Chapter 1: Setting the Scene
In which we meet our heroes
“Fuck you, Oliver.”
“That’s not fair,” Oliver says, with that long suffering look that he’s perfected in the years since he became king. “I did everything I could.”
“You know what’s not fair?” Sara asks, anger rising in her voice. “You sent me away, and Darhk killed my sister. Your wife. And now you won’t let me go after him. So don’t lecture me about what’s fair.”
She’s yelling now, and the part of her that had court etiquette drilled into her head knows that she shouldn’t raise her voice to her king, but she doesn’t have it in her to care. And no one else seems to either. Even Diggle, Oliver’s personal guard, just looks at her with pity.
Oliver shifts uncomfortably in his seat and glances at the empty throne beside him. “If you go after him he’ll kill you too. And I’ve already lost my queen. I won’t lose my Champion as well.”
Sara almost laughs at the irony. But she settles for throwing her shield - the one he gave her when he named her Champion - at his feet.
Oliver winces as the shield clatters to the a stop, the bright yellow canary emblazoned on it staring up at him accusingly. Or at least, Sara likes to think that it does.
“What good is being Champion if I can’t avenge my sister?”
She storms out of the throne room.
Oliver might be king, but she’s still the greatest knight in the Twelve Realms, with or without his blessing. She is more than capable of finding Darhk herself. And she’s slayed multiple dragons. How hard can finding and defeating an evil sorcerer be?
One Year Later
The door to Sara’s room - although calling the converted store room she rents off the side of the village tavern a room is generous - opens with a bang that reverberates through her skull. Or maybe that’s just her hangover talking.
She opens her eyes and blinks against the sudden brightness before squeezing them shut again. Yep. Definitely the hangover.
“You know,” Jax says from somewhere near the door, “when I agreed to be your squire I thought it was going to be more adventuring and less cleaning up after you and making sure you don’t die of alcohol poisoning. Not that we didn’t have some great adventures back in the day, but lately you’ve really let yourself go.”
He’s not wrong. She’d promised him that after she was back on her feet they would go after Darhk again, but the only place she’s looked for him since was the bottom of her tankard. And he’s definitely not there.
“Can you complain more quietly?” she asks, throwing an arm over her eyes to block out the light.
“No.” He tosses her a shirt. “Put this on, and try to look at least somewhat respectable.”
“Why?” she asks, sniffing the shift. It does seem to be at least somewhat cleaner than the one she slept in. And wore the day before. And the day before that.
“You have a visitor,” Jax says, piling her other laundry in a corner and sweeping the worst of the dirt and crumbs off the small desk that doubles as a table.
“If it’s Oliver tell him to go fuck himself,” Sara says.
“Yeah, because I’m about to say that to the king of Starling,” Jax says, and she doesn’t have to look at him to know he’s rolling his eyes. “But it’s not him. It’s some princess from up north here to ask for our help.”
“Well you can tell her that I don’t do that anymore,” Sara says, but she’s already pulling on the shirt Jax gave her. If she smells too bad Jonah won’t serve her, and she has plans to get very drunk today. Hair of the dog and all that.
Jax inspects the room, which is still a mess, but less outwardly disgusting than it had been. “I did, but she’s real persistent. And kinda scary.”
Sara gets up, doing her best to ignore the slight pull of the scar on her side. She rakes a hand through her hair, trying to remember the last time she washed it. “Fine, but I’m saying no.”
Jax ducks out and a moment later a tall woman follows him back into the room. “I give you Countess Ava Amilia Margareta Sharpe, second heir to the throne of Tempus. Did I get that right? You have a lot of names.”
The countess just shoots him a look, which he takes as his cue to leave, abandoning Sara with the woman. Joy.
The woman looks around the room, not even trying to conceal her distaste. “You expect me to believe that you are Sara Lance, the Knight of Canaries, Champion of the Kingdom of Starling?”
“The one and only.” Sara suddenly feels the need to defend her reputation. She may have spent the last year actively trying to forget it, but she had earned it fair and square.
“Most people think you’re dead,” the countess says. “Which, frankly, would be preferable to this...filth you’re living in.”
Who is this woman anyways? Coming in here and insulting her? It’s not like Sara would have agreed to help her even if she’d been polite, but this is just ridiculous.
“You know, most people who want someone to help them don’t immediately insult them,” Sara says, crossing her arms. “Not that I’m in the heroing business anymore, being dead and all, but if I were, I would definitely not help someone as rude as you.”
“You’re going to reject my offer before even hearing my story?” the countess asks, pulling out a small velvet bag.
“Yep.” Sara sits down at her small dsek and props her feet up. She doesn’t miss the way the other woman glances at where her boots are resting on the desk with distaste. Getting under the skin of the more judgemental court ladies had always been one of Sara’s special pleasures, and it’s good to know that she hasn’t lost her touch. “You seem like a smart lady. I trust you can see yourself out.”
The countess doesn’t move. “You have to help me. My kingdom was captured in a violent takeover, and the man responsible imprisoned my brother, the king. I barely escaped with my life. And as must as it pains me to admit it, you’re the only hope I have of freeing him and getting back what is rightfully mine.”
“What part of I don’t do that anymore did you not understand?” Sara asks.
The countess straightens to her full height and crosses her arms. Sara finds it more appealing than she probably should, given the circumstances. But then again, she always did have horrible taste in women. And men, come to think of it.
“As a knight you’re honor bound to help me.”
Sara shrugs. “I think you’re confusing me with someone who gives a shit about honor. You should try Sir Raymond of the Palms. He loves all that chivalry and honor crap.”
The countess narrows her eyes before pulling a fist sized sapphire from the bag she’s holding and placing it on the desk in front of Sara. “This is the Oculus Jewel. It’s been in my family for generations and is the most valuable thing I possess. It’s yours if you help me.”
“Look, the one thing I want you can’t give me, so I’d suggest you find some other poor sap to help you.” Sara inspects an apple Jax left for her a couple days ago and starts to eat it. “Ray’s usually making the rounds on the tournament circuit this time of year.”
She looks like she’s about to argue, but instead she grits her teeth, grabs the sapphire, and storms out.
Good riddance. Sara has very important drinking to get to. And who knows, maybe today will be the day she finally drinks enough to forget about Damien Darhk.
“Another,” Sara says, pushing her empty tankard towards the barkeep.
She’s lost track of how many she’s had, but it’s not enough to dull the pain of Laurel’s death yet. Not that she’s ever managed to drink enough to forget that particular pain.
“You’ve had enough,” he says. “I’m cutting you off.”
“Aww, c’mon Jonah,” she definitely does not slur. “Just one more.”
“I let you stay here because of the debt I owe you,” he says. “But that debt does not extend to unpaid bar tabs or letting you drink yourself into an early grave.”
“You’re no fun.” She turns to Jax, who’s sitting next to her at the bar, nursing his ale. “Buy me another?”
“You know he can hear you right?” Jax asks, clearly amused.
She scowls and looks over at Jonah, who’s standing at the bar with his arms crossed. Damn.
Jax jerks his thumb behind him. “Why don’t you go ask her? She’s been staring at you for the past hour anyways.”
Sara turns around and spots the woman from that morning, sitting at the back of the tavern, fixing her with a look that Sara’s only seen on dragons and particularly cross housekeepers.
“Shit, what’s she doing here?”
Jax shrugs and takes a sip of his drink. “Dunno. But I get the feeling that she’s not gonna leave you alone until you at least talk to her.”
Sara really doesn’t want to talk to her again, but if it gets her another drink she’ll suffer through it.
She pushes herself up from the bar and definitely doesn’t sway at all as she makes her way across the room. The countess’s eyes follow her, and she frowns, a look that just oozes judgement.
God, Sara really fucking hates her.
Sara plots herself down across from her and leans forward on her elbows. “Heyyyy Ava - that is your name right? Ava?”
The countess works her jaw, clearly annoyed. “I would prefer to be address by my title.”
“Well, Ava,” Sara drawls, enjoying the way Ava scowls at her. Annoying uptight ladies is the only thing about life at court that she misses. “If you’re gonna stare at me all night you might as well buy me a drink for the trouble.”
“You clearly don’t need any more,” Ava says.
Sara huffs. “Well if you’re not gonna buy me a drink, then why are you still here? I thought I made myself clear earlier. I’m out of the princess saving game.”
“Countess,” Ava corrects.
“The countess saving game, whatever,” Sara says, rolling her eyes.
“What happened to you?” Ava asks. “You were the Champion of Starling, the greatest knight in the Twelve Realms. Your name was feared from Zambesi in the south to Tempus in the north and Nanda Parbat in the east. And now you’re...this.”
She waves her hand at Sara as if it encompasses her entire point.
Sara bristles at her tone. How dare she? Sara could easily still be Champion if she wanted. She just doesn’t want to. She has half a mind to should this uppity countess exactly what she’s capable of. But she settles for sitting back and crossing her arms.
“If you know me so well, why don’t you tell me?”
Ava narrows her eyes and studies her. Sara has to stop herself from squirming in her seat at the intensity of Ava’s look. “I think you’re scared.”
Sara scoffs. “Really? Me? Scared?”
“Your sister was the queen of Starling, was she not?” Ava asks, raising an eyebrow.
Sara nods, not sure where this is going.
“She was killed a little over a year ago, although no one seems to know how,” Ava continues.
Sara grits her teeth against the know that forms in her stomach. She really needs another drink.
“And shortly thereafter you disappeared and the rumor spread that you were dead. ANd now you move like you took an injury of some sort, probably to the abdomen. So I think you went after her killer and almost died yourself. And now, instead of living up to the name of one of the most beloved rulers in the Twelve Realms, you’re drinking yourself into oblivion so you don’t have to admit that you’re scared of that happening again.”
Sara’s hand automatically goes to her side, pressing up against the rough edges of the scar there. Was she really so transparent?
“Well, you seem to have me all figured out, don’t you?” Sara says, not even trying to keep the scorn out of her voice. “If you think so little of me then why are you here, begging for my help?”
“Because if even half the stories people tell about you are true, you’re the only person who stands a chance of rescuing my brother and freeing my kingdom from Damien Darhk.”
Sara blinks. Huh.
“Damien Darhk?” Sara asks, leaning forward.
“Yes,” Ava says. “He’s a sorcerer. He used his magic to take overthrow my brother and take over Tempus.”
“I’m in,” Sara says, swallowing the fear that’s rising in her chest. Things will be different this time. This time Darhk won’t be expecting her. This time she knows exactly what he can do.
“Really?” Ava asks, surprised. There’s a hint of something else in her expression. Something Sara can’t quite decipher. Almost as if she’s disappointed that Sara agreed.
Which, frankly, only makes Sara more determined to take the stupid quest.
“Jax, fetch my horse,” Sara calls across the room, standing up. “We’ve got a kingdom to save.”
She turns around and promptly stumbles, tripping over her own feet and crashing into a table.
“First thing in the morning,” she says, picking herself up. “We’re gonna go save a kingdom first thing in the morning.”
Ava sighs. “I’m going to regret this, aren’t I?”
Chapter 2: Getting Underway
In which our quest begins and there's a chance encounter on the road
“Can we talk about this?” Jax asks as Sara stuffs the last of her gear into her saddle bags.
“What’s there to talk about?”
She’s only a little hungover this morning and she even took a bath. Between that and the prospect of finally getting revenge for Laurel's death she’s feeling pretty good. Even if it means spending the next several weeks (at least) with Ava, the most annoying woman in the world. “You’re the one who wanted me to get back out there.”
“Yeah but I meant like, taking out highwaymen or clearing out some poachers,” Jax says, saddling his horse. “Or maybe slaying a small dragon. Not going after Darhk again. Do I need to remind you what happened the last time you faced him?”
Sara shivers. She’s trying very hard not to think about that. But, well, Jax only has her best interests at heart. He’s a good kid like that. “This time I know what I’m up against, and we have some time to come up with a plan. It’s at least three weeks to Tempus on horseback. Plus, he thinks I’m dead, so we have the element of surprise.”
Jax seems unconvinced. And is she’s being honest, Sara’s barely convinced herself.
Her hand finds the hilt of her dagger. Laurel gave it to her when she was named Champion - a post that she’s pretty sure was Laurel’s idea. (Oliver was never that creative.) She’s going to slit Darhk’s throat with it. Or maybe stab in him the back, just like he did to Laurel. She hasn’t decided yet.
And sure, she’s out of shape and doesn’t have a plan and Darhk would have killed her the last time if not for some well timed magical intervention, but she has to do this. It’s this or spend the rest of her life drinking, which, while appealing, hasn’t exactly been the most fulfilling thing ever.
“You don’t have to come,” Sara says, fastening her saddlebags onto her horse.
“Of course I’m gonna come,” he says. “Who else is gonna keep you and Her Haughtiness from murdering each other?”
Sara laughs. This is why she loves Jax. He always seems to know exactly what to say. And he’s pretty good in a fight too.
She ducks back inside and writes a quick note, sealing it with her old Champion of Starling signet.
“What’s that?” Jax asks when she emerges, tucking the letter into her shirt for safe keeping.
“Just some insurance in case you’re right and I get myself killed.”
Before he can say anything, Ava leads her horse into the courtyard. She’s dressed to ride, and Sara notes the sword strapped to her saddle. Just who is this woman?
“I honestly didn’t think you’d show,” Ava says, surveying them. “And you even look like you’ve bathed.”
“Are you going to insult me this entire time?” Sara asks.
“Only when you deserve it,” Ava says with a shrug.
Jax shoots her a look and rolls his eyes.
Sara groans inwardly. This is gonna be the longest quest ever, isn’t it?
She swings herself up into the saddle. “We should get going then, so we don’t have to drag this out any longer than necessary.”
After a brief tussle over who would lead, Sara drops back and lets Ava ride in front. It’s her damn quest after all. And besides, this way Sara can study her without Ava shooting her judgmental looks. So really it’s a win-win.
She’s pretty, in a severe sort of way. Or at least she would be if she didn’t always look like she was about to tell someone off.
Sara’s met her fair share of princesses and nobles in her time, and Ava doesn’t strike her as the type. She’s got more of an angry housekeeper energy than in line for the throne of one of the Twelve Realms. But she rides likes someone born in a saddle, and the sword she’s carrying looks like the type of thing passed down in royal families.
Not that it really matters. Sara’s only in this for a shot a Darhk. And Ava’s a bitch anyways.
They ride in silence for most of the day - Jax’s attempts at making conversations falling flat. Ava probably doesn’t want to lower herself to talking to them and Sara’s busy thinking about exactly what she’s going to do to Darhk when she gets her hands on him.
By the time the sun starts to get low in the sky, Sara’s stiff and sore from spending all day in the saddle. Man, she really is out of shape.
Ava reigns in her horse and stops when they get to a crossroads. There’s a marker pointing to an inn off to the left and the Starling Road to the right.
“It’ll be dark soon,” she says. “We should see if there are rooms available at the inn.”
“Sure, if you’re paying,” Sara replies.
“Why am I funding this entire thing?” Ava asks.
“Well, for one, it’s your quest,” Sara says with a shrug. “And anyways, how much coin do we have right now, Jax?”
Jax empties his purse into his hand. “Three coppers and what looks like half an opal. Oh wait - nevermind - that’s just a regular old rock.”
Ava narrows her eyes. “You set out on a quest across the Twelve Realms without any money? You’re an even bigger idiot than I thought.”
“Generally speaking the person who needs my help funds the damn quest,” Sara shoots back. “So unless you’re as big an asshole as you seem to think I am I don’t see the problem.”
“Of course you don’t see the problem,” Ava says, rubbing her forehead. “I was forced to flee my home in the middle of an invasion. I didn’t exactly have time to raid the treasury before I escaped.”
“But you did have time to grab that big-ass sapphire you’re carrying around,” Jax points out.
A dark look flashes across Ava’s face but it’s gone so fast Sara wonders if she imagined it, replaced by her usual annoyed scowl.
But before Sara has time to think about it, a voice echoes up from the road behind them. “Halllooo. Do you folks need assistance?”
Sara turns in her saddle to see a familiar figure riding up to them. Because of fucking course he would be here.
“Sir Raymond of the Palms, at your service. And this is my squire Nathaniel of Hey’s Wood,” he says, indicating the man riding next to him, who looks more like a leper than a squire. But then again, Ray always did see the best in people. He squints at her as he gets closer, a look of recognition on his face. “Sara? Sara Lance? Is that you? I heard you were dead.”
“You shouldn’t believe everything you hear,” Sara says with a shrug. It’s not that she dislikes him, per se, as much as that he’s a lot and she’s definitely not in the mood right now.
“I’m glad you’re not dead,” he says, dazzling her with his winningest grin. From anyone else it would come across as forced, but Sara’s known Ray long enough to know that he’s being sincere. He’s just nice like that. It really is stomach turning.
He nods to Jax and then turns to Ava. “And who might this be?”
Ava gathers herself up as if to tell Ray off, but before she can Sara cuts in. “This is Ava. She’s my traveling companion.”
She lays it on thick enough that even Ray should get the hint. He looks between them, realization dawning on his face. “Oh. Um, well met, Ava.”
Ray smiles awkwardly and Jax starts to laugh behind them. Sara’s tempted to smack him, but she knows from experience that will only make it worse. So instead she does her best to ignore him. It’s easier than ignoring the way that Ava’s glaring daggers at her, but it’s worth it to get one over on her.
It’s not that she doesn’t trust Ray so much as she knows Ray has a tendency to be a bit too trusting, and well, Darhk has eyes and ears everywhere. She can’t risk him finding out she’s coming because Ray told some stranger he met on the road.
“So, Ray. Why exactly are you traveling with a leper?” Jax asks once he’s done laughing at her.
“Why does everyone think I’m a leper?” the leper - Nathaniel - asks indignantly.
“Probably the cap,” Sara says, indicating the ridiculous leather hat he’s wearing, and both Jax and Ava sound their agreement.
“If I were a leper could I do this?” he asks, holding up his hands and wiggling his fingers. He points at his nose. “Does this look like a leper’s nose to you? No, it doesn’t. Because I’m not a leper.”
“You should really lose the hat,” Jax says. “It really screams leper.”
“It’s sturdy,” he grumbles. “It keeps my head dry.”
“Nate and I are on our way to a tourney not far from here,” Ray says. “I assume you’re headed there as well?”
Before Sara can respond, Ava cuts in. “We are.”
Sara silently curses Ava because she hates jousts. This is probably revenge for the traveling companion thing. God, she’s annoying.
But Ray is looking at her excitedly and if she says no now he’ll need to know why and then it’ll be a whole thing. So she nods. “Yep. That’s exactly where we’re going.”
Ray grins. “Lead on then.”
Jax rides up front, catching up with Ray, but Sara hangs back, pulling alongside Ava. “Is there a reason that you decided we need to go to the tourney? Or do you just a thing for Ray?”
“God no,” Ava scoffs, looking almost offended at the suggestion. “We need money, and tourneys come with a purse for winning. So you win the joust and we don’t have to spend this entire quest sleeping on the ground. Simple.”
“If I win the joust.”
“What do you mean?” Ava asks, eyeing her. “Aren’t you supposed to be the greatest knight in the Twelve Realms? I mean, you are an idiot, but I assume you can at least joust.”
“Jousting has never been my best event,” Sara admits. “I’m more of a slaying monsters kind of knight than a tourney knight. It’s a different skill set.”
“Of course you can’t joust,” Ava says, rolling her eyes. “I should know by now not to expect anything from you.”
“I never said I can’t joust,” Sara says. “Just that it’s been a while and there’s no guarantee that I can beat Ray.”
That’s an understatement. Ray’s a true tourney knight, and even at the top of her game Sara probably couldn’t best him more than fifty percent of the time. But Ava doesn’t need to know that.
Ava just sighs and rides ahead.
This quest is going to even worse than she thought isn’t it?
