Chapter Eleven In Defense of Jzamneh
The group stood among a knot of trees, close enough to the path to see the ranks that marched by, but well-enough hidden among the branches and leaves that they could avoid being noticed. They were a colorful group, between the bard in his rainbow cloak, the sorcerer in his robe of embroidered crests, the earth-toned shaman, and the pink-eyed elf who had led them there.
The path leading into Jzamneh Forest was occupied by scores of soldiers clad in black leather brigandine. They marched in pairs along the path, their swords ready, following their orders to take control of the forest or die trying.
Further down, there was a bend on the road, and as the soldiers marched towards it, the air shimmered– perceptible only to the most expert of eyes– and they disappeared. Those who had yet to turn the corner saw nothing amiss; that was part of the illusion. Those who passed through the shimmering air found themselves in a dark and cold place, far from the bright woodland path. Ahead of them, confused voices shouted. Some had managed to light torches, but when they turned around, they were met only by cobblestone walls.
The way Shu-Giri explained it, there was a spell sending Z’Lé’s soldiers to an underground maze, which few who were not native to Jzamneh could navigate. This translocation spell was the only way that the faeries had been able to stop the army when they first saw them coming. When they saw how successful the first one was, word spread to cast it near all the other entrances to the forest.
For the time being, most of the soldiers would be taken care of by the traps in the mazes. It was assumed that the army would not survive long down there. The more expert treasure hunters, who had maps and secret knowledge about the labyrinths, were being gathered together to form a plan as to what to do next.
Shu-Giri sat on the branch of a tree, staring out at the invaders with a displeased frown. “Look how boldly they enter my home! Even though they cannot harm us, they think that we spend all of our time at play.” His displeasure contrasted with his brightly-colored ponytail and his fae-like beauty and agility.
Some distance away, the sorcerer stood alone in meditation, focusing his awareness on the invading soldiers. Shu-Giri glanced at him, noting the tense air about him. He had learned from Mearrk’hal that Vénes was powerful– though he himself denied it– and well-studied, having dedicated his entire life to sorcery. He knew each of the four alignments intimately; Shu-Giri wondered whether he knew tribal magic as well. He thought he remembered Mearrk’hal saying that he had taught Vénes some of his own Shyal’In magic.
Shu-Giri laid across the branch on his stomach, watching Vénes concentrate, enthralled by him. Blackness collected around his staff, seeming to weigh it down. He strained to hold it, sweat forming at his temples and dampening his thick hair. Shu-Giri glanced away when the sorcerer suddenly ceased his meditation, pretending to not have been watching.
“Z’Lé has brought a fearful force upon this forest,” came the elf’s flowing voice. “Those soldiers… They look elvan, but nearly all of them are anything but.”
“Not elves?” Shu-Giri asked, brow furrowed with worry and confusion. “Vénes, none of them are dragon or beast! They are tall and long-eared, just as you are. What strange things are you saying?”
Mearrk’hal, by contrast, seemed saddened. “Then it is as Arialla had thought?”
Vénes nodded solemnly.
“Now is the time to explain all of this to me!” Shu-Giri demanded. “I am responsible for Jzamneh, and I need to know what is going on.”
“Of course,” Vénes replied, keeping his voice calm. “Some of them are demons in disguise, and some dark souls, brought among us by the Destroyer Métius. The Black Emperor holds control over their actions.” Vénes breathed a sigh as he poured the frightful information from his dark lips. “I believe that they are expendable beings lent to Z’Lé for the sake of expanding his army. Whatever mortal forms they were given to fill–”
“If Métius granted them,” Mearrk’hal cut in, “he can return the demons to Z’Lé’s army should their shells be destroyed. He can give them a new form, or allow them to inhabit the form of a fallen mortal and make it walk again.”
“But that would give the Emperor an army of infinite number!” Shu-Giri cried in protest.
The shaman nodded gravely.
“If they are pure darkness,” Shu-Giri began, pausing to meet his friend’s eyes, “the only way to defeat them would be with priests of light– but are Kearr’s followers numerous enough to overcome so many dark beings?”
“Kearr is not the only deity the power to vanquish them,” Vénes informed him before Mearrk’hal could answer. He laid a hand on a cluster of jewels on the faerie tree. “Those with true love for Goddess Jenh, and even the angels of Aamh, possess the purity to destroy them.”
Shu-Giri grinned at those words. “You mean to say that we have the power to overcome the evil that has come into this world. I am concerned, though, that three of the alignments might be set against one.”
