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Queen Yavara: Chapter 41

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Chapter Forty-One

YAVARA

Elena was straddled across my hips. My buttocks conformed perfectly into the inner portions of her thighs, and her cock nestled comfortably between them, its underside running pleasantly across my pussy and anus, teasing the receptive nerves there. Her thumbs kneaded the knotted muscles of my back, turning them into gelatinous mush that flowed warmly beneath the flesh. Her hair tickled my face, as it was cast over one side of her head so that she could plant delicate kisses upon the nape of my neck.

“I wish you were more like her.” She said.

“Hmm?” I groaned.

“She does all the things I like.” Elena giggled.

“Don’t be a bitch.” I smiled, “I know what you’re doing. You don’t have to trick me, Elena. You can have me however you desire.”

“Oh, but I can’t.” She whispered into my ear, “Because if I could, then you’d be her.”

“Don’t say that. It’s not the truth.”

“The truth?” She asked with a sardonic laugh, “You of all people should understand. After Brock took you that night, you didn’t just change your body. I’ve been transformed—no, I’ve evolved.”

“I did that to you.”

“The first time, yes. The second time came in the dungeons of Castle Thorum. You weren’t there to save me. She did her work on me with her knives and her whispers, and she opened me up body and soul, and infected me like you had, only she went much, much deeper.” She licked my cheek, “I’m sorry, my queen, but you were too late.”

“Don’t call me that.”

“What?”

“Don’t call me ‘your highness,’ or ‘my queen,’ or ‘your grace.’” There were tears in my eyes, “Call me Yavara.”

She chuckled, low and cruelly, so rich was the malice that came from her perfect lips. It sounded just like Leveria. “I only say the name of the woman I love, my queen.” She giggled. “My queen, my queen, my queen, my queen, my queen, my queen, MY QUEEN”

“My queen!” A voice came from the mouth of the tent.

I opened my eyes. It was still dark out. There was a silhouette before the tent, the imposing figure of my Terdini guard.

“What?” I groaned.

“The first division broke through, but the second is pinned down against the causeway! They need your help!”

I shot upright, the energy surging in my veins. Brock.

LEVERIA

In all my life, I had never pondered suicide before. Truth be told, I didn’t believe in an afterlife. God, I could believe in, but why the hell would she save us like a sentimental prom dress? Dead was dead, and so life was generally preferable. Generally. When Field Marshal Shordian had given me the frantic call at three in the morning that the enemy was invading, I considered the edge of the blade. Ultimately, I decided not to die until the outcome was certain. There was a chance. A tiny, miniscule prayer that an outnumbered, beleaguered, ill-supplied, demoralized army could face down a horde of monsters led by a demigod.

“I can’t believe it.” Elena whispered. Though her flesh was nearly brown, her face was pale.

“At this point, my love, it doesn’t really matter what you believe.” I sighed, watching the chaos unfold on the mirror.

“Something’s wrong. She would never do this.”

I laughed. “You know what your weakness is? It’s not your arrogance. It’s your faith in others. Misplaced and misguided. Why the fuck would you put your faith in me or her? Have we not done everything to prove to you that we are faithless?”

She ran her hand through her hair. “No, no, no. This can’t be what it seems. It doesn’t make any sense.”

“Are you… absolutely sure you knew nothing about this?” I asked with a raised eyebrow.

She shot me a death glare. “Are you fucking serious right now?”

I shrugged. “Look, if you were playing me for a fool the whole time, then I have to say, bravo, because this is a fucking master stroke. Make the queen of the Highlands fall in love with you, distract the Noble Court with talks of peace, take away key allies from the divided pro-war front, convince us to prepare for a drawn-out winter conflict, then kick us right in the balls just after the first frost.”

“This is my country, you bitch!”

“And it could really be your country if you were to, say, have your foreign lover invade it for you.”

She snatched me by my hair, ripped my head back, and snarled, “If Yavara did this, I’ll kill the cunt myself!”

I grinned up at her. “Oh… say that again, but slower…”

She glanced down at my thighs, the alabaster trunks rubbing together beneath my shift. She looked back at me. “Leveria, this is a really weird time.”

“How would you kill her?” I asked, unbuttoning my front, “Would you… boil her alive in the blood of her citizens? Would you cut out her eyes and lay spider eggs in her brain? Would you—”

“I would smash her head against yours until both your brains painted the wall.” She growled.

“…and then you would fuck us, right?” I grinned.

“Good god, what the fuck did I get myself into with you?”

“Who cares? You just want to get deeper.” I purred, and unbuttoned the last button. I watched the surrender come over her face when she gazed upon my nudity, and I spread my legs. If this was to be one of our last nights together, I would have it be one to remember just in case I was wrong about the afterlife.

BROCK

I had rained hell on Mid Fort for half an hour. Nothing but flame cannisters and molten boulders until the entire structure was wreathed in fire. Under the cover of the siege, I’d ordered the first division, all eight-thousand of them, to marshal against the cliffside. The goblins that had arrived yesterday were ignorant of the spells placed on the causeway. I sent hundreds of them to their deaths. In the darkness, they could not see the horrors that had befallen those ahead of them. When they were spent, I sent the second division, seven-thousand strong, to ascend the ramp. It was too narrow for even four abreast orcs, and so most had to climb along the side. The best climbers were put in the vanguard to pound loops into the rock so that the others could follow by rope. The same tactic was used for the cliffside, where under the cover of darkness and the chaos of the siege, my best climbers could nail ropes just below the lip of the cliff like Trenok had envisioned. I was one of those men.

I wiped the sweat from my brow, and tested the resistance of the rope. Not caring if I fell, I let go of the rockface, and caught the dangling line. It held. If it could hold me, it could hold any orc. I pounded the loop into the rock once more just for good measure, then dropped my hammer into my belt, grabbed my climbing picks, and recommenced my blind assent up the cliffside.

