Chapter Thirty-Six Mountains of Caves and Crags and Claws
The sky was becoming dark as the murky swamps and shadowy villages of Thiizav gave way to rocky hills and stone spires. Prince Loracaz squinted to see if he could make out any of the buttes or mountains he’d read about in his geography lessons, but ahead there was only grey and gloom, and Grremar was descending. The other dragons followed him, each one landing close to the last. The group gathered around Rymiel as she stood shaking her head.
“She’s there… in that storm,” she said as the wind tore at her hair. “Your mother is unharmed, though something else about her seems troubled.”
In the distance, a bright flash lit up what little could he see of the mountains, followed by a deep rumbling of thunder.
“We cannot fly into that storm,” Lunaymé said on his beloved’s behalf. “Even the residents of this dark kingdom know better than to fly on an evening like this.”
“I wouldn’t ask you to try,” Mearrk’hal conceded, though he was frustrated to have come so far only to be held back by a storm.
“We mustn’t stop here,” Jza grumbled. He, too, eyed the mountains just beyond the gloom. “I feel it moving here; we are not the only ones looking for our dear lady and her emperor.”
“What are we to do?” Loracaz asked. “The lightning is deadly, and that is if the wind and rain do not knock as down.”
“You are Jenh’s champion, her hero,” Jza insisted, so surely that the prince didn’t dare argue. “You were named for the legend, and you must fulfill Jenh’s promise. You have the power, young prince, even if you have yet to use it to its full potential. You and the sorcerer have enough power to protect us so that we can fly on.”
Loracaz looked to Vénes, who thought over the dragon’s words. Shu-Giri took his hand and nodded.
“The three of us can do it,” he told the sorcerer. “We can use the wind and lightning Zeahs to protect us. Errarrak and Klintiv are Jenh’s elementals; what have we to fear from them?”
“Are you sure about that?” Loracaz asked, looking to Mearrk’hal for help this time.
“Why would they not be? It’s time that you walk the path of the hero with your full faith in your abilities. This is what was laid out for you, Loracaz; use your power to its fullest.”
Vénes took his Rrandah’s hand, then held the other one toward the prince. Loracaz hesitated, looking towards the mountain where he knew his mother was being hidden away. Then he took a deep breath and gave his hands to the two magicians. Vénes grasped him tightly, closed his eyes, and focused on the elements that he needed.
Wind and lightning flowed down their arms, blowing and crackling like a miniature storm, then flowed through Shu-Giri as well. Their power grew and expanded until it filled the space between the three of them. The lightning sparked in a sphere around the wind, and the torrents fought back so that the sphere grew wider and wider, forming a barrier that encased Vénes, Shu-Giri, and the prince.
“Focus, Loracaz,” Vénes told him. “Let your power protect all of us.”
Loracaz opened his eyes– he didn’t even remember having closed them– and they crackled with silver sparks. He let go of the sorcerer and his Rrandah and held up his hands, a ball of lightning and wind in each one. One he blew towards Mearrk’hal, Vincent, and Tamlin, who stood beside him, and the other towards the Mékneh elves. They floated over like feathers drifting on a breeze, then grew to surround the others in their protective shells.
Jza lowered his head towards the prince, and the energy that surrounded Loracaz shot towards the dragon in a bolt of bending and twisted light. He shuddered his serpentine body as the protective Zeah flowed down the length of his body and clung to him like a second skin. Then he opened his jaws, showing his long , jagged teeth, and let out a low growl that crackled with energy. The wind and lightning stretched out from his gaping jaws and surrounded each of the other dragons, who accepted the protective spell each in their own way.
“It is done,” Jza told the others. “Neither wind nor bolts can harm you so long as this barrier is upon you. Be wary, though, of any other power that moves against you.”
“What other power would there be?” Loracaz asked the dragon, worry edging his voice. “Do you know something you haven’t told us yet, Jza?”
“We must go,” the dragon insisted, ignoring the prince’s query. “Legend cannot be without its royal family for much longer!”
