At the Feet of Neptune’s Queen, by Abraham Strongjohn

Moments from being crowned King of Mars, Ch’Or was abducted, wrenched through time and space, by a woman as diabolical she was seductive. With the fate of his friends and Mars’ future at stake, he would not be made to kneel!

I

“Quickly, Bi’Tik, to the left!” shouted Ch’Or. The glowing blade of a superheated sword cut into the frosty carapace of the Ice Bug. Bi’Tik rolled out of the way of a lance-like foreleg that came crashing down into the ice where he had just been. “Behind you!”

Another fierce insectoid creature reared up as though to strike at Bi’Tik with all of its might then twitched and stiffened with a gurgling hiss that only partially drowned out a fierce battle cry. Bi’Tik scrambled aside as the thing fell forward, Ra’Ana perched atop it and withdrawing her weapon from its neck.

The beast attacking Ch’Or was still reeling from the loss of its limb when the battle hardened edgeman brought up his blade to sever its head.

Green ichor covered the icy ground, the sloping blue-white walls of the labyrinth and the heavy garments of the Martian warriors, except for Ra’Ana who had made her kills cleanly. Even here on Neptune, Ch’Or observed, Ra’Ana was graceful as ever.

“Is that the last of them?” Bi’Tik asked hopefully.

“For now, perhaps,” Ra’Ana answered, deftly stepping down from the back of the monster she had slain.

The Neptunian Ice Bugs were twice the size of even the largest Martian aurochs Ch’Or had ever seen. The greyish white insectoid creatures had scimitar-like mandibles and each segment of their legs was almost as long as a man was tall. This group had been the third bunch the Martians had encountered in the maze.

“We need to rest,” Bi’Tik insisted between labored breaths.

“Staying put would be certain death,” Ra’Ana shook her head. “What if more come?”

“Only long enough to get our bearings, Bi’Tik…” Ch’Or used his weapon to melt a large gash in one of the walls near a still-twitching carcass. He waited as Ra’Ana jogged a few dozen paces back the direction from whence they came and, finding the previous mark, signaled to him. With another slash, Ch’Or completed the symbol to indicate the direction of their path and that they’d not yet had to double back from this branch.

“Why do you think we are here?” Bi’Tik addressed no one in particular. His frustration had been understandably mounting since this morning found them cast into a deadly maze, though it still disconcerted Ch’Or, who only weeks ago was moments from receiving the crown of Mars.

“We are here at Vraala’s whim,” Ch’Or replied, in no mood to discuss the matter. “Further speculation aids us not.”

“Surely it had been a thing we have done or offense we have given,” Bi’Tik continued. “Damnable mess we’re in.”

“Cool your head, Bi’Tik,” Ch’Or warned his sword-servant. “I need your blade to be true, now more than ever.”

“Did you say something to offend her?”

Bi’Tik’s accusatory tone bordered on impropriety; Ch’Or opened his mouth to chastise his companion when Ra’Ana clapped her gloved hand on Bi’Tik’s shoulder and said “Offense is taken, not given. Do not forget your place.”

“Our place is on Mars,” Bi’Tik muttered sullenly. Ra’Ana, if she heard it, chose to ignore the remark and resumed marching down the frosted avenue.

Ch’Or carefully regarded Ra’Ana: though covered head to toe in Xilland furs—the only thing between them and a chilly death—she managed to strike a graceful figure and move with feline swiftness that was uncanny for one as unused to clothing as she. For a moment, he became lost in thought, longing to be back in Pavonis City. It had been summer when they were taken from Mars.

Realizing Ra’Ana had put more than a few strides between them, Ch’Or motioned to Bi’Tik and said “Come, we should get moving.”

Bi’Tik swore. “To think that foul harpy had toasted and feasted us just days before. And then to toss us in here? How I’d love to get my hands around Vraala’s neck!”

Ch’Or knew that wasn’t the only part of Neptune’s monarch Bi’Tik wanted to get his hands on. He’d seen the way Bi’Tik had looked leeringly at their captor Queen at those banquets in their honor. Vraala’s customary attire would be immodest by the laxest of Martian standards in the Elysian summers. How could the blue-skinned royal so comfortably wear naught but a translucent sapphire gorgerine and spidersilk loin cover when even her courtiers seemed to enjoy having some protection from Neptunian weather? Ch’Or now knew the answer. Vraala was colder than the planet she ruled.

