Tales From a Thousand Worlds

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Echo of the Ages – The Crown of Fire – Scion of the Wyrm – Prologue

Part 3 – Scion of the Wyrm

Prologue – The House of Light

The Past – c. 1123 Hajanri Era

A vast crowd had gathered, packed tight within the walls of the forecourt of the House of Light. About them there swirled a frantic edge, one pressing close to panic. A loud rumble of voices rolled through the courtyard, bouncing from the high red walls and rising up into the sky above, voices arguing, debating, pleading, feeding off of each other and heightening the fear that touched each one there. Whether dressed as rich noble or humble labourer, whether Hajanri or one of the subject races of the Empire, all were united by the moment, prejudices forgotten in the face of troubles.

The voices dipped to a low murmur, rippling outwards from the grand entry to the courtyard, the towering archway of polished red marble and soaring golden pillars. At the top of it was set a golden sun upon which perched an eagle spread winged and proud.

A band of Hajanri warriors strode through entrance, the crowds parting before them. Each warrior wore a flowing purple cloak over a hauberk of silver scales and a burnished silver helm from which a tall plume of red horsehair flowed. The shields they bore were blazoned with the Sun and Eagle of the Emperor, while spears were at their shoulders.

Between them walked a tall Hajanri, his hair a halo of flame. A tight, imperious face stared over the gathered crowds, a flash of crimson in his eyes that washed for a moment over natural molten orange hues. Seated upon his head was a circlet of gold set with a dozen iridescent, burning opals of the deepest blue, offset with stunning reds and greens and oranges. In one arm he cradled a golden sceptre, while he wore long silk robes of a dark red into which was woven with golden threat the running images of dragons, crawling up his arms and around collars and cuffs.

From the entrance, spreading outwards like a wave, the gathered crowd began to bow, going down on one knee before the Emperor. All eyes were focused upon him. The worry in them faded, replaced with, if not hope, then something close to it. Their concerns they placed upon the shoulders of the king for him to deal with.

Daraja Vaidapur, Third of His Name, Emperor of Hajana, Lord of the Western Shores and the Isles, The Fire Born Emperor, could feel the worry from the crowd sweep over him, a worry that he too shared but could not show. He was the Emperor, and with that came certain responsibilities. To show the concern he felt deep down would be to incite panic among the crowd and a panicked mob was a dangerous one, especially with so many crammed into such a tight confine. The result would be carnage, a bloodbath of unimaginable proportions.

Broad, red marble steps led up from the courtyard to the front of the House of Light, leading between tall columns to a wide open doorway. The doors, of gleaming bronze, bore a many rayed sun image upon them. Before the entrance at the top of the stairs waited a man, not, as Deraja had expected, a fellow Hajanri, but instead one of the Briothans from the far western tribes.

The Briothan, a young man with flowing hair as white as clouds and eyes a pallid washed out blue, went down on one knee as Daraja approached, bowing his head. “Lord Emperor,” he said, speaking with the lilting accent of the Briothans.

“Rise,” Daraja ordered, gesturing to the man with his sceptre. The Briothan stood back up. Daraja looked around and through the doorway into the building. “Where is the Speaker?”

The man licked at his lips, eyes flickering aside for a moment. “The speaker is…unavailable,” he admitted with apparent reluctance.

Daraja’s fingers drummed on the sceptre, halting when he realised what he was doing.

“Unavailable,” he repeated.

“Yes, Lord Emperor.”

“This is not the time for him to be unavailable.”

“I can say only what I know, Lord Emperor.” The Briothan’s feet shuffled as he looked down at them, avoiding Daraja’s eyes.

“What is your name?”

“Lachan, Lord Emperor.”

“Do not be afraid, Lachan. It is not your fault.”

“It is hard not to be afraid, Lord Emperor,” Lachan said, his troubles leading to open honesty.

Daraja turned about and looked back down over the crowd. They were for the most silent, their faces turned towards him, faces that reflected the colours of the nation, from the black of the Hajanri to the pale of the Briotha and all those in between. They had risen up from where they had knelt and now all just stood their, waiting. Expectant.

