Chapter Forty-Four Prince of Shadows and Dragons
They appeared in the southern sky as Ser began its descent behind the Dragonridge Mountains. Both of them blue as the evening sky, they flew together, racing towards the capital city of Onsira as though their lives depended on it. What the elves watching those two dragons flying over them didn’t know was that lives did depend upon them– simply put, however, it was not their own.
Far afield from the palace, the guards stationed at an old fort caught sight of the blue dragons flying towards Jzifélan, and they wasted no time in sending out their own dragoon scout to fly to warn the empress of them. His dragon was swift enough to arrive just as they were visible on the horizon from the palace.
“What would you have us do, my queen?” Sir Tikaj asked Her Majesty after hearing the report.
“Do we know yet if they mean us any harm?” Empress Arialla asked.
“We have no way of knowing, Your Majesty,” the scout replied with a bow.
“Your Majesty, this is one evening when we must assume that they have no good intentions,” Sir Tamlin implored her.
“I must agree,” Vincent added. “Unless you have allies among the dragons that we didn’t know of before now, their coming down from the mountains can only signal the beginning of the trials that we are to face.”
“Did you say that they’re blue dragons?” Prince Zarrek asked from the seat of his throne.
“Aye, Your Highness,” the scout told him.
“Was there another dragon with them?” Zarrek wanted to know. “A black one?”
“If there was, sire,” the scout answered, “he was too distant for us to see.”
“Is there something that you’re not telling us, Zarrek?” Sir Tikaj asked the prince.
“You’re asking about your father, aren’t you?” Vincent added. “Why would you be expecting him to come here with those blue dragons?”
Zarrek gave the bard a cold stare and didn’t answer him. Then he glared at his mother. “In the end, he didn’t tell you everything.”
Sir Tikaj sighed in frustration. “Never mind all that. What are we going to do about those dragons?”
“I doubt they care enough to attack you,” Zarrek grumbled. “Unless, of course, you strike first.”
“And what proof do we have of that?” Vincent queried, his voice challenging the young prince, which ired him.
“You want proof?” Zarrek shouted. “Perhaps you should prove to me that your intentions with my mother are pure!”
“I’m only here to protect her,” Vincent insisted.
“She would need no protection if she would only accept my father’s love!” he told the bard through clenched teeth. “Fine. One of them has the Zeah of fire, the other of lightning. That knowledge, which you know you could use to defeat them, is all I can provide to show that they won’t attack without reason. But if any of the dragoons or archers strike at them, I will personally join them in returning fire.”
With those words, Prince Zarrek turned to leave the throne room, ignoring his mother’s calls. He rushed through the halls and up several flights of stairs. As he burst through the doors and stepped out into the sunset on the dragoon platform, General Elezar turned from a group of soldiers to greet him.
“Your Highness,” he said with a bow. “I hadn’t expected to see you here.”
“You should always expect me, Elezar. I am your prince.”
“Of course, sire. What is it that brings you here so soon?”
“A pair of blue dragons are on their way here.”
“I see,” the general replied. “Is your father with them?”
“The scouts at the southern fort didn’t wait not long enough to see if it was just them. Either way, my mother and her knights see them as a threat. I need you to send some of the dragoons out to give them the royal greeting they deserve, and make sure nobody attacks them.”
“As you command, Your Highness,” General Elezar replied with a bow. When last they’d been together, Zarrek’s father had asked Elezar to heed the prince’s words just as he had the emperor’s. He had nobody else whom he respected enough to take orders from; Emperor Z’Lé had appointed the general of his own volition, and had insisted that he follow his empress’s orders only if they matched what the emperor himself wanted. “And as for the rest of the dragoons?”
“Don’t allow Métius to take power,” Zarrek ordered him. “His presence in Onsira is only permissible so long as he keeps himself and his hordes in the Abyss. My father meant for him to have worshipers here– temples, people who could use black magic– not hand the kingdom over to him.”
“We shall defend Onsira to the very end,” Elezar agreed. “Do you have any specific orders on how, Your Highness?”
Zarrek knew exactly what he meant without him having to ask specifically. “Use all of the power you and your men possess, General. Whatever it takes to keep Métius from sinking his claws into my kingdom.”
