Kith and Kin
Groad, Selestia and Turpane stood at the main gate watching as the combined Kithian and Artanian forces went about placing extra fortifications around and upon Maggoth’s keep. Daleth, after helping a group to manoeuvre one of the great war machines into a strategic position, joined the small group.
“They seem to have gotten used to your big ugly presence,” said Turpane smiling at the zin-za.
“Yes, but is that good or bad?” replied the one-eyed behemoth with a feigned air of concern. “It is always better to have them remain a little wary of you.”
“This is a sight I never dreamed possible,” said Groad waving a hand at all the activity. “Kithians and Artanians…hated enemies working together for a common goal.”
Selestia smiled. “Circumstance has made even stranger allies. Just take a look at us.”
The group all laughed.
It had taken no small persuasion on the part of the Kithian emissaries to convince the Artanian authorities to allow them to deploy a small army across the border. This was granted only on condition, that the Artanians themselves would send their own military garrison, as well as a group of observers to see that no form of foul play would take place.
Although much bickering and more than the odd fray had erupted amongst the rival ranks, preparations had been proceeding swiftly and smoothly. Those who worked the hardest were the Kithians that had witnessed first-hand the terrible destructive power of the Great Dragon at Tar Ta Rus.
Karta Kithlid had also given instructions for the entire shammar to be stationed at the keep, realizing that there was a greater need for Kith’s finest warriors to be present at the approaching Great Battle.
Selestia moved towards the base of the keep. “The conditions set by King Sarx and his Artanian authorities have done us all an enormous favour. They have unwittingly added a much needed increase to our modest taskforce. The work is going well and seemingly ahead of schedule. The building of the road across the Artanian swampland has been a great benefit in allowing us to transport all the necessary defenses to the keep. As you well know, I need to preserve all my power now at any cost. The Royal Kithian Council may have been gracious enough to supply both myself and Maggoth with all the available gold that they had at their disposal, but it was gravely insufficient. We shall only hope that their effort to gather more of the precious metal is proceeding with much success.” She wheeled to face the group that had proceeded to follow her. “You must please excuse us now, but Groad and I need to discuss some important matters with Maggoth…in private.”
Selestia and Groad entered the great hall from the narrow passageway that came from the secret entrance at the base of the keep. They watched in silence as Maggoth, unaware of their presence, ignited the oil lamps that lined the black stone walls. He could have completed the task in an instant using the power of the dark energies but he did not wish to waste any precious energy on such menial chores. Bending down he picked up one of the small crimson megornexes that had been scattered across the vast hall during Kronos’ short yet furious battle with the ratchamonga. He held it up in front of one of the flickering flames and carefully studied the small insect-like creature within the indestructible translucent material.
“We need to talk!” Selestia’s voice echoed across the vast hall.
Maggoth lowered his arm and spun around. “Selestia! Groad! How go the preparations?”
“The preparations are going as planned, but the three of us need to talk.”
There was a long silence before Maggoth spoke again. “Of what?”
Selestia’s reply was abrupt. “You know of what!” There was more than a hint of irritation in her voice.
“The fruit of our forbidden love?” he asked in an embittered tone.
“Please, Maggoth. Must you sound so vindictive? The Great Battle approaches. We can not afford to be divided at such a time. Right now, more than your forgiveness, I need your support and understanding.”
“How can I give you the one without the other? You lied to me! How can I ever trust you again?”
“Kronos was correct!” hissed Selestia. “You are a hypocrite!”
“You dare to stand here amongst your vast collection of preserved creatures and judge me?”
“Was it not you who said that you despised Kithians because they destroy anything that they do not understand or that does not conform to their way of life?”
“I believe I said that they despise anything that is different! They destroy what they can not change or tolerate! That which is different becomes the unfathomable, and the unfathomable becomes the unacceptable, and the unacceptable becomes the shunned and hated!