“Do not let it trouble you. The intention was always for any one deity seeking too much power shall to be brought down by the others.” Vénes searched through his pack, nearly emptying it before he pulled out a pouch of white gems and platinum crests. The pouch itself was of smooth milky velvet that shimmered in the light. “No matter what else Métius in planning, we must clear the evil from Jzamneh.”
Vénes turned to the bard. “Vincent, can you still perform the magic detection spell?”
“Of course. But we know already, that demons have disguised themselves as elves. What good would that spell do us?”
Vénes handed Vincent a crest from his bag bearing the symbol for knowledge. “The transposition spells in this forest have sent demons and mortals alike to the labyrinths. The real elves that I sensed die in the traps down there, but the evil beings that Métius sent wander beneath us still. Remember, too, that the demons can enter the bodies of the deceased elves and force them to continue on until the body is utterly destroyed. I want you to go back to Shu-Giri’s village and perform the spell until you have found every fiend, and learn which mazes they are trapped within.”
“You would be far better at such a task than I,” Vincent noted.
Vénes shook his head “I must stay here and stop any more fiends from pouring into the forest. I will now allow to become overrun with evil forces.”
Shu-Giri climbed down from the tree with an excited heart. “You’re willing to do so much for Jzamneh even though you’ve just come here?” He grinned and embraced Vénes. “I’m so glad that Mearrk’hal brought you here! But can explain to me why Z’Lé would send the legions of Métius to attack Jzamneh?”
“We don’t have enough time to work that out right now, save that they mean to spread their shadows across this continent,” Vénes told him. “If you want to protect your precious stores of treasure and magic, I need your cooperation. Jzamneh is infected with the forces of the Abyss, but I can help cure it if you let me.”
Mearrk’hal noted the tension in the mage’s voice. “You are the greatest treasure hunter in all the woods, Shu-Giri. You above anyone should be willing to protect such riches. Vénes knows that if these fiends manage to make it out of the labyrinths, all of your villages will be at risk.”
Shu-Giri nodded. “Loathe as I am that Jzamneh can defend itself alone, I will cooperate.”He called Gwendolyn over from the trees so that she could hear the plan. “What do you intend to do, then?”
“I want you to close the translocation spell that sends the soldiers to the dungeons,” Vénes told him. “Instead, we should form a barrier of purity at every gate so that the demons cannot pass through.”
Shu-Giri nodded, “If it would better serve us…”
“There will be a few minutes between spells when anything can get into the forest,” Vénes went on, “but it will be brief enough that they will not be more than what we can handle. I can cast enough white magic to destroy the demon and dark souls. The mortal soldiers left behind should be few enough for your people to fight off.”
“Very well,” Shu-Giri replied. “Gwendolyn, do you understand?”
The faerie nodded. “We shall help the sorcerer.” She flew to Vénes’s shoulder. “You know, some of us use Kearr’s magic.”
He nodded. “That will be helpful.” Then he turned to Mearrk’hal. “Can you stay here to fend off the soldiers while I cast the spells?”
Mearrk’hal agreed, and before long, Shu-Giri was leading Vincent back towards his village.
“If you can protect Jzamneh,” Shu-Giri said and they began walking, “you shall have our allegiance in whatever remains to be done!”
Once they was gone, Gwendolyn flew into the faerie tree, calling for her brethren to emerge. Crystalline light poured from it like budding flowers; the colors swirled playfully around one another like rainbow firelight. She spoke to them in Fae before they flew higher into the whimsically-colored canopy.
Bright pinks and greens flew with glittering blues and lavenders, and following them were
bodies of pure white with silvery wings. The faeries descended to surround Vénes, and then a golden-green light flashed further down the path, removing the translocation spell that had been in effect. It startled some of the soldiers near it, who glanced around warily. The next one to pass through the archway into the forest, instead of disappearing in a wash of colors and emerging inside a dark labyrinth, merely stepped onto the next part of the path.
Mearrk’hal scarcely had time enough to leap into a tree and pull free his bow before some of the dark footmen noticed him and drew their own weapons. Vénes strung a rosary of pearls, diamonds, and platinum around his staff and began the first of a barrage of holy spells. The purple and blue hues of the crystalline sphere set in his staff washed away into a pure, bright glow.
Meanwhile, the shaman hooked an arrow into his longbow and aimed it at one of the soldiers dashing his way. Vénes pointed to the bow, sending a stream of white magic into it, thus charging it with holy power. The arrow, glowing silver and white as it was released, pierced into the soldier’s leather armor. He screamed with a hissing cry and fell to the thick soil. The soldiers behind him halted when the light sparked and his spurious body disappeared, leaving only his armor and the arrow behind.
