The Dragon Queens

Chapter 14

Unnamed system, Unnamed planet- Cortana Shepard

The Netch shuttle shuddered slightly as it passed through the layers of the planet’s atmosphere. It was one of the larger affairs that could hold a Quintar in a pinch. Her Prolus sat next to her checking and rechecking their weapons as the mission clock counted down. She then passed her eyes over the new auxiliary units to be assigned to the 753rd legion. A Quintar of the latest batch from the training world of Shor’s fields.

They sat in their harnesses in their Dwemer, Ebony and Stalrim alloy armour, the white band on their upper arms marking them as Auxilars. This batch reflected the new state of the empire. Geth, Quarians and Krogan had joined the ranks, their armour especially enchanted to allow them to jump planes without being lost to
the energy price.

One particularly nice feature was the large bladed crest that had been added to the Krogan helmets. This gave them one extra weapon to use in combat, harnessing the natural impulse to head-butt their opponents and making the already devastating attack a move to be feared. The Geth had advanced, now combining traditional platform designs with Nirnian materials and enchantments, they had even taken to building platforms that could interact as an individual, a thousand or so programs would join up in their desire to explore beyond their digital confines and be uploaded into a platform capable of speech. Then they would pick a name and go forth, exploring, working, and joining the legion.

There were even instances of customization for platforms, little things like markings, paint jobs or style to give individuality. The Quarians currently old enough to join were still confined to suits but a Quarian legionnaire recived a new suit upon joining. They were similar to the old suits except ran on the Aether principle and allowed seamless transitions through planes and instead of a full face visor they were replaced with the small eye slits similar to an ancient ebony helm. Though there had been several instances where young children had begun to develop small amounts of magika if they had been exposed in utero to large amounts of magica, such as through a plane jump.

The shuttle shook again and she fell back into the present, glancing at the clock near the front of the ship. Five minutes before landfall. With a small smile she picked up her black, metal crested helmet and settled it over her head, her long braid of copper hair coiled around her head to add extra cushioning to the helmet.

As the helmet slid on she looked at the world through the purple tinted visor. The IFF system outlining the auxiliary in blue and her Prolus in gold while the targeting system linked itself up to her eye movement a small dot appearing in the center of her visor and an ammo status linked to her shotgun and enchantment level for her sword. It also showed her armour’s shield status and power levels.

The ammo counter in the lower right corner blinked showing full charge and enchantment. The guns worked the principle that per magika charge a set number of rounds with certain enchantment could be fired. Then the Aether gem would open and get a quick charge burst and be ready to fire, similar to the citadel heat sink.

“Alright everyone” she called over the comms. Immediately she had everyone’s attention the tinted eye slits and visors turning in her direction. “We will be making planet fall in five minutes, remember this is your last training mission before you join your legion. There is a fort fifty leagues from our LZ. The rest of your century is holding that base with a flag. I want that flag.” She informed them, drawing a few chuckles from the soldiers.

She went on to outline their plan of attack and just as the shuttle pilot announced their landing. “Be ready, be alert, be bold and be smart.” She commanded them from where she sat before slapping her seat harness and standing, the crimson stripe on her arm gleaming like fresh blood as she settled her black shield on her arm and the small mark on the right side of her chest flashing: N7. “GO, GO, GO!” she ordered.

Immediately the Auxilars leapt up and jumped on to the flat plateau their ship hovered over. Shepard and the last of her Prolus ran out last to see her troops armed and ready, scanning their environment with their fire arms ready to go and tower shields arrayed in front as a barrier for cover.

The ship pulled away and the troops formed up into five columns of ten with the mages and archers in the center and the shield bearers on the outside ready to protect. Then they began to follow the N7’s who lead them at a crisp jog across the large open space toward the ring of hills that rimmed it.

All the while Cortana couldn’t shake the feeling of something being wrong. An hour in and the feeling still hadn’t abated “The ground wasn’t this smooth last time Antem” Kashela said into the Nightingales’ secure channel.

“Yeah, something isn’t right” Garzog growled “My tusks are itching” he informed them.
Cortana was on edge now. Her team was right, something was off, the rounded tips of her ears were buzzing, an echo of the Breton’s half Mer ancestry. They were halfway across the plane when all oblivion broke loose. The ground shook and writhed beneath their feet, throwing many.

