me.

“Aim for the gut. No one ever armors the gut properly.” I said, and drew back my bow, “Oh, and the balls too.” I loosed. My arrow flew down the street, and struck a man right in the groin. He doubled over with a shriek, and dropped before his men. There was a moment where all of them just stood there, and looked at the poor writhing bastard. Then they looked at me, let out a unified roar, and charged.

The streets were filled with a new kind of thunder as the metallic symphony clanged its way down the wide boulevard, raising their spears and swords overhead. I pissed myself a little, then yelled, “Loose!”

My men shot their bolts, and hit every target. It was impossible to miss. A score of the enemy toppled, tripping many of those behind them. I swiftly pulled out another arrow, and sent it through one man’s eye. A third arrow punctured a boy’s throat, a fourth went into a man’s mouth, and a fifth went into a man’s crotch just to bookend my archery. As I loosed my five arrows, my men managed two more rounds, felling about thirty Lowlanders in total before it was time to flee. I shouldered my bow, unsheathed my sword, and cut the rope next to me.

Ten tons of bricks avalanched from the sides of the boulevard, and buried the first hundred men. The soldiers behind them slammed to a halt, smashing into one another and stalling the entire charge. My men and I took the opportunity to turn around, and run for our lives.

As we raced away from the enemy, the second-story windows of the shops and houses at our sides opened, and succubus archers aimed their crossbows down the street. I heard a series of twangs, and a series of screams answered. After each archer loosed, they joined us in our flight to the next checkpoint, though they took the rooftops. The sinuous and athletic predators had no trouble leaping over alleyways and clotheslines, and the dozens of them that covered our retreat got to the checkpoint before we did.

“Drop the load!” I yelled to the checkpoint commander as we raced through the gate. The old ogre struck the rope, and the houses on either side of the gate collapsed behind us. Catching my breath, I turned around, drew my bow, and ran up the rubble. I loosed two nocked arrows at once, and felled two enemies, but the river of silver men didn’t slow a bit. They’d closed the distance much sooner than I’d thought. The forty men of checkpoint eleven only managed to loose one round of crossbows before we struck the second ropes, and sent another brick avalanche down on the Lowlander. The enemy stalled before this trap, and only a few ambitious bastards got buried. The rest charged up the obstruction with startling speed.

“Run!” I yelled, and once again, we sprinted for our lives. The distance to checkpoint twenty-one was painfully long. It was at least a quarter-mile, and the boulevard was cratered in a dozen places. The succubi and I would make it, but the others wouldn’t. Even if by some miracle the enemy didn’t catch them on the way to the checkpoint, the checkpoint commander would have ordered the barriers dropped long before they got there. Now’s not the time for stupid self-sacrifice, Faltia’s voice echoed in my head. Faltia could eat my fat dick.

“In here!” I yelled, and rammed my shoulder against a warehouse door. I bounced off it like a fucking tennis ball, and sprawled out onto the concrete. The ogre barreled past me, and blew the door open, and Oriok picked me up and carried me into the dank room. The rest of the two companies flooded in after, and the ogre shoved a pallet of mason blocks before the doorframe.

“No one’s getting past that,” he boomed proudly.

“They got mages that will turn that to dust.” I coughed, and pulled myself upright. “Checkpoint eleven, cover the back door; we’ll cover this one. If we make too much trouble for the fuckers, they’ll just run past us.”

“Not with you in here!” one of the succubi yelled, pointing at me, “They’re not going to just ignore you! We’re trapped!”

I looked up at the rafters. “You and the rest of the sluts can probably get up there, but the heavies won’t be able to. There’s a hole in the roof if you want to scuttle out, but I’m staying down here.”

The succubi looked up at the ceiling, then back at me. “We’ll cover you for as long as we can.”

“Very noble of you.” I grunted, and positioned myself in front of the door.

“Commander!” Oriok yelled.

“What?”

He pressed my sword into my hand. “You dropped this when you fell.”

I smiled at him as my fangs grew out. “I won’t need that.”

BRIANNA

The last of Soraya’s mostly-intact battlegroup poured into the pavilion before the arena. My battlegroup was huddled under the immense arches of the arena’s entrance, which protected us from the boulders that rained continuously down on us. There wasn’t a part of the city that wasn’t on fire anymore. The downtown towers had infernal gouts bursting from every window, the residential divisions were turned to tinder, and the long boulevards of shops that spoked the arena were blazing. I’d ordered bucket brigades to mitigate the damage, but it seemed a hopeless endeavor. Whatever the course this battle took, most of Alkandra would be burnt to ash. It was likely that the only structures left standing would be the castle, and the arena.

I heard the warning bells of Kiera’s fifth line sound out. The enemy was only one checkpoint away, and Faltia’s reinforcements still hadn’t arrived. Likely they’d been slowed by the infernal labyrinth. We needed those heavies if we were to have any hope of a counterattack. Without them, our only option was a tactical retreat back to the castle, conceding the entire city to the enemy. I wondered if it was an option worth taking. After witnessing those two blasts of energy shot from the Lowland front, I doubted Castle Alkandra would be anything more than a furnace to those inside. We were already down one Dark Queen, and the other was nowhere to be found. With Zander stuck defending the outer walls against nobody, we had no defense against those mages.

I felt a tug on my vampiric connection, and stepped into the shadows to transform.