The white faeries flew amongst the warriors, setting alight those who were demons or lost souls. These Mearrk’hal pierced with his purified arrows as he climbed higher into the tree. Their bulk prevented them from climbing after him, leaving them to chase the sorcerer as he ran between the tress to overtake those who still marched deeper into Jzamneh. He had a plan for what to do once he was ahead of them.
“Gwendolyn!” he shouted, realizing that he would need help to keep from losing the spell to the twists in the path.
She darted among the trees, laughing, until she was beside him.
“We set the gate to lead to its own exit!” She laughed, her voice twinkling as she explained what they had done. “We gave it a holy aura, as well. I sent the some of my friends to the other arches that the army is passing through to do the same.”
“What a treasure you are! That should get rid of most of them.” He sent a bolt of light into an approaching swordsman. “Now I need your aid to clear the road of those demons.”
“As you wish, sorcerer,” she replied.
“Can you make the road seem straight to my spell? I have enough power to send a great holy blast from here to the gate.”
“Of course. As guardians of Jzamneh, we can change the forest in any way we need to.”
Gwendolyn flew in patterns around the crystal on his staff, her pink body forming lines among the bright light as two of the white faeries joined her. They called out to several others, who flitted along the path to make sure the forest was ready for the spell. Feeling the magic that began to filling the air, the crackling spark of power that sorcerers were trained to sense, Vénes stepped onto the road only a few meters in front of the approaching soldiers.
“Great god of light, Kearr of utmost purity…”
He could hear Mearrk’hal approaching in the trees, surrounded by the white faeries. Gwendolyn called more of them to the sorcerer’s staff as his voice grew louder.
“Light that banishes night, heart with no weight….”
Vénes braced his body for the force of his power and gripped his staff with both his hands. The carved sigils glowed with holy power until, at last, he pointed it forward and shouted the final words of the spell.
“Be vanquished, demons of the black underworld! Rise to the realm of purity to be reborn with cleansed hearts!”
A sphere of white and silver flowed through the air between the trees. It swirled without sound under the arching canopy until it met with the front line of the soldiers. I passed through them, flowing forward. Piles of armor collapsed onto the path with clangs and thuds as the demons were eradicated. Some of the fiends screamed as the holy spell passed through and neutralized them, some with anger, some with fear, some with a glorious sigh of release. The faeries that flew with the spell spun into helices, carrying the sphere ever onward as the path were a straight line.
Sweat dripped into Vénes’s eyes as the sphere of holy magic sped down the path, the beauty of its glow casting shafts of light between the thick stands of trees. His knees collapsed, and he fell into the tangle of roots of an oak tree. His chest heaved desperately for breaths. Exhaustion overtook his mind, and he felt as though he floated on the ebbing waves of the ocean. Hoping to steady himself, he pulled his hands from his staff and grasped the roost, closing tightly pine-green eyes.
No relief came to him.
As he lay there alone, knowing that Mearrk’hal was busy fight the raining invaders, and that Vincent and Shu-Giri we probably already back in the village, his senses blurred. Vénes felt his consciousness drifting away. He resisted it as best he could, until he had no choice left, and eventually succumbed to exhaustion at the foot of the tree.
Having defeated the last of the black-clad soldiers, Mearrk’hal strolled along the forest path. “Vénes!” he called out, unable to find the sorcerer despite being halfway back to Shu-Giri’s village.
Deciding to retrace his steps, guessing that he may have passed his son already without realizing it, he turned back. He peered among the bushes, pulling their branches aside, and stepped off of the main path. At last, he saw Vénes’s robe, and found him lying at the foot of a tree.
Mearrk’hal leapt between the trees and knelt at his side. He leaned his bow against the thick roots and pulled Vénes into his arms. His thin body shook, wet with his sweat, moving limply as the shaman pulled him from the ground.
“My son… Vénes, are you all right?” Mearrk’hal asked as he pushed away the strands of hair that stuck to his face. He cradled him in his lap. “The spell you cast…”
Soft, dark skin wrapped around Mearrk’hal’s hand as he held the gasping sorcerer, squeezing it weakly. The shaman caressed it softly with his free hand. “Just relax, Vénes. Your magic did a great deal of good, even if it did drain you completely. I’ll carry you back to the village.”
“Hot…” Vénes’s voice was weak, and he was reaching for the latches that held his robe closed.
