Princess Cherry had finally made it to her quarters when she heard the harsh laughter off in the distance. It was the telltale sign that her mother’s barrier had broken down, and Zenith was once again coming for them. She mentally kicked herself as she realised their time advantage was already gone. Cherry knew that she needed to get properly suited up for them to have any chance, though it was possible they were all doomed to fall and it was only a matter of time.
The Princess shook her head. Losing here was unthinkable, so she had to plan around her only chance of victory. If the only way out was in the best case scenario, she needed to act as if they were in the best case scenario, no matter how unlikely it sounded.
Much to her own surprise, there was a guard stationed outside of her door. Cherry was quick to recognize Sunna, the commanding officer of the guards stationed at the castle. A wave of relief washed over her. “Sunna, hey!” Cherry yelled to get her subordinate’s attention. “Thank the gods you’re here. We’re under attack, and I need you to mobilise the soldiers.”
Sunna turned her head in a slow and methodical manner, facing the Princess as she raced up next to her. “Yes, I’m aware of the situation. I understand that Zenith has arrived. She should be here any minute.” Cherry let out a deep sigh, grateful for the lucky turn of events. Sunna was an imposing woman, almost a full metre taller than herself even without the thick plated armour.
“That’s good,” Cherry continued. “It’s actually better if you stay here with me for now, since I’m going to put on my combat gear. Once I’m ready we’ll gather the rest of the troops, and hopefully we can mount a proper counter-attack.” Cherry opened her bedroom door and stepped inside, already planning out what sort of formation they would take. But before she could get too far a firm hand clasped down on her shoulder.
“You don’t understand, Princess Cherisse.” Sunna’s voice was firm. “Zenith is coming here. She’s coming for you. You won’t even have time to prepare.”
A chill went down Cherry’s spine. “Sunna, talk to me. What exactly are you doing outside my bedroom anyway? Where are the other guards? And how did you know about Zenith?” She tried to move Sunna’s hand off her shoulder, but it remained firmly around her, the grip only growing tighter.
Sunna pulled her out of the room and back to the hallway. “She wants you. She wants all of us. The sooner you pledge your allegiance to Mistress Zenith, the sooner we can give her the throne that she deserves. Surely you understand, right Cherisse?”
The few shreds of hope remaining were quickly vanishing. Sunna was under Zenith’s control, which meant the rest of her soldiers would be as well. There were no reinforcements coming to help. It was enough to make most people give up, to surrender themselves against insurmountable odds. Cherry was not most people. She felt the anger, the determination rising, giving her the strength for what she knew had to be done. “I’m sorry about this. Please don’t hold it against me once this is all over.”
The first thing Cherry did was cast a fire rune, heating up Sunna’s metal gauntlet. She felt it on her skin, and it left a slight scorch on her vest, but the guard's reaction was far more intense. Sunna yelped and withdrew her hand, shaking it about, trying to free her burning fingers. Cherry pressed her advantage, drawing her sword and slashing at her opponent’s calf. It bounced off the armour with a resounding clang, seemingly ineffectual. But when Sunna took another step to steady herself, the plating around her greave caught in place, causing her to lose balance and fall to her knees.
Cherry continued to press her advantage. With a loud cry, she raised her sword upwards, conjuring a white rune at the tip. A blast of icy wind flew outwards, coating Sunna in a layer of frost and further hampering her movements.
“I know this isn’t your fault,” the Princess said over Sunna’s cold body. The guard tried to reach out, but the ice on her metal suit made it near impossible. “Once we take down Zenith, I’ll be sure to help you get back to normal. And you won’t face any punishment for attacking me either.” Cherry knew the ice would hold Sunna back forever, but it gave her plenty of time to prepare a proper binding spell. “Let’s see, I’m not as good with barrier spells as Mom, but I need a way to keep you down. Maybe some sort of enfeeblement charm?”
While she was talking to herself, pacing back and forth to think of a method for keeping Sunna out of the picture, she failed to notice her opponent starting to move again. The frozen layer around her armour began to crack, and although her movements were sluggish, she was once again ready to strike. Cherry was caught off guard as a spear was thrust right past her, narrowly missing her side and embedding itself in the wall. She spun around, flinching at the sight of her guard rising to resume her assault.
Things quickly went from bad to worse. As she tried to jump back and reposition herself, Cherry felt a tug holding her in place. Her fancy robes had been punctured by the spear, and now she was effectively pinned to the wall. Before she had the chance to untangle herself, Sunna approached, the domineering woman now fully recovered. She towered over the helpless Princess. “I’m going to deliver you directly to Zenith. Soon you’ll understand that this is all for your own good.” Cherry tried to cast another spell, but the guard grabbed her hands, preventing her from using any more spells.
Before Sunna could knock out the Princess, the air started to ripple around them. Everything went hazy as a rift in space opened up, and naturally, through it stepped the person responsible for this entire ordeal. Zenith herself appeared before Cherry, still wearing her shiny skintight clothing. She looked around, her gaze passing over both the Princess and her guard, before finally speaking.