Daraja tired not to study the sky above, the cause of the concern. It was difficult not to, for the eye was drawn to it out of an almost morbid desire and curiosity.

The skies burned.

Roiling cylinders of clouds boiled across the skies, clouds that glowed from within like fire. From them sparks flashed lighting, arcing from cloud to cloud. The sky which should have shone blue now were stained burnt orange, filled with a haze of smoke and more.

At intervals the lightning flashed not between clouds but flashed down out of the skies to strike the ground, sending a web of energy rippling outwards, crawling over whatever it touched.

The tall walls around the courtyard blocked the sight of the city for all but the tallest of towers, yet even so Daraja could see the smoke that drifted up from numerous small fires that had been sparked by the strikes of lighting, fires that threatened to overwhelm all efforts to contain them, to break free, to merge and then to consume.

Daraja turned back to Lachan, favouring him with a tight smile. “It is no disgrace to be afraid with what we face. The only disgrace would be to succumb to it. Take me in,” he ordered. “If the Speaker is not here then I shall Speak.”

Lachan hesitated for a moment then simply nodded. “As you wish, Lord Emperor.”

 

~~~~

 

The interior of the House of Light was richly decorated, more so even than Shandrajun Palace, the seat of the Emperors of Hajana. Everywhere gleamed marble and gold. Broad polished floors swept out ahead of him, of a deep red marble speckled with blacks and greens. Columns soared aloft to vaulted ceilings, crafted like a forest of trees with broad branches entwining to form the arches above. Gold glistening from the fixtures, from candlesticks and braziers, shields that hung from the columns and more besides, the wealth of centuries.

The dome of the chamber was made up of one vast crystal through which the sky could be seen. Once the rays of the sun had struck the crystal and bathed the chamber with light of rainbow hues and the low sound of singing. Now cracks and fractures ran across the surface of the crystal and the light itself was broken. Shards of light struck parts of the chamber while in other pools of darkness radiated out, beams of it angling from the crystal.

Daraja strode down the centre of the great hall, avoiding the patches of darkness, flanked by his warriors, their footsteps ringing in the silence. Lachan trailed along behind, scurrying to keep up. Daraja glanced up as he walked along, at the banners of silk that hung down from the roof, the banners of the emperors of the past. They rippled lazily in a faint breeze that drifted in through the entrance.

Most were variants of the same theme, of the eagle and the sun, the crimson eagle and sun upon a field of gold. In some the eagle stood atop the sun, or grasped it in its claws. Other had the eagle within the sun, or had twin suns or twin eagles or both. The colour scheme changed on occasions as well. Here and there a banner stood out as it did not follow the theme, marking the whims of an emperor of a more unusual disposition.

One above all others stood out, grim and dark in comparison to the rest. A black raven sat upon a field of pallid grey, staring down with brooding menace upon at all who walked beneath it. The banner had belonged to Ajanathad Balganati, an enigmatic figure even eight centuries after his passing.

Daraja admired him, as much as any man could. He had been, after all, the emperor who had brought the Vianosa colonies to heel in the south-west and had first extended Hajanri power out to the seas. That brought much respect. There was no denying he had been odd as well, though. The imperial court had become accustomed to dealing with unusual, having seen emperors of many shades of sanity. Ajanathad had been something else, a man who seldom dwelt in the now, instead talking of the future as if it had already happened.

Curiously, that had adhered him to the Briothans, previously a difficult subject people, touchy and rebellious. Ever since the time of Ajanathad they had been a loyal, valued part of the nation.

Just days before his death, unexpected to all but perhaps Ajanathad, he had entered the House of Life and ordered his banner hung within, the first to do so, starting a tradition of eight centuries.

The time will come when the light fades, he had said while doing so, with no further explanation or comment on what he meant.

Daraja arrived at the centre of the chamber, directly beneath the crystal. A vast bronze brazier sat there and in it fires burned, sending aromatic scented smoke rising into the air. Nearby a pool of darkness shimmered and swirled. It was edged with purple, shading through to a black so deep it drew in all light in the centre.

