THE LOST PRINCE: PART V – THE PROTECTOR OF ASHENMORE (PT. 2)
“Don’t tell me that Asha his such a powerful weapon under some old man’s bed!” roared Ooma. Santos shook his head.
“No,” said the prince. “The stick that the old man gave to Kanandus was merely a replica. A powerless copy that the old man had crafted, during his final years of life. That copy was given to Asha’s grandson and became the royal sceptre that my Father and brother once wielded. It’s predecessor, the original staff, was stored beneath an ancient tree covered, so the old man claimed, on the southern coast of Ashenmore.”
I shook my head. This was too much. In the span of a single evening, my hopes of restoring Santos to the throne had been dashed, I had been attacked by made Priestesses, I’d been barraged with deranged and unnerving revelations about a mysterious war between unknown Gods and now, I was been told about some magical weapon that had been stored, of all places, on the coast of my homeland!
“That doesn’t help us,” I said. “The southern coast stretches for leagues. There are dozens of small villages and plenty of major cities, scattered all over the place. It would take us months, possibly years, to search the whole coast, even with an army, but the four of us!? Searching alone? All whilst remaining hidden from Midon’s forces?” I shook my head again. “It would be impossible.”
“Not at all,” said the prince. “I know exactly where to find that old tree. It grows just outside of the town of Aradion. Beside on old, crumbling temple, long abandoned by the Clerics of Ahasathoth.”
“ARADION!” I exclaimed. “You mean to tell me the staff is hidden there!”
“I do,” said the prince.
I couldn’t help but laugh. I had never been much of a believer in fate, but this was too absurd not to suggest that the obscured hand of providence was at work. It had been Midon’s plan to send an army to Aradion that, along with his secret desire to execute Lazrilus, that had driven me to embark on my disastrous quest.
“How can you be so sure?” I breathed. “Even if that’s what the old man claimed, he could have been lying. Or mistaken.”
“I know,” said the prince, “because I have seen the staff with my own eyes. Just before my Mother’s death, I rode to Aradion and, following Kanandus’ instructions, I uncovered the tree and removed the staff from its hiding place.” Santos laughed. “Of course, I put it right back where I had found it. I didn’t feel worthy to wield such an ancient and almighty power but,” finished Santos, bringing his terrible eyes to rest on me, “perhaps you are, my old teacher.”
“Me!?” I spluttered. “I couldn’t – I’m not even a Sorcerer, or a Spirit Whisperer! I know next to nothing about magic! In any case,” I growled. “What you’re proposing is that I sail back to Ashenmore and overthrow Midon with a magic stick!? And then what? I can’t take his place. I’m not of royal blood. I know nothing about leading armies or negotiating with noblemen. I’m only a tutor!”
“You’ve experienced battle,” said Santos. “You fought in the Vomoran War, after all. That makes you more qualified than half the noblemen of Ashenmore, when it comes to commanding men to fight and die for our kingdom. As for negotiations, my dear friend, it sounds as though if my brother had listened to your advice, he might have avoided plunging Ashenmore into its worst crisis in a hundred years!”
“You’re wiser than you think,” said Una, her eyes shining. “You saved our lives, by tricking Dromlinson and Locksley. You even got him to ferry the three of us halfway across the Thaltian channel!”
“Let me put it like this,” added Lazrilus. “I’ve had to serve many cruel and stupid men in my time. Uruk, Tamburlaine, my fellow Bishops. You, Demetrius, out of all my masters and captors have shown yourself to be one of the kindest, most courageous and noble men I have ever encountered.” The Vomoran’s voice cracked and, in an attempt to mask the sudden fragility to his voice, he puffed out his chest in a display of strength. “I couldn’t think of a man better suited to rule over Ashenmore.”
I stared at my companions. My heart was thundering in my chest with such force that I feared it might burst. In an attempt to avoid meeting their gaze, my eyes flickered downwards, falling upon the image of Asha and The Dukkahworm. The image of the staff seemed to grow, exponentially, until it felt as though I could almost reach out and take hold of it. For the first time in many nights, hope blossomed in the pit of my chest. If Prince Santos was right and there really was a weapon of such incredible power, hidden just outside of Aradion…
“It won’t be easy, claiming the weapon,” I whispered. “Midon’s forces might still be in Aradion. Knowing that brute, he most probably killed Zorin and put one of his lackeys in control of the town. Even with the staff, we’ll still have to march on the capital. I doubt Midon will relinquish his position quietly. Do you still want to come with me?”
“It would be our honour,” said Lazrilus.
In my youth, I had travelled many times to the town of Aradion. It was a large and prosperous fishing town, with a mighty harbour that was practically overflowing with ships of every shape and size. Every house seemed to rise out of the earth like a miniature castle. The people were well-fed and welcoming. One had to fight their way through several hundred invitations to stay with them, upon arriving at that town. They were amongst the most generous and hospitable communities in all of Ashenmore.
The Aradion that lay sprawled before my eyes as our ship – bestowed upon us by the Sisters of Unaloth – who had been honoured to provide any friends of Salamandastron with any vessel of their choice – bore little resemblance to the merry town of my youth. The harbour was desolate, aside from one or two small ships, their sails ravaged by holes and their decks covered in blackened and burnt wood. As we bobbed into the harbour and tethered ourselves to the shore, I found my eyes crawling over the skeletal buildings. The walls of the once-great buildings had been ravaged by fire. Their windows had been shattered, their doors torn down, their roofs sagged like drunkards. A foul stench wormed its way into my nostrils, and I gagged. Una and Lazrilus exchanged a worried glance and even Ooma, who had spent the entire journey cackling about what she was going to do to Midon once she got her hands on him, had fallen silent, her little stone snake twirling nervously about her fingers.