Chapter Thirty-Three Across the Skies and into the Woods
Grremar, the great dragon of Mékneh Forest was long and lean, much like the trees the loomed in the shadowy woods. His scales were the color of smoke, shades of grey and black traced with lines of white. Thick fur lined his malachite eyes and wings, and his claws were like razors extending from each finger. He laid at the edge of the forest, watching the wolves dart between the trees while Lunaymé made sure the others knew what he expected of them: his brother would look after his son until he returned, and his council would look after the village. He didn’t intend to be gone for long, but he was known to be a careful man.
Once everyone was ready to depart, Lunaymé helped his beloved into Grremar’s back. The dragon had consented to the saddle only because Rymiel was so great with child, and the mission to help Prince Loracaz so important. Otherwise, the old dragon would have been too proud to submit himself to the ways of the elves. With the woman and her k’hurin in place, Grremar turned to the other dragons, who waited in the bright of daylight outside the forest.
“Are you ready?” Sir Tamlin called to Lunaymé after seeing to it that Loracaz and the others had climbed onto the backs of the other dragons. Beneath her, Kestrel squirmed impatiently.
“Let us be off!” Lunaymé called back.
He leaned down and spoke to Grremar in an older tongue. With a rumble of acknowledgement, the ashen beast leapt to the sky, spreading his wings into the daylight to catch the wind that blew in careful caresses above Mékneh Forest. Kestrel took flight after him, and Jza was not long behind. Together the dragons carried their elvan allies across the wide plains of Leamar, over the Taalaminh River, and into the skies over Rréviihn.
They flew only a short while above Rréviihn’s grasslands before gliding down near a marketplace to rest and feed. A tributary from the wide and majestic Taalaminh River ran nearby, from which the dragons could drink. While the dragons rested and the elves fed themselves, Prince Loracaz gazed at the scenery that was laid out on the hills beyond the village. Barely within sight was a building both large and round, which dwarfed every other feature near it.
“Mearrk’hal,” he called to his companion. The old shaman stepped over to him, and Loracaz pointed out the immense construct in the distance. “What is that, some sort of palace?”
“Not quite,” Mearrk’hal replied. “You can hardly tell from this distance, but that is larger than even ten of Onsira’s royal palaces. There are a few of them scattered across Rréviihn; they’re called the Pavilions of Wonder, massive creations from an ancient time.”
“If it’s not a palace,” the prince wanted to know, “then what is it for?”
“Even the elders of this land don’t know. They are from a time too distant to explain. Some have wondered whether they were built even before our dear goddess was ensnared by Métius.”
Vincente stepped up beside the two of them. “A pavilion old, a space so grand. Was it built for the moons? Was it built for the gods?”
“Another poem?” Loracaz asked.
Mearrk’hal smiled and nodded. “You could live with him for a decade and still not hear his full repertoire,”
“Inside, there are all the mysteries of life,” the bard went on as Shu-Giri and the sorcerer joined the group, “of joy, of sorrow, and of death.”
“You mean they’re dangerous?”
“In some ways, good prince, they are,” Vincente replied. “Each pavilion has only ever had part of it explored and mapped. They are some fifteen, others twenty stories high. I have heard of adventurers wandering too far into the darker areas, returning terrified and badly wounded– or going missing. The lower levels are safer in most of them, and well-lit enough to use for trading in the winter.”
“Amazing that they are so old, yet do not lay in ruins,” Loracaz commented.
“Once you’re inside one,” Shu-Giri told the prince, “you can see the extent of the damage. I have seen only one pavilion that was damaged on the outside; half of it had caved in. Usually, there are broken columns, damaged walls, or places were the floor has crumbled, especially in the darker regions.”
“Have you been inside one?” Loracaz asked, raising his brow.
“Only once, ages ago. Some of the Jzamneh elves have explored those monstrosities to help map them out and look for treasure, but there are places in them that aren’t worth the risk.”
“Amazing that Onsira has nothing so great…”
“They are Rréviihn’s claim, your highness. Onsira has Jenh’s legends, and Rréviihn has these incredible…” Vénes could hardly find the right word for them.
“Pavilions,” Shu-Giri finished for him. “Whatever else they might be, they are referred to as the Pavilions of Wonder.”
After a while of the men speaking of the massive old building, Lunaymé stepped forward. “Rymiel is ready,” he told them. “If you will come with me, your highness?”
