Chapter Thirty-Five The Bonds of Love and Magic
Phiare came with the morning, curious about the tufts of smoke coming from the chimney of Shu-Giri’s house. The others were still asleep, but she found Shu-Giri in the kitchen, sipping his morning tea alone. When he heard the door creak open, he looked up suddenly, surprised that anyone else had risen that early. His eyes met Phiare’s, who stopped suddenly in the doorway, staring at the man sitting at the table.
“Shu-Giri?” she asked, blinking her peony eyes.
“The one and only,” he replied, standing up to offer her a chair.
Phiare stepped slowly into the kitchen, trying to read his face as she took a seat. “Is everything all right, Shu-Giri? I didn’t expect you home so soon.”
“I’m well enough,” the treasure-hunter replied. “Though Onsira has more than its share of troubles. We’ve taken up a quest to help save the queen, if we can find her, and I invited my fellow travelers to rest here for the night before we continue on to Thiizav.”
“Thii–” the word caught in her throat, and Phiare stood up, went to the stove to pour a cup of hot water from the kettle, and returned only once she’d added a sachet of tea leaves. “Where did you say you’re headed?” She tried to sound calm, but her voice gave away her nervousness.
“To Thiizav,” he told her again, eying his tea as he realized that he’d spoken too much before considering how she would take the news.
“You’re headed to the dark kingdom, the realm of Métius…. for whom?”
“For Empress Arialla,” Shu-Giri answered. “She’s been stolen away by a black dragon, and we have been journeying to find her.”
Phiare took a long sip of tea before she spoke again. “You and Vénes are traveling to rescue the empress,” she emphasized the title as though to remind him that she was party to her k’hurin’s imperialism, whether or not she questioned it, “in the darkest regions of Manastaecies? How do you expect to find her, Shu-Giri? She’s not like the treasures you’re used to looking for, and Thiizav is far more dangerous than the labyrinths of Jzamneh.”
Her worried tone reminded Shu-Giri of what he had yet to tell her. “Vénes and I haven’t undertaken this quest alone. Prince Loracaz is with us, and an Onsiran dragoon, as well as Mearrk’hal and Vincent, and two elves from Mékneh who’ve agreed to help us track her. You can trust that I wouldn’t go to Thiizav alone; I know how dangerous it is for us there.”
“You’ve been to Mékneh, too?” Phiare asked, surprise filling her voice. “You’re becoming as widely-traveled as your old friend.”
“Just about,” Shu-Giri admitted, then her took her hands. “Phiare, I know you’re worried about me. It was dangerous enough going to Onsira knowing that the emperor is a dangerous man. Matters have turned out to be far worse; I won’t hide that from you. But I must go with the others and help however I can.”
Phiare shook her head, her orange and green curls bouncing with the movement. “Your son misses you as it is, Shu-Giri. Are you really going to leave like this?”
“I’ll be back; I promise you that.”
“If Thiizav doesn’t make a grave for you,” she replied bitterly, eying him with cold, angry eyes.
“It won’t. Vénes has my magic now, Phiare. He has enough power to look after us both.”
“He–” her look brightened, and she sat up straighter. “He really let you?!”
Shu-Giri nodded, grinning widely. “He’s magnificent. And the magic– the Rrandah sharing is incredible, now that it’s complete. It surges in both of us, Phiare. Trust me when I say that we’re more than able to keep ourselves safe in Thiizav while we find Arialla and bring her back to Onsira.”
“I’m relieved to hear that. I was so worried that Vénes’s emotions would hold you back on this adventure; he really is sensitive.”
“If you felt his heartache like I do, you would understand it better. The loss that he experienced cut him deeply, and he never had the means to truly move on afterwards. Most Jzamneh elves aren’t used to experiencing that kind of pain, and I have to admit that even I didn’t fully understand it until I felt it through our bond. In the end, I think we’re both lucky to have each other.”
“I can agree with that,” another voice said from the doorway.
Phiare and Shu-Giri both looked up to find Vénes standing in the doorway, dressed in his long white shirt and pants. He walked over to his Rrandah and took the chair beside him, accepting a warm embrace.
“Has he told you what we learned in the Kingdom of Legend?” Vénes asked as his lover got up to make some tea for him, raising his eyes to meet Phiare’s.
