Wednesday, April 23, 2014

S2:28: The Oligarchs of Owlsmoor

Commander Huxley walked at the head of her army, as they marched the long road between Lady Bastille’s estate, and the capital of the border province known as Owlsmoor.  It was one of the many prodigal lands that had joined neither side in the recent war between Regina Maxima and her brother.  Both had attempted to conquer it, both had failed.  Attempts at diplomacy met with similar fates.  Owlsmoor considered itself an independent state, and seemed happy to be so.  As such, it was now one of the most stable and prosperous lands around, as it had escaped much of the current strife relatively unscathed.  The nobles were convinced that if they were to face the Archbishop on the field, they would need Owlsmoor’s support - or, at the very least, their non-interference.  Commander Huxley, on the other hand, was less than convinced.

“You still question the wisdom of this march,” Lady Ravensdown said to Commander Huxley as they walked.  Lady Bastille rode behind in a carriage, and Lord Captain Briarwood marched with the rest of the officers, but Lady Ravensdown wanted a word with their commander.  Plus, she thought it best not to set herself too far apart from the troops.  She had no desire to go quite so far as Briarwood, but riding safe and comfortable in a carriage while the soldiers marched was no way to endear oneself to the military.  Lady Ravensdown knew that for what she had planned, she would need to endear herself to the military.

“Not the march,” Huxley replied.  “The march is fine.  In fact, I think it was high time we took our recruits out into the field, even if it’s just a march into neutral territory.  They’ve all performed well these past weeks of training, but the field is where a soldier is made.”

“Or broken.”

Huxley nodded.  “Or that.”

“So?” Lady Ravensdown asked.  “What troubles you?”

“Who says I’m troubled?”

The tall noblewoman laughed.  “Oh, Commander, you do not hide your displeasure, nor any of your emotions, as well as all that.  To one who has lived her whole life amid the numerous intrigues of the imperial court, you are something of an open book, I’m afraid.”

Huxley grinned.  “Yes,” she admitted.  “Well.”

“It’s Owlsmoor, yes?  You don’t think we need them.”

“We don’t need them.”

“So you say.”

“So I know.”  Huxley looked sharply at the woman walking next to her.  “You recruited me to your rebellion because you valued my military experience, and my knowledge of current legionary strength.  That strength was in serious decline when I left, and I am certain it has only diminished further since.  The Archbishop squandered what hold she may have had on the Imperium, and the disappearance of the Empress only exacerbated the problem.  By this point, I doubt she has much more than a rag-tag group of drunken sell-swords under her command, if that.”

“Perhaps,” Lady Ravensdown said.

Huxley made to argue the point again, but Lady Ravensdown held up her hands.

“I do not attempt to dispute you, Commander,” she said.  “You are right, we did recruit you for your knowledge and experience, and it would be foolhardy indeed not to heed them.  And it could very well be as you say.  The Archbishop may be easily routed, with little effort on our part.  In fact, I have heard rumors through my spies that she is dead already.”

“Well, then,” Huxley said.  “My point is proven further still.”

“Ah,” Lady Ravensdown said, “but who killed her, and why?  And what will become of the remains of the Imperium now?”

Huxley pondered this.

“We march into chaos, Commander,” Lady Ravensdown said.  “We would do well to have all the strength we can gather at our backs.”

“Mm,” Huxley nodded.  “I can’t argue that.  Still, Owlsmoor...”

Realization dawned on the noblewoman.  “Ah,” she said.  “You served in one of the Owlsmoor campaigns?”

“Both of them.”

“Oh.”

“Yes.”

Lady Ravensdown laid a gentle hand on Huxley’s arm.  “I had heard...”

“What you heard, my Lady, was no doubt the palest shadow of what I experienced.”  Huxley’s jaw clenched involuntarily.  “The people of Owlsmoor are not to be trusted,” she growled.

Lady Ravensdown slid her hand up Huxley’s arm and gripped her shoulder.  “I know,” she said.  “I assure you, I have no intention of doing so.”

Huxley nodded.

Lady Ravensdown offered a kind smile, and a final pat on the shoulder.  “Well, we shall arrive soon,” she said.  “I had best prepare myself.  With your leave, Commander.”