What-up, bro? I said to Kiera.

Don’t be mad.

My heart dropped. What did you do?

I had to stay behind.

Tell me where you are.

You’re not coming after me.

Eat shit.

I mean it, bitch. Don’t come after me.

Fucking stop me.

Nobody knows where Soraya is. Someone has to command her battlegroup. The people need you.

I need you.

If you come after me, then I’ll have to come out and save you, and we’ll both die in the streets.

I laughed, and wiped the tears from my eyes. We’re dead anyway, you asshole. Why couldn’t you have just died with me?

I had to be a hero.

You dumb fucker.

I know. I’m sorry. I just wanted to say—

Don’t you fucking say ‘goodbye’ to me.

…I just want you to know that I love you.

I already knew that, dumbass.

You’re supposed to tell me you love me back, you insensitive slut.

If you want to hear it, you’ll have to hear it from my lips. Get your ass back here, bro.

Brianna…

This isn’t goodbye. Don’t fucking say it’s goodbye.

Kiera didn’t say anything for a while, then she whispered so sweetly into my mind, It’s not goodbye. Not yet.

Then, she was silent. I transformed back into my elf body, and blotted my cheeks. My soldiers couldn’t see me like that. I stepped out of the royal box, and stood before the clusters of women awkwardly holding weapons for the first times in their lives. Most of the tribal warrior-women had been in Eva’s group. The women that stood before me were Ardeni orcs; knitters, cobblers, smiths and factory workers. The only weapon they’d known were hammers, and their only enemies had been nails and anvils. The teenagers flowing in from Soraya’s battlegroup were at least somewhat trained in weaponry, but by the looks on their faces, I could see the fight had been shot out of them. All they’d done the entire battle was run away.

“Form up!” I yelled, and the order was passed down the ranks. Nothing happened. No one knew what ‘form up’ even meant. The subdivisions of each battlegroup were terribly disorganized, as they’d been thrown together fucking yesterday. Most of these people didn’t even know who their commanding officer was.

“Everyone face that way!” I hollered, and pointed toward the south. “Melee weapons front and center, skirmishers to the sides! Come on!”

The rabble chaotically organized itself into something resembling a formation. I stood in the front of it and watched the mouths of the ten boulevards that converged upon this pavilion. A succession of booms sounded from the streets, followed by ten clouds of dust that floated high into the air. First, the succubi came flowing over the rooftops. I felt a dangerous tug of hope when I counted their numbers; almost all of them had made it back. I waited for Kiera’s battlegroup to come pouring into the pavilion, but there was just a trickle. A few hundred beleaguered and dust-covered individuals limped their way past the last street corners. Only the final line had made it out. And even they didn’t make it, for even as they stumbled and dragged themselves across the pavilion, a great flood of silver and blue burst from the mouths of the boulevards, converged upon the straggling beasts, and swallowed them whole.

“Let’s fucking go!” I screamed, and sprinted out into the pavilion. For thirty excruciating steps, I was running alone. The low winter sun glared in my eyes, my feet crunched in the snow, and my heart thundered in my ears. The great mass of silver and blue surged forward, thousands of blades flashing in the air, all eyes on the lone elf charging toward them. Then I felt the thunder of footsteps behind me, and the army swelled out from the arena like a flooding gorge to meet the Lowlanders. The enemy faltered for just a moment, and that moment was all we needed. We closed the distance in two breaths, smashed into their lines, and drove them backward with our greater inertia.

I was pressed in on all sides. Before me was some young handsome Lowland buck, his eyes wide with terror, his mouth filled with my sword. I pushed it through the back of his skull, and stuck the man behind him in the throat. The towering orcs at my sides held my shoulders square, and the tonnage of beasts behind me propelled me forward. I trampled over my first victim, and barely pulled my sword out before it was torn from my grip. The man behind him clutched his throat and fell, and he too was carried under my heels. The third man was nothing but a shield, and I was soon flattened against it, my entire body pressing as I was lifted off my feet by the surging beasts behind me. I stabbed over the top of the shield, and my blade clanged blindly off the man’s helmet and shoulder until it finally sank into a crease of his armor, and his shriek sounded out. He fell beneath me, and my toes brushed his body as I was hurled forward onto the next man. This one had his spear ready for me, and I barely moved my head out of the way in time. The shaft of the weapon glided along my neck until I fell atop him, and drove my sword through his collar. He crashed down beneath me, my sword was wrenched from my hand, and I was sent sprawling into the next man.

This was a mage, a very pretty young woman with red hair and freckles, and by the look of utter shock on her face, she hadn’t been ready for me. My luck. I smashed my forehead into her face until her nose caved in, then I punched my thumbs into her eyes, burst her eyeballs, and ran her over. Her screams carried for a remarkably long time before the fatal crushing blow was dealt to her. There was a space left in her wake, and I used the moment to snatch an axe from the ground, and hasten my pace lest I be run over by my own men. I split one man’s head open, side-stepped a spear thrust, decapitated another man, dodged a sword swipe, and separated a third man’s shoulder. I couldn’t move much within the confines of battle, but I could move faster than anyone, and my small frame allowed me to contort within the press of bodies. The poor beasts behind me didn’t appreciate my elusiveness, for they caught most of the attacks meant for me. Their screams filled my ears for a second, then were cut violently when they fell beneath the feet of the horde. Once the stampede got going, it wouldn’t stop for anyone.

