Chapter Five – Encroaching Darkness
Shadows lurked along the lightless walls, and silence crept further in with every hateful breath. From black beasts, further darkness shall seep, or so the tales did say. For the shadows over Onsira, residing within the warm belly of the palace, are not borne of the night, but of true evil.
In his chamber, he sat awake, clothed in velvet. Moaning winds blew outside his window, his people’s cries, their hunger and death, drowned out by a more powerful force. The shadowy winds blowing across the realm brought in icy clouds once again; during the night, the snows that covered the land would deepen.
Kneeling before him, bloody and defiant, was yet another captive, trembling as he stared up at the emperor.
Z’Lé stood slowly, his long shadow casting the youth in umbra. “You were raised to defy me, Rankin; that I know well. Even your old master the blacksmith taught you defiance.” The boy remained without words, and the emperor grinned. “I shall not be denied my empire. Had you forged even one thousand swords, not one could defeat my army.”
Eyeing the child, his frustration unhidden, he went on. “I asked you to forge a sword for my son, not to infuse it with your defiance. Did you and your master truly believe that I would not care?”
Still young Rankin did not respond. It was enough for him that he had given his prince a gift worthy enough to offer to his goddess, that it would remind them all to whom the kingdom’s fealty truly belonged. He never cared that refusing to call Onsira an empire would do nothing more than reveal the level of his defiance.
“It does not matter that you would honor my son over me. I am, as I shall forever be, Emperor of Onsira!”
Z’Lé flung back his cloak, raising his arm in a single deft movement, ready to strike down the one who opposed him. A draft suffocated the one small flame in the room, and in the silent darkness, the elf felt a strong hand bearing encircling his neck, claws digging into his skin, and the hot trickle of his blood. His throat collapsed under the strength of his emperor’s hand; he tried to breathe in, but instead choked on the stench of his blood and sweat. When his mind became dizzy, unable to focus on even the pain, he realized that he was suffocating. All that he could do was offer a final prayer to Goddess Jenh.
The emperor scowled when the body did not die right away, and began chanting. The words emerged harsh and forceful, but not in the common elvan tongue; it was Draconic, a tongue that had once been rarely heard on the Onsiran plains. Difficult though it was to learn, Z’Lé spoke it naturally, with a refined elegance. Moonlight from the windows faded into deep shades of black, which the elf assumed to be the darkness of death. He focused his being upon Jenh, letting his soul reach for her embrace.
“Jenh will not save you here,” Z’Lé snarled. “Your spirit is mine!”
Rankin heard the serpentine voice echoing in his ears, and it sound less and less like that of the emperor. Z’Lé was chanting still, his hand growing tighter around the lad’s neck. His eyes closed, and Rankin felt his spirit releasing from his body. It pulled away from his broken leg, his cracked ribs, and the shoulder that Z’Lé had twisted earlier that evening. Released from the impairing pain, he took on a momentary bliss and freedom. His mind cleared as his consciousness slipped away, embraced by some strange entity.
And then nothing. The apprentice had no destiny left in the mortal world; he was with Métius now, a gift to the Destroyer from the emperor.
Once in his room, Loracaz set the scroll on the nightstand beside his bed, then walked across the room to lay the Drramin Luar on the sword rack above the short sword that he had once used as a child. Their lengths contrasted sharply, but he did not linger to ponder it. He turned to stoke the fire left for him by the servants, and then began to remove his ceremonial clothing, anxious to read the scroll that awaited him.
It was the same anxious feeling that he had when he thought of Liriel, always glad to see her and ready to offer her any honor that he could. Indeed, it was because of the priestess that Loracaz was so willing to read the centuries-old text; one day, their hearts would be joined in love though the same ceremony that the scroll was written about. Though the night was old already, he planned to read from it at great length.
At last clothed in soft woolen pants and a nightshirt, dyed the same green as a forest cloaked in night, Loracaz rubbed one of his fingers with his thumb. Startled for a moment that his ring was not there, the day’s coronation at last felt solid to him. In his mind, the ring became a symbol of his old self, a youth with no power despite all the nobility and legend of his royal blood.
Lying in his bed, the prince reached for the cool metal rod of the scroll and, lounging among his pillows, pulled back the first page to begin reading.
The Holy Ceremony of Unity: Joining Hearts beyond all Barriers, he read again. Below that was the opening text, the beginning of a scripture that he had yet known little about.
May it be known to all that Kuetzarrin is the unification not of bodies alone, but of the spirits that support them. When complete, this ritual, praised be its name in holy grandeur, reaches into the depths of the lovers to unite them at their most basic, spiritual level. Because all that need be had is love, and because the ritual knows neither time nor change, save death, the first words of the ritual are written in warning. Only death may free lovers once bound, and only love may unite them. Any who break the decrees that follow, no matter their knowledge of them nor their reasons, risks the damning wrath of the universe.
