Chapter Thirty-Eight A Kingdom Threatened by Shadows
At dawn, the men rose and made ready for another flight. It was a solemn journey as the dragons glided through the air towards Onsira’s capital city, Jzifélan. They flew along the shores of Enhar until they reached the edge of the Dragonridge Mountains, where they stopped only long enough to eat. From there, they continued north towards the capital. Loracaz’s heart raced the entire journey. He wanted to rush home, and Mearrk’hal and the others had to remind him several times to save his strength.
When the edge of the city at last came into view, the prince could no longer bear it. He held his breath as they glided towards a puff of smoke, his heart sinking in dread. It was not until they passed the cottage that it was coming from that he realized it was mere chimney smoke from a fireplace, not the flames of destruction that he dreaded.
Jzifélan– indeed, all of Onsira that he could see– was no more harmed than he’d left it. The only difference now was that thousands of soldiers from the other kingdoms had set up tents all around the city. They camped on the fallow fields, the knights’ training grounds, and anywhere else that had room for a brigade of warriors. Some of the visiting soldiers and knights had brought their dragons with them, and they roosted wherever they could.
Loracaz nearly leaped from Jza’s back as he descended down to the royal palace late in the afternoon. The guards bowed to him and welcomed him home, some of them following him into the halls as he rushed inside. He would listen to none of them, focuseding solely on reaching the throne room at a full run. When Loracaz burst through the doors, the crowd there gasped, then hurried to his side to welcome and aid him.
“Where,” he began, gasping for breath, “where… is my… mother?”
He hadn’t even bothered to see who was sitting on his throne. As he caught his breath and looked up, he saw his younger brother sitting there, staring at him and the display that seemed so out of place for royalty.
“She’s safe,” a gentle voice beside him answered, and Loracaz looked up to find his beloved Liriel at his side. “Her Majesty is in council with the ambassadors and lieutenants from the other kingdoms.”
Prince Loracaz felt his troubles begin melt away as the high priestess spoke to him. To have her at his side, to know that his mother had made it home, came as the relief that he so badly needed. Liriel explained to him that the empress had returned early that morning, and had hardly rested before being asked to speak with the foreign delegates about what had been going on. Z’Lé had yet to be heard from, but there were plenty of other troubles.
As they walked together through the halls towards the council hall, she spoke of the demons and other strange creatures that had been attacking in the night. The Onsiran soldiers could do little against them but stall them long enough for the villagers to get to safety, so the paladins from Ayafir had graciously offered to patrol the city streets at night to fight and purify the evil. Besides that, a dark shadow was growing around the temple to Métius, and as it gained mass, the demons worsened and became harder to fight. White mages had been summoned to help, but had yet to arrive.
“Many of our people have taken refuge in Jenh’s temple,” Liriel explained. “Yanve is doing what he can to comfort them, so I alone have been sitting with young Zarrek.”
“I hope that he has done nothing too drastic,” Loracaz said, his voice full of worry.
“On the contrary,” she replied. “He’s made sure the people are well cared-for. I was surprised myself, but he truly did look after he kingdom while you were gone.”
Loracaz stopped in his tracks and raised a brow. “Zarrek did– The same brother who frequents the Dark Temple? The one who mocks me and criticizes our mother?”
“The very same.” Liriel confirmed with a nod. “What I’ve learned is that your father properly taught him how to be a ruler and a prince. He remains steadfast that Métius is worthy of worship, although I have yet to hear him decry Jenh.”
Shaking his head, Loracaz resumed walking. “All this time he was able to act as a prince. What is it that Father thought I lacked but Zarrek had?”
“Sometimes we don’t understand,” Liriel said. “Speaking of your father, Her Majesty said only that he was trying to follow her, but that she soon lost sight of him. What happened out there?”
“Mearrk’hal made sure he wasn’t too close behind her and Sir Tamlin,” Loracaz told her. “What route he took after that we don’t know; the night was dark and the thunderstorm was full upon us.” If Z’Lé wasn’t home, Loracaz wondered to himself, had Métius caught up with him after all?
When they reached the council hall, the royal herald announced his entrance, and Queen Arialla, as she’d requested to be addressed, rather than empress, stood and welcomed her son home. She looked worn and ragged still, even though she’d had time to wash and change her clothes; he could tell that she hadn’t rested enough. Liriel and the prince took their seats at Arialla’s side, and that was when he noticed that a second dragoon stood behind her, right alongside Sir Tamlin.
Arialla nodded. “Sir Tikaj has returned home.”
He bowed to the prince. “I rode back with Vergrrith as soon as I heard that the royal family was so fractured, your highness.”
“Did you return this morning as well, then?” the prince asked.
Tikaj shook his head. “Nay, sire. I have been here half a week already. I was just as relieved as everyone else when she returned to us.” He glanced over at Tamlin. “Thank Jenh that she had you to help protect her.”
“Welcome back,” Loaracaz told him, relieved that his mother now had two dragoons ready to keep Z’Le away from her.
After a few minutes, the council resumed as it had been going before the prince’s arrival.
“What you need to know,” Arialla said to the council, “is that Z’Lé’s deceptions go back for decades. What I learned from him while I was in Thiizav is that he accepted the offer that Métius had made to him, an offer that Sasha the Temptress delivered. He agreed to the pact– the vrr’mélkin— and that is how his transformation began. He’s had to kill elves in order to maintain his elvan form over the years.”
“That explains many of the mysterious deaths that have occurred,” one of the royal advisors commented.