 

II

Ch’Or stood naked atop the pyramid temple before the smoldering brazier on the high altar of Mars. His eyes were locked forward as the priest spoke the ancient words of the ceremonial rite. With the crown that was to be bestowed upon him, Ch’Or would inherit the responsibilities of the King of All Mars, an honor held by his father and his father’s father, not by heredity but by uniting the Martian tribes against a common threat and preserving their way of life. His own accomplishment had been the slaying of the Godworm of Ius who had, once woken from an ancient slumber by violent tremors, wreaked havoc upon the four great cities of Tharsis and laid waste to the orchards of Daedalia.

The scent of burning sacrificial flesh filled the air, but though it stung his eyes, Ch’Or did not blink. Nor did he look down at the vast crowd gathered at the base of the pyramid ready to break into revelry the moment the crown of Mars was placed upon his head. He knew that foremost among the crowd were Bi’Tik, his childhood friend and loyal bloodguard, and the stunning warrior maiden Ra’Ana who was to be his betrothed. He could feel the love and respect of her stern eyes upon him, yet he pushed her from his thoughts to focus on the priest’s solemn words. It was what she would want from him.

Duty. Honor. Fatherhood. Strength. All these things the priest invoked as the province of not just a king, but of all Men, among whom Ch’Or must be the first and foremost in embodying these ideals if he were to lead his fellow Martians to prosperity. A Man must find strength within himself to command strength in others, and only a Man who had mastered these things could be a King among Men.

The ceremony was nearing its climax. “Who shall be your Wisdom and make whole your knowledge?” the priest inquired formally. “For only through woman may man learn the mysteries of Fatherhood and understand the Duty to his kind, test his Strength, and be truly Honored.”

“Ra’Ana of Arsia,” Ch’Or proclaimed boldly, loud enough that all at the pyramid’s base and beyond could hear, “who aided in the slaying of the Godworm shall be my Wisdom, my Queen.”

“Who shall be your Knight and see that your words are heard and abided? For without loyal men, a Man is alone and goes unheeded by his fellows.”

“Bi’Tik of Pavonis,” Ch’Or replied as forcefully as before, “who aided in the slaying of the Godworm shall my Knight, my blade when I have none.”

“Then let Ra’Ana of Arsia and Bi’Tik of Pavonis ascend the steps that they may take their place at the side of their King!”

Ra’Ana emerged first from the crowd, naked save for a finely crafted gold medallion worn over a sheer silk shawl and sash skirt. Her long red hair streamed gently behind her, lifted by Martian breeze as she moved elegantly up the steps of the massive temple structure. The tone of her bare skin so matched the stone of the holy site that, to those remaining below, she appeared to become a part of it; some from the crowd whispered that she was like some goddess-embodiment of the planet itself.

Behind her, in flamboyant white battle raiment cut from the hides of Syrian tigers, Bi’Tik hustled to catch up, fighting to hide the throbbing in his head from the previous night’s festivities. Bi’Tik caught up and remained two steps behind Ra’Ana, as ceremony required, until they both reached the summit and took their places at Ch’Or’s side.

To Bi’Tik, who stood on Ch’Or’s left and was still breathing heavily, the priest handed an ivory knife. “Obey your King with love and strength, for you are to be his Knight.”

To Ra’Ana, who stood impeccably still on Ch’Or’s right, the priest handed an Ophir Lotus. “Guide your king with love and strength, for you are to be his Queen.”

To Ch’Or, the priest turned and held above him a plain circlet of gold. “Guide your people well, good king. Trust your Knight and Honor your Queen, and they—as all of Mars—will do Honor unto you.”

Ch’Or had just bent his neck to receive the coronet when he realized something was wrong. The priest took a fearful step backward, and a loud din of panic grew from the crowd below. Neither Ch’Or nor his companions saw the intense beam of light streaking across the evening sky until it had enveloped them. And when it had, all of Mars dropped away around them. Ch’Or felt Ra’Ana’s hand grasp his own as the trio was violently torn through time and space.

