Episode 1: The Flames of Albion

by Michael Robertson - 31.05.15

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, a hero was nearing the end of his journey. The galloping hooves of his unicorn had carried him across rocky canyons and treacherous cliffs, through dense jungles and fierce forests, all in the pursuit of one thing: justice.

With a rapier sheathed in his belt and a bow and quiver strapped to his back, the knight's silver armour and golden crown shone in the dim light of the dawning sun. The wind blew back his long blonde hair and made the unicorn's white mane sparkle like diamonds.

The plateau seemed to stretch on for miles until at the very end, overlooking the valley, the knight saw his goal.

The bandits were just starting to emerge from their tents and extinguish the dwindling flames of their campfires when the glistening of the knight on the horizon was spotted by a lookout. The rogues, wearing clothes and exquisite jewellery stolen from the people they'd murdered, grabbed their weapons and swarmed around the entrance to their small community where they readied themselves into crouched fighting stances.

The knight finally arrived at the outskirts of the camp and dismounted from his unicorn in one swift motion, planting his feet on the ground and confidently striding towards the bandits. "After riding for more than a fortnight over hills and glens, scaling mountains and crossing oceans, I am finally brought face-to-face with you foul band of brigands!"

A hunched-over brute of a man stepped forward from the bandit group. He had a primal ferocity to his eyes and he spat every word out of his mouth as if the syllables themselves disgusted him. "You are bold to enter our domain willingly. Who are you and why have you come all this way to die?"

The brave knight didn't lose composure for a second. "I am Prince Vincent of house Charming. You have committed a crime against my kingdom and for that you must pay. Dearly!"

The brute's face went blank. "Charming." He stared straight ahead as his brow slowly furrowed. "...Charming...Charming..."

He turned to his comrades in the hopes that they could give him a hint. They shrugged in response.

He turned back to the knight and cleared his throat. "We tend to commit a lot of crimes against a lot of kingdoms. It's kind of our thing. Would you mind refreshing our memory?"

"With pleasure!" The bandits all braced themselves as the prince dramatically reached for his belt and unsheathed a small scroll. He stepped forward and calmly handed it to the brute. "You've been fined! For pitching your tents on royal property! Seriously, you can't just go around setting up camp anywhere you like."

Slowly, the bandits all lowered their weapons. A ferocious-looking woman with only a third of the teeth she should have spoke up. "You...you chased after us all the way 'ere...scaling moun'ains and crossin' oceans...just 'cause we was trespassin'?"

Prince Charming looked offended. "Well someone has to deal with chasing up fines! After all, daddy's pretty tied up with work at the moment. Turns out some mysterious gang of bandits broke into the castle, killed all the servants, and then just straight-up nicked all of the gold from the royal vaults!"

The mysterious gang of bandits shared nervous glances with one another.

Their leader kept his gaze fixed on the prince. His eyes narrowed. "Kill him."

The bandits advanced. They quickly spreading out to form a semicircle around the prince, their weapons raised and their teeth bared.

Prince Charming drew his rapier and straightened himself into a fencing position. "Ha-HA! I must warn you that any attempt to defend yourself would be futile, for I am Prince Charming: the greatest swordsman in all of Albion! Surrender yourselves to me in the name of the law or prepare to taste my steel!"

The brave and dashing knight failed to notice the shadow at his feet which grew larger and larger until a small starship landed on top of him, crushing him to death.

The force of the impact threw the bandits backwards as their swords, axes, and ray guns flew from their hands.

After a minute filled with spluttered coughing and choking, the bandits fell silent as they looked up at the ship. It was fairly small, big enough for a crew of only around half-a-dozen. It was mostly silver apart from the words 'The Treehouse' painted along the side in red above a garish flame design around the bottom.

From deep within its metal exterior, the pounding bassline of heavy techno music could be heard for a few moments until it, along with the engines, was switched off. A door on the right side of the starship slowly folded down with a mechanical whir to form a ramp.

A woman with long brown hair and a knee-length blue coat emerged. "Oh, wow! A unicorn! Everyone, look!" She ran down the ramp and over to the knight's faithful steed who was still in a state of silent shock from the sudden loss of its master.

A pair of cloven hooves stomped across the metal ramp as a minotaur climbed out of the starship. "Well, that landing could've been a tad smoother." He reached into his lab coat and pulled out a PDA, snapped on his half-moon spectacles, and started scanning the environment.

The woman didn't break eye contact with the unicorn. "Well you've got to remember, Dorian; this ship couldn't even fly six years ago."

"It still can't."

"I heard that," said a woman with thick curly hair and a brown leather jacket who was next out of the ship. She had two small daggers attached to her belt and a laser bow holstered on her back. A silver robot with a thin metal frame and a blank screen for a face followed behind her. Arriving at the minotaur's side, she looked into the horizon at the mountain range and forests in the distance. "So, there's a dragon around here then."

The woman in the blue coat decided that the unicorn's mane had been sufficiently patted and turned to face the others. "Aye, somewhere near here anyway. The tracker was in this general area when it went offline. The dragon would've realised there was a tracker sticking out of it upon arrival and pulled it out so we wouldn't follow it. Still, it couldn't have got far. It'll probably be hiding in the mountains somewhere, laying low until it has the energy to FTL jump again."

"But why would a dragon bother hiding when it could just kill us?"

"Because while its recharging, it's vulnerable, so it won't be looking to get itself into a fight. That's why we're just going to sneak up on it while it's asleep, take back the crystal, and leave with no fuss. Easy, right?"

The robot spoke with an electronic voice. "A dragon would have to become very vulnerable before it stopped being a dragon."

Dorian pushed some buttons on his PDA. "Captain, I'm detecting life signs. Multiple readings all around us. It's odd, the device is saying they're right beside us. They must be completely invisib-Shit."

He looked up to see the rest of the crew already facing the bandits who had managed to mentally collect themselves and were once again moving in to attack.

The woman in the blue coat stepped forward, her hands buried in her pockets. "Morning! My name is Captain Gwen Lambert, and this is my crew, Emily, Dorian, and Red. If it's alright with you lot, we'd just like to ask some quick questions and then we'll be on our way."

"We're not here to answer your questions!" spat the outlaws' leader. "Surrender your ship to us or be destroyed!"

Gwen sighed. "Ah well. At least I tried."

She raised her left hand. A red barrier of energy erupted from a small circular pattern of silver studs in her palm, blocking the hail of laser blasts from the bandit's guns. The shots rebounded and sparks flew as the bandits stumbled backwards and scattered, some hit by their own ricocheting lasers. Dorian pulled a blaster out of his lab coat, Emily grabbed the laser bow on her back, and Red pulled two silver pistols out of compartments in their robotic chest.

Gwen dropped her force field to allow her crew to charge forward and engage the enemy. She pointed her fingers like a child imitating the shape of a gun to send a red bolt of plasma travelling from the metal circle on her palm, down her fingers, and into an outlaw's face.