“Shit, Call for an extraction!” Cortana bellowed as nine grotesque heads reared twenty lengths (meters) from the now softened ground. Thresher Maws. They towered over the forces who were a credit to their training, scattering with organized discipline, dodging the globules of acid and returning fire upon their attackers.

But despite their best efforts they were outnumbered and losing. Fifty soldiers against nine thresher maws were simply not enough. The plateau became a killing ground with Auxilars screaming as acid ate through their shields, armour and flesh. Others were crushed when the creatures dove, shields and armour succumbing to the immense pressure. That’s not to say they didn’t make the demons work for those kills though, already three lay dead from the hail of death thrown at them.

Cortana ran through the carnage like a fiend, directing and coordinating attacks. The shuttle had been on its way back up the ship, a good half hour away. Now it and a swarm of fighters were approaching, but in her heart of hearts Cortana knew they would arrive too late. A ball of acid hit near her, a few drops hitting her armour wards which fizzled and sparked under the assault.

More of her people fell, their bodies rent and torn by the beasts. Garzog had taken down a maw at the cost of his own life, smashing his greatsword through its brain as it snatched him up. The deadly jaws clamping shut on his waist as the sword bit deep, locking them shut with him in between.

Kashela had held a ward around a group injured, but had succumbed to a triple acid attack. Her armour, fur and flesh eaten away in seconds, leaving little more than a puddle where she and her charges had stood.
Selena was screaming curses at the beasts as she fired explosive arrows at their vulnerable points, leading the remaining archers and ranged mages in attacks to keep them away.

Terala was lying in pieces with a large group of fallen, their guns smashed and melted. Cortana screamed in fury at the three remaining beasts, her armour half melted and her weapons long gone. She threw her magic at them, smashing against their hides, downing the wounded one and pissing off the other two.
From what she could see they had just taken the last of the other groups, there was nothing left of Selena or the others.

Something in Cortana snapped. She screamed her rage, pain and grief at the mindless brutes. Green lightning lashed from her left hand, melting her gauntlet and sparking off her own armour as it disrupted its ward generators. The green attack struck the closer of the two that remained and held, linking her to it. The lightning boiled and smoked around where it attached, almost like molten stone then lightning. She looked at the second maw and threw up her right hand, catching it just below the head, screaming at the agony of fire racing through her veins.

Acting on instinct she wrapped her hands round the lines like the reins of the chariots of antiquity and dragged against them. The creatures shrieked in pain, writhing against the painful tethers. She pulled with everything she had, her vision going grey around the edges and agony rippling along her arms, the sections her attack held were suddenly pulled from the rest of the creatures, disintegrating as the segments pulled free.

With sickening cries the two heads fell, severed from the body and Cortana slid to her knees, her vision swimming and her body beaten. Blood dripped from her nose and pooled on her visor turning the purple visor red before leaking out through a crack. Her flesh was blackened in some places where her armour had been melted off and her hands were seared to the warped and melted remains of her gauntlets.

Her boot made contact with a pool of acid and began to smoke adding a new level of pain. With agonized movements she dragged herself from the field, shedding armour as she went and struggling to get away from the pools of corrosive liquid. She was barely aware of the sounds of the fighters screaming through the air over head as she struggled to stay conscious. She collapsed face first mere feet from the outer edge of the battle, she could feel death waiting for her and she began to let go.

Blackness was now almost all she could see and she heard the crunch of boots. “Stendarr’s mercy what happened?” a voice asked near her. “Oh Akatosh we have a survivor, quick I need a healer NOW!” the voice barked, but Cortana was beyond caring.

She felt the inky blackness of unconsciousness reach up and engulf her, dragging her down to blessed abyss of sleep.

Ritual room, Intensive Care Ward, House of healing, Kynareth’s Embrace, Eldergleam System, Imperial Space

High Priestess and Healer of Kynareth Camilla Vastus Looked down at her charge that lay on the stone ritual altar. The young Breton woman had been brought to the Halls of Healing in bad shape and just barely clinging to life.

The sole survivor of a thresher maw attack that had wiped out her prolus and the entire Quintar of auxiliary she had been training on the planet Akuze. The Nightingale’s injuries were horrific, third degree acid burns covered most of her body, three ribs broken and one having punctured her lung, her gauntlets were melted and the remains fused to her charred hands. But worst of all was her mana, her Magik was fluctuating so wildly that it was a miracle she hadn’t immolated herself during the battle or on her rushed transport to the healing planet.

