Episode I The Corsair
The woods where the three women hid for the remainder of the day was not a real wilderness. Every tree had been carefully selected and planted to create a special place. But once planted it had been left to develop on its own and resembled most wilderness areas. It was natural enough to provide the sort of dense cover that would hide them from the palace guard. They spent the rest of the day there, resting and exchanging life histories. For the Melissa, whose personality had once more emerged from the persona of the Red Dragon, this was somewhat difficult as she had been responsible for the capture of both Che Sha and Vayasha. But neither girl seemed to hold it against her.
You were tainted with the evil of Qwang Gui, said Che Sha. He destroyed everything he touched.
Vayasha agreed. You have redeemed yourself. You overcame the tentacles Qwang Gui wrapped around your mind.
Melissa had to fight hard to hold back her tears. For the first time in three years she had friends. And friends who were willing to forgive and forget. She swallowed hard and turned away so that they would not see her weakness. It is time, she said huskily. She moved off toward the palace, the two girls following.
They reached the palace without incident. Vayasha moved as silently as did Melissa and although Che Sha was relatively clumsy they were able to guide her through the dark without having her fall down too many times. They were all dressed more appropriately, Melissa having required Che Sha to give up her palace robe for the more practical gear of one of the palace guards. Che Sha had not been comfortable about donning the garb of a dead man, but she did not object after noting that Vayasha had already done the same thing.
Wait here, Melissa said to the two girls. I am best equipped to enter the palace. Having you with me would only slow me down. Both young women frowned, but they did not object. Melissa, a dreaded Dragon Warrior, was the natural leader of the group.
As you wish, Sha Zhu, Che Sha answered. She and Vayasha hunkered down behind a low wall on the outskirts of the palace and waited while Melissa moved off into the darkness.
Sha Zhu, thought Melissa, the Red Dragon. Did she want to be called by that name? She shook her head. How much of that life was behind her? She had been changed unalterably by what had been done to her. She was no longer Melissa Noble. She was something else. Something far more dangerous and powerful. But she still held the memories of Melissa Noble. She would have to decide. But that could wait for later. Now she had something more important to attend to.
Getting into the palace was surprisingly easy. Melissa had expected it to be heavily guarded, but found it almost deserted. It appeared that the death of Qwang Gui had seriously disrupted the normal routine of the palace. She had a good idea of where the Green Heart was located. Vayasha had located it fairly precisely and Melissa was familiar enough with the palace to understand that it was probably located in what had once been Qwang Guis private apartments.
She entered the palace through an upper window. The normally well lit palace corridors were dark and uninhabited. Melissa felt uneasy. It seemed almost too easy. Surely there would be some sort of guard near the emperors rooms. But she saw no one. The only hint that someone might be about was the fact that the broad hallway outside the emperors suite was well lit with numerous large lanterns.
She approached the door with caution and tried the handle. It was unlocked, and she eased it open. The room inside, was as deserted as the hallway and equally well-lit. Stepping into the room Melissa looked about her. The room was large and well furnished. It seem to be some sort of audience chamber or living area. There was no sign of the Green Heart, but she had not expected it to be placed in plain sight. The emperors suite was a complex of many rooms, and she expected it to be in one of those that were more secure.
Several doors led from the room. Melissa checked them all and chose the one that led down a short corridor deeper into the complex. Only one door led off the corridor, but this time she found the way barred. The door was locked. Dropping to her knees, Melissa inspected the lock mechanism. As an assassin she had been trained in the art of picking locks and this one did not seem too complicated. Reaching into a small inside pocket in her gei, she withdrew a set of lock picks. She worked the tools back and forth and was reward with a sharp click. She tried the handle and the door swung open. Quickly she replaced the tools and crept into the room. She was becoming more and more apprehensive. The interior room was well lit. Who was tending to all of the lamps? Someone had lit them and someone was maintaining them. But the room seemed deserted.
Closing the door behind her, she entered the room. Across the room from her was a large wooden cabinet and in a glass fronted display case glowed the Green Heart. The huge green gem, almost as large as her head seemed to pulse with a life of its own. Amazingly, it seem unguarded. Melissa shook her head. Something had to be wrong. It was impossible that someone would not know the value of the mystical stone.
