Chapter 2
Bon Voyage

AT 1082 (AZ 1454) - Early Spring
The Ruins of Mare, The Darklands

Ophis Python could no longer remember when he first settled on the mountain. Perhaps it was in the waning years of the humans' rule when the land was still green. Perhaps it was after the descent of the Dragon. Regardless, he had forgotten how terrible the cursed land was and it was a long and bitter trial leading his tribe down to the ruined port specified by the Monarch Lich's emissary. He knew nothing of the names of cities and towns from the long-lost years of the humans' reign. The name of the place meant nothing to him. It was the scent of death that guided him to his destination.
In the ruins of the city once known as Mare, a legion of the dead stood waiting. The memory of the great slaughter they made of his tribe when the Monarch Lich came up the mountain to subdue him still burned in his heart. His power, his strength, the strength of his people, they were not enough and so they teetered on the verge of extinction ever since.
At the head of the legion was the foul Monarch Lich himself. His very presence felt like thousands of parasites burrowing under each and every scale on his body. Python could not but bear it.
The Lich raised his pale arms to receive them as they approached.
"And so the great Lord of Serpents has come down."
Reluctantly, Python bowed his head, saying, "My liege."
"I suppose you are wondering why I have summoned you."
"You have some task for me and my tribe, I trust."
A hint of a smile crossed the Monarch Lich's lips and he said, "They have always said serpents are clever. Tell me, what news reaches you in your holes in the mountain?"
"My tribe has been forbidden to leave mountain," Python replied, "as you know, and unless news is carried on the whispers of the wind itself, I know nothing of what goes on beyond the foothills."
"Then I shall tell you why you have been summoned here," the Lich replied. He stretched out his hand to the horizon and said, "In the West, there is a kingdom of the humans called Zephyr. I am to make the Zephyrians mine and so I have called them here. While their brave fighting men are dying in this land, I need someone to go forth and make straight the path for my coming. I have chosen you for this honor."
It was not in the Lich's nature to honor any creature save himself. However, there was no refusing him.
"What would you have me do?" Python asked.
"You and your tribe will go westward across the sea and you will seek out Hesperia, the grand capital city of Zephyr. There Daphne, Princess of Zephyr, rules in her parents' stead while they lead their forces into my domain. I have a gift for her. When you arrive at the capital city, you will proceed to the palace of the King and deliver this."
The Monarch Lich stepped aside and his shadow children servants approached bearing a strange lump of flesh. A flick of his tongue told Python little except that the lump of flesh was alive and exuded dark energy.
"And what is that?" he asked.
"It is my gift to the Princess," the Lich replied. "Take it and swallow it. It will remain safe in your stomach until you reach your destination."
Ever since he consumed the ancient foe of his people. Python found that he did not need to food to survive. It would seem the Monarch Lich knew this or else he would not have considered Python's stomach as a place for safekeeping. He did not relish the thought, though.
The snake-woman Medusa slithered forward. Three times had she visited Python's mountain in her inspections of the realm for the Monarch Lich. By their natures, there should have been a measure of kinship between them, but Python knew Medusa was both a close companion of the hated Spider Queen and a spy for the even more hated Monarch Lich, so there was love to be had for her.
The Monarch Lich introduced her as if they were meeting for the first time, saying, "Here is Medusa. She is on the same business and she will be accompanying you halfway. Between these lands and Zephyr is another land called Notos. There is where her task lies and there you will part ways."
Though Python knew no good awaited him in this land called Zephyr, it would be a greater calamity should he fail and so he asked the Lich, "How will I find this capital city, this Hesperia?"
The Lich raised his hand and dozens of tiny creatures like bats flew overhead.
"My eyes will show you the way."
It was foolhardy to seek reward, but the words of the Lich's emissary echoed in his mind. He had to know what they meant.
"Your emissary spoke of you granting my heart's desire."
"Why, yes," the Monarch Lich replied. "Deliver this gift and upon your return, I shall restore what was taken from you. Your clan will be reborn and your line can continue."
Python did not believe what he was hearing. Could it be? Could the Lich truly restore his clan so that his bloodline would not die out with him? Surely it was impossible.
"You can do this thing?"
"Do you doubt my power?" the Lich asked pointedly. "That which I have taken, I can restore. I am the master of life and death."
Though it could well be some trickery or deceit, Python did not think the Monarch Lich was lying to him. Lies were beneath a creature like him. Lies were a tool of the weak. The strong had no need of them and the Monarch Lich was truly strong.
Python could not refuse even without this incentive, but the promise of his clans restoration made him more than willing to obey.
He bowed his head and said, "I will do as you bid."
"Of course you will," the Monarch Lich replied, fully aware that Python's answer could not be otherwise. "Let us waste no further time. Swallow it."
Though he was loath to take the lump of flesh into himself, Python could not but obey. Unhinging his jaw, he snapped up the lump of flesh and swallowed it. It had been so long since he had swallowed anything that the sensation now felt strange to him, but there was something particular about the lump of flesh that gave him a sickly feeling as it traveled down his throat and settled into the pit of his stomach. There the wretched thing would reside until he reached the end of his journey, however long it might take.
Once that was done, the Monarch Lich smiled once more.
"Good," he said. "Now go. To the West with you. Daphne, Princess of Zephyr, awaits my gift."
Yes, to the West. He and his tribe would accomplish this mission and receive their reward. Any trial they might face along the way paled in comparison to the glittering prize that awaited them on their return.