“If you fail, I will deliver
the most severe of punishments.
Pain and suffering will be your only friend”
Gori to Arajuan
The warm sun could not cheer Arajuan’s defeat, and losing the twins would cause him even greater pain. He had taken a full troop of men but now he had enough left for one platoon. As they marched towards Lenagard, he halted the men and sniffed the morning air. Mika, she must be taking the hatchling.
“Into cover now, we don’t have the men to fight another dragon!” He ordered.
Arajuan led the men into a small thicket of brush. He then crept back out toward the scent of Mika. Socrates flew from a tree and to his shoulder. The boy had watched over the cave the night before and now he lent Arajuan his eyes. Mika was with a man, Tarnink, he recognized those jade eyes and tied oak hair. In the moss jacket, that had to be the wyrmling who Arajuan would suffer for.
Arajuan crept even closer, the surrounding fog shifted in the wind. He flinched when he realized he was no longer downwind. He heard Mika’s silvery stern voice.
“That creature, Arajuan, has already spotted us.”
Creature. The word was akin to nettles piercing the flesh. Arajuan did not differ from her, his own heritage being dragon blooded. He shook his head, no he forsook his dragon blood. Gori would be a raged tempest when he returned, still he had already suffered at Gori’s hand before. The scales on his arm stood up as Mika and the wyrmling sped off. Socrates could no longer track their movement. He must leave the child to her fate.
Arajuan slipped back toward his men. His face a mask hiding his emotions he led the men away from Lenagard. It was time to return and face his fate in the capital. If his body wasn’t ice cold the frustration he felt would melt the surrounding snow. He did not plan to fail, this was a mission he was dedicated to. The men marched behind him in silence. Socrates flew above counting the men. He had twenty left.
There was no rain in the skies, no fire of victory, only loss and a heavy heart. Soon the snows would fully melt, and the rains would come. Arajuan liked the rain, but he knew it could not cleanse his tainted soul. The march to the capital took just as long as it did to reach Lenagard. Despite this, for Arajuan, it felt like the march passed swift as the flight of a dragon.
It was not long until the towering walls of AsunaTuuli glistened like glittering marble against the dreary sky ahead of them. Black clouds always swirled the capital these days, clouds of war, violence, and hatred. The smell of pollution filled Arajuan’s Lungs. The gates swung open and Gori was there to greet him.
“Well, the hero returns!” Gori proclaimed.
Arajuan stood tall and proud but Gori was a full head taller than he. The emperor approached and swept Arajuan into an embrace. With both hands firm on Arajuan’s shoulders he gave a twisted grin. Gori was angry, just as he thought, but this display was not for his benefit but for the people. The city streets were lined with crowds that cheered and wept.
“You fought bravely, but Rork is fierce and determined. Your loss is our loss, we weep with you. Come, let us mourn the brave men who died defending Aldaria and AsunaTuuli from the tyranny of dragons.” He declared.
Gori turned to the gate and led Arajuan through the streets. This felt worse than torture, guilt at his failure was hitting his bones. The crowds cheered the procession of soldiers as they all marched, heads bowed. A chant was started.
“Ḕ tā̀n ḕ epì tâs,” cried the people.
Arajuan knew the phrase, ‘with this or on this.’ he dared not ask Socrates to show him. He knew what he’d see. The mothers of fallen soldiers lifting their son’s shields. Their cries admonished the spartan for his failing to return on his. The palace doors were swung open for the parade and Gori led them in. Once inside, he was taken to the balcony.
“You must address the people after all you are our hero.”
Hero. This war had no heroes only villains, and he was the worst. Two faced and power hungry, he scoffed to himself, hero was a stretch if ever he heard it.
“As you wish my lord.” Arajuan replied.
Arajuan opened the doors to the balcony and stood before the people. The crescendo of chants rang in his ears like a gong of failure. He had to answer to them.
“Odcięte lowry żadne ogoni!” He growled to them as he pounded a fist to his chest.
The crowd grew silent. Arajuan cleared his throat, straightened up and spoke.
“Odcięte lowry żadne ogoni!” he paused the crowd still did not respond, “Ḕ tā̀n ḕ epì tâs, With this or on it! They died an honorable death. We destroyed the nest of the time dragon! Truly we had victory, even if Rork did not die! We left him wounded and returned proudly with our dead on their shields!”
Arajuan lifted his shield giving a roar of victory. This had the effect he hoped for. The crowd whooped and cheered. Chants of both phrases now rang. Gori stood next to him a wry look across his face. Would Arajuan escape punishment after all? Yes, he could paint this as a victory. Gori did not know about the twelfth egg.
“Let us rejoice today in the sacrifice of our men! Let us celebrate their accomplishment. To kill an entire nest of dragon wyrmlings under the nose of a fierce fire breathing tyrant is no mean feat.”
“Odcięte lowry żadne ogoni! Slay Rork!” The reply rang from the people.
“We will gather our forces and hunt him down!” Arajuan replied.
This placated the people. The mood of defeat had changed. This became not a loss but a victory to be celebrated. Eleven dragons were slain, and one injured, the country would learn of this and rejoice. Arajuan had another success just as always. Another success with a secret, he would have to get in touch with Wong again. He pushed this from his mind. Now to prevent Gori from torturing him.
“I think they are satisfied, sire,” Arajuan whispered.
“Your orders were to kill Mika and Rork too.” Gori replied, “Still, you spoke true, this is a victory to our cause. Her nest was destroyed, and you will have time to redeem yourself. Remember, if you fail…”
“If I fail, I will find pain and suffering as my only friends. True but I am well acquainted with both pain and suffering.” Arajuan retorted.
Gori chuckled, “We shall see.”
Arajuan watched as the emperor left the balcony. He had been spared, after all, for now. He lifted his head and clicked his tongue against his teeth. Socrates swooped down and landed on his shoulders. He looked to the people and parted with a cry and salute.
“Odcięte lowry żadne ogoni!”
The people returned his call and dispersed themselves. Arajuan went back into the palace and toward a private room. The room was his only sanctuary from Gori’s scrying. It was sparse, a sink, a bed and a thin blanket were all he had.
Arajuan pulled a mirror and scried. Socrates, now a dark-haired boy once more, looked into the mirror with him. The mirror turned cloudy, then cleared to an image of an infant swaddled in a crib. Red and black curls poked from the child’s head, her eyes open and the color of emeralds. A figure leaned over the crib.
“Sleep, Ayana, Mommy needs you to sleep now.”
He knew that voice, Queen Esmir, he stopped the session before the elf queen sensed him. It was best he did not have her know he could see her.
“Ayana, huh, I know who you are now. Lady of Shadows.”