Chapter 2
Temptation and Consequence

AZ 1453 - Late Autumn
Outside Kalonis, Notos

Ionathas returned to the Hawks' encampment on the outskirts of the city. He could not help but feel discouraged by his meeting with Duke Cronos. The Third Legion's repeated failures were taking a toll on him. It was painful to watch a man Ionathas admired so sink to such depths.
As he hitched his horse with the others, he was greeted by Dabidos.
"Welcome back, Captain. How did it go?"
"Better than I expected," Ionathas replied, "not as well as I'd hoped."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"The Duke said the Zephyrians can't spare any men to retake Kordai or Maranthe."
"How is that better than you expected?"
Ionathas managed a weak smile.
"He's at least sending us some good wine."
This did not impress Dabidos much. Some decent wine was little consolation while their hometown remained in the rebels' hands.
"What are you going to tell the others?" Dabidos asked.
"Nothing for now. Let the wine cheer their hearts for tonight and we'll deal with the rest in the morning."
At very least, the Duke was quick to fulfill his promise to send plenty of good wine to their encampment. The wagon arrived less than an hour after Ionathas' return. As expected, the wine was well-received by the Hawks. There were toasts to the Duke all around. This high regard would not last long, but it was nice to see all the same.
Ionathas only shared a couple rounds with the Hawks before retiring to his tent. He did not want to risk the wine loosening his tongue and spoiling everything. Let the men have a sweet night before the bitter morning.
He did not go to sleep right away. He sat there brooding until a commotion in the encampment drew him out. The sounds of pipes, lutes and timbrels intermingled with the cheers of the Hawks. The men encircled large troupe of musicians and dancers, at least fifty strong.
As Ionathas approached, he asked the men nearest to him, "What's this?"
"A band of traveling entertainers," Raddai replied. He quaffed the contents of his cup. "Music! Dancing girls! Just what we need to go with the wine your Duke sent!"
Ionathas wondered if this was another gift from the Duke. If it was, it would be rude of him to return to his tent. He was in no mood to be entertained, but he would at least sit in attendance. Also, there was a risk some of the men might get carried away with wine, women and song, so he needed to be there to keep them in line.
The troupe was playing a bawdy song about Bacchus and his Maenads. The dancers were acting out the part of the Maenads, dousing themselves in wine to the lusty cheers of the Hawks. Ionathas took no pleasure in it though, except perhaps a little dark humor at the thought of how frenzied and deadly the Maenads of legend were said to be. Whatever pleasure they gave you more often than not was paid for in pain. Naturally, his uneducated companions had no knowledge of such stories, but neither would he if it were not for the Duke's patronage.
He sipped on a cup of wine and thought of the state the Duke was in earlier. The thought of a great man like the Duke taking refuge in the bottle made the wine turn bitter in his mouth. He wanted to throw it out, but he restrained himself. He did not want to make a display of his sour mood that might be misinterpreted as an insult to the Duke. He had to maintain appearances.
His attention was drawn from these thoughts by a faint jingling sound approaching him. It was one of the dancers, her tunic soaked in wine, stained reddish purple and clinging so tightly to her skin that she might as well have been wearing nothing at all. Strings of bells were tied to her wrists and ankles and little cymbals to the thumb and forefinger of each hand. About her waist was a skirt of thin silver chains that swished and rattled as she walked.
"You must be the captain of this company of brave souls," she said. "Might I do you the honor of pleasuring you with a dance?"
She gave him a mischievous grin and curtseyed low, granting him a peek down the front of her tunic. Normally this would be more than enough enticement to stoke a man's fire, but Ionathas was in no mood for her games.
"You may content yourself by pleasuring my men," he said.
The dancer held her hand over her mouth and tittered, saying, "You have a keen tongue, sir. Not very gentlemanly."
"And you are not much of a lady yourself, miss."
The dancer was not deterred, though. She came closer and took the cup from Ionathas' hand.
"Come now," she purred, "my arts will do more to ease your burdens than this wine."
"Thank you, but I must decline."
The dancer pouted and asked him, "Does it not shame you to insult a lady so?"
Ionathas remembered that the troupe's entertainment was probably another gift from the Duke. Also, regardless of this woman's rank, it was dishonorable for him to continually reject her so.
