Chapter Forty-Six From Decay Comes Terror
The prince’s sky-bound bliss didn’t last for long. As Loracaz approached the first village that laid beyond the fields and farmlands outside the capital city, he could hear the clatter and clanging of battle, the dense thud of axes and swords hitting the flesh of beasts. He paused when he caught sight at what the soldiers that were fighting. Darting out of the grassy hills, rushing between the village houses, were monsters worthy of the Abyss itself, twisted versions of creatures from the plains and forests that seemed as though they had been corrupted by the Destroyer’s evil.
The fur of the wolves h’d just crawled out of a swamp covered with infected wounds. Their limbs moved as though they were broken and twisted, causing them great pain. Nevertheless, they pressed on, charging at any mortal being they could find.
Fortunately, the soldiers of the visiting armies had done as they’d been asked, which had been to tell the villagers to either leave to one of the villages less likely to be attacked, or to shut themselves tightly inside their homes. The only people left outside were well-armored and well-armed, and they laid the monsters to waste with little effort.
Besides the wolves, there were also bears wild with rage and hate, and ferocious boars corrupted by the evil spirits that Métius had let loose upon Onsira. Loracaz spied a team of soldiers trying to neutralize a massive black bear, but they could hardly get it under control before it smacked one of them away and shoved another to the ground. It growled in the soldier’s face, and Loracaz knew he was in mortal danger. He summoned forth the quickest magical weapon that he could: a spear of fiery red crystal, glowing inside with bright embers. He could feel Veniishu’s heat burning with Tezanth’s solid crystal, hot enough to scorch the flesh of anyone who touched. Unharmed by his own power, he had time enough to take aim at the frenzied beast below.
Loracaz pulled his arm back, then thrust the glowing spear downwards. It whistled faintly through the chill air, stopping only when it plunged deep into the bear’s back, piercing its heart and singing the flesh from the inside. It let out a death cry that echoed all the way back to the Abyss, where the beast-master Relliké spat and cursed at the realization that the goddess’s hero was now working against him.
Panting, the soldier whose life he’d saved gazed up at him. What he saw was Jenh’s golden-green light encasing a fellow elf, fae-like wings lifting him into the air as no other had been lifted before. He called out his gratitude, but the figure didn’t stay to talk. The prince knew the creatures wouldn’t stop coming; he could stay in that village all night, killing corrupted animals with Jenh’s magic, but the only way to put a final stop to their onslaught was to banish their master from the mortal world.
Loracaz flew higher, past that village and beyond the next one, towards the mountains where the blackness was darkest. His heart pounded with fear as he approached it, but the desire to turn back didn’t stay with him for long. He pressed on, feeling the pull, the voice of the goddess urging him ever onward.
“Loracaz!” The voice seemed closer, louder, more real than the pulse of the goddess that beat through him.
Loracaz gazed around himself, then found in the darkness the sage-green dragon that Sir Tikaj rode.
“I thought I’d lost you,” the dragoon called out to him. “Do you know which way we should be going?”
Loracaz glided closer to Sir Tikaj and flew alongside him as he replied, “I can sense Him somehow, higher up in the mountains.”
Together they passed the final village, which sat at the foot of the mountains, then ascended higher, up into the jagged peaks of Dragonridge. Through the utter blackness, they could see the red light of fire, the flames dancing back and forth, leaping and descending. Once they broke above the treeline, Loracaz beheld an awful scene. Few trees grew that high on the mountain, where there were only narrow rocky ledges, and most of them had been knocked over by the battle that was going on there. Most of what still stood was crackling with the heat of fire, burning as the black dragon nearby crouched beneath a monster three times his size.
“What is that awful stench?” Loracaz asked, covering his mouth and nose as he glided backwards. Thankfully, neither of the beasts had yet to notice his presence.
“’Tis the Lord of the Abyss,” Sir Tikaj told him, pulling on Kestrel’s reigns as he struggled to turn his restless dragon away from the battle. “It seems that He aims to devour that black dragon.”
Loracaz stared down at the monstrosity before them, hardly able to believe what he saw. “That is all He is? A creature like an awful undead dragon?”
“He manifests in many ways,” Tikaj reminded him. “I’m sure this is but one of the many forms He’s able to take. Be warned, Your Highness; He has taken a physical form, but it will become worse, larger and more powerful as His power on the mortal plane grows.”
Below them, the black dragon growled as though warning the greater beast away. He shifted uneasily, but didn’t stray far from where he’d planted himself. When Métius snapped at him, he rose up, breathing fire at Him as he let out a terrible scream.
“You cannot protect him forever,” Métius said in a voice like gravel, deep and rough, rumbling through the stone around them.
The black dragon roared back, speaking harsh words in Draconic.
The prince stared down at the dragon, realizing that the red hue of his horns was not the reflection of the flames, but his actual colors pattern. Once he caught the metallic glimmer of his scales, Loracaz remembered that there was only one dragon he’d ever seen like that. “My father,” he breathed, looking to Sir Tikaj. “That dragon is Z’Lé!”
