The Empire of Ruins

by Angel

 

I awoke slowly, and rubbed the dark haze from my eyes. The desert air was cold today. It should have been daylight, but instead a black shadow hung in the air. Looking up, I saw that the sky was almost completely blacked out, crawling with thousands of swirling shapes. As I focused and my vision cleared, I could make out the unmistakeable silhouettes, and my heart stopped...Dragons! In all my life I had seen only one, and that was a quick glimpse while exploring the cliffs as a child. I also remembered old legends and descriptions of the dragon, a fierce powerful creature who could appear suddenly in our reality and, with a single thought, bring death, or life; order, or chaos. Dragons were rarely seen by people unless one of these events was about to take place. As I thought about this phenomenon, and now multiplied it by thousands, a hideously helpless feeling began to come over me. The dragons had now aligned, and were gliding together in a large circle overhead. Half in fear and half in awe I watched as, inside the circle, a huge dark rip began to open in the middle of the sky.

"Asher-Rose! Did you fall asleep outside again?" The dulcet tones of Eudra's voice lowered my gaze from the agitated sky. "Silly child! You'll catch your death of cold. It's about to snow; look at that raging cloud!"

I stared at my caretaker for a few moments, not understanding what she said. It's going to snow? Did she truly not see the winged harbingers in the air, in an ominous circle?

"Eudra?"

"Yes, mi'lady," she answered dutifully, grabbing my hand, and, as if I were a child, leading me back into the castle, fretting over leaves tangled in my hair.

I rolled my eyes to the murky skies. "Eudra, please. You know I don't like to be called that."

"My apologies. You had a question, dear?" She drew the heavy oak doors shut behind us, and busied herself with my disheveled appearance.

Indeed. What do you see in the skies right now?"

She fell back slightly, as if struck by a sudden blow. Gathering her composure, she squared her shoulders and looked at me sternly, but with no emotion in her countenance. "Storm clouds, Asher-Rose, storm clouds. Because that's what they are. And you should be grateful: the land needs the snow for moisture and insulation," she responded curtly. With sharp, apathetic pulls, harshened through years of practice as my caretaker, she wound my hair back and patted my head. A wash of radiance overtook her face. "Go on, sweet child. Tell your parents the news. The king has yet to leave the castle today. They wish to see you; you don't look perfect, but...." I knew 'you never do' was implied. A tiny shove later, I was in the throne room before my parents, and Eudra had scuttled off.

"King Majander, Queen Damiana, your daughter, Princess Asher-Rose, has arrived," the page announced.

"I can see that, fool," my father boomed. The page skulked off into the shadows, and, resigning myself to yet another lecture, I approached the thrones. "Asher-Rose, where were you last night? You were supposed to attend Lysarrah and Aiden's well-wishing ceremony." Lysarrah was my older sister, and good princess material: enchanting, docile, well-mannered, sophisticated...and in severe lack of a backbone or personal opinion. I, on the other hand, was not meant for monarchy: outgoing, blunt, independent, a daydreamer and, apparently, 'too spirited.' My parents were worried I would never marry, and thus took great interest in Lysarrah's marriage to Aiden, a Scot prince. Lysarrah had always enjoyed being a princess, but Laesh - the middle child and only son - and I were more enchanted with the prismatic Arctic wonderland we lived in than commanding riches and armies.

Tell or not to tell? Why hadn't Shakespeare tackled that question? I stared at the family crest - a dragon on the left, a unicorn on the right, and von Ahn nestled snugly in-between the two - with impassive eyes for an instant. "Yesterday was the beginning of the Indigo Burning. I wan--"

"Nonsense! The Indigo Burning is a myth! Just because you don't care about the fate of the kingdom doesn't mean you shouldn't support idle fancies that will destroy it!" My father was red with rage, and he stormed past me.

"Father, wait," I called after him. He stopped, but didn't turn around fully. "It's snowing. Eudra said to tell you." My mother sighed softly and rested her head in her hands. My father muttered something under his still-heavy breathing and walked out, slamming the door behind him.

"Asher, darling, why do you have to provoke him so? He just wants you to take your duties seriously," my mother beseeched, drawing me down beside her. The throne arm wasn't the most comfortable of perches, but I could manage.