Daraja ignored the darkness, instead stopping before the brazier. He could feel the heat of the flames upon him, hear their whispered song that called out to him. His soldiers fanned out about him, stoic faced, though even they edged away from the darkness. Lachan, wide eyed, stood as far from it as he could while remaining near to the brazier.

The opals set in the crown upon Daraja’s brow caught up the light of the flames and burned with an iridescent brilliance, casting it about. As it touched the darkness, Daraja was sure he could see it recoil and shrink, driven back by the light. He reached a hand out towards the flames of the brazier. From his palm a glow emerged, wrapping around his hand, growing into a tendril of flame, one that lashed out to join those in the brazier, feeding it into brighter life. The song of the flames grew louder still, echoing through his blood.

“I would speak with you,” Daraja said, addressing the flames. “Dark days are upon us and we are in need of your assistance.”

He drew his hand back, the flames around it dying out, and waited.

The flames of the brazier stirred in response. At the heart of them a brighter flame awakened, swelling as something rose upwards, a shape that took the form of pure fire and hovered before them, surrounded by an aura of flame almost invisible to the eye. A vast bird it became, but one not of flesh and blood, white hot at its heart and shading down to orange and yellow, purple and red towards the edges.

It hung their above the brazier before them, filling the chamber, the light of its being sweeping outwards. The darkness dissipated before it, swept away like chaff before a storm. When at last the firebird spoke, the voice carried within it echoes and the glow of the flames, both immense and distant yet full of life and energy. The words seemed to pierce their minds and hearts, implanted directly within, felt as much as heard.

Long has it been since an Emperor of the Hajanri has stood before me thus, in the place of the Speaker. What do you require, Great Emperor? What troubles so deep that it would require you to come to this place in this manner?

Daraja went down on one knee before the firebird, his head bowed. He laid his sceptre on the ground in front of him. “Peril sweeps the land,” he replied, “And all is coming to an end. Many are already dead by this malevolence that consumes and grows and consumes yet more. The works of our hands and of our ancestors are being rendered unto dust by it and even this place, the glory of our Empire, has felt its dark touch. All our efforts to end it have failed and even attempts to contain it have been for naught. If we can not find the means to defeat it then we are at the end of all times.”

What would you have of me, Child of Fire?

Daraja looked up and the light in his eyes had soften. “You are the Flame that Burns,” he stated, “The Bright Light of the Skies. Long have you watched over us, guided us and protected us, from the earliest days of the Empire.”

I am old, even by the reckoning of your Empire, the voice said, and in it were the echoes of a wistful regret. I have seen the rise and fall of many nations during my long years and I know this, that all things come to an end in time. Each in turn said that they alone would stand the test of time and yet it was not to be. Why should it be any different for the Hajanri?

“It may be that in time we shall fail, but we are still yet strong and not ready to fall.”

Did not the Vianosa say the same, the Briothans, the Anshan, Qori and Sischeni? All were strong and yet fell before your people.

“This terror is not a natural thing,” Daraja responded and his eyes darkened again to a fell molten hue. “More so, it does not afflict just my people but in time will come to all, Hajanri or no.”

There is little that I alone can do in the face of this. Some I can preserve, but only a few. You, Child of Fire, I could save.

Daraja stood back up again, sceptre in hand, straight and tall. The full majesty of his nobility shone bright in his face, iron resolve etched upon his features. “I am Daraja Vaidapur, Emperor of Hajana, Sovereign Lord of the Western Shores and the Isles and all that dwell within them. I will not abandon them to their fate to save myself, not while breath and life and hope remains.”

The wings of the firebird spread out, touching the far walls of the chamber. A warn breeze flowed from the beat of the wings, stirring the banners and setting them to rippling. Then the wings folded inwards, to wrap about the king, almost tenderly as a mother cradles her child. Though the flames burnt bright around Daraja, they touched him not.

Then step into the flames, brave heart. We shall do all that can be done with your aid, for all the peoples of the world.

~~~~

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