Arialla nodded in agreement. “His pact with Métius was that he would make sacrifices of those elves, but also of his children. That is why he insisted on Zarrek learning the ways of the Cursed One, and why he wanted a third child so badly.”
“Your mother has been explaining to us how your father changed back to his true draconic form,” Sir Tamlin leaned down to whisper to him. “You arrived just in time to have many of your questions answered.”
Loracaz nodded as the ambassador from Ayafir stood up to ask, “What would have happened if you’d given birth to that child?”
“Z’Lé tells me that his elvan form would have become permanent, and that he would be free of any further demands from Métius. But as I’ve discussed this with the high priest and priestess, there is more to it than that, and even Z’Lé had no idea what the Destroyer intended to do with the baby given to him.”
“A child of the hero’s blood,” Liriel reminded the gathering. “In his hatred for Jenh, Métius would do anything to hurt the royal family and break the promise for our hero to come. If he had a baby from the royal family, he could have used it to end the bloodline and seal the hero out of our world. Z’Lé’s obsession with Arialla in her youth was a convenient means for Métius to receive the child as a sacrifice and have power over the royal family.”
“Then how did he fail?” Loracaz wanted to know. “Vénes said that a Chosen of Métius was working with my father, but that she left her seclusion, which meant that he’d failed to complete his bargain.”
“Part of it is that I nearly died from the herbs I was taking,” the queen answered. “He was trying everything he could to father a child, and I was doing all that I could to resist it.”
“I also suspect that your birth was truly the start of his path to failure,” Liriel added. “Nobody else has ever been given your name, Loracaz; only you and the original hero who rescued Goddess Jenh. Your name is sacred, and that Her Majesty gave you that name meant that you were destined to be a champion like your ancestor. Everything else just made clear the fact that he couldn’t fulfill his pact.”
“What you mean to say is…” Loracaz paused to think of how to word this, “My father made a promise to Métius that could have destroyed the hero’s bloodline, but at the same time Jenh made sure that I arrived before being cut off from this world.”
“That is exactly it,” Liriel said, smiling to him and taking his hands. “Both of them are working to ensure that their motives come to fruition. Yanve and I are sure that Métius must be furious that you were born, and that he is unwilling to give up on attacking Onsira now.”
“Hence what is going on at his temple,” Arialla added. “That shadow has been looming for days, Zarrek said, and it’s growing. Métius is preparing to unleash something terrible upon us.”
Loracaz stood up to address the council gathered around the table. “In light of all this, I’m grateful to all of you here, and all of your warriors. By sword and by spear, I will battle the darkness that has brought its evil to our land. I swear to protect Onsira with all that I have.”
“Know that you’re not alone, dear prince,” the ambassador from K’hithvahn told him. “All of us will be in danger if Métius is let loose upon this world, and we will help you defend against Him in in away we can.”
Several of the other attendants of the council voiced their agreement, which made the prince smile in pride. “I’m honored to have you all here. Thanks be to everyone.”
“Your Highness,” the leader of a band of paladins said as he stood, “Do you have any plans laid out for how you’ll be fighting the Dark One?”
Loracaz looked to both his mother and Liriel, who both shook their heads. “Without knowing when Métius plans to strike, or even how, there isn’t much that we can plan for,” he admitted. “We are, as you seem to have been, stuck waiting and being ever on guard. I am curious, though, whether my father will be fighting alongside Métius.”
“He would have me believe not,” Arialla responded. “While I was in the cave with him, he tried to convince me that he would do nothing to harm Onsira, that he truly did believe in revering the gods equally. He swore that he’d always meant the best for us, not to release Métius into our world.”
“He may have meant it,” Liriel told her. “even if things between the two of you have changed. While you were away, Zarrek mentioned something about his father being warned by Sasha not to tell any of his secrets. If that is so, and Z’Lé told you everything, that would mean more trouble for us all. Loracaz, what did Métius say to you when you saw him?”
“Very little,” the prince answered. “He seemed full of rage, but is that not how the Destroyer is always described? He said that Father was his, and threatened us against getting in his way. I see more than one way to interpret that, though.”
“It sounds to me that Métius is angry with your father,” Liriel told him. “We should meet with your new allies and Yanve to discuss this further, but I am certain, between the Chosen coming out of seclusion and his fleeing the kingdom, that Z’Lé has made the Destroyer an enemy, and that is a dangerous position to be in.”
The council members discussed this for a short time, and in the end most of them agreed that there was more to fear from Métius than from the emperor-turned-dragon; they would plan around that assumption until such a time as it was proven wrong. That meant that they had to focus on defending the city and the rest of the kingdom from hordes of evil beings, from demons to haunting spirits, and from shadow monsters as well as the twisted beasts that roamed the Abyss, instead of trying to fight off dragons. One of the dragoon leaders remarked that even the black dragons Z’Lé had enlisted for his dragoons seemed more nervous about the evil power surrounding the temple than about the emperor.
“None of us would have admitted this before, but I don’t think that Z’Lé meant for this to happen,” Sir Tikaj stated as the meeting was drawing to a close. “Even though his motives and actions were questionable, it was always clear that he wanted to rule, not to destroy. His feelings for Arialla blinded him and made him enough of a fool to invite Métius into the kingdom.”
Several of the council-members nodded their understanding, while some shook their head at the shame of it all. At least, Loracaz thought to himself as the room emptied out, Tikaj hadn’t said anything about pitying the man– the dragon– who was forcing all of those knights and soldiers to risk their lives against the most terrible opponent Onsira had ever known.