Loracaz paused to consider the weight of those words. The ceremony was a serious one, such that few of any race undertook it without their love being true and deep, and– most especially– unending. Indeed, Loracaz knew that undertaking the Kuetzarrin Rites was uncommon and sacred, and that more often, lovers saw no need for something so serious. Most of the Onsiran citizenry raised their families without ever enacting the Rites of Kuetzarrin, though they often celebrated their relationships in other ways. The Rites were not required by any moral or ethical edict, and to love simply was enough for most. That is, except for those of the crown.
May it also be known to all who come to the temples of the world that this union stands above all gods, transcends all differences, and shall be forever unbroken. To those who keep the precepts of their love unto death, glory shall be had. To those who rescind upon them, eternal suffering.
Loracaz skipped past the details of the suffering and bliss, more because he was interested in the duties expected, but also because he had been slightly unnerved by the pain described. He unraveled more of the scroll.
The rites of love transcend all paths, and for this reason any temple, be it grand or small, may unite two lovers of any path, be they good or evil, magical or mundane. So long as the love exists, so shall be formed the bond. Above all, may the lovers know that no temple is demanded of them, so that all the vastness of earth and sky welcomes the sanctifying vows. So decrees the oldest of rites, the ceremony of Kuetzarrin.
Pausing to yawn, Loracaz realized just how draining the day had been for him. A wave of fatigue washed over him, and he relaxed his body against the pillows. As he always did despite the drowsy incoherence that would follow, the prince continued to read. He had to unravel several more layers of the parchment before he found what he had wanted to read, skimming past the regales of love and various details that he intended to read on another evening.
The duties of a k’haarana to her k’hurin, while undertaken through loving trust, are the heart of her commencement of Kuetzarrin. Should ever she fail in these tasks for her k’hurin, all the wrath of the stars shall become hers. Know, sweet k’haarana, that you must be brave indeed to submit your body for the joy of the heart. Always must your k’hurin be honored, for it is in devotion that you have accepted him, and it is in devotion that you must abide forever onward. Shame be to those who would raise quarrels with their beloved, or who come to ignore their desires.
Loracaz sighed and skimmed along the various demands given a woman who would undergo the ceremony. Overall, she was expected to respect him, to share all that she had, and to be gentle to his children. Arialla had so done tenfold; she supported both of her sons in their endeavors and, though she had come to regret it in light of his tyranny, had shared her kingdom with Z’Lé, trusting in his dreams even when it meant opening the road for Métius. He yawned again, and lost the line that he had been reading.
Woe to she who would rescind the vows of a k’haarana once taken, who would deny her k’hurin any attention or respect, or who has injured his children without cause or apology. Wicked be she who would destroy what he has built, or who would decry any gift to her made of affection. The k’haarana is shameful above any slave or demon or thief who would take another man while her k’hurin stills lives, whether in action or in thoughts. A slave indeed is all she is worth should she trespass with another, for she entered willingly into the soul of her k’hurin, knowing this. Better would be her own death than to retract even one of the precepts spoken by her.
Hail to the k’haarana who denies her k’hurin not even a single kiss, but loves him all of her days and all of his. Graceful is she who gives to him without thought, who bears him as many children as he would want, and who asks only for his affections in return. May all lovers aspire to be as good as she who…
Was his mother really expected to serve her emperor? Loracaz did not like the idea of any woman becoming a slave to her man simply because she loved him enough to undergo the Kuetzarrin Rites. He yawned once more, losing the path that his thoughts might have taken. Though he would have liked to read on, his eyelids grew heavy, and he had no will to keep them raised. With the parchment draped over him like a bolt of undyed cloth, and snow piling onto the balcony on which he had stood hours ago, Prince Loracaz fell into a deep, restful sleep.
Upon opening, the door to the royal chambers shed a streak of light across the emperor’s figure. He turned from the window as Arialla crept into the room with hardly a sound. The light left his form as she closed the door slowly, silently. Her eyes avoided him altogether; she knew that he had been waiting for her, expectant in his desire. She knew also that he was never satiated, that his lust had become as deep as the snows that blanketed her land. Z’Lé watched her cross the thick carpet that covered the chilled floor or their private chamber. Quiet as she was in that darkness; he knew exactly where she was at every second.
Z’Lé caught his empress as she stepped past him, and pulled her close against his body. Had she not learned to fear his power, Arialla would have taken comfort in his arms and the way his regal clothing contrasted with his muscles. Many years ago, she had enjoyed watching him spar, admiring his victories and rushing into his arms when he had finished. He had been her handsome nobleman, she his doting princess. The memories of what he had once been haunted her each time she thought of how cruel he had become.
Ignoring her resistance, Z’Lé ran the back of his long fingernails along her cheek. In his grasp, Arialla was obedient, but shook nervously nonetheless. The doors to the balcony slammed closed from a draft as he pressed his lips to hers, pulling her body closer, making her tension even worse. When she felt the heat of his tongue against hers, unwelcome and intruding, she pushed him away.
Being bathed in the stench of his sweat and breath gave rise only to dark thoughts. She needed to place what she’d tasted on him, to know what he’d been doing in their hours apart. Perhaps it was the bitter mixture of wine and meat cooked too rare. It reminded her that each day, Z’Lé ate more than his people could ration across a week, and he especially ordered the cooks to bring him the finest meats. His temple brought him tributes of food, which he shared with the castle servants and his growing army, dragons and their riders alike.
