Chapter Eight Ayafir and Beyond
Snow frosted the white marble walls of the city that stood on the high hills. Winter was gentle for the realm of Ayafir, which sat in the southwestern corner of Manastaecies. This was the bosom of the realms dominated by the worship of Kearr, god of purity and light, lord of saints, the mighty healer and protector. The day was calm and happy with a peace that many thanked Kearr for. The messenger bustling through the streets, however, was in such a hurry to find the tavern mentioned to him days ago that he did not care which deity was responsible. He wanted out of the cold almost as badly as his message needed to be delivered.
By the time he found the sign bearing three blue feathers, his legs ached from climbing the city’s stairs and traversing its slopes. It was just as the guard at the front gates had described it, and he wasted no time in pushing through the thick wooden door. Fires burned both of the tavern’s hearths, and the messenger gave thanks for their warmth as he scanned the room for the man whom he had journeyed across the continent to find.
It did not take very long; he was the oldest elf in the room, his skin tan like the rich glow of a forest in the summer. The messenger recognized the thick, tight curls of hazel hair. He was the last elf who wore wooden beads in his hair, the last with the indigo markings on his cheeks, forehead and jaw. The old elf sat with two others, both dressed colorfully in comparison to the brown tones of the former’s basic leather clothing, and much younger as well.
The messenger approached him calmly. “Pardon my interruption. I have a letter of great urgency to deliver to Mearrk’hal.”
The older man looked up as the messenger spoke his name, his small brown eyes aglow. “For me? Who writes so urgently? Come, sit with us.” He moved aside to make room for the messenger in his corner booth.
Treyus sat gratefully; his body was exhausted after the long journey across the continent. The thick aroma of mint came over him from the herbs burning in the hearths, and it soothed him as he unfastened the buttons of his long coat to reach into his vest. When his hand emerged with the letter, Treyus handed it to Mearrk’hal. “Empress Arialla Antraius of Onsira has a request for you, good sir.”
“Onsira!” Mearrk’hal exclaimed. “Firstly, you have my gratitude for crossing to the opposite corner of Manastaecies to bring me this! Secondly, I wonder what is so important that she sent you in search of me in mid-winter.”
Mearrk’hal called for a barmaid to bring food and drink for the Treyus before breaking the wax seal on the letter.
Treyus let Mearrk’hal read quietly and regarded the other two men while waiting for his food to arrive. One was a man of fine and handsome features with long, golden strands of hair, which might have looked handsome if he’d taken the time to do any more grooming than just running a brush through it. His shirt was an array of colors, each blending into the other, and rings of gold pierced his long ears. Judging by the pack beside him, the neck of a lute peeking out, he was a bard.
The other seemed to be a magician of sorts, as his thick robe bore no significance to any of the four temples, though it was awash with color and magic symbols. This elf, his thick locks of chocolate-brown hair tied back, also had a wooden staff with a crystal sphere at the top, which he had leaned at the edge of the booth; he was surely a wandering sorcerer.
Treyus was wondering how Mearrk’hal had met such company when the old elf set the letter on the wooden table, his eyes wide with worry. “Arialla has need of our help,” he stated. “I must leave for Onsira at once.”
“What troubles the fair empress of so legendary a realm?” the bard asked. His voice was gentle and whimsical, like a soothing song. “Surely she has might enough to combat all who offend her.”
“Her emperor has become very cruel. She fears for herself and the fate of the realm. He should be the one protecting her, but–.”
“Her own k’hurin has harmed her?” The blond man was incredulous, one the edge of leaping from his seat. “How dare he act against his promised love!”
“Also,” Mearrk’hal added, “she believes that the prince might bear the legend behind his name.”
“Loracaz?” the bard asked, his brown eyes wide with the talk of legend and danger.
The sorcerer had sat still and listened calmly, curious as to what was going on but not willing to overreact.
“Aye, Vincent,” Mearrk’hal replied. “She writes about changes that she has seen in him, not only in his personality, but in his body. She is worried that he keeps a great deal of dark secrets, and calls on me to help defend her from not only his wrath against her and his tyranny against the kingdom, but also the darkness of the Lord of the Abyss.”
Vincent glanced between Treyus, the old elf and the sorcerer. “Tell her that I shall come along to aid her however I can. I cannot allow a tragedy such as this to go on!”