They had finally managed to remove her melted armour and a continuous infusion of Health and Stamina boosters were being pumped into her through one of the many IVs that were connected to her veins her magic was sitting at almost empty and they dared not replenish it with her core being so unstable. It was for the same reason that they dared not use magical healing to speed her recovery for fear of overloading her mana.

So they worked hard to make up the difference with the regeneration potion regime she was being fed through a tube. Camilla rubbed her eyes tiredly and glanced around the empty stone room, bare of all decorations or even windows.

The altar rested in the center and the woman’s naked form rest on the smooth stone gently. They were now waiting for the Magika specialist to arrive to perform the stabilization ritual that would allow them to being healing her.

“High Priestess Vastus?” an Argonian novice called from where he stood near the door “Mana Specialist Serqesh is here.”

She nodded “please send him in” she instructed. Mana Specialist Serqesh was a middle aged Khajiit with a premature crop of white hair dusting his muzzle and the heavy fur marking him as a northern adapted Khajiit, he was dressed as she was in deep red robes and carried a leather satchel that swung in his left hand as he hurried to the patient’s side.

“I’m glad you could make it Specialist” Camilla told him, leading him to the altar.
“Yes, yes” he said quickly digging around in his bag and pulling out a set of callipers and several gems “This one is glad to be of help, but for now let us focus on the patient, the report said she over extended her Magik in a life or death situation, you have revealed the spells used, yes?” he asked, arranging the gems at certain points along her body using the calipers.

“Yes, the whip of Magnus spell, twice” Camilla answered looking over her chart. At this point several novices finished removing the various tubes and IVs from her body before taking them from the room and sealing the door. Serqesh made a surprised whistling sound through his teeth “Mother Mara!” he exclaimed
“How has she not been reduced to ashes? It is a level ten point seven power draw spell, from her charts she is a level five point five power class, she should not have survived such an overdraw on her core!” he told them, running through a series of complicated calculations on a note pad then positioning her and the six other healers in a circle with the altar in the center.

Then he moved carefully toward the center and using a small brush and a bowl of green oil he began to trace more runes over her body Once this was done he began to trace runes away from the center in a spiral pattern, eventually enclosing the healers and patient in a web of runes and glyphs written in white chalk and void salts. Half an hour later he lifted his arms, his gestures mirrored by the healers and he began to chant.

Blue light filled his hands until it spilled over into the runes causing them to glow blue. One by one the healers joined in, chanting the refrain of the spell to strengthen it and adding their own Magik to the ritual. The blue like worked its way along the runes to the altar like water filling a carved pattern.
It reached the dais and poured up to highlight the ones on her body. The patient stiffened and gave a small moan in pain, her wounds cracking and oozing blood. The light finished it journey, now filling the whole circle and growing brighter and brighter, until it was impossible to look at.

The light flashed in a soundless and forceless explosion before draining into the patient’s body and the ritual participants fell to their knees in exhaustion. The door opened and several other healers came in to escort the ritual workers away to rest and several novices carefully transferred the patient onto a gurney and wheeling her up to a healing ward to begin treatment.

Room W449, Wolf wing, House of Healing

Cortana stared listlessly at the beautiful stone arches that decorated the ceiling of her room.
Sunlight streamed through the open window that overlooked a small courtyard containing a beautiful garden filled with flowers around a simple cobbled path and stone benches with a tree bearing pink flowers.

Unfortunately the beauty was wasted on her. Gone, all gone, the words pounded in her head like the sound of marching feet. Her Prolus, her shield-siblings were gone along with fifty bright young stars.
Unbidden the memories came back, the stench of burning flesh being eaten away by that gods cursed acid, the scream, oh Stendarr the screams. She covered her ears in a fruitless attempt to block out the cries that echoed from her memory.

She couldn’t sleep anymore, the nightmares were too horrible. She clenched her hands, still wrapped in heavy bandages to keep her from scratching at the newly healed skin and breathed in sharply.

The scent of flowers and fresh mountain air lost in the phantom smells from that terrible day. A novice came in dressed in the simple sage green robes of one devoted to Kynareth with a small glass cup containing the potion cocktail she had to take four time a day.

