Secrets of the Raven Queen
Broken, deeply wounded and suffering, Cora Sleet leads her companions to the lair of the Ancient Dragon Hydius Dreadmaw to help make sure her greatest enemy, Son of Krash steal the ‘right’ object, that would possibly cause the destruction of her of the beloved village; Ironfrost.
This story is the continuation of
“Suffering; Cruelly and All Over Again.“
Are we there yet?”, a near blue Tonic asked with a shriveling, squeaky voice.
“No, luv, we aren’t. Not yet.”, replied Seressa with a morose sort of voice. She was holding one, splintered arm close to her chest while trying to balance her very tall figure with the other in the deep snow. Her wheezing, hoarse breathing could clearly be heard as her fractured ribs bit into her lungs and her face was crumpled up in pain.
And she was also limping horribly.
Brom stood just behind her in case she fell, though he was very much dubious just exactly what he would accomplish if she did. The dark, limping figure in front of him was just so tall..
‘Perhaps I could provide her a soft landing..’, he’d thought. ‘..At the cost of being crushed —but hey, what are friends for, other than hurting one another on multiple levels and then sacrificing one’s self as a cushion under a pretty butt!’
They sloshed through the snow for another hour but didn’t make much way, as the very tall Seressa wasn’t leading her pair, opening a canyon-like path for the midgety gnome Arcantonic and the hobbit, Brom. That role was now braved by the little gnome and she made little difference. It was like she was moving the small pebbles, where great boulders were blocking their way! But that certainly didn’t deter her as she sniffed, struggled, whimpered, and stumbled before her pair.
Cora was nowhere in sight. She’d been missing since they’d made camp the previous night. And in the morning, they’d only seen directional markings left behind on the snow by her. The three had been following the markings since morning and it was getting near afternoon now.
Brom felt tired and worried.
Cora had been a silent girl ever since he’d met her, back at Shakehands. But she seemed catatonic now..
“Alright. Stop. This is getting ridiculous..”, he said finally as he gasped and held his side.
“No.. We can’t.. stop now.. Must catch up.. with Cora..”, the very tall Seressa breathed heavily.
“Yes..”, Tonic said, barely able to speak. “..We can hold.. our own..”
Brom just stared at the two.
“You know, when I said ‘I sense impending stupid incoming’, yesterday, I didn’t mean it this literally!”
“That isn’t nice, Brom.. “, growled Tonic. “She’s hurt because of—”
“—my own deeds.”, finished Seressa.
“Seressa!”, protested Tonic.
“But it’s true, luv. What happened yesterday was the culmination of my dysfunctional and unproportional reaction when it comes to my pair.. My mind went white with fury and embarked on a near all attack on Cora like I was on a holy war.”, Seressa said with pain, as she slowly settled herself on to the snow. “I am sorry Tonic. But that’s happened to me before and we both know it. I should have had better control over myself and trusted you to clear something that you could have been avoided but with little effort. I.. I hated the way people treated you back in the academy, even before we were paired. After we were paired, I had all the excuse I needed to retaliate, that’s all..”
“Any pair would have done what you had done, Seressa.”, said Tonic, quietly.
“No, luv. They would have eluded the confrontation altogether. That’s the base rule they taught us at the academy. Confrontations are acceptable but only as a last resort. What we’ve done thus far is, we have been using it as our opening move!“, Seressa explained with a defeated voice. “Had we resolved one silly banter like adults, dear Cora wouldn’t have been so riled, and wouldn’t have been that vicious on me..”
She paused for a moment.
“I wish she were here right now. She should hear and know that I am sorry..”
“She’s here..”, said a soft, somewhat throaty voice. “..And your apology is accepted, though unnecessary.”
With that, Cora Sleet appeared out of nowhere!
“Woa, Cora..!”, said Brom. “..didn’t know you could do magic like that.”
“It isn’t magic. These mountains are my home. I know how to hide in my own home!”
She looked down at Seressa, and shame appeared on her face. In her own fury, she had broken something.. a friend.
“I.. I am more sorry than I can say, dear Seressa. You have been nothing but good to me and Brom ever since we met. And I acted exactly as a stupid barbarian would. We..we tundra elves are barbarians by definition. But not by our nature. I have no excuse for what I did to you..”
Then she turned to the little gnome and knelt before her..
..and silently hugged her.