She looked about the room. There seemed no place anyone could hide, but some sixth sense made the hair on the back of her neck rise up. Still, the room seemed safe. Taking a deep breath she stepped across to the cabinet and reached up for the blazing emerald.
Aaggh! The crossbow bolt caught her from behind, penetrating just below her right shoulder and emerging from her chest, just above her right breast. The force of the weapon was so powerful that it drove her into the cabinet and pinned her to the dark wood.
For a second Melissa almost fainted from the pain and shock. The point of the bolt had driven a good inch or so into the hardwood, pinning her like a spider with a pin stuck through it. She tried to move but a wave of agony surged through her injured shoulder. Suddenly she felt sick, her legs buckling beneath her. The pain as her weight dropped onto the crossbow bolt was unbelievable. It jolted her back to consciousness, but she could not move. Even the slightest movement brought excruciating agony.
Behind her she heard a panel being slid back. She realized that the room had been guarded after all, but that the guards had remained out of sight in a hidden room. Probably there was a small opening in the wall just large enough for a crossbow to be fired through. She heard footsteps behind her, but was helpless to escape the trap she had fallen into. Then a voice sounded close to her ear.
By the Gods, its the red-haired bitch that killed the emperor! There was the sound of a sword being drawn from its sheath, then a second voice spoke.
Wait! She cant get away. Lets teach her what happens to assassins who betray their master. She deserves a long slow death, not something quick.
A hand sized Melissas hair and wrenched her head back. The Red Dragon. Ive always wondered what it would be like to be between her legs and now Im going to find out.
Melissa gasped at the pain as her head was jerked even farther back so that her assailants could see her face. Shes a rare beauty. If she doesnt bleed to death first, taking her is going to be most enjoyable.
There were two men, both dressed in the armor of the imperial guard. Melissa recognized them. They had been present when she had torn out Qwang Guis heart. One of them, the man who had seized her hair was called Tran, the other was known as Dira. As loyal servants of the emperor, they no doubt had a score to settle for failing in their duty to protect their master.
Unggh! Melissa grunted as her arms were forced behind her back. In short order her wrists were bound, and then while she was still pinned to the cabinet, the men proceeded to strip her.
Her soft leather boots and her pants were removed first, and then they cut away her gei. Cruelly, one of the men then seized the shaft of the crossbow bolt and wrenched it from the wood. Melissa had to work hard to suppress a scream. The pain was terrible and her vision blurred once again as she was marched across the room to a large wooden desk. Upon reaching the desk she was thrown onto to it face up, the point of the bolt still protruding from the terrible wound above her breast. She was too sick with pain and the trauma of the wound to fight back, even thought she knew what the two guards had in mind for her.
Once on the desk, one of the guards held her on her side while the other untied her hands. Then each man took one of her arms and pulled them out from her body until they were parallel with her shoulders and the edge of the desk. Melissas head swam and she fought to remain conscious. Her arms were pushed down hard against the desktop. Melissa saw a flash of steel and realized that a knife had been raised above her. In spite of her pain and nausea she struggled to escape. Had she not been confused and weakened by the agony of her wound, breaking free of the two men would have been easy, but everything was happening too fast for her to recover. The knife came down.
Aaaggh! In her severely injured condition, Melissa could not help a cry of pain as her right arm was nailed to the desktop by a dagger that entered between the bones of her forearm and drove into the polished wood. Then a second blade glinted and her left arm was spiked to the desktop. She screamed as the shock of the two additional injuries swept over her.
There you go, bitch. Struggle all you like, jeered the Tran.
For a few seconds everything faded. But Melissa did not completely lose consciousness. It might have been far better for her if she had, but she fought back from so comfortable a release. Her only chance was to stay awake, painful as it was. If she fainted there would be no chance for her to escape.
She was in terrible pain. Even the slightest movement resulted in the most terrible agony. It rivaled anything Qwang Gui had ever done to her and her brutal captors were just getting started.