Here, there were no footholds. The lip was an exposure that overhung like a shelf, making me climb it horizontally. I pounded my picks into the shale, dangling by my arms, nothing but blackness below me. The rope on my waist would send me careening into the cliffside instead of plummeting to the earth, but If the rock gave way, I was dead, and this shale chipped like dry wood. Numbly, I pulled one pick out, dangled from the other, and screwed in a loop, torqueing through six-inches of rock with nothing but my hand. I did this all along the lip, hanging from one pick or the other depending on how tired my hands were, but I did not feed the rope through the loops. If the imperials could reach the ropes, they could set flame to them, and they would burn like wick. And so, I climbed twenty feet out along the lip, and by the time I was at the end of it, there was no strength left in my arms. With nothing but my will, I untied the rope from my waist, grabbed the edge of the cliff, and hoisted myself over.

“Die you fucker!” Screamed a voice, and there was a spearhead to match it. I swatted the thrust away, grabbed the boy by his ankle, and hurled him over my shoulder. His scream waned in the night, then died with a thud. There was no one else there. All around me were the crumbled remains of battlements, the burnt and crushed golden shells of imperials, the twisted rail-tracks for ballistae, and the destroyed engines themselves. Flame danced in my vision, illuminating the south wall of Mid Fort. I was at the corner, and the eastern face was flush with the cliffside, effectively raising its height by another fifty feet to my left. To my right, there was only fifteen or so feet of room before the cliff suddenly rose another ten feet, creating a small alley between the fort and the major ridge. This was the soft spot Trenok had pointed out. I exhaled a cloud of breath, and stood. There they were.

The fire glinted off their helmets as they poured out of the fort, dozens, scores, hundreds, all flooding toward me. For the first time since that morning, I felt something. Rage. Rage like I’d never known in all my life, boiling in my blood, pounding in my heart, bursting behind my eyes. My muscles suddenly felt fit to rupture the constraints of my flesh, and my breath was too great to contain. I roared, and the force of the sound sent a wave of terror through the charging reinforcements. Those in front faltered, and those behind crashed into their backs. Outnumbered a hundred to one, I brandished my hammer, and charged.

My bare feet thudded into the mud. The cold fall wind caressed my flesh, encased me in its wild mixture of rotting leaves, burning tar and blood. Animal. Predator. The prey held out their feeble defenses, antelopes flashing their horns before a lion, eyes wide in horror. I hit the line. It exploded. Ten men flew backward, five more were trampled into the mud. I swung my hammer with a roar, and in one motion, I smashed one man’s head in pink dust, drove another man’s shoulders together through his sternum, and crumpled a third’s breastplate like tin. I swung backhanded and down, and drove an imperial helm downward through his own chest and belly, his shoulders caving in after to create a golden bowl of gore that stumbled backward on flopping legs. A spear went into my side. I hardly noticed it. I picked the offender up, registering his primal scream of terror, and hearing it sputter violently out as I swung him against his comrades, breaking their bodies with his until he was more a whip than a club. I whirled with my hammer, striking down to bury men into the mud, swinging across to shatter spears, swords, and skulls. One man charged me, screaming with manic eyes. I crouched to meet his bulrush, and swung upward. His head flew from his shoulder, carried over the ranks, and landed fifty feet behind him. His body continued four steps of his suicidal charge, the spear still poised in his dead fists, a warrior to the marrow. I would remember him. The others, not so much.

I grabbed one by the helm, and crushed it like a can, the brains bursting from his eyes and ears. Another whirled on me with a sword, and I punched him clean through his armor, chest and back, my fist coming out the other side to grab the man behind him, and pull him through the hole. That one, I threw like a spear into the ranks, toppling a half dozen men before charging in after, my hammer swinging overhead. One skull was turned to splinters, another was flattened, a third was splattered. When I swung in a wide arc, eight men flew backward, their limbs dangling, their breast plates caved-in. I swept through them like that, sending them flying backward into their own ranks ten at a time, stomping on the wounded until they were jelly in their golden shells, moving ever forward, not even breaking stride. There were two dozen left, and they huddled with their spears pointed before them, thrusting manically as they backed away. I took one step forward. They took one step back. I took another step forward. They took another step back. I grinned, feeling the laughter boiling in my chest, and flowing from my mouth, terrible and guttural. Their faces said it all. They were shitting themselves.

I took one great stride forward, swung, and broke twelve spear heads clean off. The others thrusted at once, and I took the punishment, letting their feeble spearhead puncture my hide. I stepped forward with their weapons inside me, and grinned down at them all.

“Please!” One of them screamed.

“Thank you.” I chuckled, and swung. One man, two men, three men, four; I smashed down again and again, driving helms into breastplates, putting men into the mud a head shorter than they were. I uppercut one swing, and sent a poor bastard screaming twenty feet in the air, his breastplate caved all the way through. I merged two heads with one swing, turned an arm into goo, broke a back clean through so that his liver could be seen through the shorn edges of armor and fractured spine. They tried to run, and I simply ran over them, stomping them until they broke to mush beneath my feet, and their hot gore squished between my toes. The last man screamed and rushed me in a fervor, and I picked him up, and threw him as far as I could. He sailed behind me, over the ranks of orcs flooding the lip, and off the cliff. There was a time when I would’ve let him live so that he could tell others of my legend. Now, I didn’t care. There would be no others.

An arrow struck me in the shoulder. Another in my chest. I looked up at the source of the annoyance to see that the elves on the ramparts had noticed the breach. They rained down on us, mowing through scores of orcs at a time.

“Get on the wall!” I yelled, plastered myself against the stone, and ran along it. I saw the buckets of tar being brought to the battlements. I knew they wouldn’t pour it on me if I was the lone orc ahead of the pack, so I charged several paces before my advance, and let the poor men behind me get fried. I hit the corner of the southwest tower, pulled out my picks, and began to climb. It was much easier to ascend this wall, for the mortar was easy to puncture, and the grooves held my picks securely. I scaled the ninety feet in less than a minute, and launched myself over the top.