 

III

As Ch’Or led his companions further into the maze, he replayed the events of their arrival in his mind. When the light which had ripped them from atop the pyramid at Pavonis’ base had faded, the Martians found that they had arrived in a rounded circular chamber. Several men, heavily armed and wearing thick leathers unlike any the Martians had ever seen, escorted the Martian prince and his companions down a long bejeweled corridor. Dazed and completely unaware of their present location, the Martians could do little but follow and wait to see what perils or profits might await them. Naked and unarmed as he was, Ch’Or had been envious of Bi’Tik’s tiger-hide garments; in the drafty cold of the alien palace, even Ra’Ana’s scant clothing would have been better than nothing. At the entrance of a magnificent throne room, one of their captors informed them that they were to be presented to Vraala, Queen of all Neptune.

Her cerulean skin was impossibly smooth save for the bit of gooseflesh surrounding the lapis lazuli peaks atop her ample bosom. Sapphire lips curled in a devilish smile to reveal her perfectly white teeth. Upon seeing the discomfort of the Martian prince and his companions, the queen ordered her slaves bring robes for her guest and invited them to the first of what would be many feasts in their honor. While preening, the queen heaped praise and flattery upon Ch’Or, Bi’Tik and Ra’Ana and made a grand show of feigned magnanimity until Ch’Or at last demanded to know why they had been brought.

She had replied “Are you not proclaimed Overking of your world, Martian? And are these not your illustrious champions? I am the Queen of all Neptune, mistress of a mighty empire! It is only right that I should formally offer not only my congratulations, but perhaps even my fealty. What wonders might come of a union of our two worlds! My only intention is to celebrate your ascension, good Lords of Mars, and show what hospitality that Neptune’s queen is able to offer!”

When Ch’Or had explained that the coronation ritual that would have made him king had been interrupted by whatever powers Vraala used to bring them to her, she dismissed this as unimportant, a mere side effect of scrying and transporting individuals over such great distances of space, even assuring them that once the festivities she had planned for them had concluded, she could return them to not only the place but the moment from which they had departed. Ra’Ana, though distrustful of every word out of Vraala’s mouth, acknowledged that this must be the first challenge of diplomacy Ch’Or would face as Martian monarch, acquiescing that discussions of interplanetary relations should be approached with a cool head despite the circumstances surrounding this first contact. Bi’Tik, already helping himself to the proffered refreshments being brought by nubile blue slave girls who had been attending Vraala, agreed.

For days after their arrival on the alien world, the trio of Martians had been pampered and provided with all manner of delight and amenity. Nonetheless, they had been kept separate from one another and clearly were prisoners of their host. The only time they were able to see one another had been at the ‘celebratory’ feasts held in their honor. At first, they enjoyed the festivities: the exotic fruits, meats and beverages were delights to the palate as much as the dancing and musical entertainments were delights to the eyes and ears, but as the days wore on so too did the Martians’ hope for ever returning home.

At these dinners, the Martians would be seated on either side of Vraala so that she might converse with them freely, though they could not all speak together as one. Ra’Ana always seemed most uncomfortable on evenings when she was placed directly beside Vraala without either Bi’Tik or Ch’Or on her other side. Before they were separated and returned to their rooms for the night, Ra’Ana once caught Ch’Or and whispered “I know not what Vraala wants of us, but if we are to return home, it will be by your hand, not hers.” The following night, Vraala kept Ra’Ana alone on her right, though she neither addressed nor acknowledged the Martian princess’ presence. Nor did Ra’Ana speak to her companions during the meal. The sullen expression on her face troubled Ch’Or, but the Queen’s banal chatter with Bi’Tik who sat between them that night, made it impossible to find out what the matter was.

Only when he was dragged from his cell later that night after dinner’s conclusion did Ch’Or discover the depths of their peril.

 

IV

Just as Ch’Or arrived back at his cell under escort, one of Vraala’s personal bodyguards appeared and nodded for the other guards to depart. “Her majesty desires a private audience, your highness,” the burly guard addressed Ch’Or with noted sarcasm. “Come with me.”