Another knife gleamed as Tran leaned over her. It was he who had threatened torture and the murderous glint in his eyes made Melissas blood run cold. Control, she thought. Control. Ive got to stay calm. Its my only chance. Employing the relaxation techniques she had been taught, she tired to compose herself and separate her mind from the terrible pain that wracked her body. But before she could focus, Tran placed the point of the knife against her left nipple and began to twist the blade. His face distorted in a look of concentrated cruelty.
Melissa had not yet prepared herself. She writhed in pain as Tran slowly and brutally pushed the blade of the knife into her breast. The blade went in a full inch, slicing her nipple in half and then Diras hand closed on Trans wrist. Wait, he said. You can carve her up later. I want to have some fun with her first. Give me an hour then you can do what you want.
Tran made a noise that resembled a growl. With a vicious twist he withdrew the knife. An hour then. But when youre through Im going to carve her like a chicken.
Melissas chest heaved. She was very close to going into shock. Her eyes were wide and staring and she gasped for air. Sweat poured out of every pore on her body, but cold tremors ran through her body and she could barely control her shivering. As Tran grabbed her ankles and spread her legs she moaned as the movement wrenched at her pinioned arms.
Tran ignored her pain. He removed his belt and undid the laces fastening the top of his trousers. Then he stepped between Melissas splayed legs. Hope you enjoy this bitch, he taunted, its going to be the last pleasure you feel. When Dira gets through with you, youll be begging to die.
Melissa did not reply. Trans jeers were intended to elicit a response and she would not give him that pleasure. She had been raped before. What he was going to do to her would be nothing new. But she grunted in pain as he thrust hard into her. He made no efforts to be subtle, driving his rigid member as deep into her as he could. Melissa closed her eyes and tried to ignore his fevered rutting.
He raped her for about half an hour before reaching climax. It was not the worst rape she had ever experienced, but it was certainly the most painful. Each thrust of Trans pelvis brought forth a grunt of pain, as the knives pinning her wrists twisted in the wounds. The feathered shaft that protruded from her back scraped across the tabletop, sending lightning-like stabs of pain through her shoulder. Each time Tran pounded into her waves of pain rolled over her, driving her to the edge of consciousness. Blood pulsed from all of her wounds, further draining strength from her body and by the time Tran was finished she was fading into oblivion.
In spite of the pain, Melissa forced herself to stay awake. It would have been so easy to lose her grip on reality, but that would have been fatal. Horrible and painful as her injuries were, she knew that her assailants would not stop. Her situation seemed hopeless, but the spark of life that burned within her would not let her surrender. She had survived Qwang Guis brutal torture and she was determined to survive this.
With a grunt of satisfaction, Tran pulled out of her. Dira moved to take his place, but Tran put out a restraining arm. Not yet. I said an hour. There is one more thing I want to do first.
He crossed over to the cabinet and picked up a bottle of wine. Uncorking the bottle he took a long swig and then passed the bottle to the glowering Dira. The man drained the bottle and Tran took it back. This bitch didnt seem very impressed by my rod. Perhaps she will appreciate this. He placed the neck of the bottle against the lips of Melissas dripping vagina.
Unnggh! Melissa grunted as her vagina was spread wide as the wine bottle was inserted deep within her. Slowly and deliberately, Tran worked the bottle back and forth, attempting to maximize the pain of the vicious rape. Every movement sent pain stabbing through the afflicted areas of her body. Her breath came from her mouth in ragged gasps. Bit by bit her self control began slipping away. Desperately, Melissa fought to resist the urge to scream, to beg for mercy. She knew that once she started she would not be able to stop. The pain mounted and she started to whimper. Her vagina was now stretched the full diameter of the wine bottle and the agony passed description. A strange mewling sound came from her lips and her entire body trembled uncontrollably, further aggravating the aguish of her other injuries. And then suddenly, the bottle was withdrawn. My turn, said Dira.
Gods, swore Tran. I almost had her. A few more minutes and she would have been screaming like a banshee.
You were taking too long, Dira responded. Ill have her screaming if thats what you want. He moved between Melissas now bloody thighs. He leaned over the agonized woman, running his fingers over the cruel gash he had made in her nipple. Melissa was in so much pain that she hardly noticed his touch.