The tourney grounds aren’t far, and it’s not long before they’re settling their horses and making arrangements for the night. Sara’s just glad to finally be out of the saddle, because she’s pretty certain she has blisters in places she’d rather not think about.
“Good new,” Jax says as Sara sets up their tents. “I convinced them to let you enter on credit and to give you a bye until the final. I figured that being the Knight of Canaries had to be good for something.”
“Great, but we still don’t have any money,” Sara says. “So when I lose to Ray in the final what are we going to pay them with?”
Jax shrugs. “So don’t lose.”
“Helpful,” Sara says, rolling her eyes.
“The final’s not until the day after tomorrow,” Jax says. “That gives you a day to - I don’t know - make sure you remember how to hold a lance. And besides, if all else fails we still have that giant sapphire.”
“No,” Ava says. “Absolutely not. We’re not gambling the Oculus Jewel on whether or not she -” she jabs a finger at Sara - “can manage to not fall off her damn horse.”
“Well,” Jax says with a shrug. “You’ve got a day to figure something out. I’ll deal with Ray.”
“Do I want to know what that means?” Sara asks.
Sara jerks awake, covered in water, with Ava standing over her holding a bucket. She sits up with a gasp, blinking water out of her eyes. “What the fuck?”
“Be glad it’s only water,” Ava says. “Now, get up, we’ve got work to do.”
“What did I ever do to you?” Sara asks.
“Aside from being the single worst knight I’ve ever met?”
“Are you always this mean in the mornings?” Sara asks, getting up and digging through her saddlebags for dry clothes.
“Only when I have to spend my day keeping you from embarrassing yourself,” Ava says.
“That wouldn’t be an issue if you hadn’t insisted that I enter this stupid joust,” Sara shoots back, brandishing a pair of pants for emphasis.
“Well pardon me for assuming that the most famous hero in Twelve Realms can joust.”
“If you had, I don’t know, asked me, this wouldn’t be a problem.” Sara snaps, trying to keep her voice down. It’s too damn early to be having a shouting match with Her Haughtiness.
“Oh I’m sure it would be a problem sooner or later.” Ava mutters as she turns to leave, but before she does she looks back at Sara. “Meet me in the field out behind the grounds. And bring your sword.”
Well, at least she’ll get to hit something. The morning won’t be a total loss.
The sun is fully in the sky by the time Sara finds Ava waiting for her right where she’d said she’d be. She’s consistent if nothing else.
“Alright, I’m here,” Sara says. “Mind telling me why?”
Ava unsheathes her sword - the one Sara noticed on her saddle the day before - but keeps it pointing towards the ground. “You are out of shape. If you want to stand even the smallest chance of winning this joust, or defeating Darhk, you need to train.”
Sara scoffs. “You’re going to train me? I’d like to see you try.”
Ava just lifts her sword.
Sara unsheathes her own blade, twirling it around once to get a feel for it. It’s been nearly a year since she last used it, but it’s not like you can just forget a lifetime’s worth of training. It’s like riding a horse.
Granted she’s pretty sore after only a day in the saddle, but there’s no way in hell she’s going to let Ava know that.
Ava just stands there, guard up, watching her intently.
“Don’t think I’m going to go easy on you,” Sara says.
Sara charges forward, closing the distance between them and slashing at Ava. She’s expecting the parry, but she’s not expecting Ava to sidestep, bring the hilts of their weapons together, and twist, stripping the sword out of Sara’s grip and sending it flying.
She must be rustier than she thought because the last time someone disarmed her with such ease was Oliver and they’d been teenagers. Even Nyssa had to work harder than that.
She picks up her sword and resets. “Again.”
This time she gets in an attack and a parry of her own before Ava knocks her off balance and kicks her to the ground. She levels the point of her blade at Sara’s neck.
“Now, are you ready to admit that you need my help?” Ava asks. Her voice is level, but Sara can see her gloating with her eyes.
“Fine,” Sara says. “You’ve made your point.”
Ava smirks and extends a hand, helping Sara to her feet.
“Where did you learn to fight like that?” Sara asks, wiping dirt off her pants.
“One of the few benefits of being the daughter of the king was that no one could stop me from attending weapons training with my brother,” Ava says with a shrug. “I could ask you the same thing.”
Now it’s Sara’s turn to shrug. “My dad wanted sons but ended up with two daughters. There’s not much else to say about it.”
It’s technically true, and easier than having to explain the complex dynamics of the Starling royal court when your father is a minor lord and your sister is betrothed to the crown prince.
Thankfully Ava doesn’t press the issue.
Sara raises her sword to go again when a spasm tears through her side and she grits her teeth in pain, dropping her blade.
“Are you okay?” Ava asks, and even through the pain Sara notes the concern in her voice.
Sara grips her side and tries to breathe through the pain. “Just a muscle spasm. It happens from time to time. It’ll pass.”
“Your injury?” Ava asks and Sara nods. “Spasms are probably from exercising cold. You need to stretch first.”
If she weren’t in so much pain she’d give Ava shit for acting like she knows anything about magically healed wounds, but as it is, she just lifts up her shirt, revealing a nasty scar. It’s nearly four inches long - an angry red line on the left side of her abdomen, its twin on the same place on her back. “You really think stretching is going to help this?”
Ava’s eyes go wide and she reaches out - as if to touch it - before stopping herself, her hand hovering an inch from the bare skin of Sara’s side. “No wonder people think you’re dead. How did you survive this?”
The worst of the pain starts to abate, and Sara feels her muscles relaxing. Ava, for her part, seems genuinely concerned, so she just shakes her head. “I nearly didn’t. But Darhk isn’t the only powerful magic user out there.”
When Ava looks up at her there’s something new in her eyes - something besides the exasperation and annoyance that she’s all too familiar with, even after barely two days. But Sara would rather not think about what it might mean.
“I can still fight,” she says, stepping away from Ava and pulling her shirt back down. “If that’s what you’re worried about.”
She rolls her shoulders and stretches her back, scooping up her sword from where it fell.
Ava looks at her for a long moment, and for a second Sara things she might protest. But instead she raises her own sword and sets up for another attack. “Good. I wouldn’t want to miss the opportunity to kick your ass.”
They spend the rest of the morning sparring, and it doesn’t take long for Sara’s muscles to loosen and her form to return. She feels good. Almost like her old self again, if a bit more winded than usual.
Ava’s a good fighter, and she has an eye for training, spotting Sara’s weak spots with ruthless efficiency. By the time they stop to eat lunch and switch from swords to lances, Sara finds herself grudgingly respecting Ava’s abilities. It’s good to know she won’t be a liability on this quest at least.
By the end of the day Sara actually feels like she might stand a chance against Ray. Or at least she might not completely embarrass herself. And even Ava seems almost optimistic about her chances. Well, less pessimistic.
But that hope dies when she wakes up the next morning barely able to move. The last time she was this sore was...well...she can’t actually remember.
Jax pokes his head into her tent as she’s levering herself up. “Hurry up, you need to get dressed so we can put your armor on.”
“I’m going as fast as I can,” she says, which is true. It’s just that as fast as she can is very very slow.
But she grits her teeth and powers through the pain. By the time she finishes dressing and stretches a bit her muscles only feel like they’re stabbing her over and over again every time she moves instead of like they’ll never work again, which is something at least.
With Jax’s help she manages to get her armor on and up onto her horse, but she nearly drops the lance he hands up to her, her shoulders and arms screaming in protest at the weight.
“You okay?” he asks when she grimaces.
“Every muscle in my body is on fire and I’m about to be thrown from my horse by Raymond of the fucking Palms,” she says. “So yeah, I’m great.”
“Don’t worry about Ray,” Jax says. “He should be in worse shape than you. So just try not to fall off your horse and you should be fine.”
“What does that mean?” she asks, looking over at the other end of the lists where Nate is helping a very slow looking Ray mount his horse.
Jax shrugs. “We spent the night, you know, catching up. And if I made sure that he had fortified wine instead of the regular stuff well, he’ll be fine once the hangover passes.”
“I feel like I should give you a lecture about the sanctity of the joust and not cheating and all that,” Sara says as the judge makes his way over to them. “But I’m proud of you, Jax. I didn’t know you had it in you.”
He laughs. “Learned it from the best.”
The judge comes over and gives her the standard rules talk. Best of three to be determined by the judges unless one of them is unseated. If both of them are unseated then it goes to melee on the ground. The usual.
Sara has to stop herself from audibly groaning as she rides up the starting point. Her body isn’t happy about riding, and the scar on her side pulls painfully as she tries to adjust her seat. Hopefully this will be over quickly.
God. She fucking hates jousting.
The horn sounds and she kicks her horse into a gallop. Or tries to. Her horse knows her well enough that he can feel how uneasy she is in her seat and he barely gets up to a trop, not wanting her to fall off.
Luckily Ray’s horse is also coming down the lane painfully slow, giving her time to raise her lance and get it into position.
The point of his lance comes up too, and she shifts the position of her shield, ignoring the protests of her leg muscles as she raises up her saddle. She urges her horse to speed up but he refuses, so when her lance finally makes contact with Ray’s shield there’s hardly any momentum behind it.
The point of his lance swings wide, sliding off her shield. The impact knocks her off balance, and she tries to recover by throwing her weight behind her own lance, but she feels it give, and ends up sliding sideways in her saddle.
She tries to catch herself and stay in her saddle, but her muscles protest, and the next thing she knows she’s on her ass in the dirt. So much for not embarrassing herself.
The crowd roars but then goes quiet and she hears someone shouting over the din. The part of her brain that isn’t currently overcome with pain recognizes it as Ava. “Get up you idiot! He’s down too! Get up!”
Sara props herself up on her elbow and raises the visor of her helmet so she can see.
Sure enough, Ray is laying on the ground too, ten feet away in the other lane. He’s flat on his back and looks winded. If that’s the case, she still has a shot. She just needs to get to her feet, which is easier said than done.
She manages to roll over and get her knees under her. From there it’s only a matter of fighting her own leg muscles and standing up. She takes a breath and steels herself, glancing over at Ray, who’s recovered enough to sit up.
She gets to her feet, slowly, and braces herself against the rail that divides the lanes. Ray’s making progress too though so she unsheathes her sword and walks towards him.
Normally walking ten feet in full plate wouldn’t be an issue, but normally she can raise her arms above her head, so there’s that. By the time she makes it over to Ray he’s almost up, and she takes the opportunity to plant her foot in the middle of his chest and push him back down to the ground.
It takes all the strength she has left, but she manages it, and she levels the tip of her sword at his throat.
“I yield,” he says, raising his voice so it carries across the lists to the crowd. He sounds about as good as she feels, so whatever Jax fed him last night must have been strong.
The horn sounds again and she falls back into the dirt. She pulls off her helmet and offers Ray her hand. He clasps it and shoots her a tired smile as he sits up. “I can’t say that was my best showing but you won fair and square.”
“Don’t worry,” she says, breathing hard. “I’m not planning on jousting again anytime soon.”
“Oh thank god.” He falls back into the dirt. “I don’t think I can handle drinking with Jax again after last night.”
She laughs and looks up to find Ava and Jax making their way over to her, looking relieved.
“You were right,” Ava says. “You are a phenomenally bad jouster.”
Sara takes Jax’s hand and gets to her feet. “I won didn’t I?”
Ava shakes her head as they make their way to their tents, but she doesn’t say anything. And if Sara didn’t know better she’d swear that Ava actually seems pleased. But that’s ridiculous.
And even if it was the worst joust maybe ever, it feels good to have won something. It reminds her why she got into this game in the first place. Or at least, why she agreed to become Oliver’s champion instead of settling down like her father wanted.
Maybe this quest wasn’t the worst idea she’s ever had after all.
Everything I know about sword fighting and jousting I learned from Tamora Pierce books so please excuse any errors if you're some sort of medieval martial arts specialist and actually know these things
Chapter 3: Not Quite Witches in the Woods
In which the woods are dark and full of terrors
Sara jerks awake, reaching for a weapon that isn’t there. She tries to blink away the remnants of the nightmare, but Darhk’s laughter lingers just outside her hearing, making the small tent seem even smaller and darker than it already is.
She extracts herself as best she can from where she’s wedged between Jax and Ava, not wanting to wake them as she grabs her dagger from under her pillow and slips out into the cool late summer night.
Normally they wouldn’t sleep three to a tent, but their other tent had been washed away when they’d forded a river a couple days back. So now they were stuck making their way through the Verdant Forest and into the Central Kingdoms with a single tent and half the supplies they’d started with.
And now, to top off that whole shit sandwich, she’s having nightmares again. So that’s just great.
She really can’t wait to kill Darhk. Maybe then he’ll stop haunting her.
Their small camp is dark, lit only by the dying embers of the cooking fire, any light from the moon obscured by the thick canopy of trees. The night air is quiet except for the rustle of the wind through the trees and the occasional buzz of insects. This far into the forest even the animals don’t come out at night.
She sits on the ground and stares at the fire, willing her heart to stop racing. For once in her life she just wants something to go smoothly. She can deal with traveling hard and slogging through rivers and even fucking jousting - they’re all part and parcel with trekking across the Realms after all - but she doesn’t have to like it. If for no other reason than every time something doesn’t go her way she can practically feel Ava’s belief that she’s not up to the task solidify.
At some point along the way Ava’s opinion of her chances started to matter to her. As if she’ll only be able to defeat Darhk if Ava thinks she can. Which is...inconvenient. To say the least.
She’s spent her entire life defying the odds and doing all the things that people said she couldn’t just to prove them wrong. And suddenly she gives a shit about what some random noble with a stick up her ass thinks?
There’s a rustle from behind her and she turns to see Jax emerge from the tent. “You okay?”
“Couldn’t sleep,” Sara says, turning her attention back to the fire.
“Me neither,” he says, sitting down next to her. “These woods give me the creeps. I grew up just on the other side of the forest and my mom would tell stories about witches who lived in the woods and ate kids. And I’m pretty sure I saw a cat following us earlier.”
Sara lets out a quiet laugh and shakes her head. He’s trying to make her feel better, and she loves him for it. “You know witches aren’t real right?”
“We’re on a quest to kill an evil sorcerer who would have killed you if not for a pair of kindly bird people,” Jax says skeptically. “And you’re telling me witches don’t exist?”
He has a point. Not that she’s going to admit it.
“The only thing in these woods are poachers,” Sara says. “And maybe some highwaymen. But definitely no witches.”
Jax shakes his head, unconvinced.
They sit like that - side-by-side, staring into the glowing embers of the dying fire - for a long time. Sara leans against Jax’s shoulder, taking comfort in his presence. She could do this whole thing without him, but well, it would be a lot less fun.
“You know you don’t have to do this, right?” Jax says eventually, breaking the comfortable silence.
Sara sits back up and hugs her knees to her chest. “I need to avenge Laurel.”
“No, you don’t,” Jax says, almost gently. “Do you really think Laurel would want you to get yourself killed?”
“It doesn’t matter what she wants because he killed her.” It comes out harsher than she intended, and she swallows, struggling to keep her voice level. “And she wasn’t just my sister. Laurel was the queen and I was her champion. I was supposed to protect her. I can’t let that stand.”
Laurel had always been the good sister. The one who did everything right and married the prince and became queen. The one who mattered. And Sara...well, if she couldn’t even protect her own sister what good was she to anyone?
But she doesn’t say any of that. Because Jax is looking at her like he actually believes in her, and more than anything she wishes he were right. She doesn’t want to let him down. He’s been there for her since the beginning of all this after all.
“You don’t have to throw your life away to prove you’re a hero,” he says. “If you die the only person who wins is Darhk.”
Sara lets out a hallow laugh at that. She’s no hero. She’s never been a hero. She’s just the younger daughter of a minor noble who always wanted a son.
The moment is interrupted by a rustle and the rough snap of a branch from the trees in front of them.
They both shoot to their feet. Sara draws her dagger, as if a knife can protect them from whatever lurks in the woods at night. But the forest goes quiet again, nothing but the wind stirring around them.
“Are you sure that wasn’t a witch?” Jax asks, voice strained.
“It was probably just an animal.”
Although admittedly, Sara does tighten her grip on her knife.
“Yeah,” Jax says. “An animal that’s gonna turn into a witch.”
“Go back to bed, Jax.” Sara rolls her eyes, but he does have a point. They might not be alone. Even if there definitely aren’t witches. “I’ll keep watch for a while if it makes you feel better.”
Jax grumbles but makes his way back to the tent. Before he goes in he stops and turns back to her. “You know I’ve always got your back, right?”
God. She really doesn’t deserve him. “Yeah.”
He ducks into the tent and she’s left by the fire, with only her thoughts to keep her company.
The next day dawns a cloudy gray, threatening rain that finally arrives in the early afternoon. Even with the cover the trees provide they’re soaked through in minutes.
“I saw a trail a mile or so back,” Ava says, reining in her horse. “Maybe there’s somewhere we can take shelter until the rain stops.”
Sara doesn’t want to stop, but with her luck she’ll catch her death from the cold or her horse will slip in the mud and break a leg. So they turn back, and sure enough, there’s a small path leading deeper into the woods. It’s barely more than game trail, just wide enough for them to ride single file.
“I have a bad feeling about this,” Jax says as Sara turns her horse onto the path.
Sara does too, but it’s better than the road, which is starting to flood.
The trail follows the lip of a steep embankment, an overfull stream running noisily fifteen feet below. They have to dismount and lead their horses after a while, because the footing is slippery, but it does lead uphill, towards firmer ground.
After nearly an hour the trail turns and opens into a clearing, just large enough to hold a small cottage with a fenced in garden. Sara’s seen woodsmen’s cabins before, but never this far off the main road. But now that they’ve left the canopy of the trees the rain is coming down harder than before and she’ll take what she can get.
“Is anyone else getting a real witchy vibe from this place?” Jax asks as they tie up the horses at the edge of the clearing and approach the cottage.
“Everyone knows witches aren’t real,” Ava says dismissively. “They’re just a story told to scare children into obedience.”
“What part of we’re on a quest to defeat an evil sorcerer makes you think that witches aren’t real?” Jax says, indignant. “And if there are witches, they definitely live in creepy cottages in the middle of the forest.”
“As much as I hate agreeing with Ava,” Sara says, knocking on the door, “she’s right. This is probably some old woodsman’s place.”
To Sara’s surprise it’s a young woman who opens the door and not a grizzled old lumberjack. She’s pretty, with dark skin and sharp eyes, and the heavy gold necklace she’s wearing looks vaguely familiar.
“Can I help you?”
“Sorry to disturb you, but we’re travelers on the road and we’re hoping to get out of the rain,” Sara says, flashing the woman her most charming smile.
The woman looks them up and down, suspicion clear in her eyes. Which, fair.
But before she can say no another woman appears at the door. “Oh, visitors. We never get visitors.”
Suddenly it all makes sense. The house in the middle of the woods. The suspicion. And well, Sara’s an asshole at heart so she can’t help herself. She turns to Jax with a grin. “See, I told you they weren’t witches. They’re -”
Before she can finish her sentence something heavy hits the back of her head and the world goes dark.
Sara comes to tied to a chair, and not in the fun way. And honestly, she’s not even sure why she’s surprised. This really was the most likely outcome.
The knot on the back of her head throbs in protest when she tries to look around. She does her best to ignore it as she takes in the interior of the cabin.
It’s not much bigger than the room she rented at Jonah’s tavern - a single room with a bed in one corner and a stove in another. There are herbs from the garden strung up on the ceiling to dry and a small table with a vase of flowers that give it a bright and homey feeling despite the gloom outside. There’s even a cat - a large orange tabby who is currently watching them from the bed, suspicion clear in its beady little eyes.
For a second Sara feels a stab of jealousy at this place that so clearly speaks to a life that she’s never had. A home that she’s never quite been able to find. (She’d thought once that she might be able to have something like this, but well, nothing in her life ever seems to last.)