And then, our momentum slowed. The press of beasts around me became more intimate, and the men before me no longer fell like dominoes. I drove the spike of my axe through a man’s eye, and he simply slumped against the man behind him. Before I could raise my weapon, I was shoved into my victim, and me and his brethren sandwiched him between us. A beast on either side of me pinned my arms to my side, and the beast behind me forced me against the dead body. I dug my feet into the ground and drove with all my might, but I couldn’t take another step forward. Suddenly, everyone was standing still. I was at the center of two great masses grinding together like tectonic plates, applying pressure from all sides to force an uplift. The heat was unbearable, the weight was suffocating, I was gasping like a beached fish just to expand my diaphragm a tiny bit. Grunts, growls and moans flowed from the mouths of the beleaguered warriors on both sides as we drove with all our might to break the deadlock. Just one more step, that’s all it would take. Just one more step, and we could build our inevitable momentum forward, and drive them back into the sea. We just needed to push a little harder.

From my periphery, I could see the flitting motion of missiles being hurled back and forth between the armies. Arrows, rocks and bolts were shot from the flanks of each force into the belly of the battle, trying to break up the bulk of the enemy. The shower of death was mostly focused on the edges, but it was progressively moving inward toward the center. The line began to shift. The deadlock began to weaken. The rows of men and beasts on either side of me were slowly being thinned out by a hail that was shot indiscriminately from both sides, and the downpour was closing in on me. I looked at the man in front of me, and he looked back at me, and for a moment, we were no longer enemies. The soldiers at our sides dropped with a scream, and we hoisted the body between us up and over our heads, and took cover from the passing storm. The body thudded with dull impacts, bloody arrowheads punched through his armored back, and stones rattled off his breastplate. The storm lingered for a moment, then past. I looked at the man before me, and he looked at me.

“Wait—” was all he managed to say before I pulled the dagger from my boot, and stuck it in his throat. I stood up, and was sent sprawling backwards into the ranks of beasts behind me. Scrambling to my feet, I pivoted against the coming charge just in time for it to smash into me. I was pinned on all sides once again, only this time, I was moving backwards. The savage snarls of the humans filled my vision, and their growls and roars filled my ears. I moved my axe in front of me just in time to catch a sword’s edge, but I couldn’t counterattack, I couldn’t gain any footing, and any attempt I made to brace against my attacker was futile. We were moving faster now. The enemy accelerated forward, and we surged backward, stumbling and tripping over a layer of dead. The man locking weapons with me leaned into the charge, looming over me, snarling and frothing at the lips with the fervor of battle. He was a towering man, ugly and scarred, stinking and barbaric; he was the kind of bro I’d take behind a back alley for a dangerous against-the-dumpster fuck in the dead of night. When a space opened up between us, all I could do was react to his strike, and bear the brunt of it against my axe handle. He struck, I blocked, and we pressed and together, snarling and gnashing our teeth, staring at each other from bulging eyes. We separated, he struck, I blocked, and again we met together, roaring and snapping like combating lions.

“I’m gonna kill you, bitch!” He roared, “I’m gonna gut you like a fucking pig!”

“I’ll rip your fucking throat out!”

We separated, he struck, I blocked, and we met together again, growling and spitting.

“I’m gonna make you squeal, piggy!” He snarled, “Squeal! Squeal! Squeal!”

“I’m gonna feed you your balls first!”

We separated, he struck, and I blocked too high. His blade chopped into my hand, and cleaved off every finger through my split knuckles. I shrieked and dropped the axe, and he pressed into me, his sword digging into my leather armor, his eyes wild and hungry.

“You’ll squeal for me, piggy!” He growled in my ear as his blade bit deeper and deeper into my armor, “You’ll squeal! You’ll squeal! You can’t wiggle away from me!”

We separated. He struck. I squealed. The point of his blade punctured my armor, drove through my flesh, my muscle, and my belly. The sword exploded out of my back, and the hilt sank into me. He was pressed against me, his breath in my nostrils, his sweat smearing against my face, his wild eyes raging into mine. The blade moved within me, cutting and sawing, opening me from end to end. I was shrieking, writhing around my penetration, tearing my rent muscles in a manic effort to get the sword out, to make the pain stop, oh god, make it stop!

“That’s it, piggy!” He roared, “Squeal me for me while I fuck you! I’m fucking you good! You ain’t never had a cock like this before!”

We separated. He ripped the sword out of me, and rammed it in again. It pierced through my gut, blended my intestines, and shot out of me high on my back. Blood vomited from my mouth and speckled his face as we came together once more, intimate like lovers.

“You’ll die here, little piggy.” He grinned at me, twisting his blade inside me, making me screech higher and higher, “You’ll die good and slow like all piggies!”

He got too close. I wrenched forward, sank my teeth into his nose, and clamped down. Now it was his turn to squeal. He bellowed and screamed at the top of his lungs, and ripped his blade this way and that inside of me. He sawed to my sternum, sliced toward my hip, and plunged toward my pelvis, opened me from every direction, but I kept my teeth clamped on his face, biting deeper and deeper, blood flowing freely from my mouth as my esophagus spasmed with it. The dance of battle continued around us, and the partners all separated, but we didn’t. When I had enough room to move my arms, I wrapped them around his neck, and threw my weight backward. The screaming man in my mouth toppled forward, and we were swept into the trampling undercurrent.

