Withering Fire

Liralian was glad that Ruzenathra had decided to celebrate the fall of Yhara-uza with a banquet at her Citadel. It was the chance she had been waiting for, when Mendaran briefly returned from the mundane world to revel in his triumph. She lurked in the shadows of Ruzenathra’s grand hall, watching the gathering through narrowed eyes – the vainglorious banners, the illusionary fruits and flowers festooning the pillars, the floating light-orbs, the Nayusuru musicians.

It made her sick with rage.

The Royal Court of Shekruvaris was full of cowards. Most of them saw that the war against Tuyaz-Oa was unjust, yet none dared to speak out. Liralian did not know how they had tolerated Ruzenathra’s regime all these years. They looked down on mortals, but they were the ones with no honor, too caught up in their petty fears and prejudices to recognize what they were doing.

Liralian thought of the thousands of people who had died for her cause over the centuries – all the useless, misguided wars she had waged in her attempt to bring justice to the world.

Now it was her turn to sacrifice herself.

Liralian looked around for Erulorian. Her loyal servant stood apart from the other Nayusuru, her eyes dull with sorrow. Liralian did not know what would become of Erulorian once the Sovereign’s wrath fell upon them. She could not contemplate it. She could not even say farewell, for Erulorian would surely be afraid and try to stop her.

Liralian tore her gaze away. Saying farewell would have been too painful, anyway.

Liralian cloaked her energies and slipped out from the grand hall. She was not as skilled at masking herself as some of the Nayusuru, but no one challenged her as she made her way to the Sovereign’s scrying chamber. Tuyaz-Oa had two High Wizards – one in the south and one in the north, where the oldest of her mundane lands lay. Liralian reached out to the northern High Wizard, whose stronghold was in Ranazayu. After what felt like a silent age, he answered.

“What?” he gasped, having expected Ruzenathra. “Who are you?”

Liralian stared at the silver-haired man, unable to recognize him. Twenty years ago, she had known the name of every high-ranking wizard in her empire.

“I am Lady Liralian,” she said.

“Lady Liralian?” The man’s eyes widened.

“What is your name?”

“I am Naraon Tanyeo, appointed as High Wizard of the North by Lady Erulorian. Esu lady, for years your loyal subjects have begged an audience with you. Why are you speaking to us now?”

“Because… because…”

Liralian glanced at the shadowed door, fearing Ruzenathra might suddenly notice her absence. Doubtless the Sovereign would think she was as much a traitor as Mormariul, for she would see no difference between siding with villains and helping a noble people to gain their freedom.

“Tell the Tuyaz-Oans that I do not want them to be subjected to Ruzenathra’s tyranny,” she said. “I have fallen under her power, but they must fight on and rule themselves.”

“We are fighting, Esu lady.”

“Is there still hope? This Prince Kanano Ghaz Ahaya… can he rally enough support? Ruzenathra tells me that the rebel cause is lost… she tells me…”

“We’ll hold out for as long as we can.”

Liralian drew a deep breath. “I no longer have the strength to defend Tuyaz-Oa,” she said, “but I’ll make one last stand for you before I am cast into Garashent.”

“You will help us?” Hope lit Naraon’s eyes. “How?”

“I plan to kill Mendaran.”

Liralian made the image vanish, the dissolved and flew silently through the halls of Karazran. She was glad to find Mendaran standing alone at a balcony, gazing across the wasteland. Music and strained laughter drifted from the halls behind them. The wind stirred dust across the paving stones, ratting the dead leaves that clung to the balustrade.

For a moment Liralian faltered. Without that arrogant smirk, Mendaran looked a lot like his father. She wanted to ask him why he was not inside, enjoying the celebrations.

He turned as she materialized beside him. “Oh, it’s you.”

“Yes, it is I.”

“What do you want?”

Liralian steeled herself. Mendaran was a remorseless killer. She had watched him bathe the streets of Jorazo in blood. Countless people would perish if he was allowed to live. “I want you to know what it’s like to face an enemy against whom you are helpless,” she said. “Let us see if you die as bravely as the people of Tuyaz-Oa.”

“What?” Mendaran stepped back.

He instinctively slammed up his wards as Liralian gathered her power, but he stood no chance against her. She burned straight through his defensive spells.

Mendaran screamed as fire engulfed him.

*****

Faintly, beneath the music, the voices and the rising storm-winds, Takanepi heard a scream. At the same instant he sensed a surge of magic. He whipped back to the balcony where he had last seen his son. Mendaran was burning, trying to shield himself even as his wards dissolved around him. It took Takanepi a moment to grasp that Liralian was attacking him.

“What are you doing!?” he shrieked, throwing himself at her.

The impact send them both smashing through the balustrade. Liralian swirled in the air, grappling to break Takanepi’s grip. She slammed her full power against him.

