Blood of Red, Blood of Black
Z’Lé’s encampment lay south of the Onsiran border, at the foot of the Dragonridge Mountains. They were in a region of Enhar claimed by an imperial campaign some years ago, a location he had chosen because of how remote it was. He had hidden himself in his tent ever since it had become ready, and refused to emerge or answer any queries. He had also kept himself wrapped in his hood and cloak throughout his journey from the royal city.
His soldiers had yet to understand why his orders had brought them back to the land they’d taken from Enhar. Their numbers were not enough to extend their territory by force, and there was no business there that required the emperor’s presence.
Some of them had begun to whisper and gossip, wondering why he had so suddenly left Arialla and Jzifélan behind. Some knew that he had recently been to the Temple of Métius, though none of the details of what had happened there. The rumors ran through the camp nonetheless.
At the onset of his travels, Emperor Z’Lé had summoned General Elezar to meet him at that very camp. He’d been given the new orders upon returning to the palace from Jzamneh Forest, and Zarrek had taken the opportunity to meet with him as well. After their conversation, the prince had ridden with the general aback Dettri.
They arrived at the camp at dusk, and Zarrek wasted no time in pushing past Elezar, eyeing him gravely all the while.
“Leave us for now,” the young prince ordered him. “When Father is ready, I shall send for you.”
General Elezar had not even a moment to respond before Zarrek stormed away. Although he was irritated that the prince had gone to the emperor ahead of him, and had forced him to carry him over the mountains despite his protest, Elezar was left with no choice. This prince, so unlike Prince Loracaz, was equal to his father in both temper and will to dominate. He would have to bide his time and prepare his report of how things fared outside Jzamneh Forest.
When Zarrek pushed back the panel of cloth that curtained off the entrance to the tent, he found his father facing the back wall. His body was slouched in the wooden chair where he sat, as though tired and worn. The prince stepped in front of his father only to behold a visage so melancholy, so distressed, that he knew at once that his father’s condition was graver than he had first thought.
“Father…” he said timidly, stepping towards the man.
Z’Lé stared out at the floor, unresponsive to his son’s words.
“Father, what is troubling you?” Zarrek clutched his father’s hand, leaning over him. He looked into his father’s face, searching his eyes. “You’ve changed again,” he whispered. “Is this why you left us?”
Feeling his son’s touch, the emperor lifted his head. Crimson laced the gold of his eyes, and his cheeks bore the same rouge. Most striking, Zarrek thought, was that when he blinked, his pupils turned sharp and long, like the eyes of a dragon.
“My son. How did you know to come here to find me?” His voice was a troubled rasping that that begged for an answer.
“Elezar brought me. But never mind that, Father. What has happened to you?”
“My body…” he grasped his son’s hand and held his gaze, “is changing, Zarrek. One day soon you shall see my true form completely.”
Zarrek shook his head. “What do you mean by that?”
“What have you noticed? My hands?” Z’Lé held up his fingers, the nails large and curved, sharp as a dragon’s.
“My face?” He pulled his hair back from the side of his face. Black scales adorned his cheeks, shadowy blemishes on his noble visage.
“Your eyes as well,” the prince added. He took a breath and pushed a more daring question from his lips. “Has this got something to do with the Temple of Métius? The hidden chamber?”
“That is part of it,” his father conceded.
“And the rest of it…?”
Shaking his head, Z’Lé told him, “Your mother is all of it. My reason for all of this.”
“Father, can you explain it plainly?”
“All of this…” he said with a sigh, “I did for her. My pact with Métius, the empire, you and Loracaz.”
Zarrek still did not understand. Z’Lé could see the confusion in his expression and accepted that he would have to make a full and clear explanation.
“I do not know what will become of you,” Z’Lé began, making an effort to sit up. “Métius said that my children would not change even if I did, but his word is hardly a promise. Since you could be facing the consequences of my failure, I will tell you. Pull that chair over and sit down.”
Near the corner of the tent was another seat, which Zarrek brought over without arguing. He set it on the rug in front of his father and sat down. Curiosity burned in him, and he intended to listen to his father’s every word.
Z’Lé took a deep breath, bracing himself for the impact of his words. “What you know me as was not always my true form. It is a changed body that I took on in order to pursue love.”
“An illusion?” Zarrek asked, hoping to be clear on what his father meant.
“In some ways… But it’s more literal than that. I made an agreement with Métius, and he changed my body.”
Zarrek nodded as he looked his father over. “But you’re changing again. Is it because you failed in your word somehow– and what does he mean to make you into?”
