The Knights of the Farthestshore enjoyed close relationships with their Prince. They knew him and he knew them. They trusted him with their lives, and he trusted them to do his will.
But they seldom saw him weep.
They knew, though. They knew that he sorrowed for every person that he lost to Death-in-Life. They would sometimes hear the wood thrush's song after another took the flame, would hear the heartbreak in his voice. Other times, they wouldn't even hear his song and they knew. They knew his sorrow because they could feel it themselves, like a knife blade twisting in their hearts.
Once in a while, however, they would weep with him by his very side.
Sir Diarmid of Farthestshore stormed into the Netherworld. Only that wasn't his title now, was it? No, in a blaze of fury, he had renounced his knighthood in front of his eyeless uncle, that mortal the Prince had made Lady of the Haven, and a handful of his other fellow knights.
Oh, what a shock that had been to them! He might as well have spit in their faces.
They were always saying that dragon poison was bad. “Dragon poison will addle your senses.” “Dragon poison is full of lies.” “Stay away from dragon poison; it'll cloud your judgment!”
“Dragon poison will cloud my judgment, my foot!” Diarmid muttered. “I'm thinking more clearly than I have in a long time-- since before I became one of those dragon-blasted Knights!”
Who were they to call it poison when it really brought everything into focus? He had been in Nadire Tansu when there had been an explosion from somewhere beneath the city. A few moments later, there was nothing left, and only Diarmid and his uncle had escaped. True, the “poison” had been somewhat painful and disorienting when he had first breathed it. But wasn't that how truth was? It was painful and it disoriented a person when it was first realized. And no wonder, it flipped a person's perspective right on its head! But once the initial shock was gone, you had to change and conform to the truth, or else slam your eyes shut again and stumble around blindly.
The truth was simple: everyone who trusted the Prince of Farthestshore was a fool.
Demarress had been right. At least, the dragon that had been Demarress had been right. The Prince of Farthestshore didn't care about them. He would use them for a time and make them feel good and happy until his use for them ran out. Then he would leave them to rot, like Demarress in the dungeons of Nadire Tansu.
And who had gotten her out of there? Had it been the Prince of Farthestshore? No, that had been Death-in-Life's work. He wouldn't leave his own to waste away in a jail cell. Instead, he set them free. The only bindings that the Dragon's children had were the chains that they chose for themselves. He empowered his children in a way that the Prince of Farthestshore never did.
Ahead of him, he heard a flame-filled voice calling after him, “Take my fire and lose your chains.”
Far behind him, an eyeless, yellow-haired Knight stepped onto Death's Path, took up a lantern, and set out after his nephew.
And he heard a golden voice calling after him, “Diarmid!”
He looked back over his shoulder and snarled.
Then he turned forward again, pursuing that voice.
In the Village, dragons paced back and forth across the cavern floor, consumed in their burning. And the Dragon sat on his blood-stained throne, presiding over all.
On other days, he would have them amuse him. On other days, he would have them dance for him. Or fight. On other days, he would breathe lies into their minds, stoking their fires until the Village burned like a bonfire.
Today his attention was focused elsewhere, farther up his Path. He did consider it his Path after all, for it did run through his demesne. It was his, no matter what his Enemy said.
One of his prospective children was coming to him. Running to him like a child to his Father. How delicious! That one was going to be his child. Soon, very soon. His fire was right. It would not be long now.
Something caught his attention on the borders of his realm, and he hissed.
A Knight of Farthestshore! A blood-relation to the one coming to him, what's more! He remembered how this played out last time. One had sought his fire while the other had pursued, with that wretched, wretched lantern in hand! They had fought on his Path. What a battle it had been! At last the pursuer had been killed, but his prospective child had looked into the lantern and his firstborn's poison had been driven from his veins.
While the death of this particular Knight of Farthestshore was something to be greatly desired, he would not suffer to lose another of his children to his Enemy.
He had not interfered with that battle, but this time, the battle would never come. He would kiss that wretch before the Knight ever reached him!
So Death-in-Life slithered off his throne and transformed into a monstrous Dragon with obsidian scales and flew to the spot where Diarmid made his way to his new Father.
Poison pumped through Diarmid's veins, working its way deeper and deeper into his heart. He ignored the voice calling behind him. There was only to go to the Dragon and accept his kiss.
Then wreak havoc for his former kinsmen.
An evil smile worked its way onto his features. He was going to enjoy being a dragon immensely.
He looked up and saw his Father for the first time, streaking towards him on ebony wings like a comet.
He was coming to give him the fire.
Asha swung in Eanrin's grasp as he followed Diarmid's trail down Death's Path. He yelled his nephew's name every few steps while begging his Prince that the blood ties would work for him and his nephew. It had to! It had worked for Akilun and Etanun; it had worked for Alistair and Florien. It had to work for him!
He just tried to push to the back of his mind the fact that Akilun had died and Alistair had been seriously maimed. He yelled Diarmid's name again as much to shake that thought from his head as to slow Diarmid's progress.
Eanrin stopped. He could smell that his nephew was near. But he caught another scent, and he felt his gut lurch.
The Dragon was near as well.
The Dragon towered above him, all black majesty as his scales gleamed in the light of his own fire.
He leaned in close to Diarmid, his poison creeping in through his mouth and nostrils and coiling itself around his heart and mind. It was a pleasant, burning sensation.
