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Introduction:

I guess this is the "climax" of the story, if there is one.
Chapter Sixty

YAVARA

The first thing I noticed when I awoke, was the familiar warmth of hair atop my head. It was strange, but the most jarring part of being burned half to death was the feeling of cold air against my bald pate. The missing limbs and skin were somehow secondary, and so the recovery of those lost things came as a second realization to me. The third thing I noticed, was that I was in my room in the high tower of Castle Alkandra. The fourth thing I noticed, was that Leveria was hovering over me.

“Wake up, sleepy-head,” she crooned softly; her trademarked smirk strewn across her black-sheened lips.

I blinked in the afternoon sunlight. “How?” I croaked.

She took my hand in hers, and examined it carefully, “I found you beneath a pile of dead Zander. Most of you was already gone, so I had to make the rest from scratch.” She turned my hand over, scrutinizing every detail, “It was my first foray into healing, so don’t judge me too harshly.”

I curled the fingers on my regrown hand, marveling at how it felt. “Where were you?” I whispered.

“Zander and I hatched a plan. We couldn’t let anyone else know about it, even you.”

“I guess it worked then.”

“Of course it worked, Yavara. All my plans work.”

I smiled weakly at her. “You sure took your time.”

“Well, I had to learn how to fucking fly. No small feat.”

“I didn’t know pigs could fly.”

“Ha. Ha. Ha.” She flicked my nose, “If I knew you were going to be an ungrateful cunt, I would’ve left you to rot.”

“I am grateful, Leveria.”

She raised one of her brows. “How grateful?”

“Not that grateful.”

She snorted. “Whatever, bitch. I got a new toy anyway.” Leveria turned toward the bedroom door, and called, “You may see her now, Your Highness.”

The bedroom door opened, and in walked King Arthur Dreus. He was dressed in his stately military regalia, and flanked on both sides by stout Lowland guardsmen.

“What the fuck…?” I groaned.

“King Dreus and I found common ground.” Leveria said.

“He didn’t seem much in the mood for negotiation.”

“I put him in the mood.” Leveria smirked, “Your Highness, would you be so kind as to give us some privacy?”

“My liege…” one of King Dreus’s guards began to object, but the king waved them away anyway. When they left the room, he closed the door behind him. Then he got on his hands and knees like a dog, and crawled across the floor. Leveria stretched out her hand, and King Dreus scampered happily beneath it, and growled pleasantly when she ran her fingers through his hair. She tousled his brown locks, then gave me a self-satisfied smirk when she saw my look of shock.

“How?” I croaked.

“Same way I broke Mother and Prestira. Men are much easier.” She scratched him behind the ear, and he crawled into a docile ball at her feet.

“The mages will know.” I said.

“There aren’t many mages left.” Leveria stroked her new pet down the spine, “Besides, I didn’t use magic to break him. I never needed telepathy to get into someone’s head. I just needed some alone time and a little liquid persuasion, and now the Lowlands belong to me.” She patted her belly, and winked at me, “For many generations to come.”

“It won’t work.”

“It already has.”

“Your child will be a dark-elf. The Lowlands are a human nation.”

“Semantics, dear sister.” Leveria chuckled, “Nothing a few constitutional changes won’t fix. Besides, all the Lowlanders ever really cared about is money, and I’ll make sure this marriage is very profitable for the right people in Ardeni.”

“Marriage?!”

“The most insidious form of conquest.” Leveria giggled, “Oh, the Lowlanders will be very used to me by the time my poor husband dies in a mysterious fishing accident, won’t they, Sweetie?” Leveria pushed her hand down the back of Arthur’s pants, and the Lowland king grinned stupidly up at her as she pushed her fingers into his ass. “Such a good boy,” she purred, “you’re going to give me everything I want, aren’t you?”

He nodded, then nuzzled his face into her lap, and moaned as she played with his prostate.

“Yeah, you like it back here, don’t you, Sweetie?” Leveria whispered sardonically, “Just like that faggot brother I tricked Yavara into murdering. I guess being a little twink slut runs in the family. Do you like it when I shove my big fat cock in your little royal asshole?”

Arthur moaned into her lap, and nuzzled the bulge that was forming there.

“Such a good, good boy.” Leveria crooned, “I’ll have to neuter you to make sure you stay a good boy. Can’t have ambitious bitches getting ahold of your royal seed, no, no, no.” She pressed her fingers hard into him, and he bowed his back and whimpered in delight. “I’ll be the one wearing the royal family jewels in this relationship, Sweetie. I hope you enjoyed your time inside of me, because it’s the last time you’ll be inside anyone else.” She flexed her hand, and rolled her molesting digits inside him, and he gasped in pleasure. “You won’t need that cock anymore either,” She whispered heatedly as he wriggled in her lap, “but I’ll let you keep it just so that you have something to play with while I fuck you in the ass!”

Arthur orgasmed with a cry, and collapsed against my sister. A dark spot formed in his pants, and spread about his crotch. Leveria toyed with his anus for a moment longer, then withdrew her fingers, and made the Lowland king clean them off. When he was done, he mewled and nuzzled the bulge in her pants, but she just shook her head, snapped her fingers, and pointed to the door. With an expression of puppy-like dejection, King Arthur Dreus receded to his haunches, and crawled moping to the door. Once there, he stood up, adopted a powerful royal posture, adjusted himself, and walked proudly out of the door. It slammed behind him, leaving silence in his wake.

Leveria pulled out a cigarette, and lit it between her lips. “That got you really wet watching that, didn’t it?”

“Fuck you.”

She eyed me knowingly. “Don’t you wish you were him?”

“Fuck. You.”

She sucked the butt until the embers were hot, then let the cigarette spin between her fingers until it was facing down. She purposefully lowered the burning square, and pressed the embers to my wrist. The heat and pain stabbed right into me, but I didn’t go rigid with distress. No, I just arched my back from the bed, and moaned like a whore. A second later, her hand was between my legs, bunching the silken cloth of my gown into my crotch, petting me, stroking me, teasing the division of my slit with the pads of her fingers until the cloth between us was damp with my flow. Before I could even gasp, her mouth was on mine. Her lips opened my resistances easily, and her tongue snaked inside.

Oh, what a kiss. The moment I tasted her saliva, I was drowning in it. Moaning with need and undulating desperately, I took her into my embrace, and wilted submissively when she moved atop me. Her breath was in my nostrils, her fist was balled in my hair, and her fingers were snaking their way inside me, testing the elasticity of my salivating lower mouth, pushing the saturated cloth into me, so wet that I could feel the contours of her fingertips through it. I was awash in her lust, a willing slave to her every desire, a whore waiting on every nonverbal command of her body. Her weight suppressed me from above, her soft flesh squished and molded delectably to my every curve, and her hard cock pressed between our tummies, throbbing with such raging need that I could feel its heat through our clothes. I opened my legs wide for her, moaning and mewling into her mouth as her fingers did such exquisite damage inside of me. She touched me to perfection, knowing what I needed before I did, playing me like an instrument until I was thrashing beneath her and screaming into her mouth. I was coming. Every inch of my body was teeming with the desire for release, and so with what little willpower I had left, I pitched forward, and launched Leveria off of me.

She flew across the room, and sprawled out into a chair. Her skirt upended, and her erection stood rigid in her lap, pointing right at me. She stared at me with blazing orange eyes from behind a curtain of disheveled black hair. “You’re a stubborn little slut, aren’t you?” She snarled.