It was dark down here. The light was fading from my vision, and the world was swimming above me. Feed pounded all around me and on top of me, driving the squirming man against me, pounding me into the ground. Like a dying snake locked in its last defiant moments, I kept my jaws clenched around the man’s nose, but the rest of my energy dissipated from my body. A numbness crawled up from my feet, taking away the life from every part of me it touched, sapping me slowly from the bottom. I was so cold. A fever seemed to be raging in my head. My heartbeat was thumping slowly in my temples. Ba-bum, ba-bum, ba-bum… why was it so loud? It was like it was warning me of something. It needn’t bother. I knew what was happening.

It sure is dark down here, a wicked part of me thought; a dark, and gleeful little piece of evil. No reason to go out like a pussy, bro.

I grinned at the thought, and my teeth became fangs. My fangs sank into the man’s face, and his shrieks moved up an octave until his head exploded in my jaws. My hands became claws, my rent flesh knitted back together, and my limbs exploded with muscle. I was alive. Oh, I was ALIVE! I reached out, grabbed a passing leg, and tore it clean off like it was a chicken wing. Its owner pitched forward with a bloody scream, revealing the blinding high-noon sun. I dashed out from the light, moving like a centipede on my hands and feet beneath the trampling feet, slithering nimbly through the dynamic forest of legs. They didn’t even see me; just glimpses. Just a pale horror of their worst nightmares scuttling across their toes. I grabbed a man, pulled him under, and darted away before the sun burned too much of me. I left him to be trampled behind me, then I scurried between another man’s legs, punched upward, and ripped his guts out through his new asshole. Holy shit, that was funny. He stayed standing long enough for me to avoid the light he’d leave in his wake, and I continued my aimless path of terror. The flashes of sunlight from above constantly burned marks upon me, leaving red blotches on my shoulders and back, and bald spots in my hair. I giggled like a crazy woman to think about how ugly I must look, and then I punched through another officer’s pelvic floor, tore the awful out of him, and let his innards slide cleanly from the fresh hole.

Hey bro, you still alive? I called Kiera. Bro?

I tore a man’s feet right off, and dragged him under. God, that fucking sun was getting annoying.

Bro?

I gutted another man through his anus, and ran away with his entrails in hand, letting them string out like twenty-foot rope to trip a whole platoon of his comrades. This joke never got old.

Bro?

Hey bitch. Kiera answered. Her voice was so weak. How’s it going?

I’m just… you know… dying.

Cool-cool. Me too. What’s your mode of transport?

I’m going out like a fucking legend, bro. Running through the Lowland army like a fucking predator, ripping guts out of assholes and tearing legs off.

Fucking legendary, bitch.

Amen. How’s it going for you?

I… uh… I don’t really want to say it now.

Why not?

It’s not as cool as yours. It’s kind of embarrassing.

This is a strange time to be insecure.

Ugh, fine. This bastard mage is torturing me to death.

Fucking bummer, bro.

Dude is a total amateur. Dumbass doesn’t even realize I took ten times the lethal dose of heroin before he even captured me. I can’t feel a thing. Oops, there goes my penis.

I’m really gonna miss that dick, bro.

I am too. But hey, he just informed me he’s going to display it in a glass jar at the Ardeni Science Museum.

Right where it belongs.

I thought it belonged in an art exhibit myself. Ah shit, now he wants to cut the baby out of me.

What the fuck is wrong with this dude?

Total virgin for sure.

One-hundred-percent virgin. I guarantee you he didn’t even come out of his mom’s pussy, so he can’t even claim a score on a technicality.

Holy shit, I just realized my whole body was once inside my mom’s pussy.

Fucking crazy, right? We start our lives coming out of a pussy, and spend the rest of ‘em trying to get back in.

Circle of life, bitch.

Fucking circle of life. I bet that mage is so hard right now

He’s definitely gonna fuck my corpse.

Circle of life?

I don’t think that applies here.

Make sure to shit yourself before you go.

Way ahead of you, bitch.

I sniffled with pride. I fucking love you, bro.

I fucking love you too. Kiera sniffled back, You would’ve been a really good mom, you know.

Nah, we both would’ve been really shitty parents.

But the good kind of shitty. Not neglectful, just… fucking crazy.

I’m gonna miss you.

Not for long. You’ll see me on the other side.

You know I’m atheist.

Who said God would be there? Kiera’s voice was so faint, It’ll just be you and me. Holy shit, Bri-Bri, we’re actually about to die. Fucking unreal, man.

Fucking unreal. I whispered back as I felt our connection fade, I’ll see you soon, my love.

There wasn’t a reason to keep going. The sun had scored so many marks on me that it was becoming a struggle to move, and frankly, I was getting tired of ripping guts out of assholes. It just wasn’t as funny as the first time. Still, I needed an epic sendoff. I needed an honor guard of worthy foes to carry me into the oblivion. Fucking legendary shit. Fucking next level shit. And lo and behold, between the rows of iron-clad legs, way at the back of the Lowland army, I found a cluster of red robes shuffling ponderously toward me. Maybe there was a god after all, but she had a sick sense of humor.

I shot through the ranks of Lowlanders, weaving between legs like a serpent, my eyes fixed on the red robes. They didn’t even break stride; they didn’t know I was coming!

