To combat a deadly threat to Mossflower's freedom, an unlikely hero will be called upon.
|Though Castle Sarim was only half-built, it was already shaping up to be an impressive, sprawling structure, and Prince Azrahai often became lost within its grey stone halls whenever he needed to get somewhere. It was nearly morning when he finally found his father’s study.
“Father?” The younger creature peered around the study door to see his father, Regent Zenik, reading a heavy tome from his favourite chair. Zenik glanced up from his book, slight concern showing in the dark eyes behind his crystal glasses.
“What is it, my son?”
Azrahai stepped into the study, still working out the best way to say what he came to say.
“I think I… You know a couple seasons back, when you talked to me and Nezari about prophetic dreams? I… I just had one.”
Zenik gave his son a careful look, curiosity now plain in eyes as he folded his book closed and set it aside.
“Is that so? Then I suppose you’d better take a seat and tell me what you dreamed.”
Azrahai took his place in a small, finely-crafted wooden chair across from his father’s large plush one. He let his gaze linger on the scholarly clutter of his father’s study; books lined the shelves along the walls in an ordering system that only his father could decipher, scrolls and papers formed haphazard heaps on every available surface, the massive oaken work desk was marked by countless ink stains where used quills had been left lying or ink wells tipped over in error. Azrahai had hoped the familiarity of it all would help put his mind at ease. It didn’t.
Zenik cleared his throat to regain the younger creature’s attention. “So, what was this dream?”
Azrahai’s eyes turned to meet his father’s. “It was… My death.”
“… You’re certain that’s what the dream was about?”
“I died in the dream.”
“Hmm. I think you’d better tell me exactly what happened in this dream.”
Azrahai’s eyes went back to searching the room; this was the part he had been dreading. He slumped back in his chair, let out a tired sigh, and began the tale.
“Well, it was night, and I was at the top of one of the castle’s upper towers, dressed in light armor and carrying a shield. I feel as if I’m many seasons older than I am now. Below me, all I could see and hear was chaos; ships burning in the harbors, creatures fighting on the piers, in the castle, and in the skies. It was the middle of a war. A war I could feel we were losing.”
“A war against whom?”
“I’m not certain, but I have to assume they were Mossflower natives. Rebels, maybe.”
“Makes sense. We’ve certainly made enough enemies since we came here, and we’ll likely make many more in the seasons to come. Please continue.”
“Well, as I said, there was fighting going on all around me, but my attention wasn’t on that, it was on the sky and the moon that hung there. It was full and bright orange, like a harvest moon, and looking at it seemed to fill me with an intense rage, as if the moon itself had committed some unforgivable crime against me. But there was something else in the sky with that moon, a streak of silver, like a shooting star or a comet, and the sight of it seemed to replace all my anger with fear and regret.”
“Regret for what?”
“I am not sure. But it felt as if… As if all this chaos was somehow my fault, as if it was my actions that had arrayed this moon and star against me. All I knew for certain was that it was far too late to change my fate now. My fears were realized when the star plunged down out of the sky, straight towards me, like a bolt of silver fire from some celestial crossbow. I tried raising shield to protect myself, but to no avail; the star pierced the wood and metal as if it was made of parchment. The pain was… Excruciating, like a shard of ice tearing through me chest. As my vision stared to dim, the last thing I could see clearly was an image of that orange moon, hung in a cloudless, starry sky. And then I woke up, shivering and covered in sweat. I left my chambers to find you as soon as I’d managed to calm myself.”
The two creatures sat together in the flickering candlelight, the younger one attempting to suppress the shudders that were now threatening to overtake him, while the elder contemplated the tale he had just heard. As the moments stretched on, the silence started to become oppressive to Azrahai, until he could no longer stand it.
“Father, what does it mean?”
Zenik shot his son a somewhat reproachful look. “Patience, my son. Interpreting our dreams is no simple matter. Whatever meaning they might hold is often couched in allegory and archaic symbolism, and it can be difficult to see what details are important and what events should be taken at face value without first examining them very carefully.”
“I… My apologies. Please take as much time as you need.”