I levelled my finger at her, and ignited the point in blue flame.

She rolled her eyes. “Puh-lease, Yavara.”

I got up off the bed, and walked toward the door, keeping my blazing finger pointed at her.

“Where are you going?”

“I did my part. Now I’m leaving.”

“Be reasonable.”

“There is no reasoning with you!” I growled, “You don’t negotiate, you don’t compromise; you get what you want no matter what. Isn’t that why you showed me what you did to Arthur? Wasn’t it a threat?!

Leveria held out her hands amicably, “I’ve already told you what I wanted from you. Partnership and companionship. I don’t want to conquer you.”

I laughed.

“Do you need me to prove it to you?”

“There’s nothing you can do to prove to me that you’re anything but what you’ve always been.”

“I’ve never professed to being a changed woman, Yavara, but I’m trying to find a way to keep you in my life without us destroying each other.”

“I think we both know that’s impossible.”

Leveria cocked her head, and smiled dangerously. “Is that what you really think?”

“It’s what I know.”

She drew her eyes to the western window. “Look out there then.”

I squinted at her, searching her mind for a trap, but there was nothing in her that conveyed deception. Keeping my finger leveled on her, I slowly backed toward the wall, and looked out the window. In the Alkandra Bay, the great Lowland man-o-wars had dropped anchor at the dock. Their ballistae and catapults were loaded, and the men who armed them were ready. I drew my gaze westward. There, across the Knife River, the golden ranks of the Highland army stretched along the banks, unaware that the ships on the seaward side of the city were trained on them. It would be a massacre.

“Well, Your Highness,” Leveria chuckled, and sauntered over to me, “should we renegotiate our deal, or are negotiations over?” She put her arm around my waist, kissed the point of my ear, and whispered, “I told you we were past these childish games of war and death, little sister, because I already won. You conceded that game when you revived me and gave me Alkandi. Like you said earlier, I’ve always been ten steps ahead of you.”

Her tongue slithered into my ear, painting it with saliva, inundating me with an auditory deluge of sensuous slurps and licks. Her hand snaked down the small of my back, and slid down my ass. She extended her evil middle finger to divide my plump crack, burrowed between my split succulent cheeks, and pressed against my anus through the thin cloth of my gown. My sinful aperture winked reactively to her touch, my rectum relaxed and opened in anticipation, and I mewled in distressed pleasure as she tortuously circled my ring. What was it about being defeated that turned me on so much? Why did every nerve and neuron within me beg to submit to this woman, this soul I knew so well, this evil, sadistic, avaricious demon who had so plagued my life? I knew what she would do; she would debase me, humiliate me, torture me, consume me wholly.

But I will do it so flawlessly, Yavara, she whispered into my mind, reading my broadcasted thoughts. I will play you with such expertise and precision like no one else can. I will make you scream in pain and moan in ecstasy. I will take you to breathless heights and depthless lows. I will treat you like a slave, like a goddess, like a prisoner and a queen. Her finger penetrated my anus, pushing the silk cloth of my gown inside of me. I collapsed against the window, my legs failing me. Oh, I needed to feel her flesh inside of me! The silken membrane between us was torture!

I’ll never surrender to you! I cried mentally as I whimpered with my mouth, seduced so thoroughly that I danced desperately against my pressing sister. Her cock was throbbing against my thigh, so hard and thick, blazing with the heat of her desire.

Yavara, Yavara, Yavara… Leveria cooed lovingly into my mind, her voice so menacing, so comforting in its velvet flow as it formed the shape of my name. You don’t understand, do you? Surrender is your power. Submission is your control. Oh, sweet sister, you don’t know what you DO TO ME! Leveria’s tongue left my ear, and trailed down the side of my face. I bowed my neck, enraptured by her possession of me, her cruel tenderness. Give in to this. There’s no need to fight it any longer. This world will be mine, but I will be yours.

“No.” I breathed against the window, fogging the glass.

“Stop denying us…” She hissed like a serpent, withdrew her molesting finger, and grabbed my ass with both hands. Her digits sank into the succulent fat, and she spread me wide, flattening the silken skirt across my domes before pressing into my crack with her cock. Oh god… I felt her pulsing organ sliding back and forth between my cheeks, teasing me through the thin layer of fabric. Her bumps and veins contoured along my swollen anus, singing across the tender puffy flesh, whispering of the damage and ecstasy she could do to my favorite hole.

Leveria slid her cheek next to mine, molded her front to my back, and pressed her breasts and tummy into my curves until there was no space between us. She released one of my cheeks, grasped my wrist, and slid my hands between my legs. She didn’t need to command me. She didn’t even need to suggest. I rubbed the saturated spot between my legs, grinding against my erect clit through the filthy cloth of my gown.

“I won’t rush you,” she whispered, and began to fondle the hard points of my nipples, “I won’t pressure you. You make the choice.”

“You’re not giving me a choice!”

“You can always choose the path you take, but the destination is always the same. Do you believe in destiny?”

“I know you don’t!” I snapped, unable to overcome my whorish moans with my anger.

Leveria’s mouth formed a smile against my cheek. “You’re wrong. Just because I’m a pragmatist, doesn’t mean I don’t believe in predestination. I knew I was destined to rule this world, and so it is coming to pass. One way or another, before this day is over, I will rule the Highlands, Midlands and Lowlands of Tenvalia. It is inevitable now. What inevitability has life’s course taken you to?” She pinched my nipples, and twisted them until I was crooning with delight, “I am the revelation at the end of your path, dearest sister. You were made for me!”

“No!” I whined, though it was such a slutty little objection that it was nearly an invitation. My back was bowed, my breasts were jutted forth, and my ass was pressed deep into Leveria’s crotch, flexing around the thick piece of meat that divided my cheeks.

“Yavara…” Leveria whispered so softly into my ear. Her hands left my nipples, stroked my breasts, slid down my ribs, rounded my waist, and traversed my thighs until her fingers were hooked into the hem of my gown. She slowly slid it up my body, letting it tighten around my ass until it sprang to my hips, exposing my alabaster lewdness from the waist down. She pressed against me once more, molding flesh to flesh, sliding her raw cock into my salivating crack, rubbing it against my twitching anus. I whimpered and whined, looked back at her with desperate, supplicant eyes, and urged her to do it with all but my words. Leveria’s gaze was wrought with the same kind of desire, so intoxicated with me that her pupils nearly filled out her orange eyes.

“Yavara,” she whispered hoarsely, smelling the bowed length of my neck, “I need you to say you want it.”

“Just rape me!” I begged.

“Oh, I will,” she purred, “over and over and over until you’re masochistic hunger is finally satiated. I’ll beat you, humiliate you, debase you and torture you. I won’t stop until you’re so full of my cum that it leaks from every hole.” She grazed her fingers along the converging lines of my pelvis, moving toward the furnace between my legs, “But I won’t do it unless it’s what you want. I will ignore every ‘no’ you ever utter, but first, you have to give me one ‘yes.’”

It was on the tip of my tongue before a loud knock on the door cut through my lustful haze.

“You Highness?” The door guard yelled.

Leveria groaned against me, knowing the moment was lost. “What?!” she screamed back.

