Chapter Sixteen The Champion’s Endeavor
Loracaz stopped at the foot of the hill and gazed up at the two moons above him. The clouds had thinned enough for their soft light to shine down, but the last of winter still chilled the darkened sky. He slipped off his jacket, knelt down to untie his boots, and handed them all to his guards, who nodded to him as he made his way up to the hilltop with only the sword at his side. The cool air surrounding him seemed to be charged with energy, and he had a sense that the wind was urging him on.
From where he stood, Loracaz could look back and see the palace glowing in the moonlight. He knew that his mother was asleep in that palace, her illness still unexplained, and that his father was doing little to help her. What was worse, Zarrek had come to him earlier that day asking his to go to the Temple of Métius with him. It left him feeling alone with the royal family’s responsibility to keep darkness out of Onsira.
As much as his father claimed to seek unification, Loracaz knew that something was not right about it. His father called the legends nothing more than stories, but Loracaz believed in his heart that there was truth in them. Métius would do anything to exact revenge on Jenh and Onsira, to end the family line that had begun with the ancient hero. Based on what Liriel had seen in him, he knew that it was his duty to prevent the Destroyer from succeeding in his hateful intent.
Knowing that he needed better skills with the sword in order to defend Onsira, Prince Loracaz II walked to the middle of the hilltop’s grassy field. A breeze graced over his cheeks and through his hair, then flowed and receded behind him like the waves of the ocean. He closed his golden-green eyes, listening to the wind rushing around his body as it passed. His muscles relaxed as he focused his mind, and he took in a long, deep breath.
The wind whispered into his ears as he tasted the sweetness of the clean, wet air. He forgot about the cold, and although his breath formed clouds as it left his lips, he no longer felt a chill. It was as though warmth dwelt within his very being, left there by the goddess, and he felt entirely comfortable and at ease out there in the late-winter air. The grass at his feet seemed so alive, the soil so verdant, even though most of the realm’s fields had been ruined by the past season. Wherever he stepped, life seemed to re-emerge. Streams of golden-green light crept along his legs, passing between him and the ground. It flowed along his body as he stood in meditation, alone on the windy hill.
The aura wound up his belly, over is chest, then down his arms all the way to his fingers, embracing him, allowing him to become fully aware of his entire body. Every nerve and cell within him felt awakened and charged with Zeah. He felt the shapes of his bones and muscles, and even the skin wrapped around them. Everything was interconnected, and the way it all worked together felt greater than any part could have been alone.
His mortal body and magical power merged into one, and he began to realize the power that could be his: the champion’s power. Its was there, just beyond his reach, but with the right about of practice, he would be able to attain it. With his mind’s eye began to see the way his sword want to move, the way he should hold it, how to strike, how to move his body with the blade in order to fight be the evil that threatened his kingdom.
The wind blew stronger, and with his mind flooding with awareness, Loracaz reached his hands to the Drramin Luar at his hips. Zeah flowed along it length as he touch silk-wrapped ivory of the handle. He pulled the blade free of its scabbard to hold it in front of himself, and it glistened in the moonlight. Under the lavender and cobalt sky that surrounded Lorata, leaves scattered around the hill, carried past the prince like dozens of faeries scattering to flee the reach of the sword.
Loracaz placed one foot back to assume a fighting stance, bracing his body against the growing torrent of wind, like a tree whose roots plunged deep into the soil. He closed his eyes, turning his focus inward to the sensations that flowed throughout his body. Burning with magic and power, Loracaz felt at one with the goddess, sharing her body with his.
When he was ready, Loracaz opened his eyes and swung the Drramin Luar upwards with his full strength. The blade cut through each leaf that blew towards him, and he swung again, then again, and again, each time in a different direction. He practiced each strike that came to mind, slicing, piercing, parrying, as though he had a real opponent before him.
After several minutes, the wind faded and he stood breathing heavily, glowing with green and golden energy. He still felt at one with the earth on which he stood, the air entering and leaving his lungs, even the salinity of the sweat on his face. All of glory of Jenh herself had made itself known to him.