“Only that the empress has been stolen away, and that you have been to the Black Forest to find allies.”
“That’s a start,” Vénes replied, as though admitting that matters were much more complicated. “The emperor has been employing the dark forces of Métius for quite some time. More than that, he has been using the services of one of His Chosen. Arialla could hardly depart Onsira to ask the Mékneh elves for their help in untangling that mystery before a black dragon stole her away.”
Phiare frowned and glared over at Shu-Giri before speaking. “You’re working against the forces of Métius? I don’t know whether to call you a very brave man or a very naïve fool.”
“It can’t be helped,” the treasure-hunter replied as he set a steaming mug in front of Vénes. “If we let this matter go without stepping in to rescue Arialla and figure what Z’Lé has done, the rest of Manastaecies could suffer as well.”
“But such a small group alone?” she replied. “Think of the legends, Shu-Giri. It took entire armies to fight Métius when he trapped our beloved goddess in the crystal.”
“We have armies, Phiare,” Shu-Giri informed her, grinning with excitement. “Even now, Onsira’s allies are marching to help defend the kingdom. Better yet, we have the hero Loracaz. The legends are on our side.”
Phiare thought over his words. She seemed dubious that he could finish his quest and return to the forest alive, not matter how sure he was of himself. All the same, she had to agree that it was a necessary risk. Z’Lé’s army had already tried invading Jzamneh Forest, and the elves and faeries living there couldn’t expect Vénes to going on protecting them, even with a Rrandah at his side.
Whatever the emperor was up to, the fact that he employed the Destroyer as his ally meant that everyone on the continent was in danger. Surely he would continue to expand his empire until it reached every shore of Manastaecies. What was more, his armies thought nothing of the villages they destroyed along their path; she’d heard of fires burning down home after home, some with their families already slaughtered, others trapped inside, alive and screaming for help.
“If you do this…” She sighed, nervous that only tragedy would come out of it all. “If you go to Thiizav and find the empress, what then? What of the emperor himself? I want Faolan to be safe from Z’Lé’s armies, but why search for the empress when we have nothing to fear from her?”
“Because the emperor has disappeared,” Vénes answered, “and took his secrets with him. Once he left, nobody in Onsira knew where he was, and we still haven’t seen or heard from him. We would be glad for it, except that there are things that only he knows, and we need to know them as well.”
“A tangled web indeed,” Phiare said before sighing heavily; she knew that him going couldn’t be helped. “We shall all ask the goddess to keep you safe as you continue on your journey.”
“Thank you, Phiare,” he replied, adding, “I promise you, we will come see Faolan later today. We won’t leave the forest without seeing him.”
Phiare nodded, and they continued talking for only a few more minutes before she took her leave. Shu-Giri and Vénes discussed some of the secrets of Jzamneh magic while they waited for the others to awaken. When everyone had roused from their dreams, the treasure-hunter filled his pockets with the crystal coins that served as Jzamneh’s currency and showed them the way to the village tavern. It was still early enough in the morning that few other guests were there, and Shu-Giri was a friend to the tavern-master, so he was able to secure a private location that would not call attention to his foreign guests. The tavern maid brought by mugs of tea for them all, and breakfast was ordered just as quickly.
“Do we continue south today?” Lunaymé asked as he looked across the table at Mearrk’hal.
The old shaman nodded. “Arialla hasn’t fully recovered from her ordeal with the herbs; that alone could endanger her life. I don’t know what this dragon– Z’Lé, if the clues have led us in the right direction– has in mind for her. We have every reason to not waste time.”
“We won’t keep her waiting any longer than is necessary.” Shu-Giri spread a map over the table in front of Lunaymé. “There’s a narrow strip of grassland that lines the southern edge of the forest. The dragons will meet us there, and we can take flight.”
“I see,” Lunaymé replied as he looked closely at the map. “From there, the land turns to swamps, and beyond them lay the mountains.”
“We should fly towards the mountains.” Rymiel looked up and saw Shu-Giri’s worried look. “It’s where a dragon would most likely go, and the astral ties pull in that direction.”