Sighing, the emperor corrected his son. “He is not forcing another body upon me, Zarrek. He is leaving me to revert to my original form. Either way, it is indeed because I did not fulfill my promise to him.”
“Original…” Zarrek breathed, beginning to comprehend what his father meant. He pieced together all the changes that he had ever seen in him: his eyes, his hands, and other small aspects that some may have never taken as meaningful. “You were a dragon, Father? You know their language so well– you were from the mountains!”
“Aye, my son.” He stared into Zarrek’s eyes, searching for his reaction, his emotions. The prince stared back, letting the minutes pass.
Zarrek knew that his mother would be furious if she had any idea of this truth; she would have reviled the lies, his dealings with the Destroyer. Loracaz would take her side, hating him. This was something that the young prince refused to do.
“You are my father just the same,” he said.
Relief rushed over Z’Lé, washing away some of his worries. “I am grateful that you understand, Zarrek. You most of all are a treasure to me. If only your mother could understand why I did this.”
“Has she seen you this way?”
“When your brother was crowned…” the emperor sighed. “There was a night when I had waited too long to renew the spell. She only caught a glimpse– a hint compared to what you see now, but she recoiled from the sight of me all the same.”
“Yet you did this for her?”
“She doesn’t know,” Z’Lé reminded him. “I had loved her for years before without her ever knowing me. Eventually, I could no longer bear not being able to be close to her, or never telling her how I felt. There came a day when I needed to have her love in return… and Métius was there for me.”
“He made it possible?” Zarrek asked.
“But you had to promise him something in exchange.”
“He always wants more than what he gives in return,” his father replied. “He wanted you to serve him, Zarrek. I had to push you into his temple, even though I had never worshiped him in my days in the mountains.”
“What about Loracaz?”
“The Destroyer’s ploy was to let me live in bliss with Arialla for years before giving me any challenge,” Z’Lé explained. “Your brother was free to follow Onsiran tradition and worship the goddess. Looking back, it must have been Métius’s way of helping me keep Arialla’s trust longer, so that I could father enough children.”
“How many would be enough, Father?” Zarrek ventured, unsure how he would feel about the answer.
Z’Lé looked away in shame as he said, “The third child was what Métius wanted.”
“As a priest in his temple?” Zarrek knew that it had to be something more, but he dared not put it into words.
The emperor shook his head, but refused to say any more. “I am ashamed that I ever agreed to it. After raising two sons, I could not bear to lose my third. I would have stopped asking Arialla for heirs, but But Métius threatened to revoke his spell– my elvan form– if I could not complete his pact. So I tried…”
Realizing what it must have been, Zarrek chose not to press his father any more about the third child.
“If you had fulfilled your promise…?” he asked instead.
“I would have been free of him. I could have stayed as you knew me before, living out my days with your mother. Your service to the temple would have been left to your choice, no matter how certain Métius was that you would stay. I could have…”
Z’Lé’s words faltered, caught in his throat by his sorrow. He pushed himself from the chair, turning his back from his son to hide the tears that streaked his face.
Zarrek leaped up and followed him, refusing to accept that his mother had any right to turn him away. “You did it for love, Father! How could she turn you away? Why–”
He stopped abruptly. His father had doubled over, leaning on a wooden chest at the far end of the tent. Zarrek hurried to him, kneeling at his side.
“Is something hurting you, Father?” the prince asked earnestly, hoping that he would be able to assist him.
Z’Lé pulled him close and held him tightly. He body was hot, and his heart pounded in his chest. “I cannot describe how terrible it is,” he groaned. “My body is torn between its forms, and I can do nothing to ease this change.”
Before he had a chance to ask him anything more, Zarrek felt something drip onto his hand, warm and sticky. He looked down to find blood not only on his fingers, but across Z’Lé’s arms and back as well. A deeper concern filled him, followed by questions as to why and where he had been injured.
“Did you do this to yourself?” the prince asked his father. “There is so much blood…”
Z’Lé hesitated. He was buried in shame so deep that he knew better than to try climbing out of it. “In a way you could say that I did– but not in the way that you mean.” He gasped as another spike of pain cut through his body. “It is part of the changes I have been going through. They come faster with each day. Sometimes… sometimes they bleed.”
Z’Lé pushed himself to his feet, snarling through the pain. He discovered too late that he’d bled to a far greater extent than he’d first thought, and was overcome by a dizzying fatigue such that even with Zarrek’s help, he could not stand. He tumbled back down to the ground, where he laid, his breathing labored and ragged.
“Should summon Elezar?” Zarrek suggested.
“Keep him out of this,” Z’Le snapped. “He does not need to watch me suffer.”