The screams of his servants arose behind them.

“Mendaran!” Carashanza wailed.

“No!” sobbed Quenezarea. “No… no… no…”

Takanepi’s attention snapped back to the balcony, to the heap of blackened flesh and bone that was his son. Mendaran lay still, his body smoldering. Takanepi’s own scream rent the air.

He flew to Mendaran’s side, but Carashanza shoved him back.

“Is he dead?” he cried. “Carashanza? Is he…?”

Carashanza quenched the fire and put her hands over Mendaran’s heart, pouring magic into his charred body.

“He’s alive,” she said. “Just.”

“No!” cried Liralian. She slithered onto the balcony and materialized, her fists clenched. Takanepi stared at her numbly. He could not believe she had tried to kill his son.

Ruzenathra swept in from the grand hall. “What is happening?”

Several other Ankaykari crowded behind her, regarding Takanepi and Liralian in alarm. They must have sensed the clash between them. Several suddenly shrieked, noticing Mendaran.

Ruzenathra’s eyes widened. “Is… is that…?”

“Mendaran!” Takanepi wailed.

Carashanza continued weaving spells over Mendaran. She seemed to be keeping his heart beating. Takanepi had never been more grateful for her iron composure.

Ruzenathra turned to Liralian, stunned. “Did you do this?”

Liralian said nothing. The other Ankaykari stared at her in appalled silence.

“Liralian, why?” sobbed Takanepi.

“This is the price you must pay for your cowardice,” Liralian told him. “This is revenge for all the mortals who died because you were too craven to speak against Ruzenathra.” Her gaze swept across the others. “Don’t you see what she’s done to us? We’ve let ourselves become twisted by fear and self-delusion! This tyrant will drag us all into her madness!”

Ruzenathra lunged at Liralian with a shriek.

Takanepi turned away, staring at his son. He heard Ankaykari screeching in panic as the Sovereign struck Liralian with the full power of her Scepter. Mendaran began to moan, struggling to move his burned limbs. Perhaps he could sense the battle.

“We must take him inside,” said Carashanza.

“Yes,” said Takanepi, grateful that she was thinking the same thing as him.

He carefully lifted Mendaran up with his magic, terrified that he would cause him more pain. Mendaran’s body felt frail enough to crumble apart.

Takanepi carried him to the nearest parlor and lowered him onto a table. Carashanza was already snapping instructions at Quenezarea, asking for various herbs, potions and azuhans. Yephasure trembled in the corner, wanting to help but too ignorant about healing to be of any use.

Quenezarea tipped some azuhans into the braziers and set them alight. The chamber became swelteringly hot, swimming with magical power. Takanepi drew back as Carashanza worked. He did not dare do anything to break her concentration. Yephasure came to his side.

“Carashanza will save him,” she whispered. “There is no one more skilled than her.”

Takanepi put his arms around Yephasure, frozen in misery. Outside, voices rose in horror as the story spread throughout the Royal Court. Liralian’s words echoed in Takanepi’s mind. He did not know what the Sovereign had done to her. At that moment, he did not care.

*****

Erulorian stood in one of Karazran’s gardens, gazing listlessly at the bare trees. Vapor poured over the rim of the fountain before her, coiling across the gravel. A single lantern alleviated the gloom; beyond the withered branches, the sky was as dark as dried blood.

Screams suddenly erupted within the palace. Magic rippled on the air. Moments later, the Scepter’s power flared. Erulorian silently begged that Liralian was not involved. She ought to find out what was happening, but she felt too afraid.

Zotharan whipped into the garden and materialized before her. “There you are!” he cried, grabbing her by shoulders. “Did you know what your ruler was planning?”

“What?” Erulorian tensed in his grip.

“She’s tried to kill Mendaran!”

“Mendaran…?”

“Carashanza says he’s still alive, but he doesn’t look it.”

Erulorian drew back, stumbling against a wall. Her mind was spinning. Dried leaves crunched beneath her hands as she reached to steady herself. “No… Lady Liralian wouldn’t… she wouldn’t hurt anyone… She wouldn’t… Where is she?”

“She’s been taken to Garashent.”

“Garashent?” Erulorian’s human guise began to melt. Liralian must be terrified. The dungeon would bring back all her most traumatic memories. “I – I must get her out of there!”

“Erulorian, don’t you understand?”

“I must speak to Mendaran!” Erulorian whipped away through the halls of Karazran, trying to sense where he was. Mendaran would see that Liralian had not meant to harm him. He would persuade the Sovereign to be merciful.

Takanepi’s court had gathered in one of the parlors. Erulorian flung herself through the door, too blinded by fear to care that she was blundering into the presence of another Esu. Carashanza and Quenezarea stood before a table where a blackened figure lay moaning.

Carashanza looked up with a snarl. “What’s she doing here?”