Ducking out of the way of a horizontal slash from a sword, she crouched down and touched both of her open palms to an attacker's chest, blasting them backward with a red flash.

Emily knelt down, forcefully pulling back on the string of her laser bow and releasing to launch a green streak of solid energy which hit an attacking bandit in the stomach and tore through their body. Its homing capabilities locked on, it boomeranged back around, and hit a second bandit in the back of the leg. With a blood-curdling howl, they were brought to their knees, putting their head at a perfect height for Emily to unsheathe both of the daggers on her belt and slice their neck open with one swift motion.

Hearing a battle cry from behind her, she whipped around and over-arm threw her daggers into her attacker's chest.

Red flew through the air on a built-in jetpack, picking off marauders from above with perfect precision. Down below, Dorian let out a fierce roar as he shot down bandits who charged towards him brandishing knives and axes.

Finally, only the bandit leader was left, crawling along the ground after being shot in the leg. Emily drew her laser bow and pointed it directly between his eyes. The others joined her side, Dorian pointing his blaster, Red pointing their pistols, and Gwen holding up her palm which crackled with energy.

The brute looked up at them, and around at his comrades who had been reduced to a pile of corpses. "H-how did you...who ARE you people?!"

Gwen smirked. "Us? We're...uh..."

Emily turned her head to face her. "'We're...'?"

"...In dire need of a badass group name, like 'the Avengers' or some shite. Ah well."

Gwen nodded at Emily. Emily released her arrow.

[The Plateau, Albion]

Two humans, a robot, and a minotaur were silhouetted against the morning sky. The crew looked down from the plateau to see a quaint little village at the bottom of the valley, between them and the colossal snowy mountain range on the other side. The sleepy settlement looked from the outside like a medieval castle town, complete with a medieval castle built to look like brick and mortar.

Emily was the first to break the silence. "I have to say, I love the retro vibe it's got going on."

"Apparently this world's planning committee were going for a sort of 12th century Earth thing," replied Gwen as she scanned the village below through a brass telescope. "Which over time the locals seem to have taken to judging by the fashion trends. It's a bit of a tourist trap for historians. Of course, the building interiors are still perfectly modern but it's a nice photo opportunity from the outside. They shoot loads of films here."

Dorian resumed his PDA's scan of the environment. He swiped his finger along the touch screen and from it sprouted a 3D projection of a blue and green planet which gently spun on a tilted axis. "Right then, as far as I can tell, that village down there is called 'New Vale' and this planet is called 'Albion', a name originally used to refer to Britain thousands of years ago. That's 'Earth' Britain, not 'Jupiter' Britain. It's the tenth planet in the Dungunar system, 20 hour day, breathable atmosphere..."

Emily chucked to herself. "Can you imagine what a plot twist it would have been if we were choking to death this whole time?"

"...Two moons, four distinct continents, 802,304 native species..."

"Including unicorns," noted Gwen. "I love humans. We find a planet where unicorns occur naturally and then feel the need to take them to every new world we colonise. 'Have we brought the cats?' 'Yes.' 'Have we brought the dogs?' 'Yes.' 'Have we brought the unicorns?' 'Yes.' 'Fantastic. This planet is now complete. Next'."

The 3D planet hologram shrunk back into Dorian's PDA at the touch of a button. Red peered over Dorian's shoulder to get a closer look at the screen. "Any sign of the dragon?"

"Not yet, although as Gwen said it'll probably be hiding from us in that mountain range somewhere. By my calculations we should have around 8 hours before its FTL capacity has recharged."

Emily leaned over to Gwen. "I know you said that we would just sneak in, take the crystal, and leave with no fuss, but looking at how close that village is to the mountains, I think we're gonna have to actually kill it. We can't afford to leave a dragon alive within flying distance of a populated area."

"Actually, there's a settlement that's nearer to the mountains at the other side," said Dorian, reading from his PDA. "It's called 'Harcrest' and is only slightly smaller in population than New Vale."

Gwen thought for a moment. "Right then." She collapsed her telescope into her pocket and spun on the spot to face the others, engaging Captain Mode. "The four of us should split up. Dorian, you get a bird's eye view from the Treehouse and have it ready in case of an evacuation or a dragon attack, and Red, you can use your jetpack to search the mountain range for anything obviously dragon-shaped and breathing fire. Emily, you take one of the hoverbikes from the ship and check out Harcrest while I take the other one down to New Vale. Ask around to see if there's been any dragon attacks or sightings. Any piece of information could be useful. Try inns or taverns for local gossip."

"Inns or taverns?" asked Emily. "Would people really be drinking at this time in the morning?"

"Albion is an entire planet where everyone pretends it's the 12th century. If I lived here, I'd want to be pissed at all times. Now remember people, we only have 8 hours before this dragon will be able to escape into space again and without the tracker attached to it we won't be able to follow it this time. Ready to get started?"

There was a general murmur of agreement.

"Terrific. Now remember, if the dragon shows up, you immediately signal the rest of us. And keep your communicators on at all times." Gwen rubbed her hands together. "Team: let's roll."

Emily visibly cringed. "Eh..."

"What? We don't have a team name, can't we at least have, like, a catchphrase or something?"

"No, it just feels too forced."

Gwen sighed. "I'm pretty sure the captain of the Lords of Terror didn't have this kind of resistance when he named HIS crew."

"'Her' crew."

"'Her'?"

"Didn't you read the newsletter? The captain of the Lords of Terror is taking a break from plundering solar systems 'til she's finished her sex reassignment surgery."

"Doomskull? Really?"

"Yeah."

"Huh. Good for her." The group stood in silence for a moment. "Did she say what her new name was?"

"Doomskull."

[New Vale, Albion]

Odysseus pulled his black coat tightly around him against the chill in the air. His dark, modern clothes would have seemed completely unremarkable if he wasn't surrounded by peasants dressed in medieval rags. He made his way down the quiet high street, passing rows and rows of supposedly wooden houses with their faux-thatched roofs. In the distance, he could see the morning sun shining over the castle, perched on its mighty rock foundations. Outside the castle were rows of cannons, one of which was being used by an android in a medieval outfit as part of a demonstration for the locals. More androids stood outside the castle doors dressed as guards carrying pikes. Tourists wearing homemade Middle Ages clothing (riddled with historical inaccuracies, noted Odysseus) lined up to take selfies with the robot guards, who chimed an enthusiastic "How goes it, citizen?" out of their synthetic vocal chords.

Odysseus shook his head and continued down the road.

After adjusting his sword belt, he turned and walked up the cobbled path to a small tavern, pulled open the wooden door, and stepped onto the hard metal floor inside.

