Chapter 10: Truth and Dare
(Katolis Castle) (Throne room)
Viren had walked down through the halls of this castle a thousand times before. He did so in leisure and business. Often times he would have King Harrow beside him, or his children escort him while discussing the future of the kingdom. But never did he imagine himself walking down these halls in chains. Now that was new.
When the guards came to fetch him from his cell he was almost certain that Opeli had come up with a reason to finally execute him. That would probably even put a smile on that woman's face. But much to his sudden relief the executioner's block didn't even seem remotely ready for him. Over a dozen guards stayed by his side at all time and crossbowmen had their weapons trained at him, waiting for the slightest error in his judgment. One wrong step and he'll be the latest design of pincushions this side of Katolis.
After what felt like an hour, his escorts brought him before the doors of the throne room. It seemed rather odd to be brought here after everything that's happened. And there were definitely a lot more guards here. Even the castle's staff were lingering nearby. Did Opeli bring them all here? Perhaps she wanted to make a show of it, to have some mockery of a trial before publically executing him in the courtyard.
Already the Dark Mage began to plan his escape. Despite his lack of magic and the loss of his favorite Primal Stone – thanks Claudia – he still had a few tricks left in his sleeves. Not to mention he also had a powerful archmage whispering in his ear ready to grant him the Six Primal Sources in the world. It would certainly put a smile on his face to freeze Opeli and her entourage in place.
But when the doors opened, all thoughts of escape vanished from his mind.
"Your majesty. Lord Viren." Gren announced his arrival, standing at the side with a number of the Crown Guards.
The young Prince Ezran stood there, at the bottom steps of his father's throne with that Glowtoad he calls a pet. There was a sad and upsetting look in his eyes which brought some hope that there could be a peaceful resolution to all of this. But it only soured when he saw Opeli by his side, holding that sneer in place. That woman really needed a hobby – or a lover in her life to take that stiffness away.
"Dad…" A voice on the sidelines called out to him. Claudia stood by her brother, flanked by two other guards who kept watch over them. Their return here explained much.
A few moments later, he was put on his knees while the chains on his arms tightened.
"So… you've returned, Prince Ezran." He began with a humble tone. "Welcome home."
"Watch your tone, traitor." Opeli hissed. "You are speaking to the future king."
"Ah… of course. My apologies, your majesty." He bowed lowly. "To what do I owe this summon? I take it my punishment has been decided."
To his surprise, the boy shook his head. "I'm not here to punish you, Lord Viren. I… just wanted to ask you a few questions."
"Do you seek my council on how to rule?"
"No. Opeli said that you betrayed my father and the kingdom for your own personal gains." He paused for a second allowing the words to sink through. "But I don't believe that for a minute. Not even the slightest.
"Oh? And what do you believe, your highness?"
"I believe that this is all just a big misunderstanding. And Opeli here is just overreacting." Not exactly an understatement but Viren wasn't gonna take that trick just yet. "She said that you… did something bad and used magic to hurt a lot of people. Is that true?"
Was it true? Viren wanted to laugh but the boy's innocent expression left him pessimistic. "Yes. As much as it vexes me to admit it, I did. I overstepped my boundaries and abused my authority to forward my plans. And when things didn't go my way I had to resort to more extreme methods."
"Extreme?" Opeli scoffed. "You used the King's seal to summon a summit of the Pentarchy and lied to them!"
"I did what I had to do to restore order back in Katolis."
"Your actions are nothing but treasonous!"
"Treason? For doing what the council cannot?"
"Stop!" Ezran pleaded and thankfully they obeyed. "Let Lord Viren explain." He turned to the man in question. "Why did you do that, exactly?"
Viren returned to his calm self. It felt like he was trying to explain some complicated mumbo jumbo to a ten year old… which is quite accurate actually.
"I attempted to claim the throne for myself after your father was assassinated. It's no lie. I wanted to fill the role when we believed you and your brother were dead. Because a Kingdom without a king is weak and prone to attack." He sighed. "It wasn't until later that we learned that you were kidnapped by the elves."
"But why, Lord Viren?"
