"Rescue the Queen"Four months ago, Duchy of New York
A yellow ball of flame burst in the sky along the horizon. The New Britannian royal airship that Captain Thomas Putnam had been tracking plunged toward the forest, trailing black smoke. The detonation boomed a minute later. The so-called Demon Queen of New Britannia traveled upon that ship. Queen Magnolia hailed from the hated Southland, a terrifying witch who had seduced the King into marriage. Thomas’ mission was to track her and possibly capture her in the name of his master Duke Killingworth, the man who sought to restore order to New Britannia.
Thomas’ heart pounded as he pushed his one-man dirigible scout to maximum velocity through the bright blue sky. Something had downed that ship. If the Queen survived, this could be his opportunity. When he arrived, he cringed at the sight of the smoking wreckage below. Bloody, mangled bodies littered a clearing in the forest. A smoking hole in the gondola of the ship evidenced that this had been an attack, the likely result of ground fire. Who could have struck it? he wondered.
Thomas pulled back on the throttle and tugged the gas release. His scout descended and landed among the bodies, all of which bore the red and blue uniforms of New Britannian Royal Guard. He jumped out, secured his ship to a nearby tree, and searched for survivors.
Several throats were slashed, execution-style. The deflated balloon draped across nearby trees, shimmering in the summer breeze that wafted the stink of charred leather and bone to his nostrils. Where is she? Where is the Queen? Thomas thought. A trail of bent grasses and smears of blood led to the south and into the dense foliage of the Hudson Valley. Thomas followed the trail, keeping his head low.
After a few hundred yards of tracking, sunlight glinted off a large object hidden under a pile of branches. He pulled away several limbs and uncovered a black mechohorse with a rear-mounted cannon, the probable instrument of the airship’s destruction. The mechohorse had a rounded capsule-like cockpit that sprouted six multi-jointed legs, a common model. A painted white cross revealed its ownership—Reichlanders. On our soil? he pondered in horror. The foreign curs had become bold of late, but this incursion had devastating implications.
Voices murmured through the trees. Thomas dove to the ground, panting. His crisp white and gold-trimmed captain’s uniform would reveal him in an instant. He cursed leaving his dark overcoat in the scout. A bit past the mechohorse, a cave gaped from the ground. Thomas crept toward the voices that emanated from the cave. A scream quaked his ears—a woman’s scream.
Thomas stole up to the opening, his hand firmly upon the grip of his revolver. He peered into the darkness and wiped the sweat from his brow. Men’s voices thundered in anger. The woman’s cries responded in agony. He drew his weapon and crept inside. A whale-oil lamp blazed along the cave shaft. Past that, the passage opened into a chamber lit by additional lamps. He spotted chairs and paper-strewn tables, and even a filing cabinet. If it was indeed the Queen, this Reichland advance scouting camp had just bagged a huge prize.
Thomas kept to the shadows. He spotted two black-outfitted men on the floor nursing grave bullet wounds, tended by a third. Then his heart almost stopped. The Queen was strapped into a machine, an infernal torture device known as “The Spiker.” Long, thin needles mounted on brass columns impaled themselves into her body. The columns attached to a hand crank. With each turn, the spikes drew apart, slowly ripping the flesh from her body. Blood streamed down the remnants of her clothes. Her screams filled the chamber.
A fourth Reichlander loomed over the woman and yelled in his foreign dialect. The thing that struck Thomas was although she was indeed a dark woman, almost coal-black, she was by no means a demon as reputed. He spotted no horns, no fangs, no tail, not even goat hooves. In fact, despite her contorted features, he found her quite stunning, a tall, regal woman. He suddenly understood how his King could have fallen for such an exotic specimen. The two royals had met in a Southland university while King Sterling was but a prince and she but a student. Thomas’ momentary muse was distracted by the words of the Reichlander.
“You will provide us za location of za Sea Key,” demanded the Reichlander. “We know za Southland hides it.”
The Sea Key? echoed Thomas’ thoughts. The Duke had placed a massive bounty on the recovery of the device.
Queen Magnolia shuddered and spoke in her thick Southland accent. “There ain’t no such thing, it’s a myth.” The man turned the screw a notch, eliciting a howl from her. The Queen breathed in short gasps.