There were only a few small groups sitting at the stainless steel tables at this time in the morning, quietly chatting away and sipping glasses of blue or green or amber liquid. The walls were covered in tapestries and between each one was a glass display case containing a genuine 12th century Earth artefact and a plaque explaining what it would have been used for and where it was found. In the corner of the room was a man in a bard's outfit playing a lute, regaling the drinkers with a traditional folksong:

"I wanna hold 'em like they do in Texas plays. Fold 'em, let 'em hit me, raise it, baby, stay with me, I love it. Love and intuition play the cards with spades to start. And after he's been hooked I'll play the one that's on his heart."

Odysseus made his way to the bar and bought a flagon of what the woman behind the counter insisted on calling 'Ye Olde Ale'. From where he was sitting, he had a clear view of the holo-projector in the centre of the room which showed a highlight reel from last night's hyperball game. After a brief summary of which teams won, how many players died, and where that puts them in the championship league, the players on the pitch dissolved into a 3D image of a news broadcaster reading the local headlines.

"PMCs in the Dungunar System have been reporting to the police that a con artist sold them what he claimed were expensive state-of-the-art laser weapons but were in actual fact merely modified water pistols with laser pointers inside them. The perpetrator in question is currently unknown, but we'll keep you updated as we learn more. Until then, stay vigilant."

Odysseus smiled from ear to ear and raised his glass to the swirling 3D news corporation logo.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the door of the tavern swinging open and a woman with long brown hair and a knee-length blue coat entered.

She glanced around at the tables for a moment before moving towards the bar.

"And what can I get you this morning?" asked the bartender with a smile.

Gwen quickly scanned the list of beverages behind the counter, all written in printed calligraphy. "Oh, just a...um...'Ye Olde WKD', please."

The bartender passed her a large silver tankard of blue liquid and went back to idly rubbing down the bar with an old hand towel.

"Cheers," replied Gwen, taking a sip. "Actually, I was wondering if you could answer some quick questions for me."

"Of course. Shoot."

"Right, so this may seem like a bit of an odd question, but you wouldn't have seen any dragons flying around here would you?"

Sitting on the stool next to her, Odysseus chuckled. Turning to see Gwen and the bartender looking at him, he cleared his throat. "I'm afraid you've been taken in by a bunch of wild rumours. About a week ago there were some old guys screaming and raving about seeing a bright orange flash in the sky at the other side of the mountains that they decided must've been a dragon."

"I see," said Gwen. "But I assume you'd know better than to believe that."

He smirked. "I'm Odysseus by the way. And you are?"

"Gwen Lambert. Captain Gwen Lambert."

"A captain? I've been here for a while and I don't think I've seen you in here before. Or, for that matter, anywhere before. I guess you and your crew just arrived. Where are you from originally?"

"Britain."

Odysseus' features softened. "Oh, I love British girls!"

Gwen sighed. "'Earth' Britain, not 'Jupiter' Britain."

"Ah..." His face fell.

"Scotland specifically."

"Well, either way, you're a pretty long way from home. All the way from the other side of the portal."

"Well, I'm used to it. My friends and I have been travelling for years. We've come to Albion to take care of some pretty urgent business."

Odysseus drank from his flagon. "Dragon-related business?"

"Maybe."

"Wow," Odysseus laughed. "You've come a very long way for something that ain't here."

"Fools." Gwen, Odysseus, and the bartender all turned to see who had spoken. An old woman in a black robe was sitting at the other end of the bar, her long grey hair just visible underneath her hood. "If you knew what was coming for you, you wouldn't be so quick to laugh."

"Are you serious?" asked Odysseus, turning to face the new member of the conversation. "What would a dragon be doing anywhere near here?"

"If I were to guess, I'd say it's here to steal one of the princesses from the castle. That's what dragons always do. They take a virgin daughter of divine blood to try and claim superiority to our God, to insult all things good and holy, and corrupt her into being the bride of the winged Devil."

Odysseus snorted and turned back to the others. "Looks like someone's had a bit too much to drink."

"Mock me if you wish, child," said the old woman. "But you cannot even imagine the fate which awaits you. A dragon is a powerful creature, the might of which is legendary. You are all in grave danger."

[The Treehouse]

The starship drifted slowly through the air, all systems scanning the rocky mountains below. Inside, Dorian sat in the captain's leather chair, looking out of the curved window in front of him and checking the screens on the ship's console for any signs of life. The cockpit was a small, neatly-carpeted room lined with computer terminals and monitors which narrowed towards the front of the ship. In front of the chair, in the middle of the ship's console, was the captain's sphere; two interlocking wheels for steering the horizontal and vertical axis of the Treehouse's flight path.

Satisfied that the ship wasn't detecting anything of interest, Dorian focused his attention back to his PDA. Scrolling his finger down the touch screen, the minotaur searched through all twenty-two known species of dragon before selecting the one which best fit Queen Meidon's description: a Crimson Trihorn.

On the screen, pages and pages of information about the dragon appeared, and a pre-recorded voice began narrating: "The Crimson Trihorn is one of the most intelligent species of dragon in the Andromeda galaxy, weighing fisdpsdopefospdklwjqakd-"

The voice sped up as Dorian fast-forwarded through the datalog.

"-liainfcoasjdypical for depictions of dragons in ancient folklore, the Crimson Trihorn was known to take hostages - usually an alpha female of breeding age as they are thought to be the most essential to the survival of nomadic tribal species - under the threat of murder if any of the tribe's hunters attempted to disturb its sleep. If the dragon was left to sleep in peace, the female was peacefully released upon its waking. If the dragon was disturbed by an attack from the tribe's hunters, the female was murdered instantly and the rest of the tribe was destroyed."

A loud bleeping from the ship's console made Dorian jump. He pushed a button on his PDA to turn it off and slipped it back into his lab coat pocket before leaning forward and flicking a switch on the console to open a communication channel. "Emily? Have you found anything?"

[Harcrest, Albion]

"Yeah, I'm afraid I have," said Emily, speaking into a small circular device strapped to her wrist. "And you're not gonna like it."

Climbing off the back of her hoverbike, Emily walked through the ruined streets of Harcrest. The road ahead was full of ash, rubble, and bodies. Buildings were missing chunks of their roofs and walls, and what remained was charred black. There were no flames or trails of smoke bellowing into the air. The battle was over long ago. Nothing remained now except the howling of the icy wind through the skeleton of the village.

"It's been here. The dragon. It killed everyone."

Without hesitation, the voice of Dorian spoke from a small grill on Emily's communicator. "Can you tell how recent the attack was?"

Emily approached the wreckage of a building and climbed into it through a gap in the wall to begin searching through the devastation. The room was in such a state of burnt wood and shattered rubble that its original purpose had become unrecognisable. Perhaps it was once a shop, thought Emily. Or the front room of someone's home. She leant down and touched her hand to the debris. "Uh...I think it's been here a long time. Everything's covered in soot and ash but the fire went out a while ago. It's ice cold."