His citizens, meanwhile, would accept no such gifts, too fearful to submit to the temple’s dark power in exchange for any sustenance. Even if they starved, few preferred to live if it meant a life of evil. Arialla had tried to find other ways to feed her people, but Z’Lé had stopped her every time, insisting that they learn to respect all the gods if they wanted the privilege of living in his kingdom.
Perhaps it was her resentment of him that made it seem so bad, but Arialla swore that the odor emanating from Z’Lé was putrid, as though its source had been near to rotting when he’d consumed it. She could not bear the taste of anything so ill-begotten. Arialla licked a droplet from her lips, wondering where Z’Lé’s sweetness had one to over the years. His lips had once delighted her, and the affection of his touch had once surged through her, leaving her quivering in joy.
Instead, she now trembled in fear of him. Everything that she had once treasured in the nobleman had changed into something dark and awful. His eyes burned for power instead of for her affections; his hands grazed her body with demands, rather than gently sharing the passion of their romance. Only by telling herself that his changes were too strange to be of his own free will could Arialla bear to sleep beside him. It was only on this premise that she could share a bed with the tyrant that Z’Lé had become and, if his desires grew too strong for her to deny, allow him reign over her body.
Looking away from the face that she had once adored, its shape twisted and sinister now, Arialla moved towards her bed. Z’Lé scowled and grabbed her wrist again.
Arialla sighed. “Have you not had enough? I want to sleep.”
The emperor’s eyes narrowed angrily, and he slipped into his chair, dragging her onto his lap with him. She pulled her body away from him again, but he only held her tighter.
Z’Lé spoke to her, his voice deep, his breath hot on her ear. “I see that the people look well upon my son, Arialla. He is indeed strong… and regal.” Arialla nodded as he reached for a glass of wine on the table nearby. He drank heavily from it before continuing. “I see in Zarrek a future just as grand. You have done well in both bearing and raising my sons, Arialla.”
Z’Lé set the wineglass aside and turned to glare into the delicate cerulean of her eyes, not seeming to notice the sadness that filled them. She gazed back weakly, his shadowy features too intimidating for her to speak.
“Why do you refuse me a third?”
Having no words with which to reply, Arialla only stared at him. His lengths of obsidian hair fell across his shoulders and over the dark amber of his uncaring eyes. It was the same hair that she once enjoyed watching him untie after a council meeting, or seeing it blown by the wind. She had admired his charm, wooed by his beauty and elegance, whether he acted formally or without airs. But he had changed so much over the years, and he moved her now only by unsettling her.
Arialla had no time to respond to his question; he leaned in to kiss her, and she, too afraid of his anger, did not resist. Her mind flooded with memories of all the times he’d forced her to allow it.
No matter how little she wanted to allow her body to be ravished by this changed and selfish creature, the empress fell prey to the one man who ought to have been protecting her from such filth.
Even when she gave in to his demands, he was never gentle. Memories of it woke the fear that she kept hidden within her, making her heart race, her skin tingling with the tenderness of every bruise and cut that he had ever caused her. His fingers, more like claws with each passing day, ran along Arialla’s skin, pushing back the thick sleeve of her winter gown as he pulled her ever closer. His rough skin and long, dark fingernails grated over her, making her wish that she had anything that could numb her and block out his touch.
They reminded her of how he’d changed in recent years. He had once appeared so different from the barbaric, lustful man embracing her now. Gentler, she remembered most of all. His kindness had enhanced his nobility, had helped win him her love. She had once yearned to lie with him, had even initiated some of their romantic evenings. Once Zarrek had been born, however, a darker gaze began to fill Z’Lé’s eyes. His shadow loomed darker across her…
The taste of him!
Arialla pulled her lips away, forgetting Z’Lé’s anger. The awful sensation, with its rancid aroma, lingered on her tongue as she pulled her body forward, grasping for the candle that she knew was beside them on the table. She held her hand to it, and fire sparked onto the wick. Yellow and green lines of Zeah, the afterglow of magic, ran along her arm as she held the candle up to his face.
Arialla gazed up at Z’Lé. At the edge of his jaw, she noted a thickened area, traced by shapes like rounded lines. Each overlapping circle gleamed black, reflecting the candlelight. Her fingers moved across the area, trembling at what she felt, the thick, firm texture, marvelously smooth like the surface of a jewel. How could he, who had no Draconic ancestry, have scales? She had never seen them on him before, but now she could not deny their presence. His eyes, narrow slits among a sea of glowing hazel, watched her fingers.
“Arialla.” Her name rumbled from Z’Lé’s lips as his hand caressed her leg. His temper would not last past this; she recognized the tone, the low and growling warning.