"Why?" He chuckled. "Isn't it obvious? I've been stating it for years." His eyes locked onto the Prince as he gave his answer. "To finally end the Xadian threat that has been plaguing our borders for generations. The rid this world of elves and dragons."
Ezran's face froze. "You… want to destroy all the elves?"
"Naturally. They're certainly determined to destroy us."
"But not all elves are bad."
"Perhaps." Viren surprisingly agreed, ignoring that chuckle echoing in his head. "But it does not change the fact that we are at war with them. Even as we speak, their army marches across the Borderlands preparing to siege our only bastion."
Gren's eyes shot up. "That's impossible. There has been no word from the General."
"Is that so?" The dark mage whispered, darting towards the councilors. "Why don't you tell them dear council? Tell them of the news."
All eyes turned to the woman who held back a sneer. If she had a mallet, she'd smack Viren right now and would smile at his pain.
"The elves are invading." Another of the councilors spoke which made the room gasped. "We received word from General Amaya a few weeks ago that the elven army are amassing at the borders."
"A few weeks ago?" Corvus choked. "Why hasn't there been any warnings?"
"Because the council was far more concerned over politics than the lives of people." Viren directed that over to Opeli directly.
"Don't you dare take that tone with me!" She hissed. "The rules clearly state that only the king is allowed to mobilize the army. We cannot move without central authority restored."
"So you decided to do nothing?" Claudia challenged. "How does that help!?"
"Why don't we send in the Crown's Guard?"
"And who will defend the castle?"
"What about the other kingdoms? What do they say?"
"We should send reinforcements immediately!"
"How do we even know that the fortress is still standing? We haven't heard a word from the General in days!"
"I say we put it to a vote!"
"There's no time for democracy here!"
The argument spiraled out of control like a powder keg that lit on top of an active volcano. Accusing fingers were pointed, blames were thrown and spits were spat. Even the guards who remained still all this time began to bicker with each other, taking sides on the action. Only Viren remained still and silent in the middle of this storm, unflinching like a rock.
It was only when the door to the room slammed open did they finally settled down. Their eyes curiously looking over the man who dared to interrupt this situation.
"Ah! Oh… hello!" The Crow Master got up awkwardly, waving his hands over at them. "I um… is this a bad time? I have a tiny emergency that needs dealing with and…"
"We're kind of in the middle of something." Opeli pointed out the obvious. "Whatever it is, we'll deal with it later."
The councilor eyed him which caused his neck to heat up. "Excuse me?"
"Ah… normally I wouldn't really want to bother you, councilor… or any of you. But I really need to see… OH! Lord Viren! Hello!" The Crow Master hastily approached the Dark Mage, holding that care-free smile on his face. "Wow, it's good to finally see you again. Love the ball and chains. It really gives you that tough-guy look. Though I always thought you'd keep the thing with the dark gothic impression."
"Crow Master!" Opeli snapped. "Get to the point."
"Oh. Right. I kind of have a backlog of letters addressed to Lord Viren from… well… a lot of people. From all the kings and queens, mayors and other important sounding people. Someone's pretty popular eh." Viren didn't seem all that affected by his elbowing attempts.
"And why haven't you delivered them to us?" The councilor demanded.
"Well… they're not addressed to you." He replied as a matter of fact. "Technically all the letters I've been getting so far are all addressed to Lord Viren. You've got a lot of pen-pals, sir. I got about two hundred letters right here."
"Yeah." The Crow Master shrugged before turning towards the balcony door opening it. "I'm kind of surprised you guys haven't noticed. The whole castle is packed."
"Packed?" Gren asked. "Packed with what, exactly?" Their jaws nearly dropped when they all looked outside. From every rooftop, to every window, the whole castle itself was crowded with black feathered birds, cawing and glaring with their beady eyes. Many perching on the crow's nest while a hundred more flew in a circle overhead, each with a note tied to their legs.
"Whoa…" Claudia gawked. "The cleaners are gonna have a field day."
(Xadia southern coast) (The next day)
Rayla knew that this journey wasn't gonna be easy. She knew at most that there would be challenges in every step she took. But at the very least she dreamed that things would get easier when she got to Xadia. However fate seemed to have a habit of proving her wrong time and time again.
