God Save the QueenbyJukeboxEMCSA©
They were only twelve men, but they rode through the Shadowlands as though they led an army.
If they had led an army, it would have gone much the worse for them; the hordes of the Shadowlands that were in thrall to the dark god Kauroth bred ceaselessly in the dark realms beyond the power of Istan, Lord of Light. The nightlings and sunbanes and shadowmancers of the dark realms could not cross the border of the Shadowlands, but those of the race of Man who passed that border did so at their own risk. Ten thousand men would not be enough to pacify the Shadowlands.
But Auric and his men did not seek to pacify the dark creatures that lay beyond the Kingdom. It was neither pride nor folly that spurred them on, deeper and deeper into the darkness. They rode out of desperation, and Istan's blessings rode with them. (Although as Auric looked over at Bectan, the elderly, half-deaf priest who struggled to control his horse, he thought that perhaps they would have done better to bring Istan's blessings in a more abstract form.)
He only prayed that Bectan would not slow them down. Every second was of the essence; from the moment they had discovered the Queen's disappearance, time had begun to run out for Her Royal Majesty Glorianna the First. The enemy had achieved through stealth and subterfuge what force of arms never could, and now Auric and his handpicked force knew that they had to duplicate the effort and rescue the Queen with but a few men.
They did not lead an army, but they knew they must do what no army could.
Onward they rode, silently through the endless night of the Shadowlands, through strange forests of trees nourished by darkness instead of light, through marshes and bogs of brackish water that flowed from the obsidian mountains to the north. They did not need to track the kidnappers; the Tower of Kauroth stood out, dark even against darkness, a blacker shade of night than all the evil surrounding it.
Auric and his men rode to the Tower, all the while praying to Istan that they were not too late.
Glorianna woke out of a nightmare into a nightmare. Her eyes fluttered open, still blinking away tendrils of a dark dream in which men transformed themselves into vast, featherless black birds and gripped her in their talons, and she let out a scream as she saw the room around her. Hideous faces, carved out of black stone, seemed to leer at her--no, not seemed, she realized. It was no trick of the firelight. The very walls of the tower were alive with the dark power of their god, and they gazed upon her naked flesh with twisted desire.
Terrified, she searched for something to conceal her body from their lascivious gaze, but she had been left to lie there, naked and alone in the tiny circle of torchlight with darkness all around her. Alone. Helpless. Abandoned by all.
No, she thought as she rose to her feet. Not all. Even in this dark place, Istan has not abandoned me.
"Not yet, Your Highness," a voice said in the darkness. Glorianna flinched as she realized the speaker had read her thoughts. "But soon, you will step away from his side. You will cast aside the harsh light of Istan's embrace for the cool, soothing, comforting darkness...and you will love it."
"Never!" Glorianna's voice rang out, echoing defiance from the walls of the tower. "I am Queen of the Kingdom, Istan's chosen. The Light shines through me, and the love of my people reflect it back through me unto the glory of Istan."
"But your people are far, far away from here, Your Majesty." The voice was nearer now. She wanted to back away from it, but she could only go so far before she pressed herself back against the wall, and she could not bear the touch of the lustful gargoyles for even a second. "You are in the very heart of darkness, the center of Kauroth's power. And by the time you return to the Kingdom, you will be broken to my will, broken to the darkness of Kauroth. And that darkness will fall over the Kingdom entire, like a flame fading to an ember, until the Shadowlands flow over all that is."
Glorianna thought she recognized the voice now. The memory of the dream returned to her, and she felt a chill run through the very marrow of her bones as she realized it was no dream at all. "Yeandros?" she asked, hesitantly. "It...it cannot be." She choked back a sob as he stepped into the circle of the fire, and she realized her most trusted physic was, indeed, the man who had brought her here. "Oh, Yeandros," she sighed. "When did you fall into the shadows?"
Yeandros chuckled, his eyes drinking in the sight of her nudity as though he had never seen a woman before. "Before you were even born, my Queen." The firelight flickered off of his shaven head and glittered darkly in his eyes as he spoke. "Don't look so surprised, Your Highness. It is the nature of darkness to conceal. Kauroth granted me the means to deceive, long ago when I first entered His service. Just as He will grant you the means to conceal your own, far more vast treachery from your people until it is too late."