"Mom, you believe me, right? About the Indigo Burning? You've seen it; you were at the very first one!" She was of royal faerie blood, as was my father. The key difference was about a hundred dynasties of rule and thousands of years. She was born before the planet had a name, when fey folk and animals still ruled, not humans. My father came from a different generation: more cynical, scientific, and very much anti-faerie and anti-magick. He would scarcely admit his lineage to himself.

The Indigo Burning was an event sacred to all magickal creatures, and central to their lives. It occurred when all the planets were in line with the Sun. When the line was made, it was like a power staff, with the Sun as its handle. For the week of alignment, the Sun's rays went a brilliant indigo rather than the usual yellow. During this time, all magick flowed with ease and beauty.

"You know I believe in the Indigo Burning: it's one of the few things I revel in still. But you also know your father is trying to establish his rule as a fair one, and that means we cannot use, admit to, or nurture the magick inside of us," my mother smiled wistfully. I suddenly realized how hard this was on her, denying the most integral part of herself.

"Then you believe in dragons, right? Despite the mush Dad is making the churches and schools teach?" I implored. She had to believe: she was the one who had told me the stories, the spells, the legends - all in attempt to preserve her ailing culture.

"Of course....why?" Suddenly, her tone became imperial and distant.

"Look out the window; tell me what you see," I said simply, shutting my eyes and rubbing my temples. I felt the full hem of her velvet dress flow over my legs, the soft whisper of her long hair clinging to my arms. I could barely hear the clink of her jewelled hands resting on the sill, followed by an almost inaudible sigh.

"Dragons!"

"Eudra says they're storm clouds. That's the snow she told me to tell Dad about."

"Eudra is about as smart as a brick," she bit back, then paused. "Sorry, dear castle. No offence meant, putting you in league with her ilk."

"Something's going to happen, isn't it? You remember the stories you told me...about dragons bringing death and life, order and chaos? Well, have they ever appeared in conjunction with an Indigo Burning?"

My mother paled, and her breath paused after a sharp intake of air. "Asher, darling, get your brother and bring him to our altar room," she instructed me, just before picking up her skirts and dashing from the throne room. Ever since my father had reigned as king, we were forced to hide our magickal nature, hence having an altar room in the far reaches of the castle.

I knew it wouldn't take me very long to find Laesh. He would be in the observatory tower; that's where he always was, if he had a choice. Slightly out of breath, I stumbled into the tower. Sure enough, he was there, sitting in the window, with a leg dangling on either side.

"Laesh! Come on! Mom wants us in the altar room," I ordered. He was smart enough not to protest. I started to go back the way I had came, but he stopped me.

"Ash, this is an emergency. Dragons paired with an Indigo Burning. I have no idea in Hades what it means, but it can't be good." He paused to collect his thoughts. "I think this would be as good a time as any to use our powers," he said at last.

I blinked. "What about Dad?"

"Somehow, if the fate of his precious kingdom is at stake, I think he'll let a discretion or two slide."

What we did next, I can't really explain. Not because of some ancient taboo or anything; it's just difficult to find words. It's hard to be objective about something that's happening to you. According to other people, when Laesh and I teleport, it looks like a sparkling tornado, one that sucks in all light and leaves the rest of the room in a temporary eclipse. That makes it sound wondrous, but it feels like you're trying to suck an ice cube through a straw: there's a tension in your chest, and you head starts to hurt, and then all of a sudden, you wonder where time went.

One second, we were in the breezy lofts of the castle's periphery. In a blink, we were in the altar room. I must admit, it's my favorite room. It's bi-level, with a huge compendium of books and spells and histories on the top level and magickal paraphernalia on the lower floor. Our mother was on the upper floor, deeply engrossed in an old tome. She barely moved upon our entrance.

"Good. You must have realized the gravity of the situation if you used your powers to get here. Come look at this with me," she ordered. It wasn't so much an order - she had an inner majesty to her that would make her seem like a goddess even if she were wearing rags. We climbed the spiral staircase and flanked her sides. The one page - old and yellow and crumbling, yet still crackling with vibrancy - showed a gruesome picture. Dragons were raining fire down on helpless innocents, faeries and humans alike. The other page was drowning in rich, curvy letters. She looked at us expectantly.

"I can't remember how to read Fey...it's been so long," I mumbled, ashamed. As much as I hated the restraints my father had imposed on Fey folk, I was living proof: I could neither read or write Fey very well, my powers were rusty with ill use, and I had to convince myself daily of the Fey way of life.

