Chapter Forty-Eight Pitch and Umbra
The sky outside was riddled with thunder, the lightning bolts worse than they’d been only an hour ago. Seeing the light of the champion’s magic, Jza took to the sky with Vénes and Shu-Giri on his back. He flew alongside Loracaz, back towards the highest reaches of the palace.
“So you have found your true self at last,” Jza said as they flew together.
“I feel as though I’m finally free,” Loracaz replied, “like this form has been locked away for centuries.”
“That’s because it has been,” Jza told him. “When your former incarnation passed away, the body was given a ceremony all its own, and it went back to the elements from which it had once been born. It’s good to see you finally restored to the magical hero that Jenh meant for you to be.”
Loracaz soared higher, feeling the elements within him dwelling together, the power coursing through him, ready to unleash itself upon any entity that would dare to threaten his kingdom or his goddess. He glided to the top of the tower that rose above the center of the palace and gazed at the unnatural storm that ravaged the southern sky. Terrible snarling echoed through the distant blackness, like the snapping and growling of two dragons locked in a furious and perilous battle. He squinted his eyes, trying to see anything through the blackness.
“Something gruesome is happening,” Loracaz breathed. “It makes my skin crawl just thinking about what might be going on out there.”
“What would you have us do?” Vénes asked the prince.
Loracaz shook his head. “I cannot ask you to go anywhere near that kind of danger.”
“It’s what we came here to do, if you remember.”
Shu-Giri pursed his lips at hearing Vénes say that, though he didn’t argue the point.
“No, Vénes,” Loracaz replied. “You didn’t come all this way to throw your life away to a demon that could kill you before you had a chance to summon a single spell. You have a new love to foster, and I will not snuff out that new flame by asking you to go out there with me.”
The sorcerer stared up at Loracaz, his eyes glowing white. “Allow me to show you,” he intoned in a voice that sounded otherworldly, “the power of a sorcerer who has been given the blessing of all four temples.”
As he spoke, the white glow spread out across his body, changing his robe from the colorfully-embroidered red to a pearlescent white, the old mixture of fabrics taking on the softness of the finest snowy silk. His wooden staff became platinum, engraved with the same sigils that it had been before. The sorcerer’s crystal at the top swirled with lines of pure white among the other colors, representing the dominance of the holy magic Vénes had conjured.
He turned and looked down at his Rrandah, who was also aglow, but with the other three realms of magic. He trembled as he worked to balance each of them together, but it didn’t seem that he would be overcome. “This is the unfortunate aspect of my power…” he said as he knelt down before Shu-Giri. “I regret that you must bear such a burden, my love.”
Shu-Giri had long known that taking on the Rrandah promise meant that he would have to help his sorcerer balance all the schools of magic. For a sorcerer to make the rounds to all four deities and strengthen his power presented a rare opportunity. If he then wielded the power of one of the gods greater than the others– for whatever purpose– he could shift his power in the other three to his Rrandah. It was what would have protected Vénes from his over-use of white magic back in Jzamneh Forest, and his Rrandah was glad to be helping him this time around.
“I’m all right,” he replied, accepting his sorcerer’s help in standing up. “This is my first time feeling the other powers like this. It’s incredible!”
Vénes smiled faintly, then looked to Loracaz. “Métius cannot hurt us like this, good prince. It’s better that we fly together and meet whatever is coming full-force.”
Loracaz watched the sorcerer closely for a long moment, then accepted that he could hold him own against the demon lord. He sensed a powerful magic that was not his own; it came from Vénes and his Rrandah, a deep power that carried with it the approval of the four gods.
“Let us hold back nothing!” the prince cried, leaping from the tower into the cold night air.
He sped southward, Jza gliding alongside him, rushing headlong towards the rumbling that filled the storm-clouds. With another clash of lightning, the sky let loose a torrential downpour, soaking Jza and the prince. A barrier of white light shielded both Vénes and Shu-Giri from the cold rain, and they flew on undaunted.
“There is a great evil coming,” Shu-Giri groaned, gritting his teeth as he felt the darkness filling him, strengthening itself within him.
“You’re stronger than it,” Vénes told him, “Don’t give in to it.”
Then he turned his eyes to the prince and called out, “It is coming!”
Loracaz nodded, slowing down until he hovered there in the darkness, the only light coming from his Zeah-clad body and the white glow of the sorcerer. He held his sword ready to strike, channeling Jenh’s magic into it as he chanted words of ancient power.
The growling rose to a scream, a horrendous sound to hear from the throat of a dragon. Loracaz felt something evil and black rush past him, but couldn’t see it clearly. From behind him, Vénes called forth spears of brilliant light, which he launched down into the darkness as though he knew where the evil had gone. One of them struck flesh, eliciting a screeching cry from whatever it had hit, and shedding light onto its back. It was twisted and scarred, but also terribly wounded, covered in gashes that bled with a thick black substance that filled the cold air with a wretched smell.