"Strange," said Dorian. "Why would Harcrest be destroyed and not New Vale? We saw New Vale earlier and it was clearly still intact. That and Gwen hasn't reported anything. That tells me that the dragon's lair is somewhere nearer to you."

"We've gotta find this thing and kill it before it burns another town," replied Emily. "How long have we got left until it can travel FTL again?"

"Around 6 hours, so we need to work quickly."

"Right. I think I'm gonna start moving up towards the mountains to see if maybe it's left a trail."

"Be careful, and don't try to fight it by yourself. Red and I will be scanning from overhead and we'll let you know if we find anything. See you later."

"Yeah, bye," replied Emily as her communicator buzzed and fell silent. She stood in the ruined building for a moment, taking in the destruction around her. Just as she turned away, a flashing red light under the rubble caught her eye.

Kneeling down to get a better look at it, she saw that the light was coming from a small piece of machinery in the shape of a knife with a long and jagged blade. Each of the blade's metal spikes were covered in dried blood. Picking it up and wiping a thick layer of soot off the top, she recognised it instantly: a tracking device. It was shattered beyond repair, with ripped wires jutting out of it and a ring of red, flashing warning lights lit up around its handle.

Emily carried it out of the building, stored it in the back of her hoverbike, and rode into the mountains.

[New Vale, Albion]

"Honestly, dragon this, dragon that. This entire town has gone nuts," said Odysseus.

"You seem very sceptical." Gwen took a drink from her Ye Olde WKD.

"Well of course I'm sceptical! I think I'd have seen a massive dragon flying around if there was one. It would have torched the village by now! I mean, what reason would a dragon have for coming to a planet as harmless and boring as Albion?" Odysseus picked up his drink, paused with the glass inches from his lips, and put it down again. "You seem to be asking a lot of questions about this. What's your interest in this whole dragon thing anyway?"

"Oh, it's a very long story. I'm a bit of an adventurer."

"Oh really?" Odysseus said with a smirk. "Whatever your story is, I guarantee you I'll top it."

Gwen took a deep breath. "Me and my crew were hired by Queen Meidon, ruler of the planet Chrysoros, to recover a crystal that was stolen from her by a dragon. Being one of the only creatures in the Andromeda galaxy capable of naturally travelling faster than light, the dragon was able to escape Chrysoros by emergency FTL-jumping away, arriving on this planet about a week ago. As you say, this planet is harmless and boring, therefore making it the perfect place to lay low where the authorities would never think to look. Little did the dragon know that during its escape from Chrysoros, a member of the royal guard managed to attach a tracker to it before it jumped, allowing us to chase after it, albeit significantly slower than the speed of light. Now that we've finally caught up, we have mere hours to kill it before its ability to travel faster than light will have recharged and it'll be able to escape again."

Odysseus was silent for a moment. "I punched a unicorn once."

Gwen opened her mouth to respond but closed it again when no words came out. "Why?"

"I was drunk and it looked at me funny."

"DRAGOOOOON!!!"

Every head in the room whipped around. A pale, unblinking man burst through the tavern door and ran off screaming as fast as he'd arrived. Outside the window, a crowd of terrified faces were standing in the street with their eyes fixed on the sky.

Gwen jumped off her stool and ran outside into the street, just in time to see the red beast flying overhead.

The dragon's wing span was wider than the tavern it flew over. Its angular face with three white horns snarled at the observers below. It circled overhead without attacking, letting every citizen of New Vale run out of their houses and gape open-mouthed. It spun in the sky as if it was showing off, but it wasn't until Gwen had gotten over the initial shock that she noticed what exactly it was showing them.

Trapped in its sharp red claws was a young woman in a green dress with a silver tiara. She wasn't screaming or crying out for help. She merely stared down terrified at the terrified faces staring up at her.

Soon, everyone had emptied out of the tavern and were staring motionless up at the sky. Odysseus joined Gwen by her side.

The old woman stood in her black hooded robes and watched the dragon soar through the air and dart off towards the mountains.

She let out a quiet sigh of disappointment. "To be honest, I thought it would be bigger."

Once there was a safe distance between the dragon and the town, Odysseus turned to the old woman. "You! You knew this was going to happen. You knew it was going to kidnap a princess. How?"

The old woman shrugged. "Isn't that usually how these fairytales go?"

Gwen ran around the corner of the tavern to where she'd parked her hoverbike.

"Wait!" shouted Odysseus. "I'm coming too."

"No, sorry. This'll be very dangerous," she said, climbing on. "It's best if you stay here. Have a nice day, thanks for the chat!"

Odysseus was taken aback. "Finally, something interesting is happening on this stupid little planet and you're not gonna take it away from me! Please, I grew up in those mountains, me and my friends used to play knights in the caves. I'm good with a sword and shield, and I don't see you carrying any weapons."

Gwen waved at him with both hands, exposing the metal rings on her palms. "I'm a magic-user."

"Well still, I can help. If you're fighting a dragon, you'll need all the help you can get."

"I have my crew for back-up. Thanks for the offer."

Gwen powered up the hoverbike and revved the engine. Before she could drive away, Odysseus climbed on the back.

"Are you really that determined to get incinerated today?" Gwen asked over her shoulder.

"There's a gorgeous princess that needs saving and I'm a handsome young lad with a sword. What's a guy to do?"

"Oh, I see. So you're asking me to help you get laid?"

"...Yes."

Gwen frowned. "Do you know what? I don't have time to argue. If you fall off, I'm not stopping to scrape you off the road." The engine of the hoverbike roared as they tore a fiery trail down the cobbled street.

"Where are we going?"

[The Mountains, Albion]

With Odysseus holding on to her back, Gwen steered the hoverbike along a path which wound up the side of the white mountains. The air felt colder and thinner as she ascended and the green grass around them started to wither under a sheet of frost. After following the directions on the hoverbike's computer screen for a few miles, she turned a corner and saw the Treehouse with a second hoverbike parked outside the entrance to a huge cave. Emily and Dorian emerged from the ship and ran to meet her, Dorian carrying a black metal sphere in his hands.

Odysseus looked up, marvelling at the size of the cave. "Well, I suppose if a fully-grown dragon was looking for a place to hide, that'd probably do it."

"Who's this?" Emily asked Gwen as she climbed off her hoverbike.

"This is Odysseus. I met him down in New Vale. He says he knows this area and wanted to help out. Odysseus, this is Emily Williams, our engineer, and Dorian Nasmok, our science guy. We also have a robot called Red who should be arriving at any moment. So, what's the situation?"

"Well I went over to Harcrest and the place has been completely destroyed," said Emily. "The dragon attacked it and left no survivors."

Gwen paused. "But why would it have attacked Harcrest and left New Vale untouched? Surely it would've wanted to go undetected by the locals so they didn't report a sighting of it to the authorities."