“What the f—” said an elven mage before I split his face in half with a slash of my pick. I threw the other pick over his shoulder as he fell, and stuck the mage behind him in the back. He crumpled to reveal a third mage, his fingers poised, bahis firmaları a spell ready on his lips before he was splattered by an orc body that crashed over the wall. A second later, hundreds of orcs were flooding over the southern wall, overwhelming the archers and mages. Fireballs were cast, engulfing friends and foe alike, burning great swaths through the ranks, but the orcs just kept pouring over, endless and inevitable. Elves were thrown backward into the courtyard, crashing into the manic ranks of men below. The orcs grabbed hold of the tar buckets, and showered the imperials with molten black. A chorus of screeches came after, the gold armor melted and suffused to their flesh, crisped and bubbling, smelling of pork fat. I upended a tar bucket of my own, then threw the apparatus after it, creating a hole in the ranks below with a satisfying crunch and scream.

“Through the towers!” I yelled, and headed the charge, kicking open the tower door, sending the imperials were barring it crashing into the opposite wall. I drew my hammer, and splattered the brick with their brains before barreling down the spiraling stairway, sending those in my path rolling before me until their broken bodies piled upon the bottom floor. I burst through the tower door, and stopped in the threshold. The courtyard was hell. Fires burned everywhere, orcs and elves fought in hand-to-hand combat, pressed so tightly that they couldn’t even raise their weapons. There were no battle lines, no sides, only a fray of gold and green, all backlit by the inferno that raged upon the western wall, where the defenders desperately held the gate before the ramp. I roared, and added my weight to the frenzy.

“To the gate!” I yelled, “Get that fucking gate open!”

I pressed against the mass, driving with my heels slipping in the mud, blood and guts. The deeper I got, the less ground I walked upon. The floor was a mess of bodies, flashes of light catching wide, panicked eyes in their helms, the doomed that would never rise again, their last moments spent in the suffocating darkness beneath bone-crushing boots. I killed with my bare hands, unable to raise my hammer. I drove my thumbs into eye sockets, tore jaws off their hinges, caved in cheek bones. My hands were filled with hot sticky mush, my face was plastered with it. I tasted it when I bit into a boy’s neck, and tore out his throat. They exacted their toll on me. Blades from all around, shoved into me, cutting through my shield of muscle, frantically puncturing my back until my hide was more hamburger than flesh, but I pressed on through it, grinding into the bodies, slowly killing my way to the towering western gates, the wrought-iron bars encased in magical flame.

There was a crescent of space created by a shield wall, and behind it, a score of mages held the gate fast with their spells. On the other side of it, the second division was pressed against the flaming metal atop a seven-foot pile of their own dead. Bodies were shed from the sides of the causeway like falling leaves, cascading endlessly down from the churning mass that charged up it. The archers atop the western wall didn’t even have to aim. The stream of arrows was unrelenting. The two ballistae directly above the gate cranked back, aimed down the length of the causeway, and fired their great spears, cutting lines twenty men deep at a time. They didn’t adjust their sites. They just cranked, loaded, and fired, and at the other end, a kabab of orcs was sent careening backward.

“Kill the mages!” I ordered, though I knew no one in the manic press could hear me. I caved a man’s nose in, collapsed another’s throat, and crushed a third’s skull. I felt cold metal inside me, digging through facia and sinew, cutting near to the tendons. I kicked backward, snapped a man’s leg, and heard his screech, but it wasn’t a single man I was fighting against, but a dam of bodies before the crescent, right there only twenty steps away. I shouldered my way into the press, and it only got tighter. The blades were sticking me in the armpits, piercing through soft tissue, seeking my heart. The blood was running down me in rivers. I bashed a man’s face in, drove another’s head downward into his chest, flattened a skull between the palms of my hands. Fifteen paces. They were stabbing at my legs, trying to find my heel tendon. I ripped a throat out, gouged out a forehead with the man’s own helm, and collapsed a sternum. Ten paces. Something was driven hard into my back. It went through my shield of muscle, and into the soft stuff. I tasted blood. I felt the coldness, the chill running through me. Was it mortal? Don’t think about it. Five paces. I bellowed, and drove into the mass with my shoulder, my heels slipping on the bodies below me. The stink of blood and sweat, the miasma of cooking flesh, the screams, oh, the screams. Push! Push! Push! The mass began to give. Push! Push! Push! Every drive of my body caused me to leak from the holes made in me. Push… push… push… We broke through.

The shield wall collapsed, the golden men went sprawling, and I was in the thick of it, tearing into the soft mages, rending flesh from bone and bone from joints, sending limbs flying, opening bellies and letting the pink coils unravel. I was struck on the head. I was smashed in the side by a great force. The world roared with the explosion as it ripped through me. I was burning. I was on fire. The smell hit me, then the pain. I was hell. I ran through them, my mind gone in the agony, only rage, only death. The heat went into me. Wrath upon my tortured flesh, melting through it, eating into the fuel of fat. I didn’t know who I was killing anymore. I was blind in a haze of red. Was I on my knees? Was I on my back? There was a face, contorted in agony. It was my reflection off the helm of a dead man. Feet trampling. Boots crushing down on me. The gate—did we open it? Yes! Yes, it was open! But the causeway… the causeway was gone.

ADRIANNA

There were seven bands on my ring finger. I was married to seven women. Now six. The pyre burned in the city center, and all of Alkandra was in attendance. Faltia had tried to keep her dignity before her men, but she broke once the flame caught, and I held her against me, weeping with her. We all wept. Prince Matthew was inconsolable, clutching one of his boyfriends’ chests. Tim the troll cried hardest of all, fat tears streaking his furry face. His sobs sounded over the pervading silence that had come over the city.

We were supposed to be untouchable. We were supposed to be matron saints of the realm of beasts, and someone had killed that idea. I had killed that idea. I longed for yesterday to return almost as much as I wished for Alexa to be with us once more, but there was nothing to be done, not justice, not even vengeance. The killer had disappeared, but the murderer was standing right next to them. The child in Alexa’s belly had been Kiera’s. Now Kiera stared blankly at the embers, loosely holding onto Brianna. I connected eyes with Brianna, and she guided my gaze to the track marks that lined Kiera’s forearm. She hadn’t tried to hide them. It was a call for help, and we would give it to her. It was the least I could do. It was not enough. It would never be enough.

“You can’t cancel this mission.” Faltia said quietly. The service was over, and we were alone in our tower of the castle.

“I need to be here with you.” I said, taking her shoulder, “With Kiera at least.”