Mearrk’hal shared a knowing look with Treyus, then told the bard, “Vincent, you are hardly fit to aid a kingdom’s rebellion against its villainous lord.” Worry filled his voice as he spoke. “The emperor has become more wrathful than anything to may have already known about. He has imprisoned and killed countless people for crimes that no other Onsiran ruler would have. I cannot allow you to risk your life entering Onsira in such a dark time.”
“Emperor Z’Lé would imprison a bard simply for bringing cheer to his kingdom?” Vincent retorted, his tone playful. “Mearrk’hal, I see no danger in going to Onsira to bring the empress a smile or two as you try to help her.”
“Besides,” he added, looked to the sorcerer at his side, “Vénes shall protect me from any real any danger.”
Vénes stared at him, stunned that he had assumed that he would not only journey to Onsira, but face whatever grave danger Emperor Z’Lé would present. “I know full well that a bard like you would go anywhere to to find adventure,” he began, his voice velvety and relaxed, his words carefully chosen, “I, on the other hand, must wonder…” He turned to Mearrk’hal before continuing. “If Prince Loracaz is the hero of legend promised by Jenh, he has the power to vanquish his father on his own. Why is Arialla asking for your help if her son has such power?”
The old elf handed the parchment to Vénes. “She has explained all of that in her letter.”
The sorcerer took it with deft fingers, his ring sparkling in the firelight ans he read it over.
When he was done, he nodded to Vincent.
“I agree that we should go together. Arialla speaks a great deal about Z’Lé’s close involvement with Métius. I do not doubt that the misfortunes Onsira has been experiencing, as well as its imperialism, are related to the Destroyer, and that Z’Lé has gone far beyond the equality that he so strongly emphasizes.”
Mearrk’hal stared at him, bewildered that the other would put himself in harm’s way. “Are you not afraid of the threat that makes him?”
“You ought to fear him more than I would, Father,” Vénes told him. “I have the magic of the four alignments to protect me, should anything go awry. I wish to visit Onsira to see what is afoot for myself. I should like for Vincent and I to visit the library, as well.”
The older elf drank deeply from his mug as he considering this. Vénes was a skillful sorcerer, and like Mearrk’hal, he had wandered the lands to visit temples and libraries, practicing and improving his magic. As a bard of the celestial goddess Aamh, who was neutral to the dissension between light and darkness or even the hatred that Métius had for Jenh, Vincent had few powers, but was closer to Vénes than anyone else they knew. The sorcerer always protected his bardic friend as he would his own brother. Both could detect the presence of magic, though the bard not as strongly. Mearrk’hal agreed that could benefit from a visit to Onsira’s library with its stores of spell books, and he supposed that Z’Lé might be less angry at his presence if he did not arrive alone. He only hoped that they would not be harmed by the emperor’s erratic wrath.
“Consider this, good friends: Loracaz has the legendary name, and if he is truly the Jenh’s champion reborn, he can fight back against Métius,” Mearrk’hal said. “If Z’Lé worships Métius, as I fear he does, he has surely received a great deal of dark allies. If Loracaz is able to subdue his father– a difficult enough task on its own– they will come after him for revenge. Even if they are defeated, there will still be a lot of chaos left behind.”
“Are you saying this to dissuade us from coming?” Vincent asked him. “These seem like reasons that you need us with you.”
“From the way Arialla describes what is going on,” Vénes added, “I have a feeling that not all of the emperor’s allies are born of this earth. I can determine what is a creation of the shadows, and what is mortal flesh. I can also effect the help of white priests to vanquish the darkness.”
“Are you certain that you are ready to face that level of black magic?” Mearrk’hal asked him.
Vénes nodded, and without any hesitation, he said, “I have studied magic for almost fifty years–”
“And there is plenty more for you to study in the royal library,” Vincent interrupted.
Vénes glared at him. “What I intended to say is that I cannot justify keeping it to myself when Métius threatens our world.”
The bard grinned cheerfully. “Then it’s settled. We’re going with you to Onsira, Mearrk’hal.
Mearrk’hal sighed, shaking his head in worry. “Is there no reason that I can give for you to stay here and allow me to complete this journey on my own?”