“I have a message from the queen of the Highlands for Queen Regent Yavara!”

“Queen of the Highlands?” Leveria mused, “This should be good. I wonder which military slut Ternias decided to marry?”

Leveria moved off of me, peeling our sweaty flesh apart. We both let out a disappointed sigh, but neither tried to reinitiate. She walked to the door, picked up the envelope that had been shoved under it, and examined the lettering on the front.

To Dark Queen Yavara Tiadoa Alkandi,” Leveria read, “Well, someone needs to update their mailing list.”

“Give it to me.”

“I’ll read it out loud to you.”

“It’s my mail!”

“Is it though?” Leveria raised a brow, “Because I’m fairly certain the sender cares more about the ‘Dark Queen’ part than the ‘Yavara’ part.” Leveria opened the envelope, and unfolded the note written inside. “Dear Yavara—seems a bit informal if you ask me—Dear Yavara, I hope this letter never gets to you. I hope you’re far, far away, and that the deliverer of this message is sending it on an eagle that will scourge the horizons trying to find its intended. If you are reading this, I hope it is from some place you call home thousands of miles and many years from this time and place. I pray for this, because seeing you again will be the greatest pain in my life, and I have known great pain. If you are reading this from your tower in Alkandra, then I bid you to fly away right now, and do not look back. The Lowlanders blockade your bay from the docks themselves, and I block the entire western bank of the Knife River. Your horde is gone, and your city is destroyed. There is nothing left for you to fight for. Tell your people to lay down their arms, and surrender to the Lowland ships. The beasts must be taken back to Ardeni Dreus, for I fear that there will be no place for them in the Midlands. After the attack on Bentius—

“What?!”

Leveria held up her finger for silence. Her hands were trembling, but her voice was steady. “After the attack on Bentius, I cannot allow these woodlands to ever again become home to orc tribes. The Midlands will be reconstituted into the reestablished elven empire. Once the wildlands have been pacified after many generations, the orcs will be allowed to return to their ancestral homes as civilized citizens. I have formally offered clemency to all hybrids of Alkandra, as well as full citizenship. Their stature with the tribespeople and connections with the Highlands will be instrumental in civilizing the new territories. In time, I suspect the territories will surpass even the kingdom itself, and become the crown jewel of Tenvalia. This will be your lasting legacy, but you cannot be part of it. The Dark Queen will never walk on Tenvalia soil again.

Leveria sniffled, and wiped her eyes. I felt a knot in my throat forming, and a chill crawling across my flesh. Leveria swallowed, and continued reading. “By now, it is likely that you know who I am. You might feel the compulsion to rush out of your tower and seek me out. I beg you to stay that compulsion. I have ordered every mage, archer and swordsman to kill you on sight. Please understand that this order was not out of malice or hatred, but the opposite. I love you dearly, but my love for you and my love for my country have always been at odds, and now those loves are the direct antitheses of each other. You are a good woman, Yavara, but the Dark Queen is evil, and as the soon-to-be empress of the Highlands, I cannot allow that evil to persist. I have instructed my courier to tell me if this message was received by you. If I now know that you are in that tower, then I have already ordered my siege engines to load. If you are in that tower, you have until a quarter past the hour to fly away. Do not look back, Yavara. Writing these words is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but I mean them. You and I will never see each other again. I will always love you and the memory of you, and the knowledge that you still draw breath will give me comfort when I feel the acute pain of your absence. I hope I do the same for you. Love, Elena Straltaira, Queen of the Highlands.

ELENA

I stood before my army, and surveyed the wreckage of Alkandra. Even as a burnt-out husk, it was a marvel to see. The towers were built high like in Ardeni, and the riverbanks were packed with houses and shops that stretched for miles. Wide boulevards cut through the dense metropolis, spoking outward from the massive arena at its center like a wheel. In another life, I might’ve called it ‘home,’ but in this life, I would tear it down brick by brick until nothing of it remained.

“Alkandra.” Dog Meat said reverently, seemingly not bothered by the fact that it was mostly rubble.

“I did not know beasts could build such things,” the newly-promoted Headmaster Lucian mused next to me.

“It was built on the backs of orcs and trolls,” Krakis said from my other side, “but it was Alexa Jenania who designed this city.”

She had done a marvelous job. The bridge before us was spectacularly ornamented, and widened into an expansive boulevard that was lined on all sides by immense stone skyscrapers. The canyon of architecture narrowed with distance until it became the great steps of the castle. From those steps, a lone figure ran toward us. My courier. It took him five minutes to traverse the rubble-pocked boulevard and cross the damaged bridge. Headmaster Lucian cast a perception spell when the boy was fifty paces away, and nodded.

“It’s just him.” Lucian said.

The boy ran up to me, and held an envelope aloft. “Your Highness,” he said breathlessly, “you have a message from the Dark Queen.”

“Don’t read it.” Krakis said.

“Since when do you give me orders, Field Marshal?”

“I’m giving you advice.”

I plucked the envelope from my courier’s hands. “There is nothing in this letter that will shake my resolve.”

“Wait,” Lucian said, and cast another perception spell on the letter. “It’s clean.”

In truth, I dreaded reading the letter far more than I feared a deadly curse, but I kept my face composed as I opened it. The first thing I noticed, was that Yavara’s handwriting had improved drastically since I’d last seen it.

Dear Queen Straltaira,

I am pleased to hear that you’re alive and well. As per your request, I am delivering the last two remaining hybrids your way. I am also sending a Highland prisoner we captured. Consider it a sign of good faith.

With much amusement,

The Dark Queen.


“What the hell?” I muttered to myself. I looked up at the high tower in the distance. My eyes were keen enough to make out a tiny bronze figure standing in the window. I wished I hadn’t seen her. I tore my eyes away from Yavara, and looked down the boulevard at the three approaching figures. They wore hooded robes that concealed their features, but that did little against Lucian’s perception spell.

“Two hybrids; one female and one hermaphroditic.” Lucian said, “The high-elf girl is a mage.” He narrowed his eyes, “An extremely powerful one.”

“One of yours?”

“No,” he muttered, scratching his beard. “No, she’s likely one of Queen Leveria’s personal weapons. Your predecessor had many assassins on her payroll.”

“She’ll be useful then.”

“If you can trust her. Your Highness, I don’t think you should let her get too close.”

“You shouldn’t let any of them get too close,” Krakis muttered.

“What do you think, Dog Meat?” I asked.

She narrowed her eyes and wiggled her stumps, shooting little blue sparkles out from them. “Two of them are like Adri and you, and one is like me.”

“Are they a threat?”

She shook her head. “They’re all very scared.”

“That makes four of us then.” I said under my breath, and watched the figures come closer.

“Halt!” Krakis yelled, “Open your robes, identify yourselves, and lie on your bellies with your arms outstretched!”

“No need for that, Field Marshal.” I said, took the handles of Dog Meat’s wheelchair, and walked out toward the three figures. They stood unmoving at the foot of the bridge, watching me from their shadowed faces. When I was ten feet away, I stopped. The five of us just stared at each other. The cold wind ruffled the loose cloaks of those before me, revealing wisps of platinum-blonde hair from their concealing hoods, and flashes of their blue eyes. When no one said anything, I cleared my throat.

“Good afternoon, ladies.” I said.

