Chapter Fifteen A New Path to Walk
Another dawn rose, and Ser’s light streamed into the room. As it danced across the bed, playing over Vénes’s face, his pine- green eyes fluttered open. His vision was hazy at first, a lingering affliction from his over-use of white magic, and he was thankful that it cleared within a couple of minutes. Outside, he could see many-colored leaves of various tree blowing in a gentle breeze. There was also the faint smell of springtime outside.
Vénes yawned, then stretched before sitting up. That was when he realized hadn’t been alone in the bed. Lying asleep beside him was the pink-and-green-haired elf who had saved his life when he had nearly sacrificed it in exchange for a greater share of Kearr’s purifying power. It made his heart flutter to see him sleeping so peacefully, and he reminded himself to be careful not to wake him as he slid over to the edge of the bed.
As he was dressing, Shu-Giri stirred and awoke. Vénes turned to see him smiling as he watched him.
“Good morning,” the treasure-hunter said with a grin.
“Indeed,” replied Vénes, his attitude stoic as he went on fastening the buttons that ran down the length of his shirt.
“You must be feeling better now,” Shu-Giri noted, “if you’ve gotten up and dressed on your own.”
The sorcerer nodded. “I am restored. But…” he glancing at the window for a moment, “is it springtime already?”
“Not quite, my friend,” Shu-Giri answered with a grin. He sat up and began a series of stretches right there on the bed. “I’m glad to see you awake. I was worried for a time that you might have fallen ill. Imagine that: sickness despite all my efforts!”
Vénes smirked at the comment. “Impossible. I am immune to disease.”
“Is that so?” the treasure-hunter replied. “You must have studied Kearr’s powers for a long time to have such power. Of course, the spell that you cast to purify the demons was proof enough of that.”
“That is true.” The sorcerer’s smile faded; though he enjoyed talking with Shu-Giri, the talk of magical study reminded him of other things. “You should know that as a sorcerer, I have such power in all the alignments. And… my immunity is not entirely magical.” He almost regretted admitting to it.
“You’re amazing, Vénes! I had never met a sorcerer before you came here, and now I wish that I had. Your power is delightful. I could hardly imagine learning so many spells as you must know.” Shu-Giri jumped to the floor. “I’ll be sad to see you off so soon.”
Vénes finished with his buttons and looked quizzically at the other man.
“Mearrk’hal wants to get to Onsira as soon as he can,” Shu-Giri explained. “He might even make it there in time for the Spring Council, now that you are feeling better.”
Vénes sighed. “I do not understand why he rushes so. If the conditions in Onsira are bad enough that the legendary hero has returned, then Mearrk’hal’s arrival would have little consequence.” He paused for a moment, then added, “I am sorry; did he explain everything about our journey to you?”
Shu-Giri nodded. “Arialla’s letter described more than I needed to know. Emperor Z’Lé has become cruel and ambitious, and now we find demons in the guise of elves in Jzamneh Forest.” He sat in one of the window seats and gazed out into the woodlands. “Building a temple to the demon god should have made it obvious to her that he worships evil. How could she not see that?”
“That is the power of deception,” Vénes told him evenly.
“Was it not deception that tricked Jenh herself into visiting the tower where the jealous priests of Métius awaited to allow their god to trap her in the crystal? I would have been more wary.”
“It was,” Vénes a greed with a slight nod. “I suppose Arialla could not see through the deceit. Métius’s power is strong enough to counter the purity and light of Kearr or the innocence and love of Jenh.”
“Or Aamh’s song,” added another voice. Vénes turned to find Vincent standing in the doorway. He walked into the room, Mearrk’hal following behind him.
“I am glad to see that you are recovering so well,” the old shaman said as he embraced him.
“Vincent talks endlessly about Aamh,” Shu-Giri cut in. “Who is she exactly?”
