Lahlia Island, Jade Kingdom
Rain fell upon the broad, vibrant green and yellow leaves of the towering kuomo trees that surrounded her, pattering upon their velvety surfaces with the tap, tap, tapping noise she so loved. The bark of the trees was rough, sweet-smelling, and quite intoxicating. Her people used the bark for everything from the parchment they made to a wonderful, blended tea that could dull pain and briefly enhance ones tactile sensations. To her it smelled like home, a pleasant, calming scent that always brought back the days of her childhood.
So much had happened since then, so much that she had never counted upon, and so much that been both wonderful and frightening all at once. There had been hardships to be sure, every life within the Jade Kingdom, her kingdom, and beyond was fraught with such daily challenges. But those who lived on day by day learned to forego the chance to cry and claim that such obstacles were unfair. They learned quickly that they could make their own fate if only they would stand up to those things that vexed them. She had done this, and had faith that anyone could.
She might have flown to the top of the nearest kuomo tree to enjoy the gray, leaden sky that loomed above, exulting in the feel of the rain against her unprotected skin, but alas, her wings were already far too wet. To dry them would require far more drier climes than this, and she had no intention of returning inside anytime soon. Stepping around the thick bole of yet another tree she looked up, catching the barest hint of a dark, star-filled sky within a gap that had aligned within the cloud and the blanket of branches and leaves above. Smiling, she looked upon the distant heavens, recalling a night that, long ago, had become one of the defining moments in her long, illustrious life. It had been so like this night…
* * *
Thirteen years ago…
“Mother, what are those called?”
Her small, slightly pudgy hand reached to the sky, as though she might poke at the speckled darkness between the leaves and branches. It was slightly damp beneath the thick canopy of leaves, but her mother had kept them mostly dry as they’d made their slow, ponderous way along.
They often did this, mother and daughter, taking long walks amidst the forested regions beyond their home, leaving their father, the King of the Jade Kingdom, to his own matters of state for a night or more. Jayden often missed her father during such times, but he more than made up for it when they returned, spending as much time with her and her mother after the kingdom was seen to.
“Those are stars my dear,” her mother, the Queen of the Jade Kingdom, replied, “They are very far, far up in the sky, but we can still see them through the night. Do you know why?”
Jayden shook her head, her reddish-blonde curls bouncing around her shoulders as they tickled her wings, which had already began to outgrow her body.
“The stars shine for us because they are happy Jayden,” her mother said with a smile, “And they are happy because they are the spirits of our ancestors, long since gone, looking down on us from above.”
“Like great-grandfather, and great-grandmother?” Jayden asked, her vibrant green eyes wide as she looked up at her mother. The queen was smiling, her eyes shimmering with unshed tears as she nodded. Jayden had never known her mother’s grandparents that well, but she had heard that even for fairies they’d been old, well into their two thousandth year of life when they had been accepted into the clearing. She still didn’t know what that meant, but as she saw her mother look down at her, eyes still shining wetly, Jayden hugged her close.
“Yes Jayden, just like them. They look down upon us and smile, all those who have come before us. They smile because they are happy for us, happy that we can continue their line, and have remembered their names.”
“I will always remember,” Jayden said with childish enthusiasm. The queen laughed, a gentle, tinkling sound that always made Jayden feel special. Her mother then picked her up, careful of her wings as they rustled behind her.
Her wings, not fully matured yet, were still a gentle blue color along the outer edges, with a silver lining along the vanes. The inner parts of her wings ranged from a slightly mottled green and reddish color to a faint lavender. Her mother’s wings were truly wondrous, with the full array of colors that a mature fairy was known to have, along with the sparkles of light that adorned their uppermost edges. The same sparkles adorned the tops of the queen’s delicately tapered ears, and the tops of her cheekbones as well. Her golden eyes were quite beautiful to behold, and more than a little mesmerizing. Jayden simply thought her mother was the most wondrous person she’d ever met.
By contrast her father, the king, was a bit darker in color as far as his wings and bodily sparkles went. He didn’t shine so much as glimmer, like a stark shadow thrown upon a solid wall. Yet he was not lacking in color when it came to his wings, as his were a riotous blend of dark blues, greens, with silver and gold interspersed throughout the veins. If her mother was a beauteous creature to behold, her father was both strong and wise, solid in a way that was, at times, far unlike any fairy.