The sword in his hands whispered to him its lethal secrets, promising that enough practice, he would be able to become completely one with it. Loracaz felt the pulse of the metal, reminding him of the power of the earth elemental Tezanth. It made him feel as though he himself was a mountain, the sword a vein of iron running through it. The fire born on the forge coursed through him, blazing with Veniishu’s flames. It ran a long his cheeks as the sweat of his body and melted sensually with Tezanth’s metal. The elementals melded as one in the sword, coming together for the singular purpose of–
Realization flashed through the prince’s mind. Jenh, the mother of Lorata, mother of the elementals, protector of the vast kingdom of Onsira, had granted him more than the power of Zeah. She and her children shared in his heroic destiny, gave him knowledge, and coursed through his being to protect him. He was one with the elemental powers of this majestic world, helping him live out his destiny and keep the promise alive for future generations. He was Jenh’s champion, and she would do everything in her power to ensure his ability to protect her and the kingdom that revered her from any evil force that threatened to invade it.
Prince Loracaz II had been born as the very incarnation of the hero of legend. Jenh had chosen a distant descendant of her original champion to protect his own world, and had granted him all the power and knowledge that would be necessary to fend off Métius. As she’d promised after being rescued from the crystal in which she’d been imprisoned, the protector would come again. For eons, many had believed Loracaz I would be reborn if the goddess or her kingdom, Onsira, were ever again threatened by evil.
He let out a breath, smiling, and sheathed the sword. Loracaz could hear every animal around him, in the trees at the edge of the hill, in the grass around him and even deep underground. He could smell life and death all around him, the loss that the winter had seen and the promise of the spring to come. He heard the trees creaking with growth, their branches moving in the winds as they whispered of his destiny. It blew to return a finer era to the kingdom of Onsira, to restore the legends.
He paused to wonder how many generations had passed since Loracaz I had rescued the goddess. He knew that he shared the blood of the original hero, and calculated that his lineage went back nearly nearly four millennia. Jenh’s promise still held strong, even after all that time. It was as though the goddess had known before Arialla had that evil would once again threaten the land.
Loracaz had not forgotten what his mother had told him; on the night of his coronation, she had seen in Z’Lé’s face a monstrous visage. Darkness surrounded his form, emanating from his body like a stench. That night, his body had claws, scales, and even horns, as undeniable as they were unnatural. Loracaz, like many others, knew Z’Lé to be more forceful and powerful than any elvan noble Onsira had ever known. Given his height, his strength, and his ferocity, as well as his sharp features, he was an intimidating man to face. Many were those surprised by Arialla falling in love with him all those years ago.
Loracaz’s mind flowed with thoughts that seemed to be guided by Jenh herself, reminding him of the legend, of the jealousy, greed, and hatred that had once burned within the hearts of the dragons. They had the power to kidnap and imprison the goddess. Eons ago, many of them had abandoned the power of Jenh for another deity. A demon god had revealed himself in the dark regions of the continent. He inspired dark thoughts in those who met him, urges to cause death and suffering. Many dragons, once colorful, had become black as coal, like ashes, murky and somber. They brooded in the night and crept in the shadows, always demanding something. In the daytime, they destroyed Jenh’s creations; they killed and even seduced without a second thought. The black dragons of that distant age were loveless, thoughtless monsters, creeping beasts to be avoided.
Their liege was Métius, lord of demons. He was a lurking horror of a god, an abomination with incredible power. Throughout the realms, he was called by many names, the most haunting being Formless Destroyer. He was at the core of the original legend, its reason for being. Because Métius hated Jenh, harboring jealousy for her vast fae and elvan following, he had trapped her inside a crystal. It had seeped the Zeah from her, draining her life-force for himself. He had come so close to killing the goddess that even after she was freed, her power was never as strong as it had been before.
When the crystal was shattered, the magical essence of Zeah had been released from the crystal and flowed all across the planet. The elves, fae and dragons who worshiped her were infused with her power, and it blessed their children for every generation afterwards.
Such was the legacy of Jenh, Métius, and Loracaz, which lived on to that day. Métius, though weak against the light and purity of Kearr, hated the elemental powers of Jenh most of all. Loracaz, through her power, protected her by battling him. Loracaz I, for the legends he had begun, could not vanquish the demon god, but had been able to defeat his mortal servants and free the goddess from her crystal trap.