Mearrk’hal took the prince’s arms and pulled him towards Jza. Despite Loracaz protesting, they didn’t delay any longer, and the dragon didn’t acknowledge his questions in the least. Together, they took to the stormy skies, riding along the wind as it blew towards the jagged mountains. Vénes shed what light he could through the grey clouds, but the gloom was thick as night as they descended deeper and deeper into Thiizav.
Lightning struck many of the spires and buttes that rose between the shadows, narrowly missing one or another of the dragons as though it had meant to strike them, but instead passed them over at the last moment.
Grremar flew lower than the others, knowing that the bolts would more likely strike the higher stones if the spell on him and his charges should fail, but so long as the light of Zeah flowed around Rymiel, Lunaymé urged him to fly onwards. The others followed him as he turned to pass between different mountains, trying to follow the astral path that Rymiel was focusing on.
“I can see it!” Shu-Giri called out to his sorcerer his eyes dark with the astral vision. “The ties are closer now; we’re almost there.”
“Very well,” Vénes called back. He wondered what they would find, what state Arialla would be in, and what Z’Lé was doing to her in the high and distant mountains.
It wasn’t much longer before Grremar landed on an outcropping on the side of a particularly tall and jagged mountain, the kind where dragons like to roost and hide their eggs. The others landed around him, ready to hear what his rider had to say.
“This is the range,” Rymiel said, her words even despite her nervous state. Her eyes stared out ahead of her, unwilling to let go of the vision that had brought them so far. “There is a high cave where Loracaz’s mother is resting, an old nest that can only be flown to.”
“Then the dragon took her there,” Sir Tamlin thought aloud. “Is Z’Lé there with her?”
“No,” Rymiel answered as she shook her head. “Her k’hurin is higher still, moving across the skies just beyond the storm.”
Loracaz shook his head, trying to deny what she was trying to say. “You’re still certain about it, then?” he asked, the tremble in his voice hardly audible over the tempest swelling around them. “Her k’hurin– my father– is a dragon?”
“It always was, as we told you, much more than a premonition,” Rymiel replied. “The astral plane does not lie.”
“But…” Loracaz stopped, too afraid to dare asking any of the questions flooding his mind.
Mearrk’hal gave him a pitied look. “You were hoping that is wasn’t true, weren’t you? I’m sorry, Loracaz; we have to accept matters aren’t as simple as we’d like them to be.”
“It’s about time that you find out for yourselves,” Lunaymé cut in. “I sense something dark moving through these mountains, and I don’t wish to be here when it shows itself.”
“Everything here is dark,” Loracaz told him, looking around the mountainside with a furrowed brow.
Lunaymé eyed the prince seriously, too exasperated to say anything either in explanation or in criticism, then looked to his beloved. “We should go. They can find Arialla from here.”
“So they shall,” the Mékneh woman replied. Then Rymiel told the others, “The cave you seek is not much further. Approach it warily; none can know how the dragon keeping watch will react when he discovers you here.”
“We’re grateful to you for bringing us this far,” Sir Tamlin said when the prince only gaped at the idea that they really were leaving. “Fly safely.”
“Fly swiftly,” Mearrk’hal added. “And best wishes for your child, dear friends!”
The old shaman embraced both of them, then waved as they glided away from the mountains, towards the spidery forest where they made their home. Once they disappeared beyond the gloomy clouds, he climbed back to his place beside the prince on Jza’s back and made ready to traverse the mountainside.
“Take heart, Loracaz. Our quest to bring your mother home is not long from over.”
“And what of our quest to determine what my father is up to?” Loracaz replied and Jza crept over the rocks like a snake looking for its prey.
“The two are not so different, dear prince,” Mearrk’hal told him. “Let us first find Arialla; the rest, I think, shall flow from there.”
Loracaz was reluctant to leave anything up to the future, but with the dragon he rode climbing higher and the others following behind, he realized that he had no choice. He clung to Jza’s back to keep from being jostled off as he climbed over a boulder that sat precariously on the steep slope. The wind blew over them more fiercely as the rose to greater heights.