Furia Augustinia pulled the hood from her head, revealing her half-tattooed portrait. Her expression was unreadable when she studied me, scrutinizing every surface of my face. “You look good for a dead woman,” she said.

Soraya Poneria pulled her hood from her face, and smiled at me. “I wondered if I’d recognize you,” she said, “I’ve heard so much about you, but I could never put a face to the name. Now I remember you. You were that loner who used to eat lunch by herself in the latrines back at Castle Thorum.”

“And you were the creepy bald librarian who used to peek through the crack in the latrine stalls. Now look at us.”

Soraya giggled. “I haven’t changed much, actually. Still a glorified librarian, and still an unrepentant creep. But you…” she gestured grandly to me, “just… wow. How did this happen?”

“Chance and circumstance.”

“That’s life.” Furia said, and looked down at Dog Meat. “Who is this?”

“Dog Meat!” Dog Meat announced happily, wiggling her little stumps.

“Dog Meat?” Soraya laughed.

“A victim of Gorlok’s raiders. She was rescued and given to me to give to you.”

“To me?” Furia raised her brows, “Why?”

“Because Adri made her promise!” Dog Meat exclaimed.

“Adri? As in Adrianna?” Furia’s eyes shot from Dog Meat, to me, “Where is she, Elena?!”

“She’s dead, Furia.” I said as calmly as I could, “I killed her.”

Furia and Soraya didn’t react right away. They stood like statues, their faces turned cold and stony. The wind whistled between us, billowing against their cloaks, revealing the swords at their sides.

“Why?” Furia asked, her voice void of all emotion.

“She led an attack on Bentius.”

“Bullshit.” Soraya growled.

“No.” Furia muttered, “We all knew what Adrianna was capable of.” She never took her gaze off me, “How did she die?”

“Bravely and with honor.”

Furia just nodded. By the look of her, she’d endured more grief today than most endured in a lifetime. They both had. Their eyes remained dry, but they seemed to stare right through me. They no longer saw a kindred soul when they looked at me, but just another outsider. The sisterhood of hybrids had shrunk down to two, and I would never be in it.

“There’s a tent over there I had set up for you.” I said, pointing to it, “You won’t be bothered. I’ll have one of my mages watch over you and keep you informed on how things progress.”

They nodded mutely, still staring right through me. Soraya took Furia’s hand, and they wordlessly stepped forward, took Dog Meat by her wheelchair, and walked over to the tent. I watched them go, and ruminated on what my life might’ve been like if Adarian hadn’t captured me that fateful day.

“You Highness?” the Highland captive queried softly.

“Sorry,” I sighed, rubbing at my temples, “I didn’t forget about you, I was just… distracted.”

“Is it true what you said about Adrianna?”

“Why, did you know her?”

“Not as well as I thought.”

“None of us did.” I muttered, “She always tried to do the right thing, even if it was the wrong thing. I guess that made her a good person. I don’t know… Anyway, when did you get captured?”

“Months ago, near the beginning of the war.”

“Were you treated well?”

She shifted uncomfortably in her robes. “The hybrids were nice to me. The Dark Queen though… she was strange.”

“Did you spend a lot of time with her?”

“I never left her side.”

“How was she?”

The girl shrugged. “I don’t know. She seemed really sad. She tried to hide it, but you could see it pretty easily. I don’t think she’s very good at hiding her emotions.”

“No, she’s not.” I muttered, “Did you ever see Queen Tiadoa while you were with her?”

“Yes.” She paused, then said, “The Dark Queen wasn’t as kind to her.”

I swallowed. I didn’t want to hear anymore, but I had to ask. “What happened to her?”

“She’s gone.”

I nodded, and clenched my jaw to keep my lips from quivering. “That’s all I needed to know, thank you. Headmaster Lucian will take care of you from here on out.”

The hooded girl bowed her head. “As you wish, my lady.”

“Your Highness.” I corrected, “You say ‘my lady’ to nobles, ‘your grace’ to priests, and ‘Your Highness’ to royalty. You’ll need to remember that if you’re going to work in my court.”

“Ah, thank you for correcting me,” her lips curved into a coy little smile, “my lady.”

I scoffed at her. “Are you having a go at me? How about I send you back to the other side of that river?”

“Why would you do that, my lady?”

“I’m sorry, do I look like a little bitch to you?”

“You’re kind of a big bitch, actually.”

“What the fuck does that mean?!”

“Just that you’ve put on a few pounds.”

WHAT?!

“You’re not fat. You’re just… puffy.”

I was about to slap the cunt unconscious, but then the realization backhanded me across the face with such force that my jaw dropped. The girl’s mouth formed a wide smile. A painfully familiar smile.

Yavara?!” I hissed.

“Your Highness,” Yavara corrected, and pulled off her hood, “you say ‘my lady’ to nobles, ‘your grace’ to priests, and ‘Your Highness’ to royalty. You’ll need to remember that if you’re going to work in my court.”

Someone shouted. Someone screamed. Someone gave a command. There was a flurry of movement behind me as thousands of arrows, spells and missiles were aimed at once.

“WAIT!” I shouted and jumped in front of Yavara. Everyone went still. I could feel the accusations forming in people’s minds, the connections they were making, the lies they were believing. All Krakis needed to do was yell ‘traitor,’ and the Highland empire would be his.

“Lucian!” I yelled so that all could hear, “Did you cast a perception spell on this woman?”

“Yes!” he replied.

I reached to my side, and pulled out the old ranger pouch I kept in my belt. Fishing into it, I found a smaller pouch, and pulled that out. I presented the magic-revealing powder to those behind me, careful not to get any on my own skin, and then I pressed it into Yavara’s hand.

“Swallow!” I commanded.

“I always do,” she smirked crookedly, tipped her head back, and swallowed the powder. Nothing happened. There was no change. Yavara Tiadoa stood before me as I had known her all my life; fair-haired, pale-fleshed, and blue-eyed. She said something under her breath, but I was too stunned to hear it.

“What?” I whispered.

“Kneel, Elena.”

I blinked at her.

She exhaled slowly once more, and said through her breath, “Kneel right now.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m the rightful queen of the Highlands, that’s why!”

“You waged war against the Highlands!

“No, the Dark Queen did that. I was an unwilling prisoner!” She said loudly, “I was captured by an evil spirit, and forced to do terrible things, but through my strength and the love of my countrymen, I was able to pull through!”

I looked around. Thousands of faces moved from Yavara, to me, and back, uncertainty and vexation writ across all their expressions. I wheeled around to Yavara, and growled, “Are you trying to get us both killed?! No, I won’t fucking kneel to you! You were the goddamned Dark Queen!

“You will kneel, Elena,” she whispered, “or I’ll loudly suggest that you should swallow powder.”

“You wouldn’t dare!”

“Test me, bitch.”

I growled, then took a mental step back, and assessed my situation. I judged it from every perspective and angle, and the longer I did, the more obvious it became to me that I was not standing in a moment of chance and circumstance. I was standing in the middle of a carefully crafted and meticulously orchestrated production, and I was playing out my part to perfection. I was interchangeable. I was a role that could have been played by Peter Shordian, Commander Krakis, or even King Ternias. It did not matter who played my part, for whether Yavara knew it or not, she was uttering lines that were prewritten just for her. I knew in that bone-chilling moment, that I been played for a fool. Everyone here had been played for a fool. I looked to the east, and noticed for the first time, that the Lowland ships were far too close to lay siege to the city, but were in perfect range to launch their entire payload into our ranks. I slowly drew my gaze along the tops of the towers, up the castle steps, and to the bronze figure in the high tower. Of course. Of-fucking-course. She stood there with a perfect view to watch her magnum opus play out. I could practically hear her sardonic little giggle from two miles away.