Vénes smirked at the man’s ignorance of the other goddess; his devotion to both Jenh and treasure seemed to have its share of drawbacks. “She is the bard’s goddess; the angel of stars and worlds.” He thought for a moment on the nature of the fourth alignment before continuing. “Because she is the true neutral force, she has non-elemental power. She governs the divine laws of the galaxies and the pleasantries of bards. It is said that there are thousand different ways to explain her, and then a thousand more; she is a goddess both mystical and esoteric, but no less loved by her followers.”
“And just how would Métius combat such power?” Shu-Giri asked.
“He is the silence where she would have music, and the suffering where she would soothe us. He would turn her power over the heavens against Lorata,” Vénes told him, his voice ominous as he spoke. He only explained a fraction of what he knew, not wanting to go into detail about the unspeakable things that Métius would do if he were able to steal Aamh’s celestial power.
“Of all the gods, Aamh is the least well-known,” Vincent added.
Shu-Giri grinned as he listen. “You will need to teach me more about the four powers when you return from Onsira.” He walked over to Vénes to embrace him before stepping with light feet from the room. “Wait here. I shall have breakfast prepared for you.”
Mearrk’hal watched him go, then turned to the sorcerer. “He swears that he will miss you when we leave. I am glad that he likes you, Vénes. Shu-Giri is good to his friends, and you have too few.” He took the sorcerer’s robe from the armchair it had been draped over and held it out for him to don.
Vénes hesitated, then shook his head, refusing the robe. “I have only you and Vincent, Father. I want to develop this new friendship further.”
“Less than I had thought,” Mearrk’hal said, laying the robe back down. “Are you saying that you no longer fear new friendships, Vénes?”
“I… I know that I will not lose them all,” the sorcerer admitted, his voice strained. “As an aged sorcerer, it is time that I realize that. Even if I do still miss… him.”
Vénes parted the thick, dark flesh of his lips to say what his heart desperately wanted to convey, to remind the shaman just what he had lost so many years ago, his reason for all the choices that he had since made– even the choice that he was now making– only to seal them again. He realized that whatever words he wanted to share would only be joined by tears, and it was tears that he no longer wanted to shed. Instead, he stared out of the window.
“Do you think you are ready, Vénes?”
With heavy heart, he replied, “What else can I do? If I do not try, then I shall remain lonely until I, too, die. If I give him a chance…” Vénes sighed heavily before going on. “It cannot get much worse than the loss that I already know.”
Mearrk’hal nodded, understanding. He felt relieved to hear him say such things after so long. He smoothed a wrinkle from the robe before Vénes walked away from him. He knew not to press the conversation, that he would learn in time to carry on with a stronger heart. He remembered how the boys had been his only solace all those years ago, and he knew what healing from loss entailed.
“You’ve missed more than you know,” Vénes told him as he gazed out the window. “I was wondering, Mearrk’hal, why did you ask Vincent to meet you in Ayafir? Why could you not meet him at his home?”
Vincent looked to the shaman, just as curious as his brother was.
Mearrk’hal took a deep breath and replied, “I cannot explain it to you here.”
“Why, though? If it was important enough to call him away from Starshine, his home, and his music, should you not tell him before we enter Onsira? If that realm is as dangerous as you warned us, then you must.”
Mearrk’hal blinked and gave him a confused look. “You agreed already to protect him yourself, Vénes. But– who is this Starshine you say is so important to him?”
Vénes turned around to find Vincent glaring at him. He blinked, gave him an apologetic look, and pursed his lips.
“If he has not told you, then I shall not. That seems fair enough, if you will not tell him what you know.”
Mearrk’hal looked over at Vincent, who crossed his arms over his chest and shook his head.
Vincent walked to the door, expressing his vexation in heavy footsteps.
Vénes watched him go, doing nothing to stop him. Once he heard him going down the stairs, he told Mearrk’hal, “You have been away from us for far too long… So long that you hardly know what is important to us anymore.” He sighed and headed towards the hall himself. “Father… Please understand this. I cannot leave Jzamneh Forest with you. I can meet you in Onsira later, but I need to stay here for a while. It is only partly because I still need to rest.”