“My Lady,” Huxley inclined her head.

Lady Ravensdown walked back down the line toward the carriage, offering smiles and kind words for the soldiers as she passed.  Walking may ingratiate her with the troops, but a Lady must arrive in state, and for that, she needed the carriage.


They crossed into Owlsmoor lands by afternoon, but the sun was beginning to set by the time they reached the capital city itself.  As a large army on the march tends to attract attention, they were met several miles out by a contingent of Owlsmoor’s Republican Guard.  Their Captain, who appeared as little more than a towering mass of solid muscle topped by a scowl, was less than pleased by what he saw as an intrusion into sovereign territory by a foreign military.

“Understand this,” he said in a voice like two stones rubbing together, “the first sign you give me of treachery, I slaughter the lot of you.  Aside from yourself and maybe a few others, you’ve naught but green recruits here.  I’d gut them before they had the chance to piss themselves.”

“So you keep saying,” Commander Huxley said, resisting the urge to roll her eyes.

“I just want it made clear.”

“Consider it transparent, Captain.”  She turned away from him to walk back and check on her army, many of whom were growing wary of the grizzled and angry veterans marching beside them.  Not for the first time, she wished she’d been able to find more deserters from the legions to join them.  She was brought up short by the captain’s rough hand gripping her arm.  He attempted to pull her toward him, but she planted her feet and he couldn’t budge her.  She flexed her bicep and felt his fingers loosen their grip.  Yanking her arm free, she glared at him.

“Commander,” he said, his voice low and angry, “I imagine you and I are going to have ourselves a serious problem, before all is said and done.”

“I look forward to solving that problem, Captain,” she said, her eyes burning holes through his.  “Believe me.”  She turned away again and walked off.  This time he made no attempt to stop her.

***

Theodora Magna, First Consul of Owlsmoor, had been a young girl at the start of the Fraternal Wars.  Her father was the provincial governor when the wars began, and initially he stood with the Emperor.  Years of inept bungling on the part of Quartus Futilis, however, made him question that choice.  Unfortunately, he found little to admire in the so-called Witch Queen, and decided both sides could go to the deepest Hells and Owlsmoor became the first province to break away.  He organized the government along republican lines, with a pair of consuls that, ideally, would balance each other, and a senate to act as a legislative council.  He was elected First Consul in a landslide, with one of his most decorated officers as his Vice.  

Of course, the senate took over almost immediately.  They were the wealthiest and most powerful of Owlsmoor’s landowners and merchants, and it wasn’t long before they owned Owlsmoor’s government as well as its land.  The consuls, which, coincidentally, were the only elected offices in the government, soon became little more than figureheads who parroted the edicts of the senate to a largely complacent populace.  

Theodora had served valiantly in the Guard during the wars, and was elected Vice Consul when her father died and his own Vice moved into the First position.  She, in turn, was elected First a few years ago, with some foppish second child of a prominent senator taking the Vice position.  Though she knew her office held little real power, she had inherited her father’s love of her people, and strove to serve them as best she could.  Needless to say, that wasn’t much.  Therefore, it was with mixed emotions that she welcomed the rebel army into the Hall of Government.

“I must admit, however,” she said, following all relevant introductions, “that there does not appear to be much for you to rebel against.  From all we have heard, the dreaded Archbishop has been killed, and there are none but a handful of besotted mercenaries to defend the Imperium.”

“Hah!” the barking laughter of Alexius Regis, her Vice Consul, never failed to set her teeth on edge.  “The Imperium has barely existed in name only for years.  Now it doesn’t even have that.”  He turned a bored gaze upon their visitors.  “Tell me, what, exactly, are you intending to save, and from whom?”

“A good question indeed, Vice Consul,” Senator Arcadia, an old woman who owned half the viable farmland in Owlsmoor, said.  She looked down at the Ladies Ravensdown and Bastille from her ornate chair on a raised dais.  “What are you truly after, my Ladies?”

Lady Ravensdown offered her most deferential curtsey.  “Illustrious Senators, wise Consuls, we seek only to restore the Imperium to its proper place, nothing more.  We had believed it necessary to wrest control away from this foreign usurper, but, as you say, there is little need for that now.”