“Yavara,” I whispered, my voice quivering, “don’t let her do this.”

“You’re not strong enough to fight her.”

“You’re not strong enough to resist her!”

“And you are?” She snarled, “Didn’t you fall in love with her?!

“I still beat her!”

Yavara snorted. “Oh, you beat her?”

“I’m the queen of the fucking Highlands, and she’s not! Yes, I beat her!”

“You got pushed off a fucking balcony trying to save her!”

“Oh, and what’s your excuse?” I snapped, and gestured broadly to her, “Because last time I checked, you were the Dark Queen of Alkandra! Now you’re not even… you!



Yavara pursed her lips tightly. “Alkandi made a mistake. Leveria was always supposed to be the Dark Queen.”

“Of course she was.” I ran my hands through my hair, let out a long sigh, and pondered the tall masts of the Lowland navy.

“Elena,” Yavara whispered, “if you don’t think she’ll do it…”

“Oh, I know she’ll do it.”

“We just need to get out of here. We have the Highland army. She won’t be able to attack us for generations.”

“I can’t pay these men unless I take this territory, Yavara, don’t you understand that? Leveria bet the wealth of the entire Highlands on securing Midland assets. If these men return home without the money they were promised, they will never pick up a sword for the Highlands again.” I pointed at the Dark Queen in her high tower, “She is there right now. She will never be this vulnerable again.”

“You’ll be massacred. The Lowlanders are ranged for these riverbanks and the bridges that span them. Even if you do manage to cross, you’ll have to assault the castle with the entire navy firing upon you, not to mention the Dark Queen herself.”

“But we’ll have you.”

Yavara smiled somberly. “No, you won’t. If you try to launch this attack, then I will press my claim for the throne until you concede what is rightfully mine, or you’re forced to have me executed.”

I rubbed at my temples, and raced through the closing avenues of my mind. The deadly sword on my hip seemed to whisper to me louder and louder until my psyche was screaming with it. Can’t launch an attack. Can’t retreat. Only one option left. It had to be me. I had once pressed a knife to Yavara’s throat, knowing with every fiber of my being that I was oathbound to kill her, and in the next moment, I was making love to her. I had once pressed a knife to Leveria’s throat, knowing down to the marrow that she was pure evil, and in the next moment, I was making the exact same mistake. Somewhere in the great cosmos above, fate was laughing hysterically at its sick joke, and I just stood there like a fucking punchline.

“Yavara,” I hissed, “why the fuck didn’t you kill her when you had the chance?!”

“I was getting around to it, then I got interrupted. Besides, I could ask you the same.”

“Because she wasn’t the fucking Dark Queen!”

“But I was.”

“It doesn’t matter now, OK? We need to think of a way out of this!”

Yavara let out an existential sigh, and smiled. “Elena,” she said softly, “I think we lost.”

“No.”

“There’s no way out of this. Every move is check, check, check, and check. You know what that means.”

“So Leveria’s been giving you her fucking chess metaphors now?” I snapped, “This is real life, goddamn it! This isn’t a fucking game!”

“It is to her. Everything is a game to her. It’s why she always wins.”

I squared my jaw, and assessed the ranks of vexed men behind me. I turned back to Yavara, and said, “There’s only one thing to do then.”

“What?”

“I’m going… to go talk with her.”

Yavara’s face scrunched up. She choked, pitched forward, and burst into hysterical laughter. “You’re…” she waved her hand frantically, trying to catch her breath, “you’re… you’re going to have a little chat with her?!

“What other choice do I have?!”

She laughed even harder. “How… about… how about you just surrender the Highlands right now, and skip a step?”

“I’ve beaten her in court before!” I growled, and even as I said it, I realized how feeble a claim it was.

“Elena, Elena, Elena,” she sighed, wiping the tears from her eyes, “you don’t understand. If you go into a room with that woman, you will never come out of it. I’m a high-elf; I don’t have any succubus in me, and I can barely resist her. She will have her fat cock stuffed so far up your ass you’ll be talking with its tip.”

I raised my brows. “She has a cock now?”

“And two juicy balls. Is your mouth watering yet?”

“Fuck you.”

“You see my point though.”

I balled my fist in my hair, and stared across the smoldering city. I couldn’t see the bronze figure anymore; the window was empty. But as I peered across the great distance, the dark window seemed to grow larger in my vision, beckoning me to it. I didn’t know if it was a trick of the light, but I swore I saw two blazing orange dots glinting from the blackness.

“I have to go, Yavara,” I muttered, “she’s not leaving me another choice.”

“I’m going with you.”

“You shouldn’t.”

“But I am anyway.”

I nodded. “Let me explain the situation to my men.”

Thankfully, Yavara didn’t try to pull rank on me again. Still, Krakis and Lucian glanced at her from above my shoulder, and I had to forcefully keep their attention on me as I explained our predicament.

“So…” Lucian tapped his lips contemplatively, “…Leveria Tiadoa is up there?”

“That’s right.”

“The former queen of the Highlands, who raised this army to destroy the Dark Queen, is now the Dark Queen.” Lucian reiterated.

“Yes.” I glared at him, “Don’t you dare mention the line of succession.”

“I’m simply trying to understand the state of things, Your Highness. And Yavara Tiadoa, she is completely cured of her… curse?”

“Lucian, can you give me one fucking day before you try to oust me?”

“The army will never follow Yavara.” Krakis growled, “Not after what she did to us. I don’t care if she was ‘cursed.’ You should have her executed right now!”

“That would be treason, Field Marshal.” Lucian said, “If Leveria relinquishes her right to rule by becoming the Dark Queen, then why does Yavara not regain her right by rebecoming a high-elf? She is the first in line now.”

“Lines of succession don’t matter anymore.” Krakis insisted, “We’re in a new age of empire! An empress’s power comes from the loyalty of the military!”

“Enough, both of you!” I snapped, “I’m not giving up my seat to a woman who waged war on us, and I’m not executing a former princess of the Highlands! We’ll figure out what to do after we deal with the threat at hand!”

The two men shut up, assuring me at least for the moment that I was still in charge. Lucian glanced back at Yavara, then glanced at the sword on my hip. Does Yavara know? Was the thought he conveyed with his eyes, and I shook my head. The next thought he conveyed was, can you do it?

I nodded.

Lucian cleared his throat. “Well then, Your Highness,” he said, giving Krakis a furtive look, “I can’t say I agree with your choice, but it is your choice.”

“It is.” Krakis replied.

“What if you don’t come back out?” Lucian asked.

“If I’m not out after two hours, then Krakis is in charge.” I said, “For now, just range your weapons for that fleet. God only knows what that woman will do before this is all over.” I glanced back at Yavara, who stood alone by the riverbank, “or that one.”