Jza roared as a mighty bolt of lightning struck a tree only a few yards ahead of him. The singed branches were quickly doused by the icy rain that poured over their soaking bodies. In the bright light, Loracaz noticed the outline of an opening in the mountain, and called out to the hold shaman.
“Look there!” He pointed to a shadowy hole beside the singed tree, and Mearrk’hal squinted to see it through the darkness.
“That must be it,” the shaman said. Below him, Jza halted and let him descend as he waved the others over.
Tamlin left Kestrel and hurried to the prince’s side. “Is that the cave?” she asked, her sword hand ready to draw her blade if anyone unexpected showed themselves.
“We shall have to find out ourselves,” Mearrk’hal replied.
Vénes and Shu-Giri agreed to wait outside while the prince went with Mearrk’hal, Vincent and Tamlin into the wide cavern. Jza stretched out a green wing to shelter the Jzamneh dragons, eying the dark sky; he knew that their colors would stand out too brightly against the rock and shadows.
The elves hiked carefully the rest of the way towards the cave, their boots moving slowly through the shadows. Mearrk’hal peered into the cave first. Far in the back, he could see a flickering light. Water dripped from the ceiling of the front chamber, and he could also hear a faint whimper echo from somewhere near the light. He signaled for the others to follow him, then stepped into the open maw of the mountain.
Once they were inside, the howl of the wind and the chill of the rain didn’t seem so bad.
“It ‘s so warm in here,” Loracaz whispered.
“A dragon’s cavern must be,” the shaman’s faint voice replied.
“So dark and–” But Vincent was silenced just as soon as he began reciting the words.
“Is that…” Sir Tamlin stepped forward, straining to hear something from further in, “someone crying?”
“I hear it, too. Ready your swords,” Mearrk’hal breathed as he drew his own blade.
With the men ready for whatever they might find, they followed the wall of the cave towards the opening to the next chamber. Firelight bounced off the walls, the logs burning hot and bright, shedding warmth onto stone that otherwise would have been icy and lifeless.
Mearrk’hal crouched low and turned to peek into the room. There was a dried nest of twigs and old grass, clearly something that had once held a dragon’s eggs. It was topped with fresh greens, and a scrap of cerulean cloth hung from one corner. He crawled another few feet in, just to be sure that nobody was keeping watch, but he found only a pile of furs and a leather pack with it contents spilled and scattered.
Mearrk’hal waved for the others to come in. Loracaz felt his heart leap when he heard the soft sobs coming from inside the nest. He recognized the voice, the desperate whimpers of one who’d been hurt for so long, one so close to giving up and giving in. He cried out as he ran towards the nest, leaving his sword on the ground as he leapt up the edge of it.
He stopped suddenly, breathing hard as he gazed down at the pitiful sight before him. There lied his mother, the mighty Empress Arialla, curled up with the tatters of her cloak, crying despite the weakened state of her body. She was thin from refusing to eat, and pale from so many days in the mountain hollow. She looked so small against the wide dragon’s nest, so meek despite her royal status.
“No, Z’Lé,” she groaned when she heard the nest rustling, her voice as hoarse as it was angry. “Just leave me be!”
“Mother,” Loracaz croaked, ready to weep for her.
He knelt down beside her, and she turned her reddened face towards his voice. He pushed a lock of hair from her face and stared back as her bright, golden eyes looked up at him in sheer disbelief.
“Lor–” She shook her head, scooting away from him in a panic. “This cannot be; send your illusion away! I will not give in to you!”
“Mother, it’s me. I’m no illusion.” Loracaz followed her for only a few steps before he realized she was too terrified to believe him, and stopped.
From the edge of the nest, Sir Tamlin, Vincent, and Mearrk’hal appeared. They watched the scene with great concern before looking to one another.
“She’s been through too much,” Tamlin noted. “What are we to do for her?”