“You know full well that if it had not been for my timely action in encasing many of Baltrath’s creatures in the megornexes they would surely be extinct today! In fact, many of the specimens here are the last of their kind! The Kithians’ attitude and foolish traditions have cost Baltrath many of her proud and noble creatures!”
“Foolish traditions!” growled Groad. “What foolish traditions?”
“The Ana Iram for one!”
Groad felt his blood begin to boil. “How dare you call the Ana Iram a foolish tradition? It is our most sacred custom!”
“Oh really? Most sacred? Have your priorities changed now that the truth of the Golden Sleep has been revealed to you?”
“Maggoth!” chided Selestia. “How can you be so cruel and insensitive? Kithians also have feelings!”
Maggoth pointed an accusing finger towards Groad. “Because of their sacred Ana Iram both ana desh-glas and ana-rod nocs will very soon cease to exist upon their precious planet! When those creatures are no more, what poor beasts will they then decide to make part of their black trials?”
“You are mistaken wizard!” spat Groad. “We do not kill ana-rod nocs in the trials of savden!”
“True, but ana-rod nocs are highly cautious creatures. They will seldom if ever return to one of their nests if it has been disturbed. Not even if that nest happens to contain newly laid eggs or even recently hatched fledglings.”
Groad looked towards Selestia for confirmation. It came in the form of a slow nod. He lowered his head ashamedly. “I...we did not know that.”
“So you see, not only do you destroy what is different but you also destroy by your ignorance!”
“Our son was different!” exclaimed Selestia moving across the great hall towards Maggoth. “Do you hear me, Maggoth? He was different! Not deformed! And because he was different you decided to destroy him! He was not a hideous monster! He simply was not like us! Did that give you the right to extinguish his life prematurely? You wanted to do the very same thing that you condemn! Obliterate what you can not tolerate!” Her voice became calm again. “We can not help what we do if it is part of our nature. Some are born to lead, others are born to follow. Just as some creatures are born predators and others are born prey. Who are we to criticize that which is natural and instinctive?”
There was another long silence.
This time it was Maggoth’s turn to lower his head in shame. He slowly opened his hand and allowed the small megornex to fall onto the cold black stone floor. Its echo clinked and clattered across the expanse of the great hall.
“What do you expect?” asked the sorcerer holding out his hands. Closing his eyes, he clapped his palms together and placed the tips of his fingers against the base of his chin. It seemed as though he was about to offer some sort of prayer. “It was a stunning revelation. Numbing to the senses.” He opened his eyes and glared at Selestia. “All this time you left me to believe that I had killed my son. You allowed me to exist with the knowledge and guilt that I had been instrumental in my own son’s death.”
“I had no choice!”
“Yes, of course. I realize that now. It is just that some truths are very difficult to embrace. All these many cyclans I have watched as the Kithians crawled out of the mud and grew into the powerful empire they are today.
“And yes, it is true that I once despised them.” The wizard’s eyes softened as he looked towards Groad. “That was before I had the honour and privilege of meeting such a noble Kithian as Groad.”
“Me?” queried Groad in an embarrassed tone.
“Yes you, Groad. It was mainly through your very words and actions that I began to nurture admiration for the Kithians. Never before have I encountered such extraordinary qualities in anyone. You have shown me that Kithians are more than just a nation of blood-thirsty barbarians. You have pride and love and joy and respect. You show bravery and, yes, even intellect.
“Long before the truth was revealed to me, I had started to cultivate a great admiration for your people. And now that I have come to know that they are also my people, I have begun to develop a great love and affection for them as well.
“And now, more than admiration…I have pride. The pride of knowing that I am the originator of Baltrath’s mightiest nation.”
Groad shook his head and smiled uneasily. “This is so…confusing
…so…ironic. All this time Kithians have been taught to shun the dark arts and now we discover that our ancestors were...are Dark Wizards.
