It didn’t take long for Cherry to fully prepare herself for battle. At least not in the traditional sense. She wasn’t overly accustomed to donning her armour without Valia for assistance, and she cursed under her breath many times over while fumbling with the straps on her gauntlets. However, any difficulties she had were vastly outweighed by the urgency of the situation and the adrenaline coursing through her veins. At this moment, her own mother would be battling the most powerful sorceress any of them had ever seen. And it was her own fault, for sending Zenith after her.
Choosing her mom as the first line of defence hadn’t been easy on her. One time, Cherry had accidentally spilled her bowl of soup on a foreign diplomat. She was forced to hide out in her room while Meredith had worked overtime to smooth things over with her natural charisma. She had to organise an emergency scrubbing from the maid’s and giving them a hearty apology gift, all while playing the kind and gracious host. Eventually things had been smoothed over, and Meredith had assured her that she wasn’t in any real trouble. But Cherry had felt an indescribable wave of guilt over just how much her mom had to work to fix her mistake. It was the day she decided not to count on her for help as much, because of how the guilt had eaten her up inside.
However, the guilt of that day was inconsequential compared to how she felt now. They were in real danger, and their entire empire could fall if any of them made the wrong decision. And Cherry had run away from the fight. Logically, she knew it was the right course of action. She would have been annihilated by Zenith on the spot, and after that, Meredith and the rest of them would be in the same amount of danger anyway. It didn’t stop her from feeling like crap though. Even with Bellwyn by her side, it was deeply unlikely the two of them would be able to take her down.
Out in the hallway, Sunna was still lying unconscious on the floor. She was still breathing, but she showed no signs of waking anytime soon. Which was perfectly fine by Cherry. Although she was much more prepared now, she didn’t fancy another bout with the Captain of the Royal Guard. It was a good reminder that danger could strike at any moment, and she had to be fully ready for battle.
“Let’s see, how about a few quick enchantments to start things off.” She was talking to herself, but she began making the sigils in the air. “Celerity is always a good one, and it helps mitigate the bulkiness of this armour. Endurance as well.” It took a few moments, but before long she felt the magic coursing through her. Her armour felt as light as a feather, and she was fully energised and ready to go for a run. When Zenith arrived, she would be ready to fight back with all her strength. There was just one more enchantment she had in mind. “What heroic garb would be complete without a flaming sword?”
With one final spell, her trusty broadsword erupted with flames. It felt like a pleasant warmth to her, but she knew it would be deadly to anyone who crossed her way. And she was very much ready to cross paths with a certain sorceress.
Without anywhere else to go, Cherry began trekking towards her mother’s study. She knew that was where her and Belllwyn would be, and if Zenith had been true to her word, that’s where their fight was taking place. Hopefully her mom was still holding out, and hopefully she’d found something out about what their foe wanted. Cherry kept an ear out for anyone else. She wanted to avoid picking a fight with other brainwashed staff members. Thankfully, the corridors remained empty until she reached her destination. Cherry didn’t know if that was due to luck or a sign of something more ominous.
The door to the Queen’s study was gently open. That alone sent a spike of panic through the Princess, as she knew her mother was meticulous about keeping it firmly shut. Even worse, there were no sounds coming from inside. Either the room was empty or someone was in hiding. Cherry gently pushed the door inwards, her eyes darting about as she prepared for an ambush.
Nobody jumped out at her. However, the room did appear to have been through a struggle of some sort. A few loose arrows, a mess of books on the desk. What really confused Cherry is that while it was clear something had happened, there was no way it had been a full battle. Nothing was adding up.
She drew her sword, the flame gently illuminating the room. “Show yourself, Zenith. If you’ve done anything to harm my mother or my girlfriend, I swear on my honour as a Princess I will never forgive you.” She was mostly thinking out loud, not expecting any real response. But as soon as the words were spoken, a dark swirl formed in the centre of the room.
A whirl of magical energy gathered in place, coalescing into globs of black latex. Cherry recognized it as a similar style to the portal Zenith had used before. Sure enough, the sorceress eventually stepped through, clad head to toe in the skintight material as usual. “She was right, you really are self-centred,” Zenith began. “First of all you ask me to go after Mommy dearest instead of you. But now that you’re ready, you think I should just drop everything and come deal with you because it’s convenient. Is that it?”
Cherry refused to let her get under her skin. “No more of your games, Zenith. What have you done with Queen Meredith?” She levelled her sword, the flame bursting higher as her muscles began to tense. A one-on-one scenario wasn’t what she had hoped for, but it might be the only chance she would get. And Cherry refused to run again.
Zenith, on the other hand, appeared totally unconcerned. “Don’t worry, I’m taking good care of your Mommy. I don’t intend to hurt her. Well, unless she asks for it. Which will probably happen soon, if I’m being honest.”