But that passes as soon as she spots Jax and Ava, who are tied up next to her and look a little worse for wear. Jax’s nose is bleeding and Ava’s hair has come out of its usually perfect bun. Jax catches her eye and mouths “witches.”
“You’re awake,” the second woman says. She’s not as striking as the other one but she’s pretty in her own right, and a large red gem glows at her throat. Once again Sara gets a nagging sense of familiarity. Like she’s seen it before. “Finally. I thought maybe I’d accidentally killed you.”
Sara shrugs as much as her bonds allow. “It’s not the first time I’ve been hit in the head.”
“That explains a lot,” Ava says from beside Sara, which is just so like her. They’re probably about to be murdered and she just has to make a crack at Sara. Which, to be fair, is exactly the type of thing Sara would do, but that’s besides the point.
The woman laughs and the other woman shoots her a stern look. “Zari.”
She rolls her eyes but raises her hands in a placating gesture. “Fine fine. Continue with your interrogation. But for the record, I think this is overkill.”
“We can’t take any chances,” the woman says, turning to Sara. “What are you doing here?”
“Like I said, we were passing through and got caught in the rain,” Sara replies. “Is this how you treat all your guests?”
The woman narrows her eyes. “I know who you are, Knight of Canaries. Now, what are you doing here? Did he send you here to kill us?”
Sara bristles. She doesn’t like this strange woman’s tone. “First of all, if I wanted to kill you, you’d already be dead.”
“Not likely,” the other woman - Zari apparently - says. “I took you out with a frying pan.”
Ava snorts and Sara glares at her. “Is now really the best time to laugh at me?”
“It was a little bit funny,” Jax says.
He just shrugs. Traitor.
The woman in front of her clears her throat. “You didn’t answer my question. Did he send you here to kill us?”
“Look, lady,” Sara says, losing patience. She’s wet and cold and her head hurts. And she really hates being tied up. “I have no idea who you are and absolutely no clue what you’re talking about.”
The woman crosses her arms. “Damien Darhk. Are you working for Damien Darhk.”
Sara blinks in surprise. This is starting to look like one hell of a coincidence. “Of course not. I’m trying to kill Damien Darhk. Or I would be if you weren’t holding me hostage.”
“Amaya,” Zari says softly, laying her hand on the other woman’s arm. “This is ridiculous. Clearly they’re not a threat.”
Sara scoffs. Not a threat? She’s very threatening thank you very much.
Both women shoot her identical looks, and even Jax sighs heavily. “Really, Sara?”
“Fine,” Sara grinds out. “We’re not a threat. We’re not here to kill you or report on you or anything like that. What I said before is true. We just wanted to get out of the rain. We had no idea you were here.”
The woman - Amaya - looks at her and then back at Zari and her face softens. “Alright.”
Zari cuts their bonds and Sara rubs feeling back into her wrists, studying Amaya.
Something about her name and the way she holds herself jogs Sara’s memory and she realizes where she’s seen her before: Years ago she’d been tasked with escorting Oliver to peace talks with the Southern Realms, where she’d met the royal families of all five kingdoms, including the eldest daughter of the Jiwe family.
This quest just keeps getting stranger. “What’s the heir to Zambesi doing in the middle of the Verdant Forest?”
“The rightful ruler of Zambesi,” Amaya says, and the sadness in her eyes is something Sara is intimately familiar with.
“Damien Darhk happened,” Amaya says darkly. She stops and Sara think’s she’s going to leave it at that, but after a long moment she continues. “Eight months ago the ruling families of the five Southern Realms convened a conclave to discuss trade agreements. On the third day of talks Darhk showed up, killed everyone, and stole three of the five totems. We were the only survivors.”
“If you don’t mind me asking,” Jax says, “How did you two manage to make it out alive?”
Sara has the same question. It seems convenient if nothing else.
“We were...indisposed,” Amaya says.
“Darhk didn’t think to check the broom closet,” Zari puts in.
It takes all of Sara’s self control not to laugh at the exasperated way Amaya looks at Zari.
Jax does laugh though. “Oh man, and here I thought it was just you who snuck off to broom closets during official events.”
“That was one time,” Sara protests.
“More like you got caught one time,” Jax says. “Who do you think was covering for you?”
“Remind me to murder you when this is over,” Sara grumbles.
Before Jax can respond Ava cuts in. “There’s something I don’t understand about all of this. If Darhk is after power why isn’t he staying in any of the kingdoms he attacks? He could easily have taking over Starling, or the Southern Realms, and consolidated power, but instead he attacks and then leaves.”
It’s a good question. The more she learns about Darhk the less sense he makes.
“He’s not after political power,” Zari says, touching the gem at her throat. “He’s after magic.”
“See I told you,” Jax says, far too smug for Sara’s liking. “Witches.”
“We’re not witches,” Amaya says.
“We kind of are,” Zari replies, almost apologetically. “I mean, we live in a creepy house in the middle of the woods. We’ve got totems that give us magical powers. We have a cat. Seems pretty witchy to me.”
Amaya sighs and crosses her arms. “How many times do I have to tell you that being a totem bearer is an honor bestowed upon us by our ancestors and not something to make jokes about?”
“Okay, back up,” Sara says, more than a little bit lost. “How do you know Darhk is after magic?”
“Because he came to the Southern Realms looking for the totems,” Zari says. “And when our families wouldn’t hand them over, he killed them.”
“Totems?” Ava asks, looking about as lost as Sara.
“Centuries ago the most powerful wizards in the Southern Realms joined their power together and fashioned five totems,” Amaya explains, touching her gold necklace. Now that Sara actually looks at it, it does have a distinct air of power to it. As if the crude animal face might suddenly come to life and snap at her. “A magical item that grants the bearer great power. They gave one to each of the five ruling families of the Southern Realms, as a sign of our commitment to protecting our people. They’ve been passed down from one ruler to the next ever since.”
She pauses, that same shadow back in her eyes. But she shakes it off and continues. “What I don’t understand is how Darhk even knew about them. They’re one of our most closely guarded secrets.”
She has a point. Sara’s been all over the Twelve Realms - learned all sorts of secrets and encountered all kinds of magic - but she’s never heard of these totems.
“If he’s going from kingdom to kingdom pillaging their magic,” Jax says, “how do we know he’s going to still be in Tempus when we get there?”
Ava looks away, and for a second Sara swears that she looks almost guilty.
“Before I escaped I overheard him say that he was looking for this.” Ava pulls out the Oculus Jewel and sets it on the table. “Legend has it that the bearer can use it to manipulate time itself.”
“Can it?” Sara asks, eyeing the jewel.
“You think I didn’t try, before I resorted to asking for your help?” Ava asks. “As far as I can tell, it’s not actually magical.”
A sinking feeling settles in Sara’s gut. This isn’t good. Darhk with only his magic was bad enough. Darhk with that and a bunch of powerful magical items? Well, things never seem to go her way these days. Why should this be any different?
A crack of thunder shakes the house and makes Sara jump, pulling her out of her thoughts. It’s raining harder now, and it’s almost completely dark outside despite the early hour.
Amaya sees where she’s looking and tilts her head towards the window. “I’m sorry about before. You’re welcome to stay here for the night while the storm passes.”
“I understand why you were suspicious,” Sara says. And she does. “Darhk has that effect on people.”
“I’ve heard stories of your exploits,” Amaya says. “You’re practically a legends. Even in the south.”
Sara’s hand drifts to the scar on her side. “I assume you’ve heard the stories of my death too then?”
Amaya nods. “It’s why I thought you were working for Darhk.”
“Fair enough,” Sara says with a dry laugh. She watches the rain for a long time before speaking again. “This fight with Darhk isn’t going to be easy. We could use your help.”
“I wish I could,” Amaya says, touching her necklace. “But he already has three of the totems. We can’t risk letting him get the other two.
It’s a reasonable concern, but Sara’s still disappointed. Amaya and Zari seem like powerful allies, now that they’re not knocking her out with frying pans.
But for now they’re offering information and a dry place to sleep, which is more than she’s had for the better part of a fortnight. And she was a wandering knight for long enough before becoming Champion to know to never turn her nose up at a warm meal. Even if it’s coming from a pair of witches. (Especially if it’s coming from a pair of witches.)
Sara wakes the next morning to the cat pouncing on her feet and trying to bite her toes through the blanket. Little jerk.
Judging by the early morning sun streaming in through the windows, it’s shortly after dawn. The floor of the cabin isn’t particularly comfortable, but at least here Jax is snoring six inches away from her instead of directly in her ear, which is a distinct improvement from the tent.
She tries to push the cat off of her feet, but he takes offense and swipes at her with his claws.
She sighs. There’s no use trying to get back to sleep now, so she gets up and goes outside to take care of the horses.
The early morning air has a bite to it - a reminder that fall will be setting in soon - and the mud that sticks to her boots is a reminder of yesterday’s storm.
She’s in the middle of feeding the horses when she hears the door open and someone come outside. She doesn’t bother to turn around, and soon enough Ava joins her and starts going through their gear, assessing the damage.
They work in silence for a while - Sara brushing the horses and Ava unpacking and then repacking the supplies. It’s nice. Truthfully, when Ava isn’t questioning her judgement, planning, or ability Sara almost enjoys her company. She’s straight forward in a way Sara appreciates - a rare quality in a noble - and she gives as good as she gets.
There are worse traveling companions (Ray, for one). Even if her idea of conversation mostly involves lecturing Sara.
“Do you ever want what they have?” Ava asks after a while, inclining her head back towards the house.
“Not really,” Sara says with a shrug. “Cats are jerks.”
It’s an evasion, but well, if Ava wants to have this particularly conversation she’s damn well gonna have to work for it.
Ava sighs and continues shaking out of the saddle blankets. “No, I mean...love. Companionship. A home that’s not a castle full of gossips and sycophants. Or in your case a truly filthy tavern.”
“I’ve done the whole true love thing,” Sara says, not even trying to keep the bitterness out of her voice. “It’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”
“What happened?” Ava asks, finally looking up.
There’s genuine curiosity in her eyes, as if Sara holds the answer to a particularly difficult riddle. And maybe it’s the early morning sun, but Sara finds herself wanting to be honest, which is...different, to say the least.
“It turns out a wandering knight and the heir to one of the Twelve Realms don’t make a particularly good match,” she says with a shrug. “And then I got called back to Starling and she couldn’t leave her duties in Nanda Parbat. And besides, it was never going to work out. People like me don’t get happy endings. The best I can hope for is a glorious death in battle.”
Ava studies her, eyes sharp, and for a moment Sara thinks she’s going to disagree. Or worse, press for more details. But thankfully she seems to think better of it.
They go back to working in silence, although now there’s an undercurrent of something that wasn’t there before. Sadness maybe.
It’s Ava who finally speaks again, turning to Sara once she’s finished repacking the saddle bags. “Everyone deserves a happy ending.”
She says it as if she’s trying to convince herself, as much as Sara. And more than anything Sara wants to believe her. To let herself be convinced. But she has enough scars to know better.
And besides, happy endings are for suckers.
So there are 12 total realms (hence the Twelve Realms), five of which are separately called the Southern Realms, and have closer political and cultural ties to each other than to the other seven. Zambesi is one of the five Southern Realms
Chapter 4: Meeting the Parents
In which there’s a family reunion and our hero has a revelation
It takes them another week to finish crossing the Verdant Forest. The late summer rains slow them down, and by the time they make it to the river that marks the border with the Central Kingdoms, Sara’s never been happier to be out of Starling. It’s not far now.
Another week at most and she’ll finally be free of Ava, who’s spent most of the last several days lecturing her about proper court protocol. As if Sara doesn’t already know the correct way to bow to a Duke versus a Count or the difference between a Prince in the Central Kingdoms and a Prince in Midvale and the other Realms to the west. She just truly doesn’t give a shit.
But the closer they get to Tempus - to Darhk - the worse her nightmares get. The more it feels as if Darhk is watching from behind every tree.
And since her usual method for relieving stress is out of the question she spends the hour every morning before they break camp training. Sometimes Jax joins her and they spar, but most mornings she’s alone, and frankly, she prefers it that way. It makes it easier to pretend as if every sweep of her blade cleaves Darhk in two.
This morning she’s working her way through an old sword drill when she catches Ava watching her from the other side of the camp.
“See something you like?” Sara asks, swinging her sword through a complex series of blocks and thrusts.
Ava gives her an overly critical once over. “Your footwork is still terrible but at least your form has improved.”
“I bet you have lots of thoughts about my form,” Sara drawls, throwing Ava a wink for good measure.
Now she’s just taunting Ava, which isn’t exactly mature, but the way Ava blinks and looks away, pushing her hair behind her ear almost nervously makes it worth it. There’s a thrill of satisfaction at getting one over on Ava, who always seems so perfectly guarded. Immune to Sara’s normal charms.
But Ava recovers quickly and comes over to Sara. “Here, let me show you.”
She braces herself behind Sara and kicks Sara’s feet, correcting her stance.
“You can’t keep your hands off me, can you?” Sara asks, doing her best to ignore the flush of warmth that spreads up (and down) her side where Ava’s hand rests. She really needs to get laid if Ava of all people is having this effect on her.
Ava laughs softly in her ear, and if Sara didn’t know better she’d swear it sounds almost like a giggle, but she does know better. And any misconception on her part is corrected by her sword flying out of her grip as Ava flips her over her hip. She lands hard on her back, blinking up at Ava, who’s looking altogether too self satisfied.
God fucking dammit.
Ava reaches down to help Sara up, and Sara takes the proffered hand. But instead of getting to her feet she uses her leverage to pull Ava down on top of her and then flip their positions, pulling her dagger from her belt and levelling it at Ava’s throat.
Ava’s eyes go wide for a moment, but then she gives Sara a look of grudging respect. “I guess the stories are true. You are hard to kill.”
Sara relaxes, sitting back on her heels and sheathing her knife. “You know what they say. Kill me once…”
Ava looks up at her, something uncomfortably like affection in her her eyes.
Sara’s suddenly extremely aware of their position. Of the the fact that she’s straddling Ava’s hips. Of how easy it would be to lean down and…
Fuck. She really does need to get laid.
She stands and brushes the grass from her pants, ignoring Ava as she picks up her sword and starts to gather her things so they can get back on the road. But she does catch Jax smirking at her.
“So,” he says, not even trying to be subtle. “I take it you’re all warmed up?”
“You shut your mouth,” she threatens, swinging her saddle bags onto her horse with a little too much force. “Or I’ll cut your eyes out and feed them to you.”
He just laughs, but thankfully doesn’t press the subject.
Fuck. This is going to be a long day, isn’t it?
They clear the last of the trees by mid morning and turn west, following the edge o the forest. The day is clear and warm and they make good time. If the weather holds out they might actually make up some of the time they lost wading through the mud and rain that followed them through the forest.
But she’d promised Jax they’d stop in his hometown first - a small village at the edge of the forest - and frankly, Sara’s looking forward to a bath and a real bed.
“Wait, before we go in there’s something I should tell you,” Jax says, pulling up short just outside of town.
Sara narrows her eyes. “What is it?”
He rubs the back of his head, avoiding her gaze. “Well, you know how everyone thought you were dead? And you were all ‘let them think that I’m as good as dead anyways’?”
“Yes,” she says, crossing her arms. She’s not sure where this is going, but it can’t be anywhere good. Not when he has the same look on his face as that time he’d managed to lose half of his armor in a bet with Roy Harper.
“I maybe told my mom that after you died I inherited your mantle as Champion and now she thinks I’ve spent the last year having adventures and being a great hero,” he says in a rush.
“So your mom things that you’re the new Champion of Starling?” Sara asks. Because well, it’s not the most ridiculous thing she’s ever heard. Jax had been her squire for nearly her entire tenure as Champion, and he was long overdue for a knighthood. It was only loyalty to her that had kept him around this long.
“And probably the entire village too,” he says. “She’s a bit of a gossip.”
Sara sighs. He didn’t actually do anything wrong, and she had asked him to keep quiet about her not actually being dead, so she’s not sure what she expected. But it hadn’t been this. “I swear to God…”
“This might actually be a good thing,” Ava says, much to Sara’s surprise. “The closer we get to Tempus the more likely it is that Darhk has spies watching for us. Maybe it’s better if this town continues to think you’re dead.”
She’s not wrong, but there’s no way in hell that Sara’s going to admit that. “What are we supposed to do then? Not stop here?”
“It’s probably better if we keep moving,” Ava says, shooting Jax an apologetic look.
“Or…” Jax says, and Sara can see an idea forming in his head. And she’s sure she’s not going to like it.
Sara trailed Jax and Ava into town, leading the horses.
The village is small, a couple of dozen houses sandwiched between the forest and a keep that overlooks farmland to the west. Sara’s seen dozens of nearly identical towns dotted across the Realms. If not for the fact that her father had sent them to court when she was young she’d have grown up in a place exactly like this.
“For the record, I think this is a bad idea,” Ava says as they approach a small house near the center of town.
“Of course you do,” Sara says. “Where’s your sense of fun?”
“We’re on a quest to save my kingdom from the clutches of an evil sorcerer,” Ava shoots back as Jax knocks on the door. “It’s not supposed to be fun.”
Before she can answer the door opens to reveal a middle aged woman.
“Jefferson!” she says warmly, wiping flour from her hands and pulling Jax into a hug. “I wasn’t expecting you.”
“Hi Ma,” Jax says once she releases him. “I was just passing through and I thought I’d stop by.”
“Well I’m glad you’re here. I know you’re busy being a hero. And all the way down in Starling too. So far away,” she says. “My Jefferson, hero of the Twelve Realms. If only your father was around to see it.”
A look of sadness passes over Jax’s face and Sara feels a stab of guilt when she realizes just how little she knows about Jax’s family, or his life before becoming her squire. She’d known him for years but hadn’t known about his father. They’d been through this part of the world before, but never stopped to visit. Some sort of friend she was.
His mom takes a step back, noticing that he’s not alone for the first time, and gives Ava a once over. “And who is this?”
“This is Ava,” he says. “She’s a...princess who I just rescued from a - from a dragon?”
He gives Ava a panicked look and she jumps in. “Yes. I was kidnapped by an angry dragon and he killed it.”
Sara suppresses an eye roll. They’d rehearsed this story and somehow the two of them still couldn’t be more awkward if they tried. Although it is somewhat comforting to find out that Ava’s a horrible liar. It makes her seem more human.
Luckily Jax’s mom is more taken with the tale than Sara is. “How exciting! Come in, come in. You’ll have to tell me all about it.”
She ushers Jax and Ava inside, but stops when she sees Sara. “And who’s this?”
“Oh, that’s um…” Jax trails off.
“That’s my handmaiden,” Ava says smoothly. “Pay her no mind.”
The ease with which Ava dismisses her sends a wave of annoyance through her. She’d known it was coming, but that doesn’t make it any easier to bite back a response and haul their bags up to Jax’s old bedroom.
By the time she’s done settling them in and finding space for the horses in the town stable, Jax and Ava are waiting for her in the small bedroom.
“I can’t believe she bought that,” Sara says, flopping down on the bed.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Jax asks, crossing his arms.
“Just that that was the worst lie I’ve ever heard,” Sara says. “It’s like you’ve never told a lie before. I clearly haven’t trained you very well.”
“Not to my mother,” he protests. “And I have, you know, killed dragons before so it’s not that much of a stretch.”
“Fair,” Sara says with a shrug. “And if a dragon really had captured Ava it would be half dead from all the scolding by the time you got there.”
Ava gives her an exasperated look but doesn’t rise to the bait.
“So what’s the plan?” Sara asks, turning back to Jax. “Stay here for the night and head out in the morning?”
“Well…” Jax rubs the back of his head. “You know how I said my mom’s a bit of a gossip?”