“So we’ve found him,” Tikaj noted as he watched the scene below.
“Fighting Métius just as your brother had thought,” another voice, gruffer and deeper than Tikaj’s, added.
They looked up to see another dragon hovering in the shadows, his rider leaning low in the saddle. Loracaz flew up to him, the glow of Zeah shedding light on Dettri, whose wings flapped slowly to keep them in place.
“General Elezar…” the prince said, staring at the armored man, who was holding a wad of bandages against his dragon’s neck. Blood dripped from a series of scratches down into the darkness below them. “What… what happened to your dragon?”
“What does it look like?” Elezar snarled, irritated at the prince’s ignorance. “N’tavi nearly took us down with her!”
“N’tavi?” Hearing the other dragon’s name, Sir Tikaj flew closer. “Stop belittling your prince and tell us plainly what happened, general.”
Elezar glared at the Dragoon. “Help me with these bandages first. I’m not going to let Dettri lose his life too!”
Loracaz’s eyes widened, and he glanced behind him at Tikaj, then back to Dettri. He took some of the bandages from Elezar and helped him wrap them around the wounds on the dragon’s neck, even while he groaned in pain. With the bleeding thus under control, the prince looked up at Elezar.
“Who attacked you?”
“You’re a fool, just like your brother says,” Elezar told him, his words angry and biting. Still, he went on to explain what had happened. “I rode here with Prince Zarrek. As soon as he saw his father, he rushed to help him, thinking that monstrosity you see was only a lesser demon.”
“But it’s Métius Himself,” Tikaj said, eying the battle beyond warily.
“At least you can tell that much. N’tavi didn’t stand a chance against something that much bigger than her. He bit into her and broke her wings, and when she fell, she clawed at Dettri for support and nearly took him down with her.”
“You mean to say that N’tavi…” Sir Tikaj couldn’t finish the question.
“Dead.” The word came from Elezar’s lips cold and final, completely devoid of any care for the fallen dragon.
Sir Tikaj stared at him, appalled that he could be so uncaring.
“What about my brother?” Loracaz asked, worried that he, too, had descended into the blackness beneath them.
Elezar pointed, and Loracaz turned to see that he’d indicated his father, who still crouched on the mountaintop, locked in battle with Métius.
“What did my father–”
“He’s protecting him!” Elezar shouted, exasperated that Loracaz didn’t understand.
“He’s fighting Métius to keep him for consuming Zarrek,” Sir Tikaj said, his voice shaking. “My liege, if he kills your brother…”
Loracaz shook his head, grabbing the sword at his hip. “I’m not going to let that happen!” Staring down at the battle, he focused on each element of Zeah, glowing brighter as each one sparked to life sparking to life.
“Fretsa ke Jza, frelaara ke Jza,” he whispered to the wind as it blew across him. He chanted the words again before sending the stream of air back towards the palace, hoping that it would reach its recipient swiftly.
Then, with his sword drawn, Loracaz stretched his wings, let out a mighty battle call, and lunged towards Métius. He shot through the air faster than he could ever remember moving, the Drramin Luar whistling as it cut through the wind. The blade struck the demon’s arm, inciting a terrible cry from him as it sliced through the fetid flesh. It burned through him and severed the limb clean through. It singed the demon’s mortal form with a hiss, and what was left dripped with a substance too rancid and foul to be blood. Loracaz clung to the thick black hair of the monster as he watched its arm fall away, down towards the darkness. Before it descended too far, however, it dissolved into a ghostly grey smoke and disappeared as though it had returned to the Abyss.
Z’Lé took his chance, seeing that Métius was busy with the hero-prince, and grabbed Zarrek from the ground behind him. He limped to the edge of the mountain, blood gushing down an injured leg, and leapt into the air. His wings, at least, hadn’t been damaged. Flying towards Dettri, he craned his neck to look back at the gold-green figure who’d severed the Destroyer’s arm.
“Is that my son?” he asked when he was closer to his general.
“It is, Your Majesty,” Elezar replied. “It appears that he’s taken on a great deal of Jenh’s power this evening.”
“So he is what his mother believes in,” Z’Lé intoned, watching the scene curiously. For all the contempt in his voice, he also revealed a certain amount of awe at what his son had become. “Some kind of hero come to save Onsira from Métius.”
“And with that power, he saved you and Zarrek as well,” Sir Tikaj added.
“I saved Zarrek!” Z’Lé snapped back. “You weren’t here to see it– he would have fallen with N’tavi had I not caught him.”
Sir Tikaj knew better than to remind his emperor of what Prince Loracaz had just done in order for him to get Zarrek further away from Métius, so he said nothing more.
“Take the boy,” Z’Lé ordered Elezar, setting Zarrek in front of him as carefully as he could manage.
Elezar held the youth’s limp body tightly, looking him over to see what injury he’d sustained. His helmet was dented, and blood poured down his head, soaking his hair. The general cursed under his breath and quickly pulled the extra straps of the saddle around Zarrek’s body. Z’Lé left them to dive back into the battle as he began to scrounge through the saddlebags in search of anything he could use to stop the boy’s bleeding. He’d used all of his bandages on Dettri, and would have to improvise.