Afterwards, Métius had entombed himself in the shadows of the Abyss, toying with the mortal realm and waiting for another chance to strike down the goddess. He had brought his requiem to Onsira, but legends claimed that he brought Loracaz with it. In the end, shadows can only exist when light and radiance shine, and down to the very core of the world, Jenh was more radiant than the peaceful light of life given by Kearr or the blazing glow of a star.
Mearrk’hal guessed that it was midnight when Jza descended on the snow-covered hill. It was days after Loracaz had stood there, and the stormy blue moon Kithorn hung in the icy sky, shadowy Mehiil further off. Unhappy clouds floated by, having brought another blanket of Snow to Onsira, and threatening to deliver even more.
The party was left to stand in ankle-deep snow once they’d climbed down from the dragon’s back. Jza stayed only long enough to confirm that he would fly with Amaten to K’hithvahn and beyond, and later await the shaman’s call in the mountains. On his way west, he would call for other dragons to fly against the black beasts that followed the emperor’s command.
Standing there with his breath visible in the cold air, holding the small chest that Shu-Giri had given him, the Mearrk’hal felt far from powerful. He worried about what would happen now that he was back in Onsira. He hadn’t been there for many a year, and suspected that Z’Lé would not be at all happy to see him. As much as he believed that the forces he was calling upon to aid Onsira would be able to help, the fact that the empress need those forces at all had him worried. He had not seen either Z’Lé or Arialla for ages, and only had hints as to what to expect when he finally did see them.
His thoughts were interrupted when the dragon took to the sky, and Mearrk’hal hurried across the hill with the bard. They trudged through the winter snow, concern that more had fallen this late in the season, towards the only light to be seen in the darkness: the temple devoted to Goddess Jenh. They would stay there for the night, and perhaps the following nights, if Mearrk’hal could not effect a welcome from the master of the palace. Vincent shivered in the cold despite several layers of clothing.
The shadowy Temple of Métius could be seen in the distance, a black mass of spires and unwelcoming colors, from crimson to the darkest of purples. Vincent gazed at it, knowing that his brother would have to go there eventually. If he wanted to learn what was going, Vénes would have to study there, and his studies would need to be sincere and dedicated. That he could do; it was the guilt that writhed within him that held him back. Vénes could hardly look at a temple decicated to Métius without shuddering and forcing his memories back down. Both Vincent and Mearrk’hal hoped that Shu-Giri would help him heal enough to accept his past, so that in turn he could help where he was needed.
The Temple of Jenh was silent and mostly empty. They were glad for its warmth as they hung their cloaks and packs on the hooks provided in the entrance hall, and left their shoes on the shelves beneath them. Vincent yawned as he took in the breathtaking architecture of the temple, including its marble columns. Though he found the temples to Aamh far more complex in their beauty, Jenh’s followers held the same level of devotion and honor for their deity and her elementals.
“Someone is there at the altar,” the bard noted. Mearrk’hal nodded to him. “Should we wake her to let her know we’ve arrived?”
“I should,” the shaman replied.
Though he would have gladly let her sleep, his manners told him that he should introducing himself and his son. He walked along the aisle and onto the dais where the altar to Jenh stood. Incense burned there, as well as candles, some golden yellow, some pure green, others a mixture of the two. Lying on the cushions near the altar was the high priestess, the jewels of her elaborate headdress glittering in the candlelight.
Mearrk’hal laid a hand lightly on her shoulder. “Milady priestess…”
A light mumble came from her lips as she stirred, “Loracaz…?”
“No, dear priestess,” the shaman said, realizing that she was not yet fully aware of who was speaking to her. “Please, if we could only have a word with you.”
She gave a soft groan, but roused herself nonetheless. Her bright blue eyes blinked open and looked up at the shaman. She sat up, yawning as she examined the stranger before her warily. Seeing that he did not seem to mean her any harm, she greeted him kindly.
“Good morning, newcomer. Welcome to our beloved temple.” She smoothed her gown as she spoke, the jewels sewn into the cloth twinkling.
“’Tis not yet morning yet, milady,” Mearrk’hal replied. “I am sorry to wake you so deep in the night.”