“You seek to reinstate an outdated status quo, you mean,” one of the other senators, Castor, said from his chair.  “We have long lived outside the yoke of imperial power.  What interest would we have in aiding you?”

Lady Bastille stepped forward, lending her voice to that of her comrade.  “Think of it not as restoring the old order, but building a new.” She nodded toward the senators and bowed to the consuls.  “Indeed, you may be right in saying the Imperium had outlived its usefulness, and perhaps it was time for it to die.”  She spread her hands wide.  “But from these remnants we could build a new empire, or perhaps a republic, modeled on your own government.”  She nodded.  “It will take work, to be sure.  The numerous provinces of a fallen empire are in disarray.  Most of the legions have fallen to banditry, and many people lack even the most basic necessities.”  She smiled.  “But we can change that.  Join us, and make of Owlsmoor a shining example, so that your principles of liberty and democracy might spread across this land, uniting us once more!”  She curtsied, then stepped back.

“That was a bit much, wouldn’t you say?” Lady Ravensdown muttered.

“Ten silver says it works.”

Their attention was brought back to Alexius, who was clapping slowly in exaggerated applause.  “What a stirring speech, indeed, my dear Lady Bastille!”  He sat back in his seat and looked at her as one might a precocious child.  “Now, I don’t know about any of that ‘shining beacon of democracy’ rubbish, but you were right about one thing.  We here in Owlsmoor have long pondered the notion that it may indeed be time for a new Imperium, built on the bones of the old and ruled from our capital.  The thing of it is,” he smiled, and it was not a friendly smile, “what in the world do we need you lot for?”

The two Ladies and their army soon found themselves surrounded, and vastly outnumbered.  

Looking down the barrel of several rifles, Lady Bastille whispered to Lady Ravensdown.  “I’m afraid I may have some trouble paying you that ten silver.”

“Don’t trouble yourself,” Lady Ravensdown whispered back.  “I don’t believe I’d have much time to spend it.”

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

S2:27: An Alliance Most Compromised

The Archbishop stared at the piece of paper on her desk for what must have been the tenth time that morning.  It had arrived last night, and she’d stared at it until falling asleep.  The Metropolitan summoned her back to the Theopolis.

“In light of the chaos currently spreading across what remains of the Imperium, it is clear your mission has failed in every conceivable way. Return home immediately.”

There was more, but that was enough to enrage her, along with the simple fact that the damned letter was from the Metropolitan, who should have been locked away and powerless until the Archbishop and her army marched on the city.  Of course, building that army was proving a bit more challenging than originally anticipated, and, yes, she had expected the Imperium to rather easily fall under her rule, so this fragmenting of provinces, desertion of legions and open rebellion by the nobility was something of a shock.  Still, to then discover that all her plans at home had also fallen apart, that some outlander woman had the audacity to speak with the voice of the Overgod himself...

Not for the first time, she crumpled the letter into a ball and threw it across the room.  This time, however, someone caught it.

“Problems?” Lora Neely stood in the open door, tossing the ball of paper from one hand to another.  She was smiling, but it was not a friendly smile.

“Ms. Neely,” the Archbishop said, “what a pleasant surprise.  Yes, I’m afraid I have been faced with certain... unfortunate setbacks, but they are nothing to concern yourself with.  I hope that your presence here indicates your mission was a success?”

“My mission?” Lora continued to toy with the paper, finally tossing it in the corner.  “Oh, right,” she said, “you wanted me to kill someone.” She feigned deep thought a moment, then snapped her fingers.  “The Empress!  That’s right, you wanted me to kill the Empress!”  She shook her head.  “No, I didn’t do that.”

This was odd.  The Archbishop had been certain Lora Neely was entirely her creature, so certain, she did not even use her Orator’s gift on her.  This disobedience was unsettling, especially in light of all the other setbacks.  “Ah, Lora,” she said, forcing some steel into her voice, “I’m not sure I care for your tone.”

“Oh, I am sorry, Your Holiness,” Lora bowed low.  “Forgive me.  It’s just, well, I followed the Empress and her party to a town in the north.  They left that town and headed into the wilderness, but I didn’t follow.”