“It’s quite alright. I can see you are deeply troubled by this, and it is only natural for young creatures to lack patience when they are troubled.” Zenik rubbed the white fur of his chin in a thoughtful gesture. “As a matter of fact, since this was your dream, it would probably be best if you were a part of the process. So tell me, do you have any ideas about what your dream means?”
Azrahai pondered the question for a moment before answering. “Well, I’m sure that the moon in the dream represents some other creature, an enemy I’ll have to face in my future. I haven’t a clue what the star means, though.”
“Hmm, I may have an idea. If the moon does indeed represent an enemy you will face, then it stands to reason that this enemy would wield some weapon against you, correct?”
“I suppose. But how is a shooting star a weapon?”
“I’ve heard stories, legends really, about creatures that followed the paths of shooting stars, only to find a lump of metal where they’d fallen. This metal could then be used to craft weapons finer than anything that can be made with earthly materials. If there is any truth to those legends, then perhaps this dream meant to tell you that your future enemy will wield such a weapon?”
“So that’s it, then? I’m fated to be killed by a creature wielding a star weapon?”
“Not necessarily. Prophecy tells only what could be, and nothing more. Creatures always have choice.”
“Then what choices should I make to avoid this? I still don’t understand.”
“That is not for me to say. Were there no hints about what led to this outcome in the dream?”
“I don’t… Well, maybe. The rebellion. Maybe that’s what the dream was meant to warn me about, that if the Krimson continue down our current path, it’ll only lead to rebellion and to my death.”
“Would you suggest abandoning our mission only to save yourself?”
“I… Of course not. But if the events of my dream hold true, it won’t just lead to my death; the Krimson will fail here completely. It’s already starting to crack; we’ve had to go to more extreme measures than ever before to keep these creatures under control, and they just get more restless the more we tighten our grip. Maybe Mossflower is simply too wild to ever be tamed.”
Zenik leaned back into his chair with a tired sigh. He spent a few long moments with his eyes closed, seemingly lost in thought, before he finally spoke again. “Perhaps. But even if we are fated to fail, we must still try. It is noble to give one’s life for a greater cause, even if it is ultimately a hopeless one.”
Azrahai stayed silent for a time, before finally responding with simply, “I… Understand.”
Zenik shook his head at that. “No, you clearly have objections. Tell me what’s on your mind, son. Don’t worry about disappointing me.”
“It just seems… Pointless to waste our time and resources on a hopeless endeavor, when we could be focusing our energy on something that will succeed.”
“A very practical concern, but this isn’t a matter of practicality, it’s a matter of doing what’s right. The creatures of this world are like children. They will not civilize themselves, so it is up to the Krimson to force them to become civilized, and thus build a better future for them all. It is a difficult task, but it would be an impossible one if we simply gave up every time our success became uncertain.”
“Am I to ignore my dream then?”
“Not quite; a Krimson’s dreams are a powerful tool, which has guided our family through countless hardships. But the dreams are just that; one tool, and you should not let them rule you completely. Just as a ship’s navigator would risk sailing in circles for the rest of his seasons if he relied on only one of his instruments, Krimson will risk succumbing to paranoia and madness if they rely solely on their dreams. So, by all means, heed your dream and the warning it holds, but do not let fear of that potential fate consume you or sway you from the right path.”
As Azrahai sat pondering his father’s words, Zenik rose from his chair and began rifling through the clutter under his writing desk, muttering under his breath as he did so.
“… Know I had it here somewhere…”
“Did you need some help, father?”
“Oh, no, I was just… Ah!” Zenik beamed triumphantly as he pulled a dark glass bottle from its hiding place. “Just looking for this little beauty. Nothing like a good cup of blackberry brandy to put one’s troubles at bay, eh?”
Azrahai couldn’t help but give a slight smile as he watched his father pull a couple of ceramic cups down from one of the shelves. While Zenik was normally a wise, dignified creature, he became like a child with candy when it came to fine drinks. Azrahai gratefully accepted one of the filled cups, and sat warming the brandy in his paws for a while before taking the first sip. Azrahai had to shudder slightly as the warmth of the drink seemed to spread through his body like liquid wildfire. The first time he’d tried brandy as a child, the strength of it had sent him into a fit of violent coughing, so he took the shuddering as an improvement.
