White flames; searing pain, pulsing through her body, from her spine to the tips of her extremities, and then—
Nothing. Blackness enfolded her, absorbed her till there was nothing left but black all the time. In this blackness, a voice spoke.
What was this language? The sound of it was both familiar and befuddling.
She felt it pulling at her, compelling her to respond—but how? She knew that word... Didn't she?
"Zayra, it's time to wake up now. Open your eyes."
The blackness receded, softening to a gentle red-orange shade. Her eyes; did she have eyes? She felt her head rocking back and forth, her arms waving till they connected with something strong and gentle and human. Finally, the red shades parted to fill her vision with fierce light, golden this time. She squinted against it, a sharply inhaled hiss escaping her lips. She tried again, this time willing her eyes to remain open long enough to adjust.
She lay in a magnificent bed, dressed in rich, silks with many fluffy pillows supporting her. Many strange people stood around her bed, watching her with faces full of anxiety, their arms anchored respectfully.
A man stood next to her, dressed in resplendent silver robes. "Mistress Zayra," he said. "You have been asleep a long time, my dear; how do you feel?"
Zayra—could it be that was her name? She opened her mouth to make words, just as the man did. "I feel..." What words went with the vast emptiness inside her?
"Do you feel any pain?" The man prompted.
Pain? Such as the torture she had undergone before the blackness?
"No," she said. Nothing she could conceive of could ever come close to approaching such agony as that, to be classified "pain."
"Do you know where you are?" He asked.
That was a silly question. "I am in a bed," she retorted—and then, because it felt like the right thing to do, added, "idiot."
The man's eyebrows lifted away, sending small ripples through his brow.
"Do you remember who I am?" He asked.
The more she looked at him, the more Zayra felt the churning revulsion well up within her. "Why would I, fool?" She spat. "I cannot even recall who I am!"
The look of keen interest and vague amusement on his face was beginning to annoy her. Why did she despise this man so?
"If I may tell you—"
"Do so at once."
"Ahem! You are Zayra Adassa, Queen of The Realm. I am Doctor Midan, and you called me in because you wanted to be beautiful again."
Beautiful again... It certainly sounded like a worthy goal.
Her eyes narrowed as she stared at Doctor Midan.
"Did it work?"
To his credit, the man kept his face neutral, betraying neither disappointment nor pride. He beckoned one of the other people—if she was queen, these must be her servants—forward, and this one produced a mirror.
"See for yourself," he said.
She looked at the face before her.
The wave of loathing rolled over her and she swung her arm, sending the mirror crashing to the floor, shattering the despicable visage into a million shiny pieces.
"You fool!" She raged. "I am not beautiful! You have failed me!" The anger weighed heavily on her chest, and all she could think of was ensuring that the doctor himself would suffer the same fate as the mirror, rent into a thousand pieces. She lunged for him, but the silver Doctor withdrew into a sea of white as these servants interposed themselves, pulling her body back toward the bed.
Zayra struggled against them with all her strength. "I will destroy you as you have destroyed me!" White faded to red, which clouded so thick in her vision, it threatened to blind her. "You failed! Fail! FAIL!"
Just before the blackness consumed her yet again, a blue light spread around her, and a gentle voice proclaimed, "Hush, your majesty; be calm. There is nothing to fear."
The blue washed all the blackness away, returning her sight to normal. When Zayra recovered herself, she found that someone had dressed her in regal robes, complete with a veil that hid her face. The soldier standing next to her was female, with long, crimson hair and three prominent scars across her face. The soldier stood without looking at her Queen—just as she liked it.
She stared at those scars.
"One, two, three," she chanted. "Three means courage and loyalty." Yes; this one would not fail her as everyone else had. "You will never leave my side," said Zayra.
The soldier didn't move, didn't make any sign that she heard and would obey—but those three scars spoke for her.
The doors opened, and two more soldiers came in, escorting with them a maiden of such beauty that she seemed to radiate a pure light in Zayra's eyes.
She hated her at once. She stood from her throne.
"HOW DARE YOU BRING THAT IN HERE!" She thundered. "I cannot have her beauty, therefore I must have her head!"
The soldiers bowed at once and began dragging that odious paragon from the ballroom—whereupon the angelic being of pure light began shrieking.
"Please, Your Majesty!" She begged. "I have done no wrong! Please do not kill me! I will do anything to keep my life!"
Zayra raised her hand, and the soldiers froze mid-step. The wretched beauty still keened, weeping and pleading for her life.
Zayra walked in front of her and tilted the impeccable face so that their eyes met.
"I want you to stop talking!" She murmured.
Immediately, all sound died. The beauty's lips moved, but no sound issued forth. Zayra smiled for the first time since awakening.
"You!" She pointed at the soldier with three scars. "I want all the mirrors in my room destroyed. I want all reflective surfaces covered. And I want this one," she gestured to the other beauty, "locked in a golden cage in my room. She shall be fed every day, and given the finest clothes to wear."
The soldiers moved to do her bidding as the beautiful face contorted one last time in a silent scream. The Queen resumed her throne.
"Yes, I think I should like that. If I cannot wear her face myself, the least amends she can make is to let me stare at it for the rest of our lives."
He knew he was floating before he heard the gentle lapping of water. A small trickle poured over his face. He opened his eyes.
A star hovered over his head, throwing water at his face. A star with a musical voice.
"Are we awake now?" The star asked.
"Yes," he replied—but his voice sounded different than the star's did.