“Kiera, I hope you’re watching this.” I grinned to myself, and shot into the air like a goddamn missile. The sun blistered my flesh, but I didn’t care. I grinned through cracked lips, my fangs bared in a wild grimace, and I barreled onto the heads of ten of the Lowland’s finest. There were seven men and three women, all of varying age, but what they all had in common in that moment, was that they all were shitting their robes. I splayed my arms out wide as though to embrace them, and then swept downward. Two heads exploded into brain confetti, one head was ripped right off the neck, and another was only caved in. Disappointing. I landed atop two of them, crushing their chests and bursting their hearts, squirting blood from their hemorrhaged eardrums. The sixth died with her throat ripped out between my teeth, the seventh got his spine torn clean from his back, the eight got her guts ripped out of her asshole just for nostalgia, and the ninth, I beat to death with her own torn-off leg.

I turned my gaze to the frozen tenth mage. He’d pissed himself as well as shit himself, and his lips were stammering stupidly below his bulging eyes. My flesh was smoking, and agony was sounding from every nerve, but I was too out of my mind for the pain to do anything but make me giggle.

“Hey bro,” I hacked at him, “lemme give you some advice. If you don’t shoot your shot when you have the chance, you’ll spend your whole life loading up for nothing.”

“W-w-w-w-what?”

“Fucking shoot your shot, bro! Don’t be such a pussy!”

The mage raised his quivering hands, and white light enveloped me.

TITUS

I pondered the shape of the black widow spider that crawled upon my hand. Such an exquisite creature. Many other spiders were hairy, aggressive, mindless predators, but orb-weavers—and particularly the black widow—were truly beautiful things. She was curved like a pregnant woman, complete with an hourglass marker upon her belly, and long sinuous legs that moved with such carefulness and grace. The way her body swayed, and the manner in which her eight appendages rolled in sequence was strangely sexual, and adding to the black widow’s allure was her deadliness. She didn’t need to scurry like some barbarian and pounce on her prey; no, she simply trapped the prey in her web, sauntered nonchalantly toward the struggling insect, and then with lightning speed, she injected her venom with one bite. No need to exert herself any further; just a leisurely stroll, a display of apex-predator power, then a relaxing meal afterward.

“Tiffany,” I said to my favorite blood-daughter, “I do believe I’ve found your spirit animal.”

“Is that so?” Tiffany asked with a smile, “You do know that black widows eat the men they mate with, right?”

“Perfect.” I chuckled, and extended my hand so that the beautiful creature could crawl back into her web.

My hundreds of children stood silently within the catacombs, waiting for the prey to fall into our web. The booms of the falling boulders were dull in this dank, dark place, and only elicited a gentle disturbance of dust. Still, there was an acrid hint of… not fear, but something like it amongst my pack. Most of the enemy were naught but well-armored prey, like an armadillo, but there were those amongst them that were very, very dangerous, and it was high-noon. I made sure to address each of my family individually through the myriad connections in my mind, no matter how distant they were descendant. As I navigated the mental blood-tree, I saw with a heavy heart that there were three branches missing.



“You have lost three half-siblings today, Tiffany.” I muttered, and wiped a single tear from my eye.

“I know. I felt them,” she adjusted her black robes, tidying them carefully. “We will lose more.”

“Many more.” I pondered the rock ceiling above us, “I never thought I’d give so much to a cause I cared so little for. If I’d known it would come to this, I never would’ve left Ardeni.”

“Regrets are for mortals, Father.”

“I am feeling quite mortal right now.” I sighed, and combed back my hair. “Tiffany, you know I’m not a superstitious man, but I can’t shake my sense of foreboding right now.”

“You’ll get through this.”

“But if I don’t,” I said, and reached into my robes, “make certain that I die with dignity.” I handed my blood-daughter a rod, and she shuddered when it met her flesh. Though it was encased in a thick layer of iron, the Nadi wood at its core was easy to detect for us. “It’s a blow-dart,” I explained.

“Father, I…”

“I’m much too vain to die shrieking in the burning sun, and much too cowardly to commit suicide.” I patted her shoulder with a rueful smile, “You’re a killer, Tiffany. If the time comes, I know you won’t fail me. It’s been a long time since the Titus clan had a proper matriarch.”

Tiffany closed her hand around the rod, and nodded solemnly.

LEVERIA

I leapt from the top of the castle, flew across the city, and launched a great blast of fire onto the Lowlanders below me. The men screamed as their armor melted to their flesh, and I laughed manically as the mages shot their futile counterattacks back at me. That was what Zander projected for the Lowland navy to see, anyway. In actuality, I was by myself in a fucking rowboat, struggling with the oars. Any magic cast within the Lowlander’s perimeter would be noticed, and so I had to row myself like a goddamn gondolier through the treacherous fog, and pray that none of the mages decided to scan the northern coastline for escaping Dark Queens. My hands were bloody, my back was killing me, and my ass was soaked with sea water. I was undoubtedly suffering far worse than anyone else on the battlefield.

It took me an hour to circumnavigate the northern coast of the bay. Once there, I set my oars down, and let out a low groan. The sounds of battle were distant, and the intimidating mastheads of the Lowland man-o-wars seemed so tiny. I took a moment to let my screaming muscles calm, and then I opened my pouch, and pulled out Zander’s conch shell. Leaning over the side of the boat, I dipped the conch shell into the water, and blew. A few seconds later, a wet head of hair emerged from the surface, followed by a pretty pale face, and a nice pair of huge tits.