Vincent shook his head. “I have so many reasons to go. Ayafir is becoming gloomy now that its king has died, and it’s about time that I met the princess you were in love with all those years ago. Shall we leave tomorrow?”
The old elf looked pleadingly at Vénes. When this proved ineffective, he excused himself from the table and stepped outside. They watched him leave without trying to stop him.
“Methinks he still cares for her,” Vincent said softly. From the look that Treyus gave him, he assumed that Arialla felt the same. He turned to Vénes. “Do you think that Arialla only chose Z’Lé over him because of his age?”
The sorcerer thought on this before responding. “I think there were many reasons for it. Even though he is old enough to be her father, I think he’d have become king in the absence of other factors. In a way, her birth saved his life; if he had not ventured to Onsira to honor the new princess forty-three years ago, he would surely have perished in the fire that destroyed his forest, and all of his tribe with it.”
Vincent gave him a dubious look. “Remind me what advantage Z’Lé had over him.”
“Always a man for legend,” Vénes sighed, “and rarely a man for present politics.”
“That’s why I turn to you,” Vincent replied with a grin.
“They say that Z’Lé made many a noble lady swoon not only from his chivalry, but also his handsome features. He also had many lofty goals and ideals, not the least of which was his talk of re-uniting the fringes of the kingdom and becoming closer to the dragons.”
Vincent leaned back, awed that Vénes knew so much of Onsira’s history. “So she admired his ambition?”
Vénes nodded. “Besides, as I remember it, Mearrk’hal told me that he had agreed that Z’Lé would be good to her and her kingdom, and had given them his blessing.”
“I wonder whether he was deceiving her even then,” Vincent noted, glowering, “or if he changed at some point later on. Either way, we can’t let Mearrk’hal face him him all on his own– especially knowing how much he’s done for us over the years.”
He glanced out the window to see Mearrk’hal leaning against the wall, staring into the east. From the hills of the white kingdom of Ayafir, the edge of Shyal’In had once been visible on the distant horizon. Vincent remembered seeing it as a child.
“Our fates seem tied.” Vénes said after a few moments. “Mearrk’hal left the forest for Arialla, and when he found no forest to return to, he found us. Now that we’re older, we wish to visit the empress. I shall be pleased to learn what destiny awaits us there.”
Outside, Mearrk’hal gazed across the sky. He could remember wandering the fields and hills over forty years ago, alone with his loss. He had been so depressed back then, without his tribe, without their traditions, without his life-mate and their sons. There had been times that he’d wished that he’d died in the fire with the rest of his tribe. Two months after his forest burned away, he had met two abandoned children in the hills outside the walled kingdom. Caring for them had given him solace, and he did not like the idea of putting them in danger by taking them to Onsira.
He remembered what he had discovered about the younger boy; the bard had been abandoned for a dark reason. Vénes, a young magician in training at the time, had been found with him, and had since become his closest friend. Mearrk’hal had promised himself that he would go on living and care for the boys until the day came when he could safely tell Vincent what he knew. He now worried that he would not have the chance to say what he had summoned them to Ayafir to tell them.
Mearrk’hal watched the clouds move across a gray sky, wondering what he was going to do about the boys he had raised as his own. They had become men of honor and principle because of him, which made him proud, even if this time it meant them endangering themselves. After further thought, he decided to trust Vén
es’s ability to protect Vincent. They had always been together, side by side, friends as much as brothers. He only hoped that Z’Lé would not have reason to harm or imprison them.
He watch his breath float in the air as he sighed and contemplated the logistics of this journey. He could arrive in Onsira by springtime, as well as ask for help along the way. Whichever route they took, they would end up passing through conquered land, where they could gain insight into what went on there. With the three of them helping, they could ensure that Loracaz fulfilled his role as Jenh’s champion.
Mearrk’hal sent a prayer to the ancient guardians of the forest and returned to the warmth of the tavern.
Dawn was creeping across the white city of Kearr as when the three elves ventured out beyond the gates. Each carried a large leather pack on their back, Vincent’s bulging with the instruments that he dared not travel without. On the hills of Ayafir, the view through the morning mist shined with the light of the god of purity, casting everything up to the horizon in a veil of peace.
“Where do you plan to go first, Mearrk’hal?” Vincent asked the elder after quite some time.