I departed from my command tent, and left with Yavara. We walked silently for minutes, crossing the bridge across the Knife river, and traversing the pocked streets with only our footsteps echoing off the stone towers. It was only when we walked behind the cover of a fallen building, that we looked at each other. The illusion spell that canvased my flesh filtered away, revealing the bronze skin that Yavara had painted upon me all those months ago. She had transformed me, but the metamorphosis wasn’t a mutation, but an evolution. I never felt that it was the same for her. As I looked at her now, I saw a peacefulness that had never been present within her before. When we were children, she was restless. When she was the Dark Queen, she was chaotic. Now she was at ease. I didn’t know what had happened to her, but I knew she had been the one to ultimately make this choice.

“What?” Yavara asked with a smile.

“I was just thinking… I never got used to seeing you as the Dark Queen. Even months after you transformed, my mental image of you was always this.”

“Funny,” she replied, and extended her hand toward me, “I hardly noticed the difference with you.”

Our fingers interlaced, and I felt something hard within me melt away. “Oh my god…” I whispered as hot tears formed in my eyes, “Yavara, I… I…”

She pulled me into a tight embrace. Her body pressed to mine, comforting and familiar, warm with love and life. “I was so lost without you!” She whimpered, her tears wetting my cheeks, “Whatever happens, don’t you ever leave me again!”

“Never again.” I sobbed back.

We held each other for minutes, simply finding comfort in the other’s embrace. When we parted, we slid our hands into each other’s hair, and looked into each other’s eyes. It was the moment preceding the kiss, but neither of us initiated it. The attraction was there, and it was strong, but something stronger pulled us apart. We smiled solemnly to each other, linked our fingers once more, and walked hand-in-hand to the Dark Queen’s tower.

LEVERIA

I watched Yavara and Elena embrace, and my frown deepened. Did I feel jealousy? No, I didn’t think I was capable of feeling that anymore, which was rather strange for me, since jealousy had been one of the seminal emotions in my life before my transformation. I was certainly capable of feeling envy; in fact, I felt it very keenly. If something wasn’t mine, then there was something wrong with the universe, for everything was supposed to be mine. When I looked down at Elena and Yavara, I didn’t feel jealousy, for I did not fear losing. I felt envy for what I never had. I had lived over a quarter of a century, and I had spent the vast majority of that time alone. Not in solitude, for I was always surrounded by people, but none of the people were souls I could share myself with. Even my father had been a stranger to my most inner self. Only Elena had gotten to my core, and only for a few beautiful months. All the days, months and years preceding her felt… empty.

I had always been honest with myself. I could only be what I was, so there was really no point in lying. I was a sadistic woman, an evil woman, a manipulator and a schemer, but I didn’t think I was a psychopath. I had always identified as one simply because I saw everyone else as tools to be used, but I felt empathy; just not for most people. Only a *********** few could call themselves my equal, and those few people had been broadened to two. I could not lose them. I would not continue my life feeling empty, for all the kingdoms and power in the world wouldn’t matter without someone else who truly understood me.

As Yavara and Elena made their way up the steps of Castle Alkandra, I felt a terrible sense of foreboding. When they disappeared into the atrium, I felt anxiety tugging at my throat. The minutes I waited while they traversed the stairway up the tower were pure torture. I paced the room, compulsively checked myself in the mirror, washed my face and reapplied my makeup, and even made the bed. I almost yelped with fright when my guard pounded on my door.

“Your Highness!” He yelled, “Queen Regent Yavara Tiadoa and Queen Elena Straltaira are here to see you!”

I composed myself with two breaths through my nostrils, and said with my most stately voice, “They may enter.”

The door creaked open, and Yavara walked in. There was a figure behind her, but it stayed obstructed by Yavara’s profile until she closed the door behind her. For an agonizing moment, I could only see the top of a blonde head and the glint of a golden crown. Then Yavara stepped out of the way, and Elena Straltaira was staring right at me, alive and clothed with power. Her face was unemotive, her posture was neutral, and her eyes were steady.

“Your Highness,” she said curtly.

Your Highness.” I answered with a sneer.

Yavara lingered by Elena’s side for a moment, then traversed the perimeter of the room until we were all equidistant from each other. I guessed the lovey-dovey hug session outside was over. It was every woman for herself in here.

Elena assessed me silently, studying the black leather armor that contoured vulgarly to my shape, examining the bulging codpiece and the robust protrusion of my tan breasts, then finding my orange eyes. In turn, I drank in every perfect angle and curve of her athletic figure shelled in form-fitting golden armor, displaying her like a resplendent statue put out before the temple of some heathen war goddess. Yavara measured us in turn, looking like the picture of Highland innocence and modesty in her simple gown, but the danger glinted from her steely blue eyes.

“Someone say something,” Yavara whispered.

I turned to Elena. “You’re a shit bodyguard, you know that?”

“I died for you,” she hissed.

“Did you? Well that’s great and all, but good bodyguards don’t die for their queen; they you know, guard her.”

“I don’t remember you employing me as your bodyguard.”

“I don’t remember employing you at all. I’m pretty sure I brought you into Bentius as my slave. Now you’re the queen of the Highlands. What a little entrepreneur you turned out to be. You’re welcome, by the way.”

“For…?”

“For vacating the throne so that you could have it. God knows you’ve been gunning for it ever since you stepped foot in the Noble Court.”

“I never wanted this.”

“Cool, then give it to Yavara.”

Elena cracked a cruel sneer. “This is between you and me, Leveria. Yavara’s too smart to let you use her.”

“I’m not too dumb to let you exclude me, Elena.” Yavara said sharply, “That throne belongs to me.” She turned back to me, “But we’ll deal with more pressing matters first.”

“I want to speak with King Arthur Dreus right—”

“Yavara,” I interrupted Elena, “if Elena leaves Alkandra with that crown on her head, you will never wear it.”

Yavara smirked. “Nice try.”

“Leveria, where the fuck is King Dreus?”

“Don’t even bother. Leveria sexually lobotomized him.”

“The three great realms of Tenvalia are now ruled by women.” I mused, “What a moment in history.”

“Only one of us here is a real woman.” Yavara said.

“Women are weak creatures incapable of critical thinking and cannot be trusted to make important decisions.” I laughed. My mirth echoed into silence, bouncing off the walls, and the stony faces of Elena and Yavara.

“Nothing about this is funny, Leveria.” Elena said.

“When did you lose your sense of humor?”

“Around the time Bentius was sacked.”

I pointed at Yavara. “Her fault.”

“What?!” Yavara exclaimed, “Adrianna led the attack, and Adrianna was your agent!

“I’m not the one who sent a pack of orcs over the—”

“Don’t you fucking dare try to get out of this!” Elena snarled at me, “You were the one who turned Adrianna! You were the one who framed Prince Matthew!”

“Did I ever deny it? Sorry I didn’t keep you in the loop, Elena, but your head was stuck in the fantasy land of world peace and teddy bears, and I didn’t want to break your fragile illusion.”

“Well, it’s broken now, Leveria. I didn’t bring the whole goddamn army here to sign a fucking treaty.”

“Then why are we talking right now?”

“I’m giving you a chance.”

I giggled. “Elena, this isn’t the Noble Court. There aren’t a dozen other players obfuscating the board. It’s just you and me now, and you’re out of moves.”

“I’ve still got one.”

“You don’t. I’m sorry, babe, but it’s checkmate.”

Her gaze was unwavering. “Not yet, Leveria.”

My smile faded. “Why is me winning the same as you losing?”

“Because it always is. You play to defeat; it was never enough for you just to win.”