Glorianna almost fell to her knees in despair over his betrayal, but the pride of a queen would not let her. "But you have been in service to the Royal Family for decades! You bore me out of my mother's womb, eighteen summers ago!"
"And what a shame it was, that your mother died in childbirth." His voice sounded as sorrowful and as sympathetic as it ever had when the subject came up, but the wicked smile on his face finally showed the truth. "It's amazing what a few herbs can do to thin the blood and make it flow all the quicker."
A lesser woman would have broken under the weight of the truth, but Queen Glorianna only let it harden her heart. "And my father? You tended to him after his riding accident. Was he another of your victims?"
Yeandros shook his head. "A lucky happenstance, My Lady. He was already beyond saving when I was called. It saved me the trouble of having to arrange his death, for you were always intended to inherit the throne young. Kauroth wanted a monarch who was unready for the challenges of power. He promised you to me when you were only a girl, Glorianna. And now it is time for that promise to be fulfilled."
"I would die first," Glorianna said. Her voice was calm, composed. Even here, in Kauroth's darkness, she felt the peace of Istan readying her for a martyr's death.
"Such a pity that the choice is not yours," Yeandros said. He gestured, and Glorianna felt the floor beneath her feet turn to damp, thick, glutinous mud. "You will find that death is a luxury you are to be denied, My Queen. Though you might wish for it, even beg for it, you will find that the only escape is to submit to my will...and through my will, to give in to the eternal might of Kauroth."
Glorianna felt the warm mud slowly oozing around her toes. She could see solid ground just a few feet beyond her at the edge of the torchlight, but when she raised one foot to step towards it, the other sank into the mud up to the ankle. "You have confused me with a peasant," she snarled out, "or one of the pitiful wretches that dwells within Kauroth's domain. I am a Queen. I do not beg."
"Blessed be to Kauroth," Yeandros whispered reverently as Glorianna tried to pull her foot free, only to wind up sunk to the knees in warm, clinging mud. "So many times, He has sent me visions of this day, of your defiance breaking beneath the endless will of Kauroth until you beg to be my slave, but to actually experience the reality of it..."
Glorianna tried to keep her balance as she fought the sucking, grasping mud. "You have not seen it yet, Yeandros. Do not feast upon a harvest not yet sowed."
"Oh, but we both know the terror hiding beneath that royal stoicism, My Lady. Remember it? When you were a child, crossing the footbridge over the Silver River?" Glorianna tried to keep the shadow of fear from crossing her face, but she felt the mud clinging to her thighs, and her panic betrayed itself in ever more frantic struggles instead. "Remember the rotten wood of the bridge collapsing?"
"I...will never...serve!" Glorianna shouted, but the chill fingers of childhood terror grasped at her mind nonetheless. She could feel things moving in the muck, brushing against her naked skin as she sank deeper with each thrashing attempt to struggle free. The mud itself seemed to be alive. It seemed to caress her, promising an eternity in its dark embrace. She remembered mud filling her mouth as she screamed for help, that horrible moment that seemed to last forever when she thought she would drown in it...her father had saved her, pulled her free of the muck of the riverbed. But her father was long dead now. She was all alone.
"The more you struggle, Your Majesty, the faster you sink." Yeandros' eyes glittered more strongly now, as though lit with their own internal fires. "Struggling and fighting only make you more helpless, only drag you deeper down into the darkness. The more you resist, the deeper you sink into the nightmare." Glorianna felt the oozing muck pressing up against her crotch now, and she wasn't sure if it was her imagination that made it seem like the sticky mud pressed against her maidenhood with a lewd eagerness. "The only way to escape is to stop fighting. Stop resisting. The terror can stop then, I can save you from this if you stop fighting."
Glorianna felt a sickening rush of dizziness, and she flung her hands forward to stop herself from falling. They, too, sank easily into the mud, but she only managed to pull one hand back out. It came away thick with grasping, clinging mire, and she thrashed all the more violently in revulsion. Yeandros just watched, his eyes burning brightly now with blood-red fires. "You cannot escape, Glorianna. You are not strong enough. You will be dragged down, down into the darkness forever, entombed in filth. Every effort to free yourself merely seals your fate. Only through me, through my aid and my will can you be free of your fear, free of your terror, free of your nightmare. Just reach your hand out and ask me for help, and I can free you."