“It’s just that, you know, she was so excited and I haven’t been home for so long, that she invited Baron Stein over to tell him about how I’m a great hero and everything, and he’s insisting on throwing a feast to celebrate,” Jax says. He shifts from foot to foot awkwardly before continuing. “And I couldn’t exactly so no, because the Baron practically raised me after my dad died and go me set up to be a squire and everything. And also, my mom said to send you to the keep to help prepare.”
Sara groans. She knew she was going to hate this plan. “Why couldn’t I have been the princess?”
“Because no one in their right mind would believe that you’re royalty,” Ava says without missing a beat.
Ava just shakes her head as Sara gets up. “Try not to get into too much trouble. We are trying to keep a low profile.”
Sara scoffs. “Why does no one ever believe that I am capable of handling myself?”
“Because you’re not,” Jax says.
Sara flips him off as she leaves. She’ll prove them wrong. And besides, how hard can pretending to be a servant for one night be?
Harder than she thought, as it turns out
She spends the afternoon scrubbing and sweeping under the watchful eye of the keep’s rather strict housekeeper, who is not impressed with her technique and has no qualms about telling her.
She grits her teeth and suppresses her urge to break the broom over the woman’s head.
It’s not that she’s never had to do this stuff before, but she’d thought she’d left it behind with her squire days. And well, being Oliver’s squire was less about scrubbing and more about learning all the proper formal greetings and how to serve every visiting dignitary without offending them.
She’s exhausted by the time she’s handed a dress and apron in the Baron’s colors (gaudy shades of red and yellow).
“I trust you can serve better than you can scrub?” the housekeeper asks.
Sara nods, doing her best to come across as meek and unassuming. Not that she’s ever been either.
“Well, try not to spill,” the housekeeper says, pushing a pitcher of wine into her hands.
It takes all of her self control not to dump it over the housekeeper’s head, and even then it’s a near thing. But she’s doing this for Jax - so he can have a night of being the hero in his own right - so she thinks about the letter tucked into her shirt, grits her teeth, and takes the pitcher. Although if she mutters an insult under her breath as she leaves, well, it’s not skin off her back.
The feast is small compared to what Sara’s used to, but it seems like the entire town has turned out, and there’s a lively atmosphere with music and dancing and free flowing wine.
Jax and Ava are seated at the head table along with Jax’s mom and an older couple Sara assumings are the Baron and Baroness. Jax seems happy, talking animatedly, telling stories about their adventures - only mildly edited from what she manages to overhear.
And God, it makes her feel like such an asshole. It shouldn’t have taken him this long to be treated like the hero he is. Lord knows there were more than a few scrapes she wouldn’t have gotten out of without him. She wouldn’t be alive without him.
She spends most of the evening doing her best to blend into the wall - not an easy task given how ostentatious the livery is. But for the most part no one pays attention to her expect to indicate they want more wine.
At least she gets to eavesdrop on everyone, which does make the whole thing significantly more interesting. Especially when the Baron takes an interest in Ava.
“So, my dear,” he says, face flushed from the wine. “Is our galant Sir Jefferson returning you to a husband?”
“No,” Ava says, sounding mildly confused.
“A betrothed then?” the Baron asks.
Sara takes the opportunity to refill their cups, because it’s something she’s been curious about and she wants to hear the answer.
Ava shakes her head, but for a second her eyes dart over to where Sara’s taking way too long to refill the Baron’s wine. “No. Why do you ask?”
“I may not be as high ranking as your father,” the Baron says, “but if an accomplished knight rescued my daughter from the clutches of a dragon and returned her to me unharmed, well, the only appropriate reward would be to offer him her hand in marriage.”
Jax nearly chokes on his win at the suggestion.
Ava blanches before laughing awkwardly. “Well...ah...that would be for my father to decide.”
“Of course. I am merely suggesting that the Champion of Starling would make a good match for a younger daughter such as yourself,” the Baron says, inclining his head. After a moment he looks up at Sara, annoyance flashing across his face. “Jefferson, why is your serving girl staring at me like that?”
“That’s a good question,” Jax says pointedly and Sara starts. She hadn’t realized she’d been standing stock still, glaring at the Baron.
She mumbles an apology and retreats to her post along the wall, glaring at the back of the Baron’s head instead.
The idea of Ava and Jax together makes her skin crawl. Jax deserves so much better than a stuck up bitch like Ava.
Which is definitely the only reason it bothers her so much. She doesn’t care about how odd it is that Ava isn’t betrothed to anyone. Or about the little thrill of interest she’d felt about that.
She takes a breath and reminds herself that none of this matters anyways. And of course the Baron wants Jax to marry Ava. He was just doing his job as a minor landed noble from the middle of bumfuck nowhere. Trying to climb the social ladder with whatever was at his disposal. It’s what her own father had done.
But that doesn’t make her want to smash her pitcher over his head any less. Jax and Ava? Come on. If anyone should be marrying Ava it’s her. She’s the one who’s escorting her across the Realms and freeing her kingdom and all that. And...oh.
She actually kind of wants to marry Ava. Well, not marry her, because that’s a lot. But like, she definitely has feelings for Ava.
Ava, who she sometimes catches watching her with a look that is equal parts tenderness and annoyance. Who has never once complained about the conditions or the travel and pulls her weight more than any princess Sara’s ever met. Who sometimes, when they’re sitting by the fire at the end of the day, looks softer than she really has any right to.
But they’ve got a quest to complete and then...well, Ava’s got a kingdom to go back to and all Sara has is a bunch of burned bridges and ghosts she can’t seem to shake.
And besides, it’s not like she’s going to survive this quest anyways.
Later, after the feast winds down and the housekeeper releases her, she finds Jax waiting for her outside of the keep. He falls into step with her as they head back to his mother’s house.
“For what?” she asks.
“For letting me have this,” he says, inclining his head back towards the keep.
“You shouldn’t thank me,” she says, shaking her head. “You deserve it. You a better hero than I’ll ever be.”
She pulls the letter out of her shirt and hands it to him. She hadn’t planned on giving it to him at all, but after seeing his mother that morning she’d fished it out of her saddle bag. He can keep it safe as well as she can. “Here.”
“Something I should have done a long time ago,” she says. He continues to look at her with confusion so she continues. “It’s a letter to Oliver stating that in the event of my death you should be knighted and recommending you for the post of Champion.”
He shakes his head in disbelief. “You don’t have to do this.”
“Of course I do,” she says, and she means it. “You could have left anytime in the past year and gotten your knighthood. But you didn’t. I’m just repaying the favor. And besides, you’ll be a better Champion than I ever was.”
“You’re gonna survive this, and then you can tell Oliver yourself,” he says, sounding more sure of it than she is. But she doesn’t miss the way he tucks the letter into his pocket for safekeeping. “And who knows, you might even get the girl.”
“What does that mean?” she asks, giving him her best don’t fuck with me glare.
But he just smirks. The asshole. “Like I didn’t notice that you clearly have a thing for Ava? And even if I didn’t already know I would have figured it out when you spent half the night looking like you were going to murder Stein.”
Sara groans and scrubs her face with her hands. “Was it really that obvious?”
“Oh yeah,” he says with a laugh. “You’re just lucky that Stein probably thinks you have the hots for me.”
“That’s so much worse,” she says.
“You heard the man,” Jax says, preening. “I am galant and handsome.”
She rolls her eyes, but she can’t help but laugh. “Gross. You’re like my brother.”
He just laughs.
And suddenly it feels like the old days again. Back when she was proud to be Oliver’s Champion. When it’d been just the two of them, wandering the Realms, flighting evil and rescuing princesses without any thought for the future.
Before she had learned just how precarious that future was.
It gives her hope that just maybe, after all of this is said and done, they can go back to that. That things can be simple again.
But first, they have a kingdom to save.
Chapter 5: There's Danger on the Road
In which we're almost at our destination
“Can I ask you something?” Sara says, turning in her saddle to face Ava, who’s riding next to her.
They’ve made good time through the Central Kingdoms, and now the only thing separating them from Tempus - from Darhk - is two day’s ride through the mountains. The closer they get, the more Sara wishes she hadn’t accepted this stupid quest. Drinking herself into oblivion is starting to seem like the better choice.
“You’re asking me if you can ask me something?” Ava says skeptically.
“Yeah,” Sara responds, suppressing the urge to roll her eyes. “So?”
“Nothing.” Ava shakes her head, failing to hide her small smile. “You’re just not normally so polite. It’s strange.”
“I do know how to be polite,” Sara says. “I just choose not to be.”
Ava narrows her eyes. “You do realize that’s worse, right?”
“Not everyone can be as uptight as you.”
Ava doesn’t take the bait. Instead she tilts her head to the side and gives Sara an amused look. “Weren’t you going to ask me something?”
“Oh, um, yeah.” Sara casts about for what her original question had been. “Is it true that you aren’t betrothed?”
Ava blinks, caught off guard by the question. “Yes. Why?”
Sara feels a little thrill of curiosity at that. She shrugs, trying to play it off, but from the way Ava’s looking at her she didn’t succeed. “It’s just that it seem strange that someone as high ranking as you hasn’t been married off already.”
“I was betrothed once, when I was young,” Ava says, turning away. “But he died from the plague before we could be married. After that my father tried a couple of times, but it never stuck…”
There’s a bitterness in her voice that Sara hasn’t heard before. As if she’s struck on a sore subject.
Ava goes quiet, and they ride in silence for a time - for long enough that Sara thinks that's the end of it - but eventually Ava sighs and continues. “Now that my brother is king though, he understands. And besides, he has a son so I’m unlikely to inherit.”
“Understands what?” Sara asks, her curiosity getting the better of her.
Ava gives her a sidelong look, as if considering her next words carefully. “That I’m not suited for a husband.”
Sara almost laughs at that. Because well, obviously. “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
Ava shakes her head. “It is when you’re second in line for the throne.”
“The way I see it,” Sara says, “you should just live your life, and if you become queen so be it. To hell with whatever anyone else thinks.”
“Of course you would say that,” Ava says with a scoff. But it lacks the bite that Sara’s come to expect from her. Ava looks away and when she speaks again her voice is heavy with something a lot more like sadness. “Things aren’t that simple.”
“We’re going to kill an evil sorcerer who’s taken over your kingdom and imprisoned your brother,” Sara replies. “If we survive that, things can be as simple as you want them to be. And fuck anyone who objects.”
Ava fixes her with a long look, and Sara gets the distinct feeling that Ava can see right through her. That she knows exactly how Sara feels about her. And it’s more terrifying than anything Darhk could do to her. “I wish that were true.”
Sara looks away, suddenly self conscious, and they ride on in silence, contemplating the weight of what they’re about to do.
The temperature drops as they continue deeper into the mountains, and the ground slopes steadily upwards. The midday sun staves off the worse of the cold, but there’s a bite to the air that’s only going to get worse as the day progresses.
“How safe is this pass?” Sara asks, eyeing the steep stone walls rising on either side of the road. She may not have been through this particular pass before, but she’s cleared out enough bandits in her day to know that this is the exact type of environment they favor: lots of places to hide and nowhere to run.
“The border guard usually keeps it clear of bandits,” Ava says. “But with Darhk in charge I don’t know whether -”
A beam of crackling blue energy shoots out from behind a boulder.
Sara’s horse rears and she reins him in hard to keep him from throwing her. If she weren’t so busy trying to stay in her saddle she’d laugh at the timing. Because of course.
Jax isn’t so lucky, and he ends up on the ground. His horse tries to run but gets cut off by a spray of fire that comes from behind a rocky outcropping they just passed.
“Show yourself,” Sara yells, drawing her sword.
Whatever caused that is clearly magical, and a knot forms in Sara’s stomach. Maybe they hadn’t kept as low a profile as she’d hoped, and Darhk decided to cut them off at the border.
The fire stops and a large man steps out from behind the rocks. He places himself in the middle of the road and brandishes a thin wooden wand at them. It’s almost comically small in his hands, but the tip is still smoking from the flames, so Sara refrains from saying anything. “Don’t move, Blondie.”
Sara groans. Mick Rory. The last time she’d seen him she’d been handing him and his partner over to the Central Kingdom’s Star Guard. But he doesn’t work alone so that means…
“I know you’re there, Snart!” she calls.
“And here I was all ready to make an entrance,” Snart says, stepping into the road in front of them, holding a wand that looks a lot like the one Rory has, but glowing a frosty blue. “Now, put your weapons down or I’ll have Mick burn you to a crisp, as I know he so wants to.”
Sara groans inwardly but tosses her sword to the ground.
Ava gives her a questioning look. Sara nods and Ava follows suit, carefully detaching her sword from her saddle and dropping it on the ground.
Sara doesn’t like it, but she knows when she’s been outplayed. That doesn’t make it any less annoying to be ambushed by highwaymen though. Especially these particular highwaymen.
Rory grunts and shoots a blast of fire out of his wand. It barely misses Jax’s horse, who bolts, disappearing down the road past Snart.
“What’d you do that for?” Jax asks, turning to Rory.
“I don’t like you,” Rory growls. “And I really don’t like Blondie.”
“And that pretty little dagger of yours too,” Snart says, not taking his eyes off Sara.
Sara hesitates. She can go without her sword, but the dagger Laurel gave her is special…
But before he can finish Sara pulls out the dagger and tosses it to the ground.
“I’m surprised you’ve lowered yourself to highway robbery. I thought royal vaults were more your style,” she says, checking to see if there’s anyone else around. “And who uses wands in this day and age? It’s not the 1250s.”
They haven’t seen any other travelers on the road all morning, so the chances of kindly strangers coming to their rescue are slim. But at least it seems like Snart and Rory are working alone.
Under normal circumstances Sara would be confident that she could win that fight, especially with three on two. But the wands complicate matters.
“A man’s gotta make a living,” Snart says with a shrug. “Besides, we needed to take these shiny new toys we stole out for a test run. The fact that you were the first people to stumble into our trap is just a happy accident. Now, off the horses. Slowly.”
“I take it you know these...men,” Ava says, looking between Sara and Snart with thinly veiled contempt.
Sara sighs and dismounts. “I arrested them last year when they were robbing travelers on the Starling Road and delivered them to the Central Kingdoms, where they were wanted for a variety of crimes. I assume they escaped the Star Guard.”
“Oh we didn’t need to escape,” Snart puts in. “The Good King Bartholomew gave us a full pardon. He said we were good men who had been forced to do bad things because of our unfortunate circumstances. Apparently we simply never had a chance to learn how to be honorable.”
Mick barks out a laugh.
“Wait, really?” Jax asks. “The king just let you go?”
“Well, you know what they say about good old King Barry,” Snart drawls.
“He’s an idiot,” Rory finishes for him. “Now quit talking so we can rob them already.”
“Search them,” Snart says, enjoying himself a bit too much for Sara’s liking. Of all the bandits in the Twelve Realms, why did it have to be them?
Escorting them to the Central Kingdoms had been the last thing she’d done as Champion. When she returned to Starling, Laurel was dead. And that’s not their fault. That one is squarely on Darhk, and depending on how uncharitable she’s feeling, Oliver, for putting her on escort duty when he knew something was going on with Darhk.
But seeing them here, when she’s just days from confronting Darhk again?
She’s never been particularly superstitious but she knows a bad omen when one ambushes her on the road.
“Let us go,” Sara says as Rory searches her. He’s not exactly gentle about it, but at least he doesn’t cop a feel. If he did that she’d have to break his arm and then it would be a whole thing.
“Now why would I do that?” Snart asks, surveying them with a keen eye.
He’s not wrong. They don’t have any coin, but her weapons and gear are all products of her old life - made by the finest craftsmen in Starling. If Snart really wants to screw her over all he has to do is take their horses and gear and leave them to fend for themselves in the mountains.
“Got something,” Rory says from where he’s searching a very annoyed looking Ava. He dumps the Oculus Jewel into his hand and holds it up to the light. “Shiny.”
Ava lunges for the Jewel but Rory holds her off without much trouble. “You can’t have that.”
“See, that’s not how robbery works,” Snart says.
Rory tosses him the Jewel.
“That’s my kingdom’s most prized possession,” Ava says. “You can take anything else, but not that.”
“Well now I want it even more,” Snart says, examining it.
“Why’d you have to go and tell him that?” Jax asks. “Now you’re never gonna get it back.”
“It doesn’t matter if we save Tempus if I come back without the Oculus,” Ava tells him. “It’s my family’s symbol of power. Letting it fall into the hands of common bandits is unthinkable.”
“We may be bandits,” Snart drawls, “but I assure you, we’re anything but common.”
Sara ignores Snart, keeping her focus on Ava. “You were pretty happy to offer it to me to get me to help you.”
Ava looks from the Jewel in Snart’s hand to Sara and back, squaring her shoulders as if she’s come to some sort of decision. “I was never going to give it to you.”
Something about the way that Ava says it feels off. Why lie?
But before she can consider it, Ava turns back to Snart. “I am Countess Ava Amilia Margareta Sharpe, second in line to the throne of Tempus. If you give me that back I’ll make sure you’re well compensated.”
“Pass,” Snart says, pocketing the Jewel.
“I can make you rich,” Ava says, an edge of desperation in her voice. “Or make you lords. Whatever you want.”
Rory grunts as if he’s considering it, but Snart shakes his head. “I don’t want your money. Whatever this thing is, it’s worth more to you than coin.”
“Oh come on, Snart,” Sara says, taking pity on Ava, who seems truly shaken for the first time since Sara’s known her. “We both know that thing’s not worth all that much on the open market. It’s not even that nice of a sapphire. Her sword is probably worth more.”
He narrows his eyes, trying to find her angle. But she meets his gaze with one of her own. She’s stared down worse than the likes of Leonard Snart.
“True,” he concedes. “But I do enjoy stealing crown jewels. It’s sort of our thing.”
“Look, if you want to get back at me, fine. I get it. Kill me and get it over with. It wouldn’t be the first time.” The bitterness in her voice is a surprise, even to her. “But don't take it out on her. King Barry might be an idiot but he’s not often wrong. If he thinks you’re a good man then there must be some truth to it.”
Rory grunts a warning, but Snart looks as if he’s actually considering it.
“Stay here,” Snart says, brandishing his wand at them. “Mick, a word.”
“You can always get a new giant sapphire,” Jax says while Snart and Rory argue in harsh whispers on the other side of the road.
“That’s not the point,” Ava snaps.
Jax opens his mouth to argue, but Sara cuts him off. “You know how nobles get about their symbols. It’s all sentimental value and family heirlooms.”
Jax doesn’t look convinced, and frankly, Sara can’t blame him. But then again, the Oculus had been the one thing Ava had managed to save when she escaped Tempus, so maybe the panic in her eyes is warranted.
And from the way Snart and Rory keep glancing over at them, it probably is.
Snart saunters back over to them, tossing the Oculus from hand to hand. “Make us an offer.”
“But,” he continues before any of them can speak, “it’s not me you need to convince. It’s him.”
Rory smiles. It’s extremely off putting.
Well that...complicates matters.
Ava opens her mouth to speak, but before she can Sara stops her with a hand on her arm. Ava being her usual self is not going to work here.
“Let us go,” Sara says, “with the Jewel and our weapons and gear, and you can have the pick of the Tempus coffers once we retake the kingdom from Darhk.”
Ava stiffens next to her as if she’s about to argue, but Sara squeezes her arm, silencing her.
Rory looks unconvinced.
“And,” Sara continues, before he can say no, “you can take all the coin we have on us and her sword.”
“Why my sword?” Ava objects.
“Because I need mine to fight Darhk,” Sara explains. “Plus, yours looks like it’s worth more.”
Ava rolls her eyes but she doesn’t argue. Which is something at least.
“Half,” Rory says, getting their attention. “I want half the Tempus treas- trees- coin. And that sword.”
“Absolutely not,” Ava says.
“It’s like you don’t want them to give you your damn jewel back,” Jax mutters, and Sara can’t help but agree.