General Elezar bowed to his prince once again and replied, “By your command, sire. The dragoons shall defend Onsira to the very last man. Trust in us, Your Highness; these men and their dragons are the best in all of Manastaecies, and they shall not rest until this is over.”
“That’s good,” Zarrek told him as he turned to go. “Although I fear it shall be a very long time before any of us will be able to rest.”
Without waiting to hear the general’s reply, Prince Zarrek walked past dozens of dragon knights to the far end of the collection of platforms and towers, where the dragons roosted and their knights prepared them for battle. He laid a hand on a grey dragon, an old relative of Elezar’s Dettri, who was gazing out at the land. When she craned her head to look down at him, he spoke to her in Draconic.
“Engvi dath’tra, kath vélrrethi,” he said. One of the nearby knights recognized the words as asking the dragon to fly with him for the sake of the king.
“I can fly you wherever you wish, young prince,” the dragon replied in her own language, “but do you know where he is?”
The prince watched several other dragons leap to the sky, then turned back to her to say, “Aye, N’tavi, I have a good idea. My brothers are flying in from the mountains, and he shouldn’t be long behind them. We can meet with them and find out for sure.”
“Very well, Your Highness,” the old dragon agreed.
Zarrek called over some squires to prepare N’tavi for her rider. He’d ridden most of the dragons under Elezar’s command, but she was by far the one he preferred. The old wisdom that she possessed carried over into the way she glided with the wind and took him anywhere that he asked to go. He rarely had the chance to soar with her, but whenever he did, he found himself wishing that he did so more often.
Together, they flew southward, towards the place from which the blue dragons had come, over the city, past the Temple of Métius and further on. As they glided over the farmlands, rushing past the other dragons, the ones they were looking for came into sight.
“There they are,” Zarrek called out to N’tavi.
She flew towards them, and when they saw her coming their way, they screeched out their warning calls. N’tavi cried back, informing them that the prince was with her. They, of course, wanted to know which prince, and were glad to hear that it was Zarrek rather than his older brother. They allowed N’tavi to fly alongside them so that he could ask his questions.
“Is Father following you?”
“He was,” Velik answered.
“But Métius was following him,” Gashar, “and I fear that he’s caught up with him.”
“You came here rather than help him?” Zarrek asked, ready to let loose his fury.
“Only at his behest, little brother,” Gashar explained. “He insisted that we give you warning that Métius was loose in the mountains and ready to strike.”
“He will distract the demon god for as long as he can, but don’t presume that it shall be for very long,” the other one noted.
Zarrek looked to the south and found that the Dragonridge Mountains were shrouded in darkness. Storm-clouds of black and grey loomed over the mountains, hiding the tallest peaks and sparking with an unnatural sort of lightning. It wasn’t a natural storm, the young prince knew; it was Métius forcing his way into the mortal world. What Z’Lé was going to do in order to hold him back, Zarrek couldn’t even begin to imagine. He was grateful then that Jenh’s power saturated the land and made it more difficult for any other deity to manifest.
“We should go to him!” Zarrek cried to his brothers.
“We must not!” Gashar called back. “Father needs us to rouse the armies.”
“Now,” Velik insisted, “before Métius makes his way to the city.”
Zarrek furrowed his brow, staring back at the mountains. Then he grumbled and turned towards Jzifélan City, asking N’tavi to take them back to the palace. He rode the entire way back in silence, angry that he couldn’t go to his father. He’d seen him through his transformation, but what Z’Lé had wanted most was to convince Arialla to hang on to some scrap of love for him. Ultimately, she wouldn’t; Zarrek knew that she’d already decided to close her heart off from him. What if he could keep Métius from entering Onsira and destroying the kingdom, Zarrek wondered to himself; would it make any difference to her at all?
General Elezar hadn’t expected Prince Zarrek to return so soon, and certainly not with the blue dragons flying alongside him. As N’tavi landed on the wide path at the end of the platform, Velik and Gashar followed suit, gaining the attention of several of the knights gathered there. Elezar had his back to them, and turned when one of his men pointed out that the prince had returned. He walked over to Zarrek, his fur cloak flowing behind him as he stared at the beasts whom he’d met back in the mountains.