Deep inside the little, midgety gnome, the inner Tonic started screaming and running around in a full-blown panic, “We are being hugged! What are we to do? We are being hugged.. We have no pre-written protocol for this! TONIC! DO SOMETHING.. NOT STUPID PLEASE!“
Tonic stood before the barbarian girl, quiet petrified for a moment, then blurted.
“PLEASE BE MY FRIEND!“
A little sniffy sob escaped Seressa.
Cora looked into Tonic’s eyes and asked, “Have you ever seen me turn my back on you, Tonic?”
“If.. If this is some kind of a quiz, I am about to fail it, aren’t I?”, she said with a baffled tone. “But yes, you have.. I mean, I have. Any number of times.. All the time, in fact!”
“That is because you are my friend. A barbarian never turns her back to an enemy nor someone she does not trust..”, Cora said with a smile.
A little sniffy sob escaped Tonic, this time..
“Now, however, we must keep going..”, Cora said softly and rose back to her feet.
“Cora.. Seressa can’t go on.. In fact, she shouldn’t be going on.”, Brom interjected.
“Yes. I agree with you. But she must. If we lag more then we already have, Son of Krash will get ahead of us. We can’t let that happen.”, Cora replied with a desperate voice.
“No.. No, we can’t. What we can’t also do is try and move Seressa like this..”, Brom said seriously.
“But we can move her with this.”, she replied and produced two, long poles bound together and apart with a net of leather thongs.
“This why I was running ahead all morning. We keep.. We kept.. stashes of weapons, food, stretches such as this one, and medical supplies for emergencies, scattered all over these mountains. Took me a while to find this one because this location is not on one of our standard patrol routes.
She leaned over Seressa, dug her hands under the very tall girl, ignored her whimpering protests, and carried her over to the stretcher, and laid her on it, without even breaking a sweat.
Then she took off her heavy, leather hide fur cloak and wrapped the tall girl with it.
While doing that, just for a moment, she came eye to eye with Seressa, who whispered, “You.. you held back yesterday! You could have broken free much sooner..”
Cora Sleet’s eyes teared. “It does not appear like I held back, dear Seressa. I acted like an animal, and I broke you.. I am so, so sorry.. You have been a friend and acted like a friend. I have not. Shows exactly who is the better person..”
And without waiting for an answer, she got up, went over to the head of the stretcher, picked it up, and they all stared on their trek once more..
Funny how broken bones always healed stronger..
..and perhaps, friendships too.
“Are we there yet?”, squeaked Tonic from the rear!
✱ ✱ ✱
We have to be very careful and very quiet now.”, said Cora as they approached the gaping mouth of the cave they suspected to belong to the Ancient Dragon Hydius Dreadmaw. It had gotten much colder as they neared the cave, which confirmed that this was, indeed, the Great Whites lair.
“So.. What do you think?”, asked Brom with a voice of concern, but not only about the dragon.
Cora scratched her pouting lower lip with her thumb as she scowled at the dark, iced, maw-like cave..
“I do not know..”, she said finally. “Dreadmaw.. Dreadmaw has been a nightmare legend in our lore for so long.. No one.. We don’t come here.. We are not allowed to come here, and with good reason. In the legends, it is said it was Dreadmaw who turned these, once green lands into the Great Northern Tundra’s, as they are called now, just by flying over it.”
“That doesn’t make sense! How could one dragon—”, squeaked Tonic.
“Legends are not about ‘sense’, luv..”, whispered Seressa from the stretcher she lay. “They are there to give a certain ‘scope’ to things..”
“I suppose.. but still..”, said Tonic dubiously.
“Have you seen an Ancient White before?”, Cora asked silently.
“I have..”, whispered Cora. “..Dreadmaw flew over Ironfrost only three times. And there was nothing left of it but a great heap of glacial ice. My scars. I got them from his final pass and I was yet, half an hours run from my village.”
“And we are going up against that?”, she said horrified.
“No one is going up against that, dear Tonic.”, said Cora. “No one can..”
“Hydius Dreadmaw is said to be the next best thing to an Elder Dragon, luv.. A World Ender!”, explained Seressa mutely.
“Alright.. Stop!”, said Arcantonic. “Stop right there.. I am an archeologist, not a history major. My classes didn’t cover such things as ‘Elder Dragons’ or some ‘World Enders’..”