“Why not?” the Archbishop asked, surprised.  “I would have thought that would be the perfect opportunity to ambush them.”

“Would you?” Lora sat down and put her feet up on the Archbishop’s desk.  “You would wait until they were in the woods to attack a dryad and a legion of trained soldiers.  Well, I suppose that’s why I’m the trained assassin and you’re...” she raised an eyebrow.  “What are you, exactly?”

“Growing more annoyed by the moment,” the Archbishop growled.  “Remove your feet from my desk.”

Lora waited just a beat too long before complying.  Then she stood and drew one of the revolvers that hung from her hips.  “Do you know who’s guns these are?” she asked, idly, not quite aiming the gun at the Archbishop.

“Umm...” the Archbishop tried to control the fear growing in her.  “Now, Lora,” she said, using her Oratory on the girl for the first time, “I think you want to put that gun away and get on with your mission, don’t you?”

Lora looked at her and grinned.  Then, placing a finger against her lips, she said, “Shhh.”

“Lora...”

“No, Holiness, I’m afraid that’s not going to work.  Mistress Bellamy’s School is very expensive, but you do get what you pay for.  My curriculum included an entire semester devoted to nothing but resisting mind control.”  She tapped the side of her head.  “You can’t even get in, let alone leave a piece of yourself there.”  She raised the gun, still not aiming it.  “So, do you?” she asked.  “Do you know who’s gun this is?”

The Archbishop shook her head.

“Jax Edison’s,” Lora said.  “These guns belonged to Jax Edison, before she hung them up for good and focused on teaching magic.”  She holstered the gun, smirking at the relieved slump of the Archbishop’s shoulders.  “I thought she liked me, you know.  I was hired to kill her, but I didn’t.  Instead, I joined up with her, killed my employer, stole her money and gave it all to Edison’s cause.  Did you know,” she asked, “that calling her The Alchemist was my idea?”

“I... I um...”

“My idea!  She hated it.  Was constantly on me to stop, but now everyone calls her that!  And it was my idea!”  She shook her head.  “The word Ja’naam was my idea too.  It’s an old faery word that means ‘renewal’.  That hasn’t caught on as well, but I thought at least Jax would like it.  I took it from her stupid bitch wife’s culture, but no.  She didn’t like that either.  She didn’t appreciate anything I did for her.”  She laughed.  “So I stole her guns and exiled her to the middle of nowhere forever.”  She pouted at the Archbishop.  “You appreciate me, don’t you?”

“O-of course I do, Lora.  I--”

“Oh, shut up!” Lora shouted.  “You don’t appreciate me.  No one does.  That stupid pack of idiot magicians didn’t appreciate me, either, even after I stole Edison’s big magic book for them.  Oh yes, I stole that too, I forgot to mention.  A great big spellbook, with every spell ever cast by every magician ever.”  She laughed.  “And that fool just left it lying on a shelf.”  She shrugged.  “Well, anyway...”

At that moment, a group of robed figures entered the room.  The Archbishop’s eyes widened at the sight of them.  They were obviously magicians.

“They may not have appreciated me before, but I bet they do now, don’t you?”

Joran nodded to her.  “Most certainly, Lora,” he said before joining the others as they circled the panicking Archbishop.

“How dare you enter my office?”  She attempted to summon some of her usual imperious demeanor.  “Magician filth!”  She raised her voice.  “Guards!”

Lora laughed.  “Oh, Holiness, you overestimate your forces.  Your guards are either drunk, whoring, or both.  Any who were sober enough to possibly help you are dead.”

“But...” the Archbishop gave in to fear, realizing she was surrounded.  “But, why?  Why are they...”

“Some magical ceremony or other,” Lora said.  “They explained it, but I don’t really care.  All I care about is the oath they swore to me in return for giving them you.”

“We must summon creatures most ancient and powerful,” an old woman said, a mad gleam in her eyes.  All the magicians had that mad gleam in their eyes.  “The ritual demands the sacrifice of a person sanctified in service of a divine being.”

