Mark heard Anduin’s footsteps coming towards him, and tried to climb to his knees, to reach for his sword, to do anything but lie there, completely helpless. Every time he moved, though, pain exploded in his torso, and he gasped for breath as he recovered.
Anduin stopped, and Mark felt the dragon’s hot breath on his face. He opened his eyes and saw Anduin on his right, walking slowly in a tight circle around him. The reptilian beast spoke in a voice so quiet Mark had to strain to hear his words.
“I remember the old days, when your father defended Liphaeum against the dragons and Dark Wizards,” Anduin said. “He was a mighty warrior, and many of my most faithful servants were slain by his hand. By human standards, he was an extraordinary fighter, and I wondered if his children would grow to be as exceptionally skilled as he was. Do you know where your father is now, Mark Farlander?” He continued without waiting for an answer. “He’s in the fortress of K’Raya, being tortured by Andrew Swiftviper. He will not be able to endure much longer. That is what your parents got for their meddling. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll forget about the wizards of Liphaeum altogether… though, judging from your attitude so far, you won’t be easily persuaded.”
He paused, and Mark saw the dragon’s head hovering over him. “How should I kill you?” he mused. “After the inconvenience you have caused me I think you should burn… but you should know how it feels to die by the claws of a dragon.” Anduin bared his teeth in something that vaguely resembled a terrifying, hungry grin. He lifted his right front leg and placed it on top of Mark’s body, pinning him down. Then he lifted the claws of his left front foot over Mark’s chest.
Time seemed to slow down. Anduin’s weight pressed down into Mark’s torso. He squeezed his eyes shut and cried out weakly with pain; then he sensed Anduin bringing his claws down. He would be skewered in four places, and he knew that it would be the most painful death imaginable.
He heard two people screaming, and dimly realized that one of the voices was his own. He wished for it to be over, for the pain to end. Death would be a mercy compared to this agony.
He heard a woman scream in denial, and sensed a rush of movement. He waited for the pain, but it never came; he dared to open his eyes and saw Anduin, his left leg dripping blood, mouth open in a long, deafeningly loud roar of pain. Mark realized that the dragon’s leg had been cleanly sliced off below the joint. He saw Mara standing there between him and Anduin, holding Mark’s sword in both hands. The blade dripped blood onto the ground.
Anduin whirled towards Mara, nostrils flaring, his yellow eyes filled with hatred. He started to step towards her, but she raised the sword again, and he stopped. “You will pay for this, Farlander,” he hissed. “You and your whole family will suffer for what you have done.” He turned to Tamar. “Come,” he growled, then launched himself into the sky. Tamar shot the twins a venomous glare, then followed.
All was silent for a long moment. Marianna and Adam stared at Mara, stunned. Then they seemed to notice why she had attacked Anduin. Marianna saw her nephew lying sprawled on the ground, and it felt like her heart nearly stopped altogether. “Oh, Father, no,” she whispered. She dropped her staff and rushed across the clearing, dropping to her knees beside Mark. His face was ashen, his eyes closed. For one horrible moment, Marianna thought he was dead. She pressed her hand gently to the center of his chest and waited. She sighed heavily as she felt a faint pulse. “He’s alive,” she breathed.
“William and one of his men are right behind me,” Mara told her.
Marianna looked at her niece, surprised. “Swiftviper came as well?”
“Yes, with nine men,” Mara replied. “I distracted them and led them into the yellow jackets’ nest in the woods. William’s still coming, though.”
Adam straightened. “Well, I’ll be here to meet him when he does.”
Marianna nodded. “Adam, give me your shirt.”
He nodded and stripped off his tunic. Marianna tore the thick cloth into strips and glanced at Mara. “I need to see his wound,” she said briefly.
Mara ripped open her brother’s blood-soaked tunic and inhaled sharply. “Oh, dear Father,” she gasped. Marianna finished tearing the fabric in her hands and swallowed, looking down at the wound. She could see three deep gashes in the flesh, caused by the spines of Anduin’s tail as they had slammed into Mark’s chest. “Mara, lift him, will you? Gently, now.”
Mara slid her hands under Mark’s back and lifted him several inches off the ground, grunting with effort as she did so. Marianna quickly wrapped one of the strips of cloth around Mark’s chest, covering the wound. The cloth quickly turned crimson as blood soaked into it. Marianna tied the makeshift bandage firmly over the wound, and Mark moaned softly in his sleep.
Quickly, they wrapped the remainder of the strips of cloth around the wound. The flow of blood ceased, and Marianna sighed, relieved. “He should be fine for now,” she said quietly.
“But not for long, sadly,” said a voice behind them. Marianna’s heart sank. She looked up and saw two black-clad warriors before them. Both held swords, and one had a bow slung across his shoulders. Or rather, her shoulders. The second figure was slimmer and slightly shorter than William, and she wore a black cloak, the hood of which she now threw back. The lower half of her face was covered by a black veil, and over the veil Marianna saw a pair of deep brown eyes peering down at Mark.
