Dan shrieked as he jolted awake.
Something was wrapped around him, cutting off his breathing. In his panic, he began to fight, tearing at it as if it were a second skin. Ripping it off his body, he flung it away, a flash of red catching his eye. Breathing in and out so fast his lungs were aching with the effort, he looked around, wiping sweat out of his eyes.
He was in a room. How did I get here?
The last thing he could remember was dropping the kaf on the drifter’s device and the sparks beginning to fly. Bolts of lightning had struck the walls and then… One of them had hit him. He looked down, dreading what he might find.
His skin was unblemished. He rubbed one palm over the place where the scar should have been. There was no sign anything had happened.
Looking down, Dan realised that he was dressed only in his white under shorts and that he was sat in a bed. Around him rose four posts, reaching up to a canopy. A small table sat by the bed with a lamp on it, whose light flickered on and off every few seconds.
How did I get here?
Again, he rememorized the events on the bridge. Had the Phoenix
brought him to some planet for treatment? Had they returned to Bastion Shadow?
“Hello?” he called out tentatively, waiting to see whether a nurse or a doctor might show.
Jumping off the bed, Dan walked over to the window. Pushing his nose up against the pane, he stared out and gasped.
He definitely wasn’t in Bastion Shadow. He was in a room at the top of a high tower, a massive fortress spread out beneath him, all thick grey walls and battlements.
Beyond the castle edges spread a rolling plain of fine purple sand, broken every so often by outcroppings of stone. A glorious red sun hung in a hazy pinkish sky, unbroken by the slightest hint of cloud.
Terror gripping his soul, Dan stumbled back away from the window. A moan tore from his lips. “Where am I?”
“Welcome to my domain.”
Dan swung round to face the woman who had spoken. He felt his cheeks burn when he saw her. Dressed in a form fitting red pant suit that highlighted her lush curves, she was probably the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, Wicka Bay included – as much as he hated to admit it. She seemed to exude a predatory sensuality even standing perfectly still. Long black hair fell down to her shoulders, like a wave over ivory shores. Her eyes, though, glowed white as ice.
“Hu-Who are you?” he managed to choke out.
Instead of answering, the woman prowled along the far wall, her eyes never leaving his as she trailed her hand over the wall. She had the grace of a born dancer, merged with the poised danger of a hunting cat. Dan backed away, until she had him cornered against the wall. Her hands came up on either side of him, blocking off any chance of escape. Leaning close, she whispered in his ear.
“My name is Graciella. I am the Crimson Queen.”
Dan moaned. The goddess whose realm they were trying to invade. The deity they had come to steal from. And he was in her grasp.
The Queen pulled back, staring into his eyes. Dan couldn’t break the gaze, no matter how much he wanted to. He tried to picture Wicka in his mind, hoping that thoughts of her might help him break free. But the Queen held him with those cold, ice green eyes. She smiled.
“What do you want?”
Her laugh took him by surprise. “I’m so glad you asked. So few men do, you know? Want to know what a woman wants. No. Your kind take and take and take, but never give anything in return. It has been so long,” she moaned, drawing out the words, “since I had a man, my sweet little thing. The last one… It did not end well.”
She held up a cloth bag from which exuded a calming blue glow. Dan could hear a soft thumping coming from inside.
“I was forced to take his heart, you see? It was the only thing he left me.”
Reaching out, she grasped his chin, lifting his head until his eyes were locked with hers again.
“You wouldn’t do that, would you my little butterfly?” Her whisper sent shivers down Dan’s spine. “You wouldn’t hurt me like he did?”
Her hand was stroking the back of his neck. She leaned in, her lips pressing ever so lightly against his neck. Like being kissed by a butterfly. Then, one of her fingers took on a harder, sharper edge. She continued kissing her way up to his ear.
“You’ll stay with me, won’t you? Forever? And ever? And ever?”
Searing pain lanced down his spine as the finger pierced his skin and tapped on his bones. For a second time in as many days, Dan felt his body spasm. Every muscle suddenly became rigid. His back arched, pain throbbing.
Just as quickly, though, the pain turned to pleasure. It washed over him like a wave, relaxing his body. He felt himself fall forwards into the Queen’s embrace. She turned him until he was lying in her lap, looking up at her through a veil of tears. She looked both beautiful and deadly, a coy smile playing on her lips. Almost as if there was a halo around her face, framing her black hair.
Suddenly, her voice echoed in his mind. Her lips didn’t move, but he could hear regardless.
“Oh, you are a pleasant surprise. There’s strength here, little butterfly. More than I thought. A fine gift indeed. We’re going to have so much fun.”
Dan knew she was right. A sense of well being infused his body, and then the darkness closed in and he slept.
The first thing Andrew noticed as he came to was the smell.
It was a musty smell, that of too many bodies pressed into too small a space, accompanied by the acrid stench of shit and piss warming beneath a harsh sun. He could feel the heat washing over him in waves, forcing sweat out on his skin.