“That’s you, incidentally,” Lora said absently, her feet back up on the desk, barely paying the slightest attention as the Archbishop was bound and dragged from the room by the circle of magicians, all the while screaming for help that would never come.  Finally, she swung her feet off the desk, stood up and looked around.  “This is a nice office,” she said.  “I may make use of it, once I get what I’m promised.  But,” she sighed, “those robed idiots are going to be a couple of days with their little magical working, so I think drinking and whoring are just the thing while I wait.  Seems like forever since I tied one on and had someone between my legs.”

After looting what money there was from the desk and the safe, she left the room, singing an old drinking song as she went.

***

Nikki stood over the Empress, whom she had just knocked flat with a punch to the face.  “You did this?!” she screamed, indicating the blasted and leveled forest around them.

“It... it was the war!” Regina Maxima cringed before the enraged dryad.  “My brother had his best troops hiding in this forest.  I thought, if he didn’t have the forest to hide in, it would improve my chances of winning.  So, I summoned a hurricane and...”

“You summoned a hurricane, and unleashed it on a forest that had stood here since your miserable species was little more than semi-erect apes,” Nikki was quivering with unchecked rage, “all to win some petty war against your imbecile of a brother?!”

“I... I’m sorry, I...”

One of the legionnaires stepped forward, hand on her gun.  “Alright now, dryad, that’s enough.  You’ve a right to be mad, but let’s not do something you’ll regret, eh?”

Nikki turned on her.  “Something I’ll regret?”  She pointed at the fallen Empress.  “I already did something I regret, by agreeing to help this washed up old drunkard!  I don’t have time for this!  I...” she grabbed her very pregnant belly, grunting in pain.

Ralf rushed forward.  “Nikki!”  He put gentle hands on her.  “Is it time?”

Nikki shook her head.  “No,” she said.  “Not yet.  But soon.”  She looked around, her anger fading to sadness.  “And now I have nowhere to birth my daughter.  Nowhere that isn’t crowded with death.”

Ralf looked over at the soldiers, indicating they should take themselves and Regina away for a while.  The commander nodded, quietly gathering up the Empress and lining up his troops.  Soon, the bard and his friend were alone.

“Come on now, Nikki,” he said, gently stroking the hand he held.  “It isn’t all death.”

She sniffled, wiping away tears.  “A few trees, scattered here and there among the wreckage...”

“No,” Ralf said.  “Well, yes,” he amended, smiling, “those too, but I was referring to these.”  He took her by the hand and led her to a group of saplings growing up from the decaying remains of the old forest.  He gestured to encompass their whole field of vision.  “Look around,” he told her.  “Life returns to this forest.  New life.”  He lay a hand on her belly.  “And I’d say that makes this the perfect place to birth your daughter.”

Nikki looked around her, a smile spreading across her face.  She smiled and rested her hands over his on her belly.  “Yes,” she whispered.  “Yes, I can hear them.  Newborn trees, barely even aware of who and what they are...” she turned and smiled at him.  “Thank you, Ralf.”  She leaned over and kissed his cheek.  “I’m so glad you’re here.”

“Aww,” Ralf blushed, grinning.  “Like I’d miss the birth of the first child of human and dryad.”  He shrugged, raising an eyebrow.  “It’ll make a great song.”

Nikki laughed, but her laughter was cut short by the sound of a low growl and a gunshot.  They turned, and saw all of the legionnaires, along with the former Empress, dead at the feet of a group of hulking giants.  The bodies had been torn to pieces, and everywhere was blood.

“Vothlanders,” Ralf breathed.  He moved to put himself between Nikki and the monstrous men, inwardly wondering just what good he thought he’d do.

“Who?”  Nikki had never heard of them.

“Barbarians,” Ralf explained, keeping his voice low.  The Vothlanders moved slowly to encircle them, but did not attack.  “They live far north of here, on the steppes and frozen tundras.  They’ve never been conquered by anyone.  Even the Imperium, at the height of Indovinare power, gave the Vothlands a wide berth.”

“Then what are they doing here?” Nikki asked.  She was reaching out, trying to summon the forest to aid her, but there was very little to work with.  “And how did we not hear them murdering everyone?”