She knew what he wanted. For three nights, she had managed to escape it. Tonight, his desire was too strong; she could sense it even when they were apart, brooding within him. Indeed, she was blessed that he’d had the resolve to wait this long. His passion burned her across their bond, racing into her with a flood she could hardly dam. If she surrendered herself to him, she may as well allow him to spoil her kingdom completely. If she ceased to deny his lust, why not cease in her petitions to rescind imperial rule? The pain of ignoring their united spirits ached as much as the pain that his hands brought her.
The memory of the wrath invoked if she denied him again throbbed on Arialla’s right cheek. It was sent throughout the rest of her body, causing her arms and hips to tremble at the thought of being subjected to it again. If she could allow his touch, if she could only focus on her vows for a little while, perhaps half an hour if he grew weary, she could avoid the suffering twofold. Desperately, the empress recalled the words that she had said to him all those years ago, and lifted her eyes to him.
Candlelight glowed red on his fingers, his lips, and even his teeth. Was it the light that shone so crimson in that dark room? The empress glanced away, unnerved and uncertain. Her stopped on the small table where the candle had been, a goblet of wine waiting there alone. If it would calm her nerves so that she could relax somewhat through Z’Lé’s desires, then so be it. Arialla wrapped her aching fingers around the cup, only to have terror rush through her being.
It was warm. No, warm was wine that had just come from the caravans in summer. This thin glass, surrounded by a delicate forgery of metal, burned with a life of its own. Steam rose from it in
twisting tendrils against the wintry air, its intense, unnatural heat prickling her fingertips. Z’Lé was not known to drink warmed cider; nor did cider leave one’s lips so red as his had become. Arialla gazed at its thick depths for only a moment before it fell from her hand. The glass shattered, the fluid splashing in droplets as its scent, like sweat and metal, rose to her nostrils. She froze on Z’Lé’s lap.
This man, this beast of an emperor, tasted of blood. He was red with it. She could only assume– fearfully– that he had killed there, in their bedchambers, and that he lingered with the body.
Arialla’s heart pounded too hard for her to hear Z’Lé cursing her. She found herself clinging to his arm, clenching the scale-covered skin that she could feel through his sleeve. She watched the scales on his face reveal themselves as though relieved of some illusion while his anger brought forth a swell of cruel words.
Realization flooded her heart, heavy and cold and unrelenting. She had brought a monster into the kingdom. The empress had shared her bed with a murdering beast, and had borne the children of one who would wallow in blood. After all the terror that he’d caused her, he wanted more. If she allowed him to force a third baby into her womb, would his carnage ever end? It had begun, she never forgot, with Zarrek’s birth.
All of Z’Lé’s deeds as emperor came together, and she saw through to his being and intent. Z’Lé had allowed a temple to Métius to be built at the edge of the royal city, and had taken their young son there. How often, she was unsure, but Zarrek spent much of his time with his father. Arialla realized that he was a follower of Métius, an evil creature with a heart only for suffering. What else could he be, that did such things as she beheld that night? Whatever pleasure he sought was for himself. Whatever pain he caused was for his pleasure.
Once upon a time, Arialla had loved this monster.
A growl drifted to empress’s ears as the palm of Z’Lé’s hand curled around the back of her neck. “Do not try me, little one. Obey your k’hurin!”
Trembling, Arialla met his eyes and found the courage to shake her head.
Furious, Z’Lé stood, his empress tumbling to the floor. She cried out, the shards of glass piercing her arm, the adorning metal bending beneath her weight as her own blood mingled with that of another, somebody not long dead, a warmth not much colder than her own. Still grasping her neck, he knelt over her, his knee pressed daringly between hers. Scarcely able to breathe, her only sensation was the growling of her lord.
“Every moment I do not find you by my side, I find you in the library, ignoring your duties to me for the sake of legends, the foolery of the superstitious! I have tolerated that only because of your obedience to me, Arialla. Yet now you refuse my words and my touch.” He loosened his grasp around her neck just enough for her to be able to speak. “Why is this, Arialla?”
“I will not give birth to a demon…like you.”
The defiant words, uttered in her meek voice, brought a powerful growl from her lord. Z’Lé knew what she meant, what it implied that she had beheld. He understood that his empress was beginning to see his darkest of secrets. In turn, he would show her the force of his anger, the breadth of his strength. Whatever harm he was capable of it, she would know the full extent of it.
“Tonight, girl, I shall not do you harm, but show you what it means to defy Z’Lé Spyrytte!”
As he said those words, Z’Lé released her from the vice of his grip and rose to walk into the hall. The door slammed behind him.
Silence would have followed, were the empress not gasping for breath, choking on rancid shadows or otherwise whimpering in the pain caused by her wound. By some miracle of will, she crawled across the floor and onto her bed, her body numb. Arialla could not feel the icy cold of the wall as she leaned against it, sobbing. She could not even feel her body trembling, nor the tears that poured down her cheeks. Not caring what pain it might cause, she pulled the shards of glass from her skin, throwing them back to the floor. Her blood flowed freely from each wound, so that she was forced to wrap her sheet around them, pulling the linen tight against her skin.