Keeping his hand on the hilt of his heat sabre, the guard led Ch’Or through the winding halls of the palace, down improbably long corridors and up a daunting spiral stair in a remote tower with windows lit by Triton and his dancing sisters, until they arrived at a door flanked on each side by spear bearing sentries. The door swung open as if by unseen hand.

“Send him in then leave us,” a familiar voice hissed from the abyss beyond the portal, inducing the guard to shove Ch’Or into the darkness beyond and close the door behind him.

Ch’Or blinked a few times, straining as his eyes adjusted to the Neptunian moonlight. Within the dimly lit chamber, Vraala stood dignified and naked save for the many gems strung about her collar.

“Welcome, Ch’Or, King of Mars.”

“You say you wished an alliance between our worlds, yet you…”

“A union is exactly what I desire,” Vraala interrupted. “I have seen many things while scrying your and other worlds, including your heroic deeds.”

“What is the real reason you brought us here?”

“Why have I brought you here? Because there is no Neptunian man brave enough to bed me, give me an heir, be a king worthy of my glory.”

“And yet you brought three of us. You not only kidnapped me, but you also took Bi’Tik and Ra’Ana from Mars. Why?”

“Why not Bi’Tik? He was your royal champion. I wanted to see him for myself. Perhaps he would make an amusing diversion, but he lacks what I truly desire. And while the one called Ra’Ana might have provided me suitably entertaining companionship, it is clear she has eyes but for one, so she is sadly of no use to me.”

Ch’Or said nothing, able only to glare at his captor, grinding his teeth as thoughts filled his head as to the cause for Ra’Ana’s earlier distress.

“Imagine the combined might of Mars and Neptune! What a glorious empire we could lead… With my magic and your martial prowess, all the ten worlds might someday offer supplication at our feet. Am I not lovely that I might stir your heart and your loins? Am I not mighty, bringing you across space and even time that I could generously show the bounty of my kingdom?”

Within her voice, Ch’Or could find no human passion, only calculation and ambition. While it was filled with desire, it was loveless.

Vraala seized his wrists and drew them about her waist. “These are the hips that would carry our child.” Ch’Or nearly recoiled at how chill her flesh was beneath his fingers, but he kept steady, looking straight into the queen’s eyes. They were dark as the gold-strung sapphires resting atop her breasts. Vraala took his right hand and placed it just below her navel. “And in this womb, your seed shall grow into a line of kings!”

Ch’Or drew away just as she sought to push his hand further downward.

“You shall not have me, sorceress!” Ch’Or growled in defiance.

The lust on Vraala’s face contorted into hatred. “Then you and your friends will die! Guards!”

The brawny Neptunians who had been waiting outside with spears burst into the room, seizing Ch’Or by each arm.

“Return our guest to his room and make certain he stays there,” Vraala commanded. “Tomorrow, he, his consort and their idiot companion are to be placed in the Labyrinth.”

“Yes, majesty!” the guards replied in unison.

The look Ch’Or gave the seething Vraala somehow stirred her arctic heart and set her quivering.

“But,” she croaked, pulling herself against Ch’Or, “I am forgiving, and do so wish to give you one last chance,” then, turning her head slightly to address one of the guards, “See that they are provided with proper weapons and attire so they may fairly earn my mercy. Now remove him at once!”

 

V

A massive gate studded with all shape and manner of turquoise, topaz, and iolite fitted and arranged into swirling abstract mosaics stood wide at the end of the rift-like pass. The high walls of the maze beyond the portal opened into the wide bowl of a great amphitheater. The warriors slowly advanced beyond the gate and emerged amidst the cheers and jeering cries of countless Neptunians ahead and on either side in the frost-white maeniani of the arena. Opposite the entrance was a podium where, atop an ice-hewn throne, the wicked Vraala sat smiling cruelly and wearing opulent regalia that still seemed to fail at covering any of her supple form. A pair of slaves pushed closed the towering gates behind the Martians, leaving them no egress.

“At least we’ve come to the end of her damnable labyrinth, eh Ch’Or?” Bi’Tik said leaning in towards his lord. “Whatever that witch has in store for us, let us give Neptune a show to remember us by. For Mars!”