“I asked Treyus to take the northern route to Onsira. The journey is much faster, and he can rouse help for the empress along the way. He must get word to Empress Arialla that we are coming, so that she will be expecting us. I want to take the southern route.”
Vincent raised a brow. “But there are so few cities along that way. How can we bring together enough warriors to defeat Z’Lé’s army?”
Mearrk’hal smiled and explained, “I want to pass through my forest before meeting the emperor again. Onsira will be dangerous for me; I will not be welcome Z’Lé’s eye. I must pay my respects to Shyal’In, and then we can visit the Jzamneh tribe.”
“Jzamneh?” Vincent asked worriedly. “Those elves are full of tricks and puzzles, Mearrk’hal. Will they even listen to our plea without having treasure given to them?”
“To me, yes,” was all the old one would say.
“Will we visit the marshlands as well?” Vénes asked. He walked carefully as the hill sloped downwards, his magical staff supporting his steps.
“Not on this journey. Treyus plans to rally a great deal of the help we shall need. We can visit Rrévihn and Enhar, Onsira’s neighbors, and if we need more help, I shall go for it. It all depends upon what dark magic you can sense there, Vénes.”
He looked to the sorcerer, who nodded.
They walked on, descending the hills that surround Ayafir. Although yesterday he had planned to rest in Ayafir, venturing out to aid Arialla had shaken him of much of Mearrk’hal’s weariness. For all his years wandering Manastaecies, Vénes and Vincent had been the only two for whom he could be roused without a second thought. He had thought that Arialla was safe and happy with Z’Lé, and loathed the fact that he had been wrong.
Leaving for Onsira meant canceling his plans in Ayafir. This was his first time back since he had met the boys, and it was also theirs. Mearrk’hal had asked them to meet him in the capital city, but had yet to explain to them why. In the few hours they’d had to prepare for their new journey, Vénes had spoken with several white mages to ask them to consider coming to Onsira, giving new purpose to having been in Ayafir.
“Has anything in Shyal’In regrown yet?” Vénes asked Mearrk’hal after a while.
The old man sighed and gave the plains a forlorn look. “Nothing. The ash is too thick for anything to sprout there. There is a mist, like smoke, that lingers between the remains of the fallen trees, even after all these years.”
Vénes nodded. He remembered the wasteland. Not one tree had been spared in the fire that took Shyal’In Forest. The oldest trees were now nothing more than charred shells that haunted the muddy expanse that remained. The elves who had once lived in those trees were now mere ash, mixed into the mud, thick enough for anyone’s feet I sink into up to their ankles. He and Vincent had been warned not to wander into the remains of the forest back when they were you, and going back now felt strange.
Winter was nearly over by the time the three of them got to the edge of Shyal’In. They passed through some of the smaller, quiet kingdoms that laid between Ayafir and the remains of the forest, sharing Arialla’s request for help where they could. The snow was starting to melt around the old, worn cabin just beyond the edge of the forest floor, and three of Lorata’s moons shone in the sky.
It was an old place that Mearrk’hal had build not long after the fire, when the boys were young and newly in his care, but it had been sturdy enough to remain standing over the years.
Once he had seen Vincent and Vénes inside, Mearrk’hal gazed with heavy heart across the field of gray and black that stretched southward from the cabin. The haunting bodies of a few old and charred trees stood against the darkening sky, their long shadows stretching out like hands reaching for help. The cold air inundated everything with a chill that no amount of warmth could relieve, just as though those who died there would not allow any comfort to come to the living.
Inside the cabin, Vénes started a fire in the hearth. For the three of them, this was a night for magic and ceremony. Vénes would speak the sorcerer’s prayers in private, paying homage to the four alignments and asking the gods and goddesses to bless his journey. Vincent, who loved his goddess for her gift of song, sat on the floor in front of the fire, strumming his lute as he sang a song from an older time. Its words, though in an older form of Elvan, described a tale of adventure and honor, which he hoped would earn his Aamh’s grace and favor for the journey yet to come.