“That would be our doing,” Lora Neely said, stepping out from behind the barbarians.  “Well,” she said, “their doing.”  She indicated the magicians that followed after her.  “They wanted to surprise the two of you, and didn’t want you getting caught up in the carnage, so they muted the sound of the attack.  They need you alive.”  She laughed derisively.  “Okay, they need you alive,” she pointed at Nikki.  “They don’t give a damn about him.”  She aimed a dismissive gesture toward Ralf.  “So,” she said, pointing to a large iron cage that was being drawn forward by one of the Vothlanders, “get in the box like a good girl, and the wandering minstrel here doesn’t have to end up in pieces on the ground.”

“Nikki, no.” Ralf grabbed her arm.  “That’s iron.  The baby...”

“I know,” Nikki said, patting his hand.  “It’ll be okay.”

“Will it?”

Without another word, Nikki threw herself into his arms.  As they hugged, she whispered in his ear.  “Find Jax,” she said.  “Please.”

“I promise,” he said.

She stepped back from the hug, nodded once, then, without another word, walked over to the cage.

Lora looked her up and down.  “You got fat,” she said.

“I’m pregnant,” Nikki said, not bothering to hide the sneer in her voice.

“We know,” one of the magicians said.  “It will make the summoning that much more powerful.”

“Summoning?” Nikki’s eyes widened.  “Oh no...”

Without warning, Lora shoved her in the cage, slammed the door shut and locked it.

“Please,” Lora begged.  “You don’t know what sort of creature they mean to summon.”

“Of course I do,” Lora said.  “And they’re just one of the nasty things being called up from the worlds below.  See them?” She jerked her thumb toward the Vothlanders.  “They aren’t just Vothlanders, they’re possessed Vothlanders.  Thanks to the spilled blood of a certain Archbishop, a troop of war demons are wearing these big bastards’ skins.”  She turned toward Ralf.  “So go ahead.  Find Edison.  Tell her we have her wife.  Let her come.  When we march across the world at the head of our otherworldly army, Jax Edison’s corpse will make a perfect standard.”  She gestured, and the Vothlander began to pull the cage.  “Oh,” she said, as an afterthought, “but since I don’t want to make it too easy for you...” she drew one of her stolen guns and shot Ralf in the stomach.

As he went down, he heard Nikki scream and the others laugh.  Eventually, all sound faded and the light dimmed.  Soon, he didn’t hear or see anything at all.

When the magicians, the assassin, and their army of possessed barbarians had gone, three birds fluttered down to perch on Ralf’s seemingly lifeless shoulders.  Then, chirping to each other, they flew off into the darkening sky.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

S2:26: Unfortunate Revelations

Jax pushed herself up onto hands and knees, coughing blood into the dust and rubble strewn about her.  She was in a bad way.  Exhausted, depleted of all magical energy, and suffering from a variety of injuries both internal and external, she was very certain she was about to die.  Aael, the mad goddess, stood over her, laughing.

“Well now,” she said, “you’re certainly very quiet all of a sudden.  No more bravado or clever little witticisms?”

Three different sarcastic remarks crossed Jax’s mind at that moment, but she couldn’t summon the breath to say any of them.  She settled for a rude gesture instead.

“Charming,” Aael said.  “You’re lucky I don’t tear that finger from your hand, you wretched creature.”  She sighed.  “Why can’t you just do as you’re told?  It’s not as though I’m asking for any great sacrifice.  I’m offering you the world, my dear.  All you have to do is take it!”

Jax had pushed herself into a sitting position, with her back resting against a pile of broken stone.  She looked up at Aael.  Panting, she asked, “Why... why do you... care... so much?”

“What?”

Jax took a deep breath, wincing at the pain that stabbed across her chest.  “Why do you care,” she gasped, “who... rules the world... or if... it’s ruled... at all?”  She leaned back against the stone and closed her eyes, her breathing labored.  She began to suspect she might be dying.  She squeezed her eyes tight, struggling for another breath.  No.  She wasn’t going to die.  Not now.  Not here, in this place so far away.  Not without seeing Nikki one more time.  She opened her eyes, and noticed that the orb had rolled over to her.  Images flashed across its surface.