“Well done pet. You have served your Mistress well, but I’ll take it from here.” She waved her hand, and Sunna buckled in place. She let out a moan of pure ecstacy, but was both still and quiet after that. Cherry gasped in shock as her former ally went down. “She’s fine, she’s just enjoying some… pleasant dreams for now. But she’s not the person I’m interested in at the moment.”
Cherry tugged at the spear keeping her in place, trying to dislodge it or create a tear in her clothing. “What do you want, Zenith? What’s your plan in all of this?” She was praying it wouldn’t come down to another fight. At the moment she was in no position to face the sorceress, so buying time with her words was the best option.
Zenith merely chuckled. “So hostile! And I thought your Kingdom was supposed to be famous for its hospitality.” She paused for a moment, letting the absolute one-sided nature of their encounter sink in. “Believe it or not, I don’t intend to fight you right now. I just want to have a little chat with you.”
It was hard to believe, and Cherry still wasn’t convinced. “A likely story. How do I know you’re not just trying to stall me or something?” Her body was tense, ready to jump at a moment's notice. Even if she didn’t stand much of a chance, she had no intention of going down easily.
“How indeed,” Zenith replied. “You don’t know what I’m planning. However, you’re not exactly in a position to bargain. If I wanted to, I would’ve struck you down the moment I arrived.” As much as Cherry hated to admit it, she did have a good point. “I think we should have a little icebreaker to get to know eachother better. You ask me a question, and then I ask you a question. And then I’ll be on my way. Sound good?”
While it didn’t sound good to Cherry, the alternative was springing to battle then and there. If Zenith was being honest, this would be a good opportunity to get some information. “I’m guessing we can’t lie? Are you going to invoke some ancient magic that punishes anyone who isn’t truthful?”
“Oh, don’t be so dramatic. Being dramatic is my job.” Zenith laughed at her own joke. “You can reply however you like. Whether that’s with complete honesty, with a half truth, or lying out your ass. Of course, I have the same options, but I have no reason to lie.” Zenith crouched down, taking a seat on Sunna’s prone form. With her insane height she was still at eye level with Cherry. “Now, why don’t you go first. Ask me any question you like.”
There were several options running through the Princess’s mind. She only had one chance, so whatever she asked, it had to count. Her first thought was to ask about Zenith’s powers, her connection to the Seraph’s Tear, or any sort of weakness. The problem was that Zenith could simply lie, and bad information could be worse than no information.
A better option would be something to try and understand her better. Asking where she came from or what made her so interested in Cherry’s Kingdom would be useful. Something where no matter how Zenith answered, she could try and glean some useful information. However, despite the tactical side of her mind spinning its wheels, Cherry knew in her heart there was only one question she was ever going to ask.
“Why are you doing all this?”
It was simple enough, but it cut straight to the point. Zenith looked upwards, scratching her chin with her shiny latex gloves. “Why, you ask? A smartie like you, I thought you’d have it figured out already. I suppose the answer is that I want to. It’s fun. At the end of the day, that’s all there is to it.”
Dozens of emotions welled up inside of the Princess. ‘You think this is fun? This is all some sick and twisted game for you?” She felt her anger winning out over all the other feelings. “You come here from nowhere, subjecting us to ungodly torment and brainwashing my people, and all this is just for-” Her voice was cut off mid rant. Zenith was pointing at her, and Cherry found herself unable to make any sounds. She tried to speak, but the words simply refused to come out.
“I gave you one question. You used it. Understand?” Zenith’s tone was more serious, more so than it had been their entire meeting. Cherry nodded, fighting back her anger and hoping she hadn’t angered the sorceress too much. “Good, I’d hate to have to cut our chat short before I had my turn.”
Cherry began to feel a bit dizzy at the thought of what could happen next. There were a lot of things Zenith could ask, and none of them would be good. “And to be clear, I’m allowed to lie? You’re not going to create a circle of truth or anything?”
Zenith shook her head. “You can say whatever you like. Honestly, you don’t even have to answer. This is going to be entirely up to you.” Her statement threw Cherry for a loop. What was the point of this exchange if she could just stay silent? The answer hit her - she had to be searching for a reaction. If she asked something deeply personal or inquired about the inner workings of her Kingdom, merely reacting could give away all the information. It was the only line of play that made sense of Zenith’s actions.
Cherry took a couple of deep breaths. She had to calm herself, to remain impassive no matter what. Even if Zenith asked the most intimate and personal question imaginable, so long as her face remained neutral, she could walk away victorious. She raised her head to stare her opponent dead in the eye. “I’m ready. Ask me anything.”
A malicious smile grew across Zenith’s lips. She spread her legs, leaning forward in her ‘seat’ atop Sunna. Cherry maintained eye contact, refusing to look at the voluptuous cleavage or acknowledge that if she wanted, she could see up Zenith’s latex dress. She had to maintain a stalwart defence of neutrality.
“Which of your friends do you want me to brainwash and corrupt first?”
The question blew Cherry away. Her emotional defences began to crumble, as she started sputtering for words. “I- but- what do you mean?” The question wasn’t even about her.