“Alexandra?” I asked.

The gills on the mermaid’s neck flared. “Who are you?” she asked.

“The Dark Queen.”

She cocked her head, and assessed me with her teal eyes. “Who?”

“You don’t know who the… never mind. I’ve got your shell, and that’s all that matters.”

“Where did you get it?”

“Zander gave it to me.”

“Who?”

“Wait… Destiny gave it to me.”

“Destiny Fredeon?”

“She’s the one.”

She looked from the shell, to me. “Why did Destiny gift you with this shell? It was to be hers alone. It was a most precious gift.”

“She said you could help me.”

“How do I know you haven’t simply stolen the shell from her?”

I let out a long sigh, pulled down my skirt, and showed Alexandra my penis. “You see those suction marks?” I said, pointing to the tentacular hickies that wrapped my shaft, “Only one woman can do that.”

Alexandra’s expressionless eyes studied my penis for a moment, then nodded. “Two such women can do that, Dark Queen.” Her flipper-like fingers grew out into tentacles, then receded again, “It was I who taught her. Why would a surface-dweller have use for a squid’s appendages? She came by my cove a millennium ago, singing with her sweet voice, beckoning to the shallows. I would have dragged her to the depths and eaten her, but her voice haunted me beautifully, and I took her as a lover instead. I gave her this shell to summon me when lust or loneliness filled her belly, but I have not seen her for hundreds of years now. How does she fare?”

I pointed to the battle raging a half-mile away. “Not great.”

Alexandra cocked her head. “Why is that?”

“We’re under attack!”

“Who is ‘we?’”

“Alkandra!”

“Who?”

I let out another long sigh. “Alexandra, you’re being very difficult.”

“I am being inquisitive.”

“Are you going to help me, or not?”

“That depends. Can you sing?”

I blinked. “No.”

“Then it seems that Destiny Fredeon has simply brought me a meal.” She paused, then said, “That was a joke. What is it you would like help with, Dark Queen?”

“I just need you to get me aboard that capital ship.”

“You rowed past it to get here. I suggest you row back to it to board it. I believe that is how it is usually done, though I must confess, watching ships orient themselves is much like watching whales try to mate.”

“I can’t let them see me or they’ll kill me.”

“And if they see me, will they kill me?”

“Probably.”

“So you are asking me to risk my life for you.”

“You risk your life everyday just by walking out of your front door.”

“I don’t walk.”

“Holy shit, why are you like this?!”

Her lips curved into something resembling a smile. “My friends are dolphins and orcas, and this is how we converse. I see that you do not enjoy conversing this way, so then I will stop. What is it you want me to do for you specifically, Dark Queen?”

I let out another long and slow breath, staying the urge to lift this woman into the sky and set her on fire. “Destiny told me you could get me aboard that ship without anyone noticing. That is all—and I mean all—that I need from you.”

She nodded her head. “Do you desire to be alive when you board the ship?”

Why would you even ask that?!

Alexandra cocked her head. “Because my method of transport will change depending on whether you desire to board as a corpse or not. I take it you want to be alive when you board the ship?”

I let out a fourth long and slow breath. “Yes, Alexandra. I would like you to get me aboard that ship undetected, alive, and with all my body parts still attached. Thank you.”

Alexandra extended her hand. “It can be done. Come with me into the water, Dark Queen.”

“I can’t swim.”

“I’m a good enough swimmer for the both of us, I think.” She said with a small smile.

I tentatively grasped her web-fingered hand, and dipped my toes in the water. Fuck, it was freezing. I didn’t know why I thought it would be different. I tried to ease myself off the side of the boat, and realized too late that was impossible. The boat dipped suddenly, and I was sent plunging into the freezing water. Alexandra wrapped me in her arms, and prevented me from going under.

“So,” I queried, my voice pitched up an octave in reaction to the cold, “what’s the plan?”

“I need you to kiss me.”

“What?!”

“You cannot breathe underwater as I can, so you must siphon air from my lungs.” She winked at me, “And if you decide to taste me in the process, that is fine as well. Are you ready?”

I nodded, took a deep breath, and parted my lips. She pressed her mouth to mine, and slowly took us both underwater. I closed my eyes against the abrasive sea water, and in so doing, I became very, very aware that I was mouth-to-mouth with a beautiful mystical sea creature. My dick stabbed Alexandra right in the tummy. She smiled around our kiss, and snuck her tongue in my mouth. I wrapped my legs around her waist, securing myself to her, and flattening my throbbing cock between our pressing bellies. As she kissed me, she unfurled her great tail, and launched us with one great whip. We shot through the water like a torpedo, though I hardly noticed the ride.

ZANDER

My illusionary spell was very effective. Half of the Lowland mages peeled off to join their army in the urban assault, and the other two-hundred fifty came right for me. I watched the robed figures walk across the beach, step onto the water of the bay, and walk across its surface like some holy shamans. They didn’t even break the formation of their procession.