Ra’Ana and Ch’Or kept steady their pace toward the center of the arena as Bi’Tik took several quick strides ahead, thrusted his glowing sword into the air, shouted fiercely, and approached the wall. This sent the crowd wild; the roar and applause were almost deafening as thousands of Neptunians stood, riled by the warrior’s cries.

For a moment, Ch’Or dared hope that they might profit from winning the approval of the enormous audience, but over the noise he heard Ra’Ana remark “Everyone loves the baited bear, from its first snarl to its last drop of blood.”

When the whooping Neptunians showed no sign of exhausting their fervor, Vraala stood and slammed the butt of her staff on the podium floor. A pale ripple of gaseous light issued forth from the staff’s crystalline head along with a thunderous boom, silencing the crowd. Even Bi’Tik fell quiet, and all eyes were upon Queen.

“Congratulations on reaching the heart of my maze,” Vraala crowed, raising her free hand in a mocking salute. “But further challenge awaits you, if you hope to gain my favor. Prove your worth, and I shall let you bask in my glory and fulfill your desires!”

“We desire only our liberty, majesty!” Ch’Or replied loudly, his voice carrying to the highest reaches of the coliseum’s stands.

Vraala’s sly smile curled into sneer. “Then you must fight for it!” She brought the end of her staff down again with another echoing crash that rung in Martians’ ears. The crowd exploded once more. Vraala sat back on her throne, crossing her legs suggestively. She leaned forward, beaming with sadistic expectation, as a high pitched shriek filled the skies above them.

 

VI

A grey silhouette shot across the twilit sky. The air froze about a great gob of spittle and white crystals exploded into a jagged monolith between the three Martians. The icy pillar split into shards as the massive beast landed on two fiercely taloned limbs. The Neptunians let out a thunderous cry of exuberant blood lust with fervor nearly matching the shrill emanations of the creature as it spread its bat-like wings to their full span, nearly stretching from one side of the arena to the other.

“The devil is that thing?” Bi’Tik stepped back as he stole a quick glance at the shattered pillar of frost, holding up his flaming blade between himself and the beast.

“A worm of this world?” Ra’Ana suggested, assuming an evasive stance. “Though no worm have I seen with wings.”

“Then we shall cut them off and slay this one like the other!” Ch’Or boasted as he readied his sword.

The creature glared with red serpent eyes at its prey. A circlet about the monster’s neck briefly lit, seeming to cause some irritation, for the thing closed its eyes, craned its neck and convulsed slightly. When it opened its mouth, a clear stream issued forth, first liquid then solid. Like a glassy battering ram, the projectile careened toward Ra’Ana. Ra’Ana deftly tumbled aside, avoiding the shot that would have smashed her against the arena gates.

The beast lurched forward. Lacking forelegs, it awkwardly braced itself on its wing-tips, apparently unable to take flight from a standstill. Ra’Ana regained her footing and signaled to Ch’Or, who in turn signed to Bi’Tik. Bi’Tik nodded. As the creature began barreling towards Ra’Ana, Ch’Or ran to the monster’s left while Bi’Tik circled its right.

The gambit failed; noticing Bi’Tik moving along the arena’s wall, the beast paused its lumbering gait. The creature snapped its crocodilian jaws in the direction of the harried Martian. In the same motion, the beast whipped its great tail behind it. Ch’Or would have been knocked off his feet had he not leapt at just the right moment.

“Let’s see you eat this, snake!” Bi’Tik struck at the monster’s snout with his sword to little effect beyond enraging the creature further. As the beast lashed at Bi’Tik, Ch’Or seized its tail and worked his way towards their foe’s lower back, clinging to the spines protruding from it.

By now Ra’Ana had recovered from the shock of seeing a colossal bolt of ice spat at her. She sprinted at the wyvern’s left flank. Just as a glancing blow sent Bi’Tik skidding a full bow-shot across the arena, Ra’Ana’s blade cut through the membranous flesh of beast’s wing.