“You were enough for me.” I hissed. Tears formed in my eyes, and I tried to stop them, but it was useless. “Goddamn it, you’re making me cry in front of Yavara.”

“Crocodile tears.” Elena growled.

“I’m done trying to deceive you, Elena.”

Elena barked a laugh.

“I mean it,” I said, “you probably thought I’d try to seduce you, didn’t you? Press you up against the wall, kiss you just like we used to, tempt you with everything I have to offer. I know you couldn’t resist me, and I know you’d never forgive me. That’s why I’m not going to touch you.”

“She’s lying.” Yavara said, “She’ll do whatever it takes to get what she wants.”

“I know.” Elena said, staring right into me. “You know why I came here, Leveria.”

“To kill the Dark Queen?” I laughed, “Are you so dead-set on it that it doesn’t matter who it is? You always convinced yourself that the hardest path must be the righteous one; did it ever occur to you that easiness isn’t evil?”

“You’re evil.”

“I’m a drop in the ocean compared to necessary evil. If you attack me, tens of thousands will die. Do all of their deaths balance mine?”

“Did you ask yourself that question when you sent them to me?” Yavara asked.

“Of course she didn’t.” Elena growled.

“I recognized the threat Yavara would become. Wasn’t I right?”

“We’re not talking about me, Leveria!”

“She’s not the Dark Queen anymore, you are!”

“So what the fuck do you want?!” I screamed, “To kill me?! You can’t! It’s OVER!

“It’s not! It never will be with you!” Elena brandished her useless sword, and pointed it right at my chest, “You always just want more.”

“Elena, put that away!” Yavara yelled.

“What are you going to do, Elena?” I hissed, “Scratch my ass with it? Shave my cunt? I’m the fucking Dark Queen!”

“Yavara,” Elena said, keeping her eyes fixed on me, “now’s our only chance.”

“Keep me out of this!”

“You can’t stay out of this!” Elena growled, “It’s either her or me!”

“Why are you always like this?!” I raged, “There’s more choices than that, you stubborn moron!”

“Not for me, Leveria.” Elena hissed. The point of her sword was quivering, and her eyes were glistening. “I came here to kill someone I love. I have to, don’t you understand? It’s my punishment. I had a duty, I swore an oath, and when I was face to face with evil, I couldn’t kill it because she wore the face of someone I loved. How many hundreds of thousands have died for my weakness? The marshlands are choked with them, the Rift is heaped with them, Alkandra rains their ash, and Bentius is painted with their blood! It’s all because of me, don’t you see?!” She screamed, the point of her sword flailing erratically from Yavara to me, “I know what’s on the others side. Do you want to know what there is? There’s NOTHING! This is all just a veneer sheeted over a depthless pit, so thin and fragile that it takes but one misstep for it to tear! I was nothing. I was no one. Can you understand? There wasn’t a me! Why was I was brought back? Why? Why? WHY?! It can’t be for no reason! Life isn’t just chance and circumstance! It’s fated and destined! I was brought here to right the mistakes I made! Don’t you see?! This is my destiny! I’m God’s weapon against you! I HAVE TO KILL WHAT I LOVE, OR I’LL NEVER KNOW REDEMPTION!

Elena screamed, and charged me. Yavara smashed into her side, and the two of them flew across the room, and thudded against the wall.

YAVARA

It was like I’d been punched in the gut. The air shot from my diaphragm, leaving me gulping for breath on the floor. Elena rolled off me, painting the floorboards red with blood. Not her blood though. I looked down at my midsection, and blinked. I had put my shield up to block whatever attack Leveria would throw at Elena in anger, and yet, Elena’s sword was imbedded in my torso just below my sternum. Blood dampened the cloth of my gown until it was saturated, then spilled freely down my belly, and pooled in little rivulets upon the floor.

“Um… Elena?” I asked, “What… what is this?”

Elena groaned, then rolled over. Her stunned eyes took a moment to focus, and when they did, they bulged. Not exactly a reassuring reaction.

“Elena?” I asked.

“No.” She whispered, “No, no, no, no, no!” She crawled frantically over to me, and began tearing pieces off my gown.

“What are you doing?”

“You’re going to be OK.” She muttered, hastily organizing the strands into ribbons, “We just have to stop the bleeding. It didn’t hit anything important. It didn’t hit anything important. It didn’t hit—”

“Elena,” I said, grabbing her arm, “stop. Pull this fucking sword out of me and let me heal myself.”

She shook her head. Her mouth opened as though to say something, but her lips were trembling so violently that she couldn’t form the words. She just struggled through her makeshift bandages with single-minded soldiery, trying to steady her palsying fingers as they tore sections off my gown. Leveria cocked her head at us, then cautiously walked over. She reached for the handle of the sword stuck inside me, and Elena shrieked so ferociously that Leveria flinched backward.

“What?!” Leveria exclaimed, “She said she wants it pulled out!”

“DON’T!” Elena screamed, and huddled over me, “Don’t fucking touch her!”

“The sword—”

“If you take that sword out, she’ll die, don’t you understand?!” Elena yelled, “We need to dress the wound! It didn’t hit anything important! It didn’t hit anything important!”

“It didn’t hit anything important?” Leveria looked quizzically at her. “Elena, that sword is through her stomach. If we don’t pull it out and heal her—”

“IT DIDN’T HIT ANYTHING IMPORTANT!” Elena shrieked, and began applying bandages around the wound. They were soaked almost immediately by the puddle that was forming on my belly. I was becoming very aware of how cold the room was, and how dim the lighting was. It was only an hour or so until dusk, but it seemed much darker than that. I looked up at Leveria, but her eyes were locked on the sword. She crouched to Elena’s level, applied her arcane shield, and ran her finger along the blade’s edge. The metal went right through her shield like it wasn’t even there, and cut into her flesh. She pulled her hand back sharply, recoiling from the blade that was stuck inside me like it was a hissing snake. Horror started creep into me. I watched Leveria cast a healing incantation on her finger, and I watched her gaze slowly raise to mine as the blood continued to drip from her wound.

“Oh shit,” I laughed weakly, “I’m in trouble.”

“You’re Ok!” Elena said fiercely, stuffing the wound with makeshift gauze until the blade was wreathed in blood-saturated cloth. “We just gotta stop the bleeding,” she mumbled, “half the royal mages practice surgery. A ruptured stomach doesn’t have to be fatal.” She gritted her teeth, tore off the rest of my skirt, and stuffed it in and around the wound. She applied pressure until the red stopped spreading into the white, and she let out her first breath. “See?” she offered me a reassuring smile, “we just had to stop the bleeding. You’re going to be fine!” Her smile stayed glued to her petrified face for a moment, then slowly fell when she saw the puddle of blood pooling outward from beneath me. My back felt like I was lying on something rigid and uncomfortable. It was a rather innocuous sensation, but I knew that if I moved just a fraction, I would feel the split muscle, flesh and liver surrounding the blade that was imbedded into the floor beneath me.

“Ok,” Leveria said, kneeling to my side, “I’m going to rip this out and bite you, and you’re going to turn into a vampire.”

“It’s coated in Nadi sap.” Elena muttered.

Leveria’s face fell.

“Leveria?” I croaked, “Am I going to die?”

She just stared at me for a moment, then nodded slowly.

