Chapter Nine Year 4730
Of Whimsy and Chivalry Alike
Ser’s light filtered through the tangled branches of the trees as the party approached the lone archway that curled over the path into the woods. Vénes stepped ahead of the others, closer to the archway, the edge of the thick cloth that he flowing over the tall grass, wet with morning dew. His hands touched the sigils carved into the stone and jewels of the arch as he examined the magical symbols. After several contemplative moments, he turned to his friends.
“Will it really be safe for us to enter their forest?” His breath floated in the cold air as he spoke. When the old shaman showed that he did not quite understand, Vénes explained, “This archway is enchanted with a spell the effects of which I cannot fully discern. Knowing that the Jzamneh are troublesome and frivolous, would they not cast spells to attempt to control my magic?”
Vincent, now wearing a fur-lined cloak, the outer layer of which was woven with a wide variety of colors, laughed when he heard concern in his friend’s voice. “You are the most powerful sorcerer that I’ve yet to meet, Vénes. You have no reason to fear their spells.”
The sorcerer refused to smile back, reminding himself that Vincent tended to exaggerate, always having a flair for the dramatic. Vénes did not believe that he was as powerful as a sorcerer of his age should have been. He gazed into the crystal atop his staff and laid his hand on the arch’s keystone. Bright colors flowed and sparkled inside the crystal, playfully changing from one to the next as he watched them. It was Jenh’s magic, he could tell, but there was something more to it; it reminded him of how the Fae used magic, except that it had an enchantment all its own.
“I have become powerful only through cautious endeavor,” Vénes said after a while, still not looking at his brother, “but I have much to do still.”
“Is that why you agreed to journey to a land in turmoil with us?” Vincent walked to the arch and gazed up at the crest painted on the keystone. “’Elves of the earth be Shyal’In, whilst with jewel and metal play Jzamneh. Their tricks are but merriment; be not sore, for ‘tis not harm that they intend. Riddled with spiders is the Blackwood, but not a single demon lurks in their shadows,’” he recited.
The bard grinned at his friend. “I would rather meet a playful Jzamneh elf than a wolf-riding Mékneh; Blackwood is a strange place. Either way, I’m sure you could equal the magic of both, Vénes.”
The magician sighed and waited momentarily before responding, just to be sure that Vincent was indeed finished talking. “I was trying to say… there is something about this column that tells me that the fae mean to take the spells of those who pass through it. That could be very dangerous for them, given some of the spells I have learned. Besides that, I’m worried that whatever evil is afoot here could seize control of my power and use it against this forest. I did not come all this way to bring harm.”
Vincent nodded and gave a wry grin. “You don’t need to be so serious; I doubt we’ll encounter anything here that could do that, nor that the fae would play with anything that they could not control. You have more to fear from their antics than from their magic, Vénes.”
“I know the strength of your will,”Mearrk’hal told him. “None of this tribe could wrest control of your spells, dangerous or not. The magic of this arch is but play to them. They welcome visitors, though it is true that finding one of their villages is quite the trial. The Jzamneh live for whimsy and treasure, just as my people lived for the trees and soil.”
Vénes nodded to the old shaman. “Shall we?”
Mearrk’hal nodded, then turned back to Jza. “As we agreed, then.”
“As we agreed,” Jza said.
Mearrk’hal led Vincent and Vénes through the arch, into the forest along the grassy path between the thick trees. A glow appeared in the archway briefly, countless pearlescent colors swirling together. Sunlight filtered down through the branches, and cast and rainbows of light as it shone through the leaves. Vincent’s bardic cloak fit in with the whimsy of the forest, with all of its colors, as though it had been painted that way.
There were those who saw the similarities between Jzamneh and the bards and thought of them as equal, but they could not have been more mistaken. Though both spoke of legend, the Jzamneh tended to do so in relation to some treasure they’d hidden or sought after, or the glory and beauty of Jenh. The bards, on the other hand, exalted Aamh and love, and everything that was good and wise in the universe.
At the same time, the Jzamneh tribe was very different from the Shyal’In, with their love for the earth and the living things that roamed it. Mearrk’hal stood out by way of his tanned, caramel-brown skin and the dark blue lines painted on his cheeks. Even the wooden beads in his hair were symbols of his tribe, and no Jzamneh wore those in their vivid locks. Despite their difference, Mearrk’hal and his friends were still welcome.
After Shyal’In Forest had burned, and after the young boys he’d found were grown, Mearrk’hal had spent years wandering Manastaecies. He’d been to the other tribal forests, and had visited most of the continent’s other kingdoms. He’d made numerous friends before returning to Onsira to court Princess Arialla, he’d explored the Jzamneh labyrinths. The shaman savored his days guiding the playful elves through mazes and traps, sharing his skills for their quests. The Shyal’In were skilled at tracking, and the underground mazes had posed little challenge for him.