“It’s Him!” Shu-Giri shouted. “That is the beast of greatest evil!”
Vénes ordered Jza to dive after it, steadying himself as he focused Kearr’s power into his staff. Loracaz stayed close to him, ready to strike the monster with the Drramin Luar. When they were close enough, the beast turned a black and shining eye upon the hero and let out a deep, guttural growl that was full of hate and distaste and a deep-seated desire to kill.
Loracaz could scarcely see it in that darkness, but there were two beings before him. One was Métius, wretched and stinking, and the other was a black dragon, which clung to him no matter how hard he clawed at it in an effort to break free. As Loracaz watched the dragon snap and snarl, a disc of shining platinum appeared above the beast. It opened up and shed a wide beam of like onto the monstrosity that Métius had become, singing the flesh on its back and forcing from it another scream.
“The Eye of Kearr sees you, Métius!” Vénes shouted at the demon, his voice furious with all his years of pain. “You cannot hide in the shadows anymore!”
Métius grabbed the dragon by his arms and pulled him backwards, its claws rending his flesh into grotesque black ribbons. With growled curses, he flung it as far into the night air as he could and turned immediately to the sorcerer. The dragon eyed Vénes with utter contempt as he flapped his torn wings.
“I will devour your souls, mortal elves,” Métius snarled, “and feast upon them until there is nothing left to speak of your existence!”
“You don’t have the power!” Vénes called back, raising his fingers into the air. A bird of pure white appeared, perching there with its long and elegant feathers.
“The birds of Kearr’s Paradise,” Shu-Giri breathed, staring at it in awe.
The sorcerer spoke the sacred words of Kearr’s power as he sent the bird flying towards Métius. Loracaz couldn’t understand what good it would do at first, but it was soon followed by hundreds more, each glowing bird flying around the demonic creature. He swatted at them, trying to bat them away, only to find that their purity ate away at his evil form, bit by bit, until he was hardly more that a decrepit mass of flesh hovering before them.
“Vénes, look out!” Shu-Giri screamed, ducking lower as something flew close above his head.
Vénes look upwards, ready to strike any other evil that had come. He realized, however, that it wasn’t a demon, but the black dragon he’d been fighting with. Métius narrowed his eyes at it.
“Give up, Z’Lé. Give in to me!”
Hearing his father’s name, Loracaz turned, eyes wide in surprise. “Fa–”
“Loracaz, no!” Vénes called out, summoning a rain of platinum needles to riddle the demon’s flesh.
Métius had struck the prince, knocking him away like nothing more than a play-thing. His sword had loosened from his hands, and he dove after it, following the glow of the blade, refusing to let it be lost in the dark woodlands below. He didn’t see what happened next.
Z’Lé screeched and pounced onto the demon’s back. He bit into Métius’s neck, ignoring the disgusting stench of his rotting flesh, clawing at him in the rage igniting within after seeing his son attacked by the Destroyer.
Vénes didn’t answer his Rrandah at first, too appalled by the sight of what was going on. Then he shook his head. “He’s lost control,” he gasped, clinging to Shu-Giri’s hand.
“He’s going to kill this one.”
“He mustn’t,” Vénes whispered. “He knows that he mustn’t.”
Despite what Vénes and Shu-Giri both knew, Z’Lé did not hold back. He didn’t wait for Loracaz to return with his sword, but let the berserker-like rage consume him as he tore everything he could from the monstrosity. At a certain point, Métius no longer fought back. He gave in to what the dragon was doing to him while Jza and the elves watched in horror.
“Métius knows that He can manifest again,” Jza uttered, disappointment filling his voice.
“The next one is going to be much harder for Loracaz to banish,” Vénes added.
The remains of the horned monster gave way, bones falling away into the darkness. Black smoke rose up between them, visible only because of the light of the few remaining birds that flitted around them. Z’Lé was letting out a victory call as the shadows began to wrap around him, the blackness seeping into the wounds he’d sustained in his battle with the Dark One. As the last of the beast’s carcass fell away, the dragon felt the evil filling him, and he began to panic.
“Get out of me!” Z’Lé screeched, flapping his wings fervently as he rolled in the shadows. “Get out of me!”
Vénes’s eyes widened as he realized what was going on, and he directed Jza to find Loracaz, who was still far beneath them. The Zeah dragon gave no argument, but flew swiftly to meet the prince.
“We have to get out of here,” the sorcerer said when they were beside the prince, who had retrieved his sword.
“As soon as we’ve vanquished Métius,” Loracaz replied.
Shu-Giri shook his head. “We’re too late. You father has been taken with his power now. You cannot defeat Métius without also killing your father.”
