Chapter 5
Snake Charmer

AT 1083 (AZ 1455) - Late Spring
Outside Hesperia, Zephyr

At long last the coast of Zephyr came into view. The day had finally come when he would fulfill his mission and his obligation to the Monarch Lich. All he needed to do was go ashore and deliver the lump of flesh that had been resting in his gullet this past year. He could scarcely believe the journey had taken so long, but after his early rampages in Notos, he was forced to lead his tribe south of the river to hibernate through the winter and recover their strength before taking to the sea again. Already one in five were lost, but he would sacrifice them all if needs be for the chance to see his bloodline restored.
Their destination was the great capital city of the Zephyrians. Nothing Python had seen in Notos was anything close to its like. High stone walls, gleaming and white. No doubt it was quite beautiful as humans reckon beauty. Even from miles away, he could sense that the city was rich with life, perhaps more than all that Notos contained in this single city. The terror he could strike in their hearts... The thought of it made him quiver in anticipation.
However, he was sorely mistaken to think that this proud city would be like that rude port or the meager farming village he raided in Notos. It began quite unexpectedly. Something struck the clustered tangle of his tribe with great violence. The water beneath erupted, spraying many feet up into the air. Scores were dead in a single stroke and Python had no idea what had caused it.
The water erupted again, just barely missing their cluster. Was it the work of some magic? Whatever the case may have been, he could not afford to have his tribe decimated before they even touched land. With a shrill hiss, he urged them on. Twice more the seas erupted before the first of his tribe crawled upon the land.
Unlike the Notians, the humans of Zephyr were ready for him. Hundreds of men armed and armored were skewering his followers with sword and spear while others set them alight with magic flame. Others still bore curious contraptions that Python would have mocked until thick, heavy beams pierced his scales and dug deeply into his flesh. So this was what it meant to fight humans in their strength, but Python had strength of his own, far greater than anything they could set against him.
He reared up, unhinging his jaw and summoning the power of the Devil of Delos within him, spewing out a beam of light strong enough to sear stone and burn men to cinders. He loosed another blast as soon as he was able, tearing apart one of the contraptions that wounded him. He would see this city burn for daring to harm him.
As he was loosing another blast, something struck him with great violence and force. As big as he was, he was nevertheless thrown headlong back into the water. Dazed, he lashed about as he struggled to come to his senses. It had all happened so suddenly, but his thought came back into order as his head cleared from the initial shock. There was a creature up on the walls able to conjure beams of light nearly as powerful as his own. Were the Zephyrians mocking him? The thought infuriated him.
When he burst forth from the water, he called on his tribe to throw all their weight into the wall. He joined them in short order, striking the wall with all his might. The thick stones cracked but did break from the force of the blow, but he did not let that stop him. With the aid of his tribe piled up underneath him, he was able to scale the wall and get on top of it. Balancing precariously on top of the wall, he flicked his tongue and caught a scent that was much unlike the rest. There was a female on the wall, not quite human, with a strong touch of magic to her. The creations of the Monarch Lich--his 'eyes'--circled in the air overhead. Was this the one?
Adjusting his jaw so that he could speak, he said to the female, "Princess Daphne of Zephyr, I presume? You save me the trouble of hunting you. I have something for you, courtesy of the Monarch Lich."
Surely she was the one. The time had come. He unhinged his jaw once more and began to flex the muscles in his throat, all the way down to his stomach. It was fortunate that the humans on the wall could do little to him because it took a while for him to vomit up the mound of flesh he was made to deliver.
He raised himself up so that his shadow would shield the Monarch Lich's gift from the baleful glare of the sun. After all, surely anything crafted in the Darklands would wither in the light of day.
Now it was time for the gift to do its work. A dark figure emerged from the lump of flesh. It was one of the shadow children. The dark figure then took the form of the Zephyrian princess. Not just the form, even the scent very nearly deceived Python's own senses. So this was what the Monarch Lich plotted. His servant would replace the humans' princess and so Zephyr would already be in his service by the time the armies of the dead sailed westward.
The doppelganger sank into Python's shadow. He knew what was coming next. He had seen their kind work before. The shadow children traveled through shadows as a fish in water. She could emerge anywhere a shadow was cast and Python's long shadow left the Zephyrian princess with nowhere to flee. It would be over quickly.
And so it was, but not as Python expected.
The Zephyrian princess should have been lying dead on the ground, but instead it was the shadow child who was slain. There was another there with the Zephyrian princess, a human male. Somehow he managed to kill the shadow child, but not before she left her touch on him.
In that terrible moment, all his hopes were dashed. The wretched human may as well have split him from end to end and gutted him. Everything was lost.
There was a howl of shock, mourning and rage. Was it his own voice? Who else would have cause to bewail the tragedy that had just occurred? Of the three emotions, though, the other two were quickly burned away, leaving rage alone.
He did not think. He could not think. His rage drove him to crush princess and the human who killed the shadow child. A single lightning-quick motion should have been all it took, but even in this he was thwarted. His head was knocked back when when he struck at his prey. He reeled dizzily for a moment and then he realized yet another human interfered, one with the touch of magic about him, stronger than most any other he could sense.
This angered him further. He would kill them all. This city would burn, just as he vowed when the humans dared to pierce him. Touch of magic or no, there was not a mortal alive who could stand against the power of the gods within him. They would all suffer. They would all burn. They--
Everything went blank for a moment. When he regained his senses, there was only pain. A beam like those that pierced his sides was lodged in his neck. His throat spasmed. He could scarcely breathe. Faint, he rolled off the wall, landing hard on the ground below. There were no more thoughts of rage and revenge, no mourning his failure. His instinct urged him to flee, to return to the sea, and so he did.
As he withdrew into the water, his tribe followed. There was no counting their losses. Ophis Python and his tribe were finished. His clan would never be restored. It was all over.
And yet, in spite of the totality of his defeat or the grievousness of his wounds, he swam on, as if something awaited him back in the East. He did not know what it might be. He could not think of much of anything. All he could do was keep moving. Surely there was some hope to be found even when all seemed lost.