Dira almost drooled in anticipation, as he moved his face closer to Melissas. Let me tell you what Im going to do, bitch, he said. It will give you something to look forward to. First, Im going to cut open your belly. Then Im going to pull out your guts and wrap them around your neck. And then while I watch you die, Im going to take you in the ass. The last thing you feel before you leave this word will be my rod banging your backside. He grinned. And Im going to do everything as slowly as possible.
Dira touched the point of his knife to Melissas belly, a few inches below her navel. Then he increased the pressure.
Melissa winced as Dira made the first incision. The razor edged blade made a shallow six inch long cut through the wall of her abdomen, slicing her open, but missing any of her internal organs. Withdrawing the knife he slipped his hand into the narrow wound. Surprisingly, there was very little blood, but the pain generated when his hand closed over her intestines surpassed anything she had ever experienced. Her mouth gaped wide in a silent scream as she sought to deny her torturer the satisfaction he sought. She knew now that she was going to die. There was no hope of escape. All she had to look forward to was pain and death.
And then there was a strangled cry. The terrible agony caused by Diras hand diminished. She opened her eyes. The Shang guards eyes were wide in shock and horror. His hands clutched at the shaft of an arrow that pierced his neck from one side to the other. A look of disbelief spread over his face and then he slowly collapsed. A few feet away she saw Tran scramble for his weapons. There was a sharp twang and then the shaft of an arrow seemed to leap from his chest. His mouth opened as if to shout and then he fell without a sound.
Melissa turned her head in the direction that the arrow had come from. She saw Vayasha, followed by Che Sha, enter the room. Then her vision clouded and the room about her faded into darkness.
Vayasha and Che Sha stared in horror at Melissas hideous wounds. It seemed impossible that she could still be alive. There was hardly an inch of her skin that was not covered with blood, and with every beat of her heart, more of the precious fluid pulsed from her wounds.
Quickly, said Vayasha, we have to stop the bleeding. If we do not she will surely die.
Che Sha nodded. She was almost sick at what had been done to Melissa, but she knew that she had to control herself. The Dragon Warriors life depended on quick action. Kneeling, she took out one of the dead soldiers daggers and began to cut one of their cloaks into strips.
Vayasha waited until Che Sha had cut several strips of cloth before dealing with Melissas wounds. First she pulled the dagger from the left wrist and bound the wound to stop the bleeding. Then she rolled her onto her side to deal with the arrow shaft jutting from her back. She knew that as soon as the shaft was removed the wound would probably bleed profusely. She cut through the gei and taking a strip of cloth she began to wipe the blood from the wound. Then she stopped. Emblazoned on the womans back in red ink was a detailed tattoo of a dragon. It covered almost all of her back, starting just above her right buttock and curving gracefully up her back and then swooping down from her shoulder blades and under her arm. It was skillfully drawn, both terrible beautiful in its detail. Vayasha surmised that the dragon was probably finished on Melissas front, but she did not have time to gaze at it any longer.
She continued wiping away the blood and then, with Che Sha holding Melissa still, she broke off the end of the arrow flush with Melissas skin. Then she nodded to Che Sha. The girl tensed, clearly fearful of what she must do, but she grabbed the tip of the arrow, and with a steady pull yanked the shaft from the wound. Immediately, as Vayasha had feared, a gout of blood spurted from the now open wound. Quickly, both young women wrapped strips of cloth over the injury, closing off the flow of blood. During all of this, Melissa lay quietly, only her low breathing indicating that she was still alive.
Now only her right wrist remained. Vayasha pulled out the dagger and bound up the arm the same way she had done with the left. As she worked she instructed Che Sha to find some thread, and a needle. The girl went off and returned as Vayasha was finishing with a handful of jewelry.
I couldnt find any thread or needle, she said, but maybe we can use these. She held out her hand. In her palm were a number of broaches with long needle-sharp clasps.
They will have to do, said Vayasha. She picked up several of the clasps and used them to close the wound in Melissas abdomen. Now, she said. Weve got to get her to a healer. If we dont shell die. Do you know where we might find one?
Che Sha nodded. The girl looked pale under her bronze skin. Clearly she was badly shaken by what had been done to Melissa. But she swallowed and said, There should be several in the palace. I can lead you to them, but there is a danger that we will be caught by the palace guards.
