Chapter Six – A Cry for Help
In the dying candlelight, Arialla’s quill sped across the parchment, the green ink drying as letters flowed across the page like an ocean upon sand. The delicate hand of the empress reached for a second sheet from her desk, and continued to write.
With all that has happened, I have come to believe several things about our family. After I found the scroll bearing the legend in my hands, and my son’s eyes changed to the colors of Zeah, I now understand why I gave him his name. By Jenh’s divinity, he has been chosen to be the hero of legend. To have pulled me from the grip of Métius and healed my wounds, he must be. And yet, to have the hero among us, there must be a dangerous evil among us.
Dearest Mearrk’hal, I believe that Z’Lé is that evil, and for that I am terribly afraid. The nobles were right to have doubted my choosing him as my beloved all those years ago. After Zarrek was born, and the temple to Métius built, he became prone to anger, demanding what he would of me as well as the kingdom. His requests for taxes and tributes leave my people poor and hungry; I fear that many are becoming ill.
Months ago, Z’Lé ended Onsira’s history of peace with Enhar, K’hithvahn, and Rreviihn by sending his army to claim the neighboring lands. Wherever you are, I am certain that you have heard of that much. More than that, Z’Lé has become very hurtful towards me, and I can abide it no longer.
My old friend, the kingdom will surely fall if we do not put a stop to Z’Lé and his imperial intentions! The suffering that he has wrong cannot go on. If he is a servant of Métius, we must help Loracaz keep him from returning to our world. Towards that end, I ask for your help and invite you to the palace. Whatever assistance you can offer to us would be a great honor, Mearrk’hal, and I look forward to seeing you again soon.
Jenh’s blessings be upon you,
Empress Arialla Antraius of Onsira
Arialla set her quill aside and waited for the ink to dry before folding the letter. Her messenger stood patiently by the window as she melted a wax stick, bright green marbled with sunny yellow, over the edge of the parchment and pressed her seal into it. Arialla sighed as she stood, praying that they could find him quickly.
“It is ready,” she stated The messenger turned to her as she spoke. “My thanks to you for coming. Our citizens fear Z’Lé’s wrath more than anything else; it is dangerous to even pass through the gates.”
“Although Onsira has declined steadily since Z’Lé’s ascension to the throne, dear empress,” he replied, “our support for you has not faded. Any of us would risk the dungeons in order to help you.”
She nodded sadly, but also gratefully, as she handed him the paper. “This letter is for Mearrk’hal, the last of the Shyal’In. It must reach him quickly if he is to help us before Z’Lé does anything irrevocable in the name of the Destroyer.”
He took the letter, tucking into safely into his vest. “You have my promise to be as swift as I am cautious.”
“Onsira shall be forever in your debt,” Arialla told him. “Please, if you can elicit help from anyone else who willing to move on the kingdom’s behalf, I would be grateful to you. I must warn you, though, that Z’Lé has enlisted spies for his own agenda, and I fear his intentions. Your discretion could mean your life.”
Arialla wanted to not have to make such dangerous requests; she knew that any who obeyed her did so at the risk of Z’Lé’s wrath. But she also understood that whether she asked for help or allowed the emperor to plunge the realm further into the evils of Métius, the deaths would be numerous. Better to have the risk of death be in the name of a better future. She needed his help, and could allow her sympathy for him to prevent her from sending him out to find Mearrk’hal.
“I swear to you milady, I shall do all that is in my power send you not only Mearrk’hal, but anyone willing to rally against Métius and the suffering that he means to bring to Onsira. Jenh’s glory be upon you, dear empress!” With those words, the messenger bowed, then walked from the chamber.
The acute chill in the library made Arialla glad she had brought her cloak. The cold had permeated the great room ever since Z’Lé had taken his wrath out on it. The window lay scattered in pieces both inside and out in the garden. A few pieces hung from the window frame, scraps of the curtain caught on them, waving the wind. The servants had cleaned away as much as they could thus far, and had arranged some of the books.
Arialla could smell the snow-covered garden outside as she walked along a row of shelves. There was a thin layer of water still on the floor, melted snow that continued to find its way inside. She came to the end of the row to find a fire burning in the hearth, and several elves gathered around a table. They bowed as she approached.