Loracaz nodded, excused himself from the group, and followed the Mékneh elf to a secluded area just inside of a small stand of trees. Rymiel sat on a blanket there, awaiting them quietly.
“I would like to see your astral body once again, kind prince. It will give use the best direction in which to go,” she told him.
“As you wish,” Loracaz replied, and he knelt before her, closing his eyes as she commanded.
The prince felt the Mékneh woman’s long fingers on his. Then the feeling of being in the forest faded away; the air was no longer fresh and fertile, but became still and silent. It felt neither warm nor cold, and Loracaz realized that he was in the astral plane with Rymiel. He opened his eyes, which shone bright gold and emerald.
Rymiel’s astral form was on her feet, gazing past the prince. “I can see the strings better now,” she told him. “They are south of here, beyond the bright forest.”
“You mean… beyond Jzamneh?”
“Indeed. In the spires and mountains of Thiizav. When I trace back your parental lines, they run together in the same place.”
“Are they all right?”
“Your mother seems unharmed, but I cannot tell much from this distance, young prince. Your father seems troubled, though.”
Loracaz frowned. He was glad that his mother wasn’t hurt, but had to push himself to ask about his father. “He was said to be very weak the last time Shu-Giri looked, before we came to you. Is he… dying?”
Rymiel shook her head. “He does not seem to be mortally wounded. I sense…” she paused to think it over. “Emotional troubles, more than physical. But from this distance, I have no way to guess what is troubling him.”
“That will have to do… He’s troubled Onsira and the lands around it for long enough. Perhaps it’s time that he faced some problems of his own.”
“Your judgment of your father is very strong, young prince,” the Mékneh woman told him, her tone full of warning.
Loracaz turned his eyes, bright with Zeah, to her silvery form. “My mother nearly died because of what he was trying to do, and now what he’s done threatens Onsira and all the lands beyond. My feelings are not so uncalled for.”
“Despite that truth, he remains the man who sired you, great hero. His feelings for her are very strong.”
“‘Love leads many astray’?” Loracaz asked, sounding as though he repeated a lesson from long ago, though in a tone full of bitterness. Then he bit his tongue. “I mean you no disrespect, Rymiel. You’re going to great lengths to help me… but if my father was led to do all of this– his empire, his ambitions, his heavy hand towards my mother– because of love…” He shook his head, not wanting to say anything more, knowing that none of it was pleasant.
Understanding, Rymiel slipped out of the astral. She sat beside the prince as he rested a moment. His second time there was not quite as disorienting, though he was grateful still for the woman’s guidance. He imagined that she’d visited the astral plane many, many times before, and was by now so used to it that she needed no rest. She seemed to be able to shift in and out of it with the same ease that she walked through her village.
When he was ready, the two of them returned to the others. They finished resting, their bellies– and the dragons’– now content. Once again they mounted the great beasts and took to the sky. They flew swiftly, gliding through the cool air as they crossed the rest of Rréviihn.
After perhaps an hour, Loracaz glanced at the road below them, and pointed out what he saw to Mearrk’hal. The great road, which cut across most of the continent, was typically used by the great caravans as they journeyed to trade their wares. On that day, it was occupied by line upon line of armored men. As the prince peered at them, he saw beasts of burden pulling carts and wagons as the army marched eastward. Onsira lay in the same direction, he knew. What he did not know was who they were.
“What army is crossing Manastaecies now?” Loracaz asked the old shaman.
“Look how their armor shines, Loracaz. They must be the soldiers of Ayafir.” As they flew on, Mearrk’hal got a better look at the front of their parade. “As I thought; those are Kearr’s paladins.”
“Why are they heading towards Onsira?” the prince called back to him.
“Count yourself fortunate that they are. I sent word to as many nobles as I could to ask them to step in and stop Z’Lé’s conquests, with messages from the ambassadors to support my request. I have no doubt that they could also sense the evil he’s been gathering in Onsira.”
Ahead of the paladins, before the distance was too great for him to make anything out, Loracaz could see the end of another army, their colors greatly different from Ayafir’s. He gazed at it as long as he could, his mind racing as he thought of what might be happening in his kingdom that day.
Then the dragons changed direction, heading southward. While the armies marched to Onsira’s aid, the prince would have to focus on his own quest: getting the empress back home and learning more about what Z’Lé was up to.