Mearrk’hal had not cried for his forest in years, and he did not intend to cry that night. He knew that his forest could never grow back, that his tribe and his family were gone. Even though Emperor Z’Lé hated him, his one true challenger for Arialla’s heart, he was not afraid of having chosen to answer the empress’s call. After all that he had lost, then raising the boys as his own, and later courting Arialla, we was weary. It was hard to not feel alone sometimes, even knowing that his charges were skillful and independent. He wondered, as he walked across the muddy expanse, whether would be able to seek true rest one Onsira was freed from Z’Lé, assuming that he survived the ordeal.
The night was full by the time the old arrived at the lake at the center of his homeland, where the branches of ancient trees had once formed a lush canopy. He knelt at the edge of the lake, offering prayers to the forest spirits, and to Neemie, Jenh’s elemental of plants, that it might grow again one day. Shyal’In had once had a mystical spirit looking over it, but now the land was so still and quiet that he worried that it was gone.
Mearrk’hal had been a shaman in tune with that great spirit; his k’haarana had been a druidess and a respected leader of her village. He had adored her, not simply because he led the village with her, but because of the deep, spiritual love that they were able to share with one another. As she bore his sons, she also protected the future of their village, just as every other druidess and shaman in Shyal’In did. They were the people’s link between life and death, to the mortal world and the mystical realm from which the great forest spirit had come.
Like any elf from his tribe, Mearrk’hal possessed the Zeahs of both the rich green earth known to Neemie, and of the rocks, metals, and gems of the elemental Tezanth. Under the midnight moons, the old shaman would ask for the protection of the elementals, as well as the guiding spirits of his people. He was ready for a night of chanting and prayer, hoping for anything that could help him uncover the truth about Z’Lé and protect everyone else from the darkness.
He watched the stillness of the lake for some time, the moons reflected clearly in its smooth surface, and felt a great weight in his heart. After a while, the weary shaman reached into the pouch at his belt to withdraw three water lilies; he’d found them along the journey way from Ayafir, and knew that they would come in handy. He placed them one by one into the water and watched them float away. They curled across the water in long spirals, moving away from one another until each was in the reflection of one of the moons. Mearrk’hal stood and took small steps into the water, balancing his feet on the cold rocks at the bottom. There was nothing living in that lake, not even so much as moss or worms, and it was icy cold.
Decades ago, the central village of the Shyal’In had thrived around this lake, and it had been the home of the tribal chief. The largest of all trees had grown in the center of the lake like a great pillar, stronger and taller than any other. It had once risen above the forest roof like an X on a map, until it burned and cracked and fell into the lake. Its charred body had sunk to the silt floor.
Mearrk’hal felt the silence of the barren lake permeating his body. Breaking this silence, he began the spell that only his people knew, the lunar magic of the shamans. He hoped that its power still blessed what remained of the forest as he stepped deeper into the rimy water of the vast lake.
The water stung his legs through his leather pants, but he ignored it and focused on chanting the ancient words of a summoning spell. They seemed to echo across the lake as he spoke, as though the souls of his tribe had come to join him in the spell. Mearrk’hal closed his yellow eyes, his words becoming more insistent, more pleading. Ripples spiraled out from the water lilies as a deep rumbling filled the air. When water splashed at Mearrk’hal’s abdomen, his eyes opened to see the earth shaking around him. He continued the spell, watching the water tremble, carefully the keep his balance.
A column of water shot up from the center of the lake, spraying the elf as it rose. A thick log was pushed up from the gelid waves, rising until a great clamor sounded from the column of water, and it crashed to the ashy ground. The clamor became a great growling as the water fell back from the column into the lake, leaving only the serpentine body of a dragon in the moon-hung sky. Mearrk’hal gazed up at it, silent but for the shivering of his soaking body, his eyes shone in awe of the creature that he had brought forth.
“Who calls me to this bleak and desolate forest?” the beast demanded. Its voice rumbled across the lake as its long, scaly body descended down to the elf’s level.
Mearrk’hal moved back to the shore as quickly as his numbed body would allow before responding to the serpentine dragon above him. “I am the last of my people, oh wondrous creature. My name is Mearrk’hal, shaman of the Shyal’In.” Respect filled his voice as he spoke, watching the creature hover above the lake.
“Small elf!” it laughed. “Why did you awaken me from my sleep?”
Mearrk’hal’s stared at the ways is body glowed in the moonlight, its green scaled edged in and its seen wings lined with yellow veins.