The priestess got to her feet sleepily. She looked over the strange elves that stood now before her: the colorfully-dressed bard, his pack loaded more with instruments than with anything practical, and the shaman clad in leather that matched the the rich browns and supple greens of the forest. For a moment, she was uncertain whether she was dreaming about having such strange visitors in her temple,
“Is it night still? I am not used to taking anyone at an hour this late, but I dare not turn away any who need me. Please, call me Liriel; I am the high priestess of the is temple. Have you only just arrived in Jzifélan City?”
“The high priestess?!” Vincent exclaimed, kneeling before her as quickly as he could. He felt incredibly out of place in the Temple of Jenh, and was ashamed that he had already committed an affront to one of the most important members of the clergy. “Honored one, I apologize that we have disturbed your rest; we meant no disrespect.”
“It is no trouble,” Liriel told the bard, laying a hand lightly on his shoulder. Her soft laugh calmed him, and her touch was so delicate that he was sure that she was not upset with him. “You have no need to kneel, stranger. Please, come and sit with me.”
Vincent nodded, and moved towards the cushions that she had gestured to. He waited for her to sit first, and then descended to a cushion across from her, close to where the shaman sat. He said nothing else, letting his father do the talking.
“We have indeed only just arrived,” Mearrk’hal told the high priestess. “The Lady Empress wrote to me requesting my presence here.”
Liriel glanced curiously at the shaman. “You came at the empress’s call?” When he nodded, her face brightened into a smile. “You would be the fabled Mearrk’hal, then? The last shaman of the great forest of Shyal’In?”
“That I am, dear priestess.”
Liriel’s next words sounded urgent and worried, and the men listened to her carefully. “Her Imperial Majesty has told me about the letter that she wrote to you. Your arrival has been long awaited, dear shaman. The empress has feared for her own well-being for a long time, and now…” Liriel shook hear head, choosing not to say all of it just yet. “I will tell you that I am very relieved that you are here at last. Arialla insists that you would be the best man to train our prince for battle. His father has not the patience for him, I am afraid.”
“More importantly,” Mearrk’hal added, “there is the matter of what Z’Lé has been up to. Why would he tun Onsira into an empire? I thought the Antraius family–”
“Good shaman, please,” Liriel interrupted, her visage so full of worry that he did not complain. “We can speak of it on the morrow. For now, you should rest. I know that Loracaz will be very relieved to have you here.”
The high priestess turned to Vincent, regarding his features with a curious air. “Who is this you’ve brought with you, Mearrk’hal?”
“This is Vincent,” he explained. “I cared for him and another boy long before I courted Arialla, when they had nobody else to look after them. He is as eager to help the empress as I am.”
“You are a bard, are you not?” she asked Vincent. “I fear that Métius is of great influence here. Do you not fear the danger that he represents?”
Vincent shook his head. “With Aamh’s protection, milady, I fear nothing. Once my brother arrives, I shall have the added protection of a very fine sorcerer.”
Behind him, he heard shifting sounds, and then footsteps. Vincent and the others turned to gaze across the hall, past the floor where worshipers usually knelt. Standing there, shrouded in a hooded cloak make from fine black fur, stood a figure. He stared out from the hood at the elves assembled upon the platform. Once he realized that Liriel recognized him, he scoffed and turned away. He was walking towards the doors of the temple, leaving small puddles of snow on the floor from his boots, when the bard called out to him.
“Just who are you? You can’t come into a temple like that in the middle of the night.” Vincent told him, gesturing to his boots, which he knew should not be worn inside the temple. “Have you no respect?”
“I should say the same to you, strangers.” His voice was young, but as smooth and deliberate as any noble’s. He nodded towards the priestess and left without saying anything else.
“He looked so dark,” the bard commented. “Is he some worshiper of Métius?”
“None could say for certain where the young prince’s heart lies,” Liriel told him. “He visits both temples, and he knows the power of both Jenh and Métius. He has even studied the language of dragons.”
“He was the younger prince?” Vincent blinked in disbelief when the high priestess nodded. “But how–”
“I think we should rest now, Vincent,” Mearrk’hal decided. “There are too many factors here for us to properly take in right now.”
“Perhaps so,” Vincent conceded reluctantly. He looked down the hall, where Zarrek had gone, wondering what Vénes would have sensed in him had he been there. Already he missed his brother, and prayed that he would come to them soon.