I dont think we have much choice. We arent strong enough to carry her very far. And she needs help fast. Can you find the healer on your own?
I know where to look, Che Sha replied. But avoiding the guards will be difficult. If I am caught my efforts will be useless.
Vayasha frowned. Then I will have to go with you. If there is trouble my bow will defend us. We will have to make the Dragon Warrior as comfortable as possible and hope she does not die before we get back.
They picked Melissa up and carried her over to a couch at the side of the room. Making her as comfortable as possible, they set out.
Its a good thing we decided that she was taking too long, Che Sha said. A few more minutes and we would have bee too late.
Yes, agreed Vayasha. They had waited in the garden for over an hour before acting. Then they had decided to ignore Melissas instructions and follow her into the palace. They did not know what route she had taken, but were helped by the fact that Vayasha was able to zero in on the Green Heart and Che Sha was somewhat familiar with the palace. Fortunately, the palace seemed almost deserted and they had found their way to the private rooms of the emperor without incident. There, they had been just in time to save Melissas life. Vayashas skill with the bow enabled her to use the Shang bow without difficulty, even though it was different from those she was used to. The two guards had been so involved with their torture of their victim that they had not even been slightly aware of the presence of the two girls under the first arrow hit its mark.
Che Sha signaled, holding her finger to her lips. Both women ducked into a doorway. In the corridor ahead of them a dozen Shang guards passed, heading somewhere purposefully. They waited a minute and then continued. Moving as quickly as they dared, they progressed through the palace. Here the time Che Sha had spent in the palace was invaluable. She was familiar with the service corridors that connected almost very room in the palace. Since these were intended to move servants quickly and unobtrusively through the palace, they proved invaluable in enabling the two women to eventually reach the servants quarters unobserved. Once there it took only a short time to locate a healer.
The healer ran his hands over the injured woman. She will need much rest, he said. I cannot do much to speed up her healing, her body will have to do that for her.
Che Sha frowned. The healer had been most reluctant to accompany them. But when Vayasha unslung her bow and nocked an arrow to the bowstring he suddenly became most cooperative. After that it was only a matter of returning to where they had left Melissa and letting him do his work, but it appeared that he was not going to be of much help.
The healer looked curiously at Vayasha. He was an older man, at least four times the age of either of the two girls. There is something most peculiar here, he said. I detect a strange power. It is something I have not experienced in five decades, but I knew it once long ago.
Vayasha shifted uncomfortably. She had kept the Green Heart close to her body. Was the healer making reference to the mystical stone?
Yes, the healer said. You are hiding something from me. Something powerful and magical. Show me what it is.
Something in the tone of his voice made Vayasha decide to cooperate. Carefully, she placed the stone in front of her and unwrapped it.
The Green Heart, said the healer very slowly. I have seen it once before when I visited the Silvani. You are of that people.
Vayasha nodded. I am, she replied. I have recovered what was stolen from my people.
Then you do not need me, the healer said.
I do not understand, Vayasha relied.
The healer shook his head. Was the power of the stone not explained to you?
It gives the Silvani their power to commune with the life force, Vayasha answered.
Exactly, the healer said. And what is healing but the manipulation of the life force?
Her confusion plainly showed. The healer elaborated. Your elders have neglected your training. Let me show you.
He took Vayashas left hand and placed it on the glowing stone. Place your right hand on her wounds, he instructed.
Vayasha complied, placing her fingers over the gash in Melissas abdomen. Che Sha looked on in silent fascination.
Now draw from the stone, the healer said. You can do it. You are Silvani.
Vayasha felt a strange warmth suffuse the hand that touched the stone. She focused on the ugly wound that marred Melissas belly. The heat seemed to flow through her, moving through her left arm to her body and down her right arm. In amazement she watched at the horrible wound that had been inflicted on the Red Dragon began to heal.
With a strange elation Vayasha stared at the healer. I will go now, he said. You can heal her without me. She will sleep after you have finished. The healing draws both from the stone and the body and it will take her some time to recover. He got to his feet. Do not worry. I will tell no one I have seen you.