Faltia blinked away a tear. She was so beautiful in grief, and I wanted to take her pain away with my body, but she refused. “The orcs believe that pain is a healer.” She said, “Misery will grind you to nothing, but pain will break you cleanly. I must be broken, Commander. If I try to numb it, it will not scar me, but become me.”

“What can I do?”

She smiled sadly. “Leave me alone for three days and three nights. Let me face this, and come out the other side, damaged but whole.” She looked out the window. “It will be hell for me for a while. This city is her legacy, and every building and bridge has a piece of her soul.”

I touched her belly. “This is her legacy, Faltia.” I touched her heart, “And so is this.”

Her lower lip quivered. “Leave me now, Commander.”

I did. The others were outside the room, huddled together. I took Kiera gently by the wrist, and ran my fingers over the holes she’d put in her veins. “We’re going to have to lock you in a room.” I said.

“I know.” She replied, her voice and eyes distant.

“You won’t face this alone.” I touched her cheek, then turned to the rest. “None of us will. The last harvest has come, and the people are moving inside. We will be safe in this castle for the winter months at least. Come spring time, we will not fear walking the streets.”

“This was Leveria.” Eva hissed.

“We don’t know that.”

“We do know it!” She snarled, “Who else would it be?!”

“There are many people who want to see Alkandra fail. Should we name each of them?” I asked. “We may never know who ordered this, and that will be one of the hardest things to make peace with, but we must, or it will gnaw into you until you’re hollow.” I said, hating myself more with every word. I turned back to Kiera, “Arbor has said she’ll help you in any way you need.”

“Just wrap me in a blanket and cuff my wrists to the bedframe.” She said dully.

Brianna snorted around her tears, and took Kiera away by the arm.

Eva ran her hands through her hair, then followed after them. Soraya watched her most beloved go, then turned back to me, the box in her hands. “Will you go now?” She asked.

“We can’t wait any longer.” I muttered, taking the box.

“Why hasn’t Yavara answered our calls?” Furia growled, “What the fuck is she doing that’s so goddamn important?!”

“Whatever it is, it can’t be good.” I said, “Furia, we have to do this now.”

“We can—”

“No!” I growled, “If we don’t do something, then she died for nothing!” I screamed the last word, and the sound echoed down the hall. Furia saw the desperation in my face, and she did not question it.

She nodded, wiping away a tear. “You’re right.”

I wished to god I was.

BROCK

I blinked open my eyes. Actually, I winked open my eye. There was only the right eye now. I was delirious for a moment, but then it came back to me. Sherok, Trenok, the battle, the burning. There was no pain. I looked down at my body, and saw that the flesh was healed. The tattoos were all gone though, burned right off me. My life’s history, the heritage of my people. Gone. I ran a hand through my hair, and realized that was gone too.

“Burnt hair was always tricky.” Zander said from the foot of the bed, “I don’t know why. The tattoos were scars themselves, so a healing incantation would remove them.”

“And my eye?”

Zander shook his head. “It was a death curse, probably given to you by a man you were killing, since death curses kill the caster. It’s funny. Any mage, no matter how experienced or novice, can cast one curse that is wholly undefendable. A suicidal baby could kill the greatest mage on earth if the baby were so inclined. Anyway, you’re lucky to have your life, and even luckier to have the one eye.”

I grunted, and eased my head back onto the pillow. It didn’t surprise me that I was chained to the bed by a binding spell. “Mid Fort?” I asked.

Zander opened the flap of the tent. I had hoped to see nothing but the rise of western Highland hills, but the Rift greeted my eye, and Mid Fort stood defiantly atop it. The causeway had been reduced to rubble.

“The official story is that the elves had a spell in place to destroy it in case they ever lost the gate.” Zander said, “But since you’re alive, I suspect you know what really happened.”

I didn’t answer right away, just stared blankly at the fort gate. I had been so close. I had been a finger’s breadth from the wrought iron. I would’ve thrown open the door to the Highlands, and won the war that moment, for Trenok, for Sherok, for Yavara. If only I hadn’t been such a fool, maybe I would’ve seen it.

“The Terdini warriors?” I asked.

“All dead. The Protaki too.”

I closed my eye. It was fitting that the tattoos were burned from me. I was the last Terdini warrior. I was no one at all. The oldest and proudest tribe of orckind had died uselessly at the top of a plateau in a war they were never going to win. My ancestors had disowned me for the atrocity. My enemies in the halls of hell were howling with laughter up at me. Brock the fool. Brock the deceived. Froktora for a Highland princess.

“She always said she never wanted to invade the Highlands.” Zander said, “Her plan from the beginning was to force them to negotiate.”

“Taking the Rift would’ve gone a long way into forcing that negotiation.”

“Taking the Rift means taking the Highlands. She didn’t want to lose face with her horde by making them turn back when the prize was at hand.”

“So she led us to slaughter instead, hoping to bleed the fight out of us.”

“Yes.”

“She is a coward.”

“Taking the Highlands because it was the easiest option would’ve been cowardly.”

“Sacrificing lives so that she can save face is cowardice.” I said, looking at Zander, “What did Trenok die for?”

“Alkandra.”

“This is not Alkandra. This is a theme park.”

“You’ve never even been to the place you fight for.”

“You’ve never been there either.”

“I don’t fight for Alkandra.” He touched the skull that topped his staff, “I’m the slave of a thousand-year-old promise. I’ve seen the worst evils in that time, and most of them, I saw in the mirror. The others, well, I saw them here.” He tapped the skull, “Alkandi was evil, Brock. Evil to the core. You wonder why the Highlands hatred has lasted so long? The evil that Alkandi inflicted upon them left wounds that will never heal. I was one; I still am.” He regarded me. “You’re not entirely gone, Brock. Even after all you’ve done, there’s decency in you. There’s none in me. If it were up to me, you would’ve died in agony in that fort, reaching futilely for a gate that I was holding shut with all my power.” He leaned in, “Do you understand me, Froktora? You could’ve thrown a million kaçak iddaa men at that gate, and it wouldn’t have budged a goddamn micron. And if I wanted to…” he snapped his fingers, and nearly half a mile away, the Mid Fort gate swung open, then slammed shut, “…I could’ve ended this war a month ago. But you understand, I’m trying my hand at decency, because I remember Alkandra, and I remember the great joy the world felt when it finally collapsed. I will not let this kingdom Yavara is creating become Alkandra. The name will stick for now, but this place will be Yavarana in time. She is decent, and you call it ‘cowardice.’”

