Chapter Thirty Seeing Beyond the Veil
The wind coursed through the prince’s hair as Jza soared above the royal city of Jzifélan. Loracaz could see the wagons passing through the city gates below, people pouring into the city in preparation with the Spring Council. Beyond that were the decaying fields beyond, where little food had grown the past few seasons.
Then the great dragon soared higher, leaving the palace behind without a second thought. For Loracaz, it was a different ordeal; the furthest he’d been away from Onsira were the rare and few visits that he’d paid to Enhar and Rrévihn. He’d certainly never been to Mékneh before, and going now, at such a precarious time as this, brought him no comfort.
Jza was a swift dragon, and Kestrel had to fly harder to keep up with him. Still, it took them three days to cross the Dragonridge Mountains and pass over the entire kingdom of K’hithvahn. They camped in quiet, forested areas in order to avoid drawing attention to themselves; Loracaz knew that the royal family was not exactly welcome in the neighboring kingdoms, and wanted to avoid having to explain what he was doing.
In the afternoon of the third day, they crossed the River Taalaminh, the great river that cut through most of the middle of the continent. The dragons soared over its coursing waters far in the north, where they had a view of Blueshade Ocean in the distance. The black forest came into view just as night began to fall, looming tall with its narrow, shadowy trees.
The dragons landed at the edge of the black woods, and the group climbed down. Outside the forest, empty plains of lush grass spread out; the nearest village would be miles away, leaving the Mékneh to themselves. Prince Loracaz gazed into the woods, searching between the narrow trunks of the old trees for a way in. Meanwhile, Sir Tamlin was telling Jza and Kestrel where to wait for them.
The roots of Mékneh’s trees were unique compared to most found on Manastaecies, for part of them stood out from the ground, lifting the trunks higher so that they appeared that much taller. Their bark was grey, traced with black lines, and the wood inside was just as black as the forest’s namesake. The crooked roots had long been home to all sorts of spiders, who formed their webs between them. Loracaz realized this fact too late as he passed between the trees and brushed against the sticky fibers of one of the larger spider webs.
“What–” the prince gasped, trying to rub the webbing off of his leg.
Vénes went to his side to inspect what had happened. “This forest is filled with spiders, sire. You are lucky this web had not been occupied when you walked by.”
“Spiders?” Loracaz repeated, starting to look nervous. “You didn’t mention that before.”
“Who goes there?” a voice called out from the shadows of the forest. The prince peered among the trees, but could not find who had spoken.
“Name yourself!” the voice called again, this time more demanding.
“We bring Loracaz, the crowned prince of Onsira,” Sir Tamlin called back. “We have come to seek your help.”
“Onsira?” the voice asked. Suddenly, an elf appeared in front of the prince. He gazed coldly at the strangers before him, his eyes staying longer on the prince.
Then another figure walked up behind the first, a pair of wolves following him. “We were expecting visitors from Onsira,” he said, “but not a prince.”
“If you can take us to Mearrk’hal,” Loracaz told them, “we can explain what has happened, and why I came instead.”
The Mékneh elves looked at one another warily. They spoke to each other in hushed tones, then turned back to the prince.
“You realize that entering this forest under any false pretense will cost you your life?” the first one asked, his eyes on the prince.
Loracaz nodded. “I speak the truth.”
“If you die here, the Mékneh will hold no funeral for strangers,” the other replied. “Follow us, and watch that you do not ruin any more webs.”
The two Mékneh elves sat on the backs of the wolves which, once he drew closer, the prince realized were bigger that any wolf that he had heard of before. They led the others between the trees until they found a well-worn path, which they followed until they came a village.
In Blackwood, their idea of a village was not so much homes of brick or wood as it was a communal space, with small shelters of leather wrapped around long, narrow wooden poles. Strings of spider silk crisscrossed the canopy above, strung with tiny lights. Hearths had been formed here and there in the open air of the village, the elves sitting around them to work on their various tasks.
Some of them stared at the strangers with unwelcoming eyes, a few of them jeering when they saw Shu-Giri. They complained of Jzamneh trickery and foolish games until Vénes gave them a cold glare. The wolf-riders spoke to one of the villagers, then continued on through the village.
“Mearrk’hal was taken to Mévigree,” he told them.
Loracaz walked along, expecting an explanation, but when the other elf said nothing more, he asked, “What is that?”