“So it was them,” the general uttered. “What about your father?”
“He sent them to deliver a message,” Zarrek replied. He still hadn’t told the general that they were his half-brothers, and saw no reason to change things now. With Ser quickly fading, and the sky growing ever darker, he didn’t have time to explain it all. “Father is doing what he can to hold Métius back, but the Destroyer is determined to manifest his physical form here in Onsira. My mother must rouse the armies and make sure we’re ready to fight the evil that is coming.”
“All those years of loyalty from us,” Elezar grumbled, “and now the Abyssal Lord wants to lay waste to the kingdom?”
“If we’d known that all of this stemmed from my father’s pact with Métius, Elezar, we might have seen this coming. The Dark One expected that obedience in return for Father’s elvan form; it wasn’t the kind that he saw fit to reward. Besides that, it was convenient to him that my father loved the princess of the kingdom that he wanted revenge against.”
“Such great woe comes from having not known,” N’tavi said as she sat with a few of her draconic companions.
Zarrek nodded. “Unlike my mother, I will not wade in sorrow for not having realized it sooner. I’m grateful to have you as an ally, N’tavi, but right now I must see my mother and send word for the armies to stand ready. I shall return to you when I can.” Then the prince turned to Elezar and told him, “General, consider yourself under my orders now. Neither my brother nor the queen will be able to lead you like I can; they have no understanding of what the dragons and their knights can do.”
“Of course, sire,” Elezar replied, bowing to the young prince. He respected Zarrek enough to do that, even though he was still a few months short of his thirteenth birthday; his father had raised him well.
“Ready the dragoons in waves, and make sure they protect the edges of the kingdom as well as the palace. Send out the scouts to warn the villages between here and Dragonridge that evil is coming. If they wish to flee to safety, as far from the mountains and the city as they can get, now would be a good time to do so. I will be back for N’tavi; make sure she’s ready for me.”
“As you command, my prince,” the general agreed.
Without another word, Prince Zarrek left the dragon platform and rushed back through the palace. He entered the throne room without waiting for the guards to open the doors, or for the herald to announce him, and stared at his mother, his brother, and all of the men who’d come to help her defend the kingdom.
“The man whom you scorn is in the mountains right now, trying to keep Métius from making it all the way here,” was the first think Zarrek said to his mother, the full force of his contempt showing in his voice.
“‘Man’?” Vincent asked, incredulous. “Z’Lé is no longer a man, Zarrek. He–”
“Hold your tongue,” Mearrk’hal told him. “That’s not the point anymore. Whatever your feelings, just remember what Z’Lé is doing this right now.”
“Then Métius isn’t coming via his temple?” Arialla asked.
“Jenh’s power is too great here,” Vénes told her as he shook his head. “He must have realized that and decided to manifest in the mountains and come down once Ser had set.”
“Night is falling fast,” Zarrek told the others, “and my father is risking his life for this kingdom. In the end, he may only give us a couple hours longer to prepare. I can feel the darkness from the temple growing. You should make sure the city is well defended; once it starts flowing, it will be a terrible force to try to stop.”
“All these years of attending the Temple of Métius, and now you’re telling us to defend against it?” Prince Loracaz asked.
Zarrek gave his older brother a cold stare. “I could discuss it with you for hours, and still I doubt that you would understand. I go to Métius for power, not to ask him to destroy my kingdom. He has no right to make his true presence known here, and I will not let him take away my birthright.”
Loracaz and Arialla exchanged dubious glances, but said nothing more to the willful youth. Instead, the queen sent for the army leaders to meet with her so they could begin their plans for fortifying the city.
“I will be flying with the dragoons,” Zarrek informed them as he turned to go.
“Zarrek, you’re only–”
“‘A child’?” he snapped, resentful of his mother’s protest. “Simply for the number of years I’ve lived? Loracaz may have more years than me, mother, but he lacks experience. I’m just as suitable as he is to defend this kingdom– in some ways, moreso.”
Zarrek stepped up beside Loracaz and whispered to him, “Don’t let this kingdom down, brother. I can smell Liriel on you; did you believe in yourself so little that you broke one of the tenets that could have granted you power?”