“It’s enough that I do care,” Aael said, “and it should be enough that I wish it to be so.”

Jax reached out and grasped the orb.  Forcing herself to concentrate, she drained the magical energy from it.  It wasn’t much, but it was enough to repair the damage to Jax’s lungs and ribs.  She held on to a small amount, just enough for one bit of magic.  It wouldn’t be much, so Jax would have to make it count.  “Let’s assume, for the moment, that it isn’t enough,” she said.  Breathing was much easier now, which made her a bit more talkative.  “Why does it matter so much to you that there is one all-powerful ruler of the known world?  Hells, you’ve been in here so long, why do you even care about the world at all?  Now that I think of it,” she went on, “what are you even doing in here?”

Aael stared at her, then looked away.  “I’d rather... not talk about that,” she muttered.

“Oh, come on,” Jax said.  “You’re going to kill me anyway.  I can barely sit up without almost dying.  I have no power left, and no way of getting any, so you can pretty much kill me at your leisure.  Tell me a story before you do.”  She smiled.  “Please?”

The winged goddess stared down at her.  “You’re stalling,” she said.

“You’re going to kill me,” Jax said.  “Given that I’m in no great hurry to be killed, yes.  Of course I’m stalling.”

“You’re up to something,” Aael said.  “Don’t think I did not notice what you did with the orb.”

Jax opened her hands, dropping the orb, which was now nothing more than a lifeless glass ball.  “Just enough to heal the worst of my wounds.  My leg is still broken, I’m still sliced up, beaten and bruised.  I just didn’t want to choke to death on my own lungs.”

“Hmm...”

“Look,” Jax said, “think of it like this: I’m no threat to you.  You can kill me any time you like.  But maybe, just maybe, if you tell me who you are, why you’re here, and why it’s so important that I do what you want, I might change my mind.”

“I told you who I am.”

“You’re not the goddess Aael.”

“How do you know?”

Jax simply looked at her.

The winged woman turned away from Jax.  “You’re right,” she said.  “I am not Aael.  I know Aael is worshipped by many across your world, and I thought, if I took her name...”

“Some of that worship might reflect on you.”

She nodded.  “I was worshipped once,” she said, “so very long ago...”

“So what is your name?”

The would-be goddess shook her head.  “I do not remember.  It has been so long since I’ve heard my name, since I’ve spoken my name... I have long since forgotten.”

“Okay,” Jax said.  “Let’s skip over that for now.  What about this place?” she asked.  “Why are you here?”

The being who had called herself Aael thought a moment.  “I do not know.  It has been so long, I can’t...”

“Try,” Jax said.

“I was...” concentration was evident on the other woman’s face.  “I was... imprisoned?”  Her face lit up as a memory slid into place.  “Yes,” she said.  “Yes!  I was imprisoned here, eons ago, by...” she glared down at Jax.  “By humans.”

“Whoa,” Jax said, holding up her hands.  “Not by me, or any of mine, so... let’s just get on with the story.  Do you remember why you were imprisoned?”

She shook her head.  “No, I... wait. Yes. Yes, I do remember.  It was...” she nodded.  “Yes, it was when the humans turned away from magic.  For countless Ages of this world, magic was an essential part of life.  It allowed humans to grow from little more than beasts to become near gods.  The species nearly died out completely on more than one occasion, and it was only through magic that they were saved.”  She sighed.  “But then humanity found other powers.  Science and technology, disciplines which once worked in tandem with magic, now began to dismiss and diminish it.  New faiths came about, preaching against magic, that it was of some devil or other, and evil by nature.  Over time, fewer and fewer people learned the ways of magic, until I was all that remained to remind them that it had ever existed.”

“And so they needed you out of sight.”

She nodded.  “They tried to kill me at first, but, as you’ve seen, I am very resilient.”

Jax smiled.

“So, accepting that they could not destroy me, they imprisoned me here.”

“How?”

“Ironically, by using magic.  Oh, they didn’t call it that, of course.  Their priests called it the will of their god, and the scientists said they managed it via ‘quantum feedback’, or some such nonsense, but it was magic all the same.”  She shrugged.  “And so I slept, for uncounted ages, as magic left the world completely.  And then...”

