"Warrior, what is the name of that village ahead?" the Lamia demanded.
The snake warrior's reply was a muttered hiss only the Lamia could understand.
Six snake men bore the Lamia on her palanquin, leading a column of warriors thousands strong. They were a formidable sight, their swords stained with blood, their shields dented where they'd smashed the heads of their foes. Sybil looked over her army and smirked.
She felt alive again. For a millennium, the gray warriors had held her captive in the shadows, a prisoner in their pit. She'd nearly gone mad in that stifling grave. The peasant wizards of old expected her to fade out of existence there. But here she was, in power again, ready to conquer a continent.
The underground kingdom had been an easy conquest once the gray warriors fell. An endless onslaught of thousands of snake fighters overwhelmed Sybil's jailors. The battle was over in minutes. Once freed, Sybil laid waste to all the underground villagers that stood between her and the light of day. Within hours, she stood on the surface, basking in the sun, laughing.
She wasted no time. Sybil's army formed ranks and marched, tearing down the defenses of every village they encountered. A day after surfacing, her forces conquered a sprawling city of technological wonder called Graden. Sybil ate the heart of the mayor and made the city her seat of power. Once their military crumbled, the people were docile and ready for rule.
Not content with the rule of a single city, Sybil and half her army marched on, exploring and conquering as they pushed ever northward.
As they closed on the wall of the village ahead, Sybil yawned. It was becoming too easy. Where were the sorcerers of this land? Where were the great powers? Could Sybil conquer the whole world? Would anyone dare to stand against her?
"Archers," hissed one of her warriors. Sybil looked up. A sea of arrows soared above, almost lost in the afternoon sun.
She yawned again, waving a hand before her. The arrows all turned course mid-air, arcing as if the wind had caught them. Once their trajectories reversed, a cry rose from the villagers on their wall. They scattered as their own arrows rained down upon them.
One figure remained on the wall, the metal woman Sybil had encountered in the tunnels and later on the road. This warrior woman was strong, able to take on a company of snake-warriors single-handedly. She'd come at Sybil before, resistant to the Lamia's psychic attacks. Sybil had to resort to flames to repel her foe—a much less efficient use of her power.
Now the metal woman guarded this village. Good. Sybil would kill her before she retreated again.
"Your highness," one of her warriors hissed. "Up there."
Sybil glanced upward. A dragon soared low over the army, its rider hidden from view.
The Lamia smiled. "At last, a challenge."
The dragon circled above as if taunting her to act. It did not attack.
"You make an easy target," Sybil shouted up at them. She raised her hands and shot a jagged jet of red lightning.
Sybil's attack passed through the dragon and its riders without effect. She narrowed her eyes, waited for the dragon to pass over again, then launched another burst of red power, twice as potent as before. Once again, the red lightning passed through the dragon. The beast didn't even flinch.
Had she found a worthy adversary at last? Perhaps it was the rat man, back for a rematch. He'd gotten the upper hand on her once, but now she had an entire army at her back.
"Warriors, halt," Sybil cried.
Thousands of snake warriors stopped at once. Many of them gazed up at the dragon, hissing with derision.
As the dragon arced above, she glimpsed the riders. Two of them—aa young man and a little girl. The young man wore a broad hat and a leather coat. He grinned down at her.
"Who dares oppose the army of the great Sybil, conqueror of Earth."
The young man responded with a gruff laugh. "Conqueror? Get in line, worm lady."
Sybil shrieked with rage. She raised both hands and let loose a full measure of her power, heedless of the consequences. The blast was blinding, even under the afternoon sun. She waited, a wave of giddiness passing through her as she fought unconsciousness. She'd pushed too far.
The red beam hit the target square on. Her foes flew on unaffected. They circled once more, then arced towards the village. Defenders scattered as the beast glided in.
So, the sorcerer was here to aid the enemy. Sybil scowled at the village. So be it. She'd deal with the village and their protectors all at once. If her psychic attack couldn't stop the dragon riders, the swords of her minions would do the job.
"Attack," she screamed.
* * *
Phyllis stood on the wall, sword held ready, prepared to jump down and charge the queen bitch by herself. The men of Aven Village were stout and battle ready, but the sight of an approaching army of snake creatures and their unholy queen left them shaking with terror. Her arrow reversal trick left them ready to retreat. Most of their archers left the wall, shaking down in the streets. Only a handful watched as the defiant dragon and riders taunted the queen of the snakes.
Only Phyllis's keen mechanical eye could identify the riders. She'd seen them both before.
"It's coming this way," one of the remaining archers cried.
"What do we do?" asked another.
"No," Phyllis said.
"We don't take orders from you," a villager shouted.
"They're friends," she said. "And the snake queen can't hurt them."
"Maybe it's a trick."
The dragon soared over the wall. It flew in a short circle, then landed in the street. Phyllis leapt from the wall and rushed to the newcomers.
She stopped and stared at the older of the two riders. He stared back down at her.
"Phyllis," he said.
"Eddie," she replied.
"Close enough," Winnie said.