"I think I can explain that one," said Emily. She walked over to her hoverbike and pulled the tracker out of the storage compartment. "I found this in the wreckage of Harcrest. It's the tracker that the royal guard attached to the dragon before it escaped Chrysoros. I reckon that because it didn't have time to think properly about where it was going when it FTL-jumped away, it accidently arrived in the middle of Harcrest, right in full view of the town. It had no choice but to silence them..."

"By toasting the poor fuckers," Gwen finished.

The group stood in silence, listening to the cold wind howl.

"Oh!" said Emily, noticing Odysseus. "I'm...I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to...you're from here. You must have known some people in Harcrest. I'm sorry."

Odysseus looked up at her, realising he was being spoken to. "Did I? Oh right, yes! Yeah, I did. Damn. I'll...uh...really miss them."

Dorian turned to Gwen. "I assume you saw the dragon."

Gwen nodded. "It flew right over our heads. Do we know who the hostage is?"

"No idea."

"Odysseus, did you recognise the woman?" asked Gwen.

"No actually, I'd never seen her before. She isn't one of the princesses who lives in New Vale Castle, that's for sure. She's probably from out of town."

"She might not even be a princess," Dorian explained. "For all we know, she's probably just another 12th century cosplayer."

"Well, royalty or not, she was wearing a nice crown and a fancy outfit, so she's obviously got a bit of money," said Odysseus.

"Oh! So you're only in this for a reward, are you?" snapped Emily. "Wow. Stay classy."

Odysseus made a face. "Aren't you?"

"Back to the task at hand," Dorian interrupted. "I followed the dragon with the Treehouse and saw it fly into this cave."

"Did it see you?" Gwen asked.

"No, I kept my distance until you lot showed up. That being said, it was acting as if it wanted to be seen. For a creature that knows it's being chased, it didn't seem very...low profile. But then again, we could attribute that to the fact it's a dragon."

"You might not be far off," said Odysseus. "In New Vale, it circled overhead a few times with the princess instead of attacking us, as if it was showing off. As you say, like it wanted us to see."

"Well, to be more precise, it wanted 'us' to see," said Gwen, gesturing to her and the crew. "It knew we'd be here by now. Either that or it saw our ship arrive. It took a hostage and flew back to its lair as a way of warding us off. Like, 'don't come near me or the woman dies!'"

Odysseus thought for a moment. "So, what do we do?"

"Simple," said Gwen. "We go in there while it's sleeping and kick it in the face. Ready?"

"Bring it on," he grinned, unsheathing his sword and shield.

"Wait, where's Red?" asked Emily.

"I assumed Gwen would be bringing them back with her instead of picking up strays," said Dorian, nodding towards Odysseus.

Gwen pressed a button on her wrist communicator. "Hello? Tinpot, if you're on silent I'm taking away your plug socket privilege for a month."

"That's really offensive," said Emily.

"Exactly. The rage coursing through their carbon nano-veins should motivate them to answer my fuckin calls once in a while. Right then. Looks like we'll just have to do this ourselves. We've only got a few hours before the dragon will be able to FTL-jump away again so let's make it snappy."

"Can't you just stick another tracker on it before it jumps so you can follow it again?" asked Odysseus.

"Dragons are intelligent, they'd never fall for the same trick twice. That, and I don't like the idea of having to chase it again. It took days for us to catch up already."

"I still don't understand why a Queen would enlist the help of some freelancers."

"When the dragon attacked, it left Queen Meidon with a massive rebuilding operation, and her forces are all busy fighting in a war, so to get her crystal back she had to enlist some outsiders for help. And because we do this sort of thing for a living, we swung by and offered our services. Is the eradicator ready?"

Dorian stepped forward holding a black metal sphere which he needed both hands to hold. It was covered in elaborate markings which all faintly glowed red. "Ready."

Gwen stood staring into the mouth of the cave, her hands buried in the pockets of her blue coat. "Good. Because if this dragon has taught us anything, things are about to start..." She paused. "...heating up."

Dorian looked around. "Uh, this is a howling cave at the top of an ice-capped mountain. I'd say it's about minus-"

"No, see, it's a dragon, it's about to start heating up because it'll breathe fi- look, just get in the fuckin cave, Dorian."

[The Dragon's Lair]

Gwen conjured a bright red orb from her hands to illuminate the dark tunnel. She led the others in silence with her head cocked to one side, trying to listen for signs of life. Faintly in the distance, the sound of dripping water echoed through the tunnel. The cold air made her breath visible as she slowly and quietly crept forwards.

It didn't take long before the tunnel opened out into a huge cavern. Gwen, Emily, Odysseus, and Dorian froze in their tracks and ducked down behind a rocky outcrop near the entrance.

The cavern was dominated by the sleeping dragon. Its leathery wings were curled around it like two impenetrable shields and its bright red scales shone in the glow of a round white crystal that lay on the ground in front of it. Hanging above the crystal, trapped in a giant cage, was the dragon's hostage.

Gwen pointed at Dorian, pointed at the eradicator, and pointed at the dragon.

Dorian furrowed his brow and pointed to the woman in the cage.

"Fuck," mouthed Gwen. She thought for a moment, then pointed at Emily and the ground at her feet.

Emily nodded.

She pointed at Odysseus and swept her finger up in the direction of an ancient stone staircase carved into the cave wall. It led to an ornate balcony near the roof, above which was a system of pulleys and cogs holding the cage up.

Odysseus nodded.

Gwen, Dorian, and Odysseus emerged from their hiding place and started to move; Gwen towards the crystal, Dorian towards the dragon, and Odysseus towards the staircase. Emily crouched behind the rocks at the edge of the cavern and readied her laser bow, keeping it trained on the sleeping dragon.

Slowly, taking one delicate step at a time, Gwen made her way towards the crystal, her eyes fixated on the sleeping dragon.

She carefully reached out and picked up the crystal.

The dragon's eyes snapped open, the sudden movement of its light source jolting it awake.

With a snarl, it unfurled its mighty wings and raised itself to a standing position. "Ah! Insects! I'd been awaiting your arrival ever since I found your tracking device. Very clever! Now, clever insects, do you seriously think that you are a match for me?!"

Gwen looked up at the beast, her hands clutching the crystal. "Basically. Originally we were just going to recover Queen Meidon's stolen property and leave, but then you had to start killing people. So, yeah, basically yi've fucked it."

The dragon erupted in a bout of laugher which became an almighty roar. "Oh, so you fancy yourself a hero do you? A champion of the people? Very well." The dragon turned its attention to the woman hanging in the cage above. "Surrender now or she dies!"

"Yes, Gwen. You'd better surrender," added the hostage.

"Well I..." Gwen paused. She turned to face the woman in the cage. "You know my name? When did..."

Her eyes widened.

The woman winked at her.

"Oh," said Gwen. "Oh, for fuck's sake! What the hell are you doing up there? Break that cage open and get down here this instant!"

"Quite clearly she can't!" bellowed the dragon. "Return the crystal to me or she burns!"