“Greetings to you, my empress. I am the master carpenter of Jzifélan, come to repair your library.” He smiled cheerfully to her as he showed her to the plans he had made, laid out on a table. “I am honored that you sent for me, your majesty. Once the weather is clear, we can begin rebuilding your window.”
She glanced over the plans, then nodded approvingly. Drawn among sketches for the window were notes on restoring the bookshelves that Z’Lé had assailed. “Your work is indeed good, Tameron. I trust in your ability, though I question whether the winter will ever allow you to repair my library.”
He laughed at her comment. “The snow may be falling still, but I think that it shall lighten soon. You should be glad that the wind did not send any other trees to break into the palace!” He laughed again as he looked about the area, pondering how to limit any further damage.
Arialla frowned sadly, perhaps because she did not want to explain what had actually happened. Her Citizens suffered already under Z’Lé, and she wished that she had nothing to add to their reasons for resenting him. Still, her father had taught her that Jenh stands for truth, including speaking up when someone had the wrong information. “It was not a tree that destroyed the window.”
Tameron’s gray eyes turned to her in amazement. “Wasn’t it, milady?”
“Did you not see just the way these shelves were damaged? Z’Lé did this in anger – in an effort to wound me!” She looked away from them, holding back tears as she pulled her cloak closer around herself.
The carpenter looked closely at the scratched wood, but he could not understand. “Such deep damage, my empress? How could the emperor do this?”
“There are stranger things about him now,” she replied. “I have seen heavy claws on his fingers, and scales along his skin. His eyes burn like black fire…”
Tameron laid a hand on her shoulder. He was surprised that she would tell him such things, but could tell that she needed him to listen closely.
She went on, “These are such traits befitting a dragon or some other monster. No elf could ever look like that. I fear that his hiding such an appearance bears connection with his ordering a temple to Métius to be built in our capital.”
“He is an evil creature, then?” Tameron asked, not sure what else to say. “I hear that the Destroyer’s priests and demons consider deception to be an art. Can Z’Lé be stopped, then, if he has such power on his side?” If he did not seem afraid to hear such things, it was because he knew that fear would neither protect him nor change the circumstances.
Arialla nodded uncertainly. “I am asking for help from an old friend. Moreover, I believe that the key to conquering him is already part of our kingdom. Have faith that Jenh will protect us.”
“Aye, milady. Your people believe in your strength of heart and wisdom as our ruler.”
“My thanks to you all. I must visit the temple now, but you may do as you need in order to repair whatever you can. Perhaps a tarp would help as a cover for the window until the weather calms. But I fear that so long as Z’Lé remains here, conditions shall only worsen.”
“As you wish, milady. We shall all do that we can.” He bowed deeply before Arialla walked back down the rows of books and out of the library. Outside, the wind moaned, crying ominously as she closed the doors.
Snow swirled around the carriage, blurring the driver’s vision as they approached the yellow and green beauty of the temple. The journey was slow, the wheels often getting caught in mud and snowdrifts; even the k’hets had a harder pulling the carriage. Fortunately, their strong legs and wide feet allowed them, in the end, to progress through the city.
Prince Loracaz gazed out of the window at the gray land around them. Even at noon, the sky was as dark as evening, so obscured was Ser’s light by the thickly-falling snow. A small lamp dangled from the roof, the only light to be seen. The world felt eerie and isolated, as though he and the empress had only one another on their side
The snow had carried on for weeks, swirling storms blanketing the kingdom in such cold that nothing could grow. Even the usual winter crops failed them, unable to survive the drastic changes between the frost and the floods that overtook the fields on the few occasions when it melted. Farmers had tried to dig long ditches in order to channel the water, but they were often washed away or found sabotaged overnight.
Loracaz could not avoid the reminder of the kingdom’s restricted resources; they passed by several homes in need of repair, some of them scarcely patched, and even then with mismatched materials. Onsira had plenty of skilled carpenters to speak of, but with no materials, and their efforts constantly being undone, their repair efforts were for naught. Emperor Z’Lé had restricted the imports that Onsira desperately needed, leaving the citizens to make repairs out of desperation, using anything that they could find.
The snow seemed thickest and coldest in the royal city in Jzifélan. The storms killed off many small animals, and the winds blew down trees both young and old. Priests of Fah’Iira and Neemie, the animal and earth elementals, were busy praying for a peaceful passing for their losses. The other priests of Jenh’s temple were no less busy, Loracaz know, for it was only them and the priests of Kearr who worked to provide hope to the people.