“Mother, will you and father one day be in the sky?”
The queen’s smile faded just a bit, but her eyes did not lose that twinkle that Jayden had come to love. As she nodded, Jayden felt her heart quicken just a bit, but as the queen reached up to touch her slim finger to the princess’s little button of a nose Jayden giggled, grasping her mother’s finger as she did.
“Yes Jayden. One day, your father and I will look down upon you from the heavens, and we will smile. And you will know that we will love you, always.”
“I love you mother,” Jayden said, melting into the queen’s arms as she readily accepted her daughter.
“And I you daughter.”
It was a touching moment, but as always occurred in such times, it was not to last.
The familiar roar of Tono, the loyal majordomo and fiercest warrior amongst her father’s kingdom, threw both queen and princess off guard as the long, sinuous form of the emerald-hued dragon came crashing through the foliage above, keying in on where they stood immediately. It was said throughout the kingdom that no one could ever hide from Tono, not even the royal family. Jayden had certainly tried more than once however.
“What is it Tono?” the queen asked, her heartbeat accelerating quickly, “What is wrong?”
“The kingdom, my queen! The kingdom is besieged! Trolls, bull-men, even the traitorous darks of my own race are at the gates! The king has sent me here to fetch you!”
There was nothing else to say as the queen nodded, her wings fluttering madly as she lifted herself and Jayden from the ground, seeking to return home swiftly as possible. But as Tono’s massive claw reached out to close protectively around her, Queen Herath frowned, her wings still humming swiftly but only to keep her aloft.
“Tono!” she barked out, “What are you doing?”
“What I swore to my king I would do my queen: keeping you and young Jayden safe. Forgive me for this.”
Before she could cry out a negative, or even hint at what she was thinking, Tono’s long, serpent-like body began to curl up and around itself, his hind legs tucking in so that he became more compact, his entire form spinning and spinning as Queen Herath and Princess Jayden felt themselves already being drawn in to the translocation vortex that was Tono’s main avenue of escape in a hopeless situation. Even as they were torn from the world for a brief moment however, nothing could still the queen’s cry of utter sorrow.
* * *
It was hopeless.
There were enemies at every possible entrance, even the subterranean tunnels that were supposedly hidden and not known to every last creature and sentient being in the kingdom. Someone had betrayed them all, and he meant to know who before the end came.
His blade felled another foul creature, a hideous troll with long, gangly arms that had sought to take advantage of its much greater reach. Wings were a great equalizer in that he could increase or decrease his elevation at will, giving him a decided advantage over a purely ground-based adversary. Plus, being king, and one of the fiercest warriors in the entirety of Lahlia did help quite a bit.
“Majesty, rally to us, to us!”
He grinned as his first sergeant, the elf lord Mikkel Luminare, gestured to him to rejoin the tightly knit group that was nearly all that was left of his forces. The king could see pockets of resistance here and there within the throne room, but despite their courage and skill, his people were surely doomed. Giving up was not in his nature, but with their magical gateways blocked, the skies above the castle being guarded closely, and all manner of egress landward taken from them, the royal guard was soon to be obliterated.
King Tomis, the eighteenth king of a royal line spanning eons into the past, carved aside another hideous beast, this one a bull-man whose horns bore many notches from past kills and conquests, his blade ending those particular boasts without hesitation as the beast lowed in his death throes. That opened up at least a semi-clear path to the remnants of the royal guard, but as he stepped forward he was blocked yet again, this time by something he had not expected to see, especially not in the company of living creatures.
“Kiiiilllll,” rasped the thing in front of him, its plate armor housing little more than shadow and malice as the wraith moved forward, its spectral blade glowing with a malevolent, almost sickeningly gray energy. It had been a great deal of time since Tomis had seen such a creature, but he knew the sight of a revenant well. He’d not faced such a horrid animation of spirit since the Ash Wars, but he knew very well how to take care of such an abomination.
“Wellas!” he cried out, seeking the aid of his chief cleric and the head priestess of their primary church, that of Aumun, the goddess of the moon. Had the other priest, Dumes, been available, or for that matter still alive, he would have called upon him too. But Tomis had seen the sun priest torn apart by a wraith wyrm, a foul, beastly dragon that had little true intelligence and power great enough to fell an elder priest. Their enemies had certainly chosen their allies well.
