Chapter Forty-Nine Scales of Blue and Wings of Gold
Inside the tower, Arialla startled at the sound of cracking stone. She gazed upwards, grabbing the hand nearest her instinctively as dust and small chunks of broken stones rained down from the highest reaches. She could hear the howling of a dragon coming from outside, and feared what sort of beast could damage the ancient tower so easily.
“Mearrk’hal, what is that?”
“This may not be the safest place for us, after all,” the shaman replied, his voice coming from further away than the queen had expected it to.
Arialla turned and realized that the had sh’d grabbed was Vincent’s. She didn’t pull back right away, not wanting to insult him. He smiled to her, giving her fingers a gentle, reassuring squeeze.
“We’ll make sure you get to safety if the tower is compromised, dear empress,” the bard told her.
“I thank you, Vincent.” she replied.
Sir Tamlin looked over at Mearrk’hal. “The tower isn’t supposed to be susceptible to damage like this. What could be that powerful?”
The shaman gave her a serious look, knowing full well about the old enchantments the tower was under. “It’s either someone who’s been sanctioned to be part of the royal family… or Métius Himself.” As he said the final word, the sound of rain began to patter down against the tower.
“Who in the family would–” Vincent stopped himself, realized what Mearrk’hal had been trying to say. “You mean Z’Lé? Has he gone completely mad?!”
“If he has, then there’s no stopping him,” Mearrk’hal noted. “Arialla, how do we get to the basement?”
The queen couldn’t answer Mearrk’hal right away. She was petrified, too shocked that her k’hurin was attacking the tower to make any move to save herself.
“Arialla, please!” Vincent implored her as thunder roared through the sky and the dragon gave another cry.
The next sound was that of shattering glass. Shards of yellow and green plummeted to the floor, breaking into even smaller pieces, followed by several chunks of stone and tile.
“Z’Lé…” Arialla whispered, her voice quavering as she stared upwards, trying to see what was going on. All she could make out, however, was a faint flash of fiery red.
“My liege,” Tamlin said, laying a hand on the empress’s shoulder, “we need your guidance.”
Mearrk’hal searched the main hall for any other doors besides the entrance. “I don’t know where Z’Lé got strength like that from; he shouldn’t be able to do this.” As he got further away, he called out, “You’ll have to carry her, Vincent, if she can’t walk with us. We can’t stay here!”
Vincent nodded and looked to Arialla. “Do forgive me, gentle empress.”
With Arialla still staring up into the darkness, where errant raindrops found their way inside, the bard wrapped his arms around her waist and lifted her up, letting her torso lay across his shoulder. She was light from being so weary of late, not to mention the blood she’d lost and her refusal to eat properly. Tamlin chose not to object, knowing that she could better defend her empress if she wasn’t encumbered.
As Vincent and Tamlin followed Mearrk’hal along a wall, keeping safe under the balcony formed by the floor above them, the creature outside shrieked into the gaping hole of the tower’s roof, startling Arialla so badly that she fainted in his arms.
“Do you really believe that it’s Z’Lé out there?” Vincent asked.
Mearrk’hal led him behind the dais where Loracaz had been crowned only a few months earlier, trying to remember ever seeing another door. “I would rather it be him than Métius right now, son.”
Vincent looked around worriedly as the snarling dragon dragged his claws across the roof tiles. He was shouting in Draconic, and at one point the bard heard the the name of the Destroyer, which only worsened his fear of might happened if the beast got inside.
“Aamh, if there was ever a time to give your bard the gift of finding trapdoors…” he began in a trembling voice. He hummed to himself a tune from an old play that had a scene in which the hero, which he often played, had to escape from a burning tavern, to try to keep from thinking about the danger he and the empress were in.
“Of course!” Mearrk’hal called out, kneeling down behind a shelf.
“Glory be to Aamh!” Vincent cheered. He ran over to the shaman as he rolled back the dusty end of a rug and lifted a panel in the floor. “All we need now is light.”
Outside, the cold rain wasn’t making it any easier for Z’Lé to resist the demon god. Worse still, Loracaz was coming, followed by more than a dozen thrall bats. He breathed as much fire as he could muster, given that Métius limited the power of his Zeah, in an effort to warn the prince of the danger that chased after him.