The carriage pulled up to the steps of the Temple of Jenh, where it slid to a stop on the slick cobbles. The guards stepped out first, jumping onto the steps to avoid the muddy snow.
“Be wary of your steps, your majesty, your highness, milady,” one of them said. “We’ve got mud and ice today.”
Prince Loracaz emerged next, careful not to hit his small crown on the doorway. Has tall as he was, he had to be especially wary of doorways outside palace, for few elves could equal his height. Once on the steps, he reached a hand in to help his mother out. Arialla pulled the green velvet hood of her cloak over her head and laid her feet first on the carriage steps, then onto the stairs of the temple. She gazed up at the temple, the curving golden-green architecture reflecting in her eyes as she ascended the steps.
To doors of the temple were carved with images of the elementals, but the paint had slowly faded under the storms of the past year. They were another reminder of how Emperor Z’Lé had changed the kingdom; he had also left the temple without the resources to restore them. The guards pulled open the doors for the empress, and she slipped inside. Once the doors closed behind her,
she and the prince removed their boots, as was the custom of the temple, and walked down the central aisle. The guards waited at either side of the doors.
The Temple of Jenh had a wide, open main hall. Most of the floor was taken up by embroidered cushions of wool and silk. Many worshipers sat or knelt on them, praying to Jenh for the bad weather to lift, for food, and for health. They stood to bow to the empress and the prince as they passed. Though the people feared and hated Z’Lé, their love and trust in Arialla and her sons was unending. Many of them knew now that she was not exempt from his wrath, and that she rarely agreed with him.
Columns of green marble, veined with gold and opal, supported the tower-like temple. Some of these columns were carved into the likeness of the twelve elementals, including the two who had been stolen by Métius: Shrré of illusions and Mékterrnh of the shadows. They reminded everyone that the temple had been built and cared for since before the time of the great legend in which Métius had imprisoned Jenh in a crystal.
The high priest and priestess awaited them at the altar. They bowed to the empress and her son, who bowed to them in return. They sat on the cushions that had been laid around the raised platform before the altar to speak together. The high priestess knelt close enough to Loracaz to feel the warmth of his body. He smiled and laid an arm across her shoulders, losing it under the thick curls of her dark hair.
“We would welcome your frequent visits among us, Empress Arialla,” High Priest Yanve said as he handed her a cup of tea, “were it not for the sadness that we knows weighs on your heart.”.
Arialla sipped at it before replying. “I have brought promising news with my sadness, Yanve, though I would warn you that it carries with it a certain darkness.”
“It is in regards your son, isn’t it?” The priestess asked. She was gazing into his eyes, her expression a blend of calm and anticipation.
“Indeed, Liriel,” Arialla said with a nod. “I believe that he is the hero of legend that Jenh promised would return, should we ever be in dire need.”
Liriel beckoned Yanve closer, so that he could see the prince’s eyes. The priest nodded when he saw the way that Jenh’s shades of yellow and green formed fractals in his irises. “Indeed… Even his aura glows with the goddess’s power. I worried that it would be this way, ever since you named him after the great hero.” Yanve turned to Arialla, his expression much more serious. “Do you mean to tell me that the darkness upon us is more than that of a tyrant king?”
“I fear so,” Arialla nodded. “Looking at Z’Lé now… he has changed. Something in him is draconic, perhaps even demonic. It is clear to me now that he does not simply see Métius as equal among the gods; he worships him.”
Loracaz, who had sat and listened tensely thus far, spoke up. “I know the legends well… My ancestor freed Jenh from her crystal prison, and she in turn promised that her champion would return to defeat Métius if he ever rose again. But why now?”
“It may be that this is the Destroyer’s first real opportunity to find a way back,” Yanve told him. “His hatred and jealously of Jenh have festered for millennia, and it is from his Abyss that he’s had to gather his forces and makes his plans.”
“It is not impossible for Métius to send his demons alone to destroy Onsirsa,” Liriel added. “He relies upon his mortal servants to carry out his deeds, and we can now see that he has found such a servant in Z’Lé.”
“I am asking Mearrk’hal to come to Onsira to help us,” Arialla told them. “Even if Loracaz could put a stop to Z’Lé’s plans, the emperor has done too much to turn back the darkness alone. His army is vast and fierce, and has has eyes everywhere is the empire. I fear what horrors he may have summoned from the temple of Métius.”