“Twenty percent and whatever you can take from the vault in a minute,” Sara counters.
“Thirty and five minutes.”
“Twenty-five, two minutes, all the coin we have on us, and the sword,” Sara says.
Rory considers for a second and then grunts his agreement.
“We’re also gonna need that pretty little knife of yours,” Snart says.
Sara freezes. “No.”
“Consider it a deposit,” Snart says. “A guarantee that you’ll hold up your end of the deal. You give us that knife you seem to like so much now, and then we give it back when we get paid.”
Sara wants to object. Her dagger is her most precious possession. It had been even before Laurel died. But now...it’s a lifeline.
But arguing will only prove that Ava’s right about her. That she’s selfish. Because what is one knife in the face of an entire kingdom?
So she grits her teeth and swallows her grief. “Fine.”
Sara scoops up the dagger from where it’s resting near her feet and crosses over to where Snart waits expectantly.
For a passing moment she’s tempted to use it on him. It would be so easy. She could have it at his throat in a second. Less.
But even she couldn’t get to Rory before he used that wand of his on her. Or worse, Jax or Ava. And well, she’s trying to be more diplomatic.
So instead of burying it in his gut she flips the knife around and hands it to him hilt first.
He takes it, making a show of examining it. It is, admittedly, a very fine weapon. Nicer than the sword her father had given her when she was knighted or the shield Oliver gave her when he named her Champion.
“Why should I trust you?” she asks.
“I’m doing you a favor,” he says, tossing her the Oculus, “against my better judgement, because Darhk is bad for business. And you know what they say about honor among thieves.”
Sara shakes her head, but she doesn’t respond. A gift horse and all that.
Snart and Rory are good to their word and they let them leave, short only Sara’s knife, Ava’s sword, and Jax’s purse. They even find Jax’s horse a little ways down the road, and in the end they only lose an hour or so.
It’s the first real break they’ve caught on this damn quest, but Sara can’t help but feel like she’s missing something. Like it was too easy. Or maybe that’s just the looming threat of Darhk, finally close enough to be real. And her without the knife she was planning on using to slit his throat.
They ride in silence for the rest of the day, but when they finally stop to make camp, Sara finds Ava watching her, something suspiciously like real respect in her eyes. “Thank you.”
“You didn’t have to help me,” Ava says. “You could have let them take the Oculus.”
Sara shrugs. “I promised to help you save your kingdom.”
It’s true, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t feel sufficient. Because somewhere along the way Ava had become important to Sara. And if she wanted the Oculus, Sara would move heaven and earth to get it for her.
Not that she would ever admit that.
Ava tilts her head and studies Sara. Her hair is down, out of it’s normal bun, the last rays of the setting sun making it glow a soft gold.
Sara’s rescued a lot of princesses in her time, and bedded more than a few particularly grateful ones. But seeing Ava like this - soft and warm and oh so beautiful - makes her understand all the heroic ballads Laurel used to love so much when they were kids. The ones she used to scoff at because she didn’t need rescuing.
Too bad she’s not a hero like the knights in the stories.
Ava just shakes her head, and Sara gets the distinct feeling that she’s been caught in a lie.
“You’re a better person than you think you are,” Ava says, and there’s something bittersweet about the way she says it. As if it pains her to compliment Sara. Which, knowing Ava, is probably true.
Even so, Sara wants nothing more than to believe her.
But well, she’s a lot of things, but a good person has never been one of them.
That night Sara lies awake, fingers tracing the hard line of the scare on her stomach, a physical reminder of what waits for them on the other side of the mountains.
Revenge is the only thing she wants. The only thing she has left. It’s the fire that burns in her belly that keeps her going. The reason she’s still alive.
That much she knows to be true.
But as she lies there, listening to Jax snore and Ava huff out the occasional quiet sigh, she can’t help but wonder what’s on the other side.
No one asked, but the reason Ava's a countess and not technically a princess or something generally higher ranking in most peerages like a duchess is for the time pun because I couldn't help myself
Chapter 6: Curse You And Your Sudden But Inevitable Betrayal!
In which several plans come to fruition
“The castle is just over the next hill.” Ava reins in her horse and points down the road.
Sara squints into the late afternoon sun. She can just make out flags fluttering in the distance, rising over the crest of the hill.
“We’ll wait here until dark,” she says, pulling her horse off into a small stand of trees beside the road. “And then we’ll sneak in, kill Darhk, and save your kingdom.”
It’s not much of a plan, but it’s all they’ve got. And in Sara’s experience, plans have a tendency to go to shit anyways.
“Are you sure?” Ava asks, shifting in her saddle. “We should spend a day preparing. Make sure we’re ready.”
“I’m not waiting any longer than I already have.”
Ever since they crossed into Tempus the day before she’s been hyper aware of Darhk’s presence.The scar on her side aches as if to warn her of his proximity. A nagging reminder of the last time she had him in her grasp.
“You really want to charge in completely unprepared?” Ava asks, that old judgemental tone back in her voice. “Didn’t he almost kill you the last time you did that?”
And here Sara thought they'd come to an understanding where Ava didn’t treat her like a particularly difficult child. Her mistake.
“My quest, my decision,” Sara insists. “Unless you want this all to have been for nothing?”
It comes out sharper than she intends. More accusatory. But she’s already tried ignoring Darhk; the only place it got her was the bottom of a keg. And she’ll be damned if she lets him take any more of her life from her.
Ava’s face darkens and she looks as if she’s going to argue, but she thinks better of it. Instead busying herself with her horse.
Sara does the same, tying her horse to a tree and settling in to wait for dark. But the thing is, she’s never been particularly good at waiting. Her thoughts aren't something she particularly wants to be alone with.
So she sharpens her sword, letting the familiar rhythm of whetstone against steel quiet her darker thoughts. Her blade is well past sharp enough when Jax sits down next to her.
“Hey. We got this.”
He sounds so sure.
It’s a long time before she responds. But eventually she stops what she's doing and considers the blade in her hands.
“You don’t have to come,” she says, voice harsh against the sudden quiet. “There’s a good chance that this isn’t going to work. That I’m going to get myself killed. Again. I wouldn’t blame you if you wanted to stay here.”
It’s more of a confession than she intends. Admitted to the doubt that’s been growing more insistent the closer they get. But Jax has been by her side since the beginning. If anyone understands it’s him.
He shakes his head. “Where you go, I go. That’s how teams works. And besides, you’re too stubborn to die.”
“I’m sorry I dragged you into this.” She thinks about his mom, about how proud she is of him. About Baron Stein, showing he cares about Jax in his own strange way. About how somewhere along the line Jax had become the little brother she never had. “You should be off having adventures of your own.”
“Nah,” he says. “That can wait until after we defeat the evil asshole who’s going around destroying kingdoms. That one’s pretty high up there on the heroing to do list.”
Sara huffs out a laugh despite herself. “How can you be so sure that we’ll win?”
“If there’s anything you’ve taught me,” he says, completely serious this time, “it’s to never bet against you in a fight.”
He says it as if he actually believes it, and for now, it’s enough. It has to be.
Once the sun starts to set they leave their horses and most of their gear behind and Ava leads them towards the castle.
The castle rises from the top of a rocket plateau, giving a commanding view of the surrounding valley. The path Ava leads them down winds down base of the hill and then back up the face of the otherwise sheer cliff. Sara’s seen her fair share of secret tunnels and back doors in her time, and she’s almost fallen off too many cliffs to count at this point, but that doesn’t make navigating the rocky and uneven path in the dark any more fun.
By the time they make it to the mouth of the tunnel - hidden behind a rocky outcropping just where Ava said it would be - the moon is high in the sky, and Sara estimates that at least three hours have passed since they set out.
Once they’re safely in the tunnel Jax lights a torch, illuminating rough hewn stone walls barely wide enough for them to walk single file. Thank god she’s not claustrophobic. The tunnel grades sharply upwards, steep enough that shallow stairs are cut into the stone in several places, but it levels out after another thirty minutes or so, getting steadily wider until the path dead ends at a solid metal grate.
Ava takes out the Oculus Jewel and presses it against the grate. The metal glows and there’s a loud click and then a creak as the grate swings open.
“I thought you said that thing wasn’t magic,” Sara says, eyeing the Jewel.
“Looked a lot like magic to me,” Jax says. “But what would I know. I’ve only seen a whole lot of magic before.”
Ava shakes her head. “That was just a basic key enchantment. It could be put on anything, but my father had a flair for the dramatic.”
“Too bad it doesn’t run in the family,” Sara quips.
Ava rolls her eyes but doesn’t rise to the bait. Instead she hands the Oculus to Sara.
“What’s this for?”
“We can’t let Darhk get his hands on this. It’s too important,” Ava says. “And he’ll be expecting me to have it. Not you.”
Sara hesitates. “If we fail it doesn’t matter who’s pocket it’s in.”
“Promise me you’ll keep it safe.”
Ava’s expression is hard to read in the torchlight, but Sara knows her well enough by now to see real concern in the set of her jaw and tense line of her shoulders. And maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but she swears there’s a hint of something else on her face.
So she pushes aside her unease and accepts the Jewel. “I will.”
Ava nods and turns back towards the now open passage. “I’ll go in first and signal you when it’s clear.”
“Like hell you will,” Sara says. “We’re a team. We’re going in together.”
Ava studies her, an indecipherable look in her eyes. But she doesn’t argue.
Beyond the grate the walls slowly turn from unworked rock to rough but finished stone. They walk for another ten minutes before they reach an intersection, a more finished looking passage branching off to the left.
Ava stops them, gesturing for Jax to put out the torch. They wait there, in the dark, for long enough that Sara starts to worry that something’s wrong. She strains to hear what it is that made Ava stop, but for a long time the only sound is their own breathing. But then Sara hears the distant clatter of boots accompanied by the low murmur of voices.
She presses herself against the wall and loosens her sword in its scabbard.
But she needn’t have worried. The footsteps continue down some other passage, eventually fading into the distance.
She lets out a breath she didn’t realize she was holding as Ava leads them down the hall. This passage is wider than the first one, lit by torches set far enough apart to cast deep shadows along the walls. From the musty tang to the air Sara figures they must be near the dungeons.
They make their way up through the lower levels slowly, stopping with increasing frequency to let guards or servants pass, but the late hour means they make their way to the living quarters with relative ease.
Eventually Ava stops, turning to Sara and Jax. “The royal chambers are just around the next corner. Let me handle the guard. I’ll signal when it’s clear.”
“You sure you don’t want help?” Sara asks, keeping her voice low. “You don’t even have a sword.”
Ava straightens her shoulders and nods. “I’ve got it. The guard’s one of ours. His sister was in my service.”
“I bet she was,” Jax murmurs as Ava rounds the corner.
Sara stifles a laugh. This damn quest gets more ridiculous by the minute. But the end is close enough to taste. (Not for the first time she wonders if that’s a good thing.)
“Give me your knife,” she says, turning to Jax.
She crosses her arms. Now really isn’t the time for this. “Because Snart took mine.”
He meets her glare with one of his own, but after a moment he relents. “Fine.”
He hands her his dagger just as Ava comes back around the corner, dragging the limp body of the guard.
“He’s about Jax’s size,” Ava observes, looking up from the man on the ground.
“No,” Jax protests. “That was not part of the plan.”
Sara just raises her eyebrows. “Why not?”
“Because wearing a dead dude’s clothes is a great way to get haunted.”
Ava nudges the guard with her foot and he lets out a soft groan. “He’s not dead. Plus it’ll look suspicious if someone comes through here and there’s no guard at the door.”
Jax sighs and starts stripping off the guard’s armor. “Fine. But if my ass ends up haunted, I’ll know who to blame.”
“Ready?” Sara asks once Jax gets dressed and takes up the guard’s position at the door.
Ava nods tightly and hefts the sword she took from the guard, looking about as grim as Sara’s ever seen her. But Sara can’t say she blames her.
The door isn’t locked, and Ava leads the way into the suite of rooms. The bed chamber is dark, lit only by the soft glow of the banked fire. And there Darhk is. In his sleep he almost looks like a man, rather than the monster who’s haunted her dreams for the past year.
Sara clutches the dagger so hard her hand hurts, but she ignores the pain. There hasn’t been a single moment in the past year that she hasn’t thought about this. About killing Darhk. And still, she hesitates.
And well, she’s a killer, but she’s never been a murderer. Not like this.
But she’s come too far to turn back now.
She takes a breath and raises her borrowed knife, letting the pull of the scar on her abdomen remind her of why she’s here. Of all she’s lost. Of all he’s taken from her.
She thinks about Laurel, stabbed in the back. And Oliver, left alone to stew. And of Amaya and Zari, the only survivors of Darhk’s terror. And Ava, who deserves so much better than a life haunted by Darhk. If you can even call it a life.
Absolution rests at the tip of her blade.
The knife slices across Darhk’s throat.
Every instinct she has screams at her to run, but she’s held fast, unable to move.
The torches on the walls roar to life, forcing Sara to blink against the sudden brightness.
Darhk’s eyes snap open and a cold smile spreads across his face. Terror courses down Sara’s spine. No. Not again. Not this time.
“Lady Lance. I’ve been expecting you.”
He stands, holding her in place with his magic, and looks past her. “I have to say, Your Highness, I’m impressed. I shouldn’t have doubted you. You’re here right when you said you’d be.”
“What’s he talking about?” Sara asks. This can’t be what it looks like. There’s an explanation. There has to be. Darhk is lying. Trying to get in her head.
Sara’s plea is met with nothing but stoney silence.
No. That’s not how this is supposed to go.
She’s supposed to kill Darhk and save the kingdom and get the girl.
And even if she dies, it’s supposed to be in a big all out battle with Darhk, a duel to the death or a pitched battle with her friends by her side. Not betrayed by the woman she-
The irony isn’t lost on her. Another Lance sister stabbed in the back.
Sara tries to turn her head to look at Ava, but she can’t. Ava who, for once, doesn’t have an annoyed come back or a put upon sigh. And maybe it’s better that way.
Before she can say anything else - beg and plead for things to be different or demand an explanation or just curse until she feels a little less heartbroken - there’s a clatter as several people enter the room.
“Let me go,” Jax protest. The sound of his struggle stops as he takes in the scene. “Sara, what’s going on?”
“It was a trap,” she grits out, unable to look away from the twisted smile on Darhk’s face.
It turns her stomach.
“And it was so easy,” he says, almost gleeful. “All I had to do was threaten the Countess here’s precious brother and she brought you straight to me.”
The disbelief and heartbreak that are threatening to overwhelm her harden into anger. Anger at Darhk. Anger at Ava. Anger at herself for believing that this time would be different.
“If you’re going to kill me just do it,” she spits. “Spare me the speech and get it over with.”
He actually laughs at that. The fucking gall. “Oh I’m going to kill you, and this time, I’ll make sure you stay dead.”
He closes his fist and she feels his magic start to pull at her soul as her life starts to drain away. She tries desperately to hold on, to find something to keep her here. Some burning core of anger or hatred to keep her in this life for a little longer. All she finds is fear. (She doesn’t want to die.) And the more she struggles, the faster the world fades around her. The harder it gets to hold on.
A familiar darkness clouds her vision, and she hears someone yell behind her, but it’s so far away she can’t make it out.
Her last thought, before the world goes dark, is that she hopes she gets to see Laurel this time.
i'm not even sorry about this cliffhanger
I went back and forth on the chapter title for this one because I didn't want to actively spoil the ending in the title, but, if you're familiar with Galavant it's not actually a spoiler and if not, well, I like making myself laugh with self indulgent references too much to change it so there's that
Chapter 7: The Obligatory Flashback
In which we learn about our hero's tragic past
From this chapter on the level of violence increases, although I don't think it's anything worse than on the show, it definitely is worse than in previous chapters. It's pretty much typical fantasy violence, but idk, it still warrants a warning
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
One Year Ago
“Nighty night, Champion,” Darhk snarls.
He plucks her sword out of her hand, and - before she can do so much as struggle against the magic holding her place - buries it in her abdomen.
She doesn’t feel it at first. It’s not until he releases her and she falls to the ground, sword still in her gut, that her body registers what’s happened. She’s no stranger to pain, but this is unlike anything she’s ever felt before. It takes every ounce of self control she has not to give him the satisfaction of hearing her scream.
The only thing she hears, above the rush of blood in her ears, is his laugh - high and cold and amused with himself.
Every breath sends new waves of agony coursing through her. She focuses on that - on the pain and the metallic tang of blood in her mouth and the pounding of her heart in her ears - as a reminder that for the moment at least, she’s still alive.
She tries to push herself up, but a new, sharper pain tears through her, and she collapses back to the floor. She wraps her hands around the blade sticking out of her side, but she can’t remember if she’s supposed to leave it in or not. It occurs to her that probably doesn’t matter at this point.
Her head spins, and she blinks against the darkness at the edges of her vision.
Not like this. She’s not going to die like this.
The next things she knows someone’s grabbing her, forcing her to her feet, blade and all.
“Shit, Sara.” It’s Jax, his hand pressed roughly to her side, holding the blade in place. Holding her together. “We have to get out of here. We’ll find a healer. Someone who can help. We just have to move.”
She doesn’t have the strength to hell him that she can’t. Or the heart to tell him that there’s no one who can help her now. No healer who can fix this. No time to find one arrogant enough to try.
So she lets him half carry her out of the keep, into the too bright sunlight. It wasn’t this bright out when she’d entered the ruined castle Darhk was using as a base. At least she doesn’t think it was. How long had she been in there?
Every step feels like she’s dying. Like she’s being torn apart from the inside out. She can’t go on. Not like this.
She collapses to her knees and uses the last of her strength to pull the blade free. She doesn’t feel herself fall back into the grass, but she must have, because Jax is above her now.
“C’mon Sara, you can’t give up on me now,” he says, pressing his hands to her side in a futile attempt to stop the bleeding.
It occurs to her that he’s pleading with her. Begging for her life. If she could laugh at the irony of it she would. But all she can do is blink up at the darkening sky and accept her fate. It won’t be long now.
It’s strange. She’d known since she first picked up a sword that she’d die by one. But she’d never expected it to be her own.
She’d always assumed that she’d die in battle. Or doing something stupid but heroic. Slaying a dragon maybe. Or freeing a kingdom from the clutches of some unimaginable evil. Not like this. Not in a failed attempt at revenge.
And the worst part is - the worst part is that Oliver was right. She ran off half cocked and now she’s bleeding to death in some random field in the middle of nowhere. Some hero she is. Some Champion.
The last thing she sees, before the darkness takes her, is an angel, wings spread wide enough to blot out the sun. And well, she’s never been a religious sort, but she knows, deep in her soul, that whatever this is, it’s more than she deserves.
Voices drift somewhere above Sara, an indistinct murmur that washes over her. She’s floating in the soft, warm darkness right on the edge of wakefulness. She ignores the voices and tries to relax into the darkness, letting it pull her back under. But the more she tries, the more it pushes her back up, sleep giving way to wave of unrelenting pain.
She tries to move, to open her eyes at least, but her body is on fire.
The last thing she remembers - the only thing she remembers - is dying. A sword - her sword - through her body as someone laughed at her hubris. So this must be hell. It would be fitting.
Someone screams. Long and loud and anguished.
Yep. Definitely hell.
The voices are louder now. Close enough to make out.
“She’s waking up,” a man says. She recognizes the voice but she can’t place it. The pain clouds her mind and makes it impossible to think. Impossible to remember even the most basic of truths.
“It’s too soon.” Another man, this one unfamiliar. “If she wakes now the shock could kill her.”
That can’t be right. She’s already dead.
Something cool presses against her side and the pain leeches away, ever so slightly. Enough that Sara can finally open her eyes. The world is hazy and indistinct, a mix of too bright light and too dark shadows that her eyes struggle to make out.