Neither girl tried to stop him as he left the room. Vayasha refocused her attention on Melissa. Now that she had been shown the way, it took only a minute to heal the rest of her wounds. Through the entire procedure Melissa remained unconscious.
Che Sha and Vayasha let Melissa sleep for another three hours. When she still did not awaken they decided they had to move her before they were discovered, but it was near dawn before the two of them carried her from the palace. Carrying Melissa dead weight was difficult until Vayasha rigged up a primitive stretcher by removing a hanging from the wall and placing the sleeping woman onto it. It was still not easy going, but eventually they reached their sanctuary in the woods where they spent the remainder of the night and most of the next day.
Melissa spent most of the time unconscious. She seemed to have gone into some sort of deep sleep, perhaps self induced. Whatever the cause it made her healing that much easier.
Vayasha built a simple shelter for the three of them. It was located close to a small stream that meandered from somewhere in the palace grounds. It was not clear if the stream was natural or artificial, and it did not matter. It was a source of water and that was what was important. Che Sha thought that food would be a problem, but it turned out not to be. Vayasha was in her element in the forest and had no trouble obtaining enough wild game and edible plants to keep them fed. They were deep enough in the woods that they were even able to have a fire. As for security, that proved to be the least of their problems. Once Vayasha had the Green Heart her ability to communicate with nature returned. Only once were they threatened and that ended quickly.
A group of soldiers made a sweep of the woods accompanied by fierce mastiffs. Huge dogs bred for war. Vayasha had turned the expedition into a disaster. Using her unique ability to command animals she had turned the war dogs against their handlers. At the same time she had riddled their ranks with arrows. After that the Shang soldiers gave the forested region a wide berth.
During the time Melissa slept it was necessary to check her wounds. They seemed to be healing without even a scar, but Che Sha made sure they were kept clean anyway. The two girls wondered again at the incredible tattoo that covered most of the Red Dragons torso. Now they knew the origin of her name. As Vayasha had guessed the tattoo did continue on her front. It curved under Melissas left arm, and down her belly, almost to her navel, and then swept up her chest, curving under, around, and over her left breast, and then finishing just above the swell of her right breast.
Every scale and claw of the dragon was executed in minute detail. It was a superb work of art, created by a master of the craft. It was so lifelike that when Melissa stirred in her sleep the dragon rippled as her muscles shifted beneath her smooth skin. Vayasha and Che Sha never tired of looking at it, but it was necessary to keep Melissa covered most of the time and allow her to heal.
Melissa awoke on the second day. Thanks to the Green Heart, her terrible wounds were almost healed, and she was ravenous. She ate whatever Vayasha and Che Sha cooked for her and then announced that she was fit and able to walk. Vayasha and Che Sha were les sure, believing that she would need a few more weeks of convalescence to heal completely. They were confirmed in this when after finishing her meal Melissa dropped off to sleep again. While she slept, Vayasha discussed her plans with Che Sha.
We have stayed here long enough, Vayasha said. Sooner or later the Shang will return in force and I should return to my homeland with the Green Heart.
I will go with you, said Che Sha.
Vayashas eyes widened in surprise. Why would you want to go with me? Are you not a princess?
It is because I am a princess that I wish to go with you. If I am caught one of the rival factions fighting for the Throne of Heaven will seek to take me prisoner.
But are you not the closest heir to the throne? asked Vayasha. Why would they take you prisoner?
I am not of age, Che Sha replied. I have no real authority. One or the other of the noble families would try to use me to take power. I will be placed under their guardianship. At least that is what they will call it, but I will be a prisoner, nevertheless. Within months one of them will arrange to have me married to one of his sons or perhaps even himself and I will be pushed into the womens quarters to have children. I will be no more than a slave to my husband. I have had enough of palace intrigues. I will adopt your life. I want you to show me how to use a bow. And I want the Red Dragon to show me how to fight.
Vayasha nodded. There is more to the princess than meets the eye, she thought. She had never seen so much self-assurance in one so young. Except perhaps in herself. She smiled at her new friend and then looked at sleeping form of the Red Dragon. She wondered if things could get any more complicated.