He watched his son and daughter, ages five and seven, with love in his eyes as they argued about what bedtime story he should read. He was in his late forties, his short hair and beard perfectly trimmed. His squared-off face and deep blue eyes gave him a cold and intelligent expression; and he hardly ever smiled, except when he was with his children. At the moment he wore a thick robe, giving the impression that he also would soon go to bed.
He closed his eyes, and then he took a deep breath. Aromas from hundreds of flowers mixing with the fresh air from the open window made him think of his wife. She had placed them there, she said, to make it easier. He had to be strong, to show no fear. Tonight was the last time he would put his children to bed.
After watching them fondly for a few moments longer, he said softly, "Tonight, children, I will tell you a different story. It is a story that you have never heard before."
Instantly the two children stopped bickering and sat straight up in the large bed. Their father smiled sadly, and tucked them in. His daughter said, "I want to hear about a princess who is rescued by a beautiful knight."
"And I want to hear about a knight," the young boy countered. "He doesn't have to rescue any princess, though."
His sister stuck out her tongue at him, and he stuck out his back at her.
The man swallowed hard, holding back his tears, and then said gently, "Actually, I am going to tell you the story about creation, the Tree, and the dragons."
"If there are dragons, it must have a princess," the daughter pointed out.
"Stories with dragons always have a knight," the boy added.
He wagged his fingers at the young ones. "No more interruptions." He regretted the words as soon as they left his mouth, because they sounded harsher than he had intended. Reddening a bit, he cleared his throat and then smiled down at his two loved ones.
"All right, then. In the beginning, there was a place called Fantaka. It was a beautiful place, perhaps the most beautiful, wonderful place of all time. The sun shone brightly over a landscape of grassy hills covered with colorful flowers. In the far distance were the highest mountains in creation; the sky was blue, and there were no clouds. Atop a small hill in the center of a wide plain stood a solitary tree with large green leaves. It was the Tree of Life. As time grew older, so did the Tree."
"Booooring," announced the little boy, yawning.
"Quiet. I like it, Father, please continue."
Again, the man gave his two children a friendly and patient smile. He lifted his eyebrows, ignoring his young son's mutterings about girlish crap.
"There were two colorful birds playing, flying, and singing over the hills. As they chased each other through the landscape, they crossed long, clean rivers and beautiful valleys filled with flowers, heading always towards the lonely Tree. When they arrived, they landed on a branch, playing with each other, and singing in joy. Their song was interrupted by a roar, far in the distance. It echoed throughout the landscape and they knew, as the roar increased in volume and became more frightening, that something was very, very wrong. All the animals in the valley begun to run for cover. The birds were just about to take off from the lonely Tree on the hill themselves when two black shadows passed over them—and two ravens attacked without warning, killing them almost instantly. They fell like stones onto the grassy sward, while the ravens took up the same position on the branch as the original two birds had."
The father paused and looked at his children, who looked back at him, stunned. He ignored their shocked expressions and continued in a rougher, more rumbling voice, "Soon the ground broke open, and from within it came a scream, followed by a huge, monstrous arm reaching up and beginning to pull itself out of the newly-formed fracture. A huge lizard-like leg took a step out of the crack, followed by another; and with each step, the ground trembled. It was an enormous black dragon with two heads. Everywhere it went; it devoured the landscape, and any animal in its way.
"Another roar echoed from the direction opposite the first one. This one came from a cave on the largest mountain. A second dragon emerged; and unlike the first one, it had only one head and it was white."
"Is it good, Daddy? Is it a good dragon?" the young girl cried out.
"Who cares? I want to be the black dragon," the son said, crossing his arms across his thin chest.
The father only laughed quietly before continuing, "The two dragons met below the hill bearing the single lonely Tree, the Tree of Life. The creatures snorted at each, and then they attacked. It was a fight to the death. You see, children, there could only be one dragon, not two."
"Why?" they asked in unison.
"Because only one dragon can guard creation; if there are two, then a conflict will erupt, just like this one did." He smiled at them solicitously. "Do you want to hear more, my lovelies, or are you tired?"
From their eyes, it was clear that he should continue.
"Very well. As the two dragons fought their mortal battle, all the other living beings in creation ran for cover. They fled, but there was no place for them to go. Still they fled, and more of the beautiful landscape was ravaged. The two ravens flapped their wings while screaming, taunting and encouraging the battling beasts. Then something happened that wasn't supposed to happen. From behind the ravens rose a large shadow, covering them and the entire landscape—yet there were no clouds. A snorting sound was heard, and soon it turned into a loud, clear tone, similar to that of a horn. The two ravens fell silent as they looked towards the strange shadow, and then they bowed their heads—and all the fleeing animals fled no more. They were no longer afraid. United, they followed the strange shadow. From its center shone a light that was brighter than any other light in creation. Then there was the third dragon..."
