by Mystic


It was a pleasant day on which Kira walked through the woods. Her baskets were empty as yet, for her mind was bent less on the task of gathering berries than it was on her surroundings. The days were approaching the height of summer and the sun filtered pleasantly through the leaves, limning them in brilliant green light. The air was still save for the occasional trill of a bird's call in the distance. In all other ways, the forest was serene and quiet.


Four hundred years earlier it had been a plain that rumbled with the thunder of hoof and foot as the armies of the dark queen, last queen of the Insedan, clashed with the last gathering of opposition to her conquests. Her host was a fierce black tide that smashed itself repeatedly against the final remnants of humanity. The insectoid warriors streamed in a never-ending wave toward the ancient ruins of a once mighty castle.

The warriors of the nation of Detheria braced themselves behind tumbled walls and other makeshift barriers, hewing frantically to avoid being overrun. The steel armor, so bright and polished at the day's dawn, had long since been spattered by the sprays of black ichor that erupted whenever sword or spear drove its way past the chitinous carapaces of the creatures.

All along the front, the corpses of the aggressors had begun to pile high as they hurled themselves blindly forward in untold numbers. Nowhere were they piled as high, however, as near the center of the line where the surviving members of the Order of Harim were arrayed. The Order had been one of battle mages, men born to master the arts of war, born to become armies unto themselves. The queen's numerous campaigns had reduced their numbers to less than three-score.

Their swords lashed out, skewering many foes at a time, the very motions of their blades describing spells that unleashed columns of fire and called down shards of lightning from the heavens to burn large holes in the back ranks of the swarm. But long had the queen's army been bred beneath the earth, and it stretched beyond the horizon.


A small breeze stirred Kira from her daydreaming. The wind had the promise of rain in it, and turned her mind once more to the reason she had been sent out to the woods. She gathered her skirts beneath her and knelt on the ground next to the nearest bush. Blueberries dotted its branches, round and ripe, ready to be taken. Surrounded by the sound of the now lightly stirring leaves, she set about filling the baskets.


The line of men rippled as the Insedan army pressed ever forward and poured relentlessly into any gap that opened. Slowly, but surely, the forces of Detheria, were driven back by the sheer numbers of their foes. Even the mages of Harim were forced to give ground as the black sea filled in around them.

Rodrim alone, greatest of the Order, had managed to hold his position; though amidst the flames and showers of gore, it was only the continuance of the display that had allowed any to know he still stood.

The dark queen prowled passively forward on all four limbs to better appraise the marvel. As she approached, the arcane destruction began to fall upon her with increasing frequency, but she paid the eldritch fires no heed. She was a sorceress herself and the assaults slid harmlessly off her wards, deflected in random directions, marking a scorched and tortured circle of churned earth around her.

Even as the inhuman regent had stopped to watch, Rodrim, against all possibility, began to advance.


She wiped the sticky juice of a few of the overripe fruits on her skirt. Her baskets were almost full. Only a few more berries needed to be picked, and then she could leave the woods and beat the oncoming weather home.

Thunder had been rumbling ominously in the distance on and off for several minutes, and the wind had grown more insistent, causing the trees to sway back and forth. The sun fell down still, but the hour promised a true summer storm, and Kira did not relish the idea of being battered by it for the length of her journey back home.

She rose to her feet and cast her eyes about, but all the nearby bushes had already been stripped. With a frown she set off into the thicker undergrowth. Branches of other kinds of bushes bobbed in the wind, reaching out to stab impotent thorns into the sturdy cloth of her woods clothes. Her feet picked their way delicately through the increasingly tangled forest floor that offered many opportunities to trip and fall.

The vegetation continued to thicken in a most unusual way until a large gust of wailing wind, unkindred to the rest of the storm, blew the plants out of her path and she found herself stumbling in a clearing.


Rodrim emerged from the cloud of destruction into the clearing carved out by his brethren's deflected spells. The same casters who had launched the assaults now turned their arts to raise a wall of flame around the circle's edge, isolating the two combatants. The queen hissed in disbelief, her perpetual frown twisting into a scowl and her compound eyes narrowing in anger as the trap was sprung. Her chitinous fingers scratched furiously at the earth, carving out runes of power meant to destroy her opponent.

The human mage, grim-faced as any executioner, simply reached to his belt and loaded a fiery red stone into his sling. The air whistled as he set it in motion and the very world is said to have held its breath when the bullet at last sailed. The projectile struck the Insedan in the heart, cracking through her carapace and her wards. For the instant that it was inside of her, a hellish glow radiated from the hole in her chest and then her very mouth and eye sockets as all inside the shell was consumed. The stone exited her body and the dark queen was dead.