The monster reared up, nearly throwing Ch’Or from its neck. Thick greenish blood spurted onto the frosty ground as Ra’Ana quickly withdrew beyond the beast’s immediate striking range. Some in the crowd began throwing trash, food and stones from stands. Most of the objects missed the Martians, as they were such small targets; the wyvern, being much larger, was not so fortunate. Maddened by its injury and confused by the pelting it was receiving, the creature thrashed about wildly and snapped at the heckling audience, giving Bi’Tik time to regain his feet. Ch’Or was barely able to hold on but managed to cling tenaciously to the spines of the monster’s dorsal ridge.

Ch’Or only saw Vraala as a blurred streak in the stands as the wyvern bucked and therefore did not see the glow her crystal staff had begun to emit. He did, however, notice the torc about the thing’s neck begin to faintly illuminate just prior to the beast seizing up, turning toward Bi’Tik and bringing its head back.

“The collar!” Ra’Ana shouted. “The witch controls the brute with it!”

Ch’Or furiously hacked at the enchanted ivory collar which bound slave to mistress. Fragments of the polished bone splintered as the ring cracked with each stroke. Whatever effect Ch’Or’s blows may have had, they were not enough to interrupt the creature’s attack. As the torc fell to the ground, the wyvern spat an arc of daggers toward Bi’Tik. These splashed upward until they formed a motionless wave that towered over the Martian.

Breaking the tether between Vraala and her pet would not be enough to stop the thing, but with the mystic link broken, the confused creature provided Ch’Or with an opportunity to strike a decisive blow. As it paused and looked at Vraala for some sort of guidance, Ch’Or scrambled the rest of the way up the creature’s neck to the base of its skull. Bracing himself on one of the beast’s horns, Ch’Or jammed the point of his heat blade in the monster’s right eye then placed his fist squarely into the wet, soft cornea of its left.

The beast railed in pain so violently that Ch’Or had no hope of holding on. The Martian prince was flung backwards to ground. Though he was able to tumble to avoid the worst of the impact, Ch’Or was stunned and weaponless. The crowd howled in delight at the carnage.

The wounded beast lurched and turned about, failing to shake Ch’Or’s blade from the blood-gushing sightless socket. A swing of its tail smashed the wall it had just spat at Bi’Tik, showering him with jagged fragments, as it began stalking blindly toward where Ch’Or lay. Ch’Or put his hand out in attempt to lift himself only to find that the wet vitreous humor covering his gloved hand had frozen, causing his arm to slip out from under him.

Hit in its head by a sharp bit of debris, the monster turned from Ch’Or. Ra’Ana was shouting and hurling objects which the Neptunians had been throwing into the arena to get the beast’s attention. The creature clumsily spun to face Ra’Ana and began shambling toward her as before, telegraphing its deadly intent to spit. Ra’Ana met the beast, running at it headlong. Just as the wyvern’s head came down, jaws open and liquid death issuing forth, Ra’Ana broke into a feet-first slide. Holding her thermal blade aloft in both hands, Ra’Ana sliced the beast open from collar to vent as she skidded between its wings and legs.

Dark green ichor spilled beneath the creature as it crashed headfirst into ground.

 

VII

Still slightly dazed, it took Ch’Or a moment to realize that the ringing in his ears was actually the uproarious cheers of thousands of Neptunians chanting the Martians’ names in a deafening and atonal chorus. He saw Ra’Ana half-crouched, half-lying, and breathing heavily. Her Xilland furs were soaked with dragon blood. Bi’Tik, with a slight limp, was strutting for the crowd and encouraging further ruckus. Staggering to his feet, Ch’Or saw that even Vraala managed an enthusiastic clap, smirking at the bloody scene of carnage below.

When the furor showed no sign of abating, Vraala pounded the ground at her feet once with the butt of her staff. A clap of thunder was followed by eerie silence, and all eyes in the coliseum were upon Vraala as she stood. A slave appeared at her side, handed her something discretely then vanished behind the white throne. Vraala raised up a single golden garland in her left hand.

“You have bested my maze. You have slain my dragon. You have demonstrated yourselves to be exceptionally worthy and puissant warriors. I am prepared to reward the victor.”

“End this game and let us go!” Ch’Or’s cry echoed in the coliseum as he inched toward the head of the fallen beast, intent on retrieving his blade from its eye.

