Chapter Thirty-Seven Darkness that Cannot be Fled
Lightning clamored across the mountains as they walked, like a train thundering past them, making the sky bright in its momentary wake. Thunder soon followed, but worse than the thunder was the growl of fury that came from the murky sky beyond. A body as black as the rest of the sky flew towards them, all rage and violence, and the elves knew at once that it what was Z’Lé had become. Arialla whimpered and shook her head, terrified that he would take her back, and had to be all but carried the rest of the way down towards Kestrel and Jza.
“How dare you come here!” the black beast growled as he landed just above the cavern where he’d hidden his empress. “You have no right!”
Mearrk’hal hurried the others onward. He stopped to turn and face the dragon while they ran, staring up at Z’Lé through the rain, narrowing his eyes at the monster before him.
“You’re the one who has no right, Z’Lé! You swore to love her, to protect her,” he called out. “You had once convinced even me that your heart was true. And now what, Z’Lé? You would rather have her realm corrupted by the demon god?”
In his rage, the black dragon breathed a great burst of fire into the night sky. Then he stared down at the bold elf and replied, “Everything that I have done is because I love her. Now leave her with me and be gone!”
“Mearrk’hal!” Vincent called out from where he stood beside Jza.
“Go ahead!” the shaman shouted back. “Have Arialla ride with Tamlin. Fly as far and as fast as you can. I will deal with Z’Lé.”
Vincent thought for only a moment about arguing the matter, but in the end he knew better than to try to sway Mearrk’hal from what he’d already decided to do. Instead he helped secure the dragoon and his empress in Kestrel’s saddle, then sent them off into the night. As they departed, he looked on with Vénes and Shu-Giri to see what the shaman had planned.
Z’Lé roared as he saw Kestrel take to the sky, and he leapt into flight to follow her. Mearrk’hal shook his head and called upon his powers to aid him. He felt the strength of the stone and the earth beneath him, and he let himself fall into tune with it. The rich brown tones of the Shyal’In elves seemed to fade into grey as he focused his Zeah, until he felt the stone in his fingers and the whole mountain beneath his feet. The earth lifted him, the rock growing and pushing out as he summoned it, followed by thick vines of green that thrust out ahead of the stone like a bridge.
Mearrk’hal cast the stone and vines forward, letting them carry him through the storm to chase the dragon that threatened Arialla’s safety. When he was close enough, he leapt from the edge of his creation and glided through the icy air towards Z’Lé, landing on his back and nearly setting him off balance enough to cause him to fall from flight.
Z’Lé managed to recover quickly. He flew in wayward swings to try to dislodge the elf from his back, but Mearrk’hal held fast, focusing his Zeah on the metals under his control. He summoned forth the powers of steel and old iron, of cobalt and lead and anything else that he could muster to weigh down the dragon.
Z’Lé could not fly like that for long, try though he might in his desperacy to get Arialla back into his clutches. Under the weight of the metal that Mearrk’hal was encasing his body in, scale by ebon scale, he glided down towards the muddy ground. They landed in the muck, where the shaman bounded from the dragon’s back and took off running.
Z’Lé tried clawing at him, but was met only with a wall of vines that wove between bamboo poles. He singed it away and shook out his body, the metallic remains flaking off like so much silver leaf. Some of it ran off of him as the rain continued to pour down, but much was left on him like a smeared-on sheen of tarnished metal.
As he ran, Mearrk’hal absorbed the aspects of the mud, letting it cover him. He found hiding places between the boulders and bare old trees that littered the base of the mountain, and dashed from one to the next as he watched the dragon crawl over the marshy ground in search of him. Z’Lé shouted obscenities and growled threats at the shaman, but he never did find him. If he got too close, Mearrk’hal would summon vines from the soggy earth to tie down his legs and slow him down so that he could wade through the muddy swamps to another hiding place.
Several swamp lizards hissed at the shaman as he disturbed them before slithering away. They wanted nothing to do with a battle between an elf of the earth and a fire dragon; the swamps that blighted the lands in the mountains’ shadows were desolate enough as it was without dragons coming in to burn down the few trees that were left living.
Mearrk’hal and the dragon went for the better part of an hour like that, chasing and hiding and casting spells, until Z’Lé lost interest in the shaman. He was angry with Mearrk’hal, to be sure, but his beloved empress was flying through one of Thiizav’s terrible storms, and he couldn’t let her fly away with Sir Tamlin. He had so many things that he needed to say to her and needed to be close to her for as long as he could. He burned away the last of the vines that bound him to the mud, let out a terrible growl, and leapt into the sky. His wings beat hard against the cold wind and the rain as he rose, ready to unleash another cry of rage.
Further up the mountain, Loracaz and the others were peering down to try to make out anything that they could through the rain. Once Z’Lé sank from they sky, there was little left to see, and the prince turned to his allies.
“Should we follow him?” Loracaz asked.
Vincent shook his head. “He can handle himself.”
“Against a dragon?”
“Don’t assume that he means to defeat him, dear prince,” Vincent explained. “It’s enough just to keep Z’Lé from catching up with Arialla.”