His tale was interrupted by a woman's cold voice. "It is done. It is over. They are gone." He looked down to see that his children were lying where they had fallen, eyes closed, and faces pale. Their little chests did not move.
He looked up as their mother entered the bedroom. Her eyes were cold, yet there was an exquisite sadness in them. She was younger that he, in her early forties, beautiful and haughty, a dominant expression frozen on her features. Her black hair was braided behind her head, and her dark brown eyes seemed almost black in the dim light. She wore a robe similar to that of her husband, but in her left hand she held some type of helmet. She half tried to conceal it behind her back.
Her husband looked down at the two lifeless bodies of his children, and he allowed a single tear to trickle down his face before his expression turned as cold as his wife's. He stood up, and reached for his own battle helmet, which lay on the floor under the bed.
"The poison worked fast," he observed tonelessly, as he toyed with his helmet's visor.
His wife walked over to the bed and kissed her children one last time. She faced her husband. Now she, too, had a tear trickling down her face; but it was a monument to her strength, and her coldness, that she allowed herself no more than that. "It is time," she said firmly.
"Yes, my Queen, it is."
They embraced quickly, then pulled back and looked at each other; simultaneously, each reached out to brush away the other's tear. Then they clasped hands, turned, and left their children's room forever, walking away through long hallways and corridors decorated with lavish art, ornaments and large gold statues, twice life-size. There were military standards draping before every column, and hanging down from the ceiling were thousands of flags taken from hundreds of battlefields. Everything might have seemed normal if it hadn't been for the hundreds of dead bodies decorating the floor. Some of them faced each other, daggers sticking out of their chest. All the servants had committed suicide at their order. You couldn't buy loyalty like that.
When they reached the main hall, they dropped the robes. Both of them wore high-tech black battle armor underneath, similar but with different engravings and decorations telling their respective life stories. The engravings emitted a dim, bluish light, enhancing the contours of their armor. Releasing each other's hands, they put on their helmets. Each took the form of a monstrous creature out of a madman's nightmare. When they were properly caparisoned, they turned to face their troops: thousands of soldiers standing there quietly, all wearing burnished silver armor.
"Husband, where is our carpet?" she asked while donning her battle gloves. He gestured with his arm to a waiting officer.
The officer shouted, "Prepare the red carpet for our Queen!"
There were one hundred steps on the giant staircase. On each step, two prisoners faced each other, kneeling with their hands tied behind them. Each wore worn battle fatigues. Standing behind the prisoners were guards, waiting patiently. When the call went out, the eerie sound of two hundred sharp blades leaving their respective sheaths echoed through the hall. The queen walked down the one hundred steps, followed by her husband. For each step she took, guards cut the throats of the two prisoners on that step. A red carpet of blood spewed onto the white marble and onto the uncaring Queen as she descended.
When she reached the bottom of the staircase, the soldiers in the great room bowed their heads. In front of her lay an enormous beast with a saddle, waiting patiently. Its body was covered with scales and a thin fur, like silky grass. The eyes were blue, and they emitted a faint glow. The mouth was filled with long fangs; as it grunted, dark saliva dripped onto the floor, where it melted into the marble like acid. The beast used its long tongue to lick blood from the floor as it flowed into its range.
She mounted the beast. It stood up, and her husband handed up a battle standard made of white metal with a large down-pointed triangle on top. The Queen turned to her bodyguard and said, "Now, let there be thunder."
From outside, there came the din of horns and drums.
The Queen smiled coldly, then rode out, followed by her bodyguards. Her husband accompanied her on a smaller beast. They moved fast through a raging battle, ignoring friend and foe alike, headed towards a monument in the distance that had a thirty-mile radius and was as high as a mountain. Atop the monument was another beast bearing another rider, heading towards them; when the Queen dialed up the magnification of her helmet optics, she could see that the rider held a standard bearing a large eye. She nodded.
"Husband," she said after a while, "did you ever finish the story for our children?"
"No, my Queen, I did not. The end was too quick."
The Queen reined in her mount and looked at her husband. "Then let us finish the tale here and now, for all time."
Bloody sweat poured down Alexa's face as she ducked the mercenary's blade. She kicked out toward his groin, but it wasn't there; instead she slipped on the blood-slick floor, a bright, sharp pain in her right ankle telling her she'd twisted it as she fell. She tried to crawl away, realizing that he was coming after her to press the advantage, bent on killing her or worse. His body-stink and heavy breathing warned her that he was much too close, so she reached quickly for her ace in the hole—or in the left leg holster, to be precise. She spun, kneeled, aimed, and pulled the blaster's trigger, grinning confidently.
In that instant, she realized that she was about to die...