“So many lies have been brought to the light. So many hidden facts revealed. These can not and must not be hidden from the nation of Kith. So many changes that need to be made. Yet what sort of repercussions will they cause? How are we to accept that the Kithian nation and its vast empire are no more than the result of an elaborate scheme concocted by Rava Zool and his crony Kronos?”
“That is not entirely true,” said Selestia gently placing her hand on Groad’s arm. “If Kronos chose to help strengthen the Kithians into a mighty nation, it was obviously because he could see their potential. It was foreseeable; even without his coaxing they would have become a mighty empire. His influence merely speeded up the process. With the potent blood of Dark Wizards flowing through their veins it was inevitable that they would become a prominent force on the face of Baltrath. That is an advantage which they have always had; they just never had the knowledge of it.” The sorceress gazed approvingly at Maggoth. “If a Dark Wizard can learn to be proud of being the father of Baltrath’s mightiest nation, then that nation can surely also learn to have pride in their noble origin as well.”
“How could Dakur have allowed all these things to take place?”
“Perhaps Dakur is testing you, Groad? After all, one of the most admirable qualities that all Kithian’s possess is their ability to adapt to change.”
“That is correct!” exclaimed Maggoth placing his hand upon Groad’s other arm. “And part of change is being able to accept certain facts even if they are not to our liking. We accept them and so…well life continues.”
Selestia smiled kindly at Groad. “All that is needed is time. Time allows all wounds to heal.”
Groad’s tone turned serious. “All the time in creation will not be enough if we are not able to persevere through the Great Battle. And then…even if we should defeat the dragon, it will not change anything about my predicament. I shall still be a hideous loathsome creature to all those who should cross my path. I shall still have to remain concealed beneath these wrappings and cloak. No time can heal these wounds.”
“Are you quite certain of that?” asked the sorceress. “If a hideous loathsome creature such as Daleth can be accepted, why not you?”
“Hideous loathsome creature?” retorted Maggoth. “Daleth happens to be a highly sophisticated and cultured friend of mine.”
A sheepish grin crossed Selestia’s face.
The smile on Groad’s face could not be seen but was certainly sensed by both Dark Wizards.
“Many cyclans ago, inside the Tomb of the Golden Sleepers, I was awed to be in the presence of the great Kith’s remains, but now I stand here in the living company of the very mother and father of my...our nation. Now that the Great Battle approaches we need more than ever to remain united. We are family. And when hard times arrive that is when it is necessary for family to become even closer.
“Well? Are we one?” Groad stretched out a gloved hand. “Are we united together against the evil known as Rava Zool?”
Maggoth and Selestia looked at each other and then back at Groad.
“We are!” they exclaimed boldly in unison and placed their hands on top of Groad’s glove.
“Ha!” shouted Groad loudly. “Dakur be praised! Now, let that stinking dragon come!”
“Now,” said Selestia with more than a hint of mischievousness in her voice as she undulated her lithe form towards Maggoth. “Could you please excuse us, Groad? Maggoth and I would like some privacy. We have…other personal matters of importance to...discuss.”
“Certainly, but try to remember that it was those other personal matters that got us into this predicament in the first place. Also…be careful not to bash your heads against the ceiling.”
“Maggoth!” exclaimed Karta Kithlid. “What a pleasure to see you again. I take it that you are here to thank me for the gold?”
The phony Maggoth frowned. “Thank you for the gold? What are you talking about?”
“The gold! You did receive it of course? There was so much of it that we decided to deliver it to you as soon as possible. It was obviously unsafe to keep it here, especially with the probability of Rava Zool making an unexpected return to Tar Ta Rus at any moment.”
“What have you done with my gold?” The words, although calmly spoken, were rife with irritation and malice.
“It was sent under the guard of the shammar and a small army to your keep.”
“Yes! Your fortified dwelling in the heart of the Artanian marsh-lands.”
“What? When did you do this?”
“They are probably arriving at your keep this very moment. I deliberated that Selestia must have transported you here with news of the convoy’s safe arrival. There are twelve wagons full.”
