Chapter Twenty-Four Of Dragons and Mountains
Nightfall was upon the mountains. Zarrek pushed his way through the woods, his pack heavy with the herbs and fruits he’d spent the day gathering. He was feeling weak with hunger by the time he recognized the cavern he’d been looking for; Elezar’s helmet was sitting outside, crowning a boulder. Inside, his father laid beside a fire, the general attending him.
The man was a monstrous mix of dragon and elf, far from the natural mixture that some family lines had attained by mating. Ridden by pain, breaking itself and tearing his skin as he grew, Z’Lé’s body agonized him relentlessly. Zarrek worried some days that his father had lost too much blood to survive, but each morning he woke to suffer anew.
“I’m back,” Zarrek announced as he entered the shadowy cave.
Elezar looked up at him, relieved as well as irritated. “You were out later than usual.”
The prince shrugged and set his pack down beside the men. “The herb was farther out this time. There is not much left in the places I can just walk to. I had to do some climbing this time.”
“This should last us a few days, at least,” Elezar replied as he searched through the leather bag. He pulled out the fruits and set them aside, keeping one to carve open with his knife. Crimson juice spilled onto his fingers, but he didn’t seem to care. He offered the fruit to Z’Lé, who ate it weakly.
“Keep your strength, my lord. It will be over in time.”
Z’Lé let out a pitiful moan, which made his son sulk. Zarrek dropped himself onto a pile of furs nearby, brooding to himself. He was angry that his father was in such a condition, that Métius had forced him to suffer through the changes, and most of all that his mother had not been more loving to her k’hurin. He scorned her for not accepting his love, for not trusting him enough to obey his request for another child. To Zarrek, it didn’t matter what the Destroyer had intended; Z’Lé had risked everything to be with Arialla, and he deserved that much.
Zarrek’s heart had grown cold and spiteful towards his mother those past few weeks. He swore to never again respect or honor her. Perhaps, he told himself, if she could repent, if she could rekindle her affection for Z’Lé… But he had little faith in that possibility.
As Elezar began tearing the leaves of an herb from their stems, a pair of dragons descended upon the cavern’s entrance. One dropped the carcass of a deer at the opening of the cave as it folded its wings and crouched down. Zarrek hurried over to them.
“You brought us meat! Velik, you’re wonderful!” He embraced the dark blue dragon and returned for his knife.
As the prince set about the task of preparing the meat, the dragon spoke to him. Zarrek listened carefully to his Draconic words, then replied in kind. Elezar translated to himself as best be could, but it was an older dialect, which he could only partially understand.
“What does he mean that it used to be his favorite?” the general asked at one point.
“I explained it to you before, Elezar,” Zarrek said. “Why don’t you understand that Father is reverting to his true form: that of a dragon?”
“But how would he know?” Elezar asked, pointing to the dragon. “Why are these two so interested in Z’Lé?”
Zarrek glanced up at Velik and Gashar. Seeing that they were as dubious as him, he only said, “Be grateful that they are helping at all. Were you not recently complaining of hunger?”
Elezar scoffed and gave up arguing with the boy. Zarrek knew too well how to avoid answering the man’s questions, and he could not be swayed from his own objectives. Instead, he mixed his herbs fiercely, creating a slimy pomade that he began to apply to his master’s wounds. His skin tore easily, stretching to fit his expanding frame as he shifted form, and it took a lot of medicine to help him through it. The dragons’ suggestions for herbs had worked thus far, though they had their limits. Elezar hoped that the changes would finish soon, but also dared not rush them and thereby worsen Z’Lé’s pain.
“I will light the fire for cooking,” Elezar announced once he had finished treating the emperor. He covered the unused herbs and stood up to walk outside.
Nearly an hour passed while they prepared the meat on a spit over the fire, which had to be made quite large to accommodate the deer. As their dinner roasted, Elezar sat across from the prince, gazing between the dragons, the cavern, and the view of Onsira from the mountains.
“I never imagined that I might return from Jzamneh Forest only to hide my liege in a cave.”
Zarrek looked up at him without replying.
“What are your plans?” he pressed. “When your father is full dragon and healed, what will you do?”
“What else? My mother promised him her heart. She will need to meet him like this, to hear what he went through because of his love for her.”
“She will most certainly reject him,” Elezar reminded him.
The prince nodded. “Should I give up? I will not let this pass without trying. When I see her decry him and all the love he has, then I will choose what I do next. Only death is supposed to separate them, not her change of heart.”