Gwen turned back to the dragon in the room. "And do you know what? I'm half fuckin tempted to let you do that. But in the name of traditional storytelling: 'Never!'"

"Very well!" With a powerful roar, the dragon launched a blast of fire which Gwen blocked with a force field.

The dragon angrily swiped at Gwen with its wing, knocking her across the cavern and sending the crystal rolling across the ground.

Emily fired her laser bow. A shot hit the dragon in the side of the neck and it blasting fire back at her. She barely jumped out of the way before the rock she was hiding behind was reduced to magma.

Odysseus dodged the dragon's thrashing wings and tail as he ran up the carved stone staircase.

Gwen, winded, slowly got to her feet and shouted across the cavern to Dorian. "Activate the eradicator, now!"

"I can't! You're in range!"

The dragon spread its fiery breath in a sweeping arc around the room. The flames chased Odysseus up the staircase as he quickly climbed towards the woman in the cage.

As the dragon's breath swept closer to Gwen, she held up her hands to conjure a force field, shielding her from the flames. The intense heat stung her palms and her face, forcing her to turn away.

Digging the heels of her boots into the ground for stability, she let out a fierce battle cry and pushed the force field forward, extinguishing the dragon's breath. Frantically she threw red bolts of energy at the beast. It roared in agony as the shots impacted on its head and neck.

With a flap of its powerful wings, the dragon blew everyone backwards, slamming them against the walls. Seizing the opportunity, it grabbed the crystal in one of its claws and shot upwards, ripping the cage from the roof as it vanished through the cavern's entrance.

The group slowly picked themselves up and stumbled forward. "Where's it going?!" shouted Emily.

"Somewhere more defendable," replied Gwen. "After it!"

[The Mountains, Albion]

The dragon charged through the air, gripping the crystal and the cage in its mighty claws. Close behind, the Treehouse sped after it, ducking and weaving as the dragon led it through the mountains.

Inside the cockpit, Gwen manoeuvred the starship out of harm's way while Dorian, Emily, and Odysseus all held on for dear life.

"Is there any way we can kill this thing mid-fight without destroying the crystal?" asked Emily as she clung to a handle which hung from the ceiling.

"But what about the princess?!" asked Odysseus.

"Again, we're not actually certain she's a princess," said Dorian. "I think that's just in your head."

"Right now, the priority is stopping it from reaching New Vale," said Gwen. "Worst case scenario, we fire the grappling hooks into the dragon's wings, cut the ship's engines, and run for the escape pods."

"The escape pods haven't worked for three months!" the minotaur shouted.

"Okay, okay, we were never actually going to do that but I sounded SO fuckin cool for a second there! Um, right, ideas? Dorian, what about the eradicator?"

"The eradicator is specifically designed for airborne targets but it would kill the hostage and shatter the crystal," replied Dorian.

A thought hit Emily. She pressed a button to open the sliding double doors of the cockpit and ran down the corridor.

"Where's she off to?" asked Odysseus.

A few moments later, Gwen's communicator buzzed. "I'm in the armoury. How fast do these jetpacks go?"

"No."

"I can go out there, get the crystal, blast the hostage's cage open, and fly us both to safety while you take down the dragon. I'll catch up with you."

"Emily, as your Captain, don't you fuckin dare. You'll get burned alive."

"So did Harcrest, and so will New Vale if I don't try. Be right back." Emily strapped on a jetpack, picked up a second one, and ran to the ship's airlock.

"Hang on Emily," Gwen shouted over the communicator. "The dragon's moving!"

Flapping its wings, the dragon pulled upwards into a vertical loop and soared backwards through the sky to position itself behind the ship.

It quickly caught up to the Treehouse and wrapped its wings around the roof. With a firm grip, it went into a spin and let go, sending the ship spiralling out of control.

Gwen slammed buttons and switches on the consoles around her and pulled back on the vertical wheel of the Captain's sphere. "Hold on!"

The Treehouse pulled up out of its dive a second too late and smashed into the ground, skidding in the dirt for a few metres before coming to a stop.

"Is everyone alright?" asked Gwen, swivelling round in her chair to see everyone sprawled across the floor.

They collected themselves and ran out of the ship in time to see the dragon vanishing into the distance.

"It's heading straight for New Vale!" shouted Emily.

"Bikes! Quickly!" Gwen ran back up the ramp and into the ship. Parked at either side of the entrance were the two hoverbikes.

Odysseus stopped to pick up the jetpack that Emily had been carrying. "This could come in handy."

Dorian, carrying the eradicator, jumped on the back of Emily's hoverbike and Odysseus got on the back of Gwen's as they both sped off towards the town.

[New Vale, Albion]

The cobbled streets were alive with panic as the dragon flew overhead and blasted homes to flaming pieces.

Amongst all of the carnage, still lining the castle walls, were rows of androids dressed as medieval guards giving their pre-programmed cannon demonstration. A confused tourist ran up to one of them, who responded with a cheery "How goes it, citizen?"

"DO SOMETHING! SAVE US! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, SAVE US!"

There was a pause of a few seconds while the internal machinery of the android audibly processed the tourist's request. "How goes it, citizen?"

The dragon flew overhead and came crashing down on top of the castle, the brickwork of the roof crumbling under its feet. A brick was dislodged from the damaged battlements which fell five stories and caved the android's metal head in. It lay on the ground, sparking and twitching, and with one final desperate cry of "Hoooow gooooes it, cit-t-t-t-t-t-t-", it exploded.

The dragon screeched from the battlements, reared its head, and let out a raging torrent of fire. It laid down the crystal and the woman's cage on the castle roof and paused to take in the glowing forest of smoke and fire it had created below as people all around evacuated their homes.

Gwen, Emily, Dorian, and Odysseus drove down the burning streets and came to a halt in front of the castle.

"It looks like it's claimed the castle as its territory. I doubt it'll be moving far," noted Emily.

"Excellent," said Gwen. "This is our chance."

The dragon stood majestically atop its new lair as it watched the group approach. The beast threw back its head and unleashed a laugh that shook the ground. "MUAHAHAHAHA! Fools! There's no way you can stop me now!"

Emily tutted. "Wow. That's like the one thing you should never say to your nemesis."

The dragon turned its attention to the woman in the cage below it. "One final chance: surrender or she dies!"

"Oh yeah?" asked a smug Odysseus. He strapped the jetpack to his back and flew up to the castle roof, landing between the dragon and the cage with his sword drawn and his shield raised. "If you wish to harm this fair maiden, foul creature, you're going to have to get through me!"

The dragon snarled. "Okay."

Inhaling deeply, the dragon drew back its head, preparing to unleash its lethal breath upon Odysseus.

"Hey, hero: duck."

Odysseus turned around to see who had spoken and then immediately ducked out of the way so that the woman in the cage could fire her two silver pistols straight at the dragon's face.

The red laser blasts made direct contact with its eyes and the blinded dragon let out a deafening roar of anger, pain, and confusion.