The eyes of the simulated Dark Wizard widened. “Twelve?”
“Yes! Is that not wonderful? Our efforts exceeded even our own expectations.”
“Oh, we had our ways,” said the emperor forcing a manifestation of smugness onto his nervous face. “The two main courses of action which we took were to sell off a great deal of the valuable state-owned land and to exchange the remaining precious metals and gemstones in our Royal Treasury for gold. We may have lost miserably during the transactions, but it was the only way to entice the nation to bring us their valued golden items. You must be ecstatic to hear such good news?”
“Fools!” He turned hastily and walked swiftly towards the side exit.
“Why are you upset? Did you not say...?” The words stuck in Karta Kithlid’s throat as the impersonator turned to glare at him. The emperor’s blood froze as he stared back at the large yellow reptilian eyes.
“You have caused an unnecessary delay to my plans!” shouted Rava Zool unaware that his agitated condition was causing him to relinquish control over his painful metamorphosis. “You have wasted my precious time, my precious power and even more so my precious patience.” Only once he had raised his arm to point a warning talon at the trembling emperor did he realize that his deception was beginning to unravel.
“You are not Maggoth!” shouted Karta Kithlid backing away slowly. “You are some demonspawn impostor!”
Rava Zool closed his scaly talon into a hideous gnarled fist and hissed at the emperor through sharp glistening fangs. “Consider yourselves fortuitous that I do not now have the opportunity to discipline your worthless hides! I need to make haste to collect my treasure. But be sure to know that I shall shortly return to mete out the necessary punishment that you and your precious city so rightly deserve.”
“The Great Dragon! You are Rava Zool, the Great Dragon! Dakur’s eyes! What have we done?” lamented the emperor. “We have guaranteed our own destruction by collecting such a vast amount of gold!”
For a moment it seemed as though Rava Zool would leap upon the hapless quivering emperor, but then he wheeled and lumbered towards the exit leading onto the palace balcony. The dragon, who had started to increase in size just managed to fit through the opening. Once on the balcony, he released all his control over the agonizing modification. He roared with both pain and relief as his body returned to its correct shape and volume.
Fear, as well as fascination, prevented the emperor from fleeing. He watched in awe as the Great Dragon unfurled his large leathery appendages. It was both a terrifying and magnificent spectacle as the enormous beast rose into the air.
Only when the violent gusts, caused by the beating of the massive wings, had faded did Karta Kithlid move cautiously out onto the balcony. He placed both hands upon the balustrade to support his trembling frame.
Although still suffering from the ordeal of yet once again having to confront the Great Dragon, he managed to smile as he breathed a sigh of relief.
He had several reasons for feeling reassured. His personal role in this great game of life and death was now complete. This would hopefully have been the very last time necessary to face the Great Dragon.
It had all gone exactly as planned. He had managed to give the precise type of information necessary to compel Rava Zool to move with the utmost haste towards the keep.
If all went well, the Great Dragon would blunder unwarily into the trap set for him.
The emperor’s feigned surprise at the fraudulent Maggoth’s metamorphosis had obviously been persuasive enough not to have Rava Zool realize that his enemies had long since become wary of his nefarious scheme.
Also, the presence of the small army at the keep was to be expected and so would not raise any unnecessary suspicion.
But there was something else that Karta Kithlid had found pleasing and reassuring. It had been slight and subtle, yet the emperor had managed to perceive it. Rava Zool was clearly not quite as potent and impressive as he had appeared two moons ago when he had destroyed parts of Tar Ta Rus. The Great Dragon had seemed drained; even near to the point of exhaustion.
A few moments later, the emperor was joined by Leeja Fay and Bel Shedor. The three stared unblinkingly at the dark shape that was moving swiftly towards the Artanian border.
“The elder gods protect us all,” said the high priestess in a hushed tone. “The time of the Great Battle has arrived.”