He stood up, and released the binding spell that held me fast. “Brock Terdini is dead.” Zander said, “He died gloriously on the field leading a doomed, but valiant charge. You, whoever you are, are an exile. You may go to the Lowlands. You may board a ship to cross the sea, and I will pay for it, but you will never see Alkandra.”

“I’ll never see her again either, will I?”

“Of course not.”

“So she sent you here instead.” I clapped him on the shoulder, and grinned broadly, “You know, she’s not angry with me. She’s scared of me. She doesn’t want to look me in the eye and see what she fears the most. Oh, she says she’s afraid of being like her sister, or like Alkandi, or all that ‘what am I becoming’ bullshit. The truth is, she’s scared to death that she didn’t change at all. That underneath that new skin and hair, underneath all that power, she’s still the dumb spoiled twat that killed my men for sport, then tried to get out of it by flashing her daddy’s name.” I laughed loudly then, as though I realized the punchline to a joke far too late. “Zander, I’ve got bad news for you. I do believe Alkandi fucked up!”

He narrowed his eyes at me. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Don’t you see? Her timing was off! She picked the wrong Tiadoa princess!” My laughed nearly turned into a scream, “The real Dark Queen sits on the throne of Bentius!” I howled at the wizard’s vexed face, and dropped my bags at his feet. I strolled out of the camp with a light heart, passing orcs who didn’t move out of my way, who didn’t salute me, who looked on me with contempt for not having a tattoo. I just walked past them, and made my way to the Great Forest. Home.

ELENA

“…our casualties,” Ternias said, pausing for effect, “were four-thousand, five-hundred and thirty. Brave men, all of them, all died with honor. The bloodiest day since the battle of the Tundra.” He cleared his throat, “The enemy’s casualties…” he looked over the room, savoring every rapt breath, “…are estimated as follows. First division: Five-thousand dead, wounded or missing. Second division…” he paused again, then said, “…total loss.”

A gasp rose from the court, then a great cheer. Leveria was the foremost applauder, her face radiant with joy. Even I felt a measure of great relief.

The king stood up, and hollered, “The enemy has suffered its greatest defeat since Alkandi was broken at Castle Thorum! Three cheers for my uncle, the hero of the Tundra, and the hero of the Rift!”

“Hoorah! Hoorah! Hoorah!” Came the cries, and I joined in, and with genuine jubilance. Leveria patted her husband’s hand dotingly, and he smiled companionably back at her. The interaction was tactfully done. I looked back at Ternias to see his smile turn down a degree. The pro-war parties had won a great victory, but it was really Leveria who came out of it on top. If there was a loser in all of this, it was me.

I stood up, and walked to my dais. “It is a great day,” I said, “and there is cause for celebration. This victory has saved our kingdom from destruction. Our brave men on the field have done their job. Is it not time we did ours? We have an opportunity right now to pressure the Dark Queen into peace while she is weak.”

“Peace?!” Lady Jonias barked, “Why would we ask for a truce when victory is nigh?!”

There was an uproarious shout of approval. I waited for it die, then spoke again. “The Night Wolf still prowls the countryside unmolested. Esmerelda’s rebellion is raging in Feractianas. Your own province, Lady Jonias, has had all its grain stores sabotaged. When your people ask you why they are starving, will you tell them it is for victory?”

“Our people wouldn’t be starving if our queen hadn’t so disastrously handled trade negotiations!” Ternias countered, and was answered with hale of concurrence.

“The trade negotiations would’ve gone better if you hadn’t sabotaged them, Lord Ternias.” Leveria snapped, “Yes, our overseas factors were scared away by the war, but your meddling with the dwarves put them in stasis when they could have acted!”

“Be that as it may,” I yelled, “the situation is still the same. Ladies and gentlemen of the court, what have we won today? We have not gained an inch of ground. The enemy has not retreated. We are still woefully outnumbered, and now that the causeway at Mid Fort has been destroyed, we cannot threaten a counterattack from there. When the snows close the northern passes, that will leave only South Fort, and Field Marshal Shordian has said that attacking from there would be suicide.”

“Field Marshal Shordian is… wrong.” Ternias said, carefully choosing the last word. It didn’t matter, for there was a hiss of disdain from the court for even suggesting it, and Leveria’s smug smile reappeared on her face.

“I urge you, all of you, to consider the opportunity we have.” I said, “Where before, we might’ve had to give great concessions to end the war, now we can end it on favorable terms. Bring our soldiers home so that they can quell the unrest that threatens us from within. Let us trade with our new neighbors to feed our nation, instead of fighting them so that we can starve.”

I had put a damper on the revelry, and received many annoyed looks from the nobles, but my message was heard.

Leveria stood, and walked purposefully to the center of the court. “Thank you, Lady Straltaira, for your daily dose of rationality. I’d say you must be a buzzkill at parties, but I’ve heard rumor you’re actually the life of them.”

A snigger simmered through the court, and Leveria smirked at me before turning back. “Peace can be a very seductive word. It means a temporary end to hardship. It means comfort. It means you can relax. And when you set down your sword, strip the sweltering armor from your back, and ease into that sofa, you might think that all is well. Then there’s a knife at your throat, and the enemy is in your children’s bedrooms, and your children are screaming, but there’s nothing you can do. Your sword is out of reach, and you’re so tired. In the next few days, I expect to hear from the Dark Queen. I expect that she’ll try to persuade either myself or Lord Ternias to take a very generous peace deal. I will not take it.”

“Nor will I.” Lord Ternias said resolutely.