Not only do they have a band of dangerous Sunfire elves snapping at their heels, they now had the burden of a mentally disturbed queen at their side. Callum had offered to take care of her until she recovers but that doesn't seem to be happening anytime soon.
Queen Aanya was broken. In the metaphorical sense of course. Last night alone proved it. She suffered a lot for someone so young and what vexed her most was the fact her people were responsible for the damage. She hardly spoke a word when she woke up and the little lady had been holding onto Callum like he was some kind of security blanket. Whoever tried to kill her should be ashamed of their actions.
But then again… she couldn't really fault them either.
Had things turned out differently that night of the raid, she and her fellow assassins would've killed King Harrow and Prince Ezran on the spot. And Callum would be in her position.
Rayla shook the thought away like some annoying bug. There was no point wondering about what-ifs anymore. She had to focus on the mission. They all had to. Their trip in the southern lands wasn't going to be easy. With all the wild animals and rough terrain it'll be a pilgrim. But if they play their cards right, they might make it across without too much trouble.
Right now the Elemental Sea was far behind them. They abandoned the sandy beaches for the forest and avoided the roads just like before. With some luck they might even land on a remote settlement around here.
"Hmmm…" As they continued their brisk pace, Rayla suddenly noticed her partner holding onto Zym on his good arm, gazing into its eyes like he was trying to make contact through telepathy.
"Are you having a staring contest with Zym now? I'll tell you now that's a waste of time. Dragons can go for hours without blinking."
"Really?" He gawked. "I mean… no. I wasn't. I was trying to communicate with Zym."
"And staring real hard is gonna help you?" She grinned cheesily at him. "You know you can just say the words, right? Sure he might not understand much but it shouldn't be any different than training a jackal."
"You train jackals?"
"No… but I saw Runaan do it once or twice. It's a long story."
"Well… anyway, I've been kind of curious how Ezran's been communicating with animals. He can talk to horses, glow toads and all kinds of creatures. I thought maybe I'd give it a try."
"And how's it going so far?"
He eyed the dragon which tilted its head at him. "I'm… not really sure. He's either hungry or bored… or maybe both." The creature slobbered at him. "Or maybe it just wants to lick my face. It's hard to tell."
"Well I don't know about talking to animals. But you might want to leave that for your brother. You're more of a… mage type."
"A mage type?"
She nodded. "Yeah! You know? Mage types. Like in the game: Monsters and Mana. It's a game we used to play back home with dices and chess pieces pretending to be something we're not. You can be anything from fearsome elven warriors, to roguish thieves, a horrifying 6-eyed Clazghoul to even a werewolf. I wouldn't recommend a bard on your first playthrough though. They have absolutely no combat capability. Oh! And don't try to spend your stat points everywhere. No one likes a Jack-of-all-trades in their party ruining the paradigm and all that. Mage types like you are usually the smarty-pants of the party, casting mighty spells while being absolutely bad in strength and speech-check situations."
She noted the boy's stare. "I understood nothing of what you said just now."
"Ugh. The fine line is: You can't expect yourself to know everything. If you keep spreading yourself thin, you'll never be able to reach the full potential of one vocation."
"So you're saying I should just stick to magic?"
"There you have it." Raylay tapped him. "Leave the survival and traveling to me. You can focus on your hocus pocus. And speaking of survival. It's time we stopped here."
Callum looked at her in surprise. "Really? But we've only been traveling for a few hours. It's not even noon yet."
"True. But the place we're going isn't a place where we can waltz in." They soon arrived at the edge of the forest which led to a path slithering between two giant mountains forming a canyon at the center. "This, my dear Prince Callum… is Gryphons Hill."
The mountain she pointed at was so high that you couldn't even see the peak hiding over the clouds. And hovering over the sides were giant winged figures that seemed to gravitate in and out of edges made of twigs and branches.
"Whoa… those are…"
"Gryphons." Rayla confirmed it with a brief nod. "They congregate in high places to avoid other animals."
"Beautiful but also very deadly." She added with a pat on his shoulder. "They hunt small creatures in the open field with their talons and kill them before bringing them to their nest where their young feast on their bodies till there's nothing but bones."