Laesh looked equally chagrined. "I haven't seen Fey in writing since I was a princeling."

"I feared so. Your father's corruption has spread far and wide...making our fight all the harder," she sighed. She shut the book with reverence, and laid her hands on it.

"What do you mean?" I was starting to form a scenario in my head, and it was horrid.

"Dragons in these great numbers are rarely harbingers of happiness. Many deaths will come of this. The Indigo Burning practically shines a spotlight on us."

"So, in other words...it's open season on Fey folk?"

"I'm afraid so."

"Well, why don't we just head south and ride it out?" Laesh suggested. My mother and I both cast him a scathing glance.

"Laesh, we are the only ones who can stop their destruction. We can't run away," my mother explained.

"How are we supposed to stop them if we're the easiest target?" I asked.

"Simple," she said. "We must gather all the Fey. Only as a united front can we do anything."

"We can't!" Laesh exclaimed. "Dad's practically put death sentences on anyone practicing magick."

"I'm aware, Laesh. I am not merely his arm attachment. I am Queen. I have power of the people too. And mine is greater, for I can call to their inner selves, a call they cannot refuse."

Laesh and I stared at each other. Fey folk weren't soldier material: most had a strong reverence for life, and were peace-loving creatures.

Our mother was obviously reading our thoughts. "Worry not, darlings. I was here before dragons were created." She gave a short, sharp laugh. It was painful to hear from her gentle mouth. "The dragons were originally made to eradicate Fey folk. We had actually domesticated them at one point, but then they got out of hand. So we put a sleeping spell on them. I thought it would hold longer than this. The Indigo Burning must have affected the spell."

"So, do you want us to go and gather all the faeries we can?" Laesh resigned.

"Yes, loves. Bring them here, to the gathering room," she said, holding up a hand and stopping Laesh's protest. "Your father is no issue. I was thousands of years old before he was even a thought." She returned to her reading, and we left the chamber in a state of shock.

"Faerie can't go to war! They have too much respect for peace and life!" Laesh objected, running his hand along the brick wall.

"True, but if they hold it so dear, will they fight for it?" I asked rhetorically. Laesh nodded, and we went to the stables, where we saddled some horses and went to the nearest towns. At each one, we held a rally, explaining the dire situation and the only remedy. Surprisingly, only a few, usually the old or sick, refused to join the fight. Most realized a good world is one worth fighting for. After going to all the towns in the kingdom - which was deceptively easy, since few people lived in our Arctic wonderland anymore - we led the procession back.

Leaving the hundreds of horses out in the frosted fields, we all entered the castle. Our rag-tag group of faeries - along with some nymphs and sprites and pixies and other magickal folk - wound its way to the gathering room, where I stopped in shock in the doorway.

My father was hanging by his ankles from a chain attached to the ceiling. And my mother had an iron sword to his throat.

"This is my army, Majander. We will stop this, and we will do it using our magick. You cannot suppress what we are. You are free to join our fight, of course, but if you aren't going to help, I'm going to leave you here," she smiled ruthlessly, pressing the blade against his neck. A small trickle of blood welled up, and I was half-surprised that it was a sparkling silver, like mine. He denied his nature so much, I had almost believed it would've given up and let him be what he wished.

"I am not like you. I am not of magick. Fight if you must, but you fight alone, and die as fools," he spat.

She sighed. I guess she thought he never really meant the denial of himself, but this proved it beyond doubt. "By the magick in me, in you, and in our land, keep thee well," she said politely, then, grabbing me by the arm, led our legion out to the farthest reaches of the courtyard. The dragons were taking over more and more of the sky: the sun looked like a pinprick of light in a sea of shadows.

"We must work fast. The Sun is the key," she instructed. She was about to speak again, but the ice we were standing on lurched suddenly, and began to crack. It was as if glass was breaking in painful slow motion. A deep rumble resonated in the cold air, and a fierce wind gusted around us. "They are trying to turn our land against us."

Vashti, a friend of mine from a nearby town, kneeled down and laid her hands on the ice. "It burns," she said softly, but she didn't move her hands away. Instead, she pressed the ice with her hands, like a child making a sandcastle, trying to meld it back together. In conjunction with her hand movements, she began a simple chant: "As you have healed me, joyous land, accept this gift of life from my hands." Immediately, the ice shifted again, but this time it was closing the gaps in its surface. Following Vashti's lead, others kneeled on the ice and chanted.