“No.” Leveria echoed, “There can be no peace until there is victory. Lady Straltaira would have you believe that victory is impossible. Lady Jonias has called her a coward for suggesting it. Lady Jonias is wrong. Lady Straltaira is a patriot, a war hero, and a most respected servant of this court. For her, victory is impossible, because victory means doing the impossible. Letting our people starve. Letting the Night Wolf inflict his horrors. Letting a rebellion lay waste to a province. Lady Straltaira’s love for her people is admirable, but it leaves her unwilling to do what must be done.” She paused for a moment, letting the somber tone sink in to the court, “I am your queen. I must be the one to bear the weight of this decision, not you. When your people ask you, ‘why did you not feed us?’ You will tell them that it was the queen’s will. When your people ask you, ‘why did you not protect us?’ You well tell them that it was the queen’s will. When your people rise up against you, it is not you they are rising up against, but me. This is my bane. I will never back down. I will never surrender. I will fight until our country’s victory, or my death. That is my promise to you.”

The court was silent for a moment. Then Lord Xantian burst from his chair, and yelled, “Till victory or death!”

“Till victory or death!” King Shordian echoed.

“Till victory or death!” The whole court echoed, and chanted the phrase over and over, as if trying to convince themselves they believed it. The most seductive word was not ‘peace,’ but ‘pride,’ and Highlanders, even the most conniving and pragmatic, held pride closest to the chest. Leveria smiled at me from across the court, and I could only nod in admiration. She could ride this wave for a week, maybe longer, but Yavara’s army hadn’t moved an inch, and even well-spoken platitudes were still very plain beneath the surface, and could not be eaten.

YAVARA

I watched Brock disappear into the Great Forest. Tears wetted my cheeks, though I was too high for anyone to see them. I had loved him. I would’ve gladly taken him as a husband, if only he could accept that he would not be the only one. Perhaps he could have. Perhaps I should’ve gone to him instead of letting Zander “smooth things over.”

“Why didn’t I just say ‘yes?’” I asked myself. In that moment when I’d read his thoughts, and saw the bottomless grief that had formed in the place of Trenok, I saw the rational for what he did afterward. Trenok had told him to find the nerve to propose to me, and doing so was not an act for me, but an act for the memory of him. I could’ve said ‘yes.’ I could’ve taken him into my arms, and told him that I loved him, that I was there for him no matter what, but I was afraid. And when he walked away, broken and empty, I wanted to bury myself in the darkest hole I could find. Did he attack Mid Fort for Trenok, or was it for me? I would never know, because I was terrified of looking into his mind again, and seeing how he saw me now. I had heard the word though, for my ears were keen, and it was spat with such venom that it cut through the air. Maybe I should’ve flown higher to avoid it. Coward. That was what he had called me, and he was right.

I looked down at the wreckage of the causeway. Those men had charged up that ramp shoulder-to-shoulder, packed in so tightly that there wasn’t a space to step forward. They had been slaughtered a hundred per minute, and their bodies had formed ramps of their own for the next men to follow up. How many thousands had died before I’d gotten there? And they had kept charging through it all, for me. How had I repaid their bravery? I’d lurked in the shadows where no one could see me, and I’d sent a wave of force and fire across the battlefield, and killed the rest. It was undoubtedly the greatest spell cast on Tenvalia since the time of the Creators. It had reduced the causeway to rubble, and those atop it to ash. It had so sapped me that I nearly died from it, and had to be tended to by Zander for hours afterward, but I made him get Brock first. I owed my bravest and loyalist companion that much. I owed him so much more.

The mirror I had given him was in my hands. I wiped the tears from my eyes, drew the sigil, and palmed the glass.

“Hello, little sister.” Leveria smiled, “I’ve been expecting you.”

“Great. Get Elena. She’s not at her manor, so she must be with you.”

She curled her lip. “I suspect she’s actually at Lord Huntiata’s manor, trying very vigorously to convince him to stay in her coalition of the fools. He walked right past her at court today, and she seemed very worried about it. Should we speculate on her negotiating tactics?”

“Goodbye, Leveria.”

“Wait.” She said with such command that I actually stayed my hand.

“What?”

“Field Marshal Shordian kept his mirror on during the battle. At one point, he was convinced that all was lost. The enemy had taken the courtyard, and was about to overwhelm the defenses at the gate. Then a miracle happened. The causeway was blown away by a wind so great that it threw boulders like leaves. The mages think it must’ve been an ancient spell laid into the rock of the fortress, but Shordian’s family built those fortresses, and they know every stone.” She narrowed her eyes at me, “Why did you do it?”

“Shordian gives his mages too little credit. They mounted quite a miraculous defense.”

“You can’t lie to me, Yavara. You never could.”

“Then I won’t bother trying.” I said, and palmed the glass.

ADRIANNA

I wasn’t sure what Arbor could and could not see. Her de***********ions of her ethereal sight were always poetic and vague. ‘I see through crook and bog, moss and leaf, bark and beetle,’ she once told me, and I decided I was way too high at the time to consider what it meant. I always got the sense that she could see into people like a telepath—she could speak mind to mind—but I didn’t think she could read thoughts. She could identify anyone walking in her forest, but how did she identify them? I did not know. All I knew is that she’d know me for who I was no matter what body I wore, and so going beneath her forest was the only option.

Furia held a week’s rations in her hands. To deal with the craving, we would keep our elf forms well nourished, risking only a few minutes each day to transform to our normal selves so that we could eat. While one of us ate bread and beans, the other would feed from her throat. In case one of us lost control, we each had Nadi wood stakes. Just the touch of it on a vampire’s flesh would send them reeling in pain. The pointy end was for the other vampires down there. If for whatever reason they decided to attack us in our vampire forms, the stakes had metal handles we could hold them from.

“And if Yavara comes back while we’re away?” Furia asked.

“We went out on a goodwill mission to the northern isles to recruit the mermaids.” I said.

She nodded, and took a deep breath. “I’m scared, Adrianna.”

“So am I.” I said. The dusk air was chilly, our breath frosting from our mouths. Before us, the darkness of the mine entrance seemed to whisper to the predator lurking beneath my flesh. Come, dance with me in the blackness, child. Be blood and flesh and nothing else.

“It’s calling to me.” Furia muttered.

“Me too.” I said.

“No, I mean kaçak bahis it’s saying words.”

“I know.”

“What is it?”

“Something ancient.”

She swallowed. “What if we get lost?”

“Rangers don’t get lost.”

“That’s not what I meant. What if we… get lost.”