“I call upon you, the mightiest of dragons, only for the noblest of reasons. The queen of Onsira is in grave danger. Her king’s heart is as dark as that possessed by Métius, and she fears for her people. We implore you to aid us in liberating her kingdom!”
The creature flew to the lake’s shore and landed softly in the ashes before replying. He looked the old elf over as he spoke, as ready to strike as he was to agree to be of any assistance. “What of the goddess’s promise to her kingdoms? Has the hero not come, born from the oldest of legends?”
“Aye, great one. Loracaz has been crowned the prince of great Onsira. Alas, he cannot free the kingdom on his own. Arialla fears that her land is plagued with evil.”
Mearrk’hal continued explaining all that he knew about Onsira’s plight, and his quest to attain any aid that he could for its liberation. The dragon seemed interested in his tale, though still displeased to have been awakened for it.
“Are you such a weak shaman that you cannot enlist the aid of all of Jenh’s realm? What need have you for a dragon as ancient as me?”
Shivering as he spoke again to the immense beast, Mearrk’hal explained. “We have no way of knowing– as of yet– just how far Z’Lé’s alliance with Métius goes. We have yet to determine the full accompaniment of his allies, though we can safely estimate that has evil dragons at his allegiance. No matter what other dragons we can muster to help us, we are still certain to benefit from your aid.”
The dragon’s voice rumbled with irritation. “Dragons, you say? Surely the Dark One’s draconic allies would devour the queen’s soldiers with a single snap of their jaws. I will not stand by and allow this fight to be carried out unfairly. As you implore me, elf, I shall aid you however I can.”
“Many thanks to you!” the old elf declared as he bowed. “I beg now only to know the name of so kind a dragon.”
The fact was, Mearrk’hal had not known who would come as a result of the spell that he’d cast. It was an old spell, one used to summon a dragon that was willing to aid Jenh’s people, but did not include its name. What he did know was that the dragon could not help but answer the call of the magic.
“Save your gracious words; I yet fear for the outcome of your blessed hero. I shall give you my name so long as you swear not to curse it should Loracaz be damned by my aid.”
The old shaman stood curiously before the beast, unsure of the meaning of his words. He thought for a moment, ultimately deciding that no curse should befall the dragon for his aid. “I swear to honor your name, great one, should you choose to give it.”
“Very well, Mearrk’hal. I am the most legendary of all beasts known to you,” he said as he rose up, tall and proud, “he who brings the earth to tremble and the sky to glow with my power. Mine is the power of Jenh, for I bear the greatest shard of your goddess’s crystal. My name is Jza, dragon before any other dragon was, and forever the last when all others have gone.”
That was the moment when Mearrk’hal realized just how powerful a creature he had summoned. Jza was the Zeah dragon, the golden-green serpent who bore the burden of a massive crystal shard in his forehead. According to the legends, when Loracaz I had shattered the crystal to set Jenh free, the pieces had shot out in all directions, blasted outwards by an explosion of magic. The crystal shards had been all shapes and sizes, most of them tiny slivers, but one piece, the largest of them all, had arced through the sky like a meteorite gliding through the atmosphere. By the time it had begun its descent back downwards, it was over Blueshade Ocean.
Down into the depths of the sea it had plunged, slicing through the cool waters. At its intense speed, only something as massive as a dragon could have stopped it before it reached the bottom of the sea. It would have been lost forever on the ocean floor if it had not been for old Jza. As a serpentine dragon, he could dive into the water as easily as he crossed the skies, and at that time, he had been in the ocean, chasing his lunch. How the crystal shard had not killed him, none could explain. All that mattered was that it had lodged in his skull, granting him an intense amount of power that would have otherwise been stolen by Métius.
The crystal shard throbbed with the golden-green glow of Zeah. It was debatable whether he was mightier than the hero of legend, the one capable of thwarting the evil that Métius wrecked upon Lorata. Like Loracaz, he had the full complement of Jenh’s power, the ability to use each of the ten elements. Together, Mearrk’hal knew, Jza could help the prince become an even more formidable foe for Z’Lé and Métius to have to contend with.
As he stared at the dragon in utter awe, watching the way the glow of its jewel lit up the scales around it, Mearrk’hal could not help but grin to himself for having accomplished the summoning of the greatest of all dragons.