“I have but one wreath, my Martian prince,” Vraala crowed.

“What is the meaning of this?” Bi’Tik demanded.

“Dear Bi’Tik, my offer stands,” Vraala suggestively leaned over the lip of the wall.

Ra’Ana shot Ch’Or a puzzled look.

“You will send me home?”

“And you will be king of two worlds.”

“What treachery is this?” Ch’Or thundered.

“You had but to be gracious; did not you both spurn our host? Did not we all three bring down the Godworm of Ius? And where you would be king and queen, I was to be your dog?” Bi’Tik’s eyes were aflame.

“Strike now, warrior,” Vraala commanded, her face lit with magic and sadistic glee, “for they have betrayed you!”

“She speaks lies, Bi’Tik,” Ra’Ana warned, but it was too late; Bi’Tik, possessed by some otherworldly rage was lunging at her sword first. She barely parried his thrust.

“Do you think I would have let us be trapped here? Like he did?!” Bi’Tik roared, striking wildly. “Mine! You should have been mine! Mars should have been mine!”

Ch’Or snatched his sword and dashed toward Bi’Tik. He shoved the staggering Ra’Ana aside to turn away what would’ve been a fatal blow. Bi’Tik gibbered and spat curses at Ch’Or, who even injured was the better swordsman.

“Must I always wait in your shadow?” Bi’Tik leapt forward to attack but found himself on Ch’Or’s blade. The hatred left his eyes to be replaced with dread and tears.

“You were always welcome at my side,” Ch’Or uttered through clenched teeth. “You chose to skulk behind me.”

Ch’Or pulled his sword from his companion who fell lifeless to the icy arena floor. He reached out a hand to Ra’Ana, helping her to her feet then taking her in a close embrace.

“My closest companion betrays me; I fear I am unfit to rule,” Ch’Or uttered solemnly.

“No, not your closest.” Ra’Ana looked hard at him with her ruby eyes. “You will make a fine king, my love.” Ch’Or was about to reply when Ra’Ana stopped him with a kiss.

“A charming display,” Vraala pronounced dryly. “Now kill her and claim your prize. I shall let you kneel before me.”

“I’ll not besmirch my honor at your feet this day,” Ch’Or declared, “for a thousand worlds, much less this wretched ball of ice.”

Ra’Ana smiled and gave Ch’Or a nod.

The warrior prince locked eyes with Vraala. “Return us to Mars… or I shall bathe this place in blood!”

“Brave words, Martian. Twice you have refused what no man has. You should not have spat upon my mercy.” Vraala raised a delicate hand and pointed. “Kill them!”

From the galleries and vomitoria, armed guards began to pour forth and awkwardly climb down the wall to the arena floor. Ch’Or hastily hacked a spine from the dead wyvern to use as a crude parrying dagger. Feeling the heft of his heat blade which burst forth in radiance anew at his command, the Martian prince smiled as he watched the Neptunian soldiers clumsily scramble, some dropping their spears as they slipped onto the ice. These were no fighting men but weak eunuchs, fat and lazy in the service of a woman who wallowed unchallenged in indolence. They would be no match for a son of Mars!

Severed limbs flew through the air and blood spilled upon the ground as Ch’Or cut his way through the approaching host. Despite the impellations of Vraala, some of the guards began giving Ch’Or a respectful berth.

A few of the Neptunians in the audience had already started making their way out coliseum, particularly those nobles who’d had the privilege of sitting near Vraala’s podium. What had begun as a thrilling spectacle suddenly seemed an unpalatable risk to the well-being of bloodthirsty onlookers. The calm and orderly exodus of Neptunian civilians broke into an all-out panicked free-for-all as Ch’Or planted the tip of his blade firmly into the arena wall and hurtled into the front row of the stands. The few slaves brave enough to put forward a hand to stop the rampant Martian swiftly lost them and bought Vraala only too few moments to flee.

Vraala cursed her courtiers who now clogged the nearest exit passage as they sought to flee the wrath of this barbarous off-worlder. She shoved a few aside, and those were trampled by their fellows, but Vraala’s efforts proved futile as the Martian prince’s brawny arm found its way around her neck. She was wheeled about to face the arena and those who had not or could not leave the stadium. The point of a dragon spine pressed into the naked blue flesh above her breast.