I held out my hand, and she took it. “We can never be lost like this; like this, we’re always home.”

She cracked a smile for the first time in two days. “That was so fucking corny.”

I cracked my first smile back at her. “But romantic enough to get my pussy eaten later, right?”

“Oh, most definitely. I think I just grew a second set of ovaries.”

I laughed, then took one breath, and another. Furia did the same, and we flipped the switches in our minds, and became wild.

ELENA

“Beg, you fucking slut!” Huntiata snarled in my ear. His breath stank of booze, his sweat was rank, his stubble was coarse.

“Please fuck my pussy!” I screamed. Truth be told, I was more than happy with what he was doing, but he got off on the idea that fucking me in the ass was something I didn’t like. I could tell by the gusto with which he railed into me, that no woman had ever let him in her back door before. I was quite delighted to feel his eagerness thrusting so viciously inside me.

“You don’t deserve it, you faggot-whore!” He sneered, “This is the only hole you get fucked in from now on! A filthy little shithole for a filthy piece of dark meat.”

“Fuck my fucking faggot ass!” I sobbed. I hadn’t even gotten out of my dress before he forced me to my knees and made me gag on his cock. After he’d ruined my makeup and hair to his satisfaction, he’d thrown me into an armchair so that my front was against its back, pinned my wrists together high on my back so that it hurt my shoulders, then hiked up my dress, parted my cheeks, and drove himself all the way up my dirty hole. It had hurt; he was barely greased with my spit, and he drove into me like he was trying to dig my guts out. It had hurt in just the right way.

His crotch clapped against my jiggling cheeks, his chest pressed down on my back, and his face was beside mine, snarling his lustful hatred in my receptive ear. I could not hide my pleasure from him any longer, and my screams of feigned fear and pain became cries and moans. I could not keep myself static in sex when the pleasure was so great, so I undulated with him, backing my ass into his thrusts to take him ever deeper, relishing the way his brutal weapon abused the tender anal organ within me, each pulse against it causing a froth of cum to bubble from my tip and stain the front of my dress.

“You like it here, you fucking twink cunt?!” He snarled

“Yes! Oh god, I love it when you fuck my slutty little faggot asshole!” I wailed, “I can’t help it! I’m just your little fucking whore! Please fuck my undeserving pussy! Fuck it with your filthy shit-stained cock!” Good god, if my mother heard me say that…

Huntiata grabbed me by the throat, hauled me out of the chair, tripped, and fell backward. Ever-graceful in the arts of debauchery, I corrected for the both of us, rotated to face him, and navigated our stumble to finish on the loveseat. There, with me straddled atop him, and his hands still wrapped around my neck, I elevated my pelvis, pulled his hot filthy rod out of my abused ass, and angled it into my slit. He thrusted hard, burying every wretched inch into my pristine sanctity, sullying me to the core.

“Thank you!” I whimpered through my strangled throat. He pounded against me, bouncing me off his crotch, making me feel every forceful impact. As the breath left my lungs, and my head swam with ecstasy, I began to dance against him, grinding my hips in a rotation to savor every surface that violated my pink channel. My cock stood rigid and unattended, and I grasped it, angling it upward and stroking it to the fervency of his thrusts. With my other hand, I reached behind myself, slid two fingers between my clapping cheeks, and easily entered the gaping hole he’d left there. I pushed in as far as I could, pressed against my churning prostate, and finished what he’d started back there.

“You come to my house like some street whore!” He snarled, squeezing until I couldn’t even squeak a response, “How desperate are you, harlot of the court, that you would come crawling to me just for my cock?!”

I could only stare down at him, my eyes watery and darkened with the pressure of strangulation, but baring a look of such gratefulness for giving me this lust. I knew it galled him that I did not break. I suspected his poor wife would’ve wept if he did these things to her, but if I wept, it was only with tears of ecstasy. It galled him, yes, but it also enticed him more than anything. Had I not come to his house, he would’ve come to me in the night when his passions had finally overtaken his pride. I spared him the indignity. Dignity for me was just something to discard like lingerie, but it meant everything to the nobles.

I oscillated around his pumping shaft, my breasts jiggling with the force of each thrust, my hair flailing, my belly tensing with contractions. He pushed through the tender squeeze of my nethers, flattening my salivating walls, stretching me down to the bottom, hitting that spot deep inside. My eyes began to roll back. My anally-penetrating fingers lost their sensuality, and began violently rubbing against my pulsating organ, working it into a frenzy as my other hand pounded against my pelvis with the force of my strokes. I sputtered around my choking cry, spit leaking from my lips. I heaved with the ferocity of my climax, my back arching and curving, my abdomen flexing and stretching, the exertion of such terrible ecstasy taking me over! My fist met my crotch one last time, and I exploded all over myself, showering my tummy, breasts, and face, sullying my feminine beauty with my masculine filth. He came inside me, erupting into my starving center, his milk sating my deepest hunger. The last drives of our joining eased, and he let go of my neck. I landed gracefully atop him, and made a pillow of his broad hairy chest, enjoying the way his wilting cock pulsed inside of me, his cum dripping deliciously out.

“My wife will be home soon.” He muttered, gently stroking my hair. Oh, how differently he treated me post-coitus now. He’d been awkward and unsure after the first time, but he soon learned to feel no shame with me. Now he held me like a lover, his hands traversing my curves, savoring my body with a covetousness that bordered on worship. I knew I was addicting, and I made sure to feed that addiction with him.

“Your wife could join us.” I chuckled, “I have something she might like.”

He tugged on my hair playfully. “If you were a man, I’d break your jaw for that.”

“You nearly broke it anyway, Mr. Girth.”

He grinned. “Now you’re just stroking my ego.”

“Is that what you call it?”

He laughed, and kissed me. I kissed him back, letting him taste the unbridled lechery he would never know from any other woman. I could feel him growing hard again, a man of nearly sixty, now suddenly with the libido of an eighteen-year-old. I was a bona fide miracle worker.

“Sorry, my lord, but your wife will be home soon.” I whispered on his lips, “Besides, I want you to be eager for tomorrow.”

“Where’s my fucking money, Elena?” He whispered back.