The Mékneh elf scoffed and told him, “It is the village deepest in the woods. If he was taken there, he is either in a great deal of trouble, or a very honored guest.” Then the wolf rider picked up speed and hurried ahead of the others.
“Don’t let him trouble you, sire,” Vénes said as he came up beside the prince. “Mearrk’hal may be from another tribe, but he is a friend to these woods. That one is too young to know that. The Mékneh are not known for being welcoming to outsiders, but I think that we’ve seen the worst of the hostility we’ll be getting from them. Just be glad that you’re not trying to gain entry to the Great Desert; they are restrictive to a fault, even to their own people.”
Loracaz nodded, trusting that he sorcerer spoke true.
The group continued through the forest, passing through various villages and taking all number of turns along the forest path; it was certainly not a village that they would have been able to find on their own. At last, the largest village they’d yet seen loomed before them. Another pair of wolf riders stood guard at the entrance to the village; they said nothing when the strangers passed by them, but stared intently.
Sir Tamlin stayed close by the prince as they were led to the center of the village, where the largest wood-and-leather hut stood. The riders left their wolves’ backs and one of them pulled aside the fur-lined curtain that served as a door to usher their guests through.
Inside, a small group of elves sat around the glowing embers of a low fire. Most of them sat on soft furs on the ground, but there was one who sat on a chair carved out of the black wood that made up the forest. His deep purple eyes were long and slender, and he watched the room with an air of contentment as well as caution. His ebony hair was cut just like the rest of the Mékneh elves cut theirs: short and close to the skull in the back, with longer hair in the front. It had been taken care of for many years, uncut, and now flowed down his chest in two long lines.
The rest of his features were like his eyes: narrow, elegant, and lengthy. He wore a shirt of what Loracaz assumed was black spider silk, and dark grey pants of the same material. A silver pendant hung from his neck, a sparkling amethyst set in the cold metal.
When the prince and his followers entered the room, he looked up from the woman whom he’d been speaking to. “Ah, visitors. Are these friends of yours?”
He looked across the group sitting nearby. Loracaz followed his gaze and realized that Mearrk’hal was sitting among the Mékneh elves. He looked up at the prince and quickly got to his feet.
“Your highness?” he said, surprised to see him. “What… Why did you come here instead of your mother?”
“Oh, this is the prince?” The Mékneh elf rose from his chair before Loracaz could respond. He gave the prince and his fellows a long smile. “Come in, sit down.”
He gestured to several open areas around the fire, then sent some of the others who’d been lounging to bring food and drink.
As he sat back down, Mearrk’hal introduced the man as Lunaymé and explained that he was the current tribal leader of the Mékneh. Lunaymé seemed pleased to meet Onsira’s prince, though he was a bit more wary about the others. Loracaz sat beside Mearrk’hal, Sir Tamlin staying nearby.
“Dear prince,” Lunaymé began, his voice smooth and rich, “it is a pleasure to have you in my woods, but I must say this: I was expecting the empress herself. Why the change?”
Loracaz spent a few minutes explaining how his mother had been taken away by a black dragon not long after Mearrk’hal’s departure. He also told of how Vénes believed that the dragon was none other than Z’Lé himself, but that they had no way of knowing how that was possible, nor where he planned on taking her. Mearrk’hal seemed troubled to know that he’d left Zarrek in charge of the kingdom, even if Yanve and Liriel were looking after him.
“Considering that Zarrek may not cooperate with us, you are the last one who can help unravel the mysteries that Z’Lé has created,” Mearrk’hal said. “Thank Jenh that you made it this far safely.”
“Your kingdom truly is in peril,” Lunaymé commented. “Mearrk’hal told me that your mother has decided to ask for our help.”
Prince Loracaz nodded. “That is true. Whatever my father has done, we cannot set it right until we find him. And now he’s taken Mother as well…”
Lunaymé looked to the woman sitting on the fur beside him. She had the same amethyst eyes that he had, and the same black hair, though she’d laced hers with silvery silk, which glistened in the firelight. Her gown, patterns of purple and black, fit close around her, the sleeves slit to bare the skin of her arms. Her belly bulged out round and full, and Loracaz realized that she has with child.
“What do you think, Rymiel?”
She looked over at Loracaz and said to him, “I hear that you have tried visiting the astral plane. What did you learn there?”
Since he really had little knowledge of that matter, he turned the question over to Shu-Giri.