He pulled the bloody helmet from Zarrek’s head and shoved it into one of the bags, then saw the injury through a tear in his cloth cap. It was sticky with blood, but Elezar was able to remove it and throw it down into the darkness. An old and torn tabard was the best that he could find, and he was glad for once that he’d never bothered to remove it from his pack. With his dagger, he cut it into rough, uneven strips, pressed a bundle of them onto the gash in the boy’s skull, and quickly wrapped the rest as tightly as he could around his head. Zarrek let out a low groan, but didn’t awaken; he only laid against Elezar’s chest as the general stared down at the scene below.
“Should I not go to him?” Sir Tikaj asked, worried about the way Loracaz was crawling up the demon’s shoulder.
“Get yourself killed for what I care,” Elezar told him. “Zarrek certainly almost did.”
Tikaj swallowed hard, eying the general carefully. He was right, he knew; if Z’Lé could hardly stave off the beast, if Loracaz had only just severed its arm, what more could a dragoon do? He held his tongue as he watched the battle.
“Loracaz!” Z’Lé growled, flying low over his son.
The prince looked up at him, pausing in his climb and holding on tightly.
“Have you lost your mind, boy?! I sent word that I would fight this battle myself!”
“I cannot simply wait at the palace,” Loracaz called back as Métius shook and grappled for him, the hulking mass of his body writhing with the pain of his wound. He could feel the flesh give beneath his boots, half-rotten and stinking of things long dead.
“I was fine until you and Zarrek showed up to interrupt us!” Z’Lé flew in circles around Métius, trying to find the best point at which to strike.
“You can’t defeat him, Father,” Loracaz shouted, raising his blade. “You were the one who caused all of this in the first place!”
The prince summoned the full force of Zeah into his Drramin Luar, and then plunged it into the Demon Lord’s back with the greatest battle cry he could muster. Métius screamed in agony, arching his back and forcing Loracaz to lose his footing. Seeing that he now clung to the blade for dear life, Z’Lé cursed his son’s poorly-thought-out move and released from his throat a burst of flame. It singed the fine black fur on the Destroyer’s face, as well as some of the loathsome skin beneath it. Shaking his head to try to get away from it, Métius writhed and turned, clawing at the dragon with his remaining arm. Loracaz took that opportunity to drag his sword down the monster’s back, rending an immense gash through his flesh.
Blinded by pain, Métius let out a screech that echoed down the mountainside and back to the evil world of the Abyss. Z’Lé glided around him and swooped down to grab his son, sword and all, then flapped his wings as hard as he could to get them both away from the Dark One. Loracaz squirmed in his claws, demanding to be set free.
“I can defeat him!” he cried to His father.
“You’re a fool to believe that,” Z’Lé told him as he hovered beside his general, eying his other son’s condition carefully. “This is only the second iteration of his physical manifestation, Loracaz. I was able to take down the first one, but this second one…”
“It emerged from the corpse of the first. Just watch.”
Loracaz craned his head to gaze down at Métius. The gash is his back was expanding with the burn of Zeah, turning it into a gaping hole. The monster’s body collapsed, its eyes now blank, and the prince would have thought him dead if it weren’t for the stirring of something deep beneath its ribs. Two sets of claws pierced through the bones, cracking them open as though they were dry and brittle. The spine of the monster that Loracaz was able to injure collapsed, and a set of jaws emerged from it, long and filled with three sets of jagged teeth, some of them already rotted. They snapped at the air voraciously, trying in its fury to catch the mortals who’d harmed it.
“Each manifestation is worse than the last,” Z’Lé told them. “We need to leave now, before it gets out of there and takes flight.”
At first, the prince couldn’t find the right words to say. He only watched in terror as the new monster pushed through the carcass of the former one, larger and nastier than the last. Its horns curled back in jagged waves, the same horns most often used to represent Métius. The body of the dead monster gave way as more and more of this new beast emerged, and Z’Lé could feel his son’s body shake in his claws.
“How is that even possible?” Loracaz asked.
“Look around you, Loracaz,” his father told him. “This darkness is no different from the Abyss, and Métius has summoned it here to allow Him to get through. I found out the hard way that He couldn’t get His physical form right the first time; you’re only helping Him by killing these bodies. Once His true form emerges, we’re all damned.”
“By what you say, Your Majesty,” Sir Tikaj said, worry filling his tone, “He cannot be defeated.”
With a rumbling growl, Z’Lé turned and began flying back towards the palace. It would take this form much longer to break free of that carcass, he knew, and they had to escape before it was loose upon Onsira. When they were a safe distance away, he let Loracaz loose to fly on his own.
“If you’re going to fight him,” Z’Lé told his son, “it will have to be in a battle that banishes Him from this mortal world, back to the Abyss. You will have to restore the seal of the worlds.”
“But how–” the dragoon began.
Z’Lé snarled, and Sir Tikaj shut his mouth.