She swallowed the bitter brew and lay back as he left. Her body was still weak as a newborn and her mana, whilst stabilized was drained from its attempts to speed her body’s recovery. Her stamina and health were both very low as well from the constant pain and exhausting healing session that slowly brought her back from the brink of death. Though sometimes she wished they would just let her die.

Why should she be alive when her comrades were all dead?

She gasped again, though this time it was more of a sob. Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes and trickled down her face into the collar of her loose robes. The soft grey fabric enchanted to heal and comfort, absorbing the tear without a trace as the cleaning enchantments vanished the foreign liquid. She clenched her hands again, crumpling the blanket on her be in her hands as she gently cried.

Then exhausted by even this small activity she slipped into sleep only to be plagued by the visions from that day.

Moth Gardens, House of Rest, Kynareth’s Embrace

She sat on the stone bench near the central tree. The garden certainly lived up to its name, she thought as she watched the gently glowing silver moths flutter about the various flowers, dancing with the touch bugs that congregated in the gathering dusk. It had been nearly nine months since Akuze, she had been moved out of the House of healing once she was deemed physically fit, but they had taken her to the house of rest for her sessions with the mind healers.

For three weeks now she had wandered about the wing she was situated in and it’s accompanying gardens, meeting the other residents there to receive treatment for the various emotional and psychological scars they had recived. She was staying in the Night Wing with eleven other soldiers who were deemed in need of the intensive rest achieved here.

She closed her eyes and pushed down the memories and faces that flashed behind her eyes, breathing in for a count of seven holding it for seven then letting it out to a count of seven, cycling through the breathing exercises she had been taught. After a few moments she opened her eyes and sighed, the sessions helped, she admitted, she no longer had to be restrained and kept under twenty four hour guard to prevent her from committing suicide. But when it came to opening up she was still stuck.

No matter how much she thought about it logically she still shied from the idea of allowing someone so close again. She was scared now of the pain that would come from losing a friend again. So she closed herself off, hiding it all under a cheerful mask and a witty tongue.

Quiet footsteps sounded on the brass and she looked up to see one of the hooded novices in green walking across the smooth lawn towards her. “Cortana?” the novice asked, Cortana nodded, she didn’t recognize this novice so she must be new to Night wing. “I was sent by priestess Jumps-through-dark to find you and bring you to dinner” she explained drawing nearer.

The closer she came the more curious Cortana became, the Novice had an unusual accent, one Cortana was unfamiliar with, perhaps from one of the new colonies. The answer was revealed when the Novice stopped a few feet from Cortana, her blue skin just visible in the dim light beneath the hood and the depth of said hood indicating her race.

“You’re an Asari” Cortana said in astonishment, looking at the novice in fascination.

“Yes I am an Asari, my name is Kari T’vana. I am an immigrant from the Batarian slaver pens. I decided to stay in the empire and work as a healer. Thus my being dedicated to Kynareth.” The Novice explained succinctly in a tone that suggested a thousand repetitions.

Cortana bowed her head “My apologies, it’s just one doesn’t tend to see Asari inside Imperial space” Novice Kari smiled a little and held out her hand “come, it’s time for the evening meal.”

NIDV Beauty of dawn- Ayrenn

Ayrenn looked over the file again and took a sip of her spiced tea. The candidate fit all the requirements, their record was flawless, their test scores high, their behavior exemplary. All in all she could not hope for a better warrior to recruit. She looked over at the astral projection of her sister from aboard her own personal ship, and who was also reading through the file, a slight frown on her face. “Well?” Ayrenn prodded after another sip of her tea “what do you think?” she asked, gesturing to the file.

Serana too put it down and picked up her goblet and sipped, rolling the thick liquid around her tongue before she answered. “I agree that the candidate meets all of our criteria” she paused, choosing her words carefully “but the last assignment is bound to leave very deep emotional scars.”

Ayrenn nodded “but that is why this is a perfect opportunity. Our unit will hold no memories for her. This is a fresh start, a way to leave those memories behind and still protect the people.”

Serana held up her hands “but does she want to remain in the military?” she asked seriously.

Ayrenn shrugged “the Mind healers suspect so, but there is a chance. Either way I feel that we should at least give her the chance” she finished, setting down her teacup a little harder on its saucer then intended, making the china rattle loudly.