“I saw their crests, milady,” he told her. “And the Kuetzarrin ties, though at the time they were so far apart that I couldn’t tell where he’d gone.”
“I see, Rrandah. And your sorcerer saw the same crests when he set his astral gaze upon the dragon?”
“Aye,” Shu-Giri confirmed. “Arialla’s k’hurin is very clearly draconic; a full dragon, I could tell. But how, for all these years…”
Rymiel understood. “How did everyone else believe that he was elvan?” She glanced over at the prince. “I am glad that you brought him, then. His crests will help me understand the situation better.”
Loracaz looked somewhat apprehensive. “Then you will be entering the astral plane? Is it not dangerous for you?”
Rymiel shook her head. “The Mékneh are deeply familiar with the astral, young prince.”
“But… your baby.”
“She will be fine, Loracaz,” Lunaymé told him in a stern tone. “Rymiel has been to the astral plane with this child, as well as our first. Her talents far exceed those of anyone else among our tribe. If anything, my child will enhance her abilities.”
“Oh–” Loracaz said, starting to regret having doubted her. “Then she–”
“Rymiel is my k’haarana, yes. You have no reason to fear for her well-being. If I believe that there is any danger, I will protect her. Tomorrow, we can find a quiet place to visit the astralplane. For now, eat and rest from your long journey.”
Then Lunaymé smiled over at Rymiel, and kissed her softly.
When morning came, the prince and his allies were given a lavish breakfast. Afterwards, Loracaz was taken, alone, to Lunaymé. He was waiting outside the large dwelling that he’d been in the night before, gazing across the village as the other elves roused themselves and emerged from their homes to light their fires anew. The morning mist curled around his slender frame as he stood there, and Loracaz noticed the scars that crossed his bared chest and arms.
“Good morning,” Loracaz said to him when Lunaymé did not seem to notice him.
“Watch your step, young prince,” he said as he slowly turned to face him. “The spiders are still afoot.”
Loracaz immediately looked down. Through the mist, he could make out the movements of countless tiny forms. They scurried about, avoiding the elves’ footfalls until they found a safe place to rest.
“We have learned to live with them,” Lunaymé explained. “They are allies to us, just as the wolves are. They will not harm you, so long as they know that we welcome you here.”
“Is that how you got those scars?” Loracaz asked, looking back to Lunaymé.
“You could say that. They will not hurt you while you sleep, Loracaz. Rather, the spiders are an important part of our way of life. It was how I was chosen as tribal leader.”
“You mean it’s like the ritual that the followers of Métius undergo? Blood in exchange for power?”
Lunaymé hissed at the sound of the Destroyer’s name. “Do not speak of Him here! The Mékneh have nothing to do with demons and their infernal blood-letting. Whatever you think you know about that dark path, do not believe for a second it applies here. We follow gods entirely different from any that you know. Through them, I earned the prestige that I now hold.”
“I meant no disrespect,” Loracaz replied. “But… how did you get so many scars?”
“Hunting spiders,” Lunaymé stated simply.
Loracaz clearly did not understand what he meant, so he went on to explain, “In Mékneh, there are giant spiders, larger than any elf that lives here in the village. They hide in the underground caves, and we seek them out now and again to prove ourselves. The battles are dangerous, but we are proud of the scars that we come home with, because we come home at all. Besides that, the body of the spider houses a good deal of ingredients, and we pay it our respects for what it gives us. It is unfortunate that the prince of an empire knows so little about the world around him.”
Lunaymé turned around and stepped into his shelter before Loracaz could say anything more. After a moment, he peeked out again and called the prince in. Loracaz followed him inside quickly, lest he annoy him any further. Rymiel was seated in a cleared area of the shelter, resting on a pile of furs. He walked over to her and sat down before her.
She held out her hands, which had been traced with intricate designs using natural pigments, and when he offered his, she looked them over closely.
“Mearrk’hal says that you believe your father is a dragon,” Rymiel said, looking up at his shining golden-green eyes. “You do not look it at all. You are deeply entrenched in magic, but that is a different matter entirely.”
“Will that help you find my mother?” Loracaz asked her.
“All that you are will guide me, young prince. Now, lie down and rest. I will take us to the astral.”
Loracaz did as she asked. Soon after he closed his eyes, he felt his consciousness fade from his physical form. The shadowy space of the tent gave way to another realm, not exactly dark and black, but certainly lacking in the colors that he was used to. He noticed a bright glow beneath him, and looked down to realize that it was his own form, burning with light both verdant and golden. The two colors swirled together, at times letting off tiny embers that would float downwards to light the path around him.