Zenith merely shrugged. “I’m assuming you’ve figured out by now that I’m going to turn you all into my personal playthings while I take over your Kingdom. The problem is that you’re all so juicy I can’t decide who to go after first.” Cherry was left utterly speechless as Zenith continued her monologue. “You have great taste in women, and your girlfriend is proof of that. She’s awfully cute, and I can’t wait to have her buried between my thighs. And your Mom is pretty hot, she’s like you but curvier. There’s alway something extra special about breaking a Queen’s mind anyway.”
Tears were starting to well up in Cherry’s eyes. She opened her mouth and closed it again, once again totally speechless, but this time it wasn’t from a spell. Zenith appeared not to even notice her plight. “I have to admit, your cousin is a real piece of work. But I always like dealing with the feisty ones, there are so many directions you can take it. And finally, there’s your maid.” She paused for a moment as if lost in thought. “Look, I kinda have a thing for maids. It’d be nice to have one of my own, don’t you think?”
It took every ounce of willpower Cherry had not to crumble then and there. Despite all of their best efforts, Zenith still wasn’t even treating them like a possible threat. And for all she knew, they weren’t. “You… you said I didn’t have to answer. What if I do that here? I don’t want to give up any of them.”
Zenith merely gave an exasperated sigh. “I suppose you can do that, if you’re feeling particularly heroic. As boring as it is, you’re allowed to choose yourself as an option, and if you refuse to answer I’ll just have to assume that’s what you’re doing.” She looked up and down Cherry’s body with disdain. “Though you don’t look like you’re in the right spot for a fight at the moment, physically or emotionally. It’d be a bit sad to just enslave you when you’re like this.”
Cherry felt like the spear had fully impaled her in her side. All of her fighting, all of her efforts to scrape any slight advantage she could find… It was all for nothing. Worst of all, Zenith had a point about sacrificing herself. The fighter's spirit inside of her was urging Cherry to confront her foe in earnest, insisting that she be the first one to fight. Even if she got stomped, at least it would be the heroic course of action.
The problem was that her stubbornness and determination to play the hero was what got them into this mess in the first place. Cherry remembered the disappointed look in her mother’s eyes, after they’d escaped, when she was questioned about the ritual. Cherry had felt something going wrong, and she’d felt the arrival of Zenith. And rather than asking for help she tried to carry the burden herself, which resulted in their current disaster.
Who did she want Zenith to corrupt first? No one, obviously. But between the five of them, it really felt like there was only one person who stood a proper chance. Queen Meredith, her own mother. Nobody else had the talent for a mage’s duel, and if she was being realistic, none of them would stand a proper chance.
“...Mom.” She was barely able to choke the word out. Her entire mouth felt as if it had been filled with sand. Even though Cherry knew that it was the entire point of Zenith’s mindgame, she had no choice but to play right along like a puppet on strings.
Zenith’s smile grew even larger. “I’m sorry, could you repeat that? I didn’t quite hear you.” She leaned even closer towards the distraught Princess. “I want you to say it perfectly clear who you want me to brainwash and corrupt first.”
The tears were openly streaming down Cherry’s face by now. “My Mom. Meredith. You.. you should fight her first.” Saying it felt like a betrayal of everything she stood for. Cherry knew it was the logical choice, the best strategic decision to keep everyone safe. Meredith was the most selfless person she’d ever met, and Cherry had no doubt her mother would be happy to sacrifice herself if she needed to. “Fuck you, you know what I said.”
A mirthless laughter came from Zenith. “I’ll have to fix that language of yours at some point. But for now, I’m happy with your answer.” She patted Cherry on the head in a condescending manner. “You’ve been a good girl for me here. I won’t forget that. And hopefully, when I melt your Mother’s brain into a puddle of lust, you’ll remember that you chose her.” Before Cherry was able to reply, Zenith stood up, disappearing with a loud CRACK.
Now that she was left alone with her thoughts, the guilt of what she’d done began to overwhelm the Princess. She’d been played like a fool. Worst of all, her Mother was the one who was going to suffer first.
Strangely enough, the only thing that kept her going was something her mother had told her long ago. In times like this, Cherry had two options. She could curl up in a ball and give up, abandoning her final chances of success .Or she could stand up and keep going. The key factor is to treat the first option as a viable possibility. If she really wanted to, Cherry could just give up. She knew that nobody would blame her for it.
It was because of her ability to genuinely entertain giving up that she was able to carry on. Giving up is giving up, but if she wanted to keep going, she had to put everything she had left into it. So Cherry pulled the spear out of the wall, freeing it from the tear in her robes and allowing her to stand up. Sunna was still out cold on the ground, snoring loudly in place. It was unlikely she would be a real threat again.
In their first encounter, Zenith had been drawn to a stalemate. The second time had been a clear victory. But now Cherry knew what was at stake, and what Zenith was planning. She had a new drive that kept her going - the determination to help her friends and family. The next time they met, Cherry would give everything she had left, burning whatever fuel was left in the tank to take down the sorceress. She ran into her room, getting ready to change into her combat armour.
This Kingdom was still hers, and keeping it safe was her responsibility. She would not fail again.