Glorianna felt the mud around her belly now, but she couldn't look down to see herself sink into it. She couldn't look away from Yeandros' burning eyes. She continued to struggle, but a strange lethargy seemed to make her muscles leaden. She felt despair taking her over. Every effort to resist just brought her worst childhood nightmare to life. Yeandros had always been there for her, after her parents had died. He'd always taken that nightmare away. He'd always held her, stroked her hair, whispered softly in her ears as she fell back to sleep. Surely it wouldn't hurt to let him take this nightmare away one more time? Nobody else could, she knew. He was all she had, he was all that stood between her and the choking, grasping darkness beneath her. Everyone else had left her, even...
Her parents. Her parents dead, and Yeandros their murderer. With a titanic effort, Glorianna clenched her eyes tightly shut, blocking out Yeandros' gaze. She redoubled her efforts, not striking out in any particular direction this time, but merely thrashing around in the muck with blind fury, almost willing herself to sink deeper. The mud oozed around her breasts, buoying them up for a few moments before it swallowed them.
She could hear Yeandros' voice, warning her of the doom that awaited her should she keep struggling, but she blocked it out. Deliberately, she plunged her other hand into the mud, pressing it as deeply into the filth as she possibly could. Her struggles now took place almost entirely below the surface; only her head stuck out now.
The mire seemed to welcome her like an old friend, caressing her whole body as she sank ever deeper. She could feel her blonde hair floating above the surface now, her tresses becoming dirty as the mud clung to them. Her chin pressed against the surface of the muck, and she swallowed a deep breath and pressed her lips together in anticipation.
The black mud against her mouth felt different from the chaste daydreams she'd had, back in the Kingdom as she'd imagined her first kiss. It pressed against her insistently, seeking to find its way into her just as it had oozed its way between her nether lips. Even as she thrashed harder, seeking now just an end to the nightmare and a martyr's death, she found that she could barely move. The mud held her tighter than any lover's embrace.
Yeandros' voice became muffled now, as the muck oozed into her ears and blocked off all the sounds from the outside world. Now all she heard was the sickening squish of mud, the strange noises seeming to form another, darker language that whispered darker promises to her. Strange currents of black mire stroked her and told her of Kauroth, of the pleasures that awaited her in his service, and there was not a single spot on her body that the mud could not touch now.
Glorianna felt her lungs burn for air. Victory would be hers soon, she knew. She thought one last time of Istan, and offered up a silent prayer that he would find a worthy successor for the throne...
"I told you, Your Highness." The words rang clear in her ears, and Glorianna opened her eyes to find herself lying once again on the obsidian floor. She would have thought it all an illusion, save for the thin coating of black slime on her body. "Death is a luxury you are to be denied."
Glorianna wanted to weep, but she would not give him the satisfaction.
Without Bectan's aid, they would never even have made it into the tower. Even with Bectan's help, they still lost a man--Shon had been the boldest of them, perhaps too bold. They had spread out to search for an entrance, but when they could not find a door anywhere on the outside of the tower, it had been Shon who had said, "Perhaps one of these gargoyles has a hidden knob, or something," and it had been Shon who had reached out to touch the nightmare carvings that covered the entire surface of the tower.
And it was Shon that the gargoyles grabbed, taking hold of his hand and pulling him into their waiting arms. Auric had grabbed Shon's other hand, and for long moments, he fought a gruesome tug-of-war with the creatures as he cried out for aid. Desperation lent him strength, but the creatures scratched and bit and clawed at every inch of Shon's flesh they could grab, and when they clutched at his hair and pulled his head into their nightmare embrace, Auric had taken the only course he could. He pulled out his sword and put his friend and comrade out of his misery.
Bectan had arrived moments later with the other knights, but too late for Shon. The carvings cackled and gibbered, the sound spreading until the entire tower laughed in sinister triumph. "I fear there is no entrance," Bectan said. "At least, none that will allow us in. Only the corrupted creatures of this realm can pass freely into Kauroth's tower."
"Then how can we rescue the Queen, old man?" Auric asked. "If we cannot even enter the tower..."