The woman shot once at the lock on the cage to blast it apart and threw the door open. Her hands seemed to fade completely through her dress as she holstered her pistols to her waist to allow her to pick up the crystal. Then, to the complete shock of everyone who wasn't Gwen, she grabbed Odysseus and gracefully took to the air.

Odysseus stared at her with his mouth open all the way from the castle's roof to the ground. The woman walked over to Gwen and handed her the crystal.

Odysseus shook his head. "But...but you..."

She turned to face him. "Sorry for the confusion."

Both Odysseus and the dragon were in awe as the woman started flickering. Her features blurred and her dress began to glow as she seemed to fade in and out of existence. Finally, with a loud crackling sound, the image of the woman disappeared altogether to leave in its place a silver robot with a thin metal frame and a blank screen for a face.

Odysseus blinked. "Um...what the fuck?!"

The robot spoke with an electronic voice. "Software: Type 4 biographic projection. Objective: To kill the dragon resting on Albion and retrieve the crystal stolen from the vaults of Queen Meidon. Name: REDACTED."

"ENOUGH OF THIS!!!" bellowed the dragon. Stretching its wings to their full span, it dove off the castle roof and straight at the crew, fire streaming from its mouth.

"MOVE!" shouted Gwen, and the group scattered. Redacted fired up the jetpack on their back and whisked Odysseus off his feet, pushing him out of the way of the flames. Dorian dove out of the way and reached into his lab coat for his blaster as Emily grabbed the laser bow on her back and rolled into a crouching position, ready to fire.

The dragon passed overhead, flew around in a large, sweeping arc, and turned back to try again.

"We need to knock it out of the air!" said Gwen, wildly searching her brain for a plan. In the corner of her eye, she noticed the row of cannons sat in front of the castle walls. She looked at Dorian's eradicator. "Do those cannons work?"

Dorian looked over at them and had the same thought. "No idea. Let's find out."

The crew got out of the way of a second dragon attack and ran over to a cannon. Next to it, they found a barrel of gunpowder.

"Does anybody know how to load a cannon?" asked Gwen.

"I do!" said Odysseus. "I've seen the robot guards do demonstrations a few times for tourists. It's one of the only things to do in this dull place."

In a few moments, Odysseus had the cannon loaded up with the eradicator.

With the cannon pointed at its target, Gwen touched her palm to the fuse and lit it with a red flash. Everyone stood back as the fuse burned down and, with a deafening blast, the cannon launched the sphere into the sky.

It soared through the air and smacked the dragon in the face. Upon impact, it exploded and unleashed a miniature black hole that grew until it dominated the sky above the castle. It generated winds so strong that it shattered windows and sucked the debris from buildings into it.

The dragon's roar became a desperate cry as it fought helplessly against the immense force of the black hole. The crew watched from below as its tail, wings, claws, and finally its head were sucked into the vortex. After a few moments, the black hole collapsed into a single point and disappeared completely.

Silence fell over New Vale.

"Mmmm." Dorian looked up at the now-clear sky quizzically. "I'm pretty sure that's not actually how black holes work."

"Oh, shut up Dorian," said Emily. "It looked cool. That's all that matters."

From side-streets and back alleys, civilians in a state of total shock came wandering out to see what had happened.

"Ah..." sighed Odysseus, with his arms outspread and a grin of satisfaction on his face. "Don't worry, people of New Vale! I have dealt with the dragon for you! Please hold your applause!"

Nobody applauded.

"You do realise half of the village has been damaged beyond repair, right?" asked Emily.

"Yeah, I kinda hoping we could forget about that part for now."

Gwen walked over to Odysseus and handed him the crystal. "So...it was your knowledge of cannons that saved the day. We couldn't have done this without you."

Odysseus smirked. "I know."

Gwen gazed into the hero's deep brown eyes and leaned in towards his lips.

She paused an inch away from his face. "If you even think about trying to steal this crystal, I will destroy you with my bare hands. Now you might be thinking I mean that in a figurative sense, and that what I really mean is that I'll merely be mad at you. But no, Odysseus. I will actually charge up the magic implants in my hands and rip your fuckin head apart." Her deadpan expression slowly became a manic grin as she pulled her face away from a shaken Odysseus. "Come on, Emily; we should help with the rebuilding effort."

[Albion]

Once the dust had settled, New Vale's authorities began treating the wounded and organising shelter in the castle for those who had had their homes destroyed. The rubble of roofing tiles, bricks, and broken glass lay charred in the streets as, amongst the devastation, the townsfolk began searching for their belongings and clearing paths to their front doors.

On the outskirts of town, Dorian, Gwen, Red, and Odysseus stood outside the crashed Treehouse, recovering from the ordeal.

"So let me get this straight," said Odysseus. "You're a robot who can use holograms to disguise yourself as anyone?"

An image of a box with a tick in it flashed up on Red's black visor in LED lights. "Correct. The combination of micro-hologramming, chemical synthesisers, and controlled electric signals in my outer plating provide a near-undetectable illusion of sight, smell, touch, and taste."

Emily exited the Treehouse and joined the others. "Right, I've done all I can. It's not pretty, but as long as you aim about 20 degrees per nautical mile to the left of wherever you wanna go, the Treehouse can fly you there."

Dorian snorted. "It probably still can't."

Emily punched the minotaur in the arm at full-force. A few seconds passed. She retracted her hand from his unflinching body and shook it while silently screaming in agony. The corners of Dorian's mouth turned up into an almost imperceptible smile.

"So, where are you headed now?" asked Odysseus.

"Well, first we have to take the crystal back to Chrysoros to cash in the 5,000,000 credit reward," said Gwen. "Then we should probably bring some of the money back here to contribute towards the rebuilding. But after that, we could go...well, anywhere really."

Odysseus looked at them in disbelief. "So this is really what you do? Fly around Andromeda hunting bounties?"

"Not really. That would imply we're only in it for the money."

"What are you in it for?"

Gwen smiled. "Fun." She held out her hand to Odysseus to take the crystal. "Thanks a lot for your help. We'll be on our way now."

Odysseus looked at her, looked down at the crystal, and then pulled it back to his chest defensively. "Only if you take me with you."

Gwen stopped, and retracted her hand slightly when she saw how serious he was. She turned to silently request the opinion of Dorian, who responded by shrugging, Emily, who looked uncertain, and Red, who's black visor face displayed a simple LED image which read '50/50'.

Turning back to Odysseus, Gwen cleared her throat. "Well then. Why exactly would you want a place on my crew? We've only just met."