“I understand,” Mearrk’hal said. “I must get you out of your robe. Can you stand?”
When Vénes only went on gasping, Mearrk’hal got to his knees, then helped him to lean against the tree. He opened the first few clasps of his robe and pulled the heavy cloth away from Vénes’s shoulders before continuing with the others. Vénes began to relax as soon as he felt the cool air on the sweat-drenched clothing beneath his thick robe. Once he was free of it, and fell forward into the shaman’s arms.
Gwendolyn returned to them just as Mearrk’hal began to lift Vénes into his arms, the robe flung over his shoulder. The sorcerer’s long white tunic and loose pants looked gray, such had he sweated into them. His chest still heaved with labored breaths, and he gripped the shaman tightly as his mind spun.
“The demons are gone!” the faerie cheered happily. “We guided the ball of light all the way to the archway, and let it go outside. It was amazing!”
The she saw the suffering on Vénes’s face. “He put so much power into it. He’ll be tired for many days, methinks. Come, he needs a bed and a good meal.”
With a nod to, Mearrk’hal his bow, then Vénes’s staff, and followed Gwendolyn along the path. “He is always hungry after casting large spells. It is a great strain on his small body.”
“Small though he is so tall?” she asking with a laugh. “He exceeds even Shu-Giri’s height!” Meaning, Shu-Giri was taller than most elves in Jzamneh. Still, he differed from Vénes by way of his greater body mass; the sorcerer was remarkably thin.
Gwendolyn chose a spot in the air near a faerie tree and flew in spirals around it, her pink light leaving glowing lines behind her. Then she shot from the forest floor to its canopy in a great sweep, and the image of the village formed like a reflection upon water in the space where she had flown.
“Shall we, then?”
Mearrk’hal nodded, and together they passed through the translocation spell that led to Shu-Giri’s village. They were near the village square, where Vincent sat with his harp, singing a mystifying song. Shu-Giri, beside the bard with his maps, noticed their arrival and stood up, careful not to step on his papers, and went over to them.
Shu-Giri gazed worriedly at Vénes’s resting body. “Is he all right?” he demanded of Mearrk’hal. “Let me take him.”
Mearrk’hal nodded, given no time to object before Shu-Giri pulled Vénes out of his arms. His own clothing was by then damp from the sorcerer’s sweating, exhausted body. “The spell that he cast was all that his body could withstand. Fortunately for us all, it destroyed whatever demons were invading the forest.”
Shu-Giri was already walking across the square, talking over the shaman’s last words. “I must take him to a bed right away.” He soon disappeared between the small houses, carrying the sorcerer in his arms as though he were a closer to him than Mearrk’hal had been. Mearrk’hal laughed to himself. If Shu-Giri was concerned about him, then Vénes would be able to recover quickly under his care.
Mearrk’hal crossed to the center of the grassy plaza, where the fountain beside Vincent gurgled softly. The maps beside him were marked with black lines.
“I hope that this shall suffice,” Vincent said after he’d finished his song. He handed the papers to Mearrk’hal for him to study. “The black shows where we could sense the demons’ evil energy. Scores of them are wandering the mazes. Does Vénes intend for us to venture into each of the labyrinths to purify the dark souls roaming there?”
“Doubtful,” Mearrk’hal replied. “He probably meant to consult Shu-Giri on the possibilities.”
“Is he asleep now?” the bard asked.
“Not yet. After a spell as strong as the one he cast, his head is most likely still reeling. Once he feels more grounded, he will be able to rest.” Mearrk’hal joined his friend on the fountain’s ledge. Suddenly he remembered something. “When the holy spell passed through the fiends, it took them, but left their armor and weapons on the ground.”
“Should we go back to collect it?”
“Not at all. Once the Jzamneh elves know we’ve left treasure behind for them,” he said, chuckling at the thought, “they’ll gather it themselves. ‘Tis good payment for their help. In fact, they could put it to good use if they decide to fight against Z’Lé’s army.”
Vincent laughed. “Let us go on to Shu-Giri’s home, then. It will be evening soon, and I could do with some supper.” That said, he stood and awaited Mearrk’hal to follow him through the village.
“You cannot fool me into believing that your hunger supersedes your concern for Vénes. You want to see him, just as Shu-Giri insists on caring for him.” He grinned when Vincent made a face at him. “So it is true!”
They found their way through the village and entered the home of the greatest treasure-hunter in all of Jzamneh, model of his tribe, where they could rest until Vénes recovered his strength.