“Even though she loved not him, but his illusion?”
“Are you defending her?” the prince spat, anger rising in him.
“No, my prince,” Elezar replied, keeping his tone calm. “I was only asking where you stood on the matter.”
Zarrek sighed, staring into the fire. “I don’t believe that she ever loved him enough to become his k’haarana, Elezar. Whatever her past affections, she only made the bond out of royal duty. She could not satisfy her promises to my father any more than he could keep his pact with Métius. And now what do we have? Mother has invited her former lover back to Onsira, and she has been taking antigvium in secret. I can only imagine that she is moving against her own k’hurin.”
“Would you forgive her if she accepted His Majesty as a dragon?”
“You speak as though she would!” he scoffed. “If only that were possible, Elezar. The Book of Kuetzarrin states that it’s better to perish than to cast off one’s bonded mate.”
“Then you mean to…”
Zarrek’s golden eyes met Elezar’s, serious and silent.
“She is you mother, Zarrek!”
“I cannot do it myself, Elezar.” he said. “Neither would I not stop Métius from exacting his own punishment upon her.”
Worried for how far Zarrek would go in the name of his own sense of justice, Elezar frowned and got up from the fire. He walked back into the chill of the cave where they’d taken refuge, far from their camps and servants, to sit beside his emperor. He hoped that once Z’Lé recovered from his transformation, he would be able to convince him to not let his son act so rashly.
Two of the kingdoms that bordered Onsira also shared with it the coastline of Blueshade Ocean. These realms, which were two of the three that Z’Lé’s army had been invading, were home to the almost all of the water elves of Manastaecies. To the south was Enhar, with a gentler and more elegant people, befriended by the whimsical Jzamneh Forest. They did not have the warrior mind-set that K’hithvahn held so dear, and for that they had fallen easily under the might of the might of Z’Lé’s army.
Now that Jzamneh Forest and K’hithvahn had proven impossible to take, the imperial legions had been concentrating on Enhar and Rrévihn, the realm directly west of Onsira. Ever since Z’Lé had been cast out by Métius, the conquests had slowed; he was not present to send out orders, and it seemed that Enhar had enlisted the aid of K’hithvahn to fight back against the invading hordes. The imperial soldiers that had once seemed so unstoppable were dying faster than they could be requested from the royal city. Not only that, but fewer and fewer were left to send out.
Such news reached Emperor Z’Lé one spring morning, brought to him by General Elezar after a brief visit to some of the camps. It was what he’d expected to hear after being condemned by the temple. He knew full well that most of those soldiers were no mortal elves, but demons given elvan form by the Destroyer. He had known it from the day that he’d begun his conquests. He knew from the report on Jzamneh that someone else had figured that out as well.
It had been nearly four weeks since the shaman’s arrival and Arialla’s illness; almost four weeks since Z’Lé had been left forsaken by his god and too ashamed to beg Jenh for mercy. Everything was different now, the emperor thought to himself. He’d changed Onsira into an empire and stabbed at Jenh’s supremacy in a way. He’d eroded the trust that the people had once had in the royal family and destroyed millennia-old alliances. The only thing that remained the same as it had been for the past two decades was Z’Lé’s love and need for Arialla.
He hadn’t slept at all the night that Eavan had cast him out, such was the anguish that coursed through him, both from his body and from the loss of his sweet empress. Instead of loneliness, he felt the pain of his shame. Zarrek watched his father change, granting him as much ease as he was able as the days passed. As a dragon, Z’Lé was massive enough to fill most of the cavern, and the prince suspected him of being older than he’d originally told the people of Onsira.
Besides Velik and Gashar, no other dragons took an interest in Z’Lé. Zarrek could not understand why they stood by watching him, helping from time to time by hunting down their dinner. They had even taken Zarrek along the distances of the mountains on their backs, searching for the bloodberries that helped his father keep his strength. He was at his weakest when Elezar returned from the capital city with what little information he’d been able to gather.
“You have been followed,” Zarrek told the general as he approached. He muttered under his breath, leaving the fire at his camp.
Elezar glanced behind him, but saw no one. “You heard only Dettri departing,” he grumbled, heading towards the cavern.
“I did hear Dettri,” the prince replied. “But I sensed the one who followed you here.”
The captain paused mid-stride and turned to look back at Zarrek. “Another dragon, perhaps?”