“That’s ‘Lady Straltaira’ to you, my lord.” I scolded, “Either that, or ‘faggot-whore,’ but never ‘Elena.’ Only my friends get to call me ‘Elena,’ and friends don’t pressure friends for money.”

“You came here to reassure yourself of my loyalty. My loyalty has a price, especially my loyalty to you. You have a strange way of making me feel like a traitor.”

“As you said, you’re just taking a whore’s money. No shame in it.”

He studied my gaze. “When I look into your eyes, I see Highland Blue, but when those eyes express themselves, there’s nothing but Alkandra in them. You’re loyal to the Dark Queen, aren’t you?”

I drew my finger across his throat, and grinned against his lips. “That’s a very dangerous accusation, my lord. One that might get someone killed.”

“Is it true?”

“Of course not.”

“Then why do you want peace so damn much? Don’t try to placate me with that armistice bullshit again.”

I contemplated the man, pathing my fingers into his grey-blonde hair, enjoying the wizened creases of his hard, yet handsome face. “I don’t trust you, Huntiata, but what I’m about to tell you, you won’t be able to repeat anyway, because no one will believe it.”

“What?”

“We lost that battle today. We were overrun in minutes, the fort was taken by surprise, and the enemy was inches away from throwing open the gate. That was, until Yavara turned the entire causeway into dust.”

“Bullshit!”

“The second division was a total loss. Not a single survivor of seven-thousand men. They weren’t surrounded, they weren’t cutoff, and yet, they’re gone. There’s not even a hair left to identify them. They were vaporized in an explosion that rendered the entire causeway to rubble. Who else has that kind of power? Do we?”

“I don’t believe it.”

“Go ask the queen. She won’t give you the truth, because the truth is dangerous to her, but if you ask the right questions, you’ll find that she’ll reveal the answer I’ve given you.”

He narrowed his eyes. “If this is true, then why does the Dark Queen continue the war?”

“To kill the warmongers.” I ended the path of my fingers upon his brow. “Unlike here in the Highlands, those who call the loudest for war in Alkandra must be on the frontlines to fight it. Yavara cannot appear weak to her people. She must seem like the battle queen they want her to be, and so she cannot pursue peace directly. It is why I fight so hard for it here.”

“If she is truly unwilling to win the war, then why would we stop fighting her? An enemy that refuses to go for the throat is weak.”

“You don’t understand, do you? She could win at any time. She could blow down the walls of South Fort, march her army up the causeway, and be in Bentius within a week. She chooses not to win. She is waiting for us, but Lord Huntiata, you remember Princess Yavara; she is very impatient.”

YAVARA

I couldn’t find April anywhere. The kitsune fox had fled the tent during the chaos of the battle, and I’d lost her tracks somewhere in the camp. Not knowing what else to do, I searched for her.

“My queen, what are you doing?” Zander asked.

“Looking for April.” I said, digging through a pile of decapitated bovine heads, “She’s not with the succubi, so I figured that she must’ve gotten hungry. She does love cow tongue.”

“Are you sure this is a job a queen should be doing?”

I glanced up to see several orcs gawking at me. I waved to the butchers with a smile and blood-soaked hand, and recommenced my search.

Zander laid a hand on my shoulder. “You need to *********** a new battle commander.”

I hoisted up a cow head, and shook it with a frown. Foxes were known to burrow.

“My queen?”

“Don’t orcs elect their own Froktora?”

“The tribes did. The tribes are gone. You have to choose.”

I sighed, and dropped the head. Wherever April had gone, she would return to me. “Ok,” I said, “I’ll choose…” It was that moment that I realized I couldn’t name a single orc in my army. When I looked around, all I saw were strangers and strange faces. How many of them had been intimate with me? Scores? Hundreds? And yet, I didn’t know any of them. This army was never my army, but it was now. It was mine in totality, and I didn’t want it.

I cleaned my hands off in a basin. “Find me our best commanders from each division. Pick the one who will be the most loyal to me. I trust your judgement.”

Zander bowed and walked away. The mirror on my hip illuminated. I flew a hundred feet up, palmed the glass, and blurted, “Elena, it wasn’t me. Brock—”

“I know.” She said, “What happened?”

I took a deep breath through my trembling lips. I hadn’t realized how off-center I’d been until Elena brought me back. The tears began to roll down my cheeks, and I told her everything. And though the gentleness of her words and the affection in her voice soothed me, there was not the deftness of her touch or the warmth of her embrace to comfort me. The cold fall air chilled me in my sky-bound confessional, reminding me that I was alone in this, and that the woman I spoke to, this woman that I loved, was ultimately my enemy. I could see that she was saddened by Brock and Trenok, but part of her that she could not conceal was very happy with what had happened.

“I’m so proud of you.” She said, her cheeks wet, “It took enormous courage to do what you did, and don’t for a second think you’re a coward for it.”

“That’s very easy for you to say, Elena.” I sniffled, wiping my nose with my sleeve, “You’ve washed your hands of this war, so you can point the finger at evil and call it what it is, but what of us with bloody hands? Everything I do is starting to feel like a betrayal, and I don’t know what’s right anymore!”

“You could offer peace.” She said simply.

“You know I can’t.”

“No, you just won’t.”

“Any offer by me will be rejected now. The war-hawks in your court think they’ve drawn blood.”

“An armistice then. Just long enough for the farmers to harvest what they can from the fields before the frost-bitten grain rots.”

“No. I’ve made my sacrifices. I’ve shown what I’m willing to do to keep my word. Now you do what must be done, or accept what must happen.”

Her face became hard. “Your army was defeated. Your Froktora is dead. These are the lies you’ve put out into the world, and for what ultimate purpose? Peace! Why can’t you—”

“Why can’t you, Elena?!” I snapped, “Every time we talk, you lay the blame at my feet! What of your blame?! You’re in my sister’s bed! Tell her that if she sends me a peace deal right now, I will sign it! Sing out to the nobles that if they want an end to this war, they just have to ask! We can negotiate the details behind closed doors, but I need a symbol of fucking contrition for one thousand years of oppression before I move one fucking sword off this border!” I screamed, and slapped the mirror hard enough for the glass to fracture.

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