Fighting against the nausea he felt and the urge to just roll over and let the darkness take him, Andrew tried to remember what had happened. The last thing he remembered was being on the bridge. That drifter had been working on his machinery, sparks had started to fly, and then that idiot kitchen rat had tripped on a wire, the kaf had gone flying and…
His eyes snapped open. To find himself staring into the muzzle of a very large, furry creature. He scrambled away, reaching for his weapons and kicking out at the creature who roared in surprise. Andrew only stopped when he found his back against what felt like bars. As his eyes darted around he realised that he was surrounded on all sides by bars.
A cage. I’m in a cage.
“Wh- Where am I?” he asked, his breath coming in short bursts. “What is this place?”
To his surprise, the furry creature seemed to have recovered from his own fright much more quickly than Andrew. He had dropped back on his haunches on the other side of the cage and was studying him with beady black eyes. Andrew wondered whether he even understood him when the creature spoke.
“The Crimson Queen’s domain.” The creature’s voice rumbled like two stones rubbing against one another. “Her dungeons, to be precise.”
“How did I get here?”
The creature shook his head. “I do not know. Perhaps you were trapped in one of her dimensional webs?”
Andrew shook his head, memories flooding back. “No. No, I was trying to get here. I… I was on a ship, trying to open a door, but something went wrong.”
“I would say so. Few of us come here by choice, for obvious reasons. Still, all of us end up here, in her dungeons.”
Andrew followed the creature’s expansive gestures and realised that his cage was trapped between others, one on each side. Within each of those cages one or two prisoners sat or slept. His eyes widened as he took in the variety of races represented – although one or two appeared to be bipedal sapients like himself, most of them were much stranger than the furry creature he shared a cell with. Some had more limbs, others had no limbs at all, while still others appeared to be on the same evolutionary chain as the Ilonan and their insectile brethren.
“What are they all doing here?”
“She keeps us here until she is ready for us.”
“Ready for you to do what?”
“To fight. To die. To be dinner.” The creature lifted his shoulders in an approximation of a shrug. “Whatever she wants. Most of us she throws into her arena.”
Before Andrew could ask more, he heard a skittering sound come from the bars above him. He glanced up in time to see an eight-limbed arachnid swinging above, held by a thread the colour of worked steel. Eight multi-faceted eyes peered down at the prisoners, while red tinged mucous dripped from sharp fangs.
“She is hungry,” his companion said simply.
The roof on one of the cages a few feet away suddenly snapped open. Screams filled the air as the occupants realised what was about to happen. Andrew could hear the sound of a struggle going on, and through the forest of bars and beings he could just about make out two bipedal creatures with horns and ridged backs fighting to get out of their cage. As he tried to get a better view, though, his eyes fell on a cage two or three feet away, and the small figure lying on her side.
His herder had been pulled here as well.
He tried to get a better view of her, to see whether she was alright, but his attention was dragged back to the other cage as a shrill scream filled the air. He looked up in time to see the spider from earlier rising back towards the ceiling of the chamber, one of the ridged creatures struggling in his grasp. As predator and prey neared the top, the spider seemed to tire of the fight. Two fangs descended in a flash of movement and the ridged alien went still.
Moments later, the roof opened and closed, leaving a silence pregnant with dread in its wake.
Andrew had already turned away. Pulling on the bars, he called out Dalilah’s name. The creature in the next cage over, a furry beast with four legs and a serrated jawline, hissed at him, but he ignored it.
“What is it?” he heard his cage companion ask.
“That woman over there? She’s a member of my crew. I need to know if she is alright.”
Suddenly, his companion was at his side. Before Andrew could ask him what he was doing, he called out a name. Andrew saw the creature sat in the cage next to Dalilah’s, some kind of amphibian biped, turn towards them
“Zrtgh, can you tell whether the sapient is alive?”
Zrtgh – which Andrew heard as Zire-tig – produced a long tongue which he used to prod at Dalilah. Andrew saw her stir, though she didn’t wake up. Still, it was a relief to see that she was alive. Turning away from her, Andrew allowed himself to fall back into a sitting position.
“Thank you,” he said, as his companion settled to his haunches beside him.
Shaking his head, Andrew extended a hand. “Andrew Lee,” he said.
Instead of taking his hand, his companion nodded. “Oath,” he replied. “Of the Chaol. And I know who you are, captain.”
“What?” Suddenly all of Andrew’s suspicions came flooding back. “How did you know I was a captain?”
“I know a lot more than that. I have dreamed you.”
Oath nodded. “Amongst my people, the Dream is All and each of us share in it. It guides us, tells us what we should do and where we should be. The Dream guided me to one of the Queen’s webs. And two days ago, it told me you would come.”
Andrew relaxed a little. Another damned believer. The words might be different, but the meaning was the same. Giving up control to some higher being, some higher purpose. Andrew had had enough of people like that. Then why did you get involved with another god?
he asked himself bitterly.
“Sounds like your Dream just serves to get you into trouble.”
“Not at all. The Dream showed me who you were, but it also showed me who you will be.”
“And who will I be?”
For the first time, Oath looked at him.
“The man who saves the universe.”