The voice belongs to a woman who appears above her, hair a halo of glowing dark gold curls. She’s beautiful. She must be the angel from before.
The angel cradles her head and presses a cup to her lips. Sara obeys. Anything to stop the pain. To return to the warm embrace of oblivion.
Whatever’s in the cup has a bitter, almost metallic flavor, and she nearly chokes. But she manages to drink it all, and it’s only moments before she feels the darkness beckoning her back.
The next time Sara wakes she feels almost lucid. The pain is still there - a sharp stab in her side every time she breathes - but it’s less all encompassing than before. Almost manageable provided she doesn’t move.
Which she learns the hard way, when she tries to sit up. She succeeds, but only barely.
Once the world stops spinning and her vision clears she gets a decent view of the room. It’s small and would be cramped if not for the sunlight streaming in through the window. The cot she’s on is pressed up against a wall decorated with bundles of dried herbs, and there’s a large pot hanging over a cheery fire on the opposite wall.
It’s unfamiliar, but no unlike any of the dozens of such places she’s been in before.
Sara shivers and pulls up the thin blanket someone draped over her, wishing it was heavier. Odd. Between the sun and the fire the room should be uncomfortably warm.
“Look who’s finally awake.” A woman enters the room, carrying a cup filled with steaming liquid in one hand and a pitcher in the other. “You gave us quite the scare.”
The woman is tall, with light brown skin and curly hair escaping from the scarf tied over it. She’s pretty, but it’s her eyes that catch Sara’s attention. They seem much older than they have any right to, given that she can’t be much older than twenty.
“Water?” Sara asks, suddenly aware of just how thirsty she is. Her voice is cracked and raw and she realizes with a wince that the screaming she remembers from before must have been her own.
“This first,” the woman says, handing her the cup.
Sara sniffs it skeptically and nearly wretches at the foul smell. “Are you trying to kill me?”
“Why would I save your life only to kill you when you woke up?” the woman asks lightly, arching an eyebrow. “It’s tea. It’ll take care of the infection.”
Sara makes a face but chokes down the tea. “Tastes like mold.”
“Mold that will keep you from rotting from the inside out,” the woman says, refilling the cup with water. “Don’t drink this too fast.”
Sara ignores her, gulping down the water.
“Who are you?” Sara asks once she's finished drinking.
“Kendra,” the woman says, refilling the cup. “How much do you remember?”
Her memory comes back in flashes, and she sips her water deliberately, trying to make sense of it. “I remember going after Darhk. I tracked him to an abandoned keep on the edge of the Southern Realms, but when I tried to get the drop on him he was ready for me. After that it gets hazy.”
She looks up to find Kendra studying her. She’s backlit by the sun coming in through the window and she almost glows. A memory stirs - a golden angel descending from the sky to save her - and for a second Sara thinks...but it can’t be. That would be ridiculous.
“Are you alright?” Kendra asks, startling Sara out of her reverie.
“Uh yeah, sorry,” Sara says, chalking it up to the blood loss and the fever. “So you’re a healer?”
“I guess you could say that,” she says with a shrug. “When you live as many lives as I have you pick some things up.”
What an odd things to say.
“How long have you been alive, exactly?” Sara asks. It occurs to her that it’s probably rude to ask, given the circumstances, but she’s in too much pain for social graces.
“A thousand years, give or take.”
She’s been awake for less than fifteen minutes and today already ranks among one of the weirder days she’s had. Might as well embrace it. “Coulda fooled me. You don’t look a day over twenty-five.”
Kendra smiles and shakes her head before turning away to set a pot of something over the fire. The room soon smells of mint and anise and clove - enough to make Sara’s eyes water, and she shivers despite the cloying heat.
“We’re not immortal,” Kendra says as if it explains everything. “We’re reincarnated.”
“You say that as if that makes more sense.”
Kendra sighs and drags a stool over to Sara’s cot. “I need to change your bandages.”
Sara lays back and lets Kendra lift up her shirt, revealing a large bandage that covers most of her abdomen.
Sara inhales sharply as Kendra carefully pulls off the bandage. She’s seen a lot of blood in her life, much of it her own, but the sight of the gash in her side is enough to make her head spin. Someone’s closed it with a row of careful stitches, but they don’t make it any easier to look at.
“A thousand years ago, Carter - my husband -” Sara notes the way Kendra hesitates at that, but she has enough of her wits about her not to comment - at least, not while Kendra is working on the large hole in her side, “and I were cursed by an evil wizard. He used our life force to become immortal.”
Kendra pauses as she carefully applies a poultice to Sara’s wound, and when she speaks again her voice is quiet. “Everytime he kills us we’re reincarnated, destined to spend each new life being hunted like animals.”
There’s so much sadness in her eyes that Sara feels compelled to look away. As if she’s intruded on something private. And, she supposes, in a way she has. She's not sure why Kendra is telling her this, but she gets the sense it has nothing to do with her.
“You’ve never fought back?”
As soon as the words are out of her mouth she knows it was a mistake.
“More times than I can count,” Kendra says, voice hard. There’s a sudden fierceness in her demeanor, and Sara’s glad they’re on the same side. But she soon deflates, that same quiet sadness back on her face. “It never makes any difference.”
“I know a thing or two about fighting evil wizards,” Sara says, in an attempt to lighten the mood. “We could make a deal. Help me with mine and I’ll help you with yours.”
Kendra smiles ruefully as she covers the wound in a fresh bandage. “Roll over, I need to do the one on your back.”
Sara obeys and turns on her side.
“This Darhk almost killed you once,” Kendra says eventually. “He would have if Carter and I hadn’t been in the area looking for signs of Savage. So tell me, was it worth it?”
Anger burns at the back of Sara’s throat. Who is this woman, this stranger, to ask her that? Just because she’s given up fighting doesn’t mean Sara has to. Not when Laurel is...Laurel is…
Her anger fades, as quickly as it came on, replaced by a wave a grief. For a moment she'd forgotten why she’d gone charging after Darhk. Why she’d thrown herself at him with no regard for her own safety. Why her failure brought her so much shame.
“He killed my sister,” she says, voice thick. “Stabbed her in the back, just to settle some petty dispute with the king.”
Tears burn hot tracks down her face, and she’s glad she has her back to Kendra. Laurel is dead. Laurel is dead and she is alive, and her grief is the cost of her survival. The price she must pay for another shot at Darhk. More than anything she wishes she could just go back in time, to before she even knew who Darhk was, and prevent any of this from happening. But that’s not how the world works. There's no magic that can undo time itself.
“I’m sorry about your sister,” Kendra says as she finishes bandaging Sara’s back. “I know what it’s like, to lose someone you love.”
Sara gets the distinct impression Kendra’s letting her win. But right now she’ll take it. Being run through with her own sword makes it hard to stand on her pride.
She rolls back over and accepts another cup of tea from Kendra. “Drink this. It will help with the pain.”
Sara sniffs it carefully. “I’m still not convinced the last cup of tea wasn’t poison.”
“It’s willow bark,” Kendra says with a gentle smile, “and herbs to help you sleep.”
Sara drinks it. She’s too tired to fight it, and the pain in her side is getting worse the longer she’s awake.
“How did you do it?” Sara asks, gesturing at her bandages. “I’ve seen enough war wounds to know that you can’t fix an injury like that with some moldy herbs.”
Kendra just shrugs. “Like I said, you pick things up when you’ve lived for a thousand years.”
Sara doesn’t have the energy to figure out what that means. Or to ask any of the thousand questions she still has. Whatever Kendra put in the tea was strong, and she can feel the darkness beckoning her back.
Sleep takes her, but her dreams are uneasy, haunted by Kendra’s words.
Was it worth it?
I promise the next chapter will actually resolve the cliff hanger, but I had to self indulgently work in Kendra somehow because I will never not love her (was I a Kendra/Sara shipper in season 1? maybe...)
Chapter 8: A Caged Bird
In which the plot finally progresses and Ava reveals her hand
“Sara! Sara, wake up!”
The first thing Sara sees when she comes to is Jax; his face altogether too close as he leans over her and shakes her shoulder.
“What happened?” she asks, pushing him away as she shits up.
Her entire body aches from whatever it was that Darhk’s magic did to her. It’s almost as if the life he drained from her never came back. The world isn't as vivid. Colors aren't as bright. Or that's just the betrayal.
The cell they’re in is dark, lit only by a guttering torch on the far side of the bars whose light only reaches a couple of feet into the cell. Not that she needs to be able to see what’s back there if the stench is anything to go by.
Fucking dungeons. For once in her life she'd like to be imprisoned somewhere pleasant. A nice deserted island maybe. Or a tower with lots of windows. Anything but another disgusting dungeon.
Not that she can really complain. She hadn't exactly been expecting to wake up at all.
Jax must know what she’s thinking. “Ava told Darhk to keep you alive. Something about getting more information.”
The mention of Ava sends a stab of anger through her. Ava who she trusted. Who she trekked across the realms for. Who she deluded herself into thinking she might-
“More like she can’t rub it in if I’m dead,” Sara mutters.
“My sister doesn’t do anything that isn’t part of her plan,” a voice says from the next cell. “If she wants you alive there’s a reason.”
Sara has to get to her feet to see who’s speaking. The angle of the cells arranged around the small dungeon makes it impossible to see into the next one over without leaning against the bars.
The voice belongs to a shabby looking man. His clothes are well made, and even in the semi darkness Sara can tell they were fine once, but now they’re stained and torn and hang off his overly thin frame. Combined with how shaggy his hair and beard are, it’s clear that he’s been here for at least a couple of months. If Sara had to guess she'd say exactly the amount of time it took Ava to travel to Starling and back.
“You must be the king,” Sara says.
“Former king,” he replies glumly.
“Rightful king.” That comes from the far cell, occupied by a woman in similarly once fine clothing.
“Ah, well, technicalities,” the man says. He turns back to Sara and Jax. “I suppose you’re due a proper introduction. I am King Michael of Tempus, but you can call me Rip. This,” he indicates the woman, “is my seneschal Gideon. She’s the one who actually runs the place. Or ran the place before this last spot of trouble.”
Sara looks between the king - Rip - and Gideon, trying to get her bearings. Never in a million years would she have expected the brother Ava spoke so highly of to be so...informal.
“It’s nice to finally meet you, Your Majesty-”
“I really must insist you call me Rip,” he interrupts. Gideon makes an indignant noise and he - Rip - shoots her a pointed look.
“It’s nice to finally meet you, Rip,” Sara continues, trying and mostly failing to keep her annoyance at the interruption out of her voice. “I’m Sara-”
“Sara Lance, Knight of Canaries, Champion of Starling,” he finishes for her. “Yes I know who you are and why you’re here. Your squire already told us.”
She looks at Jax who just shrugs. How can Ava be related to this guy?
“What exactly do you mean?” she asks. “About Ava wanting us alive?”
“Ava is meticulous,” Rip says. “To a fault sometimes.”
Sara lets out a dry laugh. “That’s one way to put it.”
That earns a laugh from Gideon, who turns to Rip. "I like this one."
Rip just lets out a beleaguered sigh and continues. “As I was saying, she’s too smart to acquiesce to Darhk without reason. She would have known that he wasn’t going to release me. There must be something deeper going on...You’re sure you don’t know what she’s planning?”
“If I’d known what she was planning, I wouldn’t be here now would I?”
It comes out more bitter than she intended, but well, that’s how you’re supposed to be feel when someone betrays you. Regardless of any feelings you might have about them.
She hates that she hopes he’s wrong and that Ava asked Darhk to spare her out of some sort of real affection. Or even just guilt. She’d take that over the alternative. She’s not anyone’s pawn. Not even Ava's.
“Could it have something to do with this?” Jax asks, holding up the Oculus Jewel.
With everything that’s happened Sara had completely forgotten about the Oculus. But seeing it now is like a punch in the gut. She had really thought that Ava wanted her to keep it because what? She trusted her? She believed in her? She might even have feelings for her?
But no. Of course not. It was all part of whatever game Ava’s playing. Has been playing from the very beginning. Since she walked into Sara’s life and begged for her help.
She should have fucking known. Things don’t work out for Sara Lance. She’s never been the gallant knight who rescues the princess and saves the kingdom. Why would things be any different this time around?
“Could it have something to do with that?” Rip repeats mockingly. “Yes, of course it has something to do with that!”
“You know what? Just for that I’m not giving it to you,” Jax says. “Why do you care so much about a second rate sapphire anyways?”
“That,” Rip says, pointing at the Oculus, “is an extremely powerful magical item that could wreak havoc in the wrong hands.”
Sara’s confusion must show on her face because Rip looks between her and Jax and throws his hands up in exasperation. “Which she didn’t tell you. Of course.”
“She didn’t tell me a lot of things,” Sara mutters.
Rip looks likes he’s about to continue his tirade by Gideon shoots him a warning look and he deflates.
“Regardless,” he says, almost carefully. “We can use the Oculus to escape.”
“Why didn’t you say that the first time?” Jax asks.
Before Rip can respond the door to the dungeon opens and a guard shuffles through. He takes up position by the door as Ava enters behind him.
Sara stiffens as Ava’s eyes find her. For a second she swears she sees something there. Something like regret. But it’s gone so fast she can’t be sure she wasn’t imagining it. And maybe it’s better that way.
Ava turns her attention to the others, giving Gideon a curt nod before approaching Rip’s cell. “Rip. You’re alright?”
“I’m not hurt if that’s what you’re asking,” he replies, voice hard.
“Miranda and Jonas?”
“Safe,” he says. Ava’s shoulders sag with relief. “No thanks to you.”
Ava recoils as if she’s been slapped.
“You were supposed to protect them,” he continues. “But instead you ran off to do Darhk’s bidding.”
“I’m trying to save us,” Ava retorts, voice sharp. “To save you. I saw an opportunity and I took it. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t have done the same.”
Rip glares at her but he doesn’t respond.
“And here I thought I was the only person you betrayed,” Sara says.
Ava flinches, as if she’d forgotten anyone else was in the room.
“For what it’s worth, I am sorry about lying to you,” Ava says, turning to Sara. “But it was the only way.”
Sara laughs at how ridiculous that is. “The only way to what? Because from where I’m standing it doesn’t seem like you’ve accomplished all that much. Unless this was all an elaborate plot to get all of us publicly executed.”
“When Darhk took the castle I ran, that’s true,” Ava says, taking a step towards Sara’s cell. “I tried to escape, to go find help, but he caught me. He told me that the only way he wouldn’t kill me and Rip right then was if I brought you to him. And I thought that maybe this was my opportunity to, I don’t know, convince you to help me. I can’t fight him alone.”
“And how exactly does letting him capture me help you fight him?” Sara asks.
"You still have the Oculus?" Ava asks.
"That's what this was all about?" Sara asks, struggling to control her voice. "That fucking jewel? Well congratulations, you kept Darhk from finding it in this fucking dungeon. At least until he executes me."
Ava looks away. “I didn’t know Darhk was going to capture you. I thought...He was more prepared than I expected.”
“Oh I can’t imagine how he knew we were coming,” Sara spits back.
Ava runs her hand through her hair. She seems genuinely distressed, apologetic even, and Sara wants more than anything to believe her. But it’s not that simple. She doesn’t get to just walk in here and apologize and act like that fixes things. Not when Darhk is going to kill her, probably painfully, and it was all for nothing.
“What I don’t understand,” Jax says, braking the tense silence, “is why you didn’t just tell us all this from the beginning.”
“If I had would you have agreed to come?” Ava asks quietly, never taking her eyes off of Sara.
Sara doesn’t answer.
“Yeah,” Ava says, sounding so sad that it would break Sara’s heart if she had one left to break. “That’s what I thought.”
Ava works her jaw but doesn’t respond.
Sara turns away, refusing to give Ava the satisfaction of seeing the tears she’s suddenly blinking back. The rational part of Sara realizes that Ava’s as much a victim of Darhk as she is, but it’s easier to be angry than to admit just why it is that she’s so sad.
“You know,” Gideon says eventually, once the dungeon door creaks closed behind Ava, “I never did like her very much.”
Sara huffs out a dry laugh. She really can’t catch a fucking break can she?
“So, are we using this thing to get out of here or what?” Jax asks, holding up the Oculus.
“No,” Sara says, surprising herself with her sudden conviction. “I’m tired of letting Darhk win. I’m not running away again. Not from him and certainly not from Ava.”
Jax gives her a searching look. “Okay. But how exactly are we gonna do that?”
“The Oculus,” Sara says, turning to Rip, the beginnings of a plan starting to form. “You said it was magic. What does it do exactly?”
“Exactly? I couldn’t say,” Rip says, “but family legends say that the wielder can use it to travel through time.”
“So someone could use it to, say, go back to before we were captured, sneak out, and raise an army to attack the castle?”
"Theoretically?" Jax asks. "What happened to it being an extremely powerful magical item?"
"Well, according to the stories it's incredibly powerful," Rip says, looking almost guilty. “But it is only a legend. There’s no guarantee that it actually works. And even if it does, you’d have to be incredibly careful not to change the timeline. Who knows what havoc that would cause.”
“So you’re telling me that all this to do about this damn Jewel has been based on a story?” Jax asks. “None of you know if the damn thing even works?”
“The use and effects of the Jewel are well documented in the histories of Tempus,” Gideon puts in.
Jax scoffs and shakes his head. And well, Sara doesn’t disagree. But what choice does she have?
“I don’t know about you, but I’d rather try than wait for Darhk to kill me. Again.” She’s tired of being careful. There’s too much at stake. “I always did plan on going out in a blaze of glory.”
Rip opens his mouth to argue, but he’s interrupted by Jax. “I’ll do it.”
“No.” Sara turns to him, Rip forgotten. “I won’t let you take that risk. This is my fight. Not yours.”
“Like hell it isn’t.” Jax crosses his arms, looking about as determined as she’s ever seen him. “You think I don’t want to kill Darhk just as much as you do? I watched you die, Sara. I’m not doing that again.”
“I hate to say it,” Rip says, “but it does make a certain amount of sense. Darhk is expecting you to try something, but Squire Jackson here…”
Sara looks between him and Jax and sighs. He’s right. It’s the better move. Not that she’s happy about it. “Fine.”
“I don’t suppose you know how to use this thing?” Jax asks.
It’s Gideon who answers. “According to castle records, you must recite an incantation while focusing on your destination.”
Sara turns to Jax. “You’re sure about this?”
“Of course,” he says with a smile. She knows him well enough to know that he’s lying, but he can be stubborn when he wants to be. “I’ll go get Stein and convince him to lend me an army. Plus anyone else I can find to help.”
Sara nods and swallows the worry that’s rising in her throat. She pulls him into a quick hug. “Be careful.”
“When am I not careful?” he asks.
She snorts and shakes her head. “Don’t do anything I would do.”
He laughs and looks at Gideon. “Hit me with that incantation.”
Sara steps back as he starts to chant. At first nothing happens, but then the Jewel starts to pulse with a glowing blue energy that gets steadily stronger until she’s forced to look away. When her vision clears, he’s gone.
“Now,” Rip says, “we wait.”
Chapter 9: A Daring Escape
In which our villain gloats and our heroes find an unlikely ally
warning for violence again (because we're in the endgame now)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“How long is this gonna take?” Sara asks for what feels like the thousandth time, pacing fruitlessly around her cell.
If Laurel were here she’d tell her that whining is unbecoming someone of her position, but well, Laurel’s not here. That’s the whole point.
And besides, two days of waiting for a signal that isn’t guaranteed to come has her a bit on edge. Especially when the alternative is being tortured and killed.
Rip lets out an exasperated sigh and fixes her with a judgemental look. And she’s familiar enough with Ava’s signature judgemental glare by now to recognize the family resemblance. It really is uncanny.
“Need I remind you Lady Lance, we have no guarantee that the Oculus worked as intended,” he says, not for the first - or even the tenth - time. “And even if it did, Squire Jackson’s efforts require precise timing and coordination. Surely we can spare him a couple of days?”