The choking may have numbed her, but it was fear kept that lack of sensation within her frail body. If Z’Lé was not gone throughout the night, he would return to their bedchambers. He would force himself upon her, and if she resisted… How sensitive had her bruises been last time? How deep? She remembered only pain and fear, and beyond that, the same numbness that she now took refuge in.
Time passed, and the candle melted away, its light fading into darkness. Wax dripped from the edge of the table, falling and splashing into the pool of blood cooling on the floor. They mixed, curling together, and formed the gruesome shape of the crest of Métius. Unable to see it in the pitch darkness that followed, the once proud and revered empress the legendary realm was left alone with the blood of a pure-hearted elf to fear the return of the only emperor known to the history of Onsira.
In the snow drifts scattered around the withered garden, a lone creature sniffed the at ground, scarcely hearing the growing moans of the wind above the gurgling of its stomach. In the chill of the midwinter night, many animals were starving. The plants had frozen days ago, and could provide no sustenance. No leaves or fruit were left to share. This creature, however, did happen upon another sort of fiber. Scattered wood rested near a stone wall, scraps of paper stuck among the splinters, the ink once carefully scrawled across the sheets now washed away.
The creature drew closer, carefully, smelling the dust from the pages and the smoke from beyond the window. As its foot went down into the snow, it screeched in pain and leapt back. Beneath the sky, the lone moon cast its dim light on a shard of glass, a drop of blood sliding down its edge. The creature scurried away, unwilling to risk further injury.
Hardly a moment later, a shadow crossed the area, a deep, angry growl floating from it. At the window, Emperor Z’Lé glared out at the night, angry at the noise, the chill, even the deepening snows. He leaned forward only slightly, wary of the shattered glass of the window, the splinters of wood and crystalline shards on the floor. They crunched under his boots as he turned away to leave the ancient room. He kicked several scrolls from his path, cracking their rods and ripping the delicate parchment. The pieces rolled into a puddle formed by the wind-blown drifts of snow that had melted in the room’s warmth. Some distance off, a door slammed, and darkness crept in as what little light Z’Lé had cast with his fire died away.
The bright hope of dawn was never seen in the Onsiran sky, so murky were the clouds that hung over the kingdom. In fact, the empire had not seen a proper dawn for months. Instead, light filtered down only dimly, casting more shadows than it chased away. It left the empress cold, her body as stiff from the chill as from the pain that Z’Lé caused her. Gloom lingered over her kingdom alongside the scent of rotting crops and dying trees. Nature was not hibernating that winter; it was dying.
Alone and cold among the shadows, Arialla awoke. Still with her back to the wall, the stones as cold as blocks of ice against her body, she breathed in, then gagged. She sat up, her heart fluttering as the nightmare grabbed her with its knotted hands, forcing her to remember what had transpired the night before. She looked down at her arm, still wrapped in the sheet, and carefully pulled the fabric away. The gashes were not as bad as she had first feared, and the blood clotted and dried.
Refusing to think about the scars that her cuts might leave behind, Arialla crawled to the edge of the bed. She gazed out at her chamber, the stench of sacrificial blood pouring over her as she recognized the shattered wineglass on her bedroom floor. The fluid that had once flowed within an elf under her rule had dried as she slept, and held the glass shards to the floor. She had failed in her responsibility for his safety, and the depths of her remorse pained her heart just as badly as Z’Lé’s anger.
Last night, Arialla had been too raw with emotion to contemplate what she had seen. Horror had swept her logic away, leaving her with a gaping hole where the love that she had once felt for the man who now made her tremble had once been. Never had she expected to know what it meant to fear the man whom she had once revered; never had she wanted so badly to be free of another man’s awful hands. In the dawn of a new day, matters were becoming clear.
Under the lone moon Mehiil, Z’Lé had been drinking from that goblet, had desired her, but also had taken on a strange new appearance. Arialla remembered the blood that she had thought was wine. Z’Lé had been drinking it as though it really were wine. What monster drank like that? There was only one answer that she could offer herself: in the old tales of evil, there were haunting stories of demons that kidnapped other creatures to use their blood in terrifying rituals, ceremonies meant to curry power from their black lord.
This was the empress’s conclusion: Z’Lé was, by whatever means, a demon, disguised as an elf in order to win dominion over Onsira. That was why his lust for her had grown so demanding, why his hands bruised the skin that he had once caressed so gently. He was an awful, treacherous monster.
Which was he? A major demon, or a lesser lackey of the Destroyer hoping to make a name for himself? Even if it was Métius himself, Arialla feared them all the same. She was repulsed by the thought of ever sharing a bed with him. At least, she told herself, the things that were happening to the kingdom were beginning to make sense. Métius had been hoping to stage another attack ever since the hero of legend had stopped him from killing the goddess. He had always wanted two things: revenge upon Loracaz and domination over the entirety of Lorata. Whoever this bloodied beast truly was, Z’Lé was a tool sent forth so that the Dark One might have what he desired.