Loracaz had a question ready on his lips when he heard a groan come from behind him. He and Vincent turned to see Vénes doubled over, Shu-Giri at his side, trying to ask him what was wrong. Vincent hurried to kneel down beside him as well. Vénes’s eyes were nearly black and sunken with shadow, and the the veins in his face were nearly black beneath his paling skin. He clutched the robes at his chest as though he could hardly breathe.
“This is bad,” Shu-Giri told the others. He looked up at them with eyes as black as his sorcerer’s and shook his head. “Something evil is getting closer. Not the typical darkness that Thiizav is known for– something terrible down to its core.”
Vincent looked deeply worried that it was affecting Shu-Giri through his bond with Vénes, especially considering that he wasn’t trying to cast a spell. He looked around, but in that stormy darkness he could hardly see the other men, let alone anything else that might have been present.
The wind around them roared, and with it came Z’Lé, growling out his angry shouts as he clawed at the mountainside. Jza crept forward to guard the elves against his rage, glowing with Zeah’s protective power.
“What have you done?!” Z’Lé snarled at them. “You have no idea what your interference has caused!”
“You had no right to hold Arialla captive like that,” Vincent called back.
“I had every right!” Steam drifted his from his nostrils and fire spewed from between his teeth as he hissed those words. “She is mine, and so long as she refuses me, she is damning Onsira.”
“You have damned it,” Vénes’s voice uttered, the words coming out in strained spurts. “Your toying with Métius and playing into his deals. You claim to love her, yet you know nothing of the sacrifice that love is!”
Vénes let himself fall into his Rrandah’s arms, gasping for breath as the dark force affected him deeper and stronger.
“What are you doing to him, Z’Lé?” Shu-Giri gasped. “What black magic have you cast against us?”
Z’Lé peered closely at Vénes, then replied, “That is not my doing. Something else is here with its power… something that I shall not stay to meet!”
With those words, the black dragon leapt into the stormy sky and flew northward into the darkness. Jza snarled as he left, angry that a fellow dragon would behave with such distrust and cowardice.
Loracaz was thinking to ask the others whether it was time that they head back to Onsira as well, but his thoughts were cut short by what seemed at first like the worst gust of wind he’d ever felt. With it came a shadow so immense, so absolutely black and dark that he knew it was no wind. The shadow hung over the elves like a ghostly cloud, staring down at them with eyes that burned like black fire, piercing the sky without shedding any light whatsoever. Vénes let out another groan as his stomach churned under the loathsome, rotten stench of the entity that had at last shown its presence.
“No…” Shu-Giri breathed, his voice full of terror. He clung more tightly to Vénes. “He would not have come on his own.”
“Is that…?” Loracaz began, staring up at the dark being that loomed over them all.
“The Emperor of Nightmares,” Jza answered him. “The one who would seen this world torn asunder even if it meant harming his own worshipers.”
“The night that never ends,” Shu-Giri added, “the pain that throbs eternal. How far did Z’Lé go for what he wanted?”
“Only as far as I knew he would go for the sake of his passions,” the darkness answered in a voice like ash and embers. Then to Vénes it said, “For a sorcerer, you have so much confusion in you. There is much that you lost when your education was interrupted. It is too bad; you could have served me well.” A claw-like hand formed from the shadows and seemed to reach out towards the sorcerer, threatening to grab him, though it came no closer.
“He cannot serve you, Métius,” Shu-Giri replied as Vénes shuddered in his arms. “He has chosen the path of sorcery and will never worship one god alone.”
“Pitiful that his powers are so out of balance,” the darkness replied. Then it peered into the north. “Woe to those who should follow me. Z’Lé in mine, and all that was once his with it. I shall rend your flesh and feed your souls to my demons if you should try offer him any assistance. Stay out of my way, mortals!”
With a noise worse than thunder, Métius rushed across the sky, gliding faster than the wind, untouched by the rain and the thunder. He careened over the rainbow forest like a mighty windstorm, rustling the branches and screeching through the trees as though he were a nightmarish banshee. The elves and dragons watched him go, their hearts pounding with the terror of having been in the presence of so terrible a being from the Abyss.
“It was him,” Vénes groaned when the darkness clutching him at last released its hold, and the color returned to his skin and eyes. “That awful presence was Métius himself.”
“Curses to him,” Shu-Giri muttered. “I never understood why anyone would worship something so putrid.”
“An old priest once told me…” The voice stopped talking to catch its breath. Loracaz and the others look over to find Mearrk’hal just a few yards down the mountain, covered in mud and the leaves that had stuck to it on his way up. Vincent stepped down to help him climb the rest of the distance, and he stood among them letting the rain rinse the mud away as he spoke. “He told me that if Métius had no worshippers to keep him satisfied, his wrath would surely be upon us more often.”
“Hmph,” Shu-Giri scoffed. “Pure foolery, that. If nobody paid him their respects, he would be powerless. It’s the fools who empower him who are forced to keep his wrath at bay whilst the rest us us resist his temptations.”
“Either way,” Loracaz said, “he is among us now. How are we to send him back to the Abyss and make him leave Onsira alone?”