"And just like that, I feel like we should find a safer route."
"Hey you're the one who wanted to get to the Dragon Queen as quickly as possible."
"Quickly… and safe." He pointed out. "That canyon path doesn't look safe. We'll be eaten alive before we make it to the other side."
But Rayla waved him off casually. "Relax. I got you guys covered. You don't think I'd bring you here without a plan, do ya? Gryphons are natural predators by day. But at night they're total den mothers. Most of the flock will be nestled in their nests snoozing the night away leaving the path completely empty. We'll sneak by them and get us closer to Caeli and no one's the wiser."
"Then we can bring Zym to his mother."
"Ah… yeah. Sure." She paused. "When I said closer, I meant that in a figurative way. It'll still be some distance but we're definitely on the right track. And it's not like we can go back unless you want to deal with that psychopath and her lover."
"So it's either we get slowly eaten alive by giant birds… or be captured by the elves." Callum sighed. "Gryphon pass it is. I'll get a fire going."
(The Breach Fortress)
"INCOMING!" A soldier shouted out at the top of the battlements right before a boulder shattered through the walls. A dozen more of them came afterward, crashing onto the fortress, some even reaching the inner courtyard. A volley of arrows followed up with flaming tips, striking unfortunate souls.
Soldiers scrambled through the fort, engineers manning the siege weapons and archers taking the walls. The sound of weapons clashing echoed through like a symphony of death. The workers of the afterlife will be paid overtime when this day is done.
At the forefront of the battle, an array of Sun Fire and Earthblood elves attempted to enter the fortress with ladders and a giant battering ram. The warriors of Katolis may not possess their unique talents, but they more than made up for it with their stubbornness and wit. While the humans enjoyed the safety of the walls, the elves on the other hand were forced to attack on that tiny strip of land that was big enough to hold twelve soldiers side by side without risking falling over the river of lava. From there they were exposed to all manner of nasty pointy things that had a habit of killing them.
Over on the other side, several Skywing and Moonshadow elves attempt to cross the river with specially made boats. They were hampered by ambushes and attacks from the fortress' siege weapons.
The Borderlands itself was now a warzone.
General Amaya watched from atop her castle, analyzing the enemy's strategy and signaling her officers wherever they were needed. It was a daunting task but she wasn't given this post without a good reason.
The elves had begun their siege roughly two days ago starting with a barrage from their catapults. Fortunately the walls of the Breach was made sturdier than any castle and trying to get through them was like trying to dig through the earth with a spoon.
It wasn't impossible but it would certainly be difficult.
"General!" Her lieutenant called out. "We have an update on the field." She nodded, signaling him to continue. "The enemy that snuck in through the caves were dealt with. I sent a team to seal off the tunnels. They report no other breaches."
"Did you find out what they were after?"
"No General. The enemy fought to the very end. They did have a number of fire bombs on them. But you were right on the mark, ma'am. The whole attack was merely a diversion. Those sappers could've done some considerable damage had we not uncover them."
"Any word from the capitol?"
"None ma'am. There's been no communication with the council or Lord Viren."
Damn politicians. It's times like these she wished her sister was around. She'd set them all straight one way or another.
Looks like they'll have to hold out a little while longer. And though she had full trust in her men and the volunteers from the surrounding region, it would help knowing that there were reinforcements on the way.
(Katolis Capitol) (Castle grounds)
Ellis has been told off areas before. Having a free spirit and a wolf partner always brought her to places where she wasn't allowed but never in her life did she get escorted out of a castle before. Especially by an actual King. This day was gonna be immortalize in her diary for sure – at least once she gets a diary. She'll have to pester mom and dad to get her one. Wait till everyone hears about this. She doubts anyone would believe that she was friend with the king but it was still worth mentioning.
"Sorry we couldn't hang out more, Ellis." Ezran apologized as she walked her through the courtyard with a retinue of Crown Guards at his back. "I didn't mean things to end this way."
She chuckled back softly in return. "Don't apologize for being royalty. It was a new experience for me. My parents are probably livid by now. Besides, Ava and I got to try out those jelly tarts. And you were right. They were to die for."