He paused, drawing in his breath. “Shu-Giri is my opportunity to truly heal. If I do not take that chance now, I may not be able to later.”
Mearrk’hal was given no chance to reply; Vénes did not care would he might agree or object. Alone in Shu-Giri’s room, he slumped into the armchair, feeling disheartened and confused.
The party was prepared to depart by noon. Mearrk’hal waited outside Shu-Giri’s home, the faerie Gwendolyn at his side, as Vincent and Vénes made their way out. As much as he understood the shaman’s obligations, Shu-Giri was reluctant to see his guests off. Nevertheless, he had gone out of his way to ensure that the rest of their journey would be safe and comfortable.
Vénes was helping his brother fasten his pack when Shu-Giri came outside, a box in his hands and his typical grin on his face. Amaten followed him, altogether the lot of set out onto the forest path.
“What have you brought along there, old friend?” the shaman asked him as they walked together.
“A gift, of course,” Shu-Giri replied with a wink and a laugh.
Up ahead, there was a sparkle of Gwendolyn’s faerie light, and the path changed to give a view of the archway ahead. Beyond it, they could see the dragon Jza waiting in the sunlight, warming has scales from the last of winter’s chill. The group passed through the fae portal, then through the archway leading out of the forest. Shu-Giri paused near the arch as though reluctant to set foot on the wide, open plains, and stare in awe at the serpentine dragon.
“So you really summoned him!” Shu-Giri exclaimed. “Are you sure, though? You have asked for help from all over Manastaecies; are you certain that you need a dragon this legendary to put a stop to the emperor?”
“We must learn just how many dragons are against us,” Mearrk’hal replied, “and what other beasts might have been brought from the evil plane of Métius. I think you’ll find that even Vénes agrees who should take no chances.”
“You’ve heard the warnings in the old tales, though,” Shu-Giri said, “haven’t you? There is always a price to pay for Jza’s help.”
The dragon turned his golden-green eyes to look over the Jzamneh elf, a deep rumble emerging from his throat.
Vénes took Shu-Giri’s hand. “After the soldiers and demons that we had to fight back, I’m even more sure of it. Z’Lé is toying with the forces of Métius, and whether or not he intended to, he has put all the kingdoms of Manastaecies in danger – maybe even of Lorata.”
Shu-Giri nodded his understanding, and approached the dragon slowly. “I am thankful to have you as an ally, Jza. I must admit, it is an honor to be able to meet with the magnificent Zeah dragon!”
Jza crept forward and sniffed at him. “Pink elves like you revere the goddess, do you not?”
“We do,” Shu-Giri replied with a nod, trembling at the sound of his voice.
Jza lowered his head, bringing the crystal within Shu-Giri’s reach. “Come,” he commanded the elf.
Shu-Giri obeyed, drawing closer. The Zeah crystal glowed brighter.
“Lay your hand on it,” Jza said.
Shu-Giri’s eyes widened. He wanted to reach out his hand, to feel the Zeah flowing in the crystal, but he hesitated. Then he felt a hand on his back.
“He will not harm you,” Vénes whispered into his ear. He took the box that Shu-Giri had brought so that his hands would be free.
Shu-Giri nodded, drawing in a long breath. He stretched his hand out, and he could feel the crystal’s warmth even before he touched it. Once his palm rested on it firmly, a surge of Zeah flowed though him, wrapping his arm in golden-green light. Visions flooded his mind, images of magic and ancient heroes.
He caught glimpses of ages past, and felt as though he himself were surrounded in crystal. His eyes met with those of Loracaz I, Jenh’s first champion, and the world around him shattered. Then Shu-Giri felt the elements swirling around him, engaged in a dance they had known since time immemorial. The Zeah filled him, bringing with it Jenh’s blessing as it settled into his body.
When he pulled his hand back, Shu-Giri stared at the dragon in awe.
“Jenh smiles on the way you honor her,” Jza told him.