“Take my fire and lose your chains,” the Dragon hissed.
“I'll never bow down! Never! I am my own master.”
“Your own master, free to choose your own chains. Take my fire.”
“Very well. Give it to me.”
The Dragon bent down and his black lips touched his forehead. Diarmid screamed as searing agony coursed throughout his body. The last weak, pathetic remnants of Diarmid burned away in flames.
Diarmid's scream transformed into a roar as his frail human-like body gave way to the body of a small dragon with yellow eyes.
“I'll choose my own chains!”
“Bow to me,” the Dragon said.
The dragon that had been Diarmid bowed, just as a scream sounded behind him.
Waves of horror and terror washed through Eanrin as his other senses told him what his missing eyes could not.
One moment, his nephew stood before the Dragon. The next moment, a young dragon roared, “I'll choose my own chains!”
“Bow to me,” he heard the Dragon say.
A scream that had been waiting to escape his throat burst forth as the young dragon bowed.
The two dragons rounded on the poet. He could feel both their fiery gazes burning into him, and flames flickered in the back of the Dragon's throat as he said, “Burn him.”
The small dragon's pupils narrowed to slits, thin slashes of black in the yellow of his irises. He roared and sent a jet of white and blue flame at him, and Eanrin braced himself for the heat, the burn that never came. He heard the young dragon's roar transform into a hideous shriek of terror.
The Prince of Farthestshore stood between Eanrin and the yellow-eyed dragon. The flames rushed around him and the knight that stood behind him, unable to touch them.
The Dragon roared in triumph, “You're too late, my Enemy! He's mine! It's too late for you to reclaim him!” He leaned in close to the Prince's face, the flames in his eyes flared in triumph. “Tell me, how does it feel to be rejected by one of your own? By one who has served you faithfully for centuries? Does it burn? Does it feel like the sting of Death?” He chuckled deep in his throat, like liquid fire.
The Prince didn't waver. “Leave here, Death-in-Life. And take your new child with you.”
The Dragon hissed and recoiled from him, beating the air with his ebony wings. In but a few moments, he and the yellow-eyed dragon were gone, retreated further into the Netherworld.
Eanrin stood in stunned silence in the wake of what had just happened. And while his heart was screaming in agony for his nephew, his mind was spinning and whirling and struggling to grasp the truth.
“No,” he stammered, trying to convince himself that his nephew wasn't a dragon. “No, no, it can't be true! Diarmid.... He can't be gone! He just can't be!”
“It is true, Sir Eanrin. Diarmid is gone.”
Eanrin turned his head toward where the Prince stood, his head bowed and fists clenched. Then in a mere whisper, he repeated, “Diarmid is gone.”
Then Eanrin's horror was doubled as the sound of the Prince's weeping reached his ears. As he wept, the dreadful truth settled on Eanrin:
Diarmid was gone. His heart belonged to Death-in-Life.
The weight of this loss crushed Eanrin a strangled sob caught in his throat and tears slipped from underneath his silken eye patches. He sank to his knees as his body shook in his sorrow.
A moment later, he felt the Prince's strong arms around him, comforting even as his own shoulders quaked with his weeping.
“I'm sorry,” Eanrin gasped. “I should have tried harder. I should have done something!”
“No, Eanrin,” the Prince said. “There was nothing more you could do. You pursued Diarmid this far, but in the end, it was Diarmid's choice. You could not have prevented it once the Dragon came for him.”
He nodded, then drew a shuddering breath. “Can nothing be done for him?”
Eanrin started to speak, but the Prince cut him off. “It is nothing that you can do. Only I can bring Diarmid back, and then only if he chooses to allow me to do so. It is possible that he will think the cost to himself too high.” The Prince pulled away from Eanrin and stood. He drew his Knight upright, placed a firm hand on his shoulder and continued, “But you have my word, Sir Eanrin, I will do everything that can be done for Diarmid. Not until he returns to me or else dies a dragon will I cease to pursue him.”
Then they turned and left the Netherworld empty save for phantom mists and a brood of heartless dragons.
Somewhere in the Wood Between, a wood thrush sang.
Some mortals would say that birdsong was just that: birdsong. Nothing more. But anyone who heard this bird singing would find themselves to be dreadfully misled, for no one could mistake the tears in the thrush's song.
He had gone to Diarmid. He had spoken with him, convinced him to return. Then he had drawn Halisa, had gone to finish his work and once again make Diarmid his Knight.
Diarmid's eyes had widened as he had realized what the Prince intended, and he had transformed into a small dragon, flames spewing from his mouth.
“Traitor!” the dragon had shrieked. “You were going to kill me!”
“This is the only way, Diarmid,” he had calmly said to the furious yellow-eyed dragon.
“That is not my name!” he had roared.
Then he had launched a volley of flame at the Prince, but his flames could not consume him. When he had realized this, he had flown away, never to return to the Prince's service.
The Prince knew this as he sang, and it wounded him. He had lost so many to Death-in-Life, but that made it no easier when he lost another. Some of them had returned; some of them had yet to return, but would eventually. Not all of them, though. Some of them never returned to him.
But he would always welcome them back. They could stop up their ears to him until their dying day, but if they listened, they would still hear his singing over them,
“Beyond the Final Water falling,
The Songs of Spheres recalling,
When the chains you chose are too much,
Won't you return to me?”