“Here my king!” cried out Wellas, her dark mane of hair flying as she bashed aside a lumbering troll with her two-handed Morningstar. The priestess was within view, though he could not reach her, not yet, and she could not possibly reach him or the revenant, unless…
“Call to Aumun!”
“Yes my king!”
There was no need to question what he wanted, this tactic had served them quite well during the Ash Wars, and with more than just his own enchanted blade. As he watched the horrid, undead thing come closer, its own weapon twirling as it prepared to strike, Tomis heard the high, fluting chant of the priestess, and he felt the power of her prayer almost instantaneously.
Moonlight, pure and unfettered, struck the revenant as it stalked towards him, emerging from thin air to send a lance of its brilliance cascading down upon the dread spirit. Caught in the sudden illumination, the wraith warrior howled in absolute agony, a painful wail that only increased as Tomis struck with his own blade, gathering the moonlight even further as his weapon absorbed it, drank it in, made it a part of itself, even if only temporarily.
“Back to the grave foul one,” he spat, raising his greatsword for a hard, chopping blow that the wraith could not avoid. Empty armor fell with a harsh clank to the throne room floor, hitting the flagstones as it shattered into pieces before drifting away into flakes of corrupted iron, no more real than the thing it had had housed. King Tomis raised his blade in salute to the elder priestess, his darkly colored wings fluttering slightly as he began to make his way forward.
It was just then that he saw the peril the other fairy was in.
The blow that bashed her to the ground was not particularly hard, but the magic behind it was enough to thrust Wellas to the ground, where a solid kick from a troll that took advantage of her impaired situation sent her flying fully ten feet away, her ribcage no doubt seriously compromised as Tomis lost sight of her. Even as he was looking after the priestess he saw the tide of battle open up, allowing for a single figure to step forth as he grinned evilly at the king, his stark white smile a hideous thing to look upon as Tomis growled under his breath, cursing the decision that had inevitably led to this.
“Hello my old friend,” spoke the dark, wasted form of the dreaded sorcerer, the one being in all the realms that Tomis would have done anything for, until the bastard had attempted to replace him. There was no word in elvish, fairy, human, or even dwarvish to adequately describe the betrayal that this figure had perpetrated, nor would Tomis care to know it if there were.
“Maligus,” Tomis almost hissed, his grip tightening upon the grip of his blade.
The former advisor and most trusted among his retinue, Maligus Lacwall, now known only as “Oathbreaker”, a term of great shame within the Jade Kingdom, had once been Tomis’s greatest friend and most valued asset. Now he was simply what he had become, a traitor, a brigand, and worse, a necromancer. It made sense now, the revenants, the trolls, the dread feeling that had seemed to hang over the entire invasion. Maligus had been behind all of it.
“Is that any way to greet an old friend?” Maligus sneered, approaching the king without fear, slowly, with measured steps as he held out both hands, seeming not to worry that he might be injured by one of his own troops. It was just as well, as Tomis could see that the battle had already moved away from them both, as though those around them were wary of being too close to this figure. The king could not blame them, enemy or ally alike.
“Come forward and I’ll greet you properly, traitor.” The king all but snarled the words, keeping his sword in front of him and pointed at Maligus as the necromancer chuckled.
Maligus “tsk-ed” as he waggled one finger at the king, as though scolding a child, which made Tomis all the more angry as he took one step forward. Maligus smiled, as though he’d been anticipating this.
“Manners my old friend, manners.”
Tomis saw Maligus’ eyes shift to something just beyond his shoulder, but even as he turned in that direction he was too late as he felt clawed hands grip at the base of his darkly-colored wings, wrenching them this way and that as he felt the membranes stretch and then tear. The king howled in pain as he tried to whip around, his blade leading as it glanced off of the thick hide of the bull-man that had attacked him so heinously, the strength leaving his arms as he was then spun back around to face Maligus, who was no longer smiling.
He saw much in that one hundred and eighty degree turn, not the least of which was the utter ruination of the grand throne room where he and his faithful subjects had made their stand, the floors awash with blood and the fallen, their eyes glassy and far-seeing in death as he looked upon them. Missing were those who had stood with him to the end, those who had carried the most clout and the most power within his kingdom, and those he had known for centuries or more. Where had they gone to?
