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What Lies at the End

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The summon to the throne room is not wholly unexpected, though Leon did not ever think the day would come.

He is asked to come alone, without his dragon companion. It's not often that the two of them are separated, but the messenger had been quite firm in telling them that Rose insisted Leon come alone, so Raihan accompanies him down to the throne room and waits for him directly outside its massive doors. 

Leon has some idea of what the conversation with Rose may entail. But over the last several years, he has had this same thought multiple times, and has always been disappointed. He takes several deep breaths, preparing himself for whatever may lie ahead, and pushes open the doors.

Rose, King Regent of the Kingdom, and his stepfather, is waiting atop the throne, looking as though he is deep in thought. His minister Oleana stands at his side, impassive as ever, with a covered chest behind her. Leon scans their faces for any hint as to what they want of him, but their expressions reveal nothing.

"Leon, my son," Rose says, voice booming through the throne hall. "It is good of you to come this morning."

"Of course, sire," Leon answers carefully. "I understand that you summoned me here?" 

Rose nods, rubbing at his chin. "Yes, I did. Leon, you were of the age to complete a coming of age journey some years ago, correct?”

His heart skips a beat. “That is correct, sire.”

“Hm.” Rose scratches at his beard, deep in thought. “I know that you have not been able to go on one. Part of that is my fault, for being unable to arrange one for you; but you know how busy the Kingdom’s affairs are.”

Most adolescents are assigned a coming of age quest in their late teens, but those years went and passed, and one never came. Leon waits silently, unwilling to betray his anticipation, and Rose continues speaking after a brief pause.

“You know of the blight that has been plaguing the castle town and its surrounding lands as of late; it is poisoning the farmlands and the water, and the people of Wyndonburg’s have been suffering.” He furrows his brow. “Oleana has traced the source of the disease under the castle. It appears the cause of the blight is a demon.”

“A… demon, sire?” Leon frowns. “I thought those were uncommon in the Kingdom?”

“They are.” Rose sighs. “We are not sure how one could have infiltrated so deep into our lands… but it appears that this one may have been here for some time. It is a danger to the Kingdom, and must be dealt with immediately.”

Leon has never faced a demon before; they are exceptionally rare and powerful creatures of the dark, and cause widespread death and disaster anywhere they go. Prone to madness, and notorious for tempting humans into doing their dark bidding. The books of history in the castle libraries are all too clear about the devastation demons have wrought throughout the centuries. They are masterful tricksters, inexorably cruel, and typically, they are dealt with by appeasing them with sacrifices, or killed by elite, specially trained demon hunters.

“I am to slay the demon, then?” he asks, hesitantly.

"Smart boy. Yes, you are to slay it. This will be your coming of age quest." Rose speaks solemnly, the weight of his words piling upon Leon's shoulders. "When that cursed demon is slain and exorcised, and you have brought back proof of the demon’s demise, the Kingdom will be free from its influence, and your coronation as the Kingdom’s rightful king will follow." 

Leon could cry from relief, but he does his best to school his expression into one of serious intent and bows deeply. “Thank you, sire. We will not disappoint you; Raihan and I will be sure to keep the Kingdom safe from any threat.”

Rose frowns, as if he has just remembered something. "As according to custom, I suppose that you may take your dragon vassal with you," he concedes. "Though your mother did hers alone…”

“The records show that the vast majority of the Kingdom’s rulers took their dragon companions with them on their journeys, sire,” Leon says, hesitantly. Rose sighs.

“Yes, I suppose that is true. Very well, Raihan may come with you. On such a dangerous task, it does not hurt to have a dragon’s protection.”

Though Rose has served as Regent for the last fifteen years after the late queen’s death, and as the queen’s advisor for the two decades before that, he does not have the bright golden eyes that mark him as being of royal blood, and as such, Rose does not have a dragon companion of his own. Draconic advisors sit in the castle’s council, but they are not bound to him the way Leon and Raihan are bound.

Centuries ago, the divine dragon clan that resides in the Kingdom made a pact with the royal family, to act as their protectors in exchange for an end to the poaching of their kind. Dragon hunting had been prolific at the time, and both humans and dragons alike suffered from the violence; the pact had since enacted lasting peace for both sides, thankfully, and though dragon poachers still surface from time to time, most dragons are happy to supply humans with scales or blood or other goods in exchange for trinkets for their hoards.

Nowadays, however, the dragons no longer serve as the royal family’s protectors, and have instead been elevated to the status of the Kingdom’s co-rulers, ruling alongside their human counterparts. A young hatchling is selected from the divine dragon clan to complement each member of the royal family from a young age, and Raihan had been chosen as the one to accompany him on his life’s journey. Being the draconic partner of a crown prince, Raihan is equal in rank with Leon, and will have ruling rights alongside him once he is crowned.