Shu-Giri nodded. “Thank you,” he said, his voice breaking on the words.
Jza nodded, then turned to the shaman. “Are you ready to go?”
Mearrk’hal spent several more minutes finishing their preparations and discussing their plans. He helped Amaten climb onto the dragon’s back, then turned to the others.
“Mearrk’hal, I want you to take this,” Shu-Giri said as he took the carved wooden box back. “I’ve gathered some magical items to help you.” He gave him a golden key as well. “Once you unlock it, you will know what is to be shared with the empress and her prince.”
Mearrk’hal nodded, and said his good-byes while Vincent pulled his brother aside.
“Can you forgive me, Vénes?” the bard ask him.
“For telling Shu-Giri about my past?” the sorcerer replied with a scowl. “Perhaps I should have told Father who Starshine is.”
“Are you that bitter?” Vincent asked. “I only told him because he had admitted that he’s interested in you. I thought it would help if he understood what had hurt you. Please do not be so angry.”
Vénes glared at him. “Did you tell him how I almost quit the academy of magic? How I spent years thinking that it had been my fault? That my black magic had–”
“None of that. Just that Lysander had been very important to you, and that you never really got over losing him. We never knew that it had been so bad as what he could see on the astral plane.”
Vénes sighed and nodded. “I did not expect anyone else to love me. But now…”
“It feels nice, doesn’t it?”
After several moments of quiet, Vénes finally replied. “I just want to feel happy again before I go to Onsira and risk my life. Since I was the one who cast the spell, I feel caught up in all of this. And if I…” His gaze wandered over to the playful elf with the bright eyes.
“If you love him back, you will want to protect his home.”
Blushing, Vénes looked away. “Maybe I just want the spells.”
“You would never!” Vincent countered, knowing him well enough to call his bluff. “You may have put everything you have into being a sorcerer, but you would not feign love just for more magic. He would never forgive you if you broke his heart with a trick like that.”
Vénes gave his brother a wary gaze. “If he makes me happy, then I will forgive you for telling him about my past. Until then, Father wants to know about your little star.”
“My shining Starr, indeed,” the bard said with a wink. “He will know in time. I want to keep her safe where she is, lest our quest should put any of us under further duress.”
“Safe travels, Vincent,” Vénes said at last, embracing his brother. “Aamh is looking after you both, I am sure of it.”
“Get well soon, Vénes. I want you strong and happy when I see you again.” Then Vincent returned to Mearrk’hal and Shu-Giri to share words of thanks.
Shu-Giri grinned and gave Vincent a tight hug. “I am grateful for what you did to help protect my forest– and for trusting me to take care of Vénes. I will bring him to join you when he feels ready. It is by Jenh’s providence that you came here right as Z’Lé’s army began invading the forest, and from the good that you did here, I can tell that the empress and her son are going to have some powerful allies.”
“Oh, I am certain that we can help to defend Onsira from evil,” the bard told him. “So long as Loracaz, the promised hero, is with us, we have nothing to fear. We are only going there to help him however we can.”
“You are always welcome here,” Shu-Giri called to the bard as he and Mearrk’hal climbed onto Jza’s back.
Once they had settled, Jza rose from the ground and stretched his wings to the sky. His sinuous body wound into the blue and lavender haze of the heavens, sparkling with the colors of Jenh’s magic. Shu-Giri watched him fly away with his friends, at once awed by its majestic beauty and saddened to see them leave.
He was comforted by the fact that Vénes had chosen to stay by his side. Among all the treasures that were dear to Shu-Giri, the grandest were his jewel statue of Jenh, the dragon that flew overhead, and now the sorcerer who had agreed to dwell with him as his guest.
A tear crept stealthily down his cheek. At long last, he had seen the Zeah dragon, and the piece of the crystal that was lodged in its forehead. A piece of the same crystal, legends said, that had once held the goddess trapped, until it was shattered when the great hero freed her from it. The elves believed that the crystal still held much of her power, and that any who held a piece of the crystal held in their mortal hands the power of their beloved goddess.