Night began to fall as the dragons approached Jzamneh Forest. The dragons, led by a command from Lunaymé, drifted down to the edge of the colorful woodland, landing in the cool grass as the moons began to light the sky.
Shu-Giri bounded off of Jza’s back and gazed at the forest, grinning widely. The trees were flowering, hiding their green behind petals of all colors, so that it looked like each tree was made not of leaves but some of pink petals, some yellow, others lavender or the bright blue of the river, and still others with every whimsical color that the elves could imagine. Vénes stepped up beside him, his pace more reserved, and took in the sight as well.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Shu-Giri asked the sorcerer.
Vénes nodded and asked his Rrandah, “Is it strange to be so close to home, yet unable to go in? You must miss your village so badly.”
“I suppose it is strange,” Shu-Giri admitted. “But I cannot go home yet, knowing that Métius and Z’Lé are working to endanger it.”
“I wonder if we will learn the full of it; why they’re doing this, that is.”
“Is it so hard to imagine? Métius never stopped hating Jenh and her followers. However he found and tempted Z’Lé, he is using him to hurt Legend and everyone there. The old tales speak of his need for magical power, and Onsira has a great deal of it.”
“Beware all souls,” Vincent recited, “when the darkness yearns and the demon’s heart burns for more. His desires are great, but His power scars all who dare to wield it.”
“Another play?” Shu-Giri asked.
“A poem,” Vincent told him. “An old epic.”
“Look here!” Tamlin called out.
Vénes and his Rrandah, joined by the others, walked to the other side of where the dragons crouched. The knight was pointing to scattered tents, most of their poles fallen or bent, the cloth hanging limply, some of the scraps blowing in the wind. Here and there weapons lay abandoned. Sir Tamlin ran out ahead of the others and picked one of them up. It was soiled with blacked muck, though the earth on which it had laid was fresh with grass. She turned back and held it for the others to see.
“What do you suppose this is?” she asked.
“Evil magic,” Rymiel and Vénes replied in unison.
The woman looked to Vénes and nodded, allowing him to speak first.
“It was probably used by one of the soldiers in Z’Lé’s imperial army. They tried to take Jzamneh Forest not long ago.”
“I have heard of those orders,” the dragoon said. “So then the battle was fought out here?”
Shu-Giri shook his head and explained, “They were trying to invade the forest, but they didn’t get very far. With Vénes’s help, we found a way to protect the forest using white magic. That was how we learned that many of the soldiers were actually creatures from the Dark Realm.”
“Demons?” Rymiel asked.
“Some of them, probably. But I think…” Vénes tried to find the right words to explain what he intrinsically understood as a sorcerer. “Métius has ways of using the dead to his advantage, if he can corrupt them. It was quite a feat to put the spirits to the rest that he was denying them.”
“And I am in your debt for doing so,” Shu-Giri added. Then he looked to Sir Tamlin. “This is probably where they camped.”
“That explains why General Elezar returned from his mission with so few men, and too angry to speak of what had happened,” Tamlin noted.
“Are we safe to rest here for the night, then?” Lunaymé asked, holding his beloved’s hand tightly.
Tamlin stared out across the field. A cold, eerie wind was blowing across the remains of the encampment. She imagined Elezar, trusted by the emperor to conquer the forest, having to return to Onsira after such a failure. She considered what the sorcerer had explained to her when he’d come to Onsira and then there on the field, how the royal army had grown so large not simply because of the men conscripted into it, but also because of the dark forces that Métius added to it. There had been too few men to take down the entire encampment before Elezar had ordered the living to return home. Too few to even carry back all of the equipment.
Then she turned and looked back to the others. “I cannot be certain,” he admitted. “Not if evil has been here.”
Vénes took the sword from the dragoon and looked it over for several minutes, peering at the muck that was smeared over the blade. “This was used by one of the dark beings. He was probably destroyed by white magic, but his blade was mortal, so it was left behind.”
The others watched and the sorcerer summoned a sphere of light into his hand. He held it to the tip of the blade, and it sparked to life, cascading down the blade. It crackled as it touched the muck, which disappeared with the light’s progress downward. Some of them noticed a tendril of murky grey arcing back to his hand, where it seemed to enter him. When the light completed its path down the sword, all the way to the pommel, it leapt back into Vénes’s hand, which he closed in a tight fist. He focused on it for a moment, forcing the magic into its place, then handed Tamlin the sword.