Trembling all the while, Arialla forced her feet to the floor, then hurried towards her chamber doors. The nightmare tightened her veins as she passed the shards of glass in their dried puddle, until she could bear no more, and rushed to twist the door’s handle. Her vision blurred as she leapt into the hall, closing the door loudly at her back, and she stood there for a moment in the empty hall, gasping for breath.
The beast that her emperor had become was all too real. His campaign of imperial expansion was no misguided dream, but a darker plot for the sake of the greatest of all evil beings. A tear ran along her cheek as she closed her eyes and leaned against the carved wooden doors, too terrified to move. She had brought a terrible darkness to power in the empire, and could not even imagine the extent of his horror. He had become increasingly harsh over the years, but she had never imagined that he embodied evil.
She could not have known the depths of his deception; even if there had been a trial to detect hidden evil in the hearts of the kingdom’s suitor, it would have done no good. Métius had the greatest ability to deceive and fool, having stolen the elementals of illusion and shadow from Jenh ages ago. He had corrupted them, re-creating them to serve his evil and hateful deeds.
How much power did Z’Lé derive from killing for Métius? Already he and his army had killed thousands for the sake of the empire. He was often away, flying to another kingdom to lead his dragoons into exploits of expansion. The people of the other realms were hardly able to count their dead, and any who tried to contest the new borders were added to the numbers of the fallen. Undoubtedly, Métius delighted in murder rendered in his name.
For a fleeting moment, the empress’s entire being stopped, caught in the revelation of what her emperor’s dark presence could mean. In that same moment, she understood something more about her son. She dashed along the soft carpets of the palace corridors, her teardrops falling behind her.
“Could this be why?” Arialla asked herself as she hurried down a flight of stairs, ignoring the guards that bowed to her as she passed.
She stopped suddenly, hearing shouts from the dining hall. It was a familiar voice, raised in anger, and she could hardly keep still as she stared at the doors there were all that separated her from the monster.
“Is he the reason that I gave my son the name Loracaz?” she whispered to herself.
Arialla remembered what she had read so many times over, the stories that parents in Onsira shared with their children, the glory that other kingdoms aspired to. She remembered the legends, the goddess’s promise, as she walked back to the guards.
“Do not approach Z’Lé,” she said to them, “but my son alone. Send Loracaz to me in the library.” They acknowledged the order and bowed as she rushed down another corridor, memories surfacing with every step.
The prophecy was true, but the circumstances were far more nightmarish than she had thought they would be. Preying on her naïve trust, Z’Lé had infected her heart with a love through which he had seized control of the kingdom. She had shared it with him so willingly, never knowing that he was preparing to give it to his dark master. With every kiss, Arialla had come closer to sacrificing the greatest legend known to her people. Her stomach wrenched at the thought of having carried his children; what rape was worse than sharing her body with the spawn of a demon?
That thought lingered for only a moment before she shoved it from her mind. Loracaz was no demon; his faith and devotion to Jenh was too pure to be a deception. What of Zarrek, then? Would his youthful interest in the temple of Métius turn to worship? Perhaps he would taint Jenh’s temple with the duality of his faith. Arialla had to find the written legends to know for sure. The details within them would tell her all that she needed to know.
At the doors to the library, Empresses Arialla froze. Her hand grasped the door frame as she stared inside, horrified by the vision before her. Her breaths came hard with the understanding what she saw was, in fact, reality. It only worsened the pain and heightened the horror of what she had welcomed into her kingdom.
This monster was destroying not only Onsira but also its past. Arialla’s azure eyes sparkled with tears as she forced her feet forward. Fragments of glass littered the ground as she went further in, and she looked down to realize that she still wore the ankle-high fur boots that she’d had on the night before; in her struggle with Z’Lé, she had been too distraught to remove them. At least she would not have to worry about more cuts, she thought briefly as she looked along the shelves.
Then, catching sight of the scrolls, she fell to her knees, sobbing, not caring about the glass or the blood anymore.
The scrolls had been destroyed, seemingly at random. Their rods had been cracked, the ancient parchment ripped, unfurled, and shredded. Water soaked the floor somehow, and it leeched the ink from the paper, blurring the archaic words and images, completely erasing some of the oldest writings known to the continent.
With an aching heart she lamented, knowing that those scrolls contained the legends that she’d hoped to read. Moreover, they were artifacts from the legendary era, kept by her family for centuries. Many significant tomes were kept here, a location once considered safest of all. Before Z’Lé’s reign, scholars came to this library to conduct research from those scrolls. How many had he destroyed?
The empress stood slowly, trying to wipe the glass and splinters from her palms as she stepped towards the ruin of her scrolls. Gathering them together, she glanced at the remains of her table, most of which laid in the garden, buried beneath new layers of snow. Even the chairs had not been spared by Z’Lé’s claws, and several insects had already made homes in the warmth of their stuffing.
With a disheartened sigh, Arialla walked to another desk, tucked away between the shelves where the thickest of tomes were kept. The dust was thickest on those books, and it also covered the desk in uneven layers. She could see places where the dust had been wiped away, as though a book had been laid there. She set the remains of her scrolls on the desk to look more closely; these shelves were entirely unscathed by the Z’Lé’s claws and his rage.