“The Awakening.”

“Yes.  I knew upon waking that magic had returned, and I knew...” her eyes widened.  “Yes,” she said, “that’s why.  That’s why I’ve done all this!”

Jax raised an eyebrow.

The winged woman laughed.  “Oh, yes!  Yes!  Of course!  Now I remember.  Those first magicians after the Awakening, they were afraid of me, you see.  They wanted what I could give them, but they were afraid to set me free.  And I, for all my power, was still weak from my lengthy slumber.  My mind was addled and forgetful, and I let them strengthen the magic that already held me here, while siphoning power from me for their own ends.  But I influenced those ends,” she said, her laughter increasing.  “I encouraged them on the path to conquest, knowing full well where that path would lead.  And I knew, oh how I knew, that when their mighty empire crumbled, another would rise up and rebuild it all.”  She offered Jax a very satisfied smile.  “I knew if I could manipulate the cycle of rising and falling empires just right, eventually an empire would collapse so catastrophically as to finally release me from this prison.”  Her smile turned sinister.  “And then, oh Jax, what horrors I will unleash upon the world then.”

“Ahh...” Jax looked around, desperately wishing, for the first time in a long time, that she had a gun.  Not that she thought it would have done much, but at least she could go down shooting.

The winged woman looked at Jax, eyes blazing with rage.  “But you!” she shouted.  “You had to go and refuse me!  You had to be...” her voice trailed off and her anger cooled into confusion.

“That’s right,” Jax said.  “You expected me to be just as petty and ambitious as the others.  But I’m not.  I don’t have that lust for power that your clever little plan needs.”

“No, you don’t,” the other woman said.  “And that brings us right back to where we were.  Me killing you and finding someone else.”  She raised a glowing fist.

“You could do that, yes,” Jax said.  “Of course, you’re really taking the long way around to what you want.”

“What do you mean?” she lowered her fist, the glow dimming.

“You want to get out of here,” Jax said.  “You can’t break whatever spell holds you here, but maybe someone else can.”  She smiled.  “Did it ever occur to you to ask?”

***

After several days of travel, the last of which on foot through harsh wilderness, Nikki led her small band to the ancient forest that had always been a place of power for her people.  Dryads, wood sprites, animal spirits, and all manner of sentient plant life would often meet there in council and she hoped that the oaks at the heart of the forest would enable her to complete Regina’s healing.  She ran a hand over her bulging belly.  She also had other reasons.

“So,” Ralf said, walking next to her, “this is where it will happen.”

“What?” Nikki looked over at him, eyebrow raised.

Ralf smiled.  “Oh, come on, Ms. Bones.  We’ve traveled together a while, I like to think I know you by now.”  He indicated the vague line of trees on the horizon. “I highly doubt you’ve led us along old crumbling roads, dusty trails, and across this arid plain just to aid Her August Majesty back there.”  He jerked a thumb over his shoulder, indicating the former empress, who was being helped along by one of the legionnaires.

Nikki smiled at him.  “Yes,”she said.  “The forest is where I will give birth.  Whatever happens with Regina, and whatever her future plans, I will remain behind.”

He nodded.  “And I’ll stay with you, of course.”

“The forest will provide for me,” she assured him.  “I would not ask...”

“You didn’t,” he said, “and I’m staying.”

Her only response was another smile, as she lay her hand on his arm.



They walked the better part of that day, and soon the plains gave way to brush and small trees, which in turn led to the towering trees of the legendary forest.

At least, they would have, had the forest not clearly been razed to the ground.  Few trees remained standing.  Those that did, leaned against one another like drunks in the street after the bars close.  Many had been snapped in two, their cracked and jagged stumps choked with weeds.  Through her tears, Nikki could see that some trees in what had once been the heart of this forest, had managed to withstand whatever had happened.  There were very few of those, however.

The shocked and grieving dryad looked around in horror.  “What...” she whispered, “what could have done this?”  She turned at a startled gasp from Regina Maxima.

“By all the gods,” the deposed monarch said softly.  “I think I did.”