“Swiftviper,” said Adam, his voice cold. “What are you doing here?”
William smirked at him. “My father’s been in league with the dragons for decades.”
Mara stiffened. “Andrew Swiftviper. Of course,” she said, half to herself. She turned a frosty gaze on William. “Your father tortured my parents.”
“Ah yes,” he mused. “Actually, I believe he’s doing that at this very moment. Your parents have been less than voluntary when it comes to giving us information.”
“You’re outnumbered, Swiftviper,” said Adam. “Leave.”
William raised one eyebrow. “Says the shirtless runt who wouldn’t know a sword from a kitchen knife.” He allowed a scornful smile to cross his features. “I beg to differ. It is you who are outnumbered. Or have you not learned how to count, either?”
“You’d be surprised what those two can do when given the chance,” Adam replied, nodding to his mother and Mara, who were now standing. Marianna held her staff diagonally in front of her body, and Mara clutched her daggers in sweaty hands.
“You ambushed my men,” said William when he laid eyes upon Mara. “You’ll pay for that. Dearly.”
Adam promptly launched himself towards William, his sword raised.
The woman turned wordlessly towards Marianna, a long, slim sword in her hands. She raised the blade silently, and a duel began. Marianna knew that she wouldn’t last long. She had already been exhausted. Now, her limbs felt weak and her staff heavy in her hands.
Mara joined her, and Marianna backed off momentarily, breathing hard. She glanced towards Mark, and saw him stirring slightly. William and Adam, locked in battle, passed close by, and Marianna, seizing the golden opportunity, brought her staff down on William’s head with a loud crack. He dropped his sword, swayed unsteadily, then slumped to the ground with a soft moan.
“Adam, I want you to get Mark and head into the woods,” Marianna ordered as he nodded gratefully at her. “We’ll be along.”
He nodded, and sheathed his blade. Marianna’s eyes followed her son as he headed to where Mark lay, then she swallowed back the lump in her throat and went to help Mara.
For someone who had never handled the daggers, Mara was surprisingly good in close combat like this. She was quick on her feet and was able to easily evade her opponent’s blade. But the mysterious woman’s skill was apparent as she forced Mara backward, and Marianna quickly joined the fight, her staff landing hard on the woman’s shoulder.
“Mara, go with Adam,” she ordered. “I’ll take care of her myself.”
Mara nodded. Apparently she believed that Marianna could handle things, because she sheathed her daggers and ran off, following her cousin. Marianna sighed, and gave the now-recovered woman another whack, this time on the opposite arm, on the knuckles of her sword hand. The woman gasped in pain and dropped her sword, hissing out a curse. Another sound crack of the staff over her head sent her crumpling to the ground, senseless.
Marianna nodded in satisfaction. Apparently an old lady can fend for herself. Contrary to popular belief, that is. She smiled at the thought, imagining Adam gaping at her when she told him the story.
Then her smile slowly faded, for William was on his feet, his sword in his hand. “You’ll pay for that,” he hissed, approaching her.
The young woman slowly climbed to her feet, massaging the top of her head. She picked up her sword. “Drop your weapon,” she said quietly, a barely distinguishable eastern accent in her voice- Sinaian, perhaps. The dark eyes flickered with irritation. “You are defeated.”
Marianna realized that it was over. She was beaten. These two were master warriors, and she was a forty-year-old woman with nothing but a staff. She released her grip on the wood, and it felt to the ground with a thud. William stepped forward and snapped his fingers. A coil of rope materialized in his hand, but Marianna merely raised her eyebrows. She wasn’t surprised in the least. William’s father, Andrew Swiftviper, had been a notoriously powerful Dark Wizard. Of course William would have inherited the gift.
The woman kept her sword pointed towards Marianna as William bound her hands. “Will we go after the others?” she asked.
William yanked the rope tight, then straightened and shook his head. “No. We’ll come back for them later. Or Father will send the bewitched murlemas. Either way, they won’t last long.”
“They’ll make it to Liphaeum no matter what you do,” Marianna said quietly. “They’ll have help.”
“What are you talking about?” William demanded. “Help?”
“I sent a message to Liphaeum earlier this evening,” Marianna said, smirking at him. “Matthias knows about the children. He will help them.”
“Blast,” William muttered. He looked at the woman. “I’ll take her. You go find the men and follow me. Don’t engage.”
She nodded once and slipped into the trees, disappearing from view.
“You don’t know what you’re getting into,” Marianna grunted.
He met her gaze, and she saw in his dark eyes cold determination. “You’d be surprised.”
BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!!!! CLIFFHANGERS!!!!!!!!!!! *laughs maniacally*