“You will call off your gelded dogs and then you will return us to Mars,” Ch’Or growled into Vraala’s ear. The queen lowered her head in defeat. A few of those Neptunians on the arena floor had made the mistake of assuming that the injured Ra’Ana might make an easier quarry; they were faring little better than those who had faced Ch’Or and glad to see their mistress signal them to stand down.

“I am beaten, Prince. Humiliated before my people. I will send you from my world.”

Ch’Or sheathed his blade and wrenched the crystal staff from Vraala’s hand. Ra’Ana sprung from atop the ice drake’s corpse onto the arena wall and approached the queen’s podium, remarking “It seems you have now defeated three worms, my king.”

 

VIII

The furor that had gripped all just an hour before had died down into the uneasy calm of a hostage exchange. The Royal Palace had been locked down and all courtiers, servants and civilians were being barred from entry until a resolution had been reached. The Neptunian royal guards escorted Ra’Ana and Ch’Or at a respectful distance as Ch’Or escorted Vraala at knifepoint; the queen led the tense entourage to the circular chamber in which the Martians had first arrived.

Vraala silently signaled to be left alone in the teleportation room with the Martians. To Ch’Or’s surprise, there were tears in the Queen of Neptune’s eyes.

“I would have given you an entire world,” Vraala spoke softly, her gaze upon the floor.

“I already had a world, milady,” Ch’Or replied and gave a look to Ra’Ana, “and much more.”

“And you have shamed me as no man has ever dared,” Vraala continued, her voice cracking along with her carefully maintained demeanor. “I pray that I will never see you again.”

“A sentiment we share.”

“Stand on that platform,” Vraala instructed with little more than a whisper, “and I shall send you from this world. Here.” She removed her carcanet and tossed it at rather than to Ra’Ana. “You have my staff. Take this, the other symbol of my station. A gift. Spoils. It no longer matters.”

Ch’Or and Ra’Ana both stood on the transporter platform. Vraala fiddled with some knobs on a nearby console. The machinery began to hum and whir. “Concentrate on Mars,” Vraala told them, a smile upon her lips, as light enveloped them. “You will never see it again.”

A screeching sound filled their ears as the Martians rode upon a tubular spiral of light past the walls of Vraala’s palace and into space beyond. In the time-breadth of a humming-bird’s wing-beat, Ch’Or and Ra’Ana found themselves standing in a shadowy fen with great mushroom trees towering over them. The buzz that continued now was not that of the machine but the cacophonous sounds of wetland fauna all around them. There were no swamps such as this on Mars.

A great blue sphere loomed above them, as if a fat and gaping hole had been punched in the firmament of night to reveal daylit sky beyond. Ch’Or was about to curse aloud Vraala’s inevitable betrayal, for there had been no way to guarantee their return, when the heads of several small greyish men appeared, rising from the tallgrasses. They looked on at the Martian couple in wonder, spoke in a hushed tongue among themselves, and motioned for one of their own to step forth. The selected man was naked except for the bindings around his ankles, wrists and collar. The marks of suffering and servitude marred his slight frame, making it immediately apparent to the Martians that this man and his fellows were much abused slaves or prisoners of this world. The ash-skinned man took a few hesitant paces then prostrated himself before the Martians. A moment later, his companions did the same.

Before Ch’Or could speak, a report sounded and the supplicant fell dead on the marshy ground before him. The other grey men scattered on hands and knees back into vegetation. Ch’Or turned to see several Neptunians aiming metal rods with crystalline fixtures at him and Ra’Ana. The newcomers wrenched the staff and sapphire jewels from the Martians.

“I’m sure that Her Majesty Vraala will be happy to have these returned to her,” said the Neptunians’ ringleader. “Though I do wonder how you came by them. Regardless, the Magelords of Ruach will have you sorted out and at work in the slave pits soon enough. Welcome to Triton.”

Abraham Strongjohn can be found in the pages of Cirsova as his manuscripts from the early mid-20th Century make their way through time to the present.

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