Wide-eyed, Loracaz stared down at Zarrek. “How did you know…”
“Of course I know,” the young prince whispered back. “That’s why Father has always criticized you for what you lack; you don’t even believe in yourself, and you let it steal away your ability to become anything grand. I won’t stand by and watch you let this kingdom fall into Métius’s claws because you could not simply wait.”
Loracaz found himself having no idea what to say to his brother in reply. As Zarrek stepped away from him, he watched and awed, if only for a moment, at what the younger boy seemed capable of.
“Remember this,” Zarrek told the others as he stopped in the doorway. “If you’re going to fight, do it with everything in your being. When you draw your weapon, it should be for something that’s worth dying for. Once you have entered battle, there’s no turning back—especially not tonight. I, for one, don’t plan to lay down my life easily. You should do the same; don’t let any of these soldiers have died in vain because you couldn’t put everything you have into this fight.”
Zarrek didn’t wait for anyone to reply; he didn’t want to hear his mother chastising him, nor the confounded bard telling him to be reasonable, nor even the old shaman reminding him of how young he was. He no longer cared. As he stormed through the hallways, he wondered to himself whether he’d ever cared what they had to say about him.
His father had raised him to be strong, to be resilient even if the face of adversity, for he’d known that his son would face a great deal of it. Zarrek was a prince of Onsira; younger or older didn’t matter to him, only the nobility. And now that he knew of the draconic blood that burned in his veins, the mark of the most noble race of all, he was set on not failing in what he intended to do.
In his chambers, Zarrek flung his royal clothing to the floor and pulled his padded leather pants from his armoire. He also donned both of his woolen doublets, knowing how cold it would be flying in the early spring night, and pulled on his tallest boots, which he’d acquired specifically for dragon-riding, for they were lined in wolf fur to keep him warm.
He refused to keep his armor in the armory with the suits worn by the common knights; instead, it was assembled near his hearth, warmed by the flames and ready for him. His father had taught him not to rely on a squire, but to be able to assemble the pieces on his own, in case he was needed in a hurry and had nobody he could rely on to help him. If only, Zarrek thought as he stared at his breastplate, such an occasion hadn’t come so soon.
The old blacksmith Shiirul had fashioned him a shirt of maille made of the lightest metal that he could forge that would also hold up against most blows. The last that Zarrek had heard of him, he’d taken ill and hadn’t fired up his forge for weeks; the prince tried not to think about him as he pulled on the maille and reached for the sabatons that would go over his boots. His legs were protected by greaves, poleyns and cuisses that had been etched with designs that symbolized his royalty and, he now realized, his draconic heritage.
The braces and gauntlets had been made to match, and the chest plate had a similar pattern pounded into it, which he would have been remorseful to cover with his tabard if it weren’t for the cold outside. His sword-belt held the cloth close around his body, his blade on one side his and pouch on the other.
Zarrek made sure that all of the straps on his armor were cinched tightly before he pulled on his gloves, which were made of leather and lined with fur, the same as his boots. His gauntlets fit over them as perfectly as could be, and with the last piece of armor in place, he grabbed his helmet and cloak and strode out of his room.
Back at the southeastern wing of the palace, Zarrek found General Elezar sending off another series of dragoons. The platform was beginning to look empty, but the darkening sky was filled with dragons of every kind. They flew beneath the twinkling starlight, ready to protect Onsira from whatever the Destroyer might bring.
“The sky is black with something more than the night, my prince,” Elezar told him as he stepped up to his side.
Zarrek narrowed his eyes at the storm-clouds rolling in from the south, carried by an icy wind that moaned though the sky like the last agonized breaths of a dying elf. “An unnatural shadow,” he replied in agreement. “You’ve been to the black temple with us, Elezar; you know that this is Métius reaching out towards the capital city. I trust you not to be swayed by His encroaching presence.”
“Not at all, sire.”
Taking a deep breath, Zarrek watched the sky for several long minutes. He found nothing to say that was worth breaking the silence for. He liked the sound of flapping wings, of spears and swords and armor marching out of the palace and into the city streets. Torchlight was being set up around the city, which was empty of anyone who wasn’t prepared to fight, and in some areas the prince could see light-crystals that glowed with Kearr’s silvery-white magic.