Seressa smiled, or rather, she tried. But a spasm of pain must have stabbed her because her face paled and crunched as she tightly shut her eyes.
“I think that pretty much covers our options.”, said Cora. “Tonic. You are going to have to stay here with Seressa. Brom and I will have to brave this one.. Just as soon as I dig a storm hole for the two of you to hide.”
“There’s.. no need..”, gasped Seressa as she held her splintered arm closer to her wrapped chest.
“Tonic. Please help explain Seressa, why she should stay.. Feel free to give my stupidity as a reason!”, said Cora brutally.
Seressa shut up.
So did Tonic.
“Girl, you can be harsh sometimes..”, whispered Brom.
“Shut up, BROM BUMBLEBRIM!“, snarled Cora..
..and Brom shut up, as well!
Cora dug deep into the snow, a soft, diagonal pit for easy access both ways. Then she carefully lowered the stretcher and Seressa in it, then helped Tonic as well.
Just as she started covering the small gap, Seressa called to her.
“Cora.. Dreadmaw is dangerous. But you already know this. What you may not know is, he.. he has certain.. ties and connections.. with otherworldly beings..”
Cora looked down into the pit and the bottomless eyes of the tall, dark tiefling.
“Is there anything you want to tell me that I should know?”, she said with a neutral voice.
Seressa closed her eyes as pain bit her once more. Stretching at such an angle to see the tundra elf was straining her fractured ribs.
“I.. I do not know..”, she said. “..There are many.. secrets.. Secrets that I know due to my bond with my Mistress. But I do not know if I have the right to divulge them.”
Cora did not say anything.
She did not push.
She only waited.
“The Sword of..”, began Seressa finally. “..The Sword of Priceptine, the Archangel of Wrath.. ‘Priceptine’s Light’.. ‘Shal ah Galad’.. That is what’s likely the thief must steal..”
Brom whistled low and long, from behind Cora.
Tonic stared at her pair with wide, shocked eyes right in the face, as she was huddled up right next to her in the pit.
“I.. can’t believe you kept this from me!”, squeaked Tonic.
“I am sorry, luv. I didn’t keep it from you, because it wasn’t my secret to give!”
“Your Mistress—”, breathed Cora slowly from her nose.
“—The Raven Queen!”, inserted Seressa.
“The Raven Queen.. what does she have to do with this?”
“My Mistress, The Raven Queen, is the keeper of mysteries, prophecies, secrets, lost knowledge, and lost souls..”, whispered Seressa, no longer able to look up. “She.. When we left Grandaleren in our last mission, Archangel Priceptine attacked the temple of Themalsar with his Wrath Angels to buy time for the elves. There.. there he was ambushed by something, and slain.. or entrapped, I do not know which.. No one does.. Or if anyone does know, they are not saying.. But that’s the last anyone has ever heard from the Archangel. When Priceptine was gone, His sword, ‘Shal ah Galad’ became vulnerable. To avoid it from falling into wrong hands or the hands of the demons, my Mistress, The Raven Queen picked it up and paid the price for it.
While my Mistress is not precisely ‘good’ in a conventional sense, She isn’t evil either. The Light of Priceptine, however, can not be touched without being burned, by anything that is not ‘pure’, in an angelic sense.”
“Why? Why would your Mistress pick it up in the first place?”, asked Brom from behind Cora. “I mean, if she isn’t exactly ‘good’.. why bother?”
“Because my Mistress is the keeper of mysteries, prophecies, secrets, lost knowledge, and lost souls.. And demons are the cause to many, many knowledge, and the reason for many more souls to be lost.”, tried to explain Seressa. “Whatever else She may be, my Mistress absolutely abhors demons and she will spike their wheel, just out of spite.. Hence, she took the blade, but she couldn’t keep it. Not that she wanted to. But what she did want, was that it be kept away, far away, from demon hands.. And so, she gave it to an ancient creature that she knew could, and would keep it safe, no matter what; Hydius Dreadmaw..”
“Your Mistress gave the Sword of Priceptine to Dreadmaw? Hells bells, girl, Dreadmaw? DREADMAW?.. Dreadmaw is evil!”, said Tonic, with a horrified expression.
“Whether she gave it to him out of convenience of proximity or some other reason, I do not know. But the one fact remains clear; that Dreadmaw is also a dragon.. An ancient dragon, no less..”, whispered Seressa back. “And if there is one creature that jealously guards its hoard, it’s a dragon! And no demon would get anywhere near him because Dreadmaw is a lone creature. He does not make pacts. He will not join alliances. And he certainly will NOT be a tool for anyone!”