“Do you feel better, my son?” Zenik posed the question as he settled back into the plush embrace of his chair.
“Ye…” Azrahai’s response was cut short by a violent coughing fit, caused by a wayward drop of brandy. So much for ‘an improvement’…
Zenik chuckled knowingly as he reached over to pat his son’s back. “Don’t worry; it becomes easier to swallow in time.”
“Does it really?” Azrahai’s voice was low and hoarse. “Are you talking about the brandy or the dreams?”
Another chuckle at that. “How perceptive of you. Yes, the brandy does provide a ready metaphor, doesn’t it? Both are, after all, as intrinsic a part of our heritage as our red fur, both of them can bring pain as much as comfort, and both can destroy you if you allow yourself to become too obsessed with them.”
As Azrahai was carefully considering another try at his brandy, he was again interrupted, this time by the alarm signaling morning light. The alarm was the result of one of the coyote guards howling through a huge metal cone, amplifying the cry into a long, mournful dirge which was used to mark important events and the time of day. It was a sound that never failed to make his blood run cold.
“I don’t suppose you got very much sleep last night.”
Azrahai shook his head. He’d woken from his dream just after midnight, and had spent the rest of the night either regaining his composure or searching the castle for his father’s study. His father’s remark only reminded him of how truly tired he felt.
“Well, once you’ve finished your drink, I’ll call a guard to bring you to your quarters. You can take the rest of the day to sleep; no need to go to your studies.”
Azrahai quickly, but carefully, drained the contents of his cup. Once Zenik was sure his son would not fall victim to any more sudden coughing fits, he drained his own cup. Setting the empty vessel aside, he pulled the gilded bell rope located near his seat to summon the guard. Several more moments passed before there was a knocking at the study door, followed by the ever-sarcastic tones of the coyote standing outside.
“Do you require some assistance, Regent? Or were you just lonely?”
“Assistance, if you would be so kind, Kotsill.”
The door swung open, and the grey and brown furred Kotsill entered the room, swaggering and smirking as coyotes were wont to do, red militia cloak and short-shafted glaive both worn on his back in the most calculatedly careless fashion.
“Assistance with what, my Regent?” Kotsill accompanied his question with a theatrical bow.
“I’d like you to escort my son to his quarters.”
The coyote looked Azrahai over with a raised eyebrow and one ear cocked to a jaunty angle. “Tucking the boy in, eh? Would you like me to read him a bedtime story as well, Regent?”
Zenik merely chuckled. Coyote sarcasm was nigh-on impossible for members of the species to tone down, even when speaking to creatures to whom they owed their loyalty. So, where other leaders might tend to take offense, the Krimson had long ago learned to suffer the insolent remarks of their underlings in good humor.
“That won’t be necessary, Kotsill. Just make sure he gets to his room safely and isn’t disturbed for the rest of the day.”
“As you command, Regent.” Kotsill gave another exaggerated bow. After straightening up, he proceeded to slouch against the doorframe, staring at his claws as if inspecting a manicure. He let a few moments pass before glancing at Azrahai again. “Well, you coming? I’ve got better things to do than babysit princes all morning.”
After taking one last look at Zenik and receiving a fatherly smile in return, Azrahai rose from chair, teetering slightly against the effects of the brandy. Wordlessly, he set his own empty cup next to his father’s, and followed Kotsill out of the room and through the twists and turns of the castle’s lonely corridors. Following the coyote and his uncanny memory, the trip back to his quarters was significantly quicker than the one he’d originally taken to get to his father’s study. Arriving at the door to his quarters, Azrahai said a curt farewell to Kotsill, entered his spacious room, and fell gratefully upon his bed’s feather-filled mattress. He was asleep within minutes.
While the aftermath of the dream continued to haunt Azrahai for a while yet to come, its hold over him would eventually fade. The wise counseling of his father, combined with the arrival of other comparably troubling dreams, served to weaken the first dream’s impact. The moon and star that had originally caused Azrahai such distress were eventually consigned to the back of his mind, and would not again enter his thoughts in such force for many seasons.