"You are froward, miss," Ionathas said, "but it isn't my intention to give you offense. Alright then, show me your dance."
The dancer smiled and curtseyed again.
"With pleasure, sir."
The dancer stepped back to give herself more room. She drank the remainder of Ionathas' cup in a single draught and tossed it aside. She began by stomping her foot, jangling the bells on her ankle, then she clapped the cymbals on her fingertips in a quick one-two-three beat. She thrust her hip to the side and repeated the one-two-three beat of the cymbals. She started off slow, her gyrations like the writhing of a serpent. Steadily she quickened her pace, spinning and shaking so much that Ionathas half-expected her to fall apart.
As her dance grew more and more frenetic, Ionathas felt himself coming under a trance. He intended to remain detached from the situation, but the dance was drawing him in like an iron nail to a lodestone. His senses were so overtaken that before he knew it, the dancer was right on top of him.
She did not say anything. She simply drew herself in closer. Ionathas tried to resist, but he could not move.
Abruptly, the dancer's eyes widened and a tremor swept over her, as if she were suddenly gripped with mortal terror. She looked to her right and slowly began to back away. Finding himself able to move again, Ionathas turned to see his companion Corona standing there. She was summoned by the Queen earlier that day and was apparently just now returning. Her countenance was fierce and terrible. If she could kill with a look, she would surely have done so.
Taking her anger for jealousy, Ionathas hastily stammered, "Co, Corona! It, it's not what it looks like! I can explain!"
"No need," Corona replied icily. "She is the one who needs to explain herself. What is your kind doing here?"
Corona's eyes flashed and the dancer recoiled. A purplish light that resembled fire consuming a dry parchment slowly swept over her, starting at the tips of her fingers and creeping across her entire body. Her olive skin turned a few shades darker, her raven curls went straight and white. Her grey-green eyes glowed red and most telling of all, her ears were now long and pointed. A Xotika, and not just any Xotika either. A Black Xotika, a creature of the Darklands.
"What is this!?" Ionathas exclaimed.
The Black Xotika did not hesitate. With a flick of her wrist, she threw a hidden dagger at Corona. The dagger did not reach its mark, though, incinerated in a stream of golden fire that spewed from Corona's mouth. The fire swept over the Black Xotika, leaving nothing behind.
At first, Ionathas thought she too was consumed by the fire, but Corona cursed in her own tongue, muttering, "She got away..."
There was no time to worry about that, though. Ionathas drew his sword and raised it high, shouting, "Hawks, to arms! The rebels are among us!"
Too few heeded their captain's call soon enough. Realizing their secret was exposed, the troupe drew out their weapons, half of them attacking, half of them attempting to flee. Blowguns, throwing daggers, and hand ballistae; weapons well-suited for a sneak attack. Ionathas broke through the circle his men had formed around the troupe's caravan to meet the first volley and hopefully draw some of their fire.
First he cut down a piper whose pipe doubled as a blowgun, then ran through a lutist who was taking aim with a hand ballista. Dabidos soon joined him in the fray and it was not long before the rebels were all dead, a good score and ten, little more than half their number.
Ionathas quickly surveyed the scene. Several men were injured and a few were no doubt dead, but the fight was not over yet.
"Ten men to your horses!" he shouted. "We can't let the others get away! The rest of you, hold your ground here and tend to the wounded. Mount up!"
He, Dabidos and nine of the more sober among them ran to their horses. They did not waste time saddling the horses. Men of Maranthe could ride just as well bareback.
"Fan out!" he ordered. "And be on your guard! They may try to ambush us!"
Some of the rebel spies were slower than others and they quickly fell prey to the Hawks. At least three were cut down in quick order and Dabidos shot a lutist with a hand ballista he picked up. One of the Hawks was not so fortunate and took a quarrel to the neck.
Ionathas wanted to take at least one of the spies alive for questioning, but he could not find any survivors. Those who ran straight ahead were all run down, but some of the others must have broken away in other directions. It would be unwise to start searching the area in the middle of the night with so few men.
Ionathas reined in his horse. There were dozens of torches spread out before them. Even under cover of darkness, Ionathas could see that there had to be at least four or five hundred men out there. They were not flying Zephyrian banners, not that Ionathas was expecting them to.