“Do not worry o’ king,” Maligus spat, as though reading his mind, “You will see them soon enough.”
As the necromancer placed his hand fully upon Tomis’s pained face, he tried to rally back, to do something to stop whatever horrific fate the other fair had in mind, but he was too weak, too drained of energy already, and thus could do nothing. As Maligus’ hand closed over his eyes he knew only darkness, and for a time following, he knew nothing at all.
* * *
Jal, Kwylay Isles
1 week later
Shock had been the first and most prevalent feeling between mother and daughter, the numbness that had come when Tono had told them of what had happened and that he had been ordered to spirit them away from the kingdom without hesitation. Sorrow had come after, directly after in fact, crippling both mother and daughter as the realization of what had been lost hit them fully. Jayden had not stopped crying for nearly two days, while Herath had at the very least stiffened up if only to be strong for her daughter. Their enemy, whomever it might be, had struck hard and with such decisiveness that it had taken them all completely by surprise, even those far to the north, where they were currently being kept.
According to Tono, who’d not been seen in the past day and a half, the enemy forces had not yet advanced to the northern regions, as any sea-born attack would be at a distinct disadvantage thanks to the natural barrier reef and the Bassen Shelf, the immense rock formation that lay just before it. There were legends aplenty about the Bassen Shelf, most of which had to do with a wayward sorcerer that had desired only peace and quiet and a place to call his own. The name of the Shelf had been lost mostly to history, though some would insist that it was the name of the magic user that created the formation, as no force of nature could have possibly created such a body of rock so swiftly, nor kept the natural flow of the ocean covering it at all times.
The Bassen Shelf was still underwater despite jutting from the ocean floor to a height of more than three thousand feet, taller than many mountains upon several continents. Yet the tidal flow was easily great enough to cover the mountainous shelf, and for those unlucky enough or foolish enough to be pulled over its narrow edges, it was enough to drop them to a most gruesome and assured demise. At the base of the Shelf rested the beginnings of the barrier reef, which had carried no name throughout history and yet had been a great boon to the Kwylay Isles, keeping them isolated and quite safe from invasion from the south. To the north was another matter, as the shelf only covered the isles from the west to the southeast, breaking off on either side as the An’xer Sea was allowed to return to its normal level.
But the northern approaches were no easier, and for one reason alone. The dwarves, ancient allies and friends of the fairies, who ruled the kingdom fairly and justly, did not come ill-prepared for battle. There were numerous clans of the stout folk that called the Isles home, and all among them were staunch allies at the very least of the Jade Kingdom, whether they’d come from beyond the borders of the kingdom or been born and raised therein. Tono had selected their hiding place well.
At the current moment they were surrounded by thick walls of stone, in fact they were within the vast cavern system of the largest among the Isles, the rocky island known as Jal. By far the most prosperous of the Isles, Jal was responsible for the overseeing of the other isles within its small chain, and those dwarves that occupied this island had for a long time taken care of their brethren on the smaller, less developed land masses, making sure they were given what was needed and what they desired. In all, it was yet another part of the kingdom that had run as it should.
In fact, throughout the entire Jade Kingdom, Herath could recall only a few dissidents that had ever truly shown displeasure with the hierarchy, and even they were not hostile enough to attempt such a coup. Of course, the vast number of naysayers that occupied the prison isles of Drekus would undoubtedly make pinning down a singular enemy rather difficult.
“Mommy? I’m hungry.”
Herath let her thoughts be for the moment as she looked down at her daughter, reclined upon her body as she’d been when they had both fallen asleep. The three dwarves on duty within the tunnel they’d been taken to had offered them their own beds gladly, but Herath would not hear of it. Just being a queen was not enough to turn someone out of their own cot, and she and Jayden had taken refuge upon a quiet, semi-comfortable spot near the warmth of the cook fire that had been stoked by one dwarf or another all night. The three that she and her daughter had been placed in the care of were rugged and rough souls, but they were pleasant enough to be around, if only slightly more gruff than they were used to. That was the nature of dwarves though, as she understood it.
“Bah, ye’re snorin’ again ye dunderheaded clod! Ye woke the child early ye did!”