"The rest of you, we must focus on the Sun," my mother instructed. We formed a circle around those mending the ice, and imagined the Sun as a giant flower blossoming open against the penumbra.

An odd feeling made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, and I looked to my mother. Her eyes were closed, and she was chanting something I had never heard under he breath. Then I switched my gaze to the skies. She was making us reverse the Indigo Burning. Instead of being in a line, the other planets were gathering around ours like flower petals. The shadowy skies seemed to be moving, and then it dawned on me: the dragons were attacking. Some were keeping formation around the rip - which, by our efforts, was closing - but others were swooping down at us. I thought they were going to lunge at the people fixing the ice, but they had another plan: they were going to crack the ice more. The ground under my feet shook violently as they assaulted the ice with their huge bodies. Ice broke off in sharp blocks, and drifted apart on the undercurrent of the sea. They were going to divide and conquer. A shot of glacial cold seared my ankle, and I looked down into a deep blue-green abyss of sea. Leash threw me to one side as the ice haphazardly separated. Some of our people had already slid into the frigid waters, and were beyond rescue. On their kamikaze attacks, some of the dragons had been lost to the water as well.

A sharp, hot pain flashed through my hand, in brilliant contrast to my thawing ankle. Blood poured from my palm, splashing garishly on the ice. "Sorry, darling," my mother said. "It's the only way."

"What?! How am I supposed to fight if I'm bleeding to death?"

"Look at where it's going."

I looked at the ice, which had tiny cracks like spider webs roaring through it. There was an abysmal moat the blood was flowing to, of its own volition it seemed. The rift stretched around our remaining forces in the shape of an eye. "The Eye of Tauna," I breathed.

My mother smiled. "I knew you'd remember." Tauna was one the first Fey folk. She sacrificed herself to the land to keep her people safe, by stepping in the path of a lava flow. In the ashy rubble, only her eyes were found. All faerie children were given talismans with eyes on, in her honor.

"I hope this works," Leash grumbled.

Our remaining forces, now down to about twenty, surrounded the outline of the eye. Soon, it was sated with blood, and the excess began to lap at our ankles. Some of the weaker-stomached made panicked noises, but most remained calm. When the entire ice surface was inky red, the centre of the eye surged upwards, as if their were a giant hand punching it. A dazzling surge of light raged upwards, straight into the heart of the rift. A few of our numbers fell to the ice, overcome by the blood loss and the fight. The schism fused together with a solar flash, and the few remaining dragons waged an all-assault on us. Some lobbed swords at their hearts; others used their own magick. Another eruption of light came from the Eye of Tauna, and a tempestuous wind stirred up. Laesh and I and clung to each other for support as the ice totally gave way. Fire raged through the sky, and I wanted to scream as it ate up my skin, but the acrid smoke blocked my throat. Through watering eyes, I saw my hair waving wildly, like a fiery flag. Though I knew there was no respite from this pain, I plunged into the icy water. The sudden change of temperature made me cry out in pain, and I swallowed mouthfuls of crisp ice water. I felt a tug at my scalp. It was my mother, pulling me out of the sea by the patchy remnants of my hair. Laesh was writhing in pain, still on fire.

"There's nothing you can do for him. Our only chance is to go back to the castle."

I lacked the strength to protest, and so let her drag me, all the while watching Laesh being eaten alive by licks of flame. She led me, and the precious few survivors, to the lowest floors of the castle. Through tiny windows, we watched the battle between the land rage on. The castle pitched and crumbled under impact. A loud clap rang off the glaciers, and all the dragons disappeared. The Eye of Tauna, drowning in blood, swirled up in a whirlwind of flesh and ice and blood. With a sparkle, everything was the way it was before the dragons' arrival, except the ground was littered with bodies. Cautiously, we crept out to survey the damage. Limp forms lay scattered for miles upon miles.

"Your father won," my mother said quietly, sadly.

"I don't understand."

"He wanted the faerie - all magickal beings - to refuse themselves their magick, to deny that most integral part of themselves. I told him his empire would be populated by beaten ruins of formerly vibrant people. He didn't care....and now he has it. His dream. His broken people who will never use their magick anymore, for fear this memory will overtake them. He has his empire of ruins."