"It's the rebels!" one of the Hawks shouted.
Out of nowhere, Corona appeared in front of them, looking out on the approaching enemy forces.
"Fall back to the city," she said. "I will hold them here."
"You heard the lady," Ionathas told Dabidos. "Get back to the city. Inform the Duke so he can rally the Legion."
"What about you?" Dabidos asked.
"Don't worry about me. Get going."
"Yes, Captain," Dabidos said. He then shouted to the others, "Let's move out!"
While they rode off, Ionathas moved up to Corona's side.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
"We'll hold them here."
"I do not know what you think you can do."
"I'm pledged to protect you, milady."
"And yet it would seem that I am the one protecting you."
Ionathas grinned.
"I guess I give with one hand and take with the other."
Corona gave him a humorless look and replied, "You can start by giving me some room to transform."
Ionathas obliged, guiding his horse to give Corona wide berth. He considered dismounting, but he might never see his horse again if he did. He would just have to try to keep the beast under control, but that was easier said than done. If a horse is startled by the sight of a serpent, how much more by the sight of a Dragon?
The wind whipped about Corona as she chanted her incantation and in a flash of her signature golden fire, her true form was revealed. Scales like pearls, a mane like spun gold and four great feathered wings that would make the Sword of the Lucifer himself envious.
Ionathas' horse reared up in panic, but the free knight kept a tight hold on the reins. He and the horse both were then toppled over by the heavy beat of Corona's wings as she took to the sky. It was only good fortune that spared Ionathas a broken leg from the fall. His horse flopped and kicked as it struggled to get back on its hooves, but Ionathas kept it pinned to the ground until it calmed down. Of course, him trying to hold it down when it was panicked and eager to run away was perhaps not the best way to go about it, but he did not want to risk it getting loose.
Though calming his horse was more than enough to keep him occupied, he nevertheless looked to the sky to catch sight of Corona. She swooped down on the enemy formation with a terrible screech, razing the ground where they stood. Tortured screams filled the air but also determined shouts in a guttural foreign tongue, followed by the clattering of ballista winches being drawn.
A chill ran down Ionathas' spine. It was said that ballistae were the one weapon capable of taking down Dragons, but did Corona know that? Was there any way he could even warn her?
Corona swooped down for another pass and the ballistae loosed their bolts. At least one struck its mark and Corona jerked back and screeched in pain. Then the ballistae kept firing, much faster than any ballista should. She was struck again and again until she fell out of the sky, crashing in great burst of flame.
"Corona!" Ionathas cried.
Without a moment's hesitation, Ionathas let his horse up, mounted it and raced to where Corona landed. He did not know what he could do against the hundreds of enemies out there, but they would only get to her over his dead body.
Despite being stricken many times, Corona was able to steer herself a good distance from the main enemy formation. Whether through conscious effort or some reflex, she reverted back to her human form. That would make her more difficult to spot by the enemy, but it did not make it much easier for Ionathas either. However, following the circle of scorched earth to its center, he found her lying in the ash and smoldering verdure, bleeding from many wounds.
Leaping off his horse, Ionathas hastened to her side.
"Corona! Corona!"
Corona's eyes opened slowly.
"Those impudent little cave maggots..."
'Cave maggots'? Of course, the Nanoi. They were said to be skilled in the making of engines of war. The rebels knew about Corona and sent the ones most capable of stopping her. The prospect of taking on their hated enemy the Duke must have only sweetened the deal.
"Corona, can you move?"
Racked with pain, Corona was breathing heavily and sweat turned black by the ash streamed off her forehead.
"Leave me..."
"I'm not leaving you!" Ionathas insisted. "Can you ride?"
Corona winced as she talked, each breath labored by the pain.
"Two ride... slower than one... Too slow to escape..."
"I'll take that chance."
"I will heal soon... I can escape on my own."
"That's a chance I won't take," Ionathas said. He slung her arm over his shoulder and began to lift her up. "Come on."
She cried out as he lifted her, a rare expression of vulnerability from her. This seemed to make her angry more than anything else, as a low animalistic growl rumbled deep in her throat.
"Damn you... Foolish human... Why would you risk your life for me?"
"A knight's pledge isn't just empty words," Ionathas replied.