Only the layers of dust had been disturbed. Many of the books appeared to have been read recently, and knowing that they were unharmed when others had been torn, or burnt in the fireplace, or thrown outside into the falling snow, did not calm the empress.
These were not books to be read by the elves of her realm. They had not been touched, nor even looked upon, ever since they had been brought to the palace from the tower where Jenh had been held. Some of her ancestors had considered locking these books away, but there had long been debate as to why they could do no such thing.
After eons of rest, somebody had come here, to these books specifically, and read their secrets.
Empress Arialla glanced over the shelf, too frightened to even touch the ancient tomes. Within them was evil, black as the leather that bound them. Were it not for what her eyes had seen in the dark of the night, Arialla would have wondered who would dare to read such things. She glanced up to a shelf just out of her reach, where she noticed a gap. Peering up at the titles, she found them nearly illegible; most of them were in Draconic. Most of what she could translate were numbers: one, two, three…five.
Arialla gasped. Such a tome being removed from the shelf could only mean that it was being used, and only for the darkest of purposes. She searched the desk for it, frantic, worry for the safety of her people heightening with each passing moment.
In vain, she scanned other shelves, pushing books aside almost at random, praying that she would find a black one among them. Her beat rapidly, fluttering with the fear of what evil could be wrought from those ancient tomes of evil. The books felt cold under her hands as she pushed them aside, faltering only when she found an ebony volume among several dusty brown ones.
“The Book of the Darkness upon Death,” the empress whispered, reading the script embossed along the spine. It was written in Ancient Elvan, the only reason that she understood the title at all.
In the quiet that followed her words, tendrils of smoky black shadows crept along her fingers, spreading in swirls across her palm. She felt it seeping into her blood through her cuts, sending searing pain along her nerves. Every horrible sensation possible raced from her fingers and hand, up her arm, and into her mind. She cried out, trying to resist the agony, pulling her hand away only for the pain only worsen as though it pulled every muscle from its bone.
The darkness crept along the blue fabric and fur of her sleeve like teeth gnawing at her skin. No matter whether she pulled or relinquished her arm, the pain moved further over her body, until it seemed as though even her blood could not pulse through her veins.
“Jenh, my goddess, guardian of my realm, mistress of my ancestors,” she chanted despite the swollen agony in her throat. Her words brought forth yellow and green lines of light, which sparked and branched like lightning in the presence of the engulfing shadows.
“Protect me, oh majesty of all elements,” the empress forced out, though it felt more like she was choking on the acid of some hideous dragon. “Let not darkness cover your realm.”
She screamed, the magic of her goddess fighting the vile shadows for her body, her nerves coursing with signals ranging between pure torture and nothingness. Arialla pulled again to free her hand from the evil tome, no longer caring what other agony it might inflict.
“Jenh, goddess of Lorata, mother of this world, let not evil consume us–”
But she could not continue, for the darkness had seeped into her mouth, across her eyes, and through her nostrils, engulfing her face in pure obsidian blackness. The light of Jenh’s magic crackled, fighting for her still, sending out lines of curling golden-green light. Arialla choked on the stench of the shadows until she could breathe no more.
Losing all sense of feeling, even pain, she receded into the darkness. The taste of blood and death upon her tongue faded. Eons seemed to pass as her body floated in the swampy murk, scarcely conscious, her senses gone. All thoughts, fears, and sensations emerged as some form of pain. Tormenting spikes shot along her form, like lightning to a rod, and there was a constant underlying ache. Arialla could not move, as though she had no body left to move.
It felt cramped in that vast blackness, that suffocating void. Arialla’s being sought out Jenh, begging to be freed, fighting against a noise that she could not hear but that ceaselessly impounded her nevertheless. A dim form emerged from that Abyssal void, great horns curving from its head, its visage scowling and impossibly huge. A terrifying beast curled its body around her, uncomfortably hot and covered with barbed scales. Claws wet with blood reached out to her.
Ready to give up, to relinquish her own being just to end the terror, Arialla slowly began to realize where she was. This was Métius’s domain, the Abyss, a netherworld as empty of light as it was filled with suffering. Only demons could find their way in that terrible place; any others unfortunate enough to find themselves there fumbled through its caverns, lost and hunted. Their only refuge was to give in to the demands of the demons. The only place like it on all of Lorata was a dragon’s lair, where the scaly beast brought its supper to feast and gloat upon his victory, but even that was a stretch compared to the reality of the Abyss.
Arialla felt the heat of a hand at her wrist, grabbing her the way that Z’Lé so often had, tight, insistent. It pulled her back through the pain, bringing with it a blinding light and shouting voices. Dazed, she thought only of her sons. Could they free the realm from their father? Had she even told them the prophecy of the demon god’s return?
“Mother.” The shouting echoed in her consciousness until it came again, louder. “Mother, I’ve got you. Just relax and open your eyes!”
The words nudged at her being, but she thought that it was only a trick of the Abyss. She fought against the voices, against the hand pulling hers, until she recognized the softness of the touch. It was not cold, nor did it send pain through her. It was touch as it should be: gentle, caring, sensitive.