The prince, on the other hand, didn’t see the fire as a cautionary signal. “If it’s a fight you want, Father, then you shall have it!” Loracaz readied his sword, beginning the chant that would fill his blade with the power that would seal Métius away once and for all.
Z’Lé didn’t try explaining anything to his son. With an angry growl, he leapt into the sky, flying towards the bats, swatting at them in a desperate attempt to keep Loracaz from being bitten. The prince, still unable to understand what his father was doing, spread his wings wider, focusing on the magic in his blade. His chanting became a deep hum, a surge of golden-green light, then gave way, interrupted as his body was knocked aside by a creature far bigger than himself. Loracaz looked up to see a blue-scaled dragon glaring down at him, ready to strike again if he made the wrong move.
“Nath n’darrithi blye ko’iirak!”
The blue dragon snarled. “Oor divan glatath!”
“I already told you, Velik,” a voice called out from the shadows. “He doesn’t understand a word of Draconic. Insult him for it all you want, but it won’t change that fact.”
“Zarrek…?” Loracaz said, squinting to see he brother sitting on the back of a second blue dragon. “Get back inside the palace, Zarrek. Our father has given in to Métius, and he’s gone wild with power. I’ll let you know when this is over.”
“No!” the younger prince screamed. “Just as Velik said, nath n’darrithi blye ko’iirak; you shall not harm our father. He can still pull through, Loracaz. Sheath your sword, now!”
Loracaz shook his head, looking from Zarrek to the black dragon. Thrall bats were coming towards Z’Lé from all directions, screeching for a chance to bite him. Zarrek summoned fist-sized fireballs in order to kill as many of them as he could, and the blue dragons wasted no time in doing the same. Small bolts of lightning struck several of the bats, along with blue flames that burned hot and bright. The crowned prince, however, didn’t seem impressed, and he did nothing to aid his father.
“Can you not see that Métius has filled him?” Loracaz asked when Z’Lé gave an agonized cry from deep within his throat. “I have to dispatch him before it’s too late.”
“Not yet!” Zarrek ordered his brother. “If you understood even one thing about black magic, you would be able to sense that our father is still in control. Give him time.”
“That is not control!” Loracaz responded, pointing to the flailing beast his father had become.
That was when the first thrall bat found the chance to sink its fangs into Z’Lé’s hide. It bit hard, forcing its teeth deep in order to inject its black poison into his bloodstream. As the dragon clawed at it, another bat bit his arm, and another his tail. Zarrek cursed the bats, drew his broadsword, and guided Gashar close enough to kill the last few who still darted around his father. Z’Lé arched his back from the sharp pain and began to sweat and tremble from the shock of the poison as it began to course through him.
“You could have killed those bats, Loracaz!” Zarrek complained to his brother. “Do you want our father to die?!”
“His fate is already sealed.”
“You cold-hearted–” Zarrek finished the insult in Draconic, then told the dragon he was riding, “Take me back to the sorcerer, Gashar. I have an idea that can save him.”
As the blue dragon turned and began to glide towards Jza, Zarrek called out to the other one, “Keep an eye on him, Velik. Don’t let him kill our father!”
After replying to Zarrek, Velik gave the crowned prince a serious look to let him know that he was watching him.
Down below, Sir Tikaj stood in the palace garden, staring up at his king and the others. When he saw Gashar carry the young prince away, he continued to walk onwards, towards the doors to the tower. When he grasped the handle, the door opened easily for him, as though the protective magic had somehow faded. He wondered whether Z’Lé’s crazed state had anything to do with it, but he didn’t have time to think deeply on it. The main floor was slick with the rain pouring in from the hole in the roof, forcing him to walk carefully across it.
“Your Majesty!” he called out, seeing nobody about. “My empress, where are you?”
Tikaj couldn’t find a hint of anyone being on the main floor, and he knew that it made no sense for them to go to the higher levels. He remembered the trapdoor behind the cabinet at the back of the dais, and went to it. He pulled upon the door and peered inside.
“Who is it?” a voice called out. Sir Tamlin rushed out of the shadows towards the dragoon, eying him warily. “Ah, Tikaj. Have you brought news of what’s going on outside?”
“So to speak,” he replied, closing the door above him and then trying to see deeper inside. “Where is the empress?”