There was a long, sentient silence as the others tried to digest what they had just heard.
“Sooo… what now?”, asked Brom, with a defeated voice.
“No..”, said Cora with a very, very serious tone. “..that’s not all, is it? Why are we to help that butcher, Son of Krash even steal the sword? He already stole something and it destroyed my home! We could just stop him from stealing anything and perhaps save my home..”
“My dear, dear Cora..”, said Seressa softly. “..we are not here to save your Ironfrost. We are here to save the Sword of Light. I am so, so sorry my beloved friend. But there is nothing that we can do for Ironfrost.”
Cora just stood there, like she was petrified.
“What I don’t understand is, why are we to let Son of Krash take it?”, asked Brom tentatively from behind Cora.
“I am not privy to all my Mistress’s secrets, dear Brom, nor the reasons behind them.”, said Seressa quietly. “But I suspect, it is perhaps time, or near the time when the Sword of Light should reemerge. And my Mistress can not take it back from Dreadmaw. For the same reason as to why she couldn’t keep it, even for safekeeping. AND, once something enters a dragon’s hoard, it BECOMES the dragon’s hoard. Unless we want my Mistress, The Raven Queen to come down here to take it back from Dreadmaw himself by force, causing the possible destruction of this part of the continent, I am afraid it is up to us mortals to sneak in and steal it.. Or have it stolen, in this case.. As to why WE can’t keep it, I do now know. I can only surmise, the ‘higher-ups’ have a plan. I would love to know their reasoning, myself. But I don’t even know whom to ask..”
For one last time, Seressa struggled to turn her head and shrieked in pain.
“Seressa, please dear!”, Tonic whispered in tears.
“‘Tis.. alright.. luv..”, Seressa gasped. Teeth clenched, she reached up to hold Cora’s hand. And when their hands touched, it was like fire beholding glacial ice..
“I.. I am so, so sorry you must the one to bear this burden Cora. If.. if it will bring you any consolation.. any solace, we are laying the ground for.. GOOD to prevail.. I.. I am a tiefling.. half of me was born from, and caused by EVIL. I have less to lose if you fail.. yet more.. SO MUCH MORE to gain if you succeed; my humanity, my sanity, my identity, my pair and my friends.. You must prevail beloved, Cora. You MUST! My ancestry does not define me.. My choices do.. And all my choices have brought me here.. to a dear friend like you..”, she pleaded..
Seressa squeezed shut her eyes.
“The Sword.. the Sword of Light.. it’s rumored to be a longsword with.. with gold inlaid into its blade’s fuller and supposedly has.. golden wings for a cross-guard. There are many other.. rumors.. but these are the two definitive ones.. Shouldn’t be hard to spot.. A.. a bit ostentatious for an archangel, I think.. but.. I shall not argue.. about His tastes..”
Her voice grew shallow and down to an unbearable whisper.
“P.. please Cora.. forgive me.. and do this for me..”
✱ ✱ ✱
Cora looked down at the long, dark, exhausted hand and at the drained girl in the storm pit.
Her glacial blues softened.
“Choices..”, she murmured quietly.
Then she squeezed the languid hand of the beautiful, black girl in silly pinks.
“I do.. And I shall..”, she said with a steely determination and rose to her feet.
“Master Bard! I will require your services.. Will you escort me to this Dreadmaw, whilst we unleash our wrath?”, she grunted with deliberate bravado.
“Just for that, you will get an Epic”, smirked Brom, and fell in beside her.
CORA SLEET STEEL
THE STORM HERALD
✱ ✱ ✱
“You made a funny.”, whispered Brom as they snuck up to the mouth of Dreadmaw.
“Why, Master Brom..”, Cora whispered back. “I always make a funny.”
“Never seen my face when I rage? Saw it on the reflection of a pot once.. Why a pot, don’t ask.. Almost fell over and lost the rage!”
Cora Sleet: “Saw it on the reflection of a pot once.. Why a pot, don’t ask..”, was referring to a time when she raged once at home when she was much younger, in her mom’s kitchen, and got her head clubbed by a shiny metal pot! —never rage against your pissed-off mom; particularly if she is a barbarian!