"Heh. Yeah. I heard the baker you ordered seconds… and third. I thought I was the only one who could do that."
"Well now you got yourself a challenger." They shared a laugh before the sudden awkward silence came over them. "So uh… I guess this is… goodbye?"
"For now." The young soon-to-be king added. "We'll definitely see each other again. That's a promise."
"You'd better. Because right now, I know exactly where you live."
"Heh… yeah. You sure do."
"And we still have to do that piñata. I'll have my uncle ready one with all the tastiest candy we can find. We'll eat so much that our stomachs explode." She paused. "Metaphorically speaking of course."
"I can't wait."
Ellis' smile brightened as the sun rose from east. She felt a strange tinge in her stomach while her face turned a shade of red. There was this pull in her chest, like a tightening happening within her heart.
Not really understanding these emotions she pulled the prince to a warm embrace holding him tight like she didn't want to let go. It was good that her eyes were closed, otherwise she would've noted some of the guards giving her a wicked grin under their helmets.
"I'm glad I met you Ezran." She said finally, holding onto the boy's hands through her mittens. "The adventure we had was definitely out of this world. We absolutely have to go on another one."
The moment would eventually be ruined by Bait who leap between the two, croaking with its grouchy face.
"And I'll also miss you too you little grumpy dog."
Claudia watched the prince waved goodbye to his friend and her pet wolf with a full heart. She couldn't get enough of it. Just looking at the prince and the eskimo made her tooth ache with sweetness. She could spend hours watching them and never get bored. Seeing Ellis depart was heavy. But it was better this way. Ezran would rather not have her caught up in the Kingdom's politics. Especially when the whole situation dangled over the edge of a knife.
With a sigh she slowly made her way through the castle corridor, to her father's room. Viren was elevated from prison to house-arrest status. While he wasn't given absolute freedom, his living conditions were certainly better than that of the castle dungeons. Guards were stationed in front of his room at all times and given regular checkups just in case. Opeli protested against this but Ezran ordered. He wanted to get the situation straight and he couldn't do that while everyone is up and about trying to kill each other in their sleep.
Claudia made a mental note to thank Ezran when she gets the chance.
The atmosphere around the castle seemed to have changed drastically ever since she left. While she was used to people looking at her weirdly at times, she can feel a tinge bit of difference in the way they whisper behind her back. It usually came with a good morning or good day. But now they just tip their hats down and refuse to meet her glance. Even the librarian was eyeing her in a funny way. Being the daughter of an alleged traitor can do horrors to your reputation.
"I'm… here to see my father?" She asked oh so politely to the tall… burly man with a giant hammer who eyed her from a distance. There was a short lull before he answered back with a strong nod. Claudia thanked him and gently open the door finding her father on the other side revealing his hidden closet of skeletons.
… or butterflies at this point. But skeletons sounds a lot cooler.
The windows of the room were all boarded up, including the super-secret entrance to his super-secret prison. Torches were lit to keep some measure of light in the area. Opeli didn't seem keen on giving the man any kind of freedom just yet. Not while she was still in charge.
He slowly turned back to her, revealing his now restored form. "Claudia…"
"Are you… feeling alright?"
Viren kicked his cane as he rubbed the back of his neck. "Better now that I don't have to share a room with mice. Time in prison has… been rather lackluster if not tolerable." He coughed that last part as he took his seat. "So… have you come to fetch me to my sentence?" Oh no. I was just here to remind you that your son is injured too but hey, thanks for asking.
"Soren asked me to check up on you." She explained. "He was worried." The man's eyes darkened at the mention of that boy. "We all are. We… weren't sure how to feel when you were accused of… of… treasure…"
"Right right. That."
"Well you can tell your brother, I'm perfectly fine. But that's not why you're really here, is it?" He could tell? Duh! Of course he can tell. This was the chief advisor of the previous king. He's been doing this kind of interrogation years before she came to life. "Speak girl. I don't have all day."
Claudia took several short breaths. "I thought I'd come and find out the truth."
His brow rose. "And what truth would that be?"