Shu-Giri loved crystals just as much as he loved Jenh, and now that he’d met Jza, his heart felt light and happy. He knew, too, that Vénes had brought much of that joy. He laid his head on the sorcerer’s shoulder as he watch Jza swirling into the distance, excited about starting a relationship with the sorcerer, and believed that the weeks to come held a great deal in store for them.
In the shade of a tent, General Elezar glared at the commanders who served under him. His unpleasant mood had wasted no time infecting the legions camped outside the forest, and they awaited, with little patience, orders to leave the area. He had already met with some of the elves who had escaped the forest, and had heard them describe the holy magic that had consumed many of the soldiers. He had also sent scouts back inside to learn what they could of those still unaccounted for.
The attack on Jzamneh forest had happened while he’d been away to report to the emperor, and he had not anticipated it being quite the disaster that it had turned out to be. Only some of the soldiers who served the empire knew that the army relied on Métius’s forces to fill out their ranks; most of those who didn’t were either conscripts, or had been sworn into the army in the time before Z’Lé had declared himself emperor. The latter had been horrified to learn about the dark creatures they had been marching with.
Elezar cursed the troublesome nature of Jzamneh once again. None of his scouts had returned, and their rapports with the necromancers had gone silent. Many of his remaining soldiers were now unnerved, and he worried about how much harder they would be to control.
General Elezar stood as he at last began to address his commanders. “You have sent most of the camp into the woods. Of them, half were destroyed by Kearr’s magic, others were taken out by arrows, and all but a handful of the rest are missing. You cannot even explain how anyone in Jzamneh has such powerful holy magic!”
The commanders looked to one another, each one hoping that the others might know the right thing to say in order to satisfy the general. None of them spoke.
Elezar went on. “The few soldiers who have returned do not even number enough for a single battalion. I can see that you have also lost some of your captains. As the necromancers can determine no way to storm the forest with our present forces, your orders are to break camp and diverge in order aid to the advances in both Enhar and Rrévihn.”
“K’hithvahn as well, milord?” one of the commanders asked.
“Damnation, no!” Elezar cursed the land as he gave the questioning commander a fierce gaze. “Between our failure here and K’hithvahn’s savagery in fighting back, His Imperial Majesty will not press further into that land without proof that we can succeed.”
“Perhaps we could learn their fighting style, sir?”
“Certainly you can ask one of the water elves that you captured to teach it to you, commander,” he snapped, his tone cold and biting.
“We may be able to force the knowledge out of them.”
Elezar stared down the dragoon who had suggested it.
“If– if we sacrifice one of the water elves to the necromancers,” the dragoon stuttered, taking a step back, “would they not learn something from it?”
“What good would that do? You’ve likely already lost them all in that accursed forest anyway.” Elezar motioned for his squire to come and collect his maps.
He was in no mood to explain the dark magic to his soldiers. Even if they still had any of their conscripts from K’hithvahn, necromancy was not a practice that lent itself to teaching– not on the scale that this dragoon was suggesting. The emperor had assigned them to the army for a different reason entirely, and Elezar would not listen to suggestions otherwise. What he needed from his men was for them to carry out his orders without question.
“I want everything packed and all men ready to march by sunset,” General Elezar commanded. “I shall have your next orders ready by then.”
The commanders stood and bowed to their general as he left the tent. The squire followed close behind him with the maps. Outside, Elezar gazed up at the sky. Among the sparse clouds, he could see a colorful form moving northward. He called the squire’s attention to it.
“A dragon, milord?”
“So it appears. But what dragon looks so much like a serpent?”
“I know of none, master. Should we ride towards it?”
“No. It flies too quickly for us to catch. Besides, it is heading towards Onsira. I can learn what becomes of it when I make my next report to the emperor.” General Elezar gave it no other thought as he continued striding through the encampment. He had too much else to get done, and was not about to let an unfamiliar dragon distract him.