“Right this way,” Tamlin said, leading him down a short, dark hall.
There was light again, the faint flickering of a mere two torches, but at least it was something. Arialla sat on the floor with her back against the far wall, huddled between Vincent and Mearrk’hal. Sir Tikaj bowed to her, then knelt in order to speak to her.
“Your Majesty, I have come to tell you what we know is happening.”
“Go ahead, Tikaj,” she replied, her voice trembling.
“Prince Loracaz is unharmed… for now. He’s been to the Temple of Jenh and communed with the goddess in order to receive the power to banish Métius from this kingdom.” He waited for Arialla to nod, then went on to explain the horrors he’d seen in the dark mountains, how Zarrek had been injured, and that Z’Lé was now battling to keep Métius from taking control of his body.
“This doesn’t bode well,” Mearrk’hal said when he saw that Arialla was too shocked to speak. “But it does explain what it was that put the hole in the roof.”
“The dangers of the south do creep and pounce upon all that is good,” Vincent said in his tone that meant he was quoting old literature. Then he added, “Any one of them could lose their life in this battle.”
Sir Tikaj nodded. “I thought you should know, my empress. Prince Loracaz intends to vanquish Métius, even if it means killing your k’hurin in order to do so.”
“And Zarrek is trying to stop him, no doubt,” Vincent commented disdainfully.
“No boy wants to lose his father, Vincent,” Mearrk’hal told him. “Remember that before you criticize him any further.”
“My boys…” Arialla whispered, as though unable to comment on anything else. “My children are fighting one another. They’re fighting for their father.”
“Aye, my empress,” Sir Tikaj sighed, bowing his head.
“My sweet boys,” she whimpered, and she turned to bury her head in Mearrk’hal’s chest.
He held her, his strong arms keeping her close as she sobbed against him, and looked helplessly up at the other two men. “This is too much for her.”
“’Tis too much for any of us,” Vincent corrected him. “The only difference is that she’s been dealing with this for much longer than we have.”
“She has so much more to lose,” Sir Tamlin added, thinking of the two princes battling outside.
Vicente frowned and crouched down beside the empress. “Please Arialla,” he began, laying a hand on her shoulder, “is there nothing that we can do to assist you?”
After a few minutes, Arialla sat up, her eyes red from crying, and looked at the bard. “Take me to my son,” she begged him. “Take me to Loracaz.”
“Your Majesty, no,” Tikaj told her.
“It’s too dangerous,” Tamlin said. “Z’Lé is out there, with Métius trying to take possession of him. He would devour you as soon as look at you!”
“Please,” she begged. “I cannot hide here while he fights to protect us all. If anything should happen to him…”
“And what about you, Arialla?” the shaman asked her. “Loracaz needs you to stay hidden so he can finish this battle without worrying about you.”
“I cannot explain it, Mearrk’hal. I need to be out there… I need to witness what happens.”
The shaman looked to Sir Tamlin, then Tikaj, and finally to Vincent. Each of them wondered what to do, whether to force her to stay hidden, or to leave the safety of the basement with her in order to respect her wishes.
“She needs this,” Vincent told Mearrk’hal. “She’ll never forgive us if we make her stay here and something happens to Loracaz.”
Mearrk’hal nodded, then looked to the dragoons.
“Normally… for her safety, I would never allow this. Tonight, however…” Tikaj paused and let out a heavy sigh.
“We can all sense it, can’t we?” Tamlin noted. “Something terrible is going to come out of all of this. Very well; the four of us should be enough to protect her.”
“That settles it, then,” Mearrk’hal said. He stood up, helping Arialla to her feet as well. “Stay close to us, Arialla. I cannot bear seeing you hurt along with everyone else.”
Together, they took the torches and walked back up the short hallway, Sir Tikaj opening the trapdoor, then going up the narrow stairs onto the main floor of the tower. Outside, the rain was coming down harder than ever, but Arialla didn’t give it a second thought before passing through the doors and out into the garden.
In that darkness, hours past midnight, all she could see was the light of the magic being used far up in the parapets of the palace. The golden-green light of Zeah shone against a massive black-scaled body, and lightning sparked protectively around a blue dragon. Loracaz was by far the brightest part of that sky, but at that distance, he seemed so small and fragile.