"Good; here comes the healer." The star disappeared into his pocket.
"The what?" He sat up quickly—too quickly, nearly dumping himself into the water.
A hand latched onto the side of the boat, and he couldn't help noticing that it was green and covered with scales. The face that hovered over him had one cool grey eye set in smooth, fair skin, which faded into gnarled, rugged green scales around a yellow eye. She reached out her other hand, and he saw again the smooth skin. Was it some sort of strange disease that marred her complexion?
"Who are you?" He asked.
"A friend," she replied. "My name is Erlis. Who are you?"
He opened his mouth, but no sound came. Even his thoughts supplied no clue. He could recall the feeling of being on a ship in a storm, but nothing beyond that.
"I don't... I don't remember," he stammered.
"I can help you," her golden lips promised. "Come with me before we are discovered."
He tensed, though he didn't know why. "Discovered by whom?"
She grabbed his wrist and pulled him completely out of the boat and onto the dock. A crowd gathered nearby, but their attention focused elsewhere, so the woman with dragon scales and the man with no name and a star in his pocket slipped by unnoticed.
She led him down streets and alleyways until they reached a dark, forgotten corner of the town. There were very few people this way. The woman stopped in front of a doorway, poised as if listening. She seemed to spit something out of her mouth—it took a moment for the man to realize that the dark, forked, undulating thing was her tongue.
"It is safe," she said, and entered.
The minute the two of them crossed the threshold, an explosion of light struck the two of them with enough force to send them crashing against the wall.
The searing pain ceased and a plaintive voice cried, "I'm sorry! Are you all right? You need to help me!"
The star leaped out of her pocket and lunged for the dark man sitting at the back of the shop.
He cried out and covered his face, still apologizing. "I didn't mean it! Don't hurt me!" He lifted his eyes and caught sight of the woman. "Are you the Dragon Mark?"
She stood, throwing off her hood to reveal her scales. "I am. I will help you in a moment." She turned back to the man as the star returned to settle on his shoulder.
"Are you all right?" She asked.
The star chimed a warning.
The healer tilted her head and flicked her tongue again. "Interesting," she mused. "A fairy."
He covered his face with his hands. "Augh!" The pain still radiated through his head, carrying with it a host of images that filled his mind like trying to catch a waterfall in a bowl.
"Sir!" The healer cried, supporting him as his knees buckled.
The fairy settled on the crown of his head as the man lifted his eyes.
"Harlock!" He gasped. "My name is Harlock."
Soldiers in royal livery tromped around what looked to be the remains of a temporary camp. Bloody carcasses littered the area, fallen in tents and around all the fires and canopies of what would otherwise have been a very effective, comfortable place.
In the midst of the armored bodies, a lithe figure dressed entirely in leather cast her piercing gaze around the carnage. Rather than a sword or a bow, she carried a gun holstered on her hip. She tucked a wisp of magenta hair behind her ear as she located the leader's tent, anchored in a prime location. What was left of his body lay across the entrance. The same animals that had shredded the other bodies had also feasted on his ample abdomen, but had left his head intact. She squinted at the clear boot print left on his face. She would have expected it to be his own shoe size (based on height and weight; his feet had been ripped off at the ankle and carried away), and yet there were no boots of that size in sight.
She ventured further into the tent.
"Ma'am!" A soldier approached behind her. "Did you find it?"
She stood, looking at the empty chest that had once held the special suit of armor She demanded of the market blacksmith. Empty—so who had dared to take the armor?
"Not exactly," she answered the soldier. They withdrew from the tent, and she gave the signal to group at her position.
The soldier nearest her nudged a headless body with his boot. "Poor sods; who knew wolves could be so territorial?"
She shook her head with a grim expression. "This wasn't a territory dispute. It's too vicious, too deliberate, too focused." She surveyed the carnage.
"There don't appear to be any survivors," reported one of the soldiers.
She turned and started down a path westward through the forest. "That's right!" She called over her shoulder. The same boot prints showed clearly in the mud.
"We follow the armor!" She announced to the troops.
There wasn't supposed to be anything growing in this wasteland. The old man smiled as he reached into the silty crag under the rocky shelf and pulled out a few tender sprigs. Further on, he harvested the berries from a bush and a few gourds growing on a vine among the boulders. They called it a "wasteland" but no one had actually been out here for years. It seemed "barren" merely because it had none of the creature comforts of city living—but it was by no means a barren wasteland.
Once the basket on his arm was full, he began shuffling the long path toward his cave.
He didn't make it far before he sensed something was very wrong. He saw the landmark of a hill in the distance—
Then a jet of flame erupted from the mouth of his cave, and a lone voice howled at the sky.
The old man dropped his basket as a pack of wolves streamed from the cliffs, headed right for his cave.
As he ran after them, the wolves grouped in a wide ring around a massive wildfire.
No, he corrected himself, not a fire. A young man danced around a cloaked woman in armor, throwing balls of fire at her with his bare hands. She lashed at him with the claws on her gauntlets. The old man staggered up to the cliff overlooking the battle. Fingering the beads on his talisman, he drew upon the strength he needed. Raising his staff high, he commanded, "STOP!"
A fierce wind blew past him without touching him. Instead, it sent the wolf pack tumbling and extinguished the flames. When it ceased, the boy and the girl stood before him, quite alone and almost completely unarmed.
The boy stared at him with wide eyes, but the girl glared.
Flexing her claws, she demanded, "Who are you?"
Part 4: "Legends">>>>>