The casual manner in which Zenith disclosed such horrifying details sent a chill down the Princess’s spine. Her mother had been defeated, and was presumably enslaved. “No. That’s… that’s not possible.” There had to be an explanation for this. Maybe she had sacrificed herself to let Bellwyn get away, or some other noble yet foolish task. She shook her head. “Even if you have her, you won’t take down the rest of us. We’ll put a stop to you yet, and return you to whatever pit you crawled out of.”
Zenith burst out into laughter. Cherry felt as if she had heard that laugh a thousand times by now, and it always managed to infuriate her. She knew that Zenith was treating this like a game, like she was just toying with them for her amusement. “The rest of your little gang? You think you can gather them and team up to stop me? My dear, you have no idea what I’ve been up to. I’m almost tempted to summon them all here, but that would ruin the surprise.” She levelled her gaze, looking Cherry dead in the eye, her grin growing larger and larger. “It’s not just your Mommy that I’ve taken in to be my personal fuck-slave. It’s all of them. Your maid, your cousin, and your precious girlfriend. The only reason I came here to collect you is because you’re the only one left.”
Cherry’s eyes widened at the revelation. That couldn’t be possible. It had to be a bluff. If every one of them had fallen already… She didn’t want to think about what that meant.
A burst of anger began to rise inside of her. She thought she had been preparing, getting ready for their ultimate duel. The one that would determine the fate of Tirencia. “Enough talk!” Cherry surprised herself with the aggression in her voice, but she channelled her emotions into further determination. “I won’t play any more of your games, Zenith. It’s time we end things. Here and now. One final battle, as I should have done from the beginning.” Her heart was pounding, partially with nerves, but mostly with excitement. Her sword erupted in a blaze of righteous fury. It was time to put all of her skills to the test and see if it was enough. Everyone was depending on her.
However, Zenith merely tapped her chin in contemplation. “Hmm… nah.”
Of all the reactions, that was hardly what Cherry had expected. Her enthusiasm wavered as she began to stutter. “Wha-what do you mean, ‘nah?’ It’s my duty to defend the Kingdom, and I won’t bow down to the likes of you.”
“I know, I know. I don’t expect you to just roll over and admit defeat.” She waved her hand in a frustratingly nonchalant air. “I just think I’ll pass on the whole fighting thing. Sure it can be fun, but to be honest, I’ve grown tired of the chase.”
Cherry knew this was her chance. Zenith was still unprepared, ready to start another monologue. She charged forwards, raising her sword for an overhand slash. But Zenith simply held up her palm and the Princess froze in place. “Sure, we could have our little fight. I let you use your attacks, you slowly face my stronger spells until you ultimately give in. I’m just not really feeling it anymore.”
It was impossible. Her antimagic wards were doing nothing. Cherry struggled against the invisible force suspending her in the air, but it was useless. “Let… let me go and fight me for real, you coward.”
Zenith sighed and rubbed the bridge of her nose. “You don’t get it, do you? This is me fighting you for real. As fun as it would be to slowly torment you here, your pals have already given me all the entertainment I need. Honestly trying to follow that up would just be insulting.” She shook her head. “I was expecting you to be the most entertaining to break, which is why I saved you for last. But now I just want to get started with the next phase.”
She snapped her fingers. Cherry’s armour melted away, dripping off her body until she was totally nude. Her sword fell from her grip, the flame extinguished as it clattered on the floor. As much as she tried, Cherry wasn’t even able to react. It was as if her body simply wouldn’t respond to her commands anymore, and she was forced to remain still in the air. All she could do was focus on Zenith’s words, which had caused her no small amount of concern. It was obvious that the sorceress was begging the question, but Cherry couldn’t resist asking. “What do you mean by the next phase?”
“What I told you from the start. I’m going to be the new Queen of this realm.” Cherry felt the panic grow through her while Zenith only grew more giddy with excitement. “I’ve got to introduce myself to the masses as the new ruler. Your allies did a wonderful job sending for help, so it won’t be long until they see me sitting on the throne. A little memory manipulation magic should help smooth over the process if anyone resists.”
She snapped her fingers again, and Cherry fell to the ground, still nude and shaking. She tried to stand up, but her legs were so wobbly she collapsed on the floor again. She had no way of knowing if it was a magical spell of some sort or if she had truly given up inside. “It might take a while to get into the swing of things,” Zenith continued. I’ll be spending a month or so fully establishing myself as the new ruler. Which is convenient, because that’s about how long I expect the training for each of you to take.”
The way she said the word ‘training’ caused a knot to grow in Cherry’s stomach. Her worst fears were all coming true. “Someone… someone has to stop you. You won’t get away with this.”
Zenith laughed once more, causing the Princess to wince. “I must say, you do have a natural talent for being funny, even if it’s not intentional. Before I send you to my private dungeon, I have to ask. Do you have any preference for what you want your new job to be?” Cherry opened her mouth to tell Zenith to kiss a rather unsavoury body part, but no sound came out. “Hang on, don’t tell me. I’ve got a brilliant idea.” Zenith’s smile grew into that of a predator’s. “You can be my own personal court jester.”