Elena let out a great wail, and buried her face in my breast. “I’m so sorry.” She whimpered, “Oh my god, I’m so sorry!”

I tried to embrace her, and realized with numb horror that I could not. I could see and feel my arm and though it seemed that there was still strength in it, it would not move. I couldn’t move at all save for the trembling spasms that rolled through my body. I was so, so cold. Though a fire roared in the hearth, and its glow encompassed my body, none of its warmth held me. I couldn’t feel Elena’s weight atop me, nor the heat of her flesh. I couldn’t feel anything at all. The world was rapidly dimming and dulling, its brilliance reducing to muted colors, then nothing. I had been dying for minutes, and I wasted those last moments of strength. There was so much I wanted to say now, but there just… wasn’t… enough…

“I love you.” I mouthed, unable to voice it. I didn’t say it to anyone, but I meant it for everyone. For as the blackness began to envelope me, I realized that everyone and everything was precious to me, and the great void beyond was just… nothing.

ELENA

Yavara’s heartbeat faded. Her blood was hot as it soaked me, but her flesh was so cold. Her alabaster skin had become light blue, and her eyes were staring at nothing. I had done it. I had done what I’d come here to do. Fate had played out the final lines of its cruel comedy.

“You said you were brought back,” Leveria said behind me, “but there are no mages in the Highlands powerful enough to raise the dead. It nearly killed Yavara when she did it to me, and I have no such power as that. How?”

“Jonias kept my brain alive and healed my dead flesh. It was a one in a million shot.”

“I think the odds were likely better than that.” Leveria crawled over to Yavara. I was stunned to see that she was weeping freely for her sister. She put her finger beneath Yavara’s nostrils, then looked at me. “The royal mages are trained for surgery. If Catherine Jonias could do it, then they could.”

“It’s too late.” I held up my bloodied hands, “I’ll never get her back in time.”

“I can.”

“They’ll kill you.”

“Not if I have you with me.”

I narrowed my eyes at her, unsure of the trick. “You’ll do that?”

“For her? For you? I’d do anything.”

A dangerous flicker of hope ignited in my chest. I quickly wrapped Yavara’s arms across her breasts, and hauled her upright. The blood that had pooled on her chest gushed down her body, and her blue lips quivered out a terrible moan. “Get her legs! Hurry!” I yelled.

Leveria chewed on her lip, looking uncertain. She contemplated her sister for a moment, then looked me dead in the eye. “What is she worth to you, Elena?”

I glared at her. “I can’t believe you.”

“I said I’d do anything; will you?”

“Get her legs! We don’t have time!”

Leveria stood up, and elevated Yavara with a spell. The blood dripped off her back from the point of my sword. “She is the Highland queen.”

“Leveria, we have to—”

“Say it!” Leveria yelled.



“Giving her the crown is the same as giving it to you.”

“And I’d like to keep it that way. That’s why you’ll be staying in Alkandra with me.”

“No.”

Leveria made no effort to conceal her anguish from me. The iron mask she once wore so well had fallen from her face, showing me the heartbreak clearly behind her glistening eyes. “Don’t do this to us, Elena.”

“You’re making me choose between you and her! You’re killing her!”

“No, Elena. I am making you choose between her and the Highlands, one last time.”

Blood poured freely from Yavara’s nose and mouth. A choking sound emanated from her throat, but she didn’t have the strength to clear it. I wondered if I could callously watch her die. I wondered if Leveria could. For the first time in my life, I could see her struggling with herself. Every rattle and gurgle from Yavara evoked a flinch on Leveria’s face, and such involuntary reactions—no matter how subdued—upon Leveria’s face were as emotive as if she were screeching. The death sounds of her sister rang in her head as clearly as they did mine, but still we stood there, staring at each other, locked in a battle of wills.

“Was I such a terrible queen of the Highlands?” Leveria hissed, “Did I not do everything in my power to defend my people? Why would I destroy it all now? Why do you distrust me so?”

“Because I know you.”

“I’m not the one who uses love as a weapon!”

“It was all I could do against you and Yavara.” I looked up at Yavara, and whispered, “It’s all I have now. I’m sorry, Yavara.”

Leveria closed her eyes, and let out a shuddering sigh. She slowly bowed her head, and muttered, “Fine then, Elena. You win.”

ZANDER

The world was a black, endless void, but it wasn’t the world, but the place between worlds. I sat naked on the astral plane, and pondered silently.

Why have you come to this place of impermanence? Arbor’s voice echoed through the abyss.

I don’t know. I responded.

The blackness was illuminated by a glow that was both green and purple. A shapely, naked figure strode into my vision. Her skin was a pale purple, her eyes a shining emerald, her hair white with streaks of black, and her wings spread wide behind her silhouette.

Prestira died in my forest, and she was strong enough to linger in the astral plane before she departed. Arbor said as she approached me, I offered her a chance to tether herself to my roots and bark and live as part of me, but she refused. She was not ready to die, but she was at peace with it. I see that you are not.

I spent my life living for someone who wouldn’t live for me. I laughed bitterly, I guess I died for someone who actually cared about me. At least that was on my terms.

Through my observance of you mortals, Arbor said as she sat next to me, I’ve noticed that the people who lead the most meaningless lives, often lead the most fulfilling ones.

A wife, a couple of kids, and a dog, I smiled, it does sound nice, but it’s not for me.

We had more than a couple of kids, Zander. Arbor said, with the hint of humor in her voice.

They grew up so fast.

And died even faster. Arbor responded. A silence filled the void, but it wasn’t an awkward one. It was simply a space between words that didn’t need to be spoken. Zander, she said carefully, you lived the best years of your life as a hermit in my forest. You were a man of cultivation and growth.

I harvested psychedelic mushrooms and got high in the woods.

You say that like it is something to be disparaged. It sounds like freedom to me.

Are you offering me the same deal as Prestira?

Will you take it?



I pondered her for a moment, then asked, what’s it like?

I couldn’t describe it to you, Arbor said, resting her head on my shoulder, I could only show you.

Does it get lonely? I asked her.

It does, she whispered back, I have few equals in this world, and you are one of them. After living a mortal life, I cannot bear the idea of existing without someone to understand me.

What would I even be?

You would be a caretaker of the forest as I am, tethered to the earth by trillions of roots that dig deep into the heart of the soil. You would share my home, and father my future children. I suppose that would make you my husband.

That’s quite the offer. I smiled.

It is a proposal, she smiled back, but I’m not accustomed to your kind of chivalry, so I will not bend the knee, or offer you a ring.

It’s the man that usually does all that, I chuckled as I slid my hand around her waist, but I accept, Arbor.

That’s good to hear…husband. Arbor whispered, and placed her hand on my thigh. When I looked into her mauve and green eyes, I saw a desire deeper than just my astral flesh. There was an ancient loneliness there, a deep and existential longing for someone to share and understand. Perhaps I could not share and understand what it meant to be Arbor Dawnbark, but I knew deep in my marrow what it meant to feel that long and silent loneliness. And I knew that little smile that stretched across Arbor’s face—that minute curve of her lips that emoted so little, and expressed so much. Hope. I had once seen that smile on Prestira’s face, and I had turned away. Never again. I would know hope. I would know love.

I reflected that smile back at Arbor, and pulled her into my lap. She wrapped her arms around me, and I kissed her deeply.

End of Part Seventeen.
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