“Rréviihn will need many a white mage to clear away the remains of darkness from this field,” he said, then looked to Shu-Giri. “What shall we do, dear Rrandah?”
“You haven’t recovered enough of your power to try it yourself,” Shu-Giri replied. “Don’t even think of it; you almost killed yourself from the first time you used too much white magic.”
The treasure hunter turned and looked at his forest, his home. “We shall stay in Jzamneh for the night!”
Lunaymé looked to Rymiel, his visage dubious. “Is that all right, beloved?”
Rymiel smiled and nodded. “I am not opposed to it. I want nothing to do with Métius’s evil, even if it is merely the remnants of something already defeated. Besides that, he has stayed in our forest; why should we not stay in his?”
With everyone in agreement, Shu-Giri led the party into Jzamneh Forest. Night had fallen peacefully upon the woods, and faerie light twinkled along the path that they took. After only a short walk, Shu-Giri stopped and called out to one of the faeries.
“Gwendolyn!” he shouted, peering into the trees.
After a moment, a pink light floated out from the branches and descend onto Shu-Giri’s outstretched hands. The light softened enough for the others to see the small fae body lit by it, crowned with thick pink hair and dressed in a gown that seemed as though it had been sewn from flower petals. The faerie’s sapphire eyes gazed up gladly at Shu-Giri.
“Entara, Shu-Giri.” At first, she spoke to him in Fae; when she remembered that he had guests with him, she switched to the common tongue. “You’ve returned earlier than we expected. Have you completed your journey already?”
“Entara to you as well, Gwendolyn. It pains me to say, though, that I haven’t yet completed even half of my quest. We’re here only to rest for the night. Is all well in the forest?”
“We’re safe for now, thanks to your sorcerer,” Gwendolyn replied, then flew over to Vénes. She moved to embrace him, and as small as she was, it amounted to hugging his cheek and laying a faint his on his warm skin. “We shall forever remember what you’ve done for us.”
“That’s good to know,” Vénes told her.
“Will you rest in your own village?” Gwendolyn asked Shu-Giri as she perched on the sorcerer’s shoulder.
Shu-Giri thought a moment, wondering if it was wise to make the villagers, Faolan especially, think that he was home, only to have to leave again. In the end, he remembered what danger was upon the land, and decided that it was better to see them than to enter the forest only to avoid the ones he loved. Though he was no longer chieftain of all Jzamneh, he was still regarded as the leader of his own village, and he owed it to the others to show how much he cared.
Gwendolyn showed them the quickest way to his village. The street lights were dimmed low, and it was quiet save for the fountain bubbling in the village square; the villagers had already gone home to their beds. Shu-Giri, homesick at the thought of coming home only for the night, took the sorcerer’s hand as he led the others through the streets to his home. As he unlocked the door, Lunaymé gazed up at the tall stone building.
“Three stories?” the Mékneh elf asked, almost to himself.
“Indeed,” Shu-Giri replied as the door opened with a soft click. Gwendolyn glided in ahead of the others, lighting the house with a soft pink glow. “I know that your people don’t build like this; in fact, even in Jzamneh most houses are only one or two floors. This house has been in my family for many generations. I was told that one of my great-grandfathers had quite a large family.”
“And now you are the only one left?” Lunaymé asked, looking around the large house that had been empty only moments ago.
Shu-Giri lit a few lanterns as he responded. “Not as such. My parents moved to another village years ago, and I have cousins here and there.”
“And a son,” Vénes added. He met his Rrandah’s eyes and exchanged a knowing glance, but said nothing more.
“Indeed,” Shu-Giri said with a smile. “And he needs all of us to keep Manastaecies safe from the Destroyer’s evil power so that he can grow up to care for the village after me.”
Lunaymé, sensing the tension in Shu-Giri’s voice, said nothing more on the subject. Instead, he let the bright-haired elf lead him to a room where he and Rymiel could rest for a while. Sir Tamlin and the prince were given neighboring rooms, the dragoon insisting that she be close enough to protect Loracaz; she refused to let her guard down even in the enchanted forest. Vincent, meanwhile, had a room to himself.
Then Shu-Giri headed to the kitchen to see if anything was left in his pantry that he could share with his guests; he’d given the majority of his perishable foods to Phiare before leaving. He gave them what little he could find, and was glad to find them grateful for his hospitality even under such constraints.