“Loracaz…?” Arialla scarcely knew that she had spoken, for it had not hurt her throat. She felt her chest heave as she drew in a breath, then felt it sink again. The agony had left too suddenly for her to even realize that it was over. Finally understanding that she was safe, she opened her eyes, slowly, timidly, and gazed up at her sons.
Loracaz smiled down at her, frightened yet relieved. “Mother, what happened?” he asked her.
“I cannot imagine a mind dark enough to create evil magic such as that,” came her reply as she pointed to The Book of the Darkness upon Death. It now laid on the floor at the edge of a puddle, the black aura around it fading as Loracaz looked over at it. “All I did was touch it, and it took me away to the Abyss.”
“That one? But when I came in, you were grasping this.” Loracaz handed her a scrap from one of the damaged scrolls that she had placed upon the desk.
Accepting it from him, Arialla looked it over, disbelief overtaking her troubled face. Her desperate grasp had wrinkled the age-old paper, but otherwise it was unscathed. The ink was still dark, as though somehow it had not been aged by the centuries. Arialla had thought that all of the scrolls she’d found on the floor had been soaked by melted snow, their color leeched out and lazing in puddles throughout the library, staining the tile. Furthermore, it was the image painted on this page that she was startled to see: archaic images of the goddess Jenh and her hero, surrounded by symbols for promise and peril. Her older son looked at it with her curiously.
“Is this the story that you tell me?” Loracaz asked. “Of when the goddess Jenh was rescued from the crystal, and Onsira became a kingdom?”
Arialla nodded, blinking her eyes as her thoughts were taken elsewhere. Loracaz pointed to the drawing of the hero as he shattered the crystal prison with his spear. “And this is the hero you named me after.”
A memory flashed over the empress. When her son had been born, she had been the one to choose a name for him, and that choice had surprised many citizens of the realm. Even the other kingdoms had been bewildered that the infant prince would be named Loracaz. Many had asked her why, but she had never been able explain her decision. She had carried the babe for months, unable to rest upon any one name, not even knowing whether she carried a son or daughter. Arialla could only remember napping one winter afternoon, then waking with the tightness in her belly that meant that labor had begun.
When night came that midwinter, and she held him to her breast, Arialla spoke the name Loracaz to him. She above all others understood what the name meant; the legend had begun her lineage and established the Onsiran kingdom. The name was a solemn gift, and carried with it incredible responsibility. Whether she had been compelled to do this by some greater force, or had chosen it as a late change of heart over the others that she had been considering, none knew.
The empress gazed into her son’s eyes. They gazed back at her, the deep blue sparkling like jewels. When he blinked, she noted a golden hue surrounding the specks of green. In fact, his whole body glowed with the colors of the Goddess Jenh’s magic.
“Loracaz,” she whispered, suddenly remembering what she had forgotten for so long.
The prince gazed curiously at his hand. A wind rushed by, wrapping around him until it took a substantial form, first that of the wind elemental, and then of the goddess herself. She smiled to Loracaz, and then kissed his forehead.
“My dear hero, do not fear!” Jenh said as she embraced him. “My blessing is upon you and your entire world. You have the gift of my wisdom and power in order to protect it. Trust in yourself, and evil shall not prevail.”
She held him closer and closer, until she faded away as though dissolving into his body.
Arialla watched him, unsure how to react to the fleeting presence her beloved goddess, nor to the gift that her son had been given. He alone protected the destiny of Onsira. She had dreamt it twenty years ago. It was the reason, so long forgotten, that she’d given him such a name. Onsira needed a hero, and so he had come. That was the promise written in the ancient prophecy that joined the hero’s legend.
But with the pride of knowing that her son was Jenh’s champion came terrible fear. In order to bring the hero back, there had to be danger; something as awful as the presence of the demon-god Métius, or some equal threat of destruction. Arialla knew where it was, who it was, and how it had entered so deeply into her kingdom. She placed her hands on her son’s, and Loracaz gazed at his mother calmly as she spoke to him.
“My son, having seen my library destroyed, being nearly overcome by whatever evil resides in these black tomes, and having Jenh visit us, I have come to realize the truth about your father. He cannot be any sort of elf, nor any lord worthy to rule Onsira. His heart is evil and terrifying, for he is a servant of Métius. Z’Lé-”
Loracaz stopped her, wiping the tears from her cheeks. Her cerulean eyes closed as she wrapped her shaking arms around his shoulders and let her body fall into his lap. He rubbed her back as she wept, comforted though frightened. The prince understood the plight that shadowed his realm, as well as and why it moved his mother to tears.
Emperor Z’Lé was a monster, perhaps dragon, perhaps demon, who had deceived his way to the throne, just as Jenh had been deceived when she had been trapped inside the crystal eons ago. Her hero was Loracaz, who became the first ruler of Onsira, exalted by all, praised for his feat. Prince Loracaz II was named after that hero, and carried on his legacy. He would fight back the darkness that his father had invited into the kingdom, no matter what.