There was a hard smack of flesh on bone as the grumbling snort of the other dwarf could be heard, the first dwarf, a female named Clourt Biggleboulder, shaking her head as she walked away from the second, her brother, Dourt. Herath raised a brow but said nothing, shaking her head slightly as she watched the brother rise slowly, rubbing at his eyes as he did. Dourt smacked his lips together once, twice, and then again, no doubt trying to work up some saliva to wet the inside of his mouth. Herath smirked, but she could understand. Sleeping amongst stone and dust often gave one dry mouth, as she had already found. This was not the life she was used to, but it was better than no life at all.
“Weren’t my fault,” Dourt said sleepily, beginning his daily regimen of scratching everywhere as Herath looked away, her cheeks reddening slightly as she could hear the dwarf scratching in places she’d rather not think about.
“Now ye stop that ye dirt-grubbin’ snit!” Clourt yelled, grabbing up two wooden bowls as she passed her brother. She clonked one upside the back of his head as she passed, earning a grunt and a muffled curse in old dwarvish that Herath unfortunately understood, but still she said nothing.
“Both o’ ye jus’ let it be now.”
That voice belonged to the elder in charge, a friendly yet grizzled old veteran among the dwarven ranks by the name of Olm Scatterborough, his snow-white beard braided and held in place by several silver rings that had been awarded to him nearly three centuries earlier for valor and bravery during the Ash Wars, the terrible strife that had befallen the Jade Kingdom when King Tomis had first accepted the throne from his father, the former King Alomin. Tomis’s father had passed not long after his son’s ascension, and was missed by all to this day, though none had ever lamented the passing of the throne into Tomis’ hands, as he had done everything his father and so many others had expected, but in his own way of course.
“Milady, are ye hungry as well?” Olm asked, walking slowly over to her and Jayden. When he reached them the old dwarf bent down just as slowly to look at Jayden, a smile upon his craggy features as the fairy princess looked up at him solemnly. He wasn’t ignoring the queen, but his words in that next second were meant for Jayden.
“Courage my young lass,” he said quietly, “Courage is what gets us through at times like these.”
“Yes Master Olm, we are both hungry, but my daughter is in need of sustenance first if you please.”
The old dwarf rose, placing one hand upon his right hip as he did. Even for a dwarf he was old, nearing his first millennium and as such, headed into his twilight years in the age of a dwarf. Herath valued him greatly at this moment, as at so many others, and offered him a warm smile as he spoke again.
“Indeed milady,” he said, moving to turn around, and almost collide with Clourt, who had already ladled a bit of the stew from the simmering pot over the fire, the smell enticing as it nearly ended up all over the general’s white beard. Clourt just barely managed to avoid the collision, though as she tottered on her feet the stew managed to slop over the sides of the bowls just a bit, landing upon the stone floor with a wet splat as Clourt looked mortified, her eyes dropping as she slowed her pace before approaching the queen and princess again.
“Oh my! A thousand pardons ye’re majesty! I, I din’t mean t-!”
“Enough Clourt,” Olm spoke, seeing the understanding smile upon Herath’s lips. He had been around too long to ever believe that the queen would be offended by clumsiness, though Clourt still had a great deal to learn.
“Oh, oh yes!” Clourt exclaimed, slowing herself this time as she knelt down to give each steaming bowl over to the princess and the queen, who took them gratefully. Jayden sniffed at her bowl for a moment before looking up to Clourt, who was obviously waiting to see if the stew was acceptable.
“What’s in it?” Jayden asked innocently.
“Jayden,” Herath admonished lightly, “be polite.”
Wringing her hands, Clourt answered instantly, “Oh, ‘tis nothin’ milady, an honest question it is.” Placing her hands on her knees she bent over slightly, smiling faintly as Jayden waited patiently. It smelled delicious, but she’d seen a few yellow and green lumps floating in the thick mire of the stew, and simply wanted to know what they were.
“Those bits and pieces ye see floatin’ around in there are nothin’ more’n veggies and tubers my sweet one, things t’ make one such as yerself grow big and strong!” Clourt smiled wider as Jayden giggled, though the dwarf didn’t get the joke until she turned around to find Dourt making a face that she knew too well.
“What?!” Clourt demanded of her brother.
“If’n they’re supposed t’ do all that, then what happened t’ you?”
Olm and Herath rolled their eyes as the two siblings began to bicker again, and Jayden just giggled before spooning a bowl of stew into her mouth. It was hot, and it was very good.