Though the hordes remained, without their queen they lacked direction. A few continued to obey the last command to attack, but the human survivors easily repulsed them. The vast majority simply wandered off aimlessly, falling prey to starvation and the elements over time.

The only loose thread to history's page was the queen's rune. In the very moment of her death, the queen's hand had clutched in a death spasm wreaking havoc on the nearly completed spell. The lines in the earth briefly radiated a brilliant teal light and then vanished, leaving the mages of Harim with no idea what, if any effects it might have had.

Humanity recovered, building for itself new cities and sewing new fields. Over the course of four hundred years, the memories of the war and the Insedan faded into the fog of time. The Harimians spent many years studying the queen's remains, attempting to discern the effects of her rune. In time, though, even their Order died out, and green forests came to claim the once blood-soaked battlefield, serving as a tomb for she who had almost ruled the world.


In the middle of the clearing, Kira beheld a creature on hands and knees, or so she thought. The being was like nothing she had ever seen or heard of before. It looked like a woman, almost, but with insectoid characteristics. A large, bulbous cowl formed the back of the skull and the lower part of her torso flowed seamlessly into the abdomen of an ant. Her lower legs were folded back up, so that if she had been human only the knee would have come in contact with the ground. Where each of her feet should have been, a third, claw-tipped leg segment reached back down to touch the earth.

The entirety of her body looked like it was wrapped in plates and strips of boiled-leather. As Kira looked harder, she saw that the strange hide was, in fact, all that was there. It was a motionless husk and only hollow blackness stared back at her from behind the mask of a face.
The figure's back was split apart by a great hole, and Kira wondered if it was the something's shed skin, or a cast off cocoon. She stepped closer to it, tentativeness giving way to curiosity as the danger seemed to diminish. Thunder from the approaching storm rumbled in the distance, but her concern for the weather had been forgotten.

The face captivated her. The empty sockets and mouth conveyed a sense of surprise, horror, and pain all at once. Kira knelt down and reached out a sympathetic hand, lightly caressing the countenance with her fingertips. It was the first time a woman had touched the shell in all of its four hundred years. At that moment the long dormant rune flared to life beneath Kira's feet, tearing the moss and undergrowth asunder with powerful strobes of blue-green light.

The spell ended as quickly as it had begun, and Kira's mind was no longer her own. The figure that had been Kira stumbled and fell, disoriented. When at last she regained her bearings and beheld herself she released an inhuman shriek of anger, face contorting with rage. She ripped the cotton clothes off herself, but the sight of the soft, pink flesh only further infuriated her.

The dark queen crawled up on top of her former body staring at the horrendous exit wound in the back. In a moment of madness she considered trying to crawl back inside through the opening. She forcibly wrenched herself away from that state of mind, compelling herself to close her eyes and clear her thoughts until her breaths no longer came out in ragged gasps.

In control, at last, she traced a rune of transformation in the air and gossamer insect wings pushed their way gracefully out of Kira's shoulders. It was the most she could manage until she mastered the arcane chants with her strange new vocal cords. It would be a long road to vengeance, but it was one she would travel.

The sun was overrun and large drops of water began to fall from the sky all around her, damping the glossy surfaces of her new appendages. The dark queen had returned and the rain had begun.



Final Score: 42.5 out of 50

Raven's Comments:

With the exception of a few small errors, this story was very well-crafted. Nice use of detail and "flavor text" in describing Kira's surroundings and the sensory input she experiences. The cutting between past and present is handled well, and it helps to create a sense of ominous, unsettling gloom that hangs over the story from early on. In spite of the mundane activities in which Kira is engaged, it feels like something bad is about to happen, and something bad certainly does.

Unfortunately, while the story is well-written, the content is ultimately unsatisfying. We don't know Kira well enough to identify with her, and she is destroyed so swiftly that we barely feel the loss of our protagonist. There is no struggle between the dark queen and her new host for control of her body -- Kira doesn't stand a chance. Perhaps we could accept this if Kira had done something to deserve such a fate, but she is wiped out of existence for no crime beyond simple curiosity. This offends our sense of justice -- the wicked prosper and the innocent perish, and then the story simply ends, before the tragedy can be fully felt or the evildoer punished. This alienates the readers and leaves us feeling a little bit cheated.

The worlds of fiction, like the real world, have certain natural laws, which we ignore at our own peril. Fantasy, perhaps more than any other genre, is about not just the way the world is, but the way we feel that it should be -- and part of that is the idea that, in the long run, evil fails and goodness is blessed. You're quite talented as an author, Mystic, and it shows here as much as in your other works. But I don't know many writers, if any, who can challenge the Law of Cosmic Justice and still leave their readers feeling satisfied.



Copyright 2004 by Mystic. If you want to post this anywhere else, please ask for permission first. Thank you.

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