Through the Jzamneh’s love of crystal- and metal-working, Mearrk’hal had retained his connection to the earth. and in his loneliest times, it helped him to visit the forest. There were veins of crystal all throughout the woodlands, some deep underground, others not far from the surface. He feel Tenzanth’s glow and throb just as well as he could the life of Neemie and Fah’Iira’s creations, all in tune with the life of the forest. He still longed for Shyal’In’s particular pulse, but he was thankful all the same that there were woodlands in which he could meditate.
The three of them passed deeper into the magical forest as midday passed. The path changed then from a grass as dirt to a cobbled road, with stones of all colors. Now and then, they passed by a tree had been decorated with crystal fragments, which seemed to glow in the afternoon light, each one a star among a sea of color.
“Magnificent,” Vénes uttered. He approached one, his hand outstretched, and the light seemed to flow to him. He watched as it danced along his arm. “Ah! Hello.”
Vincent looked at him curiously. “Is someone there, Vénes?”
“Indeed.” The sorcerer turned so that the others could see the small light on his arm. Beneath the glow, a figure with a tiny frame perched shyly. “It seems that we have now met our first Jzamneh.”
The glow dimmed enough for the form to become clearer. It was then that they saw the faerie, waiting patiently for the others to notice her. She fluttered the pink wings at her back, still aglow with her light, and waved to the elves before her.
“Sphooria Jzamneh tal acor,” she said to them, her voice like a bell.
“She greets you as newcomers to the forest,” Mearrk’hal translated for them. When he stepped up closer and held his hand out for her, she smiled widely and flew over to him. “Entara, Gwendolyn. Sphend aloor ke,” he told her.
“This is Gwendolyn,” he explained as she laid contentedly in his hand. “She watches the forest pathways for strangers in order to keep trouble away from the villages. I have often met her on this trail.”
She glanced between the elves and her friend. “I had not realized that you do not all speak Fae. Are these your friends, Mearrk’hal?”
“Aye, Gwendolyn. Vénes and Vincent have come with me to answer the Empress’s call.”
Gwendolyn’s tiny red eyes grew wide, fearful at the mention of Arialla. “You would go to Onsira?”
“Indeed,” Mearrk’hal nodded. “Arialla needs my help and advice. Is something awry? You are not usually so easily worried as this.”
“Very much is awry, old elf. Come to my village and we shall tell you of it.” Before Mearrk’hal could reply, she flew from his hand and around the tree in which Vénes had found her, then disappeared behind it.
Mearrk’hal led his friends off the path and past the tree, following her. After passing a couple dozen thick trees, they saw several small houses laid out along cobblestone pathways, the faerie’s pink light among them.
“Mearrk’hal, you said only minutes ago that the village was at least an hour off,” Vénes said curiously. “How can it be between these trees if it ought to be so far?”
“That is the nature of Jzamneh magic,” the shaman replied. “Surely you’ve studied it.”
“Somewhat,” the sorcerer admitted reluctantly. “Readings on this forest are scarce. Still, I did not believe that they could move an entire village on a whim.”
They passed between knots of roots and branches to emerge at the edge of the village. “Not at all. They have the power to send us anywhere in the forest at their will.”
“If that’s the case,” Vincent said, “I should be wary of angering them; I fear that I would be sent to the lair of some beast!”
Gwendolyn led the elves through the village until they came to a home of gray stones, the spaces between them laden with crystals. They entered it and passed down a hallway until they came to a lavish room. Firelight from sconces lit the many treasures on displayed pedestals, and a lone figure lounged among several scattered pillows or brocaded silk. Gwendolyn flew between tendrils of incense smoke before descending to rouse him from his thoughts.
He curled his head around to look up at them, and grinned immediately. “Mearrk’hal! How splendid to see you!” His bright pink eyes glittered like coral under the clear ocean waves. “Are these your sons you’ve finally brought to meet me?”
The old shaman smiled. “They are indeed as sons to me, though spawned from fathers far gone.” He introduced the two while the other stood up from among the silken pillows. “This is a long-time friend of mine, Shu-Giri Shentaren.”
“I welcome you to my village!” Shu-Giri declared, his grin widening. He seemed to be a man with no shortage of joy, which was reflected in everything about him, from his hair and his eyes, and even the way he moved. “Did Gwendolyn bring you all the way here? We are at the very center and heart of Jzamneh, you know!” He laughed, giving a playful bow, and returned to a more comfortable sprawl. “Come, sit with and enjoy your visit; I insist!”
“Could any place not be the center of Jzamneh, Shu-Giri?” Mearrk’hal pointed out as he and the others found places to sit. Gwendolyn perched on his shoulder. “With so many spells roaming the forest, do you really believe that anyone could know its true center?”