There were many studies of magic, but only two philosophies. Indeed, the same could be said for any practice. The two philosophies were, at their core, a discussion of method. Was magic something that was controlled, or something that was used? Was it something to be conquered, or something to be set free? And in this discussion, it is pertinent to first understand where the mage is coming from. I was a hermit who lived in a fantasy treehouse in the forest; needless to say, I was of the free-spirited variety, but magic came naturally to me. Prestira Rasloraca, on the other hand, was of the other variety. Everything she did was practiced until it was carved precisely into her mind, and every spell, incantation, and enchantment had to be learned through the brutal conquest of knowledge. This kind of method necessitated regimentation. The point I was making to myself while I pondered this thought, was that all of the Lowland mages were Prestira’s students, and so they performed magic as Prestira had performed magic. Because Prestira was a demanding teacher, she required strict regimentation and ceremony within her school, and so all of her former students walked in procession with their robes overhead and their arms folded into their oversized sleeves. Prestira had taught them to walk like this to deprive them of identity, but ironically and inevitably, the walk of the Ardeni mages became a part of their mystique, and so became a centerpiece of their identity when they promenaded the streets of Ardeni. What a bunch of cunts.

“Prestira,” I muttered, “I’m sorry for what I’m about to do to your legacy.”

I waited until my illusionary spell had been detected for what it was, then I dropped it. The Lowland ships ceased shooting ballistae missiles at a phantom target, and redirected their efforts at covering their army’s advance in the city. When the mages got close enough, I shook the cloak from my shoulders, and rested my hand atop Alkandi’s skull.

“Robert!” I called toward the leader, “Quit being such a twat and show me your bald-ass head!”

Robert Usich’s face upturned, and he pulled his hood down. “You don’t exactly look like a spring-chicken yourself, Zander.”

“I just decided to start showing my age.”

“That was a bad choice.”

“Not as bad as the choice you made when you came here,” I said, and nodded toward the burning city, “there will be consequences for this, you know.”

Robert smiled cruelly. “Yavara’s already dead, old man, and her sister’s nowhere to be found.”

“I’m talking about me.”

Robert burst out laughing. “You? YOU?!” He gestured behind him, “Behold, the life’s work of Zander Fredeon the Great. His magnum opus, his masterpiece, his chef-d'oeuvre. It took you a thousand years to make kindling, and a second for me to turn it into fire.”

“With a little help from a few hundred of your friends. Prestira never could teach you humility.”

“Don’t speak her name, Fredeon. You’re the reason she’s dead!”

Now it was my turn to smile cruelly. “That’s right, Robert, she died for me. That dumb slut was addicted to me.”

“I’m warning you, old man!” Robert gesticulated violently, nearly knocking the hood off the young female mage at his side.

“Oh, Robert, Robert, Robert…” I chuckled, “how many nights did you fuck your calloused hand, and imagine that it was your precious teacher? If you ask nicely, I can tell you what she really felt like.”

Robert Usich launched his most powerful inferno spell, and I jammed it at the source. His hands exploded like he’d been gripping grenades, and he fell shrieking to his knees. Before the woman beside him could aid him, I disintegrated him, and turned the First Mage of Ardeni into nothing but a red stain in the snow.

“If any of you want to leave before this gets gross,” I said, “I suggest you do now. I won’t offer you a second chance.”

None of them did. The Lowland Academy wasn’t a snake I could cut the head off of, but a hydra. The only reason I’d managed to kill Robert was because he’d stuck his proverbial neck out from the rest. The robed ranks closed in, and the entire class took one step toward me. They raised their hands, and launched their unified attack. This wasn’t the queen-killing spell they’d fired earlier; that took too long to recover from, and frankly, it was overkill for someone like me. No, this was an endless stream of rudimentary spells all meant to wear down my shield. It was a boringly effective strategy. Counterattacking so many spells would deplete me all at once, and so I was trapped within my own defensive shell, doomed to drain myself to nothing just to survive another second…

DESTINY

… but of course, I wasn’t there. No Lowland detection spell would ever reveal the illusion of Zander Fredeon, for I projected every molecule of bone, blood, muscle and organs within him. The projection was nearly a person itself, and it was an incredibly taxing spell. Even with my deep reservoir of magic, I could only keep up the illusion for a few minutes. Fortunately for me, the largest shared magical reservoir in the world had delivered itself to my doorstep. All I had to do was sneak into the Lowland mages ranks while Robert and Zander exchanged banter, and kill the only mage who had a chance of detecting me. Zander Fredeon’s reputation was so great that no one questioned why Robert’s inferno spell had backfired into his own hands when Zander was fifty yards away. That counterattack had been instantaneous; almost like it had been performed by someone standing right next to him. No one noticed the blue-haired woman wearing Lowland robes as she stepped into the red gore that used to be Robert Usich. No one noticed anything at all. And as the Lowland’s finest minds rained spells upon Zander Fredeon, no one noticed that one of their members was grossly overdrawing from their shared reservoir. And so, for twenty minutes the Lowlanders sapped their reserves dry trying to kill a thing they themselves were giving life to, and the wolf amongst them smiled from her blue-sheened lips, and waited.