"Well you see, I'm a simple farmboy, like my father and his father before him. All my life I've looked up to the stars and seen adventure waiting to happen. When I was seven years old my father abandoned me and my mother with no explanation. The night he left, I heard them arguing and got up to see him walking out the front gate with a packed bag. When I ran out to follow him, I heard a ship taking off and watched a streak of light cut across the sky. That night, I swore to my mother that when I grew up I would venture out onto that starry sea and find out what happened. I've been stuck in this sleepy village all my life, and you are my only hope to-"

As he spoke, Odysseus failed to notice the shadow at his feet which grew larger and larger until Gwen grabbed his hand and violently dragged him out of the way as a small starship fell out of the sky, almost crushing him to death.

Everyone was sent into a fit of coughing and spluttering by the clouds of dust that were sent bellowing into the air as a door on the right side of the starship slowly folded down with a mechanical whir to form a ramp. Out of the ship stormed an angry group of space pirates, closely followed by their cyborg captain with his metal peg-leg, laser hook, and tricorn hat. He unsheathed his cutlass and pointed it at Odysseus' chest.

"Odysseus! If that even be yer real name! I've been huntin' ye down for six months, and me mercy ran out five solar systems ago! I'll kill ye, and yer little friends!"

Odysseus took a step towards the pirate. "That's where you're wrong, Captain Deathbeard. These people aren't my friends..." He paused, turning to face Gwen, Emily, Redacted, and Dorian looking perplexed behind him. "...They're my crew."

Everyone was silent for a good seven seconds, before the electronic voice of Red spoke up: "Oh, honey."

"'A simple farmboy', are you?" asked Emily, with a raised eyebrow.

"Enough of this!" cried the pirate captain as he prepared for combat.

"Please," Odysseus asked Gwen. "Get me off this planet!"

Gwen thought about it. "Sorry. I don't want to travel with liars who have angry mobs chasing them across the stars. That's not how we roll."

At that moment, the wind picked up. The clouds above began to rumble as, faintly, the sound of trumpets echoed through the sky.

The crew and the pirates looked up to see a colossal golden ship slowly lowering itself through the clouds. Its underside was covered in giant glittering gemstones and speakers which heralded its arrival with a grand fanfare. A small pod detached itself from the ship and gently flew down to where the group was standing.

After touching down, the pod opened up and two perfectly organised rows of royal guards emerged, their gold armour shining in the sun. The guards stopped and turned to face each other as a woman with blue skin and six arms slithered down the middle of the two rows. She was wearing a large ornate crown and a purple dress with a long, flowing trail. Her three left arms were holding on to a golden sceptre.

"Bow before the might of Queen Meidon, ruler of Chrysoros!" shouted one of the guards. Instead of following the guard's advice, the crew and the pirates both stood with their heads tilted in confusion as her royal highness approached.

"Well done! Well done! I see you have retrieved my crystal successfully! We've been watching your progress, and the royal court of Chrysoros is indebted to you for your bravery in undertaking this task. Now hand me my crystal and you shall all be greatly rewarded!"

"Of course!" said Odysseus, puffing out his chest and going down on one knee. "Here you are, your majesty." He bowed his head and held out the crystal with both hands.

Queen Meidon slithered towards the crystal to take hold of it. Before she could, it started to shake.

Odysseus, feeling something move in his hands, raised his head to stare wide-eyed at the crystal, which was now glowing brighter than ever. The crew, the guards, Queen Meidon, and the pirates all gathered around its brilliant white light as, with a painful shattering sound, the top of the crystal cracked.

"Oh, for shit's sake..." muttered the Queen under her breath.

The cracks on the crystal grew and grew until, to the complete shock of everyone who wasn't Queen Meidon, it hatched.

The crystal fragments fell away to reveal a tiny yawning red dragon with three stumpy horns and two tiny wings.

The crew and the pirates shared nervous glances. Emily whispered to Gwen, "Did we just kill a dragon to steal its baby?"

Eventually, Dorian cleared his throat. "Your highness, were you aware that your 'crystal' was in fact a dragon egg?"

Queen Meidon's warm, welcoming smile had dropped away and became a scowl. "Why yes, I am fully aware of everything I keep in my family's vaults."

"Then what, may I ask, does your highness intend to do with a live dragon?" asked Dorian.

"As you are aware, the people of Chrysoros have been fighting a long and arduous war; hence the reason why I had to enlist your help. I couldn't spare any of my fine warriors from their battlefield. The war has raged on for six years, but now, an end is in sight! I hope to use that dragon to create a weapon capable of winning me the war! Dragons have wondrous powers, and my army's top researchers can't harness those powers from an unruly adult. We need to take the creature at birth and acclimatise it to the laboratory from the start of its life."

"Because it will stay there until the end of its life," intoned Dorian. "Because I know that's how this works. Because I've known people like you, and I know what you're willing to kill for your better tomorrows."

"It is of no consequence. One dragon's life is a small price to pay for the total annihilation of our enemies' home worlds!"

"Annihilating planets won't just kill the opposing army," said Dorian. "Innocent civilians will be slaughtered."

"Queen Meidon," said Gwen. "We cannot give you this dragon knowing that you plan to use it as a weapon."

The queen was shocked. "Excuse me?! Why, you insolent child! I shall see you hanged for talking to me like that! Guards! Take the dragon!"

The band of space pirates who had been quietly watching, dumbfounded by this entire exchange, snapped back into action at the first mention of violence towards Odysseus. "If we help, will WE be 'greatly rewarded'?" asked Captain Deathbeard.

"Certainly," the Queen barked.

Odysseus turned to Dorian. "If dragons have the ability to fly faster than light, can't you use this one to power your ship for a single jump?"

Dorian rubbed his horned head in thought. "Theoretically...I'd be able to use the residual energy from the crystal egg to do it without harming the baby."

Odysseus turned to Gwen. "I'll give you the dragon and the crystal if you get me off this planet."

"Deal."

The baby dragon made high-pitched meowing noises in Odysseus' arms as the new crew of five ran at full sprint towards the Treehouse as the pirates and royal guards charged, screaming at the top of their lungs.

Gwen blindly started throwing red bolts of energy out of her hands at the ground behind her in an attempt to slow the pursuers down as, one by one, the crew threw themselves through the door of the Treehouse and shut it behind them.

They all ran towards the cockpit as Gwen took her seat and started up the ship.

"Right then," said Emily to Odysseus. "Care to explain who Captain Deathbeard is?"

"Enemy of an enemy," he said, as a cannonball bounced off the outside of the Treehouse with a dull thump and landed on a pirate. "I tend to get myself into a lot of trouble."

Gwen grinned and pulled the main lever on the console. The sudden hum of the engines drowned out the sound of the angry renegades and noblemen banging on the door.

"Welcome aboard."

The starship slowly lifted up vertically, pushing clouds of dust into the angry mobs' faces.

Captain Deathbeard and Queen Meidon stood angrily shaking their laser hook and royal sceptre, cursing the sky as the Treehouse reoriented itself in the air, charged up its engines, and blasted off into space.

The adventures of Captain Gwen Lambert and her crew will continue...

IN

Episode 2: Dark Side of the Moon