“As long as Darhk doesn’t decide to kill us all before he gets here,” Sara says, more resigned than anything.
As if on cue, the door to the dungeon swings open and Darhk strides in, flanked by a pair of guards. But they aren’t the normal castle guards. They’re better equipped, for one, with the well made but unadorned weapons favored by mercenaries. Their armor is battle scarred and bears the crossed spear crest of the Legion of Doom, a mercenary band based out of the Blüdhaven in the west. That explains how Darhk has held the kingdom for so long if nothing else.
Sara stops pacing and watches him as he surveys the room, eyes settling on her.
“Speak of the devil and he shall appear,” Rip mutters.
“Were you talking about me?” Darhk asks, voice far too cheerful. “I’m flattered.”
“What do you want, Darhk?” Sara asks, biting back the fear rising in her chest.
“Oh, you know,” he says with a grin that could cut glass, “power, immortality, this very annoying thorn in my side dealt with. The usual.”
“Then stop playing games and kill me already.”
She doesn’t want to die. For the first time in over a year she knows that for certain. He doesn’t deserve the satisfaction of killing her. But she’d rather he end it already than string her along in whatever twisted game he’s playing. She’s tired of being used.
“It’s tempting,” he says, tilting his head as if he’s seriously considering it. “I had every intention of killing you the other night when you so rudely showed up in my bedchamber. But then your Countess practically begged me to keep you alive. Oh she thought she was manipulating me with some grand plan, but it was quite obvious she just didn’t want to watch you die.”
Sara blinks, taken aback. Maybe Ava had been telling the truth after all. Maybe Sara hadn’t been wrong and they...well, it’s too late now.
“But it did give me the most wonderful idea,” Darhk continues, oblivious to Sara’s inner turmoil. “Where’s the fun in just killing you when I could make you watch me kill everyone you’ve ever loved. That broody king you’ve got in Starling, your father, your precious Countess, maybe even that pet of a squire who follows you around.”
Sara grits her teeth. It takes every ounce of her carefully cultivated self control to not rise to his bait. To not give him what he wants.
He looks past her, noticing Jax’s absence for the first time.
“Where is that annoying squire of yours anyways?” he asks.
Sara shrugs. “He wasn’t here when I came to the other day. I assumed you’d already killed him.”
He watches her, his cold eyes searching her face. She just stares blankly back at him, hoping he doesn’t see through the lie.
“Huh,” he says finally, shrugging it off with an unconcerned air. “I applaud his tenacity. I didn’t think he had it in him.”
“You’re not concerned that he escaped?” Rip asks.
“Concerned? No,” Darhk says, eyes fixed on Sara. “If he’s smart he’s halfway across the Realms by now. And if not...well, if the great Knight of Canaries here can’t kill me, what makes him think he can?”
Before Sara can respond another guard enters the room. “Apologies Lord Darhk, but an army has been spotted approaching the castle. You’re needed in the council chamber.”
“Tell the men I’m on my way,” Darhk tell him. “And summon my personal guard while you’re at it. I have a feeling we’re going to have some visitors shortly.”
The guard bows and leaves, and Darhk turns back to Sara. “Well, it seems that your friend isn’t as smart as I’d hoped. But I could use a little fun. The castle is so boring most of the time.”
He flashes her one last smile. Fucking asshole.
Once he’s gone she feels like she can breathe again. Jax did it. Now she has to make sure it wasn’t all in vain.
“I think that’s our cue.”
“Might I remind you that we’re locked in here?” Rip says, indicating the dungeon. And he does have a point.
“Technicalities,” Gideon says, pulling out a key and unlocking her cell.
“You’ve had a key this entire time?” Rip asks angrily. “Well, exactly, were you planning on sharing that information?”
“If I had let you out eariler you would have gotten yourself killed,” Gideon explains calmly, unlocking first Rip and then Sara’s cell. “I determined that remaining here was what was best for both you and the kingdom.”
Rip glares at her but eventually he relents. “When this is over we will be having words about this.”
“I’m sure we will, Your Majesty,” Gideon replies, a hint of humor in her voice.
Before Gideon can unlock the outer door it swings open and one of the castle guards enters. He stops shorts, even going wide when he sees them.
Sara springs into action, grabbing the front of his armor and shoving him against the well, pulling his dagger from his belt in the process.
“Not a sound,” she says, pressing the knife against his throat. “Understand?”
“The Countess sent me!” he says in a rush, clearly terrified.
Sara eases the pressure on the dagger, pulling it away from his throat ever so slightly. Now that she looks at him it’s clear he’s the guard Ava had with her when she’d come to visit. “Ava sent you?”
“Yes.” He nods vigorously. “She told me to free you, but clearly someone beat me to it.”
He seems sincere, but she can’t be sure he wasn’t sent by Darhk in some bizarre ploy. “Rip?”
“He’s telling the truth, I would wager,” Rip says. “Gary here has been in Ava’s service for years. Plus, I don’t think he has it in him to lie.”
Sara presses the knife against his throat one last time. “If you so much as look at me wrong I will gut you, understand?”
He nods, eyes wide with terror, and she lets him go, satisfied that he’s too afraid of her to try anything.
“They took my weapons when they captured me,” she says, tucking his dagger into her belt. “Where would they have stored them?”
“The armory,” Gary says, dusting himself off.
“Lead the way.”
They make it to the armory without too much trouble, although they have to duck into empty rooms on several occasions to avoid people running down the halls. From the clatter of armor they sound like soldiers making their way to the battlements.
Sara makes short work of the pair of guards outside the armory, stashing their bodies in a nearby broom cupboard. Apparently all the competent guards are busy elsewhere, but she’s not complaining.
The armory is small but well stocked, and Sara figures they don’t have much time until the castle guards come to get their gear. The mercenaries at least store their gear somewhere else by the looks of it.
Luckily she finds her sword on top of a pile of weapons someone tossed in the corner. She straps it to her belt next to the borrowed dagger and looks for anything else that might be of use. She considers a shield, but it will just slow her down.
“We need to get to the council chamber and find Darhk,” Sara says. “And we also need to make sure Jax can get back into the castle.”
“We should split up,” Rip says, picking up a crossbow. It’s not what she would have gone with - too slow for her tastes - but she respects his desire to fight. Not every king she’s met would do as much.
She doesn’t like the idea of splitting up but he’s right. There’s no way they can be in both places at once, and time is of the essence. “Gideon, I assume you know where the secret tunnel into the castle is?”
“Naturally,” Gideon says, spinning a pair of razor sharp stilettos in her hands with the practiced ease of someone who knows how to use them.
For a seneschal, she sure is full of surprises. Not that Sara’s complaining.
“Take Gary and make sure the tunnel entrance is clear,” she says. “My guess is that if Jax is bringing people in it’ll be through there. Rip and I will go to the council chamber and try and find Darhk.”
“But the Countess instructed me to-” Gary protests but Sara cuts him off with a glare. He swallows and nods. “To follow your instructions.”
Gideon and Gary head towards the cellars while Rip leads the way to the council chamber.
The halls are quieter now, almost suspiciously so. But then again, everyone should be on the walls, bracing for an attack.
There’s a sudden crash up ahead, and Sara pulls Rip against the wall at the top of a stairwell. Something’s not right.
She draws her sword, taking comfort in its familiar weight, and carefully rounds the corner, signally Rip to stay behind.
She stops in her tracks when she sees Ava standing outside the council chamber, sword in hand, a dead mercenary at her feet.
“Good, you’re here,” Ava says when she sees her. “Let’s go.”
“You have a lot of nerve showing your face,” Sara says, more to cover the fact that she’s genuinely surprised than anything.
“Look,” Ava says, lowering her sword. “I don’t know what’s going on, but this is our chance to get Darhk. That’s why I sent Gary to get you.”
She looks past Sara to where Rip has emerged from the stairwell. “Where is Gary, by the way?”
Sara glances back at Rip who just shrugs. She sighs and lowers her sword. Against her better judgment she finds herself wanting to trust Ava again. And besides, this is no time to be turning away a potential ally.
“Jax used the Oculus to escape and gather an army,” Sara explains. “I sent Gary with Gideon to make sure he makes it into the castle.”
“The Oculus...actually worked?” Ava looks at Rip, disbelief in her voice.
“Believe me,” Rip says. “I am as surprised as you are.”
“Did anyone think the damn Oculus would actually work?” Sara asks.
“To be fair,” Ava says, looking at Rip. “I didn’t think it was impossible. Just unlikely.”
“I don’t know what’s worse,” Sara says, not bothering to keep the anger out of her voice. “That you were working for Darhk the whole time, or that you didn’t think to tell me that your grand plan was based on a damn fairy tale.”
“Well it worked didn’t it?” Ava retorts.
“That’s not the point!”
“No, the point,” Ava says, gesturing at the door to the council chamber, “Is that Darhk is through there and this is our chance to fight him. Wasn’t that what this entire thing was about in the first place? Fighting Darhk?”
“You really think that’s gonna fix things?” Sara shoots back. “That that’s gonna make up for the fact that you fucking stabbed me in the back?”
“Of course I don’t!” Ava almost yells, a wild look in her eye. But then she deflates, sadness filling her eyes. “I know I made a mistake. And I ruined...I fucked up and I know that nothing I do is going to fix it, but I really do want Darhk dead. And I know you do too. So at least let me help you fight him.”
Sara doesn’t know what to say to that. If things were different she might...but right now all she has is her desire for revenge. So she lets that fuel her. Lets it burn away the hurt, until all that’s left is the fire that has kept her company on more night than she can count.
Ava looks relieved, and more than anything Sara wishes that it were that easy. That they could yell at each other until there was nothing left to say and then kiss it all away. But that’s not how it works. Not when she doesn’t know what will be left of her when this fight is over.
Sara takes up position on one side of the door, sword in hand. She nods and Ava pulls the door open.
She’s halfway to the large table at the center of the room before she realizes that something’s wrong. The room is empty. She’s not caught up in some magic web or being flanked by a dozen mercenaries. Something’s definitely wrong.
“Darhk!” she calls. “Show yourself!”
“If you’re looking for Damien,” a man says, appearing from the shadows on the other side of the table. He’s holding a pair of wicked looking knives and a blue stone glows around his neck. “I’m sorry to say that you’ve just missed him.”
Sara levels her sword at him but before she can move another man appears next to him. This one she recognizes.
“Lady Lance,” Malcolm Merlyn says. “And here I heard you were dead.”
Merlyn,” she replies, keeping her sword firmly pointed at him, despite the table between them, and notes the red stone glowing around his neck. “Why am I not surprised you ended up here?”
“You know this guy?” Ava asks from where she’s taken up position next to Sara.
“Meet Malcolm Merlyn, former Duke of Starling,” Sara says, keeping her eyes trained on him. She knows him too well to let her guard down. “He orchestrated the death of King Robert and tried to take the throne for himself.”
“What can I say?” Merlyn says with a shrug. “It was a really good plan.”
Sara doesn’t rise to his bait. Instead she checks the rest of the room. There doesn’t seem to be anyone else, but that’s not exactly comforting.
“Why are you here, Merlyn?” she asks. “And who’s your friend?”
“Eobard Thawne,” the first man says with a flourish. “Prince of Inglewood, in the Central Kingdoms.”
“I’ve heard of you,” Ava says. “You tried to kill King Bartholomew a couple of years ago.”
“The very same,” Thawne replies, giving Ava a mock bow.
God these guys are obnoxious.
“As for why we’re here,” Merlyn says, “well, Damien asked us to take care of a little problem for him, and who are we to say no? Especially when he threw in these little toys.”
He indicates the stone necklace he’s wearing, and Sara gets the feeling she’s seen something like it before. Felt something like the power radiating off of it before.
Sara glances over at Ava and meets her eyes. There’s a question there and Sara nods slightly. The faster they take care of these assholes the better.
After that everything happens in quick succession: A crossbow bolt goes flying a Thawne - Sara vaults over the table towards Merlyn - Ava charges around the other side of the table towards Thawne - Merlyn throws a ball of fire at Sara.
No that she wasn’t expecting.
She flattens herself against the table she’s diving across to avoid the fireball - but she only barely gets out of the way and she can feel the heat of it on her face and is passes overhead.
Sara springs off the table and lands in front of Marlyn, using her momentum to bring her sword down on his head. He parries it and counters, and they settle into an easy back and forth. Strike, parry, thrust, counter, parry, parry, parry.
“It’s almost as if I taught you everything you know,” he says, smirking as he turns aside another slash.
He uses his off hand to throw another fireball at her, but she pulls back, pivoting out of its way. But it throws her off balance and she’s forced to take a step back.
He takes advantage of her momentary lapse, swinging his sword down on her in an overhand strike. She gets her blade up just in time, but he uses his size to bear down on her. She pushes back with all her strength, but the blade still inches closer to her face.
The annoying thing is that he’s right. He knows how she fights. Can predict her every move. Because he had taught her how to wield a sword. Her and Oliver and Tommy. Back when her father had first brought them to court.
But she’s learned a few new tricks since then.
She turns her blade, angling it towards the ground, and dodges to the side at the same time, letting his momentum throw him off balance as his sword slides uselessly off hers.
In a flash her knife is out, and she tackles him, sliding the blade up under his ribs.
“Not quite,” she says, withdrawing the knife and stabbing him again.
His sword clatters to the ground, useless, and he gives her one last look before he follows it. “You think that just because you can beat me you can beat him? He’s more powerful than you can even imagine.”
“You always did like to hear yourself talk.”
She slides her blade across his throat, putting him out of his misery. It’s more than he deserves, but she doesn’t have the time to listen to him die.
She turns, ready to fight Thawne, just in time to see him fall, a crossbow bolt sprouting from his eye socket. The floor around him is wet, and Ava looks like she was doused in water.
“What was that?” Ava asks, sheathing her sword and pushing damp hair out of her face.
Sara leans down and pulls the red stone from Merlyn’s neck. It’s warm in her hand, and it radiates a familiar sense of power. But there’s something else. Something dark within it. Like a piece of Merlyn’s corruption had transferred to the stone itself.
“I think these are the totems Amaya told us about,” she says, turning the stone over in her hand. “The ones Darhk stole from the Southern Realms.”
Sara goes to grab the one around Thawne’s rapidly cooling neck, but as she does, the muscles in her abdomen spasm and pain lances up her side. She stumbles, losing her balance and falling sideways. Right into Ava, who catches her.
“Are you okay?” Ava asks, concerned.
“Yeah,” Sara says, gritting her teeth as she tries to breathe through the pain. “Just a cramp.”
She disentangles herself from Ava and leans back against the table. Of course this would happen now. Right when she’s got Darhk in her sights again. And in front of Ava too. Who’s probably ready to give her a fucking lecture about stretching. Fuck.
“Here,” Ava says and Sara feels strong fingers press into her side. She winces as Ava starts to massage the muscle around her scar, but all she can do it try and grip the table behind her and try to stay upright.
There’s something entirely too intimate about it, and normally Sara would balk at letting someone get her in this vulnerable of a position - particularly Ava - but she’s in too much pain to care. And well, the more Ava works, the more the muscle relaxes.
“Better?” Ava asks after a while.
“Much.” Sara looks up at her, and for the first time it really registers how close they are. Close enough that she can pick out the individual droplets of water that still cling to Ava’s hairline. Close enough to see the way Ava’s nose crinkles slightly in concern. Close enough to -
Rip clears his throat, startling them back into the present.
Ava springs back, and a pang of guilt courses through Sara. But she’s not quite sure what she has to be guilty about.
Ava blinks and clears her throat. “Are you good to keep moving?”
“Yep,” Sara says, busying herself collecting the forgotten totem from Thawne’s body.
“Shall we?” Rip asks, indicating the door.
Sara grips her sword, steeling herself for what’s to come.
Ava catches her eye and nods slightly. And it’s the strangest thing. An hour ago Sara would have been happy to never see her again, much less fight at her side. And ten minutes ago she was ready to write her off entirely. But right now, there’s no one she’d rather be doing this with.
“Let’s go kick some sorcerer ass.”
yeah I know literally nothing about sword fighting or historically european martial arts or just like, fighting in general, so I plead ignorance if something doesn't make sense or is blatantly wrong
Chapter 10: The Big Climactic Battle
In which Jax comes through in the clutch and our heroes become...wait for it...legends
Sara presses herself up against the wall, trying to make out the sounds coming from up ahead. The clang of armored footsteps stops, replaced by the sound of a hushed argument.
“Can you walk quieter?” someone demands. “I think I heard something.”
“You try walking quietly in this stuff,” another voice says. A voice she recognizes.
She sheathes her sword and rounds the corner. “And here I thought I was going to have to do this all by myself.”
“Sara!” Jax says, face splitting into a grin.
“Took you long enough,” Sara says lightly, but she can’t contain her own smile. It’s been a long time since she’s been without Jax in a fight, and his presence puts her more at ease than she expected.
“Yeah well,” he says, jerking his thumb at the group assembled behind him. “I had to pick up some friends.”
He’s not kidding. Ray - who is, of course, in a full suit of armor - was the one making all the noise, but his squire is there too, looking much less like a leper now that he’s dressed for battle. Behind him are Amaya and Zari - totems prominently displayed - each looking more fierce than Ray and Nate combined despite being armed with knives instead of swords. Gary and Gideon trail behind, rounding out the group.
Jax’s gaze slides past Sara to where Ava and Rip are standing. “Oh hell no. What’s she’s doing here?”
“What do you mean?” Ray asks, in that dumb but well meaning way of his. “That’s Ava. You remember Ava? Scary, kinda mean?”
“Of course I remember Ava,” Jax says. “How could I forget how she betrayed us to Darhk?”
Ava stiffens and then looks at the floor.
The rest of the group erupts as everyone talks over each other.
“What do you mean, betrayed you -”
“We should have known -”
“Working with Darhk -”
“Well that’s a bit harsh -”
“Hey!” Sara says, raising her voice above the din. The others fall quiet, looking at her. “We don’t have time to debate this. We have an evil sorcerer to fight, and I trust Ava. So, are you guys in or not?”
She can feel Ava’s eyes boring holes into her back, but she doesn’t look at her. There’s too much riding on this.
Miraculously no one objects. Even if Amaya and Gideon both look skeptical and Zari looks between Sara and Ava and smirks. At least Ray doesn’t say anything, for once in his life.
Jax just looks at her and raises his eyebrows. She hates that he can see right through her, but there’s no time for second guesses. Not now.
Eventually he nods and looks at Gideon. “Where to now?”
“Oh, I know this!” Gary says. “Darhk said that the guards should go to the throne room and wait for him there.”
“To the throne room then,” Sara says.
Rip and Gideon take the lead, and the rest of the group fall in behind them.
“Did you mean that?” Ava asks, taking up position next to Sara.
Ava let’s out an annoyed huff that Sara can’t help but find adorable. “What you said about trusting me.”
“I…” Sara searches for words, suddenly at a loss. Because it’s true, even if a part of her wishes it wasn’t. “Yes.”
Ava blinks, genuine surprise on her face. “Why? I lied to you and then betrayed you…”
“Because...because I don’t think you’d do it again.” Sara looks away. It feels more like a confession than it should. “But if you do -”
“I won’t,” Ava says a bit too quickly. And then, “I couldn’t.”
Sara finally meets her eyes, and what she finds...well, there will be time for that later. First they need to survive this fight.
She’s thrown out of her thoughts when the group comes to a sudden halt.
“The throne room,” Rip says, indicating a large gilded door at the far end of the hall they just entered.
“Is there another way in?” Sara asks, looking around. The hall is quiet, but that doesn’t mean much. Anyone with ears heard them coming. And Sara knows a trap when she sees one.
“There’s a servant’s entrance on the other side,” Gideon says. “Through the kitchens.”