Mearrk’hal shook his head hopelessly. “Métius can be made to do nothing, Loracaz. I honestly didn’t imagine, when we began our quest, that He himself would show up. Z’Lé has really put Lorata in peril.”
“I remember what the old legends said,” Shu-Giri told the men. “The demon god wanted control of our world; he was jealous that Jenh was loved far and wide, and the evil overtook him until he became the lord of all that is awful and terrible.”
“At the same time, Kearr came to be,” Vénes added. He’d studied the origins of all the gods in his training to become a sorcerer, so he knew the legends well. “A force of pure love and light and goodness to stand against the evil.”
“And keep the balance,” his Rrandah added.
Mearrk’hal didn’t look any more hopeful. “Métius will not stop at destroying Z’Lé or conquering Onsira. He will keep on going, just like the emperor was spreading his borders.”
“Then…” Loracaz thought out loud, “was my father working for Métius all this time, or was he being controlled by him without even knowing it?”
“We have no way of knowing,” Mearrk’hal replied.
Then Jza spoke, his rumbling voice stern and urgent. “Right now, it does not matter. We must fly back to Onsira and protect the kingdom.”
“From Métius?” Loracaz asked, raising a brow. “What hope do we have of defeating him? He could tear us apart with only a look, if he so desired.”
“You are Jenh’s champion,” the old dragon reminded him. “As the great hero of our legends, you will find a way to fight him. Have faith in your legacy, Loracaz. Lorata needs you now.”
The prince nodded, but Mearrk’hal could tell how nervous he really was.
“Have faith in Jenh,” the shaman added. She has ensured that her power is within you. For now, it’s merely resting; when the time comes, it will flower and emerge in its full glory.”
With those words, the prince climbed onto Jza’s back, Mearrk’hal and Vincent joining him. As the great Zeah dragon took to the air, Shu-Giri and his sorcerer also mounted their dragons to follow him closely through the storm-clouds. Lightning still struck the mountains with all its fury, and the dragons were now flying into the wind, but fly on they did even while the wind beat down on their wings. They crossed the mountains by way of an east by southeastward flight path, trying to make for the edge of Jzamneh that reached towards the ocean and acted as a narrow border between Enhar and Thiizav.
It was at that furthest reach of Jzamneh that exhaustion overcame the travelers, and they landed on the abandoned prairie that stood between the trees and an ocean-kissed beach. Much of the land was soggy, practically marshes, and they hand to find a low hill in order to have land dry enough to make camp on. Mearrk’hal wandered off to look for firewood while Loracaz stood gazing over the hill, a ball of Zeah fire in his hand.
“What is this place?” the prince asked.
Vénes stepped up beside him, his staff aglow, and told him, “This is the Wasteland. Nobody lives here, Your Highness.”
“In ages past, Thiizav tried to claim this land, but Enhar also wanted it, and the forest even had trees this far out,” Shu-Giri added. “My ancestors conceded rather than give lives to a battle over something that, once wall was said and done, was so trivial. When Enhar fought the dark kingdom, the fight was bloody and terrible, and the old tales say that bodies covered the land all the way from Enhar’s current boarder to Thiizav’s. Even when the dead were laid to rest in their homelands and the willows began to sprout for them, nothing would grow on this battleground.”
“So, in the end, this land could still be claimed by no kingdom?”
“Precisely,” Shu-Giri replied. “It is a grey place on most maps, gap between realms. For tonight, at least, nobody should bother us, there being no-one here but us.”
By the time Mearrk’hal returned and a fire was built, Vénes and his brother were already asleep. Loracaz sat with the shaman and Shu-Giri watching the clouds roll in over the wasteland from the sky over Thiizav. It was like the storm was following them, and it made the prince shiver.
“Do you think my mother has made it back to Onsira yet?”
Mearrk’hal shook his head. “They didn’t leave that long before us. It’s a long flight over Jzamneh and Enhar, and then the mountains surrounding Onsira, to the capital. Kestrel is a swift flier, but if her dragoon knows what’s best, she will find a place to land for the night just as we have.”
“But would my father– or even Métius not catch up with them?”
“Your father will need to rest just like the rest of us. As for the Destroyer, Métius has less power outside of Thiizav,” Shu-Giri told him. “Without his worshipers empowering him, his movement in the mortal world is limited. Once he reaches Jzamneh, he shall be slowed down considerably. In fact, Jenh’s power is so strong there that he may return to the Abyss and re-emerge elsewhere on the continent.”
“I hope so,” Loracaz said before a yawn forced it way out of him. “I cannot bear the thought of returning to Onsira only to find everything in ruins.”
“Get some rest, hero,” Mearrk’hal said, handing him a blanket from one of the travel packs. “Onsira will make it through the night without us. Tomorrow our adventure will carry on, and your father’s with it.”
Loracaz laid his head down and stared up at the few stars that he could still see through the clouds. Somewhere in the north, Liriel would look up at those same stars before she gave her evening prayers and took to her bed. His eyes didn’t stay open for long, and soon the prince’s mind was dreaming of his beloved priestess waiting for him beneath the starlight.