Yanve sighed. “Without a particularly adept of Kearr, or perhaps a sorcerer, we cannot be certain exactly how much darkness Z’Lé has summoned. Though we, as followers of Jenh, are most threatened by the formless destroyer, we cannot detect his magic. I trust that our old friend Mearrk’hal will bring with him whomever he can to help us.”
Arialla agreed, “I told him all that has happened recently, in my letter. The old elf is known to find help from most anyone he meets. I only worry that my letter may not reach him before Z’Lé moves further in the Destroyer’s name.”
“We must have faith in Jenh,” Yanve told her, “that she will lend Loracaz the means to slow him down, and to bring Mearrk’hal to us swiftly.”
“I have long believed that you would free the people from their suffering,” Liriel told Loracaz as she gazed at him, blushing slightly, “but to have you be the Champion of Jenh…”
He squeezed her hand to reassure her. “I have faith in you as well, that you will help guide me as I work to protect our people. I tremble to think what other secrets my father is keeping.”
“What might he have planned for young Zarrek?” Yanve added. “He often accompanies you both on your visits here, but I have not seen him since the coronation.”
“Father took him along to visit the black temple again,” the prince told him.
Yanve incredulously between Arialla and Loracaz. “Your majesty, it is not wise to allow such a thing!”
“I knew that long ago, my priest,” Arialla admitted, “but I am powerless to disallow it. Z’Lé hurt me the first time I told him not to take Zarrek to that vile temple, and I fear that even if I was to bear that pain and try to keep him beside me, it would be to no avail. Zarrek himself believes in his father’s goals and agrees that he can gain much by visiting Métius’s temple.”
Arialla recounted to him the events in the library, in which she had been consumed by the evil of the black tome that she had touched. Hours later, she had walked along the library with Zarrek, and as she had made their way down the aisle between the tall shelves, he had read aloud the titles of some of the books.
“Dragon Lore…” he’d said softly. “Spells of the Dark Moon… The Pantheon under Métius.”
That title had made Arialla freeze where she was. She looked to the shelf beside her as the child continued reading the titles. Each book was written in a dialect of Draconic, whether ancient, mystic, or common, and Zarrek could decipher each one with ease.
“I knew that he could speak Draconic,” Arialla explained, “but I though that his understanding of it was only basic. Now I must wonder whether Z’Lé, too, knows the other dialects, of if my son learned them from the temple.”
The priest nodded calmly, knowing that acting frantically would serve no purpose. “You must not react to your child with fear, dear empress. Accept him and his actions until Z’Lé’s reign ends. Once the realm is free from his tyranny, you may guide his use of whatever he has learned.”
“Do you believe that having the powers of darkness may be of use to him when he is grown, my priest?” Loracaz asked.
“I cannot be certain,” Yanve admitted. “Zarrek may abandon them once his father’s influence is removed, or he may use them to uphold our kingdom’s tenets.”
“I shall follow your wisdom,” Arialla told hi, “but I have more to ask of you. Z’Lé’s hand is no less harsh, and he demands still to bear him a third child. I can no longer give in to him, knowing that he is a beast of some kind. I refuse to share my womb again. Still, he is much stronger than I…”
“I understand, milady. You are indeed fortunate to not have become pregnant already. I will give you what herbs I can to ensure that you cannot bear any child.” Yanve stood and held a hand to the empress. “I fear that until Mearrk’hal arrives, there is little that we can do to shield you from the emperor’s wrath. Nobody should have to endure the pain and destruction that come simply from disobeying him.”
He held the empress’s trembling hands to reassure her.
“For my people, I can endure it a little longer… so long as I will not become pregnant.” Arialla looked away as tears traced along her cheeks. Months of crying had made them chapped, and at times they hurt even to wipe away the tears. But she had to cry now, even knowing that the future held such hope. Fear clung to her still; she dreaded Z’Lé’s embrace, his words and demands. He hated when she cried, and would cause her all the more pain while ordering her to stop.
The priest pulled her close, gently, to lay her head on his shoulder, allowing her to cry and sob into the silk of his robe. Liriel and Loracaz stood as well, compassion for her welfare filling their hearts. Yanve stood there silently, a comforting hand on Arialla’s back, and the high priestess spoke a soft prayer.