“Can you tell me, at least–”
Z’Lé let out cry of pain that evolved into a low growl. “My back!” he howled. “It is– Zarrek, this pain…”
Zarrek took his father’s hand, staying close to him, his panic doubling as he realized that he did not know what was happening, let alone how he could help.
“This kind of pain…” Z’Lé gasped, his voice trembling. “It– no, not now… Not–”
Agony interrupted his words, replacing them with another terrifying moan. It grew louder, until he was shouting, cursing both the pain and the gods. Helpless, Zarrek at his side until the yelling escalated to the point that the young prince couldn’t understand why no guards came to see what was amiss.
A wide, eerie shadow cast over them, snuffing out the last candle in the tent. The space had only been illuminated dimly before; now it was complete darkness. Zarrek looked up, gazing past his father’s shaking body, searching the shadows as his eyes adjusted. He was shocked when he realized that the outline of a pair of wings was spreading open above them, webbed and ebony and drenched with blood.
Timidly, Zarrek reached out to touch the wing closer to him. It flinched, and in that same moment his father gasped. Before the boy could react, Z’Lé hid his face in his son’s shoulder, sobbing loudly and uncontrolled. Zarrek whispered his name into the shadows, unsure of what he should do; his father was shaking, his body cold from the blood he’d lost when those wings had torn open the skin of his back to force their way back into the world.
“I have to get help, Father,” he said finally, deciding that he could not keep this a secret from everyone else indefinitely. He rose slowly, making sure that his father laid in stable position, then rushed through the door of the tent.
“Elezar!” called Zarrek, searching the darkened field for the captain. “Elezar! Bring a medic!”
Running between the tents in the camp, he called out for the general, his shouts rousing the soldiers from their repose. With the last of the daylight disappearing beyond the horizon, Zarrek gazed up at sky, hoping to find Elezar soaring with Dettri beneath the moons and the clouds. What he saw instead was a pair of dragons, their blue scales so dark that he could scarcely see them against the evening sky. He realized, after some time, that they were calling out to him, crying his name, as well as his father’s.
In the palace library, Arialla watched the bard sort through the shelves of time-worn scrolls. He admired each one with expressive enthusiasm as the empress sipped her tea, eventually bringing an armful to her table. He laid them gently in front of her and took a seat.
“You have an incredible cache of knowledge here, your majesty,” he told her. “I am honored that you trust me with such treasures.”
Arialla smiled to him. “I see no reason to withhold what my family was given to guard, Vincent. It was intended to be shared as much as protected. It is fitting, moreover, that it be read by one entrusted to guard the songs and legends of the entire continent.”
“My lady speaks so eloquently,” Vincent replied, hiding his blush behind a partially-unrolled scroll.
She gave him a relaxed smile. “What have you brought over?”
The bard showed Arialla the scroll he’d opened. “This one is written in bardic script,” he said as he pointed out the flowing lettering that adorned the centuries-old parchment.
“Does it tell us anything important?” the empress asked, her interest far more focused than the bard’s.
“If you mean anything about Z’Lé, I am afraid not. This one is a ballad about your hero, Loracaz I. Everything it tells, I am certain that you know already. Anything that your emperor is hiding you will surely have to learn more directly.”
Nodding, Arialla considered the matter before saying anything more.
“There is nothing to explain his interest in inviting Métius into the kingdom, or his imperial pursuits?”
“Should there be, my lady?” Vincent asked her. “The Dark One could have made any arrangement he chose with the emperor.” He pulled another scroll from the bottom of the pile. “This one might offer some clue, but I cannot read it.”
“Have you something to fear from the dark writings?” Arialla queried, interested to know what knowledge the scroll contained.
He shook his head. “Aamh’s divine protection keeps me safe. This scroll is written in archaic runes from the school of magic. My brother could read them, but not I.”
“Secrets written for a sorcerer, perhaps?”
“I have no way of knowing.”
Arialla was eager to know what it contained. “Could you write to him, Vincent? I don’t know how long Z’Lé will be gone, but if he plans on doing something terrible when he returns, we need to be able to prepare for it.”
“I beg of you, sweet bard,” the empress implored him. “My kingdom has suffered so much already. If this scroll contains information that could be of help to us, then we must know what it says.”
Vincent rose from his seat to step closer to her. “For you, dear Empress, I would send for Aamh herself.” Speaking those words, knelt before her, took her hands, and kissed them both.
Arialla smiled, endeared by his gentle nature.
“Any chance to keep that monster from hurting you again, I shall take,” he swore to her, meeting her eyes.