Their degree of closeness was rare, even amongst royals and their dragon partners; dragons could develop a weak telepathic link with a single individual, being able to share emotions with one whom they were exceptionally close to, and he and Raihan had developed this connection early in their youth. That emotional bond only strengthened their synergy in every way; they covered for each other's weaknesses so perfectly that Leon couldn’t ever imagine Raihan not accompanying him on any mission, no matter how small.

"You will set off at dawn tomorrow," Rose commands. "Pack your supplies well, and rid our lands of the hellspawn that dwells upon it. May the Light watch over you, my son." 

-

As Leon leaves the throne room, he notes, with surprise, that Raihan is nowhere to be found. However, in his place, his brother Hop is waiting for him, and he lights up when he spots Leon. Hop's own dragon companion, Victor, is standing by his side, amused at his partner's excitement.

"Lee!" the young prince grins. "I overheard—you're finally going on your coming of age journey! You're going to be legendary!" 

Hop is nearly at the age where he should be able to go on his own quest, soon; though if his own were any indication, Rose is likely to put off Hop's journey indefinitely as well. Hop still thinks that the coming of age is the most exciting thing he should be looking forward to, in his life, and Leon has no doubt that Victor will keep his brother safe when they do go on their journey. But where Leon is accustomed to night rides for bandit patrols and long monster hunts, Hop has always been more of a bookworm, caught up in fantastical bestiaries and grandiose tales of their ancestors' exploits. Their mock sword fights in the controlled armory of the castle, and the lessons taught by parchment and quill; none of that matters in the real world. No honourable duel between knights trains one for a midnight ambush when twelve bandits decide to team up against a prince and his dragon companion to pilfer their gold. 

Leon had tried to tell this to Hop before, but bright-eyed, eager Hop only heard tales of valour and bravery. So he continues to hope, selfish as it may be, that Hop will be able to remain glued to his books forever, and never have to face the reality of real battle. 

"Just you wait for me, Hop,” Leon says, doing his best to grin for his brother. He gives both Hop and Victor a steady clap on the shoulder. “We’ll be back in no time, and we can tell you two all about what the demon was like.”

-

As it turns out, Raihan had easily overheard the conversation that had gone on in the throne room, and retreated to Leon’s quarters, where he had been anxiously awaiting his partner’s return.

“Are you sure you have to do this, Leon?”

Raihan’s tail is swishing anxiously behind him as he watches Leon prepare for the journey. He’s unusually restless, pacing around the prince’s quarters and shifting periodically between his human and dragon forms. Currently, he’s somewhere halfway, unable to sit still, and the swishing of his tail betrays his anxiety as he tries not to shred Leon’s drapes to rags.

“You can stay behind if you like, you know I leave that decision entirely up to you,” Leon says, wrapping up bundles of salt and incense and stuffing them into his pack. A series of vials of holy water go in as well. “We’ve fought off many monsters before, and the Minister gave me special demon-slaying equipment, besides.”

Demons burn in the presence of sunlight. Salt purifies and repels evil spirits, holy water vanquishes. Here are some herbs and incense for protection and warding; remember their properties. Let your dragon's holy flame cleanse and cast the shade into the Light. 

It's their first time fighting a demon, but Leon has slain countless night creatures and monsters before. A demon, while far more dangerous, is not so different in principle. Half physical, half spirit, and entirely of the dark. 

“You know I’m not leaving you to go slay a demon in the catacombs alone,” Raihan says, interrupting Leon's reverie. He wrinkles his nose. “Oleana knows her monster-slaying, I’ll give her that. But still, this is a demon we’re talking about…”

Of course. Divine dragons and demons have had an instinctive hatred of each other for as long as history could remember, and one meeting another always results in either party's certain death, so Raihan’s fear is palpable. But Raihan is normally calm in the face of danger, and has an infinite confidence in his own ability to keep himself safe; he’s never once been this nervous about a mission before. On a typical quest, he'd be raring to go as soon as Leon finished his preparations, so the fact that he's so antsy for once must mean… 

Leon puts his gear down for the time being, taking hold of Raihan’s restless hands and doing his best to send nothing but calm confidence through their bond. “I know you’re worried for me, but I have to do this at some point, Rai,” he says. “I’ve had to put off the journey for so many years already. We’ll be fine,” he reassures him, putting on his most excited expression. “What can't the two of us overcome together?"

He smiles as earnestly as he can manage, and knows he's succeeded when acceptance flows through their emotional bond, and Raihan's shoulders relax from their tense position. 

