Chapter Forty-Five The Wings of the Champion
Back on the platform, Sir Tikaj emerged in his gold-edged armor and cloak of white fur lined with golden silk. The crowned prince was at his side, the Drramin Luar jutting out behind him like the tail of a dragon. The protective gear that Mearrkahal had helped him select was light and flexible, meant to allow him to move freely in order to properly use his sword. He wore a gambeson of green leather, stitched with sturdy golden thread, and long tanned leather gloves, the backs reinforced with embossed metal plates.
Maille protected his legs, as did his tall boots, both of which also had metal plates added to strengthen them. His helmet was tall and narrow, well-fitted but leaving him plenty of visibility. The sides came down low on either side of his jaw, and were etched with fine lines that represented his heritage. He didn’t wear nearly as much armor as the soldiers and dragoons, knowing that he was to rely on his magic.
They stepped out onto the platform, the sorcerer and his Rrandah following them, along with High Priestess Liriel, all of them gazing around in wonder at how empty everything looked. Seeing his rider, Vergrrith glided down from the higher reaches of the palace to greet the party.
“Good evening, Prince Loracaz, Sir Tikaj,” he said as he sat before them. “And to you as well, lady priestess.”
“If only it were so good, Vergrrith,” the dragoon replied. “Where have all the other dragons gone?”
“Prince Zarrek saw to it that they were all sent out to defend the kingdom and fight the evil,” the green dragon replied.
Sir Tikaj raised a brow in surprise. “I didn’t think that he had such authority.”
“He doesn’t,” Loracaz affirmed.
“In General Elezar’s eyes, he has full authority, I’m afraid,” Vergrrith told them. “He is as loyal to the young prince as he was to the emperor.”
“You’re certain that they fly to defend Onsira?” Vénes wanted to know.
“They spoke only of that,” Vergrrith confirmed.
“Prince Loracaz,” Vénes said as he turned to him, “don’t let yourself think that Zarrek would send the dragoons out to help Métius. You heard him say yourself that he wouldn’t give the kingdom over to the Demon Lord. He is your ally this evening, even if you’ve never believed that you and he would see eye-to-eye on anything.”
Loracaz saw no choice but to agree with Vénes; there really was nothing to prove otherwise. “All these years,” Loracaz began with a begrudging sigh, “they insisted that Métius have a place in this kingdom. He deserved a temple here, they said, and worshipers. And now look at them, trying to keep the Destroyer out of Onsira. What good did that Temple of Darkness ever do?”
“I think I can understand some of it; your father thought he had things under control,” Vénes explained. “He thought he could fulfill the pact and that Onsira would be free of his influence.”
“But his obsession with your mother blinded him,” Shu-Giri added, “and he was so in love with her that he was ignorant of what the Lord of Nightmares planned to do once the pact was fulfilled.”
“You mean once Métius had possession of their third child,” Sir Tikaj muttered, his voice gruff and tense.
“That would have been the worst tragedy,” Shu-Giri conceded, his voice saddened. “Thankfully, we’ve avoided it. I don’t think they’ll be having any more children.”
Loracaz nodded, but gave a heavy sigh at the reminder of what might have happened. “Then this is all there is left to do: ensure that Métius doesn’t manifest his entire physical form here in Onsira.”
“As long as you and Arialla yet live, he will find that exceedingly difficult,” Liriel explained for them. “He will only be able to bring part of His physical form here, and once He does, He will do everything He can to break down your barriers, destroy our temple and the palace, and kill everyone in the royal family. Even your brother will not be safe, my beloved prince.”
“Nor your father, who failed him so deeply,” Vénes reminded him.
Liriel nodded. “Loracaz,” she added, squeezing his arm tightly, “He might even go after your extended family… anyone He fears might have enough of the champion’s lineage in them to… to…” She couldn’t continue, and instead let him embrace her.
With a heavy heart, Loracaz gazed at the southern sky. Ser’s light was gone, and only the distant starlight remained in the moonless sky. Even Mehiil had entered its new phase and was hidden away that night. Roiling clouds cloaked the evening sky, and were starting to block out the starlight. They did nothing to reflect the light of the magic that the dragons were using far beyond, which told Vénes that those clouds were quite unnatural.
“Those aren’t storm-clouds,” the sorcerer informed his allies. “It’s the same darkness that surrounds the temple of Métius, the same evil that met us in the mountains of Thiizav.”
“Métius,” Shu-Giri whispered, squeezing his hand.
“It’s getting worse as we waste time out here,” Sir Tikaj added.
Vénes nodded to him and gave him a worried look. “You should give him the treasure,” he told his lover, his voice cracking.
Vénes was referring to the small chest that Shu-Giri had sent to him weeks earlier. Prince Loracaz had taken a look at it, but hadn’t known what to do with it, and so it had sat in its box awaiting an explanation. He’d handed it to Shu-Giri a little while ago, who had carried outside with them, knowing that it was time that they put it to use.