Ionathas' horse shied away as they approached, but Ionathas was able to catch the reins before it got too far away. Ionathas struggled to get Corona on his horse. She was much heavier than she looked and was too weak to help much herself.
Once they were both mounted, Ionathas spurred his horse and not a moment too soon. Arrows were already whizzing by and he could hear a different kind of foreign shouting from that of the Nanoi. Mercenaries, no doubt.
There was a shimmer of light and the sound of an arrow shattering. Corona cried out in pain again. Even as she was struggling for her life, she was spending precious energy to protect him.
"Don't worry about me!" he shouted. "Focus on healing yourself!"
Corona grudgingly complied. Ionathas knew because an arrow glanced off his cuirass. He would not have been so fortunate if he was clad in the same leathern armor as most of the rest of the Hawks. Thankfully, the mercenaries broke off their pursuit as he got closer to the city.
When he arrived at camp, the Hawks were formed up and ready to meet the enemy.
"MARANTHE! MARANTHE!" Ionathas shouted.
The last thing he needed was to take an arrow from one of his own men. Dabidos was the first to meet him.
"Glad to see you made i-- Lady Corona! What happened?"
"Nanoi," Ionathas replied. "Even a Dragon is no match for their ballistae."
"Cave maggots..." Corona growled, coughing up some blood.
Ionathas dismounted, struggling to steady Corona as he got down.
"Help me carry her to my tent," Ionathas told Dabidos. "Take her legs."
"Pardon me, milady," Dabidos said as he took hold of her ankles.
They carried Corona to Ionathas' tent and laid her down on his cot.
Breaking her incantation, Corona said, "I will be fine. Your Hawks need you." She reached out and took hold of Ionathas' sleeve. "Beware, these foes are not to be underestimated."
Ionathas held her hand and said, "Just focus on healing yourself. We'll drive back the cave maggots."
Corona managed a weak grin at his cooption of her term of contempt for the Nanoi. Giving her hand a slight squeeze, Ionathas turned and left. As soon as he exited his tent, he saw the men of the Third Legion marching out of the city gates with Duke Cronos at the head of the formation.
Ionathas ran to the Duke, shouting, "Milord!"
The Duke signaled for one of his tribunes to continue leading the men into position while he and Sir Telemachos pulled aside.
"Merciful God, are you ever a sight," the Duke said. "Have you been wounded?"
Ionathas looked down at himself and realized he was covered in Corona's blood. Only then did he realize that her blood burned against his skin. At least the stories of Dragon blood igniting in flame did not appear to be true.
"It's not my blood, milord," Ionathas replied.
"What can you tell me about the enemy?" the Duke asked.
"Nanoi and foreign mercenaries," Ionathas said. "Several hundred less however many Corona consigned to the flames. They have war engines. Ballistae that fire faster than anything I have ever seen."
The Duke's face darkened.
"Nanoi... I will remind them of who I am. You have done well, Sir Ionathas, but our work has only just begun."
The Duke spurred his horse and rode back to the head of the formation. Once he was there, he shouted in a loud voice, "Men of the Third Legion! Our King and our Queen are in this city! We must defend it with our lives! Give no ground to the enemy! For the King! For Zephyr! VICTORY!"
"VICTORY!" the men of the Legion roared.
Ionathas returned to the Hawks and Dabidos had his horse waiting for him. Mounting his steed, Ionathas drew his sword and shouted, "Be on your guard, men! These are no common foes!"
The torches came into view and the sound of war drums could be heard. As near as Ionathas knew, they outnumbered the enemy by a fair margin, but it could nevertheless prove to be a hard-fought battle. Though the Duke sounded confident when he heard his old foes were among the rebels, Ionathas wondered how much that confidence was justified in light of how poorly the campaign against the Alliance had gone.
He could not worry about that. He had to concentrate on fighting with every ounce of his strength and leading his men to victory with the least possible losses. The Legion would take on the main force while the Hawks intercepted any who tried to flank them. All that remained was to draw the enemy in.
He then heard an order shouted to the rear ranks.
"Archers! Light arrows!"
Scores of flaming arrows shot up in the air in a wide arc. When they hit the ground, bursts of flame rose up, setting the lowlands leading to the city alight. Much as with Corona's attacks on them, the screams were horrific.