Loracaz narrowed his eyes, staring up to where the black dragon struggled with the demon taking possession of his body. “So he’s given in to him,” he uttered, and then flew upwards.
Vénes laid a hand on Shu-Giri’s shoulder and shook his head mournfully. “He won’t listen to you now. He believes that his father accepted this.”
“All we can do now is protect him.”
“Can we not separate them?” Shu-Giri cried.
Vénes stared up towards Z’Lé before letting out a hopeless sigh. “After that pact…”
“How can it be impossible?!”
“Why was it impossible for me to save Lysander?” Vénes asked, trying to make his point understood to his beloved.
“No…” Shu-Giri whispered again as Jza began to follow Loracaz.
The prince flew in front of his father, glaring at the way the darkness covered his body like a set of ghostly armor, forcing its way into the farthest reaches of his body.
“This will be your final betrayal to my kingdom,” Loracaz told his father.
”I will not give in!” Z’Lé groaned, forcing his will to keep the demon’s spirit from coursing through his blood. But it came gurgled, half in Draconic, so that the prince couldn’t understand it.
As far as Loracaz was concerned, his father was letting Métius possess him, and he was prepared to strike him down at all costs.
“Zaa’tekrri loth va’or!” Z’Lé shouted, and he turned to fly back towards the palace, swift and sure, ignoring the hero who followed him.
“What did he say?” Shu-Giri asked Jza as they glided through the dark and the rain, keeping a safe distance from Z’Lé as they followed him.
“He was talking about the promise he made to Zarrek,” the Zeah dragon explained.
As the palace came into sight, a pair of blue dragons glided towards Z’Lé, calling out to him. In response, the black dragon only breathed fire, growling out harsh words and curses. The blue ones flew away, racing to the palace ahead of him. Z’Lé stopped, screeching as his mind filled with terrible encroaching shadows. It was harder for him to resist the evil, to fight back long enough to see his son one more time. He knew what would happen when Loracaz caught up with him, and much as he knew it had to happen, he also intended to keep his promise.
At the palace, Velik and Gashar landed on the platform among the other dragons, who were all exhausted, their riders taking a few moments to rest before General Elezar forced them into the skies once again. If they weren’t careful, the thrall bats would swoop down, more powerful winged demons following them. It was a struggle to keep the evil hordes away from the palace, but the men forced up the last of their strength and fought bravely.
“Dettri,” Gashar said to Elezar’s dragon in Draconic, “Where is Zarrek?”
“A medic was sent to his room to ensure he didn’t fall asleep,” Dettri told him. “I presume that is where the prince remains.”
“What do you need with Prince Zarrek?” General Elezar asked the blue dragon.
“His father approaches,” Velik explained.
Elezar understood at once what the dragon meant. Rather than send a squire to find him, the general himself rushed into the palace to find Zarrek and bing him outside to see his father. Velik took flight again, leaving Gashar to await his half-brother on the platform. He flew towards Z’Lé, who growled a warning to him.
“Father, Zarrek is in the palace. Your general has gone to find him for you.”
Z’Lé writhed in pain, unable to speak. His eyes glared at Velik with an inner fire that threatened to rend him asunder.
“Darrithi…” Velik repeated, giving his father a worried look.
The black dragon didn’t stay to explain anything. He turned, eying the tower at the center of the palace, and rushed towards it with a ravenous growl.
“I will destroy you, demon!” a voice cried from behind. “Get out of my kingdom!”
Velik turned to see Prince Loracaz rushing towards him on wings made of pure Zeah, screaming about demons and Jenh. The dragon moved out of the way to allow Loracaz to speed past him, chasing his father towards the tower.
“N’arrithi z’hrra tze Métius olklathmarr,” Velik said when next Jza came up beside him, his voice saddened as though he’d just witnessed the worst tragedy he could imagine.
“Yes, Velik,” Jza replied in Draconic. “Your father has been possessed by the demon god. I am so sorry. We did all that we could…”
“I’m sure you did,” Velik said.
Vénes gazed up at him, curious about the blue dragon, but also empathizing with him; it wasn’t often that Draconic was made to sound so sad. With a sigh, he took Shu-Giri’s hand and watched Loracaz follow Z’Lé, his sword blazing with Jenh’s power. There could be no stopping Her champion now; even if they’d been able to, doing so would allow Métius to unleash his true form upon the land.
Z’Lé reached the tower and clung to the top of it, his claws digging into the tiles of the roof, cracking them as he screamed. Zeah sparked and swirled around him, reacting with the evil that was forcing its way into him. Should he lose his focus, he would be taken over entirely and instantly; he seemed to realize that perching on the tower, and thereby passing within the barrier, would slow the demon lord’s assault on his body. Nobody else knew the agony, the warring turmoil, that wracked his body as resisted Métius with all of his will.