In the south, the Zeah of all the varied dragons lit up the twilight sky; a demon singed by fire, a murder of thrall-bats taken down by ice and lightning. Several dragons were circling the Temple Of Métius to slay the bats as soon as they emerged from the darkness, knowing that a wound from a thrall-bat could place the victim under Métius’s influence.
“Ride with me,” the prince said to Elezar at last. “Dettri can fly alongside N’tavi and the blue dragons.”
“By your command and by my honor, my prince,” Elezar replied with a bow.
Zarrek pulled his black skullcap out from his up-turned helmet, which he handed to the general so that he could cover his head with the quilted wool. Once the ties were fastened, he took his helmet back and pulled it down over his head, tightening the leather strap securely under his chin. A crest like the ridges on a dragon’s back flowed along the center of the helmet from forehead down to the back of his neck, making the draconic designs in the other pieces of his armor all the more obvious.
“You look just like your father once did,” Elezar told the prince.
Zarrek nodded, but had nothing to say just then. He beckoned for the general to follow him and walked to the far end of the platform, where N’tavi knelt pensively, watching her comrades soar into the darkness to do battle with evil. Velik and Gashar rested in a tower above her, watching the skies just as she did. The dragoon squires had fitted her with a saddle-blanket embroidered with Zarrek’s royal crest, so that the others would recognize the prince as they flew into battle.
“Kath rregfar jze Onsira, kor-shévagh engviari,” the prince told them in Draconic.
“Today and always, Your Highness,” General Elezar adjoined. “We shall fly with you, just as we would for the king.”
“I’m counting on it, Elezar; everyone in Onsira is counting on us to protect them.” Zarrek climbed onto N’tavi’s back and looked up at his blue-scaled brothers. “Are you two ready to fly?”
“To fight and to fly, young prince,” Velik told him.
Then Gashar added, “We are eager for a battle of honor!”
Elezar called out for Dettri, who crawled out of his warm hiding place and knelt beside his rider. His own saddle-blanket was sewn from a large number of furs won from the black mountain wolves, and it enshrouded the dragon’s entire back; Dettri particularly hated the cold. The general climbed into the saddle atop the black dragon and pulled the straps that would hold him in tightly about his body.
“Will you wield a lance for us, Elezar?” Zarrek suggested. “It would be useful to have someone with a long range weapon to help us in battle.”
Nodding, the general shouted to one of the squires, who very soon came running up to Dettri with a ten-foot-long lance fashioned of wrought iron and decorated with gold pounded into the shape of a long-tailed dragon. Elezar fitted the handle of the lance in the groove of the saddle that was made for it; further towards the dragon’s neck, a wide hook supporting the shaft, so that it wouldn’t so easily fall from his grasp. The general had trained in its use since his own youth, and insisted that as many of the other dragoons as possible learn how to use it as well. It was highly-respected skill among the warriors, for it wasn’t at all something that was widely known.
Once they were all ready, Prince Zarrek gave N’tavi the signal to fly southward, and the old grey dragon leapt into the sky. Her wings spread wide, catching a stream of air that allowed her to glide gracefully away from the palace. Dettri unleashed his raucous roar and bounded after her, flapping his wings hard in order to pull up beside her. Velik and Gashar followed them, flying slightly higher as they trailed behind to ensure that no ill-meaning creature could take the prince and his general from behind.
As they grew further from the light of the palace, Zarrek closed his eyes and intoned one of the first spells he’d learned from the Temple of Métius.
“Mé’hallin, mék’hrrath, métzierrnn, vashkranna katz’vantij k’har vlé’zarrn.”
The words of the spell were easy and familiar to the prince, but he could feel the magic resisting him, reluctant to obey his command. Métius must have realized that the prince would surely move against him, just as his father was, and was trying to cut him off from any dark magic. Fortunately for the prince, his power was strong, and he was able to make the spell work.
When he opened his eyes, the darkness did not enshroud and hide everything; he could see through the shadows and the night even where elves normally could not. He wished he had enough power to share the same ability with Elezar, but he would have to be satisfied with the fact the dragons would be able to see through the darkness nearly as well as he now could.