“Then it’s good that we have dragons taking us there,” Mearrk’hal added. “We wouldn’t want to climb up the steep mountains and spires to find where he’s hidden Her Majesty. We should fly high in order to avoid being noticed by any of the villages. Once the ranges are on the horizon, we can descend and follow Rymiel towards the place where Loracaz’s ties link with Arialla’s.”
“Very well,” Lunaymé agreed. He began rolling up the map as he saw the bar-maid approaching with a wide tray. She delivered a plate to each of them and left again to fetch another pitcher of tea.
“I will remind you,” he added, “that if either Rymiel or my child are in danger, I shall fly Grremar to a safer location… even if it means that we must return to Mékneh in order to feel safe.”
“We all understand,” Mearrk’hal told him. “You’ve taken a great enough risk just to bring us this far. Once we know where Arialla is, that will be enough. We can decide how to get her away from the dragon and take her safely home.”
“I cannot tell you enough how grateful I am that you are doing this,” Loracaz added. “I don’t know how else we could have found my mother.”
“Be careful with your gratitude, young prince,” Lunaymé replied as he picked up his fork. “Coming this far with you is hardly more than an inconvenience. We have yet to actually find your mother, and we are still hours from where she could be. Much could change in that short time.”
Loracaz agreed, and he said no more on the subject. Instead, the group focused on their breakfast, knowing that they would need their strength for the day ahead.
Faolan’s visit with his father was bittersweet, and felt as though it lasted only moments despite that hours that Shu-Giri played with him. The boy was ecstatic when his father came to the door, and it was nearly impossible for Shu-Giri to pull himself away. But depart they did, with a promise from both him and Vénes that they would return.
With a tearful eye, Shu-Giri led his allies out of his village and through several others. He had meant to use the magic of Jzamneh Forest to take his guests directly to the entrance near where the dragons were awaiting them, but he was so distracted by thoughts of his son that they wandered through several colorful boroughs before at last stepping into the bright daylight that shone down on the southern edge of the forest.
Outside, Grremar and Kestrel were waiting on the grass, along with the fae dragons Shu-Giri had sent for. Jza waited with them, his scales seeming to glow with golden-green light, as though Jzamneh’s love for Jenh had renewed him. As soon as Prince Loracaz stepped into the warm daylight, the dragon lowered his head and slinked his serpentine form towards him.
“Good morrw to you, hero of old,” the dragon intoned in a voice as deep and great as the seas. Loracaz greeted him in kind, gazing at the massive jewel that throbbed with the colors of Zeah in the dragon’s forehead. It held the gold-green light of Jenh as well as hints of the colors of each of her elementals, which captivated the prince for long minutes before anyone dared to interrupt his reverie.
“Enough with your awe, young prince,” Jza told him. “Your mother has too little time before danger finds her for me to let you commune with the crystal. You must not let Legend’s lineage remain with the one who is now sitting on the throne.”
“What do you me–”
But the prince didn’t get an answer to his question. Jza was ordering the men to mount their dragons, his voice reverberating through them. Vénes and Shu-Giri took the fae dragons, and Vincente and Mearrk’hal rode with Loracaz on the serpentine dragon. Sir Tamlin mounted Kestrel, and it wasn’t long before Grremar, too, took the skies with the elves of Blackwood. The other dragons followed as Rymiel traced out the astral trail that led from Loracaz to his mother, Kestrel keeping close to Jza in case anything should happen.
Loracaz’s heart pounded as he clung to Jza, the wind blowing through his hair while his mind raced. They flew as fast as dragons could fly, but he wasn’t paying attention to the landscape speeding by below. Instead, he could only think of the Zeah coursing through him, glowing as it careened through his fingers and up his arms. The dragon’s magic beat in time with the prince’s, sharing and communing even while they flew.
Jza had told him, back when he’d first come to Onsira, that when the original hero had shattered the crystal and freed Jenh, the shard that the dragon had received contained the vestiges of the shadow and illusion Zeahs, the only parts of them that Métius hadn’t been able to steal for himself. Loracaz could hardly feel it at first, and once he realized that they were flowing into him, it was too late to deny. The shadow and illusion that had been lost to Jenh for centuries was being shared with the one whom Jza considered to be the new hero of Onsira. All he had left to do was find a way to put it to good use.