“True enough. I, however, have more treasure!” He laughed again and smiled up at a statue of Jenh set prominently in one of the walls. “It is good to be Jzamneh, my friend. You could join our tribe and be forever glad.”
Mearrk’hal sighed grimly. “I fear that right now, only knowing that Arialla is safe would gladden me.”
Shu-Giri turned to look into Mearrk’hal’s eyes. “Onsira bears grave tidings, I fear.” He paused to make sure that everyone was listening, and then, in a voice edge with sadness, explained, “Our forest has come into the path of Z’Lé’s conquest. We have sent as many of his soldiers we can into our most dangerous labyrinths, but still they lay on.”
Mearrk’hal’s eyes widened with amazement. “He would dare to attack these peaceful woods? From Arialla’s letter, I had thought that only Enhar, Rreviihn, and K’hithvahn were being invaded.”
Shu-Giri nodded. “His dragons have tried to burn it, but the flames go out quickly. His soldiers have tried to cut down the trees, but their axes only dull on their trunks. We’ve enchanted that arches at the forest’s entrances so that the invaders ride straight into the mazes–” he let out an exasperated sigh. “We have been able to keep the emperor’s army out of the villages thus far, but ultimately we don’t know much effort he intends to put in. I can’t even understand why he seeks to conquer us.”
He turned to gaze longingly at Jenh’s statue, as though making silent prayers for the goddess to save them all.
“Yours is a forest of pure dedication to Jenh,” Vénes noted. “Possibly the origin of the elemental goddess. Based upon what Arialla has written, that is a great affront to the emperor.”
Shu-Giri’s pink and green curls of hair bounced as he scoffed. He rolled onto his stomach to face the others, his curiosity piqued. “How can Jenh be such an affront to him? We enjoy the very unity that he so wrongly seeks through imperialism. The goddess has our thanks for that.”
Vénes brushed a lock of wavy, chocolate-brown hair face and held Shu-Giri’s gaze. “But her power has not passed among us without evoking jealousy both deep and dark.”
Shu-Giri took in the sorcerer’s features as he pondered his words. This new visitor wore his thick lengths of hair back, though some strands fell across his face, constantly needed to be pushed back. What with the rich olive tone to his skin, and his shining pine-green eyes, he seemed to have descended from a line of desert elves. Shu-Giri assumed that his guest what not as accustomed to laughter and play as he himself was; he was somehow grim, overshadowed by secrets that he kept close to his heart.
Crystalline light scattered across the room, some of it falling on Vénes as though willfully trying to lighten his appearance. Shu-Giri was already intrigued by the sorcerer, and determined that he must unravel whatever path his life had led him down to make him so serious.
“Methinks you are too innocent to realize what I am trying to tell you,” Vénes continued in a voice like velvet.
Shu-Giri did not argue, but turned to his old friend. “Mearrk’hal, what wondrous things have you brought such company to tell me? You speak of worry for Arialla, whose emperor would rule all of Manastaecies, even my own forest. How can you concern yourself with those who would so cruelly attack us?”
Mearrk’hal frowned. “How can you believe that Arialla would willfully attack Jzamneh? Z’Lé has wrested control of the kingdom from her. She cannot stop his conquest any more than she can roam freely in her own palace. He is now cruel to her, forceful and demanding.” The urgency of communicating what darkness he’d sensed in her letter filled his voice. His brow bent into wrinkles that the other did not fail to notice.
“Can you really insist that she cannot pull back his hand? The royal bloodline is hers, therefore she has power over any king when considering Onsira.”
Mearrk’hal began to explain what Arialla had written about the prince being Jenh’s champion.
Vénes watched them both as they spoke, his mind racing with ideas. He understood that all of them were missing too many facts to truly understand the darkness threatening Manastaecies. Although Arialla had written about the hero of legend and the dark forces with which Z’Lé had allied himself, Mearrk’hal and his sons had yet to see any of it for themselves. Shu-Giri knew nothing about the prince’s apparent destiny, but he was trying to help this magical forest defend itself.
This was their chance to see those forces for himself, Vénes realized. He could see what they were asking for help in fighting back, and ensure that all of the forces they were summoning were truly necessary. He had to verify that the darkness spreading across the continent was because Métius had found a way to reach out from the Abyss to take what he desired.
“Shu-Giri, may we visit the entrance that the Emperor’s army is attacking?” the sorcerer asked.
Shu-Giri paused mid-sentence and looked from Mearrk’hal to him. “I have no quarrels.” He replied, “but I expect that you shall explain what you mean by all this talk of the wondrous goddess and her champion. At this point in history, I fail to see how he could come from the empire.”