"I know," Raihan sighs eventually. "I just can't stand the thought of you getting hurt, that's all.”

"The most injury I'll get is when I take a wrong turn and trip over a rock," Leon jokes, and he's relieved to see that it finally cracks a grin on Raihan's face as well. 

"Alright, alright, I get it. You're the brave hero on the quest to save the Kingdom, and I'm only there to save you from your own clumsy feet," Raihan grins, back to his usual carefree self. He musses up Leon's hair affectionately. "Let me know what else I can carry for you, or else your pack’ll get too heavy and then you really will trip down into the depths of the catacombs.”

The journey isn’t predicted to take long, but Leon packs vigorously nonetheless: protection runes, torches, camping supplies, healing salves, items for warding off malicious intent. His sword, an heirloom passed through the royal line and inherited from his mother, an elegant hand-and-a-half damascus-steel blade inlaid with silver and blessed by the Light; suitable for slaying the living and undead alike. He straps most of the exorcising equipment onto his own belt, and less critical supplies go in a pack for Raihan to carry.

Raihan has little preparation to do, in comparison, so he fully shifts into his dragon form to sunbathe for the remaining hours of daylight, orange scales catching the rays and scattering golden flecks of light across Leon’s chamber. The sun’s rays replenish his stores of light magic, which will be invaluable to them in the darkness of the dungeons beneath the castle. Leon himself has very little magic ability, only able to charm his equipment with weak light magic, so he lets his partner rest while he continues to gather his supplies in silence. 

He’s grateful that Raihan has agreed to come along with him; though neither of them are one to back down from a challenge, this is technically Leon’s quest, after all, and Raihan has no obligation to come along with him. Dragon clans have their own coming-of-age quests, and Raihan’s clan could easily assign him one if he didn’t feel up to facing a demon. But over the years, Raihan has always been there for him through thick and thin, a steady calm to balance his own intensity, and sometimes, Leon can’t help but wonder what he does for Raihan in return.

Looking at Raihan, peacefully napping in the dwindling afternoon light, he thinks of all their sparring matches, and the days they would run off together and escape their tutors to lay in the fields and watch the clouds go by, and Leon thinks to himself that he’d like to selfishly hold on to these good times for as long as he can.

-

Confident as he is in his abilities, Leon makes a trip to the castle mausoleum, late in the night before their departure. It does not hurt to be prudent, and he traverses the familiar path to the chamber where his parents lie; while he regularly gets lost in every other part of the castle despite having grown up here, this is the one place he can find no matter where he is.

His parents died quite suddenly a decade and a half ago, when he was but a small child, and the massive portrait that hangs upon these cold stone walls is all he has to remember their faces by. Leon's heart aches at the sight of their gentle expressions, made permanent in oils, and yet the masterful rendering does nothing to capture the beautiful gold of his mother's eyes that he remembers from his childhood. The same deep golden eyes he inherited, as the mark of the royal bloodline. 

Long ago, when the world was nil—the Light blessed a champion, to fight back against the encroaching dark. The scathing Light burned away all that was tainted, and left the champion blind, for the Light was not meant to be gazed upon by mortal eyes. But the holy champion, cleansed of corporeal temptation, carried out tremendous victories in the great war, and carved a space in the endless dark, in which humanity could gain a foothold and survive. The champion became the founding monarch of the great Kingdom, and even today, the descendants of that great hero bear striking golden eyes. 

So went the myth of the Kingdom. Leon remembers asking his mother to tell it to him, night after night, and though her duties as ruler and parent left her very little time to herself, she always told him the story again and again with a loving smile upon her face. 

Those days have long since gone, and now, kneeling on the cold stone floor before the caskets of his parents, Leon can't help but feel a woeful longing for the warm embrace of his mother and father in front of the fire. 

"Please watch over me on my journey," Leon murmurs into the silence around him. 

-

In the morning, before the sun has even completed its ascent over the eastern mountains, a convoy of attendants lead them down to the castle’s catacombs, where a heavily barred iron gate awaits them. Normally, the reigning monarch or regent would be present to send them off; but Rose has gone away on a diplomatic mission, so Oleana has come to see them off in his stead.

The gate is slowly raised, creaking ominously to reveal the gaping dark. Somewhere, deep beneath the castle, a demon awaits them. 

"May the Light watch over you," Oleana says, gazing at them both. For a brief moment, something akin to sadness flickers over her face; but then Leon blinks, and it’s gone just as quickly.

“No time like the present,” Leon says, steeling his resolve. He tightens his grip on his blade. “Let’s go, Raihan.”