"No," Bectan said, "I don't think we can wait an hour." Auric sighed. He knew Bectan's wits weren't addled, but he wished the old man's pride didn't force him to pretend he still had his hearing. "We'll have to force our way in. I'd hoped to keep our presence here a secret, but..."
He straightened up. Suddenly, Bectan didn't seem like a doddering old man at all. He seemed to fill with an inner light, glowing in a sharp contrast to the darkness of the Shadowlands. He held up his staff, and the symbol of the sun at its tip glowed like the dawn in the night. "One warning, creatures," he said, and his voice rang with authority. "Let us pass, or I shall burn you where you stand."
The creatures hissed and spat defiance at him. "So be it," he said, and light poured out from him, through the staff, and onto the walls of the tower. The creatures melted away like shadows under its power, and Auric heard a sizzling sound he'd never be able to forget as the light burned a passage into the tower. "Quickly," Bectan said. "They'll send reinforcements to seal the breach soon enough."
"You did it!" Auric gasped in astonishment as he and his men raced into the tower. Thankfully, the inner walls were mere stone. "Praise be to Istan!" Perhaps he'd underestimated Bectan after all.
"Lazy old man?" Bectan snapped out indignantly. "I might be getting on in years, but I'm as ready to handle these stairs as the rest of you!"
Auric decided not to comment further. Instead, he brought his sword out, and his men did likewise as they began to climb the tower. Here, in the stronghold of Kauroth itself, there was no telling what creatures might block their path. They might come face to face with nightbearers, or dreadspiders, or...
Or beautiful, dusk-skinned women, dressed in shimmering green dresses and bright golden necklaces, kneeling on the wide-open landing and gazing up at the knights with wide, pleading eyes. "Help us," one of them whispered. "Kauroth holds us here, imprisoned by dark magic and awaiting the call to become handmaidens to His dark will."
Another took up the call. "Help us," she said, her voice a hissing whisper in the echoing hallway. "These necklaces bind us more surely than any chains, for we cannot remove them ourselves. We are doomed, without your aid."
Auric stepped closer, his instincts suspecting a trap, but all he saw in the girls' eyes was wide, desperate innocence. "Help us," the closest cried out. "Without your help, we are doomed to a fate worse than death. Can you not help us?"
Auric tore his gaze away from the beautiful women to look at his fellow knights. The expression of steely resolve on their faces matched his own, he was sure. Besides, the task seemed to be an easy one. Turning back to the girls, he reached out to one and pulled the necklace from her shoulders, then tossed it lightly to the ground.
She rose to her feet. "Oh, thank you, good sir knight!" she cried out, hugging him tightly. "My name is Kama, and I know not how to reward you for your kindness...your bravery...your nobility..." Something in the way she shifted against him told Auric that she knew exactly how to reward him, and he tried to push her away. As beautiful as she was, this was neither the time nor the place for any such activities, even if he hadn't taken a vow of chastity to Istan.
But she merely clung to him all the tighter, gazing up into his eyes and whispering her gratitude again and again. All around him, out of the corner of his eye, Auric saw his fellow knights aiding the other girls, but Auric was taken with the strange and beautiful color of Kama's eyes. He'd never seen anything like it back in the Kingdom, not in any of his travels. Her eyes were the most beautiful blue...but then the blue shifted to green, right where her iris met her pupil...and then the green spread outwards, pushing the blue to the edges of her iris until it vanished completely...and then the green was, in turn, cast aside for a pale yellow...
Auric distantly realized that Kama's embrace had stirred his member to life beneath his armor, but it somehow didn't seem surprising. The soft, sinuous motions of her body against his were so enticing, so erotic, that it didn't seem unusual at all when she beckoned him down to the floor with her hands and her body. They had time enough for a reward, after all. Auric found all the time he needed deep within Kama's eyes.
She kissed him passionately, and somehow his vow of chastity seemed distant, unimportant next to the sensuous flickering of her tongue into his mouth. He sighed in pleasure as she kissed her way down his chin and neck, his eyes fluttering in bliss at the wondrous sensations. All around him, he noticed his fellow knights receiving their own rewards from their own women; even Bectan had a woman wrapped around him, although the old man seemed a little more agitated than the rest of them. At his age, he should be ashamed, Auric thought absently. Bectan tried to speak, but the dark-skinned beauty caressed his mouth with her hand, silencing him.