Mearrk’hal sighed and stepped down onto the blanket she was lying on. “My dearest Arialla,” he said, holding out his hands. “I beseech you, let me be your comfort.”
Arialla, her body trembling, gazed up at the old shaman as she backed herself up against a wall. The thought that he, too, was an illusion occupied her mind, until she saw the glimmer of the rich forest in his eyes. They reminded her of the way daylight filtered through the branches of ancient trees, or the thick, sticky sap that flowed from them like a sweet syrup. She knew those eyes all too well, had looked into them on too many precious nights to deny that it really was him. She flung her arms around him, burying her face in the soft leather that covered his chest, not caring that he was soaking wet.
“Oh Mearrk’hal!” she cried, clinging to him desperately.
He rubbed her back as she sobbed with relief, feeling her body trembling against his. It had been ages since he’d held her, but never had it been while she was so afraid and tearful, so frail and delicate. His heart moved for all of her suffering, wanting to ease her pain, to take her away from the beast who was causing her such harm. He whispered into her ear as he stood there with her, and felt her slowly begin to relax.
“I am here, my princess,” she heard him say, though the others could not make out the words. “There is nothing left for you to fear.”
The shaman’s lips grazed her cheek as her embrace tightened and she begged him not to let her go. He whispered to her again, and left her with the lightest, most imperceptible kiss. To the others, he had done nothing more than comfort her, but to her, he’d brought up old memories and emotions that had once been laid to rest. After what her k’hurin had put her through, and all the regret that she’d felt for the past few months, she was ready to give in to… to anyone– to anything else but Z’Lé.
“Arialla,” Vincent whispered as he approached them. “Oh, what sorrow there is for the queen, but that it should equal your beauty brings me sorrow ten-fold.”
She looked up at him from the comfort of her shaman’s arms, but could say nothing. She let him lay a hand on her shoulder without shirking away, but was too weary to react otherwise, even to thank him for coming.
“My empress,” Sir Tamlin said with a sweeping bow, “what has he done to you? Why did he bring you to this awful place?”
Arialla looked up at Mearrk’hal before she said anything. He nodded to her, and she summoned the strength to explain, “He claims that he loves me still. I cannot stand the sight of him, yet he has the nerve to ask me to return his affections.”
Sir Tamlin nearly spat at the thought of it. “Can he really demand a child from you still?”
Shaking her head, she went on. “He is past that, my knight. He has transformed, and I loathe to even think of him now. What the sorcerer saw on the astral was terribly right, Mearrk’hal. Z’Lé is a dragon– a beast of the worst kind.”
“Did he explain how?” Tamlin asked her.
Arialla shook her head, not in refusal, but in sher disdain of what she knew. “He explained everything, Tamlin. I begged him to stop, but he insisted that I know the whole of it. If only he had listened to me,” she wept. “How could he have done all that and still claim that he holds me first in his heart…”
“We should get her home,” Mearrk’hal told the others, his tone sullen and even. “If he really has told her everything, that would explain the darkness moving over the land.”
“What’s happening?” Arialla asked while the men hurried her to the edge of the grassy bed. “What darkness is moving?”
“Something different than anything that Z’Lé has wrought upon our world thus far,” the old shaman answered her as he lifted her tenderly from the tall pile and laid her in Vincent’s waiting arms.
“Woe to those who tell the secrets of the Darkest Lord,” Vincent recited. “His secrets are wishes for your silence, and to speak of them is to betray Him outright.”
“What Vincent says is true,” Mearrk’hal told them, “even if it is from an old play. Métius doesn’t tolerate those who tell what they know. He won’t hesitate to retaliate against Z’Lé and make sure that he suffers.”
Vincent set the empress on her feet, holding onto her arms as she moved weakly across the floor. They left behind most of the things that Z’Lé had brought for her, save her cloak and a fur blanket to keep her warm, and led her outside. The rain was pouring down hard, and the wind howled in all its anger as each elf stepped from the cave and down the rocks towards Jza and the other dragons.