“Perfect,” Sara says, surveying the group. “Let’s split up and hit them from both sides at once. Jax, take Nate, Zari, Ava, and Gary to the servant’s entrance. The rest of us will wait here for five minutes before going in. Wait until you hear fighting and then go.”
Jax gives her a searching look. “You sure about this?”
“You have a better idea?”
He nods, understanding. “See you on the other side.”
They disappear down the hall, and Sara settles in to wait for them to get into position.
“Thank you,” Amaya says, taking up position next to her. “For standing up to Darhk.”
Sara shakes her head. She doesn’t deserve thanks. “I’m glad you changed your mind.”
Amaya shrugs. “Jax was very convincing. He showed up at our door not days after you left with the strangest story. And he said this was the only chance we were going to get to fight Darhk. So here we are.”
“Well, thanks for coming. I need all the help I can get.” Sara digs in her pocket and pulls out the totems she took from Merlyn and Thawne. “I think these belong to you.”
“The water and fire totems.” Amaya takes them with an air of reverence. “The people of the Southern Realms owe you a great debt.”
“If we get through this, I’d say we’re even.”
Amaya looks as if she doesn’t quite agree, but she doesn’t argue. Instead she carefully stowes the totems in her belt purse.
“It’s time, Lady Lance,” Gideon says, voice cutting through the quiet.
“Ready?” Sara asks, trying to project a confidence she doesn’t feel.
Ray lowers the visor of his helmet and raises his shield. Amaya touches her totem; it glows and engulfs her in the form of a large transparent bull. Rip just raises his crossbow, pointing it at the door.
“Gideon, stay out here and don’t let anyone sneak up behind us,” Sara says, drawing her sword.
“Of course, Lady Lance.”
“Everyone else, hit ‘em hard and hit ‘em fast.”
Sara shoves the door open and charges through, Ray and Amaya close at her heels.
The large room is mostly empty, except for a pair of thrones that sit on a raised dais on the far end. Lounging in one of them is Darhk, a green gem on a heavy chain around his neck and an evil gleam in his eye.
Sara stops short halfway across the room. She rally wishes she hadn’t been right about this being a trap.
“You found me,” Darhk says, grinning. “And you brought friends. How quaint.”
“He’s got the earth totem,” Amaya says, voice low.
Of course he does. Why bother making anything easy?
“Give up now, Darhk,” Sara call, wishing it were that simple. “Your lackies are dead. There’s an army at your gate. No one’s coming to help you.”
“Oh Sara,” he says, leaning back in his seat and steepling his fingers in front of him. “When will you learn? I always win.”
He pauses and the smile on his face sends icy shivers down her spine. But she refuses to give him the satisfaction of seeing just how afraid she is.
He waves his hand and the air around them shimmers, revealing at least two dozen mercenaries surrounding them. She looks up and - great, of course there are also archers lining the balcony that runs around the perimeter of the room.
She’s never had the pleasure of fighting the Legion of Doom before, but she heard stories about their prowess in battle. The finest mercenaries money can buy. With exactly as many scruples as you’d expect from men who fight for whoever pays the most. And from the look of them the stories are true.
“Now,” Darhk says. “What was that about no one coming to help me?”
Sara tightens her grip on her sword. No way she’s letting him win. Not again. “Fuck you.”
“Have it your way.” He sighs, as if bored, and waves his hand again. “Kill them.”
Sara dives to the side and sinks her sword between the plates in the nearest man’s armor, taking him by surprise. He falls and she yanks her blade free, rolling to the side to avoid the hail of arrows that descends on the space where she was.
The man in front of her falls, a crossbow bolt in his throat. She gets her sword up just in time to block the blade of the one next to him.
From the corner of her eye she can see Amaya take out several soldiers at once with the power of her totem. On her other side, Ray uses his shield to shove one of the men into the path of an arrow meant for him.
There’s a yell from across the room and a violent gust of wind redirects several arrows into the back of the guard she’s fighting. She looks past him to see Jax’s team enter the fray.
“Need help?” Jax asks, swinging his sword a guard.
“Get the archers!” she calls back over the din.
“Got it!” Jax yells back and he and Nate start fighting their way towards the balcony stairs.
Sara loses track of the rest of them as she fights. She slashes across the chest of one guard and pivots, kicking the next in the chest before slicing her knife across his throat. She looks up just in time to spot a guard trying to sneak up behind Zari, who’s using her totem to deflect arrows away from Ray and Amaya. Sara flips her knife around and throws it at the man, waiting just long enough to make sure he falls before spinning to block a sword swinging towards her head.
An archer falls from the balcony above her and she dodges out of the way, taking cover behind one of the support columns to catch her breath and asses the fight.
They’re holding their own against the Legion, but Darhk is still sitting on the throne, looking more amused than anything. They can kill all the guards they want but it won’t matter if they don’t get to Darhk.
Sara takes advantage of a gap in the fighting to charge across the room towards Darhk.
He sees her coming and flicks his wrist, the earth totem around his neck glowing a sickly green. The ground under her feet bucks and she goes flying back into the wall. Her sword skitters across the floor as she slides down the wall, gasping for breath.
“Oh it won’t be that easy,” Darhk growls.
He sweeps his arm out and the floor starts to buck and roll, knocking them all down. There’s a crash as Nate tumbles from the balcony.
“You okay, buddy?” Ray calls to him from where he’s crouched, holding onto a column for support.
“Ow,” is all Nate manages.
The floor stills and Sara surveys the room. Most of the mercenaries are either dead or incapacitated, but Sara and her allies have made it through mostly unscathed. Nate’s still on the ground and Gary looks a bit worse for wear, but otherwise they seem mostly intact.
“That belongs to the people of the Southern Realms,” Amaya says, pointing at the earth totem. “It’s not yours to wield.”
“This little thing?” Darhk asks. He clenches his fist and a large stone rises from the floor. “But I like it so much.”
He sends the stone flying at Amaya’s head. She dodges just in time, but it clips her shoulder, sending her spinning into a column.
She hits the floor with a sickening thud.
“Amaya!” Zari runs to her side, the fight all but forgotten.
“How sweet,” Darhk says, raising another stone. “It’s displays like that that almost make me wish I wasn’t going to kill you all. Almost.”
He hurls the rock at Zari but before it gets more than ten feet a superheated stream of fire knocks it out of the air.
Sara turns towards it’s source, afraid that somehow Merlyn is still alive, but instead she finds Mick Rory taking up most of the doorway, the tip of the wand he’s holding smoking slightly.
“Has anyone ever told you that it’s rude to hit women?” he growls.
“And what, exactly, is this?” Darhk asks, sounding genuinely confused.
Sara takes advantage of his momentary distraction to grab her sword from where it landed near Rory's feet. He glances down and her and grunts what is probably a greeting. Or possibly a threat. It's hard to tell.
“Sorry we’re late,” Snart says, stepping out from behind Rory. “We had a royal debt to collect on.”
Rip makes an indignant noise and shoots Ava a look. She just shrugs and glances at Sara.
Thankfully, before she has to deal with that, Darhk clears his throat. “Well, I’m glad you could join us. You know what they say. The more the merrier.”
He snaps his fingers and another wave of soldiers appears. Sara raises her sword. They really need to fucking end this already. She doesn’t know how much longer they can keep this up. How much longer she can keep this up.
Snart sends a beam of ice at the nearest group of guards, freezing them where they stand.
“Hey Lance,” he says, stopping her as she’s about to join the fight. “I think this belongs to you.”
He pulls out her dagger - the one that Laurel had given her - and flips it to her. She grabs it out of the air. With everything that’s happened she’d forgotten that he had it, but as soon as its familiar weight is back in her hand everything feels right again in a way that it hasn’t since that first night in this godforsaken castle.
“I guess there is honor among thieves,” she says as she switches her grip on the knife and slashes it across the neck of an oncoming guard.
Snart laughs and freezes two more guards. “Just don’t tell anyone.”
Sara dives back into the fight, slashing and hacking her way towards Darhk.
Rory shoots a gout of flame at Darhk, who catches it with his magic, holding it in place. “Nice try, but it’s going to take more than a little fire to stop me.”
“Like this?” Snart asks, sending a beam of freezing cold energy at him.
Darhk catches it with his other hand, holding both steady. “Not quite.”
Sara seizes the opportunity to rush him, bringing her sword around towards his neck.
He turns his head and looks at her and she freezes in place, held by his magic. But for the first time he’s starting to look strained - the ugly snarl on his face accentuated by a vein pulsing in his forehead.
“You’re persistent, I’ll give you that,” he says through gritted teeth.
“I’m going to kill you if it’s the last thing I do,” she replies, straining against the magic holding her in place.
The fight swirls around them, frozen there in a temporary stalemate as Darhk holds back all three attacks.
“You’re not leaving here,” Sara grits out. Maybe if she can keep him talking he’ll loosen his hold on her. “One way or another - you die today.”
“You think you can kill me?” he spits. “You really think you can - a minor noble who only got knighted because you were sleeping with the prince - can kill me? The most powerful sorcerer the Realms have ever seen?”
He shoves his hands at Snart and Rory and forces their beams back towards them. There’s an explosion, but Sara doesn’t have time to think about that because Darhk is turning back towards her, his face a mask of hatred.
And then his eyes roll back in his head and he pitches forward slightly. The magic holding her dissipates, leaving her standing in front of a stunned Darhk, sword in hand. She looks past him to find Ava standing there, gripping the hilt of her sword where she’d just bludgeoned him with the pommel.
“What are you waiting for?” Ava asks. “Kill him already.”
Sara takes a deep breath. This is it. Her chance. Maybe the only one she’ll ever get.
She doesn’t waste it.
She sinks her blade into his gut, all the way to the hilt.
“Huh,” he says, blood starting to pool at the corner of his mouth. “I wasn’t expecting that.”
“That was for my sister,” she says as she pulls her blade free.
She adjusts her grip on the knife in her other hand and slices it across his throat.
“And that,” she says, letting him fall to the ground, “was for me.”
She wipes her blade clean and looks up at Ava who’s still standing there, watching her with a careful expression.
“Why didn’t you kill him?” Sara asks. “His back was to you. You had the opportunity.”
Ava tilts her head to the side and just looks at Sara. Really looks at her. “He wasn’t mine to kill.”
Her eyes contain so much understanding it makes Sara shiver. For a second time in as many fights she wants nothing more than to sweep Ava off her feet. But she settles for reaching out and wiping an errant splatter of blood from Ava’s cheek. “Thank you.”
Ava grabs Sara’s wrist, holding it in place. And for a second it’s as if nothing bad ever happened to them. Or could ever happen. As if they were living one of the old stories where the hero and the princess get to ride off happily into the sunset. But Ava’s holding a sword and covered in blood and way more interesting than any of those fictional princesses ever were.
Ava studies her face. “I really am sorry. About all of it.”
Sara looks down at Darhk’s body and then back up at Ava. “It all worked out.”
Ava opens her mouth to argue, but before she can Sara leans up and kisses her.
Kissing Ava is...well, it’s everything she expected it to be and more. Sure it tastes a little like blood, and Sara’s sure she smells horrible after two days in a dungeon, and they’re both still holding weapons, but she can’t find it in herself to care. Not when Ava’s lips are soft and her hand slides up Sara's neck and into her hair.
There’s a crash and they spring apart, just in time to see a soldier fall at their feet, a crossbow bolt sticking out of his back.
“Now is really not the time,” Rip says, reloading his crossbow and taking aim at another guard.
Even with Darhk dead, the fight rages on, the last dozen or so soldiers refusing to give up.
Sara looks back at Ava. “Wanna finish this?”
Ava hefts her sword and grins back at her. “After you.”
It only takes a couple of minutes to mop up the last of the fighters. But then it’s finally - finally - over.
She looks around, taking stock. Amaya’s leaning against Zari, her arm hanging at an awkward angle, but alive. Nate sits propped against a column, rubbing the back of his head. Everyone else seems mostly intact. Cuts and bruises mostly.
It’s actually kind of amazing. They all survived. She survived. Darhk is dead and she's alive and she’s finally free.
“You did it,” Jax says, using his boot to flip Darhk’s body onto his back.
“No thanks to you,” she replies, shoving him lightly.
He laughs. “The way I remember it, I rescued your ass.”
He shakes his head. “I should probably go tell Stein that he can call off the attack.”
The mention of the Baron gives Sara a horrible thought. “Please don’t tell me he thinks that this is going to end with you marrying Ava as some sort of reward.”
“Knowing him that’s exactly what he thinks is about to happen,” Jax says.
“This is going to be a thing, isn’t it?” Sara groans.
Jax just laughs. “Small price to pay for getting the girl, though, right?”
Sara shakes her head, but she finds herself watching Ava, who’s caught up in some serious looking discussion with Rip and Gideon. Nothing about this quest has turned out the way she’d expected, but well, she can’t really complain. She wouldn’t have it any other way.
Ava notices Sara watching her and comes over to where she’s standing near the dais. Jax smirks and drifts away, leaving Sara alone with Ava. Or as alone as you can be when surrounded by a dozen corpses.
Word must have spread about Darhk’s defeat, because a handful of servants and guards still loyal to Rip have started to filter into the room. Sara can already feel Darhk’s influence dissipating as life starts to return to the castle.
“What will you do now?” Ava asks, turning away from where Gideon has started organizing the removal of the bodies littering the room. “Go back to Starling?”
“I don’t know,” Sara says honestly. “I haven’t really thought about it.”
In truth, she hadn’t expected to survive. Not really. Not like this at least. Surrounded by people who had all willingly risked their lives to help her.
She could go back to Starling - back to the little room she rented at Jonah’s tavern. Or even back to court now that she could look Oliver in the eye and tell him she’d done her duty as Champion and avenged the Queen’s death. But neither of those feel right.
There's always what she’d done before being named Champion - wandering the Realms looking for anyone who needed a sword - but that life doesn’t hold the appeal it once did.
“You could stay here,” Ava says, as if she knows exactly what Sara’s thinking. “We could use someone like you to help rebuild.”
“Just to rebuild?” Sara asks, throwing Ava a sidelong look.
Ava dips her head and tucks an errant strand of hair behind her ear. When she looks back up at Sara her eyes are full of affection, but it’s tempered with something else. Nerves maybe. Or regret. “I understand if you don’t want to, but I...I want you to stay.”
The offer is tempting to say the least.
For the first time in a very long time her future is her own. And as freeing as that thought is, it’s more than little terrifying. She’s spent most of her life being told where to go and what to do. And even when she wasn’t, she knew exactly what she was supposed to be doing next.
But now...now there’s nothing. She’s fulfilled her her duty and gotten her revenge and the future seems so much bigger than it ever has before.
And here Ava is, extending a hand. And more. And well, what does she have to lose?
“Do you have a room in this castle?” she asks, finally meeting Ava’s gaze.
Ava smiles. “Why don’t we find out?”
Sara takes one last look around, at all the people who had worked their way into her life, for better or for worse, and follows Ava out.
Maybe this stupid quest was worth it after all.
This is the last proper chapter and the conclusion of the main story. There's still an epilogue that I'll probably post sometime this weekend, but that's more of an after credits scene than anything substantial.
Thanks to everyone who's come along for the ride, especially everyone who's left kudos and comments! This represents a major departure from the types of stories I usually write, and while it was a blast to write it was also super challenging for me, and everyone's feedback has really meant the world to me!
Chapter 11: After Darhk
In which our story ends...for now at least
Did I make this a separate chapter even though it's less than a thousand words and also makes this whole thing 11 chapters instead of 10 specifically so I could title it 'After Darhk' and make myself laugh?
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
One Year Later
“There’s someone at the gates, requesting an audience with you, Lady Lance,” Gideon says, interrupting Sara’s workout.
She pulls her sword free of the straw training dummy and sets up for another drill. “I’ll take the audience here.”
“Are you sure that’s wise?” Gideon asks, making it clear that she thinks it is not, in fact, wise.
Sara shrugs. The training yard is empty this early in the morning, and besides, she’s only halfway through her training and she promised Ava she’d be at breakfast with Rip and Miranda. So if someone wants to talk they’re going to have to do it here.
Gideon gives her a rather pointed look before she leaves to fetch whoever it is, but Sara ignores her and resumes her sword drills. She is, after all, the scourge of training dummies everywhere.
By the time Gideon reenters the yard with a familiar figure in tow Sara’s finishing a set of push ups.
“Lady Sara Lance,” she says as Sara gets up and brushes dirt off her pants. “I give you Lady Kendra…”
She trials off, prompting Kendra to give a last name but Kendra just shakes her head. “Just Kendra.”
Gideon looks between them, clearly unhappy with how unorthodox the entire situation is, but she doesn’t say anything, instead nodding to Sara and taking her leave.
“Kendra,” Sara says, “I didn’t expect to see you here. How did you even know where to find me?”
“Word of your exploits travels fast,” Kendra says with a shrug. “As for why I’m here...I need your help.”
Now that Sara really looks at Kendra she seems older than the last time she saw her. More withdrawn. And while there’s always been sadness in her eyes, now it looks as if it might consume her.
“Savage found us.” Kendra wraps her arms around herself, as if she’s trying to hold herself together. “He killed Carter. I only barely managed to get away.”
“I’m so sorry.” Sara’s heart breaks for Kendra, having to watch her lover die over and over again, never free of that pain. That fear. She can’t imagine what that must be like.
“I heard you killed your evil wizard,” Kendra says. “I was hoping that maybe...you could help me kill mine.”
“You want to do what?” Ava asks skeptically.
Sara shrugs. “Just kill another evil sorcerer who’s terrorizing innocent people. It’s kind of my thing.”
Ava runs a hand through her hair, a concerned look on her face. “Killing Darhk was difficult enough, and he wasn’t an immortal wizard priest of whatever this Savage guy is. Do you really think going after him is a good idea?”
“Kendra saved my life. I owe her that,” Sara explains. “Besides a quest could be fun. For old time’s sake.”
The truth is that after a year, Tempus has nearly fully recovered from the ravages of Darhk. And as happy as she is with Ava, she’s starting to get restless. They’ve finished their rebuilding efforts and well, now she has nothing to do. Honestly she’d jump at just about any quest right now, even if she didn’t owe Kendra her life.
“I don’t know…” Ava says.
“We’ll get the gang back together,” Sara says. “You, me, Jax. Ray has literally never said no to a quest in his life. I’m sure Amaya and Zari are bored protecting their people or whatever they’re doing down south. I bet we can even convince Snart and Rory to stop bothering King Barry for a bit. And you can bring Gary if you want.”
Ava scoffs. “Really? You want to spend weeks on the road with Gary?”
“Yeah, maybe let’s leave Gary at home.”
Ava shakes her head, but Sara doesn’t miss her soft smile. Even if it’s quickly replaced by concern. “I’m still not convinced this is a good idea. We have no idea how powerful he might be.”
“I know,” Sara admits. “But I can’t just sit here and let him continue hurting people.”
Ava looks at her the way she sometimes does when she thinks Sara isn’t paying attention. As if she can’t believe she got so lucky. Which is ridiculous. Sara’s the lucky one.
“It’s one of the reasons I love you.”
“Then you’ll come?” Sara asks. She’s pushing her luck, she knows, but well, another quest with Ava sounds pretty good right about now.
“Of course I’ll come,” Ava says, shaking her head in amusement. “You need someone to keep you from getting in too much trouble.”
“But true,” Ava says, unapologetic.
Sara can’t help but laugh. It amazes her sometimes, just how much she loves Ava. How happy she is.
“I’ll write the others,” she says, “and tell them to meet us in the Central Kingdoms in a month.”
“Well then, I’d better start making preparations,” Ava says. “Rip is going to hate this.”
Sara sets to work writing letters. She probably shouldn’t be quite as excited as she is, given the circumstances, but she can’t help it.
There really is nothing better than a good old fashioned quest.
That's it! Thanks for coming along for the ride!