If the Southland possessed such a weapon, Thomas could not allow the Reichland to attain that information. The Reichlanders would become unstoppable. However, if his master the Duke were to acquire it, Thomas would be a rich man. He waited to see whether the Queen would speak.
After a few minutes of the horrid torture, Thomas’ stomach grew uneasy. After all, she was his Queen. He detested the sight of any woman suffering. She fought back by spitting and cursing at them. Meanwhile the spikes drove deeper and wider with every turn.
Something changed inside Thomas. He gained a mote of admiration for the woman whose crew lay dead and who probably held no hope of rescue. Was the Sea Key so important that she would rather die than reveal it? Or did she truly not know its whereabouts? Either way, Thomas decided that the Sea Key could wait for another day.
Thomas drew a deep breath and stepped into the room. He fired deafening reports, first at the standing men, and then he finished off the wounded. He stopped. All four Reichlanders lay unmoving on the floor.
Thomas holstered his weapon. Queen Magnolia gasped and whimpered, unable to catch her breath. He examined the torture device and spun the wheel that freed her. She screamed and then stumbled into his arms sobbing, her body shaking. He had not started the day imagining he would hold the Demon Queen naked in his arms. Blood seeped from a multitude of wounds.
Thomas released her, holding her at arm’s length. “Please, Your Majesty, I must wrap your injuries.”
Queen Magnolia’s uncontrolled sobbing slowed, and she fought to restore herself.
Thomas located a medical bag and removed some gauze. He applied a practiced field dressing to her naked, shivering body.
“I must protect your modesty.” Her dress lay in tatters. “Your Majesty, please, take this.” He pulled off his uniform jacket, then helped her place it on and button it up.
“Thank you kindly.” She shook under the uniform. The room stank of blood, entrails, and gun smoke. Thomas grabbed a rag and a canteen and cleaned the blood from her face, steeling himself for his next statement.
“My Queen, pardon my insolence, but I must inform you—I intend to hold you prisoner in the name of my lord Duke Killingworth.”
He imagined for some reason she would swoon, but instead, she pushed him away and raised her chin in defiance. “You rescued me only to go capture me yo’self? What kinda soldier are you? Where’s yo’ loyalty?”
The woman’s eyes regarded him.
“My deepest apologies. The Duke would have my head if I lost this opportunity.”
She spat on the ground. “And what would yo’ King do to you when he discovers this here treachery?”
Her last word hurt him. He was no traitor, but to serve the King, he would have to betray his lord and master the Duke. This woman was no traitor either, no witch. She had withstood Reichlander torture as befitted one in her position. He could not maintain her gaze, so he stared at the floor. Everything he had heard about her lay in shreds like her dress. Could he still support the Duke after this? What choice did he have?
A shot blasted the cave. Fire burst in his leg and Thomas collapsed to the ground. The Queen dropped next to him and grabbed Thomas’ weapon. She aimed at the wounded Reichlander who fumbled with his weapon and she fired, killing him.
Thomas writhed on the ground, blood spurting out of his shattered knee. The agony wrenched screams from his lips. The Queen turned the shaking and smoking gun to him.
“Oh lord, oh lord,” she mumbled, looking between Thomas and the man she had just shot. The barrel of Thomas’ weapon hovered inches from his face.
Thomas made a decision, not based on fear of the weapon in the woman’s hand, but out of a greater sense of purpose. “Please,” he cried between gasps of pain, “I have a one-man flyer. Can you pilot?”
Thomas continued. “It is in the same clearing where you crashed. Fly west until you cross the river, then south to New York. Hurry, the Duke is en route. I swear if you do this, you can evade him and return to the King. Now go!”
Queen Magnolia wavered, and then raced out of the cave.
Thomas wrapped his knee as best he could with supplies from the medical kit. Something glittered in the corner. He scooted over and picked up a golden chain with a blue pendant containing a swan figurine, most likely the Queen’s. He tucked it into an inner pocket and waited for the Duke, who certainly would have some questions Thomas knew not how to answer. He had failed the Duke, but in his heart, it was only to prevent a greater treason.