The voice crept out of the emptiness before him, gliding through the vast space from some source that he could not yet see. “So this is why they think so highly of a prince so young.”
“Rymiel?” Loracaz whispered, hardly even sure how to use his voice in the astral plane.
“Cast off all preconceptions,” she called back. “Only then can you see me here.”
Loracaz thought it over for a moment, but still he could not understand. “Cast off… what?”
“Your expectations,” a deeper voice intoned behind him.
Turning around, Loracaz found before him a ghostly form, wispy and translucent, hardly resembling an elf. It seemed to glow a faint shade of blue, but it gave no recognizable features.
“You did not expect to see me,” the pale form explained. “You were not looking for my solid form, nor the color in my hair. You have to forget what you know about Rymiel in the physical world if you want to see her in the astral.”
“You…. You’re Shu-Giri?” Loracaz asked.
“But… how is it that you’re so different here?”
“In the astral plane, we see one another’s spiritual forms.”
“You mean our true forms?”
Shu-Giri shook his head. “Neither form is truer than the other. Each is simply a different level of seeing.”
“For example,” a softer voice said, “Here, I can see how much of Jenh’s magic flows through you.”
Loracaz looked over his shoulder and realized that a silvery form sat beside a winding path. A spider of bright amethyst crowned her forehead, one pair of its legs stretching around her head like a circlet. Her seat was a round, glowing mushroom, wide and low enough for her to be comfortable on. A mandala turned slowly on her belly, something like a wheel or a ticking clock, a rosier color than the mother that bore it. With eyes of shining violet, the Mékneh mystic gazed at the young prince.
“That is better,” she commented. “But if you want to be able to see without being surprised, you will have to stop thinking about what you should see, and simply look at what is before you.”
“Rymiel,” Loracaz breathed, looking her over once again. “You’re… amazing.”
Rymiel gave Shu-Giri a weary look.
“What do you see in him?” Shu-Giri asked her.
“A champion,” she replied. “A hero unto your dear, beloved goddess. It seems that he really does live up to his name… although he is not fully ready.”
“Who ever is?” Shu-Giri reminded her. “Thankfully, there are those who simply do what they must for the sake of others.”
With what seemed like a smile, Rymiel rose from her seat. “Come,” she beckoned the prince. “Sit here, and let me have a closer look at you.”
Loracaz did as she asked, sitting on the low mushroom where she had been. It felt soft and light, as though it were barely present enough to support his form. Rymiel examined each of his crests, from his forehead to his chest, then both hands and on down to each foot. She laid a hand on his belly, and a mandala emerged from the depths of his glowing form like a ship from the ocean mists.
“This is your parentage,” she whispered, gazing at every facet of the mandala. “Kuetzarrin lovers, but neither the other’s first romance. One a long line of elvan royalty…”
“My mother,” he told her.
Rymiel nodded, and went on. “The other powerful yet troubled. There is nobility there, among all the confusion, but also…” She took a breath before explaining, “The noble heritage is draconic, as Mearrk’hal feared. It is masked behind powerful magic, but it is there. You are half dragon, Loracaz, but some force beyond all of us ordained that your form should be purely elvan.”
“Is it because I am Jenh’s hero?”
“No,” she answered him, her voice sure and even. “This is not Jenh’s power. These shrouds and illusions… this is the work of Métius, or at the very least, one of his greater minions.”
“Again the Demon King!” Loracaz groaned.
“How far back does it go?” Shu-Giri wanted to know.
“He was conceived to be elvan. His father had taken elvan form before lying with his mother, even before taking the Kuetzarrin rites. I would need both of them here to be certain of every detail.”
“Over twenty years ago…” the treasure hunter said, almost to himself.
“Such a long-lasting spell,” another voice commented.
Loracaz looked across the path, where he noticed another form, this one more complex, more mystical than the others. “Who–”
“That’s Vénes,” Shu-Giri told him.
“I’m starting to piece it together,” the sorcerer told them, still deep in thought. “Z’Lé is truly a dragon, but he took an elvan form… that is why I saw the crest of the mask.”
“You didn’t mention that before,” Rymiel said, her voice somewhat chastising as she looked over the sorcerer’s astral form. She saw a great deal of magic and legacy in him, though she knew that it was not the time to discuss that with him.