“We know that you are Jenh’s champion, your highness,” Shu-Giri began, holding the small chest in both his hands, “and that you have all of her power. Despite that, I felt that this would be of great use to you, somehow.”
Vénes opened the lid for him, revealing a pendant that hung from a chain of fine crystal, citrine and amber alternating with jade and emeralds. How anyone has fashioned such a chain, the prince could not fathom. The pendant itself was a pair of wings, somewhat fae and somewhat angelic, made of platinum and edged in golden filigree. As Loracaz stepped closer to it, the pendant gave off a soft glow, just as it had the last time he’d gazed at it. Liriel leaned in close to get a look at what he was being given.
“Oh my!” she gasped as she stepped back, looking between Shu-Giri and her beloved prince.
“What’s wrong?” Loracaz asked her.
“That pendant…” she whispered. Then to Shu-Giri she asked, “Where did you get something so magnificent?”
“It’s been in my home for many generations,” the treasure-hunter replied. “Do you know something about it?”
“And now you felt the need to give it to Loracaz?” she pressed, not bothering to answer him first.
“Well, yes. I felt that he might be able to put it to good use. It seems to me that you know what it actually is, milady priestess.”
“I do,” she nodded, then looked up at her beloved. “It’s the Wings of the Hero. I thought that it was only a story, Loracaz.”
“Wings of the Hero?” he asked, looking down at the pendant.
Sir Tikaj gazed at it as well, fascinated by the intricate beauty of the gift. “Blessed goddess, the virtue of her gifts knows no end!”
“You mean to say that this is something important?” the prince asked.
“There are several variations on the tale,” Liriel explained, “Some say that it was made by Jenh Herself, others by Her greatest priest, and one says that Loracaz I made it for his descendant.”
Shu-Giri, having never heard such a story before, looked to Vénes, who only shrugged. It seemed also that Sir Tikaj had yet to hear such a tale.
“It used to be a more popular story,” Liriel explained for them, “although now it’s only traded among the clergy.”
“First the Window of Jenh’s Soul, and now a winged pendant…” Loracaz breathed.
“Not to mention the Zeah dragon, Jza,” Liriel reminded him. Then she quoted one of the books of legend, “‘The hero shall have everything so that he may safeguard the Glorious Kingdom of Jenh. By spear and by wing, he shall fend off all who threaten Legend, and shall bring light to the darkness and–’.”
“‘And safety to the endangered,’” Shu-Giri finished with her. “I remember that one, but I always thought the wings were a reference to the other races being his allies, not to the hero taking flight. He even has Jza; why should he need wings of his own?”
“It certainly could do no harm,” Vénes replied, looking down at the pendant. “The more Loracaz has at his disposal, the better. Our hero isn’t simply freeing the goddess from a crystal this time. Now he has an entire kingdom to protect, and Métius wants it with a terrible vengeance.”
“What am I meant to do with it?” Loracaz asked.
“With this relic,” Liriel told him, “you shall have to find out by trying. As I said, I thought the winged pendant was only a myth. The window we at least knew existed, though we had no idea as to where. But this…”
Liriel leaned over the box and lifted the delicate pendant from its bed of yellow and green silk, gazing at the way it shone in the torchlight of the palace and the dim glow of the protective sphere of Zeah above them. She stepped over to her beloved prince and bade him to kneel before her, and when he did, she placed the chain around his neck. Placing a kiss upon he head, she whispered for him to rise again, and smiled up at him.
“You are our hero, Loracaz. Everyone in Onsira is counting on you to protect us from the evil that’s coming.” Liriel held both his hands tightly as she spoke to him, knowing that he would be facing the most danger of all. “I came here this evening to say that you have Jenh’s blessing. You alone are Her champion and the guardian of Onsira, and we are lucky to have you.”
With her words said, Liriel wrapped an arm around her prince’s neck and pulled him close. Their lips met, and she held him close for several long minutes, making sure there was no question as to whether he knew exactly how much she loved him. They ignored the fact that there were others present; it didn’t matter, because Loracaz was about to go into battle to defend everything they knew. Still she blushed, remembering the night before as their kiss made her heart pound.
“I love you,” she whispered into the prince’s ear, “just as Jenh loves her hero.”
And then she whispered to him ancient words that even she didn’t know the meaning of, words as old as the first days of Jenh’s presence among the elves. Loracaz didn’t understand their meaning directly, but as she placed one last kiss on his forehead, he felt as though he could catch a glimpse of understanding about what they conveyed. He could put no Elvan words to what she’d uttered, but that didn’t matter; it was still as though Jenh herself had just spoken to him. It caused a rush of energy to flow through his body, and Loracaz felt his physical form become fortified. He felt lighter, as well.