A moment came through. "Did you… really ask Soren to kill Ezran and Callum?"
"Oh thank god!" Claudia slouched with relief. "I knew Soren was mistaken. There was just no way you could've meant that. I mean he was always an oaf but I was sure that he was just delu…" She paused finally when the answered dawn on her. "Wait… what?"
"I asked Soren to secretly eliminate the princes." He repeated ever so calmly.
"B… but… but…" The girl stuttered desperately for air. "But why? How!? How could you do that!?"
"How could I not?"
"They're Ezran and Callum! The King's children! Killing them is… is… fratricide!"
"Right right. That too." She babbled. "But that's not the point! How could you? These aren't just some random folk. They're Ezran and Callum! Our Ezran and Callum. The same Ezran and Callum that we've been living with nearly all our lives. Why would you do this even after everything King Harrow has done?"
"Why?" Viren chuckled. "Because this kingdom needs a strong ruler. Someone who is ready to get things done. We are at war. I thought those messenger ravens last night taught you that. You really expect Young Prince Ezran to sit on the throne and lead us all to war?"
"Well… no." Of course not. She can't even picture the little guy wearing armor and riding a horse through battle. The guy wasn't that kind of ruler. He was too much like his father. He'd rather spend his days lounging around the castle garden eating jelly tarts rather than ruling over this place.
"Then you see my point." Her old man continued. "If we put someone like that on the throne, our kingdom will suffer."
"You can't possible know that." She countered. "Ezran hasn't even been given a chance. You won't know what kind of ruler he'll become if you don't give him a fair shot. And… just to point out: He's a lot smarter than you give him credit for. Besides, this isn't about that. This is about you… trying to kill him… and Callum. And using Soren to do it of all people!"
"Yes. A fine use that boy was."
"He is your son!" Claudia snapped. "And they're friends. They grew up together. We all did! You asked him to murder them."
"A task he clearly failed."
"Are you even listening to yourself?" She berated. "What's wrong with you, father? King Harrow was your friend. You told me he loved you like a brother. How could you do this to him?"
"A weak hand won't be able to lead."
"Ezran is far from weak." Claudia snarled. "He's strong, wise, caring and dutiful just like his father. When he learned about what happened to King Harrow, he came back. That speaks volume of what he's capable of."
Viren eyed his daughter curiously. "You really believe that, don't you?"
"To a heart."
"Then follow it." He said with a prideful look. "I suppose you took more of me than just my magic."
"Took more and what now?" Claudia tilted her head confused.
"The young Prince Ezran seems to have taken a liking to you. You appear to have his complete trust, much to our surprise. He even suggested that you take the role of his advisor."
"Ezran did?" Well he did mention that a few days ago but she didn't think he'd go through with it.
"Yes. You could imagine our reaction. It was even more satisfying seeing how Opeli looked." He smiled smugly recalling that wretched Rule-Book of a woman shave a few years off her life when the young king suggested it. "Congratulations by the way."
"Uh… thank you? I think. No wait!" She shook her head trying to get her head back in the game. "What should I do?"
"I think the choices are obviously in your favor." Viren stated looking not all that worried. "From where I'm sitting you have two options. One you tell Ezran and Opeli about this and prove their trust. I am charged with treason and will most likely be imprisoned. You become the King's advisor and everything settles down."
Ok… that… that sounded kind of good. Almost too good. Sure dad might get thrown in jail but that was on him.
"But…" Ah… right. She forgot about the but. There's always a but. "You will have to deal with the oncoming elven incursion yourselves."
"And your point?"
"You're not stupid Claudia." Viren paused on that sentence. "Well not a complete idiot at least."
"You've seen battle. You've seen what the elves did and what they're willing to go through to achieve their goals. Once they destroy the Breach, war will come to Katolis. And like it or not, Prince Ezran will have to decide whether he should just sit back… or fight. Blood… will be on his hands."
Ezran fight? No. That's preposterous.
"If you think you can shelter him from the coming storm, then do so. But think about it. Do you want blood to stain his hands… or mine?"
No. She didn't. And she was sure that if Callum were here, he wouldn't want that either.
"What's… option 2?"