Serana sighed and replaced her goblet. Very well, we’ll make the attempt”

House of Rest- Cortana

Cortana stared at the chess board with delight, her opponent swore as Cortana moved her mage diagonally to a spot near the opposite end and smiled sweetly “check mate” she said cheekily.

Kari laughed and flicked over her emperor before shaking her head “I should have known better than to play against you.” She muttered ruefully and stood up, lifting her hood back into place. “I’ll see you later” she called before walking away from the table they had set up in the garden.

Cortana smiled sadly as she picked up the pieces and put them gently back into the snug depressions in the box, lining them up in pairs like she always had. Playing the game was a bitter sweet exercise, she and Selene had played often, now just touching the pieces made her sad. She sighed, nearly a year and a half since That Day and still little things like handling her chess set could cause her to tear up.

So focused on her actions was she that she didn’t hear the quiet footsteps that walked across the lawn towards her. A voice behind her spoke softly “Are you Antem Cortana Shepard?” She spun around, her hand going for a sword that was no longer hanging from her hip, a spell forming in her other hand only to be stopped abruptly by the two figures standing in front of her.

She gaped for a second before her training reasserted itself and she fell to one knee her fist on her heart in a salute. “Your Majesties! I beg your forgiveness, I did not know it was you.” She said quickly, her heart going a thousand leagues a second and her system flooded with adrenalin.

“Be at ease and rise Antem” the voice of Serana commanded soothingly.

Trembling internally Cortana rose “I am no longer an Antem my queen. For I no longer have a Prolus.” She said this sadly, the familiar pain stabbing at her heart but she ignored it.

“Once a Nightingale always a Nightingale” Ayrenn told her calmly before gesturing to the two benches on either side of the table “please, sit” she invited, though to Cortana it was a command.

Gingerly she sat, her posture ram rod straight and her hands pressed firmly against her thighs. Ayrenn offered the other bench to Serana before summoning and binding a lesser Daedra into the form of a bench. The two queens sat and looked at Cortana with unreadable gazes.

Cortana fought the urge to shift beneath those eyes, pulling on her will to hold stone still. Finally Ayrenn spoke “we offer our condolences for the events of Akuze” her voice was gentle but Cortana still felt herself flinch slightly.

“We have come to present you with your options now” Serana continued. Cortana was confused, discuss her options? That was the work of officers or messengers, not the two most powerful beings on Mundus!
Ignoring her confusion Ayrenn spoke again “your options are these. First: you return to the Nightingale corps and are assigned to a new Prolus.” Cortana felt a surge of anger go through her. Never, she could not face the idea of being a Nightingale without her Prolus.

“Second: you rejoin the legion or Navy as an officer and go on from there.” This too was unacceptable.
“Third: you leave the military altogether with an honourable discharge and make your way as a civilian and perhaps join a Fighters guild.” Cortana felt that this was an option, a last resort maybe but an option.
“And Fourth: you can accept our invitation to join an elite task force.”

Cortana’s eyes narrowed “what kind of task force?” she asked suspiciously, she had no inclination to join the eyes, the blades maybe, but not the eyes.

Serana smiled mysteriously “Ever heard of the Skalds?” she asked and Cortana’s eyes went wide.
The Skalds, a legend among the empire, the elite strike units of the queens, answerable only to them and bound to protect the empire no matter the cost. A Skald was welcome everywhere, no doors were closed because no one dared pretend to be one.

Rumour said that they underwent rituals to make them more then mortal, that they entered into pacts with the princes. Figures of legend, as both hero and villain. That and they also worked alone. “A..a..a Skald?” she stuttered, her face slack and her mind fumbling.

Ayrenn nodded “Yes, you fit the criteria perfectly, you are an exemplary warrior and a leader. The Empire needs people like you who will do what is needed to aid those who depend on you.” Cortana stared at the queens in shock then slumped forward until her elbow rested on her knees and the heels of her hands pressed against her eyes.

The very idea, so tempting, so frightening. “Is this the kind of deal where once you’re in you can’t back out?” she asked, her voice muffled by her position.

“In a way” Serana told her “if you take this option the other three will remain open to you. But after your probation is over then it becomes permanent until either your retirement or death.”

Cortana was silent for a long time, turning this information over in her head. Then she looked up, her green eyes staring at them and filled with determined flames and spoke her decision. “I accept”

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