High Priestess Liriel gasped and stepped back as her beloved prince lifted from the stones on which he stood, glowing with the light of Zeah. He focused on the power that swelled within his very being, feeling it spark and ripple through his veins until it burst. The magic emerged at his back, unfolding like a butterfly fresh from its cocoon as a pair of gold-green wings. They unfurled like the feathery and expansive wings possessed by the angelic Starr, yet seemed as though they were made of the same delicate membranes by which the fae flew. Loracaz stretched them out as far as they would go, flapping them a few times to rise higher, Jenh’s message growing clearer in his mind.
Loracaz gazed into the southern skies for a long moment, peering as far into the distance as he could make out. Then he descended, standing before Liriel and the others, his body aglow with power.
“Lor…” she whispered as she gazed at him.
He looked to her as he flexed his wings, and she could see that the golden-green shine in his eyes was even brighter now. “Never had I imagined that Zeah would give me flight like this,” he told her. “It seems that my power growns by the hour.”
Liriel gave him a proud smile. “I never doubted that it would.”
“You should get back to the temple,” Loracaz told the priestess, glancing back to the sky. “They’re coming, and it won’t be safe here.”
Liriel nodded, and let him take her into his arms one last time before leaving, treasuring their last kiss.
“Go straight to the temple without stopping,” he added as she retreated to the doors that led into the hallway.
“I shall,” she promised, and she disappeared into the palace.
Loracaz turned to the stunned men beside him and said, “If you need anything at all, Jza will be able to assist you. He will listen to you, I promise.” He pointed to the high reaches of the palace, where the Zeah dragon had coiled himself and waited, ready to spring should he be summoned.
Shu-Giri could only nod, too stunned to do anything more than stare at the heroic prince before him. Vénes, nearly as stunned, was at least able to speak. “You really do look the part, Your Highness. It’s incredible that Shu-Giri chose now to give you this treasure.”
“It’s what Jenh meant to see happen,” Loracaz replied. “I must go, Vénes. I don’t need to remind you to look after each other; use whatever magic you can to keep Métius and my father from hurting anyone, my mother especially. She’s suffered enough already.”
“We shall,” the sorcerer replied. “Go safely, princely hero. Do what you were born to do.”
Loracaz nodded, then looked to the knight beside him. “It’s time that we fly, Tikaj. We cannot wait for Métius to come here.”
“I’m at your service,” the knight replied.
Empress Arialla had sent him out with the prince as she took refuge in the tower with Sir Tamlin, Mearrk’hal, and Vincente, and he was ready to serve the prince in any way he could.
“Take Vergrrith and come with me. We’re going to find my father.”
“By your command,” Sir Tikaj said with a bow. He climbed onto his dragon’s back, securing himself with the saddle’s belt, and took to the sky with only a few words to Vergrrith.
Loracaz watched them soar for a moment before he took off running down the platform. When he had the momentum, he leaped from the ancient stones and into the air, letting his wings carry him high into the night winds. He knew that his brother was out there, flying with the dragons, but he had no idea which dragon was his, nor how far he’d gotten.
What he did know, down to his core, was that Zarrek was flying to their father. And where Z’Lé was, so too was Métius, battling with the emperor for control of Onsira and the rest of Manastaecies. In all the chaos, he lost sight of Vergrrith, and soon found himself flying on his own.
As he flew on, the other dragons made way for him, pausing for only a moment here and there to gaze in awe at the magic-winged elf who glided past them. He narrowly avoided the murder of thrall bats that were still pouring from the shadows around the Temple of Métius, but was saved from the bite of the first one by a bolt of lightning. Loracaz looked over to find a dragon with scales the color of the night sky in the summer when all the moons were out.
Gliging backwards, Loracaz drew his sword and imbued it with elemental magic strong enough to destroy several of the bats with one swing. They were not intelligent creatures by far, for their strength was in their numbers and not their minds, and their only purpose was to inject enough venom into their victims to bend their minds to the will of Métius.
“Get out of here!” another dragon screamed, his Elvan so thick with a Draconic accent that at first Loracaz didn’t realize that he was using Elvan at all. He looked up to see him breathe blue fire onto a thrall bat that was diving at him from above.
“We cannot protect you and keep the swarm low,” the lightning dragon told him.
“Just go!” the other screeched again.
Loracaz nodded and took off past the dark temple, out of ear’s reach of the squeals and shrieks of the bats. Beyond the temple was a vast space that was empty and quiet, and the prince could revel in the feeling of his body floating through the cool night air. He’d never imagined that he would be flying without being saddled on the back of a dragon, and found that he loved the thrill of flying free and unbounded, pure and unfettered. Having been born with the Zeah of the wind, he felt at home with the breezes that rolled around him.