“No. It’s Sasha.” Zarrek stared into the woods as though he saw her there, determined and threatening.
“The demoness?!” Elezar gasped, searching the trees. “What reason has she to come?”
Zarrek gave the general a weary look. “She has the highest rank after Métius himself. The others vie for her position and affections alike. Show yourself, mistress of the Destroyer!”
At first, nothing more than a length of cloth appeared, wrapping itself around the cold mountain air. Its crimson stood out against the green of the forest. Then her sigils appeared, ebony marks that clawed around her pale skin. When she had fully manifested, she stood pale and bare, wrapped only in her lengths of unworked cloth, hardly more than sashes of dark colors. The black orbs of her eyes watched the prince with interest.
“Well done, young Zarrek,” she said, her voice sultry, almost mocking. “You are in tune with my realm.”
He took no interest in her praise. “What is it that you need?”
“I have come to see your father,” she replied, having nothing to hide.
Zarrek scowled at Elezar for having been followed, then met her gaze. “Your master left him to revert to his former self in pain and blood. What more do you need of him? Has he not been cast out?”
“His transformation is nearly complete. I have come to take back my jewel.” She moved past him, heading into the cave where the emperor lay. Zarrek and the captain followed close behind.
Inside, Sasha knelt beside the beast, watching his heaving breaths. “How miserable you look, Z’Lé. Imagine how badly you have failed my lord. Tell me, was she worth all this pain?”
“Every day…” he gasped, the words difficult for him to form, “that she loved me… was worth this suffering. You cannot… understand how… badly I love… her.”
Sasha scoffed bitterly. “I’m surprised that you survived this. You had to lose that elvan blood and replace it with that of a proper dragon. Remember how easily you changed before? With our magic?”
“Have you come… to mock me?”
“Perhaps. I did give you my jewel, after all. And look what you’ve done with it.”
Zarrek watched his father lower his head towards her. “Take it. Just… leave us be.”
Sasha reached her arm towards his forehead, which glowed with black energy. A crystal dropped onto her palm, dark and devoid of color. “With this, you lose the power that Métius lent you all those years ago. Does your fire Zeah serve you at all still?”
Z’Lé answered this with only a low growl.
“Sasha,” Zarrek said as he stepped up beside his father. “You were the one who brought the offer to him from Métius, weren’t you?”
“How did you know?” she hissed, turning her gaze to the boy.
“He mentioned your name one evening, when the pain was especially bad. His suffering is your fault, then.”
“Child, listen to me: he accepted our offer of his own will. Watch your tongue, or you will lose our favor as well!”
“But you made the offer knowing that his eyes were clouded by love– that he would fail the pact.”
“No, Zarrek,” Sasha countered. “Before he fathered your brother and let your mother name him, he could have fulfilled his agreement. It is not our duty to act for his benefit alone. He got what he wanted, but he failed us.”
“Failed you?” Zarrek cried, forgetting to hold back. “Our kingdom has shifted to serve your master, Sasha. The empire’s armies move under His will, not my father’s.”
“Has he told you so much already?” The demoness smiled to him, slyly, hiding her thoughts. “You are half dragon, you know, Zarrek. You may never look the part, but it is part of your legacy now. If he had fulfilled the pact, you would have always been as a pure elf. Instead, your draconic heritage will show in your children.”
Sasha laid her hand on the boy’s cheek. “Handsome like your father,” she cooed, but he made no response. “You will know your father’s passion some day, my boy. The way his heart burned for Arialla.”
“What else do you need?” Zarrek growled, glaring at the unwelcome visitor.
“Hmmm.” She looked up at Z’Lé. “A message, noble dragon. If you move against Métius, or force his temples out of Onsira… if you so much as tell Arialla about the army, He will punish you for it. You may not even want to mention the details of how you changed form. Keep your master’s secrets, Z’Lé. Outside of that, we care not whether you try to win her heart, or if you will sulk in the mountains for the rest of your days.”
With nothing more to say to the mortals hiding in their cave, Sasha slinked away. Her sashes wrapped round and round her body, entangling her until she disappeared. Zarrek watched her depart, his anger boiling in his blood as the cloth eventually fell in on itself. He felt a ferocity rise in him he had not known before, a hurt pride that he had not recognized before that moment. Elezar offered comforting words to the prince, but he would hear none of it. Instead, he rushed outside, off in search of the blue dragons he’d so recently befriended.