“Grandeur of our mother Jenh, peaceful in the depths of our hearts, we ask of you to comfort the empress of your legendary realm.” Soft lights formed in her hands, then floated away to embrace the empress. “Let not her heart quake, let not her soul feel so heavy. Release these burdens upon her, that she may carry on the ruling of her kingdom.”
Slowly, as the warmth of the goddess wrapper around her, Arialla’s body relaxed, and she sighed peacefully. She lifted her head to smile at the priestess, who bowed to her.
“Peace be upon thee,” Liriel said, and accepted the empress’s thanks in return.
“I shall take our empress to the apothecary for some herbs,” Yanve informed the others. “When they are ready, I shall send for you.”
Arialla paused to hug her son. “Perhaps you should like to stay with Liriel tonight. I know how you have missed her among all of the duties before your coronation.” Then she followed High Priest Yanve through the temple.
Liriel took with her prince in the opposite direction, sharing pleasantries as they strolled down one of the hallways, passing through several beams of colorful light that streamed through the stained-glass windows. They were both very well aware of how fortunate it was that Z’Lé took no issue with Loracaz frequenting Jenh’s temple, nor with his relationship with the priestess.
At the end of the hall, they stepped through the archway leading to the priestesses’ wing of the temple. Liriel’s chamber was at the center of the wing, the doors carved with images of Jenh. She ushered Loracaz inside and took a seat on the couch near the fireplace. He room was laden with books and magical items, but otherwise its contents were simple and few. The books were her favorite thing, and she had one nearby, which she pulled from the table as Loracaz sat down beside her. She rested her body against his and shared the weight of the book between them.
Their time together often passed with reading or spell-casting. Liriel’s purity was evergreen, and he never dared to do anything more than kiss her. The patience in both their hearts could not be tried; each knew that the time would come eventually when they could more deeply express their love. For now, they enjoyed the innocence of putting their people and the goddess first.
Liriel’s skin had little color to it; she spent her days within the temple, hearing the people’s troubles and leading their prayers. The spiced tea that she drank so often had dyed her lips a dark red, like ripened cherries with hues of chestnut brown. She wore earrings and bangles of silver, some fitted with crystals or delicately etched.
As they read, she shivered, and he pulled her closer.
“Let me warm you, my love,” Loracaz said to her, his voice soothing, and set the book aside. “You may read to me once you are warm.”
Loracaz slid his hand around her neck, feeling how cold she was. They ought to light a fire soon, he thought. His eyes closed as he leaned downwards, letting his lips touch hers. She relaxed as his warmth fell over her, allowing her eyes to slowly close, his hands embracing her light body with all of his love. Liriel ran her hands along his sides and across his arms, enjoying the feel of his muscles. She felt them flex as he massaged her shoulders.
When he let go, she turned away, her mood changing from affectionate to sullen.
“I hate what he has done to her,” Liriel whispered. “How could he be so cruel?”
“Liriel…” he breathed, unsure how to reply.
“She does not even know what he really is! He has been Onsira’s ruler since long before I became high priestess, and only now she has seen something more than his methods and beliefs. Loracaz–”
He interrupted her disquieted words, telling her, “We know enough. He avoided me today, but she described the change clearly. With those books, and the dragons, and the Temple of Métius…”
Flustered and irritated, Liriel pulled away from him and crossed her room. “He must have been planning for the Destroyer to enter our kingdom for years. Why is he only now becoming abusive to our queen?”
At a loss for words, Loracaz sat staring at her. She stared back, anger in her expression as tears welled in her eyes. He grasped at something to say, each time deciding against it. After several tense minutes, the prince got up from his seat and enfolded Liriel in his embrace.
“For now, we may not know the truth,” he told her, his words warm against her ear, “but I am certain that it will become clear to us in time. For now, I can promise you only this: I love you, Liriel. I would never hurt you, no matter what my father has done.”
She had no words to offer him in return. The priestess could only stare at him silently, letting her tears flow, letting him hold her, protecting her however he could. Being with him was all she knew how to do under those circumstances. He was her comfort, the steady light in her life to which she was drawn, like the goddess to her champion.
He was right; it did not matter who his father was, for Liriel’s love for Loracaz knew no limits. He was her savior as much as Onsira’s, and she had promised everything to him; infinite love, unyielding support, and all the glory that would one day be restored to the Kingdom of Legend.