“It was too strange,” Vénes explained. “But now I see why. It seems that Métius’s power is what changed him, and that change ran right through the bloodline to Loracaz. His brother is probably the same way.”
“Why would he–” Loracaz started to ask.
“Do you remember that I saw the favored of Métius?” Vénes asked. “We can only guess at her mission, but if his form has returned to that of a dragon, his mask cracked…”
“She was the one who transformed him?” the prince asked.
Shu-Giri shook his head. “She wouldn’t have that kind of power.”
“As we said,” Vénes explained, “it had to have been an entity not of the mortal realm. At best, a favored subject might perform a ritual to augment that transformation.”
“I suppose the next question,” Shu-Giri suggested, “is why all of that changed.”
“The child, perhaps,” Vénes suggested, his voice grim.
“What ch–” Loracaz stopped himself, realizing that he was referring to the one that his father had been trying to conceive for so many years.
“Rymiel, are you able to trace back the Kuetzarrin threads?”
She nodded slowly. “You are further from them here than you were in Onsira. They are beyond the Dragonridge Mountains. He spent a lot of time there, and that makes it difficult to read, but with her he has gone beyond them.”
Vénes nodded to Shu-Giri, exchanging a knowing look with him. “We are done here.”
One by one, each of them faded from the astral plane and returned to the physical realm. Rymiel sat as she had been before, watching Loracaz as he opened his eyes. On either side of him knelt Vénes and Shu-Giri. Loracaz tried too quickly to sit up, and found his head reeling, his body unable to balance.
“Slowly,” she said to him, laying her hands on his shoulders to ease him back down. “Do not rush it.”
Loracaz groaned and tried rubbing his eyes, but Vénes urged him not to. “It is natural to feel this way after our journey,” he explained. “Do not push the visions away like this.”
“So my father…”
“He is far, yes,” the sorcerer replied, “but we shall find him.”
Lunaymé returned to his lover’s side, and a young boy followed him with a tray of drinks. Rymiel gave the prince a warm cup from the tray, telling him to drink it slowly, then the boy gave the others the same drink. Lunaymé sat beside Rymiel, waiting for her to say something.
“He needs to find his father,” Rymiel told her beloved after a great deal of thought.
“Métius is too much involved with all of this.”
“Do you think that Empress Arialla is in danger from him?” Lunaymé asked her.
Rymiel nodded. “If it is not directly from him, then through him. I fear that something dark will come Z’Lé’s way very soon, and those around him will be caught up in it. …It may be,” She added, “that even Onsira– no, even the reams beyond– will be affected by that malevolent power.”
“Then I must protect my mother!” Loracaz exclaimed.
“She may very well need your protection, young one.” Rymiel looked up at her beloved. “I can show them where the Kuetzarrin ties lead, Lunaymé.”
The Mékneh elf furrowed his brow, knowing precisely what she meant. “Are you saying you want to travel?” He eyed her belly warily. “Now?”
“They need our help,” she replied. “Métius is definitely up to something. He will probably make his move soon, and when he does, all of us will be in danger, not just Onsira. I can feel the impending darkness growing even outside of the astral plane.”
“But your child…” Shu-Giri reminded her.
“I can return home before I need to give birth,” Rymiel insisted, though not everyone was convinced that she was entirely sure of that herself.
Lunaymé said nothing, but sat pensively, struggling with his thoughts. It was several minutes before he decided to say anything. “If we take them to Arialla…” he took a long, slow breath before going on. “We would have to turn back as soon as we found her, and let the others continue on their own. Loracaz needs a guide, I know, but I must keep my child safe.”
“I understand,” Rymiel told him.
“That will be more than enough,” Mearrk’hal added. “We are all grateful for your generosity.”
“You are in need,” Lunaymé noted. “And if even Jenh’s hero is in need, we are only worsening our own fates if we do not offer some help.” He stood and held a hand out for his k’haarana. “It will take me some time to plan for this trip. For now, please rest and enjoy our village.”
“If there is anything I can do to help…” Loracaz started to say.
Lunaymé turned to the prince. “Hone your skills, hero. We will need you at your best in order to defend us from the Dark One. I will be back this evening. If you need anything, my people will see to it that you are cared for.”
“Where are you going?” the prince ask curiously.
“To summon a dragon,” he replied before walking away. Lunaymé left the tent and disappeared into the trees and their shadows, leaving the others to make their own preparations.