Not expecting this turn of events, Ionathas looked to Dabidos and said, "Take charge for me. I'm going to see what the Duke's plan is. Meet the enemy if they come to you, but don't lead a charge without my orders."
"Understood," Dabidos replied.
Ionathas' horse galloped over to where Duke Cronos was surveying the battle. Amidst the screams of the enemy, some of the legionaries were bellowing warcries, others were cheering, and still were others were even laughing at the sight of the carnage before them.
As Ionathas rode up to him, the Duke shouted above all the noise, "Keep loosing arrows! Let us see their resolve!"
It seemed that their resolve was not so great in the end. The prospect of wading through a lake of fire into the waiting spears of the Legion was apparently too much for them, though judging from cacophony of angry shouts and cries of terror, they were not acting with one mind. A necessary flaw in the sort of motley assortments the Alliance cobbled together for its forces.
"They're retreating!" an excited voice cried.
The Duke held out his arm.
"Let them go," he said. "We cannot afford to weaken the defenses of the city by sending troops to pursue them. Send heralds to Babophos so Lord Aristides will be ready for them if they come his way."
"It shall be done, milord," a legionary replied with a bow.
Duke Cronos then turned to Ionathas and said, "Good work, Ionathas. You and Lady Corona have spared us what could have been a bloody battle."
"Corona deserves all the credit, milord," Ionathas replied. "Were it not for her, we may all have fallen for the rebels' trap."
""What trap?
"Rebel spies and sicarii disguised as a band of traveling entertainers."
The Duke stroked his chin thoughtfully and said, "I have heard rumors of these spies before. I should have warned you."
"No, milord," Ionathas replied. "We should've been warier."
"A lesson for us all then. Let us be glad it was no more costly. Continue your watch, Sir Ionathas."
"Yes, milord."
The Duke and the rest of the Legion withdrew in short order, leaving Ionathas and the Hawks alone in their encampment. First Ionathas checked on the wounded and the dead. Five dead and eight wounded. It could have been much worse, but the losses were keenly felt all the same.
After assigning patrols and watches, Ionathas returned to his tent, where Corona was waiting for him. She was sitting there at the table as if nothing had happened. Her clothes were no longer soaked in her own blood and indeed there were no signs of bloodstains anywhere. Amazing that she still had the energy to clean everything after coming within mere inches of death.
"Are you feeling alright, Corona?" he asked.
She did not say anything at first, but poured him a cup of wine. He was in no mood for drinking, but it was a particularly human gesture for her to make and he did not want to reject it.
Accepting the cup, Ionathas replied, "Thank you, Corona. I mean, for this, yes, but more for what you did earlier. We would have suffered far greater losses were it not for you."
Corona poured herself a cup. She could not become drunk on wine, but she had acquired a taste for it in her time with the Hawks.
After taking a slow sip, she said, "It would seem I cannot leave you alone for a moment."
Half-teasing, Ionathas replied, "Perhaps that dancing girl would've been less persistent if you were there in the first place."
Corona sniffed derisively.
"Now that the threat has passed, you return to your japes. Is that the sort that appeals to your kind?"
"Different men have different tastes."
She arched an eyebrow and asked, "And was she your taste?"
"I do seem to have a taste for exotic women," he said, then grinning at her and adding, "though I suppose I favor them a little more elegant."
Corona narrowed her eyes at him.
"I could swallow you in one bite, you know."
"Perhaps that's a little too exotic for me," Ionathas replied dryly.
Corona's expression softened and her tone became more earnest.
"Be more wary in the future, Ionathas. I have not released you from your pledge yet."
Corona enlisted his services when her powers were sealed under a curse from the Dragon King. That seal had long since been broken and yet she remained with him. He had wondered why this was, and now was as good a time as any to get an answer for it.
"And why haven't you?" he asked. "You don't need me any more, do you?"
"Would you like me to go?"
"No, it's not that. I just wonder what use you have for me now that you've broken the seal on your power."
Corona sipped on her wine a while before answering.
"Perhaps I find your kind interesting and wish to study your ways more," she mused. "Besides, I may not have need of you, but it would seem you have need of me."
Ionathas raised his cup and said, "I'll drink to that."