An older mage passed out, and fell like a tree onto his side. A younger man dropped to his knees, then face-planted into the snow. A middle-aged woman fainted, and dropped dramatically before her classmates. One by one, they sapped themselves, and one by one, they wilted into the snow. Though I was projecting a mighty shield around Zander, his greatest defense was his own reputation. None of the mages questioned what they were seeing. To them, this man was a mythical demigod, so of course he possessed infinite and unknowable power! Of course he could withstand a few hundred paltry mages; why, they might as well be street magicians compared to him! This was Zander Fucking Fredeon! This was the First Mage of Alkandra, the immortal servant of the Dark Queen, the slayer of dragons, the impregnator of sirens, the occultic master of the forest-dwellers! What chance did mere mortals have against him?! They didn’t know that he’d been bested in the streets of Ardeni by a handful of Highland rangers and mages. They didn’t know that he’d nearly been killed by alcohol poisoning at least a hundred times. They didn’t know that a man with a strong enough uppercut and the element of surprise could kill him just as assuredly as twenty Lowland mages, for in truth, that was all they would’ve needed to defeat the great Zander Fredeon, but they allowed his reputation to blind them, and so they killed themselves to kill their perception of him.

Soon, there were just a dozen of us left standing. I could practically smell the desperation wafting from the remaining mages, who were bow-backed and on their knees, their eyes bulging with the strain of the battle. One by one, they dropped into the snow until there was only one other left standing. This was a man still in his teen years, hardly a man at all, but he was the strongest of the lot. Though tears poured down his cheeks, and sweat poured down his brow, he soldiered on through gritted teeth. He fell to one knee, then onto his elbows, but still, he fired his stream of attacks at Zander.

“Hey!” He yelled at me, “Hey you! I’ll hold him off; you make a break for it!”

Ah, what a gentleman. Who said chivalry was dead?

I disengaged from Zander, and watched the poor young man waste himself on my illusion.

“What are you doing?!” He yelled, collapsing onto his belly, “Run!”

“How old are you, boy?”

“WHAT?!”

“What’s your age?”

“Get the fuck out of here, you stupid bitch!” He cried, his fingers trembling with the effort of his spellcasting. With a groan of comingled exhaustion and dismay, he collapsed, and his spell evaporated.

I ended the illusion, and assessed my surroundings. Two-hundred-forty-nine of the Lowland’s finest were sprawled out in the snow, comatose with fatigue. It seemed a damn shame to kill them all, but there was no alternative. They were too dangerous to keep as prisoners, and too dangerous to let go. I muttered a second apology to Prestira, and got to work massacring her students. The least-taxing killing spell was to induce cardiac arrest, and so I went up and down the rows of unconscious mages, tapped my finger to their chests to avoid unnecessary expenditures of energy, and killed them while they slept. Some coughed blood, some spasmed, but most just stopped breathing. It was humane, I supposed. I didn’t really care. After a while, murder was just as ponderous a job as factory work. It was only when I got to the last mage, the young man who had tried to save me, that I paused. I saw something in him that reminded me of… well, me. Not me as Destiny, but the young Zander Fredeon I had been so many years ago.

Revisionist history, old man, I chuckled to myself. This boy was brave and virtuous, and I had been a sniveling coward hiding behind a bookshelf while my whole temple was massacred. Still, it touched something in me. I turned the boy over onto his back, and awoke him with a spell. His eyes fluttered open.

“Did we win?” He croaked.

“One of us did.” I said, and briefly transformed back into Zander before donning Destiny’s more appealing visage.

The boy blinked. “You mother fucker,” he whispered.

“I know.” I smiled compassionately, and rested my hand on his chest, “How old are you?”

He tried to spit in my face, but only managed to splatter saliva all over his cheeks and eyes. I blotted him clean, and asked again, “How old? Don’t make me pry it from your mind.”

“Nineteen.”

“And already so powerful?” I raised my brow, “What a little overachiever you are. Prestira must’ve loved you.”

“Don’t speak her name, you bastard!”

I rolled my eyes. “None of you knew her; I don’t know why you’re all so keen to defend her. She would’ve ground your bones to powder if she thought it would’ve given her complexion a nicer glow.”

“Fuck you!”

“She was a psychotic drunk who only respected those stronger than her, which is why she ran off with me and Yavara, and abandoned all of you without a second thought.”

“Lying slut!”

“She certainly was.”

“You know what I mean!”

“You are a stubborn little fucker, aren’t you? Some people think stubbornness is a virtue, but look where it got you.” I tapped him on the chest, and smiled, “Adaptability is what survivors have. Let’s see if you’ve got any of it. How would you like a job?”

“What?”

“An apprenticeship, actually. I need to reestablish the Alkandran Magical Order, and there’s a dearth of candidates within the Great Forest. How would you like to be my first?”

The boy just stared at me with his mouth agape. I watched the gears in his mind tick behind his eyes, and I felt a pang of disappointment when he made the decision to try to kill me. He raised a feeble hand to touch my chest, and I burst his heart. Blood shot out of his mouth, and speckled my face. With his dying breath, he croaked out a single guttural word, then his eyes rolled back into his head, and he went limp.

I frowned, and looked at the place where his forefinger was touching my breast. I peeled back my robes, pulled my bra down, and revealed a small black dot just above my nipple. What had he said with his last breath? “Cancer.” The little fucker had used a death curse on me.

“Oh, you bastard.” I chuckled to myself, watching the black dot vanish into my flesh. That’s what I get for trying to be nice.

How much time did I have left? Hours at the most. It would metastasize rapidly, eating through my blood, then my lymphnodes, then my organs. Already I could feel a fever setting on from my weakened immune system, and a dull ache in my chest.

“Well,” I muttered, “no reason to be cautious now.” I got to my feet, and surveyed the burning city, “Time to have some fun.”
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