“Mendaran!” screamed Erulorian. “Please, have mercy! Lady Liralian –”

Takanepi wordlessly took Erulorian by the shoulders, pushed her outside and slammed the door. Erulorian collapsed to her knees, begging Mendaran to listen. She could not bear to imagine what Liralian was suffering. If Mendaran had any compassion, he would help her.

Zotharan appeared at Erulorian’s side and dragged her to her feet. “Mendaran won’t answer you. He’s probably in too much pain to know his own name.”

Erulorian sank against his chest, weeping.

“You must save yourself.” Zotharan grasped Erulorian’s shoulders, trying to meet her eyes. “Your ruler has forsaken you. She tried to murder Lord Takanepi’s son. It will be years before we see her again. Don’t you understand what this means?”

“The Sovereign is hurting her –”

“Forget her! The Sovereign will force you to serve another Esu.”

They looked up sharply as Ruzenathra surged down the hall. Erulorian wanted to fling herself down before the Sovereign and plead for mercy on Liralian’s behalf, but Zotharan pulled her into the shadows and threw a spell of concealment over them both.

“Be silent!” he hissed. “I don’t know what she’ll do to you if she sees you now.”

Erulorian froze, realizing how stupid she had almost been. Ruzenathra’s energies blazed in fury as she materialized before the parlor door. Erulorian pressed against Zotharan. For a renowned warrior, he was remarkably skilled at hiding himself.

“How is he?” Ruzenathra demanded, the moment Takanepi stepped outside.

“He will live, Your Majesty.”

“When will he be strong enough to fight again?”

Takanepi stared at Ruzenathra. “Fight?” he asked, his voice raw with horror. “Liralian has just tried to kill him, and you ask me when he can fight again? Mendaran threw all of his power into defending himself! His energies have been burned down to the core.”

“How long until he recovers?”

“I don’t know.”

Ruzenathra sighed, then uncomfortably reached out a hand to console Takanepi. “I am sorry,” she said, dropping the royal pronoun. “Truly. This is my fault. I should have known Liralian would do something like this. She’s always valued mortals above our own kind.”

“Yes, in her way, it seems she has.”

“That bitch! That insufferable, whining, self-righteous bitch!” Ruzenathra trembled. “She’s always hated me. Be assured, Liralian will pay for this! I’ll scourge her to shreds!”

Takanepi withdrew his hand. “That’s not what I want.”

“She tried to murder your son, yet you still want me to show mercy?” Ruzenathra stared at him incredulously. “Is there nothing you won’t forgive?”

“She’s suffered so much.”

“That doesn’t mean she should go unpunished! Mendaran is not just some mortal…” Fire crackled around Ruzenathra’s clenched fists. “Liralian has broken our ancient laws.”

Takanepi buried his face in his hands. “Yes, I know.”

Ruzenathra stared at him in disgust, then dissolved and swept away. Takanepi closed the door. Erulorian wilted against Zotharan, stunned by the realization that she could do nothing to save Liralian. It was true – her ruler had done something terrible. No one would forgive her.

“Why didn’t Lady Liralian speak to me?” Erulorian whispered, tears spilling from her closed lashes. “If – if I’d known what she was planning…”

“This is just like Lady Liralian. She probably thinks she’s carried out some act of noble self-sacrifice, never once considering the consequences you’ll suffer.”

“Zotharan, please don’t.”

“Don’t waste your tears on her. You have to be strong.”

Erulorian wiped her eyes. Zotharan was right. She would need all of her resourcefulness if she was to endure – and she had to endure, for Liralian’s sake as well as her own.

“What will the Sovereign do with us?” she asked.

“Obviously, she’ll divide your court among her remaining vassals. Xessuralen will go back to Lord Naskremari, since she used to serve him before joining Barezeth. Lord Daskesurul will also expect to be granted one of Lady Liralian’s servants. He’ll probably ask for Olemnashial, but I fear the Sovereign may give him you instead.”

“It’s me or Olemnashial, then?” Erulorian trembled. Lord Daskesurul would want to break her will as soon as she came into his court. Every sliver of her self-esteem would be ground into the dust, for he expected groveling obedience from his servants.

“I’ll do whatever I can to keep you from his power.”

“Olemnashial will suffer worse than me, if he gets hold of her,” said Erulorian shakily. It was hard to think with terror coursing though her heart. “She betrayed him once.”

Zotharan gave her a pained look. “You should be more concerned about yourself.”

“What kind of person would I be, if I didn’t care about my friends?”

Erulorian pulled away from Zotharan and went to a window, gazing out across the wasteland to calm her nerves. Tears ran down her cheeks. She told herself that whatever she and Liralian suffered, they would live through it, but she feared that her ruler’s sanity might already be gone.

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An epic fantasy saga